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open my chest and color my spine

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Wen Kexing dreams. Some of them are true: his mother’s fine shoulder blades under his small palms, and the rest of her smashed, bones butterfly fragile; the Valley Master bloody and twitching beneath his blade, coming apart like ripped fraying cloth; A-Xu hung up like a slaughtered pig, out of his reach.

Some of them aren’t, at least in specifics. Mostly these have to do with A-Xu too. Wen Kexing is ever hungry, even in his sleep. A-Xu under him, A-Xu above him, A-Xu with Wen Kexing’s blood safe beneath his fingernails, Wen Kexing’s heart between his teeth.

This time Wen Kexing wakes with the skin of his ribs still burning, where he’d dreamed of A-Xu tracing each ridge with the edge of Wen Kexing’s fan. It had been a game, Wen Kexing keeping still under A-Xu’s steady hand, hardly breathing so that he could get the lines right. It had made sense, in the dream, as painting practice. The result was beautiful, red flowers blooming out of Wen Kexing’s skin, reaching up towards the sun. A-Xu had plucked one, and kissed the petals, his mouth coming away bloody; Wen Kexing had taken another and put it in A-Xu’s hair.

A-Xu would probably be willing to repeat the experiment with ink and a brush. That would be its own kind of fun. Wen Kexing isn’t so sure about the knife.

It’s early morning, the world dark and quiet around them. A-Xu is still asleep. That’s typical, and what Wen Kexing prefers. He slips out of bed every morning nearly silently to achieve it. It takes effort; A-Xu doesn’t sleep very deeply, and he never fully dozes off before midnight. But Wen Kexing will never get tired of the look in A-Xu’s eyes when he wakes him for breakfast in chiding tones, complaining about his husband leaving him to do all the work. It’s the same as when Chengling gets his forms right for all five hundred steps of practice. Like things are as they should be, nature at rest. A world with nothing in it to be set right, with nothing left to do but relax with a good meal. Wen Kexing wants that look; Wen Kexing wants that world. He won’t get it, but he’ll give A-Xu every moment of it he’s allowed.

In the dark it’s harder to remember A-Xu’s settled smile. It’s harder to forget that this life at Siji Manor is just a dream, too. It was never really his. He isn’t Zhen Yan. Sometimes Wen Kexing thinks he’s hollow inside, like his ribs will collapse around nothing. He wishes it were true. Usually he understands what he is: rotten at his core, unexpectedly soft in his center, like decomposing fruit. Not empty. When his heart moves it moves like gravedirt does, writhing with worms, alive only with decay. A-Xu defended him, A-Xu told the old monster there was something else inside him, A-Xu looked at him with such wonder when Wen Kexing came for him, decked out in Valley Master red. If A-Xu could really see, then—

If he were hollow that would be better. Then A-Xu could just fill him up and it wouldn’t be a lie. A-Xu can give him anything and Wen Kexing will take it. He’d like to, he wants to be able to do that for him—all the hurt in A-Xu’s life, built up in his bones, it should be Wen Kexing’s instead. He knows how to hurt. He’s always hungry. He can eat that too. You can fill a belly with anything if you want it enough.

A-Xu is pressed against his back, an arm slung over his waist, fingers half curled against Wen Kexing’s stomach. Skin and muscle will tear as easily as cloth with enough pressure. He could dig into Wen Kexing’s flesh like this with just his fingernails. Rip him open and see. Hold him, maybe, hand to his liver, fingers woven with his intestines, just like holding hands, slick and sweaty palmed. They should have been like that as teenagers, the strangers they could have been.

Wen Kexing turns, abruptly, jostling. A-Xu resettles around him in a perfect imitation of sleep, as if he and his spy’s senses might not have noticed. Wen Kexing knows he’s awake. He says so, with a nip at A-Xu’s jaw, the steady bone of him.

“Brute,” murmurs A-Xu, and turns to bite his mouth. They wrestle a little, softly, rolling around on the bed and catching each other with lips and teeth, until A-Xu finally sits up with a huff. The blanket is tangled around him, half around one shoulder and half under one knee. It’s undignified. The blurry sight of it in the dark hooks Wen Kexing somewhere deep. A-Xu holds Wen Kexing flat to the bed with a hand at the center of his chest and shoves the blanket off onto the floor.

Good morning,” says Wen Kexing, stretching in A-Xu’s hold, pleased. Wen Kexing wishes they could stay here together always, in the pale gray morning that’s hardly begun. This and then breakfast and then brushing A-Xu’s hair, pinning it up with jade.

He wonders if that was what it was like for his parents. Was Healer Valley ever this peaceful for them, before they were thrown to the dogs?

“It’s early,” A-Xu says. “What woke you?” He leans his head back when Wen Kexing cranes his neck up to snatch another kiss. His bottom lip still throbs from the last one. Still, he pouts at the denial.

“The demands of my husband,” says Wen Kexing. “Do you think the breakfasts you and your ungrateful disciple eat every morning appear out of thin air? Do you think a kindly spirit visits the kitchen and prepares them for you?”

“I see,” says A-Xu, face very serious. “Lao Wen is truly mistreated. I’ll get up now, and spend hours in the kitchen creating dishes to show my appreciation, they’ll be ready by sunrise—”

He stands up. It’s a horrible bluff. If A-Xu found himself in the kitchen he’d get lost looking for the fire even if it was lit. But it doesn’t matter, and A-Xu, lovely bastard that he is, knows it won’t matter—Wen Kexing snatches at the sleeve of his sleeping robe, and then reels him back in so he can clutch at his wrist instead.

“And now you cruelly abandon me.”

A-Xu runs his knuckles along Wen Kexing’s cheek. “Never,” he says, more seriously than he should. He has the same look he had when he told the old monster to kill them both. And as if he’s remembering the same moment, he takes Wen Kexing’s jaw in his hand and shakes him a little. Wen Kexing purses his lips up at him. “Now tell me what woke you up.”

“I was dreaming,” says Wen Kexing. “That’s all.”

A-Xu climbs back onto the bed, allowing himself to be drawn into Wen Kexing’s lap. “Of what?”

“You,” says Wen Kexing. It’s true.

A-Xu takes his face between both his palms. “Ah,” he says. “About me dying.” He doesn’t bother to try to lighten his voice, or to make it a question.

Wen Kexing shakes his head, A-Xu’s hands moving with him, not letting him go. “You don’t think I have prettier dreams to have of you?” He flutters his lashes up at A-Xu. “I can tell you about them all you like.”

“Those dreams keep you up at night? Do you have complaints about my performance?”

Wen Kexing makes an offended noise on A-Xu’s behalf, and glares at him when he laughs. “You think I’d lie to you?”

A-Xu slides a hand down to rest at the back of his neck. “Tell me the truth and I’ll let you fuss over my hair all you want.”

“You’ll do that anyway,” Wen Kexing says mulishly. He rests his forehead against A-Xu’s shoulder. “I wasn’t lying. It was a pretty dream.” He takes A-Xu’s hand in his, and brings it down to slip between the folds of his robe to touch his bare belly, just where it was resting when they were sleeping. “You cut me,” he says dreamily. “Here, and here, and here.” He drags A-Xu’s hand back and forth across his ribs.

When he draws back, A-Xu’s face is complicated. Wen Kexing wants to touch it, to feel the shift in his muscles as his mouth turns slightly down, to measure the tightness in his jaw. “Are those the kind of spring dreams you have about me? An assassin in your bed?”

It makes Wen Kexing want to bare his teeth. To demand if this is really the man that A-Xu defended so zealously, a rabid ghost in Zhen Yan’s skin.

A-Xu says, “I don’t do that kind of thing anymore.”

The urge to bite melts away. Wen Kexing leans in, nuzzles his nose against A-Xu’s, and snaps his teeth at his cheek instead. “A-Xu,” he says, admonishing, even as A-Xu huffs and shoves his face away with a hand. “You think any way you could touch me would be torture?” He pulls A-Xu’s hand off his cheek and brings it to the corner of his mouth, where Ye Baiyi once left him bruised and tender. “That old monster hurt me. Any touch of yours is like sunlight on a winter’s day.”

A-Xu taps his fingers, lightly, and then his eyes narrow, and he grips Wen Kexing’s jaw tight, thumb and forefinger just at the corner of his mouth. Wen Kexing’s eyes close, his breath leaves him. He doesn’t mean to do it. The old monster left marks all over him, impersonal, not with intention. That bastard only wanted to kill him. Killing doesn’t have to be intimate. You can do it from across town if you’re good enough. If A-Xu killed him it would be hot and sticky and close, Wen Kexing would be handled in his last moments as a precious irreplaceable thing.

It wouldn’t be worth it. A-Xu would cry. Still, there’s a lot of space between a soft kiss and poison; there’s plenty of room for teeth there. If anyone cuts Wen Kexing it should be his A-Xu. The old monster wasn’t qualified to leave marks on him.

A-Xu shakes his jaw, left, right, left. “You would have let him kill you for your ridiculous pride.”

“Don’t make it sound like it would have been easy.”

“Oh?” says A-Xu. “Are you not?”

“Only for you,” says Wen Kexing. He grins. “Anyway, A-Xu is a much more capable artist. You’d give me better bruises.”

“Is it just bruises you want?”

Wen Kexing squirms, then, in his grip. He wants more, he always wants more, he wants A-Xu all over him, A-Xu inside him, those two things only barely before he wants the jianghu in ashes at his feet. It’s a flighty kind of want, a hunger that might kill him once it’s satisfied. Will A-Xu like what he sees, once he finally has seen Kexing all cracked open? “A-Xu, I want whatever you’ll give me.”

A-Xu runs his thumbnail along Wen Kexing’s jaw, and then he lets him go. “You first,” he says.

“What?”

“I’ll cut you if you try it on me first.”

Wen Kexing clicks his tongue. “A-Xu, you think I want to mar your beauty like that?”

A-Xu raises an eyebrow. “Is your sight going, Lao Wen? You’ve seen all my scars, one way or another. I’m hardly pristine.”

A-Xu is pristine, the most beautiful man Wen Kexing has ever seen. But the nails and the ropey scars on A-Xu’s back and the two gashes Prince Jin left that are only just healed, all of that pain should be his instead. “Alright, A-Xu,” says Wen Kexing. “As always, I’m happy to instruct you.”

A-Xu rolls his eyes, and then out of Wen Kexing’s lap. He lights a lantern, so that for the first time this morning Wen Kexing can see his face properly. The light loves him as well as Wen Kexing does, clinging to his mussed hair and sharp eyes. He snatches up Wen Kexing’s fan from the low table where he left it last night, and presents it like a sword, hilt first.

When Wen Kexing stands to take it, A-Xu drops to his knees. It’s the reverse of how Wen Kexing knelt for him, in front of all their new disciples. That had felt perfect, exactly right. This makes his stomach writhe, a worm that wants to break free.

People kneel to the master of Ghost Valley all the time. They kneel and beg for their lives.

A-Xu looks up at him. “Well?” he says. “Is Philanthropist Wen truly so pure that he doesn’t know what to do with a man on his knees?” He slides his robes open and off his shoulders, straightforwardly but still unbearably alluring. It is A-Xu, after all.

“No,” Wen Kexing says, flicking his wrist to open the fan. “Just left speechless by the sight.”

A-Xu doesn’t deign to answer. He just tilts his head, a clear invitation, his exposed throat begging for some kind of violence, a bite or a clean even cut. The scars below his shoulders are still shiny and pink. It should be Prince Jin here, or that bastard Duan Pengju, left open to Wen Kexing’s mercy. But A-Xu wants something. He asked. He asks for so little that isn’t play: a meal, a refilled wineskin, a breeze on a hot day. Wen Kexing can give him this. It’s what he is, after all.

He holds the fan to A-Xu’s belly, not touching any of the nails. One clean slice, a flick of his wrist, and A-Xu could be gutted. The fan is shaking, with the rise and fall of A-Xu’s breathing, and something else, too. He snatches his hand back, tries A-Xu’s cheek instead. The skin there is delicate, but the muscles won’t be strained in a fight, cuts there can heal quickly and they’re not so hard to hide with practice, he knows that, he knows—

He shudders. He drops his arm and rests the fan at A-Xu’s collar, right above the bone. The bone will save him, will stop him from going too far, too deep. There’s a neat space between the wounds from the hooks. Wen Kexing can be this, he can hurt A-Xu better than Duan Pengju could dream of. A-Xu trusts him; shouldn’t that be enough?

A-Xu is still kneeling quietly, eyes dark and steady on Wen Kexing’s face.

He presses in, drags the blade. A-Xu is A-Xu, but also he’s human. He bleeds. It would be so easy. Wen Kexing knows just what to do, how to fit a knife between skin and muscle, how it can be slipped off as easily as a set of robes, though never quite as neat. The most surprising thing was the slick sound it made. Bodies are really very wet when you start to break them down.

The fan clatters when it hits the floor. Wen Kexing’s knees are louder. A-Xu is moving, and his face is too, his mouth turned down, a wrinkle between his eyebrows. Wen Kexing should smooth it out, make a joke, he should, he should—

There’s an arm around his back, a hand against his cheek. “Lao Wen,” and then, “shidi, A-Xing, you have to breathe. It’s A-Xu. Breathe for me, okay?”

Does he need to? He’s just a ghost. But A-Xu tilts his face up, A-Xu forces Wen Kexing to look at him as he gathers him up into his arms. “I’m here,” he’s saying. He takes Wen Kexing’s hand and presses it to his chest. “I’m here. Idiot, you think you could hurt me? You think I’d let you?”

A-Xu’s heartbeat is too fast. His chest is moving rapidly, alive. What little blood Wen Kexing managed to spill is drying already. A-Xu’s hand is at his back, stroking down, and then it’s in his hair, drawing Wen Kexing close, tucking him under his chin. It’s a little uncomfortable. Wen Kexing is too tall for it sitting like this, perched on A-Xu’s lap. He’ll get a crick in his neck. He flattens his palm against A-Xu’s sternum, and he can’t feel it there, so he must be the one laughing.

“There you are,” says A-Xu.

“Liar,” says Wen Kexing. He takes in another sucking breath. “I hurt you all the time.” A-Xu nearly died to Changqing because of him. At the very least Wen Kexing bites him bloody half the nights they spend together. He doesn’t know why he can do that but even the hint of a blade was too much.

A-Xu raps his knuckles lightly against Wen Kexing’s temple. “Lao Wen. I’m fine.” His fingers soften, and he runs them through Wen Kexing’s hair. “You’re fine. I’ll hold the blade next time, okay?”

You can’t give that to me, Wen Kexing thinks. Your throat turned up like that, like the best fruit left out on a windowsill to tempt passing thieves, greedy hungry children with sticky hands—

“A-Xing.”

Wen Kexing wrinkles his nose. “When you call me that I think I must be dying,” he says. “Old Philanthropist Wen, ailing on his sickbed with his wife weeping over him.”

A-Xu cups his face. “You like it,” he says, not very kindly. A-Xu is very impressive. He can say the most romantic things like they’re gristle he’s spitting out.

“I’m not dying,” says Wen Kexing. He’s never the one dying. He smiles prettily, and kisses A-Xu’s jaw. He leans back and holds a hand out blindly for the fan, plucking it from the ground. He shakes it open in front of his face. The tip is barely even red. A-Xu reaches out and pulls it down, mindless of his fingers on the edge.

“Don’t hide,” he says.

“Who’s hiding?” Wen Kexing snaps the fan shut, and offers it to A-Xu.

A-Xu only looks at it. “We should have breakfast.”

“It’s not even first light. How long do you want me to slave away in the kitchen for you?”

“All right,” says A-Xu, uncharacteristically. “Then come back to bed with me. I could always use another blanket.” He stands up, half-dragging Wen Kexing along with him.

Wen Kexing allows himself to be towed back to bed, but he shoves A-Xu lightly until he’s sitting down at the edge. “Are you trying to cheat me?” Wen Kexing asks. “I always collect what I’m owed, A-Xu.” He takes a step back, and settles himself onto his knees, arranging his plain sleeping robes like they’re the finest silks. He thinks he makes a very nice picture. He’s good at that.

“Has it served you well to be this stubborn?” A-Xu asks.

“Of course,” says Wen Kexing. “It got me you, didn’t it?”

“I thought that was fate.”

“One can’t expect fate to do all the work. A little persistence goes a long way.”

“‘A little’?” A-Xu asks. “Is that what renting out all the rooms in that inn was? Is that what demanding that I take a knife to you is?”

“A-Xu,” says Wen Kexing, as gently as he knows how. “I’m alright.”

A-Xu shakes his head, but he stands up, and bends to take the fan still held loosely in Wen Kexing’s grip. “Don’t think I’ll baby you later.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” says Wen Kexing, and smiles.

A-Xu taps the closed fan at the soft skin beneath Wen Kexing’s jaw. He lifts it, tilting his chin up. Wen Kexing follows. It’s better already. Every part of him is awake now, straining towards A-Xu.

A-Xu lowers the fan. Wen Kexing stays where he is. He steps away, and Wen Kexing only realizes he made a sound when A-Xu turns back to him. “I won’t leave the room,” he says. “Eyes on me, Lao Wen.”

He never needs to be told that, but it’s better anyway, like A-Xu wrapped fingers around his throat to direct him. In the flickering lantern-light he watches A-Xu turn, watches him rummage through a few drawers. The knife he finds is small, wickedly sharp, meant to be concealed in a boot or a sleeve. Wen Kexing’s fan he places, carefully, on the center of the room’s desk.

A-Xu comes back, like he said. Wen Kexing tips up his chin, bares his throat for the blade. A-Xu could slice cleanly, just as cleanly as Wen Kexing does when he throws his fan in a wide arc. A-Xu thinks if he skins him he’ll still find Zhen Yan underneath. Wen Kexing still doesn’t know if what he wants is to trick him, or to finally let him see what he’s invited into his bed, what he’s protected with his life.

A-Xu slides to the floor, carefully, and nudges his way into Wen Kexing’s space, his knees between Wen Kexing’s thighs.

“You can breathe,” A-Xu says, as he sets the knife against Wen Kexing’s lowest rib. And then, a little crossly, “you need to eat more.”

It startles a laugh out of Wen Kexing, the skin of his stomach jumping, and still, A-Xu doesn’t cut him. The blade in his hand moves with Wen Kexing, perfectly balanced.

Wen Kexing breathes. He says, “A-Xu, you really are good to me too.”

A-Xu looks at him with soft eyes. He presses his other hand to Wen Kexing’s back, hot against his skin, and he cuts, very lightly, in a steady curved line.

It’s shallow. Wen Kexing can judge these things without looking; he’s had a knife taken to him enough times to know. Never the way A-Xu does it, though, with reverence, like he’s unwrapping a gift and wants to preserve the package.

He tries to keep his eyes open, but they want to close, he wants to relax into the sting. It hurts more when A-Xu takes the knife away, and Wen Kexing gasps, a great gulp of air. He’d stopped breathing after all. Wen Kexing presses his hand to his stomach, just below the wound—really it’s barely a scratch—and watches, waiting for the blood to drip down.

A-Xu taps him on the cheek with the flat of the blade, two quick raps. “Look at me.” He sounds stern, like a master correcting Wen Kexing’s form.

“You can go deeper,” Wen Kexing says. He should raise an eyebrow, like he’s talking about something else, but he can’t right now. He can’t lie. He just wants A-Xu to carve him up, to finally see inside, more viscerally than he’s ever needed to be fucked. He knows there’s nothing in him but cobwebs and spite. But A-Xu never looks at him like that. Maybe if A-Xu splits him in two there will be something good spilling out from between his ribs: wine or plum blossoms or love.

A-Xu slides the blade down from his cheek to his throat, balancing the edge against his pulse. “If you want someone to gut you, find Ye-qianbei. I want to take my time.”

“Oh,” Wen Kexing says, a little dizzily, and he shudders, the weight of it catching up with him. He’s hot under the knife, at his throat and his ribs and between his legs, his blood is awake. If A-Xu slit his throat it would greet him warmly.

A-Xu leans in, so close their noses brush, and then he kisses Wen Kexing’s mouth, the blade still at his throat. Wen Kexing opens for it, holding still, letting A-Xu lick into his mouth. He makes a soft, happy noise, and then a louder displeased one when A-Xu pulls back. “Don’t complain,” A-Xu says, and cuts straight down from his throat, slicing open his robes.

There’s a shallow pink cut along Wen Kexing’s stomach from when he gasped. A-Xu, very carefully, goes over it again until it blooms red. Wen Kexing shudders again, sways forward, but A-Xu leans back from it this time.

He moans, and says, “A-Xu, really, you could have just cut the sash—”

A-Xu shoves his robes from his shoulders, and taps him hard with the knife again at his cheekbone. Wen Kexing stops talking. A-Xu’s hand returns to his back, a solid steady weight, and he brings the knife down to follow the line of his ribs again. Wen Kexing wonders if they’re of the same mind in this too. Bone as a guide, as a safety measure. It’s not so hard to break a rib, but A-Xu would need more leverage.

Wen Kexing has never been hurt so carefully before. Even in Ghost Valley, when people tried to break him they never did it with so much intent. They looked at him like he was meat, like how a wolf eyes a rabbit. Wolves don’t care about rabbits. They eat them because it’s what they were made to do. They couldn’t be precise about it even if they wanted to. But A-Xu’s fingers on him never waver, five points of heat, and he keeps his eyes on Wen Kexing like he really could break him if he makes a wrong move. He won’t. If Wen Kexing hasn’t broken yet then nothing can break him; and if he’s already broken, well, A-Xu should get to have his turn too.

He melts into it, letting himself bend backwards into A-Xu’s grip. A-Xu doesn’t complain about the weight. It stretches Wen Kexing’s skin taut, makes the wounds burn, startles a shaking gasp out of him.

“Lao Wen.” Wen Kexing blinks his eyes open. He raises his head a little, so he can meet A-Xu’s eyes. They’re pressed so close that Wen Kexing is in danger of bleeding all over the clothes A-Xu is still wearing.

“Am I hurting you?”

Wen Kexing laughs. “Very well,” he says, and he tips forward, just enough to rest his forehead against A-Xu’s. “And how am I as a canvas?”

A-Xu’s nudges his nose against Wen Kexing’s, and without looking, traces another of Wen Kexing’s ribs. A seventh? Or tenth? He lost count.

“Beautiful,” A-Xu says, and Wen Kexing shudders. He fumbles to clutch at the hand holding the knife, squeezing A-Xu’s wrist.

It’s so strange. Wen Kexing bled flowers in the dream, and A-Xu looks at him now like it’s true: like he’s an orchard well-tended, blossoming just how he wanted.

Even a grave can grow. Corpses feed vultures, but they’ll feed a garden too. A-Xu is always dragging him back into the world, a root wrapped around his wrist, steady as a pine.

“Lao Wen,” says A-Xu. “You’re crying.” He pulls back, and taps the flat of the blade to Wen Kexing’s cheekbone again, the gesture nearly affectionate now. Wen Kexing blinks up at him, and smiles. “There,” he says. “That’s enough.”

Wen Kexing finds, stranger still, that it really is. His chest hurts. He isn’t hungry for anything, except for simple things: his body wants A-Xu to kiss him, to do more than kiss him. That isn’t really hunger, though. That’s just the world as it should be.

A-Xu puts down the knife, and touches Wen Kexing’s jaw. “Is that what you wanted?”

It was; it wasn’t. A-Xu never gives him the things he expects, the things he knows to ask for.

“I liked it when you hit me on the cheek. Mm, A-Xu. I used to think you were going to just slap me, when I was just a gnat dancing around you, following at your heels. Every beauty is even more brilliant when inflamed.”

A-Xu blinks at him, startled, and then he chokes, nearly a snort. “Lao Wen,” he says, “you really don’t know when to quit, do you? I’m not going to hit you.”

Wen Kexing, still bleeding sluggishly, begins to laugh. He nuzzles into A-Xu’s hand. “If you wanted me to shut up you really should have spilled my guts. You can use steel on me without balking, but your hand is too sharp?”

“You’re not a subordinate of mine to discipline.”

“Am I not?”

A-Xu strokes his cheek, strokes his hair. “It’s still early,” he says. “Too much work. You can have it as a gift instead.”

Wen Kexing stares up at him. A-Xu sighs, and stands up, grumbling over the ache in his knees, and he sits back down on the bed, beckoning Wen Kexing towards him. Wen Kexing goes, and A-Xu takes hold of his chin. Wen Kexing wants him to hold on harder, to leave yellowing bruises in his wake. Still, he feels more pinned than he would be by iron through his chest. A-Xu can always pierce him like that with just a look, without a knife or hands or anything. Even so, just his hand is nice. A-Xu could twist his head off like this with the right leverage.

“Please,” says Wen Kexing. His voice shivers. A-Xu’s hand slips down to his throat, to feel it, maybe. Wen Kexing’s pulse is strong, throbbing everywhere even as blood still drips out of him. He isn’t usually so alive. Is this what real people feel like all the time? “This humble one begs a favor from this beauty—”

A-Xu lets him go, a staggering blow. Wen Kexing sways forward into nothing; he makes some kind of noise. A-Xu says, “Be serious.”

He’s always being serious with A-Xu, even when he isn’t. “Please,” says Wen Kexing again. “A-Xu, come back, don’t leave me, I’ll come apart, I’ll unravel, I’ll forget what I am, please, please—”

“I’m here,” A-Xu says, very tenderly, and slaps him with an open palm.

Wen Kexing lets the hit carry him, snapping his face to the side. The sting flares bright for a moment, like sunspots, blocking out everything else. He hums, pleased and warm. “Again?”

A-Xu runs a thumb down his cheek first, and then he does, with a satisfying crack. It’s lovely, a layering kind of ache. Wen Kexing likes how the sound splits the early quiet morning. It could be just him and A-Xu alone in the world.

A-Xu wraps Wen Kexing’s hair around his fist, pulling it taut against his scalp. He looks down at Wen Kexing consideringly for a moment. Wen Kexing blinks up at him, and tries his best to look appetizing.

“Stop that,” A-Xu says, and then he tilts Wen Kexing’s head with the hand in his hair, and backhands him across his other cheek. His fingernails catch on his skin; they don’t break it, but they might if he does it again. Wen Kexing whines, and spreads his fingers against his thighs. He’s still wearing his trousers, and his cock is so heavy between his legs. He could let A-Xu hit him forever. He’s so focused on Wen Kexing like this. Maybe it really is only them; maybe the rest of the world was the dream all along. That would be nice. Wen Kexing squirms, just to feel how tightly A-Xu is holding him in place.

“Lao Wen,” says A-Xu, and he pulls back on Wen Kexing’s hair, drawing his gaze up.

“A-Xu.” It comes out worshipful.

“You can touch yourself.”

Wen Kexing groans, and presses the heel of his hand against himself through the fabric of his trousers. He doesn’t take his eyes from A-Xu’s, and it’s like sunlight down his spine when A-Xu smiles at him, pleased, and hits him again. Wen Kexing can feel his pulse throbbing against A-Xu’s fingers when he caresses his face afterwards, like a friendly cat come out to pretend to ignore its master. He tilts his head into the touch, nearly purring.

He fumbles to open the ties of his trousers, and A-Xu doesn’t help. He just watches him, and sits back to slap Wen Kexing again. Wen Kexing chokes on a cry and gets a hand around his cock. It hurts, prickling and somehow harsher than the quick slices of the knife, so all-consuming that it leaves no question of who or what or where Wen Kexing is. His eyes are stinging again. He can feel one tear slip down his cheek, cool against the heat of his skin. He’s alive, a creature of blood and flesh; if he’s a monster, he’s A-Xu’s, and that’s alright. He likes A-Xu’s hands on him.

A-Xu lets go of his hair, and Wen Kexing shudders without the anchor. He presses his face to A-Xu’s knee, his mouth open against the soft fabric of his trousers, panting. A-Xu cups his exposed cheek, and drags his thumbnail down hard against it where he’s already sore. Wen Kexing whines, and thinks absurdly of A-Xu peeling an orange with that exact same motion, and abruptly everything compounds: A-Xu’s nail threatening to split him open, his own hand on his cock, the sticky sense that A-Xu’s hands have been everywhere on him today, and the day is hardly even here yet. He comes, pressing his moan into A-Xu’s knee as he ruts against his hand. A-Xu keeps his hand on his face, so Wen Kexing doesn’t float away.

He unfastens his teeth from A-Xu’s leg the moment he realizes that he bit down. A-Xu pets his hair, long slow slides from the base of his scalp and down his back. After a few minutes, he draws a light careful finger down the hot skin of Wen Kexing’s cheek. Wen Kexing turns and bites it.

“Lao Wen,” A-Xu says fondly. He cups him under the chin with three fingers, and presses his thumb into his mouth, against his top row of teeth. Wen Kexing feels placid and relaxed in his grip, nearly tame, even as A-Xu thumbs at his canine, like he’d test the edge of a blade.

“See?” A-Xu says. “You can’t hurt me.”

Wen Kexing closes his eyes, and lets the words travel through him like an ache. Then he nips at A-Xu’s fingers, and reaches up to remove them from his mouth. “Now that we’ve established I know when not to use my teeth—”

“I didn’t say that—”

“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says, a drawn out whine. Surely he must make a piteous figure, with his bloody chest and throbbing cheek and red eyes. He brings his wet hand to his mouth and licks it clean, demonstratively, his eyes fixed on A-Xu’s. “Let me suck you.” A-Xu rolls his eyes to the heavens, like having a wife who tends to him so well is the greatest imposition in the world. Wen Kexing shuffles closer between his legs, balancing his elbows on A-Xu’s knees, and his chin on his clasped hands. “Please?”

A-Xu brushes a stray lock of hair out of Wen Kexing’s face. “You’re greedy.”

“A-Xu makes me greedy.”

“Always so quick to blame others,” A-Xu says, without heat, and he nudges at Wen Kexing until he kneels up, so that A-Xu doesn’t have to lean down so far to kiss him. It’s soft, lingering presses of his lips and slow sweeps of his tongue and hardly any teeth. A-Xu presses one final kiss to his cheekbone and lets him go. Wen Kexing shivers, and settles back down on the floor to open A-Xu’s trousers.

A-Xu’s hand never strays very far from his face. He tucks Wen Kexing’s hair behind his ear, and then just lets his fingers linger there, his thumb at Wen Kexing’s hairline. Wen Kexing leans into the touch enough for A-Xu’s palm to graze his cheek, enough for it to scrape a little against where he’s sore. When he leans in to take A-Xu’s cock into his mouth, his hand slides back to cup Wen Kexing’s skull. He hums in approval, at the hold and at A-Xu filling his mouth. A-Xu groans, tightening his fingers.

A-Xu is lovely like this; Wen Kexing can always suck him for a long time before he comes. Wen Kexing slides down until he can feel him in the back of his throat. His body fights him a little, choking, but Wen Kexing swallows around him, willing it to open up, to let A-Xu in.

A-Xu’s hand tightens in his hair, pulling him back, though not all the way off. “Slow down,” he says. “Haven’t I bullied you enough already today?”

Wen Kexing manages, with some effort, to wrinkle his nose up at him with a cock still in his mouth. A-Xu flicks him in the forehead.

Wen Kexing does have to pull his mouth away then, to laugh, and to drag his teeth against A-Xu’s hipbone in a rebuke. “A-Xu. You’re supposed to marvel at my skill and poise.”

“Am I?” A-Xu flicks him again, this time on the cheek. Wen Kexing sucks in a breath. “Slow, Lao Wen.”

“Yes, A-Xu,” he says. He listens. He licks his way up A-Xu’s cock, not to tease, but just to taste him. A-Xu doesn’t handle him roughly, even with the guiding hand at Wen Kexing’s scalp. Apparently they’re done with that for tonight. Another day, Wen Kexing might mind, but it’s nice, meditative, to tongue his way up A-Xu’s length and then slip the head of his cock into his mouth, sucking until he gets a low moan.

He goes down further, slowly, letting A-Xu rest heavy on his tongue. The room grows lighter around them, morning finally catching up. When Wen Kexing takes A-Xu all the way in, his throat working, but not daring to complain again, A-Xu sighs, and pets his cheek, a sweet gesture that still makes him ache. A-Xu tends to him properly then, listening to A-Xu’s breath as it grows shorter, the soft groans he lets escape. A-Xu isn’t very loud, as a rule. It doesn’t matter. Wen Kexing craves anything of him he can hear. He doesn’t mind having to listen closely. He would do that anyway.

A-Xu strokes the hinge of Wen Kexing’s jaw with his thumb, and he starts trying to ease him off. A-Xu glares up at him, and sucks at him spitefully. A-Xu gasps out a trembling laugh.

“Lao Wen,” he says, “don’t you want me to continue the painting lesson?”

Usually Wen Kexing does want A-Xu to finish on his face; he’s asked for it often enough. A-Xu is so cute, trying to give Wen Kexing what he wants, but right now he needs A-Xu inside him, he needs to swallow him down. He communicates this with his hands gripping tight at A-Xu’s hips, and shivering moan around his cock.

“All right,” A-Xu says, “all right, Lao Wen, oh—” He’s still gentle, even as he thrusts lightly into Wen Kexing’s mouth, as his fingers grip tightly at his hair and he comes with a sharp gasp. Wen Kexing moans louder than he does as A-Xu fills him up. He doesn’t let A-Xu slip out of his mouth as he softens, until he hisses and pulls Wen Kexing off.

Then A-Xu lets him go, and isn’t touching him anywhere. There’s a moment of vertigo, the world upended, until A-Xu hauls him up into his lap. Wen Kexing throws his arms around his shoulders and burrows into him. A-Xu’s like freshly tilled earth, soft and welcoming.

Wen Kexing’s throat is sore, and the skin of his chest is throbbing, and his cheek tingles pleasantly. The sharpness of the sting has mostly faded, but this will linger. A-Xu all over him. “Can you see it?” he asks A-Xu, dreamily. He turns his face away from A-Xu, putting himself in profile.

A-Xu thumbs very lightly over the warm skin of his cheek. “Only a little,” he says. “You could be a shy maiden at the market. You have a very fetching blush.”

Wen Kexing turns to bite his fingers. “What a waste of good artistry. Hit me harder next time.”

A-Xu grabs him by the scruff of his neck, shaking him a little. “Brat,” he says. He digs his fingernails in, a sweet sharp sting. Wen Kexing goes limp against him, tucking his face down beneath A-Xu’s jaw. They stay like that for a while longer, A-Xu’s hands sweeping up and down his back.

“All right,” says A-Xu. “Get off me, I need you to tell me which herbs to use.”

“Mm.” Wen Kexing rubs his face against A-Xu. He smells good, only a little like blood. “For what?

“You’re still bleeding on me.”

He isn’t really; most of it has dried by now. A-Xu never cut him very deeply, in the end, at least not with the knife. Wen Kexing almost doesn’t want him to bandage any of the wounds. Shouldn’t Wen Kexing get to stay like this, just the way A-Xu made him? He’ll never remember, otherwise, that there is anything beautiful under his skin. A-Xu is the only one who can find it. Maybe it’s only there when A-Xu is. A garden just for him.

But A-Xu will bully him into it either way, and Wen Kexing is pleasantly tired now. He wants to make A-Xu breakfast and then laze the rest of the day away, not argue about infection. So he rolls off of A-Xu and onto his back on the bed, and rattles off a list of herbs in their proper quantities. He remembers his mother reciting the same list to his father without looking up from her own work. He never had a head for the ratios without her help.

Wen Kexing didn’t think he remembered that. Maybe A-Xu found that in him too, buried deep in his gut, a sapling waiting to be brought back into the light. Wen Kexing holds still while A-Xu wraps bandages around his ribs, and wonders what else A-Xu could drag out of him. He’ll still eat the world whole someday. But there will be more than ash left of him in the end; the rot will give way to something new. He has A-Xu to thank for that.