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barefoot in the wildest winter

Chapter Text

  After the arrival of Ye Baiyi's letter, Wen Kexing felt almost rejuvenated. A grin that felt stupid even to him had not disappeared from his face ever since; he even walked with a skip to his step as he prepared the logistics for the trip they were about to embark on. 


  Zhang Chengling just munched on nuts as he watched him come and go. He would occasionally ask questions, but it generally looked like his spirits were high too. 


  Wen Kexing grabbed newly washed clothes and put them in three different bags, then grabbed money and food. He even hid some oil bottles in a pouch where Zhang Chengling would not find them, -just in case. 


  Lastly, he put everything in their carriage, going over a mental list to make sure they had everything they would need. 


  Once again, the other two had not given him a hand, but he was in a good mood, so he let them get away with it.


  "Alright, we're ready to go." He announced, a hand on his hip while the other wiped sweat off his forehead. "Where's your master?" 


  Zhang Chengling shrugged his shoulders dismissively, and got into the cart without even offering to look for the man. 


  "This child..." 


  Curious, Wen Kexing went inside again. He searched the gardens, the kitchen, Zhou Zishu's room, even his own room, but failed to find him.


  At last, he thought of the room where they had hung up the painting so precious to Zhou Zishu, and walked there. 


  Effectively, upon opening the doors, he saw Zhou Zishu sat there; seemingly lost in thought. He clutched a cup of wine in his hands, but the liquor looked untouched. 


  Wen Kexing stared, assessing the situation. 


  He had been soaring with newly found joy for two days, but Zhou Zishu did not look like someone who had been granted a second chance in life. 


  He sat by his side, and observed him for a while. Unable to figure out what troubled him, he decided to communicate with him. 


  A-Xu, what's on your mind?


  Zhou Zishu did not show any reaction, and Wen Kexing momentarily panicked, scared that he might have lost his remaining sense. As of late, he had gone through those small moments of panic too many times to count.


 His worries were put to ease, though, when Zhou Zishu took one of his hands and held it on his own lap. 


  Are you having second thoughts about going to South Xinjiang?


  The other man shook his head solemnly.  


  Then, what is it? We will be there in no time, and you will be healed.


  "What if the Grand Wizard cannot heal me, though?" He sounded agitated as he voiced his own fears, his chest went up and down in a fast pace. He visibly found it hard to calm himself. 


  Wen Kexing's smile, which had been impossible to erase since Ye Baiyi's letter arrived, vanished in an instant. That was a possibility he did not want to consider, or even think about. 


  But blind optimism would not help anyone, so he squeezed Zhou Zishu's hand and did not make any move to stand up just yet, letting him know that he would listen to the worries in his heart.


  Zhou Zishu's thumb caressed his hand, as if the one needing the support was him. Maybe, because caring for others was so ingrained in his system, that was his way to deal with his own anxiety. 


  "I have already been given hope once," his voice was surprisingly steady when he spoke again, "then it was taken from me before I even got to touch it." 


  He paused. Wen Kexing continued staring at him, wordless. 


  What could he possibly say? He could not dismiss the man's worries, as they were well-founded.


  Zhou Zishu turned to face him despite not being able to see him. This time when he spoke, he had finally managed to school his emotions. 


  "Do you understand how scary that is?" 


  Wen Kexing did, but his own understanding differed from Zhou Zishu's. 


  Zhou Zishu feared letting himself believe he would have the chance to live a tranquil life in his own terms, with the ones he cherished most remaining by his side; no one controlling his every move. He was terrified of getting used to such idea only to realize it had been nothing but an unattainable fantasy. 


  Wen Kexing, too, had been scared once; not long ago, he had feared the possibility of being deserving of Zhou Zishu, when the risk of setting himself up for disappointment was so tangible. That was until the man convinced him otherwise. 


  But now, he feared losing his soulmate, his beloved, his lifetime companion. Their fears were different, but neither was lesser than the other.


  Almost a year prior, he had put himself at the center of the situation, but right there, with Zhou Zishu trusting him enough to be vulnerable in front of him, he acquiesced. He squeezed his hand twice; no.


  Zhou Zishu sighed, then stood up, not letting go of Wen Kexing's hand. 


  "Alright, let's go. You will be there." He said. "That's all I need."




  They finally took off toward South Xinjiang. The warmer days had arrived, and the Sun was pleasant on their skin. 


  Wen Kexing rode the horse, while Zhou Zishu and Zhang Chengling stayed on the driver's seat. Out of boredom, he told Zhang Chengling a story. 


  However, after not receiving any response from him in a while, he took a second to look back. The child had fallen asleep. 


  He pondered on the risks of crashing the carriage if he were to pick a rock and throw it at him, but in the end, refrained from it. 


  The poor kid's punishment came in the evening, when Wen Kexing ordered him to take over the reins.  Zhang Chengling had been so scared, but he pretended not to hear his whining, patted his back twice, and wished him good luck. 


  He stretched his limbs before he entered the cabin, where he found Zhou Zishu dozing off. 


  Before midnight arrived and the nails started acting up, he decided to take a nap too. 


  He sat by Zhou Zishu's side and pulled him towards his chest. Snaking his arms around his waist, he put his chin on the other's shoulder, content.


  "You are so clingy." He heard Zhou Zishu complain, but his voice did not sound as annoyed as he had probably intended. Wen Kexing's only response was to tighten his hold, then he closed his eyes.


  They shifted a bit before they found a comfortable position, with Wen Kexing leaning against the wooden wall of the cabin, and Zhou Zishu lying against his chest. Wen Kexing was unable to suppress his giddy smile when he felt the other man's weight fully relax into him. 


   Despite not knowing what awaited for them in South Xinjiang, in that moment, both felt extremely lucky. They stayed silent until sleep came to them. 


  However, they were startled awake some time later, when the carriage suddenly stopped. They both sat up.


  "What happened?" Zhou Zishu asked, frowning. Wen Kexing was about to answer that he did not know when suddenly, his heart skipped a beat. He heard Zhang Chengling's voice, 'Senior Ye!'


  In a hurry, and without giving Zhou Zishu any explanation, he jumped off the carriage. At the last moment, though, he opened the curtain to the cabin again, and grabbed Zhou Zishu's hand.


 The horse's foot got stuck in a trap. He carefully traced the lie on his palm, hoping the slight trembling of his own hand would not give him away. He left a long-lasting kiss on his forehead, then he heard Ye Baiyi question Zhang Chengling about his whereabouts.


 Please, continue resting before the spells start. I will be right back. He almost choked up as he wrote that last lie, then left his side to face the immortal. 


  "Here I am, Senior Ye." He stood tall before the man, then faced Zhang Chengling. "Silly child, continue ahead. Whatever happens- listen to me well, whatever happens, make sure your master makes it to South Xinjiang safely."


  "Martial uncle, what are you-" Ye Baiyi took a step closer to him. 


  "No time to explain, go!" He hit the horse hard, and the animal violently took off; the carriage swung slightly, and Zhang Chengling let out a yell. 


  Wen Kexing watched them disappear, his heart heavy. Then he faced Ye Baiyi again.


  "So, you are scared of them finding out your real identity?" Ye Baiyi asked, the corner of his lips tugging up in a mocking smirk. "Stupid."


  Wen Kexing did not say anything, just stood there, firmly. 


  "You're not denying that you're the Ghost Valley Chief, then?" 


  "Would you believe me if I did?" 


  Ye Baiyi huffed, his gaze was hard and scrutinizing. 


  "I took an oath once, that were the ghosts from Mount Qinya to escape, I would destroy them one by one." He announced. He sounded almost bored, though; like Wen Kexing was not but a ant that he could step on and be done with. 


  If Wen Kexing was honest, he knew that was the case. He was no rival for the Immortal Changming Sword. 


  "I pity your miserable existence; so I will save you the humiliation, and let you take your own life."


  Wen Kexing laughed, feigning arrogance. 


  "I have a very important errand to attend to. I won't let you kill me that easily." 




  Fighting against the only person who had mastered the Six Cultivation Method was a losing battle from the beginning. Most of what Wen Kexing could do was swerve his hits, but his own attacks did not cause much harm, and only ended up tiring him out. 


  He attacked with his fan, and Ye Baiyi moved away before the object came in contact with his skin. Without putting much effort, he made the move look like child's play.


   Not long after, Ye Baiyi hit him in the chest with his open palm, and the overflowing energy accumulated in his hand sent Wen Kexing several feet back. He landed on his side, then fell again when he tried to stand up.


  Lying pathetically on the ground, he coughed up blood, but he was unwilling to give up. After two more attempts, he finally got off the ground on shaky legs. 


  Blood decorated several spots on his clothes, his lip was split, his skin was purple here and there. Still, he would not stop fighting, not when Zhou Zishu was waiting for him to come back to his side. 


  "Brat, give up." Ye Baiyi looked perfectly fine; his breath was even, his white clothes were spotless. 


  "You wish." 


  Apparently annoyed, Ye Baiyi pulled out his sword, and prepared to land the final blow. He knew he woud not survive being struck with it. 


  Two things happened then. One, the fatal blow never came. Two, he was harshly pushed away until he fell on his arse. 


  Another sword had stopped Ye Baiyi's. Another legendary sword. 


  Wen Kexing paled. No.


  Zhou Zishu stood right between him and Ye Baiyi, using all his might to push the weapon until the immortal had to step back. 


  "A-Xu!" He hurried to grab his arm to pull him back, but Zhou Zishu slapped his hand. 


  "You liar." He seethed, and oh, he was angry. About what? Wen Kexing was not completely sure.


  Had he somehow figured out his identity? Had Zhang Chengling guessed it, and made it known to him? 


  Ye Baiyi took a glance at him, and his stare hardened. 


  "He's blind and deaf, isn't he? You're even more perverse than I initially thought, taking advantage of his state to deceive him." 


  Zhou Zishu pointed his sword at the direction of Ye Baiyi. 


  "Senir Ye, even though I can neither see you nor hear you, I assume your intention must be to kill Wen Kexing " He said, not stepping back. 


  Wen Kexing's eyes widened. One million questions went through his mind in that second. 


  "I won't allow it."  


  "You bring shame to your Four Seasons Manor. Qin Huaizhang must be turning in his grave right now." 


  Several times, Ye Baiyi struck his sword, and each time, Zhou Zishu's stopped it. 


  At one point, though, he landed a kick on his stomach, and sent Zhou Zishu flying until he hit a tree. Wen Kexing attacked, then, his fan hitting Ye Baiyi in the face. However, the only harm caused was a slash on his cheek. 


  Ye Baiyi destroyed the fan with his sword in an instant. They exchanged blows and kicks again, then Zhou Zishu joined them. This time, he managed to put his sword to Ye Baiyi's neck. 


  They were now in an impasse. 


  "You will listen to me." Zhou Zishu said, voice steady. Ye Baiyi did not move. "How do you have the face to stand there, and judge my junior?" 


  Wen Kexing stood just behind him. He looked at the man in the white robes; he did not seem to be scared of the sword at his throat, even though a drop of blood dripped from the spot where its tip was touching his skin.


  "Every righteous person who once benefited from his parents' methods failed to protect him and his family. That is why he ended up in such a terrible place." Zhou Zishu's voice softened ever so slightly, as if the other's past was a secret that should have been treated with the utmost delicacy. "Is it a sin to want to survive? Would you do better if you were in his shoes?" 


  The hand holding his sword had started shaking. Wen Kexing then knew; it was midnight. 


  "Please, let him go." 


  He knew Zhou Zishu would not forgive another betrayal, but he could not watch as Ye Baiyi killed him. They stood no chance. 


  Maybe one day they would meet in the afterlife, and he could berate him for it, but for now, he had to be selfish.


  "You can kill me, but let him go. He must go down to South Xinjiang. Let him."  


  He got on his knees then, his eyes glistened with unshed tears. If devils could be granted any mercy, he hoped this would be it for him. 


  Ye Baiyi sheathed his sword, then with the tip of his finger moved Zhou Zishu's weapon away from his neck. 


  "Once you take the brat to the Grand Wizard, hide in Four Seasons Manor. If I see you outside again, I will definitely kill you."


  Then he left, just like that. Wen Kexing's shoulders sagged; he felt as though he could breathe again. 


  Facing Zhou Zishu, he did not know what to say. 




    Wen Kexing could tell the nails were bothering Zhou Zishu, but he could also tell how furious the man was at him. Hence, he forcefully grabbed his hand, tightening his grip when Zhou Zishu tried to shake him off. 


  I'm sorry. 


  "You should be." Said Zhou Zishu, then he sat down in a lotus position, evidently exhausted. "How dare you undermine me like this?"


  No. Wen Kexing desperately traced too many characters on the other's skin, too many excuses. Zhou Zishu could not keep up. 


  When he was told so, he calmed himself and gave it another try. I could not bear being recognized in front of you and Chengling.


  "And where does that leave me, uh? Aren't we supposed to be lovers now? Aren't you supposed to trust me?" 


  Angrily, he yanked his hand off from Wen Kexing's grip, then turned his back to him. He did not care that he acted like a petulant child. 


  "Let's wait for Chengling, he must think we're already dead."


   They sat there for some time, Zhou Zishu's anger a barrier betweet the two. 


 Wen Kexing observed him, and though he was meditating, it was clear he found it difficult to concentrate. The itch to help him was hard to ignore, but he knew that he had to give him space or things would get worse between them. 


 When Zhang Chengling finally appeared, his ponytail had been loosened up, he had dirt on his clothes and grass in his hair. He also had a horse, but their carriage was nowhere to be seen. 


  "How-" Even Wen Kexing was amazed at his stupidity. 


  "The horse stepped on a trap, then it ran off and the carriage fell off a-" 

He rambled and rambled until Wen Kexing could feel the beginning of a headache. Physically unable to hear more, he put up his palm to make him shut up. 


  He plopped down on the ground, and groaned loudly. 


  Later, when Zhou Zishu found out, Zhang Chengling had been scared of his reaction, but to his surprise, his master just started laughing. 


  Bubbly and sincere, his giggles were contagious. The other two, disheveled and aching all over for vastly different reasons, also laughed until their bellies hurt in a pleasant way. 


  "Let's just camp here for the night." 


  Wen Kexing did not want to waste time, and he was just about to say so, but one look at Zhou Zishu made him swallow his words. 


  He was in pain; that much was obvious.


  So he set up a fire, and Zhang Chengling was tasked to hunt dinner; not without the adults reminding him that he would not have been appointed to do such thing had he not lost all their belongings, though. Begrudgingly, he disappeared into the trees, leaving the other two alone again. 


  Like a dog coming back with its tail between its legs, Wen Kexing surreptitiously sat closer and closer to his beloved until he was just next to him. 


  Are you hurt?


Zhou Zishu hit him. 




  Two nights later, they stopped at an inn to rest. Zhang Chengling did not even question it when the two adults asked for two rooms instead of three; he just said goodnight, and went to his own room. 


  Wen Kexing happily took Zhou Zishu's hand, and dragged him towards theirs. His anger had finally been worn off, and things were partially alright between the two again. 


  They both washed up three days worth of dirt, put on clean sleeping robes, and laid down together, facing each other. Wen Kexing covered Zhou Zishu's waist with his hand and pulled him closer to himself, then hid his face in the crook of the other's shoulder. 


  "Tomorrow we arrive at South Xinjiang." Zhou Zishu said, his voice a little drowsy. "I might get to see your stupid face again."


  At that, Wen Kexing pinched his hip.


  "I barely felt that."


  Zhou Zishu sighed, Wen Kexing tensed at the confession. Tomorrow, he told himself. 


  "I cannot remember whom these people are, Jing Beiyuan or Wu Xi." Zhou Zishu continued. "They sound familiar, but no face comes to me when I think of their names." 


 They could hear the faint clinking of cutlery from downstairs, accompanied by the coming and going of hurried footsteps, and the loud laughter of drunk men. Someone played a pipa, too, while the beautiful voice of a girl sang a song about everlasting love. 


  "What if I forget you too?" He took a shaky breath, Wen Kexing just kissed the still damp skin of his neck. "I am losing what little memory I had of your voice, your face is blurry in my mind. I can't bear to forget all of you." 


  Wen Kexing thought back to the messenger from Ping An Bank and the way his name had so easily slipped out of his lips with the sincerity of genuine friendship, then the sadness displayed on his face as he found out Lord Zhou's state. 


  Then we will get to know each other again, and I will chase after you. Zhou Zishu's previous confession hung above their heads; Wen Kexing left a trail of open-mouthed kisses across the extension of his neck until he was just below his jaw, then he continued. And I will make you fall in love with me again.


  Zhou Zishu's hand found its way to the back of Wen Kexing's head, gripping a fistful of hair. He could barely concentrate on feeling the man's words on his skin.


  "Who says I'm in love with you?" 


  Wen Kexing chuckled, then bit his neck playfully.




  The next morning, they resumed their trip. Wen Kexing had been ruthless with Zhang Chengling's training, and while the child was forced to work on his footwork, the two men rode on the horse. He sat just behind Zhou Zishu, with his arms surrounding his frame, and his hands holding the reins of the horse. 


  Wen Kexing knew they had finally made it to the outskirts of South Xinjiang when he spotted the town in the distance, and he fumbled with the ropes in his hands in order to be able to trace the news on Zhou Zishu's skin.


  His heart grew heavier when, in an action that felt terribly unlike his A-Xu, the man burrowed into his chest, making himself smaller. There was no denying that Zhou Zishu looked especially frail and weak, and even his demeanor had become more subdued. 


  He dropped a kiss on top of his head, then made the horse run faster. 


  Finally reaching their destination, Wen Kexing swore he was going to vomit. The expectation, nerves and doubt boiling inside him made him almost nauseous. 


   He chanted prayers in his mind, Zhou Zishu napped against his chest, Zhang Chengling had long since stopped training and just dragged his feet behind them, and the figure of a man fully dressed in white accompanied by a guy in black appeared in the distance.


  Wen Kexing did not have to be introduced to them to know whom these people were. 


  "Zishu!" The person in white robes; Jing Beiyuan, he assumed, exclaimed and approached the newcomers as their horse came to a stop. 


  "Beiyuan." The other man, presumably Wu Xi, held him back by his arm. "Remember what Ping An told us. Let's not overwhelm him."


  Jing Beiyuan showed some reluctance, but quickly enough, stepped back. 


  The same sadness he had seen reflected in their messenger's face showed up in Jing Beiyuan's. He ignored the possibility that one day he might have to step in their shoes, and helped Zhou Zishu get off the horse. 


  Once they were inside Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi's home, the Grand Wizard did not waste any time, and set about examining Zhou Zishu in a private room. 


  Wen Kexing, against his will, had to stay outside. He paced back and forth, almost leaving a mark on the floor, until Jing Beiyuan invited him to sit with him.


    "Master Wen, don't be so restless." Jing Beiyuan told him, gentleness laced his voice. "You can be sure, Wu Xi will do the best he can, and he is very capable."


  He felt slightly embarrassed about being so outwardly desperate and scared, so he put his fist to his palm and bowed to the man.


  "Lord Seven, as long as you can heal A-Xu, I will spend my life trying to repay you."


  Jing Beiyuan only smiled, then tilted his head to the side. 


  "Are you forgetting he's my friend too?"


  "He's more than a friend to me..." Wen Kexing mumbled, his gaze focused on a blank point in the horizon. 


  He did not see it, but Jing Beiyuan's smile grew at those words; it became one of understanding. 


  "He never asks for help, no matter how much he needs it; therefore, I am glad to find out he has you to take care of him." 


  Looking at the Lord sitting across from him, he felt flustered; his words had felt like he had gotten his blessing. 


  Hours later, though Wen Kexing would swear it had been a century, Wu Xi finally allowed them to come in. 


  Wen Kexing immediately ran to Zhou Zishu's side. The latter was sat up on the bed, and immediately took his hand when he felt his presence next to him.


  The Grand Wizard looked tired, but his face was impassive, not showing any hint of how the examination had gone. 


   In that moment, the world around Wen Kexing went still; as it had been spinning violently and suddenly, it stopped, leaving him dizzy.


  "So? Say something! Can you heal him?" 


  He knew it had been him who said those words, but his voice felt foreign. The grip on his hands became tighter; he could not help kissing his soulmate's temple. To comfort whom? He was not completely sure. 


  An eternity passed before Wu Xi finally spoke. 


  And then, hope bloomed once again.