“I thought you were a ‘peerless martial artist’.” Both of them were facing away from each other, nearly back-to-back as Feng Xiao tried to sense any other newcomers. His robes were slashed from various attacks, his hair unbound as testament to their inability to aim, but he’d gotten off fairly lightly. Cui Buqu, on the other hand…
Feng Xiao could hear the slow, steady drip of blood as it hit the ground. Good, Cui Buqu wasn’t moving around too much.
“I do believe there are still five attackers I’ve dispatched, single-handedly.” He’d been about to add that he’d hardly taken a scratch, even taken by surprise, but the sound of Cui Buqu’s coughing interrupted him. While a cave system made a natural place to set a base, especially to ambush any intruders, they did all seem to be overly cold and damp.
“Let's go. It’s clear someone tipped them off that we were on our way and have most likely already all left. We might as well recoup our energy as well.” Trying to sense the flow of air through the system, Feng Xiao headed towards the branch that seemed most likely to lead towards an exit, the fight having involved a bit of a chase to lose one pack of the ambush and turning them all around.
“It’s this way.” Cui Buqu started limping towards another branch. “Though you’re more than welcome to remain lost in here if you’d like. I think bats chatter about as much as you do, you’d be in good company.” Feng Xiao thought about just continuing - there was likely more than one exit and entrance to the cave system, and even his wasn’t the most direct route, he’d still likely beat Cui Buqu back to the inn - but stared for a second too long at that retreating back, the too-thin figure in robes upon which he could already see blood seeping through in multiple places.
“Are you jealous, Ququ? You only had to say you missed my conversation, and I would have come over to visit more often.” Feng Xiao held back a small laugh as Cui Buqu started to walk faster, then bit back more than that as he watched Cui Buqu stumble. There was now quite a lot of blood seeping through his robes, enough that Feng Xiao was almost willing to try and wear him down and carry him - they’d at least get to a bath and being able to wash his hands sooner, and even his robes were a lost cause at this point.
It seemed to be a moot point, though, as Cui Buqu stumbled again, swaying dangerously to the side. Feng Xiao tried to catch him before he collapsed, but his senses alerted him to a worse danger - they’d stepped into an array.
Before he could try and discern what its purpose was, he felt himself also start to sway; no matter how he tried to fight it, it pulled him under. This mission had to be cursed.
“You really drink this every day?” Feng Xiao sniffed the bowl of medicine delicately, its bitter aroma almost as offensive as its taste. He’d been present for Cui Buqu taking his medicine before, of course, but this was a different matter entirely. Never before had he had to take it.
It wasn’t in Cui Buqu’s nature to be gleeful, but Feng Xiao knew an expression of anticipation when he saw one, particularly on his own features. Being a master of one’s own expressions was one thing - having mastery over those same expressions on another’s face...well.
“Stop taking pleasure in my misfortune.” It would be less than dignified to hold his nose, and though he’d seen Cui Buqu wince while taking his medicine before, Feng Xiao still wasn’t quite prepared for the full sensation of it. It seemed to sting going down, but, in some sort of testament to it, by the time he’d mastered the urge to shudder, he could already feel his breathing ease, the aches dulling further than he’d been able to handle with his arts alone.
Cui Buqu took the bowl from his hands, thumping his back lightly - he had to have been aiming, as Feng Xiao could feel something else clear up with the impact. “Sometimes Qiao Xian has me take it twice a day.” There was definitely a gleeful tone that time - Feng Xiao recognized the tone he took with Pei Jingzhe when trying to disguise delegating an assignment he didn’t want.
He struggled not to shudder again.
“What, because you want it to be common knowledge that we’ve been working closely enough to be trapped in a soul-swapping array? Why, Ququ, I knew you’d just been waiting to get your hands on my body, I just never imagined it would be like this…” Pulling expressions that were second nature with his own features felt entirely different with Cui Buqu’s muscles, not to mention Feng Xiao knew it couldn’t possibly have the same devastating effect with Cui Buqu’s looks. “Or are you concerned I won’t be able to do a convincing enough job acting as you?”
“You must think worse of my bureau than I’d thought if you think no one would notice. It’ll take some time to find the sort of alteration to the array they’d used without going back - I wouldn’t have imagined you’d want to leave your bureau in my hands for that long either.”
“Mm,” Feng Xiao hummed noncommittally, already trying to plan ways to delay having to answer that question. He was now innately aware of how even simple motions and gestures hurt and thus more and more unwilling to give this body back to Cui Buqu before he could figure some other way out. “They’ll likely be waiting for us to try again, we should wait them out. Then maybe we can go back.”
Feng Xiao could tell Cui Buqu was trying to narrow his eyes at him, but on his face, it looked more like he was falling asleep. Feng Xiao took it as agreement anyway.
Waking up was the worst - Feng Xiao was no stranger to the slow realization of injuries and pains, of taking stock each morning of what still needed more healing, of where an injury was more serious than he’d thought. What he wasn’t used to was the injuries he couldn’t do anything about, the way breathing hurt in a way he couldn’t attribute to anything in particular, the way each beat of his heart seemed to hammer in time with a headache that never faded. He’d known Cui Buqu’s body was in probably the worst health of anyone he’d seen upright and moving, but that didn’t quite prepare him for living it, for each breath feeling too shallow, for awareness of his limbs to be quantified in aches instead of the smooth flow of qi through them.
He tried to deal with the worst of it as best he could with his martial arts, doing what he could to identify what needed healing and what Cui Buqu had just resigned to living with. He could shut off some sense of it, but he knew as surely as Cui Buqu had realized that anything he did was a stop-gap. It was like starting over from scratch, the sense of something to be fixed, the desire and knowledge to do so burning through him, but the inability to do it almost as crippling as the state of the body he now inhabited.
He’d known Cui Buqu was someone whose luck should be praised for each year he continued to live. He hadn’t known anything, really.
“Sit still.” A lifetime of doing one’s hair or watching in the mirror was entirely different than having to do it from the wrong angle. Especially not helping was the way Cui Buqu kept rolling his eyes and sighing at the exact points Feng Xiao held his, trying to keep the style smooth and together. The exact precision of these moments fed Feng Xiao’s suspicion; he knew Cui Buqu by now.
“Just because you’re willing to spend an hour on a beauty routine doesn’t mean I am. You’re lucky I haven’t simply gone outside before you could stop me.”
Feng Xiao sputtered slightly. “Just try!” The words were out of his mouth before he could give them any thought.
Cui Buqu raised an eyebrow at him, and oh, wasn’t that an interesting experience, to see his own features be so...so perfectly Cui Buqu. He’d been right, Feng Xiao knew - even in each other’s bodies, they were too much themselves to ever pull off the charade for long. Each day they spent swapped was another day learning the ins and outs of the other’s body, and neither of them had ever been anything but adept at picking things up. Even knowing his own face so well, he could catch glimpses of Cui Buqu in familiar expressions, and knew if he looked in the mirror, he would find himself just as surely in Cui Buqu’s features.
He let his mind wander for a moment, imagine what it would be like to kiss Cui Buqu like this, to see that peerless spirit matched by his own peerless looks, so familiar but entirely Cui Buqu’s own. As much as Cui Buqu liked to jab at him that he would only be happy with his own copy, Feng Xiao was finding even this couldn’t compare to having Cui Buqu as himself; though switching back would mean having to make Cui Buqu inhabit this broken body once more.
“Whatever you’re thinking, stop that. It’s creepy.”
Snapping back to reality, Feng Xiao laughed lightly. “What if I told you I was thinking about you?” He was used to leaning down to be level, and accidentally leaned in too far, too close. He could feel Cui Buqu’s breath on his face.
Cui Buqu stared at him for a beat. “As I said, creepy.”
“You’re avoiding it.”
“Avoiding what?” Tilting his head to look at Cui Buqu without messing up the hair style he’d started was a bit of a trick, but Feng Xiao managed it nonetheless. He thought he’d gotten quite good at figuring out new, flattering styles in Cui Buqu’s body - perhaps he could even convince him to try them himself someday.
“The array. You haven’t researched it in days.”
“Nonsense. I’ve been doing nothing but research.” Feng Xiao turned back around and went back to fixing the styling he’d been interrupted in - he knew he was good at interrogating looks, but Cui Buqu used his face like a weapon. He wasn’t lying, he had been researching.
He knew his body’s hands were larger than Cui Buqu’s and could span his wrists easily like this - it was another thing entirely to have that knowledge used on him, to have a hand wrap around his and hold it in place, to know that he likely couldn’t break out of it without much more work than he was used to.
“Ququ, I was almost done.”
Those hands batted his away, taking up the pieces of hair he’d been holding onto and pinning them into a style much simpler than he’d been aiming for. “Do you think I wouldn’t recognize notes on qi circulation and healing by now?” Even switched, Cui Buqu’s voice slipped into something quiet and soft when it required the most attention.
“I know what you’re doing; you shouldn’t concern yourself with it, we should go back to the caves and see if the array is still set there so you can research it properly so we can end this.”
“I think it is my concern, since I’m in this body right now. It’s only good manners to leave something in a better state than you found it.” Feng Xiao was glad he was facing away from Cui Buqu, but that didn’t stop him from hearing Cui Buqu give that the snort it deserved, thinking of the state of all of the places they’d been after they had finished a mission together. He knew he was dragging his feet - they’d both agreed this couldn’t last, but each morning that he woke to the same aches and pains, of counting ‘nothing worse’ as progress, the less he wanted that to continue to be Cui Buqu’s life. Not that he wanted it, but he was a peerless martial artist, he at least had techniques.
The sound of footsteps padding around to come in front of him broke him from his thoughts just in time to see his own face before him. It had become easier to see Cui Buqu in his features, but that didn’t make it any less strange when he did as Feng Xiao had been threatening for days and leaned in to kiss him.
It was short, both of them pulling back with eerily identical complicated expressions. “...you may dream about having a partner who looks exactly like you, but your only partner will be your hand until we’re back to normal.”
Feng Xiao tried to hide the bittersweet panging of his heart behind a smile, knowing it would be slightly sour on Cui Buqu’s face. “Ququ, I knew you liked my face.”
Switching back ended up being much easier than the initial trap; Cui Buqu had pulled out all of Feng Xiao’s notes, given him a pointed look, and gone on a seemingly unrelated lecture with the innkeeper about the many uses for bat guano in medicine and how lucky they were that it was so prevalent in the cave system they were about to visit to harvest. It had taken them approximately five minutes down the road out of town before Feng Xiao had steered them off of it to set up the array.
It was strange, having to get used to your own body, but stranger was the way he wanted those almost-now-familiar aches back, wanted that pain if it meant that he could at least lessen what Cui Buqu felt. He leaned in, trapping Cui Buqu’s wrists easily once more and under the guise of anchoring himself for a kiss, passed him some qi.
Cui Buqu pulled back sharply, eyeing him. Feng Xiao laughed as he let him go. “Is my love too much for you, Ququ?” Easier to slip the truth in an expected joke, he thought, calmly standing and dusting off his robes before extending a hand down to help Cui Buqu up.
“Just think, you could have this every morning.”
“That would require having to deal with you in my bed every morning.”
“I believe we both know it would be my bed, I know how frequently your sheets are changed.”
Cui Buqu rolled his eyes at that, but didn’t move away when Feng Xiao walked closely enough for their arms to almost brush, for him to take hold of Cui Buqu’s hand once more and pass him more qi, so he would count it as a victory all the same.