Zhou Zishu prides himself on the fact that he’s always been clear on his own self-worth. He likes to think that he knows himself and his capabilities pretty well. Thanks to that, he’s also pretty clear on where he stands with the people around him.
He’d also like to think of himself as a fairly level-headed person who doesn’t let his emotions get the best of him. He understands them, can empathize with them, but he’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t usually find himself tormented by them.
In particular, the whole concept of jealousy remains relatively foreign. He grew up in an environment where he had everything he would ever need and by the time he got to the age where he started wanting things he couldn’t have, he’d already trained his mind to accept that reality. Still, he’s not entirely unfamiliar with the sentiment either, having seen it displayed clearly on Lao Wen’s face on more than one occasion—and over the most trivial of matters too. Nonetheless, he wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a sentiment he would know intimately.
At least, that’s what he thinks, until the day Mu Yaoran makes his appearance.
A soft voice calls out hesitantly, cutting through the loud bustling of the busy restaurant.
The two of them look up from their table at the call and Zhou Zishu comes face to face with perhaps the most petite and delicate man he’s ever seen in his life.
He turns to look at Lao Wen questioningly, but not before catching the smile blossoming on this so-called Yao-er’s face. Before either of them can react, Wen Kexing finds himself being pulled into a very enthusiastic hug, body freezing in surprise.
“It really is you! I knew I’d recognize that broad back anywhere!”
Ever the social master, Wen Kexing reacts quickly, words flowing out with practiced ease.
“Yao-er, of course! It’s been some time, I did not expect to see you here.”
Given his seated position, he can only manage an awkward pat on the back. He throws A-Xu an apologetic glance, who replies with a small, understanding smile.
After the initial shock wears off, Zhou Zishu concludes that this delicate-looking man must be an old acquaintance of Lao Wen’s, and a close one at that. He’s quite familiar with the enthusiastic joy of reuniting with an old friend after years apart, so he only pours himself some tea and lets the two of them have their moment. However, the movement must have caught the young man’s attention because he pulls himself back ever so slightly, as if only just noticing Zhou Zishu’s presence.
Thanks to his petite stature, the newcomer is able to sit on the armrest and still be of the same height as the fully seated Wen Kexing, something he takes full advantage by keeping his arms looped around Lao Wen’s neck.
Zhou Zishu notes all of this with a twinge of—
No, that can’t be it.
“Wen-gongzi, this is…?”
Zhou Zishu keeps the smile on his face—even if it doesn’t feel quite as easy as it was a few minutes ago—as he waits to be introduced, which Wen Kexing wastes no time in doing, “Ah yes, let me introduce you two. A-Xu, this is Mu Yaoran, an old acquaintance of mine. And this—”
“Oh, Wen-gongzi, just Yao-er is fine! I think we’re more than familiar enough with each other to allow it. And you said this is A-Xu, right?”
Mu Yaoran cuts Wen Kexing off before he can continue with the introductions. He turns to level Zhou Zishu with an unreadable stare.
Zhou Zishu feels his previously pleasant smile freeze on his face. Before he’s even aware of what he’s saying—
“Actually, Zhou Xu is my name. Mu-gongzi, there’s no need for such pleasantries.”
—the words are out, much sharper than he’d normally ever allow himself to be with a stranger. From the corner of his eyes, he sees Lao Wen’s eyebrows rising in surprise at the tone but he pays him no mind. “Zhou Xu” may be a fake name he uses when he doesn’t want to give his real one out, but “A-Xu” holds a special place in his heart and there is only one person in this entire world that Zhou Zishu would ever let address him as such. And that person is certainly not this Yao-er person.
The fact that someone else tried to use such an intimate nickname rubs him the wrong way and he feels himself flare up with an emotion he can’t quite put his finger on. To know intuitively which of his buttons to push, Mu Yaoran is no simple person.
The previously unreadable stare turns sharper, contrasting starkly against the natural innocence from Yao-er’s almond-shaped eyes. “Fine, Zhou-gongzi then. You would be Wen-gongzi’s…?”
With his instincts suddenly screaming at him to answer correctly even when he doesn’t even know what the correct answer is, Zhou Zishu takes a moment to mull over his reply before opening his mouth and—
“We are companions.”
Against all expectations, Mu Yaoran visibly relaxes at his answer.
“Oh, so you’re just travelling companions! From the way you were acting, I’d have thought…” he trails off with a mysterious smile.
From his reaction, Zhou Zishu surmises that the man before him must not be very familiar with Jianghu terminology because the second, implied meaning of “cultivation partners” apparently went completely over his head. He’s not sure if he should feel annoyed or glad that the other did not understand his intentions.
On the other hand, Wen Kexing did not miss a single second to this oddly tense exchange. As soon as he hears A-Xu’s answer, his previously raised eyebrows only climb higher and he stares at him openly, not caring that his mouth might also be open from the shock.
Anybody who’d interacted with the pair knows that Wen Kexing is the one in charge of being shameless, the one who’d flaunt their relationship for anyone and everyone to see every chance he gets. While neither of them would ever dare undermine what they have between them, the ease with which the words come out of A-Xu’s mouth nearly rivals Wen Kexing’s own boldness. It’s definitely not something he ever expected out of A-Xu in such a situation.
Still, he isn’t daft. His instincts have been giving him an interesting read on the situation being played out and that answer just solidified his conclusion.
Paying no mind to the petite man now nearly seated in his lap, Wen Kexing flicks open his fan to hide his knowing smile. Only his eyes, two pleased crescents, remain unobstructed as he keeps them trained on A-Xu.
Noticing Lao Wen’s eyes on him, A-Xu is suddenly filled with inexplicable awkwardness, feeling as if he’s being stripped bare. He averts his own eyes, reaching for his tea to take a sip but not tasting anything as his brain is a jumble of incoherent thoughts from the heady gaze aimed straight at him.
Wen Kexing feels a tug on his arm and he leans to the side slightly, eyes never once leaving A-Xu. He completely misses the look of annoyance on Mu Yaoran’s face.
“Since we haven’t seen each other in so long, do you mind if I join you? For old time’s sake.”
“Hmm? Ah yes, we haven’t ordered yet.” Mu Yaoran smiles and is about to suggest something, but Wen Kexing’s faster.
“That reminds me… A-Xu, what do you want to eat?”
“Hmm?” Hearing his name being called, A-Xu collects himself and brings his attention back to Lao Wen, who is still staring at him with that unreadable smile.
“I was asking you what you wanted to eat. I heard this place makes a mean spicy stir-fried vermicelli.”
“That sounds fine. Tell the chef to make it ex—”
“—tra spicy, yes I know. A-Xu, I don’t know how you manage to taste anything under all that chili. Yao-er, you’re fine with that as well right?”
Mu Yaoran was never one to handle spicy food, but he has a niggling feeling that if he brings it up now, he’d be losing his only chance to get closer to Wen-gongzi. So he keeps his mouth shut and only smiles tightly as he nods his assent.
“Perfect, then it’s decided. I’ll go make the order downstairs and see if they have any good liquor to go with the food while I’m at it.”
In a surprising show of strength that Mu Yaoran did not expect, Wen Kexing stands up, nearly throwing him off. He barely catches himself from falling into an ungraceful heap on the floor. Zhou Zishu hides his smile behind his teacup.
Who bruised, Mu Yaoran coughs lightly as he settles down onto the seat next to Wen Kexing’s, which puts him face to face with Zhou Zishu.
In the tense silence that follows, Zhou Zishu takes his time doing a once-over of Mu Yaoran. Petite and delicate in a way that makes people want to protect him; almond-shaped eyes that give him a natural air of innocence, which contrasts greatly against his overall coquettish behaviour; and a fragile countenance that would undoubtedly evoque a desire to possess.
It’s not hard to picture such a beauty at Lao Wen’s side in the past. Somehow, the thought isn’t as easy as Zhou Zishu imagined it would be.
Maybe it’s because this isn’t just a thought—because it’s actually real.
“Well, Wen-gongzi certainly looks even better than the last time I saw him,” Mu Yaoran breaks the silence first with a pointed cough.
Zhou Zishu hums as he pours himself another cup of tea, wishing for something stronger. He wonders distractedly if this man will continue talking if he keeps on ignoring him.
“Truly, a remarkable person. Such a noble presence and yet… I have never seen someone who is as fun as Wen-gongzi. So free, so wild, refusing to be bound down by any rules, any person. That’s what I love about him. Our last meeting was something unforgettable, one that I still remember so clearly to this day.”
Zhou Zishu doesn’t bother replying as he swirls his tea. He always thought that Lao Wen was talkative but he now realizes how wrong he is.
First the Scorpion King, now this Mu Yaoran, why did people like hearing their own voices so much?
“Although... I can’t say I remember much from our last meeting, things were quite hectic as we were”—Mu Yaoran pauses for effect—“otherwise preoccupied.”
The words feel like a bucket of ice cold water being poured over him.
So it’s that kind of relationship.
It’s not that Zhou Zishu isn’t aware of Lao Wen’s past. If anything, he knows and understands that what Lao Wen’s been through doesn’t define him as a person and he would be the last person to hold any of it against him.
Still, maybe he’d been too naive this entire time. He’d always thought that the past was in the past, and it should not dictate how you choose to live from now on. Guess it took coming face to face with said past for Zhou Zishu to realize that he still has a long way to go. He really isn’t as level-headed as he thought.
(Or maybe it’s only when it comes to all things Wen Kexing.)
Feeling almost detached from the situation, he takes a sip of his tea. For a moment, he wonders if his five senses are receding again because he doesn’t taste anything.
Failing to elicit a reaction, Mu Yaoran continues undeterred, “He really does make such a lasting impression. You might not know since you’re just a travel companion but as a lover, Wen-gonzi is—”
A cup slams down, spilling now-cold tea all over the table.
Zhou Zishu reaches for his handkerchief and makes a show of taking his time patting his hands dry. Eventually, he fixes Mu Yaoran with an impassive stare before smiling.
It doesn’t reach his eyes.
“With all due respect, Mu-gongzi, I came here to enjoy the food, not listen to your drivel. If you like listening to your voice that much, I’m sure the circus next door is looking for part-timers.”
Zhou Zishu doesn’t give him the chance to retort as he continues, “Also, I wasn’t planning on wasting my breath on you, but please, don’t embarrass yourself by bringing up any short-lived fling you had with him, not when you’re talking to someone who’s seen and has the real deal.”
Mu Yaoran’s eyes widen in shock as his words sink in. There’s no need to specify who he means by ‘him’.
“I thought you were—!”
“—merely a travel companion, I know. Unfortunately for you, he is mine, just as much as I am his. And I mean that in every sense of the word.”
He watches with a hint of satisfaction as Mu Yaoran soundlessly opens and closes his mouth.
“I believe this conversation is now over. As much as I would like to say this has been a pleasant meeting…” Zhou Zishu smiles humorlessly as he trails off. He straightens his robes before fixing Mu Yaoran down with frosty eyes.
“Having a little sense of shame goes a long way, Mu-gongzi. I hope you can one day understand that.”
Mu Yaoran splutters, indignant.
Zhou Zishu stands up and, not caring that Lao Wen still hasn’t returned, leaves the establishment without turning back.
He is entirely done with this person.
He doesn’t get far before a hand on his arm stops him. He’s about to shake the offending hand off when his brain registers the familiar pressure on his wrist.
There’s only a single person in this world whose touch Zhou Zishu is this familiar with.
He can feel Wen Kexing’s burning gaze on him but he can’t quite bring himself to meet it. A gentle but insistent tug on his arm wordlessly urges him to turn around but he refuses to budge.
“I’m going back,” he quickly interjects. He’s not sure he wants to know what Lao Wen has to say. “I’m feeling a bit tired at the moment, I’ll see you back at the inn.”
Now that the initial adrenaline has worn off, Zhou Zishu suddenly finds the whole situation so absurd, it leaves him speechless. He still isn’t sure how he ended up being forced into it and as much as he would have loved to say that he can brush the whole thing off, he hates how affected he actually is.
This frustration, which he hadn’t even been aware of till Wen Kexing appeared in front of him, decides to manifest itself as a lump in his throat that he has a hard time swallowing around. What’s worse, he can feel the familiar prickling behind his eyes. He holds his breath, cursing and hoping it’ll make the feeling go away.
Zhou Zishu tries to remove his arm, but the hold is stronger than he expects. Unable to do anything or go anywhere, he’s forced to stay put.
Neither of them say anything.
Finally, Wen Kexing takes a few steps to stand directly in front of him. Zhou Zishu, still refusing to look at him, stares resolutely at the ground.
“Wait for me. I’ll take care of everything.”
Hearing the words, the lump lodged in his throat gets a bit smaller and Zhou Zishu finds himself breathing a bit easier.
After a few seconds, he finally mutters, “You brat. Who asked you to take care of anything? You took so long ordering that I already took care of it on my own.”
Still refusing to look up, Zhou Zishu brings a hand up to lightly punch Wen Kexing’s shoulder. Before he can pull back, Wen Kexing grabs his wrist and doesn’t let go.
Wen Kexing exhales softly.
He smiles, bringing the wrist up to his lips and Zhou Zishu can feel the smile on his skin.
Kissing the inner wrist softly, Wen Kexing suddenly bites down, being mindful to not actually break through the skin. He sees A-Xu’s entire body tense at the unexpected pain and he squeezes the hand tightly in comfort.
He takes a few seconds to admire his handiwork before proudly showing off the mark he left behind.
“See this? I’ll be back before it’s gone. So wait for me, okay?”
A beat of silence later, Zhou Zishu nods. Wen Kexing lets go of his wrist and quickly cups A-Xu’s face to plant a soft kiss on his forehead before heading back into the restaurant.
Wen Kexing makes his way upstairs, deep in thought.
One of his past flings. Someone from that time of his life. A period of time he didn’t like dwelling on, but would creep up on him every so often.
The only reason Wen Kexing remembers him out of his countless conquests is because of his looks. He really wouldn’t have paid any attention to him otherwise because back in the days, Wen Kexing didn’t care about anything other than looks either. He’s not even sure he knows what kind of person Mu Yaoran is, although from how things are going right now, he thinks that he can’t be too good of a person.
As soon as Mu Yaoran spots him coming up the stairs, he stands up from his seat excitedly.
“Wen-gongzi! Zhou-gongzi said he wasn’t feeling well, so he left earlier. He told us to enjoy the meal instead.”
Wen Kexing almost scoffs at the blatant lie, mouth curving up in a cold smile.
“Did he now.”
“Mhmm, so let’s sit!” Mu Yaoran tries to drag him towards the table but Wen Kexing doesn’t budge.
Unwilling to touch the man directly, he takes his fan out and uses it to force the man’s hands off of him.
“Mu Yaoran, this Venerable One thinks you are mistaken about something—just because I’ve been tolerant of you up until now doesn’t mean that there is anything between us. Never have, never will, and the sooner you realize that, the better off you will be.”
One thing about Mu Yaoran is that he’s always been quick to catch on to things so it only takes him a few seconds to understand what Wen Kexing is talking about.
“But Wen-gongzi, we do! Did you forget everything we had together? I don’t believe you would forget me so easily. You clearly remember me, I’m Yao-er, remember?”
Wen Kexing looks down at the desperate man clinging onto him, feeling nothing but disgust course through him. He’s almost tempted to throw him off and it’s only by thinking of A-Xu’s steady countenance that he manages to hold himself back.
“This Venerable One is not the same person you think you know. Nothing from my past means anything to me and I would gladly erase everything that reminds me of it. I would advise you to do the same.”
“Of course, if you keep insisting on bringing it up, this Venerable One will have no other choice but to act accordingly. Do not doubt me when I say that I would gladly erase everything.” The smile melts off his face as he pins the man down with a frosty glare. “Do not blame me for not being courteous then.”
Feeling the temperature drop by ten degrees, Mu Yaoran takes an unconscious step backwards. The air around Wen Kexing feels suffocating, any longer and he might get crushed under the pressure.
The person in front of him truly has nothing to do with the easygoing, playboy young master that he thought he knew, someone who only looked to have a good time and was open to any kind of debauchery.
This man is a man that has something, or someone, he is fully devoted to.
“Perfect, I see that you understand my words. Well then, I have someone waiting for me, so I will take my leave now. It was nice seeing you, Yao-er.”
Instead of feeling happy at his name being called so sweetly, Mu Yaoran is instead filled with body-numbing fear. He quickly backs away and in his haste, doesn’t notice the slightly raised floorboard, which he trips over.
Wen Kexing barely spares him a glance before flicking his fan open and leaving without turning back.
Seeing Wen Kexing come out of the restaurant with an excited wave, Zhou Zishu doesn’t bother waiting for him to catch up before turning around and walking in the direction of their inn.
“A-Xu!” he hears Wen Kexing call after him once he’s close enough to be heard.
Suddenly feeling bold, Wen Kexing decides to ask the burning question that’s been running in his mind ever since Mu Yaoran appeared.
“Were you actually… feeling jealous?”
Zhou Zishu almost trips.
Of all the things to come out of his mouth—!
He catches himself just in time and continues walking as if nothing happened; however, his pace is noticeably faster, almost as if he’s trying to outrun this line of questioning.
From behind him, Wen Kexing has an unobstructed view of Zhou Zishu’s reddening ears, all thanks to the high ponytail he decided to wear that day.
Seeing how cute the other is being fills Wen Kexing with so much fondness and adoration that he feels like it’s threatening to overflow and consume him.
For the first time in a long time, he thinks that he’s overwhelmingly fortunate.
Noticing the distance between them increase, Wen Kexing hurries his own steps to catch up.
“A-Xu, wait for me!”
Truly, how fortunate.
How fortunate he is to have someone who loves him so dearly.
Someone who, usually so unflappable, is willing to get jealous over him.
Someone who cares about him, wants him, loves him as much as he does.
Possessiveness really does go both ways.
And, he thinks happily, so does love.