Reincarnation has several rules.
- It happens for everyone, but the time frames can vary. Some souls linger for much longer before being reborn; some come back almost immediately. Scholars have argued for centuries over the hows and whys, but they never settle on an answer.
- As per rule #1, soulmates may not come back at the same time. The luckiest ones find each other in their next cycle; the most tragic may never find each other again. Scholars have long since abandoned the topic as hearsay.
- If soulmates do find each other again, they don’t recover any memories of past lives together. Most soulmates experience faint echoes of emotion when they see each other again in their current lives - vague and gentle and just enough to draw them towards that connection - a gentle stream rather than a river. Scholars have never touched this, but most people assume that they feel the last emotions they experienced together in their last life.
Zhou Zishu has never believed in the concept of soulmates, not really. Sure, he’s seen the “heart-warming” videos online of these couples supposedly meeting for the first time in this life, the soft gasps and dramatic embraces. Even if they didn’t seem completely staged - really, what are the chances that so many reincarnated lovers would find each other on camera - he still would be skeptical. The entire idea of reincarnation makes sense to him, but the soul-bond thing? It’s a child’s fairytale at best, and at worst a juvenile idea that’s totally wrecked people’s romantic lives. Well, at least the dating app developers have raked in millions by promising to help people find their true “other half”. It’s all garbage.
This belief lasts thirty years, right up until the moment that Zhou Zishu is taking his morning run through the park near his house.
It happens so fast he doesn’t have time to think, to process. His feet round the corner of the paved trail, nothing but the sound of his rubber soles against the concrete in the morning air, and then he lays eyes on the usually unoccupied bench looking out over the lake. A man around his age sits on it, absorbed in a book while he absent-mindedly drinks a coffee. He’s exceptionally handsome, long limbs stretched out in front of him and hair pulled into a messy bun. But none of that explains the sharp burst of joy that stops Zhou Zishu dead in his tracks.
All at once, he’s overcome with the urge to run over to the stranger and sweep him into a crushing hug. He crouches down with a gasp, desperately hoping he doesn’t draw attention to himself, and tries to catch his breath. It’s wasted effort however - even thought is obliterated to make room for the sunlight that’s threatening to pour from his veins at any moment. Zhou Zishu is vaguely surprised that he’s not literally glowing at this moment; the wild exhilaration in his heart should be a beacon for miles. He should be shouting this feeling at the top of his lungs, he should be telling anyone who’s around that he’s found that person, his soulmate, he should go over and -
Wait, no . Zhou Zishu struggles to regain some sense of reason . He doesn’t believe in soulmates. It’s like astrology - it’s fun to think about but no one can make actual decisions based on it. If he approaches this perfectly respectable-looking man in the park and starts babbling on about them being soulmates, it’ll be mortifying. He’ll have to find a new place for his morning runs. No, he needs to calm down and use his brain. So Zhou Zishu stands, turns, and quite literally runs away, desperately hoping the bench guy didn’t witness his breakdown.
But it’ll be fine. This man has never been at the park at seven am before - what are the odds that he’ll be there the next time Zhou Zishu goes running?
Of course he’s sitting at the same bench the next morning, all soft lines and messy hair. And the next, and the next. Every time Zhou Zishu rounds the corner and catches a glimpse of the tall stranger, the same giddiness explodes in his chest. He forces the feeling down each time. After the third or fourth occurrence, as he flops onto the ground to stare at the man who’s chewing rather distractingly on a coffee stirrer, he’s accepted that there may be something to this entire soulmate concept. But then the anxiety sets in, his gut churning every time he sees the handsome face furrowed in concentration. By the sixth or seventh time, Zhou Zishu has almost managed to convince himself that perhaps it’s one of the park ducks that he’s fated with - that would honestly make more sense than the guy with model-worthy looks that just so happens to have made the park his morning home as well. But finally, even his anxiety can’t stop him anymore. He has to at the very least greet this guy. Then they’ll know instantly if this is really a soul-bond. Besides, he’s getting tired of turning around every time he hits this section of the lake.
So the next day, he resolutely pushes through when he lays eyes on his soulmate. Instead of turning around, he runs directly to the bench but comes to an abrupt stop several yards away. Shit - he never thought of what he was going to say. What do people even open with when they think they’ve found their reincarnated soulmate? He should’ve looked on message boards, on Reddit, something. Maybe watched more of those cringe-worthy TikToks. But - he’s here now, and there’s nothing for it. Zhou Zishu steels himself with a deep breath then faux-casually makes his approach.
The man on the bench doesn’t notice him at first - he has earbuds in and is apparently engrossed in whatever book he’s brought to read today. Zhou Zishu can’t help but draw in a breath when he sees the way his red lips close around the lip of his coffee tumbler. It’s - god, it’s intoxicating and inspires some decidedly un romantic thoughts. But he has to press on. Giving himself a small shake, he reaches out to tap the man on the shoulder.
As his head darts up in surprise, Zhou Zishu prepares himself for several reactions. Joy, recognition, or even confusion are all possibilities that run through his mind. There’s never any promise about how these things will go - there’s an entire reality tv industry built around trying to catch soulmate meetings on camera - but Zhou Zishu finds himself ludicrously hoping. Maybe this time, fate really is on his side.
But nothing prepares him to watch this beautiful man’s face crumble like he’s been punched in the stomach as they lock eyes. There’s one moment where everything is suspended in midair, Zhou Zishu’s mind scrambling to keep up with this new development. Then he lets out one shuddering gasp and begins sobbing like each cry is being dragged from his gullet with a meathook.
Zhou Zishu’s arms wrap around his shoulders without even thinking. The other man shudders against him, huge wracking sobs pouring out of him. Zhou Zishu's hands immediately fly up to cradle his face. Tears spill unchecked over his fingers; he desperately tries to wipe them away but they just keep coming. Together, the two men slide off the bench and sink onto their knees in the grass.
"Hey, hey, it's okay" Zhou Zishu coos as he presses their foreheads together. The other man opens his eyes as he tangles his fingers into Zhou Zishu's shirt. Confusion shines out of red-rimmed eyes.
"I- I don't know why I'm crying I'm so sorry - I'm-" his voice catches in his throat. "I can't stop." He sounds terrified, Zhou Zishu realizes with horror. What could possibly have happened between them in another life to result in this immense grief? “Please, help me -”
Zhou Zishu doesn't hesitate. He pulls his head down to his shoulder as he reassures him, whispering "You're okay, you're okay. I have you." He threads his fingers into his hair as though he's soothing a skittish animal.
Two impossible things happen at once.
First, a pair of warm lips press against his neck, more of a prayer than a kiss.
Then Zhou Zishu is pulled under a wave of memory.
You see, Zhou Zishu died first.
Blood pulsed warm and sluggish over Zhou Zishu's stomach. A few minutes ago it had come in alarming spurts; now the flow had slowed down along with his heartbeat. The cold snow cushioned him where he lay, no longer biting into his skin. The scent of iron hung heavy on the air. He had no idea how much was from himself or from the bodies around him, dark and hooded assassins. Zhou Zishu struggled to hang onto consciousness - Wen Kexing would arrive at any moment, and he had to be awake to say what he needed to…
Then warm hands were on him, steady as the sun. His eyelids fluttered open to see his love hovering above him. Crimson blood stained the front of his robes, but the healthy flush of his face assured Zhou Zishu that it wasn't his. That was good. He reached out with a quickly numbing hand to pluck at a strand of white hair that was now dyed red. He rubbed it idly between his fingers to try and clean it.
Suddenly he realized Wen Kexing was speaking. Funny - he hadn't heard him. Zhou Zishu forced his fading concentration onto the words that spilled out.
"A-Xu, just hold on. I'll get you back, we still have time to fix this-" His voice pitched unevenly, high and strained.
Zhou Zishu laughed. The movement jostled his injury, making him stop with a hiss as he coughed up more blood. An inhumane sound, deep and ragged, ripped out of Wen Kexing. His burning hands scrambled to try and cover the wounds. But there was too much - Zhou Zishu's life continued to pulse away uselessly through his fingers.
Finally he moved his hand to Wen Kexing's face. A muffled sense of alarm surged through him as he realized that he couldn't feel his limbs at all now, but - well. "Lao Wen, I think maybe we don't have time." The trembling under his fingers stopped entirely as Wen Kexing stared at him. "Can you just keep me warm?" he asked.
A mute Wen Kexing laid down obediently. He curved around Zhou Zishu's broken body, his face pressed against his cheek. Stolen warmth spread through his frozen skin. Ah. That was better.
"I finally found what it would take to get you quiet." The joke fell flat.
"A-Xu, I - they wanted me, I think," Wen Kexing choked out. "You - they shouldn't have-"
"Save it," Zhou Zishu murmured. His tongue struggled to form words now, like pushing through thick mud. He needed to get this out. He rolled his head over, bringing them nose to nose. "Promise me, A-Xing. Promise me you'll live. You don't get to do anything foolish."
Wen Kexing opened and shut his mouth a few times. "How-"
"Find a way. Chengling still needs- he still needs you." He needed them both - Wen Kexing needed them both. But that wasn’t an option anymore.
"I- OK. I promise." His voice sounded so very far away now. Zhou Zishu was running out of time to waste.
"I'm sorry I'm leaving,” Zhou Zishu said. Wen Kexing pulled both his frozen hands into his own grip and pressed their foreheads together. "I love you.".
It was the last thing he was able to force out before his voice stopped working. His throat struggled against the blood now clogging his lungs. Their mouths were so close together, almost a kiss. This was all he needed; this was always how he would have preferred to die, his soulmate holding him close. His wounds didn’t even hurt anymore, not really. A smile spread across his cracked lips. He inhaled as Wen Kexing exhaled, sharing his breath for a few more moments. Once, twice, then once again.
Wen Kexing watched the light fade out of Zhou Zishu's eyes.
He didn't know how long he laid in the snow, cradling that precious body against the crimson sheet still pooling below them. The shadow of some flying thing passed over; perhaps the carrion birds would come. They could have the filth scattered around them; he wondered if the vultures would be able to tell him apart from the dead. But Wen Kexing didn't dwell on them for long. He stared at Zhou Zishu, letting his eyes burn and run so that he wouldn't have to lose sight of his soulmate for a second. Time passed without him. The sun went down on the mountain, fiery reds slowly shifting into cooler blues as the last rays of light fell below the horizon.
Nothing stirred around him until morning. As the sun that he couldn’t see anymore crept back into the world, Wen Kexing finally shifted. He willed life into his frozen muscles, standing up on feet that he couldn't feel. Then he lifted Zhou Zishu from the snow, arms beneath his shoulders and knees, and pressed a kiss against his hair.
"We have to go down now, A-Xu. The ground here is too frozen." His own voice was raspy and foreign. It hardly mattered - who did he have to talk to now? Mechanically, he put one foot in front of the other and left their home behind.
Hours later he found himself at the entrance of Chengling's manor, still holding Zhou Zishu to his chest. He thought the sun had set again. A guard recognized them and started to call out a greeting - but he let out a cry as torchlight revealed the dried blood covering them both. Shouts and sounds of running echoed across the courtyard. Wen Kexing heard none of them, but simply sank to his knees. Chengling would help. He could give Zhou Zishu the kind of burial rites he deserved. Give them both-
After all, this was the second time he’d ever lied to Zhou Zishu in their lives. But some promises couldn’t be kept.
A lifetime later, Zhou Zishu found himself drinking the Meng Po soup before he crossed the NaiHe bridge to be reborn. He felt that he'd been here at least once before, that perhaps there was someone to meet him here-
No, that was merely sentimental foolishness. Even as the memories of his long life melted away, he had the good sense to know that he'd run across no one like that while he’d been alive. It was simply time for him to move on.
He approached the bridge, ready to end this journey, but a flash of white caught his attention. It was a man, young but snowy-haired, sitting alone at the foot of the bridge, eyes closed in meditation. His delicate features were tensed, small lines appearing between his brows.
Zhou Zishu couldn't help himself. He called out a greeting, just once. The man's eyes flew open as his head turned wildly. He found Zhou Zishu, and they locked gazes for a moment. Zhou Zishu smiled warmly - the other man looked as though someone had kicked him in the gut. Then he closed his eyes and returned to his meditation.
A passing ghost messenger snorted. Zhou Zishu turned at the sound and waved. "Do you know who that is? That man?"
"Oh, him? He died of a broken heart, not long after his own soulmate." The ghost messenger waved a hand in dismissal. "You should move along though. Don't mind him. He's been here for years, just waiting at the bridge. Who knows why."
Zhou Zishu blinked, then turned his head away. It seemed sad. At least they hadn't been parted for long in that life. He wondered vaguely why anyone would sit like a stone at the side of a river though, especially when they'd had a fated connection like that. Surely they’d want a chance to find their person again.
But it wasn't his business. So he turned, made his way across the bridge and into the next life.
"Wen Kexing." The words tumble out into the long black hair against his lips as Zhou Zishu returns to the living world.
" A-Xu, " Wen Kexing gasps against his neck, his voice filled with wonder. "A-Xu, A-Xu, A-Xu, A-Xu…" he repeats as though he can't believe what he's saying. Zhou Zishu doesn't mind though; it might as well be a symphony to him. He'd devour the man in his arms if he could.
Zhou Zishu pulls back suddenly. Wen Kexing whines at the loss of physical contact, but he just loops his arms back around his neck. "You saw it, right?" he asks.
"I saw," Wen Kexing replies with a nod.
He has to stifle a laugh. "I can't believe we got so unlucky. It's been - god, A-Xing it's been centuries - of course we would be one of those. " He smiles so bright that it almost squeezes his eyes shut. "What could you have possibly done in the rest of that lifetime that made sure we didn't meet over so many more?"
Wen Kexing doesn't meet his eyes. Zhou Zishu remembers the expression fondly, how he would avoid looking at him directly any time he felt vaguely ashamed, regardless if it was warranted. It makes him want to reach out and grab his chin, tease him just to see that bullied look that makes his heartbeat skip. But despite the fact that this is the most familiar face he's ever known, it's also in an equally real way brand-new to him.
There's also the matter of the dozen or so lifetimes buzzing at the back of his skull. No real memories resurface beyond what they've just seen, not yet, but vague impressions jostle for attention. Zhou Zishu is sure he should be somewhat alarmed. He's never heard of anyone regaining actual memories like this, or being made aware of multiple past lives at all. But the abnormality pales in comparison to the joy of his arms wrapped around Wen Kexing.
“I’m kidding, you know,” he continues in exasperation when Wen Kexing doesn’t speak. He’s never experienced him this at a loss for words before; it feels like their usual roles are reversed. “But does it feel like you have bees in your head? All these previous lives are suddenly… crowding around the edges. I didn’t know they could do that, did you?”
“A-Xu, I-” Wen Kexing trails off as he struggles to look at him directly, his gaze sliding away like water on oil. The avoidance finally cuts through Zhou Zishu’s exhilaration, and he takes a proper look at the other man. Tears still threaten to spill at any moment, but they no longer seem like joy or even residual grief. Everything pulls together in his mind as he realizes… “Wait, are you actually feeling guilty about something right now? A-Xing, you know I was joking about you messing us up. Reincarnation isn’t an exact science-”
“I waited.” The words practically rip out of Wen Kexing. “By the bridge. I just. Waited.”
Zhou Zishu doesn’t understand. “As in… that bridge? What do you mean? … how long ?”
Wen Kexing’s face freezes. He still won’t look directly at him, his lips parted and trembling. “I - I don’t know. I lost track after the first - century…” He flinches at the punched out gasp that escapes from Zhou Zishu.
It takes a second for Zhou Zishu to process what he’s actually just heard. In the last several minutes he’s found his soulmate, felt lifetimes of emotions, and re-lived his own death. But this is what leaves him reeling. If they truly never met again before now because of this... “So - that’s ten, twelve lifetimes… for the love of god, Wen Kexing, why would you leave me alone for that long?”
The whispered response would make his knees give out if he wasn’t already on the ground. “I thought you’d be better off,” Wen Kexing tells him with shaking hands. “I thought - I wanted you to be happy this time. Every time. I ruined it all the last time. I just… wanted you to live this time.”
Zhou Zishu thinks he might scream.
“I saw you pass me by - so many times - you seemed content,” Wen Kexing continues, his voice fragile and breathy. It sounds like every word hurts him. “It was enough for me. You had full lives. You never came through as young as you were when-”
“That wasn’t your choice to make!” His own voice surprises him, the harshness of it. Wen Kexing flinches again even though his fingers remain entangled in the other’s shirt. Zhou Zishu steadies himself for a moment before continuing, “I thought - I thought we talked about you making decisions without me.” It’s only half a joke.
Zhou Zishu sorts through everything in his head, looking for his most recent cycle. There’s so much just sitting beyond the edge of what he can grasp. But after a few minutes, he manages to remember. He remembers drinking the Meng Po soup. Remembers the regrets and discontent of his last life dropping away. Remembers that he was about to take his first steps across the bridge when his eyes caught on a beautiful young man sitting at its base. A man who was achingly familiar, like he’d seen him so many times before. The man’s - Wen Kexing’s - eyes had blown wide as he’d reached down to take his hand, hardly knowing what he was doing, led him along like a child, made sure they’d crossed together. The large, cold hand in his had trembled the entire way, until they’d reached the other side and everything faded away.
All his exasperation drains out of him at once. It doesn't matter. Wen Kexing is here, his sun-warm skin pressed against his arms, the smell of his coffee on his breath between them. Time brought them together again. The sun is in the sky, the grass is soft on his legs, and they're together. Everything else is confetti.
A smile breaks out on Zhou Zishu's face, gentle and warm. It's clearly not the reaction Wen Kexing expects; he finally releases the fabric and drops his hands to Zhou Zishu's waist.
"You're not angry?"
"A-Xing, you're here ." He can't stop grinning.
Wen Kexing sort of blinks at him. "And... just so we're on the same page - that's a good thing?"
"It's the only thing,” he assures fervently. “God I missed you.”
Wen Kexing laughs then. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t give you the chance to ever miss me before,” he says ruefully. But grief and regret are finally giving way to the reality of the moment. He studies every inch of Zhou Zishu, from his terrible basketball shorts to the curve of his cheeks. The last time he’d seen him in life, he’d been a thing of marble and snow. But now - he’s so vibrantly alive. They both are, Wen Kexing muses, in more ways than one. He moves his hands further down towards Zhou Zishu's hips, a far too familiar look in his eyes.
Zhou Zishu fights with his own sense of propriety. They are in a public park. "People are staring," he mutters, entirely unbothered by whether that's true or not.
"Zhou Zishu, it's 7:15 am. There are no people here,” Wen Kexing points out rather logically.
"The ducks, then," he protests again.
Wen Kexing quirks an eyebrow. "Then let's give our aquatic friends something interesting to look at."
Zhou Zishu opens his mouth to say something about animal rights, but warm lips press against his, cutting him off. And god it’s good. He kisses back with all the longing that’s suddenly made its home in his heart. They quickly fall into habits from a past life, relearning this ancient dance between them. Wen Kexing raised off his knees just enough to take advantage of his height to loom - he's always been an excellent loomer, Zhou Zishu notes with fond irritation. But he still allows himself to be pushed back into the grass, ducks be damned. Wen Kexing tips his chin back with one large hand as he searches for a better angle to taste Zhou Zishu.
As he helplessly begins to grind against Zhou Zishu's leg, drawing moans out of his soulmate, other kinds of memories begin cropping up. Wen Kexing shudders to a halt. His fingers that are still under Zhou Zishu's shirt squeeze , pressing into the soft skin of his waist. Zhou Zishu valiantly resists the urge to bite at his exposed throat. Neither of them have to be mind readers to realize where this is quickly heading.
Zhou Zishu is the first one of them to pull back. "Do you want to get out of here?" he asks once he’s managed to get more than an inch of space between them. Wen Kexing's open gaze widens, his eyebrows pinching together in disbelief.
"Who's shameless now?" he teases in delight, throwing Zhou Zishu's favorite insult back at him.
"I haven't had you in seven hundred years," he snaps back.
Wen Kexing can't stop smiling. "Well in that case, let's go back to my place. Now. "
They scramble up from the ground, more hindrance to each other than help as they fall over each other. Zhou Zishu basks in the simple delight of having his hands on Wen Kexing again. But finally they’re almost sorted. Wen Kexing picks up his spill coffee tumbler as Zhou Zishu plucks his abandoned book from the bench. He can’t wait to pick his brain about what kind of literature he loves in this life; there’s just slightly more pressing matters at hand.
On that subject - "I really hope you don't have any roommates who are home,” he blurts out as Wen Kexing leads him to his car. “Their first impression of me would be regrettable.”
Zhou Zishu almost runs into Wen Kexing when he freezes in the middle of the sidewalk. His - husband? boyfriend? Yet another conversation to have - his soulmate curses below his breath and turns with a wild look, grabbing his shoulders.
"A-Xu, she's there, she's here ." He cuts off, almost gasping. Zhou Zishu doesn't understand until Wen Kexing catches his breath to continue. " Gu Xiang . We found each other again, without even knowing who the other one was."
Happiness bubbles out from under Zhou Zishu’s skin like champagne. "A-xing, she… oh my god." Their little purple girl came home.
Wen Kexing starts going a mile a minute. "Oh there's so much, A-Xu. I have so much to tell you and share with you - we have CATS - she still found that idiot boy and god they're so happy -"
Zhou Zishu cuts him off with a kiss. "We have time. We have so much time."
And for once, they do.