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May All My Wounds Be Mortal

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Peeled out of his many robes, Wen Kexing’s body reveals itself to be mostly leg. He strips eagerly, grinning up at Zhou Zishu as if this is another joke between them. See? Wen Kexing’s body seems to say, I have no secrets from you. He only stops when he’s entirely bare, his cock standing up stiff between them, his shoulders and his head thrown back, his knees already dirty from the wet, gravelly ground. His skin is warmed by the firelight, and it slides over the long lines of him as he leans back, letting Zhou Zishu drink his fill. 

“Well?” he says. “A-Xu, what do you think? Am I beautiful? You don’t need to hold back with your praise.”

Zhou Zishu thinks he kneels beautifully, and also that he doesn’t need any more encouragement. Zhou Zishu’s mere existence is already too much encouragement for this horrible man. He pushes Wen Kexing over, and follows him down onto the muddy ground.    

Wen Kexing goes sprawling, laughing. His legs have no reason to be so long, except for the fact that he’s a curse set upon the earth. His knees lock onto Zhou Zishu’s sides; his hands fly up and try to catch Zhou Zishu’s wrists. They grapple just like they grappled on the water, and how they’d fought in abandoned temples and fields of blooming trees: as if anything else like eating or speaking or hunting rabbits was just a pause between rounds of the same battle. Zhou Zishu’s back hits the ground, and then Wen Kexing is underneath him, and then they switch again. One moment they nearly roll into the fire. The next they knock over the branches where Wen Kexing had carefully slung both their outermost robes. Zhou Zishu’s robe falls onto his back, but Wen Kexing is blinded by his own hair, and loses focus like a fool: he lets go of Zhou Zishu’s collar to pull a thick length of hair out of his mouth, and the distraction is just enough that Zhou Zishu can well and truly pin him. 

“You haven’t earned it,” Zhou Zishu tells him, and then sucks in a deep breath of true regret when the words come out laughing instead of stern. The nails in his chest ache, but not any worse than when they’d been out on the water, not any worse than it is all the time now. 

“Earned what?” Wen Kexing asks. It sounds genuine, like he’s forgotten about asking Zhou Zishu to praise him. He yanks his wrists against Zhou Zishu’s hand, testing the hold. His skin is covered in streaky mud now, from them rolling around on the ground. He shivers faintly; the air rising off the river is cold. His eyes are fixed on Zhou Zishu’s waist, where his clothes tie together. Under the broad sweep of his skirt, Wen Kexing’s bare legs seek Zhou Zishu’s skin like an extra pair of hands.

“Anything,” Zhou Zishu says, stupidly, and kisses Wen Kexing before he can say something about it. He tastes like the blood he sucked out of Zhou Zishu’s shoulder, and also like the muddy river, and he bites . Zhou Zishu bites him back, and smothers more laughter in the heaven of Wen Kexing’s soft bottom lip. 

“A-Xu, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing pants, as Zhou Zishu bites down his throat. “You’re so cruel. You finally show your real face to me, and then nothing else. Take off your clothing and let me see the rest of you, you beast.”

“Don’t you ever get tired of talking?” Zhou Zishu complains. Wen Kexing just grins, his left foot sneaking its way up Zhou Zishu’s backside. In retribution, Zhou Zishu pinches him all over his sides and belly. He shoves that long leg up against Wen Kexing’s chest and pinches him there too, the pale underside of his thigh. Wen Kexing writhes under the onslaught, his other leg hooking Zhou Zishu closer, trying to bring their hips together. “I told you before, you haven’t earned it.” 

If Zhou Zishu were as much of a liar as Wen Kexing, he would say that this was all very unexpected; that he had no idea Wen Kexing had such designs on him; that he himself had never had anything but the most pure of intentions towards Wen Kexing, not counting idle dreams of murder he’d had in the first days of their acquaintance. But Zhou Zishu is still a liar, though he makes it a habit not to lie to himself, and he remembers very clearly being pleasantly drunk on bad wine and good sunshine, looking up across that courtyard towards a handsome scholar in white, and thinking: that mouth would look much better with my cock in it.

Tonight though, he really hadn’t been thinking about fucking Wen Kexing. First there had been assassins, and then drug men and more assassins, and for a few moments Zhou Zishu really thought he was about to die, and in a much uglier way than what he already had planned for himself. His arm is bloody and hurting, and so is the shoulder that Wen Kexing put his mouth on, and there’s silty water drying between the layers of his robes, and if he lets Wen Kexing’s wrists go for even a second he’ll be at the ties of Zhou Zishu’s clothing as quickly as all of the times he’d tried to peel his face off. There’s no part of Zhou Zishu that will allow that to happen, but -

He wants to take Wen Kexing’s long hair and rub river mud into it, or maybe use it to strangle him. He wants to spar more, to see how Wen Kexing fights when he’s naked. He could throw him into the river, and see if he sinks. Regardless of whether it was on his mind before nightfall, he wants to fuck Wen Kexing now , quite badly, with a fierceness that surprises him. Maybe it shouldn’t. Not after the way they’d flowed together, across the water and into it. He hasn’t sparred just for the joy of it since - 

He doesn’t remember. Years, at least.

He shoves himself between Wen Kexing’s stupid legs, gives them both at least a little of what they want. Rubbing their cocks together feels good even through all of Zhou Zishu’s layers, and for a few moments he indulges it, grinding down against Wen Kexing’s willing body. His robes are obscuring a good view, and he irritably gathers the hems up into his free hand so he can see better. Just one layer of fabric now lies between Zhou Zishu and satisfaction, but the frustration on Wen Kexing’s face gives him a sharper sort of pleasure. 

He hasn’t had so much fun in ages. 

“I don’t suppose the apothecary you keep in your sleeves has anything useful for an occasion like this,” Wen Kexing says. He is, for the most part, staying where Zhou Zishu put him: one knee still braced against his chest, his wrists crossed demurely between Zhou Zishu’s fingers. His hips aren’t as well-mannered as the rest of him; they jerk up again and again, seeking friction at odd, desperate intervals. Zhou Zishu’s not quite sure he knows he’s doing it.

“I’m not a fortune-teller,” Zhou Zishu snaps, but privately he’s disappointed that Wen Kexing also isn’t supplied with everything a man would need to fuck another man in the woods. Oh well - there’s still plenty of things they can do besides that. 

Besides, if they gave up now, who knows how Wen Kexing would react; Zhou Zishu has yet to stop the man from doing anything. There’s a certain pleasing freedom in that, a helplessness that he’s found himself enjoying. There’s no structure to the man, no logic, no rules: Wen Kexing stops him from nothing, makes no demands - except that he be allowed to glue himself to Zhou Zishu’s shadow. It’s as if a typhoon or an earthquake has cheerfully decided to accompany Zhou Zishu on all of his errands. What can a single person do about that? Nothing, really. 

“Well?” Wen Kexing asks. He arches his back. His long fingers flex consideringly on the ground. But he watches closely while he does it, every single thread of his attention fixed on Zhou Zishu, waiting to see what he’ll be given. 

Zhou Zishu finds he likes that. 

“Well what?” he demands, and watches Wen Kexing’s dark eyes flash. “You think you’ve earned the right to gaze upon heaven?”

He lets go of Wen Kexing’s wrists, and as expected, Wen Kexing immediately snatches at his waist, trying to find the ties of Zhou Zishu’s robes before he gets pinned again. But the fabric is still damp, heavier than it should be, and he doesn’t manage it before Zhou Zishu pulls both of his stupid legs over one shoulder, pressing his thighs together. “I won’t take my clothes off for you,” he tells Wen Kexing, “and if you keep trying I’ll leave you here like this, and I’ll take all of your clothes with me.”

Wen Kexing sticks his bottom lip out as far as it will go, and then raises his hands in a show of surrender. He’s flushed all over, blotchy on his chest and also everywhere that Zhou Zishu pinched him. With his blood up, hundreds of thin scars reveal themselves: terribly thin white lines cross hatching over his flushed skin, and then vanishing again on the places Zhou Zishu neglected to pinch. Has Wen Kexing been whipped every day of his life? What had he done to deserve that, besides being his terrible self? 

“A-Xu,” he pouts, unaware of what his skin is telling Zhou Zishu. “Truly you’re merciless. A tyrant even in the bedroom, where one should be the most gentle and giving. Oh - what are you - well then I  -” And then he laughs. It’s not the most flattering reaction, when a man has condescended to at least open his clothes far enough to take his cock out and show it to a person. Zhou Zishu scowls at him, gives him a good pinch on each of his nipples, and moves his squeezed-together thighs just far enough apart to push his cock in between them. He aims low, low enough that their balls rest together for a moment, and his cock slides most of the way along Wen Kexing’s. His skin is damp, but mostly still with river water instead of sweat, so Zhou Zishu takes a moment to gather up as much saliva as he can before he spits it out onto his cock. Wen Kexing groans when a little bit of it drips onto his cock too, laying so perfectly underneath Zhou Zishu’s, and the sound is so nice that when Zhou Zishu spits again and reaches around to rub the wetness over himself, he rubs a little bit into Wen Kexing too. 

Then, of course, he gets a little distracted as Wen Kexing makes more lovely sounds, and starts tossing his head back and forth on the ground, the muscles of his stomach and legs jumping. His mouth hangs open, wet and red, and Zhou Zishu watches it, fascinated. His thumb rubs over the slick head of Wen Kexing’s cock almost absently, coaxing more wetness out of it, mixing it together with his spit until they’re both nice and wet. Just try saying he’s not gentle and generous in the bedroom! 

Wen Kexing’s hands hover between them, like he’s not sure what to do if he’s not making trouble. He settles them finally on his own thighs when Zhou Zishu starts fucking them, running his palms over his skin. Zhou Zishu would have thought he talked during sex - would have expected the same fountain of bullshit that Wen Kexing bubbles over with during all his waking hours - but instead he doesn’t say anything at all, his eyes half-lidded, turned inward, his mouth flushed with blood. He makes soft, gulping sort of moans as Zhou Zishu fucks him. He feels good. The skin of his thighs is smooth and soft, densely muscled underneath. Zhou Zishu’s body heats up all over, breaking out in clean sweat under his arms and down his throat and between his legs.  

He’d forgotten what pleasure was like, and Zhou Zishu is so astonished to feel it again that he almost tells Wen Kexing all about it. He has to bite the words back in the same way he has to bite his laughter back all the time, being around Wen Kexing. He should be biting Wen Kexing instead, so he does - hefts Wen Kexing’s legs up a little until he can sink his teeth into the fleshy part behind his knee. He almost gets kicked in the face for it, but it’s worth it when Wen Kexing shouts and then bursts out laughing, high and warbling and aroused. “ A-Xuuu, ” he whines, the second syllable drawn out, hiccuped like Zhou Zishu really is fucking him, bouncing the air out of his lungs with every thrust. He drops one of his hands to his cock, fingertips rubbing at the head of it where Zhou Zishu’s cock isn’t touching him, and both of them stare down at the motion of it, the movement of their bodies together as smooth and easy as the river.

It makes Zhou Zishu laugh too. He feels good , uncomplicatedly. He wasn’t sure he could anymore. He wants to come, and then he wants to fuck Wen Kexing again, over and over, in as many ways as they can think of. He wants to tear all his clothes off and shove them both into the water again. The head of his cock brushes against the back of Wen Kexing’s knuckles as they both rush towards orgasm like it’s a race to be won, and that feels good too, the contrast of Wen Kexing’s cool fingers and the hot cradle of his thighs and cock. So he laughs too, and that makes Wen Kexing laugh even more, right up until he comes: his lips pulled back from his white teeth, and his dark eyes fixed on Zhou Zishu’s face as he shakes and shakes and shakes. 

Zhou Zishu slows down - he’s courteous too, not that Wen Kexing will acknowledge it - his hips moving so slowly that he’s more rubbing himself off than thrusting, at least until Wen Kexing flaps a long hand in the air and makes a wordless go ahead sort of noise. Then - ahh, then he pulls Wen Kexing’s legs apart as far as they’ll go and takes himself in hand, raking his eyes up and down Wen Kexing’s sweaty, filthy skin until he comes too - the sort of orgasm that feels as if it’s blowing away all the dusty corners of your own mind, relaxing all of your muscles at once. He sags forward, his face smushing against Wen Kexing’s upturned knee, rubbing his cheek mindlessly over the skin there, just because his body feels good and the motion of it feels good too. After a moment he feels Wen Kexing’s hand on his hair - not petting him, just resting it there. The wingspan of a big man.

When he leans back Wen Kexing’s eyes are still on him, but with a strange sort of look on his face. As if his own orgasm emptied him all the way through. As if he’s not seeing Zhou Zishu at all, even if they’re looking right at each other.

“Wen gongzi,” Zhou Zishu says, after a moment. 

“Hmm?” Wen Kexing says, and then comes alive all at once. “Yes, I’m here! A-Xu, yes.”

“Wen gongzi,” Zhou Zishu says again, more slowly, and then changes his mind. “Lao Wen, get out of the dirt. You’re going to get that wound on your arm infected, rolling around like that.”

“Oh,” Wen Kexing says. He looks at his arm, where Baiyi’s sharp tip had startled him out of his dreams. “All right,” he says, and doesn’t move. He laughs as Zhou Zishu untangles himself: a soft, exhausted sort of laugh. Zhou Zishu likes the sound of it. Or at least, it’s better than the garbage that usually comes out of his mouth. In retribution, he wipes his dirty hands on Wen Kexing’s stomach, savoring the genuinely outraged noises he makes as if they’re the finest of wines, rolling the feel of it around his memory for when he can no longer taste such wonderful things. 

Then he gets up, and asks Wen Kexing to finish cooking those rabbits for them, how dare he be so lazy. Eventually, Wen Kexing does exactly that. He carries spices with him, if not oils for sex, and as he busies himself with the fire Zhou Zishu stumbles back down to the river on sex-shaky legs. He washes his hands thoughtfully, digging the dirt out from under his nails and watching it vanish, invisible, into the water. When Wen Kexing finally pronounces their dinner ready, Zhou Zishu finds the rabbit is sweeter and more aromatic than the kind of meals that princes eat.   



-



It’s a long time before Zhou Zishu can return the favor Wen Kexing gave to him in those woods. Longer than one would think, or maybe not: meeting Wen Kexing did start off an extremely busy time in his life, and many of their arguments cannot be resolved with sex. For another thing, there’s Chengling, and later Ye Baiyi - and of course periodically people try to kill them, or they have to kill other people, and Zhou Zishu isn’t usually the kind of man who strangles death by fucking about it. No - it isn’t until the third day after they arrive at Siji Manor that the deficit occurs to him.

Wen Kexing doesn't return from the hillside where Zhou Zishu’s master is buried until past nightfall. Chengling mopes about the courtyard for a while, attempting to fight the practice dummy. Zhou Zishu summons up the heart to yell and kick his legs out from under him every once in a while, and together they pass the rest of the afternoon comforting each other that way. When it gets dark they find cold noodles in the kitchen, packed up neatly in a large bowl and covered with a cloth. Lao Wen had planned ahead, it seemed. Zhou Zishu boils a few eggs to eat with the noodles, and Chengling mostly chops some spring onions. After dinner Zhou Zishu sends him early to bed, and takes himself to the plum forest to dig up some wine.

He doesn’t open it when he gets back to the Manor. He won’t be able to taste it, and anyway he’s had less desire to drink alone these days. No, he leaves the dirt-encrusted jar on the table in Wen Kexing’s room, and goes to see about the rest of his preparations. 

When he returns he finds Wen Kexing sitting with his chin resting on the table and his arms wrapped vaguely around the jar of wine. There’s dirt on his cheek, and more down the front of him, staining his pink robes. What has he been doing? 

Zhou Zishu touches his cheek, but doesn’t rub the dirt off of it. “Did you fall off a cliff?” 

“A spring flowed from the stones of it,” Wen Kexing says sourly, which could be an answer if Zhou Zishu thought about it. He leans into the touch though, hard enough that it pushes his face out of shape. Zhou Zishu can’t smell him, but he imagines he smells like the wine they took out to the gravesite with them, and like the perfume he used on his robes when they first met, though he’s not sure if Wen Kexing still uses it anymore. 

He’s been skittish these last few weeks. Not avoidant - he’s as stuck to Zhou Zishu’s shadow as he’s always been, but he laughs louder and harder each day, and puts Chengling between them like a wooden fence post, marking a clear boundary line. They haven’t had sex since after the Heroes Conference when Zhou Zishu nearly strangled Wen Kexing while fucking him in a cave, trying to keep him quiet enough that Chengling wouldn’t hear and maybe Ye Baiyi could decide to politely ignore what they were doing. And since then - since everything - Wen Kexing’s speech has grown more clipped or more florid in turn, and his posture more tight, as if every burden Zhou Zishu has taken off his own shoulders has been placed on Wen Kexing’s instead. 

Even here, where Zhou Zishu expected to be ambushed by ghosts every hour, he finds himself strangely calm. The Manor is dusty with age and neglect; the blood that he’d spilled so carelessly here has dried and flaked away in the wind. It’s a sweet sort of pain, though. In the mornings the courtyard still rings with exertion; in the evenings there’s laughter. It’s more than he ever could have expected or hoped, for the time he has left. 

Wen Kexing’s eyes slide closed as Zhou Zishu moves his hand to his hair - petting him gently, like a strange dog. The candlelight is kind to him. It skates across his cheekbones like a lover’s caress, like how Zhou Zishu could be touching him, if he wasn’t taking down Wen Kexing’s hair instead - setting his jade pin down on the table, undoing his bun, combing his fingers through to find little clots of dirt and stone. Wen Kexing’s hair is very soft, and Zhou Zishu can feel that it’s soft, and also covered with a fine layer of grit. He twists the length of it around his hand, enjoys the softness, unwinds it and twists it again.

“If you’re trying to make me fall asleep,” Wen Kexing says after a moment, and then leaves the rest of it unsaid. 

Zhou Zishu laughs. He doesn’t want anyone to fall asleep right now. He wants sex. He wants to feel good. He wants Wen Kexing to feel good too. He wants them both to forget about ghosts. He wants this type of life back in his Manor too. 

He pulls on Wen Kexing’s ear, twists it a little to make him squirm. “Get up,” he says. “You need a bath.”

The bathhouse of Siji Manor is as much of a miracle as its defense system. It’s powered by both coal and machinery, with copper pipes that bring fresh water all the way from the river. There are puppets that turn a big wheel that keeps the water hot. Light shimmers across the big bath, the smaller wooden tubs that ring the walls. And thanks to Zhou Zishu’s foresight, there’s steam all the way up to the domed brick ceiling when he ushers them both inside. 

He watches Wen Kexing take it all in and pretend he’s seen such things before, which was also something Zhou Zishu had hoped for. “My master’s wife used to bring birds in here sometimes,” Zhou Zishu tells him, walking towards the center of the room, the big bath. “During the winter, mostly.”

“I wouldn’t think it got that cold here,” Wen Kexing says, after a moment. He sets their wine and cups down on a table. He pours himself a drink, knocks it back with less respect than the wine deserves, and then pours another. It would be easier just to drink directly from the jar, but Lao Wen is fussy like that about certain things. He goes over to look at the turning wheel puppets, but doesn’t touch them. Zhou Zishu watches him move around - before they’d left his rooms, Zhou Zishu had tied his hair all the way up for him, and the pale skin on the back of Wen Kexing’s neck is very interesting, if only because he’s never seen it before - but if Wen Kexing notices he doesn’t let on. “Would a bird really freeze, in a place like this?” he asks. 

“I don’t know,” Zhou Zishu says, mostly to make Wen Kexing turn to look at him as he undresses. He takes his time with it - not because he’s ashamed of his body or what he put in it, but because he can see the whites of Wen Kexing’s eyes from across the room, spooked like a horse just before it bolts. 

Zhou Zishu removes the last of his clothing and lets it fall to the wet ground. Chengling can do the laundry later. He grins at Wen Kexing and gestures to himself. “You have poetry for falling down cliffs but not for this?” he asks.

Wen Kexing still has most of his own clothes on. Zhou Zishu had stripped two layers off him back in his room, and Wen Kexing had let him do it without question. “After rain, the forest’s sleek,” Wen Kexing says, still wide eyed, looking somewhere past Zhou Zishu. “Between the pines, the moon startles my heart. A-Xu, do you think I could have been kind? If the world itself was kinder, could I have been as well?” 

Zhou Zishu studies him. In truth, Zhou Zishu doesn’t really remember Zhen Yan. When he’d finally put the pieces together his first thought had been for his master, the regret that flavored the names of his friends and their little boy. He remembers Qin Huaizhang telling him about the day he and Zhen Yan played together more clearly than the actual day, and that always, always he’d said: your second shidi. If the world had been kinder - if Zhen Yan had grown up in the warm south, where the trees bloom in all four seasons, if he had been Zhou Zishu’s shidi all along instead of lost - 

“I think you’d be dead,” Zhou Zishu says finally. Here, in the Ghost Valley, in Tian Chuang - there are so many places where kindness would not have served him. And anyway, Zhou Zishu isn’t kind. He had many more opportunities for it, grew up safe and loved, and he has nobody but himself to blame that he isn’t still, mostly. 

Finally, Wen Kexing looks back - moving from some other place back to this one between blinks. “A-Xu,” he says. “What are we doing?”

“Bathing,” Zhou Zishu says. That part’s easy. He palms one hand over his cock, contemplative. “Do you not want to?”

Wen Kexing’s eyes follow the motion of Zhou Zishu’s hand. It feels even better than actually touching himself does. This is another thing to be grateful for: his body is slow to respond these days but it does , eventually. He can still get hard, still get off, and if he feels less than he used to, well - maybe Lao Wen can write poetry about his stamina without needing to know the why of it. 

“Yes,” Wen Kexing says belatedly, still staring at Zhou Zishu’s cock. But he doesn’t move to undress himself, or to touch. He stays tucked near the puppets, sweating a little now in the steamy warmth of the room. He drinks from the cup in his hand but almost absently, as if he’d forgotten it was there. “Do that more,” he says, and points at Zhou Zishu’s cock with his chin. 

Zhou Zishu takes his hand away, walks backwards into the big pool. “I’ve forgotten how,” he says, and grins. The water is sulphuric-smelling, warm enough that he feels it densely against his skin, more like a heavy blanket than a temperature, precisely. It’s perfect. Lao Wen isn’t as much of a fan of boiling himself alive as Zhou Zishu is, but he’ll like this anyway. Zhou Zishu will make him relax even if he has to trick him into it. The water laps around his calves and then over his thighs. The steam clears his lungs, makes his breathing deep and easy.

“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says. Zhou Zishu takes hold of his cock again, holds it out away from his body, takes his balls in the other hand, rolls them around a little. He likes them played with roughly, which is something he’s never told anyone but Wen Kexing seemed to already know: he’d outright twisted on them once, and Zhou Zishu came so hard he thought he’d finally gone blind for real. Maybe he can get Wen Kexing to do that again. 

He strokes himself, just once. “Lao Wen,” he calls. “Do you want to be kind?”

He will, himself. Be kind. As kind as he can be, that is. If that’s what’s needed. If Wen Kexing wants to just bathe, or if he’d rather put all their clothes back on and go drink and watch the moon, then Zhou Zishu will do it, with only a little complaining. But the corner of Wen Kexing’s mouth pulls, and his eyes get bright with anger. It’s good. It sparks something hot in Zhou Zishu’s guts.

They crash together, their naked bodies meeting fully for the first time with no fanfare or acknowledgement. The stone lip of the pool digs into Zhou Zishu’s back. Wen Kexing’s teeth dig into his lower lip, his throat. Water churns around their legs. They show each other just how kind they are. He can’t help laughing; Lao Wen just brings it out of him. He laughs when Wen Kexing’s hands steal around to his backside, digging in before lifting him partway out of the water almost incidentally. Zhou Zishu’s stomach swoops: he’s a big man himself but Wen Kexing is bigger - but most big men can’t throw Zhou Zishu around so easily. His legs go around Wen Kexing’s hips, which seems to be what both of them want, and Wen Kexing holds him there easily. His whole body trembles against Zhou Zishu’s.

“Here,” Zhou Zishu says, and presses the little jar of oil into his hand. 

“Where were you keeping this?” Wen Kexing asks, dazed. Zhou Zishu hits him in the chest. Whatever smart reply he wants to make gets smothered in Wen Kexing’s greedy mouth. 

Wen Kexing uncaps the little jar one handed, clumsily. It drops to the ground and skitters over the stone, forcing him to lean into Zhou Zishu to chase it. He pays it the barest token, dipping two fingers briefly into the contents before he’s right back to his duty. He pushes both fingers, neatly dry, into Zhou Zishu’s body. The sensation is sharp, all-consuming, as hot as the water around them. The laughter is driven right out of Zhou Zishu’s throat. He’s caught between Wen Kexing’s fingers and the crush of the rest of him, squeezing Zhou Zishu up against the low wall, steadily bending him backwards as he chews on Zhou Zishu’s throat. It feels good, so good - anticipation building in his stomach as Wen Kexing twists his fingers deeper - what will it be like to be fucked by Wen Kexing? Has Zhou Zishu goaded him enough to be mean about it? Oh, he hopes so.

But then Wen Kexing gasps - a strange, hiccuping sort of noise, and he crushes Zhou Zishu hard enough that he can feel a little skin scrape away from his lower back. There’s a moment of stunned silence, the scrape of the water wheel so much louder than the thin, panting whine leaking out of Wen Kexing’s throat. 

“Did you -?” Zhou Zishu asks, but there is the evidence, pearl-like, dripping down his stomach. Wen Kexing’s hand flexes on his hip, his other hand still moving vaguely in Zhou Zishu’s asshole. “But we were barely touching each other.”

“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says, in a very small voice. Zhou Zishu leans backwards, bracing one elbow along the side of the pool so he can take some of his own weight back. Wen Kexing’s fingers slip free, and both of them wince. Wen Kexing avoids his eyes, flushed and blotchy all the way down his chest. One of Zhou Zishu’s legs is still tucked around his waist, and then that comforting connection is gone, and Wen Kexing is stepping back - 

Zhou Zishu hauls him back in. Water slaps against the side of the pool. Zhou Zishu’s cock gets a little squished, which feels nice - but Wen Kexing is horribly stiff against him, his arms at his side. In all his life, Zhou Zishu has never met a man worse at being hugged. He hugs Wen Kexing a little more, just because he likes him so much. When he lets go, Wen Kexing stays close instead of scrambling away in search of his dignity, his fingers grasping Zhou Zishu’s wrist like a kid hanging off his mother’s sleeve. He pets Zhou Zishu’s pubic hair soothingly with his other hand. That feels nice too. Zhou Zishu’s cock is held between them, stiff and hard to ignore, but not impossible. 

Zhou Zishu reaches a hand down to his belly instead, smears his fingers through Wen Kexing’s come. Lao Wen, are you all right? he thinks of asking, but instead he takes his wet hand and puts it on Wen Kexing’s wet, softening cock. Wen Kexing flinches, full body. Not in a bad way. An interesting way. Interesting enough to keep stroking him there, taking Wen Kexing’s cock and balls between his palms to feel him shiver and squirm. 

“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says, and when Zhou Zishu keeps doing it he says, “A-Xu, that hurts.” 

“Does it?” Zhou Zishu asks, and squeezes him. “Should I stop?”

“No!” Wen Kexing says, more quickly than necessary. His hands fly up and grip at Zhou Zishu’s shoulders. “No, don’t stop. We don’t have to stop.”

What was he so nervous for? Zhou Zishu told him already: I’ll stay here forever. You can stay too, as long as you want. So he lets Wen Kexing slip to his knees, up to his chest in the hot water, and suck him slowly and luxuriously while Zhou Zishu kneads his shoulders until the muscles there, too, let go. 

By the time Zhou Zishu is ready to come, Wen Kexing is boneless. He lets Zhou Zishu ease him off, his only protest a wordless little grumble, his tongue swiping slowly over his red lower lip. The rest of him is red too, having been in the water so long. “Stay like that,” Zhou Zishu tells him, stroking himself steadily, enjoying the moment, the differences in texture between a slick throat and a calloused palm. It’s even better when Wen Kexing obeys: mouth slackly open, eyes closed. He tips his head back when Zhou Zishu pulls on his hair, holding him in position. 

“Good,” he says, and Wen Kexing smiles, blissful, grateful-looking, as Zhou Zishu comes on his face. He doesn’t flinch, not even for a moment, not even as it hits his eyes, not even as Zhou Zishu presses the head of his cock against that red mouth, milking the last sweet drops from himself. His hands stay loose around Zhou Zishu’s thighs as the other gets his breath back - keeping each other steady. 

“Good?” Wen Kexing breathes. His eyelashes are sticky with come. It’s on his mouth, on the side of his nose. He waits with perfect stillness, for whatever else Zhou Zishu would like to give him. If the wine were closer - if Wen Kexing had brought the jar into the bath with them - Zhou Zishu would pour the whole thing into his open, dark mouth, and then he’d kiss away the taste of it and see if his imagination can match up to all of his memories. 

“Good,” Zhou Zishu tells him again, and gathers Wen Kexing close, pressing his come-stained face against his come-stained belly, and holds him there for as long as he allows it.



-



There are days where Zhou Zishu is positive that Wen Kexing is about to die.

To call them days feels too familiar, too intimate. The mountain sun passes through a skylight built far above their heads, but brings with it no news, no information, no greater understanding of what happened. The armory brightens, then gets dark. Then it gets light again. Zhou Zishu might as well be a frog fallen into a deep well, with nothing to see except a flat circle of light - ignorant and alone.

When he’d first opened his eyes - 

Ah.

When he saw what Wen Kexing had done - 

It had been instinct, more than anything else. Certainly more than actually understanding what Wen Kexing had done, what Liu He Shen Gong was. He’d tried to give it back. Left bruises on Wen Kexing’s thin wrists, trying to make him take it back. And - 

Well, eventually he stopped thinking Wen Kexing would die. But even then he wasn’t sure if Wen Kexing would ever wake up. Because he hadn’t, not through everything Zhou Zishu had done, zhen qi moving back and forth between them like water. And after a while he realized that the current continued, even when Zhou Zishu could do nothing more for Wen Kexing except lay down onto the stone floor and hold him. He’d realized that the heart he felt beating weakly in his ear was beating to the same rhythm as his own. But even then, Wen Kexing hadn’t woken up. 

Zhou Zhishu sat up, tipped his head back towards the flat circle of light above their heads. Kept his fingertips on that thready pulse, and his whole heart open. That, too, became a cycle, the same as the light passing overhead. Lying down and holding Wen Kexing’s ridiculously long, heavy, beloved body. Sitting cross-legged beside him whenever he felt overwhelmed, as if he could drain grief like dampness. And then he would beg. Silently, because the words in his heart - if you love me, then you’ll live - were too fragile to speak out loud, for fear that Wen Kexing would prove him wrong.

He didn’t get hungry. That part, he would put together later - that when Lao Wen had said, would it be so bad to eat snow and ice water with me forever, he’d meant it literally . After the first cycle of sunlight-no sunlight he stopped needing to empty his bladder too, which might have worried him if he’d been thinking about anything except for how horribly helpless he was, how terrified he was that Wen Kexing would die if he let go for even one second. 

Later, too, he realized - that might have been true.  

But all of that is later. 

The first thing that Wen Kexing says when he finally, finally wakes is, “That old ghoul tricked me.”

His voice is dusty. Just the barest creak of syllables in the vast, cold space. Zhou Zishu is by his side so quickly that his feet skim above the floor. “Lao Wen,” he says helplessly, touching Wen Kexing’s face, his strange white hair. “Lao Wen, Lao Wen.”

Wen Kexing coughs faintly. His pale hand lifts and then falls again, back into the furs that Zhou Zishu found, beat the dust out of, and then built into a bed for them both to die in. Zhou Zishu takes his hand, presses it to his heart. 

“You’re alive,” Wen Kexing says, very small - as if the stupid beat of Zhou Zishu’s heart is what convinced him. His fingers feel warm, too warm. But he doesn’t have a fever: Zhou Zishu has just never touched Wen Kexing with all of himself before. It feels like drinking wine in the sun just to be near him, to smell his stale body and unwashed hair. 

“So are you, fool,” Zhou Zishu says wetly, and gathers Wen Kexing into his arms so that he won’t have to look at him anymore. His hand cradles the back of Wen Kexing’s head when it droops, and he discovers that Wen Kexing’s hair is still soft, that the smell of Wu Xi’s incense lingers in it - that he’s so much lighter, now that Zhou Zishu is so much stronger.  “Don’t get used to it,” he adds. “I'm going to beat you all the way down the mountain and back up it again. I’m going to tear off all your limbs and stitch you back together as a cautionary story for Chengling.” 

Wen Kexing laughs, almost inaudible, as Zhou Zishu shakes him. He’s fully limp in Zhou Zishu’s arms, trusting Zhou Zishu to take his weight or, worse, honestly that weak. His fingernails scratch vaguely against the front of Zhou Zishu’s robes, which - doesn’t hurt. The press of his chest against Zhou Zishu’s doesn’t hurt . Bending over him like this doesn’t hurt . Nothing hurts, in fact - just his heart, which would serve just as well as a cautionary tale for Chengling, if only Zhou Zishu could find a way to mend it enough to show it to him. 

“You’re shaking all over,” Wen Kexing murmurs. 

“Shut up,” Zhou Zishu tells him, and bruises his face with kisses. “Shut up, shut up. And he didn’t trick you, idiot. It just didn’t work for him.”

Wen Kexing is silent for a long time. If Zhou Zishu couldn’t feel his eyelashes, sluggishly blinking, he’d think that Wen Kexing had gone back to sleep. He keeps kissing Wen Kexing, over his cheeks and forehead and his slack mouth, which sometimes tries to kiss Zhou Zishu back, very weakly. Down the warm line of his throat, inhaling the base smell of him - not the old sweat and dust but the skin underneath, which has no smell at all except for the way that it lights up every part of Zhou Zishu just to be near it. “Oh,” Wen Kexing says finally. Then, softer, as Zhou Zishu tugs at the front of his clothes, helplessly looking for more hot skin to kiss, he says again, “Oh.”  

His hand is still pressed over Zhou Zishu’s heart. Maybe he can tell, then: that they only have one heart between them now. 

Wen Kexing starts to laugh. It shakes his whole body, more vibration than sound, and it rolls through Zhou Zishu like the avalanche, little pieces of him shaking loose and falling, falling until he’s coming apart entirely, every part of him melting and giving way all at once. It makes him laugh too, the stupidity of it, of them, of - of everything! How foolish they’d been, promising each other forever again and again: to drink all the wine in the world, to live in Siji Manor, to live and die together. Liars and fools, the pair of them - until now, now that Wen Kexing has finally made honest men of them both, and only by sheer, stupid accident. 

Wen Kexing manages to lift one hand, finally, and tangles it in Zhou Zishu’s hair. He lets Zhou Zishu crush them together, lets him maneuver their limbs closer, closer still, to drag his stupid leg up over Zhou ZIshu’s hip, to nearly tear the ties off of his robes. Zhou Zishu feels frantic, almost angry with how much he feels : how loud the scrape of his knees are against the stone, the rustling of their clothes (and even that sounds different now, his ears distracted by Wen Kexing’s heavier fabrics wrinkling against his own soft layers and the body inside of them), the drip drip of melting snow somewhere they haven’t yet seen, by the rusty whisper of Wen Kexing’s laugh, by the wind somewhere out there high up on a mountain he’d surveyed with relief, glad that his targets would be so stark in the snow that even he could see them - and yet it seemed like now that he’d forgotten what sight actually was. He’d forgotten what it was to want, or maybe he’d never really known in the first place. He has Wen Kexing’s robes open and spread around them before he even understands that’s what he’s doing, rooting for Wen Kexing’s body and skin like a dog, needing to know with his own body that both of them are really, truly alive. 

And all the while Wen Kexing laughs, clutching Zhou Zishu closer with all the strength he has left in his body. When Zhou Zishu leans back he sees Wen Kexing smiling, as broadly and sweetly as he’s ever seen, as if there aren't tears rolling out of his eyes and wetting the ash gray hair around his temples. These, too, Zhou Zishu takes from him: first pressing his mouth to the wet tracks, and then licking them away as, stunned, he rediscovers the taste of salt. 

He pulls away, startled by himself - fast enough that Wen Kexing’s hand in his hair catches viciously. He reaches up instinctively to touch where they’re touching, and realizes that at some point he’d pressed Wen Kexing fully into their bedding too, and - oh, fuck - fuck - he’s so aroused that his entire body trembles with it. For a second he stands outside the body he’s only just repossessed, looking down at Wen Kexing’s slack, happy face, the long lines of his pale body, like dappled patches of sunlight through the uneven stripping Zhou Zishu has given him. Here is the line of his hip, then the crumpled fabric of his coat, then a strip of his belly. Zhou Zishu presses his palm to it, just to feel the way Wen Kexing’s muscles jump at the touch, the way all of him rises to meet Zhou Zishu.  

His cock is so stiff that it paralyzes him, leaving him gaping with indecision. “Lao Wen,” he says stupidly. He touches Wen Kexing between his legs, finds him thickened but not hard, though Wen Kexing gasps as he does it. “Lao Wen, Lao Wen.” 

The leg that Zhou Zishu had draped over his hip presses faintly against him, rubs over his ribs as Zhou Zishu strokes Wen Kexing through his pants. Their positioning is awkward, a little aimless: one of Wen Kexing’s legs is between Zhou Zishu’s knees, the other hiked up. He couldn’t fuck Wen Kexing like this, but he could if took a moment to untangle their limbs. Even just the thought of it makes his hips jerk forward against nothing, his teeth snapping shut around Wen Kexing’s lower lip. If anything touches his cock, Zhou Zishu might actually die. 

“Why did you stop?” Wen Kexing whispers, as best he can with Zhou Zishu still biting his mouth, too entranced by the feel of the soft flesh between his teeth to actually stop.

“Y - you,” Zhou Zishu stammers, and groans. He can’t speak, can barely think. What had felt like an avalanche has melted into a terrible churning river. He’s swept away in the force of it, no longer able to distinguish what’s happening inside his body and outside of it, much less describe the sensation. But Lao Wen seems to know - he hums softly, drawing Zhou Zishu back in and rearranging all of their wayward limbs, as best as he’s able without apparently being able to lift his own head. The hands that guide Zhou Zishu onto his side are gentle and slow. After a while he finds himself being held - one of Wen Kexing’s arms around his shoulders, the other cradling his chin. It’s so much worse than Zhou Zishu could ever have dreamed of. 

“Come here,” Wen Kexing says, as if they could be any closer. His eyes are barely open, his lashes clumped together with tears. He’s still humming softly, some sort of tuneless melody that might be a lullaby or might be nothing at all. His mouth tastes bloody where Zhou Zishu’s teeth were. He can’t rock them, but the motion of his breathing lifts Zhou Zishu up and down, even more comforting because of the inexorable rhythm of it, as unstoppable as a typhoon despite his very best efforts. But ah, how close he’d come. It makes Zhou Zishu afraid all over again, and makes him cling pathetically to Wen Kexing for a long, long time.

When he’s not shaking quite so badly, he gathers himself enough to put a hand threateningly low on Wen Kexing’s belly and tell him, “I’m going to skin you alive.”

Wen Kexing turns his head. The motion of it is glacial. He makes it far enough to press his lips to the top of Zhou Zishu’s hair, and no further. “A-Xu, no,” he whispers. “It takes so long to properly skin someone. Just disembowel me. That’s much easier.”

“The effort is the point,” Zhou Zishu informs him. Their teeth click together. They share the same air. Wen Kexing’s breath is sour with sleep and blood, old and fresh, and it’s intoxicating after months of being unable to smell even vinegar. He feels surrounded entirely by Wen Kexing: by smell and touch and taste, the weight of him, everything that Zhou Zishu has forced himself to forget had ever mattered. His entire world is sunk into their dusty bed and the long, warm body he’s wrapped his own iditotic self round, both body and soul. 

“All right,” Wen Kexing says, smiling. “If it will make you feel better.”

“You,” Zhou Zishu says. His other hand moves down his own body to undo the ties of his clothes. “You need to take responsibility.”

Wen Kexing sighs. “I’ll follow my shixiong’s example,” he says, and Zhou Zishu stills. He can feel Wen Kexing’s lips curling against his forehead, but his voice is too dry, too soft to read his meaning. He’s afraid to look up, to see Wen Kexing looking back. 

After a moment, Wen Kexing puts a cool hand on top of Zhou Zishu’s, the one on his belly, and moves it to his throat. Zhou Zishu takes a chance, risks a glance up towards Wen Kexing’s face. It’s not as bad as he was expecting, to meet his eyes. Wen Kexing says, softly, “Start here if you’re going to skin me. If you start way down there I’ll bleed out too fast.” 

“If I cut your throat you’d also bleed out,” Zhou Zishu can’t help but say.

Wen Kexing laughs. “Help me get my pants off first, then,” he says. 

Zhou Zishu lifts Wen Kexing’s hips for him, reaches into the nest of robes that Zhou Zishu had tangled for him, eases his last layer down just far enough. The waist of his pants sits at about mid-thigh, but Wen Kexing isn’t going anywhere anyway. They settle back the way they were without speaking of it, but the silence feels fragile - a delicate, breakable thing that they’re both holding the ends of and trying not to drop. He brushes Wen Kexing’s strange white hair away from his face and doesn’t say anything about it, and, even more bravely, says nothing about the hair between his legs, which is now the same dark gray as his eyebrows. He thinks that if he mentioned it, if he teased, Lao Wen might allow it - might pretend that his ego would never recover, might tease back - but that fragile thing between them would be broken, and Zhou Zishu couldn’t bear that. Not anymore. Not again.

Instead, he puts his hand back on Wen Kexing’s throat, closely watching his expression. Wen Kexing meets his gaze evenly, and nods. Encouraged, Zhou Zishu puts his other hand on himself, very gingerly - making his first finger into a ring with his thumb to circle his cock. The feeling is indescribable. Wen Kexing, with all his pretty words and all his poetry, could never describe it either. But this, too, Lao Wen seems to understand. His hands tighten on Zhou Zishu, encouraging him closer, pressing his face into the cradle of Wen Kexing’s neck. Zhou Zishu closes his eyes, breathes him in deeply, and strokes himself again. His own body astonishes him. He moves his hand to match the rise and fall of Wen Kexing’s slow, shallow breathing. He makes stupid little gasping noises into Wen Kexing’s hair, and tightens his hand around his throat. 

Finally, the rest of the world falls away: the wind, the echoing armory around them, the whisper-faint sound of splashing, falling water. He’s warm now, sweating a little, and the clean smell of it mixes with the smell of sex. He can feel Wen Kexing watching him, the slow dragonfly brush of his eyelashes against Zhou Zishu’s forehead, and it’s nearly too much to bear. He can feel Wen Kexing’s other arm flexing, following shixiong’s example. He opens his eyes and has to close them again quickly, overwhelmed by the sight of Wen Kexing’s long fingers stroking and rubbing along his cock, flushed dark and still mostly soft. 

He looks again, looks away, stealing glances like a kid, too afraid to look directly even as Wen Kexing matches the pace he’s setting, their hands moving faster now. Doesn’t it hurt? Touching himself like that when he’s not even hard. Zhou Zishu hurts. He hurts all over, everywhere that Wen Kexing isn’t touching him. His own cock is very slick, so he gives some of it to Wen Kexing, smearing his wet hand over his shaft. Their fingers tangle together for a moment before Zhou Zishu returns his hand to himself, and he has to turn and kiss Wen Kexing’s jaw, push his head back a little further into their furs so that Zhou Zishu can choke him better. “Ah,” Wen Kexing says, “Ah, ah ah ,” and Zhou Zishu can’t tell if he’s trying to say A-Xu or if he’s just making noises with the little oxygen that Zhou Zishu is letting him have. He looks so happy. He’s also crying again. Zhou Zishu drinks in the sight of him, swallows it whole. 

Orgasm takes Zhou Zishu by surprise. His entire body is sunk into sensation, as lost and overwhelmed as if he were fumbling his way through sex while dead drunk, and it startles him so badly that he actually shouts when it happens, his whole body locking up, every muscle mercilessly seized and then released. He can only lie there, his legs shaking, his heart hammering, spine jerking, eyes wide open and seeing - everything, everything, but mostly the close-up landscape of Wen Kexing’s smile, his tears, his hoarfrost hair. 

He doesn’t, thankfully, crush Wen Kexing’s throat. When he comes back to himself the reality is almost worse: they’re holding hands. Fingers twined together, resting above Wen Kexing’s heart. Zhou Zishu’s skin is as raw as if he’d skinned himself instead of Wen Kexing, so sensitive that he can feel even the faint ridged lines under his wrist, the nearly invisible scars that cover so much of Wen Kexing’s body. He kisses the ones he can reach, open-mouthed and sloppy, uncoordinated. 

“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing groans, so Zhou Zishu gamely tries to refocus. He moves his cheek over Wen Kexing’s chest, looking down towards where Wen Kexing is still touching himself, slowly until he realizes that Zhou Zishu is awake again and watching. His hand is so pale against his dark cock, and he’s shaking. Their fingers tangle together here too, for just a moment before Wen Kexing lets go, lets Zhou Zishu wrap a wet hand around his cock, and then settles his own hand on top. He’s more hard now, enough that Zhou Zishu doesn’t worry about hurting him even if he’s not quite hard enough to stand up. His breathing is as heavy as if Zhou ZIshu was still choking him, and underneath Zhou Zishu’s ear his heart beats faster, harder, deeper, his other arm pinning Zhou Zishu against his chest, actually pinning him, holding him so fiercely that it feels as if they’ve melted together, as if Wen Kexing’s cock and pleasure is his own. 

Wen Kexing shakes as badly as Zhou Zishu had, when he comes. His hand flies off where they’re intertwined and wraps around Zhou Zishu’s shoulders, crushing them together. Zhou Zishu gentles his grip, wringing the last few drops of pleasure out of Wen Kexing’s body for a moment before he lays Wen Kexing down, presses all of himself against that long-limbed body, and lets himself be held. He’s gotten better at that. They both have: at holding, and being held. “A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says, panting. He’s so close that his lips brush against Zhou Zishu’s ear, and the feeling of it shivers all the way up Zhou Zishu’s spine and back down again. He shudders in Wen Kexing’s grip, which makes the other man laugh, and then that makes Zhou Zishu laugh too, and then they’re laughing together. “A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says again. Zhou Zishu thumbs more tears off his cheeks, and licks his fingers clean. “A-Xu, I’m hungry.”

“Oh, you think I’ll cook for you?” Zhou Zishu asks. He pushes his cheek against Wen Kexing’s chest, and closes his eyes when Wen Kexing’s hand comes up and starts petting his hair. “What would Master like to eat? Snow soup? Roasted ice?”

“Don’t call me that,” Wen Kexing whispers. 

After a moment, Zhou Zishu turns his head and kisses Wen Kexing’s collarbone, tilting his head to reach the reddened stretch of Wen Kexing’s throat, pressing apologies into his skin. In response, Wen Kexing’s arms tighten around him - accepting the apology, he thinks. “Lao Wen,” he says, and Wen Kexing pulls at him, tugging fitfully until Zhou Zishu is stretched fully on top of him, heedless of the mess they’ve made of themselves. Their hearts beat together so quickly, and then slow together the same way their breathing slows, drowsing, growing more quiet, until the sound of it is drowned out by that soft tap-tapping, of water wearing away the rock in some far-off place they haven’t yet touched. 

Tension comes back into Wen Kexing’s body, until every muscle in him feels taut with it. He’s not crying anymore, as far as Zhou Zishu can tell. Some hurts are beyond that. “I would do it again,” Wen Kexing says, after a long time where Zhou Zishu can only lay there, listening. His voice breaks into smaller pieces with every word, until Zhou Zishu can barely hear him at all. “I would, A-Xu. I can’t - I couldn’t, not after A-Xiang - you have to -”

Zhou Zishu takes a deep breath and holds it, lets it out slowly. He thinks of saying something like, “I’d kill you myself first, and then I’ll find you in our next lives and kill you there too.” That might cut loose some of that horrible, wracking tension - let Wen Kexing laugh it off, the emptiness of a threat like that, and take comfort in the promise that it secretly is. But he doesn’t want to. Not anymore. He props himself up, his elbows planted on either side of Wen Kexing’s hair. He puts his palms against Wen Kexing’s face - not so tightly that he couldn’t look away if he really wanted to. He doesn’t. 

“Don’t,” Zhou Zishu tells him. He rubs his thumbs over Wen Kexing’s cheeks, presses his body down against the stone. “We’re past that now, aren’t we?” 

Wen Kexing licks his lips. The wetness shines faintly in the pale light. It’s growing dimmer in the armory as another day passes without them. “But you’re worth it,” he says.

“But I don’t want that,” Zhou Zishu says. “You don’t have to.”

Wen Kexing stares up at Zhou Zisu, searching his expression for something Zhou Zishu can only hope he finds. Then his mouth twitches, and he laughs. He leans up, so Zhou Zishu leans down, pressing their foreheads together. 

Like that they breathe, slow, each inhale and exhale in sync.