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The first thing he knows—the pain isn’t gone. There are layers upon layers of it, years and years, from the barely healed wound on his shoulder to the lines a whip has seared in his flesh when he’s been still a child, and everything that has come in between. There’s also a not-so-faint echo of what Zhou Zishu has suffered—seven phantom shards expand deep into Wen Kexing’s body…and it’s good, it’s good. It means he’s managed to ease the cultivation process for his gullible shixiong, take all the damage upon himself while Zhou Zishu’s body has been rebuilding itself, getting rid of former injuries.

He must have succeeded… he must have… To make sure—because, in a sudden wave of panic, he needs to make sure—he has to blink his eyes open, with effort. He squints immediately; even the dim light in the armory is too much for him. What he sees is both frightening and wonderful—Zhou Zishu’s angry face.

“How could you? How could you? No-no-no, don’t close your eyes again, don’t you dare.”

Wen Kexing feels Zhou Zishu’s palms on his chest, feels him trying to push qi into him, but to no avail. It splatters against his burnt meridians, soothing the torment just a little, but his body won’t take it. It’s like splashing buckets of water on dry and parched soil where a river once used to be.

Don’t waste it, he wants to say, but only a feeble gasp gets past his lips because his throat is spasming on a groan and he desperately tries to stifle the treacherous sound. It’s damn obvious he’s dying, but Zhou Zishu should at least have an illusion he died peacefully, like a candle blown out, and not writhing in agony, or his sacrifice will be an even harder burden for Zhou Zishu to bear.

Just lay with me instead, just hold me, one last time, is what Wen Kexing also wants to say, yet he can’t beg for it either, even if he were more eloquent. It’s too cruel to rob Zhou Zishu of the conviction he’s done everything in his powers to save him, no matter how useless his attempts might be. But to be honest, that’s just postponing the inevitable.

It would have been more merciful—for both of them—if he passed away before Zhou Zishu realized what had happened.

Lifting a hand feels like a tremendous endeavor. He gropes for Zhou Zishu’s wrist, finds it, takes his pulse…and relief washes through him—yes, it has worked, he’s going to live, he’s fine. Maybe that’s why I lingered to die, he thinks, to be sure beyond any doubt. Now he’s free to leave, but seems unable to, stuck in a used-up body full of nothing but pain.

“How about the promise to live and die together? That’s what you told me, you bastard,” Zhou Zishu spits out, having batted Wen Kexing’s hand away. “I can’t believe I fell for it.”

I’ve always been a better liar, Wen Kexing doesn’t say with a faint sparkle of smugness. Who would have thought the former Tian Chuang leader would be so naive and susceptible when it came to personal matters.

“There must be something…” Zhou Zishu mutters. “Maybe in that Yin Yang book you found. I’ll take a look—and you’ll wait. Do you hear me? You’ll wait.”

It’s not a plea, it’s an order. And with that, Zhou Zishu suddenly leaves him, before Wen Kexing can muster a single word out. Like don’t.

Without Zhou Zishu constantly pumping qi into him, the pain instantly creeps back full force, takes over, grows along his shattered meridians and bursts out into every bone, every tendon, every muscle of his body. But wait he does. There’s not much else he can do anyway.

While he’s been unconscious, Zhou Zishu has made a rough bedding for him, or more like a nest, using the old grain sacks they have found in the armory. Wen Kexing’s fingers claw at the coarse fabric. It doesn’t really help, so he bites his lips, drawing blood as if to create a magical seal and prevent even a small whimper from escaping past it. He doesn’t know how far Zhou Zishu has gone, so he shouldn’t let out any such noises, not to make him feel even worse, but it’s harder and harder to hold back.

Had Zhou Zishu felt the same during his fits of pain, when the nails had been acting up? It’s a stab in the heart to even consider it. The only consolation is that it’s over for him now. With every labored breath, Wen Kexing can only hope it will soon end for him, too.

A thought catches up with him that he must look awful—and it’s funny how vanity is still of matter to him in such a moment. But he would like Zhou Zishu to remember him beautiful and elegant and invincible. Not like this, clammy with cold sweat and limp like a rag doll.

He wants it to end, but he also desperately needs to see Zhou Zishu’s face again, to touch him because a sudden spike of anxiety makes him wonder: what if it’s been a hallucination, taking Zhou Zishu’s steady pulse? Is he really all right?

So Wen Kexing waits and waits and waits…

He must have been floating in and out of consciousness again because he suddenly comes to Zhou Zishu’s palm cupping his cheek. “Do you hear me? Do you understand?”

Wen Kexing can’t help but turn his head and press his lips to it, slightly. It’s not a kiss, no. He doesn’t want Zhou Zishu to pull his hand away. It’s just another stolen touch, maybe the last one.

He’d kept telling himself he’d be glad with whatever Zhou Zishu could give him—brotherly love, easy companionship. “You’ll always be my shidi.” But now he knows, with blinding clarity, that he would have been insatiate, he would have pushed for more—and spoilt what he was allowed to have. Maybe it’s good he will never see it happen.

“Lao Wen, do you hear me?” Zhou Zishu repeats urgently.

“Yes,” he murmurs into Zhou Zishu’s palm. “Yes.”

He almost lets out a whine of protest when Zhou Zishu backs off—please, let me have this, just for a moment more. But to his surprise, Zhou Zishu not only douses him with another too generous portion of qi, which temporarily eases his suffering, but starts loosening his robes, fumbling along the folds, tugging them open. Wen Kexing lies there, stunned. He can’t remember asking for it, but maybe he did after all, had no resolve not to, delirious, burning with a feverish longing for something he will never have now, and never could.

“You don’t have to…” he tries.

“Of course I have to,” Zhou Zishu grumbles. “This needs to go off, too. Help me, will you? Rise a little, let me…yes, like that…”

And that’s how, very quickly, Wen Kexing finds himself naked in a tangle of robes, laid out for Zhou Zishu to see, like a butterfly splayed for a child’s amusement. It’s a bit embarrassing. He’s not ashamed of his body—a few scars don’t spoil it, at least he tells himself so—but he’s well aware he isn’t a very enticing sight at the moment, weak and pale and barely there.

Or maybe he is? Because Zhou Zishu doesn’t hesitate to lick his own palm, take Wen Kexing’s cock in his hand (oh) and give it a few experimental strokes (OH). He looks strangely determined.

It seems unreal. And yet, and yet…

Through pain and embarrassment, want surfaces out, desperate, unquenchable. Wen Kexing feels himself grow hard in Zhou Zishu’s hand. He feels helpless. He feels so exposed, so needy. He would have been disgusted with himself if he had more strength, but all he can do now is let Zhou Zishu go on with his precise, almost mechanical ministrations—he must be thinking that’s what Wen Kexing wants…and it is…but at the same time… It’s not what he’s been craving for so long, except that his body reacts anyway, like it would have reacted to anyone else tending to his private parts, nameless and countless pretty things in brothels. This should have been different somehow, he’d always hoped it would be…

Wen Kexing squeezes his eyes shut and tries his best to picture them back in Four Seasons Manor, having a fumble in the middle of the night after a long, peaceful day filled with unimportant, mundane things. They’d be suppressing moans and laughter in equal measures, not to wake up Chengling… It could be fun. It could be…

Yes, he’d imagined it differently—and he’d been imagining it a lot. He’d fantasized of being shameless and bold and irresistible, of making Zhou Zishu both exasperated and aroused with indecent verses he’d whisper into his ear and a clever tongue doing the rest…until maybe Zhou Zishu took charge, tired of being teased…

What he had tried not to think of was how frightening it actually might be, not just seeking oblivion in pleasure but giving your body to someone who really mattered, and only hoping to be liked, if not loved in return. But he’d do that, eventually. No more hiding behind rich brocades, flirty looks, and someone else’s poetry lines. Just him. Just his zhiji.

…Except that the burnt down manor is just an empty shell of what-could-have-beens now. And so is he.

Unsurprisingly, Wen Kexing doesn’t last long. But when he feels he’s about to come, Zhou Zishu squeezes the base of his cock just in time to prevent it. The shock racks through Wen Kexing’s body, sending energy up, making his flayed meridians strain and tremble.

“‘m sorry,” Wen Kexing breathes out, not thinking clearly but knowing he must have been a disappointment if Zhou Zishu hasn’t let him have his release yet. “I can go on longer, I can…”

“Good,” Zhou Zishu only says.

And when he starts stroking again, Wen Kexing is still hard for him.

…because you’re just a pretty slut, a dead man’s laughter rings in his ears. He pushes it back with venom, back into the dark pit where it belongs. This is different. He wants it. Doesn’t he?

He’s not a helpless boy trying his best to survive anymore—everyone who has thought otherwise is now fertilizing the ground of Ghost Valley, and their deaths haven’t been easy ones. Not much is left of them—bits of skin and bones, tufts of hair… But all of these remains are still rotting somewhere in his mind, too, instead of decomposing peacefully where they are scattered, far away from here, and it’s so much not what he wants to think about when Zhou Zishu is finally touching him that it almost makes him cry.

Maybe not even almost. With his free hand, Zhou Zishu wipes a stray tear from his cheek. “Shh, it’s going to be all right. I promise, it’s going to be all right.”

It’s just as endearing as it is humiliating.

It’s stupid, really, how thoughts break him better than physical torment does. It’s pain combined with arousal, he realizes dully, that makes him remember, and maybe the feeling of being trapped in his flesh, restrained by weakness. He’s not a boy anymore, yes, but now he’s not the fearsome Ghost Valley leader either, and not the flirty and graceful Philanthropist Wen Zhou Zishu has met in the sunny south. He doesn’t know what he is when his body is melting in mixed sensations, one highly unpleasant and the other... maybe also… But this should be different, it should be, it should be…

“A-Xu,” he exhales. “Not a kiss for me?”

Something shifts in Zhou Zishu’s expression—for a moment, Wen Kexing would swear it’s confusion, and maybe guilt, but then he leans in obediently, and their lips touch. The kiss is unexpectedly chaste. And disappointingly brief. But at least Zhou Zishu doesn’t back off. With their foreheads pressed together, he whispers, “Tell me when you’re close.”

The second time, the aftershock of unfulfilled release is worse, it’s as if a surge of qi rushes through him, uncontrolled and fiery. Wen Kexing cries out, and Zhou Zishu holds him through this, which makes it worthwhile.

“You should be naked, too,” Wen Kexing complains when he finds his breath again. “It’s not fair.”

It seems to give Zhou Zishu a start. “Oh. Yes, I suppose. I’ll need to, anyway…”

He tugs open the ties of his hanfu, peels himself out of the cloudy blue-gray fabric, and when the white undershirt slips away from his shoulders, too, Wen Kexing can’t but stare in awe. The willowy waist and the taut abdomen he’s been longing to feel under his palms, the graceful lines of collarbones and the so kissable dip between them, even the scars on Zhou Zishu’s jade-smooth chest—everything is perfect. So perfect it hurts. Wen Kexing would have wanted nothing else for the last gift this life could give him, but it’s a cruel one—to see this body luminous with life and to know he has so little time to contemplate it. How funny you grant me this when it’s too late.

When Zhou Zishu reaches to continue what he’s been doing, Wen Kexing catches his hand. “A-Xu, can we…not?”

He regrets his words as soon as they are out. What he wants to say: you don’t need to keep me aroused, it’s fine, you can get on with it, you can have me; do it right now. Even if it’s uncomfortable, he’s willing to endure it to feel their bodies align, flesh to flesh, before his consciousness fades away.

His awkward phrasing doesn’t spook Zhou Zishu off. He merely stills with a troubled expression on his face.

“But we have to,” he says after a moment’s pause. “At least five more times before we proceed…”

…and that’s when the realization hits Wen Kexing like an avalanche. He should have understood sooner, but his mind, fogged with pain, has been too slow to catch up. Zhou Zishu is trying to restore his qi circulation, that’s what it’s all about. First, by building up his male essence and then closing off its flow, so the unspent energy would rise up through his damaged meridians instead, reviving them. And then…by sharing his own qi in the most primal way, through intercourse.

Wen Kexing has heard of double cultivation before, although mainly as an ancient brothel-quality legend. But Zhou Zishu must have found this method in the Yin Yang book for real and has been desperate enough to try it out, especially since he has enough life force now for the two of them.

So it’s not even a pity fuck—out of misplaced, perverted kindness, but also maybe out of sympathy. It’s a life-saving necessity, something Zhou Zishu probably hasn’t wanted at all, something he must have detested. He’s been basically forced to do it because he couldn’t watch Wen Kexing die and make no attempts to save him…

Belatedly, Wen Kexing shuts his eyes tight. He shouldn’t look. He shouldn’t have asked Zhou Zishu to take his clothes off in the first place, but now it will only be awkward to say he might put it back on.

Zhou Zishu’s thigh pressing against his own feels like a white-hot branding iron.

“Lao Wen, just hold on a bit more,” Zhou Zishu says. “Breathe through it like I told you to. All right?”

He’s gentle. He’s considerate. He’ll be the death of Wen Kexing if a lack of qi doesn’t kill him first.

Wen Kexing nods. It’s not like there’s much choice.

Withholding his release on purpose and directing his energy, very slowly, through the lower tan tien and further up, along the nearly destroyed pathways, is less excruciating than letting it rush upwards on its own, but unpleasant and tiring nevertheless. By the time Zhou Zishu, after checking his pulse, decides it’s time to proceed with qi sharing, as he delicately calls it, Wen Kexing is nothing but a shaking mess. But still he can’t help a needy little noise when Zhou Zishu touches him in the tender place between his legs.

Zhou Zishu’s spit-slick thumb stills at the rim, not breaching in yet. “Too rough?”

“No,” Wen Kexing hastens to assure him, utterly mortified. “It’s fine, it’s fine.”

“Better if you lie on your right side, it will be less strenuous for you,” Zhou Zizhu says and delicately arranges him how he thinks it’s best, bends his leg, spreads his buttocks. Wen Kexing lets it happen, unresisting like a puppet.

It’s been a while since his body has been used like this. Whenever he’d frequented male courtesans, he’d mostly been the one on top because he could choose now. He’d always known he’d let Zhou Zishu do whatever he wanted, though, so it’s all right, really.

“Am I hurting you?” Zhou Zishu asks as his fingers are burrowing their way into the clenched tightness.

Wen Kexing shakes his head vigorously. It doesn’t actually hurt, compared to everything else, even if the stretch burns a little. But his body has a memory of its own and tenses in anticipation, no matter how he wills it to relax.

There’s no hungry haste in what Zhou Zishu is doing, but his unhurried, practical meticulousness is hardly better. It’s like he regards Wen Kexing as one of Long Que’s marionettes that needs coaxing to a semblance of life.

And isn’t every living body an automaton of flesh indeed? An easily breakable one, too. Just like a dummy made for lewd purposes, he responds the way he’s supposed to. When Zhou Zishu finally eases himself in and starts moving, slowly at first, then with more force, the fullness, the heat, the right angle do the trick on him—Wen Kexing’s belly muscles go taut, he pushes back, unthinking, seeking more friction…

You like it, pretty slut, don’t you?

His body jolts as if he’s been stabbed. Zhou Zishu stills immediately.

“Hurts?” he asks again.

“Please talk to me,” Wen Kexing begs hoarsely. He needs to remember it’s here and now, and it’s Zhou Zishu pressed against his back, even if it’s not an act of love but merely an act of mercy.

And Zhou Zishu whispers ticklishly into his nape that he’s going to be all right, they both will be all right, how can they not… It’s easier to pretend this way, to imagine Zhou Zishu wants this and to give in to the torturous pleasure.

Wen Kexing doesn’t come, too worn out to even be aroused anymore, but when Zhou Zishu does, the wave of qi that rushes out is so brutally intense that Wen Kexing nearly blacks out.

It takes him a while to regain his senses. His throat feels raw; he might have cried, he doesn’t remember. He’s drenched in sweat and terribly exhausted, his body is still aching all over, and his poorly healed shoulder hurts the worst, but it’s not a maddening agony anymore. He listens to himself and finds his qi flow sluggish but consistent. If it holds, he’ll need time to recover, but he’ll live, most likely, and maybe even keep his martial abilities. He doesn’t have the strength to be happy about it yet.

Through his fatigue, he feels Zhou Zishu carefully pulling out and guiding him to lie on his back. Wen Kexing almost reaches out, like he would reach for a lover…but Zhou Zishu sits back and picks up the lapels of Wen Kexing's robes to cover him, like he’s wrapping back an unwanted present.

And that’s when pretending has to stop.

They are not lovers, despite of what has happened. Yes, Zhou Zishu has been able to get it up for him. So what? It doesn’t mean anything.

Wen Kexing knows better than most how a human body works. It bleeds when you cut it, it bruises when you beat it, it stirs when you stimulate it in the right places. It’s just a reaction, a response one can’t control. It has nothing to do with wanting any of these things.

You can get aroused and come even if you’re unwilling. He’s been telling himself that for a long time, to erase guilt and filth from his memories, and now the same thought turns against him.

It’s not that he isn’t grateful for Zhou Zishu’s help: who wants to die if he can live? But what now?

Zhou Zishu doesn’t dress up properly, just drapes himself in the mass of his thunderstorm-colored robes, as if desperate to conceal his inappropriate nudity as soon as possible. But when the fabric slips from the curve of his shoulder, leaving it bare, he doesn’t seem to notice; he just sits there, with his gaze lowered and his face grim, arms wrapped around his midriff.

Wen Kexing knows he shouldn’t stare, but can’t bring himself to look away.

It’s fascinating how someone can be both so delicate and so strong, alight with a fiery will and warm compassion. Something that makes a wondrous mass of muscles and bones and tissue all the more precious, like it’s an intricately made paper lantern holding a fierce little flame.

Wen Kexing is greedy. He wants both the lantern and the flame. But he’s also selfless as he’s never thought he might be—he wants them to exist even if he’s no longer there to contemplate them.

It’s heart-wrenching how temporary this beauty can be, how perishable, because even near-immortality doesn’t come without conditions. But at least he’d made everything in his power to make it last.

Now that he might live, though, despite his best efforts, he can’t lose Zhou Zishu, simply because his shixiong will no longer feel at ease around him. He’ll have to mend their relationship somehow. They’ll be back to what they had. No flirting at first, not to make Zhou Zishu uncomfortable. Wen Kexing will miss it; he’d loved provoking Zhou Zishu and making him roll his eyes in exasperation. No touches that can be interpreted as sensual, or better no touching at all, for a while. He’ll miss it, too. But better this than seeing Zhou Zishu as subdued as he seems to be now.

“A-Xu?” Wen Kexing calls out feebly. “We can pretend this never happened. We’re both good at pretending, aren’t we?”

It’s supposed to be a joke, but it falls flat and falls hard.

Zhou Zishu finally turns to him. He looks even more miserable. “We might need to repeat this. You haven’t fully recovered yet. I’m sorry.”

Wen Kexing lets out a surprised laugh that sounds more like a croak. “What are you sorry for? It’s not like you defiled a bashful virgin. I suppose it’s never been hard to guess I’m not one.” More bitterness slips into this than he would have liked, and his mind must be still woozy after what he’s been through, because words continue to slip from his traitorous tongue, “Don’t you blame me for having to sacrifice your virtue?”

For a moment, Zhou Zishu stares at him, his face unreadable, and Wen Kexing has enough time to realize what a terrible mistake he’s made. That’s not how you mend things when they are broken—by stepping right on the shards.

Then Zhou Zishu says, slowly, carefully, “You don’t have to act like that’s what happened. Don’t spare me.”

It’s Wen Kexing’s turn to gawk at him. “I don’t understand.”

Zhou Zishu wraps his arms tighter around himself, almost convulsively. “What do you think would have happened if you died? If you left me with nothing but your corpse in this armory? Did you imagine me enjoying my immortality all alone, waiting for spring to come?”

Wen Kexing had known Zhou Zishu would hate him for that, maybe for a long time, but at least he has arguments to justify himself, if saving your loved one needs justifying. “You have something to live for. You have disciples now, you have friends, people who care about you…”

“Do you really think I would have remembered any of them, with your dead body in my arms? Did it stop me when you had fallen off the cliff and faked your death without telling me? I just wanted to get revenge for you—and to end it all. I had no regards for anyone else, I was selfish…and nothing has changed. You know, there are ways to destroy even near-immortal flesh if one is willing.”

It feels like frost is rapidly enveloping Wen Kexing’s lungs, robbing him of breath. A-Xu, he wouldn’t have… But now he sees it clearly: yes, that’s what would have happened.

They both had been set on lying to each other and themselves, with best intentions, but Wen Kexing had started first. He knows everything is his fault. He couldn’t have redeemed it even by dying.

The dread and guilt are so massive he feels crushed under their weight; maybe that’s why he doesn’t catch up with Zhou Zishu’s next words at once, or maybe it’s because Zhou Zishu’s voice sounds too quiet, too tight when he says, “I’m looking for excuses now, aren’t I.”

And finding none? Wen Kexing doesn’t ask—because it’s obvious he wouldn’t—when Zhou Zishu adds something utterly puzzling, “If I hate myself so much, shouldn’t you hate me even more?”

Wen Kexing’s brows furrow. “But…why?”

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Zhou Zishu looks away. His face is like a tragic mask. “Do I have to say it? You were out of your mind with pain, you asked me to stop…and I didn’t. I forced myself on you. Even if you…if you wanted it under other circumstances… Even if this was to save you… I took you against your will—and what a monster am I to have liked it?”

His last words are almost a cry.

Wen Kexing tries to prop himself up, despite the twinge his shoulder gives him, grabs at the hem of Zhou Zishu’s robe, tugs at it desperately. “A-Xu… A-Xu, please… I didn’t mean it like that, I didn’t mind. I’m sorry you had to…”

He’s barely aware of what he’s saying; a wave of dizziness rolls over him, he sways, and his vision darkens for a moment.

When it clears, he’s treated to the same view as when he’d first come to after the cultivation—of Zhou Zishu, fuming.

“You fool, you should lie still.”

“Not when you slander yourself,” Wen Kexing rasps. His first thought: Zhou Zishu must have caught him when he’d almost fallen back; he’s lying in Zhou Zishu’s arms now. His second thought: he can’t let Zhou Zishu pull away again. He tucks his face into Zhou Zishu’s chest, wraps an arm around his waist.

“Blame me if you have to blame someone,” he whispers hotly. “I made you do something you didn’t want. If you took pleasure in it, it’s not your fault. That’s just how our bodies are made.”

Zhou Zishu is silent for quite a while, then he says, “What if I did want it? Is it better or worse? I can’t tell anymore.”

“Huh?”

“You see, I’m not completely inexperienced either. One can hardly be a monk living at the court if one wants to blend in. And oh, did I want to blend in!” He lets out a mirthless laugh; with his head pressed to Zhou Zishu’s chest, Wen Kexing can feel this unhappy vibration, and a sigh that follows. “Later, when Tian Chuang was growing, there was so much to do I had no time for such…entertainments. And I think it was a relief, really. It had felt hollow. I never cared for those I was bedding; at least it was mutual, so no one was hurt. Caring and wanting have always been separate things for me…until I got to know you.”

His hand brushes Wen Kexing’s hair, very lightly, as if he’s not sure he’s doing the right thing, not sure he’s allowed to. Wen Kexing breathes in and out, in and out, trying to fit the enormous news into his head. He doesn’t ask, Why didn’t you tell me? It’s easy to guess. Knowing his days were numbered, Zhou Zishu wouldn’t have wanted him to get too attached. Except that it had been too late to worry about what had already happened.

Instead, Wen Kexing asks, “So I’m your first then, in a way?”

After a pause, barely a whisper, “You could say so.”

Maybe in this sense Zhou Zishu counts as his first one as well. And first times are bound to be awkward, aren’t they? It can be such a distress, doing it with someone you genuinely care about, someone who makes your heart ache with tenderness and your mind turn into a mush of worry.

Wen Kexing decides it’s a promising sign that Zhou Zishu keeps stroking his hair.

“Does it look awful?” he asks tentatively.

“Uh?”

“My hair. I know it’s all white now. Does it look horrible?”

Zhou Zishu wraps a strand around his finger, as if appraising it. “No. No, it suits you, actually. It’s like moonlight.”

Wen Kexing huffs out a laugh; the fabric of Zhou Zishu’s hanfu is already warm and damp from his breathing. “Who knew you could be poetic. Or is it my corrupting influence?”

There is silence for some time, but maybe less strained now. Finally, Zhou Zishu speaks again, “I’ve been using my body for fighting my whole life. I know how to hurt others, and myself as well, but not how to take care of someone. Even if I know the basics, it’s not enough, isn’t it? I thought I could at least make it…not unpleasant for you, if not pleasurable. I’m sorry I failed you.”

“You were very considerate, despite what you might think.” Wen Kexing tightens his hold on Zhou Zishu’s waist, both for reassurance and so that Zhou Zishu wouldn’t dare to back off, still deeming himself unworthy. “I just thought you would only have me out of your weird sense of obligation, not because you wanted to. What I need you to know—I’d rather have it flawed with you than with any other man. It couldn’t be flawless with someone else anyway, now that I’ve met you.”

Zhou Zishu chuckles softly, and his arms wrap around Wen Kexing’s shoulders in return, although more delicately, still with some hesitance. “Is it your poetic way to tell me it was terrible after all?”

“Not terrible,” Wen Kexing corrects him. “It’s just that it can be better next time. For both of us.”

…When the next time does come, after a respite, Wen Kexing is still too weak to actively participate and it feels a bit like a monotone ritual again, but there’s improvement—Zhou Zishu doesn’t rush away afterwards. They both lie covered with Zhou Zishu’s robes, their feet entangled, and Wen Kexing feels the weight of Zhou Zishu’s softened cock against his thigh. It’s...nice. Peaceful, even.

There’s an important question that still needs to be cleared up, though.

“Do I get to come anytime soon?”

Zhou Zishu has the audacity to laugh, though it’s a somewhat nervous laughter. “Not in a while, no. Only when we balance out our qi, so each of us has an equal measure. It might take time.”

Wen Kexing heaves out a dramatic sigh, but it’s more for show. It’s not the worst price he could have paid.

“Which doesn’t mean…” Zhou Zishu starts and falters, but then musters the nerve to continue. “Which doesn’t mean we can’t try it the other way round if you’ll be careful not to spill. If you want to, that is.”

“A-Xu, are you offering yourself to me out of pity?”

Zhou Zishu gives him a light poke in the ribs. “If you don’t want it, just say it outright.”

“Seriously? When did I ever give an impression I don’t want you in any way possible?”

“Good then,” Zhou Zishu says, succinct as always, and burrows his nose deeper into Wen Kexing’s armpit. Which is gross, considering the sweat, but also soothing for some reason, maybe because of the sheer intimacy of it.

At the back of his mind, Wen Kexing is already starting to think of practical things—because out of them two, he is the most practical. Zhou Zishu takes comfort when and where he can have it, but tends to ignore his own needs if he can’t. Wen Kexing suspects it will be mostly him arranging their life until spring when the snow locking them in the armory finally melts. And maybe afterwards, too.

They will have to make these stone vaults livable somehow, at least for now. Later, they might travel if they want to—even if they will require extreme cold to maintain their existence, there are enough chilly places in the world, and winters are long. But as for settling down, the armory might be not their worst choice. Surely, if Rong Xuan and his friends had been training here, they must have had something akin to living quarters. Wen Kexing is thinking of needing to have a bath, and finding spare clothes, and a bedding better than mouldy grain sacks… They’ll go searching after having a rest… This should seem tedious, but it’s strangely reassuring instead, maybe because only the living have so many boring and mundane things to do.

Perhaps their bodies will need exploring as well, before both he and Zhou Zishu learn how to live comfortably within their own flesh and adjust to each other, but he doesn’t mind it either. Besides, it’s a much more pleasurable task.