Zhou Zishu didn’t resent being an omega as he knew some men did. He didn’t believe there was weakness in heats or baring children or, even, in the so-called submission shared by all omegas. He didn’t believe, at all, in the much lauded lack of control and seductive nature, that they were softer or weaker, that their heads were more easily turned and emotions played against them. There was no truth in his eyes to the tales of a great maternal instinct or fulfillment found only in pregnancy and childbirth.
He paid no mind to those that believed that having a cunt between his legs made him lesser in comparison to alphas and betas.
It certainly hadn’t made him any less able to kill, any less able to scheme, plot, or command. If any of his men had respected him, or the other omegas he’d brought from Four Seasons Manor, less they’d wisely kept it to themselves. It hadn’t helped him keep safe those that mattered to him, even though people insisted that nothing was more important to an omega than pack. He’d stood firm, watchful and silent, as the pack his master placed in his hands was culled, one after the other.
He’d worked through many heats and, more than once, had even used his nature to his advantage in undercover work. While being an omega had mattered little growing up, his master and master’s wife both shared his nature, Zhou Zishu had quickly realized it could be a tool, a weapon, if wielded correctly. Prisoners folded in interrogations just a little easier for him if the scent of his heat lingered in the air. Witnesses opened up more readily to what they perceived as a caring, understanding omega figure. Informants, especially alpha ones, were always eager to prove themselves and gave away more while asking for less if he flattered just a little.
Insincerity was overlooked when it came from his lips and killing intent missed until poison was consumed or a blade slipped between a mark’s ribs. He was no sweet and demure thing, the animal in him was all teeth and claw and blood lust, more beastly than any would suspect lurked within a fair faced omega, but he was an omega and it suited him.
He kept his heats controlled with teas and tinctures, knowledge passed to him by his master, not to avoid them but to lessen the need and discomfort so as to not be distracted. He had never allowed anyone inside of him, not because he was denying himself or trying to pretend to be something he wasn’t, but because the risk of pregnancy was one he couldn’t afford and because he’d always been told the moment you let an alpha have your cunt or ass you could never be rid of them. It hadn’t hindered him any. When he sought out such things he’d always been able to find someone interested in the novelty of being fucked by an omega and he’d proven more than once that an omega’s cock was more than just for appearances.
Zhou Zishu had little of the softness or curves that were considered pleasing in omegas but that was a matter of keeping his body fit and capable, not to hide as some male omegas did.
The nails had changed things. The first had brought a change in his scent that he’d explained away to others as the toll of aging. The next had dulled his own sense of smell and robbed him of his ability to slicken or harden, the third had snuffed out his heats completely, and the fourth quieted the ever present awareness of the more instinct and need driven parts that existed around the sharp edges of him, the parts of him that were The Omega. What little weight he carried at his hips and thighs was lost. By the fifth Zhou Zishu had become, functionally, a beta in the eyes of those who didn’t know him. The only thing that marked him an omega was what laid between his thighs and that was so little when weighed against what was loss.
A hard change in the beginning; by the end he thought little of it. Zhou Zishu has never wanted to be a beta but if he was to live out the end of his life as something like one then so be it. He was dying anyway, what did it matter if other’s looked at him and saw a beta?
What did it matter if his failing, withering body truly didn’t feel like his own anymore, a ragged shell that didn’t move or react or feel like it once had and a hollowness inside, as he dragged it to the end of things? It was better.
Is what he’d thought before his quiet life of wandering went suddenly, loudly, sideways in a flurry of masked faces and dead bodies. Before he found himself looking after a silly orphan, more naive than Zishu could ever recall himself being. Before Wen Kexing, the shameless loud brash peacock who dogged his footsteps across the country, harassing Zhou Zishu with interest he hadn’t been able to understand for all that he considered himself better than most at reading people.
It certainly wasn’t because he smelled pleasing or looked good, nor because he’d been receptive to the man’s attention. To the contrary, he’d ducked Wen Kexing at every opportunity only for the man to find him again, always with that smiling mask firmly in place. Zhou Zishu had thought the man an omega at first, he certainly had the beauty and form that well bred omegas were lauded for, but then he’d decided he must be an alpha.
Only alphas could be so pig headed and arrogant in the face of constant rejection.
All the more reason to avoid the man, alphas were troublesome at the best of times, but time had worn him down and Destiny had finally shown it’s hand: Wen Kexing and he were tied together by fate. Wen Kexing, the man who was his lost junior, his shifu’s great regret and one of Zishu’s most precious memories. Once a sweet laughing boy who’d taken Zishu’s hand trustingly and gazed at him adoringly, grown into strength and beauty and a mind full of twists and traps and rage . A man who had a monster to rival Zishu’s own lurking behind sharp smiles and dark eyes.
Not that Zhou Zishu’s beast made many appearances these days; the nails had done what he’d thought impossible and tamed it well. That too was for the better. He and Wen Kexing would have torn each other to shreds if the man he now knew had crossed paths with the man he’d once been. Their beasts would have known each other for what they really were, risen to the challenge, and it would have ended in blood and death. They were too similar for any other fate.
Like two dominant alphas clashing but, Zhou Zishu was sure, worse.
That’s what he’d thought anyway.
“Shifu?” Chengling’s voice was quiet, tentative. Zhou Zishu hummed in acknowledgement, hands pausing in their work. “Are you okay?”
Wen Kexing sighed. “Little idiot, what did I tell you?”
“I know you said to leave it but,” Chengling started to turn his head to the side, huffing when strong hands in his hair forced him to look forward again. “It’s weird!”
“I’m fine.” Zishu started, eyebrows lifting as he turned to scold his junior for gossiping about him with their disciple behind his back, but the words died on his tongue when he realized just how close Wen Kexing was. Sitting on the floor but leaning against him, back pressed against the side of his leg, head tipped back onto his thigh, eyes closed, hair tumbling in silken waves over Zishu’s leg. He looked peaceful, with that obnoxiously handsome face smooth of all lines, lips parted around softs puffs of breath, a light wine flush high on his cheeks. In his lap sat a bowl and hanging precariously from his fingers was a flask of wine.
He looked like he’d been there for some time, long enough to become loose limbed and sleepy in the glow of the coals. Even when he blinked open his eyes to peer up at Zishu he did so in languid beats, eyes foggy and warm, mouth curling into an absent smile. Zhou Zishu swallowed, tearing his gaze away as if that would somehow stop his heart from fluttering frantically in his chest and his stomach from twisting near painfully.
Zishu sat up straighter, ignoring the long suffering sigh from Wen Kexing, and really looked around. It was later than he felt it should be, the room they’d marked as their shared sleeping quarters dim save from the coal fire and a single lantern. They were sitting close, the warmth from the fire a distant thing compared to the warmth of the man at his side (now sitting up and grumbling about his cruelty) and the boy sitting between his own legs, on the floor, seemingly waiting patiently while he...combed out his hair. He was holding a length of dark, coarse hair in oiled fingers and a black lacquered comb in his other hand.
One of the things he’d been grateful for when he realized he wasn’t going to be easily rid of Chengling was that the boy, for all that he was pampered and useless, could tend to himself well enough. He wasn’t so spoiled that he couldn’t dress himself properly or keep his hair clean, free of tangles, and arranged neatly. He couldn’t keep himself from being lured away by music, protect himself when attacked, or halt a kidnapping but he’d managed to keep a wound he was hiding (poorly) clean and that was worth something.
Zishu had never felt the need to intervene when it came to Chengling looking after himself. It was too...this was the work of maids or mothers and he was neither.
So what was he doing? How had he ended up here, sitting on a stool with these two irritations draped all over him?
Was he so far gone he was losing time and...braiding hair in the dark moments?
“You’ve broken your poor old shifu.” Kexing clicked his tongue in disapproval. Zishu snapped his head around to glare at the grinning man, now turned around to face them and leaning back on his hands. He looked entirely too pleased for a man who’d been bemoaning being forced to move and the unfairness of fate and big mouthed disciples mere seconds ago.
“Who’s broken?” He snapped, as if he didn’t feel more run down by the day-by the hour it sometimes seemed- as if he wasn’t more broken than even Kexing knew. “You must mean your own mind.”
Kexing smiled again, disconcerting in how openly sharp and hungry it was. There was none of the ever present humor and cloying affection that went hand and hand with shameless flirting and saccharine poetry. Zishou’s stomach insisted on warming and clenching hard enough to send ripples of strange aching pain through his gut, betraying him as thoroughly as the rest of his body was.
“Whatever you say, A’Xu.” His obnoxious junior murmured. Zishu shivered, the words pouring prickling ice down his spine. He licked his lips and longed, not for the first time, for some of the iron control he’d always prided himself on. It always seemed to escape him when Wen Kexing was involved.
“I’m sorry Shifu.” Chengling moved, hair slipping through Zishu’s fingers as he hurried to look at him properly, the plait half done unraveling as soon as it was free. Zishu frowned, fingers twitching at the loss, and couldn’t fathom why it bothered him so. “I know a heat is a personal thing and it’s not appropriate to ask about it, but I don’t know what braiding my hair has to do with anything!”
Zishu blinked. “What?”
Chengling’s cheeks flushed but he barrelled onwards with all the blind determination Zishu had come to expect from him.. “If it was Shishu I would understand, since he’s your- since you’ll be...when you...together, I mean. So of course you’d want to...touch. Ah.” Kexing snorted, eyes bright with delight, and Chengling faltered, stumbling over his words even worse. Zishu looked between the two of them, mind oddly empty of thoughts. He heard the words they were saying and understood the words but the conversation, such as it was, flowed over him like so much water.
What were they saying?
“You have such confidence in me.” Kexing teased. “Does this disciple, so far from his own presentation, know more than I do?”
Chengling’s brow furrowed. “But who else would Shifu spend his heat with?”
Shoulders lifted in an easy shrug but Zishu saw the way those eyes, heated and hungry, flicked his way from under thick lashes. “Who can say? Are the whims of an omega beauty like your shifu for a lowly alpha to understand?”
“I…” Chengling looked more confused than ever, head tilting to the side. “Do alphas not choose and pursue omegas they want?”
Kexing’s laugh as he leaned closer to Chengling, carelessly using Zishu’s knee to drape his arm over in the process, was thick with scorn. Zishu scarcely noticed the bowl dropped into his lap, even as he plucked a slice of candied, sugared fruit to pop into his mouth from amongst the mixture of already shelled nuts and seeds.
“Fool, who has told you such disgusting nonsense? Has your mother taught you nothing?”
“I don’t remember my mother, and my father’s second wife was a beta.” Chengling looked down, lips curving into a frown. “I hadn’t met another omega before Cao. And Shifu, but I didn’t know that then.”
Kexing’s eyes softened in the way Zishu only saw them do for Chengling and Xiang. “Listen then, not that it will matter because your shifu will terrorize any alpha who comes near when it’s your time.”
Zishu, knowing he couldn’t point out that he was unlikely to be in any state to terrorize anyone when Chengling was old enough to consider suitors in front of the boy, looked at his disciple with new eyes. He hadn’t put much thought into what Chengling’s dynamic was, though he would have assumed beta if pressed, but he wasn’t surprised to hear otherwise. The spoiled third son, with no aspirations beyond staying at the side of his parents and looking after them as they aged, was a not uncommon path for omegas. Alpha sons went on to power, carried on names and knowledge, while many omega sons were kept close and managed by their families in the way many girls were.
No, not surprised. Annoyed, perhaps; had he known he was dealing with another omega he would have done some things differently in the boy’s training. Pushed him harder; his technique was created by an omega, to utilize the naturally higher levels of Yin energy they all possessed for healing and recovery. Chengling could handle a harsher load, then.
Tomorrow they will train harder.
“It’s always omegas who hold all the power in their hands.” Kexing said. “Even if an alpha courts, it's because the omega has deigned to accept their attention. When an alpha chases, it’s because an omega has deemed him worthy to do so. If an alpha choses an omega, it is only because the omega has presented themselves to be chosen. If an alpha should be so lucky as to spend time in an omega’s nest-”
“Enough!” Zishu cut in, wanting to preserve some of his disciple's innocence. The world had been unkind to Chengling, forcing him to endure much that he shouldn’t have had to, but that was no reason to trample over all barriers. “Go and get more wine from the store house, Chengling.”
The boy sighed and, rolling his eyes, pushed himself to his feet. “Should I get lost on the way to give you more time to scold Shishu?”
He missed when Chengling had been polite and too in awe of them to talk back. “Another word and you can get lost outside the gates until morning.”
Chengling was not as stupid as he often seemed and was quick to hurry from the room without opening his mouth again. Wen Kexing kept a neutral face until the door was slid shut and the sound of Chengling’s footsteps had faded, when the mask cracked to show a toothy smile and eyes bright behind lowered lashes.
“A’Xu, did I say something you didn’t approve of?” Zishu shoved his junior’s shoulder, pushing him off of his lap with a scoff. Kexing dropped to the ground, overdramatic as he whined but seemingly in no hurry to move, instead staying in a heap at Zishu’s feet to peer up at him, pouting. “Even now you mistreat your wife so.”
“As if I would have a pervert for a wife. Who are you to bring up nests with my disciple? Does your tastes run so young?” Kexing’s nose wrinkled in disgust but he kept talking, waving off the protest he was sure was about to come. “I don’t know what the two of you are thinking, but I am not heating.”
Kexing’s face did something Zishu could only describe as ‘complicated’, mouth smoothing into a thin line and eyebrows jumping before his expression shuttered. “How long have you been unable to scent yourself?”
He reared back in surprise, eyes widening. “How-”
“You smell of heat.” Kexing told him, voice low and urgent. Too serious for Zishu to even allow himself to consider that the man was teasing or anything less than truthful. “You have for a week, at least, and you have been...preparing.”
“Preparing? Explain.” There were things an omega might do while in preheat, to ensure a comfortable and effective mating cycle, but Zishu had never engaged in any of that. Even if it had been in habits he was certain he hadn’t been doing anything out of the ordinary lately.
Aside from losing time and coming back to himself while grooming his disciple -his young, orphaned disciple who clung to him like an abandoned infant would the first omega to pick them up- and letting his clingy alpha junior lounge against him so familiarly. And was apparently eating sweets and nuts, he realized as he looked down into the suddenly empty bowl, neither of which he cared for. “Ah.”
“Mm.” Kexing said, wisely offering up the wine jug to him.
Zishu took it and, though he tasted nothing, drank deeply. He thought of how he didn’t need to numb himself, now that his body had stopped fighting the nails so earnestly. He thought of what else may happen now that his organs and energy were no longer focused on stopping the inevitable progression of the nails.
What lost function may return.
“What else?” He asked, after taking another long drink.
“You’ve also been hiding food under a floorboard. The past two trips into town you touched every blanket for sale and then bought so many Chengling could carry nothing else, but have done nothing with them so far. You’ve scent marked and groomed Chengling, more than once.” Here Kexing’s eyes drifted to the side and what Zishu read as petulance twisted his lips. “You build and then take apart a nest nightly and you’ve been walking the grounds, spreading your scent.”
That...that certainly sounded like the actions of an omega going through preheat without the aid of herbs to dull the more distracting urges. He sighed, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. It was a simple matter to turn his awareness inwards, to circulate his qi to prode at the gaping wound he’d carved into himself when he’d forced the nails through his flesh. He hadn’t done this in some time, not since he came to the bitter realization that physical arousal was beyond him, but he hadn’t forgotten how. He hadn’t forgotten how the last time he’d done it he’d found only a hollow place with ragged edges and crippling pain, the last dying thrashes of the omega part of himself. He’d locked it away, knowing only when the fourth nail brought it’s complete silence, and hadn’t bothered with it since.
Now he found...warmth. Molten heat, honey thick and simmering gently. Not yet at a boil, not so close to spilling over and filling him up with need and fever, but it was there. Another brush against his core and it rose, spread out in his stomach, into his chest, past the walls he’d constructed around it. Teeth gnashed and a low growl built deep between them, within them-him- as everything settled back into place as it had once been. One monster, not quite whole, instead of a hollowed out shell playing jailer to a dead best.
Fine then, so be it.
Zishu opened his eyes, very aware of the flush that had risen up his face and of his lips, pulled back from his teeth in a snarl.
“You didn’t realize.” Kexing sat up, eyes widening before flickering away. “I thought...your body was preparing, without your mind knowing it. What have you done to yourself, A’Xu?”
He ignored the question, long past tired of fighting about the inevitable. Instead he leaned closer to the alpha, breathing in and there, faintly, was a scent like charred wood and blood, rust and salt, burnt ozone and storm clouds. There was lavender and sweet laid over it, hiding it, but Zishu tasted only burning and blood on his tongue, knew that for the truth.
He remembered Yan, tiny sweet Yan far from maturing but still with the first trace of ‘alpha’ about him, had been grass and sunshine. It was a strange duality inside of him as he pressed his nose to Kexing’s next, inhaling deeper as the man gasped audibly.
Sadness warred with want, the part of him that mourned for his junior crashing with the awakened beast, just starting to burn beneath his skin.
“You’ve been waiting for me.” Zishu said, nose dragging up to the hollow behind Kexing’s ear.
Kexing laughed, a touch too high and breathy. “Since I first saw you.”
“Waiting for me to tell you if I wanted you for my heat or not.”
“Yes.” Kexing admitted, chin lifting and head tilting to give Zishu more of his neck. “I...will understand if you would prefer to be alone. But if you bring another alpha here I will slit their throat before I let them cross the threshold. I will pluck the eyes from anyone else who dares looks at you while you’re heating, take the tongues of any who would taste your scent. I would lose my mind.”
Zishu’s traitorous heart beat all the faster in his chest. Such a thing was far from the sweet words and simpering promises alphas had laid at his feet when he’d been a much younger man, but it stirred him like nothing had before. He huffed, lips quirking at the corners when Kexing shivered. “What mind do you have to lose, Lao Wen? Idiot. Fool. Who would I let into my nest if not you?”
Even if he had someone in mind it wouldn’t be worth all the blood he would have to clean from the walls after the tantrum Kexing would throw.
Kexing turned, letting Zishu see the brightness of his eyes, full to brimming with want and need and hope. They were so close their lips brushed, an echo of sensation and mingling of breath. Zishu...ached badly, all at once, twisting and pulsing between his legs. “A’Xu-”
“Don’t become too excited. I have never let an alpha between my thighs-” Kexing’s lashes fluttered and a pained noise more at home on the lips of a dying man escaped him. Zishu snorted before leaning back on his stool and waving a hand at the man. “If you are to be the first, you’ll have to prove that you are...worthy. I will let you chase, but it’s on you to catch me.”
Kexing’s answering smile was less a true smile and more a too wide flash of teeth that showed the length and wicked sharpness of his alpha fangs. Zishu pressed his thighs together in an attempt to relieve the ache and wondered how he’d ever managed to mistake this man, and that smile, for anything but an alpha.
“You should know I might be...incapable of being all you’re imagining.” Zishu said though, if he was being honest he was unsure of just what his body might allow. “I haven’t hardened or gotten wet since the second nail, and I wouldn’t allow your seed to take root even if I was capable of it.”
He was, after all, dying. A pregnancy was…
He couldn’t. Wouldn’t, even if he could, even if just speaking of it left him breathless and his palms damp.
“All I want is to be welcome in your nest.” Kexing said, soft words matching a soft touch to Zishu’s ankle. “Nothing more or less.”
“You should aim higher.” Zishu snarked, fighting another smile.
“Higher than my A’Xu? Does a more peerless beauty exist? Could I hope to grasp such a thing in this lifetime.”
Zishu allowed the warm caress of his ankle for a few moments more, longer than he should, before finally pulling away and rising to his feet. “Go, find our disciple before he freezes to death then we will all sleep. Tomorrow you two will find him a different room to sleep in, and make it ready for him before my heat starts.”
He might be unsure of what his heat would actually bring but he was certain he didn’t want Chengling in the same room during it. And the task would be a good one to begin Kexing’s chase, and keep the alpha occupied while he tried to work out just what his body had decided to do with itself and how he could have missed it so completely.