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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."

Chapter Text



  Zhou Zishu losing his sight was not a gradual process like it had happened with his hearing, smell and taste. It had, in the literal sense, happened overnight. 


  The pain caused by the nails was something he had gotten used to long ago. More times than he could count, Wen Kexing himself had witnessed him shrug it off like it had been a papercut or an ordinary battle wound; nothing more than an inconvenience.


  Sometimes it was easy to forget he had to endure such agony day after day until it was time for death to collect its dues; however, the night came in which Wen Kexing stepped into his room to find him writhing in bed, his eyes tightly shut. 


  He dropped the flask of wine he had brought and hurried to his side. Upon feeling his touch, Zhou Zishu immediately clutched the sleeve of Wen Kexing's robes in an iron grip. He had soaked his bed with a mix of sweat, tears and saliva, while choked moans of pain escaped through his gritted teeth.


  Wen Kexing had been clueless as to what he had to do. He pressed his hands to Zhou Zishu's back to use his qi, but after some time the man took his wrists, shook his head, and surrounded Wen Kexing's waist with his arms; his sweaty forehead pressed against the other's collarbones as his body convulsed violently. 


  Wen Kexing knew it had to be even worse than it looked if Zhou Zishu was willing to show such amount of vulnerability and actively seek physical comfort. 


  After a second of stupor, he reacted and held him close, his long fingers pushing strands of damp hair away from his forehead, caressing his temple; lips pressed to the crown of his head as he told him some stupid story he made up on the spot in a futile attempt to distract him from the pain. 


  "You're such a bullshitter." Zhou Zishu's voice was hoarse, strained, but Wen Kexing snorted either way, hoping that the older man's teasing was a sign that the worst had passed. 


  "A-Xu," he called, voice watery, "A-Xu."


  Oh, right. The other would not hear him. 


  The spasms came to a stop as Zhou Zishu's exhausted body became dead weight in Wen Kexing's arms. He still breathed harshly, though it evened out after a minute or so.


  "A-Xu?" He spoked against his forehead to let him feel the vibrations produced by his voice. When he did not receive any reaction, he carefully laid Zhou Zishu down, and placed a hand on his cheek.  


  His clammy skin was burning. How did he not notice that before? 


  Wen Kexing hurried out and brought a bowl with the medicine they had made from the Drunk like a Dream he had helped grind. It did not succeed in lowering his temperature, so Wen Kexing placed a wet towel on his forehead. It did not work either. 


  That night, Zhou Zishu fell into a comma. Wen Kexing spent every waking second by his bed, applying every medical procedure he could remember from his parents' teachings, transferring his internal force until exhaustion almost knocked him out, begging him to wake up. 


  No such luck. 


  He barely ate, only slept for short periods of time and it was usually against his will, all of his undivided attention was on the man lying lifelessly in front of him. 


  "A-Xu, when will you come back to me?" 


  Five nights had passed. Wen Kexing sat on the bed, gently wiping the sweat and some accumulated dirt off Zhou Zishu's face with a damp rag. The fever had finally subsided two nights ago, but he did not rise from his dream yet.


  "Chengling has been slacking since you've been asleep," he sighed, the hand that was not cleaning his skin grasped Zhou Zishu's, then tightened his hold, "he misses your constant scolding. I've told him he has a lazy master, that it shouldn't mean he can be lazy too, but he has neglected his practice in favor of helping me grind medicine and the like. Please, do not blame him for it."


  He stayed silent, then continued thoroughly wiping his face, neck, chest, then hands. Finger by finger, he cleaned them with the piece of cloth, then put it aside on the floor. 


  He left a feather kiss on the palm of Zhou Zishu's hand, grasped it, and pressed it against his cheek. 


  "I miss my soulmate." He whispered, voice wavering halfway through his utterances. "I miss you."


  A few more nights went by. No news from Ye Baiyi had reached them yet, and Wen Kexing decided that if Zhou Zishu spent one more day unconscious, he would enlist a thousand ghosts to look for the old monster. He would face the consequences of everyone finding out his real identity as long as it meant saving his beloved. 


  Fortunately for everyone involved, it did not have to come to that. 


 On the tenth night, Wen Kexing entered Zhou Zishu's bedchamber with medicine clutched in his hands. He almost dropped the porcelain bowl when he caught sight of the man; he was sitting up, hands fisted on his lap. His hair was a mess and he looked pale, but to Wen Kexing, no sight was more beautiful. 


  "A-Xu." Tears filled his eyes right away; relief almost overwhelming him and grabbing him by the neck in a chokehold. He absentmindedly put the bowl on a table, shaky hands making such a simple task difficult. "A-Xu." 


  He did not notice anything strange as he made his way to Zhou Zishu. He knelt down in front of him, cupped his hands and brought them to his face; his chapped lips touching the bony knuckles lightly. He closed his eyes tightly, causing a teardrop to roll down his cheek without his consent. 


  "Lao Wen." Came Zhou Zishu's voice, raspy from its lack of use, but Wen Kexing heard it well. The latter let out a sob, smile taking over his face until it almost hurt. 


  Rising from his position on the floor, he sat on the edge of the bed. He cupped Zhou Zishu's face, thumbs slowly caressing the skin by his eyes where endearing lines formed when he laughed. 


  There was so much he wanted to say, but he knew the man would not hear any, so with no hesitation, he pressed a lingering kiss to his forehead and hoped the gesture would convey everything he could not voice. 


  His lips remained there for a moment, until the need to look into his A-Xu's eyes became too much to bear. He needed the final reassurance that he was safe.


  However, when he lowered his head to be on eye level with him, the other still had his eyes closed. Only a bit of apprehension grew in Wen Kexing's heart, but before he could think too much of it, he took his hand again, and on his palm he wrote, let me look at your eyes, please.


  They were so close, Wen Kexing felt the puff of air Zhou Zishu expulsed when he breathed out.


  After a second too long, his eyelids opened. With horror, Wen Kexing saw how the deep black color that used to pool his pupils had now been replaced with whiteness. Wen Kexing was unable to stop staring, immobilized in that fraction of time as the world crumbled around him. 


  Zhou Zishu's lower lip trembled, then he patted the younger man's arms, shoulders, neck until he stopped at his face. He caressed his cheek with his thumb, just like the other had done moments ago. 


  "Good thing-" he croaked out, a self-deprecating smile took form on his features, "good thing I got your face memorized when I could."


  Wen Kexing was, for once, glad that Zhou Zishu could not hear him when he let out a pitiful sob.




  Zhou Zishu was now unable to see, hear, smell or taste, so his only way to perceive the world was through touch. Thus, Wen Kexing did his best to work around that. 


  He imposed rules like the prohibition of moving furniture or misplacing objects. Zhou Zishu was none the wiser, or else he would have probably hit him, but Zhang Chengling listened to him obediently. The teen was pleased to know he could do something to facilitate his master's navigation through his own home.


 "And remember, kid," Wen Kexing spoke like a teacher to a pupil, chin high, hand behind his back, "no object should be left scattered on the floor."


  Zhang Chengling, who sat on the floor in a lotus position, nodded several times. Then he frowned and bit the corner of his lip, a pensive expression upon his face.


  "Martial uncle." He called in a low, unsure voice.


  "What is it, kid?" 


 The boy looked hesitant before he asked, "will... master be fine?" 


 Taken aback by the question, Wen Kexing looked at Zhang Chengling, and the words got stuck in his throat.


  It was not only his own heart that was at stake, but that boy's, too. That boy who had faced so many losses in his short life -losses of which Wen Kexing had been partially guilty. That boy who had found hope once again when his master took him in along the way.


  How could life be so cruel and take that from him too?


  The lump in his throat grew tenfold. He was almost unable to hold the kid's too-trusting gaze, but what was done was done, and he had to be strong for the child too. He owed it to him.


  "He will be." Wen Kexing assured him. And as if a single reassurance from his martial uncle was all he needed, Zhang Chengling's face lit up.


  The heaviness in Wen Kexing's chest did not lessen at all, and instead, the guilt increased. 




  The two eldest naturally developed their own language. 


 Zhou Zishu still maintained his speech, so he would speak, and Wen Kexing would respond through touch. Most of the time he traced words on his palm and squeezed his hand; once for yes, twice for no.


  It took patience and, a lot of trial and error, but it worked, and some semblance of normalcy was given back to them.


  One afternoon, Zhou Zishu sat on the grass, presumably sunbathing, when Wen Kexing came out. It gave him a pleasant feeling of déjà vu. 


  Even in their current situation, joy filled him like a balloon whenever his eyes landed on this man, so he made his way to sit by his side. 


  Guiltily, he did not make his presence known right away, but took his time to watch the person who had struck a match in the darkness that encompassed his life since he was a defenceless child.


 Zhou Zishu looked peaceful, like nothing troubled him, as if he did not have a foot in his own grave and the deaths of eighty-one brothers weighing him down. 


  "I know you're there."


 Wen Kexing grinned widely, and crawled closer to the other so he could take his hand and trace shameless justifications on his palm. I was merely looking at your handsome face.


  That earned him a scoff, but no other word was said. Wen Kexing leaned back, his hands supporting his weight, and enjoyed the sun on his face too. 


  Some time passed with them sitting there in comfortable silence, enjoying each other's company as much as they did the sunlight. Then, Zhou Zishu sat up right in front of Wen Kexing, their knees touching. The latter was taken aback, and his breath hitched.


  "I want to try something." He said, then tentatively put a hand on Wen Kexing's lips. "Would you speak?"


  Wen Kexing swallowed saliva, and although weeks had passed since they exchanged gazes for the last time, he could not help but look down, fidgeting with a loose thread on his robes.




 "Wen Kexing is speechless? Never thought I'd see the day."


  He breathed in deeply, then looked up again.


 "You make me feel human," he articulated each word almost exaggeratedly, while Zhou Zishu attempted to decipher what he was told, "you gave me back my sanity."


  A look of concentration rested upon Zhou Zishu's face, brows furrowed as he focused on the movement of lips and vibrations.


  "You have my heart in your hands," Wen Kexing whispered, blinked several times to keep a teardrop from sliding down, "don't crush it."


  The eldest of the two let out a defeated sigh, shook his head and then put his hands back on his knees.


  "Maybe another time." 


 Then he laid on the grass, head pillowed on his intertwined hands. Inexplicably, he wore a content expression.


 Wen Kexing looked away. "Yeah, another time."

Chapter Text



 If one word could be used to describe Zhou Zishu, Wen Kexing would choose stubborn. He was completely blind and deaf, but still refused help. Not that he considered him incapable of going about his life normally, but what use does a bossom friend have if not to make life a little easier? 


  The three of them went to the market when they ran out of food and the master-disciple pair was threatened by Wen Kexing -who used a wooden spoon as a highly lethal weapon to chase them out.


 As expected, the place had been bustling with all kinds of people; eager vendors, excited storytellers, malnourished beggars, running children, and so on and so forth.  


  Walking at a slow pace side by side, more than once Wen Kexing had tried to grab his companion to keep him from bumping into people or random stalls, and every time Zhou Zishu would either smack him, slap him or in one occasion, push him. Afterwards, he would just proceed to bypass whatever obstacle was in his way like it was no big deal. 


  At some point, an exasperated Zhou Zishu ordered him to stay away as he inspected some cloths -for whatever reason, Wen Kexing suspected it was just an excuse to have some space, so they ended up separated. 


  He stayed by Zhang Chengling's side, who was enthusiastically looking at all kinds of sweets, giving his martial uncle an endearing pair of puppy eyes from time to time.


  "Don't look at me like that. Get them, it's your master who's paying, anyway." He would tell the kid with a mischievous wink.


  And alright, he would still take some glances at Zhou Zishu; it was inevitable for him to worry.


  Then he spotted a thief. 


 The thief thought they were being cautious and smooth, but his intentions of taking advantage of a person with a disability were too obvious for anyone who lived through half of what Wen Kexing had.  Torn between respecting Zhou Zishu's wishes and warning him about the stranger with their look set on his wallet, he stood still but continued watching. 


  However, a grin quickly appeared on his face as he witnessed the thief go for the pouch hanging on his hip, only to have their wrist grabbed in an tight grip. Zhou Zishu, without straining a single muscle in his body, twisted their arm behind their back, and Wen Kexing could not help the wince he let out as the pickpocketer screamed in pain. 


  "Trying to take advantage of a blind person? That's low." Zhou Zishu said, annoyed, and the thief fell face-first on the ground once their arm had been let go of. Paying them no mind, he marched off to the next stall with a bored expression; he did not even break a sweat.  


  Zhang Chengling's eyes shone with admiration, Wen Kexing's did with pride. He walked towards another stall to pick fruit, and for once and for all, stopped watching the other man's every step. 


  The tables turned on the way home, though, when he ended up carrying a heavily asleep teen boy on his back. 


  Why do I have to do it? had been his question as Zhou Zishu ordered him to forgo waking Zhang Chengling up and to give him a piggyback ride instead. 


  He had smirked for a second and with a fake, dramatic sigh, answered, "I'm blind and deaf, what if I trip, fall and injure myself?" 


  He had the audacity to pout, bottom lip sticking out in a way that made Wen Kexing's stomach churn with affection. 


 Then he walked off, leaving Wen Kexing in charge of the child who had fallen asleep in an inn while his seniors drank until late into the night.  


 "And he says I'm shameless." Wen Kexing did not sound one bit undignified as he muttered those words, but actually, his facial expression was one of fondness. 


 Goddamn, Wen Kexing loved him endlessly. 




  In a moment of impulse, Wen Kexing kissed Zhou Zishu. 


  He had held himself back for so long, even though he knew that his feelings and desires were reciprocated.


  He figured both of them were content with what they had. And he was; every second he spent with his A-Xu was more than he deserved. But then the realization that soon he might not have the warmth of Zhou Zishu's body close to his dawned on him, and desperate need filled his heart with unrelenting intensity. 


 It happened during one of their sleepless nights, which had been too many to count by then. 


 They took a stroll among the pink fields surrounding Four Seasons Manor. Zhou Zishu could not smell the flowers, enjoy the taste of the fruit or appreciate their colors anymore, but he was still able to feel the chill breeze on his skin and the damp grass beneath his bare feet. 


 As for Wen Kexing? He was just content with watching Zhou Zishu. 


 They shared a flask of wine throughout the night. Though he could not taste it, the oldest of the two still enjoyed the lightweight sensation provided by the liquor. Come midnight, he was more than a little tipsy.


  "Lao Wen." 


  Wen Kexing was only a bit startled when his name interrupted the silence, he gripped the other's forearm and gave it a squeeze. 


  "Lao Wen."


 He repeated his previous action, frowning. 


  "Lao Wen." This time, it was said in an elongated, playful tone of voice.


  What is it? Are you drunk already? He traced onto his palm. Zhou Zishu smiled up at him warmly. His eyelids remained closed, but somehow the evident affection on his features almost knocked him off his feet. 


  "No," he whispered; in the stillness of the night, it was still loud, "I just find it I like to call your name, and knowing that you will be there to answer."


 Wen Kexing's steps faltered, and stopped right there to look at Zhou Zishu with the intensity of one hundred Suns burning in his eyes. He felt as though he would go up in flames. 


  Overwhelmed with the amount of pure and unfiltered love he felt, as if Zhou Zishu's words had been the single drop to overflow a well inside him, he took a step closer to his companion's body. When he cupped his face with his cold hands, he heard a soft intake of air. 


  He stared at those features in an attempt to commit each detail, every single freckle and wrinkle, to memory, lest one day he would not have the chance to. 


  No, that would not happen. 


  Wen Kexing's hand got entangled in Zhou Zishu's hair, while the latter's arms rested by his side, unmoving, as if waiting to see what move Wen Kexing would make next.


  After a couple seconds too long, Zhou Zishu gave a slight tilt to his head, only perceptible if one paid close attention. Wen Kexing always did.


   He took it as an invitation, and slowly moved an inch closer to his face, leaning down a little, close enough to feel each other's hot breaths. Before closing the distance all the way, he paused, giving the man one last opportunity to push him away; but he did not, and Wen Kexing had deprived himself of this little indulgence for too long. He went all in.


  The kiss was deep, rough, each one pouring their own desperation and fear on it. Wen Kexing had always imagined kissing him as either gentle or passionate, full of love or lust; but there was so much more to it. Maybe it was their mutual desire to never let go, or the pending reality that in the end, they would have to.  Maybe it was the years of lonely scrambling for survival, and the final relief to find someone who understood.  


  Whatever it had been, it left Wen Kexing feeling unmoored, unwilling to move away even when they had both ran out of breath.  


 Declarations of love and lifetime adoration left Wen Kexing's lips when Zhou Zishu finally pulled away and rested his cheek on his shoulder as he tried to collect his breathing, but they were swept away by the wind, never reaching their destination.




  Zhou Zishu still trained. Hours on end, day after day. 


  Zhang Chengling worried, Wen Kexing more than once had come out to one of the gardens to find the child watching his master with furrowed eyebrows and fisted hands. 


  "Martial uncle", he said one time, looking back to make sure Zhou Zishu was truly unable to hear him, "can you tell him to stop?"


  Wen Kexing frowned. "Why would I do that? Do you want him to cut my legs?"


  "Aren't you afraid he'll hurt himself?" 


  "Silly child, do you know your master at all?" Wen Kexing pushed him down by the shoulders so they sat on the stairs. He took a moment to watch their senior closely. 


  He often found himself wondering how the world must be for Zhou Zishu now. Was it like walking in an endless, pitch-black space? 


  "You have nothing to worry about, just look at him." 


  As he looked at him now, perfectly executed techniques and not a single misstep, that question still remained, but with less concern. He did not understand before, but now he got why he refused to lose his martial arts even if it meant saving his own life.


  "If I were you, I would be more concerned about the fact that I've been slacking in my own practice.  Come on, go train or your master will give us both a good scolding if you don't improve by the time he recovers his sight."


  Zhang Chengling looked at him with eyes filled with equal amounts of hope and doubt, but he said nothing else and left. 




 After the night in which Zhou Zishu lost his sight, the pains caused by the nails gradually became worse and harder to bear. 


  It did not take long for Wen Kexing to figure it out, so every night he would find an excuse to storm into Zhou Zishu's room, a jar of wine and a plate of nuts in hand.


 He would not mention it, but Zhou Zishu was aware that he knew; a tacit understanding between them that brought comfort to their hearts.


  Many times they would venture into the forest, among the trees and the gentle breeze. Wen Kexing cherished every moment, and tried to convince himself that it had to get worse before it got better, but there was no sign of improvement and Zhou Zishu's condition continued deteriorating. 


  His hands had started shaking harder during the night, and his words sometimes came out slurred. The longer he went without hearing, the less he spoke. 


  Wen Kexing was more terrified than he had ever been in his life. This was something he could not fix with an intricate plan or peerless strength, it was completely out of his abilities; his only hope laid in Ye Baiyi's promise.


  "Lao Wen." They had been drinking under the moonlight, sat near a waterfall where splashes of water would reach them occasionally. Wen Kexing squeezed his hand, all his attention on him. Zhou Zishu looked lost in thought, like he was foraging through his brain for the right words to say. "Your martial arts are impressive, and you get along with my disciple."


 Wen Kexing did not like where the conversation was headed to, but he did not interrupt him.


  "He is the hope of our Four Seasons Manor. If his training is compromised, then our sect will be doomed." 


  Sometimes, Zhou Zishu would open his eyes, and even though they had fully lost their pigmentation, they still were an open window to his most guarded emotions. Wen Kexing learned to differentiate each one; so right now, he saw fear reflected in those tearful irises, and the mourning of all the brothers his blind obedience had buried. 


  He knew what would be asked of him, and could not deny it no matter how much he wanted to. So, when he was told to take over the teen's training, he swallowed the sob threatening to escape, and squeezed the man's hand once. Yes.


  Zhou Zishu smiled so wide wrinkles formed by his eyes. It momentarily looked as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders; it scared Wen Kexing beyond measure. 


  Zhou Zishu then cupped his cheeks, and kissed his forehead.  


  Out of impulse, Wen Kexing wrapped his arms around his thinning waist tightly, then placed his ear on his chest where he could hear the soft beating of his heart and feel the rise and fall of his chest; reassuring him.


 Their moment of partial tranquility ended there, though, because different points in his body were attacked by a pain as sharp as a sword tearing his skin, like it was impaling his muscles and crushing his bones. He coughed up a mouthful of blood, then choked on it pathetically. 


 The night was long, but the smile never left Zhou Zishu's lips. 






  Wen Kexing knew better than to give in to his desires while they were not in an appropriate mental state; and yet, entangled within Zhou Zishu's blankets and kissing every inch of his golden skin that his mouth could reach, as less and less clothing covered them, he did not regret a single decision.  


  After all, how could he have denied Zhou Zishu when he had verbally asked for it in the middle of a heated kiss? A rare hint of vulnerability had laced his voice as he expressed his fear of losing his sense of touch too soon; before that came to be, he longed to feel Wen Kexing in the most intimate manner. In that instant, all of Wen Kexing's inhibitions and doubts disappeared.


  He tried everything to make it good for him, for both, so if that was the only chance they would get, it would be perfect. 


  Confidently, Zhou Zishu straddled his thighs, sheer inner robes his only cover from Wen Kexing's prying eyes. The man underneath could not help but reach out and undo his ponytail, and long hair cascaded around them both, cocooning them. 


 Wen Kexing murmured words of praise against the sandy skin as he trailed open-mouthed kisses up to his neck, the vibrations of his voice causing goosebumps to raise on the other's body. That only fueled him to continue, sucking and biting here and there, as waves of desire traveled across his veins.


  In a very smooth move, he grabbed the older man with an arm on his back and another under his knees, and quickly switched their positions until Zhou Zishu laid on his back. Wen Kexing bracketed his figure with his legs and arms holding up his weight above him. 


  Panting and with his lips shaped in a smirk, he took a moment to admire the person beneath him; skin flushed, chest going up and down in a fast tempo, hair creating something similar to a halo on his bed, his fringe sticking to his sweaty forehead. 


  The last layers of clothes made their way to the floor after a while of exploring each other and getting used to this new development in their relationship. The smell of oil filled the room as Wen Kexing poured some on his fingers, almost vibrating with anticipation. 


  "A-Xu", he whispered against his neck, then traced the words are you sure just below his collarbones.


  "If you don't get to it now," Zhou Zishu said between pants, "I will kick you out of my room."


  Wen Kexing smirked, then bit on his neck, eliciting a moan from the other.


  Out of all the ways in which he had dreamed, imagined and fantasized about what being inside his soulmate would feel like, nothing came an inch close to reality. He felt overwhelmed by it all; by the physical intimacy with not a hair separating them, by the emotional connection as though their souls were always meant to be one single entity, by the knowledge that in a world so vast they had managed to stumbled into each other's arms.


  He felt almost feral; wanting to savour every inch of his body, lick every bead of sweat, and take all that he could offer. 


  Zhou Zishu's hand was lost in Wen Kexing's hair in a tight fist, pulling at it ever so slightly when the pleasure would become too much; his other hand grasped the bedsheets, knuckles white from the exertion.  Wen Kexing found it, and intertwined their fingers as their bodies danced a dance as old as time. 


 Zhou Zishu finished first, an arm around the man's neck as he hid his face in the space between his neck and shoulder, and his body trembled with the aftershocks of reaching his climax. 


  His moans were not louder than a whisper, but Wen Kexing thought them to be the most beautiful sound; he felt a self-satisfied grin take form as he remembered how no other man had ever heard it, only him.


  Not long after, he let out a guttural moan as he finished inside the person he cherished most in the world. His person. 


  For the brief moment they remained still, Wen Kexing found himself unable to take his eyes off his beloved; he stared at his blissed out face, his parted lips, his rosy cheeks and glistening skin; then kissed his lips tenderly. 


  Finally separated, he laid down by Zhou Zishu's side, and pulled him into his embrace. Zhou Zishu resisted at first, but it was only half-hearted, and in the end he let his head rest on the other man's chest.


  The sun had started to come up, drowning the room in dim light. 


 "Lao Wen," Zhou Zishu mumbled, sounding dangerously close to falling asleep. Wen Kexing patted his hip to let him know he was listening. "I'm all sticky."  


 Wen Kexing snorted, so full of fondness he felt his chest would boost at any given moment. Still amused, he stood up from the bed, put on his inner robe and left the room for a while. When he came back and saw Zhou Zishu dozing off, evidence of their previous activities on display all across his body, he covered him in a blanket and without any warning, lifted him up the bed.


  "Hey!" Zhou Zishu yelped in surprise, then wriggled in an attempt to get Wen Kexing to put him down as he was carried out of his bedchamber. "Put me down! I can walk on my own!"


  Let me be romantic. I've been waiting for so long. He faked a sigh, which made the man in his arms roll his eyes in annoyance as soon as he felt the dramatic rise and fall of his chest.


  Still wriggling and even landing a punch on the younger man's bicep, Zhou Zishu said, "what if my disciple sees me like this?"


 Wen Kexing only shrugged off dismissively, his grin widening as he tightened his hold. A scowl appeared on Zhou Zishu's face, so he put his hands on his tormentor's face; he felt the naughty smile and fickled his ear.


  "You're so satisfied with yourself, aren't you?" Amid their banter, he had lost track of where he was, so he stopped resisting; he laid his head against the other man's shoulder, tired out. 


  His carrier let him on his feet again, then put away the blanket covering his frame.


  I prepared a bath for you. When Wen Kexing drew those words on Zhou Zishu's skin, he had dropped the teasing smile, and what replaced it was one of devotion. He held onto his forearm to help him get in the tub.


  "Stop treating me like a fragile maiden." Zhou Zishu yanked his own arm from Wen Kexing's hold, but the latter was faster, and grabbed him by the shoulders.


  I am merely trying to be nice. Zhou Zishu huffed, but dropped his fight anyway and allowed the other to assist him. 


  Once inside the tub, Wen Kexing grabbed a cloth, and with gentleness that felt foreign to a merciless ghost, he cleaned the other man's skin, starting with his hands, finger by finger. Zhou Zishu was initially tense about being at the receiving end of someone else's care, but later relaxed with a pleased sigh, and leaned against the tub. "Bathe me, then."


  If Zhou Zishu were to see him, Wen Kexing was sure he would immediately spot the unabashed affection that was displayed on his face. He did not mind the idea that much. 


  He replaced the rag with a new one, wet it, and worked on his face, lingering on his cheekbones. They were more prominent than they used to be.


  He poured more warm water into the tub once it had ran cold, then made Zhou Zishu lean forward so he could work on his back. With the minimal amount of fight left in him, he put some resistance once again but just like before, Wen Kexing won.


  Washing his butterfly bones, he felt a rush of delight in knowing he was allowed to appreciate them up close, to let his fingers linger there and know the touch was welcome; appreciated, even. 


  However, the feeling was shortlived, and soon he realized how sharp they had become. He frowned, his hand positioned on the space between his shoulder blades.


  As of late, Zhou Zishu did not eat much. Because every dish felt like chewing on dust, according to his own words, he would only take some small bites from the food placed for him on the table, finding it unpleasant. 


  Wen Kexing touched the bones with the tip of his forefinger. His touch was as light as the flutter of a moth's wings as he slid his finger over the gaps between his ribs, leaving goosebumps on its wake; then he felt the bumps of his spine, unblinking.


  The fact that a man with unmatched prowess and the physical capacity to take down an army on his own had become so frail was a slap to his face; it felt as though he was vanishing from his grasp like grains of sand slipping through his fingers, and Wen Kexing could do nothing but scramble to hold on as tight as it was possible.


  Unable to control his emotions any longer, he left open-mouthed kisses on each protruding bone, grasping Zhou Zishu's arms so tight his nails dug into his skin. 


  Now that he had had Zhou Zishu, how could he be expected to let go?

Chapter Text

  It had rained all morning, and Wen Kexing felt as though the grayish blue coloring the clouds matched his mood.


  As it had become a habit, he roamed his temporary home, the same home that had received him twice in his lifetime. Zhang Chengling had gone to the market for groceries, and Zhou Zishu slept, so it was eerily quiet. 


  There were puddles on the floor in certain spots where the rainwater leaked through holes in the ceiling, making him trip in the least fashionable manner. He paid it no mind, though, and continued walking ahead with no destination in mind. 


  It had been another rough night, and Wen Kexing needed air, an outlet; thus, he had sent the kid away while he knew his senior would not yet wake up. 


  Walking aimlessly -or maybe he subconsciously knew where his steps would take him, he ended up standing by the door of the room where so, so long ago he had kneeled in front of Master Qin and became his disciple, as well as Zhou Zishu's junior. 


  With a blank expression, he stared at the empty room. Images from his childhood came to him in a rush; playing with a smelly puppy, a grasshopper on his head, a bigger boy wiping his tears when he would fall and scratch the palm of his hands.


  Those were the memories that kept him sane during the toughest years in the Ghost Valley; as well as the fading image of his mother's loving smile and his father's kind eyes. 


  He never thought he would get back any of those small treasures of his, never even dared to want them back for fear of setting himself up for a kind of heartbreak that was impossible to mend. Now, he did not recover his parents, but those hands that tenderly dried his tears and calmed the worries in his heart had reappeared in his path to remind him of what it felt like to be human. Whole. Alive. 




  He was loved. Zhou Zishu let him know in so many ways that sometimes it was overwhelming; to know he did not deserve his touch, his attention or dedication, and yet have it all given to him, with no conditions or questions he could not answer. 


  Perhaps he was lucky. Perhaps it was the world's retribution for forcing him to go through the darkest pit of hell. Who could possibly know?


  All he knew was that Zhou Zishu was the light that broke through the cracks on his skin and bones, illuminating the darkness that consumed him from inside; subduing his anger. But now that light was extinguishing, and every day that passed, it became harder to catch it in his blood-stained hands. 


  And he had to watch and wait and wonder, every time he walked to his door, if he would find his soulmate or a living corpse; if it would come a day when Zhou Zishu would not recognize him anymore. 


  Call him selfish, he had been called worse, but in the innermost part of his heart, he missed the way they were before. He missed Zhou Zishu's glares when he would pester him about something in particular, and watching the irritation change into warm fondness. He missed having his gaze focused on him, missed catching him looking when he would undress and turning away with the faintest hint of a blush on his cheeks, missed seeing him teach his disciple in all of his Sect Leader Zhou's glory. He missed whispering praises in his ear and making him shiver; missed the noise and ruckus they would cause daily and the way in which they would bicker like children because they were two grown adults who had been robbed of their youth.  


  Zhou Zishu detested pity, so he kept those thoughts to himself lest they would be misunderstood, and tried and fought with all his might to make their lives as normal as possible under their circumstances. Ignoring the suffocating elephant in the room was the only way in which they could bear the waiting.


  And yet, nights like the previous one, in which no touch could get through Zhou Zishu, and his screams of pain pierced the solemnity of the manor; with Zhang Chengling's wide-eyed face peeking from the hallway outside Zhou Zishu's room, with Wen Kexing's growing desperation pushing him more and more to do something he would instantly regret if it would mean easing his dearest's agony... nights like that eroded all the fight in him, left him exhausted and hopeless. 


  They left him feeling like the moment he stepped out of Mount Qinya; wanting to unleash his fury on the whole world, for giving him something so precious and then threaten to take it away, as if he were their laughingstock. He wanted to set the world ablaze, destroy it with his bare hands and feel flesh under his fingernails.


  He squeezed his eyes shut, took a deep breath, then shook off such thoughts. Despite all, he planned to cherish every day they would have together.


  In the distance, he heard that voice that soothed his raging mind and pulled him from his ugliest nightmares. It was calling for him; he smiled.


  He desired to make the world suffer one hundred times more than he had, but Zhou Zishu was still part of that world, so he would fight a little more even if it meant risking his heart. If not for himself, then for him. 


  He turned towards the direction of Zhou Zishu's voice shouting orders. 


  "A-Xu! You can get your own wine, I'm not your servant!"  He yelled, just for the sake of it.




  Once all their initial inhibitions and fears had been put aside, lovemaking was something they soon grew used to. At times, feeling close to each other was all they needed to anchor themselves; other times, it was just for the fun of it. 


  In one instance, though, they had been almost caught red-handed by Zhang Chengling, so the outskirts of Four Seasons Manor had become their little hideout. 


  One night, they laid on the grass cuddled up to each other; their inner robes haphazardly tied, hair messy, lips bitten red, content smiles upon their faces. Zhou Zishu's hand laid on Wen Kexing's chest, and the latter had taken complete advantage of the man's blindness, and spent a long while just staring at him, appreciating every detail of his features when they were so relaxed and carefree. It had become a habit, and he felt somewhat silly, but his only witness was the moon and so, he did not tear his gaze away for one second. 


  However, after a while, those peaceful facial expressions changed into a diminute scowl, and the hand resting just above his heart shook ever so slightly. He grabbed it, and squeezed several times, you okay?


  He did not receive any response, though, because all of a sudden, Zhou Zishu sat up, puking blood mixed up with another kind of waste that resembled the little food he had been forced to eat at dinner. He continued vomiting until he was only dry-heaving, gasping for air and coughing. 


  Wen Kexing only watched, his hands hanging mid-air; his first instinct had been to reach out but he stopped halfway, not knowing if his touch would be of any help or if it would make matters worse.


  Zhou Zishu wheezed for a small moment and then, even though he had always been so adamant when it came to receiving comfort in any form, let his weight drop against Wen Kexing, seeking his warmth. 


  His lips were bloody, and he left a red stain on the other's clothes. In spite of the heavy breathing, he was calm for a while; Wen Kexing knew better than to believe they were out of the woods yet. 


  The spells caused by the nails had never been so vicious before, so terribly cruel with their very own creator.


  Once he was sure Zhou Zishu was done puking, Wen Kexing sat him up in the v of his legs and splayed his shaking hands on the too-bony back, but the man was in such agony that he was unable to put his mind in place in order to meditate, his brain too foggy with the sensation that could only be compared to thousands of needles perforating his body at once. 


  Wen Kexing tried to communicate with him but his attempts were not registered by the other; he tried to transfer more of his qi into the trembling body of his dearest person, but it was futile, and he knew that at this stage he could not exceed the flow of energy or he might cause more harm than good, so after some time, he gave up; his A-Xu still agonizing. He cursed repeatedly, and pulled him into his chest again. 


  It was a cold night, and Wen Kexing knew it would be yet another long one, maybe the longest yet, so he used his own green robes to dress the man, and decided that going back home was the best course of action right now. 


  It had been a lovely escapade, but it was prematurely cut short. 


  He positioned the other man's arms around his own neck, and then like he did on the night when they first had been intimate, he held him by the waist and under his knees. He lifted him up, his weight so light it scared him. 


  "Please, hold tight." He whispered against his temple, aware that it would never be heard. 


  He took off, abandoning the ground with the man so dear to him secured in his hold. At some point in the air, Zhou Zishu bit his shoulder -hard-, as if to suppress a scream, pinkish saliva leaving a dark spot on the white cloth of his inner robes. 


  Wen Kexing had never felt so helpless, so utterly and completely useless. He increased his pace. 


  Back in his own bed, although he was not very conscious at the moment, Zhou Zishu refused to loosen his hold on Wen Kexing with all his strength, as if holding onto his last bit of sanity.


  He had also started blabbering nonsense at some point; naming names Wen Kexing failed to recognize, uttering regrets and apologies with the anguish of a man that had been tortured by his conscience for lifetimes. 


  Wen Kexing embraced his smaller form with a hand on his head, the violent scratch of fingernails on his own back oddly comforting.  


  He tried, but failed to, imagine how maddening it must have been for Zhou Zishu to go through such extremes of unfathomable pain whilst he was deprived of four out of five senses. It felt like he was losing him to some ubiquitous force. 


  For the briefest instant, as he heard a choked-up whimper, he considered killing him right there and then. End his agony; spare him the suffering.


  The thought passed as fast as it had appeared, though, and they spent the rest of the night in a mess of tangled limbs, clothed in robes stained by various bodily fluids, lost in their own torments. Wen Kexing willed the Sun to go up.


  As morning came and Zhou Zishu's body was granted some mercy, both were too exhausted to move an inch, so they fell asleep in that position. 




  Always an early riser, Wen Kexing woke up not long after, and with minimal energy went about his day. 


  He cooked breakfast, held some small talk with Zhang Chengling -who took a look at his dishevelled appearance and, blushed and refused to look at him in the eye for the rest of the meal, then ran away to train. Wen Kexing was too tired to tell him what had happened the night prior. 


  Late into the afternoon, he went back to Zhou Zishu's bedchamber, and was slightly disappointed to find him still asleep. 


  He grabbed some clean robes for him, and decided to wake him up. He hesitated momentarily, but anxiety got the best of him in the end. 


  "A-Xu", he called solely out of habit as he shook his shoulder a little. He received no response, but he tried to calm his racing thoughts by telling himself that Zhou Zishu was a heavy sleeper. Even so, the fear that he would fall into a coma again and lose his remaining sense or worse made him go almost insane, so he shook him only a bit harder and for a little longer. 


  Zhou Zishu lazily opened his eyes. To a world of darkness, Wen Kexing knew, despite the sunlight pooling in around him. 


  "Lao Wen." came the groggy voice of the person he loved most, calling for him. It was barely louder than a whisper, but having the chance to hear it one more time felt like a blessing from the heavens. He never wanted him to stop calling his name. 


  He smiled warmly, and squeezed his arm as if to say I'm here




  Wen Kexing helped him wash himself and rinse his mouth. Then he changed into the clean clothes already prepared for him.


 After a while, Zhang Chengling brought a tray with some food for his master. The kid looked terribly scared upon seeing the state of the man, so he was quickly dismissed despite his protests. 


  Once the child had left, Wen Kexing diligently cut up pieces of fruit and held them to Zhou Zishu's lips; the latter opened his mouth and chewed almost mechanically, like such simple act required all of his energy. 


  Usually, after the torment of the nails had passed, he would only need a couple hours of sleep in order to fully recover and become the person full of vitality he was. Right now, though, as Wen Kexing studied him, he looked exhausted, pale and so, so fragile. Time was running out.


  Zhou Zishu was only able to force down a few spoonfuls of soup and not more than two bites of melon, then turned up his nose and not unlike a bratty child, turned his face away when a piece of chicken touched this lips. 


  Wen Kexing shook his head fondly, and put the plate away. He forced him to drink a cup of water, then sat by his side. 


  Not long after, he felt hands on his face, fingers feeling the tip and bridge of his nose, the dimples that had just taken place due to the smile Wen Kexing had, his eyebrows. He moved to his eyes, tracing the row of long eyelashes that rested upon the zenith of his cheeks; and then with his rough thumbs, he touched his lips. He lingered on his bottom lip; by then, Wen Kexing had already opened his eyes again to stare at him. 


  "Lao Wen," he said at last. Wen Kexing swallowed harshly, the need to kiss him suffocating him.  


  "Mmh?" Zhou Zishu's hand was still on his mouth, so he felt his response. 


  Some time passed before anyone spoke, the younger one relished in the feeling of his beloved's hands on him, hoping this moment would not end just yet.


  "This will only to get worse from now on," Zhou Zishu whispered, "soon, I will lose my sense of touch, and then.." 




  "Let me speak." He inhaled deeply, trying to form words but having gone so long without his hearing, speaking had become a difficult task as well. "I'll lose my mind too. Sometimes, it's already hard to keep a grasp on reality..." 


  A short pause, Wen Kexing no longer wore a content expression but a frown that formed a wrinkle between his eyebrows.  "Then I will..."


  "I'll be by your side through life and death." Out of all the knowledge he had acquired when he was a child and would watch his parents work, he had forgotten most, but there was one thing that had stuck with him; the fact that people who had lost all hope of survival usually pushed their loved ones away. He figured that was the case now. "If you die, then I will set myself on fire along with your body, then our ashes will be united, and not even death will tear us apart."


  It looked like Zhou Zishu wanted to say something else, but Wen Kexing beat him to it. 


  "Come on, let's go outside. The weather is wonderful today." He stood up, then grabbed both of his hands and pulled him to his feet. The man swayed a bit, but with little difficulty, they made their way to the garden. 


  Sitting on the grass, Wen Kexing took his chances, and laid down with his head on the other's lap. 


  He heard something very similar to a snort, but soon fingers found their way through his hair; they scratched at his scalp and untangled some knots as they went. Wen Kexing smiled again, content to have those slender fingers on him, pretending the night before had been but a bad dream. 


  Zhang Chengling had been training somewhere in the Manor, Zhou Zishu hummed a song only known to him. Wen Kexing never wanted it to go away. He ignored the voice inside his head telling him that soon it would.


  He even thought he could put aside his need to take revenge on the pugilist world if it meant having those moments for the rest of this lifetime.


  "Martial uncle! Martial uncle!" Zhang Chengling came running towards the two of them, calling for him.  "Someone is at the door, he says he's from PingAn bank."


  The name did not ring a bell, so Wen Kexing quickly stood up to see whom it was. He was stopped by Zhou Zishu's hand gripping his wrist. 


  "Something the matter?" 


  He mentally debated whether to tell him the truth or lie. In case they were ambushed for any reason, that would have been the safest option, but his senior would have never forgiven him if he were to undermine him like that. Thus, they walked towards the front gates together. 


  Zhou Zishu's steps were slow, and it looked like breathing was hard, but he marched on, and let Wen Kexing hold his arm. 


  Their visitor recognized Zhou Zishu right away, delight glinting in his eyes as soon as he saw him. 


  "Lord Zhou!" The title fell from his lips easily, though it was not heard by him. The stranger ran towards him and grabbed his hands after doing a bow. "It's been so long! My Lord has been waiting for you to visit him all these years, but you've never come!"


  A little bewildered at the scene unfolding before him, Wen Kexing explained the condition Lord Zhou was currently in. Their visitor's face deflated. 


  When Zhou Zishu was informed about who was at their door, recognition never dawned on him. The disappointment and sadness was evident in the newcomer, and Wen Kexing felt his heartstrings being pulled. How had he forgotten a lifetime friend?


  Was his cognitive condition that bad? Was he going to forget him too at some point? 


  "I've brought a letter for Lord Zhou." The messenger from PingAn informed them, pulling out an envelope. "It's from senior Ye Baiyi."


  Wen Kexing's eyes widened. "A-xu," he stammered, voice shaky, then grabbed his hand to trace words on his palm. His own hand trembled as he did so, the tiniest flicker of hope finally starting a blaze in his heart. 


  Zhou Zishu's facial expression stayed impassive when the envelope was handed to him with a bow, then his lower lip trembled. He inhaled deeply and finally opened the letter.  Wen Kexing was glued to his back, eyebrows pulled together as he anxiously waited to find out whether Ye Baiyi had fulfilled his promise. 


  Turned out, he had.


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.