Despite the growing population within the Four Seasons Manor, it was a known tradition of a sort for the Manor Lord to leave from time to time with his Second Disciple in tow. As far as the disciples knew, Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing had been on the road for too long before rebuilding the sect and had met under fated circumstances that brought them together—the younger students were wont to sigh in the inherent romanticism of it all—and might not have fully adjusted yet to the life with a stable abode.
If Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing were asked, they’d simply say that it was a continuation of their earlier promise of tasting all the wine while they lived, and, really, they had to escape the manor from time to time to get a breather. They couldn’t afford to leave the sect for a long span of time, not while it was still young and the Head Disciple a child still. It was the closest they would get to having several children, they supposed, and the experience could wear anyone down.
A stroll around the town was the best way to stretch their legs, so to speak, and for a moment, Zhou Zishu was taken to earlier days where Wen Kexing would follow him and appear wherever he went with what little time he initially had. Zhou Zishu was prone to deliberation these days, he realized, and often it was to match Wen Kexing’s pace in all the aspects of their lives. He was a little better in indulging him too, he thought, mildly giving his input here and there which tassel Wen Kexing should pick as gifts for two of their disciples who would have been with them for a year in a couple of days. He had been told that there was someone else about to have their birthday next week as well, and Zhou Zishu couldn’t help the slight smile at the thoughtfulness as he listened.
“Ah, how about this, A-Xu?” Wen Kexing picked up a fan from the stall next to the one Zhou Zishu dragged him from. “Do you think the color will suit—”
“They’ll like whatever you choose,” Zhou Zishu interrupted. It was true anyway. If Zhou Zishu was the strict and formidable master, Wen Kexing, while no less capable, was known more as the fond and doting one. Zhou Zishu wasn’t completely unaware of how Wen Kexing was called the mother—would that make him the father then? “Let me,” he said, taking half of the packages from Wen Kexing to free one of his hands.
“Eh. I can carry them all,” Wen Kexing protested half-heartedly but relented. He grinned, nudging Zhou Zishu’s side mischievously. “You just want my hand free so you can hold it, A-Xu.”
Zhou Zishu leveled him with a flat stare. “Yes, actually.” Reaching for Wen Kexing’s hand with his left, he laced their fingers that fit together seamlessly. He ignored the look of surprise he received in return. “Chengling said the newest recruit doesn’t have shoes that fit him.”
“Ah,” Wen Kexing murmured distractedly without looking away from their joined hands. “He might have mentioned that.”
Zhou Zishu squeezed his hand as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Thinking about it, there shouldn’t be anything complicated in holding Wen Kexing’s hand in the first place, though perhaps he should have done it a long time ago. He was determined not to let chances slide in his second time, however.
Fondly, Zhou Zishu led him away. “Let’s go then.”
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Zhou Zishu had been drinking less than his usual. It wasn’t the alcohol itself, fine quality as it was and not the watered-down kind. Mainly, he attributed it to wanting to soak in the pleasant mood and the overall levity of the atmosphere; it had been years since the halls of Four Seasons Manor were filled with joyous chatter and laughs after all.
To his side was Wen Kexing regaling the enraptured junior disciples with tales of his escapades, and the lack of stumble and slur in his words made Zhou Zishu mistakenly thought he was unaffected by the alcohol even if he was drinking for just as long as him, if not in quicker successions.
As if feeling eyes on him, Zhou Zishu was met with a slight tilt of the head and a raised eyebrow. He noted the all too bright eyes—not entirely unaffected then. Absently, Zhou Zishu inched closer to him. “Don’t drink anymore if you can’t handle it,” he reminded, reaching for a pitcher of water instead and filling Wen Kexing’s cup. “You don’t want to be embarrassed in front of your disciples.”
“Lord Zhou should be heeding his own advice,” Wen Kexing tutted and drank. He frowned. “This isn’t wine.”
“It’s water. See, you didn’t even notice.”
Wen Kexing blankly stared at the empty cup in his hand. “Huh.”
Amusedly, Zhou Zishu pried the cup away. “You’ve had enough, I think.”
“A-Xu, why are you being stingy now? You never said no to overindulging, and what better time than in the New Year?”
“You forget that we better learn moderation from now on to set a good example.” Zhou Zishu remained unimpressed at the pout directed his way. “Think of the headache tomorrow,” he said. “Besides, aren’t you exhausted already after preparing all these mostly by yourself?”
That earned him a sigh and a weary smile. “Worth it.” He gestured at the lively company.
“It is,” Zhou Zishu agreed easily.
He wasn’t sure if Wen Kexing was aware of himself leaning towards him. He must be, though his heavy eyes and the sleepy grunt said otherwise.
“Want to sleep,” Wen Kexing mumbled. “Will A-Xu carry me?”
Zhou Zishu snorted but, inured to embarrassment at this point, allowed Wen Kexing to fall on his shoulder and was practically against his chest. Gingerly, Zhou Zishu encircled his arm around his waist, and, after some adjusting, pulled him by the underside of his knees. Wen Kexing barely registered the fact that he was being carried.
It wasn’t until the evening breeze met them outdoors did Wen Kexing shifted with a mild jolt and stared at Zhou Zishu blearily. “Did A-Xu just carry me from the hall?” he slurred. “In front of your disciples?”
Zhou Zishu valiantly ignored the dopey grin forming on Wen Kexing’s face. Truly, his drunken state was merely his less eloquent default. “Did you already forget that you asked me to?”
Wen Kexing blinked slowly, gaze dropping down by Zhou Zishu’s throat. In a lower voice, he spoke, “I remember.” Slumping further against Zhou Zishu, his chin hooked by his shoulder as he tightened his arms around his neck.
Wen Kexing was light in his arms and, oddly enough, quiet without completely falling asleep. Zhou Zishu was certain he could make this into a habit if only to silence him when needed.
“Lao Wen,” he whispered. “Thank you.”
Carrying Wen Kexing this way seemed like an inadequate form of recompense when all was said and done, especially not when Zhou Zishu was treated in return to the exquisite sight of a tender, affectionate smile.
With the kitchen up and running with extra hands, it was common for a pleasant smell to waft over the courtyard from the start of the morning through the evening. Coming from his early meditation, Zhou Zishu followed a unique fragrance and wasn’t a bit surprised to find Wen Kexing at the source.
The first eleven additions of disciples were capable helpers, a fact which Wen Kexing was grateful for since their number grew. And while he still handled food preparation, it had been much easier with the assistance of three to five people. Zhou Zishu observed him putter around the kitchen, intermittently giving instructions to one of the disciples taking inventory of their supplies.
Though careful to move about, Zhou Zishu made enough noise that had Wen Kexing’s sudden attention on him with his arms crossed. He clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “Lord Zhou should wait in the dining hall for breakfast.”
It was a wonder how his demeanor would turn strict when it came to cooking but was otherwise lax in far serious affairs. Huffing, Zhou Zishu ambled towards the cook, glancing at the cauldron with rice. He reached for a spoon. “That smells good.”
Wen Kexing batted his hand away. “It’s not ready,” he chided. “It smells good because of the saffron, but the flavor won’t be settling in for another quarter of an hour.”
Zhou Zishu watched his long fingers sprinkle a pinch of salt and pepper, almost enraptured at the way Wen Kexing was in his own element. Catching his gaze, Wen Kexing’s eyes softened imperceptibly. “A-Xu gets the first serving, of course.”
Zhou Zishu hummed. In a stroke of inspiration, he flitted behind Wen Kexing and hovered by his shoulder before reaching a hand around his waist, palm splaying over his abdomen. With Wen Kexing startled at the gesture, Zhou Zishu took advantage and swooped in with his spoon.
Some bits of the sticky rice were clumped but the hints of spice were already present. Without extricating himself from his position, Zhou Zishu added half a spoon of chili and tasted. He let out a small noise of approval, and if it happened to be right next to Wen Kexing’s ear and caused a vague shiver, well. “Delicious,” he muttered lowly.
From the far side of the room, someone stifled a cough and the moment was broken as quickly as it began. Zhou Zishu was already at an arm’s length when Wen Kexing rounded on him. Laughing, he dodged a smack to his side. “A-Xu! You—”
Zhou Zishu escaped before he could be properly thrown out of the kitchen, though not without reveling at Wen Kexing’s red ears.
Zhou Zishu was not completely unaware of the appreciative stare that followed him upon entering the establishment. He could pinpoint the exact direction it was coming from: two tables to his right situated at the corner where a woman—highborn, based from her posture and rich robes—was dining with an elderly gentleman in equally luxurious attire who vaguely resembled her.
Pretending not to notice, he went on to hail the server for wine and food. Wen Kexing was taking his sweet time fetching a bag of his precious walnuts that Zhou Zishu couldn’t understand why he liked so much. Once he was served, Zhou Zishu started on the alcohol while he waited.
What he wasn’t expecting, though, was the abrupt presence of the same woman now at the empty seat across him. Zhou Zishu politely inclined his head in confusion and belatedly took note of the absence of her companion. “Guniang. ”
“Gongzi. ” She smiled handsomely in greeting, smelling faintly of lavender and jasmine. Judging from her features, she looked a year or so younger than him. Pretty, with practiced manners and grace, undeniably someone who could turn heads. “Pardon this one’s forwardness, but I noticed that gongzi is missing a company… and so am I after my father left me for the meantime. Might this one invite you to share mine perhaps?”
Zhou Zishu doubted that she had not heard him asking for a serving for two people and was obviously waiting for someone. Forward, that was for sure. Definitely a woman who had never been refused once she knew what she wanted. Zhou Zishu smiled amiably when he answered, “Thank you for the invitation, guniang, but I’m waiting for my companion.”
A flash of a frown crossed her delicate features before they smoothed over when she opened her pink lips to speak further of her insistence. Then, as if summoned, Zhou Zishu spotted Wen Kexing approaching from behind. Hearing what basically amounted to thundering steps, Zhou Zishu hid a grin behind his cup.
“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing called, tone deceptively beatific with an underlying sharpness that only Zhou Zishu was cognizant of. “I didn’t know we’ll be having a guest.”
“Guniang thought I’m eating alone, and she’s generous to offer her company,” Zhou Zishu supplied happily. Staring up at Wen Kexing, he added, innocuous, “What do you say, niang zi?”
Wen Kexing’s head snapped towards him incredulously, coincidental with the woman repeating the endearment under her breath in disbelief.
“What?” Zhou Zishu said in mock indignation. “Am I not allowed to call you that anymore after I protested with you calling me xiang gong? That was one time. Doesn’t mean I don’t like it.”
Wen Kexing hardly shifted on his feet even as the woman excused herself with all her ounce of dignity once the two ignored everything else but each other. Feeling satisfied, Zhou Zishu stood, grasped Wen Kexing’s shoulders, and pulled him down to the now free seat.
“Food’s getting cold,” was all Zhou Zishu said before digging in.
Halfway, Zhou Zishu discovered that red complementing Wen Kexing nicely wasn’t exclusive to his choice of garb alone.
Senior Ye had more white on his hair than the last time Zhou Zishu saw him.
“Old demon, you have more white hair,” Wen Kexing boldly said because, unlike Zhou Zishu, he did not possess a brain-to-mouth filter; that, and he wouldn’t pass up any chance to antagonize Senior Ye.
“And you have more wrinkles,” Senior Ye snarked back, giving as good as he got without putting down his meal. He smirked. “Having trouble handling the sect, I see.”
“We get by,” Zhou Zishu replied, interrupting Wen Kexing’s stewing annoyance. “We have yet to complete the numbers, but managing the household with more than three people can be difficult for one person. He’s been alright so far.”
“‘Alright’?” Wen Kexing scoffed. “I’m doing great.”
“Humble, are you?” Senior Ye snorted, popping a slice of cubed pork. “You’re not built for that kind of task, of course you fare barely.”
“Are you sure you want to tell that to the face of the person who made your food?” Wen Kexing sneered. “Freeloader!”
“I’m an honored guest. I deserve to be honored,” Senior Ye declared, and, fine, Zhou Zishu might have told him that. Shaking his head, Senior Ye turned to Zhou Zishu. “You’re a manor lord and unmarried. Why don’t you find a proper wife to manage your household affairs and serve as a positive influence to your disciples? Don’t let this brat run your sect to the ground.”
If Wen Kexing wasn’t angry before, he was positively fuming now. Zhou Zishu placed himself as a stopgap to a boiling pot and addressed the immortal, “Senior Ye is right. Fortunately, I can forgo the arduous process of searching for one, seeing as someone made a promise of marriage to me some time ago.”
Calmly, Zhou Zishu poured tea and drank before mentally counting down in that brief period of silence.
“Master is promised to someone?” Chengling asked with uncertainty. He looked as if he wasn’t sure whether to be happy at the news or be concerned, given the way he was subtly glancing at Wen Kexing who happened to be staring at his master woodenly. Zhou Zishu honestly felt rather bad that he almost forgot that the boy was also sharing their table and was witnessing this exchange firsthand.
Senior Ye, meanwhile, slowed his chewing and was eyeing Zhou Zishu curiously.
In a snap, Wen Kexing demanded, “A-Xu, who? Who has the gall to—”
It was a battle for Zhou Zishu to keep a straight face as he frowned at Wen Kexing bemusedly. “Didn’t you?” He pointed at the hairpin atop his head. At Wen Kexing’s dumbfounded look, Zhou Zishu made a doleful sigh. “Ah. I must have misunderstood your intention.”
Zhou Zishu straightened his back, twisting to get a proper look on Wen Kexing. It took all of his strength to not snicker in relish at Chengling’s bated breath and Senior Ye’s show of interest, try as he might hide it.
He was about to rectify a blatant mistake here.
Zhou Zishu tsked affectionately, and in a much softer approach, said, “Lao Wen.” He heard Wen Kexing’s breath hitching before he went in for the attack. “Let’s get married then.”
Someone could have dropped a pin at the hush that ensued; or, someone could have made the loudest of sound and Zhou Zishu wouldn’t have paid it any attention at all, not when he was wholly captivated by Wen Kexing whose stare was akin to memorizing Zhou Zishu’s face and committing it to memory, damn everything else.
“Yes,” he breathed, his voice almost inaudible and yet to Zhou Zishu it was loud and clear as the day, as bright as the blinding smile that bloomed on his face. To think that Zhou Zishu used to believe the beginning of spring around the Four Seasons Manor was the most breath-taking display he had ever seen. “A-Xu, let’s get married.”
If Zhou Zishu was completely lost in his own little world with Wen Kexing in the middle of lunch, amidst Chenling’s triumphant cheer and Senior Ye’s rude grumbling of the manor now having two shameless people living under it, no one could have blamed him.
By fortnight, Zhou Zishu was a wedded man.
And just to be certain that the overwhelming feeling of warmth and happiness that threatened to burst out of his chest wasn’t from a fever-induced dream where he would wake with his heavily-crippled body, drunk and alone, he dipped Wen Kexing, his husband, by his waist and kissed him deeply for good measure.
There was no dream to be woken out of.