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barefoot in the wildest winter

Chapter Text

 

 

  Living in Four Seasons Manor, among its vast vegetation, its worn-out walls and empty corridors, had felt almost like a fever dream. Like one of those times when he would slip in and out of consciousness, bones broken, skin torn, as he scrambled for survival in the Ghost Valley. In an attempt to keep himself from falling into complete insanity, he would imagine being back in that place, with master Qin pushing him on the swing, Zhou Zishu handing him a puppy, his mother waiting for him at home with a warm dinner and a warmer embrace.

  Just as it had happened back then, when he would be abruptly pulled out from his daydreams and reality would hit him like an avalanche, he knew that this dream too would come to its eventual halt.

  And he initially accepted it, with not a trace of self-pity. However, he had not expected it to happen so soon.

 

  "Wandering the world is fun, but home is sweeter," had been Zhou Zishu's whispered words during a sleepless night, one of so many, with the sound of raindrops crashing against wood and distant crickets providing their company.

  Maybe it had been a defense mechanism, but he mentally refuted the other man's words; not daring to hope that Zhou Zishu's home could be his sanctuary, too.

  But as weeks passed, and they settled into a routine that felt a lot like domesticity, he started to believe that perhaps the safety of Four Seasons Manor could welcome him one more time.

  Every day, he would cook meals with sincere enthusiasm and the other two would peek from behind him and ask how long until the food was ready; then Zhou Zishu would naughtily steal pieces of chicken when he looked somewhere else. They would split chores like sweeping the floors or washing their clothes; though more often than not the older man would claim to be sick in order to avoid such responsibilities; Wen Kexing did not fall for it, but he indulged him anyway. He would watch Zhang Chengling practice his martial arts and improve more and more each passing day; occasionally the tyke whined, but eventually stopped doing it to avoid being punished by his master. He would banter with the other man in a way that felt a little too much like flirting and steal small touches here and there... touches that lingered on waists too long, that raised goose pimples when they fell upon bare skin; touches that anchored him when he thought he would float away.

  And in that bubble of theirs, away from the chaos of the outside world, he could live forever.

  But playing house was tough when your foundations were built on moving sands.

 

-

 

  The first time he noticed something was off, it was late into the night. He had had a nightmare again and woke up with a start. Once he had collected his bearings and realized that no, that was not the taste of his father's blood on his mouth nor the claws of a ghost around his neck, he decided that trying to get back to sleep would be futile. Consequently, he got up, put on an outer robe, and went out for a walk through the corridors that provided him with so much comfort in the chilly night.

  He walked aimlessly until his ears caught a strange sound. Alert, he hurried towards the direction from where the noise had come, but a smile immediately crept into his face when he reached the yard and saw Zhou Zishu.

  The man was training, and was so immerse into it that he had not noticed Wen Kexing's appearance.

  Not having had an actual opportunity to witness Zhou Zishu train on his own so far, Wen Kexing took the chance and stayed hidden behind some bushes, watching his nimble footwork in fascination.

  It was hard to think he was not at the peak of his strength, since even with his martial skills being reduced due to the nails in his body, not many people in the pugilist world could be a match for him.

  Wen Kexing admired him for several minutes, then decided that exchanging a few fists with the former leader of the Window of Heaven under the clear moonlight was too tempting to pass.

  He moved swiftly, certain that Zhou Zishu would hear him in time to stop his sudden attack, and went for his neck with the side of his hand.

  To his surprise, no counter-attack came, and his hand actually crashed against the man.

  Zhou Zishu gulped, "what-".

 Wen Kexing retreated his hand, and caught the fleeting expression of surprise on the other's face, confused. He did not have the time to question it, though, as he was soon met with an attack himself.

  They exchanged hits and kicks, not wounding each other yet not holding back, until birds started chirping and the first sunbeams graced their skins.

  "A-Xu, your skills are undoubtedly exceptional." Wen Kexing praised between pants as they laid on the ground with little distance separating them.

  When he was not granted a response, he said it again. He was genuinely in awe, and he had never held himself back from complimenting the man, the only one who deserved his respect.

  Again, not a word was uttered back, so he dragged out an almost whiney 'A-Xu', punching him on the shoulder lightly.

  The other turned to him, and gave him a look of surprise.

  "What's on your mind that you're ignoring me so blatantly?" He teased, not actually offended. But Zhou Zishu continued staring, eyes a little wide. Then he sat up with his back to Wen Kexing, forearms on his bent knees, shoulders tense.

  Wen Kexing's smirk dropped, and a sinking feeling akin to nausea settled at the bottom of his stomach.

  "What is it?" He inquired, voice betraying a hint of desperation. He sat up too, shortened the distance between their bodies, and repeated his question as he wrapped a hand around Zhou Zishu's wrist.

  Zhou Zishu turned until they were face to face, and looked at him straight in his eyes, opening his mouth to speak but closing it again as if he had changed his mind halfway through it.

  "What's the matter?" This time he did not bother to hide the fear rising in his throat, an infinity of worst-case scenarios flashing through his mind with every second that was met with silence from the other man.

  Zhou Zishu stared at him for a little longer, maybe a second or two, then dropped his gaze for the briefest moment before he looked at him again. He shook his head.

 "What?" Confused, Wen Kexing frowned, unable to understand what he meant.

   "I can't hear you."

 It took him almost a second to comprehend what the other man had just revealed, but then it dawned on him.

  Right, in this daydream of his, he had unconsciously forgotten the effects of the nails in his dear's body. 

  "How long-", he cut his question short, realizing it was not going to be heard either way. He took a breath, swallowed the lump in his throat, then took the man's hand. In a slow manner, he wrote 'how long has this been going on?' on its rough palm with the tip of his forefinger. His hand was slightly shaky, but Zhou Zishu seemed to understand.

  The sun rose higher, decorating the sky with reds, oranges and some splashes of purple. The colors reflected over Zhou Zishu's skin beautifully, complementing its golden complexion; Wen Kexing had the terrifying realization that he might not get to whisper such praises to him anymore.

  Zhou Zishu sighed, his carefully controlled emotions seeping in through the slight furrow of his eyebrows . "It was gradual. It didn't happen overnight." He started, then paused, poking his own ear with a finger; apparently not used to not hearing himself. "As of late, I had to strain more and more in order to hear well. Sometimes, I wouldn't catch what was said to me."

 Wen Kexing's eyebrows were furrowed, but Zhou Zishu remained still. He wanted to ask, why did you not tell me, but remembering that night so long ago when he learned the depths of Zhou Zishu's condition, he kept his reproaches to himself.

  "Last night, I realized it was worse than I initially thought. And by the timing, I knew it would eventually come to this, but all the period of peace we've shared since our arrival here..." he let out a mirthless laugh, lowering his head. "I guess it made me forget the fate I will eventually have to face; the fate I, myself, have chosen."

  Wen Kexing understood the sentiment very well; they both had been victims of their own delusions.

  Zhou Zishu put a hand to Wen Kexing's cheek, his head tilted to the side, reassuring him. Wen Kexing found it ironic; the other was dying but he was the one receiving comfort.

   He closed his eyes, covered the hand on his cheek with his bigger one and remained in that position for a while, savouring his touch while he could.

  Silence reigned in, as if both were searching the right words to speak right then, surrounded by the peace offered by the early morning hours.

  "There's a ringing in my ear. It comes, it goes." Eventually, it was Zhou Zishu who spoke first. "I can catch some echos. They are very distant, though; and I cannot make out what they are." A sigh, the hint of a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. "It's torture trying to decipher what those echos are, and not knowing whether they're real or my imagination playing tricks on me."

  He turned away, and looked up at the sky. Wen Kexing immediately missed his touch.

 He mentally repeated that Ye Baiyi was out there, he would find a cure. Wen Kexing would not accept a different outcome, but he was taking so long, and odds were not in their favor.

  Zhou Zishu watched the last remains of the sunrise, then turned to Wen Kexing again, a smile so small but so loving on his lips. The tenderness displayed in his eyes made the latter want to burn the world down if it meant he could save him.

  "Lao Wen," he whispered, Wen Kexing swallowed, "I can't believe there would come a day when I would miss your annoying voice calling my name."

 

-

 

  Zhang Chengling reacted worse than Wen Kexing had. He sobbed, face pressed against his master's chest, until he was told off for leaving a stain of snot on the fine, blue fabric.

  To his merit, Wen Kexing would have reacted similarly had it not been for the fact that he was an adult and Zhou Zishu would not have hesitated to punch him. He sympathized with the child, though; he, too, was terrified of losing him and having to watch as he withered away, hands tied.

  Days went by as they tried to get used to Zhou Zishu's new condition. Subsequently, the noise within the walls of their Four Seasons Manor went down a notch.

  Sometimes, Wen Kexing felt angry; other times, helpless, watching his soulmate suffer through bouts of pain until he passed out during the night and then wake up to a world of silence just before noon.

  He never voiced it. Zhou Zishu refused to show any weakness.

  It made the younger of the two want to hit him at times. Ultimately, he just longed to hold him.

  It was a couple nights after Winter solstice, Wen Kexing laid face-up on his bed, the incense he had lit long burned out.

  They had not heard from Ye Baiyi yet. Granted, Zhou Zishu had more than a year... but Wen Kexing not only wanted to save his life, but spare him the suffering as well.

  Unable to sleep, he kicked off the blankets and stood up from the bed. Still in his sleeping attire, he got out of his bedchamber, needing fresh air.

  He passed by Zhou Zishu's doors, and after a minute's hesitance, stopped there and took a breath.

  Suddenly, he wanted to storm in and yell at him, demand him to get up and search for a cure even under the rocks. In a flash of resentment he had never felt towards this man before, he wanted to ask, why- how can you be so selfish and not try? What about Zhang Chengling? What about me?

  He stopped that train of thoughts.

 How can you be so selfish, Wen Kexing, to desire to waste precious time chasing blind hope?

  He shook his head and was about to leave when the doors opened, and out came Zhou Zishu. He did not look that surprised to see Wen Kexing standing outside his room.

  He smiled softly, that warm tug of lips that was only ever directed at Wen Kexing.

 "I can't hear you anymore, but somehow I can still feel you. Isn't that so disturbing?"

  Wen Kexing looked down, guilt about his previous thoughts settling in. He looked up again when he felt a hand taking his, found Zhou Zishu's understanding gaze.

  "Come on, let's have a drink."