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Let’s Delay Our Misery 

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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. 

Easier. 

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? 

Heating? Him? 

Impossible. 

“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.”

Fool. 

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. 

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu woke up to a world still deep in the throes of darkness, thoughts sluggish and body heavy. He blinked into the darkness, unsure what had woken him for entirely too long. A shuffling sound in the dark, the swish of fabric, gave him his answer but with it came no sense of urgency to look into it. He wasn’t normally so slow to awaken, having slept in no small number of dangerous places where hesitation could result in his death. His senses and instincts were always carefully attuned to the world around him, ready to respond to any threat. 

But this wasn’t that. This was warmth and a contentment he hadn’t let himself feel in years, not since his master’s death. This was, he realized as he turned his head to find the silhouette of Wen Kexing knelt next to brazier and felt a seeping warmth spread through his belly, not just a matter of comfort. It was knowing instinctively he was under the watchful guard of this alpha so there was no need to be on alert. This was him starting to push back his blanket only to have Wen Kexing suddenly at his side, pushing him back down with a disapproving click of his tongue and a small smile quirking his lips. 

“Lao Wen.” He murmured even as he let himself be pressed back into his pillow. It was faintly annoying but he didn’t protest the blanket being drawn back over him or the long fingers that drifted along his jaw fleetingly. 

“Sleep, A-Xu. I have business outside.” Wen Kexing told him. “I’ll relight the coals before I go, it’s gotten cold.” 

Had it? He couldn’t tell, buzzing with heat right down to his core as he was, but that was his season talking. In the back of his mind, past the haze of sleep wrapped around his thoughts, he acknowledged there was a chill in the air.  Zishu turned over, pressing his face into his pillow and burrowing deeper into the blankets, eyes drifting shut. “-back to bed.” 

Kexing huffed out a laugh. “Were you listening at all? I just told you-“ 

“With me.” Zishu mumbled. “Keep me warm, Lao Wen.” 

“A-Xu.” Kexing laughed, breathless. “How cruel A-Xu. Do you mean to kill me with pretty words? How reckless you are with this alpha’s heart.”

“You gave it recklessly.” Zishu countered, cracking an eye open again. “It’s mine to do as I please with now.” 

The dark of the room did nothing to hide the widening of Wen Kexing’s eyes or the parting of his lips and the quiet only amplified the sharp exhale of breath. The alpha looked away, huffing out a shaky laugh, before he straightened up with a careless flip of his hand. 

“They say omegas are sweet and caring but how could there have ever been a more callous man. Sleep, my A-Xu, and I’ll return with this heart of yours soon.” 

Zhou Zishu’s heart fluttered in his chest and the beast inside of him stretched out, as pleased as it was possessive, wanting. Hungry, for what it knew was theirs.  

He closed his eyes again, humming softly in acknowledgement when the weight of another blanket was spread out over him. He breathed in, tasted smoke, rust, and the faintest notes of lavender, and sighed. Fingers threaded through his hair, tucking it behind his ear; he pressed into the motion, a sleepy noise that he would, later, swear was not a purr rumbling in his chest. Kexing’s hand froze then withdrew. 

He was asleep before Wen Kexing left the room. 

The second time he woke up it was to cool air and a cooler weight slipping under the blankets to fill the space next to him. He hovered, between waking and slipping back off as Kexing settled next to him, close enough to smell winter clinging to him but not close enough to touch, for a time, waiting. When the alpha came no closer he grumbled, annoyed, and reached back blindly to grab at the younger man. He found Kexing’s arm, felt him stiffen under his touch, and pulled at it wordlessly. He wasn’t entirely sure he’d be able to budge Kexing against his will, not with this angle and sleep weighing down his limbs, but he was confident there was no need to do so. 

There was a beat of hesitation then Kexing was rolling closer, fitting into the open space at his back with a soft exhale of his name. They came together with minimal shifting, Kexing’s legs slotting against his own, chest against his back, chilly nose and warm breath drifting against the skin at the back of his neck. 

Kexing’s hand hovered for a moment before dropping to his hip, resting lightly. The chill of his fingers sank through the thin fabric of Zishu’s sleep clothes, but the low burn of his cycle running through his veins only sparked brighter. Arousal spilled into his belly, honey thick and as instant a thing as when he’d been young and a warm breeze was enough to set fire to his blood. It took hold fast, a pleasant burn starting low in his gut and rippling outwards. He opened himself to it without hesitation; it had been so long since he’d felt anything at all that the banked fire that came with his preheat was almost...welcome. 

He inhaled and there was Kexing’s scent, heady musk and smoke, stronger for the man’s presence, wrapping around him as snugly as the blankets they were under; closed his eyes and drank in the growing warmth and the shape of the man’s body against his own. Zhou Zishu’s stomach clenched and twisted as a gentle throb set in between his legs. It wasn’t a demanding thing, just there, an undercurrent of want, tightening and stiffening his flesh; he was, for a time, content to simply let the flame of it flicker, to remember what it felt like to ache physically for another. 

It was different than what he’d ever allowed himself before, a man- and an alpha at that- against his back, fingers drifting lightly up and down his flank, the knowledge that he would let this man take him resting comfortably in his mind. Strange, to not want to force Kexing to his back, underneath him or hold him down as he took his pleasure. Especially since he was sure Lao Wen would allow it with none of the gritted teeth and long suffering sighs to mask desire that other alphas he’d lain with made a show of. Wen Kexing would spread his legs easily and eagerly, let Zishu have all of him gladly. 

A nice thought, for another time. For now he wanted it, them, just as they were.

Zhou Zishu pressed back into the alpha’s body, fitting himself tighter into the cradle of Kexing’s hips, restless. The younger man gasped against his neck, fingers tightening around the curve of his hip, and became, somehow, even stiffer at his back. How funny that after weeks of shameless flirting and boldly throwing himself as Zhou Zishu, after promising that he would tear the tongue from any other alphas, he would become unsure now. 

If he didn’t know better he would think Wen Kexing had never lain with another person before. He was certain that was far from the truth and yet here he was, hesitant as a virgin maiden. 

“I thought you were going to chase me. Am I to take you by the hand and lead you after all?” 

The fingers pressing against his hip bone twitched then loosened, fanned out over him. For the first time Zhou Zishu noticed that, for all that Kexing had elegant fingers and could have a light touch, his hands were large and his fingers long. Something in Zishu squirmed at the thought. The pulsing between his legs shifted, became demanding. 

Lips pressed against the curve of his neck, parted to nip at his flesh. “Is there shame in being led the first time one encounters something new, or wisdom? Why not let you take my hand and show where you would like it?”

Cheeky. Vulgar, really. 

His body flushed with heat, want; the first trickle of slick in years dampened his core. Zishu laid his hand over Wen Kexing’s, slotting their fingers together, and drug it over his body. It was tempting to go right for where the ache was rooted and growing stronger but just as much so to take his time, guide the younger man over places he appreciated being touched most, to languish in returned sensation. 

In the end it was a lack of time, and privacy, that made the choice for him. He took Wen Kexing to his cock, half hard and pressing against the soft fabric of his sleep pants, biting his lip as those long fingers ran along the length with a curious touch. “Like this?” was pressed against his ear like a kiss and was followed by a swipe of wet heat along the shell. Zishu rocked back against him and pressed Kexing’s hand against him with more weight, encouraging without words.

Another pass, the touch firmer, from root to where the head was trapped snugly against his thigh, before fingers curled to hold as best they could. Wen Kexing worked him with unhurried strokes, heat of his hand and friction from the cloth as skin tingling mix of sensation. It scraped along nerves he’d been sure were dead to all feeling, lit them like fireworks, clawed at him with searing heat. Every shift of his hips moved him in counterpoint to the slow twist of Kexing’s wrist, a slow push and pull that wrung the air from his lungs and curled his toes into the bedding. He heard himself, soft grunts and bitten off moans, and did nothing to stifle them. 

It was fine, he knew, to let more of himself show. Wen Kexing would only hold tighter, jerk his cock faster, press so close he risked melting into Zishu’s skin. 

The flat of the alpha’s thumb swept over the head of his cock, already sticky with leak, in a lazy circle before pushing against the slit with a grinding, rocking motion. Zhou Zishu’s breath left him in a shuddering whine as his back arched and his head fell back to press to the alpha’s shoulder. Too long, it had been too long, there was no hope of anything but an embarrassingly quick end to be found here. His head was spinning and his skin hummed. Close, from nothing but a hand on his cock, through layers of clothing, like an inexperienced teenager. 

A sudden hand in his hair, pulling just hard enough to make his scalp tingle, drew his head back and stretched his neck; Kexing’s lips touched the side, parting to allow teeth to drag across his skin. Zishu’s hand flew up, wrapping around Kexing’s wrist with a grip he knew has to hurt; his heart was in his throat, eyes flying wide. Was he going to bite-

“A-Xu, your scent.” Kexing whispered into his throat, voice a hoarse groan that said so much without words. Zhou Zishu let his grip slacken a little. “I want to touch you.”

It was said as if it were a request but the hand on his cock was already moving, slipping into his pants and sliding down  to press over where Zishu was aching the most, fingers curling and pressing past slick folds. The first touch to the stiffened peak of his clit had none of the uncertainty of moments ago, a heavy press of fingers dragging slick against throbbing flesh. Wen Kexing drew a tight circle, rubbing over the top in quick, slippery flicks. Zhou Zishu melted against him, surprise and need melding into the whine that slipped back his lips. His hold on Kexing’s wrist became one of desperation instead of warning.

Kexing dropped sucking kisses along the length of Zishu’s neck, disconnected with audible wet smacks every time. His fingers moved, confident and sure, sweeping along the underside of his clit, circling again and again, before drifting down to touching teasingly at his hole. A fingertip dipped inside, rotated and pet teasingly, enough to make his insides jolt and melt, stirring slick to dribble out of him in heavier waves. He pressed deeper, to the first knuckle, only to drag out and back up when Zishu’s hips thrust forward searchingly. A light pinch to his clit, a flick of fingers, a stinging bite where neck and shoulder met and Zishu was, abruptly, unexpectedly, undone. He turned his head into own shoulder, muffling the cry he couldn’t hope to hold back, tension stiffening his body. Slick and cum soiled his pants in a sticky, stomach twisting rush. 

Kexing’s teeth dug deeper, the sting turning into a sharply sweet pain; Zishu’s body unspooled under the pressure, went limp against the younger man as all the tension in him drained away and left a satisfying exhaustion in its place. 

He turned his head and Kexing released his hold immediately, face lifting in time for Zishu to catch his mouth in a messy, off center kiss. The taste of metal was painted on Kexing’s lips, on his tongue; Zishu sucked it away thoughtlessly, licked into the alpha’s mouth with a hum. He felt the other man’s smile, obnoxiously smug and wide. 

When they broke apart Kexing rolled away to sit up, saying something about cleaning up that Zishu didn’t think was important enough to listen to. Instead he settled back, blinking heavy eyelids, and resolved to give in to the glow warmth sitting in his belly.  

He studiously ignored the sight of Wen Kexing pausing just shy of pouring water from the pitcher on the table into a bowl in favor of lifting his hand up to his mouth to drag his tongue over his fingers as well as the thoughtful look the alpha shot him. 

---

The next time he woke up Zhou Zishu was alone, no Kexing at his back or Zhang Chengling tucked away on the other side of the room. He stared at the spot the boy slept blankly then groaned, pressing a hand to his eyes. It was lucky Chengling slept like the dead when they weren’t in immediate danger. 

Shamelessness was contagious, clearly. 

He was pantsless and not nearly as sticky as he would have expected, proof that Wen Kexing had cleaned him up as promised. He felt disgustingly heartened by it, even if he half suspected the pervert had used his tongue before doing a proper job of it with water and a cloth, some part of him rumbling approval at his alpha’s attentiveness. How annoying. He hoped that wasn’t going to become a permanent feature of his awakened nature. 

His shoulder burned as he dressed, a deep tingling that pulled with his every movement. 

He didn’t mind it. 

He did mind stepping out of the room and almost walking face first into a dead pheasant dangling from a string right outside. He eyed it blankly for a moment before reaching up to bring it down, a bemused smile tugging at his lips. He had little question at who had left it there for him to find as, without a doubt, a courting gift.

He ran his fingers over silken feathers and couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of what the noble omegas, back in the imperial city, would think of such a present. Gifts of food happened, but almost always in the form of small, expensive sweets or cakes or occasionally a number of animals brought, still alive, as a promise of stability and prosperity. More often he’d seen jewels and ornaments, expensive trinkets crafted from fine stones and metals, rolls of the finest clothes or clothing made by noted tailors, books and paintings, even servants and land, given in the name of courting for marriage or heat partnership. The more desired the omega the more flashy the gifts would become, reaching heights the average alpha would never reach in a lifetime let alone be able to give as a singular gift in a series of many. 

A single bird, perhaps hunted when Kexing had left that morning and strung up to be found as a morbid surprise, would have offended many a noble omega.

 Zhou Zishu thought about what he would have Wen Kexing make with the bird, more charmed than he ought to be. But, then, was it not a good thing that his alpha knew him so well? 

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu was in such good cheer he could only call it ‘disgusting’. It was appalling, out of character, gross but he couldn’t keep the grin from his face. One good orgasm (which shouldn’t have been that good, and yet he had been broken apart in the wake of it, too spent to do anything but pass out and leave Wen Kexing to attend to clean up without any reciprocation.)  and he hardly recognized himself or the lightness in his chest. Was he so easily subdued by a little warmth at his back on a cold night and a nimble hand in his pants?

He hadn’t felt like this even as a teenager while taking his first stumbling tries at sex, but the answer seemed to be yes nonetheless. Worse, he couldn’t bring himself to mind it. Even a year ago he would have laughed to picture himself like this, loose limbed and brimming with a lazy contentment. 

That he’d slept well past midday did him few favors in that regard but he felt so well rested and as close to his former self as he had in quite some time that he could hardly complain. While it was true the nails and their poison rarely plagued him as fiercely as they once had he was far from without pain and there were many mornings where exhaustion, sore muscles, aching bones, and swollen joints made sleeping hard but rising even harder. But today he’d risen easily enough and even the near miss with Kexing’s take on a first courting gift had only improved his mood. 

Even the weather was good. The sun was bright overhead as he searched for Wen Kexing and their disciple, bringing a mild warmth to the clear winter day. Breathing was easier, the tight bands of pressure around his chest, that he’d come to be so used to he scarcely noticed them, loosened; he could just smell the winter blooms when he tilted his head just right to catch the wind. He smoothed back his hair and, shaking his head at himself, turned his attention to the task at hand. 

He’d found the training yard empty of life as well as the office Wen Kexing had all but claimed for himself to do his painting and pour over crumbling scrolls. The kitchen was warm in the way that told him it had been a few hours since they’d been used, the fires banked and coals cooling. With those options out it didn’t take much thought for his feet to find the familiar graveled covered paths leading towards the disciples' living quarters. He had told Kexing to find Zhang Chengling a place of his own to sleep and, it seemed, the alpha had gotten right to work at it. 

What an obedient alpha Kexing had turned out to be (when in the mood for it).  

He heard them before he saw them, Chengling’s chatter and Kexing’s answering laughter spurring him to walk a little faster. 

Mine , his beast crooned in it’s wordless but very clear way. Pup, brought to mind a wide grin, a wobbling chin made steady with focus, the surprising strength of unexpected hugs, the faint scent of not yet matured omega. Alpha, came with a flash of a distinct smile, shadowed eyes, charred wood and the taste-scent-feel of blood on his tongue. The memory of fingers drifting over his ribs, curling tight around his hip, hot against his skin. Teeth, tearing through his skin.

The shudder that raced down his spine had as much to do with the temperature of the day as the warmth he felt bloom over his face had to do with the sun. 

He took a breath before stepping into the small pavilion that had once been his, the one privilege of being the first disciple, meaning to clear his head. Instead Zhou Zishu breathed in musk and smoke and the salt tang of sweat; his vision blurred as his stomach clenched, insides instantly sticky hot and melting. He slumped against the wall, eyes slamming shut.

He was too old to feel like this, even in a heat, wasn’t he? Getting wet over a little scent, dulled by his condition and distance and airflow and-

Ridiculous. If that was all it took to make his knees want to give out then it was good his senses were so muted. How would he have dealt with Wex Kexing at full force before now? Would he have been able to brush off all those flirtatious advances, first written off as mocking or proof of an unfortunate desire for the sick and dying on Wen Kexing’s part and then as annoyances, if he’d been able to scent the man. Or would he have let the insufferable alpha tumble him into a patch of handy bushes like the idiot teenager too blissed out on pheromones to think straight he’d never let himself be. 

He shuddered to think of the damage they would have done to Zhang Chengling’s innocence.  

On the heels of gratefulness came, unexpectedly, regret as a sudden want-need- to scent the alpha properly welled up in his chest. In this place, where only the three of them dwelled, a healthy omega could have followed the echoes of their alpha’s scent to track them easily, could press a nose to skin and taste the emotion laid under it, could appreciate being scent marked and marking in return. 

Wen Kexing could have ventured out into the woods and Zhou Zishu was certain that at his best he could have tracked him over any distance by scent alone. Not because his sense of smell had been that strong but because it was Wen Kexing and already, with muted senses, that scent was seared into his mind, tattooed on his tongue and in his lungs, in the marrow of his bones. 

Ah, to have chased his alpha down like in the lavacious stories of romance and passions that ran so hotly it wore away thought and left only animal urges. To have fought him and brought him to the ground to stake his own claim before taking what he’d earned the right to from the alpha’s body, draped all over him as their sweat mingled, sitting astride Wen Kexing’s hips to drive himself down on his cock as he bit bloody marks onto the alpha’s throat. That would have been-

“What are you dreaming about,” Wen Kexing’s words were thick and slurred around a rough growl, breath fanning hot against his ear. “To smell like that ?” 

Zhou Zishu opened eyes he didn’t remember closing, blinking rapidly at the alpha-his alpha for the time being. He wasn’t unused to Wen Kexing sneaking up on him but he couldn’t imagine how he had this time, when the charred wood of his scent was so thick Zishu could choke on it. A frisson of arousal coiled at his dantain, throbbing in time with the rapid beat of his heart.   

“Like what?” He asked, tilting his head thoughtlessly. Wen Kexing’s eyes dropped, tracing his neck with a heat Zishu could feel buffeting his skin; his tongue darted out to wet his lips before he answered. 

Wet .”

Zishu closed his eyes again, head dropping back to connect with the wall, laughing breathlessly. 

Had he really thought that he and Kexing would be unable to be near each other, his omega too dominant to tolerate what he’d read as a controlling and prideful alpha in Wen Kexing? He didn’t think he was wrong in his assessment of the alpha, even if Wen Kexing was dancing around the truth Zhou Zishu knew he was Ghost Valley Chief and there was no way a man with anything less than complete control and iron in his spine could do that. Wen Kexing wasn’t the sort to show his neck or throat to anyone, wouldn’t kneel for another lightly; Zishu was the same.

It was only nature, he’d thought, that violence would follow if their true natures ever collided. What other outcome could there be when two men used to others parting around them like waves against stone, used to others kneeling in fear or respect, tried to claim the same space? Zhou Zishu had been certain it was only his suppressed nature that allowed them to grow as close as they had. Zishu was an omega who had only been able to deal with alphas in one of two ways. Either he put his teeth to their napes, tearing submission from even the most arrogant and ‘alpha’ of them, before making them bend and spread for him so he could take what needed from them, or he put his teeth to their throats. There was no middle ground, nor had he ever felt the need to look for one, yet here he stood as the one with the impression of someone’s teeth in his skin. 

He didn’t feel he’d lost anything for it, as he’d always thought he would if he let an alpha get that close to him. He’d liked the pain-pleasure of being bitten when it happened and the sting he felt every time the skin pulled just right sent a thrill right to his cock. 

Wen Kexing whined, nose pushing into the hollow behind his ear. “A-Xu!”

Zishu opened his eyes again, sighing. He reached out and grabbed the front of the alpha’s robes, pivoted on a foot and swung Kexing around, pushing him outside of the small building then back against the outside wall. There was no resistance, Kexing allowing the rough handling with no more than a widening of pupils and the parting of lips around an inhale of breath. Zhou Zishu let his grip loosen, hands flattening out to press against Kexing’s chest, one resting over his heart. He leaned into the other man, close enough to touch his mouth to a bobbing throat in a parody of a kiss or, if he wanted, a bite.

Wen Kexing lifted his chin, stretching his neck to give him more skin. He made it look easy, graceful: natural, as if it was nothing at all to give someone his throat. Zhou Zishu was helpless before the gesture, unable to stop himself from pressing his lips to Kexing’s pulse. He felt it jump under his touch. A rasp of tongue left the taste of skin and clean sweat on his tongue; Kexing hummed, throat vibrating. 

“I was thinking of chasing you.” Zishu admitted between a lick and a nip that brought red rising in an uneven spot to pale skin. Kexing moaned for him, a strangled but still pretty noise, and pressed a hand to his back to clutch at him. He bit again, harder, bringing another living red mark to the surface, before continuing. “When my season begins, fully. Through the trees and snow, following your scent until I’ve hunted you down. Tearing your clothes away as I wrestle you to the ground. Climbing on top of you. Grinding down against you until you’re hard for me.” 

His hand drug down, feeling heaving chest and taut stomach though the many layers the alpha wore, to press over the half-hard line of Kexing’s cock. The other man jumped minutely, a bitten off sound that sounded, vaguely, like Zhou Zishu’s name in his mouth. He leaned up to kiss the traces of the noise from plush lips, licking past the seam.

Speaking of what he wanted wasn’t a hardship, he’d done it more than a few times in the course of seducing a target, but he didn’t think he’d ever felt so inflamed by his own words, had his own need clawing at his belly like it was now. He was wet, slick enough to feel it seeping out and wetting his skin, already fully hard, and each passing moment filled with the obscene slick sounds of their mouths sliding together stoked the heat in his belly higher. 

They parted, gasping for the same air; Wen Kexing’s eyes were hooded and dark, nothing but pupil visible beneath his lashes. 

“Do you want to chase me?” He asked, voice rougher than Zishu had ever heard it. 

Yes, he didn’t say because it wouldn’t be much of a chase as he was. Kexing would have to limit himself, to account for muted senses and stamina, lest it all end in him coughing up blood instead of using the alpha’s body for his pleasure.  

“You’re supposed to be chasing me, aren’t you?” He said instead. 

Wen Kexing breath left him in a ragged exhale as eyes flickered shut; he looked like he was in pain. It passed quickly, eyes opening to pin Zishu in place with sword sharp focus. The haze in his gaze was washed away, pupils shrunk to pinpricks. Zhou Zishu didn’t even see the alpha so much as tense or twitch before their positions were reversed, the world blurring as he was whipped around and slamming into the wall. Hands forced between him and the wall, fitting at the bottom curve of his ass and lifting. 

Zhou Zishu didn’t yelp, because he was above such a humiliating noise, but there was no helping the way his arms flew to wind around Wen Kexing’s neck in alarm nor stopping his legs from doing the same around the alpha’s waist. His hands stayed on his backside, less to hold him up as slide along the curve and squeeze as he dipped his head down to press his forehead to Zishu’s.   

“A-Xu,” Kexing called, whining again, pouting. The tone didn’t match the darkness Zishu saw slithering behind his eyes, a glimpse of something too big and too strong to be held down forever showing itself. Zishu swallowed hard. “Do you want to be run down and rut into, A-Xu? Should this alpha mount you out in the dirt, like an animal?” 

The throb between his legs told Zishu that he did want that, more than he’d expected he would until that moment, held against a wall while Lao Wen murmured huskily against his mouth. He didn’t say it, didn’t need to because his alpha was already smiling slowly, knowingly. His hands squeezed once more before shifting apart, spreading him for fingers to press into the crease of his ass. 

“If that’s what my A-Xu wants, then that’s what he’ll have. But it can’t be held against me what happens.” He added, gaze darkening further. “A-Xu doesn’t know what he does to me, the things I want to do-” 

“Show me.” Zishu cut in, panted the words out. A fingertip pressed against the tight furl of his hole, teasing through what suddenly felt like far too many layers. “Lao Wen, Lao Wen, you-” 

The clearing of a throat shattered the heated bubble of reality around them, bringing back into sharp relief where they were. Zishu turned his head, heart in his throat, looking for his poor disciple, only able to breathe again when he realized the boy was still inside. 

He pressed at Kexing who stood very still for long enough that Zishu glanced back at him. He caught the edge of something black and frustrated, just long enough that he wondered if he would need to slit his alpha’s throat for the sake of Chengling, before it was all smoothed away, shuttered behind a good humored eye roll and half smile that eased the tension from his spine. 

Zhou Zishu was set back onto his feet promptly, Wen Kexing stepping away from him as soon as he had his footing. “You can come out, brat.” 

A beat then, plaintive: “Can I?”

Zhou Zishu snorted. “Yes. Come here, so we can tell your shishu what he should cook for us tonight. We have a bird, and you won’t have to kill it this time.” 

Zhang Chengling peaked around the corner, face as pink as a lotus. He eyed them both, so openly wary it was comical enough to douse Zishu’s arousal, before fully emerging, a bucket clutched in one hand. “Sorry, Shifu, Shishu. I...needed to get more water to scrub the floor and...I can go away.” 

“From your room?” Wen Kexing’s eyebrows lifted. “Our disciple is too accommodating. You should beat that from him, before it gets him into trouble.” 

Zhou Zishu hummed in agreement. Zhang Chengling blanched. “Don’t tolerate even your shifu defiling your doorstep.” 

Kexing huffed out a laugh. “Defiling.” 

“What do you think of tea leaf roasted pheasant?” Zishu asked, ignoring his alpha’s snickers. “Or stewed, with mushroom and chestnut. Or chilled, with bitter melon or-” 

He stopped, stomach growling a very loud reminder that he’d eaten nothing yet. Kexing stopped laughing abruptly, hand darting out to grab Zishu’s and tug him away from the wall. “You need to eat A-Xu.” 

“Clearly.” 

Kexing cast a smoldering look back over his shoulder. “A chase and a heat will need a lot of energy.” 

Zishu bit the inside of his cheek and said nothing, letting himself be pulled along while Chengling fell into step with him, happy to fill in the walk with innocent chatter about the process of clearing out and cleaning the pavilion for him to stay in. From there they discussed meditation techniques, comparing one Kexing had taught the boy that morning, no doubt to keep Zishu from being able to scold them for completely skipping out on Chengling’s training, to the ones Zishu had shown him. 

It was only as the talk wound down that Zhou Zishu realized they were sitting at the kitchen table, several cleared dishes and bowls between them. From the corner of his eye he saw Kexing not exactly subtly dropping more slivers of pickled vegetables into his bowl. His was the only one still full of food, both Kexing and Zhang Chengling’s bowls and chopsticks set aside in a way that gave the impression they’d finished a while ago. 

He scooped the vegetables into his mouth, chewing slowly as he watched Wen Kexing use his hands to sketch the way Chengling’s qi should be flowing doing a certain technique he wanted to teach their disciple, then cleared his throat. “How long have you been feeding me like this, without me noticing?” 

Kexing’s eyes cut to the side as his shoulders stiffened. “Since I noticed your scent return, I think. It’s an alpha’s place, you know, to see to the needs of their omega and is food not the most basic of those needs? Though, we should resupply, the stores are emptying faster than expected.” 

Zhou Zishu eyed the many empty dishes. “Shocking.”  

“Chengling and I will go to stock up tomorrow.” Wen Kexing said, dropping more food into Zishu’s bowl. “I wonder if bitter melon can be found this time of year.” 

His foolish heart skipped a beat in his chest. “I’ll go with you.” Zishu said, to cover the smile trying to take over his mouth. 

Kexing’s brow furrowed in silent disapproval but it was Zhang Chengling who gave voice to the thoughts they both seemed to share. “Is that a good idea Shifu? Don’t omegas usually stay isolated in preheat?” 

“Some do. I never have.” Zishu clicked a tongue dismissively. “What, are you worried about someone trying something with your old, sick shifu?” 

It was still hard to believe Kexing wanted him, it was too far fetched to imagine another alpha feeling the same, let alone being driven to acting on it. Nevermind that in the unlikely event that someone wasn’t dissuaded with a simple ‘No’ was unlikely to pose much of a threat to him anyway. He wasn’t so far gone he couldn’t defend himself.

Chengling’s eyes darted over to a blank faced Wen Kexing. “No, that’s not what I’m worried about at all.”   

Chapter Text

Two days later they left early in the morning, the sun just staining the sky in pale shades of blue and orange, to resupply. Zhou Zishu didn’t speak more than was necessary, not even when his companions attempted to pull him into their conversation. They stopped after a time, leaving him to his silence but not without shooting him looks of open concern on Chengling’s part and thoughtfulness on Kexing’s. It was different from their usual trips, he hadn’t been so withdrawn from them in some time, but he couldn’t seem to shake himself from the fog hanging over him or the dull pain behind his eyes. 

It was so different from the days before, swinging from bubbling warmth and cheer to a hard crash in the span of one night. 

He was torn between many moods and thoughts, unable to settle on just one or even settle fully in his own skin. He felt too large, trapped, in his body, too warm and too aware of the rasp of fabric and fur against him. His skin felt chafed raw from head to toe, like everything he wore was a size too small and ill fitting except that included his body as well, strangely tight around his bones, squeezing and jostling his insides with every step. Sweat dotted his brow in spite of the easy pace they were keeping, plans long made to take their time on this trip. They would spend the night at an inn, to accommodate a later arrival and some business Wen Kexing alluded to needing to take care of, and return the next day.

Restlessness blanketed him as heavy as the fur lined cloak around his shoulders, irritation and a clawing need for something he couldn’t-wouldn’t- yet face head on filled his chest, and a dozen other things swirled unpleasantly in his belly. It was all tempered by the fluttering edge of humor and fondness he felt as he trailed behind Chengling and Kexing and let their talk of what they needed to buy today and what was fit to be delivered later wash over him. 

He’d been woken up many times throughout the night and not for the pleasant reasons of the day before. Instead this time had been because of pain, settled deep at his core and rippling out in tight, muscle clenching spasms. It was far from the worst pain he’d ever felt in his life but it was unfamiliar and being unable to pinpoint the source had been worrying. No one had endured the nails like he had chosen to so there was no way of knowing what should be attributed to them or what turns his health might take going forward. Unexplained pain could herald complete blindness or a failure of his body that he couldn’t recover from; there was no way to know until it happened. 

He’d managed to get back to sleep on his own twice but the third time had driven him from Kexing’s side and out into the cold night, some faint impulse demanding he move . He’d only realized he was burning up, feverishly so, and dripping sweat when frigid air had dried-frozen-the moisture on his skin.  

He’d stayed out there, pacing one of the sparring circles with a hand pressed to his stomach, until Kexing had found him. The alpha had been half asleep but somehow able to look at him, shuffle off with an absent wave of his hand, and then return with a steaming pot and warmed cup. He’d corralled Zishu down to the ground, forcing him to sit in the cradle of his long legs, and informed him that he had an ‘aunt’ who had awful heat cramping, so terrible it affected her mind as well as her body, so he knew a remedy or two. Zishu had accepted the tea, bitter and faintly woody as it was, and hoped the alpha couldn’t read his mortification on his face. Heat cramping, a symptom of his womb making ready for the breeding his body would be so desperate for -but wouldn’t receive- once his heat truly began. A simple and obvious thing once it was placed before him but something he’d never suffered before. 

Even his first season had been under the careful administration of teas and tinctures, muting the effects of pre-heat and heat to something akin to a mild cold. His shifu had developed many ways to deal with heats, a necessity when dealing with so many young omegas with a wide range of needs and symptoms, and Zhou Zishu had only improved on them over the years. He had prided himself on being able to work unhindered through his heats. 

He’d never imagined he’d be stumbling into, and through, one naturally one day, or that he’d be approaching it with all the self awareness of a freshly matured child. It was enough to make him wish he’d picked up on what was happening sooner so he’d have a chance to stop his body from this ridiculous course of action before it could go any further. He’d known he was too far gone already, nesting and increased appetite were signs of that, but the cramping just proved it. 

Wen Kexing’s tea had done it’s work, soothing the cramping by the time he’d finished a second cup. He’d drank a third anyway at the alpha’s insistence then accepted being taken back inside so Kexing could wipe the cooled sweat from his skin.

“I can clean myself. I haven’t become any less capable than I was a week ago.” He said, even as he sat, unprotesting as Kexing took hold of his hair and drew it up and to the side. A warmed cloth drug over his neck, dipping below his collar as much as was his loosened top allowed.  It was a testament to how tired he was that he was letting Kexing do this at all and had only fought when it came to fully removing his sleep tunic. 

He knew it was a foolish line to draw, Wen Kexing had already seen his chest and would no doubt be seeing it again sooner rather than later, but his pride was battered enough for one night. He didn’t want to face the way Kexing’s eyebrows would furrow and his smile become tight at the sight of what Zhou Zishu had done to himself tonight. 

“It isn’t a matter of what you can do,” Kexing said, voice heavy with things unsaid. Zishu turned, just enough to catch the other man’s solemn expression. Kexing held his eyes for a moment before bending down to press his lips to the nape of his neck. It would take little to change the kiss to a bite, claiming Zishu as his for as long as the omega lived. He tensed, fingers twitching against his thighs; Kexing straightened up. “Won’t you let this doting wife take care of you, Zhou Zishu?” 

Zishu faced forward again, hair slipping from Kexing’s grip and falling forward over his shoulders. He allowed it, grateful to have it cover the blush he felt rising to the surface of his skin. Why, he wondered, did his heart beat harder now than it did when Kexing had him pressed against a wall, promising to give him anything he wanted? “My wife can do as he pleases, then.”

Sleep had come easy after that, though he’d gone to bed alone. Wen Kexing, entirely awake by that point, had seen him to their sleeping mats, checked the coals, and then left with a promise to return. Zhisu wasn’t sure if he had or not, having woken up alone with the blankets around him empty of any scent but his own. A strange sort of upset had settled under his skin at the realization, echoed in the unhappy snarl that had slipped through his lips when he’d reached for the alpha and found only a cold spot. The awakened beast in him had made itself known, a storm of unease stirred by winds of what he could only call fear. 

He’d tried to push it away, to calm the unhappy hissing in his brain that spoke of how it was wrong for his mate to not be at his side, refusing to give in to something he knew was foolish. In spite of being certain Kexing was fine, wherever he’d gone off to, the unease had settled in the pit of his stomach and grown until he left their room to find the man. 

Wen Kexing had been cooking, blissfully unaware that anything was amiss as he broke away from what he was doing to fuss over Zishu a little more. Zhou Zishu hadn’t brought it up, not knowing how he could begin to explain the unwelcome directionless upset that refused to be budged. Even if he could he wouldn’t have done it, not caring for the feeling or how...cracked open it left him feeling. Exposed. 

He’d hoped the walk would do something to help, burn off the restless energy if nothing else, but by the time the city was in sight Zishu felt no better. In fact the weight in his belly became a knot of tension and the buzzing beneath his skin a discomforting burn as they blended into the bustling crowd of people coming to visit the market. It was nothing he hadn’t dealt with before, and in much larger cities with far more people, but as they walked closer to the market proper and the crowd became thicker around them Zishu felt boxed in. It wasn’t that anyone in particular was coming too close, in fact he seemed to be being given a wider berth than he expected in a busy market, and yet it all seemed too enclosed, too tight. The noise was not the usual easily disregarded din, but blended into a single sharp pressure that sliced him to the bone.

Losing his sense of hearing completely would have been a blessing. 

The pain behind his eyes was becoming a pulsing ache. 

How did other omegas go through this twice a year? 

“I’ll go to the inn,” Zhang Chengling said, twisting around to address Zishu. “To get our rooms. Where should I meet you after?”

“The apothecary is this way.” Wen Kexing was at his side suddenly, broad palm pressing against his lower back. Zishu stiffened, not registering the spark the touch set off under his skin as something other than pain until it was gone, Kexing’s hand vanishing as quickly as it had appeared. “You can find us there.” 

Chengling nodded and, with a little wave, turned and melted into the flow of the crowd with an ease far out of his reach only weeks ago. Zhou Zishu watched him until he was out of sight, biting at the inside of his cheek as his stomach twisted in on itself. He wanted to go after the boy, to...to...to-

He didn’t know, and that infuriated him! How could he be so outside of himself, swamped under the crushing weight of thoughts he couldn’t pin down and emotion that washed over him with no cause? How could his teeth be set on edge and a growl trapped in his throat by some desire to act, so fierce that he was vibrating from keeping himself back, when he didn’t know what he wanted to act on?

“You can go with him.” Kexing said, so soft that Zishu shouldn’t have been able to hear him above the roar of the crowd, piercing as it was. But he could and answered on reflex, body turning towards the alpha as he hummed in acknowledgement. Kexing was further away, two steps that could have been an impassable canyon for how Zishu’s stomach dropped, hands clasped behind his back. 

Touch me, Zishu didn’t say past the dry tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth. Come back.  

He shook his head and forced himself to move, away from Zhang Chengling and away from Kexing. The path to the small square where the town’s best supplied herbalist lived and worked was familiar even after so long away. He’d visited often enough with his master’s wife, watching her pick out seeds for the gardens and select herbs for his shifu, learned at her side how to identify the best quality ingredients and what could work in the place of other things when out of season. They were good memories, even if they brought a bitter twinge with them. 

The crowd was thinner in this part of the town and Zhou Zishu’s breath came to him with less effort. 

“What do you need here?” He asked. Had the alpha been able to tell he was in pain and taken him in search of a remedy (when wine would have done just as well) or was that going to be a convenient side effect of the trip? 

Wen Kexing’s fan was suddenly in his hand, tapping gently against his other wrist. “Something to make sure we don’t end up repeating the same blunder as A-Xiang and her omega. Unless you’ve changed your mind about my seed. ” 

It took a long moment for understanding to dawn, thoughts taking a shamefully guilt and lust soaked detour at the thought of Kexing’s seed, and a moment longer to control the bark of laughter that burst from him. “Has that silly girl gone and made you a grandfather so soon?” 

Kexing sighed mournfully. “I don’t know where they found the time, but I could smell it on him before they parted from us.” A flip of his wrist opened the fan and brought it to his face but not before Zishu saw a flicker of a smile. “You would think no one taught her about ways to keep a garden from growing where it isn’t yet wanted no matter the season.”

“An area you have lots of skill in, I’m sure.” 

“Oh?” Kexing gasped, voice dripping with scandalized offense. Over the top edge of the fan Zhou Zishu saw his eyes dancing with humor. “What are you suggesting?” 

“Lao Wen is very good at looking after a heating omega. I assume that comes from practice.” 

“Does A-Xu truly not realize there has only ever been one omega for this alpha?” He laughed, lashes fluttering coquettishly over his fan. “Since I matured I’ve compared all scents to the memory of one from when I was young and found them lacking; I could never have spent a heat or rut with any omega but him.” 

Zishu faltered in his steps, head whipping around. He tried to read the curve of Wen Kexing’s eyes for truthfulness or a trace of the joke it must have been and wished he could see the slant of his mouth, the shape of words, to go with it. Laughter filled the space between them, a rumble that Zishu would swear he felt vibrate through him in spite of the distance, as impossible to read anything from as the man himself was. 

It had to be a joke, didn’t it? Kexing- Yan - had been so young, an alpha in potential but not yet realized, and they’d had so little time together when he really thought about it. Enough to leave an impression, yes, a pebble of memory that had rested inside of him, worn over and smoothed into a perfect idyllic afternoon, but enough to influence so many years later? Impossible. He hadn’t even matured then, his scent only just starting to change from that of a child.

“Were you not waiting for me as well?” Wen Kexing asked, fan moving back and forth lazily. 

“No.” Zhou Zishu deadpanned. 

But, some cruel part of himself whispered, hadn’t he? No shared heats or ruts laid in his past, no alpha he’d been able to tolerate long enough to even sleep beside let alone long enough to be stuck with for over a week. Wasn’t it strange that they stood here, at this point, with that of all things shared between them? Strange like finding his shidi all these years later and happening across Zhang Chengling, a boy too pure hearted for his own good, so close to the slaughter of his family. 

He wanted to push those thoughts, and all they seemed to want to suggest of the cruel flow of fate, away but they lingered the rest of the way to the apothecary. Even the broken hearted air and moaning of being crushed by his cruelty that Wen Kexing kept up couldn’t shake it away.   

Inside the small shop was just as he remembered, walls lined with shelves boasting boxes of herbs, dried and fresh, and a small counter topped with scales and weights at the back. Incense was burning, wisps of white smoke painting the air with a spiced-musk smell; the pressure behind his eyes lessened further. 

Behind the counter sat a small woman, dark hair streaked with steel pinned to the top of her head, dark eyes peering out from a well creased face. She rose from her seat as he came closer, clicking her tongue. 

“Madam Hu.” He greeted, clasping his hands together. “It has been many years.” 

She didn’t respond with words. Instead her hand darted out, fast but not so fast he couldn’t have avoided it, to grab his hand. Her touch was cool and far from what one could call gentle as she wrenched his arm forward and pushed his sleeves back in order to place fingers at his pulse point. A low growl at his back was all the warning he had before Wen Kexing surged forward. Zishu threw out his free arm to catch his alpha across the chest, hand curling against the man’s side to further dissuade him from moving. 

“Lao Wen,” he murmured. “Control yourself.” 

Madam Hu lifted an eyebrow; he felt her tense and saw a flicker of surprised fear in her eyes but her expression stayed placid. Those living in the shadow of Four Season’s Manor didn’t startle easily but he doubted any had ever encountered a man like Wen Kexing either. He didn’t blame her for being afraid, he could only imagine Kexing was wearing one of those terrible faces he tried to keep from Zishu.  

She dropped his hand with an uncaring huff. Her voice only shook a little as she shook a scolding finger at him. “Zhou Zishu, have you brought this feral beast to your master’s home for your season when he hasn’t even claimed you? Shameful.” 

“Ayi, this is Wen Kexing, my shidi.” He said, pointedly bypassing her assumption, true as it was, and ignoring the low snarl from behind him. She squinted over his shoulder at the alpha then, snorting, flapped a hand towards the door. 

“Send him out. I won’t have an alpha younger than my own pups snapping at me as I work. What does he think, I’m to run off with you? Worry not, feral creature, if I were to leave my mate it would be for a strapping, handsome alpha with a large knot and broad shoulders.” 

She tottered off towards one of the shelves with that rather unfortunate bit of knowledge forever burned into Zishu’s brain. He waited until she was out of earshot, he hoped, before laying as unimpressed a look as he could manage on the alpha. Wen Kexing, to his credit, managed to look almost contrite, as a puppy who knew it was about to be punished might. 

“A-Xu-”

“Out.” He pushed at the alpha’s chest. “Madam Hu’s alpha runs the butcher shop next door. You wanted meat, didn’t you? Tell her I sent you, she may overlook that you’ve been thrown out by her wife.” 

Kexing’s mouth twisted. “I’m not leaving.” 

“Idiot.” He said as much to himself as to Wen Kexing. When had he become so far gone for this man that even this made his heart skip a beat in his chest? Had he always been so foolish, so soft, underneath all his layers? “Is next door too far for you? How about outside? You can stand like a dog awaiting its master if that pleases you more.” 

Kexing shrugged. “If you’d let allow it I’d go to my knees and lick-”

“Outside, you disgusting, shameless, knotbrained bastard!” A hard shove punctuated each ground out word, pushing the other man back. “Is your face really so thick? How can you say such things in front of others?” 

The alpha was grinning now, unapologetic. The sounds Madam Hu was making grew louder, boxes hitting the shelves with unnecessarily loud thumps; each one was a stab of shame to his heart. It would be kinder to his nerves to just kill the man and himself rather than turn and face her. 

Kexing lifted his hands in a show of surrender that Zhou Zishu didn’t trust in the least and, as expected, the minute he let the hand on the man’s chest lose the tension behind it he was being dragged into Wen Kexing’s arms. It was a loose hold, he could have slipped free with little effort if so inclined, but a quiet croon in his ear kept him in place in spite of his growing embarrassment. He was enveloped in the flowing sleeves of Kexing’s robes, brought to the man’s chest and, in the shadow of all that fabric, a wrist was touched to the back of neck then dragged around to the side, fingers curling at his nape. 

Zhou Zishu swallowed, fingers curling against Wen Kexing’s chest. He hadn’t been scent marked by anyone since he was a child. He’d grown out of it earlier than most, a side effect of his heats starting when he was younger than Chengling was now, and as close as he’d been to his juniors by the time he’d thought to miss the casual contact of their younger days there had been no one left who didn’t look at him with rage or grief. It went without saying that he’d never considered allowing anyone outside of his sect such a liberty. 

It was too intimate, said too much, to let someone leave their scent on him in such a loud way. Incidental transfer was one thing but scent marking was putting a lantern lit sign around his neck, proclaiming him as tied to the marker, an extension of that person. It was protection, in a way, as good as saying ‘harm to this one is the same as harm to the person who has marked them’, and in other ways it was a mark of care. Or, to some, it was a claim of ownership, a mark of territory, little different from when animals marked a tree. 

Less disgusting in act but the message was the same: ‘This one is mine.’

It was over quickly, a wrist against the mating gland, dragged to his scent gland and held for a few long beats of his heart and then Wen Kexing was slipping away, hands tucked away in his sleeves. He didn’t try to move away from the hand Zishu slapped against his cheek, the sound loud but the force not even enough to redden his flesh. Kexing left, Zishu glaring at his back, but the ‘I’ll be next door,” he threw over his shoulder was dripping with smugness. Zhou Zishu would have snapped back if his throat wasn’t clogged by a sudden lump and his mouth hadn’t gone dry. His insides were squirming, heated and twisted up. 

“He might as well just bend you over out in the square. It would be less awkward for me.” 

“Ayi.” Zishu muttered, pressing a hand to his eyes. “Please.” 

“Scenting you in public! How bold that alpha of yours is.” She continued, unmoved by his shame. “And you, glowing like the sun. Such a dour child and this is how you turn out, courting a shameless creature like that? Where did you find such a man?” 

He wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t. 

He was but he didn’t turn around to return to the counter until he had it under control. He bowed when he reached her. “My apologies, Madam Hu. Wen Kexing is-” 

“Stop, stop. Grind these herbs, if you haven’t forgotten your lessons, and save me the work. Finely, I think. A mixture, for your man, to keep him from rutting.” She explained as he loaded the tray of herbs she pushed towards him into the grinder. “A sweet face, but feral in his nature; he’ll rut for sure. In the state you're in a rut will kill you.”  

There was humor in her voice but a thread of seriousness as well. He stilled for a moment then inclined his head in acknowledgement. She was likely right, and he was a fool to not have considered it. He hadn’t even asked Kexing when his last rut had been or if he was likely to be triggered by a heat, too wrapped up in other things to bother with the most basic of details. 

He didn’t have personal experience with ruts but he knew that, for all they were rumored to be violent and animalistic times that stripped alphas to their most base natures, that it was more involved than just fucking until exhaustion took hold. But there was also that and if he was in heat at the same time he wasn’t sure either of them would be able to manage things well enough to ensure it didn’t go beyond that. 

Sex until his heart gave out didn’t sound terrible, but Kexing was unlikely to see the humor or pleasure in it. 

“You’re very sick. Dying, if you continue this way.” Hu said, eyes on the dried herbs she was separating into paper sachets. She was slower at it than he remembered, hands trembling minutely as she sorted and packed. “Steep these in warm, not hot, water for ten minutes then drink it with your morning meal from now until your heat ends. For stamina and strength, let your man know. Did you want to be pupped or not?” 

He cut his eyes over to her sharply. “Didn’t you just say I was dying?” 

“That alpha of yours has the look of one who won’t let you go so easily.” She sniffed, dismissive. “Even if I’m wrong about him, I could keep you alive long enough. A hard pregnancy but not the hardest I’ve tended to. Your alpha would be good for a few beautiful pups. The raising of them is a different matter.”

“There’s a girl,” Zishu said, wanting to defend that which didn’t need defending. It didn’t matter, he would be giving Wen Kexing no pups and he was saying more than he should (the familiar walls and scent, the timber of Madam Wu’s voice, it was making him too lax) but the words still fell from his mouth. 

“His? A good girl then?” 

His lips twitched into a wry smile. Good? Gu Xiang was...loud and brash. Blunt. As rude as Wen Kexing was charming. Violent. Half feral, all teeth and claws and harsh broken angles beneath her fair face. Kind, in her way, be it in saving two girls she didn’t know or her often abrasive care for Zhang Chengling. Soft, at the edges of the smiles she had for Cao Weining and the touches they shared when they thought no one was looking. 

“Yes.” 

She hummed, somehow both noncommittal and amused. “Then I ask again, Zhou Zishu, do you need herbs to keep from being pupped or not?”

Zhou Zishu opened his mouth then, brow furrowing, shut it again. Madam Hu was not the sort of woman or omega one could argue with. She’d been set in her ways long before Zishu had been born and was likely to continue in them long after his ashes had been put to rest. Best to just answer her question and move on so she could give him what he’d need to ensure no accidents occured. 

“Could I?” Was not what he finally parted his lips to say, but the words hung in the air, said with his voice, spoken from his mouth. Hu lifted her head to blink a question at him. He tapped the counter top, voice dropping. “I am sick. Until a few days ago I was sure I would never go into heat again.” 

“You might not, after this one. I can’t say for sure,” Hu added quickly. “But this heat...you’ve been in preheat longer than usual, haven’t you? Felt strange? Clingy at times but furious right after. Joyful only to be miserable for no reason. Sleeping later, pre-heat pain worse than usual, endless hunger and a sweet tooth? Headache and nausea when you leave your nest? The scents of non-pack members turns your stomach? Yes, I can see I’m right from the look on your face. Listen well: once your heat begins a beta passing close by could get a litter on you.” 

“I-” He started. 

“You’ll be so fertile another omega might be able to manage it, to say nothing of that alpha you’ve attached yourself to.” She pushed the filled sachets across the counter to him. “These things can happen, when an omega is unkind to their body." Unkind to his body. Understatement wasn't a strong enough word to describe how far 'unkind' was from what he'd done to himself. "A period without heats and then one last season, as if the body has been saving up for one last attempt at it, before infertility. I’ll prepare the tea and you can decide later, I’m afraid I don’t have time for the crisis you’re look like you're about to have. And wine, for your head.” 

Zhou Zishu smiled thinly, reminding himself that arguing would be pointless. She wouldn’t listen to him explain that he’d never intended to have pups so hearing that he likely wouldn’t be able to after this head made no difference to him or that he'd already gained a child, of sorts, completely by accidentally, mostly against his will, who he desperately wished to have more time with even as he was starting to suspect that no amount of time would be enough. He’d already gone through accepting that he wouldn't have children, when the nails had robbed him of so many things, and it hadn’t been worth caring about then and wasn't it worth less now when he already had so much more than he'd ever thought to hope he would? If it hadn’t mattered before why would it matter now?

The thought of trying to bring a child into the world when he knew there was a chance he'd die after turned his stomach. Wasn't it bad enough to leave Wen Kexing and Zhang Chengling behind to mourn him? 

So why did his chest feel hollow? 

---

“You’re upset.” Was how Wen Kexing greeted him when he stepped out of the store, pouch of herbs hanging from his wrist and a cup of wine with something for his head and stomach dissolved into it warming his belly. “What did that old witch do to you?” 

“Lao Wen,” Zishu called as he brushed past the man. “I’m hungry. Buy me something sweet?” 

It was almost frightening how easy it was to shift Kexing’s entire focus with a simple request. “There was a fried dough stand we passed. Will that do?” 

Zishu nodded. “I’ll stay here, to wait for Chengling.” A shadow passed over Wen Kexing’s face; Zishu could hear the protest before it was spoken. He touched the back of the alpha’s hand then, meeting dark eyes, drug his fingers around to touch the inside of Kexing’s wrist. “Please.” 

There was some guilt, faint but impossible to completely ignore, at using old tricks on Wen Kexing. Not enough to take it back when the alpha visibly melted for him, but enough to resolve to not repeat it when his alpha hurried off to bring him what he’d asked for. It was for the best, Wen Kexing would hopefully forget that he’d seemed upset by the time he returned, allowing Zhou Zishu a reprieve from explaining. If he hadn’t forgotten Zhang Chengling would have caught up by then, providing an excuse to avoid the subject. 

Actually, he thought as he cast a look in the direction Kexing had gone in, Chengling should have long since arrived. The inn wasn’t that far from where they’d split up and his disciple was quick on his feet these days. Even accounting for a delay securing rooms there was no reason for the boy to have been gone so long. It wasn’t like Chengling to delay without cause, not after all the trouble they’d encountered in their time together. 

The boy was, on occasion, an idiot but he wasn’t a complete fool. He knew better than to disappear or wander off. 

Something was wrong. 

He didn’t have far to go to find his disciple thankfully, out of the square and a few paths over he heard a familiar voice, catching his ear above all the noise of the market. 

“Don’t touch me!” 

Ice gripped Zhou Zishu’s heart, wrapped around it and then cracked under the heat of bubbling rage. Chengling sounded annoyed and scared, but not as terrified as he would if it was another kidnapping or murder attempt. He also hadn’t called out for him yet, so the problem was unlikely to be too serious.

Unfortunately for whoever had waylaid his disciple he didn’t know that he was in the mood to scale his response down to non-serious. 

Zishu had never had ‘trouble’ with pushy alphas, his martial arts doing much to dissuade anyone who couldn’t take a hint. Despite his personal experience he was not unaware of how difficult the world could be for omegas. Even young ones who hadn’t yet come into their scents. 

Maybe especially young ones. 

He had become too used to being on the lookout for their numerous enemies coming for Zhang Chengling and forgotten about the other dangers. A mistake on his part and, as he rounded a corner to find his disciple being crowded against one of the tables set up outside of a tea house by a small group of men (Young men. Teenagers, actually, faces just losing the roundness of youth, in the matching leaf green and white of some minor sect. Not too much older than Zhang Chengling, if he was in the mood to guess but the way one of the boys was twisting a lock of Chengling’s hair around his finger did not put him in that mood.) one he intended to not just correct but never make again. 

He should have shown Chengling how to break a man’s wrist as his first lesson. Against one of Scorpion or Zhou Zishu's former men it would do him no good but against a horny teenager who hadn't been taught proper manners it would do plenty. 

Teaching him today would have to make up for the oversight.

Chapter Text

 

It was tempting to just rush in and break the fingers on the hand that dared touch his disciple- pup - without his consent, but Zishu managed to keep his pace sedate and his eyes open as he walked towards the scene. A few heads turned his way, a few noses lifting to scent the air before with interest in their eyes, only to recoil or shrink in on themselves. Strange reactions but Zhou Zishu saw it only in passing, attention skimming as like water on oil over all but those closest to Zhang Chengling. 

The crowd was louder and more energetic here. A fair number of people seemed to have interest in this tucked away part of the city with it’s slightly run down establishments. Nothing that would raise eyebrows, but very much the sort of places he would expect to find a group of disciples let off their leashes for a time: inexpensive with an allowance for boisterous behavior and no small number of inns and restaurants to drink at as well as a brothel or two waiting for nightfall to open their doors.   

In spite of the chill in the air there were about a dozen people crowded around the tables outside of the tea house: young men in matching sect robes, weapons set aside but still close enough to be grabbed quickly if needed. Servers with pretty painted faces attended to them, pouring steaming drinks and carrying trays laden with stacked dishes. A few were looking away from where Chengling had been pinned, expressions ranging from disapproval to red faced shame, but none looked inclined to get involved. Others were watching outright, eyes bright with the careless cruelty that many young alphas Zhou Zishu had met showed. 

Bullying a young omega, out alone, was nothing more than a few minutes of fun to them. They would forget about it the minute Chengling was out of their sight, be it because he got away, went willingly, or was carried off by their handsy companion of no importance to them, and never spare the moment another thought. 

Alphas like that were more common than not among nobility and the wealthy in his experience. It came with having wealth, status, the unearned confidence from having a knot and the knowledge that trouble would flow over them like water over a bird’s wings. It could be an ugly mixture if the adults around a child didn’t temper it early. It was unfortunate if that was the case here; Zishu knew he was going to be less kind than the firm hand of a parent would have been. 

“You should let us walk you home.” The boy with his hands on Chengling was saying, voice syrupy sweet. “The sun will set soon and it isn’t safe for an omega to be out alone. I would shame my sect if I didn’t escort you.” 

Chengling, his no self-preservation having, crybaby, idiot of a disciple, barked out a laugh. Zhou Zishu could only see his face in profile but it was enough to know the stormy expression was one out of place on such a young face. It spoke to all the things Chengling had seen these past months, of all the things lost and torn from him. If the boy stroking his hair had an ounce of sense he would have backed off but instead he snarled, puffing up like a furious bird, yanked at the lock of hair wound around his fingers, forcing Zhang Chengling’s head back, and ducked his head down towards his neck. Zhou Zishu couldn’t see what the boy was doing but Chengling hissed, a shuddering exhale of pain through clenched teeth then yelped in surprise before pushing at the boy.

Stop! ” 

Zishu’s vision dripped red. 

There was no time between Zhou Zishu deciding he’d seen more than enough and crossing the space that remained between him and the boys. He flowed through the milling crowd, weaving close to but never touching any of the passerbyers, leapt easily over a table and the gaping teenagers sitting at it, and landed lightly on one foot. Zhou Zishu spun, arm sweeping out to knock one of the flanking boys back into a table with a hard palm to the chest as he caught the other one with a kick that tumbled him backwards into a group of his slowly rising friends. 

Zishu grabbed the wrist of the hand gripping Chengling’s hair at the same moment his other foot touched the ground. He didn’t pull the boy away, firstly because he didn’t want to cause his disciple any more pain, and secondly because said disciple had, in the time it took Zishu to get to him, produced a small blade from somewhere and Zhou Zishu didn’t want to startle him. (It looked like one of Gu Xiang’s, the thin ornate hilt fitting easily in Zhang Chengling’s palm, curved blade wickedly sharp. It was very like her to have left such a gift behind.) Chengling’s other hand was covering part of his neck and, for all that he was shaking and the sour milk scent of his fear was strong enough for Zishu’s nose to pick up, his eyes were dry and his face stern. The blade was raised in clear threat but not yet angled to strike. 

How was it possible to be both proud of and devastated by something in the same moment? 

Chengling’s eyes flickered up to meet Zishu’s and widened in surprise. Then, all at once, his expression cracked and his lip wobbled. 

“Shifu.” Chengling said, voice thick and lashes fluttering; his shoulders fell, all the tension leaving him. He looked like he was going to cry. Ah, there was the little idiot he knew. Just this once Zhou Zishu wouldn’t even scold him if he did cry. 

Wouldn’t scold him much. 

“Did no one teach you to keep your hands to yourself?” Zishu asked, tone light in spite of the icy pit growing low in his stomach. There was some tittering laughter around them, the other disciples amused to see their companions taken down by an omega. They didn’t see real danger in it yet, or perhaps had drunk enough wine to become stupid. “Are the morals of even smaller sects so lacking these days?” 

“Did no one teach him to not wander around smelling of heat if he doesn’t want attention?” The boy scoffed, obnoxiously lively considering Zishu had him so tightly by the arm. “Or has he learned shamelessness from his master?” 

Zishu slammed his foot down into the back of one of the alpha boy’s knees, hard enough that a grating pop rang out. Chengling flinched, eyes growing saucer wise as the boy crumpled on the spot, dropping to the ground with a painful sounding thud. Zhou Zishu held his hand in place, uncaring of the awkward angle it pulled the boy’s arm and shoulder at or of the sounds of benches scraping and plates rattling. He didn’t need to look to know that the boy’s companions were arming themselves to rise to their fellow disciple’s defense, no longer seeing humor in the situation. It was expected and even if it weren’t the panicked flick of Zhang Chengling’s eyes gave it away. 

He wasn’t concerned with them. They would stay where they were for fear of him hurting their companion and even if they didn’t he wasn’t threatened by the presence of a handful of teenagers. It would take a far worse state than the one he was in before a bunch of children became a risk to him.

There was a more immediate concern to address. 

Zhou Zishu cast a look at his disciple, brows lifting in unspoken question. Chengling was years too young for his heats to start but it wasn’t impossible. Zishu had started cycling younger than Zhang Chengling was now, the result of proximity to so many older omegas going through their own seasons, the same could be true of his disciple. And, if not that, then he could be from a bloodline that bloomed early. With no living omega parent it was unlikely the boy would know one way or the other what to expect. Worse, with Cao Weining, who’d gone and gotten himself pregnant within weeks of meeting Gu Xiang, and Zhou Zishu, more clueless than a freshly matured omega, to look to as examples he was likely to learn only the worst habits.

He’d never imagined he’d have the task of teaching another omega to navigate though things like heat cycles and predicting when ones would start when he barely bothered with them himself. 

Zhang Chengling’s cheeks flushed red. “I-I’m not- Shifu, I would have said.”

That left one option: another lapse in thought on Zhou Zishu’s thought. His own scent had rubbed off on Chengling, preheat scent and all. Chengling and Lao Wen likely hadn’t noticed it, the transferred scent would be near impossible to pick up with the source nearby, but Zhou Zishu was no stranger to living among other omegas. He remembered how, when Four Seasons had been full of life, the older disciples had always been careful with the younger ones when their seasons came, careful to keep them close and away from alphas who would take advantage, because transfer was near impossible to avoid in the course of living together. 

He shouldn’t have let Chengling out of his sight.

“Let me go!” The boy was shouting, sounding as much on the verge of tears as Chengling did. His other arm flailed back, fingers curled like claws. Zhou Zishu avoided it easily, body reacting without sparing the wild blows a thought. He gripped harder, worked with the jerky movements of the boy’s body to keep him under control, in a manner of speaking. “I said release me! How dare you-”

He pressed his thumb into the boy’s frantically beating pulse with vicious pressure. The boy’s fingertips, still twined in Chengling’s hair, bloomed purple immediately. The boy hissed. 

“Did my disciple not ask you to do the same? Yet here you are, with your filthy hands still on him.” As if in response, purpling fingers clenched tighter on the clump of Chengling’s hair he was holding. Zishu wasn’t entirely certain the boy could let go, even if he’d wanted to, in the position he was in. Bothersome, every passing moment the little bastard was touching his disciple just made the snarling beast at the back of his mind slink closer to the surface, bare its teeth as Zishu showed his. His chest vibrated with the subvocal growl he couldn’t push back and the fire that had taken hold of his core cooled, washed over by a wave of ice. 

“If you apologize,” He bite out. “I won’t shatter your wrist.”  

He would still break it but he’d do it cleanly to give it a good chance to heal well instead of potentially taking the boy’s ability to hold a sword ever again. It was more than the alpha boy deserved, Zishu thought as he looked at the hand Chengling was still holding tightly to his neck, but he didn’t want Chengling to feel badly about a boy being crippled for life. 

Besides he could always find the boy later if he found the apology didn’t thaw the icy grip of fury around his heart. 

An outraged look was tossed back at him over the boy’s shoulder. His face was flushed and his eyes narrowed, glistening with escaped tears but all Zhou Zishu saw was the wetness of the mouth he’d put to Chengling’s neck. His scent, acrid and medicinal, flared in response to his indignation.  “Apologize? To omegas?” 

The boy spit on the ground, dangerously close to Chengling’s feet. Zhou Zishu growled, the pulsing red painting the world deepening, and wrenched the boy’s arm higher. The boy yelped, free hand clamping down on his own shoulder as his expression shuddered. The defiance strengthening his spine visibly drained from him as he made a valiant effort at curling in on himself.  

“Shifu…” Zhang Chengling said, looking past him. “We should go.” 

Someone behind them was running away, shrilly shouting their “Shige! Shige!” 

Zishu slammed his hand down between the boy’s shoulder blades, forcing him further down and his shoulder further out of place. The furious shouting turned into wailing. Zishu inclined his head towards the boy’s wrist, eyes on his disciple and the hand he still kept on his neck, hiding his skin.  “Zhang Chengling, watch closely. This is your lesson for today.” 

It was a simple thing, less about strength as it was angle and pressure. A push and twist while squeezing, a hard wrench and the boy was howling, more animal than man as he thrashed around. Zishu held fast to his ruined wrist, able to feel the splinters of bone beneath the thin layer of skin, and wrenched again, rotating the hyper extended limb until he felt another snap. The boy jerked, shuddered, and then went limp, kept upright only by Zishu’s grip. He dropped him, mouth twisting into a frown as he landed in a motionless heap; Chengling’s hair slipped through slack fingers. 

Zishu’s anger seeped deeper, grinding in his stomach as ice flows passing each other, at the sight. Chengling had endured torture and a beating from two of the Scorpion King’s generals with less fuss. How annoying that this weak brat would be so bold as to try and force his attention on someone he wasn’t worthy to taste the scent of. He should break the other arm and a few teeth to better teach the boy to be wiser in how he used his hands and mouth or, at least, to make sure he understood that he’d made a grave error in setting his sights on Zishu’s pup. He could think on the error of his ways while the jaw Zishu was tempted to drop his foot onto mended. 

“What’s this?” A deep booming voice called from the direction of the tea house entrance. Zhou Zishu turned, noting that with their fellow disciple down the others had come closer, weapons raised and ready to strike, a ripple of anticipation vibrating the air around them. Parting the crowd easily, was a tall broad man. His robes were the same color, though of a slightly different cut; that and age- Zishu would put him at mid-twenties if pressed- a higher ranked disciple. He was followed by others, all noticeably older than the group sitting outside. 

Their ‘leader’ walked with the confidence of one who’d answered every challenge in his life and won handily, shoulders back, spine straight, and head high. The others looked at him with respect and no small amount of awe. 

Zhou Zishu was considerably less impressed, the young alpha not stirring anything in him except further irritation. True it took much to move him, with all he’d seen and the many people he’d met. This kid couldn’t compare to the disciples of Yue Yang or even the soft hearted Cao Weining. The Yue Yang brats had been annoying as well in how they’d taken their frustration with their master’s plans and perceived slighting of Deng Kuan out on Chengling, but at least they’d had the training and discipline to back it up. There was nothing in this rowdy crowd worth a second look, though the numbers could end up being bothersome.

A hand at his elbow drew his focus back to Chengling. “We need to go before Shishu finds us.”

Chengling’s tone was low and urgent, trying to impart some information with his voice and the widening of his eyes. Zishu hummed, a jolt of hunger twisting his belly at mention of his alpha. The threat to their pup was handled so it would be good to find his alpha now.

“Go?” The swaggering man bellowed, far louder than was needed, still on his path to them. The other disciples swarmed behind him, filling the space he’d left and shrinking the loose semi-circle they’d formed into. “You’ve harmed my shidi badly, over a little fun, and now you mean to go just like that?” 

The man lifted his head to scent the air before replying, inhaling deeply and lifting his eyebrows in a deliberate manner. “You have an alpha, where are they? I have no interest in speaking to a heat addled omega.” 

Hand dropping from his elbow Chengling sighed, the noise bursting with resignation. “I’ll be over there Shifu.” 

What happened next unfolded quickly, moving them from an uneasy holding pattern to violence in seconds. Zhang Chengling turned, intent to walk away plain. The man before them reached out for the boy. Zishu caught him by the arm, pivoting and throwing the man’s not inconsiderable weight over his shoulder and through the table Chengling had been caught against, reducing it to splinters and shards of pottery. The other disciples surged forward, enraged shouts blending into one echoing scream. Zishu met them, sword slipping from it’s sheath at his back to parry a flurry of blows as he weaved between them, taking a few off their feet. 

Credit where it was due, none were so impressive on their own but they worked well together, watching each other’s backs and quick to jump in when another seemed to be in trouble. It made fighting them more difficult than he would have guessed but he fell into it, stripping weapons from shaking hands and driving the air from lungs with hard strikes while moving rapidly away from swipes of sword and dagger. 

He looked for Chengling at one point and found the boy had attracted a few of the disciples but was doing well at leading them around the area, always just out of range of their attempts to catch or strike them. They looked surprisingly battered considering that the younger omega didn’t seem to be fighting back but the question of how that was happening was answered when he saw one teen stumble into another before falling flat on their faces. 

Good boy. Nothing to worry, for now. If he could avoid assassins Chengling could surely avoid a few angry boys his own age. 

He was knocking away a chopping strike with one hand and using his sword to parry a blow when Wen Kexing finally caught up. The young man on the other end of the sword was, rather suddenly, not. Instead he was sailing through the air in a flurry of whipping fabric and flailing limbs to hit the ground hard. Kexing was there in his place, teeth bared and a bone rattling growl clawing all the air from Zishu’s chest and driving the thoughts from his head, then rushing past him to grab another man by the throat. Kexing lifted him what looked like effortlessly before slamming him down onto the ground mercilessly. When he lifted his hand it was smeared with blood; crescent shaped gouges lined the pale skin of the young man’s throat, spilling red in thick rivulets. The man coughed, a fine spray of red dotting the pale violet of Kexing’s sleeve.

Shock rippled through the knot of disciples, a few stepping back. Zishu opened his mouth, unsure of what he wanted to say; Kexing looked his way and when their eyes met a shock hit him in the chest. The sly intelligence and mischief he was used to in his alpha's eyes was dimmed, gone, and all that stared out at him was a fathomless chasm of animal madness. His alpha turned away, hissing out a low guttural noise as he caught a man coming at him from behind with a sharp elbow to the face with a flurry of blows at its heels. 

Zhou Zishu’s body decided this was the moment for his knees to go weak and his head fuzzy as a thick wave of want tried to choke him. 

He didn’t need Wen Kexing’s help. He had this well in hand. Swooning over a bloody display was ridiculous. He had never enjoyed the way some alphas tried to show off with violence, acting as if their ability with a sword in a spar meant they deserved attention. He’d always put that kind of would-be suitor in their place by showing them that he needed no one to defend him and, to the contrary, that they needed someone to save them from him. It was the presumption that he would be impressed by such a thing, as if he needed protection or an alpha to prove they could provide it, that had set his teeth on edge the most. 

Wen Kexing was not trying to impress and this was no pretty display of skill to catch his eye. It was just strength that was kept hidden behind a pretty face and expensive clothing and brutality unleashed in a fit of rage. It was an animal, the dark thing he sometimes caught peeking out from behind Wen Kexing's eyes, showing tooth and claw as he tore through those who hadn't heeded the warning his scent marking had left on Zhou Zishu. 

'This is mine, how dare you.'

He had never wanted to belong to anyone, had always hated the idea of claims and marks and alphas treating omegas like territory to chase other's away from. A young Zhou Zishu would have hated this. 

Or maybe even as a younger man he would have fallen for Wen Kexing and been struck near immobile by his own twisted arousal in the face of Kexing's violence. Zishu rocked back on his heels, hands dropping to his side, and watched his alpha leave blood dripping on stone and earth, and felt the ice that had filled him melt into the same wet, heady lust that had made its home in his body in the days previous. 

He was going to have a hard time mentally justifying his erection as caused by appreciation of Kexing's form later.  

“Are you okay?” Chengling asked, popping up at his side. “Shouldn't we stop him?”

His reply inviting Chengling to try if he wanted stalled on his tongue, turning to sour venom and rot as his eyes fell to a livid red mark on the younger omega’s neck, overlapping the raised flesh of his mating gland.

“Did he bite you?” Zhou Zishu grabbed his disciple's chin and met no  physical resistance when he tilted it up to get a better look at the angry red mark on his neck, though the boy’s eyes fell and his lips pressed into a thin line. Anger or shame or something else he couldn’t say; his disciples usually expressive eyes were shuttered to him. 

“Yes.” His disciple said, unneeded now that Zishu was looking for himself. The skin wasn’t broken but there was a deep impression of teeth, perfectly outlined. The mark was fever hot under the press of his thumb. 

Chengling wasn’t old enough for a bite to stay and scar but even shallow marks were painful as they faded. The boy had likely gone for his throat knowing that and simply wanted to terrorize with no intention of binding Chengling to him. Who had taught that boy to be so vicious as to play right on what many omegas feared most in the world: an unwilling bond. 

“I can still break his jaw.”  

Chengling shook his head. “No. I want to go. Can we go? Please?” 

“Yes. Lao Wen!” He called, not at all sure the alpha would acknowledge him. 

He needn’t have doubted because the alpha was at his back, blooded hand reaching past him for Chengling before his name had fully died on his lips. He didn’t touch the pup, hand freezing just above the mark. The sound he made was dark and grating. A quick glance found the group of disciples in a bad state, bleeding and broken as the younger ones cowered together, watching Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu as if they were devils come to life.  

Zishu felt cold under the fearful gazes. 

“We’re leaving.” He released Zhang Chengling’s chin. “Are you coming?” 

He was, though he didn’t say it. He didn’t say anything on the way to the inn, a simmering storm of killing intent. They once again were granted space by those around them but it probably had more to do with Kexing’s blood sprayed visage and blank expression than Zhou Zishu’s heat. The innkeeper, to their credit, let them go past with a promise of hot baths promptly and no eye contact. 

“After the bath...can I stay with you and shishu?” Chengling asked, eyes averted and voice as quiet as Zhou Zishu had ever heard it. He nodded, placing a hand on the boy’s head briefly, suddenly too drained to speak let alone lecture on how being coddled would do the boy no good in the long run. 

They parted, Chengling to the room he’d gotten for himself and them to another. He imagined it was nice, situated in what had to be the best spot in the inn as it was, but Zishu barely got to look around before he was being pushed back and down onto a low table, Kexing kissing the air from his lungs. 

“Later,” His alpha told him between hard, biting kisses. “I’ll find them and burn their home to the ground.” 

Zishu hummed, fingers sinking into thick, dark hair to pull the other man into another, long kiss. Kexing’s scent had changed, everything drowned out by smoke and ash, so heavy Zishu tasted it on their tongues. 

He didn’t tell Wen Kexing not to do it, that it was pointless and may bring more trouble than it was worth. Not then, held down on the table while Kexing's hand tugged at his cock, dry and fast and rough enough to reduce him to gasping cries muffled in the alpha's neck. Not when he sat in the tub, half asleep and let the alpha scrub the scent of others from his skin before gathering him up to replace it with his own. Not when, after picking at food across from his silent disciple while Kexing paced anxiously between door and balcony, he collapsed onto the bed and let Chengling crawl in after him, fitting under his arm. 

It was...it was fine. The day had been unfair to the boy, something else lost while Zhou Zishu watched, unable to prevent it. If keeping close helped then so be it. 

(If it helped settle Zishu as well to have the pup he’d stumbled into thinking of as his own where he could see him and hear him drift into uneasy sleep, that was only for him to know.)

Not when Lao Wen, redressed in red, slipped out into the night. 

It was only after, half asleep with an arm pinned under Chengling’s head and the front of his sleep robes held in the boy's grasp, that he remembered he was to drink his first dose of tea that night if he intended to keep his womb barren. He blinked his eyes open, seeking out where he’d dropped the herb pouch, and weighed his options.