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to meld / to make peace

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Zichen was naked and panting under Xingchen's hands, hair in disarray, hips spreading Xingchen's thighs wide, and moaning, "Yes - yes -" as Xingchen began to move on him. Xingchen could hardly catch his breath with how good it was, and then Zichen was reaching between them -

Xingchen startled awake at a sudden noise. Less than an arms-length away from him, Zichen was also awake, rising to stand with Fuxue ready to draw, but their protective array was intact, and Shuanghua was at rest in Xingchen's hand. Too close, a bird called: the same noise that had woken him.

They held for a few moments, waiting in silence, and then both relaxed, and Xingchen laughed.

"Look at us," he said. "Brave cultivators, ready to draw on a night bird."

Zichen gave him a soft look and sat back down, laying Fuxue aside. "It takes a brave bird to wake up a pair of cultivators."

"So it does," Xingchen said. His blood still thrummed with the gossamer wisps of the dream, and he would be alert for a while yet from the way he'd woken. He cast a glance at Zichen and found Zichen already looking at him. Zichen held it for a moment, then slid his gaze down Xingchen's body in an acknowledgement of Xingchen's arousal, then met his eyes and smiled ruefully.

"It's all right," Xingchen said. They hadn't had access to enough clean water for a bath in days. Zichen wouldn't enjoy anything Xingchen could offer in the way of touch.

Zichen leaned over and kissed him carefully, as reassurance and with longing, and then parted from him enough to breathe against Xingchen's mouth, "I can watch if you want."

Zichen sat back, and Xingchen let go of the blanket where he'd been holding it to keep himself from touching Zichen. In other, cleaner, circumstances, Xingchen might have told Zichen what he could remember of the dream - his and Zichen's matched eagerness, Xingchen full with him - but like this, it would be nothing but a distraction. He unfastened the clothing he'd loosened for sleep and bared himself from chest to mid-thigh.

Zichen exhaled. Xingchen took himself in hand and turned to watch Zichen watch him, and found Zichen's lips parted, expression bright and intent, gaze on Xingchen's face before the motion of Xingchen's hand dragged his attention away.

Xingchen changed his stroke from his own preference to Zichen's - a little faster, a looser grip. Zichen's breathing was already ragged, but it caught for a moment, and when he returned to look at Xingchen's face several strokes later, Xingchen could see that Zichen wished they were clean enough that Zichen could bear to touch.

Xingchen said, "Kiss me?" in a voice more broken than he had meant, and the pain in Zichen's expression cleared as he leaned forward and slotted their mouths together. Xingchen curled his fingers tighter around himself and let his eyes close. Zichen kissed panting breaths from Xingchen's lungs and kissed small noises from his lips.

Xingchen meant to stop before his climax, or at least to retain his essence, but between the dream, and his own touch, and the intensity of Zichen's kiss, he lost himself.

When he was again aware of anything other than his own pleasure, he looked down, a little embarrassed at his loss of control. It was - not too much of a mess. Still.

"It didn't reach you, did it?" he asked. Zichen was still close, but not close enough to kiss without sitting up a little.

Zichen shook his head. His gaze still burned, and despite the faintness of the moonlight the aroused flush to his cheeks was obvious.

"Good," Xingchen said. He fumbled in a bag and found a cloth to wipe his belly with, but afterwards he still felt faintly sticky. His energy flow, at least, was undiminished, despite the slip.

Zichen had taken the opportunity to lie down again, on his side and facing Xingchen. His hands were clenched loosely in the blanket they both slept on. If they had both been cleaner, Xingchen would have reached out and covered Zichen's hand with his own to help smooth his tension. Instead he rearranged his clothing to cover himself again and rolled onto his side so they were facing each other.

"Thank you," Zichen said.

Xingchen couldn't help the fond smile that rose on his face. "Let's say we thank each other and be content," he suggested, as he always did when Zichen insisted that Xingchen accommodating his difficulties with touch was worthy of a debt. As if Xingchen could, or should, take for granted the affection and companionship that Zichen offered to him so freely.

"All right," Zichen said. He kissed the inside of his own wrist, firm but not lingering, as he did when he wished to press his mouth to some part of Xingchen whose touch he couldn't bear at the moment, and when Xingchen did the same, he relaxed, and closed his eyes.

Taking in the ease writ into Zichen's features, Xingchen kissed the inside of his own wrist again, achingly happy, and rolled onto his back to sleep a little longer.

Zichen couldn't bear public bathhouses. That meant, if they were at inns, hauling their own bathwater - cold or otherwise - up the stairs to a room; or, in more pleasant seasons, using streams or ponds as they traveled through the countryside.

This time it was the latter. The latest night hunt had been exhilarating, but not truly dangerous, their bodies and blades acting in concert and heightening their awareness of each other.

Afterwards, Xingchen had asked about the stream where the local village bathed. He and Zichen had gone a little downstream of that - citing the need for privacy both for bathing and for their cultivation practices - and stripped and turned out their travel bags so they could wash their clothes and the blanket they slept on.

While doing laundry, they hung everything over some nearby tree branches to dry. They could have used some spiritual energy to speed the process, but the wind would do just as well, and - well. It had been ten days since their last bath. They had not touched except through Zichen's clothes since the third day; except for kisses in passing in the mornings, not at all since the sixth. In the hours since they had been certain that the restless spirits had passed on, Zichen's intent gaze had kept alighting on him like a weight. It had lit a low flame in his belly, like a banked fire under a kettle, and by now he simmered with wanting to touch Zichen skin to skin.

Zichen was still in the waist-high water, rinsing out an under-robe that had worn to the color of charcoal. Xingchen was charmed by the meditative blankness of his expression combined with the way he was scrubbing soap out of the under-arms.

Xingchen let his hair down and waded out to Zichen. The current wasn't too strong, despite the depth, and the stones on the bottom were stable enough that he wasn't worried about his step.

Zichen glanced over at him in acknowledgement, their eyes meeting, and then he went back to the washing. Zichen had bound his hair into a plait to keep it out of the way while washing clothes, and it draped over his shoulder, exposing the back of his neck. Xingchen pressed his face there, resting one hand on Zichen's shoulder, and Zichen paused for a moment, then laid one hand over Xingchen's briefly before going back to the rinsing.

Sometimes, when Xingchen was quiet in himself, and Zichen was spiritually open to him, Xingchen could feel Zichen's energy flows. Not the way a cultivator could touch someone's wrist and use a small pulse of spiritual energy to sound them out. With Zichen, it was more as if he'd put his hand out a window and could feel sunlight or the rain beating against his palm. Zichen felt healthy, his golden core keeping him from feeling the chill of the water this late in the year.

Xingchen kept his eyes closed and listened to the burble of the water, to Zichen's heartbeat, to the flow of Zichen's energy. Zichen's chest expanded as he drew in air, and then Zichen said slowly, "I should hang this up."

Xingchen pulled away, drowsy, his pulse dragging to hold the tempo of Zichen's heartbeat like a redirected watercourse pulling towards its old beds.

Zichen shook himself faintly and waded back towards the shore. He hung up the robe on a tree branch that was only just in his reach, and the water on his hip and legs glimmered as he stretched upwards. The shining-wet softness of Zichen's cock made Xingchen want to stretch out on the grass next to him and tease it into hardness with his mouth.

Zichen knelt down to fish soap out of one of their bags, then undid the tie holding the end of his braid. The strands loosened with the relaxing of the pressure, but he didn't unweave them.

He glanced over his shoulder at Xingchen, eyebrows rising at Xingchen still standing dazedly in the water instead of coming over to the bank to help him wash, and Xingchen started and made his way over to kneel on the grass next to him.

Zichen brushed a lock of hair out of Xingchen's face. His hand was cold from the water and the touch unexpected after so many days apart. Xingchen turned into the gesture, caught Zichen's hand, and kissed the inside of his wrist.

Zichen dropped the sachet of soap and took Xingchen's head in his hands and kissed him intently, and Xingchen kissed back with the eagerness that had been pent up in him for days, his hands coming to rest on Zichen's bare waist. Zichen's mouth was not rough on his, only firm, and when he used his tongue he was careful and deliberate, in the way that was so very himself and which drove Xingchen to adoring distraction.

Xingchen pulled away, but only far enough to break the kiss. Zichen's hands still cradled his face, and his expression was intent, a little bereft.

"Let me wash you," Xingchen said, unutterably fond of him. There was no rush. There was nothing but the two of them, and the water.

"Yes," Zichen said, voice rough. He closed his eyes briefly, like he was mustering his strength, picked up the soap, and stood, letting go of Xingchen as he did.

"And afterwards," Xingchen said, rising to join him, "we can talk about the rest."

"Not during?" Zichen said.

"I want both of us to be clean," Xingchen said primly, and then gave himself away by laughing at Zichen's disbelieving look.

They dunked themselves in the water and then stood in the shallows, up to mid-calf in the stream. Zichen poured a handful of powdery soap into Xingchen's palm, and then it really was about washing each other. Zichen's skin was warm, and he left his hands on Xingchen's waist while Xingchen cleaned Zichen's face and chest. Zichen kept huffing out laughter as Xingchen cleaned his belly and underarms; Xingchen hadn't quite figured out how to not tickle him, yet, but he was working on it.

Washing each other was always, always, an act of learning. His first time washing Zichen's body had been like stumbling through a slightly familiar landscape on a cloudy night. All the landmarks had been there, but unfamiliar.

They were better at this, now. Comfortable enough to pay attention to small things. And. Well. Known to each other well enough for Xingchen to read that Zichen wanted them both to be clean so they could join their energies fully.

Xingchen washed Zichen's front, including his genitals, and then indicated that he should turn. Zichen did so, and moved his hair, still in its plait, around to his front so it wouldn't be in Xingchen's way. Xingchen used the soap, mixed with a little water, on Zichen's shoulders, the back of his neck. The spread of muscles along his spine; his lower back, his buttocks and between them. The backs of his thighs and calves, Xingchen crouching in the water and still almost lightheaded with the intimacy of touching between Zichen's legs solely to clean him.

When Xingchen was done, Zichen waded out deeper into the stream and rinsed off the soap. Being clean again eased strain from his shoulders, and a tension in the set of his eyebrows and jaw faded.

Xingchen's arms ached with wanting to hold him and feel his ease. Instead Xingchen turned and went to the bank of the stream and poured more soap into his hands, and began to clean himself.

He imagined Zichen's gaze on his back as a warm prickle, and then the flow of the water around his shins changed, and Zichen's voice came from close behind him: "May I?"

He turned. Zichen's hand was out, palm up. Xingchen tilted his palm so the soap he was holding spilled into Zichen's hand, then let his arm fall. Looked up to see Zichen's gaze sliding up his throat to his face.  

Their eyes met. Xingchen raised his other hand to his mouth and kissed the inside of his wrist. Zichen's expression softened, and he nodded before beginning to clean Xingchen in turn.

Zichen's hands were cool from the water, but not unpleasantly so. Xingchen's eyes slid shut as he tracked the path of Zichen's touch on his chest, arms, stomach, hips. A return to his throat, Zichen's fingertips at his forehead, tracing down his nose, damp against his cheekbones.

Zichen cupped the back of his neck and kissed him. Xingchen, pleased but mischievous at Zichen's forwardness, nipped him, and Zichen returned it before pulling away.

"Turn around," Zichen said, and Xingchen did. Zichen's fingers were warmer now, and through his touch, with Zichen so focused on him, Xingchen had started to feel the steady flow of Zichen's strength and spiritual power again. It was difficult to know which sensation to focus on.

He was already moving to obey when Zichen touched his hip to urge him to turn again. Zichen finished washing his front, then took his elbow and guided him to the center of the stream. He helped rinse the soap off. After he was clean, Xingchen settled his arms around Zichen in a loose embrace and opened his eyes.

Zichen was tracing Xingchen's features with his gaze, his hands lying loose on Xingchen's shoulders, thumbs dragging at the muscles that rose into his neck.

"Not in the water," Xingchen said, because any more complicated melding of their energies than simply sensing each other would probably end with one of them drowned.

"No," Zichen said, and allowed Xingchen to draw him to the bank, where they put down the still-damp blanket they used for sleeping, and lay down on it side by side. Zichen's hair draped onto the blanket between them, still loosely plaited, and Zichen brushed it away over his shoulder. Xingchen gathered his own damp hair up and neatened it enough that he would not tangle himself in it.

Zichen took his hand and enlaced their fingers the way they had not been able to do for five days.

Xingchen shuffled closer to him on the blanket and said, "We should set a warning array."

Zichen nodded and released Xingchen's hand. They sat up and cast an array so that they would be interrupted by the warning long before any curious villagers would see them. This aspect of their cultivation practices was entirely personal and entirely their own.

"So," Xingchen said, "What would you like?" He remained sitting up, but he turned so that he was facing Zichen and crossed his legs.

"Ah," Zichen said, gaze sliding to the blanket in his embarrassment. "Too many things."

"Me too," Xingchen admitted.

Zichen shifted so they were both sitting cross-legged, facing each other and knees touching, and he rested his hands palm-up on his thighs. "You needlessly lost energy the other day," he said.

Xingchen's face heated at the reminder. "You were very distracting. For my control."

Zichen breathed in. He moved his hand to rest palm-up on Xingchen's knee, and Xingchen took it.

"If you wanted to build your energy back up in our joining, I would enjoy it," Zichen said with unusual forthrightness. In general he was more circumspect with his desires, although Xingchen still wasn't sure if that was a lingering shame at their both being male, or simple shyness.

Xingchen stroked the backs of Zichen's knuckles with his thumb. "Or. I was watching you hang up your clothing earlier, and I thought about using my mouth." Though now that he considered it, there was no reason not to do both. Xingchen using his mouth would stoke Zichen's yang energy, and Zichen accepting Xingchen inside him would strengthen his yin energy. Sharing that energy would be good for both of them.

"Or both," Zichen said. Xingchen was grateful for him. "Does that suit you?"

Xingchen nodded and began to unfold his legs, but Zichen squeezed his hand, halting him.

"Before that," Zichen said. "I would like to kiss you."

"Of course," Xingchen said, and they lay down side by side, close enough that it was no strain for Xingchen to draw Zichen forward with a hand on his shoulder and kiss him.

It was true that Xingchen wished Zichen didn't have such trouble with touching unclean things. It was more true that he wished things could be clean for Zichen always. If all things were clean, they could lie together like this whenever they wished, and kiss for as long as they liked, as gently or as urgently as they needed. There were a thousand nights where they could have curled up together and used a single winter robe as a pillow for both of them.

Zichen's mouth against his own made Xingchen cling to him, feeling Zichen's warmth and solidity. Zichen broke the kiss, ignoring Xingchen chasing after it, and pressed a kiss to Xingchen's cheekbone, the corner of his eye. Down the line of his jaw, and a playful one to his chin, while Xingchen dragged a hand though the top part of Zichen's hair, loosening his plait further.

"And so," Zichen said. He kissed the knot of Xingchen's throat.

"You humble me," Xingchen said, nudging him onto his back and climbing onto him, still face-to-face, although Zichen was turning aside in embarrassment, as if he could sense Xingchen's thoughts. Xingchen was not bothered, although sometimes he wanted to speak his affection more freely. Zichen knew how Xingchen esteemed him, and that was enough.

Zichen's hands on Xingchen's upper arms lent him stability. Xingchen, weight on his own hands on the blanket, leaned down to kiss him, but was blocked by his own hair, which spilled down off his back and onto Zichen's face in untidy, damp coils.

Xingchen sat up and laughed, helpless, at Zichen's disgruntled expression. "Should I tie it back?" he offered, when he was done laughing.

"No," Zichen said, "unless you want to." But his hands were still curved against the outside of Xingchen's thighs, and Xingchen liked them there. It might be more convenient to get up and find a scrap of cloth to tie his hair back, but he was comfortable here, right now. And he thought Zichen's reluctance came from liking him with his hair entirely unbound.

"All right," he said, and let his hair slide over his shoulder onto his chest, so that it was manageable this time when he bent to kiss Zichen.

Zichen kissed him back carefully, with the quiet intensity that came of touching so infrequently except for this exact way. Xingchen pressed closer in eagerness, and Zichen's hands came up to stroke his back and push his hair further out of the way.

They parted slowly, with Zichen leaning up a little to leave one last kiss against Xingchen's mouth before they were too far apart for it to be comfortable. Xingchen opened his eyes and said, "Should I continue?"

"Yes," Zichen said, and so Xingchen sat up and moved down Zichen's body until it was Zichen's cock rather than his mouth that was in place for Xingchen to kiss. And he did, gladly: the tip, then just below it, followed with little licks up the length. Zichen's hand dragged down his own chest and came to rest at his hip, and Xingchen took it with the hand he wasn't using to hold himself up, curling their fingers together. Zichen squeezed once, but gently, his sword calluses brushing against Xingchen's. Xingchen rubbed his thumb against the inside of Zichen's wrist and kissed his cock again, then took Zichen into his mouth.

Zichen was very ready for him, and the weight of his arousal filled up Xingchen's mouth. Xingchen liked the taste of him, all the salt and bitterness of it. It meant that Zichen was present, and eager.

He shifted deeper, so that Zichen's cock was pressing against his cheek from the inside. Zichen liked the way it looked - Xingchen thought; it was difficult to tell, and Zichen would flush hot and squirm if asked. But now, Zichen twitched a little in his mouth, and Xingchen pulled away slightly to fix the angle before adding his tongue. Zichen's grasp on his hand tightened.

Xingchen pulled off and licked up the trail of saliva that was left on Zichen's cock. Zichen's taste was heavier, now, filling his throat and his nose. He kissed Zichen's hip, fond, and then slipped his tongue out and licked him there, too, making Zichen jerk under him with ticklishness.

"Too much?" Xingchen asked.

"No." Zichen bent one knee, leaning his leg against Xingchen's side. He'd put his other arm under his head so he could look down his body and watch Xingchen more easily.

"Good," Xingchen said, and put his mouth back on Zichen's cock.

Zichen liked this act better than he did most others, both giving and receiving. Even hinting at it jolted him into awareness, and on the nights on the road when they wished to be together but Zichen could not bear their uncleanliness, they would sometimes trade a fantasy back and forth by voice, in the dark and quiet. Zichen would always include this act, or if Xingchen did so first, he would continue it into eager detail. So Xingchen was not surprised when it did not take long before Zichen said, "Stop, or -". Xingchen slid wetly off him, and Zichen shivered all over but otherwise stayed still.

Xingchen let go of Zichen's hand, sat back, and wiped his mouth off on the back of his hand. He was tempted to lick it off, but that would have been for Zichen's benefit, and Zichen had his eyes shut and was visibly trying to master himself.

In the muted sunlight, he looked very handsome, one knee up, the other leg bent to make space for Xingchen to lie in, his cock shining where it rose from the join of his legs, his heavy-muscled thighs solid. His chest and belly rose, fell with his breathing

Xingchen laid a hand on Zichen's inner thigh, carefully so as not to tickle him, and said, "I want these wrapped around me."

Zichen groaned in a mix of arousal and, more strongly, embarrassment. "Why do you enjoy that so much?"

"Because I like them," Xingchen said, crawling over Zichen's leg on all fours to get to - oh, Zichen had been thinking about this; the oil they kept for this use was already out. "And because if you're clinging to me like that, it means you're enjoying what I'm doing. And I like that very much." He resettled himself between Zichen's legs and held up the vial so that Zichen could see it. "Yes?"

"Yes," Zichen said, and drew his knee up a little higher.

Xingchen unstoppered the bottle, slicked his fingers, and stoppered it again, setting it aside. He'd need more later, but the container wasn't very stable, and he didn't want it spilling.

Zichen was sweet to his touch, nearly melting open for him. Xingchen rested his other hand on Zichen's knee and rested his chin on the back of his hand, passing Zichen a smile.

"So," Xingchen said. "Do you think it will rain tomorrow?"

Zichen said, "You're usually better at the conversation part of this."

"I don't know," Xingchen mused, ignoring him and not vengefully pushing in a second finger even though Zichen wasn't giving him any resistance. "The birds make me think rain, but the humidity, no."

"This is not contributing to a meditative mindset," Zichen said, but he was smiling. The plait of his hair was fraying into entire locks spilling out over the undyed blanket, and he looked at ease, and so, so handsome.

Xingchen kissed the inside of his knee and said, "More?" It wasn't that Xingchen couldn't tell if Zichen was ready for and wanted more. It was simply that hearing Zichen speak his desires and his assent was more pleasurable.

"Yes," Zichen said, lifting his hips a little to show off as Xingchen slid two more fingers into him.

"So what would contribute to a properly contemplative mindset?" Xingchen said, but before he could quote an appropriate and edifying passage, Zichen had already put his hand over his own eyes in mock despair.

Xingchen used his thumb to rub the lowermost of Zichen's conception-vessel acupoints, very gently. Zichen's mouth parted and he tightened around Xingchen's fingers, and his mouth opened a little more.

"What would you like?" Xingchen asked.

"More of that," Zichen said, a little breathlessly.

Xingchen sat up and picked up the oil, then, after managing to fumble it open one-handed, withdrew his fingers from the heat of Zichen's body and added more of the oil. Zichen sighed and shifted his other knee open a little more, so that Xingchen could see the small soft secret hole he was going to fuck.

Xingchen's fingers slid back into him easily, but he didn't start moving immediately. Zichen dropped his head back onto his own arm, eyes shutting, as he re-adjusted, and then he said, "Keep going."

Xingchen did. Almost immediately Zichen shifted slightly, presumably to improve the angle of Xingchen stroking inside him. His cock moved with the motion, drawing Xingchen's attention. Zichen had remained hard despite the redirection of his mindset and attention, and he was a little wet still with Xingchen's saliva.

Xingchen said, "Would you like your yin-meeting point engaged?"

"Please." It was almost matter-of-fact, but Xingchen knew how Zichen liked it, and how well his energies responded to it. Xingchen rubbed carefully at Zichen's forward wall, where he could touch the yin-meeting point from the inside. Zichen shifted away from it, then, almost reflexively, onto Xingchen more deeply.

"Yes?" Xingchen said.

"Yes," Zichen said. "Keep going." But he was using the foot he'd braced on the blanket for leverage, and was already trying to subtly rub that spot against Xingchen's fingers. It made the muscles in his belly stand out, and Xingchen refused to allow himself to be blamed for deciding, at the sight of the muscles in Zichen's thighs tensing, that if Zichen liked the idea, Xingchen was ready to have him.

"Zichen," Xingchen said. "May I enter you?"

Zichen said, "Yes."

Xingchen pulled his fingers out and got up off the blanket. He washed his hands in the stream, with soap, and returned. He knelt back down between Zichen's legs, resting his wet hands on Zichen's knees for stability and for the pleasure of touching him. Zichen's eyes on him were bright and expectant.

Xingchen dried his hands on the blanket beneath them, then used more of the oil on himself, not making any particular show of it - sometimes Zichen liked to be teased, to have to watch Xingchen touch himself instead of being satisfied - but Zichen was already eager, and Xingchen wanted him.

He leaned forward, placing a hand on the blanket at Zichen's shoulder to support himself, and guided himself inside. Not deeply, just enough to stimulate Zichen's yin-meeting acupoint.

Zichen breathed out. Xingchen said, "Good?"


Xingchen shifted a little, rubbing himself against that spot, and felt Zichen shiver, muscles tightening around him. Xingchen held still for him through it, and after it was done, Xingchen said, "Hold on, I'd like to kiss you."

Zichen smiled up at him. "That's an excuse," he said, but as Xingchen leaned forward, Zichen wrapped his legs around Xingchen's waist to preserve Xingchen's angle inside him, until they were kissing and Xingchen had Zichen's heavy, handsome thighs around him.

Zichen put one hand on the nape of Xingchen's neck, forearm laid heavy along Xingchen's back to keep him there, so Xingchen kept kissing him. Began moving in him, slowly, in time with the back-and forth of their kisses.

Zichen said, breathless, "Not so deep - " and Xingchen paused and eased back a little.


"Yes," Zichen said, and then, when Xingchen began moving again, "Yes, like that."

Xingchen bent to kiss Zichen's throat, then left his head there, taking in the scent of his body and, closing his eyes, let himself sink into his own movement, into the flow of his own energies.

Their energies were in contact, Zichen's conception vessel meridian to Xingchen's greater yang meridian, Zichen's yin mindset for this act and its pleasure transmuting their energies where their meridians touched and they were focused on this sharing.

Zichen clung to him, sweat starting to rise on his skin as they moved together. Xingchen barely felt like he was doing anything - only allowing his own energy to touch Zichen's. Letting Zichen move him in increments in this way that Zichen liked, rather than deep searching thrusts.

Xingchen kissed Zichen's clavicle as Zichen climaxed. Zichen was recirculating it, transmuting his energy into yang or jing. A little bit of it dissipated into Xingchen himself, like a raindrop on hot metal.

Zichen relaxed his arms enough for Xingchen to push himself up and look at Zichen's face. He looked - his hair was a mess, coming out of its plait. His cheeks were flushed, and his eyes were soft with contentment as he reached up and traced his fingertips over Xingchen's cheekbone and the line of his jaw.

"Good?" Xingchen asked.

"Yes," Zichen sighed, on a faint smile. Xingchen turned his head to dart a kiss to Zichen's fingertips, almost missing, and Zichen's expression melted into a quiet happiness that threatened all of Xingchen's composure.

Xingchen smiled down at him, helplessly affectionate. Zichen felt so good and slick and hot around him, and Zichen was gazing up at him smiling. Xingchen said, "I'd like to kiss you again," and Zichen reached up to help him lean down again just for that. The familiarity of their mouths together paired with the thrill of so much touch made Xingchen hold on to him, wrapped up together.

Zichen's hands on him loosened, as if to let him move away, but Xingchen stayed close, and said against Zichen's mouth, "May I continue?"

Zichen's gaze lowered between them as he considered it. He didn't always like this position, which wasn't as good for letting their energies touch, and it didn't always feel good to him when they were not dual cultivating. But it was so close and entangled that Xingchen could kiss him this way, and Xingchen liked it very much.

"I'll tell you if I don't like it," Zichen said finally. Xingchen wanted to wrap his arms around him and kiss him until Zichen's mouth was too tender to continue.

He could at least do the kissing, so he went to it with vigor, kissing first Zichen's smile and then the corner of his mouth. Zichen made a huffing sound as Xingchen started to move within him again, and Xingchen paused.

"Keep going," Zichen said, and then, a little amused, "You feel bigger like this."

Xingchen tried not to instinctively feel good about that - it wasn't what mattered - and finally gave in and laughed at his own pride. He felt Zichen smile, like he'd known how Xingchen would react and was pleased by it.

"Well," Xingchen said. "I would hate to deprive you," and went back to it.

It would be a little while before Zichen became physically aroused again, but of course the advantage of this was that until he was, they were still sharing energy, slipping it back and forth between them where they were joined. And Zichen was entirely focused on being kissed, and how much he was enjoying Xingchen inside him. A climax didn't really matter, against all that connection.

Xingchen paused every so often to keep control of himself, letting himself pant against Zichen's neck while Zichen stroked his back and nudged his hair out of the way. It didn't take long for Zichen to become aroused again, and this time, already primed by being used to Xingchen inside him, he was better able to open his energies.

Zichen's hands on his back were dragging down Xingchen's meridians, skimming energy from his greater yang meridian and leaving behind the slow sweetness of yin, even as Xingchen left himself open to giving his own energy to Zichen's conception vessel meridian. Zichen was moaning softly as they moved together, each small thrust that dragged their acupoints together making his breath hitch. Xingchen kissed him again. Zichen's desire for Xingchen inside him, for being like this, for letting himself overcome Xingchen's own energy -

"Ah - " Xingchen managed, and froze before he could climax.

Zichen went still for a long moment, then let his head drop back down onto the blanket and pulled his hands from Xingchen's back, gingerly, and rested them on the blanket above his head. They both lay there, Zichen's legs still wrapped around him - Xingchen felt himself twitch with arousal - sticky with sweat and breathing hard.

"I apologize," Xingchen managed, trying to ignore how tight and hot Zichen was, and how Xingchen was going to need to add more oil to keep from hurting him.

Zichen's expression warmed further, somehow. He brushed some stray hairs out of his face; Xingchen wasn't sure whether they were his own or Zichen's.

"I do not expect you to be inexhaustible," Zichen said, and then added, "and I would hate for you to be unmoved by what we do together."

Xingchen said, "I am the snow that topples for the thunderclap in the mountain heights."

Zichen said, "Come down the mountain for me."

Xingchen's heart lit on fire. He said in profound affection, "You dare," and surged forward to kiss Zichen, throwing his energies as open as he could. If Zichen was going to tease him like that, Xingchen was going to be inside him as deeply as he wanted, and Zichen could take in yang energy by teasing diffusion rather than directly to his yin meridians.

"Ah!" Zichen cried out, in a sort of dazed pleasure, and kissed him back, hands tangling in Xingchen's hair.

Xingchen's climax was already close. He did not last very long, but he managed to recirculate his climax, only shivering in Zichen's embrace as he felt Zichen absorb the yang energy Xingchen passed to him, yin energy flowing into Xingchen to balance it.

Zichen shifted, then loosened his arms and the clutch of his legs. Xingchen pressed a kiss to his cheek and withdrew.

 Zichen unwrapped his legs to set the soles of his feet on the blanket so that his knees framed Xingchen, then stretched out one knee, then the other, releasing tension. Xingchen admired the flow of the muscles under his skin, and kissed the inside of Zichen's knee.

Zichen's thigh muscles twitched with ticklishness. His cock still stood rigidly upright, flushed dark, the tip slick with arousal. Xingchen's saliva must have dried already.

Xingchen said, "Would you prefer to wait for me, or to finish without me?"

Zichen said, "It seems wasteful to only share the once each."

Xingchen smiled up at him. "Would another round be more to your liking?"

"I like it well," Zichen said solemnly, formally. His arms were there to gather Xingchen close for more kissing while they waited.

The flush in Zichen's face deserved kisses, so Xingchen leaned forward to press kisses to Zichen's cheeks while Zichen grinned, permitting this gesture of fondness, and then turned his head so that Xingchen could kiss his mouth. Xingchen kissed the taste of salt off Zichen's lips until Zichen broke it. He remained close, after, mouths almost touching.

"Good?" Xingchen asked.

"Yes," Zichen said. Xingchen felt Zichen's lashes against his cheeks as Zichen glanced down before saying, "And you?"

Xingchen smiled and pressed their lips together briefly. "It's just as well we don't do this every day," he said. "We would either cultivate to immortality or die of exhaustion."

Zichen said, "There's not enough water even in the Long River for that much bathing." He was wearing the half-smile that meant he was teasing, but the sadness in his eyes said he was sorry for his need for cleanliness and how it came between them.

Xingchen said, "It would be a very secret pond, high in the mountains."

"Close enough to wherever our sect is housed that it would be easy to reach?" Zichen said.

"But far enough that our disciples wouldn't interrupt." Xingchen nodded, confirming.

Zichen cupped Xingchen's cheek in one hand, stroking Xingchen's cheekbone with his thumb. "It would probably freeze over in winter."

Xingchen said, "Hot baths in our rooms, and retiring to bed right after."

Zichen inhaled slowly. His eyes were as soft as Xingchen had ever seen them, and when he spoke his voice was thick. "Yes."

Xingchen imagined it, as he always did: stone paths between small buildings, with hearth-beds in each room. A tangle of blankets and two head-rests, all of it clean and proper, and outside the door, the chiming of disciples' voices and the wind as it passed over the mountain.

"When we're ready," Xingchen promised again.

"When we're ready," Zichen agreed. He kissed Xingchen carefully and with deliberation, but not lingering.

When he pulled away, he reached out to brush Xingchen's hair back. Xingchen turned into the touch, reaching up to catch Zichen's hand, and kissed his palm, then traced his lips up the calluses at the base of Zichen's hand to kiss the inside of Zichen's wrist. He could taste, just faintly, the rich spark of Zichen's energy through all the meridians that gathered there.

Zichen shuffled forward, the blanket bunching up between them, and took Xingchen's hand to his own mouth to kiss the calluses on his fingertips. His lips were warm against Xingchen's skin, and when he was done giving attention even to Xingchen's thumb, he kissed Xingchen's palm in turn.

Xingchen turned his hand so that he could stroke Zichen's cheekbones with his fingertips. Trace the broad line of his jaw, then down his throat. Zichen's hair was caught under his head, strands licking down his neck and clinging even as Xingchen pushed them aside.

Xingchen wanted to say, I am always glad to be near you. But it was hard to say - they did fight, on occasion, and sometimes it was difficult to bear each other's presence for a time afterwards.

He said, "I'm glad that we're here together."

Zichen's flush deepened a little. "Me too," he said, and then, quietly, "This path is better for being shared with you."

Xingchen was smiling too much to kiss him as thoroughly as he deserved for saying that, but Zichen didn't seem to mind. He let his mouth linger on Xingchen's cheekbones, at the corner of his jaw, as Xingchen held tight to him, dragging him closer. Kissing him and tangling together, closer and closer yet. It was enough, to be with him, to care for him. To plan for more, together, long into the future, and to have this, too: Xingchen's murmur of Again? and Zichen kissing his assent into Xingchen's mouth. Zichen above him, handsome and still aroused, exhaling a soft moan as he sank down on Xingchen.

"Are you all right?" Xingchen asked, to confirm.

"Yes," Zichen said. Most of his plait had fallen out, but the first few twists together near his shoulders were still loosely in place, and his hair hung down between them, swinging gently. The muscles of his thighs tensed and shifted under Xingchen's hands as Zichen rocked carefully upwards, then back onto him. Zichen was more open now, and their meridians were in contact, conception vessel to greater yang. Xingchen's palms were flat against Zichen's thigh muscles where the yin meridians ran, and his own yang meridians flared with the contact until his hands felt hot with it, energy spilling between them. The channels of Zichen's energy flow spread like river deltas through all of him, both yin and yang. Zichen's yang-heavy core pulsed in his belly, but Xingchen could feel the slow transmutation to yin as Zichen focused on being connected with him. On the way the energy of Xingchen's yang meridians, inside him and touching him, dragged at his yin.

Zichen's eyes were shut, but his mouth was faintly open as he breathed. The grip of his body was so slick and sweetly pleasurable that Xingchen was already nearly at his limit. If Zichen did anything good at all -

"Wait," Xingchen said. Zichen froze with his back arched for a moment before easing the angle of his body, then exhaled softly on a faint moan as it rubbed his yin-meeting acupoint against Xingchen's cock.

Zichen breathed for a moment, regaining control, then opened his eyes.

"Yes?" he said.

Xingchen licked his lips and swallowed. "It feels very good," he confessed. He skimmed his palms up Zichen's thighs helplessly, letting them rest against his hipbones. Zichen flinched a little from ticklishness and Xingchen took his hands away.

"You're not going to last," Zichen said. He breathed in, chest and belly expanding. The old scar from a training accident in his youth was pale and pinched along his ribs. The lines of his meridians blurred a little there, from how their flow had been disrupted by the injury so long ago.

"No," Xingchen said, and then, "I'm sorry."

Zichen shook his head slightly. "That's not what's important."

Xingchen said, "I like when we are matched. I like knowing you're satisfied and having been the one to do it."

Zichen's eyes widened in surprise, and his cock twitched. The small bud of his lips parted. He said, "Yes."

Xingchen's mouth ached with wanting to kiss him. He said, "It's always - your pleasure - the way you share yourself with me." Zichen's brows furrowed slightly. "I value it," Xingchen said.

Zichen said, tentatively, "I'm sorry I can't always."

Xingchen shook his head, frustrated, "Not that. You're important to me. I'm grateful that you enjoy this." He fumbled for Zichen's hand, and when Zichen's beautiful fingers were wrapped around his he urged Zichen to lean forwards enough that Xingchen could kiss his palm, and the inside of his wrist.

Xingchen lingered there, feeling in his lips the heady rush of Zichen's meridians. "This," he said, "is like this," and he gestured with his other hand at the span of Zichen's body, at the splay of his knees over Xingchen's hips and the heat of Zichen around him. "I value that we choose this."

Zichen brushed his thumb slowly along Xingchen's lips, eyes following it. Xingchen opened his mouth and licked the pad of Zichen's thumb with the tip of his tongue. He meant it as a kiss, but Zichen inhaled slowly and left his thumb there, and Xingchen could see his mind turn to the thought of Xingchen's climax leaving Zichen unsatisfied, and how Zichen could ask for his mouth afterwards.

Xingchen let his mouth open, let Zichen stroke his tongue with two fingers. Curved his hands over Zichen's thighs.

Zichen kept his touch light, feeling the muscle of Xingchen's tongue, nudging at it and letting Xingchen push back a little, and watching with his gaze bright and avid. He nudged gently at Xingchen's cheek from the inside, watching it distend, and then he turned his wrist and stroked carefully at the roof of Xingchen's mouth. And then brushed the pad of his finger at the very tip of Xingchen's tongue before withdrawing, slowly.

Xingchen's pulse pounded in his throat. He left his mouth open and watched Zichen stroke himself with those two dripping fingers, still watching Xingchen. Teasing himself.

Xingchen closed his mouth and swallowed. Watched the light touch Zichen used as he traced a path with his fingertips down his cock.

Zichen blinked, and didn't look away. "You've closed off your energy," he said, and Xingchen realized it was true. In his distraction he'd stopped sharing himself.

He let his head fall back and closed his eyes, breathing, tracing his own energy flow through his body and letting the sense of Zichen's sweep through him. Letting the cool welcome of Zichen's energy join with his, and giving Zichen his own.

Zichen lifted up, nearly off of him, and sank down. He made a soft, aroused noise, and leaned a hand on the blanket near Xingchen's shoulder, and did it again.

Xingchen put his hands back on Zichen's thighs to feel his muscles shift so beautifully. The power of his physical body in harmony with his spiritual power, in this other, more intimate context, was going to undo him.

Zichen took Xingchen's hand from his thigh and wrapped it around his cock. "There," Zichen said, a little breathless, and sounding a little smug. "Be useful."

Xingchen laughed, and said, "I think I should be insulted," and stroked him anyway. Zichen felt warm against his hand, around him. Slick and open, and hard and wet with his own arousal in Xingchen's hand. Their energy connected so they could feel each other and contribute to each other's spiritual development.

His climax poured energy into both of them. Zichen made a cut-off gasp as Xingchen's yang energy washed into him before receding, drawing on his yin meridians. Xingchen felt Zichen's climax as an answer to his own, drawn out by the complementarity of their desires.

When he was fit to pay attention to the more mundane details of their bodies, Zichen had collapsed on top of him.

Xingchen shifted. Zichen made a soft noise of discontent. His hair had finally given up on being plaited and was piled onto Xingchen's chest and face. Xingchen pushed it out of the way carefully and said, "Let me wash off? You'll cramp if we stay like this."

Zichen said mournfully, "I know." He knelt up and pulled off, both of them hissing with oversensitivity, and then carefully lay back down on his side.

Xingchen sat up, brushing his hair out of his face. Zichen was still flushed, but his eyes were half-lidded with sleepiness and the lines of his face softened with contentment.

Xingchen leaned over and kissed him briefly, then got the soap and went into the river to wash himself.

When he returned, Zichen was more than half-asleep, but he curled into Xingchen's arms with a contented sigh, and all his meridians slipped open as Xingchen touched him, as if he could not bear for their energies to separate. As if he wished for their bodies to be extensions of one another.

Xingchen kissed the top of his head, and let him sleep.

Every cultivator was able to use their core to enhance their senses when necessary. It was a common technique: empty the mind, use the ears to listen for sounds that should not be there and sharpen the eyesight to look for unexpected movement.

Blind, Zichen took every step with a pulse of energy as if he were sensing the meridians of the world around him. He was unsteady at first, and Xingchen wore out his voice telling Zichen which way to go, because Zichen felt that even his own skin had grown unclean and would touch almost nothing, not even Fuxue. But as they ascended the mountain, Zichen grew more steady.

Xingchen took Zichen's practice as advice in descending it. The whole world was a dance of energies, and opening himself to them made him feel as though he could, someday, be in accordance with them.

If he never again saw or sensed Zichen, who knew him, who knew his blade, whose energies had once been part of his own, it would be as Zichen had wished. Zichen had wanted the connection between them severed. That was the way: to come together, to flow apart. To behave according to their natures.

For the first six months Zichen thought of Xingchen almost constantly. Wishing for the sweep of his robes at Zichen's side, or the sound of his voice. What Zichen would say to him when he found him. If Zichen could only find him, surely Xingchen would listen to his apologies. Surely there was still that much friendship between them. If Xingchen did not, Zichen would - he would - he liked to think that for once in his life his tongue would be clever, and find just the right words. But if he couldn't, he would beg. That would be all right, to beg for forgiveness at Xingchen's feet.

Then he nearly died in a night hunt despite his growing ability to use his core to sense his surroundings. Lying out on the blanket that Xingchen had left him that they used to sleep on together, he told the stars that Xiao Xingchen was faithless, and took it back five minutes later. He thought about meeting Xingchen again and apologizing and Xingchen forgiving him and then he was so unspeakably furious, at Xingchen for leaving him without a word, at himself for speaking harshly. At Xingchen again, for listening and not asking. At himself for trusting, for having cared for Xingchen at all, at Xingchen for leading him on -

He was losing the memory of the smell of Xingchen's hair oil. He smelled it again, in a roadside stand in a sectless territory in the south. The oil was cheaply made, of course, but faintly scented with the fruit of a tree that grew there. He left quickly and got back on the road and focused on breathing, on letting the missing sweep through him. On wanting to press his face into Xingchen's hair from behind and breathe in and in and in, and have Xingchen nestle into his arms just like that, as soft and welcome and warm as anything in the world.

He'd spent so long with his desire aimed almost wholly at Xingchen that he barely recognized it aimed at anyone else. There was a very beautiful young man, a scribe in a small town who aided him with a night hunt, who made eyes at him over the land records that were key to understanding the matter. Zichen only realized he was watching the man's mouth when the man bit his own lip in a smile, and Zichen thought reflexively of how Xingchen did that when he wanted to drag Zichen off the side of the road and suck him but couldn't say so.

He flushed, embarrassed, and looked away. His marked preference for men when it came to the bedroom was the more embarrassing for his having been raised in a temple - it was a kind of joke, to pretend that all temple men were so. He did not find the assumptions amusing. It was a slight upon the people who had raised him, who had no one left to remember them but him.

His master had thought his partiality to Xingchen amusing. His master had said, Ah, Daoist Xiao has returned with you again. And you will go with him? and similar. Never saying anything about how Xingchen shared a room with him, that had only the one bed.

He did not foster the scribe's interest. It would have been dishonorable when all his yearnings were for someone else.

A month later he thought of Xingchen's beautiful smile and his glittering eyes and the way he teased when he crawled down Zichen's body to use his mouth, and remembering it left him aroused and curled around the aching sadness in his belly.

Before, Xingchen would not have minded that Zichen touched himself thinking of it. Would have said, Did you? with that mischievous curve to his smile, and kissed him, and said, Let me give you something to remember for next time. Zichen didn't know what he would have thought now. You told me to go. Why would you think of me now? seemed likely, of all the possible responses.

The girl had a companion she called by the title of a Daoist priest. The girl said -

Zichen had learned, alone and worried in these last years, how to sense with some accuracy when people lied to him; he could detect strangers from across a small village when he sent a pulse of his own energy through the ground by the shape of its return. He could find water in the ground by the shape of its energy reflections, and old unquiet bones.

He had not yet found Xiao Xingchen, and if he could have cast his core like gossamer over the rivers and mountains to seek him, he would have. If this girl's companion was truly Xiao Xingchen -

He could no more stop his hopes than he could stop the sun.

Every step he pulsed with searching - trees, people, chickens, dogs. The slow growth of plants like the flicker of sunlight through trees. A person with a core like a stifled hearth-fire, all ash and smoke overlaying the heat of the flame: a demonic cultivator.

Such a person, near Xingchen. Could only be hurting him.

His breath caught. Xingchen might already be hurt. Might be in pain, might be - and the girl might be hurt if he fought the demonic cultivator now.

He said to the girl, "I would like to go around."

She said, "Okay, whatever," and guided him around the little village, and he dragged her into the brush when the demonic cultivator passed, so that they would not be seen. He did not look. His heart pounded. Xingchen, alone. The cultivator was whistling.

Zichen's feet struck the echoes of the earth. Buildings, stone, water, a person - a person, a cultivator, all the sun caught in the cultivator's core, Xingchen.

The sound of nothing but his own blood in his ears as Xingchen's energy rolled out like spiritual thunder through the air, catching him so that he staggered. Xingchen, Xingchen, so close -

When they came into view Xingchen was standing, mouth open, red blossoming on the cloth covering his eyes, his hands fisted in his clothing.

"Xingchen," Zichen said, "Xiao Xingchen," correcting himself, "Daoist Xiao, it is Song Zichen -"

"Zichen," Xingchen said, and reached out for him, staggering, his energy in the air in waves, and Zichen, hand wrapped in his own sleeve, caught Xingchen's fingers, and then caught the rest of him in an embrace.

"Oh," Xingchen said into his shoulder, "I must be bleeding on you - I apologize - "

"It's all right," Zichen said, because he could always do laundry, he was more than due.

"How rude," said a hard voice behind him. "To barge in without an introduction."

The girl exhaled. Zichen heard her back away. Zichen had not felt the demonic cultivator, not wrapped up in Xingchen at last beside him again, not with Xingchen's overwhelming sun-bright core so close that it blotted out his spiritual sense of the world.

Zichen loosened his arms and made to turn to face the stranger, but Xingchen did not pull out of his arms.

"I have been remiss,' Xingchen said. To Zichen he continued, "The stranger does not give his name, so I cannot introduce him," and then, a little louder, "and this is my old dear friend, Song Zichen. He is welcome anywhere I am."

Zichen did not like the thought of Xingchen beside demonic cultivators, but Xingchen's core was still as golden as he remembered, and twice as overwhelming. He wanted to lick bruises into Xingchen's abdomen where his core nestled and taste the brightness of his energy.

He turned.

Xue Yang snorted. "So," he said. "Still willing to believe that your bright moon is as wonderful as you remember?"

"Xue Yang," Zichen said, and felt Xingchen go rigid at his side. Another pulse of his energies, like a breeze through the air.

Xingchen said, "Don't, either of you."

Zichen said, "He killed all my sect."

"And how many people have you killed, Daoist Song?" Xue Yang said. "How much justice have you done since your old dear friend," he spat it out like phlegm, "gave you his eyes?"

Zichen couldn't think of that right now, not if he was not going to die here. He said, "That's between me and him. You I have other business with."

"Do you think he'll forgive you if you kill his friends?"

Zichen unsheathed Fuxue. His spiritual senses were still overwhelmed from being so close to Xingchen. "Talk less," he said.

"No, you," sing-songed Xue Yang, sauntering drunkenly back in a lazy slouch. "It was easy," he added. "All those old men. And the women." He shrugged out of the way of Zichen's strike. Zichen parried his counterattack. "And then guess who I find alone on the road? Daoist Xiao, pretty as a picture, with his eyes given away to someone who doesn't appreciate him." The sword in his hand flickered. He had a limp, one weak leg. If Zichen could exploit that…

"Don't you think if you treated him better he'd have stayed?" said Xue Yang, as if he knew all of Zichen's thoughts.

The sudden wash of Xingchen's energy threw him to his knees. Xue Yang, also kneeling, made a horrible gut-punched noise that was either pain or arousal or both as Xingchen stalked up to him.

"Have you changed?" said Xingchen to him.

"All things change, Daoist," crooned Xue Yang. "All things are mutually dependent and nothing is separate. I am not the I who was - "

"Shut up," Zichen said. Xue Yang winked at him and licked the corner of his lips, and then surged up and kissed Xingchen full on the mouth, hand clenching in his hair, dragging Xingchen between himself and Zichen even as Zichen rose with Fuxue aimed at Xue Yang's belly or heart or -

Xingchen did not step away. As Zichen staggered, redirecting his strike, Xue Yang's knees softened, hands falling open and aside, his eyes widening as he collapsed onto the ground at Xingchen's feet.

"No," Xingchen said gently, and wiped his blood-smeared mouth. He turned. There were tracks of red down his cheeks. The thought of touching him, bloody and with Xue Yang's spittle on him, made Zichen want to back away. He didn't. Xingchen would either touch him or he wouldn't. Zichen needed to bathe anyway.

"He's not dead," Xingchen added.

"He has escaped justice twice," Zichen said. "I have a right and a duty."

"If I've escaped it twice," Xue Yang said, "then you've escaped five times, Daoist. All those night hunts we went on! Did you know that I killed them for you?"

Xingchen froze and took in a struggling breath.

"Don't listen," Zichen said.

"Your sword tells you they're monsters and your spirit tells you they're not, so I made them into monsters for you," Xue Yang said. "It was fun, wasn't it? You and me and the empty wind."

Xingchen staggered. Zichen felt all the brightness of Xingchen's energy pull out of the world as Xingchen blocked himself off, as Xue Yang giggled, and then Xue Yang and Zichen were fighting again, blade to blade. Zichen could sense where he was and how he was moving, could feel the pour of energy through him.

Xingchen had interrupted their energy flow, both of them. So it could be done at need. He could sense, in the sickening haze of Xue Yang's energy, the internal balance of his meridians.

"Daoist," Xue Yang said, addressing Xingchen, "shouldn't you be happy, after what he's done to you? I've seen you cry at night. Don't you deserve to be happy?"

Zichen couldn't watch him. Xingchen was too closed off to sense and Xue Yang's energy was giving him vertigo and he said, desperate,  "Xing-" as Xue Yang parried and there was pain and -

"Isn't that better?" Xue Yang said, as Zichen's knees hit the dirt and his mouth filled with blood. "Now he won't say anything mean to you again."

Zichen closed his eyes and let the blood pour out of his mouth into the soil, and tore all Xue Yang's meridians open to the ground. The earth soaked Xue Yang's energy up into churning spiritual mud. It got mixed in with Zichen's core because he was so open to the world, and it felt wrong and filthy in a way he wasn't sure he could wash out.

Xue Yang's body fell, still open-mouthed with surprise.

Zichen thought, I got to meet him again, and he knows I'm sorry. Good enough.

He woke up. His mouth hurt. The place where half his tongue had been felt hot. The heat was that of having been healed with spiritual energy. He could still taste blood.

He was in a bed. It had wooden legs that rested on the floor, through which he could feel Xingchen sitting less than an arms-length away. Xingchen was open, a little, so Zichen had a sense of the shining beauty of him, but not much more.

"Good, you're awake," Xingchen said. "I healed your mouth as best I could," he added, like Zichen couldn't guess. "And I took care of the corpse."

Presumably he'd also carried Zichen to this bed.

"A-Qing is looking for food," Xingchen added, "if you can eat. I don't…" he made a soft noise, then said, "There's a stream where we can get water. So you can bathe."

Zichen said "What about you?" slowly, and found that what remained of his tongue could say that, at least.

"I," Xingchen said, and then faltered. Zichen opened his (Xingchen's) eyes and found that Xingchen had washed his own face, but the cloth over his eyes (where his eyes had been, before he gave them to Zichen) was still stained with blood. "I have had a long day and am going to take a bath also," he said, the pitch of his voice rising in the way it did when he was overwhelmed, "And then I will meditate and think about it and perhaps -"

Zichen used his sense of the world as if it were another part of his body and nudged Xingchen, just slightly, at one of the meridians in his feet. Xingchen startled, then his eyebrows furrowed, and he nudged back. It felt a little like bumping elbows. Zichen sat up.

Xingchen smiled sadly and sighed with relief, "Zichen."

Zichen said, "Xingchen." It came out garbled, nothing like Xingchen's poem of a name. But apparently Xingchen understood what he meant, because his energy reached out and nudged Zichen's own again.

"I've missed you," Xingchen said. "I'm glad you're here."

"Me too," Zichen tried, and that sounded wrong, but not too bad. Another nudge, and Xingchen's shoulders stopped being quite so stooped.

Xingchen inhaled. A few moments later, Zichen felt the girl - A-Qing, apparently - returning, carrying something hot. She brought in a bowl of millet porridge and set it in front of Zichen.

Zichen managed to hiss out an approximation of "Thank you" to her.

"No problem," she said, but she was still in the room.

"What about you?" Zichen asked Xingchen.

"Not hungry," Xingchen lied. Zichen nudged him again.

"Ah," Xingchen said, understanding Zichen's meaning. "I'll eat later."

A-Qing snorted. "The creepy guy was supposed to be getting food from the market," she said. "So we don't have much else."

Zichen held the spoon out to her and managed to say her name - he couldn't manage Eat. He probably wasn't even going to be able to say his own name anymore, now that he thought of it.

She huffed. "I already ate. The other Daoist priest said you should have all of his."

Zichen sighed and put the bowl in front of Xingchen on the floor, clattering the spoon into the bowl. Xingchen huffed, picked it up, ate two bites, and then pushed the bowl into Zichen's hands.

Zichen managed to eat two bites - it was a challenge, gathering the food to the back of his mouth to swallow -  and put the bowl back on the floor in front of Xingchen.

A-Qing said, "Are you guys going to make each other eat, like lovers having a spat?"

"Technically," Xingchen said, "that's what we are."

Zichen tried not to feel like Xingchen had pulled the chambers of his heart into alignment, but he thought from the way Xingchen's mouth softened and his hands pressed against his own thighs that Xingchen had noticed.

A-Qing made a high, pained noise. "You said he was your friend!"

"That too," Xingchen said calmly, but there was a flush creeping up his cheeks.

"Known of each other's swords," Zichen tried, using the old cultivator term and mangling the consonants. From A-Qing's expression, she didn't know it, or didn't understand him, but of course Xingchen did. His energy pressed against Zichen's elbow, prodding his meridians there in an urgent acknowledgement that was as good as a frantic yes.

"What does that mean?" A-Qing said.

"It means that I would know him by his sword alone, if it came to that," Xingchen said. "By the way he fights. Blind or not."

"Really?" she said, distracted into the change of subject. "Like, if I turned you around and around and told you, hey, fight this dude?"

"Really," Xingchen said, and laughed a little, picking up the bowl of porridge almost absentmindedly and eating a spoonful. "Remember, with the beast by the river?"

"The mirage clam," Zichen said, clearly enough.

Xingchen's mouth curled into a secret little smile that struck Zichen's chest with its familiarity. "We knew each other there. So yes, really."

Before, that smile would have meant that Xingchen wanted to make love. Not the spiritual connection of dual cultivation, but the flesh: speaking their desires aloud, and tangling together in a riot of sweat and skin and breath. Zichen opened his mouth to elaborate, and only then realized that without half his tongue he could no more kiss Xingchen properly than he could speak Xingchen's name.

He nudged one of the meridians in Xingchen's shins. Xingchen's smile widened, just a little.

A-Qing said, "So you'd be sure, if you sparred now? That he was really your friend?"

Xingchen gave a little embarrassed laugh and said, "You remember how I can sense things because of the kind of cultivation I do?"

"Yes," she said, shifting her weight, setting one bare and dusty foot on top of the other.

"I remembered what he feels like that way," Xingchen said. "And he feels the same now, just more powerful." He ate another bite of porridge and held the bowl up to Zichen with one hand.

Zichen took it without touching him and ate another bite.

"All right," A-Qing said. She darted out of the doorway but stood outside in the sunlight for a moment, breathing harshly.

Zichen swallowed. She was still terribly, terribly afraid.

"She doesn't trust you," Zichen said slowly, carefully, trying to enunciate.

"No," Xingchen said, wrapping his arms around himself, shoulders curving inwards. "I must do better."

"Yes," Zichen said.

They finished the bowl, slowly, and in silence, except for the twining of the edges of their energies together, as tight and close and reassuring as holding hands.

It was good for two days, peaceful. The first day, they went to the market and bought some vegetables and sorghum. Xingchen's inability to follow the flow of haggling was the same as always, but between the two of them they managed. Zichen spent the whole day close enough to feel Xingchen's energy, drinking him in with his (Xingchen's) eyes and ears and core.

The second day he and Xingchen took baths, very much separately, and Zichen did his own laundry, and afterwards they touched skin-to-skin for the first time since - since they had parted. Zichen let his hands trace the calluses on Xingchen's fingers, and let Xingchen do the same for him. Xingchen's mouth was open, soft with a mix of joy and grief, and his bandage grew stained with pink. At the end Xingchen pressed his fingers to his mouth and then to Zichen's wrist, and Zichen nudged agreement against Xingchen's energy even as he thought, You left anyway. But he did not let go.

The third day Zichen felt they were, if not ready, then perhaps due. After making apologies to A-Qing, Zichen dragged Xingchen out to the small copse of trees outside the village and they had the screaming fight they'd been putting off in the glorious exhilaration of being in each other's presence again.

They spent most of it more than two arms-length apart, Xinghen's voice a wreck from weeping and his face bloody, and Zichen's tongue too clumsy to express his words, leaving him using his own core to stamp out words between them in the earth for Xingchen to sense and read.

After twenty minutes of that, they ended up sitting on the ground facing each other, both heaving for breath.

Zichen sketched out, "We can't undo what he did."

"I don't know how to atone," Xingchen said. "Anyone would have the right to kill me for what happened."

Zichen wrote, slowly, "You did not mean for people to die. You were negligent in trusting him. But you can save lives too."

Xingchen swallowed and said, "Are you sure?"

"It was he who killed them," Zichen wrote. "I am sure."

Xingchen nodded slightly. "Then I must."

They cleaned up and returned to find A-Qing sitting in front of the hearth, stirring a pot of soaking sorghum and singing quietly to herself.

"A-Qing," Xingchen said, and then, "May I sit with you?"

"Okay," she said.

Xingchen folded down onto his knees on the floor, formally, while Zichen waited outside the door and listened in.

"There is something I must say to you," Xingchen said.

"What?" she said warily.

"I profoundly apologize for how you have been treated as my companion these last years," Xingchen said. "I wrongly and dishonorably dismissed your concerns, and those actions and their consequences are a stain on my conscience and my honor that I will bear all my life, and into the next." He paused, and said, "I will understand if you wish to part ways. If you would prefer to stay, however, both Zichen and I would gladly welcome your company, and I will do better to trust you and act with respect towards you."

There was a very long silence afterwards as Xingchen waited for her to respond.

"Okay," she said. "I - thanks. I meant to stay, I guess." Hesitantly, "Is that what you two were talking about?"

Xingchen said, "Among other things."

Zichen did not want to live in this village, and although A-Qing deserved a stable place, all three of them had agreed that it was best to find somewhere else to stay. Some place not full of retrospective horror. So they made sure that Xue Yang would not return as any kind of ghost, and then left.

The constant touch of each other's energy became habit. He had been half-expecting to feel at some point the coursing of Xingchen's energies in arousal. Instead, while cooking dinner as A-Qing and Xingchen set up their camp for the night, he became aware of Xingchen's energy not only in contact with his own but drawing away, then returning, like Xingchen's attention kept catching on him.

Before, he would have known how to show interest in return - quick glances, then lingering ones. Letting their hands rest closer together on whatever they were both touching. All of it visual. He did not know how to indicate that if Xingchen wished to discuss resuming physical intimacy, he would welcome such a conversation.

A-Qing sat down on the other side of the fire from him. "Millet again?" she said. It had been stewed with greens picked from among the weeds near the road, dried beans, and some other seasonings.

He dished her up a bowl.

He'd found, as his tongue-stump finished healing, that he could still taste, if not as intensely as before. He preferred more aromatics now, and Xingchen sometimes teased him about his newfound love of ginger and garlic, but he was glad that his sense of taste was not lost.

He watched Xingchen eat, and pressed his energy against Xingchen's. Let it stay there.

Xingchen paused, and took his eating bowl in one hand, then rested his hand on the ground. Turned it so the inside of his wrist rested against the soil, the meridians there exposed to Zichen's energy. His mouth opened, and Zichen felt - something, some part of his own energy slipping against Xingchen's, and Xingchen jerked his wrist away and began to eat again.

Too much? He didn't know. If A-Qing were not here, he would not hesitate to ask, but she was a child, and even if she knew that he and Xingchen had been lovers once, and still cared for each other, it was not appropriate for her to hear them talking about sex.

"I'm going to go bathe," he said, after dinner. "There's water near here."

A-Qing said, "Eww, cold."

Xingchen said, "You haven't been on the road long enough to appreciate such luxuries, I see," a gentle smile curving his mouth, and he stood. "I'll set a protective array first," he said, and then, his back turned towards her, "You go ahead."

Zichen rested his energy against Xingchen's for a moment in a reassuring agreement, and then strode into the woods.

Zichen was already naked and in the water when Xingchen arrived.

"Do you mind if I…?" Xingchen asked.

"No," Zichen said. It was too dark to see anything of Xingchen's physical body, and clothes made no difference to his sense of Xingchen's energy.

Zichen inhaled, let it out. Xingchen was the friend of his heart and the one who knew his sword, no matter what else they were to each other.

In the months since his injury, he had become more used to the mangled sounds of his own mouth, but he would never be easy for those not used to him to understand. Sometimes even Xingchen had trouble. His foolish tongue had driven Xingchen from his life; it seemed only just for it to be damaged, so that he would have to weigh his words carefully ever after.

If he could not ever again kiss Xingchen, or taste the sweat on his skin, or use his mouth in a way that gave Xingchen pleasure - well. He was lucky beyond his due to have Xingchen in his life again, alive and shining and joyful in his presence, as none of the rest of those in his life who mattered could be. Xingchen was the miracle that had been left to him, and he was grateful.

Xingchen slipped into the water.

Zichen's energy-sense passed better through soil and stone than through water. Like with vision, the water distorted his energy impressions of the things around him. It was what made him able to find water so easily. But even in water, the hot inner sun of Xingchen's core was apparent to him, energy radiating outwards.

"Soap?" Xingchen asked.

"Here," Zichen said, and waded over to hand it to him. When he did, Xingchen caught his wrist, and hesitantly touched two fingers to the inside, head tilted in a question.

"I," Zichen said, unhappy, and then stopped. "I want," he said. "But it has been a long time. We have both changed."

"Yes," Xingchen said, and then he said, "You didn't ask. About whether I, with Xue Yang…"

"It isn't my business," Zichen said. He was still trying to master the knot of jealousy, rage, and resentment inside of him about the time that Xingchen had spent living with Xue Yang and ignoring both his own twinges of suspicion and A-Qing's terror.

"It isn't," Xingchen said. "And if I said I slept my way through a sect's worth of cultivators, none of them Xue Yang, would you care?"

"No," Zichen said truthfully. Xingchen liked sex and deserved to have it.

"So." Xingchen said, as if he'd made a point. "You're worried your lover slept with your sworn enemy."

"Unknowingly," Zichen said, trying not to thrill at lover.

"And perhaps that he might have been able to take one more thing from you," Xingchen added, ruthlessly. "That I would choose him over you, in bed and in life."

"I hate when you do this," Zichen said.

"The price of having a sword-mate is that to know your sword I must know you," Xingchen said with a smile in his voice. He was still holding Zichen's hand. "I - think I did not know you well enough, before. That all of this is from a misunderstanding."

Zichen rested his head on Xingchen's shoulder. "If so, it was mutual." He reached down and rubbed his thumb against the inside of Xingchen's wrist, and breathed in even as Xingchen did.

"I -" Xingchen stopped, then sighed. His breath was warm on Zichen's neck. "You didn't betray your own principles."

"Xingchen," Zichen said, heart tightening, yet not letting himself bend for this particular manifestation of Xingchen's grief.

Xingchen huffed, a small wry laugh. "I know," he said. He raised one of his hands to rest between Zichen's shoulder blades, a warm gentle pressure. "To be known I must know myself truly."

Zichen nodded and tapped slowly one-two-three with his fingertips at the inside of Xingchen's wrist.

Xingchen shivered faintly. "Like that, too," he said.

Zichen paused. He asked, carefully, "Do you desire me again?"

"Still," Xingchen said fiercely. "Do you?"

"Yes," Zichen said. "But not tonight."

"Not tonight," Xingchen agreed. But he let go of Zichen's hands and curled his arms around Zichen's waist, standing with him there in the cool water for a time before they separated to clean themselves.

They traveled. They did some talisman work for hire, and Zichen went on a few night-hunts. A-Qing began to speak to strangers with the careful formality of someone with pride, if not money, rather than the casual street-slang she had been wont to. Her vision was too bad for her to read anything, but her memory was good enough, and both Zichen and Xingchen could recall poetry to recite to her. Zichen sometimes had to write the character out for Xingchen to sense in the dirt, but the three of them muddled along.

Zichen wasn't sure what they were looking for, as a sign that they should stop. He and Xingchen still planned on founding a small sect when the time was right.

He supposed as the last remaining member of Baixue he could claim its lands, but the idea of pretending to hold authority in the halls made him ill. Let the snow drip through the roof and rot the floors. Let animals nest in its rafters and mushrooms grow in its walls. Let it be reduced to dirt, and then become trees under snow, made clean again.

"If you wished to have sex now," Xingchen said into the dark quiet of their shared tent, A-Qing presumably asleep in her own tent on the other side of the protective array. "What would you do?"

Zichen smeared his palms on the blanket, hating the all-over sense of dust and grit that lingered on him from traveling. "Touch your hands."

They did that often enough, when they were clean. Xingchen had warm hands, and his calluses felt good against Zichen's fingertips. He was gentle when they held each other's hands and traced the lines of each other's meridians, or just the shapes of each other's palms and fingers. Fingertips firm enough not to tickle as he dragged up Zichen's knuckles and the tendons in the back of his hand. Down across his palm, and so beautiful when Zichen touched him in the same way in return.

Xingchen always finished by asking if he could kiss Zichen's hand. Zichen never knew what to say to that - he wanted it and was terrified of it. So far he'd mostly said no, but he'd said yes a few times, and Xingchen's lips had been soft at the veins at the inside of his wrist, lingering but still chaste. Zichen had barely been able to breathe.

He had not offered to return it. Once he would have - he would have longed to be so close to Xingchen's skin in this intimate and vulnerable way. He still wanted to, but his mouth was not right. Not ready. Not a part of himself he wanted to touch Xingchen with, even if Xingchen's skin would be as thin as silk gauze and twice as lovely, even though Xingchen wanted it.

"Fingertip to fingertip," Xingchen said softly, and then, on a smile, "My fingertips to your palm, firm enough not to tickle. Would you let me trace your meridians?"

"Yes," Zichen said. He let his hands relax on the blanket, so that he could imagine Xingchen's words were reality.

"I like the way your meridians feel," Xingchen said. "Steady, and safe, and so alive. Balanced, too." He paused, shifting slightly on the blanket. "Too much?"

"Not too much," Zichen mumbled. His palm ached for Xingchen's touch.

"Would you touch me back?"

"Yes." Zichen breathed in. Out. "The calluses at the base of your fingers. The lines of your palm." He let himself smile, teasing, and said, "Or is this your left hand?"

Xingchen huffed out a laugh and said, "My right."

"I would rest my palm against yours and hold your wrist," Zichen said.

Xingchen was quiet, waiting for him, for a time. Then he said, "I would ask to kiss you."

Zichen said, "No." He hated that no was left intact in his mouth, but yes had been mangled beyond understanding.

"Not your mouth," Xingchen whispered. "If you don't wish it. Your cheek?"

He didn't know. He wanted Xingchen to kiss him and not be horrified. He wanted to not find his own mouth and his own speech a horror.

"Your nose," Xingchen suggested. "Or your forehead."

With his energy he nudged, carefully, at the inside of Xingchen's wrist. Not letting their energies tangle, in case Xingchen didn't want it.

"Your wrist," Xingchen said, almost sounding relieved. "If that's what you'd like." He nudged back, at Zichen's wrist this time. "And then up your arm, one at a time, slowly - how much would you be wearing?"

If Xingchen kissed his forearm, Xingchen's hair would sweep across Zichen's skin. Imagining it left prickles of cold washing through him.

"Under-robe," he said. It would be easy to take off to his waist, so that if Xingchen wanted to kiss his shoulder, he could.

"I think I'd be naked," Xingchen said, smiling again. "In this tent with everything clean around us," he said. "Just us, wanting each other."

Zichen had seen Xingchen naked since they reunited. Mostly while bathing. Xingchen was still lanky. He still had the line of little brown birthmarks on his left shoulderblade, as if someone had carried a painting brush over his skin and it had dripped as it traveled. Zichen used to enjoy kissing them when he and Xingchen went to sleep or had sex pressed together front-to-back. The marks had never tasted any different to his lips or tongue, and he'd never gotten tired of checking. Maybe he could tap them with his fingertips now instead of kissing them, one-two-three-four, then a fifth because he couldn't stop with such an unlucky number. Xingchen might laugh, and lay a hand in his hair, and ask for eight, as he always had.

Zichen said, "Don't stop."

Xingchen said, "It would tickle when I reached the inside of your elbow." He paused. Outside, a few late-season bugs cried out.

"That's all right," Zichen said.

"So I wouldn't stop there either," Xingchen continued in response. "Up your bicep to your shoulder."  He sighed, longingly. "You always smell good there. Even sweaty." Zichen could hear a little moue of a smile, unashamed and laughing at his own unconventional taste, in his voice. "Especially sweaty, after sword practice."

Zichen had forgotten about that. He liked the synchronicity of their sparring, the way their bodies and blades had linked in a call-and-answer when they played at combat against each other, but he'd forgotten how Xingchen came alive with it, how Xingchen's exhilaration often turned to sexual desire.

The few times Xingchen had made to draw Shuanghua since their reunion, Xingchen had begun shaking so hard that Shuanghua had fallen from his hands. Zichen didn't have to guess why.

"We'd only be on the road. No night hunt," Zichen said.

Xingchen hummed in thought and continued, "I would kiss your shoulders, to the juncture with your neck, and then your collarbone, because I wouldn't want to tickle you. I like your collarbone. The way the bones looked was enticing, and I want to feel them again."

Zichen hadn't known about that. He'd thought that Xingchen kissing him there was only to avoid accidentally tickling him.

Zichen said, hesitant and meaning every word, "I would put my arms around you to keep you steady and push your hair out of the way."

There was a pause. "Am I on top of you?"

Zichen said, "If you want."  

Xingchen huffed out a laugh and rolled onto his back, only to sit up enough to brush his hair aside before lying back down.

"Unless you wouldn't like it," Zichen offered.

Xingchen said, "I think I still like it." He slid the back of his hand down the blanket, then crossed his arms at his waist as if holding himself. "I would kiss down your chest and pause to listen to your heartbeat, because I've missed it, and sensing your meridians isn't the same."

Zichen would be warm with Xingchen's body heat, their bones jarring together in all the awkward ways that their bodies didn't quite fit, and he wouldn't care. He would be holding Xingchen, who would have his ear to Zichen's chest, and Zichen could stroke the bony planes of Xingchen's back, finger-comb the length of his hair, and not care if his own heartbeat was ragged with happiness.

"I," Zichen said, and couldn't finish. He could say I would hold you and let you listen until you were ready for silence with the ruin of his mouth, and it would lose all its warmth and all its intent. "I would like it."

Xingchen said, "I would listen for a long time."

"I would not mind," Zichen said.

Xingchen rolled over onto his side, face turned towards Zichen again. "I would kiss slowly down your chest and abdomen, and lower, until your arousal was before me," he murmured, "and then I would ask if I might pleasure you, and if you would like any particular act."

Zichen shifted. If they continued, he might reach the point of seeking physical release despite the uncleanliness of his body and the lack of any way to bathe nearby. Even so, hearing Xingchen speak his own desires aloud again was precious.

"I would enjoy anything you cared to give," he said.

"What do you want?" Xingchen asked.

He breathed in, out. The tent was dark to his (Xingchen's) eyes, but he could sense the slope of Xingchen's side, the way his arms were tucked up against his chest as he waited. Xingchen's meridians curved through space because his body was loose against the ground under their tent. He'd drawn in his energy, only touching the inside of the tent: Zichen, the ground, the tent cloth.

If Xingchen were really kissing Zichen's abdomen, Zichen would want his mouth - teasing or otherwise. Would let himself drown in the sight and feel of himself in Xingchen's soft-wet mouth, and hold tight to their sleeping-blanket so Xingchen could move on Zichen as he pleased.

If the Xingchen of the fantasy had his mouth occupied, the real Xingchen wouldn't ask for a kiss, and Zichen wouldn't have to tell him no.

"Your mouth," Zichen said. On the other side of the tent, Xingchen melted a little more. He became more spiritually open, so that the air took on a sense of his energy, just lightly, as of incense burning in a neighboring room.

"Of course," Xingchen said gently. "I would take you in hand, first. To feel its weight and to learn you again." He sighed. "I would stroke you a few times, slowly, feeling whether you were very eager, and enjoying the sensation of you in my hand. I would kiss your hip, to warn you. And then let your cock kiss my tongue."

Zichen shivered. The way Xingchen's tongue would look with Zichen pressed to it, the sensation of Xingchen tasting him - he let himself breathe in through his mouth, deeply. "I," he said, and then, simply, "Yes."

Xingchen said, like poetry, "I ache for you. To have you like this again would be one of the greatest honors of my life."

On instinct, Zichen said, "Hardly."

Xingchen laughed, bright and sudden. "Should it not be, to be trusted again with my sword-mate's pleasure? I would feel honored. I would feel as though -" He took in an audible breath. His energy pulsed, touching Zichen's lightly. "I would be aroused by it. I would want to show you what it means to me."

Xingchen could surely sense that Zichen was aroused. Did it please him? To know that Zichen was enjoying the images he brought up? That Zichen wanted Xingchen to desire him, and desired him in return, so urgently that it made even the sticky gritty uncleanliness of his own body seem to matter less and less?

"How?" Zichen asked.

"I would take you as deeply into my mouth as I could, and wait while you mastered yourself to keep from fucking my throat," Xingchen said, in the terrible no-nonsense way he spoke filth.

Zichen turned his face to the blanket to muffle his own noise of embarrassed arousal.

"Too much?" Xingchen asked, suddenly hesitant.

Zichen breathed in and let the knowledge of his own desire pour through him. He wanted to touch Xingchen's hands, to have them touching him; he wanted Xingchen's physical warmth, not only the knowledge of his affection. He wanted Xingchen kneeling above him joyful and aroused. He was ready for none of it.

"No," Zichen said. He scraped his palm against the blanket, restless, not wanting grime and dirt inside his clothes from touch.

Xingchen relaxed against the ground. "I would pleasure you with my tongue and my lips and my mouth, until you were near the end of your endurance, and then I would draw away so you would not finish." His breath was heavier than before, and his voice a little slower. "I would kiss your hip to apologize for teasing you so, and kiss my way down your thigh. Your thighs feel as good to my senses now as they looked before. I remember loving how you held me close with them, and I want to touch with my hands and with my mouth, to learn them anew."

Zichen rolled onto his back and stared up at the roof of the tent. His arousal ached. He could very nearly touch Xingchen's energy in the air. If he and Xingchen had been clean, he would already have had Xingchen half on top of him, bodies close and eager. He would kiss Xingchen's ear, the corner of his jaw, listen to Xingchen's panting breaths as they strove together.

"I would kiss the inside of your knee, and then your shin, and down to your ankle but no farther, because of your ticklishness," Xingchen said. "And make my way up the other leg, as slowly as I descended."

Zichen opened his mouth to say Come higher than that and kiss me, and felt the stump of his tongue, how wrong and mutilated the words would sound, and stayed silent.

"Would you want my mouth to finish?" Xingchen asked.

"No," Zichen said, because although he wanted to say yes so that Xingchen would not ask to kiss him again, he would not lie to Xingchen either.

"How?" Xingchen shifted awkwardly where he lay. Maybe Xingchen was as eager as he was.  Xingchen might feel the same hot heaviness in his body, the hunger for touch, restrained by his respect for Zichen's limits.

I want to have you in my arms, you holding on to me as tightly as I hold you; I want to be able to say your name whole as we peak together.

"Just close," Zichen said, and then, "Hip."

Xingchen moaned softly, hips rolling forward against nothing, slow, aching. "Yes," he said. "I would be below you, and you would be warm as I held you close, and we would both be eager."

"Yes," Zichen said. He would kiss Xingchen's ear, his neck, his temple; he would feel the damp hardness of Xingchen against his hip, and Xingchen would be firm where Zichen pressed against him in arousal.

Xingchen panted, "Do you mind if I touch myself?"

"No," Zichen said, feeling Xingchen bare himself in the dark, spiritually opening further so that Zichen could feel his meridians alive with arousal.

Xingchen's clothes rustled, and he gasped into the dark at his own touch. Zichen wanted to swallow down the sound of it, to taste all its beauty. To have Xingchen make that noise again beneath him, from how Zichen pleased him.

There was a soft noise of flesh on flesh. "I would do anything," Xingchen said, voice breaking, "I would, Zichen, I need you," and his energy flared like the cracking brightness of lightning as he peaked, washing through Zichen in a hot sparking pulse.

Zichen shuddered, and lay limp on the other side of the tent. His body still ached with arousal, but less urgently. The flows of his energy were untangling, as if he had climaxed. He wasn't entirely sure he hadn't.

Xingchen panted loudly for several moments before his breaths began to slow. He was still sprawled on his back, core bright and meridians like rivers. "Too much?" he asked.

"No," Zichen said, hands clenched in the blanket. Xingchen would be warm, loose in his arms, smelling faintly of sex. "Not enough."

Xingchen's breath caught, then returned to its slowing pace. "When we're ready," he said.

"Yes," Zichen said.

After three days of rain, the roads were rivers of mud. Their tents were waterproofed, but it was no longer quite enough, and they had all slept poorly. By midmorning A-Qing was muddy to her thighs and had begun to shiver with exhaustion. Xingchen made a little spiritual gesture that drew Zichen's attention to her misery and suggested stopping at the next town, which they would reach before midday. Zichen, having noted days-old stiffness in Xingchen's shoulders and already considering whether A-Qing would give permission for Zichen to carry her if necessary, did not object.

Fortunately, the inn had space for three muddy cultivators. They spent the afternoon placing warding talismans around the inn in exchange for food, lodging, and bathwater for the three of them.

Zichen waited until Xingchen had also bathed and gotten into bed, then said, "Your back's a mess."

Xingchen hummed noncommittally, tried to roll onto his other side, and grunted with discomfort.

"Right," Zichen said, sitting up. "Lie on your stomach."

"You don't have to," Xingchen protested.

"You practiced sword forms with Shuanghua for the first time in months three days ago," Zichen said. He wanted to be coaxing, to be gentle. To his own ears he sounded frustrated. "You're in pain. Let me help."

Xingchen flopped down and sighed. Zichen knelt next to him and rested a hand on Xingchen's shoulder. He didn't press, just waited.

"The last time anyone did this for me," Xingchen said slowly, "it was..."

Zichen didn't need him to finish to know what the end of the sentence was. He left his hand where it was and let the anger and betrayal flow through him and into the ground. Xingchen had offered kindness beyond reason, and taken the word of a strange man over that of a young girl. Speaking of this to Zichen was a gift of trust. Zichen would have to choose something right to say, to honor it.

He couldn't say I'm glad you had someone looking out for you, because he was angry it had been Xue Yang, and Xue Yang had not been looking out for Xingchen. Nor was Zichen so foolish as to express any desire to be compared favorably to Xue Yang, though of course Xingchen knew he hungered for it.

He let himself feel the warmth of Xingchen's back, the flow of his energies through his body.

"Forget I said that," Xingchen said. "It was cruel."

"One should not fear truth," Zichen said. He pressed gently to feel where Xingchen's muscle tension gathered, then stroked along Xingchen's shoulder, down his back, still feeling it. Xingchen's shoulder was a tangle of knots, the muscles snarled with overuse and energy drain, and compensating for it had left tension throughout his back. He had been circulating energy to try to ease his pain, but it hadn't been enough, as the injuries were partly spiritual.

"You don't like to hear about it, though," Xingchen said.

Zichen pressed his fingertips on either side of Xingchen's spine, working his way downwards. Xingchen huffed out a breath when Zichen pressed at the small of his back, and his shoulders eased a little further when Zichen dragged slowly down the sides of his spine.

Zichen said finally, "It can't heal if we don't talk about the parts you think it's important to share."

Xingchen said, "I don't want to hurt you."

Zichen hummed and pressed his fingertips into Xingchen's back, working his way up, and then down. "If I don't know what you would have shared, I'll keep imagining things."

He cupped the back of Xingchen's neck, feeling the tension, then squeezed gently before releasing, moving his hand down a little, and doing it again. He did this a few times, then said, "Turn your face the other way."

Xingchen arched his back a little to obey, then returned to resting on the bed. He wasn't wearing the bandage for his eyes, but his eyes were closed.

Zichen squeezed the back of Xingchen's neck in little trailing paths again.

"The friend you thought you had was important to you for some time," Zichen said. "It would be cruel not to acknowledge that."

Xingchen adjusted the position of his head slightly for comfort and sighed. Zichen moved on to the side of his neck, where the right side was bound up, and the left looser. Xingchen's muscles were hard with tension under his touch.

"I had headaches for a long time after I left you," Xingchen said.

"So did I," Zichen said. Xingchen huffed out a breath. Zichen added, not wanting to be misconstrued, "I only meant to say that I wasn't surprised that you had them too."

"Ah," Xingchen said, sounding relieved. "Well. You might remember what I'm like when I get headaches."

"Keen to make everyone around you as miserable as you are?" Zichen said fondly. He paused in applying pressure to Xingchen's right shoulder and laid his hand flat to Xingchen's skin.

"Yes," Xingchen said. "He offered. In case it helped."

"Did it?" Zichen said. He had found that the only help for his headaches after the surgery had been mild pain-killing medications. If Doctor Wen had noticed that the innate energy pattern of his eyeballs had not matched his own core, she hadn't said anything about it. If she had, would he have understood what had happened? Certainly he would have had a better idea of how to treat the headaches, which were caused as much by the subtle mismatch of his body's natural energy to Xingchen's as by physical injury. He was sure the transplant had only really been successful because the years of dual cultivation had made his body used to Xingchen's energy mixing with his own.

"Not noticeably," Xingchen said. "He didn't have much experience with therapeutic massage. But I think he was truly trying."

Zichen had a moment of horrible sympathy with Xue Yang. Zichen could not blame Xue Yang for wanting Xingchen sighing and growing easy under his hands. He would have done much the same in Xue Yang's position: knowing Xingchen was in pain, and unsure how to help, Zichen likely would have offered massage as well. Zichen was trained in massage, though he didn't often use it.

He went back to using light pressure on Xingchen's shoulder muscles, working his way diagonally towards the spine. "I can understand why he would offer." He reached Xingchen's spine, then returned his hand to Xingchen's shoulder and stroked downwards with smooth, firm pressure.

"Oh?" Xingchen said.

Zichen started pressing with his fingertips into the muscles of Xingchen's neck where it joined with his shoulder. It would've been easier if Xingchen had been sitting up, but Xingchen had already been in bed, and lying down. Xingchen's mouth fell open.

"It's easy to imagine that he might have liked touching you," Zichen said.

Xingchen hummed through his nose in acknowledgement. "I like you touching me." His head wobbled loosely as Zichen pressed and released with his fingertips on either side of Xingchen's spine at the base of his neck before returning to his shoulder.

"Good," Zichen said. "I'm going to use my elbow now."

"All right."

Xinchen groaned with the rightness of the pressure when Zichen dug his elbow in and began drawing circles.

"Good pain?" Zichen asked, checking.

"Perfect," Xingchen said.

He smoothed the tension out of Xingchen's shoulders slowly, careful not to use too much force. Xingchen had a high pain tolerance due to his strong cultivation, and would sometimes ask for more pressure than would result in best effect. This time, he was mostly quiet, answering when Zichen checked how something felt, or volunteering the information himself. Zichen did not use any spiritual techniques; the injuries were in part because of Shuanghua drawing on Xingchen's energy, and adding Zichen's might well exacerbate them.

The small furrow between Xingchen's brows melted away, and his muscles grew softer, more lax, as he eased. His energy flowed more smoothly, and his breath was slower, too, until by the time Zichen's touch had gentled to ease out of the massage he was nearly asleep.

"All right?" Zichen asked, dragging his hand slowly down Xingchen's back in farewell.

Xingchen hummed agreement. In the candlelight, Xingchen's little birthmark dots caught his eye again. Xingchen's skin was warm, and he was at ease. Zichen laid a fingertip over each dot in turn, feeling Xingchen's energy flow without regard for the location of the marks, and then he bent and pressed his lips to the spot where the next mark would have been to make a line of five. Again, to make six.

Xingchen said unsteadily, "Zichen?"

Zichen sat up again. His lips felt rough with the ringing after-sense of Xingchen's skin. "It's only," he said, and then, "I'm happy to be with you again."

"Me too," Xingchen said softly.

Zichen awoke to the bite of cold in the air and Xingchen warm and awake on the other half of their narrow bed. It was well into winter in this little town on the Qishan border where they had settled for the season, but the home they were borrowing was cozy.

"I heard A-Qing go out already," Xingchen said softly. "May I touch your face and hair?"

"Yes," Zichen said. Xingchen's fingers settled gently on his forehead before beginning to stroke through his unbound hair.

"I'd like to make a request," Xingchen said. Zichen hummed to show he was listening and pushed into Xingchen's touch.

"Would you be amenable to dual cultivating this morning?"

Since settling into this village two months ago, they had had mundane sex a handful of times, sometimes more and sometimes less successfully.  Zichen still felt washed over with humiliation remembering the mess he'd made of trying to use his mouth, but other acts and positions still pleased them. To try dual cultivating, on a slow winter morning with A-Qing out of the house...

"Why?" he asked.

Xingchen shifted slightly, the angle of his hand in Zichen's hair changing, but not his rhythm. "I want to feel you," Xingchen said. "We're always touching energies to communicate, or to feel where the other is. It's as much as we ever used to do when we dual cultivated, I think, but it's unremarkable now."

Zichen shook his head against Xingchen's hand, then said, "It's different. No merging."

"True," Xingchen said. "But I want to feel your energies blending with mine." He paused, breathed. "I also want you inside me in every way I can take. It doesn't have to be dual cultivation if you don't want. But I want both if you do."

Xingchen hadn't stopped combing his fingers through Zichen's hair.

Zichen said carefully, "How do you want it to go?"

Xingchen laughed softly. "I want anything. I want - I want you on top of me this time. I want to drown in you and you in me." He leaned forward, slowly, his intent obvious, and kissed Zichen's forehead. "Mostly I want you to climb onto me now and put it in me while you drag my meridians with you."

Zichen shivered. Xingchen's energy thrummed warm in the air. Through the bed and the contact between them, Zichen could feel the pulse of Xingchen's meridians, yin flowing more intensely than usual from expectation of meeting Zichen's yang.

"Do you want to be made ready?" Zichen asked.

Xingchen wriggled a little closer on the bed. "No, I did it myself earlier."

Zichen breathed in. He must have slept deeply not to wake at Xingchen working himself open in bed next to him. Xingchen with his fingers messy-slick and his mouth open with pleasure would have been beautiful to watch. "How many times do you want?"

Xingchen quirked a little smile. "Let's see how we feel after once. It's been a long time since I dual cultivated. Let me become used to it again."

Zichen understood. Even the successful mundane sex had left him wanting more than anything for the world to slow and let him adjust to Xingchen in his arms again. "And after?"

"Naps," Xingchen said brightly. "Together."

It sounded like some kind of waking dream, Xingchen's pleasure melding with his own followed by the togetherness of a lazy, sleepy morning.

"I'll try," he said.

Xingchen said hurriedly, "If you want something else -"

Zichen caught his hand and squeezed it. "I'm out of practice," he said. "That's all."

Xingchen huffed out a laugh and tucked his face against Zichen's neck. "Me too," he said. "If you ever had ambitions at reenacting the first time we tried sex in this position."

Zichen hid his smile against the top of Xingchen's head. They'd both been so cautious with each other, and so awkward with inexperience. Xingchen's plea of Are you sure it's going to fit? as Zichen tried to enter him and slipped aside had broken them both down into nervous giggles.

 "We know each other better now," Zichen said.

"I don't think that's it," Xingchen said doubtfully, and then, laughter underlying the warmth of his voice, "And I've taken cock a lot more since then."

Zichen made the disgruntled huff that that deserved, and Xingchen really did laugh.

"Sword-mate mine, that's how it is," he said. "If nothing else, I think you liked the doing."

"I did." Zichen said, and then, "I do."

Xingchen hummed and cuddled even closer. "Me too," he said. His hand was warm on Zichen's bare back, and his hair rustled against the bed cushion. His knees bumped Zichen's, and he left them there. His ribs were smooth under Zichen's hand at his side, his hip bony.

Xingchen hummed, pleased, as Zichen nudged him onto his back and followed after, not letting the bedcover dislodge to let in cold air.

Xingchen draped his arms around Zichen's waist and said, "Could you move down a little? I can't breathe." So Zichen did, until his cheek was brushing Xingchen's.

"I want to try touching your meridians," Zichen said.

"With your energy?" Xingchen asked. When Zichen hummed in agreement, he said, "Go ahead."

Unlike Xingchen, Zichen couldn't feel through the air with his energy. But where Xingchen touched him, or touched the earth or anything solid, Zichen could feel him. And Xingchen's wrists with all their exposed meridians were on Zichen's bare back.

He let the energy of the meridians that passed along his shoulders and spine flow out, into Xingchen's wrists and the thin-skinned insides of his arms. It was like settling into a cool stream of water on an autumn day. Zichen breathed into the warm curve of Xingchen's neck and eased away, parting them.

Xingchen dislodged one arm from Zichen's back in order to stroke his shoulders. "That was odd," he said.

Zichen said, "Too much?"

"No," Xingchen said slowly. "It wasn't very... I remember it being more arousing. More innately sexual." He rested his palm flat at the center of Zichen's back, heavy, as if to keep him there. "Did we ever meld energies without already being inside each other?"

"No," Zichen said.

Xingchen said thoughtfully, "If we touch certain acupoints, does that make a difference?"

"Do you want to try?"


This time Zichen directed his own energies through the meridians in Xingchen's chest because they were in better physical contact there. The circulation of energy through Xingchen's body connected his acupoints, and the yin-meeting point, low in his body, was easy to find. Zichen nudged against the concentration of energy there.

Xingchen made a high, shocked noise and his spiritual openness shivered nearly closed.

Zichen pressed his lips to Xingchen's neck. He was fairly certain that that noise was the same one Xingchen made when he was touched in intimate ways before he was quite ready - and for the same reasons. "Too much?" Zichen said, checking.

"Yes," Xingchen said. He tightened his arms around Zichen. "Too soon, at least. May I try?"

"Where?" Zichen asked.

Xingchen shifted slightly. "Um," he said, and then, "Your greater yang acupoint."

"Yes," Zichen said. Either it would be good or it wouldn't. He didn't think it would hurt, and he was less prone to oversensitivity there.

Xingchen's energy tracing his meridians felt strange, but not overwhelming, as it slid through his chest to his belly. It was a little like having a snowball brush delicately against his lower abdomen. The touch skimmed inwards to brush fingertips inside Zichen's intestines.

He shuddered with the strangeness of it and said, "Forward."

"Oh, yes," Xingchen said, and that cool touch shifted.

Centered at the pool of yang energy inside his body rather than any physical organ, his arousal grew urgent. Xingchen's touch to his skin paled in comparison to the deep, shivering sense of Xingchen's energy in contact with his own. He threw his barriers open and was unashamed at his own disappointed noise when Xingchen hurriedly withdrew from touching his energy there.

"Zichen?" Xingchen said.

Zichen hummed a question and turned his head to brush his lips below Xingchen's jaw, sliding their bodies into an alignment where each of them could seek physical pleasure against the other's body.

"Zichen," Xingchen said, in a tone of delight. "You liked it!"

Zichen nudged the meridians at the inside of Xingchen's wrist and nosed at his throat.

"Should I try again?"

"Yes," Zichen said. "Me too?"


Xingchen's energy felt cooler this time, and he was open wider. As Xingchen's energy came in contact with the energy at Zichen's acupoint, Zichen let his own yang energy flow in a thin stream into Xingchen's wrist and down his arm, where it would gradually unite with Xingchen's yin energy and Xingchen could transmute it into jing.

Xingchen's energy flowing through his body, in contact with his greater yang acupoint, felt like the sensation of Xingchen's mouth on him, but turned inside out. It was like Xingchen's pleasure at touching him had been made physical. His own energy flowing into Xingchen drowned him in Xingchen's scent, overwhelmed with affection and a hunger to stay close.

Xingchen's contact with his acupoint strengthened, and Xingchen's meridians dragged at Zichen's for an answering balance. He opened himself wider and let his energy go freely, as if Xingchen's meridians were his own. However open and welcoming Xingchen was, Zichen would match him.

Xingchen moaned softly and drew one knee up in sexual invitation. Zichen hooked his elbow under Xingchen's thigh and rocked against Xingchen's other leg, his belly rubbing at Xingchen's arousal. The heat of his core was so close to Xingchen's that he half-thought he could feel energy flowing between them even there.

Xingchen used his leg to drag Zichen tighter and closer, then pressed his palms harder to Zichen's back. Xingchen's core was so open it dragged at his as if even in this they could be joined.

"Our cores?" he said, and Xingchen panted out, "Yes," and they reached together, just the two of them so used to each other. Zichen fell into the autumn evening and starlight coolness of Xingchen's energy, his own full of the taste of Xingchen's smile as Xingchen touched his core in turn and Xingchen alive with brightness, legs and shoulders and the whole house lit by their joining as Xingchen keened and Zichen's-Xingchen's-their meridians flooded with the recirculation of their shared pleasure.

Zichen's ears rang with the chill of the snow outside. He was lying trembling with Xingchen's hair in his mouth and his own sticking damply to his neck. Xingchen's arms were tight around him.

The bed cushion was soft under his knees. He loosened his grasp on Xingchen's thigh and helped Xingchen slowly lower his leg.

"What the fuck," Xingchen said, still panting.

Zichen sprawled off of him onto his back, then thought better of it and lay on his side. Xingchen cuddled in close and rested their foreheads together. Zichen's mouth still tasted like hearth smoke on an autumn evening, and the circulation of his energy was rich with jing.

Zichen said, "I didn't think yang cores could meld."

Xingchen dragged his thumb along Zichen's spine at his lower back, up and then down in a small repeating path. "Only as an exchange of yang energy," he said. His lips parted, glancing against Zichen's for a moment. "Not a source of jing."

Zichen said, "It didn't feel wrong."

"No," Xingchen said. They breathed against each other's mouths a little longer. Zichen could still feel Xingchen's meridians, although at more of a distance now that they had withdrawn from flowing into each other. His own meridians circulated his energy smoothly, as if he had spontaneously generated jing from within himself.

He hadn't been inside Xingchen, not physically. They'd only allowed energy to flow between them. It was - he was hardly an expert in dual cultivation, but that seemed unorthodox. But not wrong, not for either of them.

He let his fingertips rest in the divots of Xingchen's spine, then tapped, one-two-three. His eyelids were heavy. Xingchen would probably let Zichen tuck his face against Xingchen's shoulder to sleep.

"Next time," Xingchen said slowly, "we'll go slower." He shifted away from Zichen and yawned.

Zichen hummed in agreement. Dual cultivating that intensely while physically inside Xingchen, or vice versa, would probably leave him insensate.

Xingchen shifted into a more comfortable position, still close, and a soft tendril of his energy pressed to the inside of Zichen's wrist in a kiss.

Zichen yawned loudly.

Xingchen murmured, voice warm and teasing, "You owe me a thorough fucking later."

Zichen hummed agreement, and with his own energy brushed a kiss to Xingchen's smiling mouth.