When Zhou Zishu arrives one morning late in the summer, the entire town's eyes are on him. Everyone, including those who pretend to be above petty gossip, can't help but to crane their necks for a glimpse of the madman who's come to live at the house on the edge of the Wood. Because he has to be a lunatic to live there, regardless of whether or not he inherited it from a long-dead relative; after all, it is haunted.
The leader here invites him into his own home for tea. Zhang Yusen is an older man with kind eyes, and he doesn't blink when Zhou Zishu adds a healthy pour of his own liquor to the offered cup. Instead, he silently notes that the newcomer looks unwell. Zhou Zishu's face is pinched, and his skin seems like it's stretched too tight over his bones. Zhang Yusen wishes he could convince the young man to stay with his own family until they can find a better place for him; he also knows he'd never listen. But he tries anyway, telling him that the house and that Wood is cursed. Things not quite human live in the shadows of those trees.
As expected, Zhou Zishu merely shrugs. "That's convenient - I won't be the only cursed thing around."
From anyone else, it might be a joke. But Zhang Yusen looks into the young man’s eyes and knows he’s not being clever. The shadows seem to cling a little too closely to Zhou Zishu, pooling at his feet like oil; if Zhang Yusen holds his gaze too long, he starts feeling lightheaded. But he knows there’s nothing for him to fear here. If Zhou ZIshu is certain that he wants to go live in that house, then he’ll do his best to make him feel welcome in the village.
“I’ll walk you over,” Zhang Yusen offers with a gentle smile. “It’s the least I can do.”
A short time later, they set out from the house along with his youngest son, Chengling, who’s carrying Zhou Zishu’s lone bag. They’ve supplemented his supplies with some basic dry goods as well as a packet of his wife’s special mixture of herbs and tea leaves - to aid with sleep and pain, he’d explained. Zhou Zishu had accepted it with a wordless nod as they headed out. Now they walk along peacefully, Chengling chattering at Zhou Zishu the entire way. Zhang Yusen notes the way he humors his son. Zhou Zishu is clearly a man comfortable around his juniors, even if he’s only got half his attention on the rapid fire questions.
Disquiet settles into Zhang Yusen’s bones as they finally reach the house. He doesn’t know if this place is actually cursed because of the supposed witches who lived here centuries ago, or if it’s simply the only home that sits directly against the Wood. Regardless, it’s a barren little plot; there’s still evidence from where previous residents have tried to coax some life out of the dead ground, abandoned garden beds and a withered vine that’s wrapped around a crumbling arbor.
Zhou Zishu looks at the ruin and smiles. “I’ll be fine here. Thank you for the welcome.” And then he pushes past the creaking gate and disappears around the side of the house. Chengling looks after his retreating figure wistfully, hanging his body nearly halfway off the rickety fence. After a few moments, he turns his wide eyes towards his father.
“Do you think I can come visit? He seems nice.” It’s the first time he’s shown real interest in someone outside their family in ages. He doesn’t want to crush that spirit, but…
Zhang Yusen finally shrugs. “We’ll see. Give him some time to settle in. Just - if you do, remember to never step foot beyond the backdoor of the house, ok?”
Three weeks later, Zhou Zishu leans against his doorway and watches the shadows on the ground.
The fence that separates the backyard from the Wood beyond it gave up years ago, the posts now leaning drunkenly on each other. Creeping vines strangle the rest of it. Strangely though, no plants or wildlife have pushed past the gate in all this time. The shadows however, they’re a different story. Zhou Zishu had noticed an odd movement across the ground when he’d first arrived, a shifting darkness. He’d dismissed it at the time; the trees could play tricks on the eyes. But then it happened again and again, silhouettes that twisted and disappeared back into the forest, shadows that made no sense with the angle of the sun.
So now he’s spending the morning sipping bitter coffee as the Wood pushes against the boundary separating them. He can feel more than see the pulsing energy there; it sets his teeth on edge, his bones practically vibrating with it. Zhang Yusen hadn’t been entirely wrong about this place being haunted after all. But even with the presence behind the house and the whispers that he hears from outside his window at night, Zhou Zishu isn’t going to leave . This place is free and out of the way, and he’s dealt with far worse before.
Still. He can’t help but wonder exactly what it is that watches him from the trees.
A knock on his front door interrupts Zhou Zishu’s thoughts. It’ll be Chengling, right on schedule. The boy has been bringing him breakfast every morning, a flimsy excuse to pester him with questions about his life, what he used to do before coming here. He’s a sweet kid. If this was another life - one that was more or perhaps less fair - Zhou Zishu would consider taking him on as a student. But he’s dying. The last thing ZHou Zishu needs is someone else getting hurt because he let them get attached.
But when Chengling actually wanders in, he’s got dirt on his clothes and a split lip. Zhou Zishu doesn’t say much, just drags him into the kitchen and sits him down at the table before handing him some ice wrapped in a towel. Then Zhou Zishu grabs his first aid kit and looks expectantly at the boy’s bloody knuckles. Chengling sheepishly extends his hand, trying not to react when Zhou Zishu begins to clean the scrapes with some kind of antiseptic.
“Uncle Zhou, they were saying there’s something wrong with you for living here-” Zhou Zishu cuts him off with a raised eyebrow. Chengling snaps his mouth shut. Both of them are silent as Zhou Zishu methodically bandages his hand with the swift movements of someone who’s done this a hundred times before. Then he stands to get the boy a glass of water - it’s either that or the liquor - and when he looks back at Chengling, he makes a decision.
“You don’t need to defend my honor,” he says, “but you should at least know how to defend yourself. I’ll teach you a few things - don’t look so excited,” Zhou Zishu warns with a stern glance. But Chengling isn’t dissuaded. He jumps out of his chair and wraps Zhou Zishu in a surprisingly solid hug, nearly winding them both. “You’ll need to check with your father,” he adds, as though that’ll change a thing.
Once Chengling goes home for the afternoon, Zhou Zishu stomps out the yard to take a look at the supposedly barren earth. It’s not like he’s trying to fix the place up to look presentable, but he’d prefer to not have to walk into town every time he needs herbs. Besides, Wuxi insists that it’s good to have a project, to care for something living - he has a wild notion that it’ll slow the curse. He hadn’t been impressed with Zhou Zishu’s assertion that Chengling was enough of a pet project for anyone and had instead suggested he try to grow something. So here he is, glaring down at the dilapidated garden beds. And honestly, it’s not bad soil. He’s not sure why people keep telling him that nothing takes root here. Zhou Zishu sighs and then looks at the ground again out of the corner of his eye.
Black tendrils of smoke stretch all the way from the property line into the dirt, spreading like broken veins throughout the soil. Zhou Zishu can almost see the way they suck the life from the ground, vibrating with energy. Given what he’s heard, these must’ve been here for a while trying to make the place unlivable. He considers just giving it up as a pointless task, but he finds their creeping presence deeply irritating. He’s the only thing that’s dying here, thank you very much. Bending down, Zhou Zishu grasps two of the thickest tendrils and squeezes.
The effect is instantaneous. The entire writhing tangled mass freezes for a moment then flakes away until there’s no trace of black left on the ground. He glances out towards the fence line and notes that even those shadows have retreated safely to the other side of the boundary. Good. The ground’s still a bit parched for life, but perhaps he’ll take Zhang Yusen up on his offer of help and ask if he’s got any spare manure. The thought puts a rare smile on his face (“guess I’m never really out of the shit” he muses out loud), and he heads back inside to scrounge up some lunch before heading into town.
Zhou Zishu hears the whispering coming from inside the house for the first time that night.
It’s just past midnight when it starts up. He’s never asleep at this time anymore; the curse buried between his third and fourth ribs likes to cause trouble around now, blessing him with pulsing agony every night. In fact, he’s so out of it for the first ten or so minutes after he’s jolted awake that he doesn’t even notice the voices that drift around the room or the way that the shadows pooling in the corners are thicker than usual. Zhou Zishu eventually drags himself out of his bed, threadbare blanket wrapped around his bony shoulders, and shuffles through inky fog to the bathroom where he spits blood into the sink. Hmmm. That’s new, but it’s a concern for morning Zishu. All he wants to do tonight is wash the taste of iron out of this mouth and go back to sleep.
It’s not until Zhou Zishu turns to leave the bathroom that he realizes that the light stops in a sharp line at the doorway, unable to pierce the thick darkness in the hall. He finally notes the whispers, a mixture of languages old and new, filled with malevolent intent. There’s even the faint scent of decay, like damp leaves left to rot. How… quaint.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” Zhou Zishu says, rolling his eyes and returning to his bed. He curls in on himself around the ache in his chest and tries to will himself to fall asleep. It doesn’t work of course. Eventually he gives up and opens his eyes to stare out the window towards the woods.
A man glares back at him from just beyond the gate. Well not a man, but a thing trying very hard to be one. The edges of him shift every time Zhou Zishu blinks, but his face stays the same - blanched, furious, and beautiful. The rest of his body fades into shadows, and his ash-white hair floats eerily behind him. As absurd as it might seem, Zhou Zishu knows this creature can see him. They stare at each other for a while longer until exhaustion miraculously overtakes him, and Zhou Zishu starts to drift off into blessed unconsciousness. The last waking thought he has is that he owes Zhang Yusen an apology for ever doubting that the house is cursed.
The hauntings become nightly, but Zhou Zishu doesn’t have the energy to engage with it, ancient evil or not. Chengling helpfully - perkily - tells him all the stories about the spirit who lives in the Wood and possesses the house. It drives out anyone who tries to live there. He’d dismiss it as a baseless town legend, but there clearly is some kind of entity haunting the place. Still, it doesn’t seem to be able to do much besides fill the house with smoke and noise. Zhou Zishu has handled worse - has done worse. Besides, he’s actually gotten some of the herbs he’s planted to sprout over the last few weeks. It’s easy enough to pretend he doesn’t see it; the hulking figure of shadow that visits nightly doesn’t do much other than sit outside and watch the house. Zhou Zishu hasn’t even seen the thing’s true face again since that first night.
That all changes early one morning. It’s still dark out, the only hint of the approaching dawn is the grey tint of the sky. Zhou Zishu is awake after a long night spent curled up in a ball trying to ignore both the pain and the murmuring shadows that bleed from the walls. Finally giving up on the idea of sleep, he shuffles into the tiny kitchen and flips on the light. He scoops an alarming amount of coffee grounds into the basket of his old dented percolator, then goes to plug it in.
Except this morning the plug is no longer attached to the damn thing. The wire looks shredded, as though something with claws ripped it apart, and the plug itself is missing. And somehow, that’s what snaps the last thread holding Zhou Zishu's patience together. He shoves his feet into an old pair of boots, pulls on his worn bathrobe, and stomps out into the backyard. Per usual, there’s dark tendrils that converge and lead out through his back gate. But for once Zhou Zishu doesn’t stop at the property line; he follows the trail that his ghost has left him deeper and deeper into the Wood.
A few minutes later, he comes across a small clearing. It’s still not quite dawn, but the first rays of sunlight have begun to bleed through the trees, bathing the forest in a faint red glow. It’s this light that lets him see the hunched form at the end of all those shadows. The figure is… smaller than he’s come to expect. There isn’t any twisting darkness, just a man with his knees hugged tight to his chest. Zhou Zishu can’t help but feel how vulnerable the creature looks.
He still ruined his coffee pot.
“Hey, asshole,” Zhou ZIshu yells as he lobs the broken percolator in the thing’s direction. It immediately turns, standing and summoning shadows to itself at the same time. Once again it towers over him. Then between blinks the entity is right in front of him.
“Go away,” it growls. There’s no movement of air or any stench of what should be the thing’s rotten breath, but Zhou Zishu feels that voice in his own chest. “You don’t belong here.”
He doesn’t flinch. “Don’t touch my shit, and I won’t have to come deal with you. Do it again and I’ll rip you out of the soil here just like at the house.” Then Zhou Zishu turns and leaves, not waiting for an answer. He feels the thing’s eyes watching him go and suppresses a shiver. It’s not fear that he feels though. Not with the way its face keeps appearing in his mind; lonely, human, oddly beautiful.
Maybe that’s why Zhou Zishu dreams of it that night, hovering next to his bed, face inches from his own. That human face with its wide troubled eyes that try to hook into his soul. He has to resist the urge to reach out and touch it.
“What do you want?” Zhou Zishu asks this dream thing.
It waits so long to respond that he almost decides to slip off into a different nightmare. But finally he hears it whisper, “Your blood… it smells the same as those people before. But you’re still here. And you don’t reek of their fear.” It shifts even closer then. "You do taste like death though. Like me." A hand materializes out of the darkness and reaches for his wrist; he allows it only because this isn’t real, it’s just a dream. He’s still surprised when it’s touch is solid and cool. A thumb presses against his suddenly skyrocketing pulse. “What’s wrong with you?” he asks Zhou Zishu.
Wait, he ? Zhou Zishu doesn’t know when he started thinking about the ghost as he , but he’s also too tired to care. “I didn’t have any coffee today,” he answers dryly before shaking his hand off. “Really I’m the thing that everyone else should be scared of.” Then he rolls over and closes his eyes, willing himself into a different dream. The pain doesn’t come the rest of the night. Odd, but a blessing. Perhaps he should dream of his ghost more often if it chases the other things haunting him away.
Once he gets out of bed the next day, Zhou Zishu notices two things that give him pause. First, there’s a single bruise on his wrist in the exact size and shape of a man’s thumbprint. Second, when he opens the back door he finds his percolator as well as the missing end of the electrical cord. By the time Chengling arrives that day, Zhou Zishu is in the midst of twisting torn wires together. The boy watches him dubiously as he begins to wrap the entire thing in electrical tape.
“Can’t you just get a new one?” he asks finally. “It seems… safer.”
Zhou Zishu snorts and flicks him on the forehead. “I like this one, and besides there’s no point in wasting money like that. Now go out back and pull weeds until I’ve had my coffee.”
When it finishes brewing - with no electrical fires, Zhou Zishu is pleased to note - he pulls two chipped mugs out of the cabinet. Chengling pales when he comes outside carrying both of them, but Zhou Zishu waves him off with a roll of his eyes. Instead, he walks to the back fence that they’ve been slowly repairing and sits the second cup on top of the steadiest post. He feels a little foolish about it, but leaves it there anyway and drags Chengling inside to see about lunch.
There’s an echoing knock on his back door that night. Zhou Zishu opens it to find his creature on the back porch, holding the empty cup and wearing its human face. Its body still bleeds away into shadows, though more of him seems to be solid than the first time he saw him. If Zhou Zishu squints just right, he thinks he can see its long legs. “How has this stuff not killed you,” he blurts out, pressing the mug into his hands. Zhou Zishu doesn’t flinch at the close contact. “You’d have to be a witch to survive drinking this sludge. Did no one teach you how to take care of yourself?”
Zhou Zishu is so taken aback that all he can do is shrug. “You’re being dramatic, I can hardly taste it at all. And maybe I am a witch, ever thought of that?”
The thing narrows its eyes at him and tilts his head. “I did say you smell like them. The ones here before. Are you sure you’re not them?”
“Who?” Zhou Zishu asks despite himself. He shouldn’t be having a conversation with this thing, his old teacher would’ve had his hide for doing something this stupid. But he’s gone, just like everyone else.
“The ones who trapped me here. Years and years and years ago. They lived here too. They could also see my shadows.” He pauses here. “Could touch them, like you do.”
Zhou Zishu shrugs. “My family used to live here - it’s why I came to this place. The house technically belongs to me, so it was free.” He doesn’t know why he’s talking about this at all. It should go against every instinct he has, but really, who is a ghost going to spill his secrets to?
There’s a long pause after that where neither of them speak. Finally the ghost in front of him blinks (Zhou Zishu idly wonders if ghosts even need to blink, or if it's just that old habits are hard to break). “Didn’t they tell you it was cursed?” he asks.
“Yeah yeah, I’d been warned. I’m guessing that’s you. What’s your name anyway?” Zhou Zishu doesn’t really know why he’s asking.
“Oh.” There’s another pause, and then he finally answers. “They called me Wen Kexing. Before.”
Zhou Zishu doesn’t ask before what, because he shouldn’t be invested. He shouldn’t want to know, despite the fact that he does. He’s already gotten too involved in this place where he came to die, and the last thing he needs is another attachment. But that doesn’t stop him from answering when Wen Kexing asks for his name (Zhou Xu, he tells him, because even for someone who never studied his family’s gifts very thoroughly, he knows you never give a ghost your true name). It also doesn’t stop him from beginning to leave a mug of his awful coffee on the back gate every morning.
The ghostly theatrics stop after that, although the haunting technically doesn’t. Every night Zhou Zishu can hear Wen Kexing moving around the house. Some mornings he wakes up to find his dishes cleaned; other days, he just finds a book or two pulled from the shelf and left open on the kitchen table. After several weeks of this, he half-jokingly whines one morning by the back gate that if Wen Kexing is going to snoop around the house, the least he could do is help with the repairs. He doesn’t expect to actually find the rickety back step replaced with a new wooden board the following day. The leaky faucet is next, followed by the front door that now hangs evenly from its hinges rather than scraping the floor every time he opens it. Then one morning when Chengling is at home with his family, Zhou Zishu is perched on a small step stool trying to mend the sagging gutter along the back of the house. He’s stretching up when he feels something pull in his side that shouldn’t be pulling and nearly tumbles backwards in pain. But a pair of cold arms catch him; he’s not surprised at all when he looks up at his savior and finds Wen Kexing looking back at him with an annoyed expression.
“You’d have cracked your head open and bled out and no one would have found you until that fool boy showed up tomorrow,” Wen Kexing scolds him, backing away as soon as Zhou Zishu is steady on his feet again. “What happened anyway? I thought you were stronger than all that.”
Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes. “Stop fussing at me like an old woman. Lost my balance, is all. Besides, it’s not like dying now would be that much of a difference for me.” He sees Wen Kexing’s mouth twist into a scowl but pushes on before he can speak. “Now if you’re here, can you use your ghostly powers or whatever they are to actually lend a hand here?”
Wen Kexing doesn’t disappear like he usually does after they finish with the gutters. Zhou Zishu has noticed that he’s never let himself be seen by Chengling, but given that the boy has the day at home today they’ve got the place to themselves. It’s the first time he’s spent this amount of time around Wen Kexing in a single stretch, and it’s strangely comfortable. Zhou Zishu only tolerates most people, but as much as he prattles on endlessly, he finds that he doesn’t mind Wen Kexing’s company at all. Maybe it’s because they’re both cursed things. The thought makes him laugh, and Wen Kexing’s put-upon frown when he refuses to explain makes him laugh even more.
That's the first night in a series of many evenings that Wen Kexing spends inside the little cottage. He usually shows up the moment that Chengling leaves, though he insists it was coincidence every time. Zhou Zishu finds himself looking forward to his visits, oddly enough. It'd be easy enough for him to make good on his earlier threats of coffee-related vengeance and at least block him from the house, but… Zhou Zishu doesn't want to. And he refuses to think harder on why that is, even as he spends every day watching Wen Kexing's wicked smile.
One night his ghost tries to help with dinner - especially when he sees what a mess Zhou Zishu makes of chopping the vegetables Chengling brought over the day before - but as soon as he picks up a pepper, it turns brown and begins to rot. Zhou Zishu feels a twinge in his chest when Wen Kexing’s face pinches like he’s trying not to cry. Which is absurd, because ghosts can’t - and wouldn’t - cry. Especially over something as stupid as a vegetable. But Zhou Zishu just rolls his eyes and shoos him away, opting for a liquid dinner in the end.
It’s a mistake, as he wakes up in more pain than usual that night. There’s a ringing in his ears and he feels nauseous, so with labored breaths he drags himself to the bathroom where he proceeds to puke his guts out. When he’s done, he flushes the toilet with a shaking hand and fills a cup with tap water to rinse out his mouth. It’s only when the water comes back out tinged pink that Zhou Zishu realizes he’s spitting up blood again. It’s only mildly alarming that he can’t taste it - or the bile that he vomited for that matter. He shuffles into the kitchen to grab the half-drunk bottle of whiskey that he’d abandoned earlier - but even that only has the slightest burn as it slides down his throat. He tries to get his breathing under control as irrational panic claws at his throat. Ah. So the curse is progressing exactly as Wuxi had predicted it would. First taste - his hearing will probably start to go next? His sense of touch? Zhou Zishu doesn’t realize that his deep gulps of air have turned into sobs until Wen Kexing suddenly materializes in front of him, his eyes mirroring Zhou Zishu’s own alarm.
“A-Xu?” he asks, his hands coming up to cradle his cheeks. Zhou Zishu doesn’t jerk away; at least he can still feel how cold Wen Kexing is against him. For now. “A-Xu, did you hurt yourself? I heard you coughing, but-”
Zhou Zishu cuts him off with a bitter laugh. “Yeah, I hurt myself. A while ago.” Then he laughs some more. Wen Kexing just looks baffled, his brows furrowing. It’s funny, Zhou Zishu thinks, this monster looking so concerned over him. “I made a deal to get away from someone, an old boss of mine. It’s a nasty little piece of work, he put it right here.” Without thinking he takes Wen Kexing’s hand and slides it under his shirt, pushing those frigid fingers right against his ribs. And oh, his ghost still looks confused. Zhou Zishu might as well enlighten him. “I’ll be gone in a year or two, depending. It’s funny, I came here to live a peaceful life before I die, and now I’ve found that brat Chengling and you of all things-”
“To die?” Wen Kexing’s voice is hollow. “You don’t mean-”
He doesn’t have the patience for Wen Kexing being purposefully obtuse. “Of course I mean that. I’m going to die, sooner rather than later. I didn’t think I’d be this upset about it though. For once I actually want to hang onto my miserable life, and now I can’t.” He gets an idea then. “Say, how long have you been haunting this stupid place? We could go, you know. See a few sights before I keel over.” He offers a ghastly smile.
“A-Xu!” Wen Kexing snaps at him, but doesn’t seem to have anything else to say.
“Lao Wen,” is all he responds with, though the gallows humor slides right off his face. After a few moments, he shrugs. “There’s nothing to be done. Might as well enjoy the time I’ve got left as much as I can.”
Wen Kexing shakes his head. “Surely there’s - healers, or doctors or someone who can help?”
Zhou Zishu feels absurd fondness for this soft-hearted ghost well up inside himself. “I’ve seen the best there is, and even he’s stumped by this little curse. I mean it though, we can go anywhere in the world.”
There’s a sudden burst of energy from Wen Kexing, and the shadows start to grow thicker around him. Zhou Zishu can’t even see anything of his true form past his waist now; it’s all just swirling darkness. “I’m stuck here, you know,” he finally whispers, though the words echo from all the corners of the room. “Tied to this house and the Wood by people I can only assume were your ancestors. I told you that your blood smelled familiar after all.” He’s not looking at Zhou Zishu now. “And do you know what I need to get free of how they cursed me? That same blood.” Wen Kexing continues to stare at his own hands.
“Oh,” Zhou Zishu responds a beat too late. Then he starts to laugh. “Well, wait just a little and you’ll have plenty of mine free to use.” The joke doesn’t land. The single kitchen light starts to flicker as Wen Kexing struggles to hold himself together. There’s a wind as though a window’s been left open in a storm, and the smell of rot returns like it hasn’t those first few weeks. Even his face and hands start to flicker in and out, like he can’t quite maintain anything close to human form. “Lao Wen…” he starts, letting his voice drift off as he reaches out towards the writhing mass in front of him.
But he’s knocked back into his chair by an unseen wave of energy, and then Wen Kexing is gone. Zhou Zishu looks around, blinking as though that might change the scene in front of him. The kitchen, however, stays empty. Eventually he goes back to bed, though he doesn’t manage to fall fully asleep the rest of the night; it’s as though he’s stuck in some half-dreaming state. He tries not to imagine a cool, dark presence slipping into the bed behind him and cradling him. It’s a stupid thought anyway, and aching for it won't change anything. Zhou Zishu gives into the pain at some point, leaning into the physical ache like one might press on a bruise. It at least exhausts him enough that he can’t help but close his eyes at some point. He can’t stop his feverish mind from conjuring up Wen Kexing one more time, who crouches next to his bed and whispers, “What was the point, A-Xu, if I can’t keep you?” By the time he opens his eyes again, it’s dawn and Zhou Zishu is alone.
He stays alone for the next week. Chengling tries to come by for training - or as both of them well know by this point, to keep Zhou Zishu company - but he turns him away at the door every morning. He doesn’t bother trying to come up with an excuse. Dense as the boy can appear, Zhou Zishu has discovered that he’s quite perceptive. He doesn’t want to deal with the questions right now. Instead, he spends most of his days drinking himself into a pleasant stupor where the pain isn’t quite as bright-sharp as it usually is. His taste buds have dulled enough that it’s as easy as sipping water for him. Zhou Zishu even occasionally shovels food into his stomach as well, though it’s not very often. The one routine he manages to stick to during the week is that every morning, he leaves a cup of coffee by the back gate. Every evening, he retrieves it the same way - cold and untouched. And although the whiskey dulls the pain from the curse, it doesn’t quite manage to take away the knife prick of Wen Kexing’s absence. It’s stupid, he tells himself. Wen Kexing isn’t even human, or likely alive. Why should he care so much?
Then finally, Wen Kexing comes back.
It’s just at the edge of dusk when Zhou Zishu hears a strangled scream coming from the Wood. His heart stops for a moment as his thoughts race wildly to images of Wen Kexing hurt or bleeding out - then he remembers that those things can’t happen to him. That thought is quickly interrupted by another yell, this one much closer, and Zhou Zishu pulls on his boots and rushes outside without any further thought. He’s hardly out the door before the shadows of the trees rush out to greet him, almost pulling him along into the forest. He follows the path they set for him without hesitation, running even as his lungs strain along his weakened muscles.
He finds Wen Kexing in the center of the Wood, very nearly identical to the first time he’d seen him. He’s hunched over in the clearing again, but this time the bodies of several men lay strewn around him. They’re mangled, necks and limbs broken at odd angles. And there’s so much blood; on the grass, on their clothes, dripping from Wen Kexing’s now clawed hands. Zhou Zishu doesn’t spare a second for any of them, even as he absently recognizes them as some of Jin’s thugs. Instead, he heads straight for his monster. He’s swollen with shadow and darkness again, even his face obscured in a layer of smoke.
Wen Kexing flinches back. “A-Xu, I- don’t come closer.” His voice is more of a hiss than usual, panicked in its breathiness. Zhou Zishu suspects that if he had lungs, the man would be hyperventilating.
“What happened? Are you alright?” he asks as he walks right to him, catching one of his hands and turning it over in his own. “Did they try to hurt you?”
“I… no, you know they can’t,” Wen Kexing murmurs. “They were coming to find you, I heard them talking about it, about taking what was owed to their master, I... “ His voice trails off as Zhou Zishu looks up at him with furrowed brows and then reaches for his face. At first there’s nothing but that inky darkness. Zhou Zishu sighs and then pulls , plucking the shadows from him as though they’re nothing but a bit of cobweb. After a few moments, he can finally see Wen Kexing’s face again. His skin, as ever, is cold and inhumane to his touch. But gods it warms Zhou Zishu through and through to have him this close again.
Finally he reaches through the smoke and darkness to grab his hand again. “C’mon, let’s get you home, Lao Wen.”
Once through the door, Zhou Zishu locks it behind them. He drags Wen Kexing by the arm to the kitchen sink, where he wets a dishrag and begins methodically cleaning the blood from his fingers.
"Shut up," Zhou Zishu cuts him off, giving a particularly harsh rub of the towel. Wen Kexing flinches at his tone. Zhou Zishu sighs then, his expression softening just a little as he drops the bloody towel in the sink. "You disappear on me for a week, and then I find you killing people on my behalf." He tilts his head up and locks eyes with his ghost. There's a few flecks of blood on his face, as unlikely as that seems, so he wipes those away with his own sleeve. *What am I supposed to make of all that, hmm?"
Wen Kexing avoids his eyes, looking over Zhou Zishu's shoulder. "They were going to hurt you. I couldn't let that happen."
Zhou Zishu slides one finger up under his chin, and Wen Kexing lets him move him however he likes, until Zhou Zishu drags him down to look him in the eyes. "Why do all that for someone you ran away from?"
He frowns, not letting go of Wen Kexing. “Give me a real answer.”
Wen Kexing’s form shudders under his touch. "You know why I left. You're - you’re dying . You're dying and then you'll be gone and I'll be alone here again-"
Zhou Zishu loops his arms around his neck and murmurs, "I'm here now, Lao Wen." Then he stretches up on his toes and presses their mouths together.
He expects this kiss to be exactly as cold and shivery as every other touch he's shared with Wen Kexing, but as they come together he's shocked to find out that Wen Kexing's lips are soft and yielding and warm . He gasps; Wen Kexing jerks away, but Zhou Zishu feels little tendrils of shadow curl out towards him to slide over his cheeks and across his shoulders like a caress. He turns his head to look down at them, one of his hands unconsciously drifting up to see if they’re actually as warm as they seem to be. Wen Kexing flinches again, and they begin to retreat. But Zhou Zishu hooks his finger around one of the tendrils, and it stops.
Wen Kexing starts stammering. “I’m sorry, I lost control for a second-”
"Fuck, Lao Wen, stop apoligizing, it's you " Zhou Zishu whispers nonsensically, reverently. “They feel… real? They feel like you.” He’s had his fair share of bed partners over the years, but no one has ever made him feel this exhilarated. He closes his eyes to kiss Wen Kexing again. This time solid arms slide around his waist, and he’s being kissed back with just as much eagerness. This time Wen Kexing doesn’t hold himself back, and so Zhou Zishu feels every shadow that curls around his body, that wraps itself around his waist or winds around his thigh.
Somehow, they stumble to his bedroom with its lumpy mattress. It’s strange how much more pleasant Zhou Zishu finds his bed now that two people are crowded into it - and one of them is arguably not a person at all. But as Wen Kexing presses him down into its surface, hands pulling at Zhou Zishu’s clothing even as his wrists are pinned down above his head by inky coils, he finds that his aches and pains fade away into distant echoes. He smiles as Wen Kexing finally claims his mouth, and then the rest of him.
A week from now, as Zhou Zishu arches in pleasure underneath him, Wen Kexing will be able to sense the odd core of decay and death that's been tucked away inside Zhou Zishu's ribs for so long now. It's a nasty little thing, and he'll send a little more of his own shadowy power to squeeze it to nothingness. If Zhou Zishu gasps a little louder against his lips in that moment, he won't think anything of it. Another month after that, with his own life restored to him, Zhou Zishu will offer Wen Kexing a chance at a new one. It'll be bought in blood, as most things are. But this time that blood will come delivered with a kiss, and a promise of a real future.
For now though they don't know any of that. Instead, Wen Kexing lays curled around Zhou Zishu, who finds himself drifting comfortably to sleep for the first time in years. Though he can feel his pains waiting on the edges of his consciousness, they’ve been kept at bay for the moment. It leaves him warm and clear-headed enough to realize something for the first time in quite a while: he just doesn't want to die anymore.
Zhang Yusen watches as Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing - the odd but charming fellow who'd come to live with him a few months ago - head out on the road that leads away from the village. They're not going forever - Chengling has apparently extracted promises that they'll both be back by New Years celebrations. But they'll be traveling for a while, to see some of the world.
It's hard not to marvel at the way that the young man's health has apparently turned around these last months. When Zhou Zishu had dropped in earlier that week to ask if they could keep an eye out on the old cottage while he was traveling, Zhang Yusen had agreed even as he was once again shocked by the young man's changed appearance up close. But he's happy for Zhou Zishu. Everyone deserves a fair chance to live, he thinks.
Once the two men have disappeared over the horizon, he takes a walk by the house itself. Another miracle, he thinks. The sense of dread that had loomed over the place as long as the village could remember has gone, replaced with life. And while no one knows all the details, Zhang Yusen is left with the only clue that Zhou Zishu had told him about it.
All curses could be broken.