Wen Kexing was quite certain he had found a new favorite activity. That Zhou Xu responded to his most sincere, heartfelt offers like an offended cat—striding away with fur ruffled and tail raised—did nothing to either dampen his enjoyment or deter future similar behavior. Quite the opposite.
"Ah-Xu, wait for me," he sang, loud enough to turn heads. The narrow street was lined by tightly packed, colorful food stalls. Zhou Xu stalking away, parting the current of bodies like a dolphin gliding up the Yangtze's waters, was enough to earn a few surprised gasps. "Don't be offended, I only said we should—mmph—"
For a self-proclaimed nobody, who may or may not be a haunting from Wen Kexing's past, Zhou Xu moved fast, with clean, familiar footwork. One rough palm clamped against his mouth. "Is there an end to this?"
Wen Kexing started to pry Zhou Xu's hand off, until the hungrier part of his brain caught up and hissed not to waste this golden opportunity. He pinned Zhou Xu's hand against his mouth instead, while he struggled with conflicting needs: freeing his lips to tease, or nuzzling closer. Soft skin, hard callouses, running cooler than he expected. Truly, an embarrassment of riches, and if he did not choose one, he would lose both.
As a compromise, he said, with the greatest possible movement of his lips against those enticingly rough callouses, "Mmmmmmmmmmmm."
Unexpectedly, Zhou Xu did not recoil like he had picked up a steaming-hot pot. As though he had all the time in the world, he pulled Wen Kexing off his with his free hand, removed his fingers from Wen Kexing's lips, and, without once breaking eye contact, leaned close enough his breath grazed Wen Kexing's cheek.
"Wen-gonzi should not make promises he cannot keep." He raked his eyes down Wen Kexing's face. "I will be no barer than you are."
Wen Kexing shuddered. It was only partly embellishment. With far more skill than any beggar could claim, Zhou Xu was halfway down the street before Wen Kexing recovered enough to give chase.
"Where are you going?" he asked, once they were shoulder to shoulder again. The crowd had thinned from water to mist, leaving the commerce sector. His heart still thudded against his ribs.
In one long, light step, like a falcon taking flight, Zhou Xu stepped from the ground onto a nearby tiled roof, where the sun beat down unimpeded, harsh enough to crack stone and bleach bones.
"To cool down," he said. With comically exaggerated clumsiness, he sprawled backwards, arms and legs spread. Too little, too late. Zhou Xu made attention slide off him, oil-slick, but ghosts saw what humans could not. Even in his clumsiness, each descent was controlled. The sun blazed behind his head, rimming him with light.
"If you wish to replenish your yang," Wen Kexing said, curving his fan over his lips, "there are faster ways."
Disappointingly, Zhou Xu kept his eyes closed, head tipped back to the sun. "And yet, they are so much less enjoyable."
Wen Kexing laughed, delighted. He leaped up to recline by Zhou Xu's side, and stretched to work the crick from his neck. Their sleeves overlapped, bold green over faded blue. Zhou Xu did not even twitch, merely tucking his limbs closer like a prim maiden drawing back from her overeager suitor, until he was in the compact position Wen Kexing had grown used to. As though prepared for the eventuality that Wen Kexing would join him. The corner of Zhou Xu's mouth curved, and Wen Kexing thought, Ah.
Something feral, something real claws at his ribs. In an astounding feat of restraint that would astonish foolish little ghosts, Wen Kexing trapped it behind his smile. "Perhaps you simply haven't found the right technique, or the right partner."
"If there's a suitable partner, they have never shown it," said Zhou Xu, blandly. "And I have no interesting in searching."
"Maybe you don't have to." Wen Kexing flapped his fan at the sweat beading his brow. After a moment of consideration, he turned his fan to Zhou Xu, whipping up a gentle breeze. Zhou Xu's disguise was so lifelike, sweat gleamed against the line of his hair; as hot and bothered as Wen Kexing felt, the heat must be even worse for him, under a mask that clung to his skin. "Perhaps you are a frog in a well, declaring the sky small and unremarkable. Perhaps your fated partner will search for you and arrive at your doorstep, instead."
He sensed Zhou Xu's gaze burn his neck, as searing as the sunlight. His finger touched the edge of Wen Kexing's fan, stilling it mid-flutter. "Only a poor soul paying off a past debt would be saddled with such a fate. Who wants that? I'm a wanderer, minding my own business. Creditors are too much danger for me."
As he spoke, Zhou Xu ran his finger across the wicked sharp metal trim, so abstract and unthinking it was almost sensual. Satisfaction purred in Wen Kexing's chest, something sparking to life as their eyes met. It was very clear who Zhou Xu, who might or might not be Zhou Zishu, referred to by danger; he had made no secret of those suspicions.
Still, such thoughts were unbecoming of a noon so brightly lit, a ghost would melt under it like the predawn mist at sunrise. Wen Kexing snapped his fan shut, tucked it in his sleeve, and stretched out supine—properly this time. Sunlight beat against his closed eyelids, and he tilted his head back. He wanted to arch like a cat in the sun, high on a mountaintop where it could not be caught to be skinned alive. He tugged his collar just enough to let air whisper at his throat, but not so much there would be even the slightest disarray.
"Such dark thoughts. I shudder." He let his limbs flop again, warm enough to be artless and relaxed. It was safe enough here for this much. "What danger is there in enjoying a moment in the sun?"
In the corner of his eye, Zhou Xu still watched in a way too casual to be real. He had not looked away since he first turned to Wen Kexing. That fine jaw was designed to tempt a lover's touch, real or not. It was fortunate Wen Kexing felt too lazy to indulge the itch in his fingers.
"What danger, indeed?" Zhou Xu murmured, with rich irony, as they fell into companionable silence. But he didn't move, to seek safety from the glare of the sun.
2. Hiding in wait
Zhou Zishu hid on rooftops like someone with a great deal of practice. Wen Kexing sympathized. He also had much experience in this, for what were probably equally murderous reasons. There was an art to drawing into the shadows, to breaking a body's outline into unfamiliar shapes that moved discordantly within the light and dark, so that it hardly registered as human. He was good. Wen Kexing wouldn't have noticed Zhou Xu, if his every sense were not tuned always towards Ah-Xu, like a flake of iron drawn to lodestone.
"If Zhang Chengling could see your devotion, he would properly obey his shifu," he said softly, as Zhou Zishu stiffened and relaxed in the space of a single heartbeat. "How many tonight, do you think? It's been five nights since the last spies. Will they all come at once, all five?"
"You sound excited," said Zhou Zishu, very dry.
"This gentle scholar has little opportunity for adventure," Wen Kexing said, with a flap of his fan, hiding the white flutter in the angle of their bodies. This, too, was a skill. He saw Zhou Zishu's flicker of interest, and, smiling broadly, stepped closer so their shadows merged at the shoulders. "If an opportunity has arisen, with such beauty for company, where else would I be?"
Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes. Not in the mood for teasing, Wen Kexing surmised. "Will the scholar indulge the beauty and actually help?"
"But I'm not his shifu," said Wen Kexing, delighted at being proven wrong.
"With the advice you give, that's a good thing," muttered Zhou Zishu, voice low, to keep from carrying as sounds did during cool, quiet nights like this.
The night was cloudless, moonless, speckled with a scatter of stars so frosty and dim they barely supported shadows. In the streets beneath, soft lantern-light slanted out of the cracks where shutters closed unevenly and doors awry. There was too much life to be silent, but it was an approximation of home—or the place he alternately hated and longed for, like a prisoner for the familiar dangers of his own dungeon.
Even under the dimmest of lights, Zhou Zishu's true appearance was breathtaking. The arch of his brow, the wide soft lips, the dimple when he smiled, the curve of his shoulder beneath Wen Kexing's mouth. Wen Kexing dreamed of them when his eyes shut, as vivid against the back of his eyelids as reality. These days, Ghost Valley felt less and less familiar, but it was not the valley that had changed.
A boot scuffed on a nearby rooftop. Together, Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing melted into the darkness cast by the inn's painted wooden statues, jammed together shoulder to hip.
"Six," murmured Zhou Zishu, against his neck. "You lose. Now get going. I'm getting cold."
"What will you give me?" he asked.
Zhou Zishu poked just above his cheekbone. "An earlier night's sleep."
"Ah-Xu really knows how to take pleasure without paying," Wen Kexing complained. He dodged Zhou Zishu's half-hearted shove, flicked open his fan, and after a moment of internal debate where he considered the relative merit of killing them all compared to leaving one alive, flung out in a graceful arc.
His fan sliced cleanly through three men's carotids in a row, before any would-be spy-assassin had time to react. The fourth lurched aside, but Wen Kexing had predicted the direction from the angle of the roof, and the twist he had thrown as he released his fan meant it followed, embedding into the back of his neck and liquefying the brainstem. He dropped like a brick.
The last two men were crouched too low for the arc of the fan. They drew out daggers, backing slowly away towards the edge of the roof. Smart enough to understand they would have no chance in a fair fight, which a bare rooftop, with no hidden crevices, would mean; but too slow following their instincts, which meant that by the time they were close enough to jump, Wen Kexing had bent to retrieve his fan.
One of them charged forward while he was stooped; not so smart, then. Wen Kexing turned aside his blows with easy flicks of his fan. The other man had dropped over the side of the roof, and Wen Kexing shuddered in annoyance at the thought of giving chase, but heaven had smiled on him tonight. Even as Wen Kexing dispatched his opponent with the assassin's own dagger through his eye, the final man reappeared at his back, a long spear from who-knows-where thrusting forward. As though an advantage in a weapon's reach could possibly overcome the disadvantage of the weapon's wielder.
Wen Kexing caught the spear between the blades of his fan, guided it over his shoulder, and grabbed the rough shaft. His opponent's eyes widened, whites stark. He was about to pull his fan off and demonstrate the basic principle of projectile weapons having the longest reach of all, when Zhou Zishu finally appeared out of the shadow, knocking the man unconscious with an unceremonious palm at his neck.
Wen Kexing drew his arm back to flutter his fan against his breast. There was only the tiniest hint of crimson staining its edge. "I'm sorry, Ah-Xu. I didn't mean to take so long. Five blows exchanged is four too many, for men of this caliber."
Zhou Zishu's gazes fixed on his fan, before flicking up to meet Wen Kexing's own. His eyes were very dark, drawing a white-hot line down Wen Kexing's body, then slowly journeying back up. Without conscious thought, Wen Kexing's fan slowed, breath catching. He hadn't broken a sweat for those men, but now the night pressed thick and hot against his skin.
"At least you've left one alive," said Zhou Zishu, after the long, heated moment had stretched until Wen Kexing was light-headed with it. "Better to know who else is chasing Chengling before we deliver him back."
Curious, Wen Kexing joined Zhou Zishu's side. They both stared down at the man, who was dressed in solid black, with unremarkable daggers, and a face as plain as dough. "Does it matter where they're from? They fall so easily all the same."
"Until they don't, and we're forced to face a more dangerous unknown." Ah. Exquisite, deadly Ah-Xu, who moved like a killer, but wore flesh masks with ease. No doubt his Window of Heaven duties also encompassed more subtle arts. Wen Kexing was more suited to killing than interrogation, though Ghost Valley had made him very suited to all manner of it. He only knew how to use fear and pain. Successful interrogators had tricks other than those, ways to win loyalty and loosen tongues. Zhou Zishu jutted out his chin. "He'll talk."
Poets did say that a partner should complement one's deficiencies, to make a balanced whole.
Stepping over the rest of the bodies—which rolled easily off the roof to thump like graceless, heavy sacks on the ground—Wen Kexing dragged the final body over his shoulder, and they made for quieter ground.
3. Philosophical disagreements
"This isn't as fun as fighting on a boat," said Wen Kexing, deflecting a palm off his wrist. A tile slid under his feet, shattering on the ground beneath.
"You talk a lot of nonsense," said Zhou Zishu, who was clearly smiling deep down, "for someone too poor to pay for your own food. Give me back my money." Maybe very deep down. "The boat was fine. Plum trees are better."
What outrage. What insult.
A voice floated over the edge of the roof. "What are they fighting about?"
"Fighting," said Gu Xiang. It didn't even sound like exasperation.
He caught Gu Xiang jerking Chengling aside to avoid two more dislodged tiles, and promptly forgot again as Zhou Zishu's fist brushed like a windy kiss by his cheek.
4. Watching the moon with a drink in hand
Wen Kexing leaned back to watch the sky darken. The best part of summer was the late dusk, which left the sky painted violet fading into dull navy blue, a soft backdrop for the rising moon before it reached its zenith. This was its own kind of beauty, before the moon became so exquisitely bright against a pitch black sky, that it reminded him of the same moon rising over his ancestors' home; that left him, when he looks away, with bitter memories.
He had not considered Immortal Healer Valley home for decades. It had proven no such thing for his parents, and if he were to return, there would be the same moon, and mountain, and little else remaining.
"Are you getting an early start, Lao-Wen?" Zhou Zishu's robes whispered as he landed. As if to belay his words, he already had a gourd of liqueur in hand, still capped.
Wen Kexing shook his own gourd to show the muffled splash of a container nearly full. "I was waiting for you."
Zhou Zishu sat with his robes neat, his limbs held close, so well put together even when relaxed—up until he opened his mouth with some dismissive, cutting comment or arch teasing, of course. Both versions made Wen Kexing imagine drawing his fingers through the long, thick strands of hair until they were helplessly mussed, and doing the same to his clothing until there was pleading for mercy. He was not sure who would do the begging. Maybe they could take turns.
"Well, I'm here," said Zhou Zishu, simply, better than any fantasy.
Wen Kexing did what came naturally to him, which was to sprawl closer. Their arms pressed together, sleeves scrunched and wrinkled.
The moon continued its climb. When the dusk properly faded into night, and the moon brushed every tile edge with frost, thoughts suitable for a peaceful night did, indeed, come. If he looked up, he saw the moon hanging bright, painting the gray cloud tops white. If he looked away, then what greeted him was home, with straight limbs, shapely shoulder blades, and keen eyes that were firmly fixed upward, as though purposely denying Wen Kexing their attention.
Zhou Zishu was the one to break their quiet stalemate. "Is it a nice sight?"
"The most beautiful on earth." Wen Kexing took a sip of liqueur. "Maybe even in heaven."
Zhou Zishu huffed out a laugh. "You speak with such authority. Have you wandered the corners of the earth and seen so very much?"
Wen Kexing offered his gourd, humor warming his throat. "Enough to know that I'm right."
When Zhou Zishu laughed like this, Wen Kexing could not help but do the same, like the moon following the sun, like he was a burnished silver mirror reflecting not just the parts of himself he wanted seen, but reality in all its cracks and faults.
"Then it's fortunate it can be enjoyed by everyone who lives under the same sky." Zhou Zishu brushed his fingers across the back of Wen Kexing's hand to accept the offered drink. He took a swig, eyes distant. "Nobles wasting their lives on power games, wanderers who own nothing but the clothes on their back. If they look up, they see the same moon, and Chang'e watches back, remembering all she lost when she chose power."
Wen Kexing grinned. "I wouldn't have thought that your preferred version. Leaders who go unchallenged for too long become tyrants." He remembered ghostly necks crunching in his fist. "And, I am told, more than a little mad."
"And you think she made a sacrifice?" Zhou Zishu raised a brow, finally focusing on him.
"Selfish actions, unforeseen consequences." Wen Kexing flipped open his fan. "Chang'e stole the pill of immortality to become a god, not because she sacrificed herself to save the people from a mad king. But in the process, she did stop Houyi from becoming an immortal tyrant. Both can be true."
Zhou Zishu looked down at his drink. "Maybe some ruthless, selfish men can still bring peace as good leaders."
"I've yet to see that in Jianghu," Wen Kexing said. Nor, from what he had heard, in the prince Zhou Zishu had supported to the throne, but he did not say so. His fan started a gentle breeze, shaking metaphors off his shoulders. "Ah-Xu, imagine living forever without a soulmate by your side. Would you miss me?"
"It's not something I worry about," said Zhou Zishu, an odd note in his voice. Wen Kexing wanted to dig through this disguise too, until Zhou Zishu's secrets slid over his skin; he had always been a hypocrite. Suddenly, Zhou Zishu smirked. "As if I could pry you off."
"You could not bear to," said Wen Kexing, deciding to let it go for the moment. He rested his head against Zhou Zishu's shoulder.
"I might," said Zhou Zishu, moving so the edges of their hand brushed. "If it would let me enjoy the moon in silence."
Zhou Zishu might manage once it became clear who Wen Kexing actually was. He must suspect, to some degree; Wen Kexing was not as good at making himself seem harmless as Zhou Zishu was. When that happened, he could take comfort that even if he stood at the Pearl River Delta and Ah-Xu on the Northern Steppes, they would watch the same moon rise and set, under the same shared sky.
"What kind of master martial artist rolls off a roof when he's not even fighting?" Wen Kexing complained.
"We wouldn't have fallen," said Zhou Zishu, "if we were fighting." He rubbed the bite mark at his lip.
Unfairly, he was not even breathing hard. Wen Kexing had felt the air leave his lungs even before a particularly spirited scuffle, Wen Kexing trying to roll on top, sent them both off the edge of the roof. He struggled now, panting, to focus on anything except that strong, graceful finger lingering exactly where Wen Kexing wished to be.
It was possible that lack of air had impaired his co-ordination, when they had kissed like it was sensual battle.
Zhou Zishu sucked in the drop of blood. Every nerve in Wen Kexing's body lit up.
He slammed Zhou Zishu back against the building's brick wall with both hands on his shoulders, licking at the enticing blood until there was copper on his tongue. That was his mark on Ah-Xu, and his tongue pushing into the hot cavern of Ah-Xu's mouth, which still tasted like sweet wine. Zhou Zishu fisted his hair, jerking his head sideways for a better angle. He moaned, knees threatening to give way, and Zhou Zishu seemed to inhale that, inhale him, in a long, shaky breath.
It was entirely unfair. He clawed at Zhou Zishu's arm, planted his feet firmly onto the packed dirt ground, and pressed close until their chests and groins plastered together. His clothing felt like rough wool, leaving him oversensitive, overheated. He pulled away just enough to gasp, to feel Zhou Zishu's breath on his lips, but kept their foreheads touching. How had he ignored this monstrous, gnawing want, that tried to open its jaws to devour every part of Zhou Zishu on offer?
Then his eyes uncrossed, and he understood. Zhou Zishu's eyes were fever bright, and a flush had risen to his cheek. His skin was as smooth as porcelain, as soft as silk. Wen Kexing had scratched it, but he wanted to caress just as much.
"Ah-Xu," he whispered, chest tight like a weaving pulled taut. Too overwhelmed to say anything else, he drew his knuckle down the line of Zhou Zishu's perfect cheekbones, the crease at the corner of his bruised mouth. He ran his tongue over the seam between those lips.
This, of all things, made Zhou Zishu whimper. He had to work a hand behind Zhou Zishu's waist to keep him standing; they fit like two puzzle pieces interlocking. Their kiss was softer, a gentle mutual exploration, rather than an exchange of blows.
Zhou Zishu's hand ran up his chest, to feather across his neck, and cup his cheek. Maybe it was foolish to thrill at an assassin holding his throat, but Wen Kexing's judgment had been impaired whenever Zhou Zishu was involved, with or without air. That the hand only stroked, petted, flayed him open and stitched up the wounds, all at once.
The world resolved from sunburn-bright madness into quiet, where every detail seemed sharply etched. Their fingers entwined.
He heard the hollow rolling just as Zhou Zishu jerked them aside.
Their wine gourd, which had quietly, belatedly, been following them down the roof, smashed by his feet.
"Maybe we should take this inside," said Zhou Zishu. He spared one hand to slap at Wen Kexing's sleeve, which had spattered with wine. "Hey. Let go."
In an astounding feat of self-mastery, Wen Kexing took a step back. He kept their fingers laced together, laughter bubbling in his chest. The taut, tight thread had dissolved like spun sugar on his tongue.
"All right," said Wen Kexing. "Lets see if being under the roof is as fun as being on top."