Their visitor arrives one night with a late-winter storm.
"Qin Huaizhang's disciple!" a voice calls through the howling wind and snow, echoes down twisting caverns to announce his presence through the mountain's bones. "Hey, kid! Are you alive or what? Did that no-good showboating shidi of yours actually save you, or do I need to go offer up my life to Zhen Ruyu in penance? Your elder over here's not getting any younger, so if you're dead you'd better tell me quick!"
In the moonless tempest, Baiyi sword flashes quicksilver. That white-robed figure dodges the first strike, dances past the second.
The third slash lands. The fourth draws blood.
Zhou Zishu has cut one billowing sleeve to ribbons before Ye Baiyi draws Longbei to parry.
"You damn brat." Ye Baiyi grins at him with teeth and no humor. "Is this how you greet your ancestor's ancestor?"
"Forgive me, Ye-qianbei." Immortal qi flows in him, power for which Wen Kexing had nearly traded his own life. Steel on steel and eye for an eye, Zhou Zishu bears down on the man responsible. "There is a debt between us that I must account for today."
Ye Baiyi barks a laugh. The sound is swallowed by the storm's shrieking maw.
"Very well then."
Longbei sweeps down with the roar of a rock-bellied avalanche. Zhou Zishu leaps out of range, hurling himself upward into the wind with qinggong. The mountain rumbles beneath Ye Baiyi's blow.
Edges clash when Zhou Zishu whirls back before darting away again. Ye Baiyi doesn't give chase. Twice more the pattern repeats before Zhou Zishu realizes that it's not a ploy. The thought slows and distracts him for one fraction of a moment.
Ye Baiyi's fist slams into his chest. The blow carries the full force of his strength; it sends Zhou Zishu plummeting back. It should have snapped his bones. Once before on a wooded path below Siji Manor, Ye Baiyi had done just that.
Now, Zhou Zishu picks himself up. Shakes his hair out of his face.
"Had enough, brat?" Ye Baiyi asks.
His white sleeves and hems are sodden, beginning to freeze. The cold has stemmed the cut on Ye Baiyi's shoulder where steel bit into flesh. Even the immortal sword of Changming Mountain bleeds; there's no shock in Ye Baiyi being human.
The unpleasant surprise is the thin thread of Ye Baiyi's qi. Gone is the monstrous strength that once swore to return Ghost Valley to the dust from which its evil grew. Beneath the snow and ice, Ye Baiyi's hair is shot through with white.
Zhou Zishu sheathes the sword that bears a dying man's name.
"The night is cold and inhospitable to travellers," he says. "Forgive my lack of courtesy earlier, qianbei. Won't you come inside and rest a while?"
Wen Kexing plunks a teapot down on the table. The rising steam is fragrant with medicinal herbs.
"I'll deal with you later," he snaps at Zhou Zishu. To Ye Baiyi, Wen Kexing commands, "Drink that, you old fool. And take off your wet clothes before you get sick and die in my house. Nobody is dying on my watch, do you hear? This is a strictly death-free zone."
"Do you always talk this much, huh? I mean what is this? Did I walk into a grandma's apothecary?"
Ye Baiyi rolls his eyes at Wen Kexing's withering glare. But he picks up the teapot.
"Just so we're clear on one thing," Ye Baiyi announces later—after he's drunk the bitter brew, after Wen Kexing bandages his arm and takes his pulse, after Zhou Zishu spends a good hour passing qi to him until the thin body concealed by those voluminous robes ceases its shivering.
"Just so we're clear: I didn't come here to visit or congratulate you two on your new life together or whatever this is. I just came here to make sure my conscience was clean. Nothing personal, understand?"
Outside the storm rages. Inside the mountain's hollow heart, Ye Baiyi examines their home with unabashed curiosity.
He remarks at the draftiness of the limestone cavern, wonders if the deep pools of water are safe to fish in, and what kind of fish they might even find.
He scoffs at the shape of their house, nestled beside one such pool, the twisting maze of rooms and courtyards that flow with the flow of natural rock.
He raises an eyebrow when Wen Kexing snaps that Zhang Chengling built all this based on Long Que's teachings, so there will be no criticism of the architecture in his presence.
"Well, isn't that nice. Good for you, Qin Huaizhang's disciple. Looks like that idiot kid of yours is gonna make something of himself after all. And who knows, maybe one day..."
The rest of the sentence is lost to a dry cough. Ye Baiyi waves Wen Kexing away irritably.
"Lay off, would you? How in the hell Zhen Ruyu had a son as shit at medicine as you, I'll never know. I promise I'm not gonna die in your house tonight, all right?"
"You better not, you old monster, or I'll drag you back from hell and kill you myself."
"Is that any way to talk to a guest in your own home?"
"I don't remember inviting you, so technically—"
"Ye-qianbei," Zhou Zishu says quietly. They both turn toward him. "How long do you have left?"
"You had no right," Wen Kexing will gasp later, pinned beneath Zhou Zishu on their bed, white hair wild as the storm shaking the mountainside.
The night is frigid. Their screen doors remain flung open; the wind moans a deep sound, almost loud enough to mask the noises he wrings one by one from Wen Kexing's lips.
"You had no right, A-Xu." Panting against his mouth, marked by tongue and teeth and somehow still drawing the breath to say, "He's the reason you're still here. He's—nngh. I wouldn't have made it in time, if not for what he did. We owe him—ahh, A-Xu, oh god—"
"I'd really rather you didn't talk about another man right now," Zhou Zishu will remind him. "Even if he's the reason I'm still around to give you what you need."
And that's when Wen Kexing will kiss him, sweetly yielding, legs wrapped around Zishu's hips and his whole body so willing and warm and alive.
Gratitude doesn't begin to describe the joy that now lives in him, green and growing over what once seemed lifeless stone.
And no, he'll admit silently as Wen Kexing comes apart in his arms, under his hands and mouth—Zhou Zishu had no right to want Ye Baiyi's life in payment for those terrifying moments when he'd opened his eyes in the Armory and felt Wen Kexing's cold fingers slipping from his grasp.
There is a debt between them, and it must be acknowledged and repaid.
Day dawns piercing bright on a blizzard-blown landscape.
Zhou Zishu follows the trail of footsteps, noting how the imprints are far deeper than anyone with any grasp of qinggong should have left on snow.
Ye Baiyi sits on a rocky outcrop enjoying the sun. Longbei rests across his lap.
"When the time comes," Zhou Zishu says, "what are your wishes, qianbei?"
Ye Baiyi doesn't open his eyes. "Trying to send me off already, kid?"
"I'd rather you stayed until I can repay you for my life and his. But since you've chosen to go, I can only respect your wishes. And so I must ask."
The morning is quiet and cold. Ye Baiyi's breath mists when he sighs.
"You were right, you know. About your shifu."
"Qin Huaizhang was always reckless and romantic, just like you. I mean, how else do you think he got your shiniang to marry him? It wasn't his martial prowess. She could kick his ass around the mountain twice before breakfast without even breaking a sweat."
As he speaks Ye Baiyi's hand runs over Longbei's broad blade, over the detail-work and the inscription bearing Rong Changqing's name. The movement is not that of a man drawn to weaponry or craft. It's the way Wen Kexing reaches for Zhou Zishu in the dead of night, succumbing to nameless gravity.
"Qin Huaizhang would have protected that shidi of yours, too. That kind of harebrained decision was practically his calling card back then. It's just taken me this long to remember."
Longbei gleams silver in the sun. The white in his hair is stark against the black.
"When you've lived as long as me—well, I suppose it'll be different for you. You've got him. I don't see how you'll ever know a moment of peace again, in this life or the next. I should congratulate you. Changming Mountain was silent as the grave with everyone gone."
His hand stills finally, palms resting over the blade that remained.
"Is that where you'd like to be laid to rest?" Zhou Zishu asks.
Ye Baiyi opens his eyes to fix him with a look. "What are you even asking for, huh? You planning to watch me until I drop, then haul my body halfway across the world to that mountain just to appease whatever guilt you're feeling for trying to stab me last night?"
"You would have let me kill you last night," Zhou Zishu says, and Ye Baiyi doesn't argue. "When you passed the Six Harmonies Technique to Wen Kexing—"
"I didn't do anything except show him how the damn thing worked. I've been dying since I came down from the mountain. Don't flatter yourself."
"You gave years that you still had left to heal my shidi so he could come find me." Zhou Zishu watches Ye Baiyi fall silent. "You saved his life and mine."
"I made a promise I would."
"And I will make you one in return. Not out of guilt, but gratitude. There's little I can repay you with, I know. If all I can give you is a reassurance that everything here will be taken care of when you go to meet Rong-qianbei beneath the Yellow Springs, then you have my word—"
"He's been gone a lifetime," Ye Baiyi says quietly. "If there's a next life, then he's long since drunk from Lady Meng's cup and moved on. I won't find him down there."
Zhou Zishu thinks, You carried his sword and legacy, longer than a lifetime. Would he not carry even the memory of you?
After a moment Ye Baiyi laughs. "Who knows, though, I suppose. It's not like we haven't done foolish things ourselves."
He lifts his eyes to meet Zhou Zishu's.
"I'll grant you your wish one more time, Qin Huaizhang's disciple. And I'll spare us all some indignity, too: when the time comes, you'll find me on Changming Mountain. No need to leave another memorial. No need to bother with Qingming or Zhongyuan, either. You two will remember me. Frankly that's already more filial piety than I'm prepared to deal with."
When the day comes, a bird arrives with a message attached to its leg.
The letter contains only three words: I'm going now.
Sheltered by the deep winter freeze, Zhou Zishu travels the distance with Wen Kexing at his side. Chengling tries to tag along, arguing that they need protection. Wen Kexing smiles and suggests that they spar to see how much Chengling has grown in the months since they last saw one another.
(Later, Zhou Zishu will remind Wen Kexing to go easy on Chengling in the future. After all, his disciple is thirty-five this year—he's the master of Siji Manor, the sole heir of Jinghu Sword Sect and Longyuan Hall. Wen Kexing can't keep dumping Chengling on his ass anytime the child says something ridiculous, just to prove a point.)
They arrive at Changming Mountain days after the solstice.
Winter has sealed the dense forest in a layer of hoarfrost. White and cold gleam the three stone tombs seated halfway up the mountainside.
Zhou Zishu steps carefully across unmarked snow, until he sees the frozen shape slumped before Rong Changqing's grave. Longbei is thrust into the frost-hardened ground. Ye Baiyi's fingers are curled loosely around the hilt—as if ready, finally, for someone to take the sword from his hand.
Behind him he hears Wen Kexing exhale.
Gratitude is too small a word, he knows, and obligation too heavy an idea for something so willingly held. But perhaps love—joyously given, with or without return—can restore color even to the white strands that mark each sacrifice, the way spring renews life after winter has gone.
"Thank you," he hears Wen Kexing whisper as they kneel together in the snow. "Thank you for everything, you old monster. Go in peace."