"Nothing is what it seems
Nothing is what it used to be before
Through the magnifying glass
May reason guide you on your path"
How long has it been since he had seen this man?
Years, it's been years. Wen Kexing mourned the time lost but he knew it had been for the best. Zhou Zishu had become too invested, too occupied with his work. He would leave for many weeks and return briefly, always too tired to spend time with him. Always too cold to pay attention to them.
It did not matter how much his heart yearned for him, Wen Kexing had to leave. It would only cause him more heartache if he stayed - if he had to watch the man he loved crumble away bit by bit, replaced by a hollow shell of himself the more his hands were soaked in the blood of innocents.
It was selfish, but Wen Kexing never said he wasn't a selfish man.
He watched as Zhou Zishu, lover of five years, ex lover of ten years, fought as if he were dancing. Every twirl of a dodge, every swing of a sword, it was all a beautiful symphony.
Wen Kexing mourned that night, where they had danced under the cherry blossom tree, illuminated by the moonlight. That night had been the turning point of their relationship. From childhood friends to lovers, a chaste, shy kiss exchanged and a promise of eternity.
They couldn't have forever - not when the Crown Prince needed help.
How easy it was for Zhou Zishu to fall for Helian Yi's lies. Of a promise of doing good but every act taken was bad enough to taint the soul, dull it's once bright shine. Oh how Zhou Zishu used to smile, laugh so freely and easily, how he would tease relentlessly and speak so charmingly.
Oh how easy it is to break a person.
Wen Kexing barely dodged just in time, the flying of needles hitting the branch he was just sitting on. He descended to the ground in a flourish of red robes, the hood of his cloak thankfully still over his head. It's game over if Zhou Zishu catches sight of his hair, it's not like there is an abundance of people with the color his locks bore.
"Why are you following us?" Zhou Zishu demanded, his sword leveled upwards towards Wen Kexing.
Us ? Wen Kexing briefly caught sight of a young boy hiding behind a tree just over Zhou Zishu's shoulder. He forgot that Zhou Zishu had picked up a stray from the Mirror Lake Sect, his full attention always on the other man.
Wen Kexing twirled just out of the way of the blade striking his way, a bit hurt over the fact that Baiyi was being used against him. Though it was unlikely his ex lover would recognize him with the skull mask on, that didn't mean it hurt any less.
"It is merely fate that we are in the same place at the same time," Wen Kexing lied easily, a cheeky smile on his lips.
Zhou Zishu's eyes narrowed at the sight of his smile, Wen Kexing wondering briefly if he would recognize it. He doubted it, Zhou Zishu was kind of face blind. He would only remember if his full face was displayed, so the mask concealing the upper half of his face was enough to keep his identity safe for now.
"Fate?" Zhou Zishu dryly commented, a brow raised, "Do you take me for a fool?"
"I would never," Wen Kexing dramatically gasped, a hand placed over his heart as if wounded, "Who could ever call such a beauty a fool ?"
"How annoying," Zhou Zishu muttered, his eyebrow twitching before lunging forward.
Wen Kexing was mindful of not using the swift moving steps as he maneuvered out of Zhou Zishu's way, dodging each strike or deflecting them with a twirl of his fan whenever he could. He couldn't bring it in himself to actively attack Zhou Zishu, though many years have passed, he still loved the man with all his heart.
Time had only made Zhou Zishu more beautiful, this Wen Kexing was not surprised over.
His hair no longer wore that stuffy topknot he would always place it in, even when they were living peacefully at the Four Seasons Manor. Rather, he left half of it down, with the other half held up by a leather cuff. His eyes were hard, but Wen Kexing had seen them soften around the boy - Zhang Chengling if he recalls correctly - and he knew that the Zhou Zishu he had grown up with was still in there, behind the assassin he had become.
Light blues always fit him better than black.
Wen Kexing grunted when Zhou Zishu head butted him - a dirty move - and stumbled as his mask broke in half.
He knew Zhou Zishu was hard headed but not like this!
He fell back on the ground on his side, wincing at the flash of pain that went through his right side, fan tumbling from his fingers.
Wen Kexing heard a sharp inhale.
Startled at the name, Wen Kexing looked up and caught the gaze of wide-eyed Zhou Zishu, his beloved looking incredibly distraught. It painted him to see the face of disbelief and hope in those dark eyes.
He panicked - he wasn't ready for this, to be known so early. He slipped the smoke bombs from his sleeve to his hands and gave a weak smile at Zhou Zishu to distract him.
Predictably, Zhou Zishu's eyes followed the smile and his lips parted in wonder.
" A' Shu ," Wen Kexing softly spoke, feeling his own tears gather in his eyes when Zhou Zishu looked ready to break down right then and there, "I'm sorry."
He threw the smoke bombs between the two of them and left before they cleared. Wen Kexing could hear the frantic calling of his name, and his heart pulled at the sound of it. He wanted nothing more than to turn around and go back, fall into the arms of his beloved and weep there.
But he can't.
If he does, Wen Kexing isn't so sure he'll be able to leave again if he falls into the arms of his ex lover.
Zhou Zishu... why did things have to change?
"A' Shu, wake up!" Wen Kexing had whispered loudly, shaking Zhou Zishu awake.
The newly turned sixteen year old grumbled, pushing his hands away before turning to give his back to Wen Kexing, "Go away, I'm sleeping."
" A' Shu ," Wen Kexing complained, reaching out to shake Zhou Zishu once more, "It's your birthday, come on, wake up!"
"As a gift, you can let me sleep," Zhou Zishu pushed his hands away.
After a few more times, he huffed in frustration before grabbing Wen Kexing by the wrists and dragging him into bed. Wen Kexing squeaked at the sudden move, his face connected to the chest of a curled up Zhou Zishu, who held him close and tightly to stop his squirming. He felt his face heat up at the position.
"Don't you ever stop calling my name?" Zhou Zishu scolded, the sleep slowly leaving his voice as he became more awake. He sighed before letting Wen Kexing go, moving to lay on his back, "Great, now I'm awake."
Wen Kexing calmed his fiercely beating heart to sit up, "Now that you're awake, you can now follow me!"
"What's so important that I have to get out of bed?" Zhou Zishu grumbled, looking at the window briefly, "It's still so late!"
"Just follow me, please, please, please A' Shu!" Wen Kexing pouted, fake whimpering as he held one of Zhou Zishu's hands within his own two, tucking the strangely cold limb under his chin and holding it close.
Zhou Zishu sighed, "Fine, you nuisance."
Wen Kexing cheered, and even though he tried to hide it - Wen Kexing caught the smile on Zhou Zishu's face.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Wen Kexing muttered, looking at the bright full moon that illuminated the garden of the Four Seasons Manor, every plant and flower of vibrant and soft colors a view unable to miss.
"It is," Zhou Zishu softly agreed.
Wen Kexing turned to catch Zhou Zishu's gaze and smiled, reaching out to grab his hand to pull him under the biggest cherry blossom tree the garden had, "Dance with me!"
"Dance?" Zhou Zishu asked, surprised, "With what music?"
"Close your eyes," Wen Kexing insisted, smiling at the suspicious look Zhou Zishu gave him, "Trust me, you'll hear the music. Just listen."
Zhou Zishu did as told, if a bit reluctantly, and Wen Kexing wondered if he could hear it all clearly now. The gentle whistling of the wind, the chiming of the bells that danged above the willow tree not too far away, the soft creaking of the crickets and the chirping of the grasshoppers. The fluttering of butterfly wings as they flew by, the flapping of bird wings as they passed as well. Could he hear the beating of his heart too? If he were to listen hard enough?
The smile gracing Zhou Zishu's lips and the relaxing of his shoulders made Wen Kexing think so. He wrapped his arms loosely around Zhou Zishu's shoulders, tucking his face into the crook of his neck, "Won't you dance with me?"
Hands settled themselves upon his waist and drew him closer, swaying them both side to side. It wasn't so much as dancing as it was simply rocking from one side to another, comfortable with the sounds of nature and with the scent of one another in each other's noses.
" A' Xing ," Zhou Zishu muttered, his voice a song in Wen Kexing's ears.
" A' Shu ," Wen Kexing whispered back, smiling when he felt the hands around his waist tighten a bit.
" A' Xing ,"
" A' Shu ,"
Zhou Zishu pulled back a bit, prompting Wen Kexing to move his face away from his neck to look back. His eyes were gleaming, a look of childish awe upon his boyish face.
" A' Xing ?" Zhou Zishu questioned quietly, leaning forward so that their foreheads connected, his breath touching his face lightly.
" A' Shu ," Wen Kexing breathed out, agreeing to his unspoken question.
Their lips touched in a gentle caress, sighs of content escaping as their lips parted to tentatively allow the other in. Wen Kexing's hands cup Zhou Zishu's face to pull him closer, leaning back into the hands that held his waist in a strong grip.
They pulled back and smiled, laughs of wonder escaping before reconnecting their mouths once more. Again and again they pulled back only to return to one another again, unable to be apart for so long but needing to see each other's face for at least a moment.
It was unspoken but it didn't need to be said - that they would stay together forever.
Wen Kexing should have known that an eternity would not be long enough.
"I don't trust it," Wen Kexing eyed the letter distrustfully, nose wrinkling in distaste, "He's asking for a big favor for someone who you haven't seen let alone talk to since you were twelve ."
"He's my cousin , A' Xing," Zhou Zishu defended, if a bit weakly, "He's going through a lot, his brothers are trying to kill him for Heaven's sake."
"I'm not saying he deserves to die ," Wen Kexing argued, sighing as he threw the letter down on the table and moved to sit on their shared bed, "I'm just saying, doesn't it sound just a bit suspicious? He wants you to uproot the entirety of the Four Seasons Manor and turn them into soldiers to be in his pocket?"
"That's not what he meant!" Zhou Zishu slammed the envelope down on the desk in frustration.
"Don't raise your voice at me!" Wen Kexing snapped, glaring at Zhou Zishu for his audacity to get angry at his distrust, "I don't trust your cousin, okay? Excuse me for having an opinion . Should I silence my voice and merely look pretty by your side, Lord Zhou ?"
Zhou Zishu had just taken leadership of the Four Seasons Manor and he was not handling it all too well. He's grown more stressed and as such, his temper is quicker to rise. But Wen Kexing was not going to allow him to take that frustration out on him, and Zhou Zishu was fair enough to understand this for his eyes softened and his shoulders slumped.
Zhou Zishu sighed, moving closer to crowd Wen Kexing on the bed. Wen Kexing allowed Zhou Zishu to pull him in a hug, his head resting on the stomach of his lover.
"I know you don't trust it, but we need the help A' Xing," Zhou Zishu quietly confessed, and Wen Kexing hated how weak he sounded, "I know it sounds risky but what other choice do we have?"
"I don't trust him," Wen Kexing stated, pulling away to stand up. He felt bad for not immediately elaborating when panic started to rise within those peach blossom eyes," I don't trust him , but I trust you . If you think this is what the Four Seasons Manor needs then... I'll support you no matter what."
Zhou Zishu seemed to sigh with relief, resting his forehead against Wen Kexing's own.
"And if I'm making the wrong decision?" Zhou Zishu tentatively asked, seemingly scared of the answer. So he did have his own doubts too, then. At least he wasn't completely blinded by blood loyalty.
"If it's the wrong decision," Wen Kexing carefully answered, "Then we'll figure it out when we get there. You're not alone, A' Shu, remember that."
"I love you," Zhou Zishu muttered, leaning forward for a kiss, "Thank you, A' Xing."
"We'll figure it out, my love," Wen Kexing softly reassured, kissing back. He maneuvered them around, carefully pushing Zhou Zishu down on the bed before climbing on top of his lap, earnestly kissing his most beloved.
It would be the first time they ever lay together, of peeled back robes and whispered promises to each other's flesh, of pleasured sighs and wondrous moans.
It would be the first time that Wen Kexing felt Zhou Zishu so close, around him, inside of him.
Hands caressing his sides, guiding him as he rocked back and forth on Zhou Zishu's lap, their groans loud. Wen Kexing held Zhou Zishu down with hand to the chest, his hips quickening their pace, legs aching as he rose and fell onto Zhou Zishu's length, head thrown back and high sighs escaping, a chant of A' Shu, A' Shu, A' Shu falling from his lips - repeated back by his beloved with A' Xing, A' Xing, A' Xing.
It's not appropriate, they aren't married after all.
But Wen Kexing feels an impending sense of dread in his chest, like something bad is going to to happen - something inevitable . It's what drives him to quicken his pace, almost desperate to not focus on the sense that they are making a big mistake.
Zhou Zishu may feel the same way too for he seems just as frantic, turning them around to raise Wen Kexing's legs over his forearms and spreading them as he starts to frantically thrust into him, leaning down to bury his face into Wen Kexing's shoulder.
Wen Kexing holds him close, cradles his head as his body jerks with every thrust into him, pleasure intense and having him cry out with brush over a spot inside of him. He's scared, he feels unsure about their future, and he knows that no matter what decision they make - something awful is going to happen.
He can't tell what but he just knows.
He fears the Capital and what it may bring to their lives.
"I thought we agreed that you and the senior disciples handle whatever it is that His Highness wants while I take care of the juniors in complete peace ," Wen Kexing amusingly raised a brow.
A fourteen year old Qin Jiuxiao was fast asleep next to him, clutching the sleeve of the arm that held a three year old Gu Xiang. His other arm cradled a nine year old Han Ying, their newest member, making sure he knew he was safe since the boy was still growing out of his shy shell.
"You're babying them too much," Zhou Zishu grumbled, though his eyes were find as he gazed upon them all laying in his bed, "There's still daylight out, why are they all asleep?"
"It's nap time," Wen Kexing argued, smiling when Gu Xiang yawned and curled up closer to his chest, "They trained all day, they deserve to sleep."
"Liar," Zhou Zishu scolded, though he didn't seem as heated. He did, however, look extremely tired so Wen Kexing felt just a bit guilty for taking over the bed with the juniors, "Don't they have their own rooms?"
"They missed you," Wen Kexing said, trying not to frown, "You've been busy lately, so they miss their shixiong. Can you blame them? I miss my husband too."
"Not your husband yet," Zhou Zishu yawned, removing his outer robes and unraveling his hair from the topknot, "And I'm sorry, Jing Beiyuan wanted me to join him for drinks earlier, otherwise I would have been home much faster to prevent my bed from being taken over."
Wen Kexing couldn't help but pout at the name Jing Beiyuan, unsure of how to feel over his beloved's new best friend.
Jing Beiyuan was a beautiful guy, almost unnaturally so, and it didn't help that he had the same taste in wine as his borderline alcoholic lover. He's been wanting to hang out more and more with Zhou Zishu and so he takes up quite a bit of his lover's time when he's not gone on missions for Helian Yi. Wen Kexing missed when he and Zhou Zishu would have their own time - no one but them. Now he's stuck in this Manor, training the Juniors and playing housewife.
Not as fun as he had imagined it to be when it's just him playing the parent role the kids need.
"What's with the face?" Zhou Zishu raised a brow, carefully taking Han Ying from Wen Kexing's hold.
The boy shifted a bit but otherwise stayed asleep. Zhou Zishu sighed with relief before settling on the bed beside Wen Kexing, Han Ying on his chest after he placed a brief kiss on Wen Kexing's lips.
"What wife wouldn't be upset over her husband choosing to go with another instead of immediately coming home?" Wen Kexing playfully sniffed, smiling when Zhou Zishu snorted, "I cook, I clean, I take care of the kids, I school them and put them to sleep. And my husband? Out there drinking away instead of greeting his wife - which is the first thing he should do once he finishes working!"
"Are you done?" Zhou Zishu asked in exasperation, shaking his head in amusement.
"Maybe," Wen Kexing teased, adoring the soft look in his lover's eyes when he looked back at him, "If my husband spends all day with us tomorrow, then maybe I can reconsider the possibility of a divorce."
"I didn't know a divorce was on the table," Zhou Zishu dryly commented, "I wonder---"
"You're not getting a divorce, we're not even actually married," Wen Kexing hurriedly huffed out, smiling when Zhou Zishu let out a chuckle.
"Of course, of course," Zhou Zishu snorted, "How could I ever ask for one anyways? Marrying A' Xing will be the happiest day of my life should it ever happen."
"Keep it up and I'll think you actually want to marry me," Wen Kexing laughed, stopping when Zhou Zishu shrugged and raised a brow. Wen Kexing blinked a few times, trying to process what was not being said, "A' Shu?"
"What do you think about getting married?" Zhou Zishu asked, reaching out with the hand not holding Han Ying to tenderly touch his cheek.
"I would want nothing more if it's with you, but A' Shu---," Wen Kexing started, feeling all types of amazement and wonder.
"Then let's get married, A' Xing," Zhou Zishu softly said, "I know this isn't an ideal place to settle down in but as long as I'm with you, any place is a home."
" A' Shu ," Wen Kexing sniffled, giving out a wet laugh, "You--- ah , okay A' Shu. Let's get married."
" Finally ,"
Wen Kexing was startled by the sound of Qin Jiuxiao's voice.
"A' Shu?" Wen Kexing asked, startled when Zhou Zishu stormed into the bedroom and grabbed Wen Kexing by the arm, "A' Shu, what's wrong?"
"A storm is brewing," Zhou Zishu hastily said, "Where are the kids?"
"Um... A' Xiao should be training in the garden with A' Ying and A' Xiang is taking her afternoon nap, why? A' Shu!" Wen Kexing didn't enjoy being pulled by the arm and promptly tanked himself free, crossing his arms over his chest as he stepped back, "What is going on?"
"If things go right, nothing will happen," Zhou Zishu said, his eyes almost manic as he seemed to be on the verge of panicking, "If things go wrong, a battle will break out and you all have to leave now just in case it does."
" A' Shu ---,"
"Please, A' Xing," Zhou Zishu begged, moving closer to grip his shoulders, "You all have to leave now. I can't... if something happens, I can't protect you all."
"I can take care of us just fine," Wen Kexing insisted, shaking his head at the ludicracy of the situation, "We're not going to leave just so you can stay behind to protect your precious Prince."
"I can't lose you," Zhou Zishu muttered, his eyes gleaming with unshed tears, "I know you can handle yourself but what about A' Xiao? A' Ying? A' Xiang? Three kids with two whose martial arts are barely adequate at best. A teenager, not even a pre-teen and barely out of the toddler stage - you won't be able to protect them all and yourself. I am begging you, leave now with the kids. I'll come get you myself when it's all over."
"I can't lose you either," Wen Kexing said slowly, not at all embarrassed to allow his feelings to show, tears falling freely unlike his beloved's, "How will I know you'll be okay, huh? What if you get hurt, who's going to protect you?"
"I won't die before our wedding," Zhou Zishu insisted, leaning forward to place a kiss on Wen Kexing's forehead, "That's a promise, A' Xing. But right now, I need you to promise me and leave with the kids, do you understand?"
" A' Shu ," Wen Kexing mumbled sadly, but caved in when he saw one lone tear fall down his beloved's face, "Alright, alright, whatever you say."
Zhou Zishu sighed in relief before surging forward, connecting their lips in an almost harsh and desperate manner.
"Everything is going to be okay."
Everything was not okay.
Qin Jiuxiao, his dumb, sweet boy had snuck away on their way to Nanjiang with Wu Xi. By the time they had realized, it had been too late. Wen Kexing took a horse and rode as quickly as he could, the other kids left with Wu Xi and his people. He had made it just in time to watch his silly boy get stabbed fatally with a sword.
For a moment, his heart stopped alongside his little idiot.
Princess Jing' Ann, the girl who his silly boy had a massive crush on, had found them. With the dead bodies of their enemy surrounding them, and a wounded Wen Kexing holding the body of Qin Jiuxiao.
It's a blur from there, but he recalls losing consciousness before awaking in the Physician's tent, frantically calling out for Qin Jiuxiao. The only person who answered was Zhou Zishu, who cried alongside him.
"He's... He's gone... A' Shu, he's gone!"
"I'm sorry, A' Xing... I'm so sorry."
For just a brief moment, Wen Kexing hated Zhou Zishu for bringing them to the Capital.
They never did get married.
Their engagement was supposed to last two years, and when the year came for them to marry - the battle had broken out within the Capital, their silly Qin Jiuxiao had been killed, and Wen Kexing was out to bed rest to heal for a month. After that, with the battle still raging strong outside, he was sent back to Nanjiang to be kept safe, Zhou Zishu insisting that he does not return unless picked up by himself.
Wen Kexing was angry at the shut off look in Zhou Zishu's eyes, how the other would not even look at him when he had him set off with four of his Window of Heaven subordinates.
He wasn't done mourning, he wanted to lay on the grave where Qin Jiuxiao would be buried - wanted to hug the tombstone and beg him to come back. He didn't want to go to some random place so far away - he didn't want to leave .
But Wen Kexing still had two kids waiting for him back in Nanjiang, so he bit his tongue, gave his lover a kiss on his forehead - though he was mad with him, Wen Kexing still loved him and the possibility that Zhou Zishu may die in battle had just became more real - before swiftly getting into the awaiting carriage, clutching the engagement hairpin Zhou Zishu had given him two years ago close to his chest.
After that, there was just no time.
With the battle over, they were allowed to properly mourn the loss of Qin Jiuxiao, and it seemed like they never stopped mourning since the topic of marriage never came up again.
Zhou Zishu grew more distant and colder.
He would no longer carry Gu Xiang and he demanded that Han Ying train harder. He and Wen Kexing often argued loudly whenever Wen Kexing thought he was being too hard on the boy.
"Do you want him to die like A' Xiao?" Zhou Zishu had spoken it like it meant nothing - as cold as the biting wind on a lonely Winter's night.
"Of course I don't !" Wen Kexing shouted, choking on a sob at the mere sound of Qin Jiuxiao's nickname. He wiped angrily at his tears, refusing to look away from Zhou Zishu, whose gaze flickered away at the sight of his tears.
"Then he must train harder," Zhou Zishu continued, monotone, "And when he's old enough, he'll join the Window of Heaven where he'll get more training and experience."
"No the hell he won't," Wen Kexing denied immediately, "I don't want the kids anywhere near---"
"That's not your decision to make," Zhou Zishu interrupts, much to Wen Kexing's astonishment, "I only give you leniency because I can't afford you getting hurt---"
"And what, you're fine with A' Ying getting hurt!?" Wen Kexing cut him off, anger boiling in his blood.
"That's not what I meant---"
"---How else can you mean it---"
"---Enough!" Zhou Zishu snapped, his glare sending shivers down Wen Kexing's spine.
When did his eyes get so... heartless?
"Enough," Zhou Zishu repeated, in a much calmer tone with a sigh, "I've made my decision."
"I can't live like this," Wen Kexing quietly said, but in this empty room, he might as well have screamed it. Zhou Zishu stilled at his words, an unreadable look crossing his face, something akin to pain and grief in his eyes that made Wen Kexing briefly believe he was still human before it left, "A' Shu, this can't keep going on."
Zhou Zishu pursed his lips, a hard look in his eyes - staring at Wen Kexing like he was a mere stranger in his way.
Wen Kexing did leave.
It was two weeks of silence between Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing before Zhou Zishu finally left on another mission. Once he was gone, Wen Kexing lunged into action.
He had the kids leave everything behind, they can always get new clothes once they've settled. Wen Kexing had more than enough to pay for expenses so wasn't concerned for things like food or clothes. But before he left, took out his hairpin.
The engagement hairpin was beautiful but simple, something he had adored greatly when Zhou Zishu had gifted it to him. Pure white Jade with a snowflake at the end, Wen Kexing almost felt like crying when he gently placed it down on the vanity table.
"Sad?" Gu Xiang asked, tugging on Wen Kexing's robe.
"Yes," Wen Kexing confessed, placing the note he had written earlier beside the hairpin.
"Why?" She tilted her head cutely, a sight that warmed his heart as he picked her up.
"I'll tell you when you're older," Wen Kexing reassured, "For now, we have to go. A' Ying, you ready?"
His sweet boy nodded, looking almost as sad as Wen Kexing. He had adored Zhou Zishu so much, Wen Kexing felt bad to take him away. But Han Ying had insisted that it was okay, that he would follow Wen Kexing if he thought it was for the best.
" You raised me ," Han Ying had said simply, " How can I leave you? "
Wen Kexing nearly weeped at how easy Han Ying had made it seem.
"Let's go," Wen Kexing muttered, grabbing Han Ying's hand in his own as he cradled Gu Xiang close, "It's time to leave this place behind."
Goodbye, A' Shu.
Wen Kexing watched as Han Ying practiced in the courtyard.
His Martial Arts were good, Wen Kexing was proud of how far he had come, and Gu Xiang wasn't so bad either though she did have the tendency to slack a bit. She also fought dirty sometimes but Wen Kexing always turned a blind eye whenever she and Han Ying would spar, finding it funny with how much she teased him.
Surprisingly enough, Han Ying didn't get mad at her whenever she teased him. Instead, the sweet boy had grown into a sweet young man, indulging her in her remarks. It warmed Wen Kexing's heart at how much they treated each other like family.
They were his kids, he had raised them practically all on his own. They were a family.
Wen Kexing raised a brow at Gu Xiang, who collapsed on the ground beside him, placing her head upon his lap in a lazy manner, "Yes, the light of my life? The apple of my eye? The child of my womb? The---"
"Aye ma, you're so embarrassing!" Gu Xiang complained, whining when Wen Kexing pinched her cheek.
"How dare you," Wen Kexing scolded playfully before calling out, "A' Ying, am I embarrassing?"
Han Ying stopped his practice to look a bit guilty at Wen Kexing, like he wanted to say no but he didn't want to lie either. Wen Kexing huffed, releasing Gu Xiang's cheek, "I raised you brats and this is the thanks that I get?"
"We love you just the way you are," Han Ying reassured, a gentle smile on his face.
"Better," Wen Kexing grumbled, laughing when Gu Xiang reached out to poke his cheek.
"Alright, alright, it's getting late," Wen Kexing said, nudging Gu Xiang up, "Time to go to bed, the both of you. Tomorrow we are goin into town to get groceries, so I want you both up in the morning, understood?"
"I said," Wen Kexing raised a brow at the pouting Gu Xiang, "Understood?"
"Good girl," Wen Kexing pinched her cheek, laughing when she bared her teeth as if to bite him. Feral child.
Wen Kexing accepted Han Ying's hand, allowing himself to be pulled up. He smiled once he stood on his feet, patting Han Ying's cheek lightly, the young man flustering sweetly. No matter how old he got, this was his little boy, "Thank you, A' Ying."
"What happened to your mask, by the way?" Gu Xiang asked, her head tilted curiously.
"It broke," Wen Kexing frowned, recalling the face of Zhou Zishu's - the hope and distraught coloring his face. He was still so beautiful, so breathtaking, "A shame too, it was my favorite."
"Don't worry, Ma," Gu Xiang nodded to herself, "We'll find you a new one in town tomorrow. An even better one!"
"What considerate children I have," Wen Kexing teased, smiling when Gu Xiang beamed back.
Although he missed Zhou Zishu throughout the years, Wen Kexing did what he had to do to ensure these two would have a good life. He knew only death awaited Han Ying if he were to have joined the Window of Heaven - couldn't imagine his sweet boy with the same cold, dead eyes of his beloved.
Would Han Ying have pushed them away too? No longer see Wen Kexing, the one who raised him, but just as Wen Kexing, the husband of Zhou Zishu - his would have been superior? Someone to have been unapproachable and unavailable to talk to because of his association with the Leader of the Window of Heaven?
Would Gu Xiang be forced to grow without her big brother holding her hand? Waking her up and braiding her hair? Having snowball fights in the winter and making flower crowns in the spring? Chased rabbits with her in the summer and made piles of fallen leaves to be jumped in the Autumn? Would they have become strangers to one another? Would Gu Xiang be forced to act like all the other ladies of the court? Face seen but voice unheard? Just to be married off for a political alliance?
Would Wen Kexing be forced to live a life of never ending loneliness? His kids no longer by his side - no longer allowed to keep him company? His husband off running a whole assassination organization, mission after mission, gone for undetermined amounts of time? Returning and greeting Wen Kexing with the eyes of a hollow man? Of a dead man? A gaze so cold that it hurts to look into? No warmth in his heart for Wen Kexing?
Trapped within a home with no one but himself? Where Wen Kexing would take a sword to his throat and bleed out all over the wooden floors, body not to be found until weeks later, unable to handle it all anymore?
The very idea of what their futures could have been still had Wen Kexing weeping late at night, mourning it all.
He loved and he lost.
It isn't until a few months later that Wen Kexing sees Zhou Zishu again.
It's morning, bright and early, and he's eating berries as he oversees Han Ying and Gu Xiang practice. It's his favorite part of the day, watching his younglings train. There isn't much to really do, their days always calm and content, not needing much but the simple presence of one another.
So he's vastly surprised when the gates to the Four Seasons Manor opens and two familiar figures step inside.
A' Shu ...
Wen Kexing hastily stood up, smoothing out his pink robes as Zhou Zishu looked around the courtyard in wonder. Wen Kexing had made sure to take good care of the place, ten years of maintaining and fixing up, trying to retain the appearance it had when they were still but foolish teens.
His heart stops when Zhou Zishu's eyes find him, that same look of wonder in his gaze that had Wen Kexing feel a bit flustered.
"Hey, who are you!?" Gu Xiang pointed, snarling ever so unladylike, "What are you doing in our home, huh!? You're trespassing!"
That's right, she wouldn't recall Zhou Zishu, would she? She was so young when they had left, so small, her memory has never been the best so Wen Kexing's not surprised she doesn't recognize Zhou Zishu.
Zhou Zishu recognizes her, though, his eyes wide as he looks upon the little girl they had taken in - not so little anymore. His eyes drift over to Han Ying and blinks in surprise. Han Ying remembers him, too, for he shifts uncomfortably in his spot, much like he would when he was younger and was being scolded.
"Shifu, who are they?" The boy, Zhang Chengling if he recalled, asked nervously, tugging on Zhou Zishu's sleeve.
Wen Kexing could see Gu Xiang's patience running low so he decided to take a step forward, talking politely, "Lord Zhou, you've returned to the Four Seasons Manor. What of your other affiliations?"
A strange look passed over Zhou Zishu's face before he blinked and it went away. It was... unnerving to see him act so human. He had witnessed it when he first started following Zhou Zishu and the boy, but it was strange every time. This was not good for Wen Kexing's heart to see his former lover look so - like he used to. Before the Capital.
"Can we talk, A' Xing?" Zhou Zishu asked, almost tentatively, as if he feared Wen Kexing's rejection, "Alone?"
Wen Kexing shifted, wondering if it was too late to grab his kids and run away again. How far would they get, if Zhou Zishu decided to chase them? He's seen Zhou Zishu fight when he was following them, he's improved even more - which is slightly terrifying. But would he even bother chasing them? Or would he simply allow them to leave in peace?
"Ma?" Gu Xiang tugged on his sleeve, shaking him from his thoughts.
Wen Kexing sighed but smiled gently at her, catching the eyes of a worried Han Ying. He shouldn't fret too much, it will only stress these two out if he does. He turned towards Zhou Zishu, who looked a bit defeated, his eyes cast downwards as if he expected Wen Kexing to deny him a conversation.
Wen Kexing is very tempted.
But he'll play nice this time.
"Alright, let's talk."
It's - a whirlwind to say the least.
In the following ten years of his absence, every last one of their brothers from the Four Seasons Manor has perished . Zhou Zishu had said it was his own fault and Wen Kexing was inclined to agree.
Because he told him.
Wen Kexing warned him about how awful of an idea it was and yet he still insisted on pursuing it.
But he does not say it to his face. How can he? Zhou Zishu is in tears talking about it, the deaths of all their brothers, the grief he had when Qin Jiuxiao died. It brings tears to Wen Kexing's own eyes having to hear it all.
Zhou Zishu may have left the Window of Heaven, but that didn't change the disaster that happened because he formed it.
Wen Kexing wanted to hate Zhou Zishu for it all, blame him more. But he had ten years doing that already and it was hard to be angry when the man before him was clearly suffering from all the mistakes he had made - blinded by the loyalty of a man who only cared for his own success.
"A' Shu," Wen Kexing softly called out, prompting Zhou Zishu to look up hastily at the sound of the nickname, wide-eyed and hopeful that it broke his heart.
This was his beloved - not the soldier he had made himself be.
"Come here," Wen Kexing opened up his arms, to which Zhou Zishu easily moved into. He can feel the former assassin melt into the embrace, and couldn't stop himself from burying his face into his black hair.
"I looked everywhere for you," Zhou Zishu quietly confessed, "When I came back from my mission and I saw your hairpin and note, I... I knew I had to find you. So I looked everywhere whenever I had the chance. But I... I couldn't find you."
"I didn't want to be found," Wen Kexing whispered back.
"I figured as much, you always were good at hide and seek when we were kids," Zhou Zishu laughed weakly.
"I was here the whole time," Wen Kexing confessed, "I simply came back home, I wasn't truly hiding."
"I didn't think you would want to return to the Four Seasons Manor," Zhou Zishu muttered, "After everything I've done, I thought you want no association with it whatsoever. I think a part of me did know that you came back, though. But it was probably for the best that you stayed here, undetected."
Wen Kexing hummed, but said nothing, unsure of where this would put them all now.
"I never stopped think about you,"
Wen Kexing sighed, feeling like he would cry if Zhou Zishu didn't shut up, "A' Shu,"
"I regretted ever asking you to leave," Zhou Zishu continued, insistent, "I wanted nothing more than to take back my words but it seemed like there was a wall between us, unable to be taken down. In the end, my biggest fear came true. I lost you."
"A' Shu, please, stop---"
Zhou Zishu pulled back from the hug, cupping Wen Kexing's face within his hands, thumbing away his tears. His own eyes were rimmed with red, and Wen Kexing wanted to kiss those wet lashes but refrained - although he never stopped loving Zhou Zishu, there was still the insecurity of how Zhou Zishu felt for him now.
People change, feelings change, Zhou Zishu is the prime example for that.
"I lived like a ghost those ten years you were gone," Zhou Zishu continued, "Not dead but not alive either. I wondered if it was even worth living if my soulmate was not by my side. When it finally became too much, and the last of our brothers died, I couldn't do it anymore. I considered taking the nails but I... I didn't want to die. Not until I found you and apologized for everything I did. For every pain I caused. And I---"
"That's enough, A' Shu," Wen Kexing interrupted, unable to hear more, "That's enough."
Panic flooded those eyes and Zhou Zishu's hands moved from his face to his waist, tugging him close, as though he feared Wen Kexing was going to make a run for it.
"Don't go," Zhou Zishu confirmed his thoughts, " Don't ---"
"I'm not going anywhere," Wen Kexing sighed, extracting Zhou Zishu's arms and tugging him towards the bed, nudging him to lay down, "This is my home, where else will I go? Lay down, you look like you need a nap. You've cried yourself into exhaustion, you fool."
Zhou Zishu smiled weakly, "Stay? Stay and tell me about A' Ying and A' Xiang until I fall asleep?"
Wen Kexing paused, surprised that Zhou Zishu wanted to know about them before remembering that - for a time - he did express that he had cared for them before he got the stupid idea of Han Ying joining the Window of Heaven.
"Alright," Wen Kexing agreed, nudging him to scoot over so he could sit on the bed.
He held back a smile when Zhou Zishu hesitantly placed his head on his lap, spotting the ears of the other turn red even though his face was carefully blank. Who does he think he's fooling?
"I'll tell you everything."
Maybe things will be different this time around.