Zhou Zishu knew that many things had to have happened since Wen Kexing fell off the cliff.
For one, he’d jumped after Wen Kexing, reaching for sea-glass robes and feeling only the curl of the wind around his fingers.
For another, Ye Baiyi had caught him with arms clad in mourning-white and leapt off what seemed to be nothing more than the waterfall’s mist.
“Stop it, xiao-Zhou,” Ye Baiyi had said, words far softer than his tone. “It will be alright.”
Zhou Zishu couldn’t remember what he said after that. He remembered screaming, and he remembered Ye Baiyi striking him.
Everything after that was a haze.
When he woke, Zhou Zishu was in Jing Beiyuan’s manor.
The light was too bright, the room too quiet, and for a moment he was certain that he’d simply had a bad dream.
Then he stood, and saw Jing Beiyuan himself sitting between him and the door. Eyes closed, probably asleep himself, but they had known each other long enough for Zhou Zishu to know that Jing Beiyuan just liked pretending; he’d wake the moment Zhou Zishu moved. And, for someone who didn’t focus on martial skills, he had an uncanny awareness of the world around him.
Zhou Zishu sat up.
Jing Beiyuan’s eyes opened. “Ye Baiyi said you should be kept in a cage for the next week,” he said lightly, as if this were a perfectly normal conversational opening. “Care to explain why?”
Memories crashed back over Zhou Zishu. He gasped, and curled around his chest—even the nails didn’t hurt as much as the ache in his heart. “He died.”
Jing Beiyuan was at his side in an instant, calling for Wu Xi.
Zhou Zishu shrugged Jing Beiyuan off, along with the blankets, and made it to the door before Wu Xi blocked his way. Calm. Implacable. Worried, underneath the calm mask Wu Xi was very good at wearing.
For a moment, Zhou Zishu contemplated breaking through his damnnable staff and whatever serpent would inevitably lunge at him the moment its master was threatened. He felt Wu Xi react to that intent, qi unfurling around him like black wings as his eyes hardened.
Zhou Zishu took a breath, and unclenched his hands. “Wu Xi.”
Wu Xi kept his gaze fixed on Zhou Zishu, but his words were directed elsewhere. “Should I subdue him, Beiyuan?”
“Ye Baiyi suggested it.” Jing Beiyuan came around to the edge of Zhou Zishu’s vision. “I’m beginning to understand why.”
Wu Xi nodded peacefully and smiled at Zhou Zishu. It wasn’t a nice smile. “Do you think I need to subdue you?”
Zhou Zishu thought, longingly, of the moment he’d woken up and believed everything to be a dream. Of the relief that had washed through him. Of how he currently wanted nothing more than to run back to the cliff Wen Kexing had fallen from and search for his body, or—
“How long was I asleep?” Zhou Zishu forced the words out from between numb lips. He couldn’t slaughter the entire Five Lakes Alliance on his own, let alone the Scorpion or the allies being assembled in their wake. He doubted he’d even be able to find Wen Kexing’s body, steal it from their forces and bring it to a proper burial.
“You left yesterday.” Jing Beiyuan sighed, drawing Zhou Zishu’s attention. It meant that he wasn’t watching Wu Xi as closely, but that didn’t seem to matter in the face of Jing Beiyuan’s words. “Ye Baiyi returned you this morning. It’s almost time for dinner.”
He’d been unconscious a whole day. Zhou Zishu closed his eyes, knowing what the opening would mean; even with his weakened meridians, he could feel Wu Xi move the moment his vision was blocked.
Zhou Zishu felt himself fall as he breathed in the powder Wu Xi had blown into his face.
Part of him hoped he would never wake again.
“You can’t sleep forever.” Wu Xi’s voice broke into the gentle darkness Zhou Zishu had been endeavoring to stay in. “I know I’ve been telling you to rest, but you’ve moved beyond the point it’s helpful.”
Zhou Zishu kept his eyes closed.
“You said that Prince Jin’s muscle relaxants didn’t work on you because you lacked a sense of smell. You’re awake now because I’m better.” Wu Xi sounded very self-satisfied, and Zhou Zishu couldn’t help but smile a little in response. “There you are. Your face contorted too much when I stuck this under your nose for you not to wake up.”
He’d been caught, so Zhou Zishu opened his eyes the barest slit to look at Wu Xi. “Why?”
“Why wake you up?”
Zhou Zishu nodded.
Wu Xi slid a hand under Zhou Zishu’s head and started lifting. There wasn’t any point in resisting; he could make this a fight, but Wu Xi had the advantage, and Zhou Zishu didn’t care enough, anyway. “You need to eat, Zishu.”
“Do I?” Zhou Zishu pulled away from Wu Xi and sat up himself. In the soft lantern-light, Wu Xi shifted from too-grounded to almost ethereal.
“Do you want to die?” Wu Xi studied him, dark eyes boring into him. “Two days ago you wanted anything but. Does he mean so much to you?”
Wordless, Zhou Zishu nodded.
Wu Xi shook his head a little. “Beiyuan should talk to you about this.”
“Drink your soup.” Wu Xi handed him a bowl and spoon. “I’m not feeding you unless you’re truly helpless.”
Zhou Zishu took the bowl and rested it in his lap. He met Wu Xi’s eyes, and waited.
Wu Xi waited too, silent and implacable and steady as a stone.
He’d forgotten, Zhou Zishu realised, how patient Wu Xi could be. And he could play this game, but there wasn’t any point. So Zhou Zishu looked down, and raised the bowl, and drank. It tasted like nothing, because everything tasted like nothing, but it was warm and thick on his tongue, and when it settled in his stomach it was good.
“About death,” Wu Xi said, as if the last five minutes hadn’t happened at all. “But he’s busy, so you get me instead. I owe you a favor, and Ye Baiyi asked me to help you, so understand this: You are not dying while I am here, Zhou Zishu.”
Zhou Zishu felt… something, probably. He was too exhausted to name the weight settling across his shoulders and stabbing through his heart. It was worse than the hooked chains Duan Pengju had set in his shoulders; those, at least, had only harmed his flesh. “How long will you keep me alive?”
“Until you learn to live again,” Wu Xi said, in that damnably mysterious way of his. “I made a promise, Zhou Zishu. I will not break it.”
“Great,” Zhou Zishu mumbled. He clutched at the bowl in his hands, and felt it crack at the unintended force. “Just… great.”
Wu Xi watched him, but he said nothing more.
“Ye Baiyi sent a letter,” Jing Beiyuan told him, two indeterminable periods of sleep later. “You should read it.”
Zhou Zishu had stopped arguing with Jing Beiyuan and Wu Xi when they handed him things. They tended to be important, or useful, and neither would give up until Zhou Zishu accepted whatever it was they’d brought. So he took the paper, absently noted it was addressed to Qi Ye, and pulled out the note within.
He snorted at the first line—Give this to Qin Huaizhang’s idiot disciple—and then spent a minute staring at the rest of the brief text: The Five Lakes Alliance is holding another Heroes Conference in two days. Zhou Zishu will be pleased by what happens there.
“Did he send you any other letters?” Zhou Zishu said, voice rusty from disuse.
“He did not.” Jing Beiyuan poured a cup of tea and offered it. “Do you know what he’s talking about?”
Zhou Zishu took the cup, drank the tea. He trusted that Jing Beiyuan wouldn’t hand him something so hot it would scald; Wu Xi had learned that one the hard way, the first day of his… recovery, or whatever this was. Confinement. Pain was not entirely off the table yet, but it was muted. All extremes were softened, really, and he couldn't tell anymore if it was from the nails' torment or his own monstrous grief.
The tea helped, and this time when he spoke his voice sounded almost normal to his ears. “They’re gathering to cleanse Mount Qingya. I don’t know why he thinks…” Tears bloomed in his throat, clogging it, shrouding his eyes. “There is no kindness there,” he said, finally. “I don’t know what lies behind his words.”
Jing Beiyuan’s forehead furrowed slightly, and then his lips parted and his expression cleared. “You should go,” he said, standing. “Wu Xi and I cannot.”
“Nothing’s stopping you,” Zhou Zishu muttered, looking at the letter again. Zhou Zishu will be pleased by what happens there. Ye Baiyi knew something, and he was lording it over everyone else by not sharing it.
Jing Beiyuan laid a hand on his shoulder, firm and reassuring and still slightly too distant. “This jianghu was never ours, Zishu.”
Zhou Zishu closed his eyes, and breathed. He knew that was true. It didn’t make it any better to walk into the unknown with his chest metaphorically ripped open—Wu Xi had stopped him from making it literal, and Wu Xi in a fury was a sight to behold—and nobody at his side. Ye Baiyi was unlikely to outright lie to him, but that didn’t mean they were looking towards the same goals.
“Okay,” Zhou Zishu said, heavily. He leaned towards Jing Beiyuan, wishing that it was a different person standing there, a different warmth that could reach through his skin and reignite his soul. But curiosity, or at least a chance to face Ye Baiyi and condemn him for catching Zhou Zishu alone, drove him forward. “I’ll go.”
Zhou Zishu hadn’t meant to speak.
He hadn’t meant to enter the stage, to stand in the midst of the so-called Alliance and tear into them with words and—almost—his sword.
He hadn’t meant to do anything other than watch, and wait for Ye Baiyi to make his appearance, and confront him.
But then Zhao Jing had spoken so many lies, with his tongue and his body, and Zhou Zishu couldn’t—
It was one thing to pretend to honor while dealing lies and poison behind others’ backs. That was simple politics, a field Zhou Zishu had spent unfortunate years within. It was quite another to stage a combat so carefully crafted that even the elites had trouble seeing the practiced game behind it.
Still, politics was the realm Zhao Jing could be dismantled with, and so Zhou Zishu let the truth spill from his mouth.
(His martial arts were not at their best, but more than enough to take care of the guards called to fight him; a half-dead tiger could still maul those who sought its death.)
As he drew his sword to defend his shidi’s honor, Zhou Zishu wondered: Is this why Ye Baiyi summoned me here?
A moment later, when he heard a familiar voice he thought had been lost to him and turned to face the ghost-white figure descending to his side, Zhou Zishu stopped wondering.
There had only ever been one thing he desired, Zhou Zishu thought, hearing Wen Kexing call him shixiong. And Ye Baiyi, frustrating as he could be, had long since known what it was.
After Ye Baiyi used the force of his reputation and skill to halt the Heroes Conference and allow them to walk free, Zhou Zishu sent Zhang Chengling back with Gu Xiang and Cao Weining.
He walked at Wen Kexing’s side, standing tall with the necessary mask of strength and pride, and made it a hundred steps—just out of sight—before he collapsed and all the blood that had congealed in his chest shook itself free.
Wen Kexing caught him as he stumbled, coughing out iron-sweet blood, and said, “A-Xu—”
“Why?” Zhou Zishu gasped, clutching at Wen Kexing’s arms, raising his eyes to that beloved face, those panicking eyes.
Because Wen Kexing knew him as well as he knew himself, the single word was enough. Wen Kexing knelt, and held him close, and Zhou Zishu’s blood spilled from his lips to Wen Kexing’s white-clad shoulder. “Too many people have seen our bond,” he murmured, voice cracking, a different moisture running against Zhou Zishu’s ear. “If you weren’t— Even you could not feign this grief and make them believe my lies, A-Xu.”
Zhou Zishu grimaced and wiped his mouth. The part of him hardened by a decade spent in Prince Jin’s court understood this all too well. The leader of Tian Chuang would have made the same choice in a heartbeat. But Wen Kexing’s A-Xu was a more tender soul protected by the scars of Tian Chuang, and said, “I almost died to follow you.”
Wen Kexing brushed his lips against Zhou Zishu’s neck, and then his face pressed into Zhou Zishu’s shoulder. Tears bloomed hot against the cloth, felt even through the thick layers and nails’ numbing. “I’m glad you didn’t. I wouldn’t have wanted to chase you there.”
“Everyone else knew,” Zhou Zishu mumbled bitterly, exhausted and limp in Wen Kexing’s arms. He felt Wen Kexing draw breath, the way he tried to steady himself to explain yet more, and shook his head. “Take us home, lao-Wen. I don’t want to hear this now.”
“Okay,” Wen Kexing said softly, and rose to his feet. Zhou Zishu curled into him, not caring to pretend to the stature of the Lord of Siji Manor. He was A-Xu right now, and A-Xu just wanted his lao-Wen, to have yet more proof that this wasn’t a dream.
Wen Kexing obliged, arms strong and certain around his waist, and carried them both away.
The explanation at dinner helped.
The promise of extracting the nails, a week hence when all the preparations were complete, helped more.
But it was Wen Kexing stepping into his rooms that night, a smile on his face and a jar of wine in his hand, that helped the most of all.
Zhou Zishu set the jar aside. “I don’t think we need pretenses anymore,” he said, looking into Wen Kexing’s eyes.
Wen Kexing’s lips curved up, and his fingers came to rest on Zhou Zishu’s cheek. “No,” he agreed, and moved in for a kiss. “I don’t think we do.”
It had always been simple to find pleasure in the way their bodies fit together; this was simply another field to test themselves on. Zhou Zishu sighed, and felt expansive joy rush through him, and heard Wen Kexing’s answering laugh.
There was no space for sorrow with Wen Kexing wrapped around him as closely as any two people could be.