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the aftertaste of warmth

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Not too long after his release from hospital, Zhou Zishu finds that he’s regained a particular shadow he was under the assumption he’d lost quite some time (okay, two hours) back. He'd also harboured a fat hope that it would respect his period of convalescence and perhaps wait a little longer (so, ten minutes) before annoying him again, but.

He cracks open the window and winces; he’s still on the mend, and this one’s constantly stuck, and requires more bodily effort.

The cool breeze and fresh air’s a welcome alternative to the stale musk of the apartment. Zishu takes a steadying breath, then sticks his head out.

“You couldn’t have picked a different window,” he asks, as casually as if he’s discussing the weather with an old uncle at the nearby park.

“You don’t have any other windows,” Wen Kexing says, from where he’s balanced on an air-conditioning unit and clinging to the window frame. “Hello, Ah-Xu. You’re looking as beautiful as ever.”

Zishu’s just seen himself in the mirror. He’s as far from beautiful as his potbellied, chain-smoking, striped boxers-wearing landlord is from winning the local beauty pageant, never mind Miss Universe China.

“You know what’s beautiful?” Zishu reaches for the pack of cigarettes by the window. It’s a leftover from three months ago, when he hadn’t anticipated how long he’d be gone for. They’ve definitely gone stale by now. “The scenery here, before you came along to disturb it.”

The scenery in question is debatable; the window affords Zishu a full view of the street and the setting sun, along with everyone’s laundry, hanging on poles. Any normal person would probably deem Wen Kexing’s visage an improvement, but then again, they haven’t had the misfortune of having to conduct their ideal retiree life with him attached to their back like an insistent, lecherous leech.

He holds the cigarette pack in a hand, giving it a few hard taps against the flat of his other palm before putting one in his mouth. He looks on as Wen Kexing fumbles in his pants to produce a lighter, and reaches up to light it for Zishu.

He takes an inhale. It’s shit; but then again, it’s a pack he’d bought himself, not the good stuff Wen Kexing keeps insisting on throwing his way every time he “runs” into him on “accident” during their not-so-brief acquaintance.

He takes another inhale. It’s still disappointingly bad, and also has the audacity to burn a good deal faster than the good stuff; a fair portion of it’s already grey ash. He extends the hand holding it out of the window, tapping it with a finger. Some ash falls on Wen Kexing’s shoe. He doesn’t try to move it out of the way, but a muscle in his brow twitches as he taps it against the side of Zishu’s building, shaking it off.

“Why are you still there?” Zishu mumbles through a mouthful of smoke, tipping his chin towards the air-conditioning unit Wen Kexing’s still perched on. Fuck, this cigarette’s truly horrible. In fact, it’s done for him what Beiyuan probably hoped that surgery to deal with the last of his Seven Nails, a coma and being hospitalised would manage to achieve—to rid him of his want to smoke entirely.

Which is more than fine with Zishu, to be honest. He’d picked it up mostly because he didn’t have much time left; considering that his life doesn’t have a timer attached to it now, he should probably look into quitting for good. Preservation of the body and all that.

Plus, the good cigarettes Wen Kexing’s spoiled him into liking are far, far too expensive. Stopping’s for the best if he wants to enjoy his retirement and not have to join the workforce again to support himself and his smoking habit.

“I—” Wen Kexing says, and pauses.

Zishu waits. He stubs the cigarette out on the ledge, and waits some more. Wen Kexing’s mouth is open, shaping half-aborted sentences. His eyes are averted from Zishu, although they dart back to him every so often, then away again, quick, when he realises Zishu’s still staring at him.

“I—”

And isn’t it a sight, the famed demonic ex-Ghost Valley Leader at a loss for words.

“Isn’t this a sight, the world’s most uncontrollable chatterbox at a loss for words,” Zishu says. Then, “Why are you still there? Cramp in your leg?”

“No,” he says, then rises and grips the window frame, swinging a leg over so he’s straddling the window and at least half of his person’s in Zishu’s apartment. A spasm crosses his face. It's only a half-second before he composes himself, but his jaw’s clenched too tightly, and the muscle in his temple’s straining.

Zishu reaches out of the window and grips the meat of his calf with his hand. Wen Kexing yowls.

“Ah-Xu,” he seethes, pleadingly. “Ah-Xu, stop, don’t—” he screams, and Zishu digs his thumb harder into muscle, massaging it. “AH-XU!

Fingers around Zishu’s wrist wrench his hand away. Wen Kexing’s face is openly contorted in pain, and he’s hissing as he breathes through the sting in his leg.

“Can you not scream that loudly?” Zishu asks, tone unsympathetic, as he leans against the open window. His head’s a bit woozy from the shouting. “I don’t want my neighbours to think I’m the type of person that takes advantage of other men in that sort of manner.”

Wen Kexing’s foot, the one in Zishu’s house, rests next to his thigh, still clad in his hospital gown. The fingers around Zishu’s wrist are almost freezing, even though he always runs warmer than Zishu.

How long has the idiot been outside, Zishu wonders.

“I—” he starts again, when the pain of the cramp’s faded. His fingers are warmer against Zishu’s wrist now, having leeched warmth from his skin like the parasitic beast he is. He runs a gentle thumb against a scar, the lasting imprint of the bite mark he’d left on Zishu all those months back.

Zishu’s breathing almost falters; he holds himself still, taking calm, measured breaths and fighting the instinctual hitch. But despite it, his heart flutters; despite the relative calmness of his expression, he knows Wen Kexing’s able to feel the rabbit-quick beat of his heart in his pulse, where his fine-boned thumb’s gentle, hovering over the soft inner skin of wrist.

“Why are you here,” Zishu asks. He looks at Wen Kexing still straddling the window frame, and carefully considers him. He looks the same as when Zishu woke that morning; annoyingly neat in one of his many impeccably-tailored suits despite having fallen asleep in a hospital chair, with his hand clutching Zishu’s own.

His cheeks are more sallow than Zishu remembers, the shadows under his eyes just a bit more pronounced. His hair’s just a bit neater than it was in the morning, stray wisps escaping the tie of his loose bun to frame his face. There’s chalk-white powder and dust streaking his pants. Zishu considers the exterior of his building. They’re probably from when he’d climbed up to look at Zishu through his window, like a stalker.

He’s more than used to doing this sort of thing by now. He shouldn’t be this messy or careless.

Wen Kexing’s gaze is still averted from Zishu’s, fixed on the hospital bracelet still around his wrist. Zishu doesn’t pull his hand away. Wen Kexing’s hand curls around it firmly, all five fingers and a palm; advancing bravely on Zishu’s territory once there was neither question nor dismissal of his initial intrusion of Zishu’s space.

It’s uncharacteristic of him. He isn’t one who’ll wait or ask for permission.

Zishu swallows.

“Someone had to follow you,” Wen Kexing says. He’s looking at Zishu now, big, dark eyes boring into Zishu’s own. Slightly earnest and intent, true and sincere. “You’ve only been awake for a week, you really shouldn’t be going off and discharging yourself.”

Zishu looks away from him. He turns inward to his own apartment. It’s not amazing, but a place to sleep and a roof over one’s head was already a luxury to many in the world. And it was the one he’d allowed himself after his own retirement; since he was to die, it would be nice to at least do so in a warm place away from the elements, somewhere not a street. His death would have been a sad one, not a tragic one.

He tugs his wrist back. Wen Kexing’s hand follows, and the rest of his upper body goes with him, bringing him further into the apartment. He’s much closer to Zishu now, and one of those wisps of hair falls too close to his lip. Zishu’s fingers tremble with an urge to push it away, an unfamiliar want building in his fingertips. He suppresses it. It’s a good thing that one hand still feels a bit useless and the other’s effectively been taken prisoner.

“Fine words from a man who also had a death wish,” Zishu says. “Plus, it raises my blood pressure, seeing you getting along with Beiyuan for my sake.”

He lets his wrist go lax. He steps into Wen Kexing’s space as he tugs it out of his grip and curls it into a fist, knocking the side of his head twice.

“Idiot,” he says. The wisp of hair is right there. He ignores the light breeze that blows it up against his hand, gentle and tickling. It’s difficult. He’s tired, the day’s adventures are catching up, and he's a bit too fond of the man before him to effectively suppress his want for that long, so he walks away. “This apartment has a front door. Use it next time.”

There’s a shuffling noise behind him and the muffled noise of feet landing on the ground, followed by the quiet slide of a window. Wen Kexing’s not as silent as Zishu knows he’s capable of being. He frowns.

“Shoes,” he calls.

“I may be many things, Ah-Xu, but I’m not uncivilised,” Wen Kexing complains. Zishu ignores him, and continues walking, only pausing once he’s at his bedroom door. He turns around. Wen Kexing’s bent over, placing his dress shoes between Zishu’s beat-up New Balances and even rattier 5-yuan slippers. Dying men have no need for expensive shoes, but now that his death isn’t as impending or assured, maybe he can look into acquiring a nicer pair. Perhaps a pair of Crocs as well, for some variety. That’s a respectable uncle shoe; he’ll fit right in with the retirees doing tai-chi or playing xiangqi in the park.

Wen Kexing looks around the apartment. “Nice place you have,” he says, shedding his jacket and draping it over the lone folding chair that’s really only there to be uncomfortable enough to deter any would-be visitors from staying too long.

Zishu snorts. “Nice try. We both know it’s not as nice as some of your worse safehouses.”

“I can move you into my—” Wen Kexing starts, but Zishu raises a palm, effectively halting his words.

“Not now,” he says, “I’m tired. You can make yourself comfortable or leave, but I’ll be going back to sleep now.”

He shuffles into his bedroom and sits on the bed, yawning and kicking off his house slippers before laying down carefully. His trip back had been far from easy, and he’s been vertical for much too long.

Zishu knows he should’ve stayed for a bit longer, and that doing so would also greatly reduce the number of lectures he can already envision Wu Xi and Beiyuan heaping upon him. But sleeping in hospital chairs is almost akin to torture, pull-out cots are far from comfortable, and hospital beds generally only ever accommodate one person.

Sleep’s almost on its way as he hears the telltale noise of a belt unbuckling, of someone shedding clothes. The bed dips beside him, and a blanket’s drawn over him as a warm arm slides under his head. Another drapes itself over his waist, pulling him into an embrace.

“Nobody invited you into their bed,” Zishu murmurs, but his complain’s entirely lacking in feeling.

“Mmm,” Wen Kexing says.

“Are you listening to me,” Zishu mumbles, then, when there’s no response, “Oi,” as sternly as he can.

There’s still no response. The arm around him is heavy; the rise and fall of the firm chest against his back, steady. He’s already fallen asleep.

Zishu doesn’t stop the gentle smile on his face, and uses his last vestiges of strength and wakefulness to curl a hand around the arm over his waist before he, too, falls into a dead sleep.

In the morning, he’ll wake to his crybaby disciple banging on his door, whining about why Shifu didn’t bother telling me about his early discharge, I had to find out after I travelled all the way to the hospital—. There’ll be no other trace of Wen Kexing save for breakfast on the table and a packet of gum, along with a note written on the back of a receipt: Went out to get your medicine. Quit smoking, I hear it’s bad for recovering patients.

Zishu will finish some of the breakfast and give the rest to Chengling. He’ll throw the cigarettes and the note out; then, he’ll retrieve the note before he can second-guess his decision. The rest of his morning will be spent with Chengling in the nearby park, sunning himself on a bench while scolding his walking disappointment of a disciple for neglecting daily practice while Zishu himself was in the hospital busy being comatose and Not Dying.

But that’s tomorrow.

For now, Zishu sleeps.