Zhou Zishu’s used to waking later than Wen Kexing, often finding the space beside him already cool, devoid of even his warmth. But he’s there beside him this morning, already awake, his eyes fixed on Zishu.
He catches the look in Wen Kexing’s eyes before he can blink it away, before the faint crease between his brows smooths; sadness in his dark pupils, terrifying in its sincerity.
Zishu’s heart squeezes. He props himself up on an elbow and cards the fingers of his other arm through tangled hair, pale against his hand. It’s pale against everything except freshly-fallen snow, a shade darker than pure white.
“Ah-Xu,” Wen Kexing says, voice quiet.
“Yes?” Zishu looks at him, eyes tracing the gentle slope of his nose, the cut of his cheek. His skin looks as soft as Zishu knows it will feel. He wants to touch, so he reaches out; Wen Kexing turns his head into Zishu’s palm, rubbing against it sweetly, soft like one of Four Seasons Manor’s tamed animals.
“Shall we wander for a bit?” Wen Kexing asks, his question muffled into Zishu's skin.
Zishu’s heart immediately speeds up. He immediately schools his face into one of admirable calm, well done even by his standards.
He takes a deep breath. The sharp cold of wintry air clears his mind; helps him center himself, to push past the questions clamouring to be answered. His hand fits, moulds itself to the curve of Wen Kexing’s cheekbone, a caress.
Zishu inhales again. It’s a waste to give breath to his questions when he already knows the answers.
“When do you want to go?” he asks instead, voice steady.
They’d arrived at Four Seasons Manor at the beginning of what turned out to be an unusually cruel and long winter, as if the chill and cold that kept them young was determined to follow them from one mountain to the other.
Chengling and the other disciples had worked hard to rebuild Four Seasons Manor over the years, transformed one of Zishu’s biggest regrets into a renowned, respectable sect; albeit with a twist.
Everyone thinks it’s something in the water, or the fengshui of the place—but over the years, it’s gone from Zishu and his shidis to one with a makeup of primarily female disciples, almost enough that (according to Chengling many, many years back) people had joked could eventually grow to be a force to rival the E’mei Sect.
Zishu had wondered if it was the heavens demanding equilibrium, the overload of yang that had come with eighty-one men begetting an equal overflow of yin before things would right themselves. Chengling—along with the other disciples Wen Kexing had recruited into the sect—all had daughters who birthed daughters, Guanyin throwing girls at them with an almost deadly accuracy.
Their two months there are the busiest they’ve been in decades—Zishu wakes at dawn to instruct the younger disciples and help Zhang Yue with administrative duties, and Wen Kexing helps out in the kitchen. Every other morning’s set aside to visit Chengling, Gu Xiang and Cao Weining; then Nianxiang and Xiao-Hui, mother and daughter buried next to each other.
Xiao-Hui’s grave is still visibly new, the soil around it showing faint signs of recently being disturbed. They’ll sit for long stretches at a time, and Zishu will listen on as Wen Kexing speaks, sitting thigh-to-thigh with him.
When they have free time, it’s spent continuing the fight they’d started on a particularly boring day an uncountable number of years ago. The only thing Zishu remembers about it is that Chengling was still alive then, young and spry enough to make the trip up when unburdened by sect duties.
It’ll span the entire length of the compound, ending in a draw before the evening light’s completely gone and resulting in many requests for instruction from the more ambitious disciples brave enough to approach them.
One good thing about instructing girls is that they complain less. None of them have whined as Chengling had; Wen Kexing, always lounging behind Zishu as he’s conducting his lessons, has nary a chance to trot out his kind teacher act.
They take their leave once the weather’s better. Two months’ worth of his own mess takes less time to clear than Zishu thought it would; he fills his trunk in no time, robes stuffed alongside two jugs of chilled wine. Wen Kexing’s still not done in twice the time Zishu’s taken, fastidious about the way each robe and underlayer’s arranged, making space for the many trinkets the younger disciples gifted them.
“What’s taking you so long, Lao-Wen?” he asks. Wen Kexing shoots a disgruntled look at Zishu’s own trunk.
“You make it easy to forget you were once a young master, until you don’t,” he says primly, lips pursed; and for that, Zishu has no other choice but to wait for him to finish with the article of clothing he’s putting away before tackling him to the ground.
They spend precious time rolling around like children; then even more, doing decidedly un-childlike things. Wen Kexing shoos a laughing Zishu out at the break of dawn, muttering something uncomplimentary as he shuts the sliding doors behind him with a crisp, punctuated crack; leaving Zishu to the whims of a waking sect with absolutely no qualms about putting him to work despite his age and status.
Zhang Yue and her daughter see them off along with Head Disciple Xiao-Chun, although Xiao-Chun doesn’t linger—sect matters come first, which they're all in agreement on. Zishu doesn’t miss the anxiety and sleepless nights that accompany the title and responsibility.
The joke’s on him, in any case; he’s just exchanged it for Wen Kexing, another handful.
“You can stay for a little longer,” Zhang Yue says. "Four Seasons Manor is always open to the both of you—won't you consider staying for a while more?"
Her daughter echoes the sentiment, staring up at them with her fists planted to the sides of her hips. She stomps her foot childishly, and Zishu pokes Wen Kexing in his side at once. He immediately disguises his laughter in the fakest-sounding cough Zishu’s ever heard, and places a hand on her head.
“We can’t,” Wen Kexing says, stroking her fine hair. “We’ve an adventure to go on.”
“Can I come?”
“No.” This from the both of them and her mother simultaneously.
“You should take some money, at least,” Zhang Yue says, mouth turned downward, wide eyes gazing up at Zishu. Chengling’s features are still so strongly expressed this many generations on, and he swallows against the wave of longing that hits him, immediately taken back to how Chengling looked all those years back: staring up at Zishu in the same manner as he begged to be his disciple, and subsequently, once he’d suffered the strictness of Zishu’s lessons, to be let off training.
“It’s okay,” Zishu reassures her. It’s a bit awkward; he doesn’t want to bother them any further, and as decent as their finances are, he doesn’t want to impose on them. “We can get by.”
“If you think about it, some of what’s ours is yours,” she insists. “It’ll be me returning some of it to you, nothing more.”
“You don’t have to worry,” Wen Kexing adds. He smiles at Zishu. “This old one has lived a more than prosperous life. He’s got more than enough savings.”
“What about you,” Zishu responds hotly, levelling him with a glare that’s second nature by now, even as he’s aware it’s of no use.
“You wouldn’t take my money in the past, so I’ll take yours.” Wen Kexing opens his fan with an elegant flick of his wrist and fixes Zishu with a teasing gaze over the edge of it.
His white hair is unfair, pinned back from his face like this; Zishu thinks he’s had more than enough time to grow used to it, has lived with it for longer than he’s known him without, and it still takes his breath away every time.
He has no response to that that won’t make him look even more childish than the actual toddler in their presence. Zishu turns away from him to hug Zhang Yue and her daughter, then waits as Wen Kexing does the same.
“Thank you for coming,” Zhang Yue whispers to him. “I’m sure Mother would’ve been very happy to know you were here.”
Wen Kexing smiles, but the look in his eyes when he turns away is wretched.
It’s a near-silent walk down the mountain, the both of them walking even closer to each other than usual, air devoid of Wen Kexing’s usual chatter.
Zishu and Wen Kexing had tidied the Armoury as best as they could before they left, ensuring everything would be in place for the disciples heading up to look after it while they were away.
Over the years, they’d gradually cleaned it up to make it more inhabitable and hospitable. Once a year, they play host to a small group of disciples who make the trip up with the intention to cultivate their martial arts in relative seclusion and the severe cold.
It’s challenging for Zishu to remember how to behave when they’re around, balancing his role as their respected teacher with the chatterbox of a headache he’s hitched his wagon to. It’s more difficult readjusting to the stark empty, the silence when the disciples leave; taking with them shuffled footsteps, chattering teeth, the sound of their breathing.
Often, after the disciples are gone, they’ll spend hours in their bed; overfilling themselves on each other to soothe an ache, to fill a void.
It’ll be difficult learning to be by themselves again, after their months at Four Seasons Manor.
Wen Kexing’s fan comes up again when they’re halfway to where they’ll be spending the night, the inn at the base of the mountain Zishu knows to be the disciples’ favourite.
There’s a faint hush that falls upon their entrance, and out of the corner of his eye, Zishu sees many a head turn in Wen Kexing’s direction. He’s still waving his fan lazily, the small breeze generated with each downward flick of his hand gently displacing the pure white strands of hair framing the sides of his face.
He really does look like a deity. He also carries the air of a crazy person, because no sane living being would be fanning themselves in the middle of winter, with the weather as it is. Zishu despairs for how they’re going to keep a low profile.
(“I like having something to do with my hands,” he’d said, when Zishu had asked once, sarcastically, if their mountain wasn’t cold enough for him. Then his expression had morphed into something suggestive, lecherous. “Unless you’d like to volunteer…?”)
The second thing Zishu notices is the fragrance of the food; so does Wen Kexing, by the way their stomachs rumble . “I understand Senior Ye now,” Zishu murmurs, breathing in deep. God, he hasn't smelled anything this good in so long. They’d served simple vegetarian fare at Four Seasons Manor for the duration of their stay, and even with how good it’d smelled and how warm it’d been, he hadn’t been tempted.
This, though—it makes him want to eat two entire cows, down an entire jar of warm wine.
“Order whatever you’d like,” Wen Kexing says. He’s smiling at Zishu with the air of a benevolent Buddha, but there’s an unfathomable depth where Zishu gazes into his eyes.
There’s an ache in Zishu’s head, a buzzing in his ears; the sort of noise that rings when you’re somewhere too empty, too quiet. He adjusts his expression into one of exasperation and asks, instead, “Are you paying for once?”
“How could you doubt me like this, Ah-Xu?” The fan snaps shut, and Wen Kexing turns his put-upon look of disappointment on Zishu; his eyes roll up in involuntary response, as Wen Kexing starts again, in a haughty tone, “I’ve been more than generous during the beginning of our acquaintance, if you’ve forgotten in your old age—”
His spiel's interrupted by Zishu’s sharp, barked laugh, infectious enough that his lips curve up as he pauses to chuckle.
Their usual banter goes a long way, calms some of the roiling turbulence that churns in Zishu. He nods at an approaching waiter, and watches his face go dumbstruck as he catches sight of Wen Kexing.
The waiter's still half-dazed as he’s seating them, disbelieving as Wen Kexing smiles at him. Zishu’s exhale is harsh and aggravated.
Wen Kexing turns to him, resting his chin atop a fist. “There’s no need to look like you’ve drank an entire jar’s worth of vinegar, Ah-Xu. You have nothing to worry about. Once you’ve seen the ocean, no other body of water can compare.”
Zishu scoffs, taking a swig of chilled wine from his gourd. “The one who’s retreated a hundred steps mocking the one who’s not even taken the first of fifty steps, aren’t you a bit too shameless?”
“Excuse me,” the waiter interrupts, looking a bit abashed. “Sorry to interrupt you like this, but what would these masters like to order?”
Wen Kexing turns his most brilliant smile on him, and Zishu watches as the waiter sways in place. He blinks to clear his vision; he, too, is not immune. He’s just had more experience concealing it.
“Of course! How much would five taels of silver get us? Could we get—” Zishu tunes him out as he starts to list off the dishes they’ve heard the disciples gushing about, glancing around the place. Nothing’s really changed in the years they’ve sequestered themselves away, furniture and clothing a similar style to what he remembers.
Of course, being in a less-populated area wouldn’t have them see much change—back when Chengling was alive and often journeyed to sect conferences, he’d come back with stories about new inventions from here and there, how certain sects had adapted some of the Longyuan Pavilion’s machinery to further innovate farming practices and irrigation.
He’s still lost in his thoughts when, in his periphery, he sees the waiter rear back in mild alarm.
“All of that?” he asks.
“Of course,” Wen Kexing announces grandly, smug-faced and gleeful as he beams in Zishu’s direction.
“M-Master,” he stutters. “That’s more than five taels of silver.”
Zishu turns his attention back to them; Wen Kexing’s brows are drawn towards the middle, an annoyed confusion marring his fine features as he stares at the waiter; he looks as if he’s about to piss his pants at the abrupt shift in demeanour, the faint hint of killing aura leaking into the space they occupy. “How much is it, then?”
He tells them. Zishu chokes.
Wen Kexing blinks, and looks at Zishu. His brow gains another tiny furrow. A horrible realisation starts to dawn upon Zishu.
“This can’t be it,” Wen Kexing hisses. He almost springs up as he mutters his disbelief, only Zishu’s hand on his shoulder keeping him in his seat. “Are they robbing us? Is this it? How do the disciples even afford anything?”
Zishu hand is firm. “Quiet,” he says through gritted teeth, voice pitched low.
Wen Kexing looks at him incredulously. “Ah-Xu,” he says, serious. “This can’t be it.”
“I think it is,” Zishu says. “It’s because we haven’t been out and about for this long that the prices are this high.”
“I refuse to believe it.”
“Well, just because you don’t believe in it doesn’t make it untrue,” Zishu shoots back, before turning to the waiter. “Two bowls of rice, a chicken dish, and egg drop soup,” he says. “What vegetables do you currently have?”
“Kailan, xiaobaicai, potato leaves; I’d recommend the kailan, although the potato leaves are cheaper today.”
“Potato leaves, then,” Zishu says decisively; the waiter nods, turning to gaze at Wen Kexing one last time before he leaves, steps slow and reluctant.
Wen Kexing sits, the fight all but gone; he looks so defeated Zishu doesn’t even have the heart to rib him for it, only offering him his gourd.
He accepts it, taking a swig. The line of his mouth’s still glum as he dabs at it with his sleeve, swirls the wine around in his mouth.
“Maybe we should’ve brought more money along with us,” he says, finally.
“Maybe,” Zishu replies. He hadn’t thought of how the value of things would’ve increased in the time since they’d removed themselves from the world, made them complacent to the ever-changing winds of humanity. They hadn’t had any need for it up on their mountain, nor did they on their two other visits to Four Seasons Manor.
“I really wanted to treat you to a good meal. We haven’t had one in so long.”
“It’s fine,” Zishu says. “A light meal’s good as well, considering that it’s our first in a while.” And because his heart’s too soft, “Any time you offer to pay without a fight is already enough of a miracle, don’t think too much of it.”
He watches the upturn of Wen Kexing’s lips, commits it to memory, another sight in his never-depleting mental store.
“Do you think it’s too late to make a detour?” Wen Kexing asks, turning his sad eyes on Zishu. His pout’s even more pronounced now. “I think I left an entire pouch of gold somewhere in one of the storage chambers a few decades ago—“
Zishu sighs. “It’s fine, Lao-Wen.”
The food comes soon enough, dishes served from a tray expertly balanced on their waiter’s forearm; it wobbles somewhat precariously when Wen Kexing thanks him, but muscle memory keeps it steady. Zishu, already prepared to intercept, is just glad he doesn’t have to step in.
Whatever's in front of them smells absolutely divine, but thinking about how much it cost—in dreadful combination with the renewed, roiling feeling in his stomach—almost rids Zishu of his appetite.
He gestures to the food. “Quick, let’s eat before it gets cold.”
Wen Kexing reaches out, picks up the piece of chicken Zishu knows he would’ve been eyeing for himself, and places it atop Zishu’s bowl of rice. “Well, I would’ve gladly fought you for this, but this is too pitiful. Here, Ah-Xu. Have some.”
Zishu picks it up and attempts to bring it to Wen Kexing’s bowl; he quickly brings his chopsticks up, blocking its path.
“Is Shixiong rejecting my offering?” he asks, calmly.
“Shixiong is ensuring that Shidi eats well.”
“Well, this Shidi is paying respects to my Shixiong.”
Zishu sets his bowl and chopsticks down firmly. “Lao-Wen,” he says, voice low and serious. He watches Wen Kexing still as he swallows slowly, the movement almost exaggerated. The bob of his throat’s stark, the bump of it moving up, then down. “If you want to eat, I’ll eat with you. If you don’t want to, I won’t as well.”
Wen Kexing swallows again, but he won’t meet his eyes. “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it.” He reaches out and picks it off Zishu’s plate, bringing it directly to his mouth.
“Mmm!” The sound of satisfaction comes out forced, but there’s a moment when the taste and the warmth register, and the sound’s immediately infused with a sincereness. He looks at Zishu, his huge, round eyes shining, and serves Zishu another. “Try this!” he mumbles through his mouthful. “It’s good!”
“Don’t speak with your mouth full,” Zishu scolds, but helps himself to it. He hadn’t realised how much he’d missed hot food, the silk-smooth meat of the chicken and the salt of the soy that seasons it, how the soup almost scalds his tongue, fills his belly. Their last hot meal's too distant a memory, now.
He doesn’t comment on the way Wen Kexing continues to eat, only following as Zishu does, matching him mouthful for mouthful, bite for bite. As if they’re walking through a field of traps and he only dares to step in Zishu’s own footprints, go where he's already trod.
“One room,” Wen Kexing says, that insufferable smile back on his face.
The inn manager names the price.
Zishu had steeled himself for this, but it still comes as a nasty shock, and he swallows the sound he almost makes. He’s sure his face is twitching. Wen Kexing extends his palm out towards him, fingers gesturing in a come on, come on motion. His smile doesn’t shift.
“What happened to being charitable Master Wen? Where did he run off to?”
“He disappeared after dinner.”
Zishu remains quiet, glaring. A beat, then Wen Kexing turns to him, widening his eyes ever so slightly.
The manager says, from behind them, “Do you want the room or not?”
“Ah-xuuuuuuuuuu.” A plaintive whine, accompanied by a pout.
“Can’t afford it?”
The pout intensifies.
“I should sell you off to a brothel.” Zishu’s threat is an empty one, they both know; he sighs, a put-upon sound, as he reaches into his sleeve for his money pouch. “It’s time for you to start earning some money again so you can support this family.”
Wen Kexing sidles up to him, one hand on his elbow and the other on the pouch; Zishu’s hold on it is firm, and Wen Kexing jostles him in what he probably thinks is an adoring manner as he eases it out of his grasp.
“Will you be my first customer?” he says, his smile sleazy, and manages to evade Zishu’s attempt to pinch his waist in time, darting out of his reach as he turns back to the manager, waving the pouch. He glances over his shoulder to smile at Zishu, and the flat line Zishu’s pressed his mouth into involuntarily rises once he’s turned his back.
Wen Kexing’s unusually quiet and pliant that night, urging Zishu atop him as he parts his legs. He comes on his back, teeth bit into the meat of Zishu’s shoulder, fingers claws in Zishu’s back; his mouth, for once, isn’t running with its usual nonsense or the loud, sighed Ah-Xu’s that never fail to tempt Zishu into gagging him.
Zishu spills in him, mouth pressed to his, hips flush against his body. Wen Kexing’s forearm is tight over his eyes when Zishu finally pulls back, gritting his teeth against the oversensitivity as he thrusts in tandem with his fist on a slim, throbbing length; almost passing out from overload of sensation before Wen Kexing clenches around Zishu and comes with a sob, muffled, bit into that same forearm.
Zishu cleans them up after. He extinguishes the lamps before slipping back into bed, chest to Wen Kexing’s back, hand around his middle clutching him so tight not even a sheet of paper would be able to come between them.
Wen Kexing’s hand is similarly tight over his, grip bruising. Zishu presses a kiss to his shoulder, and despite the way his head swims, the tight feeling in his throat, he falls asleep in almost no time at all.
Wen Kexing’s still in bed when Zishu wakes in the morning, an increasingly common occurrence of late. He’s insinuated himself into Zishu’s space, curled up in his embrace.
Zishu braces himself against the wave of tenderness that sweeps over him. It’s always gentle, a majestic thing that announces itself slowly, like it’s awaiting his permission before carrying him along with it.
He brushes Wen Kexing’s hair away from his face and stretches; his bare calf drags along Wen Kexing’s own, cool skin to cool skin where the quilt’s ridden up in the night.
“Ah-Xu,” Wen Kexing says, and Zishu cradles his head in both palms, gently; tilts his head up to kiss him, a press of mouths and lick of tongues he takes time to savour, the flavours from last night’s dinner nothing more than a suggestion, almost as if they’d never partook in it.
Zishu cards his hands through Wen Kexing’s hair. His hand catches on a tangle partway through, and he slowly works at the knot.
Wen Kexing looks at him, unusually open and unguarded. His large eyes are still dark with a deep sorrow. He pushes up, propping himself above Zishu with his hands to the sides of him. His hair falls around them, shutting out the noises from the world as it begins to wake.
“I—“ He hesitates, and buries his face in Zishu’s neck, pressing a chaste kiss to the side of his neck.
“I’ll follow you wherever you want to go, however far you want to go,” Zishu murmurs. “You know that, right?”
Wen Kexing rises to look at him, eyes serious again. “I know,” he says, voice thick, sounding as if the weight of the world’s been placed upon him.
Zishu’s hand is light on the small of his back, still tangled in his hair. Wen Kexing makes a frustrated sound, face pressed into the dip of Zishu’s collarbones. His harried, stuttered exhale feathers across Zishu’s skin, breaths skipping along the surfaces, gusts warming where it’d cooled in the cold of the morning. His hand is firm on Zishu’s knee, easing a leg to the side as he comes to rest more fully on Zishu, demanding space for himself between Zishu’s legs.
“Too much talk,” he says, with some finality. His gaze is sharpened with an intensity, darkened with arousal, and Zishu doesn’t press him; crossing his legs behind Wen Kexing’s back, arching away from the bed in a sinuous arch.
Once, twice, thrice. A slow frot that pushes the line of his hip against where Wen Kexing’s stirring again. They don’t break eye contact, and Wen Kexing’s gaze grows as heated as the air between their bodies, the movement of his body and hips a mere suggestion and taster of what Zishu knows is coming.
Wen Kexing doesn’t linger in the afterglow. He lays atop Zishu for a moment; then, he’s up, wiping himself down, dressing himself in Zishu’s robes. They’re too short, hanging a little above his ankles.
He does up the ties and says, “I’ll go snoop around, to check on some things. Ah-Xu, you can rest for a bit more.”
The way his face morphs as he speaks is a sight in itself. Zishu watches as it shifts into the Wen Kexing of daylight, Wen Kexing as he wants people to know him; each word that comes out of that mouth he’d kissed and cursed in equal measure laying the foundation of the first layers of armour he’ll build upon himself.
Zishu watches as he parts the sliding doors, smiling at Zishu one last time before he closes them again. He sighs and stretches, ignoring the ache when he stands, similarly wiping himself down. He looks at the doors.
“Lao-Wen ah, Lao-Wen,” he sighs.
Wen Kexing’s robes are too long on him. He gathers the skirts up so he won't trip over the hem, and makes his way to the dressing table.
It’s routine by now, reaching for the comb beside his hair stick, working out the tangles that were absent not two shichen ago. Wen Kexing’s back by the time he’s done, and his gentle hands gather Zishu’s hair up, before securing it with his hair stick.
“There,” he says. “Ready to go now, Ah-Xu?”
The road they tread is devoid of life; it’s been close to a week, and they’ve yet to come across another soul.
It's probably fate blessing other would-be travellers. Despite everything, Wen Kexing continues to be a menace; bothering Zishu in his usual ways, affectionate and annoying in equal measure. He picks fights with him about even the smallest things, and they’ve already gone off the trodden path more than once, going for hours until night falls and they realise exactly how much daylight they’d wasted.
Their fights are more a well-choreographed dance of fists, a whirl of bodies perfected over the decades. A wrist lingers, to show intent. Fingers brushing over a cheek speak of their mutual affection, and when Wen Kexing flips over Zishu, winking, the space between Zishu’s tilted face and Wen Kexing’s barely negligible—Zishu can only slice a palm out to feel the space he’s just occupied, leaving behind a sweetness that taints the scent of hoarfrost.
He used to carry the bitter tang of iron on him. They both did; blood from revenge and repentance respectively, deaths by his hands to Zishu’s seven nails.
Zishu leaps off the thinning layer of ice of the frozen lake, chasing after Wen Kexing. They’ve both gone horribly off-course again, but he’s not worried—they still have time left in this unusually long winter, and if Wen Kexing chose to continue lingering in this world into the months of spring and well into summer, Zishu would follow. Like he’d said once: twisted like a youtiao in hot oil, together in life and inseparable in death.
Their fight ends on an indefinite note, as always; it’s also started snowing again, so they decide to take their rest by the lake.
“Do you think the old demon in white’s died by now?”
Zishu sighs. “It’s been so many years. Can’t you just call him Senior Ye?” He’s loafing on a conveniently-located rock, eyes closed and bowl of freshly-fallen snow in hand, face turned up to the sky as he soaks up the sun’s rays.
Wen Kexing’s off to the side, refilling his flask and Zishu's gourd from the opening he’s made in the lake with Zishu’s Baiyi sword. “I’ll acknowledge him as our saviour and extol his martial prowess to the highest heavens, but the one thing I won’t do is that.”
He’s done, Zishu can tell from the lack of sound. He hears a tch and aiyah, and turns his head, opening his eyes a fraction; Wen Kexing’s standing, flask and gourd in one hand and Baiyi sword in the other, looking down as he quietly bemoans the wet bottom of his robes.
“You see?” Zishu says. “This is why you shouldn’t be running your mouth.” A smile spreads across his face as he turns back towards the sun, eyes closed once again. Wen Kexing’s grimace is clear in his mind’s eyes as he hears another tch.
“He’s already passed,” Zishu says. “I’ll bet on it. The last time we saw him, the hair on his head already matched his robes.”
“Who the hell makes the trip all the way up a mountain just to scold someone?” Wen Kexing bitches. He sighs again, another aiyah accompanying the wet slap of his robes as he shuffles back to where Zishu is. “Truly the epitome of having nothing better to do after he’s eaten his fill.”
“Can you blame him?” Zishu says. “When you’re that old and know you don’t have much time left, wouldn’t you go do the things you’d enjoy the most? It's just your misfortune that he enjoys fighting with you.”
Wen Kexing doesn’t reply. Zishu’s brow furrows slightly. He hasn’t reached where Zishu is; odd, considering the short distance. He turns again to where Wen Kexing last was, and opens his eyes.
He’s still there, almost within Zishu’s reach, unmoving; his arms dangle, limp by his sides as he stares at Zishu with a quiet reverence, eyes wide and mouth parted. His blue robes are dark at the bottom from where they’re soaked through, plastered to his shoes.
Zishu smiles, adoration thick and heady, swelling in his chest. “What are you looking at?”
Wen Kexing smiles back at him. “You, of course.”
Zishu’s scoff blends seamlessly into his replying chuckle. He leans back further, turns his face to the sun once more. “Such a sweet talker.”
“Want to have a taste of it again?” The sound of snow crunching underfoot gets louder as Wen Kexing walks up to him, his shadow falling over Zishu. Something’s pressed to the side of his cheek, cold against his skin; it’s his water gourd that Wen Kexing’s refilled.
Zishu reaches up, hand curling over his. “You’re blocking the sun,” he complains.
“Okay, okay,” is Wen Kexing’s coaxing reply. His hand slips from under Zishu’s, leaving the gourd in Zishu’s own. A stray finger brushes light over the curve of his jaw, tender and affectionate.
Zishu shivers. It’s not because of the cold.
“I won’t bet against you.” Wen Kexing sits, his body a warm weight next to Zishu’s. “My luck isn’t that good.”
Zishu shifts so that they're pressed flush against each other, shoulder to hip. “I would think your luck’s rather good in certain areas.” His voice is lowered, his words rasping, throaty. He looks at Wen Kexing’s profile, raising a finger to brush the stray strand of white hair that lingers on his cheek.
“When you put it that way,” he says. The corner of his mouth tilts up, a half-smirk, and the look in his eye’s as soft as Zishu knows his own is.
They stand before barren land. Zishu’s blood is rushing in his ears. His mouth is dry, and he's surprised he's even capable of sound.
“This was where—”
“Yes. It’s where we stayed after leaving Four Seasons Manor.” Wen Kexing’s smile is tinged with a hint of bitter melancholy. “I expected this. And yet I’m still disappointed.”
Zishu follows Wen Kexing as he strolls around, using his closed fan to point out the things he remembers. A circle of the fan to indicate where a swing set was placed, a tap of his boot to indicate where his father would instruct him about sword forms. A careless wave of his hand towards the corner he would stand in when being punished for running off to play instead of practising.
The wind’s strong in the area. Wen Kexing sways ever so slightly, as if he’s tall grass bent to the whims of a force not his own. Zishu places a hand on his back.
A beat, then, “Let’s go.”
Wen Kexing leads the way again. He brings them further up northwest, and Zishu follows.
The chill’s less stark now, and it hasn’t snowed in the past week. It gives Wen Kexing leave to remain pensive on yet another rooftop, with Zishu once again relegated to paying for yet another overpriced room.
Gone really were the times he could get a first-class set of rooms with half of what he’s currently paying for a regular one. His grip’s almost reluctant as he slowly empties his pouch of money, feeling oddly like a thrifty housewife.
Zishu leaves the bright, cozy warmth of the inn to stand outside; gazing up at Wen Kexing, who’s settled into a sprawl, head tilted up to look at the waning moon. With his white robes and hair, he’s stark against ink-black tiles and the deep purple of night; Zishu’s light in the dark.
He indulges himself, gives himself an interminable amount of time to take in the view, gaze upon him like a lovelorn fool before he joins him. Wen Kexing looks up as he lands; he smiles, and Zishu’s heart skips a beat.
He raises a hand to extend a packet of roasted chestnuts Zishu’s way. This close, the fragrance of it is strong, and it radiates warmth.
“I’ve already had three,” Wen Kexing says. “Simply too delicious. I just happened to be walking by, and couldn’t resist the smell.” He gestures with his other arm, brandishing a small jar as Zishu seats himself. “I also bought some warm wine off the chestnut-seller’s father, because he seemed like he was having the best time of his life, eating chestnuts while drinking this.”
Zishu leans back as well, mirroring Wen Kexing’s pose. “That good?” He reaches into the bag that’s now perched on a tile between them, warmth enveloping his hand. One, two, three. He breathes in the smell as he cracks one open.
“It’s delicious,” Zishu says.
“I told you.”
Despite the warming weather, the night’s still as cold, especially when the winds are stronger. The wine’s cooled significantly when they get around to it, but it’s still good enough. It’s sweet on Zishu’s tongue, settles in his belly as its warmth spreads to the rest of his body; still wholly incomparable to a fraction of the fire Wen Kexing lights within him.
“Lao-Wen,” Zishu says.
“I think we should start sleeping on the streets. These rooms are much too expensive, and this one surnamed Zhou finds his pockets getting lighter every day.”
Wen Kexing’s laughter is a bright sound. His tone’s teasing, faintly suggestive as he whispers into Zishu’s ear that a certain Master Wen would happily pay for the services of men who were long-limbed, slim-waisted and surnamed Zhou; the hand that lands on Zishu’s thigh creeping higher and higher the closer they get to the bottom of the wine jar.
Zishu’s finger tilts Wen Kexing’s chin towards him; his thumb presses against the plump swell of his bottom lip, wet with spit and drink. He feels drunk, even though he hasn't had nearly as much as he usually does. He leans in. “I have a room,” he breathes into Wen Kexing’s parted mouth.
His money pouch is much, much heftier the next day.
Zishu thought he’d made his peace with death when he left Tian Chuang. It was Wen Kexing who made him want to live again; a beautiful and terrible thing if you believed that one should never tie their life to something so mortal and fleeting, concepts Zishu had never thought to associate with Wen Kexing at the beginning.
His presence had been overwhelming and all-encompassing; too much everywhere Zishu went until he, too, saw him in the places that didn’t exist, began wishing for his presence where it was lacking.
He was a candle that burned too bright; one that’d flicker once or twice but never seemed in danger of going out. Until he seemingly did, and Zhou Zishu became ache made flesh once again, sorrow’s fool renewed with a lack of purpose; taking death’s hand again as he yanked it into a gallop, a freefall off a cliff.
But that was also the beauty of existing, some would argue. A flower that bloomed for only a season would be the most beautiful thing while it was alive, until the only thing you were left with was the memory of it, an ache that taught you how to miss until you met it again.
Zishu thinks it’s all dogshit.
“When did you know?” Wen Kexing asks him. “That I was thinking about—”
“The day after you’d decided it.”
“That’s awfully slow of you,” he says.
Zishu glares at him, exasperated. Wen Kexing wrinkles his nose at him, as if he’s thinking that it’s in his best interest to put on a cute demeanour, like it’ll soothe Zishu’s temper.
“You’re exceptionally alluring when you get mad, Ah-Xu.” He draws the exceptionally out, the curve his lips exquisite as he shapes the words and accompanies it with a tilt of his head. “Clouds remind me of—”
Truly an exceptional waste of a pretty mouth, Zishu thinks, tuning him out.
“This old habit of yours again,” he says, and begins walking faster. Just a little, not too much; enough to shake Wen Kexing out of that lackadaisical, carefree pace he’s keeping and put those long legs of his to good use.
He takes the lead, having already recognised where they were, then summarily deduced where Wen Kexing had planned on going. The surface had been more difficult to traverse the last time they’d been here, tall grass and uneven ground now tread flatter, but the climb’s still a little steep.
“It’s the same way you always know what I’ve planned, Lao-Wen.” Zishu leaps up a tall outcropping of rock to save time, and extends his hand to Wen Kexing, who takes it. Zishu lifts him up, yanking a little harder than required and unbalancing him; pulling him a little closer in than necessary, his laugh a tease against Wen Kexing’s mouth before he leaves him as he is, stunned and breathless and wide-eyed.
A whine of “Ah-Xuuuuuuuu,” follows behind him. So many years have passed, but the quiet glee Zishu gleans from riling him up has never faded.
Zishu hears grass rustling as Wen Kexing pushes off the ground, glides forward to land next to him. “How would I not know?” he says. “What about you don’t I know, Master Zhou? There’s not a secret of yours that can be kept from my watchful eyes.”
“So astute, Lao-Wen.”
“Of course.” His voice takes on that smug quality once again, that shamelessness of his like a cockroach that can never be killed.
They walk alongside a lake, then pause at the front of a mountain entrance, long sealed over by an avalanche of rock.
“I could’ve sworn we buried Long Que here,” Wen Kexing murmurs, echoing Zishu’s thoughts.
Zishu takes a swig of wine from his gourd. It’s chilled and sweet on his tongue, the aroma fragrant. He offers it to Wen Kexing; after he takes his first mouthful, Zishu’s sleeve is at his mouth, dabbing at it before he can even raise his arm.
“Not everything remains,” Zishu says, as they turn back, their footsteps slower, more sedate.
“The weather’s getting warmer,” Wen Kexing says, after a while.
Zishu nods. “Winter won’t last forever, Lao-Wen.”
His expression’s inscrutable. Zishu nudges his hand, fingers still tight around the middle of Zishu’s gourd, and watches Wen Kexing as he drinks from it again.
“How fair do you think it is,” Wen Kexing asks him, “that what’s keeping us alive was the very thing that took Chengling and Nianxiang away?”
They’d both passed in the midst of the winter months; a simple cough exacerbated by chill that acted too swiftly. Zishu and Wen Kexing had only just received a letter from Chengling that they’d be unable to make his twice-yearly trip up, before it’d been followed by another from Chengling’s successor and Xiao-Hui informing them of what happened.
Zishu had mourned. Wen Kexing was doubly inconsolable, wandering the Armoury like a wretched ghost the night before they’d made the journey to Four Seasons Manor; Zishu had followed behind, ready to catch him, throat thick with his own sorrow and vision blurring with his own unshed tears.
They’re on a stretch of road leading to Chang Ming Mountain. To head to the top where Senior Ye lives, they’ll have to proceed on foot at the base. Their borrowed horses are moving at a fast clip, as if spring’s warming their blood once again, and the sprigs of life under their feet’s spurring them on.
Zishu doesn’t feel as agonised as he once did. He can tell that the pain’s faded for Wen Kexing as well, although he’s barely learned to cope with the newer, unfamiliar sorrow of losing a loved one to something as out of reach and uncontrollable as age. His losses had always been tied to another face, which was something heaven’s whims and sickness and old age did not bear.
“I think,” Zishu says, “that it’s never an easy thing, us old white-haired people burying the young. And it’ll never get easier, so it’s up to us to decide how we want to deal with the feelings we’re left with. At least Chengling lived to a good age before he passed.” He smiles at Wen Kexing, urging his horse closer to his. “Even if the white hair’s more literal in your case.”
Wen Kexing looks at him, a soft, sad smile on his lips; he wore sorrow too well, and Zishu never wanted to see it on him ever again. “If only we had the money to afford proper food that isn’t snow in this day and age. You’ll catch up to me in no time.” His blink’s a soft, slow sweep of his lashes, and the tone that colours his voice is half-teasing, half-chiding.
There’s no immediate jolt of rejection that flares up in Zishu at that. In fact, the thought of it warms him more than he thought it would—two old men, wandering the jianghu, equally white-haired and wizened.
Zishu returns his smile. “If you want to eat, I’ll eat with you. If you want to wander, I’ll go where you do.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier if nobody had to pass?” Wen Kexing murmurs, a quiet contemplation.
Zishu hums. “You have to take their wishes into consideration as well, don’t you? What if they don’t want to live forever?”
Wen Kexing pauses, and then says, “We’ve already lost Chengling and Nianxiang. Now that Xiao-Hui’s gone as well… Ah. It’s not easy. I remember cradling her in my arms, and we just buried her with half a head of white hair. Will Ah-Yue be as lucky, I wonder? Will her daughter?”
“Heaven is fair,” Zishu says. “Watching them grow old and live happy lives is a more than fair price I would pay again and again for having more years by your side.”
A cough. Wen Kexing ducks his head down, mildly flustered. Zishu chuckles, steering his horse even closer; Wen Kexing urges his forward, away from him.
“Where are you going?” Zishu calls.
“Far enough from you that you can’t tease me,” comes his reply. Zishu spurs his on to catch up, and the insistent clip of his horse’s steps has Wen Kexing riding faster, and then they’re both at a gallop, hearts pounding and wind in their hair.
“You’re going to lose,” Zishu yells over the roar in his ears, and Wen Kexing’s laughter only serves to make his heart pound faster.
“What made you change your mind about dying?” Wen Kexing asks that night, a culmination of half a day’s worth of silence and self-introspection. The stars are bright out, and his hand’s cool in Zishu’s own.
He runs a thumb over Wen Kexing’s knuckles, the skin soft, as smooth as it was yesterday; as when he’d clutched it in his own with a keen desperation after they’d first cultivated together in the depths of the Armoury.
“You,” he says, because it was as simple as that. “And that I would’ve had you, no matter what. And—” here, he pauses to look at Wen Kexing, smiling at that dear face that’s still a bit apprehensive, worried, “—I could die happy, if anything ever happened to myself right then. As long as I’d overturned both heaven and earth while trying to be with you in life, I could accept defeat. Only then could I say I tried everything in my power, and that we had fate but not luck.”
Wen Kexing’s pull is instinctive; almost wrenching his hand from Zishu’s before he relaxes, stops himself. He breathes through it and looks at Zishu, desperate and pleading and beseeching.
“You’re not going anywhere without me,” he says.
“I know,” Zishu replies. “Is it not the same for me, as well?”
It’s why he would’ve taken whatever chance Beiyuan and Wu Xi would’ve given him, even if there was only a shadow of a chance at survival. It’s why he’d been ready to die, seeking Wen Kexing’s revenge on his behalf; just as Wen Kexing would chase him through all ten courts of hell, Zishu would follow him into death.
An existence without Wen Kexing after he’d had the fortune of knowing him was not living.
Wen Kexing brings Zishu’s hand into his lap, squeezing it in both of his. “Ah-Xu” he says, his voice small.
Zishu can only bump his head against Wen Kexing’s.
“Lao-Wen,” he says. “I’m here.”
Wen Kexing hesitates. A hand leaves Zishu’s, and there’s a faint tremor in his fingers as he raises it, brushing the side of Zishu’s jaw with the backs of his fingers before using one to hook a section of hair towards himself.
“There’s a white hair,” he says, and his voice is unsteady.
“What did you expect?” Zishu says, tone gentle. “I’ve lived as long as you have.”
Wen Kexing’s hair, already white, cannot turn whiter. Unlike himself, Zishu will only be able to mark the passage of time on him by the skin of his hands, the frailty of his bones, the faint lines that’ll appear at his eyes and the new creases in his forehead.
Zishu holds his hand tighter, and Wen Kexing similarly tightens his grip in response. He presses his forehead to his. “If you want to eat, I’ll be at the table with you. If you want to be wild, I’ll pour a cup of wine and keep you company. If you want to grow old, we’ll grow old together.”
“Ah-Xu,” he says; a cracked, broken sound. He doesn’t need to say anything else—everything he’d wanted to, Zishu already heard in the easier breaths he took, the sag of his body.
That he trusts in Zishu this much isn’t borne of a deep-seated belief or confidence that Zishu will catch him, but more a knowing, like one knew the natural laws of the universe—as something is born, it will also die. If you throw something into the air, it will fall to the ground. If something happened to either of them, the shape of the other would surely change to fit him.
“If you wanted to watch the rise and fall of ten more generations, I’ll be by your side to mourn every disciple with you,” Zishu says, his voice quiet. “But if it's too much—if you wanted to remove yourself from the world, we could also remain aloof about the myriad of tragic human affairs, on our mountain of ice and snow.”
A pause, to contemplate. A harsh swallow of throat, audible, accompanied by fidgeting hands. It’s a while before Wen Kexing responds.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he says, slowly. “Let’s go home.”
A warmth stirs in Zishu’s belly. He’d long since renounced heat for the cold, but recent events had given him similar bases for comparison—roasted chestnuts on a rooftop, overpriced soup, long-cooled wine on a winter’s night.
“Did you not want to pay your respects to Senior Ye?” Zishu asks.
Wen Kexing’s face twists briefly. “If he’s alive, I’ll be spending my time arguing with an elder. If he’s not—” he stops himself short, and wets his lips with a flick of his tongue. “Well, then it’d be a waste of our time, going all the way up there.”
Neither of them are stupid; they know he’ll have passed by now, but Zishu just snorts, playing along. “All this talk about wandering, when you really only wanted an excuse to pay him a return visit just so you could force him to host us like we did him.”
“Ah, I’ve been found out by my dear Ah-Xu,” Wen Kexing bemoans. Zishu leans back. The expression on his face is less wretched now, and Zishu’s heart finally settles.
Ah, Zishu thinks. I’m really so fond of him.
“We can still go wandering again in the future if you want to,” he says. “Take a proper tour of the jianghu in two years or twenty or two hundred, however far into the future we feel like.”
Wen Kexing stares into Zishu’s eyes for a beat, lips pressed into a line; then, like petals of a flower unfurling, his smile grows.
Zishu fits his hand to his knee. It's perfectly shaped to it in a way it wasn’t at the beginning; as if bone had eroded over the years to the fit of his hand, or he’s shifted his grip to slowly learn to encompass it. Maybe both. “Let’s head back, then.”
In the dark of the night, the chirp of a cricket sounds.
Relationships are a compromise, a push and pull; zhi ji is a meeting of the souls, inherent knowledge of the other as much as or even more than yourself. Their hesitance will be written clearly in the delay of an answer, the way they fall a half-step behind, false enthusiasm so overt and eager it makes you gag; as if you will not notice the dimming of a light in their eyes the more you choke.
Wen Kexing’s almost three steps in front of him the entire path back up their mountain. He turns back to Zishu every few hundred steps they take, it seems; his eyes laughing, and his steps the quick, light tread of a sparrow’s hop.
“Walk faster, Ah-Xu,” he says. “Who’d have known you’d be this slow in your old age?”
Then, “We need to hurry, who knows how the disciples will have desecrated the place in our absence—”
And Zishu replies, “Not a single one of them has ever dared to do to the Armoury what you’ve done to it.”
To which he says, “What we’ve done to it, you have your share in it as well,” flash a cheeky smile, and reach out to grasp Zishu’s hand in his.
The world and its inhabitants have changed so much since they’ve last been in it. It will change even more, Zishu knows, the longer they stay away. But he has Wen Kexing, and that is enough. As he can die happy, he can also live happy; as long as he has a bed to sleep in and snow to eat, as long as the sun is on his face and Wen Kexing's by his side, calling his name.
Two or twenty or two hundred more years, living them out one day at a time.