Wukong, being a creature born of stone and hardened by fire, did not know what it meant to have your body succumb to forces beyond your control.
Never had his four-times-immortal form fallen prey to the clutches of illness, for his stone-flesh was impervious to every blade, poison, and magic known to mortals, demons, and celestials alike. It never occurred to anyone, least of all Wukong, that despite his iron body he still had a glaring weakness, one that left him vulnerable to the sicknesses of mortals; his heart.
For a long string of centuries, it never became relevant to the varied lists of allies and enemies Wukong called his own, for no being was ever quite able to scrape past the titanium shell guarding that one vulnerability. Even his subjects he viewed with a detached sense of amusement and possessiveness, protecting them from attackers because he claimed them as his. If one were presumptuous enough to attack that which he called his, that reflected as both an insult and a challenge on him, which of course could not be left unanswered.
Long before the chaos of Havoc in Heaven it had been decided Wukong likely didn’t have a heart at all, that the monkey king was incapable of feeling any degree of fondness for anything besides himself. This was flipped on its head, as so many things were, when a shaggy-haired monk stumbled into Wukong’s prison. It wasn’t immediate (in fact it can be argued that nothing fundamentally changed about his majesty until much, much later on), but irregardless, this was the beginning of Wukong’s most dramatic and influential transformation.
At first, he disregarded the monk, thinking him only a possible way out of his hellish cage, a way to escape the strangling grip of Buddha, but that quickly changed. The monk irritated him, refusing to lower his hands even when Wukong ripped the very hair from his scalp. After disposing of the demon hunters daring enough to challenge him, the monk almost made him amused with the way he cried as his woman’s ashes drifted, sparkling, on the wind.
But then the monk made him angry. Oh did the monk anger him.
Now Wukong was trapped once more, protecting this inconsequential little mortal to avoid incurring Buddha’s wrath a second time, forced to put up with his ‘brothers’ and their antics. Even hearing the pig’s and fish’s voices stutter over his name every time they addressed him couldn’t lift him from his perpetual frustration. As they performed for a circus he felt his blood seethe and fume; as his ‘master’ conversed unknowingly with spider-maidens, he felt his soul twisting into thorny knots; at the court being run by a demon child he felt his hatred burning in every breath.
He hated this monk. He hated him so much he felt his fingers constantly twitching with the desire to rip apart the mortal’s flesh, as so many demons tried and failed to do before him.
But then...but then Xuanzang apologized. To him. Kowtowed and cursed himself a thousand times over for treating Wukong as the monkey king could admit he probably deserved. Bowed and asked forgiveness, even as both of them were fully aware he would kill the monk given half a chance for the humiliation of being forced to bow and scrape before the mortal’s commands.
He was in a forgiving mood however, so he decided he might as well back off and release some of his frustration on the false king. (He wouldn’t explain himself of course, no need for the monk to ruin all his fun).
He steadfastly told himself he didn’t care that Xuanzang had called him brother.
But afterwards, Wukong felt odd. He knew what the minister truly was, could deduce what was likely going on in that court of demons, what their plan was with the bone spirit. What he didn’t know was why he cared. Why he felt the need to warn his master and keep the mortal from foolishly walking right into his own grave.
Perhaps a sense of responsibility, or maybe possessiveness, in the same way he protected his monkeys from outside threats? Yes, that must be it. No one would be allowed to hurt the monk except for him. The monk was his kill. If any other demon attempted to encroach on his territory, he would wipe them from the face of the Earth. It was nothing more. He almost convinced himself this was the reason, and for a long time left it at that. But then the coughing started.
It was small, nearly unnoticeable at first. Just a little tickle in the throat every few days, hardly worth his notice. Then it became more frequent, more intense. A few weeks after it first started he was coughing all the time, always out of view of the others even as it became harder and harder to hide, and this is when he coughed up the first petal. It was in the dead of night, he hiding in the trees just out of sight of the camp to avoid the notice of his brothers and master. At his first glimpse of the deceptively delicate petal he froze, unable to believe this could possibly be what it appeared to be.
For the following week he stayed in a solid state of absolute denial, refusing to accept what a niggling voice in his head told him to be the truth. If he truly had Hanahaki disease, he wouldn’t make it another six months, and that’s only if he was lucky; he refused to accept such a fate.
Who could it be anyway? He thought bitterly to himself. We’ve been out in the wilderness since before I started coughing, and there’s no way I’ve fallen in- no way any of them are the cause. He glanced around at the others. Wujing brought up the rear, creaking cart just behind him and dry salt glistening on his scaly skin. Definitely not. He side-eyed Bajie, growling when the pig made the mistake of looking back at him. Never.
His eyes darted up to Xuanzang, leading them on the dusty path. The monk’s slender hand reached up to adjust the brim of his bamboo woven hat, a sliver of wrist visible for a brief moment. Wukong pointedly looked at the surrounding desert. Especially not him. Impossible. A tickle started in his throat. He made his excuses of scouting ahead and found a solitary spot away from the others. This time, the petal he coughed up was followed by a second, both streaked with glistening crimson.
The weeks stretched on, and Wukong was running out of plausible denials. It seemed the more he thought about Xuanzang, the more coughs would shiver in his chest; the more he heard the monk’s voice, the more his throat burned in response; the more he spoke with the monk (the more he made him laugh), the more petals he’d have to hide under his tongue until he could be alone to take care of them. He couldn’t count the number of rocks he had to crunch between his teeth to keep from doing something he would end up regretting later.
And wasn’t that a novel thing? To hold himself back from doing as he pleased, to know regret and fear its return...it would be so much easier if Xuanzang wasn’t here, if he’d never stumbled into his prison. Then Wukong wouldn’t have started to change, and wonder at that change at all. He wouldn’t have cause to regret anything he did. A wry laugh escaped him, lungs burning. He began to wonder if he could bring himself to regret meeting Xuanzang, even as the monk made him question things he’d taken as truth for thousands of years.
Wukong sat beside the inn’s stone hearth, staring into the roaring flames and absentmindedly gnawing on the twig in his mouth. He hadn’t eaten dinner with the others, not in the mood to watch Bajie cram every morsel into his ever expanding mouth, listen to Wujing harp on about his congee, see Xuanzang silently cringe throughout the entire meal. He would grab something from the kitchen later that night, so long as his cough stayed mild.
“Wukong.” None of his inner turmoil visible on face or form, he met Xuanzang’s gaze.
“Yeah baldy?” A small smile twitched at the corners of his master’s mouth.
“You weren’t at dinner.”
“Wasn’t all that hungry. Besides, I’m sure that pig ate well enough for the both of us.”
“He ate well enough for the four of us, and then some.” Xuanzang murmured in exasperation, settling himself in on the stone floor. Wukong snorted softly in response.
“Surprise, surprise.” The two sat in silence for a moment, basking in the warmth emanating from the flames.
“Did you need something baldy?” Wukong finally asked. Xuanzang, who had been leaning back with eyes closed, turned his attention back onto Wukong.
“Oh yes.” He reached back to grab the basket he’d carried in with him, handing it to Wukong. “Even if you aren’t hungry, the innkeepers had a bowl of peaches in their kitchen. I thought you might like some.”
Before anything else could be said, a large crash resounded from outside their room, followed by the unmistakable sound of Bajie squealing and the innkeeper’s daughter screeching in fright. With a shout of “Wuneng!” Xuanzang disappeared into the hall, leaving Wukong alone to stare at the three perfect peaches sitting in the basket. A moment passed. Two. Three. Normally Wukong would’ve followed his master, either to help or laugh at the chaos (likely a mixture of both), but this time he got to his feet, slinking towards the open window and leaping past the frame.
Safe and assured of privacy due to the distant shouts and banging, Wukong fell to his knees in the mud behind the inn and choked on the taste of blood and blossoms. Minutes passed, nearly a dozen crimson-soaked petals layering the ground beneath him, when finally he spat out the first full bloom into his shaking hands. He stared at the flower sitting so innocently in his grasp, macabre and ethereally beautiful in the dim light.
“Damn baldy.” He choked out, one fist digging claws into the dirt as the other gently cradled the fragile bloom.
The conversation came up on the outskirts of a forest, a month since Wukong first realized the source of his cough, and a week since Wukong finally admitted to himself exactly who his lungs grew flowers for. They’d rescued a young woman from bandits and now trekked to the other side of the forest in order to return her home. (At least this one wasn’t a demon in disguise as the last two had been. Heaven could be thanked for small blessings apparently).
He’d only been idly listening to the conversation, most of it frivolous questions on the lifestyle of the girl’s hometown and fruitless flirting on Bajie’s part, but had his attention caught by the word flower. He focussed on their words as the girl blathered on.
“-plants each carry a special meaning to them, but flowers especially. The meaning of a blossom can be completely changed by its color, what situation it’s given in, and the types and colors of flowers given with it. For example, if I gave you a white camellia Master Xuanzang, it would be a way of wishing you good luck on future endeavors. But if I gave you a bouquet of pink and red camellias,” she leaned in closer to the monk with a shy smile, “it would be a confession of romantic love.”
The branch in Wukong’s grip snapped. Jaw tightening, he dropped the offending branch and jumped down from his perch in the tree, casually sprawling beside the fire and ignoring the abruptly wary gazes of his traveling companions.
“Really now?” He drawled. “And here I thought weeds were just weeds.”
“Flowers aren’t weeds.” She responded, glancing around in confusion at the sudden tension in the others. “But yes, they each mean different things. It’s somewhat important in my village; I remember a few years ago a bouquet almost started a battle with a neighboring town.”
“Hm...” Everyone knew the flowers you coughed up were intrinsically connected to the person you grew them for, but Wukong hadn’t given much thought to it, much as he tried to shove the whole thing from his mind. He made a point to avoid thinking on what his flowers could represent, but since the opportunity was here…
”What about orchids?” Bajie asked, framing his so-called ‘handsome’ face and smiling prettily at her. (Not that she seemed to have eyes for anyone but Xuanzang).
“Oh, love and beauty or wealth and fortune, depending on the situation.”
“Azaleas?” Wujing chimed in, deigning to look up from his cooking pot for a moment.
“A way of telling someone to take care of themselves and their family. Though, if you send it to someone in a black vase it’s considered to be a, um, a death threat.”
“And what of lotuses?” Wukong gave a glance to Xuanzang- the flower that’d been his prison for 500 years- but the monk ignored him in favor of focusing on her answer.
“Pink and white signify purity and devotion. Red, purple, and blue mean enlightenment and rebirth.”
The conversation eventually moved on to other things, but not before Wukong was able to learn that which he wanted to know. Back in the thick-limbed tree later that night, Wukong studied the petal trapped between his thumb and forefinger, such a bright violet-blue it almost glowed in the moonlight.
Chrysanthemum. Loyalty; devoted love; neglected fondness; sorrow. His breath rattled in his chest, drops of red still staining his fingertips.
It’d been just over three months when it all finally came to a head. He’d been coughing up a full flower every other day and wondering how much longer he could have when it seemed the disease was entering its final stages. And then Xuanzang was kidnapped.
Now, they’d had plenty of run-ins with demons, plenty of dangerous fights where their mortal master was caught in the middle, but never before had Xuanzang completely disappeared from their midst. In the initial minutes Wukong couldn’t find him, he assumed the monk was simply blending in with the large crowd, the market full to bursting with people and colors and talk.
But then he didn’t reappear. Soon ten minutes, twenty, forty, an hour passed and none of the three now-frantic disciples could find where their master had gone. Wukong tore through the town, ignoring the screams of passerby as he searched for any trace of Xuanzang, eyes burning red and lips pulled back in a sharp-toothed snarl, the tinge of iron weighing down his tongue. He couldn’t calm down, didn’t bother trying to, the thing growing in his ribcage spurring him to find his master.
It took hours, but finally they found a demon scout left behind to keep an eye on their movements. One look at the fury laced in Wukong’s eyes and the demon spilled everything. Who she worked for, what her master’s plan was, where they’d taken Xuanzang. Once arrived at the demon stronghold, Wukong split from his brothers to enter the mountain alone. They didn’t stop him, knowing their jobs through silent agreement. He would slice through the horde, a deadly bloodthirsty arrow ripping through the unprepared demons, with the duo following behind to clean up whatever demons were left.
Wukong saw red. Everywhere he looked were putrid vermin that dared lay a hand on his master, and he would do away with all of them. Finally, deep in the heart of the mountain, the majority of the demon forces wiped out and their leader’s head resting on the banquet table (several hundred feet from the nearest chunk of his body), Wukong found the room in which they’d locked his master.
He stormed towards the door, sending it flying off its hinges and flinging down the hall when he came within a few feet. He entered, a moment of panic overriding the unbelievable fury, but no, Xuanzang was fine. Tied up, startled, but unharmed. Blue calmed the red in his gaze. He felt the thrumming tension in his shoulders dissipate. Xuanzang was safe, and even as the thing sprouting in his chest made his lungs throb with agony, he felt he could finally breathe again.
“You sure keep us on our toes baldy.” he rasped, smile crooked and tinged with the blood only he knew was his. Xuanzang, gagged and unable to respond, only sighed in relief and slumped to the bed in answer.
This couldn’t last. Wukong wouldn’t be around much longer to protect his master, this he knew. He had to tell him. Even as there was no chance his feelings would be reciprocated, especially not in the short timeframe they were left with, Xuanzang at least deserved time to plan and prepare for when his most powerful disciple would be gone. That much he owed him.
And so, hours after they retrieved their master from the demon stronghold and returned to the village to a hero’s welcome, Wukong crept through the darkened hallways of the house the town elder insisted they use that night. He stopped in front of the door to his master’s room, a spike of anxiety giving him pause before he angrily pushed it aside. Now was not the time for doubt. He didn’t have time to waste. Unable to tolerate the torture of knocking and waiting for a response, Wukong entered the room without fanfare. Xuanzang sat on the floor, body bent into meditation, but the moment Wukong stepped in his eyes opened.
“Wukong?” He stood, movements graceful and well practiced despite how often the monk’s clumsiness got the better of him. “Are you alright?”
Wukong couldn’t help but bite out a laugh.
“You’re asking me if I’m alright? You’re the one who just spent a few hours bound in a demon’s guestroom, I should be asking you that question.”
“Wukong.” Xuanzang said in warning.
“I’m fine baldy, calm down.”
“Well then what are you doing here?” Wukong paused. This was enough to heighten Xuanzang’s concern tenfold.
“...Wukong? What’s wrong?” Wukong could only stare at the monk for a moment, taking note of every inch of him. Everything would be different after this, and Wukong could only imagine it would change for the worse. This was the best it would get, and he wanted to savor the moment while it lasted. Before the monk regarded him with nothing but disgust. Before Xuanzang’s hatred reappeared and wrapped Wukong in a thorny grip almost as terrible as his own love for the monk.
On my love for you my lungs will choke; around my throat your hatred will strangle.
Unable to bring himself to utter the depth and width of his endless devotion to the man before him, he mutely lifted a bright blue blossom, still traced with strings of blood. Xuanzang stared. Wukong stared back. Quiet tension, sharp as knives and stretched over Wukong’s nose like cloth filled the room, and suddenly Wukong could barely breath. In that moment it was worse than every day in the long months before rolled together. In that moment he was certain he was about to meet the ending phase of the illness; death. But he couldn’t let it end like this. He had to speak the words, had to tell his master of it all and hope the man had enough forgiveness in his unbearably compassionate soul to give Wukong some semblance of closure. So he did.
He told Xuanzang everything, from how much he initially loathed the monk to the first bloody petal; the way he could feel stems poking him from the inside as he watched Xuanzang smile to the mind-consuming terror when Wukong had no way of knowing if he was alive or dead in the demon stronghold; the relief when he untied the monk and could feel the steady heartbeat pounding constant in his wrists to the taste of chrysanthemum in his blood.
Halfway through, Xuanzang quietly walked to a desk on the other side of the room, facing away from him and looking down at the worn tabletop but making no indication he wanted Wukong to stop. Wukong wasn’t even sure if he could stop now that he’d started. By the end of it he had his head bowed and eyes staring unseeing at the wooden floor beneath him. He still couldn’t bear the thought of seeing his master’s hatred return when he’d been gifted with warm looks and accepting smiles for the past few months.
“Wukong.” He hadn’t moved since he finished speaking, but now he managed to become even more still, as if returning to the stone from whence he’d been born.
“Wukong?” He couldn’t look up. If the monk decided to send him away, for real this time, he didn’t think the petals edging up his throat could be coughed out. Not this time.
“Wukong.” Something in the tone of his voice finally made Wukong’s gaze rise.
There was none of the disgust or anger he’d been expecting on Xuanzang’s face. In fact, if Wukong didn’t know any better he’d say the monk almost looked happy. But that couldn’t possibly be true. Even if he no longer hated him for what he’d done, Wukong knew the monk’s regard for him would never pass toleration; perhaps they could reach friendly acquaintance with a few more years of goodwill built up, but Wukong didn’t have a few more years, not unless he managed to do away with the love grown bitter in his body, which really didn’t seem possible at this point.
But then why was he smiling at him? The answer hit Wukong like a ton of icy bricks. The monk was kind. Despite all the reasons not to, the monk cared for his disciples. He would do whatever it took to protect their lives, and if it came down to it, that included pretending to love them in order to kill that which strangled them. Wukong refused to be on the receiving end of such pity. He would rather die. (Which, in this case, he would). Bitterly, he began to tell Xuanzang exactly this; that he wouldn’t accept his false adoration, for the monk to attempt to convince him of it was an insult, but Xuanzang stopped his tirade with a wave of his hand.
“I already know nothing I say will convince you of this Wukong,” he smiled, “so let me just show you. Okay?” Slightly confused, Wukong could only nod in agreement. Exactly what did he mean by that?
Xuanzang turned and picked up a bag from the desk. It was small as far as bags went, probably large enough to hold several apples if one was persistent enough. He vaguely remembered seeing the monk stash the bag on his person several times before, keeping it safe and hidden in the layers of cloth draped on his form. Wukong always assumed it held items of sentiment to the monk, few as they might be, but then Xuanzang opened the small bag. Now he could see what it truly carried, the terrible secret it hid from even his fiery eyes.
Petals. Dozens upon dozens, white as snow and soft as if freshly picked. Even worse, innocently on the top were nestled full blooms, some still stained red, lovely and horrifying in all that they entailed. If the obvious signs of blood on the more recent blossoms wasn’t enough, the scent was undeniably that of Hanahaki flowers, disgusting and enticing in equal measure. Grotesquely beautiful. Just as his own were.
But these were undeniably lotus flowers, almost identical to the one that acted as the seal on his prison. Wukong’s eyes darted up to meet Xuanzang’s, and any lingering doubt in his mind was done away with the moment he saw the look in his master’s eyes- something soft and tender that made him long all the more harshly for something he still wasn’t sure how to name.
“How long?” Wukong managed to choke out. The monk dropped his gaze with a sheepish chuckle.
“Well...you remember the cough I came down with? A week before the circus?” He did. At the time he’d been spitefully hoping the monk would choke on his own breath and die, but now…
“You don’t mean-”
“Yes Wukong. That’s when I first started developing the sickness. I’ve had it ever since.” How could Wukong not have noticed? How did none of them notice? The monk must’ve heard his unspoken question, for he answered it without prompting and eyes still down.
“When I coughed up the first petal, a few days after the spider mansion, Bodhisattva Guanyin appeared before me. She gave me an elixir that would suppress the coughing until times when I could do it in private, the only side effect being I’d cough up more at once. That’s how I was able to hide it from you and your brothers.” Xuanzang’s eyes darted up but couldn’t quite meet his, focusing on a spot near his elbow instead.
“When I first realized, I was scared and- well, and angry. I didn’t understand how I could love you- why I loved you in the first place, so for a time I treated you terribly,” He chuckled flatly, shaking his bald head, “as I’m sure you remember. I guess in a way I blamed you for it, even though I was the one who brought this on myself; you didn’t force me to fall in love with you. It wasn’t until you confronted me after that disaster with the talisman of obedience that I understood. The flowers wouldn’t be going anywhere, and lashing out at you wasn’t going to do anything except make you hate me more than you already did. There was no point, so I accepted it and decided to do as much for you and your brothers on your journeys as I could with the time I had left.”
“But...master...what about her?” The question needed no explaining; they both knew exactly who he referred to. Xuanzang’s face morphed into a bittersweet smile.
“Duan…I loved her yes, but I’ve long since moved past her death. What I felt for her...it was an idle fancy. I loved the idea of her, what she represented. The love she spoke of is what I fell for, not the woman herself. Comparing what I felt for her to what I feel for you is like comparing a candle flame to the sun; there is no comparison. It took me a long time to realize it, and even longer to accept it, but eventually I did. And, though I didn’t dare hope for it before,” a glint of warm humor sparkled in his eyes as they finally flicked back up to Wukong’s, “I think it’s safe for me to say that...that you feel the same way?”
Wukong didn’t bother responding in the verbal way. He grabbed Xuanzang, pulled him in, and kissed him the way that’d been plaguing his dreams and thoughts for months. After a startled sound in the back of his throat, Xuanzang melted against Wukong, tentatively reaching up to tangle his hands in his dark mane of hair. A deep thrumming growl echoed in Wukong’s chest in approval, and then he was lifting up the monk and throwing him to the bed, so fast the monk barely landed before Wukong was on top and kissing him again. When Xuanzang pulled back to suck in a lungful of air, because now he could finally breathe again, they both could, Wukong buried his face in the crook of Xuanzang’s shoulder.
“Mine.” Wukong growled against the pale length of neck, nipping gently at his collarbone. Xuanzang let out a breathy, joyful laugh, reaching for Wukong’s hand and entwining their fingers. “Yours.” He agreed.
A few minutes passed, the two contentedly lying side by side and relishing in the unblocked rush of air in their lungs, when Xuanzang shyly murmured “Mine?” in Wukong’s ear. Wukong chuckled, deep and throaty, trailing kisses up the monk’s neck. “Yours.”
Later, when Wukong thought the monk was probably lulled to sleep, he held Xuanzang close to him and idly traced senseless patterns on his back, consoling himself with the knowledge that sometime soon he’d be able to explore the expanse of skin with all the leisure he desired.
They had all the time in the world now to do so, after all.