The third time he comes Zhou Zishu doesn't even touch his cock, just continues to fuck him with his fingers until Wen Kexing sobs a wrecked sound that isn't quite stop.
Wreathed in silent dust and snow, the armory is alive only with the sound of their breathing. Zhou Zishu, with that stricken look on his face, opens his mouth to speak. Wen Kexing gathers his remaining strength and surges up to kiss him before he can apologize. They'd agreed after all: willing, to whatever the end.
He closes his eyes when those fingers twist inside him again. What a picture they must make, he thinks. Zhou Zishu bent over him, still fully clothed; his own white hair and robes spread out beneath them on the stone dais, summer green in the cold, as Zhou Zishu pushes a fourth finger into him.
They've long since crossed the threshold between pleasure and pain. On the next thrust, overstimulated beyond endurance, Wen Kexing can't bite back the cry that tears out of his throat. He buries his face in Zhou Zishu's shoulder a split second too late.
Lips press against his temple, forming the silent shape of a word. Shidi.
"Don't," Wen Kexing manages, ignoring the harsh quake in his own voice. "Don't stop. Please."
The shudder that rattles through Zhou Zishu's body becomes acquiescence, a promise.
Do you know, A-Xu, he can't find the breath to say as Zhou Zishu moves down his body to take him in his mouth. Do you know how long I would have loved you, were there only time enough?
Hours earlier, he'd woken—cold and aching and wondering what kind of hell he'd been condemned to where frostbitten fingers and leg cramps were still a thing. Surely, there should be more gruesome and painful tortures waiting for someone like him. If nothing else, he'd earned at least a creative thousand years of torment.
"Lao-Wen? Can you hear me?"
And—oh, oh that was a creative kind of torment, all right. Mocking him with a chillingly convincing facsimile of Zhou Zishu's voice. Making him think it'd all been for nothing, and in the end he hadn't been able to save even one person he'd loved.
"Lao-Wen, please. Wake up."
"Go away." If he didn't look, if he just kept his eyes closed for all eternity, then he wouldn't have to see this evidence of his failure. "Shut up and go away. You're not real."
"If you have the energy to be obnoxious, then you can certainly open your eyes." A pair of warm hands touched his face. There was relief in that voice when it added, "Look at me. Please?"
His traitor eyes opened at that, helpless. And there. The man he'd left behind in the realm of the living. Haloed by pale light, Zhou Zishu smiled at him.
"No," he heard himself say. "No, A-Xu, you're supposed to be alive."
"I am. I'm fine. But we don't have much time. Listen to me—"
"What do you mean you don't have time? That old ghoul Ye told me it would work! If he lied to me, I swear I will end him in such a way that—"
What was ramping up to be a nicely colorful string of curses upon Ye Baiyi's head ended abruptly in coughing, which in turn sent fire racing down his whole body. He swore at the absurdity of the pain—or rather, he tried to; it was impossible to draw the breath for words while his lungs turned themselves inside out.
So, apparently, shattering all your meridians hurt like hell.
Strong hands gathered him up, pulled him into a sitting position. Wen Kexing threw out an arm to steady himself; that arm buckled without his consent. The only thing keeping him from collapsing into a heap was Zhou Zishu's arm curled protectively around his shoulders.
"Just breathe," Zhou Zishu said. Still holding him with one arm, his other hand pressed to Wen Kexing's chest as energy flooded into him—
—and immediately drained away, as if through an invisible sieve. That, too, would be the logical conclusion of burning out every last energy pathway and reservoir in your body. Worth it, he thought, looking up at Zhou Zishu.
The pain slowly faded. When he could breathe properly again, Wen Kexing asked,
"If you're alive, then why am I here?"
"That eager to be rid of me, huh? Should have known, really, given you spend half your time finding new and creative ways to get killed."
"Look who's talking, you lying liar."
"I've never lied to you."
Which—that one might actually be true. Wen Kexing ignored the tight feeling in his throat. "So it doesn't count when you make Chengling lie to me, I assume?"
"That's on the kid. My disciple has always been lacking in character."
Spoken so casually. As if this were any other day, as if they hadn't already arrived at this ending that they each separately chose. And still the life force flowed from Zhou Zishu's hands, heady and unrelenting.
"A-Xu." Some strength had returned to his arms, enough for Wen Kexing to grasp Zhou Zishu's sleeve and tug, breaking the flow of energy. "That's enough. It's not worth it."
"Shut the fuck up. And hold still."
"A-Xu, listen to me—"
"No, you listen to me," Zhou Zishu snapped in the voice of a commander who'd sent countless men to their deaths. And how willingly they'd each gone. Wen Kexing wondered if he could be counted among their number. Not that he'd needed to be ordered.
Not that that was even the point. Zhou Zishu's arms tightened around him. "You don't get to leave me here on this damn mountain, you bastard. Not while I still have a chance to pay you back by making you suffer this stupid, frozen hell with me."
The tremor in his voice was incongruous with the bellyaching words. Wen Kexing thought he might have laughed, were he a bit farther from breaking himself.
"As much as I'd love to stay—" for forever, and longer, until the mountain ridges are worn smooth by time and the rivers all dried to sand, "—much as I'd love to laugh at you for never being able to drink again, just when you'd finally got your sense of taste back. Some things are actually impossible, you stubborn old man."
"Won't know until I've tried."
"Try what? Sacrifice yourself to help me, same way I did to you?"
It had of course occurred to him that Zhou Zishu would try something foolish when he inevitably realized what had happened. Too bad. Wen Kexing had only managed to complete the Six Harmonies Technique because Zhou Zishu still had a few days of life in him. But now?
Wen Kexing smiled to himself. "We both know you don't have the time left to do anything stupid, A-Xu. Sorry."
Zhou Zishu's face said clearly that the stubborn, reckless part of him would never accept what his own mind logically knew. His hand was warm when he touched Wen Kexing's face, pushed back the stark white hair that had fallen into his eyes.
"I am sorry I didn't get to grow old with you," Wen Kexing mused out loud. "But at least you got to watch me grow old. In a sense, anyway."
"You're a bastard."
"You've always thought you were smarter than me, haven't you."
"Does it matter?" Wen Kexing asked, because truly—what did it matter now, when he could feel his own body failing, the pain returning with the chill. The only part of him that was warm was where Zhou Zishu held him, where his fingers trailed so gently along his jaw, across the bared skin of his throat.
Selfishly, he wished he could take that feeling with him.
"I read the Yin Yang Book," said Zhou Zishu.
Wen Kexing made a noise that wasn't quite an acknowledgement. His eyes had slipped shut. May have had something to do with the way Zhou Zishu's fingers were combing through the short hairs at the nape of his neck. That hand cupped the base of his skull, at once possessive and supporting.
"Lao-Wen, listen. I read the Yin Yang Book. And it's in there. There's a way for both of us to live, but only if you trust me. It's dangerous."
"I've long since entrusted you with my life." The words came easily. Maybe it was true, that death brought forth the greatest honesty. "But I'll be damned twice over if I let you endanger the life I just won back for you, Zhou Zishu."
"I know. I swear, there's no danger to me."
Wen Kexing opened his eyes at that. The look on Zhou Zishu's face was half-resigned, half-chagrined.
"That's a new one."
"You would never agree otherwise. And I need you to. I'm tired of us keeping things from each other. I want you to choose this, Wen Kexing. No more tricks. I want you to choose to stay with me."
A thousand years or ten thousand. Given the choice, his answer will always be the same.
How can it not be, when he's met the one person with whom eternity itself would be bearable. In this life Wen Kexing has accomplished more than his fair share of absurd, impossible things. The most beautiful and improbable of which will forever be the fact of finding—and keeping—Zhou Zishu.
"Lao-Wen," that dear voice says, at once distant and close, an edge of desperation in the shape of his name, "Stay with me, Lao-Wen. Just a little longer."
He opens his mouth to say yes, always and finds that he can no longer speak.
He's lost count of how many times he's been brought over the edge. He can barely remember a time when he wasn't always already here, spread across cold stone and shaking apart under Zhou Zishu's hands and mouth. The last time, he came dry.
Empty, aching, Wen Kexing blinks away tears and curls into the warmth of that body still pressed against him. Finely woven linen and thread pricks his over-sensitive skin. He plucks ineffectively at the ties holding those robes closed. There's no strength left in his fingers. Zhou Zishu helps him undo the knots. Together they push the layers back.
He's barely half hard when Wen Kexing reaches for him. His hands tremble with exhaustion, making it difficult to get a good grip. Zhou Zishu's hand covers his own, guiding and moving with him. But even with their joint efforts—
"Sorry." Zhou Zishu grits his teeth and jerks himself harder, a look of panic creeping into his eyes. It's not your fault, Wen Kexing wishes he still had the voice left to say. Is it any wonder, when Zhou Zishu must be nearly as exhausted as he is.
He drops his full weight on Zhou Zishu to roll them over, then crawls down between his legs.
Fingers sink into his hair, just like countless times before—but then, they stop. Wen Kexing grabs his wrists to keep them right where they are as he takes Zhou Zishu into his mouth. Their eyes lock.
Like always, A-Xu. This much doesn't need to be spoken to be understood, he thinks. Hopes. Just the way I like it.
Zhou Zishu exhales with the force of a blow to the chest. The grip on his hair tightens. His hips thrust forward, once, then again, again, building into a steady rhythm. That solid weight on his tongue, thickening as it pushes against the back of his throat. Wen Kexing closes his eyes and luxuriates in the feeling.
And if nothing else, he will miss this. If it is his fate to go first, then he goes with no regrets, having done and had this much. But he can be forgiven, he thinks, if he will nevertheless miss the exquisite way that Zhou Zishu fucks his mouth.
"You haven't even told me what this mystical healing method is," Wen Kexing said instead of answering that impossible ask; how could he choose to stay, when the choice wasn't his? "If it's in the Yin Yang Book, then—"
"It's a forbidden art, yes. Like the one that cost Rong Xuan his sanity." Zhou Zishu hesitated for a long moment. Then he said all in a rush, "It's actually based on a form of dual cultivation."
Wen Kexing stared at him.
Lips pressed into a thin line, Zhou Zishu stared mulishly back.
"Dual cultivation?" Wen Kexing didn't have the strength to cackle outright, but his shoulders shook with quiet laughter. "Really, A-Xu. That's something unscrupulous young men tell pretty girls to get them into bed." He couldn't resist adding, "I think we're well past needing such an excuse, don't you?"
"I would never—" An actual splutter. "I said based on it, not— Stop laughing and take this seriously, Wen Kexing!"
Wen Kexing took in that familiar scowl, wondered if he could take that with him, too.
"I am serious. All right? I'm not saying no." He reached up to touch Zhou Zishu's face, fondness sitting heavily in his hollow chest. "I'd like nothing more than to lay with you one more time. But it won't accomplish anything. I'm not a woman, and anyway my meridians are shattered. What could I possibly cultivate with you now as your partner?"
The arm that Zhou Zishu still had around his shoulders tightened, as if he could hold Wen Kexing together with nothing but his own two hands.
"The old master sealed the Yin Yang Book for a reason," Zhou Zishu said. "It contains theories and methods for upending the laws of nature. Things like—methods for reducing a living person's energy to basest yin, to then be rebalanced or remoulded. Yue Feng'er used this to save her husband."
"By cutting a still-beating heart out of a living person."
"Yes." He paused, and for one horrific moment Wen Kexing thought his next words might be, And I will do the same for you.
Not that he wouldn't have done the same for A-Xu, were that his only choice.
"That's not an option for us," said Zhou Zishu. "I read the book. I think Yue Feng'er used a heart because she had no other choice. But we do."
"And how's that?"
"The other methods require the subject to be either conscious, or willing."
An eternity later, yet still too soon, Zhou Zishu bites back a curse and yanks him off his cock.
Wen Kexing opens his eyes; his sight has gone dark. He doesn't know if it's his body failing, or his senses lost to the overwhelming yin energy echoing within him now. Sounds come to his ears dimly as if speaking underwater.
Almost there, shidi. You did good, so good. You did so good.
A shudder passes through him and settles, tethered to something too abyssal to be named. He wonders what sound would pass his lips if he tries to speak now.
Just a little longer. Just a little longer. Hold on, for me.
He's lifted up, laid down again, his limbs carefully arranged on the pile of robes cushioning the cold stone. He reaches and hands meet his halfway, guides him to touch where sight has failed. Wen Kexing maps the contours of his lips, his cheeks. Tangles his fingers in unbound hair.
A warm weight settles over him, impossibly gentle. He opens his mouth to a soft, insistent kiss. Then Zhou Zishu is pushing into him, and what remains of the world fades away.
He sinks into memory, and—
Written in the Yin Yang Book was a forbidden art that allowed a practitioner to wholly subsume another living soul.
The book named it a creation of monstrosity. The practitioner would reduce their target to a hollow base of yin, which may then be reforged by yang and bound and controlled. The same theory as that used for healing, but with one obvious catch: no normal human could produce enough life force to sustain two autonomous beings. Therefore the result of this art was not life but a puppet, a shell devoid of will and desire and utterly dependent on its master for survival.
"Unless," Zhou Zishu said, before trailing off.
"The Six Harmonies," Wen Kexing realized. "You're immortal, which means." To live or die as one was an old lovers' promise, and an impossibility. Only, now— "You could actually do it. Sustain both of us."
"As long as the bond is maintained, yes." Zhou Zishu still hesitated. "Theoretically."
"You've managed one miracle already, haven't you? Keeping me here when I should be dead." Wen Kexing managed a small smile. "What's the catch this time?"
Zhou Zishu brushed a strand of white hair back from his face. "It's getting you to that yin baseline," he admitted. "The human heart method is out. The second way requires a ten day, ten night process of meditation, medication, and energy regulation. And, well."
"I don't have that much time."
"No. And the third way..." Zhou Zishu took a deep breath. "First, one must destroy the upper and lower yang meridians, and it must happen while the subject is conscious. The exact method doesn't matter, as long as the body's connection to yang is severed."
"I already took care of that."
"Yes. So the rest is just—subtraction. Draining what remains, leaving only yin."
"And the fastest way to get there…" Wen Kexing could put two and two together.
"Dual cultivation," Zhou Zishu finished for him. "In its crudest, basest form."
Wen Kexing wondered if he should laugh at the absurdity of it all. He wondered why he rather wanted, instead, to cry. Zhou Zishu was looking at him with equal parts desperation and grief, both of them thinking through all the ways in which this could go wrong.
Of all the stupid, reckless things they'd done, together and apart—well. Wen Kexing didn't regret any of it. He doubted this time would be any different.
"All right," he said.
"I don't have any certainty that it'll work," Zhou Zishu warned him, as if they didn't both already know. "I need you to be sure. I would—I'll have to break you down, until you can't see or hear or speak, and it may all be for nothing. I'll have put you through agony for nothing. Lao-Wen, I need you to be sure."
"I am," Wen Kexing said, before pulling him into a kiss that drew a desperate sound from Zhou Zishu's mouth.
What was life if not a collection of disparate days, sorted each into the bitter and the sweet? To have tasted honeyed time just once was already more than he deserved. To surrender himself here, in the end, wholly and willingly at Zhou Zishu's mercy—whatever else, it will have been worth it.
He traced the curve of that beloved, stubborn jaw. "I trust you, A-Xu. Take me apart."
And so he does, and so he falls.
He sinks into memory and the world fades, taking with it touch and taste, sight and sound and scent and
the warmth of sunlight and river water cold around his ankles and
the relief of coming home safe and
a hand caressing his hair, a voice saying you've done well and
The first thing he feels again is friction, the stretch filling him to just this side of pain. He reaches—instinctive, searching for something to hold onto—and finds his arms clutching broad shoulders.
He sucks in a ragged breath, only to have it punched out of him by a powerful thrust. When he drops his head to gasp, the sharp smell of cold and metal fills his senses. The armory, he remembers. Empty stone and withered grain, books piled turning to dust.
And, somehow, beneath it all—a scent of undying flowers, blooming.
Shixiong, he tries to say but no sound comes out.
A moment later his lips are captured in a kiss. Claimed by that bruising pressure and the relentless rhythm filling him again and again, he can only hold on and try to breathe.
Teeth bite down; copper and sweetness flood his mouth. The ringing in his ears crests and breaks, and then there are words being whispered into his skin like a poem, like a prayer—
"Please, please, come back to me, please, come back—"
—this time, he hears the wrecked noise that heaves itself out of his chest.
"A-Xu," he breathes, voice breaking across those beloved syllables, "A-Xu, A-Xu…"
Arms envelop him, tight enough to crush and no less desperate than the cling of his own two hands. The soft press of kisses along his lips, his jaw, over both his eyelids and his forehead.
When he opens his eyes, Zhou Zishu is crying.
Wen Kexing brushes the tears from his cheeks, traces the shape of his mouth with his thumbs before following with his lips. He breathes, and they exhale as one. Wordlessly, he wraps his legs around Zhou Zishu's hips. Keep going.
With each movement the world comes back into focus and sharpens, impossibly. Wen Kexing buries his face in a fall of loose, dark hair and breathes him in.
That aching, abyssal emptiness is but a distant memory now. Everywhere their bodies touch is a glowing point of impossibility. Energy flows from Zhou Zishu through him and back again—like a bamboo hoop twirled round and round a stick, gaining speed, that life force builds and builds and sinks deep into his bones.
Rebalanced, the secret book had said. Reforged.
"You bastard," Wen Kexing breathes out, lightheaded with pleasure and light. "You actually did it, didn't you."
Zhou Zishu makes a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "Obviously."
"Obviously," Wen Kexing echoes. The laugh in his throat becomes a moan when Zhou Zishu angles his hips, and sparks race up his spine. "Ah, there, A-Xu— More, please, harder—"
Zhou Zishu chuckles at the whine in his voice. Usually this would be his cue to say, Greedy, much? and tease him for having no patience, draw this out for even longer. Today, Zhou Zishu just presses a kiss to his chest, braces his hands for leverage, and then proceeds to do exactly as asked.
The pace he sets is punishing, and soon Wen Kexing can do nothing but cling to him and beg.
"Yes, yes, fuck— A-Xu, please—"
He's silenced by another kiss. Zhou Zishu pauses just long enough to hook his legs over his shoulders before railing him until Wen Kexing comes on his cock. Even then he doesn't stop, fucks him right through the spasms and the aftershocks. The drag of friction is unbearable.
"Almost there," Zhou Zishu gasps as his rhythm falters, "ah shit, shidi, you feel so good."
A near-silent whimper falls from Wen Kexing's lips. He tugs the other man down, needing to kiss him, needing to taste the way he falls apart. Zhou Zishu groans into his mouth—thrusts hard, once, twice—and comes inside him.
He's a mess, Wen Kexing realizes as his rabbiting heart slowly calms back down.
They both are, actually, but mostly him. He's sticky all over, aching where the stone dais scraped his shoulder blades through the thin layer of their robes. His lip still bloody where Zhou Zishu bit him. His hair sticks uncomfortably to his back, his neck. Some of it is tangled up in the fall of Zhou Zishu's hair. He runs a hand along the contrasting dark and white.
"A-Xu… A-Xu, get up."
Zhou Zishu mumbles an incoherent sound, muffled against Wen Kexing's neck.
"I just brought you back from the fucking brink of death," Zhou Zishu grumbles. "Twice. Can't I get a five minute break?"
"The time I saved you from your own bad decisions, I'll give you that. But what do you mean twice?"
Curled half against and half on top of him, Zhou Zishu goes momentarily still.
"I thought I'd lost you." Zhou Zishu's hand rubs absently at his chest, pausing over his beating heart. "I thought I'd run out of time, when—you couldn't speak, and you stopped responding to me."
Wen Kexing covers his hand with his own. "I was right here. I never left."
"Yeah, well." Zhou Zishu lifts his head to look at him. Just looks at him, like he's trying to memorize something. His eyes are as transparent as a mirror-surfaced river. "I'm glad."
And how is Wen Kexing supposed to respond to that, really, other than kiss him breathless with affection and want.
When they finally break apart, Zhou Zishu says, "Never do that again, you hear me?"
"I mean it. I can't do this again."
"And you'll never have to, so long as you never do anything stupid enough to require me to break that promise."
"Shixiong." Wen Kexing laughs at the startled look on Zhou Zishu's face. "I'm not making any promises you can't also keep. I know you."
Zhou Zishu scowls at him, but the shape of his mouth softens into a smile when Wen Kexing kisses him again.
"Fine," he grudgingly agrees after, "but you still owe me for saving you this once."
"Yes. And I'll make it up to you." Wen Kexing smiles at the skeptical, fond look that gets him. He finds Zhou Zishu's hand and laces their fingers together. "I will, A-Xu. Promise."
They have as long as they need to get there. There will be time enough, now, for everything.