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Forlorn Shadows Soaring Home

Chapter Text

The first hint of trouble for Xie’er was when Zhao Jing didn’t come greet the guests who arrived to continue planning the assault on Ghost Mountain.  After the celebration over the death of Wen Kexing, Xie’er hadn’t been surprised by his yifu’s absence at breakfast – Zhao Jing might have been less drunk last night than the night Xie’er refused to think about, but he’d still been deep in his cups by the time he went to bed.  But for him not to greet the other leaders of the jianghu?  Not to glory on his newly-reinforced fame?

Tension threading his shoulders, Xie’er made his way to his yifu’s chambers.  “Godfather?” he called softly.  “Are you there?”

Nothing but silence answered him.  “Godfather?” he tried again, rapping on the wooden door frame.

Still nothing.  His stomach twisted at the thought of invading Zhao Jing’s privacy, after what had happened last time, but this was different, he told himself.  Yifu had been embarrassed then, not in his right mind.  He would be sober today, if hungover, and Xie’er could handle hangovers.  It wasn’t like Zhao Jing ever struck that hard even in his foulest mood, after all.

Soon, he wouldn’t be able to strike at all.

Xie’er’s lips curved in a cruel smile at that.  “Godfather?” he tried once more, sliding the door open.  “Are you feeling alright?”

The form lying on the bed didn’t stir.  Xie’er sighed.  “Godfather, your guests are here.”  He padded closer to the man, careful to stop a respectful distance away.  That, like many things, had been a hard-learned lesson. 

In sleep, Zhao Jing looked almost innocent – nothing more than an aging man dreaming soft, hungry dreams.  No trace of his quicksilver tongue or flaring temper could be seen on his lightly lined face, which bore nothing more than a slack sagging that spoke of too much wine.  He lay curled on his side in a tangle of blankets, face half-concealed beneath the sleeve of his light underrobe and one leg draped at an awkward angle off the bed; his arms flopped equally awkwardly.

Had he drunk more than Xie’er had realized?  The Scorpion King took one step closer, then another when the man didn’t twitch.  Foolish, Xie’er thought – anyone could take advantage of that lack of awareness.

But that was why he was here now, and soon he would take care of everything.

“Godfather?” He bent forward, scorn heavy in his throat, but fear quickly overtook it.  Something wasn’t right.  People, even drunkards, moved in their sleep, but there was no movement here.  Zhao Jing’s mouth had slipped open, allowing a line of drool to track down his cheek; his eyes were still beneath their eyelids.

Xie’er discarded years of training and seized his yifu’s shoulder.  Part of him prayed for the blow that was sure to come – part of him was already flinching away from it.

But no blow came.  Instead, as Xie’er rolled his godfather over onto his back, Zhao Jing went with no resistance whatsoever other than the dead-weight resistance of a corpse.

Everything inside of Xie’er froze solid.  A corner of his mind screamed denial, but he’d seen – and created – too many corpses to think that his yifu was sleeping or drugged.  No, Zhao Jing was dead, dead long before he should have been. 

Poison?  Too much to drink?  Heart troubles?  Xie’er’s mind whirled.  How could an assassin have gotten past his and his yifu’s guards?  Yet his yifu was a healthy man, a strong one – surely no lurking weakness could have taken him that quickly.

It was supposed to be me.  I was owed this!  He’d had everything plotted out, everything ready to set into motion.  But now his yifu would see none of that.  He’d never smile at Xie’er again, never tell him he’d done a good job, never praise him or straighten the fall of his robes or scold him for being hasty.  Never call him Xie’er.  Never explain his plans, such convoluted and elaborate plans…

Such foolish plans, a corner of his mind whispered.  Too convoluted, too fragile, too many moving pieces.  It’d taken Zhao Jing twenty years to retrieve even three pieces of the Glazed Armor, and he’d nearly failed a half dozen times.

You could do better, the little voice continued.  You have done better

But what was the point of all that now?  His yifu was gone, gone, gone, and Xie’er should have prevented it.  Should have known something was going to happen.

His yifu was gone.

Gone.

Xie’er fell to his knees and screamed.

***

Zhou Zishu was done.  Done with hope, done with heartbreak, and, soon, done with life itself.  Fire scorched through his withered meridians, held together only by the medicine the Great Shaman had so painstakingly wrought, and he welcomed it.  Soon, it promised him – soon he’d be with his soulmate once more.

“Wait for me, Lao Wen,” he murmured.  “Did you like the present I sent you?”

The dead air, as dead as the man lying at Zhou Zishu’s feet, did not answer him.  He swallowed hard.  “There are more coming, I promise.  And soon I’ll be there too.”

His gaze dropped to the sword in his hand.  It would be so, so easy to set it against his neck and yank… one cut, and it’d be all over.  Just like the last of the Four Sages had done, hadn’t he?  It would be an honorable death.

He forced himself to retrieve a rag from his sleeve instead.  Forced himself to wipe away the crimson splattering the blade.  He still had a few more gifts to retrieve for his soulmate before he could finally embrace death, after all.

Zhao Jing’s death had been easy – a prick with a needle dipped in a rare poison, and the would-be ruler of the jianghu had slid into a sleep he’d never awaken from.  The guards, flushed and careless after their victory, hadn’t noticed the shadow flashing overhead.  Nor had the scorpions seen anything amiss – Zhou Zishu could beat their kind with his hands tied, especially without the nails impeding his abilities.

He regarded the body at his feet.  Hardly more of a challenge, in the end, though the jianghu was wary now.  This was the fifth chief Zhou Zishu had murdered, and the third who hadn’t died alone.  Several sect members were sprawled against the walls of the spacious chamber, collapsed in puddles of their own blood, and more lay outside. 

Most were dead.  He thought that he should have felt guilty, for they hadn’t done anything wrong but serve the wrong man, but he felt nothing at all.

Nothing, that is, except a lingering sense of sorrow like the aftertaste of wine, back when he could still taste wine.  Sorrow not for the dead men, but for the one who still remained alive.

Zhou Zishu sheathed Baiyi at his waist and straightened his sleeves.  Blood splattered them, but the dark fabric hid the stains.  He had so many stains now…

The door creaked as he pushed it open.  By habit, he tensed, though anyone who would have awoken already lay dead or dying – habits were hard things to break.

It was habit that had him retrace his steps through the lovely house, habit that launched him up onto the rooftops as soon as he was at the courtyard.  Habit that had him leaping from roof to roof, as silent as a butterfly, as he steered towards his next quarry.  The night was young yet, with no hint of dawn on the horizon – he could send his soulmate at least one more gift tonight.

But the next logical target – the man who he should have taken down as soon as Zhao Jing fell – was the one chief he hesitated to face.

He leapt onto another rooftop, then paused.  This one belonged to an inn, judging by the muted sounds of music and conversation coming from below – as good a place as any to stop and think.

His skirts slapped wetly against his legs as he sank down to the tiles.  As soon as he was sitting, all the little aches and pains he’d earned screamed at him – bruises on his forearms, a nasty cut over the eye, and, oh, a couple broken ribs?  And, of course, his burning meridians, crumbling more with every breath he took.

It was worth it.  It was all worth it.

And it would be over soon.

He had a plan for that, if his body would cooperate.  The Scorpion King was screaming about poison, screaming about vengeance, and he’d earned a death at Baiyi’s edge if anyone had.  And if he took Zhou Zishu out with him?  It would be a good way to go.

But Zhou Zishu had a few more messages to deliver before he could let the Scorpion King find him.  His soulmate deserved every bit of vengeance Zhou Zishu could give him, didn’t he?

So, then, why are you so hesitant to go after Shen Shen?  The man had been there that day, just like all the others.  Hadn’t he been the one to bring Chengling to that ill-fated battlefield on the cliff’s edge?  Zhou Zishu wouldn’t, couldn’t blame Chengling for the fatal blow – the idiot boy had every right to be furious.  He thought the ghosts had slaughtered his entire family, didn’t he?  The news of Wen Kexing’s true identity must have devastated him – had devastated him.

No, Zhou Zishu would not blame him for seeking to avenge his family’s deaths.  All that blame lay on his own shoulders.  He should have told Chengling the truth, should have ridden harder or kept Chengling with them or…

He shook his head like a dog drying itself.  Regardless of all that, Shen Shen had no mitigating circumstances, and was no disciple of his.  If he earned a few more stains on his robes, what would it matter?  If not for Shen Shen, Lao Wen would still be alive. 

The conclusion was clear, as it had been from the start – Shen Shen deserved to die.

So why isn’t his head already at your feet?  Will you let him walk free when your strength fails, as it inevitably will?

Zhou Zishu pushed himself back up, ignoring the fresh wave of pain with the hard-won calm of long years of practice.  The little voice was right – he’d put off this task too long.

***

Shen Shen and Chengling had taken rooms with Gao Chong’s sect in a lavish manor near the heart of the city.  Zhou Zishu had known that for days, but had stayed far away from the place.  Now, as he drew closer, he saw the unmistakable signs of a household ready for war.  Senior sect members patrolled the grounds in pairs, while more junior ones stood sentry at intervals along the wall surrounding the place.  Torches burned brightly to chase away the shadows in the courtyards.

The plethora of guards would have stymied most people, but not Zhou Zishu.  He’d spent too many years in the Window of Heaven to fall back before Gao Chong’s silly juniors.

He flew silently over their heads to land in a crouch behind some ornamental shrubbery.  A pair of quick steps took him to the shadow of a statue, and another pair brought him to a tall, prickly hedge.  The boys staring fixedly out into the night didn’t so much as twitch as he padded beneath their perches.

Then something cracked beneath his feet.  He froze, breath catching in his chest as he squinted to see what had made the sound.  Had he grown so careless so quickly as to step on a twig?

But there was nothing to be seen on the cobblestones.  The smooth grey stone beneath his boots looked like any other stone, swept clean of all debris.  The only irregularity was the thin crack spidering down its center, a crack that…

Zhou Zishu leapt for the sky a breath before fire exploded upwards.  Heat scorched his legs, and he poured more energy into the jump, clawing for height.  Higher, higher… unnatural purple flames licked at the hem of his skirts and sent pain washing through his legs.  The soles of his feet screamed as his boots heated.

This, the boys couldn’t fail to notice.  Shouts erupted from all over the compound as fighters converged on his location, and he swore inwardly.  Foolish, so foolish to be caught by such a trap!

Yet a swell of pride warmed his chest as he unsheathed Baiyi and prepared to fight.  His silly disciple had been studying, it seemed.

Hard on pride’s heels came guilt.  Murdering Shen Shen would take one more person away from Chengling, force the boy to endure yet another loss.  Hadn’t he suffered enough?

Zhou Zishu thrust the thoughts away.  He was committed now.

The first pair of senior students attacked in a wild rush, swords held high as they charged forward.  Their voices cracked with the force of their shouts.  Zhou Zishu slid under one blade, to the side of another, and caught the trailing boy with a leg sweep as he went by.  The boy tumbled into a roll, and his partner spun to protect him.  Trained, yes, but not wise, for both charged once more as soon as they were on their feet.

Zhou Zishu sighed and sliced downwards, then sideways.  Both fell.

Then more attackers were on him, and he threw himself into the pure, heady rush of battle.  Spin, cut, block, dodge… the copper taste of blood splashed across his lips, while breath burned in his lungs.  Each blow and twist and step set his meridians throbbing harder, but the agony did nothing but fuel the fire blazing in his veins.  He was lightning, he was wind, he was blood and pain and the screams of the dying.

Block, slash, and a boy who should have never held a sword toppled sideways.  Injured, not dead – the only mercy Zhou Zishu would show.  Step, slash, punch, and another fell.  The world consisted only of his sword and the shadows surrounding him, lashing out with foot and fist and blade.

It was familiar, too familiar – a life he’d thought long gone.  Yet a part of him reveled in it.  This was simple, clear, easy.  The clang of metal and the stink of viscera filled the air with the raw anguish of battle, and he breathed it in and became it.  Finally, he could smell again, taste again, and the familiarity of the battle was a siren song that dragged him back into the past, where the only thing that mattered was killing.

Then Shen Shen was there, hands clenched around a sword as he forced Baiyi away from a senior student.  “Stop this!” he screamed.

Zhou Zishu didn’t bother to answer with words.  Shen Shen barely got his blade up in time to block Zhou Zishu’s strike for his throat, and he fell back rather than block the next blow.  Something feral flowered in Zhou Zishu’s heart.  He launched into a lightning combination of strikes that screamed through the air, darting and twisting around Shen Shen’s blade.  The older man blocked most, but blood flowed from several cuts when he finally leapt away.  “Please,” he tried, lowering his blade.  “Master Zhou, you must listen, you don’t know…”

Zhou Zishu did not care what he did or didn’t know.  He quick-stepped towards Shen Shen, blade at the ready, and Shen Shen hastily resumed a guarded stance.  Still, he tried to speak rather than attack.  “Just give me a moment to explain!”

Zhou Zishu thrust Baiyi straight for Shen Shen’s heart.  The older man swayed aside and, at last, countered in earnest.  One blow, then two, then three – Gao Chong’s students all fell back to form a circle, not daring to interfere.  Zhou Zishu tasked a corner of his mind to ensure none of them stabbed him in the back, then ignored them.

Shen Shen was a fierce, straightforward fighter.  No underhanded tricks, no unexpected moves, just strength and speed and determination.  If he’d been going all out, Zhou Zishu might have earned himself some new scars to take into the afterlife.  But the older man was still holding back just a hair, and that gave Zhou Zishu the edge he needed.  After a flurry of blows, he bound the man’s blade and jerked.

Shen Shen’s sword flew out of his hand.

“Shifu, stop!” A body hurtled out of the night.

In a desperate move, Zhou Zishu threw himself and his blade sideways, trying to abort the strike to Shen Shen’s heart before it could connect with Chengling.  But he was going to be too slow, he could see it even as he twisted.  Chengling, idiot that he was, was using the Swift-Moving Steps to hurl his body between Zhou Zishu and Shen Shen, and Zhou Zishu was going to hit him.

No!

Somehow, in a move that tore something in his back, he managed to avoid the boy by no more than a hair.  Baiyi skimmed past Chengling’s shoulder a split second before Zhou Zishu’s own shoulder hit the boy, sending him sprawling.  Zhou Zishu stumbled forwards, unbalanced.

And a senior student, braver or stupider than the rest, chose that moment to attack.

Baiyi was in no position to block.  If Zhou Zishu dodged, the student would hit Chengling.  If he stayed still, he’d take a sword to the gut.

It was no choice, in the end.  He braced for impact.

A split second before the student’s blade could pierce his stomach, a white fan flew out of nowhere and knocked the sword aside.

Chapter Text

Wen Kexing was starting to think he’d made a mistake.

“Get up,” he snarled at the girl kneeling before him.  “Stop cowering and explain.  What do you mean, Zhao Jing is dead?”

“They… they found him lying in his bed two days ago, Guzhu,” the girl stammered.  When he glared at her, she stumbled to her feet, hunching her shoulders.  “The Scorpion King is claiming he was poisoned.”

Poison?  Who would dare poison the hero of the hour?  Wen Kexing’s mouth twisted into a sneer.  Had little Xie’er gotten his revenge earlier than planned?  “Did you see the Scorpion King yourself?”

The girl ducked her head.  “No, sir,” she whispered.  “But it’s all the servants are talking about.”

Wen Kexing frowned.  After the bargain he’d made with the Scorpion King, he couldn’t imagine the boy killing Zhao Jing now.  Yet who else could it be?  “Are there any suspects?”

The girl hunched further into herself.  “No, sir,” she repeated.  “But…”

Wen Kexing threw up his hands.  “I’m not going to hurt you,” he snapped.  “Stop all this groveling.”

“Yes, sir.”  Her voice was thready with fear, and it was clear she didn’t believe him. 

He sighed inwardly.  He’d spent so many years building up his reputation, but it did irritate him on occasions like these.  Couldn’t the silly girls understand he meant what he said?  “But?” he prompted.

“But… but Zhao Jing isn’t the only one to have died recently,” she whispered.  “Two more chiefs were found murdered last night.”

“Also poisoned?”

She shook her head.  “Cut down with a sword.  No one knows who did it, either.  And… and one of them didn’t even get a chance to fight back.”

Now that was an interesting tidbit.  Not only was the killer skilled with poisons, but, assuming it was the same man, he was good enough to kill at least one highly-skilled martial artist without a fight.

He or she, Wen Kexing reminded himself.  Few women rose high in the ranks of the jianghu, but those who did were even more deadly than the men.  Just look at Luo-yi or those two vipers who accompany the Scorpion King

He studied the girl, who quailed.  It made him want to strike her, an urge that he firmly quashed.  “Are there any rumors circulating?”

A pink flush crept over her cheeks.  “Some are… some are saying it’s your ghost, Guzhu.  Or that you’ve returned as a demon.”

He barked a laugh.  “Fools.”  Though that did offer up some tantalizing possibilities.  Martial artists were timid creatures, on the whole, despite all their mock bravery.  He could have many weeks of fun playing with these new fears, now that his original plan had been spoiled.

Speaking of that plan… He turned his attention back to the girl.  “And what of the Heroes Conference?”

“Postponed indefinitely, my lord.”  That, at least, she delivered with confidence.

The girls from the Department of the Unfaithful needed more of that, Wen Kexing decided.  And more training in general, if they were to be useful.  Right now, for instance, he could really use a spy or two in the ranks of the jianghu, but sending girls who couldn’t protect themselves was a recipe for quickly losing said spies.  A waste all around.

He studied the girl, then sighed.  “New orders.  Find Madame Luo and tell her she is to train you – all of you – in martial arts.”  Before the girl could protest, he held up a hand.  “Whether or not you like it.”  Her cheeks darkened, and he frowned.  “And tell her I need all the information she can gather about these new developments.”

“And you, Guzhu?” the girl murmured.  “Where shall we find you if we have more news?”

He favored her with a shark’s grin.  “I’ll find you.”

As she scurried away, he leaned back in his seat.  He’d commandeered one of the safe houses the Department had been using, but it put him too far away from the centers of power.  He’d planned to lie low until the moment came for his big reveal, but, with the Heroes Conference postponed, that wouldn’t be happening anytime soon.

And, suddenly, he had no one left to take revenge on.

No one of any importance, anyway, he amended, staring broodily into the gathering dusk visible beyond the window.  There were others left in the Five Lakes Alliance, most prominently Mo Huaiyang, but he didn’t matter.  None of them did. 

Wen Kexing sucked in a breath.  He ought to feel something, he thought, but there was nothing in his chest but hollow emptiness.  Zhao Jing, manufacturer of his parents’ deaths, might have been dead, but where was the joy?  The closure?  Someone had stolen his revenge, and there was nothing he could do to get it back.

What sort of son was he?  He’d brought the wolves to the door as a child, failed to show any filial piety for his parents for twenty years, and now he couldn’t even avenge them properly.

The banging of a door interrupted his increasingly dark thoughts.  He stiffened, reaching for his fan, only to relax as a familiar voice reached his ears.  “Zhuren!  Zhuren!”

A-Xiang exploded into the room, took one look at him, and burst into tears.  “Zhuren!  You’re alive!”  With a wail, she threw herself at him.

Acid burned in the back of Wen Kexing’s throat as he caught her.  “Now, now, what’s all this?” he tried, but he couldn’t make his tone as light as he wanted.  “A-Xiang, don’t cry.”

She yanked away from his hug and punched him hard in the chest.  “You made me think you were dead!”  With a snarl, she hit him again, then once more for good measure.  “How could you?”  Tears poured down her face as she looked up at him.  She wasn’t making any attempt to hide exactly how she felt, and it tore something inside him.

He spread his arms, and she collapsed back into them.  “Zhuren,” she sobbed once more.  “Sick Man said you’d fallen off a cliff and died.  He said he’d burned your body so the Five Lakes Alliance couldn’t do anything with it.  He…”  She sniffed.  “Why, zhuren?”

Wen Kexing stared down at the top of her head.  Cradled in his arms like this, she felt so fragile, so terribly small.  Her shoulders shook with the force of her sobs, and she clung to him with the force of a limpet – he half-suspected she would never let him go.

The acid burned stronger at that.  “I had to make them think I was dead,” he told her, stroking her hair.  “I had to let them think they’d won.”

Without releasing him from the embrace, she kneed him.  “You could have told me!”

He tried not to wince at the force of that knee.  At least she’d aimed for his thigh, not his balls.  “I…”  He faltered.  He’d had a reason for not telling her, he was sure of it.  But it was hard to recall when staring at her tear-stained face.  “There wasn’t time, A-Xiang.  I had to set everything up rather quickly, and you were off with the Gentle Wind Sword Sect.  You… you were supposed to be safe.”

That earned him a snort.  “Safe, sure, as long as Drug Men don’t attack the sect!”

“What?” His spine jerked to attention.  He would tear that little scorpion from limb to limb, and do it slowly.  Then he’d peel the skin from the boy’s body while he took his last gasping breaths.

A-Xiang must have seen some of that in his expression, for she buried her face against his shoulder and squeezed hard.  “I’m fine.  And that idiot Weining is as well.”

Wen Kexing forced himself to breathe.  “Good.  That’s good.”  But he was still going to tear the Scorpion King to shreds.  No one attacked A-Xiang and lived.

First, though… the boy had already proven useful once.  He might be useful once more.  “A-Xiang, what have you heard about the recent murders among the jiangu?”

She lifted her face off his shoulder to peer at him quizzically.  “All the chiefs?  You mean you don’t know?”

He frowned at her.  “What don’t I know?”

For some reason, that made her laugh.  It was not an amused laugh, but rather a bitter and irony-filled one that twisted her lips as she stared up at him.  “It’s Sick Man, zhuren.  You didn’t tell him either, did you?”

“I… I was going to,” Wen Kexing protested weakly.  He did not like the pit opening up in his stomach.  He’d planned out all the details, made sure all the pieces were going to fall into place, and they had!

Or, at least, the first set of them had, and he’d been ready to start the next set of dominos falling as soon as the Heroes Conference began.  Everything had been ready.  A-Xu… what are you doing?  What are you thinking?  Why was his soulmate suddenly murdering everyone in his path?  He was still supposed to be recovering, safe and sound and far away from here.

The pit yawned wider.  Wen Kexing swallowed hard against the growing lump in his throat.  Dammit, A-Xu, you should have waited!  If only he’d been patient for a few more days…

A’Xiang must have seen some of those thoughts crossing his face, despite his masks, for she reared back and punched him once more.  He rubbed his chest and made a face – she’d hit him in the same spot each time, and he was going to have a bruise there.  “A-Xiang, A-Xiang, how cruel to your elders!”

She sniffed, unimpressed.  “You deserve it, zhuren.  You should have told me.  You should have told all of us!”

“I wasn’t going to be dead for long,” he retorted.

She glared at him.  “Sick Man saw your body!”  She hesitated, gaze falling away.  “I really thought you were gone.  I…”

Dizzily, Wen Kexing wondered if the pit in his gut could consume him.  He did not like this feeling at all, these writhing unnamable snakes that wanted to eat him whole and spit out his bones.  He’d had everything planned out so perfectly… why was he feeling so ill now?

He closed his eyes.  “A-Xiang, I’m sorry.”

She sniffed again and didn’t answer.  He winced.  “I… I really am.  I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Well, you did!”  She pushed him away, and his eyes flew open in time to see her spin on her heel and take a step towards the door.  Then she paused.  Without looking back at him, she shook her head.  “And you hurt Sick Man too.  Maybe you should say that apology to him.”

Wen Kexing wanted to bury his face in his hands as she stalked away, but he didn’t dare show any sign of weakness.  Even here, in this safe house populated only by silly girls with no training whatsoever, it wasn’t safe to be weak.

It was never safe to be weak.  Never safe to care, or at least to show you cared.  He’d learned that lesson early and well, branded it into his bones, and he would never make those mistakes again.

At least he knew who’d stolen his revenge now.  That was something, wasn’t it?

The thought did nothing to diminish the pit inside him.  Part of him wanted to yell at A-Xu – how dare he steal those kills?  Wen Kexing had had such glorious plans, had gotten all of the pieces right where he wanted them.  Had even struck that bargain with the Scorpion King to ensure that Zhao Jing would suffer long years of torment on earth before serving his final punishment in death.

Not that the Scorpion King had seen it that way, Wen Kexing suspected, but maybe he had.  The boy had such delicious darkness tangled up inside him, love and hate all intertwined – it had been a true pleasure to crack into that shell, though Wen Kexing suspected he’d only tasted the uppermost layers.

Either way, Zhao Jing was not supposed to be dead yet!  Mother, Father… I’m so sorry.  I failed you once again.  He could say that much inside his mind, even as he kept his face still.  A-Xu… A-Xu, A-Xu, A-Xu.  What am I to do with you?

He couldn’t be truly angry with his soulmate, even now.  A-Xu might have upended everything, but the swathe he was cutting through the jianghu… Wen Kexing shivered.  No wonder the Window of Heaven had been so feared under his leadership.

It made Wen Kexing want to kiss him.  Bite him.  Devour him.

That thought, and the images accompanying it, lit a fire inside Wen Kexing.  It was a dim thing, but it fought against the empty pit, shrinking it into a tight, hard knot beneath his breastbone.  The knot settled in right beneath the bruise A-Xiang had left and froze solid, an icy heart to battle the flickering flame now burning lower in his core.

Wen Kexing ignored both as he rose.  He would find A-Xu, and all would be right with the world once more.  Forget the Glazed Armor, forget the key, forget all of it.  Zhao Jing was dead, the Five Lakes Alliance splintered, and, soon, he would have his soulmate by his side once more… what more could he ask for?

Bubbles of elation filled him as he strode out of the safe house.  Maybe he could even find his parents’ graves and introduce them to A-Xu.  After all, if they were soulmates, didn’t that make A-Xu their son too?  Maybe Wen Kexing wasn’t such a terrible son, if he’d found a soulmate who would exact revenge on his parents’ behalf.

Maybe he could sleep in peace now.

Maybe.

But first he had to find A-Xu before the fool got himself killed.

From rooftop to rooftop Wen Kexing flew, plotting out what he’d say to his soulmate when they were reunited.  Ah, A-Xu, did you really think I’d leave you so easily? he’d tease.  Never.  We’re bound together, don’t you know?  And what were you thinking, going after the chiefs?  With those nails impeding you, you could have gotten yourself killed!  A slight smile drifted over his face.  You’re not allowed to get yourself killed, A-Xu.  Not now that you have a chance to live.

A-Xu, of course, would respond with his usual petulant scorn for anyone trying to express concern about him.  But he liked it – Wen Kexing could tell.  Even when he’d been posing as a beggar and ordering Wen Kexing away every other minute, he’d liked the attention.  Wen Kexing could always tell.  If he’d ever thought that his A-Xu was serious – really, truly serious – he’d have gone away.

Well, maybe.  For a day or two, anyway.

His smile widening, Wen Kexing sped up his flight.  The streets were deserted at this late hour, everyone either in their own beds or in someone else’s, and no one looked up to see a fleeting shadow crossing in front of the stars.  Without a moon, the only light spilled from the windows of the few taverns and brothels that remained open; the only sounds were the hushed tinkling of music and quiet conversation inside those few buildings.

In the distance, though, something that might have been shouting broke the peace of the night.  Wen Kexing angled in that direction.

The sounds were definitely shouting, Wen Kexing realized as he drew closer.  Shouting, screams, and the clang of blade on blade.  That had to be his A-Xu – who else would be causing such a ruckus?

Of course, that did beg the question as to why his A-Xu, assassin-trained and skilled enough to murder Zhao Jing without alerting anyone, would be fighting so overtly now.  But that was a question for later.

Wen Kexing alighted on a nearby rooftop to watch as A-Xu took down a trio of fighters with one sweep of that lovely flexible sword of his.  Such precise, quicksilver moves… Wen Kexing’s tongue darted out to wet his lips.  His A-Xu was a force of nature like this, brutal and gorgeous and too fast to stop.  Almost too fast to see, at least for the poor juniors surrounding him.

Ah, and there was Shen Shen, rushing out with naked sword in hand!  Now that was the kind of opponent who might make A-Xu sweat a bit.

Wait.  Wen Kexing tensed.  Did he want Shen Shen dead?  The man had been one of the leaders of the Five Lakes Alliance, yes, but he hadn’t played any part in betraying Wen Kexing’s parents.  And he’d sounded genuinely remorseful when he’d learned the truth – not to mention, he’d helped Wen Kexing fake his own death.

Of course, if A-Xu wanted Shen Shen’s head, who was Wen Kexing to deny his soulmate that?  Wen Kexing leaned back against the ridge of the roof and settled in to watch the fight.

But Shen Shen wasn’t fighting properly.  He kept trying to talk, which just wasn’t that entertaining.  Wen Kexing was tempted to yell at him for that, except that would destroy the whole ruse.  And, if he was going to reveal himself, it was only going to be to A-Xu, not this rabble – he’d gone to so much trouble to fake his death, it would be a pity to waste that now.

Metal shrieked as A-Xu bound Shen Shen’s blade and sent it flying into the shrubbery.  Wen Kexing leaned forward, ready for the death blow – his own heart pounded as though he, not A-Xu, was holding Baiyi.

But, just as A-Xu struck, that idiot student of his hurtled out of nowhere.  Wen Kexing swore out loud as A-Xu desperately hurled himself to the side, for of course he did.  Of course he wouldn’t strike down his own disciple.

And Wen Kexing might, might have to admit that he would have done the same.  Not that he liked Chengling, of course – the boy was lazy and foolish and no good at martial arts.  But for A-Xu’s sake.

And, fine, maybe Chengling did have courage.  Stupid boy.

All such thoughts flew out of Wen Kexing’s head in the next instant, though, for one of the older sect members in the courtyard launched an attack of his own in the instant A-Xu was off-balance.  And A-Xu, stupider than his own disciple, didn’t move!

Before Wen Kexing could think twice, his fan was in his hand.  He snapped his wrist, propelling it forward into a perfect arc that knocked the student’s sword off-course before spiraling back to Wen Kexing’s hand.

Well, the cat was out of the bag now.  Fluttering his fan in front of his face, he took advantage of the stunned silence to loft down into the courtyard.  “I see I came just in time, hmm?”

A-Xu stared at him, face stony.   Wen Kexing searched for any hint of joy, any trace of happiness, but saw nothing, as though A-Xu wore a mask of his own face.  “A-Xu?” Wen Kexing tried.

A-Xu blinked once.  Swallowed, the movement almost imperceptible in the flickering torchlight, then shook his head.  “Lao Wen.  You’re… alive.”

Chapter Text

Wen Kexing was alive.

For too many seconds, Zhou Zishu wondered if he was dreaming.  If, perhaps, the disciple’s blow had struck true, and he was hallucinating as he lay bleeding out in the dirt.  How else would his soulmate be standing there, smiling as though he’d done nothing more than talk a short walk to the market?  Fanning himself as though he wasn’t standing in a blood-washed courtyard surrounded by enemies?

It couldn’t be Wen Kexing.  If not a hallucination, it had to be a ghost or a demon, some foul spirit who’d taken on Lao Wen’s form to taunt Zhou Zishu.  There was no way this was real.

“A-Xu, aren’t you glad to see me?” Wen Kexing asked.  His voice was light, playful, but there was a thread of something darker beneath it.

Zhou Zishu couldn’t find any words.  With the hand not holding Baiyi, he surreptitiously prodded his stomach, but couldn’t feel any pain.  No blood gushed over his hands, no agony screamed through his nerves… could a hallucination be that real?  He swallowed once, twice, mouth dry as a bone.  “Lao Wen…” he managed to croak at last.  “Are you…”

He couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence.  What if this really was a ghost or demon?  What would he do then?

“Ah, A-Xu, I’m hurt!  You have so little faith in me.”  Wen Kexing waved his fan, that damnable white fan that could kill a dozen in one sweep but resembled a courtesan’s tool.  Would a demon know to carry that?

And it did sound like Lao Wen, with the same flirtatious cadences and playful teasing tone that had infuriated Zhou Zishu from the moment they’d met.  But a demon would be able to imitate that, wouldn’t they?

Wen Kexing, or the creature masquerading as Wen Kexing, took a step forward, and a dozen blades flashed.  Zhou Zishu tensed – he’d almost forgotten their audience.

Before anyone could move, Shen Shen hastily held up a hand.  “Everyone, sheath your blades.  Seniors, take the wounded to the infirmary and fetch a healer, quickly.  Juniors, return to your posts.  This has all been a misunderstanding.”  As the young men hurried to obey, Shen Shen bowed to Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing.  “If you would both accept my hospitality for the night, I would be much obliged.  There is much we must discuss, I think.”

“Your hospitality?” Zhou Zishu muttered beneath his breath.  This was not, strictly speaking, Shen Shen’s home or sect.  Could the man truly control its disciples and promise safety?

A light laugh, only somewhat forced, came from behind him.  “Yes, Master Zhou.  Please, sheathe your blade and come in.”

He turned to see Gao Xiaolian, flanked by an exhausted-looking man who Zhou Zishu vaguely recognized, step into the light of the courtyard.  The girl did not look directly at any of the bodies, but she didn’t show any signs of wanting to vomit at the bloodshed, either.  Instead, as Zhou Zishu studied her, she lifted her chin.  “We would be pleased to host you both.”

Zhou Zishu glanced between her, Chengling, Shen Shen, and, finally, Wen Kexing.  None of the others seemed shocked to see Wen Kexing alive – not even Chengling, who’d struck the fatal blow.  Suspicion began to bloom in Zhou Zishu’s heart, and something that might have been a sob – or might have been laughter – crowded into his throat.  Had this all been a part of one of Wen Kexing’s schemes?  Some idiotic plan to fool the jianghu?

Zhou Zishu squeezed his eyes shut, but the flash of darkness did not change what he saw when he reopened them.  His soulmate was still standing right there, smile fading now, while the others were all balanced in varying attitudes of wariness and hope.

Chengling, little fool that he was, was the first to break the silence that had fallen.  “Please, shifu?”  He bounced over to Zhou Zishu.  “Please, won’t you come in?  Xiaolian made some tasty dumplings for dinner, and we can warm some up for you!”

It was the innocence in the question that almost broke Zhou Zishu.  Only years of painful training kept his face still, for it was clear the boy didn’t know that Zhou Zishu hadn’t been involved in the scheme.  And why would he?  Why would Wen Kexing ever bother to share such information?  Share any information whatsoever?

Zhou Zishu couldn’t look at his soulmate right now.  Why, Lao Wen?  Why couldn’t you just tell me what you were going to do?  I would have helped you!  Had Wen Kexing not trusted him?

That burned more than the decaying meridians thrumming throughout his body.  Bitterness coated his tongue as he bowed to Shen Shen and Gao Xiaolian.  “I would be honored,” he forced out.  “As you said, we have much to discuss.”

Shen Shen had the sense to pale at that.  He, at least, was no fool – he must have known from the start why Zhou Zishu was there, and intuited that Zhou Zishu had not been included in any of his so-called soulmate’s schemes.  Now, as Shen Shen glanced between Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing, his hand stayed near his sword hilt.  “Then come in, please, and be welcome.”

“How could we deny such a gracious invitation?”  Wen Kexing fluttered his fan, not quite looking at Zhou Zishu.  Was that a trace of guilt on his face?

No, just sly amusement, Zhou Zishu decided when the other man continued to look anywhere else.  Meaningless amusement, in other words, for Wen Kexing could and would smirk at anything.

Pain stabbed through Zhou Zishu’s meridians as he sheathed his sword.  Now that the fighting was done, exhaustion was creeping into his bones, turning them to lead.  He was so, so tired.  The sight of his soulmate should have invigorated him, but the burning where he’d yanked out the nails sapped away any pleasure.  Wen Kexing was alive, but Zhou Zishu only had a few more weeks of that state, and that was if he was lucky.

Not that he could, would tell Wen Kexing that, though.  Nor any of the others.

So, as he followed Chengling in, he tried to move as he remembered moving when the nails had still been embedded – graceful, controlled, and just a bit rigid, always fighting back the pain.  Always refusing to show weakness.

Now, he had a different set of weaknesses to hide, but he must have done it well enough, for no one batted an eye as Gao Xiaolian led them all into an elegant dining room.  “Please, sit.  I’ll fetch some wine,” she murmured.  “Kuan’er, will you join them?  Or will you rest?”

Kuan, Kuan… where had Zhou Zishu heard that name before?  He squinted at the man on her arm.  Wasn’t that the senior disciple of the Yue Yang sect, the one who’d accused Gao Chong of betraying his brothers during the first Heroes Conference?  He looked like he had one foot in the grave, but the look he turned on Gao Xiaolian was tender.  “I’m strong enough to join them,” he assured her.

She eyed him for a long moment, then sighed.  “I’ll be right back.”

Zhou Zishu felt like he was missing something.  Or maybe many somethings.  The Window of Heaven hadn’t cared much about the jianghu, so he hadn’t paid much attention to the sects – just enough to ensure that they wouldn’t cause any trouble for Prince Jin’s eventual rise.  Deng Kuan’s accusations hadn’t struck him as particularly noteworthy, but the way he was acting now didn’t fit the profile of a man who’d been betrayed by his own shifu.

Maybe it, like so many other things, was part of Wen Kexing’s schemes.

With a sigh, Zhou Zishu sank onto a cushioned chair.  He wanted to trust his soulmate – he really did.  But he wanted Wen Kexing to trust him, too.  And it seemed like that was as far out of reach as ever.

He glanced over at Wen Kexing, who was busy rearranging his skirts to get them to fall just right.  Today, the Valley Master wore understated white robes, simpler than most of the ones he favored, with minimal embroidery and no flashes of color peeking through from the lower layers.  The red eyeshadow he’d worn to rescue Zhou Zishu was nowhere to be seen, but there was a trace of some sort of powder beneath his eyes.  Concealing shadows, possibly?  Although he looked outwardly composed, his movements were a shade too quick, too tense.

Part of Zhou Zishu wanted to go to him.  Sit by him and let him lean far too far into Zhou Zishu’s personal space, heedless of propriety as he always was.

Zhou Zishu did not move.

A minute passed in strained silence before Gao Xiaolian hurried back in, clutching a tray with wine cups and a jug full to the brim with dark liquid.  “I can fetch food, too, if anyone is hungry?” she offered, setting the tray down on the table.

Shen Shen glanced at Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing.  Zhou Zishu shook his head, but Wen Kexing turned a beaming smile on the girl.  “If you would be so kind, that would be amazing.”

She flushed and hurried back the way she’d came, while he appropriated the jug.  “Let me,” he told Shen Shen, who sat back and rested his hands on his lap.  Still near his sword, Zhou Zishu noted – sensible.

Wen Kexing served Zhou Zishu first, passing over the small cup with a smile that was almost perfect.  “I think you’ll enjoy this one, A-Xu.”  The tips of his fingers brushed against Zhou Zishu as he pulled back his hand.

Zhou Zishu took a sip and nearly choked.  It tasted like fire and metal and blood, scorching his throat and searing into his stomach – so much, too much, all the taste he’d lost for months rushing back in a tsunami. 

He cast a surreptitious glance around, but Shen Shen and Deng Kuan were sipping the wine with every evidence of enjoyment.  So it was just him, then.  Just another side effect of the removal of the nails.

That didn’t seem fair, somehow.  But he’d known for years that life wasn’t fair.  There was no point in bemoaning it now.

Wen Kexing moved to pour Chengling a cup, and Zhou Zishu reached to stop him, then aborted the motion.  Chengling would be Wen Kexing’s disciple soon enough – it wasn’t Zhou Zishu’s place to teach him anymore.  If his soon-to-be shifu wanted him to have wine like an adult, let him have wine.

Even if he was too young, too foolish still.  Ah, Chengling…  Zhou Zishu felt his throat tighten, and took another swallow of the burning wine to wash away the lump.  The boy would be fine.

“So.”  Shen Shen set his cup down on the table with a click, then hesitated.  “Perhaps we should begin with the obvious.  Wen-gongzi, your plan has failed.”

Master Wen, hmm?  Interesting form of address.  Zhou Zishu wasn’t sure what it meant, other than the obvious – Shen Shen had decided to be polite.  Given that he had tried to address Wen Kexing as Yan’er on occasion, politeness was certainly the choice that would leave the dining room intact, but it was more respect than Zhou Zishu had expected the older man to show someone so much younger.

Shen Shen looked every one of his years as he looked between Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu.  “Zhao Jing is dead.  I presume, at your hands?”  He nodded to Zhou Zishu.

Zhou Zishu refused to look ashamed of that fact as he nodded.  Shen Shen sighed.  “As that was not a part of your plan, at least as you conveyed it to me, perhaps you’d like to explain,” he told Wen Kexing.

The younger man bristled.  “And why should I?”

Shen Shen heaved another sigh.  “Because I agreed to assist you under certain conditions and certain assumptions.  Tell me, was I wrong to trust you?”

That seemed to strike home, though Zhou Zishu wasn’t sure anyone else could see it.  But he noted the minute tightening of the skin around Wen Kexing’s eyes, the way his gaze darted away before returning to Shen Shen.  “This is, I admit, a bit different than I’d expected things to play out.  But can you truly say it’s not a good ending?”  He shrugged, sending ripples down his flowing sleeves.

“Half the jianghu is up in arms, and the calls to attack Ghost Valley are growing louder by the day.  Was that your goal?”

Before Wen Kexing could answer, Gao Xiaolian padded back into the room, bringing the tantalizing smell of dumplings with her.  After the way the wine had tasted, Zhou Zishu wasn’t sure he dared eat – he hadn’t been eating much, the past few days, and nothing as rich as dumplings.  But he took one anyway, just to be polite.

Chengling happily accepted several, but paused before biting into one.  “Shifu… why did you kill Zhao Jing?  I don’t understand.  I thought…  I thought everything was going to be revealed at the new Heroes Conference.”

Zhou Zishu speared a look at his soulmate.  “It would have helped if someone had informed me of those plans.”

Chengling’s mouth fell open.  “Wait, you mean… you didn’t…”  He snapped his jaw shut, cheeks going pink, then opened it just long enough to stuff half a dumpling in.  Zhou Zishu might have laughed if the atmosphere hadn’t been so solemn.  Chengling had displayed a remarkable obliviousness to the relationship between his shifu and shishu, but the look on his face suggested he’d picked up more than he wanted to reveal.

Wen Kexing shifted in his seat.  “A-Xu, A-Xu, how can I make it up to you?  I’ll pay any forfeit you choose, take any punishment you want.”

The tone was flirty, but his eyes were dead serious.  Zhou Zishu swallowed hard.  There were dozens of things he could have said – some he might have said, had they been alone.  Even some he might have said in company if things hadn’t been broken quite so badly, just for the pleasure of seeing Wen Kexing’s delighted flush when Zhou Zishu responded to his teasing in kind.

Almost, he reached for one of those retorts, but he couldn’t force it past his lips.  Darker desires, hurt and anger and a need to lash out, choked his tongue.  And, if they’d been alone, he might have let them take over, for he knew Wen Kexing had meant what he’d said.  Any punishment, any forfeit.

Zhou Zishu clenched his hands into tight fists.  The sting of fingernails digging into his palms helped him brush away the images that threatened to rise, images of a naked, bruised, begging Wen Kexing that were far too appealing to be indulged.  Now, especially, he couldn’t give in to that.

So, instead, he rose, snagging the wine jug from the table as he paced over to Wen Kexing’s seat.  His soulmate looked up at him with wide, dark eyes, waiting for his punishment – hungry for it, if Zhou Zishu was any judge.  He shook his head.  “Drink this.  All of it.  Then two more.”

“Ah, A-Xu!” Wen Kexing took the jug.  “Do you want to kill me?”

Zhou Zishu forced a smile.  “Are you refusing?”

“No, no, of course not.”  Wen Kexing’s eyes lidded as he continued to stare up at Zhou Zishu.  “I can never refuse my soulmate anything.”

“Then drink.”

Without waiting to see if Wen Kexing would comply, Zhou Zishu turned on his heel and stalked back to his seat.  The others laughed, tension seeping out of them.  If only they knew the truth, Zhou Zishu thought, but it didn’t hold much bitterness.  Let them relax and enjoy the remains of the night.

Enjoyment, however, was not in the cards for long.  Chengling, Gao Xiaolian, and Deng Kuan soon retired, but Shen Shen held up a hand to prevent Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu from departing.  “Now that we are alone…”  He fixed Wen Kexing with a stare.  “You have caused more than enough chaos in the jianghu, Valley Master.  When I aided you with your madcap scheme, you swore you would bring peace in the end.  Do so.”

“Or?”  Wen Kexing flipped open his fan.

Shen Shen swiped a hand across his face.  “Yan’er, I am not trying to threaten you.”

“Do not call me that!” Wen Kexing hissed.

With a groan, Shen Shen rose to his feet.  “You are welcome to remain in our guest quarters for tonight, but I suggest you form a new plan, and quickly.  I will not see the sects devolve into open warfare once more.”

With that, he took his leave, leaving Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing to stare at each other across the table.  Wen Kexing, face flushed from the wine he’d been forced to consume, laughed softly.  “Ah, A-Xu, A-Xu, A-Xu.  If we have faith in life, there will always be a beautiful tomorrow.[1]  Did you truly doubt me?”

Zhou Zishu stared at him.  “I saw your body.”  He bolted to his feet and started to pace, welcoming the way his body protested.  The grating ache of broken ribs was far better than the pain in his heart.

“So cold, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing whined.  “Come here.  Let me hold you.”

Zhou Zishu rounded on him.  “What were you thinking?”  Why didn’t you tell me?

He held the latter question behind his teeth.  He would not beg his soulmate for an apology – not now, not like this.

When Zhou Zishu showed no signs of moving closer, Wen Kexing pulled himself to his feet as well.  “Please, A-Xu…”  He swayed, catching himself on the wall before standing somewhat straight once more.  “You’ve done so much for me already.  Let me do something for you.  Please.”

“You’re drunk, Lao Wen.  Go to bed.”

Wen Kexing hiccupped.  “Not without you.  Not without my zhiji.”  He tottered forward.  “Come with me?”

Zhou Zishu glanced down as Wen Kexing tangled his fingers in his sleeve.  So close, and yet so far away.  He could almost feel the heat of Wen Kexing’s hand, but that had to be an illusion – there were too many layers of fabric separating them for those fingers to feel like a brand, yet they did.

He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t protest as Wen Kexing tugged him forward.

Rather than head deeper into the manor, though, Wen Kexing led him back outside, into the now-deserted courtyard.  Bloodstains lingered on the cobblestones, but all the bodies had been removed, as had the fallen weapons.  Mist hung heavy in the air, heralding a storm to come.

Out of the corner of his eye, Zhou Zishu saw several of the sentries turn, then hastily look away when they spotted who had emerged from the building.  They looked so terribly young in the light of their lanterns, young and fragile and scared as they stared out into the dark.  Something twisted inside him.

Wen Kexing leapt lightly up onto the nearest rooftop, but pinwheeled his arms as he landed off-balance.  Zhou Zishu jumped and caught him by reflex before he could tumble backwards, and he slumped back against Zhou Zishu’s chest with a breathy laugh.  “Always catching me, aren’t you, A-Xu.  Aren’t you…”

He sighed when Zhou Zishu let him go, a mournful sound that Zhou Zishu did his best to ignore.  “Lao Wen…” he started.

Wen Kexing dropped into a graceless seat on the tiled roof.  “Sit, sit, A-Xu.  Where is the wine?”  He patted himself as though he might find a jug stored in his sleeves.  “We should have brought the wine.”

“I think you’ve had more than enough,” Zhou Zishu sighed.  Now he was regretting making Wen Kexing drink so much – they would never have a real conversation with his soulmate this wasted.

Then again, this way, Wen Kexing had no chance of noticing anything amiss about his A-Xu’s qi, no matter how many times he drunkenly grabbed at Zhou Zishu.

Wen Kexing slumped back to stare up at the stars, though most had been hidden by the clouds that had crept in as they’d talked inside.  “A-Xu, A-Xu, A-Xu…”  He laughed.  “The stars before us aren’t the stars of yesterday, for whom did I brave the winds for the whole night?[2]”

“Shameless,” Zhou Zishu scolded, but there was no heat in it.  He’d never thought he would get to hear his soulmate quote poetry again, much less see him smirk the way he was doing now.

Wen Kexing’s grin widened as he leaned in.  “Come, A-Xu, aren’t you happy to see me?  Won’t you greet your faithful wife properly?”

“Whose wife?” Zhou Zishu grumbled.  “Aren’t wives supposed to trust their husbands?”

Wen Kexing’s eyes shuttered.  “I do trust you,” he murmured.  “The babbling current fails to float the firewood faggots far, yet we remain, you and I.[3]  We will always remain.”

Zhou Zishu looked away.  “Don’t say that.”

“But we will.”  Wen Kexing reached out, almost hesitantly, to capture Zhou Zishu’s hand.  “In this lifetime and the next, we will.  Always.”

Wen Kexing’s touch felt like a brand on the back of Zhou Zishu’s hand.  Another side effect of his withered meridians?  Zhou Zishu pulled away, but didn’t miss the flash of hurt in his soulmate’s eyes.  He bit back a flinch.  “Lao Wen, you’re drunk.  You don’t know what you’re saying.”

Wen Kexing twitched as though he wanted to reach out once more, but restrained himself.  “Am I not allowed to promise my soulmate forever?”

Forever.  The word tasted like gall in Zhou Zishu’s mouth.  Forever was leaping off the cliff after Wen Kexing, hand outstretched but fingers too far away to grasp, too far away to catch as they tumbled downwards.  Falling, falling, together in those last few breaths… until Ye Baiyi had snatched that all away.

And, well, it hadn’t been the last few breaths for Lao Wen, had it?  No, he’d planned it all along.

“I can’t promise you forever,” Zhou Zishu said at last.  He’d meant for it to come out biting, but it just sounded flat.

Wen Kexing shook his head.  “The Great Shaman said he could fix you!  We’ll get those nails removed, you’ll see, and then we’ll live to a ripe old age together.  We’ll watch our grandchildren grow up in Siji Pavilion among the flowers, and teach them the Swift-Moving Steps, and introduce them to… to shifu.”

Had Wen Kexing called Qin Huaizhang shifu before?  He’d spent so long resisting that, yet all his barriers had vanished now.  Now that it’s too late to matter.

Not too late for Siji Pavilion, Zhou Zishu scolded himself.  If Lao Wen had truly accepted his position there, then he and Chengling could rebuild.  Could teach Han Ying and the rest of the loyalists from Tian Chuang everything they needed as part of the sect.  Could succeed where Zhou Zishu had failed.  He should celebrate that, not mourn it.

Wen Kexing flopped over onto his side.  “You aren’t happy, A-Xu.  Why aren’t you happy?”  He slung an arm over Zhou Zishu, trying to tug him closer.  Trying to work a hand into Zhou Zishu’s robes.

Zhou Zishu pulled away.  “Not here, idiot!”  Not with a dozen juniors all carefully looking anywhere else.  They were no more than shadowed shapes highlighted by lantern-light, all stationed along the outer wall, but Zhou Zishu could feel their presence like heat from a campfire.

He tugged his robes closed when Wen Kexing fumbled once more for the ties.  “Stop that, Lao Wen!”

Wen Kexing pouted at him.  “My husband doesn’t want me anymore?”

Zhou Zishu swallowed hard.  It would be so easy to swoop forward and claim those red lips, bite and lick and suck until they were both lost in lust, but he couldn’t.  The wounds left by the nails were raw and bloody, obvious to touch and sight alike, and he couldn’t let Lao Wen see them.

Remembering why was hard, though, as Wen Kexing snuggled closer.  His fingers drew tantalizing patterns along Zhou Zishu’s arm.  “What can this wife do to make it up to you, A-Xu?”

He knew he should pull away.  He couldn’t make himself move.

It was almost a relief when a new voice cut through the silence like a blade through flesh.  “And so the rat has finally emerged.  I was wondering when you’d show your face, Valley Master.”

The last two words were flavored with icy hatred.  Zhou Zishu sat up as a dark figure leapt onto the adjoining rooftop, flanked by two more in brighter silks.  One, Du Pusa, fluttered her fingers at them in a sardonic wave; the other just stared in silence.

Between them, the Scorpion King stood in a deceptively casual pose, one hand held in front of him as he examined his nails.  He wore his usual leather coat with tassels dangling from the shoulders; bracers glinted on his forearms beneath the wide sleeves.  The armored ring on his forefinger glittered as well, bright in the lantern light.

His eyes shone too, but not from the reflected light.  Madness glared there, diamond-hard and cruel and as patient as a spider waiting for its prey to bumble into its web.  Zhou Zishu had looked into many pairs of eyes in his time as an assassin, and none had chilled him as much as these.

He rose to his feet, one hand drifting towards Baiyi.  “Scorpion King.”  He inclined his head just a hair, just enough to show a semblance of politeness.

The Scorpion King laughed harshly.  “No words from you, Guzhu?”

Wen Kexing pulled himself into a sitting position.  “What do you want me to say?  I’d be happy to oblige.”

Zhou Zishu nudged him with a boot.  Stop taunting him, Lao Wen.

Wen Kexing, predictably, didn’t take the hint.  Instead, he stood, somehow doing so without wobbling in the slightest.  “Little scorpion, you sound so angry.  Has the loss of your honored yifu affected you so greatly?”

The Scorpion King’s face, already pale, blanched dead white.  “You swore…” he hissed.

Wen Kexing cut him off with a raised hand.  “Yes, yes, I know.  Truly, though, you’re free now, aren’t you?  I’d expect you to be celebrating.”

He didn’t sound drunk now, Zhou Zishu noted, and wondered if this was the act, or if his earlier inebriation had been.  So many masks, Lao Wen.  When will you ever stop wearing them?

He studied the Scorpion King, noting the dozens of places where he might have concealed those nasty little knives he favored.  Outwardly unarmed meant nothing for an assassin of his caliber, and the way he stood, balanced on the balls of his feet, hinted that he could erupt into violence at any time.

His companions stood in equally ready poses, their own hands near their weapons.  Without the nails, Zhou Zishu was confident in his ability to take at least one of the girls, but both, plus their master, while trying to defend a drunk Lao Wen?  Not the odds he wanted.

The Scorpion King must have been performing an assessment of his own, for that blade-thin smile of his widened.  “So many words, Valley Master.  Tell me, is that all you have?”

“You’re the one continuing to prattle,” Wen Kexing drawled untruthfully.  Zhou Zishu kicked him again.

The Scorpion King barked a laugh, then flung out a hand.  A dozen shadows dropped out of the night to flank the women, and Zhou Zishu’s stomach dropped.  Imperial soldiers, many trained by him during his time in the Window of Heaven – he knew those uniforms, those rock-hard faces.

Energy arced through him as the odds tilted away.  “Lao Wen…”  He swallowed, then reached out with his free hand to capture Wen Kexing’s fingers for one brief squeeze.  This wasn’t how he’d planned to die – and, now that he knew his soulmate still lived, he didn’t want to die at all – but he was dying soon no matter what happened tonight.  Better to go out fighting beside his zhiji than force Wen Kexing to watch him suffer and fall when his meridians finally crumbled.

No, it wasn’t how he’d wanted to die, but it wasn’t a bad way to go, either.  He flicked a grin at Wen Kexing.  “Well, my love?  What are you waiting for?”

Chapter Text

Wen Kexing did not like the fey light in Zhou Zishu’s eyes.  He’d seen it far too often, both in Zhou Zishu and others, and he knew he’d worn it plenty of times himself, but he wanted to rail at fate for the unfairness of it all now.  His soulmate should not want to die!  Not now, not with so much to live for.  And an actual chance of living!

Assuming, of course, they survived this little misadventure first.

They would survive.  He would accept no other outcome.

Those Imperial soldiers, though… he gritted his teeth and tried not to sway on his feet.  There was a soft haze over everything, and his limbs felt fuzzy and far away.  Five minutes ago, it had been pleasant, but now?  He clenched his fingers tight around the base of his fan.  He knew its every curve, every nuance of how it flew and sliced, but it felt foreign in his hand, too heavy and unbalanced.

His soulmate was still waiting for an answer.  Wen Kexing summoned up a lazy grin.  “Can’t I want to admire my beautiful A-Xu being so heroic?”

His A-Xu rolled his eyes.  “Less admiration, more killing.”  And, with such blunt words, he leapt for the Scorpion King.

Wen Kexing meant to follow, he really did.  But the lantern light caught A-Xu at just the right angle, limning him in gold and highlighting the delicious swell of his back muscles as he unsheathed his sword.  So fast, faster than Wen Kexing had ever seen him move, and more graceful than a swallow… he was death incarnate, death on silent wings, and it made Wen Kexing’s eyes sting.  He never should have lied to his A-Xu, the one person who gave him a reason to live.

He flicked open his fan.  He would have years – decades – to make it up to him.  He just had to get rid of some vermin first.

The first few soldiers fell without so much as a whimper, throats gushing blood before they could raise their swords.  The next two had just enough time to attempt a block before the fan darted out once more, slashing through tendons and muscle and veins with one quiet squelch.  They, too, crumpled, and Wen Kexing leapt over them to confront the next group.

Oh, it felt good to let go, let all the pent-up hunger reign once more.  The bottomless pit that always, always yawned within him swallowed down the sights and sounds of death and begged for more.  Even the alcohol dulling his senses couldn’t stop the sharp exultation that crashed over him.

He licked his lips and tasted blood.  Swayed to the side to avoid a blow – close, too close, he could feel cloth part as he dodged.  Another, too fast, cut through his upper arm.

He didn’t feel it.  The wet trickle of blood was the distant hum of a gnat, unimportant.  Irrelevant.

The yell that followed, though?  Not irrelevant.

He blinked, the moment stretching out for longer than it should.  Then he felt the telltale swish of air heralding an incoming blow.  So close, too close…

A body collided with his ribs, knocking him aside.  Awkwardly, off balance as he never was, he went sprawling.  Air whooshed out of him as his back collided with the cobblestones, but he didn’t groan – he was too mesmerized by the sight of his A-Xu whirling, blocking and striking, practically dancing as he dispatched a quartet of soldiers.  One, two, three, four… blood spattered Wen Kexing’s face, and he licked it unthinkingly.

It tasted like salt and copper, and that was the last straw for his stomach.  He barely had time to turn on his side before bile filled his mouth.  He heaved helplessly, guts in full revolt and throat burning, until there was nothing left to throw up, and still his body protested.

He forced himself to sit up anyway.  His A-Xu was a veritable demon, black lightning and a crimson blade spinning through the night, and Wen Kexing had never seen anything more gorgeous.  A-Xu wasn’t the only fighter now – hadn’t been for some time, Wen Kexing thought, though he wasn’t sure.  But he was the only one that mattered.

“What manner of nonsense is this?”

Wen Kexing tried to twist to see the source of the yell, but his spine didn’t want to cooperate.  “A-Xu,” he whined.  “What’s happening?”

“Scorpion King, you have no right to invade our compound,” the voice continued. 

Ah, it must be Shen Shen, Wen Kexing thought muzzily.  No one else is as good at righteous outrage as the Five Lakes Alliance.

“You would protect a murderer?” the Scorpion King called back.  He sounded calm, unruffled, as though he didn’t care one way or the other.

He cares, though.  Oh, yes, he cares.  Wen Kexing almost laughed.  Poor little scorpion.  No more daddy to pant after.

Was that his fault?  It might have been.  Everything was fuzzy, and his mouth tasted like horse piss.

Why had he obeyed A-Xu again?  Three full jugs of wine…

Oh, right, because he couldn’t deny his A-Xu anything.  That was it.

The air buzzed, and he twitched backwards on instinct as a scorpion tail blade whirred past his nose.  He blinked.  “That wasn’t very nice,” he yelled at the shape he thought had thrown it.  “That could have hurt!”

The shape giggled.  “Just catching up, Valley Master?  Welcome to the party!”

Wen Kexing opened his mouth to retort with something – he wasn’t sure what, but it was going to be brilliant – but a new voice cut him off.  “Enough.”

Everyone froze.  Power redolent of frozen lakes and dusty stone crashed down over the courtyard, squeezing the remaining air from Wen Kexing’s lungs.  He didn’t need to look up to know who spoke, but he did anyway.

Ye Baiyi, looking like he’d just bitten into a lemon, floated down into the center of the melee.  His white robes glowed beneath the lanterns, fluttering in the breeze as he slowly turned to survey each of the combatants.  His great sword remained sheathed on his back, but no one was foolish enough to make any aggressive moves towards him – even the soldiers shrank back from his gaze.

Wen Kexing sneered at the display.  “Now what?” he muttered.  Did the old toad monster have to interrupt everything?

He hadn’t intended to be heard, but Ye Baiyi fixed him with a glare anyway.  “You made me a promise, boy.  I leave you alone for three days and come back to find the jianghu on fire and you brawling in the streets?”

Wen Kexing sniffed.  “It’s a courtyard, old monster.  Or have you gone blind in your decrepitude?”

“Lao Wen!” A-Xu hissed.  Holding up a hand, he limped over to Wen Kexing’s side.  “Please excuse him, master.  He’s drunk and doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

“I do so,” Wen Kexing argued.  “And I’m not drunk, just somewhat…”  He tried to stand, but his knees wobbled.

Fine, so maybe he was drunk.  It was all his A-Xu’s fault, though.

Ye Baiyi sighed a put-upon sigh.  “Scorpion King, take your people and go home.  Whatever grievance you have, save it for another time.”

“But…” the Scorpion King started.

Ye Baiyi held up a hand.  “I need to teach this brat a lesson.  Do you want one too?”

“Arrogant old toad,” Wen Kexing muttered.  What right did he have to come in here and spoil such a lovely fight?  A-Xu would have defeated the Scorpion King, and then the last obstacle to their happiness would have been gone.  It would have been perfect.

Before he could say as much, A-Xu kicked him.  Hard.  “Ye-qianbei, please forgive my shidi’s poor manners.  He has had far too much to drink tonight.”

Wen Kexing threw his soulmate an outraged glare.  “Whose fault is that?”

That earned him another kick, as well as a glare from Ye Baiyi.  Du Pusa giggled.  “So much for the feared Valley Master,” she murmured, just loud enough for everyone to hear.

Wen Kexing snapped open his fan.  Drunk or not, he wasn’t going to let a poisonous insect talk to him like that.  “You…” he started.

Power exploded from Ye Baiyi, forcing everyone to take a step backwards.  Wen Kexing, still on the ground, found his attempt to rise thwarted.  “Enough,” Ye Baiyi growled.  “Next person to draw a weapon answers to me.”

No one moved.  If his A-Xu hadn’t been right there, Wen Kexing might have taken the dare, just to show the old monster that he wasn’t in charge, but A-Xu was bleeding and favoring his right leg.  If Wen Kexing fought, his soulmate would too, and that wasn’t how Wen Kexing wanted the evening to end.

So, after a moment – long enough to make a point – he closed the fan.  “May this humble disciple know what brought you here?” he asked, voice as sweet as honey.

A-Xu shifted like he wanted to hit Wen Kexing for that, but restrained himself.  Ye Baiyi was not so reticent.  “What, pretending to be a decent human being now?  You think that’ll save you?”  With a huff, he spun on his heel.  “Why are you still here?  Go on, scurry back to whatever cave you came from.”

The little scorpions exchanged glances before nodding.  Without another word, they leapt for the sky, and the soldiers followed.  Like ducklings, Wen Kexing thought, and wanted to laugh.

The urge withered, though, when Ye Baiyi turned his glower onto Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu.  “You two.”  He shook his head.  “Boy, give me one reason why I should not slit your throat on the spot.”

Wen Kexing opened his mouth to protest, but his A-Xu stepped in front of him before he could.  “With all due respect, Ye-qianbei, should we continue this conversation elsewhere?  We’ve disturbed Hero Shen and his people enough for the night.”

A long-suffering sigh answered him.  “I would not deny hospitality to the Mount Changming Sword Immortal,” Shen Shen declared.  “But I would ask that you let my juniors resume their watch in peace.”

Wen Kexing blinked.  When had the older man arrived?  Though he only wore a light sleeping robe, he carried a bloody sword – had he joined in the fight?

Oh, and there was Chengling, the little idiot.  Didn’t he know better than to join a fight where he was outmatched?  He didn’t even have a sword.

“A-Xu, teach your disciple better,” Wen Kexing muttered.

He’d intended it to be quiet, but Chengling shifted on his feet.  “Shifu, shishu, are you alright?” he called.

Ye Baiyi looked like he was contemplating beating his head against the nearest wall.  “Wen Kexing.  For your broken promise, you owe me a debt.  The rest of you…”  His eyes narrowed as he studied Zhou Zishu.

“The blame lies on my shoulders alone,” Zhou Zishu told him before he could say more.  “Whatever punishment you wish to administer, let me bear it.”

“A-Xu!” Wen Kexing hissed.  His soulmate didn’t even know why Ye Baiyi was so angry, yet he was sacrificing himself anyway.  “You’re not allowed to do this!”

His A-Xu ignored him.  “Please, Ye-qianbei.  Leave my shidi out of this.”

“He is the one who made the promise, not you.”

For the second time that night, Shen Shen broke the tension.  “All of you, come inside,” he sighed.  “Clearly we are not yet done with discussions.”

A twinge of guilt bit Wen Kexing.  It strengthened as Shen Shen shuffled around to make a fresh pot of tea, moving as though his bones ached.  Watching him fight, it was easy to forget how old he was, but exhaustion had painted stark lines on his face, and the dim light made them even starker.

With a sigh, Wen Kexing reached for the teapot.  “Go to bed,” he ordered.  “We won’t wreck the place, I promise.”

Shen Shen bowed.  “Then I will take my leave.”

Zhou Zishu looked at Chengling.  “You too, kid.  You need your rest.”

“But, shifu!” Chengling protested.  “This…”  He faltered.  “This is all my fault!”  To Wen Kexing’s astonishment, Chengling threw himself onto his knees in front of Zhou Zishu.  “Please punish me, shifu!  I never should have obeyed Wen-shishu.  I caused all of this.”

“Get up,” Zhou Zishu snapped.  When Chengling, crying, didn’t move, his tone hardened.  “I said, get up, silly boy.”

Chengling lifted a tearstained face.  Something about his forlorn expression echoed the way A-Xiang had looked at Wen Kexing – it was as though all the light in him had gone out, leaving nothing more than a fading spark.  It made Wen Kexing’s gut turn over.

“But, shifu…”  Chengling gulped.  “It’s my fault!”

“Idiot,” Zhou Zishu said, not unkindly.  “You obeyed your shishu.  How is that your fault?”

He didn’t look at Wen Kexing, but Wen Kexing could feel his soulmate’s attention anyway.  It burned, and not in the pleasant, fluttery way it usually did.  No, this was fiercer, hotter.  It grated against the fading buzzing in his head, scraping at his skin and making his already-unsettled stomach churn.

He ducked his head.  “Go to bed, Chengling.  I promise we’ll be here in the morning.”

So many promises.  Each one tasted like acid, but he’d keep these.  He had to.

It took several more protests from Chengling, accompanied by admonitions from Zhou Zishu, but at last the boy stumbled off to bed.  Zhou Zishu watched him go with a strange, unreadable expression.  It looked almost sad, but he had no reason to be sad, did he?

Wen Kexing wanted to cuddle up to him and wipe away all those incipient tears.  Not that his A-Xu would ever cry, but still.  Wen Kexing wanted to kiss his soulmate’s neck and whisper promise after promise in his ear until he smiled that rare, brilliant smile of his, the one that always made Wen Kexing flush and smile in return.

He shifted towards his A-Xu, but Zhou Zishu didn’t seem to notice.  Instead, he moved away, as though he hadn’t seen Wen Kexing move.

Yes, that had to be it.  He wouldn’t deny Wen Kexing now, would he?

Ye Baiyi, old monster that he was, didn’t care about the fragility of the moment.  “Now,” he demanded, tone as sharp as his sword.  “What the hell has been happening, and why are five chiefs dead?”

***

By the time the whole story tumbled out, the first tendrils of dawn were beginning to creep over the horizon.  Wen Kexing was not drunk anymore, though he wanted to be – instead, his head had begun to pound, while his mouth tasted like something had pissed in it.  Even the tea, now cold and stale, couldn’t wash away the sour mustiness.

Or maybe the flavor was from the discussion and the new promises Ye Baiyi had extracted with his customary blunt force.  “You will find some way to repair this,” he’d demanded, and, after a fruitless fight, Wen Kexing had yielded.  Maybe, possibly, it would be better if the jianghu wasn’t in a perpetual state of crisis, no matter how entertaining it was to watch them run around like headless chickens. 

Maybe.  A-Xu seemed to agree, at any rate, and so Wen Kexing had given in.  He’d give his A-Xu anything, right now, just to chase away the darkness that seemed to keep creeping into his eyes.

“Very well,” Ye Baiyi declared at last.  “If you can gather the sects together and apologize, and if Zhou Zishu promises to end the bloodshed – and if you then seal off Ghost Valley as you promised – I will consider myself satisfied.”

Zhou Zishu bowed.  “Yes, Ye-qianbei.”

He nudged Wen Kexing, and, grudgingly, Wen Kexing dipped his head.  “Sure, old toad monster,” he grumbled.  Though he still didn’t have any real clue how they were supposed to calm all the fires, now that there was no more Heroes Conference.  Were they supposed to call one of their own?

He barked a laugh at the thought.  He could just see it – all the chiefs, puffed up on their own self-importance, arriving at the hilltop only to be greeted by their greatest nemesis.  The looks of horror would be delicious.

Hmm.  Maybe that idea did hold potential, after all.

Ye Baiyi made a sound at the back of his throat – maybe scorn, or maybe choked-off laughter.  “Someday, boy…”

Wen Kexing would have retorted if not for the yawn that overtook him.  A hint of a smile flickered over A-Xu’s lips.  “Come, Lao Wen.  If we’re to accomplish this plan of ours, we should get at least a bit of rest.”

Wen Kexing smirked, delighted to see even that inkling of happiness.  “Rest?  Is that the only thing you can think to do once you’ve gotten me alone?  Ah, A-Xu, clearly I must stimulate your imagination.”

“Save it for when you’re alone,” Ye Baiyi grumbled, while his A-Xu turned a delightful pink.  His eyes were still so dark, though…

Wen Kexing forced a laugh, ignoring the way the sound made his temples throb.  Somehow, he’d lighten those eyes.  “So sour, old monster!  Clearly it’s been far too long since you got your flute blown.”

That, to his great satisfaction, set Ye Baiyi to spluttering.  “What… you…”

“That’s enough,” Zhou Zishu interceded.  “Bed, Lao Wen.  To sleep.”

Wen Kexing let himself be pulled to his feet, reveling in the warmth of his A-Xu’s skin.  In truth, given the pounding in his head, he wasn’t sure he had the energy to do anything but collapse into a cot, but he did so love the faces his A-Xu made when teased.  If his A-Xu was making those faces, he couldn’t be that angry, could he?

Ye Baiyi’s faces were almost as good, though, he decided as A-Xu helped him to a guest room.  His flustered ones, not his angry ones – Wen Kexing would never admit it, but the old monster did scare him just a little.

But we have a plan now.  And everything is going to work out perfectly.

***

It was a good plan.  It might have worked, too, if not for the wanted posters that appeared everywhere on the streets the next morning.

“Shifu!  Shifu, shishu, you have to see this!”

Chengling’s wail came at far too early an hour for Zhou Zishu’s liking.  He groaned and rolled over, tempted to throw an arm across his face and order his disciple to go away.

But that sounded like real panic in Chengling’s tone, not the half-fake version he used when asked to do things like behead a chicken.  It was less strident, more serious, as though the boy was trying to sound like an adult but not quite managing it.  And that was enough to get Zhou Zishu out of bed.

He reached for his outer robes, only to pause as his gaze landed on Wen Kexing’s sprawled form.  His hand clenched around the rough fabric.  How was it possible to want – need – to both kiss someone and punch them?  Wen Kexing looked so innocent, lying there in an ungraceful tangle of limbs and blankets.  Even the slight smile on his lips, which made him look like he was plotting mischief even in his sleep, was more adorable than it had any right to be.

If only he’d told Zhou Zishu the truth.  He tried to swallow, but his throat refused to work.  If only.

It was cruel, to want to hate his soulmate when they’d just been reunited.  Selfish.  Unworthy.  Zhou Zishu was Wen Kexing’s senior – it was not Wen Kexing’s responsibility to protect him.  Zhou Zishu should have…

Should have…

He couldn’t finish the thought.  Dammit, Lao Wen.  The man didn’t even understand what he’d done, how his actions had torn Zhou Zishu into a thousand pieces.

With a silent snarl, Zhou Zishu took those pieces and stuffed them deep, deep down into the growing ache inside him.  Better, far better, to focus on the crisis at hand.  Bemoaning what-ifs was the act of a madman, and he would not spend his last few weeks in an endless cycle of regret and agony.  He would be a good soulmate, a good shixiong, a good shifu, and keep his utter idiocy and unworthy anger to himself.  After all, it wasn’t his shidi’s fault he’d wrenched the nails from his body, was it?

No.  He clenched a mental fist around the fire simmering in his gut.  Focus on the current problems.  Keep moving forward.

Chengling pushed a piece of paper into his hand as soon as he emerged from the room.  “Shifu, look at this!”

Zhou Zishu looked and swore.

The leaflet was deceptively simple.  Two sketches of faces, plus a few lines of text that read, “Wanted for treason, murder, and dishonorable conduct: Wen Kexing, Master of Ghost Valley, and Zhou Zishu, head of the Siji Pavilion sect.  Reward offered, dead or alive.”

The reward amount was enough to make Zhou Zishu choke.  And the likenesses were startlingly good – the artist had managed to capture the feral look in Wen Kexing’s eyes in his Valley Master guise, as well as the exhaustion in Zhou Zishu’s.  But the signature at the bottom was the worst part: “By order of His Imperial Highness, Prince Jin.”

Zhou Zishu shouldn’t have been surprised, after what he’d done to his cousin, but that didn’t change the sting beneath his breastbone.  With a snarl, he pushed it into the same place he’d shoved everything else.  Sentimentality would not help him untangle this situation, and there was plenty to untangle.  The timing couldn’t be coincidental – first an attack that included imperial soldiers, now this?  And the inclusion of Wen Kexing… few knew he was even alive at this point, and even fewer would put up flyers like this.

One, to be precise – the Scorpion King.

With Pengju’s backing, Zhou Zishu amended.  Only Duan Pengju could have affixed that signature – only he could have gotten permission for such a manhunt.

Even he would have struggled to get permission so quickly, though.  Either he’d been planning this for a while, or he was planning on asking for forgiveness after he’d delivered Zhou Zishu’s head to the prince.

“Shifu?” Chengling asked.  “Are you alright?”

Zhou Zishu started – he’d almost forgotten that the boy was still there, waiting for an answer.  “I’m fine,” he replied.  “But you were right to bring this to me.”  Calling together all the sects after this would be foolhardy at best, suicidal at worst.  Who could resist such a large reward?  And the fury when they learned that Wen Kexing had tricked them all… no.  No, they would have to accomplish Ye Baiyi’s demands a different way.

“What are we going to do?”

“Do about what?”  Wen Kexing, yawning, peered out the door.  His hair was loose, not yet combed and put up for the day, and he still wore a light sleeping robe with nothing over it.  “What’s all this racket?”

Zhou Zishu held out the leaflet.  Chengling bounced from foot to foot as Wen Kexing scanned it, finally blurting out, “You aren’t going to let them take you again, are you?  Please tell me you’re not.”

“He’s not,” Wen Kexing answered in a tone that brooked no disagreement.  “I doubt he’s fully healed from last time.  And, besides, I won’t let him.”

Beneath Zhou Zishu’s robes, the half-healed scars from the meat hooks twinged.  A pulse of fiery pain from his withered meridians answered, and he bit his tongue to keep from making a sound.  For a second, his veins were lightning and his muscles molten lead; everything he could see turned white.

Then he was back to normal, shaken but unhurt.  It was a warning, not the final collapse.

He stiffened his shoulders.  “I wasn’t planning on it.”

Wen Kexing crumpled the poster in his hand.  “Good, because I think we need to break a promise or two.”  His voice sunk into a low croon.  “The little scorpion is going to pay for this.”

A new kind of heat pulsed through Zhou Zishu at the words, despite the lingering anger that refused to be squelched.  He ignored it like the pain, refusing to show any sign on his face.  “Ye Baiyi really will slit your throat if you go after him, you know.”

“The old monster has to catch us first.”  Wen Kexing’s voice turned pleading.  “You can make it look like an accident, can’t you?  We’ll be safely in Mount Qingya by the time he even knows anything’s wrong.  And it’s not like anyone would mourn the little serpent – we’d be doing the jianghu a favor.”

“You’re… you’re going to Ghost Valley?” Chengling asked, voice quavering though he clearly tried to hide it.

“We are, yes.”  Zhou Zishu studied his disciple.  “However, you will be remaining here with Hero Shen and Gao Xiaolian.  Ghost Valley is dangerous, and we may not be able to leave once we enter.”

“No!”  Chengling’s response came before Zhou Zishu was finished speaking.  “I’m not leaving you again, shifu.  Not ever.”  He lifted his chin.

Zhou Zishu knew that he ought to persuade the boy to change his mind.  What good would it do for Chengling to follow a dying master?  Far better if he stayed here, where he would be safe from the curse Zhou Zishu brought upon everyone close to him.

He opened his mouth to say just that, then hesitated.  There was such fervent hope shining in the boy’s eyes, such trust and warmth and caring.

His other shidis had looked at him like that once.  Jiuxiao had looked at him like that once.

And look what happened to them.  Lonely graves, half of them empty where the bodies hadn’t been recoverable, and only one dying senior left to mourn them.  When Zhou Zishu fell, days or weeks from now, there’d be no one left to remember them at all.  Eighty-one blossoms, all faded.

Zhou Zishu was not a good man.  But he didn’t want another innocent death on his conscience.

“Chengling,” he started, trying to find the right words.  “This is not a decision to be made lightly.  It would be better…”

“No, shifu!” the boy interrupted.  He dropped to his knees.  “Please, don’t leave me behind!”

Dammit.  Zhou Zishu’s hands clenched into fists.  “Chengling, don’t make this harder than it has to be.”

“Why don’t you want me with you?  Have I displeased you?”  Tears began to form in Chengling’s eyes, but he blinked furiously to keep them from spilling.  “You said…”  He sniffed.  “Please, shifu, tell me how to make it up to you!”

That was exactly the question Zhou Zishu didn’t want to answer.  “You’ll be safer here,” he said roughly.

“But you’re my master!”

And he was the brightest hope for the future Zhou Zishu would never see.  The rebirth of Siji Pavilion.

Of course, if he dies in Ghost Valley because you’re too weak to protect him, he won’t be any of those things, will he?  Zhou Zishu forced away the lump forming in his throat.  “No,” he barked.  “You…”

Of course, because Zhou Zishu hadn’t had anything but bad luck in the past few weeks, that was when the pounding started on the door.

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu spun towards the pounding, quickly followed by the other two.  Chengling gasped.  “What’s going on?”

He started to run towards the main hall, and Zhou Zishu, cursing, followed.  Wen Kexing ducked back into the room, presumably to get dressed into something more appropriate, but Zhou Zishu couldn’t spare a thought for him at the moment.  He’d wanted more time to figure out how to respond to this new development, but fate was not with him, it seemed.

He and Chengling emerged into the main hall just as a panting disciple skidded into the room.  “Hero Shen!  Hero Shen!”  The boy bowed to the older martial artist, who was seated at a table at the far end of the hall.  “Hero Shen, there’s a contingent of imperial guards at the door, demanding entrance!”

Shen Shen set aside his brush and rose, smoothing down his robes.  “Then let them in.  We have nothing to hide here.”

“Ah, Hero Shen?”  Zhou Zishu held up the leaflet Chengling had brought him.  “You may want to see this before taking any action.”

A twinge of guilt pinched his stomach as Shen Shen accepted the paper.  He might have come here to kill the man, but, now that he’d learned the full story, he didn’t want to bring more trouble down onto Shen Shen’s head.

Trouble, it seemed, followed him wherever he went.  He bit back a sigh.  “I’ll go,” he said quietly, when Shen Shen didn’t break the silence.  “Once they have me, they’ll leave you alone.”

“But, shifu, you promised!” Chengling wailed.

Zhou Zishu’s lips spread into something that was far from a smile.  “I didn’t say I’d let them take me.”  How many guards were out there?  Without the nails impeding him, he could take out a dozen, maybe two, before they overwhelmed him.  The odds would change if Duan Pengju or the Scorpion King were with them, though.  He’d fall faster then, but he could still buy everyone time.

And, so, it all comes back to this, doesn’t it?  He couldn’t find it in himself to mind much.  Maybe this way would be best for everyone.  No lingering doubts, no questions, and no guilt for Wen Kexing or Chengling to bear.

Even if Wen Kexing deserved to feel some guilt, right about now.

He forced that thought away and turned to his disciple.  “Find your shishu and flee this place.  Tell him I’ll catch up with you two when I can.”

The Chengling he’d first rescued would have believed him.  The boy standing in front of him now narrowed his eyes.  “Shifu…”

“Go!” Zhou Zishu snapped.  He bowed to Shen Shen.  “My apologies, Hero Shen.  I will not disrupt your household again.”

The older man heaved a sigh.  “If you think I’m going to stand by and watch as you’re massacred, you are more foolish than you look.” 

As he picked up his sword, Chengling turned a betrayed look on Zhou Zishu.  “You promised,” he repeated.

“Yes, he did.”  Wen Kexing, fluttering a fan in front of his face, strolled into the hall.  Though he’d only been gone a few minutes, his scarlet robes were impeccably tied, not a wrinkle or crease in sight.  Only his hair, half pulled into a messy bun, showed his haste.

Zhou Zishu’s heart tightened at the sight of his soulmate in full Valley Master garb.  No red eyeshadow beneath his eyes, but that didn’t lessen the dangerous edge to his every movement.  “Zhiji…” he murmured.  “Let me do this one last thing for you.”

Wen Kexing’s fan snapped shut.  “Last?  I think not.”  He turned to Chengling.  “You have two minutes to grab anything you want to take with you.  Go!”

The boy sprinted off, and Zhou Zishu shook his head.  “Why does he obey you and not me?”

Wen Kexing’s smirk was bladed.  “Maybe because I’m not planning on committing suicide?”  The smile fell away.  “No one is sacrificing themselves today.”

Poor Shen Shen looked like he wanted to drown all of his recent visitors.  “Do you have a plan, then?” he demanded.  The pounding from outside was growing louder, accompanied by shouts demanding entrance.

Wen Kexing looked him up and down.  “Stall them.  You won’t need to do it for long.”  Fever-bright eyes landed on Zhou Zishu.  “As for you, my lovely soulmate, how fast do you think you can fly?”

“I’m not…” Zhou Zishu started.

Wen Kexing waved off the objection.  “No, no, I am nowhere near as foolish as you.  I may be a philanthropist, but I have no desire to die today.  We will both flee, as visibly as we can, while young Chengling leaves more inconspicuously.  We can meet outside the city once we’ve shaken our pursuers.”  His eyes darkened.  “A handful of soldiers shouldn’t be hard to lose.  Or kill.”

“Treason,” Shen Shen muttered.  Neither Zhou Zishu nor Wen Kexing bothered to reply.  Yes, it was treason, but Zhou Zishu was a traitor many times over at this point.  And Wen Kexing had left such human concerns far behind him long ago.

Chengling, though, was still an innocent.  Even if his role was to flee in silence, what would happen if he was spotted?  His martial arts were nowhere near good enough to defend against a cohort of imperial soldiers.

And, even if he did manage to escape the city, what then?  Zhou Zishu sank his teeth into his lower lip hard enough to draw blood.  “Hero Shen, I must ask one more favor of you.  Would you keep my foolish disciple here and safe?”

“He is the son of my beloved brother.  Of course I can,” Shen Shen replied immediately, then faltered.  “However…”

“A-Xu, you’re being as foolish as the boy,” Wen Kexing interrupted.  “If we don’t take him with us, you know he’s just going to follow, getting himself into all sorts of trouble in the process.”

Zhou Zishu closed his eyes.  His soulmate had a point, but that didn’t quell the storm raging inside his heard.  Chengling deserved so, so much better than he could offer.

A hand fell onto his shoulder.  His eyes flew open, and he looked up to see Wen Kexing standing far too close for propriety’s sake.  Heavens, if he leaned forward a scant inch, they’d be kissing!

But Zhou Zishu couldn’t find it in himself to object.  Not when he could breathe in his soulmate’s scent – silk and scented soap and spices – after so long without being able to smell a thing.  “Lao Wen?” he asked softly.

“Why are you so worried?” Wen Kexing murmured.  “We’ve survived far worse than this.  We’ll survive this too.”

I won’t, Zhou Zishu wanted to say.  But he couldn’t force the words out.  “Promise me,” he said instead.  “No matter what happens, promise me you’ll take care of Chengling.”

“What, you can’t take care of your own disciple?” Wen Kexing scoffed.  “So lazy, A-Xu!”

When Zhou Zishu didn’t smile, Wen Kexing’s humor faltered.  “I promise, A-Xu.  I promise.”  He leaned in so their foreheads pressed together, and breathed one last time, “I promise.”

Zhou Zishu allowed himself a single moment to memorize the way Wen Kexing felt against his skin, then stepped back.  “Good.”

Behind them, Shen Shen cleared his throat.  They both turned to see Gao Xiaolian standing there with two bundles in her hands.  “Chengling told me you were leaving suddenly,” she said shyly.  “Here.  Food for the journey.”  Her cheeks flushed pink as she proffered the cloth-wrapped packages.  “It’s not much, I’m afraid, just what we had around that would travel well, but it should help.”

Wen Kexing offered her a small bow.  “Too kind, you are far too kind to this humble traveler!”  He glanced sidelong at Zhou Zishu.  “Come, A-Xu, won’t you thank our lovely hostess for her generosity?”

Zhou Zishu pushed away his growing circle of morbid thoughts and pulled on a smile.  “As Lao Wen says, you are too kind.  Thank you.”

Any further pleasantries were forestalled by a bellow from beyond the walls.  “This is your last warning!  Open the gates or we will break them down!”

“Open them,” Shen Shen snapped at one of the disciples lurking at the edges of the hall.  The boy sprinted off to obey, while the hero turned back to Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing.  “I hope your plan works,” he said grimly.

“Keep Chengling here until the soldiers leave to pursue us,” Zhou Zishu ordered.  He knew his tone was brusque, bordering on rude, but he didn’t care.  “Tell him we’ll meet…”  He faltered.

“Outside the Lotus Gates,” Wen Kexing supplied.  Delighted fire burned in his eyes as he snapped open his fan.  “Tell him we’ll be most disappointed if he’s late.”  He offered a hand to Zhou Zishu.  “Shall we?”

“I can propel myself,” Zhou Zishu grumbled, but he accepted the hand anyway.  Wen Kexing’s fingers were warm in his as they sprinted like a pair of miscreants out the back way into the central courtyard, then lofted up onto the roof.  From there, they had a splendid view of the soldiers pouring into the compound.

The assassin-trained part of Zhou Zishu’s mind leapt into action.  Five rows, five men each.  Marching in unison, staying a safe distance away from each other so they can’t foul each other’s swings.  All in Prince Jin’s uniform.  Not Tian Chuang warriors, then, but the prince’s ordinary forces.  They’d be well-trained, but unaccustomed to fighting dirty.

And we will certainly fight dirty.  He slid a glance at his soulmate, who was practically glowing with eagerness.  “Settle,” he breathed.  “You’re not a horse about to race.”

“A-Xu!” Wen Kexing whined.  “You’re so cruel to me.  At least compare me to the finest of stallions.”

Zhou Zishu snorted, but didn’t reply.  Down below, the leader of the soldiers was blustering at Shen Shen, demanding that he immediately turn over the ‘traitorous filth’ he was harboring.  Shen Shen, for his part, kept his voice calm and his hand near his sword as he insisted that he wasn’t harboring anyone.

“Then what was the disturbance last night?” the leader demanded.

“Just that,” Shen Shen replied.  “Several groups disturbed the peace of this sect, and I requested that they take their conflict elsewhere.  They obeyed, and I have not seen them since.”

The older man was a good liar, but not good enough, Zhou Zishu noted.  His posture was a bit too tense, and his eyes would occasionally shift sideways.

The soldier’s back was to their position, so Zhou Zishu couldn’t guess what he was thinking.  “Is that so?” he drawled.  “Then you wouldn’t mind if we search the place.”

“Of course I would,” Shen Shen snapped.  “This is the home of my brother’s sect, not some inn!  We have wounded convalescing here!”

That gave the leader pause, but only for a moment.  “We will not disturb your injured,” he declared.  “But this is not a request.”  Over Shen Shen’s protests, he held up a hand.  “Fan out and search!”

Zhou Zishu tensed on top of the roof tiles.  “Ready?” he whispered to Wen Kexing. 

The other man smirked.  “For you?  Always.”

Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes.  Below, the soldiers were spreading out, starting to lose their careful formation.  It would have been a good time to attack, but they had other plans.  “Jump,” Zhou Zishu mouthed, before doing just that.

Wen Kexing, staying low, followed him onto the adjoining rooftop.  It wouldn’t provide Shen Shen much plausible deniability, but it was something.

Zhou Zishu cast one last look over his shoulder, then leapt for the sky with a shout.

The hue and cry rose immediately.  “Over there!  Get them!  Follow them on the ground!”

Zhou Zishu smirked to himself.  Only half of the soldiers had enough inner strength to follow in the air, it seemed – the rest were confined to the dirt.  Even at a sprint, they’d never be able to catch up.

The ones now flying after Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing would be more of a challenge, but not much, he suspected.  Several had already dropped back down and joined their running comrades, while most of the ones remaining in the air were wobbling.  Weak, all of them – too much time marching and not enough time strengthening their qi.

Three, though, were flying hard, leaping from roof to roof with all the grace of skilled martial artists.

Wen Kexing, robes flaring behind him, pushed off another rooftop and flicked out his arms.  “When do we want to lose them?”

Zhou Zishu risked a glance over his shoulder.  “Not yet, but before we get to the gates.”

Wen Kexing hummed in agreement.  “I’ll follow your lead, shixiong.  You are the expert here, as in so many things.”  He drew his tongue over his lower lip, leaving no doubt as to what other things he was referring to.

“Dammit, Lao Wen, not now!”  Seriously, did the man have no sense of timing?

“Why don’t you show me what you can do with that gorgeous sword of yours, hmm?”

Zhou Zishu nearly missed his next jump.  He scrambled to recover, cursing under his breath, while his benighted soulmate laughed.  “Ah, A-Xu, A-Xu, one would think you had all the experience of a stripling boy with the way you blush.”

“Shut up,” Zhou Zishu growled.  He felt like a boy, with every sensation magnified tenfold.  A gust of wind, the whisper of fabric, Lao Wen’s beguiling voice in his ear… he grimaced.  The three in the lead were gaining, and he didn’t fancy fighting with half his blood rushing downwards.  “Make yourself useful and take one or two of them out, will you?”

“Ah, but I’m a peaceful man, A-Xu!  I’m a philanthropist, remember?”

“You’re an idiot, that’s what you are,” Zhou Zishu growled back.  He propelled himself off an inn roof, hearing squawks and screams from below.  The grounded soldiers were running hard – he couldn’t lose them yet, but letting them stay in sight meant letting the best fighters get far too close.

Cursing under his breath, he leapt again, only to falter as a bolt of lightning shot through his meridians.  For a second, the world turned white, and he was falling, falling…

He caught himself on air and sprang forward, biting his tongue to keep from crying out.  A stride ahead, Wen Kexing didn’t seem to have noticed anything amiss – perhaps he took the stumble for distraction, or a deliberate move on Zhou Zishu’s part to taunt their pursuers.  Either way, Zhou Zishu was grateful.

It was easy – too easy – to catch up to his soulmate.  Control, Zhou Zishu admonished himself.  Regulate the flow.

“Stop and submit to the law!” one of the men yelled behind them.

Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu exchanged glances.  “Does he truly think that’s going to work?” Wen Kexing asked conversationally.

Zhou Zishu shrugged.  “Maybe.”  Should he take the man out now, or wait to see if they could shake him?

Maybe a warning shot would suffice.  “Lao Wen, please…”

“Fine,” Wen Kexing sighed.  With a flick of his wrist, his fan shot out in a wide arc, whirling so close to the three lead soldiers that several locks of hair fell to the street below.  They shouted and fell back, while Wen Kexing pouted at A-Xu.  “So much less fun than watching my zhiji fight, you know.”

Zhou Zishu leapt for the sky once more, eager to gain distance while he could.  “Pervert.”

“Ah, you wound me!”

“Are you denying it?”

Wen Kexing winked.  “Now, why would I do that?  We both know how delicious you are in the midst of battle.”

Zhou Zishu felt his cheeks heat.  He needed to stop encouraging such shameless behavior.  Though at least Wen Kexing wasn’t spouting poetry at the moment – maybe combat made it too hard to think of the right quotes.  A useful thing to note for later, if so.

Zhou Zishu’s mood crumpled at the thought.  Later?  What later?  The qi coursing through his shrunken meridians would overwhelm them soon – he had no business dreaming of a future he’d never see.

A cacophony of screeches from below jolted him back into the present.  He glanced down to see a flock of chickens scattering in every direction, pursued by a furious old woman and a young boy who might have been a son or grandson.  “Imbeciles!” she yelled, flapping her arms at the soldier who’d overturned her cart.  “Robbing a poor old woman of her livelihood!  Have you no respect for your elders?”

Two of the running soldiers slowed at that, while others in the streets turned to watch the commotion.  One of the fastest soldiers cursed.  “For your trouble,” he called, throwing something that glittered to the woman.  She snatched for it, but fell short, and a skinny little street urchin scooped it up.  The old woman squawked her outrage.

As the street fell into chaos, Zhou Zishu caught sight of Wen Kexing smirking.  Zhou Zishu arched an eyebrow.

Wen Kexing answered with a shrug and a grin.  “You cause more trouble than a ghost, my friend,” he yelled to the soldier.  “Are you trying to impress me?”

The crowd below was growing rowdier, folk from the nearby market emerging to see what all the fuss was about.  A trio of jianghu disciples from one of the smaller sects followed, took one look at Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu, and promptly turned around.  Zhou Zishu sighed.  He didn’t really want to fight half the jianghu along with the scorpions and Prince Jin’s men.

“Come on,” he barked at Wen Kexing.

His soulmate’s eyes slid halfway shut.  “Time to get serious?”

Zhou Zishu nodded.

The next second, two of the spiritually-strongest soldiers were on the ground, gurgling their last breaths.  Wen Kexing caught his bloodstained fan and examined it critically.  “I really must sharpen this at some point.  A-Xu, be a dear and remind me, would you?”

The remaining soldiers gaped at him.  He offered them all an insouciant grin.  “Is there a problem, gentlemen?”

Before they could answer, Zhou Zishu pulled on his qi to propel him high into the sky, snagging Wen Kexing as he went by.  “Now,” he murmured, repositioning his grip, “we lose them.”

“As my beloved husband commands!”  Wen Kexing flung out his arms.  “I’ll bet you a jug of wine I can make it to the gates first.”

Energy thrummed within Zhou Zishu, urging him to accept the bet.  It would be so easy, now that he had his full strength back – he could outpace these sluggards in a heartbeat, and beat his soulmate too.  He just had to let go, let the glorious rush of freedom overtake him…

And, in doing so, reveal the truth to Wen Kexing.  Not to mention the strain on his meridians.

He throttled down the temptation and fixed a stern look on Wen Kexing.  “I’m not letting you out of my sight.  We do this together.”

His soulmate heaved an aggrieved sigh.  “You’re no fun, A-Xu.  You’ll have to make it up to me later.”

“Anything,” Zhou Zishu promised, and prayed he’d have enough time to make good on it.

Chapter Text

A-Xu’s silly disciple was, thank fate, waiting for them outside the gates.  A heavy bag was slung over one shoulder, and he held the reins of a small donkey in a white-knuckled hand.  When he spotted Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu, his entire face melted with relief.  “Shishu!  Shifu!  You’re here!”

Wen Kexing hid a smile behind his fan as Chengling not-so-surreptitiously looked them over, searching for injuries.  “Of course we are, foolish boy.  Did you think we’d desert you?”

Chengling made a face that suggested he had indeed thought that, but was smart enough not to say so.  A-Xu cuffed him lightly.  “What’s all this?”  He motioned to the donkey, which bore several full bags on its back.

Chengling shuffled his feet.  “Uncle Shen wanted to make sure we’d have everything we needed.  And…”  He flushed.  “I think he wanted to make sure you didn’t come back.”

Cunning old hero.  For a second, Wen Kexing considered turning around purely for the pleasure of seeing Shen Shen’s face when his peaceful life was disrupted once more, but he dismissed the idea.  Getting his A-Xu to safety and finally removing those nails was far more important than bedeviling the jianghu a bit more.

Speaking of the nails… he turned to his soulmate.  “Will your friends be willing to come to Ghost Valley, or should we arrange to meet them elsewhere?”

Zhou Zishu’s face was hard, unreadable.  “If nothing else, we should alert them to the increased presence of Prince Jin’s guards.  There may be one or two who’d recognize Beiyuan or Wu Xi.”

That wasn’t precisely an answer, but Wen Kexing let it slide.  His A-Xu was surely hurting after so much running and fighting, but of course he’d never let that show.  Making a note to ambush his soulmate with a bottle of massage oil when the opportunity presented itself, he said, “I need to fetch A-Xiang anyway, I can get one of the girls to deliver a message.”

Zhou Zishu hesitated, then shook his head.  “We can’t risk reentering the city.  We’ll have to send messages once we’re safely away.”

“I’ll go!” Chengling piped up immediately.  “No one is looking for me.”

“And if you get attacked, little idiot?” Zhou Zishu demanded.  “Do you think we’ll be there to rescue you?”

To Wen Kexing’s surprise, Chengling didn’t back down.  “I’ll be very careful, shifu, I swear.”  He pressed a hand over his heart, bowing slightly.

Wen Kexing looked between the boy and his soulmate, weighing the risks.  On the one hand, if Chengling did get himself into trouble, there’d be no holding back A-Xu.  More strain couldn’t be good for his meridians – Wen Kexing hadn’t been oblivious to the strain on his soulmate’s face during the long flight from the soldiers.  Oh, A-Xu had hidden it well, but he’d been moving faster than ever, and his body couldn’t tolerate that kind of energy flow forever.

Of course, if he left A-Xiang behind again, she really would murder him.

His mind twisted away from the uncomfortable memories of her red, tearstained face as she’d hurled herself at him.  Maybe, just maybe, he shouldn’t make the same mistakes again.  Not that they’d been mistakes, just miscalculations, small errors that anyone might have made… the overall plan had been brilliant.

Still.  He wrinkled his nose.  “Your shifu made me promise to protect you, so you’d better not get hurt, you hear?” he told Chengling.

The boy bowed rapidly.  “Yes, shishu!  I won’t disappoint you!”

Such an excitable child.  Wen Kexing bit back a smile.  “Then hurry to find A-Xiang, and tell her to dispatch a messenger to Jing Beiyuan.  She’ll know what to do.”

Chengling nodded solemnly as Wen Kexing gave him directions to the Department’s borrowed residence.  It felt strange to give out even a small secret to a living human, but Chengling was family.  He could be trusted.

And, Wen Kexing mused as the boy shot off, it would be good to close down most of the ghosts’ hiding places in the coming months.  If Ye Baiyi was going to be watching to ensure Wen Kexing kept his promise, he’d have to be very sneaky about his and his subordinates’ excursions to the living world.

A-Xu nudged him with an elbow.  “Such a serious face, Lao Wen.  What are you thinking?”

“Ah, just that Luo-yi will not be pleased to have her rescue missions curtailed.”  He wasn’t about to order her to cease them entirely – he knew how that fight would go, and he wouldn’t win it.  But she was probably already in a temper from his order to train all the girls in martial arts.  He’d have to broach the subject with her carefully if he wanted to sleep anywhere but cold stone floors for the next month.  Not to mention pleasure his A-Xu as his soulmate deserved.

And he did so want to do that.

He turned a hopeful eye on his soulmate.  “Surely it has not escaped your notice that we have an entire forest to ourselves, and will for some time.  Shall we relax for a bit?”  He fluttered his eyelashes.  “I think I have some massage oil somewhere, and my A-Xu must be tired.”

For some reason, Zhou Zishu stiffened at that.  “I’m fine.”

“A peerless beauty like yourself is more than fine,” Wen Kexing declared.  “But that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve some pampering.”

Zhou Zishu uttered a dry laugh.  “We are in a forest, Lao Wen.  Rough camps do not lend themselves to pampering.”

“Ah, but a crackling fire, a soft pillow, and a nice deep massage can go quite a ways,” Wen Kexing countered.

“Shameless,” Zhou Zishu muttered.  Then, louder, “I’d rather not get caught unawares by imperial soldiers if they did manage to track us.”

It was a valid concern, but not the real one, Wen Kexing suspected.  His throat tightened.  Was his A-Xu still angry with him over the deception?  He didn’t look angry – his shoulders were relaxed, his stance loose and easy – but he was a master of hiding his true feelings.

Or was he simply tired and in pain and unwilling to admit to such weakness?  Wen Kexing sighed.  “Come and sit, at least,” he urged, walking over to a fallen log by the side of the road.  “We can share a jug of wine while we wait for your silly disciple to return.”

Much to his relief, Zhou Zishu obeyed.  He even made no protest when Wen Kexing scooted over so their thighs were pressed together and Wen Kexing could lay his head on his soulmate’s shoulder.

Wen Kexing felt a genuine smile tug at his lips.  For this small slice of time, all was right with the world.

***

Dusk had fallen by the time Chengling returned, a grumpy A-Xiang and confused Cao Weining with him.  “The Great Shaman says that he and the prince would be happy to meet you at Ghost Valley, but have several affairs to wrap up before they can travel,” he reported as soon as they were in earshot.

Zhou Zishu cuffed him.  “Say it louder, so everyone and their mother can hear.”

Chengling looked down.  “Sorry, shifu!”

Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes.  “Fool boy.”

“He means he’s glad you’re safe,” Wen Kexing told Chengling, trying not to laugh as his soulmate made a face.  “A-Xu, A-Xu, you are so cruel to those who love you.”

“You’ve got no right to talk,” A-Xiang muttered.  Wen Kexing winced.  She’d always been good at holding grudges, but she’d never turned that talent on him before.  Even when he’d scalded her mouth with too-hot porridge or left her black and blue after training, she’d turned towards him like a flower towards the sun and grinned her irrepressible grin.

That grin was nowhere in sight now as she stomped over towards him.  “You!”  She jabbed her finger into his chest.  “Were you going to leave again?”

He held up his hands.  “We’re all leaving.  Together, I promise.”

Her eyes narrowed, but she turned her next tirade on Zhou Zishu.  “And you!  Sick Man, why are soldiers hunting for you and zhuren?  This is all your fault, isn’t it?”  She propped her hands on her hips.  “If you get him killed, I’ll kill you, I swear on my parents’ graves!”

Wen Kexing chose not to point out that she didn’t know where her parents’ graves were.  “Silly girl.  If you want to be able to meet him, your martial arts must be much better.”

“Then train me better so I can murder both of you!” she burst out.  Her glare could have scalded water.

Wen Kexing flipped open his fan rather than meet her gaze.  “A-Xu, please forgive my wayward servant.  She’s clearly lost any semblance of manners she once possessed.”

“And whose fault is that, huh?  You’re the one who sent me away!”

Zhou Zishu sighed. “If we could have this argument on the road, perhaps?  I would like to be far away from here before we sleep.”  He motioned towards the donkey.  “Chengling, since you brought the creature, you may lead it.”

“Yes, shifu!”

How did the boy still have so much energy?  He couldn’t have gotten much more sleep than the rest of them, yet here he was, bouncing like a puppy.  Wen Kexing envied him.

But A-Xu was right – better for them to get on the road.  They’d already lost enough time, and he didn’t want the children forced to face a contingent of imperial soldiers.  Or, worse, scorpion assassins.

***

The first part of their journey remained peaceful, though, as did the next day and the one after that.  The other travelers on the road paid them no heed, the donkey only tried to bite Cao Weining twice, and the weather stayed thankfully dry and warm.  Each night, Zhou Zishu drilled his disciple with more fervor than Wen Kexing had ever seen, which was saying something, but Chengling didn’t complain like he once had.  Instead, even when sweat poured off his face and his legs trembled from overuse, he attacked every exercise like it might be the one thing standing between him and death.

Which it might, Wen Kexing had to admit.  So he didn’t object when first A-Xiang, then Cao Weining, joined the training sessions.  It made something inside him purr to see the way his A-Xu worked with the youngsters, correcting techniques and stances with curt words that A-Xiang should have rebelled against but never did.  His A-Xu might grumble and whine about the work, but Wen Kexing could see the truth.  He could always see the truth about his soulmate.

Unfortunately, the presence of the three children meant that any sort of adult activities were curtailed until they reached Ghost Valley.  That had been Zhou Zishu’s declaration after Chengling had walked in on them entangled, startling all three and making Chengling turn a bright red that hadn’t faded for hours.

Wen Kexing’s lips twitched at the memory.  They hadn’t even been doing anything too scandalous – Zhou Zishu had left to go hunting, and Wen Kexing had, naturally, followed.  He’d let his soulmate catch a fat rabbit for dinner, of course – he wasn’t that much of a monster – but then he’d pounced.  And, for once, Zhou Zishu had let him.

Sadly, before they could exchange more than a few kisses, Chengling had appeared, taken one look at them, and run off squeaking.  Wen Kexing had ordered him to do double the exercises in retaliation, but that hadn’t mitigated his frustration.  The one time his A-Xu wasn’t holding himself in that taut, stiff way that made him look so angry…

Oh, he kept saying he wasn’t upset, wasn’t mad at Wen Kexing.  But his denials came a bit too slow each time, and he kept shying away from any touch.  Something was bothering him, and Wen Kexing had a sinking feeling he knew what it was.

He swallowed hard.  I’m sorry, A-Xu.  He’d said it a few times now, but it hadn’t softened his soulmate’s demeanor.  He was starting to wonder if anything would.

Maybe it was just the strain of travel.  He had to believe that – had to believe he hadn’t broken things irreparably between them.  After days on the road, Ghost Valley was just up ahead.  Surely a warm fire and a soft bed with silken sheets would bring a smile to his A-Xu’s lips once more.  They wouldn’t have any children within earshot there – he could apologize the best way he knew how, convince his A-Xu that he did truly love him.

Maybe that would be enough.  Maybe.

Lost in his own musings, he almost didn’t hear the creak of saddle leather until it was too late.  Only the startled flight of a pheasant from the underbrush jolted him from his reverie in time to fling up his hand and hiss, “Cover!”

The group responded instantly.  A-Xiang and Cao Weining dove left into a prickly bush, while Zhou Zishu leapt for the nearest tree.  Chengling, as they’d practiced, pulled a straw hat down around his face and altered his posture to a defeated slump.

Neither Wen Kexing nor Zhou Zishu liked that part of the plan, but donkeys were not easy to hide.  And Chengling was still a skinny stick of a boy, easy to pass off as a peasant on his way to bring supplies to an ailing grandmother.

Wen Kexing joined Zhou Zishu in the treetops a heartbeat before a troop of marching soldiers came around the bend in the road.  When their leader spotted Chengling, he held up a hand, and the troop halted with a jangle of metal.

The leader, the only one mounted, rode forwards.  “You!  Boy!  What are you doing so close to Mount Qingya?”

Chengling dipped his head.  “On my way to my honored grandmother’s, sir.  Sorry, sir.”

“What’s in the packs?”

“Blankets and food, sir.  She’s sick, sir.”  Chengling hunched his shoulders further.  Even knowing it was an act, Wen Kexing’s blood burned with the need to destroy the cause of the boy’s fear.  It would be so easy to drop down and slit the soldier’s throat, spray crimson all over the dusty road.  Spook the horse, send it crashing through the soldiers, kill half of them while they were distracted… one throw of his fan, maybe two.  He could practically smell the viscera already, already feel the way the blood would drip down his fingers.

The soldier, oblivious to the danger lurking above him, nudged the packs with a booted toe.  “There’s nothing out here but ghosts, boy.”

Wen Kexing tensed, but Chengling showed no sign of alarm.  “She’s beyond the mountain, sir.  Little village.”

“If she’s sick, why isn’t she with your family?”  Suspicion battled scorn in the officer’s voice.

“She refused, sir.  Said she won’t leave home ever.”

It was, perhaps, a flimsy cover story.  Wen Kexing’s hands clenched tight around the branch in front of him.  They should have sold the donkey at the last village they’d passed, but he’d grown careless over the past year.  Too much soft living in Siji Pavilion, too long away from the vicious environs of Ghost Valley.  He’d lost his edge, and now it might get them all killed.

But the soldier must have had stubborn older relatives of his own, for his expression softened a hair.  “Search the packs,” he barked, and two soldiers ran forward to obey.  “Best wishes for your grandmother, boy,” he told Chengling as the soldiers undid the ties.

Chengling bowed.  “Thank you, sir.”

The soldiers rifled through the packs, but they, at least, held no surprises.  “Just what he said, captain,” one man reported.

The leader waved them back into line.  “Then off you go, boy, and stay away from the mountain.”  He looked Chengling up and down.  “Orders are, anyone trying to go near it gets killed on sight.  So be a good boy and don’t get in trouble.”

“Yes sir.  I mean, no sir,” Chengling stammered.

That must have pleased the officer, for he clicked his tongue at his horse.  The beast trotted off down the road, troop following at its heels, and Wen Kexing dared to breathe a sigh of relief.

He didn’t move a muscle for another ten minutes, though, until the sounds of the soldiers had long since faded into the distance.  Only when Zhou Zishu relaxed did he follow his soulmate and jump back down to the road.

Zhou Zishu swore under his breath as A-Xiang and Cao Weining emerged from the bushes.  “An imperial blockade.  I should have expected as much.”

“Zhuren, what are we going to do?”  A-Xiang’s eyes were very wide as she looked at Wen Kexing, reminding him just how young she was.

He reached for a light laugh.  “Do you think I’m going to let a few weak soldiers stop me?”

“No, but…”  She bit her lip.

“If we fight our way through them, we’ll be placing ourselves under siege,” Zhou Zishu pointed out.  “Even if we can sneak past them, we won’t be able to escape as easily.”

“Ah, but Mount Qingya is designed to hold off besiegers,” Wen Kexing countered lightly.  “We have many defenses, and can build more.”  Did Chengling bring the Longyuan Cabinet books with him?  Wen Kexing would have to find out.  A few mechanical traps might come in very handy.

“And when they cut off the supply routes?”

There was something strange in his A-Xu’s tone, something Wen Kexing couldn’t identify.  “They can’t cut us off entirely,” he said with more confidence than he felt.

Zhou Zishu’s raised eyebrow gave ample credence to his skepticism, but he said nothing.  There really was nowhere else for them to go if Prince Jin was determined to hunt them down.

Something would have to be done about that man, Wen Kexing decided.  Possibly something fatal.  A-Xu might protest, but he had a whole sect to protect now – he’d see the light eventually.

Or maybe he ought to enlist some of his more trustworthy ghosts, the few that remained, and see what sort of other chaos he could stir up to take the prince’s mind off this manhunt.  Treachery inside the court was always a good way to divert attention, especially if enough evidence could be planted to discredit several of the most powerful advisers.  Leave the rest scrambling for power, or to protect their own necks, and the fate of one former vassal would look less important.

With a sigh, he banished the seeds of ideas to the back of his mind.  “Let’s see how dire the situation really is, hmm?”

***

The answer was enough to make Wen Kexing grind his teeth.  The patrol they’d encountered on the road was one small tendril of a massive force blockading both the roads and the forest surrounding the various approaches into the valley.  He and Zhou Zishu had scouted ahead, leaving the youngsters to hide themselves and the donkey, and it had been a good thing they had – they’d nearly gotten caught twice, and only Zhou Zishu’s skills as an assassin had saved them.

“How does your prince have so many men to spare?” he demanded irritably, tugging his robes away from the grasping clutches of a thorn bush.  They were a third of the way around the mountain and still hadn’t found a single unprotected path.  His fingers were itching to kill something.

“He’s not my prince,” Zhou Zishu muttered.  He sounded as frustrated as Wen Kexing felt.  “It’s strange, though.  I’m not worth that much to him.”

“Revenge can drive many men mad,” Wen Kexing replied.  “Not, of course, that a philanthropist like me would know anything about that.”

His A-Xu rolled his eyes, but the corners of his lips twitched.  Wen Kexing hid a smile of his own.  If he could still amuse his A-Xu, things couldn’t be shattered between them, could they?  “We can worry about it later,” he added when his soulmate didn’t respond.  “Right now, let’s get to safety.”  The skin between his shoulder blades kept prickling as though someone had an arrow trained at his back.  Another indication of how soft he’d grown – that had been normal, once.  Expected.

“We could double back, flee all the way to Nan’ning,” Zhou Zishu suggested with a sour expression.

Wen Kexing shook his head.  “There’s one more route in.  Let’s retrieve the children, shall we?  I only want to make this journey once.”

Zhou Zishu eyed him, but, once again, said nothing.  He sprang into the air, bouncing from tree limb to tree limb, and Wen Kexing followed suit.  He was glad, now, that he’d worn his simplest robes for the journey – branches kept trying to grab him, and the outer robe would need mending before it was fit to be worn in public.

It would have been easier if they’d been able to stay above the treetops, but that would make it too easy for the soldiers to spot them.  So they stayed high in the branches, each step no more than a whisper on the wind, as they took a circuitous route back towards where they’d left their charges.

They were several hundred yards out when something whistled past Wen Kexing’s nose.  He jerked back in surprise, fan flinging open automatically, as a second projectile hissed through the air.  Thin needles, by the sounds… had the Scorpion Sect found them?

Then Chengling’s frantic whisper broke the silence.  “Sorry, shishu!  Sorry!  Sorry!”  His head popped up over some bushes, and he waved them both down.

Zhou Zishu dropped lightly onto his toes in the center of the ring of bushes.  “What was that?”

Chengling’s face pinked.  “I… I set up a few traps, shifu.  So we couldn’t get ambushed.”

A-Xiang and Cao Weining emerged from their own hiding places, dragging a reluctant donkey behind them.  A-Xiang smacked Chengling’s shoulder.  “Make your traps tell friend from foe!”

He ducked his head.  “Yes, Xiang-jie.  I’ll try.”

Now it was her turn to blush at the form of address.  “Don’t try, do it!” she snapped.

Wen Kexing lifted an eyebrow at her.  “You’re teaching others now?”

She ducked her head, already-pink cheeks turning bright red.  “Sorry, zhuren.”

“Enough,” Zhou Zishu said.  “Lao Wen, where’s this entrance of yours?”

Oh, it was so tempting to turn that into an innuendo, but the look on his A-Xu’s face suggested that jokes would earn him a swift punch.  “Chengling, A-Xiang, Weining, get the packs off the donkey.”

Chengling’s eyes widened.  “Are we abandoning it?”

“Do you want to wrestle a donkey past uncountable soldiers and hope that it doesn’t give us away?”  Wen Kexing rolled his eyes.  “It’ll be fine.”

That was actually true, Wen Kexing suspected – it would probably get captured by soldiers sooner rather than later, and enjoy whatever remained of its life as an imperial donkey.  But he couldn’t care less about the ill-tempered creature as long as it didn’t get them caught.

To Chengling’s credit, he worked quickly after that single protest, undoing the ropes that bound the packs to the donkey’s back and helping A-Xiang and Cao Weining fasten them on.  A-Xiang fussed enough over the ties on Cao Weining’s pack to make the boy fidget, but she glared him into submission.  As long as he retained that, he’d make a good husband for her.

Shadows stretched long over the ground as the group set out once more, leaving behind a donkey that seemed content to browse at the shrubbery.  Each crackle of leaves and snap of twig sent sparks racing through Wen Kexing’s blood, and he kept his fan at the ready.  At the rear of the group, Zhou Zishu’s hand hovered near Baiyi’s hilt.

The three children were more jumpy than alert, twitching at every frog croak and cricket call, but they slowly settled down as Wen Kexing led them in a wide arc around the area patrolled by Prince Jin’s men.  Twice, they had to hide from passing patrols, but the soldiers were clumsy, loud creatures, announcing their presence from far away.

“They’re too stupid to live, you know,” he murmured to A-Xu as a third patrol stomped by.  With the advent of dusk, they’d brought out lanterns, adding light to their ever-present noise.

“Be thankful the fates have blessed us,” Zhou Zishu advised.  His breath was warm on Wen Kexing’s ear.

Wen Kexing spared a moment to enjoy that, then sighed.  “I suppose the philanthropic thing would be to give them a chance to learn from their mistakes, wouldn’t it.”  And he didn’t want to alert the soldiers to the presence of an enemy, even if the world would be better off without them.

Zhou Zishu didn’t dignify that with an answer.  That seemed to be happening more lately, and it made something tighten in Wen Kexing’s chest.  He refused to ask if his A-Xu was still angry with him – that just sounded pathetic – but he couldn’t help wishing for a clear sign or two.

Beside him, Zhou Zishu rose silently to his feet.  “Safe to move,” he whispered.

So it was.  And so Wen Kexing led them onwards into the night, tracing a path he’d taken so many times once he took over the valley.

It wasn’t a path by normal standards, but it was a defined route nonetheless.  Stepping too far outside the safe zone would trigger flights of poison darts, slash intruders open with soul-winding threads, or open up sinkholes – the Longyuan Cabinet didn’t hold a monopoly on nasty traps.  Wen Kexing had set many of these up himself, but his ghosts, under his direction, had made others.  Combined, the vicious little tricks would keep the soldiers out for quite some time.

And, of course, the route-finding wasn’t trivial.  The moon had risen by the time they reached the back of Mount Qingya, and all of the children were panting and stumbling.  Zhou Zishu showed no signs of weakness, but that didn’t necessarily mean much.  Wen Kexing ran an eye over his soulmate.

Zhou Zishu glared.  “I’m fine.”

Wen Kexing held up his hands.  “Of course, of course.  Such a glorious bloom is never anything but fine.”  Still, a short rest couldn’t hurt any of them.  “Children, you have five minutes to sit.  Use them wisely.”

All three collapsed to the dirt.  “How much longer?” Cao Weining dared to ask.

A-Xiang snorted.  “Just over the ridge, then we’re home.  Safe.  Whatever.”

Home.  Such a simple word to make Wen Kexing’s heart turn over.  Ghost Valley shouldn’t be A-Xiang’s home – shouldn’t be anyone’s home.  Yet, if A-Xu was there, Wen Kexing would gladly call even the meanest hovel home.

“Over… up that?”  In the moonlight, Cao Weining’s eyes looked like a startled rabbit’s.

A-Xiang shrugged with all the nonchalance of her three trips this way.  “Sure.  There’s a path.”

Zhou Zishu padded over to Wen Kexing’s side and peered into the darkness.  The moonlight filtering through the branches painted his face silver, making him appear ageless and ghostly.

His expression was hardly that of an honored immortal, though.  “Really.”  He squinted at the narrow track.  “This is not a path.  I’m not sure it is, in fact, passable.”

Wen Kexing had to admit, it looked more like a natural runoff cut than anything people could scramble up.  The way was choked with briars and roots, the earth crumbly and spread with loose rocks, and the hillside was steep enough that crawling looked more feasible than hiking.  “It’s safe enough,” he declared.  “Just don’t trip.”

“You can’t, um…”  Cao Weining flapped his hands.

“Do you enjoy being cut to shreds by soul-winding threads?” A-Xiang demanded.

Cao Weining looked up at the sky as though he might be able to see the near-invisible threads.  A-Xiang made a face, and Wen Kexing laughed.  “Alright, boys and girls.  Time to see what you can do.”

Chapter Text

When he’d allowed himself to think about his shidi’s upbringing, Zhou Zishu had always pictured Mount Qingya as a cold, cruel place with no warmth or solace to be found.  And his first glimpses of the place did nothing to dispel that impression.  Wen Kexing had led them through hall after hall of barren stone lit only by a few sparse torches; the chill in the air had seeped through Zhou Zishu’s robes and into his bones.  By the time they’d reached the living quarters, he’d been shivering and determined to hide it.

The terrified reactions of every ghost they’d passed had only added to the hostile nature of the place.  By the time they’d made it over the ridge – he still maintained that that trail was no trail at all – they’d been muddy and exhausted, and dawn hadn’t been far off.  The only ghosts awake were the guards and a few servants getting an early start on the day.  Yet, to a man, they’d shrunk back when Wen Kexing had swept by, bowing so low their foreheads nearly met their knees.  “Guzhu!” they’d chorused, voices shaking.

Wen Kexing had ignored them as though they were nothing more than insects.  Or, at least, he’d pretended to do so – Zhou Zishu hadn’t missed the way his soulmate’s movements had taken on sharper edges with every ghost they passed.  Shadows filled his eyes, while his smile was a hungry thing, all blades and blood and death.

Zhou Zishu wanted to reach out and enfold his shidi in his arms.  No one, especially not the cheerful boy he remembered, should have grown up in a place like this.  No one should have to return here.

He swallowed down the urge, swallowed down all the promises swelling up in his throat.  He couldn’t promise Wen Kexing much now, and he wouldn’t damage his soulmate’s carefully-constructed façade.  Ah, Lao Wen… if only you’d told me.  Every muscle ached to sweep Wen Kexing off to Siji Pavilion and give him the life he should have had.  A life of peace and prosperity, not these endless halls of cold stone.

Siji Pavilion, he reminded himself, was in ruins.  And he wouldn’t be able to protect Wen Kexing against anything shortly.

Up ahead, a pair of fresh-faced ghosts sprang to attention before dropping into low bows.  “Guzhu!  Welcome back!”

Wen Kexing waved for them to rise.  “My quarters require a guard now?  Or has someone else dared to claim them in my absence?”

“No, lord!”  The two men – boys, really – exchanged petrified glances.  The one on the left looked ready to faint.  “We…”

“Don’t blame them, my lord.  I merely wished to ensure that your homecoming was not disrupted by any… hmm.  Lingering traitorous notions.”

The light feminine voice came from behind them.  Zhou Zishu spun, all senses on high alert, as a stunning woman with long white hair cascading down her back in a silken waterfall stepped out of the shadows.  Her crimson lips curved into a smile.  “Guzhu, welcome home.”  She, too, dipped into a bow, albeit a shallower one than the ghosts had offered.

Wen Kexing studied her for a long moment.  “Luo-yi.  I must say, I wasn’t sure I’d see you again.”

Zhou Zishu couldn’t tell if he was happy about that.  The woman, who had to be the famous Tragicomic Ghost, bowed once more.  “Please forgive me, my lord.”  Her piercing eyes assessed each one of the party before returning to Wen Kexing’s.  “I have much to tell you after you’ve rested, if you care to hear it.”

“Ah, I’m sure you do.”  Wen Kexing’s voice remained as placid as a lake’s mirrored surface, revealing no hint of his thoughts.  “A-Xiang, show my A-Xu’s idiot disciple and your idiot suitor to the guest quarters, would you?  And spread the word that they are under my personal protection.”

She didn’t snap to attention like the ghosts, but she did straighten.  “Of course, zhuren.”

Chengling glanced at Zhou Zishu, eyes wide, but didn’t protest as Gu Xiang led him and Cao Weining away.  His face was drawn and pale, and he wobbled on his feet – past the end of his endurance, Zhou Zishu judged.  He’d have to reward the boy for his lack of complaints.  Just a small reward, of course, but it did deserve acknowledgement.

The woman Wen Kexing had named as Luo-yi, and who the Book of Ghosts had called Luo Fumeng, watched the trio depart.  Her face was as smooth as Wen Kexing’s, but there was a hint of strain in the lines around her eyes.  Something brittle lurked beneath the perfect makeup and casual stance, something that he instinctively noted for future use.  If she ever became a threat, he’d know where to target first.

Wen Kexing flapped a hand at the younger ghosts.  “You may depart.”

They wasted no time in doing so, fleeing with a speed that would have been considered rude at court or in a sect.  Here, Zhou Zishu suspected, it was considered wise caution.

Again, his throat tightened.  He’d seen many of the scars Wen Kexing bore, and guessed at others, but how many more lay hidden under the skin?  Growing up here must have layered them on like paint on a much-repaired portrait.

Once the pair were out of sight, Luo Fumeng dropped to her knees.  “Please, my lord.  Forgive my failures over the past months.  I did not…”

“Get up,” he interrupted.  She obeyed instantly, mouth tightening, and he shook his head.  “There is nothing to forgive.  I know better than anyone the damages wrought by the Soup of Oblivion.  And…”  Now he smiled.  It wasn’t a nice smile.  “Your influence was instrumental in giving me one of my sharper tools.  So I must thank you for that.”

“The Scorpion King?”  Tension had seeped out of her with his first words, but the last sentence had brought it back.  “He is a double-edged blade at best.”

“Don’t you think I know that?”

She flinched.  It was a tiny movement, but Zhou Zishu spotted it, and suspected Wen Kexing did as well.  Wen Kexing sighed.  “No, Luo-yi, I do know.  But I thank you regardless.”  The corner of his mouth curled up.  “Was that the only thing you had to warn me about?  I’d dearly love to relax the formality and get my A-Xu somewhere more comfortable.”

As though that had been a signal, she relaxed once more.  “I had the girls prepare your rooms as soon as the scouts spotted your party.  The rest of my news can wait until the morrow.”  She hesitated.  “It is… good to see you, my lord.  But…”

When she didn’t continue, Wen Kexing waved an impatient hand.  “What is it?”

She glanced around, eyes flickering over Zhou Zishu in a way that made him think she’d noted each weapon he was carrying and had already prepared several ways to take him out.  “Why have you returned, A-Xing?  I thought you were free of this place.”

“Now that is a long story.”  Wen Kexing’s voice was light.  “Trouble, death, threats… a long, tedious tale.”

“Tomorrow, then.”  She inclined her head.  “Sleep well, guzhu.”

Wen Kexing watched her sweep away with a twisted smile on his face.  “I could ask you the same question,” he whispered, once there was no chance she could hear him.

Zhou Zishu reached for his hand.  “Lao Wen…”

Wen Kexing squeezed back, seeming to shake off his fey mood.  “Come, A-Xu.  I’ve been a terrible wife to you, keeping you on your feet for so long.  Let me remedy that.”

His voice was so, so bright – too bright.  Nothing about it sounded forced, but Zhou Zishu knew it was.  He could feel tension in Wen Kexing’s hand, the tension of a prey animal ready to flee rather than that of a predator ready to pounce.  A hint that the slightest objection would make him pull away.

Was his soulmate… scared?

Fuck.  Zhou Zishu tightened his fingers as though touch alone could heal everything between them.  Wen Kexing’s hand was scorching in his, almost feverish, but he gripped back tight enough to make Zhou Zishu’s bones creak.  “Lao Wen…”

Wen Kexing’s throat bobbed.  “I… of course, I can find you other quarters, if you don’t…”

“No,” Zhou Zishu interrupted.  Fast, too fast, and too sharp too, as sharp as his soulmate’s voice had been bright.  Heavens, he was tired, bones aching and skin too sensitive.  The seven gashes where he’d dug out the nails burned like he’d just torn the things from his body, qi surging in a maelstrom through his meridians.

He took one breath, then another.  His shidi had a horribly fragile look in his eyes now that they were alone – truly alone for the first time since his supposed death – and Zhou Zishu couldn’t let him shatter.  “I’ll stay with you.”

Wen Kexing’s smile was a shadow of its usual playful self.  “Of course you will,” he declared, as though it had never been a question.  “Come, then.”  He dropped Zhou Zishu’s hand and turned towards the door.

Zhou Zishu stopped himself from reaching after that touch.  Nausea swirled in his gut, joining the tempest of his qi, as he followed Wen Kexing into the palatial room.  It was massive, at least twice the size of the best quarters at Siji Pavilion, yet there was little of comfort in here.  Red hangings dripped down the walls like spilled blood; crimson rugs added to the illusion that the room was an abattoir.  But all the fabric couldn’t soften the forbidding stone walls, which radiated chill despite the brazier in the middle of the floor.

Wen Kexing stopped near it, a hesitant wariness in his eyes.  “Do you like it?”

“It’s… impressive,” Zhou Zishu managed.  He shifted his weight from foot to foot.  The air felt heavy, pregnant with tension, and he wasn’t sleepy anymore.  Exhausted, yes, but in a live-wire way that made him itch to move.

This place was not safe.  The knowledge resonated in his blood, sang in his ears, and half of him wanted to flee.

But his soulmate was standing there like a feral cat, ready to leap away at the slightest hint of cruelty, and Zhou Zishu wasn’t… didn’t…

He clenched his hands into fists.  Maybe this had been a mistake.

“You are angry, then.”  Wen Kexing said it so calmly, as though commenting on the weather.

Zhou Zishu opened his mouth to deny it, but something very different spilled out.  “Of course I am!  Lao Wen, you made me think you were dead!”

Wen Kexing flinched as though he’d been struck.  “Yes.  I did.”  He lifted his chin.

“And you don’t see the problem with that?”

A crack darted across his perfect mask.  “What do you want me to say, A-Xu?  I don’t know what you want.”

“I want you to have never done it!”  Zhou Zishu dug his nails into his palms.  He didn’t want to have this fight, but it had been brewing since that night in Gao Chong’s compound, and now it was spilling over them like a tsunami.  “I want…”  I want you to apologize.  I want you to understand what you did.  I want you to know.

His withered meridians burned.  He couldn’t say any of that.

“You weren’t supposed to know until it was all over,” Wen Kexing snapped.  “If you’d stayed where you were like you were supposed to… what the hell were you thinking, coming after me like that?  Did you forget you’d been tortured?”

As if in answer, the healing scars beneath his collarbone throbbed.  For a second, he could see Duan Pengju’s cruel smirk, feel the way the meat hooks had grated against bone.  The pain had been dull, distant, thanks to the nails, but Pengju had wrenched screams from his throat anyway.  Zhou Zishu had taught him well.

That felt fair, somehow.  How many times had he stood in that same room, wreathed in the smell of blood and piss, staring at some unfortunate?  How many times had he wielded knives and whips and other, more vicious tools to peel someone apart and dig out their secrets?  Oh, he’d never loved it like Duan Pengju, but he’d done it, hadn’t he?  Bodies could take a surprising amount of punishment before giving out, and he’d known every string to play.

“No,” he replied at last.  “But I wasn’t about to let you die on your own, either.”

“You should have,” Wen Kexing replied flatly.

Zhou Zishu jerked back, and his soulmate’s face tightened.  “I didn’t…” he started, raising his hands.

“What did you mean, then?” Zhou Zishu asked softly.

“I…”  Wen Kexing stared at him.  “I just wanted to keep you safe.”

“By letting me think you were dead?”  Zhou Zishu managed a broken laugh.  The truth was on the tip of his tongue, and he almost, almost let it all spill out.  It would be so easy to cut Wen Kexing, make him hurt the way Zhou Zishu had hurt – make him feel exactly what he’d put Zhou Zishu through.

He choked down the words.  “Why didn’t you just tell me?”

Wen Kexing stared at him, every line rigid.  “Would you have listened to me?  Stayed out of it?”

Zhou Zishu didn’t know how to answer that.  Would he have let his soulmate fall if he’d known it was all a trick?  Would he have been able to let him play out such an absurd, dangerous plan with so many ways to fail?  “You could have trusted me.”  Don’t you trust me, Lao Wen?

Well, he had an answer to that, didn’t he?

“I do!” Wen Kexing protested.

“Do you?”  Zhou Zishu took a step forward.

Wen Kexing matched him, one hand lifting in entreaty.  “With my life, A-Xu.  When it thunders in winter,
when it snows in summer, when heaven and earth mingle, not till then will I part from you.[1]”  He stared into Zhou Zishu’s eyes, a silent plea burning there.  “I do.”  He hesitated.

“What?” Zhou Zishu snapped.  “You do, but…?”  He could taste the ‘but’ hovering in the air.

Something like anger lit in Wen Kexing’s eyes.  “You have been waiting for death – seeking it, courting it like a lover – since I met you.  I would trust you with my life, A-Xu, but with yours?”

Zhou Zishu barked a laugh.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Tell me you wouldn’t have run off to get yourself killed if you thought it was a better way,” Wen Kexing challenged.  “Tell me you would have given a single thought to your own life.”  His voice broke.  “You hold that life so cheaply, A-Xu.  A discarded pot has more worth than your life, in your eyes.  And I could not risk losing you.”

You already have, Zhou Zishu thought bleakly.  All the anger ran out of him at that.  “Lao Wen…”  He shifted, stretching out a hand before letting it drop back to his side.

Wen Kexing’s throat bobbed as he swallowed.  “A-Xu.”

His voice was very quiet.  His eyes, still fixed on Zhou Zishu’s, were wide and dark, and he watched Zhou Zishu as though he were the only light in a midnight forest.

Zhou Zishu looked away rather than meet that gaze.  “I don’t want to die, Lao Wen.”  The words tasted bitter, and he had to force them past a throat grown suddenly tight.  They were true – maybe the truest thing he’d ever spoken – but he could hear the lie in them as well.  Could Wen Kexing?

Guilt was an unwelcome visitor he thought he’d long since banished.  Its familiar roil burned through his gut, making him regret the handful of dried meat he’d consumed on the long trek up the mountainside, and he had to turn away before he did something utterly unwise, like break down.

Wen Kexing’s steps sounded behind him.  “A-Xu… I couldn’t let you kill yourself for me.  Please… please tell me you understand.”

Oh, he did, all too well.  But anything he said would have the same false ring as his last words, and so he said nothing.

Wen Kexing shifted closer.  “I’m sorry.”

Such simple words, yet they cut deep into Zhou Zishu’s soul.  “Are you?” he found himself asking, before he could think better of it.  Are you really, Lao Wen?  Will you swear to me you won’t do it again?  Swear to me you’ll find a way to return to the human world?

He couldn’t ask for such promises.  Not with seven nail holes scabbed over and pulling at his skin.

“I am.”  Wen Kexing’s breath was warm on the back of Zhou Zishu’s neck.  They weren’t quite touching, but they were close enough for Zhou Zishu to feel the hems of his soulmate’s robes brush against his own clothing.

Close enough for him to feel it when Wen Kexing sucked in a shaky breath.  “I swear on all my ancestors, A-Xu, I am truly, deeply sorry.  I never…”  He cut himself off.  “I made a grievous mistake.  And I will pay any penance you desire, accept any punishment you deem fair, if only you’ll forgive me in the end.”

Zhou Zishu turned, creating space as he did.  “Lao Wen…”  His heart ached.  What was he supposed to say?  Wen Kexing’s face was a cracked mask, desperation shining through in jagged, bleeding lines.  His hands were rigid at his sides, as though he was forcibly restraining himself from reaching out.  A lost sort of hunger had turned his eyes feral.  Needy.  Praying, and expecting to be struck down for it.

Zhou Zishu had never been good with words.  Not like his soulmate, spouting poetry at a moment’s notice, or Wu Xi, able to find just the right phrase to unlock a riddle.  No, Zhou Zishu was lucky if he could praise his disciples without sounding too demanding.  He’d stumbled over what to say for every memorial ceremony, every time another shidi had come home on a stretcher or hadn’t come home at all, every time he’d tried to explain the losses to his honored master in the hopes that, somehow, his shifu would forgive him from beyond the grave.  To figure out the right thing to say now…

Well, words weren’t everything.  He caught Wen Kexing’s chin with a pair of fingers, holding his soulmate’s face in place. 

Wen Kexing went very still.  “A-Xu?”

“Shhh.”  Carefully, as though he was stalking a rabbit through the underbrush, Zhou Zishu leaned forward and captured Wen Kexing’s lips with his.

The first kiss was soft, a mere brush of lips, but the next was deeper, stronger.  Zhou Zishu tried to put everything he couldn’t say into that kiss, and prayed his Lao Wen could read the love and forgiveness and sorrow in every touch and bite and lick.

Wen Kexing swayed against him, looping his arms around Zhou Zishu’s shoulders before kissing back with equal ferocity.  His fingers dug into Zhou Zishu’s back hard enough to leave bruises, and Zhou Zishu groaned.  So much, too much, and just from a kiss!  Lao Wen tasted of salt and blood and sour tea; his tongue was a burning brand against Zhou Zishu’s.  Over and over, they clashed and retreated, clashed and retreated, until Zhou Zishu was dizzy from lack of oxygen and so hard it hurt.

He bit down viciously on Wen Kexing’s lower lip.  His soulmate cried out and jerked forward, grinding against Zhou Zishu with no grace at all, just need.  “A-Xu, fuck, A-Xu, please,” he babbled into Zhou Zishu’s mouth.  His hips rocked forward again, silk shushing against silk.

The jolt of heat brought Zhou Zishu back to his senses.  He didn’t dare disrobe with the wounds on his body so fresh and raw, not if he wanted to keep his foolishness hidden for any longer.  And he did, though it was hard to remember why with lust threatening to turn him to ash.

But showing those injuries to his soulmate meant explaining everything.  Meant breaking the fragile hope now lighting up Wen Kexing’s face.

Not now.  Not tonight.  Soon, Zhou Zishu promised himself.  But not tonight.

With an effort, he wrenched himself away from Wen Kexing.  His soulmate stared at him with glazed eyes, lips swollen from kissing.  “A-Xu?”

Zhou Zishu let his lips curve into a cruel smile.  “You said you would pay any penance.  Correct?”

Confusion wavered into something more heated.  “If my A-Xu desires it, no price is too high.”  He licked his lips.  “What do you desire?”

Zhou Zishu studied him, taking in the quick breaths and pupils blown wide with need.  “Strip.  Slowly.”

His cock hardened further as Wen Kexing slid his outermost robe off his shoulders, posing with it draped around his waist before letting it drop to the floor.  He took his time with the ties of his next robe, pulling it tantalizingly open to reveal shifting glimpses of the near-transparent fabric of the robe beneath, but at last the light pink robe joined its fellow on the ground.

Then Wen Kexing paused, one hand on his hip.  His last robe gaped open at the chest, revealing soft skin and the edge of one dusky nipple; his pants beneath were tented obscenely.  “Is this what my honored husband wants?” he murmured.  His free hand toyed with the collar, disarranging it further.

“All the way,” Zhou Zishu gritted.  This was going to be as much torture for him as it was for his soulmate.

“Yes, shixiong,” Wen Kexing purred.

The word struck Zhou Zishu like a bolt of lightning.  He should have been ashamed of his reaction, and he was, but the shame was a diamond edge on his desire.  Dry-mouthed, he watched as Wen Kexing shed his last robe.

Fuck, he’s beautiful.  Maybe it was the poignancy of having him back, or maybe it was another effect of the missing nails, but the sight of Wen Kexing robbed the air from Zhou Zishu’s lungs.  His pale skin glowed in the dim light of the lanterns, traced by a lacework of silvery scars that Zhou Zishu wanted to follow with his tongue.  He stood with languid arrogance, chin held high and legs spread, daring Zhou Zishu to look his fill.

“Pants, too,” Zhou Zishu managed, after far too long staring.  He was supposed to be in control of this, dammit!

But he couldn’t resist another long moment to drink in the sight of Wen Kexing standing, gloriously nude and proud of it, in the middle of the room.

“How do you want me, shixiong?”  Wen Kexing’s voice was low.  “On my knees?  On my back, begging for your cock to split me open?”

Zhou Zishu shuddered at the filthy words.  Wen Kexing’s hand dropped low to tug at his cock.

Before he could think twice, Zhou Zishu caught his shidi’s wrist.  “None of that.”  He squeezed, fingers digging into tendons, then let go.

Wen Kexing sucked in a breath.  “A-Xu, so cruel,” he whined.  Then his expression turned mischievous.  “Or do you want to do it yourself?”

He could, Zhou Zishu thought.  Pin Wen Kexing to the wall, stroke him off without letting him do anything but writhe in Zhou Zishu’s grasp.  But that seemed like a reward, not a punishment.

And Wen Kexing did deserve to be punished.  “Hands behind your back,” Zhou Zishu ordered.  “On your knees.”

Wen Kexing’s tongue darted out to lick his lips as he dropped gracefully to his knees on the hard stone floor.  That was going to hurt soon, but Zhou Zishu didn’t care.  “Don’t move.”

“Yes, shixiong,” Wen Kexing breathed.  He opened his mouth, hunger hot in his eyes.

Zhou Zishu let him sit there like that for a long moment.  Wen Kexing whimpered, but, true to his orders, didn’t move.  “Good,” Zhou Zishu murmured.  He stroked his shidi’s cheek.  “Very good.”

That earned another whimper, one that went straight to Zhou Zishu’s groin.  He fought to keep his face still as he reached beneath his robes to pull out his cock, but the first touch nearly made him curse.  He hadn’t gotten off since he’d torn out the nails – hadn’t had any urge to – and now he found he was as sensitive as a virgin.

He squeezed the base hard to keep from ending everything far too soon.  “Don’t move,” he repeated, giving himself one long stroke. 

Wen Kexing’s gaze followed every movement.  “Please.  A-Xu, please.”

Zhou Zishu stroked himself once more.  “No.”

Then, as Wen Kexing watched, he kept stroking himself.

All too soon, precum dripped down his length, and he had to fight to keep his pace steady.  Wen Kexing’s face made the restraint worth it, though – his shidi moaned as though every stroke was to his own cock, while the muscles of his arms were corded with the force needed to keep his hands in place.  His own cock bobbed in the air, an angry red.

Within a minute, Wen Kexing was begging.  “Please, A-Xu, let me touch you, let me taste you, please, I’ll make it so good, you know I will!  Please, please, fuck, you’re so cruel, A-Xu, just one taste, please!”

Zhou Zishu fixed him with a stern look, and Wen Kexing subsided with a full-body shiver.  “If you’re very, very good, I’ll let you clean up afterwards.”

Wen Kexing’s cock jerked as though the words alone almost made him come.  He uttered a broken moan.  “A-Xu, A-Xu, please!”

Fuck, a desperate Wen Kexing was even more stunning than a composed one.  His lips were red where he’d bitten them, while sweat trickled down his torso.  His hips moved in futile little circles, seeking friction where there was none.  And were those tears in the corners of his eyes?

Zhou Zishu couldn’t hold back any longer.  With a bitten-off cry, he came all over Wen Kexing’s face and chest, gasping as the last drops pulsed out of him. 

Wen Kexing chased after them, open-mouthed, before swaying back to his position.  “Please,” he gasped once more.  His voice cracked, tears starting to spill down his cheeks.  “Please.”

Zhou Zishu held out a dripping hand, and Wen Kexing shuddered before throwing himself forward.  “Thank you,” he breathed between swipes of his tongue.  “A-Xu, A-Xu, my wonderful, cruel A-Xu.”

His tongue rasped over Zhou Zishu’s fingers, lapping up every last drop.  Zhou Zishu’s throat tightened.  “My Lao Wen.”

That was all he said – all he could think to say.  He prayed it was enough.

Wen Kexing looked up at him with wide, wet eyes.  “A-Xu?”

Zhou Zishu wrapped a hand around his throat, and he went still.  Relaxed, wholly and utterly, despite the need so evident between his legs.

“My shidi,” Zhou Zishu murmured.  “Yes.”

Wen Kexing whimpered, stroked himself once, and came.

***

In the aftermath, Zhou Zishu wrapped himself around Wen Kexing’s trembling form and stared out into the darkness.  He could feel Wen Kexing’s chest rising and falling with a steadying rhythm as sleep took hold, but, despite his exhaustion, he couldn’t let himself slip into slumber.  His mind kept replaying Wen Kexing’s angry words: “You have been waiting for death since I met you.”

It was true.  Yet, now that he had something to live for, death had found him.  Stolen in on silent wings to perch above his shoulder, waiting.  Counting down the days.

Ah, Lao Wen, what am I supposed to do?  He’d accumulated so many regrets over his bloodstained life, but none as cutting as this.  He’d give almost anything to have another year or two with his zhiji, to wander the world and drink wine together as they’d half-planned.  Even if they were a decaying pair of years, marked by growing pain and shrinking senses, they would have been perfect if they’d been with Wen Kexing.

Anger and sorrow fought for dominance in the hollow of his chest.  Beneath his arm, Wen Kexing squirmed.

Zhou Zishu pressed a kiss to the back of his neck in apology as he loosened his grip.  When his soulmate relaxed once more, he couldn’t resist another kiss – just a soft brush of the lips, but it was enough to make his nerves sing.  Wen Kexing’s skin tasted of salt and musk, which he would have never called an appealing flavor, but the fact he could taste anything was enough to make his eyes prickle.  If only… the two cruelest words in the world.

Tomorrow, he promised himself.  He’d tell Wen Kexing everything tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Wen Kexing woke feeling sticky, overheated, and utterly boneless with pleasure.  Too relaxed to mind the way his skin crawled, reminding him that the quick swipes with a wet cloth last night hadn’t gotten rid of all traces of their activities.  Nor did he mind the furnace heat radiating from his soulmate pressed against his back – in sleep, his A-Xu had become an octopus, arms and legs wrapping around Wen Kexing as though he never wanted to let go.

That wouldn’t be so bad, Wen Kexing mused, tracing a pattern on the back of Zhou Zishu’s hand.  He certainly never wanted to be separated from his soulmate again.

Behind him, Zhou Zishu startled awake all at once.  It wasn’t a big change, just a minute tensing and a sudden evenness of breath, but it was enough.  “Morning, gorgeous,” Wen Kexing murmured.

Zhou Zishu pressed a kiss to his shoulder.  “Morning.” 

His voice was rough with sleep, a husky tone that tempted Wen Kexing to roll over and greet his soulmate properly.  He shifted, preparing to do just that, but his A-Xu detangled himself before Wen Kexing could move.

Wen Kexing whined a protest.  “It’s so early!  Surely you wouldn’t abandon your wife to sleep alone?”

Zhou Zishu hesitated a second before rolling his eyes.  “Up, Lao Wen.  We have a lot to figure out.”

“Like what?” Wen Kexing grumbled.  He pulled the blanket up around his shoulders, mourning the loss of his zhiji’s warmth.

Odd.  Since when does he run hot?  Wen Kexing frowned.  “Are you feeling alright?”

His A-Xu started.  “I’m fine,” he replied quickly.

Though he would have preferred to remain in bed a bit longer, Wen Kexing rolled upright.  “Come here.”  He reached for his soulmate’s wrist, but Zhou Zishu stepped out of reach.  Wen Kexing glared at him and tried again, faster this time.

Again, Zhou Zishu dodged, matching him glare for glare.  “Stop that.  I said, I’m fine!”

“You’re burning up,” Wen Kexing retorted.  Had he caught a fever on the trek in?  Or, worse, had his still-healing wounds gotten infected?  Wen Kexing grabbed for the front of Zhou Zishu’s sleeping robe.  “Let me check…” he started.

Zhou Zishu blocked the grab, catching his wrist in an iron grip.  “Enough, Lao Wen.”

His fingers were warm against the soft skin of Wen Kexing’s forearm.  Wen Kexing arched an eyebrow.  “Have the nails robbed you of your ability to feel illness, too?”

To his surprise, Zhou Zishu looked down.  “Maybe,” he murmured, almost too soft to hear.  He dropped Wen Kexing’s arm.  For a second, his throat worked as though he wanted to add something, but then he pursed his lips.  “Have you thought about how Beiyuan and Wu Xi are going to get here?”

That sounded like an admission of illness to Wen Kexing, but it was also a valid question.  “I’ll set some of my ghosts out to watch for them,” he replied.  If his A-Xu really was ill, the Great Shaman could cure him before undertaking the delicate process of removing the nails.

Wen Kexing looked Zhou Zishu up and down.  He didn’t look sick – his skin was flushed with health, and he moved with the crisp fluidity he only displayed when the nails weren’t troubling him much.  If he was fevered, it hadn’t affected him much yet.

So it can’t be too serious, whatever it is, Wen Kexing told himself.  Once the Great Shaman is here, he’ll figure it out.

Wen Kexing offered a smile that only felt a bit forced.  If his A-Xu wanted to save face, let him.  No matter how much the implied lack of trust stung – it was, perhaps, no more than Wen Kexing deserved.

Zhou Zishu relaxed at that, if only by a hair.  “You can trust them enough for that?”

It took Wen Kexing a second to realize what the question was referring to.  He paused, then smirked.  “Let’s go find out, shall we?”  His ghosts needed a sharp reminder of who exactly was in charge.

***

It was easy – maybe too easy – to slip back into the skin of the Valley Master.  Lunatic Wen, heartless killer, the man who’d skinned the previous Valley Master alive… with each step Wen Kexing took down the cold stone halls, the mask sank deeper and deeper into his flesh.  Every breath became measured, every sound analyzed and discarded in a heartbeat, every emotion other than rage locked away into a frozen ball.  The blood pounding in his ears sang a song of vengeance once more; the swish of his robes melted into the snapping of funeral banners.

The corner of his mind that watched this transformation mourned it, but that part was small and distant.  The rest of him reveled in it, in the reclamation of his power and savagery.  His fangs were out at last, and it felt so damn good not to hide them anymore.  Not to simper and smile and tease with double-edged words – here, all he had to do was point, and he would be obeyed.

He would have thought that the presence of his soulmate would blunt his edges, if only by the width of a grain of sand, but the Zhou Zishu at his side was as deadly as he was.  Hair pulled up in a tight knot, face as cold as ice, garbed in stark black, he was the terrifying Tian Chuang commander through and through.

That was right.  Proper.  Let the ghosts tremble before him as they trembled before their master – let them know they had another to fear and obey now.

The ghosts in the halls certainly got the message quick enough.  Skittering to the sides, they dipped into deep bows that they held as long as Wen Kexing could see them.  Not that he showed them any sign he noticed their miserable little lives, of course, but he took note of each face and the emotions displayed there.  Who was resentful, who was guilty, who looked almost happy to have their master back?  Who could he use, and who would try to stab him in the back?

Use, not trust.  He didn’t trust any of them, and they would have laughed him off the mountain if he had.  They were ghosts for a reason.

He swept into the main hall in a flutter of robes, Zhou Zishu a half pace behind him.  “Sound the drums!” he barked at no one in particular.  “I want every ghost here in five minutes.”

A rat-faced man ran to obey, pounding out a frantic rhythm on the massive drums outside the open hall.  The rest of the ghosts scrambled to assemble into ragged lines.

Wen Kexing settled onto his throne with an air of boredom to watch the panic grow.  That, too, was right and proper – they should all be afraid.  Let them wonder what he would do to them, now that he was back.  Let them try to scheme their way out of the punishment they deserved.

Maybe he would skin one of them, for old time’s sake.  Remind them all why they served him.

Or maybe he’d ask Zhou Zishu to demonstrate the Seven Nails of Torment on one of them.  Let them cower and beg to retain their senses – men did not think of rebelling when they were trying to save their own hides.  And he did need a spectacle or two, after Changing Ghost’s rebellion…

He slid a glance to the side, where his soulmate had taken up a position behind the heavy stone throne.  Zhou Zishu’s expression was as blank as the stone, his weight perfectly balanced and knees slightly bent as he assessed the ghosts streaming into the room.  No hint of pain in his posture, but, then, Wen Kexing wouldn’t expect him to show any such weakness in Mount Qingya.

Good.  Weakness was not safe here.

How many times had Zhou Zishu stood guard for Prince Jin like this, a menacing shadow to remind men that they lived and died on their prince’s sufferance?  Had he ever been used as an executioner in such audiences?  Been told to make an example of some fool who’d offended the prince past bearing?

Never again, Wen Kexing swore to himself.  He’s mine now.  And I am never letting him go.

Maybe he would do the killing himself.  Let the blood flow, hot and wet, over his own hands; feel bone shatter beneath his own fingers.  His A-Xu didn’t need to do anything but watch.

A distant corner of Wen Kexing’s mind felt sick at that.  He ignored it.

Madame Luo swept into the room as the drums stopped pounding, a flock of girls at her heels.  She took up her place on the left side of the room and tilted her head in silent inquiry, waiting for him to begin – of all the assembled ghosts, she was the only one who showed no sign of fear.

He would remember that.

As the last echo of drumbeats died away, he clapped his hands once.  The ghosts all fell to their knees.  “Welcome back, Guzhu!” some called, while others just knelt and shivered.

Wen Kexing waved a lazy hand.  “Rise.”

The ghosts scrambled to their feet, and he took note of those who seemed eager and those who stood more slowly.  The girls from the Department of the Unfaithful rose as one, graceful as swans and keeping their eyes downcast, but the men stood in ragged waves.  Some tried to inch behind their neighbors, while others scanned the room with wary expressions.  Most, he was sure, had noticed the absence of many of his Ten, and were trying to decide what it meant.

The corners of his lips twitched up.  “As you all can see, we have some openings in the Ten Devils.”  The crowd tensed, and Wen Kexing let his smile bloom.  “Who wants to step up?”

Almost all of the ghosts shrank back, doing their best to project an air of invisibility.  A handful, however, strutted forward.

Wen Kexing ran his eye over them.  All the usual suspects, men who’d been clawing their way up the ranks and nibbling at the heels of the former Ten.  More than one would have challenged in the next year or two, he suspected, but they were nothing special.  Vicious and strong, but no sense of strategy, no ability to plan.  Easy to control.

Then one of the women detached from the Department’s contingent.  Wen Kexing’s eyebrows flew up as murmurs ran through the crowd.  This, he hadn’t expected, and neither had anyone else, it seemed.

Madame Luo, however, didn’t look surprised.  Most of the ghosts wouldn’t be able to read the minute crinkling of her eyes or the tiny hint of satisfaction in the corners of her lips, but he knew her too well to miss them.  She wanted this.

Well, this would be interesting.  Wen Kexing motioned the prospective Devils forward, smirking as half of them suddenly looked like they wanted to fade back into the crowd.  “You think you have what it takes?” he asked conversationally.  They shifted on their feet, hands dropping to weapons.  The woman, much to Wen Kexing’s amusement, tapped a folded fan on her palm.

Wen Kexing would not let himself care who won, but he did admire her spirit.  He took one more moment to study the group, letting their nerves rise, before giving them a wide, cruel smile.  “Prove it.”

No one had to ask what he meant.  The would-be Devils leapt for each other with bloodcurdling howls, while the rest of the ghosts scattered against the walls.

Two of the men fell almost immediately, stabbed in the back by those nearest them.  Blood spurted, bright crimson startling against the grey of the stone floor, and there were two fewer bodies in the melee.  

So quick.  So easy.

A second later, a hoarse scream announced the fall of a third man.  He collapsed to the floor, clutching at the gash gaping across his throat, while the woman from the Department of the Unfaithful casually leapt back into a defensive stance.  Scarlet droplets sprayed from her fan as she flicked it out in a wide arc, warning off a pair of men who’d begun advancing towards her.

Wen Kexing leaned forward, lips parted.  The air charged with energy as the combatants drew on their qi to strike and leap and retreat; shouts and screams mingled with the metallic clash of blades and the soft susurration of fabric swirling.  It was electric, glorious, a symphony that rang through his body and called him to join in, lose himself in the pure violence of the fight.

Another man, the most arrogant of the lot, dodged a strike from the woman’s fan.  He sneered, started to insult her, and her high kick smashed into his nose.  He reeled back, howling, and she followed it up with a two-fingered strike to the hollow of his throat.

Over on the side, Madame Luo permitted herself a small smile.  Her girls were too cautious to cheer, but several – the ones on the outside of the little group – bared teeth in feral appreciation of their comrade’s success.

Wen Kexing took a closer look at the cluster.  They weren’t just huddled together willy-nilly, as he’d originally thought – no, the girls on the outside all stood in stances that spoke of at least some martial arts training.  Ready to defend each other, if need be.

Had things deteriorated so far in his absence?  He looked between the girls and the ghosts nearest them, taking in the badly-concealed anger on the faces of some of the men.  Thwarted anger, hungry anger… oh, he knew the lash of that kind of anger all too well.

With a silent snarl, he wrenched his attention back to the combat.  He would deal with that later, and string the worst offenders up by their ankles over the gate as a message to everyone else.  By the time he was done, the valley would be washed in blood.

Not that it wasn’t already on its way there.  There were nine combatants left now, including the woman from the Department of the Unfaithful, and the remaining fighters were desperate now.  Most were bleeding; several, including the woman, limped.  But none of them backed down.

One, a ghost who couldn’t have been more than eighteen, whirled closer and closer to the throne as he dueled a pair of older men.  He was a slender reed, swaying away from their heavy blows – elegant, despite the blood trickling down his face.  His twin daggers flashed as he gutted one of the men, and he grinned a vicious grin as the other faltered.  His teeth were very white against the red of his lips.

He reminded Wen Kexing of himself when he was younger, when he was weaker and too pretty for his own good.  Maybe that was why he didn’t notice the throwing knife that snapped out of the boy’s hand until it was almost too late.

Hissing a curse under his breath, Wen Kexing unfurled his fan.  The narrow blade cracked against the fan’s reinforced silk and clattered to the ground.

It should have been a small sound, barely noticeable over the roaring combat.  But everyone froze as the knife fell.

Wen Kexing looked up to see Zhou Zishu standing in a cleared circle with his sword at the boy’s throat.  The remaining ghosts hurried to distance themselves from the would-be assassin, lifting their hands in mute surrender.

Given that those hands still held bloody weapons, the gesture didn’t hold quite the same meaning, but the intention was clear.

“What shall I do with him, guzhu?”  Zhou Zishu’s voice was a frozen spring.

A delightful shiver ran down Wen Kexing’s spine.  He ran a lazy eye over the boy, who stood petrified in the middle of the bloodstained floor.  A thin trickle of scarlet dripped down his neck from where Baiyi jabbed into his flesh.  Though he kept his chin high, his hands trembled at his sides until he spotted the direction of Wen Kexing’s gaze.  Then he clenched them into fists.

Wen Kexing laughed.  “What was your plan, little ghost?  Did you hope a single dagger would fell me?”

The boy – oh, yes, he was all too similar to Wen Kexing, when he was younger – glared.  His throat worked, but he kept his jaw clenched shut, which made Wen Kexing laugh harder.  “You didn’t have a plan, did you?”  Foolish, foolish boy.  Foolish for attempting an assassination so publicly, and doubly foolish for giving Wen Kexing the perfect scapegoat.

The boy tossed his head.  Fear shone dark in his eyes, but arrogance glared there too, stark and uncompromising.  He did not think he was about to die.

Wen Kexing rose to his feet in a swirl of red silk.  He’d dressed in his full regalia today, carefully dabbing red beneath his eyes, and he reveled in the way the boy’s fear increased as Wen Kexing paced towards him.  “You thought I was weak, because I’d been away for so long?  Thought I might have lost my edge?”  He flicked open his fan, tracing a delicate arc in the air.

The boy looked like he wanted to shrink away, but didn’t dare to move with the sword at his neck.  “No!”

“Then what?” Wen Kexing purred.  “You thought you were tired of living?”

Red crept up the boy’s cheeks.  “No!” he repeated, stronger this time.

Wen Kexing made a show of sighing.  “Pity.  Because you’ve certainly thrown your life away now.”  He looked at Zhou Zishu, seeing nothing but ice on his soulmate’s face.  “Release him.”

As he’d half-expected, the boy went for his throat as soon as Zhou Zishu stepped backwards.  Wen Kexing caught him with one hand and slammed him down to the stone.  “Pity,” he repeated.  The boy might have been useful if he’d been able to curb his ambition.

Of course, he also might have become another Changing Ghost, looking for the best moment to stab Wen Kexing in the back.  Better, far better, to kill the serpent before it grew to adulthood.

Wen Kexing placed one booted foot on the boy’s chest as he started to rise.  “Let’s get started, shall we?”

***

Once it was done, Wen Kexing stepped over the twitching sack of meat that had once been a boy and turned to face the assembled ghosts.  “Well?” he demanded.  “Anyone else want to challenge me?”

No one dared move.  He wasn’t sure any of them were breathing.

He spread his arms, lifting dripping hands high.  The sound of blood plinking against the stone was the only interruption to the deadly silence.  “Anyone?” he repeated.

“No, guzhu,” Madame Luo replied.  Her voice was as cool as his was hot, and she dropped into a deep bow as soon as his gaze landed on her.  “We are yours.”

Lightning ran through his veins as he bared his teeth in a cruel grin.  “Yes, you are,” he crooned.  His soaked sleeves slapped against his wrists as he lowered his hands to turn in a slow circle, laughing as the ghosts flinched away from his gaze.  “You all are.  And I will keep remind you of it until you remember!”  His voice dropped low, harsh.  “Kneel.”

Knees thunked hard against stone as every ghost in the gigantic hall fell over themselves to obey.  Exultant laughter filled Wen Kexing’s chest.  This, this was power.  This was right.  He could reach out and snap any of their necks, and the rest would thank him for it.  It was perfect.

One person wasn’t kneeling, though.  The lightning spinning through his mind receded for a breath as he turned to face that lone shadow, black and lonely against the hot crimson splashed everywhere.

Zhou Zishu.  A-Xu.  For a second, the names meant nothing.  All he could see was the defiance, the rigidity of the man standing there as though he thought himself immune, deathless, immortal.

Wen Kexing took one step forward, then another.  Zhou Zishu watched him with piercing eyes – he stood, yes, but he carried no weapons.  His hands remained loose and empty at his sides; his chin was lifted to reveal the smooth, fragile column of his throat.

Wen Kexing reached out and wrapped a hand around that throat, smearing it with crimson.  The pulse beneath his fingers fluttered, too fast, but there was no fear in Zhou Zishu’s eyes.  Nothing but calm acceptance.

With painful slowness, Wen Kexing leaned in to press his lips to those of his soulmate.

For the briefest moment, Zhou Zishu stiffened.  Then, all at once, he yielded, and it was the sweetest thing Wen Kexing had ever tasted.  A new kind of fire crashed through his veins as he claimed his A-Xu for all to see.

When he pulled back, Zhou Zishu’s mouth was stained red to match Wen Kexing’s hands.  Wen Kexing licked his lips and tasted copper.  “No one,” he declared, low and harsh, “is to touch him.  He.  Is.  Mine.”

Mine.

Mine.

Mine.

The words drummed in his head in time to his heartbeat.  The kneeling ghosts groveled further, but they were immaterial, no more important than the corpse sprawled at his feet.  Ghosts in truth against the dark brilliance of his A-Xu, his love, his soulmate.

His A-Xu touched his hand.

It was a small touch, but it was enough to snap Wen Kexing back into the present, to realize that the surrounding ghosts were inching away from him.  They’d stayed still during the long, gory execution, but now?  He bared his teeth.  “Remember that.”

None of them said anything.  He transferred his gaze to the survivors of the aborted brawl, assessing their conditions.  Only six left now, five men and one woman, all bruised and battered.  They, like the rest, wore terror in the shaking of their hands and the wide darkness of their eyes, but none of them had collapsed like the lesser ghosts.

They would do.  He waved a hand at them.  “On your feet.”

Slowly, clumsily, they obeyed.  They kept their heads lowered, eyes on the ground, but he could see their hands creeping back towards their weapons.  Madame Luo’s girl ran a finger down her fan.

Wen Kexing smirked.  “Relax, my new Devils.  The time for killing is over for now.”

The group exchanged wary glances.  Or, rather, the men did – the lone woman just tensed, gaze darting to her fellows from beneath lowered lashes.  Already preparing herself for a knife in the back, perhaps?  Or plotting her own preemptive strike?  She – all of them, really – would need careful watching in the next few months.

The oldest of the men was the first to break the silence.  “Thank you, guzhu.  I swear, I will not fail you.”

A chorus of similar protestations followed, only to cut off instantly when Wen Kexing raised a hand.  “Of course you won’t,” he said genially. 

They were all smart enough to see it for the threat it was, and bowed their heads as rapidly as sore muscles would allow.  “Yes, guzhu,” they called.

Wen Kexing snapped out his hand.  “Then, what are you waiting for?  I think this calls for a celebration, don’t you?”  He paused.  “Oh, and someone clean up this mess.”

Ghosts scampered to obey.  Wen Kexing let his arm drop, feeling wet cloth slap against his inner arm.  Wet, sticky, clammy… for a second, his stomach revolted.

“Guzhu?  Guzhu?”  A panting boy skidded to a halt in front of him, interrupting the static shocks sparking through his brain.  He reached for his fan before realizing the boy was no threat.

“What?” he snapped.

The boy dropped to his knees.  “Master, I… I was assigned to monitor the soldiers, watch the incoming routes, and…”

Maddeningly, he hesitated, and Wen Kexing had to restrain himself from grabbing the boy by the throat.  Messengers needed air to report.

It was good that someone had thought to post sentries, at least, he told himself, and focused on that.  “And?” he prompted.

“And people want an audience with you, guzhu!” the boy blurted.

Zhou Zishu stepped closer.  “People?” he asked sharply.

“Yes, yes!”  The boy’s head bobbed like a sipping bird.

Wen Kexing rolled his eyes.  “Describe them.”  Could this be the Great Shaman and his prince friend, here already?

The boy gulped.  “The leader was all in blue, an old man.  He said he led the… the Heavenly Wind Sword Sect?”

Mo Huaiyang.  Wen Kexing’s hands clenched into fists.  What the hell was the old fox doing here?  How dare he show his face after failing to protect A-Xiang?  Letting Drug Men attack his own sect when she was sheltering there?

Mine.  Mine.  Mine.  The drumbeat was back, shaded differently now, but as strong as ever.  No one was allowed to let his A-Xiang come to harm.

He didn’t register Zhou Zishu’s movement until his soulmate’s shoulder brushed his.  “What does he want?” Zhou Zishu asked.

“He, he’s begging for asylum,” the boy stammered.  “For him and his disciples.”

Ah.  Now, isn’t that interesting?  The world sharpened into a preternatural clarity.  Mo Huaiyang was a clever old fox – he wouldn’t be begging Ghost Valley for shelter if he thought he had anywhere else to turn.  Who was hunting him?  And why?  After the chaos his wonderful, bloodthirsty A-Xu had caused, he hadn’t expected any trouble from the Glazed Armor for at least another week.

Then again, vengeance always did make men hop.  Wen Kexing scowled.  “Lead him in the back way, but keep him under guard once he gets here.  Put him and his disciples…”  Hmm.  A-Xiang had spoken fondly of several of the men she’d met in the sect, but he wanted to make it clear that they were here only by his sufferance.

Well, a night or two in the lower cells wouldn’t kill any of them.  “Put them in the cells, but ensure they have enough food and water.  We don’t want them dying before we can talk to them, do we?”

He laughed.  The boy didn’t.  “Yes, guzhu,” he whispered.

Wen Kexing, still laughing, turned to Zhou Zishu.  “Isn’t this fun, A-Xu?” he asked brightly.  “Not even a full day back, and we’re already receiving visitors!”

Chapter Text

Wen Kexing did not want to wait for his ghosts to escort Mo Huaiyang and his disciples into the valley.  His body still sang with the need to move, to cut and block and slash; memories of screams echoed in his ears.  (The would-be assassin had screamed so prettily, towards the end.)  He wanted – craved – more of something he couldn’t name, something that wasn’t quite violence and wasn’t quite sex and was both more and less than a fusion of the two.

(He wanted to scream.  To claw.  To strip these stiffening robes from his body and burn them.)

Since he couldn’t have that, he called each of his new Devils into a secluded room and interrogated them until they were sweaty wrecks a breath away from collapsing.

He started with the men – boring, all of them, with their petty cruelties and petty ambitions.  But, just as the best carvers could work around flaws in the wood, he could shape these men into something useful, given enough time.  They would never be brilliant, but he didn’t want brilliance – brilliance led to more assassination attempts and more shattered bodies on the floor after he was forced to torture them.  He wanted steady, solid men who respected and feared him in equal measure.  Men who wouldn’t dare stray too far out of line.  And these men, after a bit of molding, would suit.

The woman – Wang Feiyan – was more of a puzzle.  She bowed to him as she entered, and stood with her eyes downcast and her hands folded demurely in front of her after he ordered her to rise.  Her bloodied fan had been tucked away somewhere hidden, leaving her seemingly weaponless.  In her red and white uniform, she looked like any other girl from the Department of the Unfaithful – a doe in a forest full of wolves.

No doe could have defended herself the way she did, though.  He took his time studying her, enjoying the way she tensed beneath his regard.  Fear, respect… the lines blurred together, and she was contained enough that he couldn’t tell which she felt.  Both, probably, if she was smart.

She started when he finally broke the silence.  “You’re new here, aren’t you?”

Her head dipped low.  “Yes, guzhu.”

He waited for her to say more, but she remained quiet.  Also smart, he had to admit, but it scratched at his temper nonetheless.  “How did you get here?”

Her eyes darted up, then back to the ground.  “It is a rather long story, and a dull one, but this humble servant will tell it if you desire, master.”

If he hadn’t seen her fight in the anarchy of the recent duel, he would have assumed that her murmur meant she lacked spirit.  But she’d had spirit aplenty on the killing floor.

He took a step closer, just to make her flinch.  “I asked, didn’t I?” he purred.

Now her chin lifted, a flash of something he couldn’t name in her eyes.  Not defiance – she was far too controlled for that – but something he wanted to see more of.  He let his lips curl into a smirk.  “Well?”

She kept her eyes demurely lowered, but he could sense her watching from beneath her lashes as he prowled in a slow circle around her.  “I was once a courtesan, guzhu.  My… former master sent me as a gift to one of his rivals.  I was supposed to spy on him, and assassinate him if the chance came.”  She paused for a breath.  “He found out.”

The words were said baldly, no hint of remembered pain in them.  Wen Kexing arched an eyebrow.  “And?”

She lifted one shoulder in a graceful shrug.  “He demanded that my former master pay a ransom of sorts – a penalty if he didn’t want the entire court to know he attempted to assassinate a rival.  My former master, as you might expect, refused.  Blamed everything on me.”  Her eyes drifted sideways.  “With no other proof, the man I was supposed to kill ordered me beaten and hung from the walls as a threat to any others who might think to challenge him.”

Still no pain in her voice, nothing to suggest she cared about what she was saying.  Wen Kexing looked her up and down.  “I take it you survived.”

Her teeth flashed, feral.  “I didn’t let them get that far.”  She folded her arms – touching her hidden fan, perhaps?  “There were too many guards, though, and they… were good.  If not for two of the Department girls, who brought me to Qianqiao-jie, I probably would have died in the filthy alleyway where I collapsed after fleeing.”

Wen Kexing, now behind her, leaned in.  “And so you became a ghost, hoping to get revenge against the men who hurt you?” he breathed.

She didn’t shy away.  “They can rot.”

Ah, there was the fire he’d expected.  But she’d told the story without any signs of lost memories – whatever the Mengpo Soup had taken from her, this wasn’t it.

He laughed softly.  “So, a courtesan and a fighter.  Where did you get your training?”

“Here and there.”  Her shoulders were stiff.  “I never had a formal master, if that’s what you mean, guzhu.”

It was an evasion, but he allowed it.  Her style carried the stamp of at least a dozen sects, along with Madame Luo’s own form, but it didn’t bear much resemblance to the Scorpion Sect’s methods.  As long as she wasn’t a serpent lying in wait, he’d allow her her secrets – all ghosts had them.  If hers became a problem, she would be easy enough to dispose of.

He laid a hand on the back of her neck to make that clear.  “And did you learn assassination techniques here and there, too?  Or did your former master send you to the wolves in more ways than one?”

“It’s not hard to slip a dagger between a man’s ribs when he’s sated and snoring,” she purred back.  Her muscles were tight beneath his fingers.

Wen Kexing chuckled.  “An answer worthy of a Devil.”  He shifted so his lips just brushed her ear.  “Would you have any objections to practicing your former profession?”

Her eyes, what he could see of them from the side, shuttered.  “If guzhu desires it,” she murmured, all fire gone from her voice.  She reached for the ties of her outer robe.

The last time he’d been the Valley Master in blood and bone, he would have taken her up on the offer, shuttered eyes and all.

He froze, past and present colliding in a rush of lightning.  All of a sudden, the blood still crusting his hands itched abominably; his wet sleeves dragged at his arms as though they weighed a thousand pounds.  “No!” he said, too fast, too harsh.  “No.”  He stepped away, mustered up a light laugh.  “No, I have a very different target in mind for you.  If, and only if, you want to accept it.”

Her hands relaxed.  “My life is yours to command, guzhu.”

Fuck.  He strained to sink back into the cold, calm place where the Valley Master resided, where everything was simple and clear.  “Another good answer,” he managed, tone still falsely light.  “But, in this case, I give you leave to refuse.  I have many uses for a skilled ghost like you, but none for a dead one.”  And a reluctant courtesan is soon dead.

He did not need to add that – she probably knew that truth better than he did.

He expected her to refuse, or to accept with fear and hardness in her dark eyes.  To close off that spirit that had won her a place in the Devils and obey, hating herself for it.  It was what he might have done, once, before he was sure in his place and strength.

But she merely studied him for a long moment before nodding.  “I enjoyed my profession, guzhu, and I would not object to its practice as long as I had an escape route.”

He took another step backwards, fighting to keep his hands from shaking.  He was not retreating – the Valley Master did not retreat.

It felt like a retreat, though, and so he turned to look at the lone painting decorating the wall.  “You are aware of the soldiers encircling the valley?”

If she was confused by the topic change, she didn’t allow it to show on her face.  “Of course, guzhu.”

“Your target is their leader.  A man named Duan Pengju.”

Wang Feiyan’s breath caught.  “The… the new leader of the Window of Heaven?”

Ah, so Madame Luo’s spies were still hard at work, then.  That was good to know.  “Correct.”

“Is there…”  She hesitated.  “Do you merely wish information on him, or is there another purpose I may serve for you?”

For a second, he wondered if he should have Duan Pengju assassinated.  The man deserved the same torture he’d meted out to A-Xu, but the chances of Wen Kexing getting his hands on him were slim.  But a dagger in the throat in the dark of night, or – better – a subtle poison in his drink?  He could take days to die if Wang Feiyan used the right poison… a few days screaming his lungs out as he bled from every pore might go quite a ways towards paying back the debt he owed.

“Once you are in place, I will arrange a way to contact you,” he decided.  “If there is anything but information I need from you, I will let you know.”  He ached to sink his teeth into the man, but it might be more prudent to let him live.  For now.

Wang Feiyan bowed low, taking that as the dismissal it was.  “My lord.”

He did not turn to watch her leave, but he tracked each footstep until the door closed behind her.  His hands clenched into fists at his side.  Sticky fists, crimson, gory… he could feel something thick crusted beneath his fingernails.  Nothing he hadn’t felt a hundred times before – nothing he hadn’t reveled in more times than he could count.  He was the Valley Master!  He had skinned the prior Master alive!  He was Lunatic Wen, and he’d earned that name a dozen times over.

He was proud of it.  He’d always been proud of it.

But he kept seeing his A-Xu’s calm, hard face as Wen Kexing prowled towards him.  So confident, even when Wen Kexing took his neck in hand and squeezed.  It would have taken so little to crush his windpipe, snuff out the life from those dark eyes forever…

He pressed his eyes shut, but the images remained.  A-Xu’s face imposed over the White Reaper’s face, over the face of dozens of lesser ghosts… his skin going red, then purple, then slack in death as all the heat drained from him.

With a shout, Wen Kexing spun around and smashed a hand into the wall.  He was the Valley Master!  He was not ashamed of it!

Had Chengling been in the hall today?  Had he seen the ruin of a body Wen Kexing had left behind?  Had he heard the pulpy sounds of crushed muscle, the choked whimpers of a man unable to draw breath anymore?  A-Xu was no stranger to torture, to murder, but little Chengling?

And what about Cao Weining and A-Xiang?  She deserved so much better than this desolate valley, yet he hadn’t been able to shield her from more than a fraction of its horrors.  She would not have been surprised by the scene today.  But her beloved?

He dug his nails into his palms, breathing as hard as though he’d been running.  She deserved a chance at a human life, yet he’d dragged her back here without a second thought.  Dragged his A-Xu back here, knowing they could never leave, because he was just that selfish.

Thrown himself over the cliff without a single word of warning, because he was selfish.  Because he had to know that his A-Xu would be safe and protected and healing.

And look at how well that turned out.  He laughed bitterly.  How many times had he asked his A-Xu what made someone a good man?  How many times had A-Xu told him that good men were those who tried to be good?

His A-Xu was good.  Bloodstained, scarred, broken, but good. 

Too good for Wen Kexing.

The pain in his palms wasn’t enough to combat the boiling lead screaming through his veins.  He punched the wall again, splitting open his knuckles to let his own blood mingle with that of the would-be traitor.  New, fiery pain raced up his arm, but it still wasn’t enough.  He had to move, to fight, to do something, anything to make the agony bubbling inside him cease.

He had to get the blood off his hands.  If he got the blood off his hands, he could wrap himself in Philanthropist Wen, sink back into that mask.  Like stepping into a freezing stream – a moment of shock, and then the body would just shut down, turn off parts of itself, and everything would be fine.

His A-Xu deserved that.  Deserved everything.

Deserved far more than Wen Kexing, Lunatic Wen, could give him.

There was no water basin in the room.  He could order a ghost to fetch some, heat some over a fire, but… but the ghosts needed him to be the Valley Master.

He reached for that part of him, the cold cruel hunger that lurked deep within and could never be satisfied, but it burned his fingers.  He recoiled with a hiss, sinking to his heels as he wrapped his arms around himself.  Shards of a dozen masks slipped and slid over his skin, through his brain, but none resolved into the frozen clarity he needed.

He needed to stand.

He couldn’t make his muscles move.

Fool, he scolded himself.  Since when do you care if you’re good or not?  You’re the Valley Master!

The words burned his throat like acid, and he choked them back.  If he couldn’t be the Valley Master, if he couldn’t be Philanthropist Wen, what was left?  Who could he be?  His A-Xu didn’t want a shattered jumble of a soulmate, one foolish enough to…

To forget what really mattered.  That was what he’d done.  He’d chased vengeance like the hungry ghost the jianghu named him, and forgotten everything else in the process.

A tap at the door had him spinning, bolting to his feet.  His fan was in his hand before he could think twice, though whether to defend himself or shield himself, he didn’t know.  “What?” he barked.  If this was a ghost interrupting him, he would shred them from limb to limb.

Shred them.  His hands shook.  Would a good man think that?  Of course not.  But he didn’t want to be a good man, did he?

“Lao Wen?”

The fan fell from his hand.  “A-Xu,” he whispered.

Zhou Zishu shouldn’t have been able to hear it, but the door creaked open anyway.  Wen Kexing spun away.  He couldn’t let his soulmate see him like this, hungry and wanting and so, so broken.

But Wen Kexing couldn’t bring himself to order his soulmate away, either.  He was too selfish, too weak for that.  If his A-Xu let him, he would chain his soulmate to his side forever so he could never, ever forget again.  Never hurt him again.

Zhou Zishu’s hand touched his shoulder.  Light, so light it resembled the brush of a butterfly’s wing, but Wen Kexing flinched anyway.  Zhou Zishu dropped his hand.  “Lao Wen, what’s wrong?”

He didn’t try to circle to see Wen Kexing’s face – Wen Kexing didn’t know if he should be grateful for that or throw the attempt at kindness in his soulmate’s face.  “I’m fine.”

“Fine.”

The flatness of the tone sparked something inside of Wen Kexing.  “What?” he snarled.  Before he could stop himself, he spun.  “You knew who I was before you chose to come here.  Remember that, won’t you, before you… you…”  He couldn’t finish.

“Before I what?”  Zhou Zishu arched one eyebrow.

Turning had been a mistake.  Wen Kexing jerked himself back around so he faced the wall.  Blank, rough stone loomed over him, too cold and heavy and dark.  “Before you leave.”

“Lao Wen.”  Another touch, still butterfly-light.  “Lao Wen, why do you think I’m going to leave?”

Wen Kexing’s laugh held more than a touch of madness.  “Why wouldn’t you?  You don’t belong here.  Chengling doesn’t belong here.  Take him and go.”  Maybe, if he ordered them to leave, it would be alright.  They wouldn’t drown in blood like he had.

When Zhou Zishu didn’t reply, Wen Kexing closed his eyes.  “Chengling.”  He didn’t want to ask, but he had to know the answer.  “Was he… did he…”

The silence stretched out until Wen Kexing had his answer.  He managed another despairing croak of laughter.  “See?  Go.  Go now.”

Zhou Zishu’s hands clamped down on his shoulders.  “Enough, Lao Wen!”  He yanked Wen Kexing around to face him, then caught both his hands.

Wen Kexing couldn’t look at his soulmate.  Cracked red still encircled his throat, messy but undeniably a handprint; another smear dripped down his cheekbone.  His skin was so, so pale, and there were deep shadows under his eyes.  Any deeper, and he’d look like he’d been punched. 

Proof enough that he wasn’t comfortable here, that he didn’t belong here.  He deserved rooms full of light and laughter, silk paintings and warm fires and delicate wooden carvings decorating paper screens.  Not this barren room with nothing more than a low desk and equally low couch with an ancient cushion as the only padding.  One painting, and it was a bleak one, raw craggy mountains and a stormy sky – such a far cry from the cherry blossoms he’d worked so hard to get repaired back at Siji Pavilion.

Zhou Zishu drew him down onto the couch, heedless of the way the cushion barely did anything to shield against the hard bite of the wood beneath.  “Lao Wen,” he said once more.  “I would tell you something, if you would listen.”

He sounded so gentle, and he still hadn’t let go of Wen Kexing’s hands.  Hadn’t he realized what they were coated in?  Numbly, Wen Kexing nodded.

Zhou Zishu took a deep breath.  “There is a room beneath Prince Jin’s palace.  It is a room I have spent many, many hours in.  The only difference between my last visit and all the previous ones was who was in the chair.”

Wen Kexing’s heart skipped a beat.  “A-Xu, you don’t…”

Zhou Zishu touched his lips.  “Let me finish.  This room…”  He took a shuddering breath.  “I told myself I would not regret the things I did there.  Told myself it was all to serve my prince, and that no price was too high if it meant his success in the end.  Told myself… any number of things.  Some true, some less true.  But I still did all those things.”  His lips curled into a bitter smile.  “If I’d died there, as I thought I might, it would have only been justice.”

Without his conscious thought, Wen Kexing’s hand rose to touch the spot beneath Zhou Zishu’s collarbone where the meat hooks had protruded.  Zhou Zishu sucked in a breath, but let his fingers smooth down the fabric over the hidden scars.  “A-Xu…” he whispered.

“I have done many despicable things in my life, Lao Wen,” Zhou Zishu replied, voice equally soft.  “You are right – I knew who you were long before setting foot in this place, and what I saw in that hall did not change that in the slightest.  We are soulmates.”

Wen Kexing’s hand fell back into his lap.  “How can you say that?  Ghosts do not deserve living soulmates!”  He wanted to hit something.

“You are my shidi.  My love.  My soulmate.  If you are a ghost, then so am I.”  The bitter curl of his lips softened into something more ironic.  “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“But… Chengling.”  It was the first thing that came to Wen Kexing’s mind, and he flushed.  He was the Valley Master – he wasn’t supposed to care!

But he was also the unworthy second disciple of Siji Pavilion, as well as Chengling’s shishu.  Didn’t that mean he had to care?

Zhou Zishu reached out and uncurled his fingers from where they bit into his palm.  “Ah, Lao Wen, Lao Wen…”  He shook his head.  “Will you take Chengling back to Siji Pavilion once you’ve fulfilled Ye-qianbei’s orders?  He should not grow up in this place, it’s true.”

Wen Kexing did not like the way Zhou Zishu said that.  “You will take him back,” he snapped.  “He’s your disciple, isn’t he?”

Zhou Zishu’s answering smile was mournful.  “In case… in case Wu Xi can’t do anything.  Promise me.”

“No!”  Wen Kexing leapt to his feet.  “You aren’t going to die, A-Xu, I forbid it!”

“You may not have a choice,” Zhou Zishu murmured.  He rose to his feet as well, but made no move to touch Wen Kexing.  “Please, Lao Wen.”

“Dammit, A-Xu, stop that!”  Wen Kexing had to take a steadying breath.  “After what he saw, how can you still ask me that?”  He’d only returned to Siji Pavilion because of his A-Xu – didn’t his soulmate understand that?  He was no sect leader, no shifu.  Chengling deserved better.

He didn’t realize he’d said it out loud until Zhou Zishu flinched.  “So do you.”

“After all this?”  He threw his arms wide, sleeves crackling as the gore on them drifted down in a rain of dust.  “This is exactly where I belong, A-Xu.”  His voice dropped low.  “And how can I, born in evil days and fresh from failure, ask a kindness of Fate?[1]”

“If Bai Juyi can rise from poverty to become the governor of multiple provinces, then you can escape your beginnings too,” Zhou Zishu replied acerbically.

“A-Xu!  You recognized it!”  A genuine grin spread across Wen Kexing’s face.  It felt foreign and strange, but he couldn’t deny it.

Slowly, he let his arms sink back to his sides.  “Do you… do you really mean it?”

“Of course.”  Zhou Zishu’s eyes bored into his.  “Don’t you remember, good men are those who strive to be good?”

That punctured Wen Kexing’s ebullience.  “Ah, yes, and torturing a boy to death in front of a crowd of hundreds is striving to be good.”

“Lao Wen.”  Zhou Zishu stepped closer.  “I have murdered children in front of their parents.  I forced my shidi’s soulmate to drink poison.  My negligence led to the deaths of every single man and woman I was supposed to protect.  I am not a good man.”

The words hit Wen Kexing like a fist.  He’d known all this, of course, but it sounded different in this forsaken mountain.  “You are,” he protested weakly.

Zhou Zishu barked a laugh.  “No, Philanthropist Wen, I am not.  And you may not be either.”  He took another step towards Wen Kexing, close enough for their breath to mingle.  “But…”  A pause.  “No, no buts.  That’s why you’re my soulmate.  Flaws and all.”

Soulmate.  Zhiji.  Wen Kexing swallowed hard.  “A-Xu.”  He stopped.  “You won’t leave.”

“No.”

“And Chengling?”

Zhou Zishu’s face turned hard.  “You swore you’d protect him.  I will hold you to that promise.”  He took a breath.  “Protect him from the evil here, zhiji, and take him home when you can.”

“Only if you’ll be with us.”  Wen Kexing grabbed his A-Xu’s wrist.  He was clutching too hard, and he knew it, but he couldn’t make his fingers loosen.  His A-Xu was not going to die.  They were going to find Wu Xi, and the Great Shaman was going to remove the nails, and everything was going to be perfect.  It had to be.

Zhou Zishu brushed a kiss over his lips.  “I will never leave you willingly.”

Wen Kexing closed his eyes, and told himself that had to be enough.

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu was a coward.

Unfortunately, knowing this did not make it any easier for him to force out the confession choking him.  He held his soulmate and searched for the right words, but none came to mind.  Each sentence was thornier than the last, stabbing barbed nails into his throat whenever he opened his mouth to speak.  Instead of a confession, he kept murmuring promises – vague, useless things that might not have been lies, but certainly weren’t true either.

He should have told Wen Kexing last night, or this morning, or any of a dozen times on the trip to Mount Qingya.  He’d had so many opportunities, but has shied away from each one – it hadn’t been the right time, or Chengling had been in earshot, or Wen Kexing had given him those flirtatious, hungry looks he loved so much, and kissing had seemed easier than speaking…

But now he could feel Wen Kexing’s eyes on him, assessing and questioning.  Such fragility in that gaze, such uncertainty – his masks were gone, and it made Zhou Zishu ache to turn back time and protect his shidi the way he’d always failed to do.

He ran his hands down Wen Kexing’s back, feeling the ridge of his spine too prominent beneath layers of cloth.  Fragile… maybe that wasn’t the right word.  Wen Kexing was fragile like a diamond was fragile.  Strong enough to cut through anything, but one blow in the right place, and the gem would shatter.

Zhou Zishu did not want his impulsive, reckless decision to be that blow.  He’d been the foolish one – let him and him alone bear the consequences.  Let Wen Kexing take Chengling back to Siji Pavilion and live a good life, a happy life.  Let the two of them rebuild the sect with the Window of Heaven recruits – even if Zhou Zishu’s life was fading, Siji Pavilion could live on.

His arms tightened around his soulmate.  He had to say something.

But his mouth stayed stubbornly closed, unwilling to break the quiet peace, until a tentative knock sounded at the door.  “Guzhu?” a voice called.  “Your, uh, visitors are here.”

Wen Kexing swept to his feet, all traces of vulnerability submerged in an instant beneath a playful smile and ice-cold eyes.  “Well.  Shall we see what they have to say?”  He held out a hand to Zhou Zishu.

Zhou Zishu allowed his soulmate to pull him up, but made no move towards the door.  “Lao Wen, let me handle this.”

A crack shot through the ice in Wen Kexing’s eyes.  “Don’t worry, my lovely soulmate, I am more than capable of wringing a few answers from a man like Mo Huaiyang.”

“I’m sure you are,” Zhou Zishu replied dryly.  “But you wanted a bath, didn’t you?  And the Gentle Wind Sword Sect is here on your sufferance and yours alone.  It doesn’t hurt to remind them of that.”  And, this way, he could keep a few drops of blood off his soulmate’s hands, should more forceful methods of persuasion become necessary.

“Ah, A-Xu, brilliant as always!”  His laugh was shaky but real.  “Is this your way of telling me I stink?”

Zhou Zishu looked him up and down.  “You’ve seen better days.”

“A-Xuuuu, so cruel!” Wen Kexing whined.  His lips quirked up.  “I’ll go get a bath on one condition.” 

He paused, letting the suspense grow until Zhou Zishu smacked his shoulder.  “What?” he growled.

Wen Kexing winked.  “That you join me afterwards, of course!”

The thought of a hot bath was almost enough to make Zhou Zishu reconsider his plan.  Mo Huaiyang and his disciples could stew in the dungeons for another hour or two, couldn’t they?

But then Wen Kexing would probably demand to be there for the interrogation.

Zhou Zishu knew it wouldn’t be the first time, or even the hundredth.  Hell, his soulmate had literally taken a man to pieces just this morning!  Wen Kexing as the Valley Master was glorious, all jagged edges and flashing eyes… just the memory made the darkest parts of Zhou Zishu croon.  He did not want to deny that part of his soulmate, the part that resonated so strongly with his own hungry demons.

But, foolish though it was, he wanted to protect his shidi.

So he inclined his head.  “How could I deny such a humble request?”

Wen Kexing’s kiss felt like a promise.  “Don’t keep your wife waiting too long.”

Before he could blurt out all the things he wanted to spill, Zhou Zishu turned and strode for the door.

The ghost outside stammered something incomprehensible as Zhou Zishu emerged.  Then, belatedly, he sank into a deep bow.  “My lord!  Uh…”  His voice squeaked.

Am I truly that terrifying? Zhou Zishu mused.  Given that he was still wearing the Valley Master’s bloody handprint as a collar, maybe he was.  (Maybe he should have washed it off in the long hours since the hall, but he hadn’t.  He chose not to interrogate why.)

“My lord, um, this unworthy one begs to be permitted a question?”

Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes.  “What?”

“I, um, this unworthy one would like to know what you, uh, want me to do?”

“Lead me to the prisoners, of course.”  Shouldn’t that have been obvious?

The ghost paled.  “The, um… the Valley Master?”

It wasn’t a question, per se, but Zhou Zishu thought he understood anyway.  “Has tasked me with this,” he replied firmly.  “You may ask him if you wish.”

As he’d expected, the ghost was frantically shaking his head before the last words had died away.  “No, no, of course, of course!”  He gulped.  “This way, my lord.”

‘My lord’ was going to get annoying, but Zhou Zishu didn’t give the ghost his name.  Pengju probably knew where he was, but there was no point in making it easier for him in case a ghost got the enterprising idea to turn traitor.  After the display this morning, he judged that unlikely, but he’d never lost money betting on people’s stupidity.

The cells were, predictably, deep underground, to the point where even Zhou Zishu was beginning to feel claustrophobic.  The ghost had retrieved a lantern from a hook at the top of the stairwell, and its flickering flame provided the only light in the meandering corridors.  Rats scurried away from the encroaching shadows, their claws skittering over stone the only sound to break the heavy silence.

Down and down and down they went, through corridors that narrowed with every flight of stairs.  The halls above had a certain rough elegance to them, but these had been hewn roughly and ignored for decades.  Twice, Zhou Zishu stepped on something that crunched beneath his boot; once, his guide kicked away a half-rotted rat carcass with a squelch.

Zhou Zishu was starting to wonder if this was some sort of trap when his ears caught the faint sound of whimpering from up ahead.  It grew louder as they turned the corner, and it didn’t take long for him to spot the source – a teenage disciple with his teeth clenched around a belt while another boy yanked a strip of cloth tight around his upper thigh.  Blood had turned his blue robes a dark brown, made darker by the dim light.  They’d been permitted torches, but only two, and both were guttering, producing more smoke than light.

“The, uh, prisoners, my lord,” the ghost declared inanely.

Zhou Zishu held out his hand.  “Give me the lantern.  Then you may leave.”

The ghost looked like he wanted to argue, but kept his mouth shut as he passed over the lantern.  Smart man.  The way back up was straightforward enough – if he kept his head, he’d be fine.

As he scuttled out of sight, Zhou Zishu set the lantern on the ground.  Mo Huaiyang pushed past his disciples to glare.  “Prisoners?  Is this how you treat those seeking your help, Valley Master?”

Zhou Zishu barked a laugh.  “I’m flattered.  You think the Valley Master has time for you?”

The old master bared his teeth.  “We come in peace, requesting asylum, and you put us in a cell?  Is this how you treated my disciple, too?  Or is he already worm food down here?”

“Someone requesting asylum might think to keep a civil tongue in his head,” Zhou Zishu pointed out rather than answer the question.  Let the man sweat a bit.

“Fetch your master, ghost, and I’ll consider it,” Mo Huaiyang retorted.

“The Valley Master will see you when he chooses,” Zhou Zishu replied.  He kept his tone level, almost lazy, enjoying the way Mo Huaiyang flushed with rage.  For someone supposedly in dire need of help, he had enough arrogance to drown a cat.

His disciples, though… their condition did bear out his story.  Most sported bandages – the boy on the ground was the worst off, but Zhou Zishu spotted slings and makeshift poultices aplenty.  Even the ones tending the others limped along with bruised faces, wincing and hissing under their breath as they bent or knelt.

Mo Huaiyang’s robes, though, bore nothing more than a few smears of mud.  Zhou Zishu looked him up and down.  “What happened?”

“Scorpion Sect.”  The words came out as a snarl.  “Fetch your master and I’ll tell him the full story.  I won’t speak to a lackey.”  His voice turned sly.  “I promise, it’ll be worth his while.”

Zhou Zishu let his voice turn cold.  “You will speak to me, or you will rot down here.”

Before Mo Huaiyang could answer, another man wound his way through the throng.  “It’s alright,” he said quietly, laying a hand on Mo Huaiyang’s shoulder.  “Am I right in thinking, young master, that you are the one Miss Gu Xiang spoke of, the friend of her master?”

When Zhou Zishu nodded curtly, the man bowed.  “I am called Fan Huaikong.  It is an honor to meet you.”

“Fan-qianbei.”  Zhou Zishu didn’t bow, but he did dip his head just enough to annoy Mo Huaiyang, whose face was turning from red to purple.  Any angrier, and he might burst.

Fan Huaikong touched his sect leader’s arm.  “Would you help A-Ling with the wounded?  Some are depleted enough they risk going into shock soon.”  He looked back at Zhou Zishu.  “The Scorpion Sect has harried us the whole way here, I’m afraid.”

“And how did you draw the anger of the scorpions?”

Mo Huaiyang, who hadn’t moved, flinched at that.  Zhou Zishu pretended not to notice, but Fan Huaikong sighed.  “Please?” he asked his sect leader.

Grumbling under his breath, Mo Huaiyang moved away, and Fan Huaikong’s shoulders relaxed.  “My apologies,” he offered.  “It’s been a long week.”

“For some more than others,” Zhou Zishu observed.  Unlike his sect leader, Fan Huaikong reeked of sweat, dried blood, and medicinal herbs.  Though he didn’t have any visible injuries, he stood favoring one leg, and his breath was shallow.

Fan Huaikong’s face shifted before settling back into weary lines.  Agreement?  Protest?  It was too dark, and the emotion too fleeting, for Zhou Zishu to tell, but the reaction itself was useful.  He filed it away before saying, “The Gentle Wind Sword Sect is not a friendless one.  Why come to the valley of ghosts?”

Fan Huaikong glanced over his shoulder.  “In truth?  We had nowhere else to go.”

“Obviously,” Zhou Zishu drawled.

Fan Huaikong flushed.  “What do you want me to…”  He took a deep breath, fists unclenching at his sides.  “My apologies.”

A better man than Zhou Zishu might have been ashamed about baiting an exhausted, injured elder.  Zhou Zishu merely said, “You haven’t answered the question.”

Fan Huaikong slumped.  “The jianghu is in turmoil.  The Scorpion Sect now fights side by side with imperial soldiers, and no one can escape the anger of the crown.  To ask for shelter would be to bring a pack of wolves straight to the door of whoever was kind enough to grant us aid.”

His phrasing, eerily close to the words Wen Kexing used, made Zhou Zishu shiver.  “And so you bring the wolves here, instead?” he asked to cover it.

“The wolves were already here,” Fan Huaikong snapped back.  He bowed his head.  “With the relationship between Weining and Miss Xiang, we hoped to presume on familial ties.”

Zhou Zishu raised an eyebrow.  Given the way Gu Xiang had described the sect, ‘familial’ was not the word he would have chosen.  “A slender reed to rest all your hopes on.  Not to mention the lives of your disciples.”

That drew a flinch from the older man, a reflexive twitch towards the sword he wasn’t wearing.  “We had no choice!”  A shaky breath.  “With what we’re carrying…”

When he didn’t continue, Zhou Zishu stared at him.  He stared back for a long moment, defiant, before sagging.  “I’m sure you can guess.”  He glanced back at Mo Huaiyang.  “Three pieces of the Glazed Armor, young master.  That’s what we’ve brought.  For whatever good it will do,” he added bitterly.

Zhou Zishu could taste that same bitterness as it flooded his throat.  Were they never to be free of the cursed stuff?  He was tempted to demand the pieces right now so he could grind them into dust.  Let the damn armory remained sealed forever!

The armory might have the secret to curing you, a little voice whispered in the back of his head.  As if his withered meridians could hear, they sent a bolt of lightning down his spine.

He ignored both the pain and the voice.  He already knew the cost that the Yin Yang Book would inflict, and it wasn’t one he was willing to ask someone to pay.

Fan Huaikong shifted on his feet.  “Will you inform the Valley Master of this?  I hate to ask, but…”  His glance this time was to his disciples.  “Our wounded need tending, and this is not a place conducive to healing.  Of course,” he added quickly, “I understand your need for caution, and we are grateful for the food and water you’ve provided.”

Zhou Zishu ran an eye over the disciples.  Most were Chengling’s age, if that…  The scars from the meat hooks throbbed.

“I’ll speak to the Valley Master,” he decided.  Surely the youngest members didn’t need to stay down here in the dark and damp – most looked like they couldn’t walk more than a few steps without collapsing.  Even if they wanted to cause trouble, it wouldn’t take much to dissuade them.

Fan Huaikong bowed low.  “You have my thanks,” he murmured.

Zhou Zishu picked up the lantern, then made to step away.  The older man tensed.  “Unless there’s anything else?” Zhou Zishu asked.

After a second, Fan Huaikong shook his head.  “No.  No, young master, that’s all.”

It wasn’t all – secrets upon secrets lurked within this sect.  Zhou Zishu could feel them reaching out spidery legs, weaving a nasty little web over everyone in the cell.  A web that troubled Fan Huaikong, if his downcast eyes and tight jaw were any indication.  He would be easy enough to break, if it came to that – a sympathetic ear alone might be enough.

That, though, would be better accomplished without Mo Huaiyang in earshot.  And possibly after a bath and a night in a proper bed.  Simple comforts could win over a man faster than any torture could open his mouth, after all.

Zhou Zishu found himself strangely grateful that he hadn’t needed to resort to torture.  He bowed once more to Fan Huaikong, ignored Mo Huaiyang’s aborted attempt to catch his attention, and swept out of the corridor with steady, measured steps.

Those steps faltered as soon as he rounded the corner.  His body ached, and every nail-wound burned as though he’d stabbed himself once again.  His lungs felt too tight, while his knees threatened to buckle beneath him as he climbed the first set of stairs.

His hands were shaking, he noted clinically.  He couldn’t feel it, but the trembling shadows cast by the lantern made it clear.  He pressed a palm to the wall beside him.  Why now?  Was a short walk now enough to tax his body?

No.  He would not accept that.  His ability to control his qi might be faltering, but he had energy still.  He would not abandon his soulmate yet, not with this new problem that had shown up on their doorstep.

Soon, though… no.  Whatever secrets the Gentle Wind Sword Sect held, whatever plots the Scorpion King was enacting, Zhou Zishu would not let them take one more drop of blood from his shidi.  One way or another, he’d find a way to fix things.  Soon.

***

Wen Kexing was sprawled in a large copper bathtub when Zhou Zishu entered his quarters.  His clothes hung over the screen that surrounded the tub; a fire crackled cheerfully in a brazier nearby.

When he spotted Zhou Zishu, he waved a languid hand.  “My lovely A-Xu has returned to fulfill his promise!  I shall send a servant for more hot water.”

Zhou Zishu’s mouth went dry as he took in the sight of his zhiji.  Wen Kexing might have been a fox spirit, supernaturally alluring, with long, silken hair unbound and pale skin coated with droplets.  Though his ribs pressed too starkly against his skin, wiry muscles rippled as he moved, proof of his strength.  The water concealed just enough to give him a hint of mystery.

Zhou Zishu, aching in more ways than one, knelt beside the bath.  “Ah, Lao Wen.”  He took his soulmate’s hand, caressing the palm.  He tried to force his hand not to shake.  “First, business.”

“Always so serious,” Wen Kexing whined.  All traces of his earlier panic and self-loathing had vanished along with the blood that had coated him, buried somewhere too deep to show.

You can always show me those parts of you, Zhou Zishu wanted to say.  But now was not the time.  “Yes, business.  It won’t take long, I promise.”

Wen Kexing heaved a sigh.  “So what did our unwanted guests want?”

Zhou Zishu arched an eyebrow.  “Why do I get the feeling you already know?”

“Maybe I have a pretty good guess,” Wen Kexing purred.  “But I can’t be right all the time, you know, A-Xu.”  He winked.

Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes.  “They come fleeing the Scorpion Sect and bearing three pieces of the Glazed Armor.  The latter is, I presume, the cause of the former, as well as the reason they could not seek shelter with any of their allied sects.”  He shifted his weight between his knees.  Now that he wasn’t moving, the pain dancing through his body had subsided, but it lingered deep in his bones.

As he’d expected, Wen Kexing didn’t appear shocked by this news.  “I wonder what the little scorpion wants to do now that his daddy is gone.”  His laugh was cruel.  “Is this his way of making a death-offering?”

“Or the price for his alliance with Prince Jin.”  Zhou Zishu pursed his lips at the thought.  His cousin did not need the secrets hidden in that armory.  Ye Baiyi’s recipe for immortality alone would be a disaster, and if the Yin Yang Book could cure what Zhou Zishu had done to him…

“Oh, I don’t think the little scorpion will ever serve another master willingly.  Though he’d gladly stab one in the back…”  There was something almost approving in Wen Kexing’s voice.

“Fan Huaikong, one of the elders of the sect, asked if we might consider moving them into more commodious quarters,” Zhou Zishu said, rather than address that.

“Ah, A-Xiang spoke fondly of him.  Or, well, fondly for her.”  Wen Kexing chuckled again, but this laugh held nothing but amusement.  “What would you suggest, my brilliant zhiji?  Shall we cradle the serpents to our breasts?”

“Most are injured.  Not to mention young.”  He offered that up flatly.

Wen Kexing eyed him.  “I suppose a philanthropist wouldn’t keep injured children in the dungeons, would they?”  A hint of vulnerability flickered over his face.

“A philanthropist would carry a scorpion over the river on his back, heedless of the danger,” Zhou Zishu replied.

Wen Kexing smirked at that, laying one hand on the side of the tub.  “You said most, my A-Xu.  Not all?”

It took Zhou Zishu a second to understand.  “Their leader showed no signs of injury.  Nor of fighting.”  Possibly, he was sufficiently skilled to emerge from a long chase unscathed, but Zhou Zishu had fought both scorpions and Drug Men before.  He wouldn’t have laid long odds on his own ability to remain pristine after days of fleeing from them.  Either Mo Huaiyang was of a far higher caliber than most masters in the jianghu, or something else was going on.

Zhou Zishu would bet on the latter.

Wen Kexing’s eyes lit up as though he was following the same train of thought.  “It seems like we have a lovely opportunity here, A-Xu.  An enemy at our gates, their quarry safely inside, bearing such a valuable cargo… hmm.  Perhaps we should utilize this situation.”

Fox spirit indeed, Zhou Zishu thought.  Mischief danced in Wen Kexing’s dark eyes, a sure sign he was spinning one of his convoluted plots.  That should have alarmed Zhou Zishu, given how the last one went, but… he swallowed.  Was it wrong to find that expression appealing?

Wen Kexing sat up in the bath, water cascading off of him.  “There, A-Xu.  Is that sufficient business for you?  Or will you let your wife pine away for want of her husband?”

Zhou Zishu swayed forward before he could stop himself, only to hiss as claws sank into his muscles.  Seven bright sparks of pain flared, followed a heartbeat later by two more beneath his collarbone.  He bit back a curse.

Wen Kexing’s eyes narrowed.  “Are the nails so bad right now?”  He caught Zhou Zishu’s hand.  “My ghosts spotted your friends approaching the mountain, you know.  They’ll be here soon.  They’ll fix it.”

Such naked joy in those words.  Such hope.  Arousal withered, replaced by such deep sorrow it made Zhou Zishu’s eyes prickle.  “Lao Wen…”  He couldn’t put this off any longer.  “Lao Wen.”

Wen Kexing’s fingers tightened.  “What is it?”

Zhou Zishu looked down.  “I have to tell you something.”

The first flickers of alarm darted across Wen Kexing’s face.  He grabbed Zhou Zishu’s other arm with his free hand, nails digging into the skin.  “Don’t say it.  If you’re going to tell me Wu Xi can’t cure you, don’t say it.  I won’t believe it.”

With aching slowness, Zhou Zishu pulled his arms away.  His throat was clogged, tongue heavy – he couldn’t force the words out.  Not that he had words, anyway.  Not for this.

Instead, he reached for the ties of his robe.  Layer by layer, he peeled back the fabric under his soulmate’s flaying gaze.  His skin flushed hot and cold by turns, and he couldn’t look his Lao Wen in the eyes – he kept his focus on the cloth beneath his hands, fingers trembling with nerves and pain in equal measure.

When the last robe fell away, he straightened his shoulders and let Wen Kexing look his fill.

Chapter Text

The silence was worse than any shouting.  Zhou Zishu tensed his abdomen to keep from shifting beneath Wen Kexing’s gaze, though every instinct urged him to recoil.  His skin felt like it was being peeled from his chest; pain was a steady drumbeat that matched the pounding of his heart.  Fast, too fast… he couldn’t get enough air.  His lungs and throat had both closed down, and his head was spinning.

Wen Kexing reached out, fingers hovering over the gash left by the nails.  Wanting to touch, but not daring.

Zhou Zishu knew how brutal the injuries looked, even a week after they’d been inflicted.  He hadn’t bothered to be careful when he’d dug the nails out of his flesh – the pain had been an expiation, a relief.  The wounds now were raw and seeping, their edges pink and puffy.  If he’d had more time left in this life, he might have worried about infection, but he’d be past the yellow bridge long before that became an issue.

Wen Kexing let his hand drift to another wound, then another.  “Why?” he whispered.

Zhou Zishu couldn’t answer.  Couldn’t find the words to explain the desperation and fury and horrible, tearing sorrow that had ripped him apart when he’d woken in that inn and realized it wasn’t a dream.  If it would have helped, he would have taken himself apart piece by piece to bring his Lao Wen back.  Seeing the body, so cold and still… he’d prayed for death then.

He wanted Wen Kexing to touch him, but the other man didn’t move.  “Why?” he repeated.

Zhou Zishu bowed his head.  “For you.”

Wen Kexing’s hand clenched into a fist as he dropped it to his side.  Water splashed.  “Fool.”  His voice was low, almost too soft to hear.

Zhou Zishu didn’t know if the scornful word was directed to him or if Wen Kexing was speaking to himself.  He reached for something to say, some way to comfort his soulmate, but nothing came.  What could he say?  It was done.

He couldn’t even be angry with Wen Kexing anymore.  Heavy sorrow had crept into every crevice of his body, enveloping him in fog darker than the cells beneath the mountain.  They might have had so many years together, but fate had had other plans.

He’d had almost a year to get used to the idea that he was dying.  It was surprising to find out that he didn’t want that anymore.

A thin ribbon of red spread out in the bath.  Zhou Zishu jerked his head up in time to get a faceful of water as Wen Kexing surged out of the tub.  His nails had pierced his palms, and small crimson rivulets joined the clear tides flooding off him as he glared down at Zhou Zishu.  “When were you planning on telling me?”

Zhou Zishu looked down at his hands, pressed to his knees in a futile attempt to stop their trembling.  “I…”  When I had to.  When I thought you could bear it.  Neither were good answers.

Wen Kexing’s laugh shattered in the air.  “All that fury about my lies, and you turn around and do this?  So much for that trust you wanted.”

A hot spark in his chest drove Zhou Zishu to his feet.  “I didn’t want to hurt you.”

Wen Kexing stepped out of the tub.  Ignoring the puddles of water that followed him, he strode over to his clothes and yanked on his trousers.  Their hems immediately darkened with water, but he ignored that too.  “Ah, yes, the noble A-Xu.”  He tipped his head to the side like a cat surveying a mouse.  “Always thinking of others.  So charitable.”

The words punched Zhou Zishu in the gut.  He took a faltering step backwards, unable to meet Wen Kexing’s burning glare.  “I…”  Was scared.  Didn’t want to lose you.

Wen Kexing’s lips curled into a sneer.  “Is this your way of teaching me a lesson?  Some sort of revenge for…”  He hesitated for a single moment.  “For what I did to you.”

“No!” Zhou Zishu snapped.  But the words still hung in the air, bitter as tears.  Some little kernel of them glittered with truth, or something like truth – something that resonated with the darkest, most broken parts inside him.

Had he wanted Wen Kexing to know what it felt like?

He shook his head.  “I… I thought you were dead, Lao Wen!  What was I supposed to do?”

“Live!”  Wen Kexing’s voice cracked.  “You were supposed to live!”

“Without you?”  Zhou Zishu swallowed hard.  “Why would I want that?”

They stared at each other, stalemated.  Zhou Zishu was breathing hard, as though he’d been running – his heart certainly felt like he’d been running, but lassitude filled his muscles.  He couldn’t have moved even if he wanted to.

“Fuck.”  It came out splintered, harsh – a match for the expression that flitted across Wen Kexing’s face before he drew on a mask once more.  “You let me think we had forever.”

“I told you I couldn’t promise you that,” Zhou Zishu snarled. 

“What else was I supposed to think when you said you would never leave me?”

“You think I want to leave?”  Zhou Zishu swept a hand down his bare chest.  “You think I want this?”

Wen Kexing barked a laugh.  “Are you telling me you don’t?”  He took a step forward, eyes wild and hands clenched so tight his knuckles were white.  “You put those damn nails in yourself, then resisted every possible attempt to find a cure.”

The words ripped the air from Zhou Zishu’s lungs.  “I thought…”  He had to force himself to breathe.  “I thought you understood why.”  Why I put the nails in.  Why I had to.  If his soulmate didn’t understand that…

His head was spinning.  He couldn’t get enough air.  Zhiji.  Please.  Tell me you understand.

Wen Kexing flung out his arms.  “Oh, I understand, alright.  Self-sacrificing, noble bullshit!”  He prowled closer, until Zhou Zishu could feel the heat of his body.  He hadn’t bothered to put on anything but trousers, and little droplets of water beaded on his bare chest.  “You thought that killing yourself in the most excruciating way possible would be a fitting punishment for the blood on your hands.”  His breath ghosted over Zhou Zishu’s ear.  “Are you happy now?”

Zhou Zishu shoved him backwards.  “Happy?”  It was his turn to laugh, feral and wild.  “Why would I be?”

Something savage shone in Wen Kexing’s eyes.  “How much longer do you have?”

Anger drained from Zhou Zishu like water from a broken pot.  “A few weeks.  Maybe.”

Wen Kexing’s eyes shuttered.  “For whom shall I trail a forlorn shadow flying over ten thousand miles of grey clouds and mountains of night snow?[1]” he murmured to himself.  Slowly, as though he expected Zhou Zishu to step away, he reached out once more.  His fingers barely brushed Zhou Zishu’s skin, but they felt like brands nonetheless.  “A-Xu, my A-Xu… you lied to me.”

He’d wanted that touch, but now he couldn’t stand it.  He stepped backwards.  “I know.”

Wen Kexing closed his eyes.  “It’s my fault, isn’t it?”

In a very real sense, it was.  And it wasn’t.  Zhou Zishu said neither.

The silence stretched on until Wen Kexing, in a sudden burst of movement, spun away.  “Dammit.  Fuck you, A-Xu.  Fuck you.”  He grabbed a robe from the pile hanging over the screen.  “Damn all of this!”

Zhou Zishu didn’t, couldn’t move as Wen Kexing stormed out of the room.

***

His soulmate was dying.

Wen Kexing had thought he’d grown used to that thought by now, but Wu Xi had planted a little seed of hope in his heart, and it had spread its tendrils throughout his chest.  Zhou Zishu’s confession had ripped it out by its roots and taken his heart with it.

He prodded the skin over his ribs.  It shouldn’t have been unblemished – there should have been a gaping hole there, a mess of blood and muscle and bone gleaming white, white, white amidst the carnage.

It would be so easy to make that hole, let himself bleed out all the feelings he wanted to shriek to the heavens.  And that would be fair, wouldn’t it?  If his soulmate had weeks to live, why should he bother to survive any longer?

That’s what your A-Xu thought, isn’t it? a little voice whispered inside him.

Wen Kexing choked out a broken laugh.  They really were like the two geese in Yuan Haowen’s story.  One shot down by a hunter, and the other, grief-stricken, chose to plunge to the earth and snap its own neck rather than spend the rest of its life chasing a shadow over the mountains.  Except the first goose wasn’t really dead.

He wanted to laugh, or cry, or scream.  He was such a fool.

Wine.  Wine would drown the seething mass of worms in his gut, would let him think past the hot red rage spilling into every crevice of his being.  Surely there was still good wine somewhere in this forsaken mountain.

“A-Xing?”

He spun, teeth bared, and glared at Luo Fumeng.  “Whatever it is, I don’t...” he started. 

If any other ghost had dared to interrupt him, they would be bleeding out on the floor right now.  Luo Fumeng had to know that, but she just looked at him with painful gentleness in her eyes.  He flinched away from her stare.  “Go away, Luo-yi.  Not now.”

She kept looking at him.  He dug his nails into his palms, fighting the urge to lash out, to make her stop looking at him like he was the soft, small thing he’d been once upon a time.  He didn’t need her pity or her help – there was nothing she could do to help here.

But she kept looking, kept waiting.  He spun on his heel, but he could still feel her eyes boring holes into his shoulder blades.

He didn’t intend to speak, but his voice came out clogged and rough anyway.  “He’s dying.”

Fabric whispered against fabric as she took a step closer.  “Who is, A-Xing?  Your lover?”

His fan was in his hand before he knew it.  With a vicious twist of his wrist, he sent it spiraling across the room to embed in a crimson drape hanging from the wall.  Heavy velvet ripped with a sound like skin peeling apart.

He was panting, he realized.  He hated that.

“A-Xing.  Look at me.”

It was her command voice, the one she’d used to stop him when he’d been about to get himself killed.  The one she used on the girls in the Department when they had no choice but to obey. 

Hackles rising, he looked back over his shoulder.  “Do you want to die, ayi?”

She narrowed her eyes at him.  “If you want to fight, A-Xing, I would be happy to oblige you.  But I don’t think that’s what you want, is it?”

He would win that fight.  He knew it, and he knew that she knew it, too.  It was enough to set him to laughing again.  “I don’t need anyone else dying for me.”

Her expression softened.  “He’s dying because of you, isn’t he?”

Though her tone was even, the words sliced into his gut and tore him open.  He gulped down air like a beached fish and wondered if this was what a rabbit felt like when a hunter took it apart.  He and A-Xu had killed and eaten so many rabbits on their travels...

Because of you.  “Yes,” he whispered.  What else could he say?  It was the truth, raw and unvarnished for once in his twisted life, and he wanted to scream it to the heavens if only it would bring his A-Xu back.

The word fell like a stone into a spring, leaving ripples in the air long after the echoes had died away.  Wen Kexing looked at the torn hanging rather than see whatever it was had crept into Luo Fumeng’s eyes – he didn’t want to know what she thought about the admission.

A touch on his shoulder made him snarl.  Luo Fumeng didn’t drop her hand.  “Come with me, A-Xing.  We should talk, you and I.”

For lack of anything better to do, Wen Kexing followed.

Luo Fumeng led him into a part of the mountain he hadn’t visited in far too long.  Perfume and laughter wreathed these halls; colorful silks turned the forbidding stone into something warm and welcoming.  Paintings, inexpert but lovely, filled the gaps between the hangings.  All the voices he could hear were lively, comfortable, unafraid – rare qualities all in Mount Qingya, and ones that made the worms churning in his gut roil faster.

He’d left these halls when he was just twelve, deemed old enough to live with the ghosts.  It had been a test, of course, and he’d passed it with flying colors in the end.

In the end.  In the first few years... well, he’d lived, hadn’t he?  And none of the men from those years still breathed.  That was all that mattered.

He’d made a point of staying away from the Department, back then.  The weak did not survive in Ghost Valley, and he had always planned on surviving.

Now, though, his throat tightened.  Sandalwood, amber, and cloves brought tantalizing wisps of memory as they brushed past him, carrying voices with them.  He knew each turn like the folds of his fan – the art might have changed, but the stone never did.  Smooth floors, polished by the passing of hundreds of feet, and rough walls glimpsed beneath silk.  Walls that had never tasted his blood or fear, unlike many in the valley...

None of the girls emerged from their rooms as he and Luo-yi passed.  He was grateful for that – he didn’t know what he’d do if they saw him and bowed, or, worse, fled.  He didn’t want to bring the sharp tang of terror to this light-filled haven.

Luo-yi ushered him into her personal quarters, which were richly decorated in all the colors of flame.  The red should have looked bloody, but instead it reminded him of fall at Siji Pavilion, when the leaves had turned red and orange and gold.  Swans soared up the pale screens dividing the room, lightening the ambiance; cream-colored pillows rested on the low chairs surrounding the table in the center.  Everything was elegant, but it was far warmer than any of the jianghu manors he’d been in.  Instead of tasteless displays of wealth, she’d spent her money on comfort, and it showed.

She waved him to one of the low stools around the table, settling herself on another in a flurry of skirts.  “Tell me, A-Xing.  Why did you return?”

It was not the question he had been expecting.  With a false laugh, he took the seat she’d indicated.  “Why, Luo-yi?  Are you not happy to see me?”

She didn’t dignify that with a response, and, after a moment, he sighed.  “Should I not have?”

Her eyes darkened as she studied him, and he clenched his hands around his knees rather than leap to his feet as his instincts urged him to do.  What was she seeing?  How many secrets was she digging out of him without him needing to say a word?  She’d known him once, but he’d closed himself off from her years before taking over the valley, and she’d always kept a proper distance between them.

Now, though, all bets were off.  She smoothed down her flowing robes.  “You aren’t happy here, are you?”

He snorted.  “Are you, ayi?”

To his surprise, her lips twitched.  “This is where I belong.  I would not leave here if you gave me the option.”

It was his turn to study her.  “Why?” he asked softly.

Fabric rustled as she shrugged.  “There is work here.  And I am a ghost in truth, A-Xing.  I do not belong in the human world anymore.  You, though… love can provide even the worst ghost with a path back to life, if you choose to walk it.  Yet you’ve turned away from that path, it seems.”

The breath hissed out of Wen Kexing.  Had he?  His fingers crumpled the silk beneath them.  “You go too far.”

“Because it’s true?”  She arched an eyebrow.

He bared his teeth.  “I did not have a choice, Luo-yi.  It was return or die.”  Though, knowing what he knew now… ah, to turn back time and make a different choice.  Better to wait for his A-Xu on the other side of the bridge than to wait here while his A-Xu deteriorated in front of his eyes.  What was he here, truly?  Just the old toad monster’s leashed dog.

“And who would dare give the Valley Master such an ultimatum?”

Wrenched back to the present, he glared at her.  No one should have known about his deal with Ye Baiyi, but something other than curiosity lurked beneath her pleasant tone.  “Does it matter?” he demanded.

Damn the old monster.  If they hadn’t spent a week traveling here, would his A-Xu have told him sooner?  Would they have had a few more precious days together, a few more days to search for a cure?  The Great Shaman had been right there, so close, if only he’d known how urgent it was.

Instead, he’d been a fool.  Making so many promises, glorying in the knowledge that Zhao Jing was surely serving his rightful punishments by now, careless and carefree and stupid.  So very, very stupid.  The signs had all been there, if only he’d paid more attention – the way his A-Xu wouldn’t disrobe, his increased speed and stamina, the slivers of sorrow in his eyes when he thought no one was looking – it should have been obvious.

Maybe he could kill all the ghosts.  That would fulfill his promise to Ye Baiyi, wouldn’t it?  And it’d be such a glorious way to die – not even he could take on every ghost in the valley, not if he wanted to live.  But he and his A-Xu could cut down so many of them before they fell, and then they could fall together.  End the scourge of Ghost Valley and fall, fall, fall… fall as they should have fallen over that damn cliff, falling together until the end.

He didn’t realize his eyes were stinging until the first tear slipped down his cheek.  He dashed it away and glared at Luo-yi, daring her to comment, but she said nothing.

After too long, he looked away.  “I thought he was going to live.  I thought we had a cure.  But I was a fool.”

“The cure failed?” she asked cautiously.

He barked a bitter laugh.  “No.  No, we never got a chance to try it.  And then…”  His voice faltered.  “As I said.  I was a fool.”

“Why don’t you start from the beginning?” she suggested.  Her voice was low, gentle, as though she was trying to coax a fawn out of the underbrush.

He should have taken offense at that, but that would have required energy.  His shoulders slumped.   “Fine.”

Piece by piece, he laid out the full story.  She knew some fragments of his plan, but not most, and he caught her eyes widening at several moments in the tale.  But her face remained composed until he finished.  “Ah, A-Xing…” she breathed, breaking the silence at last.

He looked down.  “You are right, ayi.  I shouldn’t have returned.”

“That is not your first mistake, and you know it,” she replied tartly.

His head flew up.  She lifted both of her hands in surrender, but her face remained implacable as he glared at her.  It would be so, so easy to punish her for such impudence, teach her that he was no longer the boy she’d raised and scolded and taught… so easy.

Too easy.  He started laughing once more, wheezing in great gulps of air.  “Ah, Luo-yi…”  His stomach muscles burned with the unexpected exertion, and he pressed a hand to his belly.  “Dammit.  I know, ayi, I know.”  Each breath peeled away another fragment of the Valley Master mask like a snake shedding the last shreds of its skin, and he felt his chest loosen with each one.  It should have been terrifying – a rabbit exposing its soft underbelly to the waiting wolf – but it made him want to fly.

Luo Fumeng watched patiently as he collected himself.  It took him several more minutes, but, at long last, he looked up.  His head swam like he’d been in a fever dream that had just broken, and maybe he had.

He took a breath.  “What should I do, ayi?  He’s dying!”

“You have never given up on anything before,” she told him after a second.  “Why are you giving up now?”

“I’m not,” he scoffed.

She gave him a look.  No words, just that look of hers that said she knew far more than you did.

He looked right back, then huffed.  “What?”  He wasn’t giving up – he would never give up on his A-Xu!  Even if he did want to smack the man for keeping such a secret.

“Are you telling me there’s nothing you or anyone else can do?”  She was still giving him that look.  “What about those guests you have approaching?”

Wen Kexing’s heart skipped a beat.  Not because of the Great Shaman – the man had been very clear that the nails needed to be removed slowly, with proper precautions.  Wen Kexing would ask, of course, but he didn’t have much hope that the Great Shaman would be able to reverse Zhou Zishu’s abominable decision.

But he had other guests at the moment, ones he should probably have removed from the dungeons soon.  And they carried a gift with them.

His smile was all teeth.  “Ah, Luo-yi, you’re right again.  I’d given up too soon.”  Maybe fate was smiling on him, just a little.  Three pieces of Glazed Armor here already, and the other two?  Oh, little scorpion, it seems I’m not done with you yet.

The start of a scheme tumbled through his mind.  Just shards, as of yet – it would need to simmer – but it lit a fire in him nonetheless.  His A-Xu would not die if Wen Kexing had anything to say about it.

Luo Fumeng returned his smile with a gentler one.  “I’m glad, A-Xing.”  She hesitated.

It took him a moment to notice, so wrapped up he was in the unfurling plan.  He blinked at her, then snorted.  “Ah, Luo-yi, I suppose you sought me out for a reason, didn’t you?  And this wasn’t it.”  He gestured at the space, and couldn’t quite hide the tinge of sadness in his voice.  Chicks couldn’t go back in the egg, but he didn’t want to leave her rooms.  Not yet.

She inclined her head.  “As a matter of fact, yes.”  Her white hair gleamed as she turned to study something on the far wall.  “It’s about Wang Feiyan.”

The name snapped into place after a moment of searching.  “Ah, yes, our newest ghost.  What about her?”  Hmm.  Maybe he could use her as more than a potential assassin – someone who had the ear of Duan Pengju could be quite helpful, if he could get the other pieces in place.

Luo-yi’s quiet cough drew his attention back to her.  “Did you…”  She bit her lip.  “I do not mean to question your decisions, guzhu.  But did you consider that she could serve you better here, and not as a prostitute?”

His spine straightened automatically at the title.  He had to force himself to swallow, mouth suddenly dry.  How easily the masks return.  Already, he could feel the Valley Master worming its way back under his skin, one splinter of glass at a time.

He sucked in a breath and pushed them back out.  “It’s a fair question,” he told her.

Her shoulders sank down just a hair.  He tried not to show how much that hurt.  “It is,” he repeated.  “I…”  To say that he’d considered other assignments would be a lie.  “She will serve me well there.”

“As she would elsewhere.”  Luo Fumeng smoothed down the skirts of her already-pristine robes.  “She is more than her sex, A-Xing.  More than a pretty face.”

“She accepted the assignment,” he protested.

Luo Fumeng sighed.  “I know.”

It sounded like a denial.  It sounded like sorrow and pain, a songbird beating its wings against a cage that would never yield, never bend.  Wen Kexing reached out to touch her hand.  “I will recall her, if you wish.”  He could find another way to set the wheels in motion.

“No.”  Luo-yi shook her head.  “If you need her there, she can protect herself.  I have no fear there.  But…”

“I will remember your words,” he promised.  It was all he could think to say.

Her smile was small but real.  “Thank you, guzhu.”

Again, he fought against a flinch.  “Not guzhu.  Not to you.”

Her eyes softened, smile widening.  “A-Xing.  Thank you.”

He had to look away after a second.  He didn’t deserve her.  “Well.”  He stood, brushing off his sleeves.  “I shouldn’t take more of your time.”  Shouldn’t linger longer here, lest he become too soft to weave one last web.

Afterwards, though?

No.  He wouldn’t let himself dream of afterwards, just as he hadn’t let himself dream of anything past winning the valley from its former ruler.  Dreams could come once he’d put every piece in place and watched the last of his opponents burn.

And if that opponent was death itself?  His lips stretched into a feral grin.  Death itself would learn to yield to a ghost.

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu hadn’t planned to fall asleep, but the opening of the door startled him from an uneasy doze.  He bolted upright, one hand reaching for Baiyi, but he’d left the blade in the pile of clothes by the bed.

With a groan, he scrubbed a hand over his face.  Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his heart was racing, but he didn’t remember any dreams.  Just the sense that something was looming over him, ready to fall at any second.  Ready to crush him if he couldn’t dodge, and, yet, he didn’t move.  Couldn’t move.

The ever-growing heat filling his meridians sloshed as he swung his legs out from under the blankets.  The stone floor beneath his feet felt like a block of ice despite the fire in the brazier that should have kept the room warm.  Was he fevered, then?  Was that why he felt such lassitude?

Or was it merely that he didn’t want to face his zhiji?

Wen Kexing gave him no choice about the latter.  Zhou Zishu stiffened as his soulmate rounded the screen blocking the sleeping area from the rest of the room, expecting fury.  He would deserve fury.  For all that he’d said about trust, he hadn’t been able to bring himself to tear down his last barriers – Wen Kexing could and should excoriate him for that.

But his Lao Wen was beaming, ebullient.  “You are not going to die,” he announced.  “You’re not allowed to die.”

Zhou Zishu let his head fall backwards.  “Lao Wen.  You cannot stop it.”

“Perhaps.”  Wen Kexing gave him a small, secret smirk.  “Come, A-Xu, on your feet!  We have so many things to do and no time to do them.”

Zhou Zishu let himself be pulled to his feet.  “Things?”  He raised an eyebrow.

Wen Kexing scooped up his discarded outer robe and shoved it into his chest.  Tension vibrated through him, making his movements jerky, like those of a startled deer.  “Yes!  We have a wedding to plan!”

Of all the things he might have said, a wedding was nowhere on the list.  Zhou Zishu blinked.  “A… wedding.”  Had he misheard?  Had his senses begun to fail once more?

“Of course!”  Wen Kexing’s eyes gleamed with manic delight.  “My A-Xiang deserves the best of everything, doesn’t she?  And, since those fools from the Gentle Wind Sword Sect are here, it’s the perfect time, don’t you think?”

Zhou Zishu didn’t know what to say to that.  “A wedding?” he repeated.

“Oh, yes, and we’ll invite everyone, of course.”  Wen Kexing winked at him.  “We’ll even invite the old toad monster, though I doubt he’ll want to attend.  Oh, and I need to borrow your disciple, too.”

“Lao Wen, what are you planning?”  This was madness.  Had the news of Zhou Zishu’s impending death broken something in his soulmate?

What would you do if you knew he was going to die, hmm?

Zhou Zishu scowled at the little voice.  Not plan a wedding, that’s for sure.

Wen Kexing fluttered his eyelashes.  “Now, why would my devoted husband accuse me of such a dreadful thing?”

Zhou Zishu punched his shoulder.  It wasn’t a strong punch, but Wen Kexing flinched anyway, whining in pain.  “A-Xu!  How could you?”  He sniffed, dabbing at an imaginary tear.  “Do you hate me that much?”

The question bit deep, probably deeper than Wen Kexing had intended.  Zhou Zishu grabbed both of his upper arms and kissed him, biting his lower lip.  “Stop talking madness.”

Wen Kexing melted into him, warm and yielding and so, so perfect.  He tasted of tea and spices, so tantalizing that Zhou Zishu couldn’t resist claiming another kiss.  Being able to taste his soulmate was nothing short of heaven.

When they were both breathless, Wen Kexing pulled away, grinning.  “Ah, my A-Xu is such a wonderful husband.”

Zhou Zishu leveled a look at him.  “Don’t think I’ve forgotten that you still haven’t answered my question.”

Wen Kexing pouted.  “Don’t you think weddings are wonderful?”

“Weddings, yes,” Zhou Zishu replied dryly.  “Weddings under siege, though?  Did you forget that we have an army camped at our doorstep?”  Hadn’t he mentioned inviting guests?  Ye Baiyi would have no trouble getting past Prince Jin’s men, should he deign to appear, but who else did Wen Kexing want to invite?

“Oh, it’ll be no trouble.  Don’t worry so much, A-Xu, I have everything under control!”  He tugged at the robe which Zhou Zishu still clutched against his chest.  “Now get dressed, would you?  I have something to show you.”

“Lao Wen.”  Zhou Zishu made his voice stern.  “You promised not to lie to me anymore.”

Wen Kexing’s hands fluttered at his sides like wounded birds.  His gaze darted around the room before finally landing on Zhou Zishu once more, full of dark worry and something that burned like a forge.  “Ah, A-Xu…”  His voice faltered.  “Is it wrong for me to want to do this for you?”

“Depends what it is,” Zhou Zishu replied, still as sternly as he could manage.

As though unable to stand still, Wen Kexing began to pace.  “A-Xu, A-Xu… I would give you the world, if you desired it.  Burn it all down and lay the ashes at your feet.  Yet all I can give you is this description of my feelings.[1]  And, if you would allow it, one more gift.”  He looked over at Zhou Zishu, naked hunger in his gaze.  “Get dressed, A-Xu!”

Bemused, Zhou Zishu pulled on the robe, tying it securely at his waist before fastening his sash.  Baiyi followed, but Wen Kexing clucked his tongue.  “Don’t worry, A-Xu, none of the ghosts here would dare harm you.”

Zhou Zishu shrugged, but didn’t remove the blade.  Going without it felt like being naked, and he didn’t put as much faith in the ghosts’ terror as Wen Kexing did.  Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have needed the blade to take down a ghost or two, but, with the way his meridians were burning…

Wen Kexing brushed away a stray strand of hair.  “Ah, A-Xu, A-Xu…”  He swallowed, face contorting as he tried to force away something that looked a lot like sorrow.  Then a brilliant smile bloomed.  “Come!  I told you, I have a gift for you.”

Wen Kexing practically bounced as he led Zhou Zishu down hall after hall.  They were heading up, but, without windows, Zhou Zishu didn’t know where in the mountain they were until Wen Kexing pushed open a door and a wave of fresh air washed in.  Sunlight, bright enough to blind, spilled through as well, giving Wen Kexing a halo.  “Shhh,” he warned, stepping outside with one hand over his eyes.  “In case your horrid cousin has archers.”

Zhou Zishu would have laid good odds on his cousin having archers, but he followed his soulmate out anyway.  The warmth of a glorious day struck him like a blow, and he gasped.  He hadn’t ever thought Mount Qingya could be pretty, but the vista spread beneath him was stunning.  Harsh, yes – the hillside was filled with tough grass and tougher, thorny bushes.  But it was sprinkled with the hardiest wildflowers and dotted with rounded boulders whose smooth sides spoke of centuries of peace.  The sky above was a robin-egg blue, while the few clouds were white, puffy shapes that drifted lazily on breezes high above.

Wen Kexing leaned in until their shoulders were touching.  “I know it’s not Siji Pavilion,” he murmured.  “No flowers for all seasons.  But…”

He hesitated long enough that Zhou Zishu reached out and, without looking, intertwined their fingers.  Wen Kexing’s gulp was audible.  “I thought, maybe, it might come to be home.”

Home.  Oh, if only he had enough time to build a new home.  His eyes stung, and he blinked furiously.  “It’s lovely,” he managed.  “Lao Wen…”

Wen Kexing’s fingers trembled against his.  “No,” he interrupted.  “No giving me some speech about how you’re dying soon and I can’t fix it.  You’re not allowed to die, remember?”  He tried for a smile, but it was a raw, shaky thing.  “Besides.  All of your new disciples are on their way here as fast as they can travel.  You wouldn’t want to disappoint them, would you?”

When Zhou Zishu didn’t answer, Wen Kexing tugged him forward.  “Down there, see?”  He indicated a flatter place on the hillside.  “I thought… that might be a good spot for a new manor.  I know you can rebuild the old one, of course, but…”  He forced a chuckle.  “You wouldn’t want to abandon your wife here, would you?”

Zhou Zishu’s throat was too tight to speak.  He would not cry, he told himself.  He would not.

He had to repeat it over and over as Wen Kexing trotted down the slope, intent on showing off what seemed like every bush and boulder.  He’d forgotten about the possibility of archers, it seemed, but Zhou Zishu couldn’t sense anyone nearby, so he didn’t protest.

It would, he had to admit, be a gorgeous place to build a sect home.  The trails would be good endurance training for the disciples, and the cliffs he could see nearby could let him teach all manner of more advanced skills.  The meadow was small, but large enough for a reasonable home and training grounds. 

For several long minutes, he let himself sink into the dream.  “We could teach them to climb,” he told Wen Kexing, motioning towards the cliffs.

“Ah, yes, and when your foolish disciple falls?”

“They would need to learn other skills first,” Zhou Zishu admitted.  And he wouldn’t teach them the way he’d been taught, with no rope and the certainty of broken bones if he fell.  But being able to enter and exit places that no one else could was a valuable skill.

Wen Kexing laughed.  “As long as you do not make your humble shidi make a fool of himself in front of everyone, shixiong, I will accede to your plans!”

Zhou Zishu looked him up and down.  “No, you and I could train… separately.”

“Oh?”  Wen Kexing stepped closer.  “And is there a particular kind of training my shixiong might desire?”  He swayed in so his breath brushed Zhou Zishu’s cheek.  “Perhaps we could see who can pin the other.  A useful skill, evading another’s grasp, is it not?”

The image of Wen Kexing pinned beneath him in the dirt sent a flash of heat through Zhou Zishu.  “Impudent,” he growled.  “Perhaps we should start with something easier, such as the Swift-Moving Steps.”

“Ah, A-Xu, would you bind me to the back of a horse like you did poor Chengling?  Am I not too old for such harsh treatment?”

Zhou Zishu’s smile was edged and cruel.  “I would pity the horse.”  He turned in a slow circle.  “No, perhaps we should set up a weighted bag at the base of the hill, and have the disciples train on the incline.  It would build their stamina.”

Wen Kexing’s tongue darted out to wet his lips.  “Do I not have sufficient stamina for my A-Xu?” he purred.

Despite himself, Zhou Zishu felt his cheeks warm.  He should have chosen his words better.  “My Lao Wen is, as he so often claims, perfect in every aspect.”

“Does my shixiong wish a demonstration?”  Wen Kexing’s heat burned against Zhou Zishu’s skin.

Zhou Zishu closed his eyes, fighting down a surge of desire.  “Archers,” he reminded his soulmate, who pouted.

“Ah, A-Xu, you are far too practical!  Tell me what you’d want our home to look like.”

Grateful for the change in topic – it would be incredibly humiliating to be caught with his robes around his waist by Duan Pengju – he turned to survey the meadow.  “Big enough to hold the full sect,” he decided.  “Dormitories for the younger disciples, with rooms for married couples and the senior disciples, and a dining hall for all of us.”  When he’d been a young disciple, the meals with the sect had been bright moments in already-bright days.  He regretted, now, not spending more time befriending some of the people who’d shared the meals with him.

His eyes landed on a copse of slender trees.  “We’d need outbuildings for the laundry and kitchen, not to mention an armory.  And, of course, the training grounds themselves.”  Perhaps Chengling would be able to recreate many of Siji Pavilion’s defenses, in time.

He had to swallow down a surge of bitterness as that, the dream popping like a soap bubble.  What time?  Promises or no promises, he didn’t expect Wen Kexing to find a solution for the energy slowly consuming him from the inside out.  If he even made it to this wedding his zhiji was planning, he’d count himself lucky.

He caught Wen Kexing’s shoulder, stopping his soulmate cold.  “Lao Wen.”  He had to try twice to get the words out.  “Lao Wen.  Please.  Promise me…”  He had to stop once more.  “Promise me you’ll build this, no matter what happens.  Here or back at Siji Pavilion, I don’t care, but promise me you will.”  Promise me you won’t follow me like I tried to follow you.

He knew it was a cruel promise to ask for.  He knew he couldn’t have made the same promise.  But Wen Kexing didn’t glare, didn’t huff and protest and snarl.  Instead, he just nodded slowly.  “I promise, A-Xu.  But you have to promise me something in return.”  His eyes bored into Zhou Zishu’s.  “Promise me you won’t give up and die.  You’ll keep fighting till the end.”

Zhou Zishu brushed a kiss over his lips.  “I promise.”

***

It wasn’t until they were back inside that Zhou Zishu realized that he still didn’t know what, exactly, Wen Kexing was planning.  Then it was too late – his soulmate was off like a firework, everywhere at once as he bullied everyone who crossed his path into helping with wedding preparations.  Decorations, food, gathering a dowry for ‘his precious, wonderful A-Xiang’… Zhou Zishu had never realized quite how much work went into a wedding. 

It wasn’t like he’d ever attended any – leading the Window of Heaven did not lend itself to merriment.  He’d stood guard outside one, once, when one of Prince Jin’s retainers married a girl a dozen years younger than him, but he’d spent the time watching for assassins, not admiring the décor.  He’d gotten a vague impression of pompousness and far too much money, but that was it.

Now, though, he was at the center of it all, bewildered and buffeted in all directions.  Luo Fumeng and her girls coopted most of the pieces of the process, but Wen Kexing kept trying to insert himself into things.  More than once, Zhou Zishu caught sight of Luo Fumeng scolding him as she ushered him away from one room or another, all of them filled with men and women bent over… something.  He was never quite sure what, and, judging by the expressions of the ghosts pressed into service, neither were they.

Chengling, of course, loved it.  He threw himself into the planning with enthusiasm, determined to make this the best wedding ever for his Xiang-jie.  But he kept vanishing from the main halls, returning hours later covered in dust and, on one occasion, reeking of black powder.

Weddings, Zhou Zishu was fairly sure, did not involve many explosives.  But, every time he tried to corner his disciple, Wen Kexing was there, redirecting him or requesting his help with one task or another.

Zhou Zishu might have protested, but his energy levels were fluctuating dangerously now.  One day, he’d feel like he could do anything, fight anyone; the next, he’d be sweating and dizzy and swaying on his feet, fighting just to keep standing.  It was maddening.

Wen Kexing noticed – Zhou Zishu wasn’t trying to hide it from him.  But he could do nothing other than sit with Zhou Zishu when the worst of it overtook him, playing a new xiao or just holding his hand.  Unlike with the nails, more qi didn’t help – they’d found that out quickly when Wen Kexing’s first infusion sent Zhou Zishu screaming to the ground, convulsing as every channel inside him became an inferno.

Zhou Zishu tried not to think about it.  Tried to be resigned to it.  But that didn’t make his conversation with Wu Xi any easier.

“I’m sorry, Zishu.”  Wu Xi looked more solemn than Zhou Zishu had ever seen him.  “I can stave off the symptoms for a bit, but none of my arts can repair this.  I’m sorry.”

Zhou Zishu closed his eyes.  “I expected as much, old friend.  It is not your fault.”

Jing Beiyuan laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Why did you do this to yourself, Zishu?  You had to know…”  He trailed off.

Zhou Zishu shrugged helplessly.  He’d given his two friends the barest sketch of a story – he should have expected that wouldn’t content them.  “Would you want to live, if your zhiji was no more?”

The two exchanged glances.  For one poisoned second, Zhou Zishu wanted to stab both of them for being so happy, for having each other.  For having a future.

He wrestled down the awful urge.  They’d been through more than enough pain to find each other – they deserved every moment of happiness they could snatch.

At last Wu Xi shook his head.  “No.”  He heaved a sigh.  “You are lucky to be alive right now, you know.”

“Your medicine worked wonders,” Zhou Zishu told him.  “I wouldn’t be here without it.”

Wu Xi looked away.  “If I hadn’t given it to you…”

“Then I would have done the exact same thing, and probably died from it,” Zhou Zishu interrupted.  “Do not blame yourself for this.  That burden lies on my shoulders and mine alone.”

Again, the pair exchanged glances.  They were in Wen Kexing’s rooms, but Wen Kexing himself was elsewhere, probably getting on Luo Fumeng’s nerves.  The area was deserted apart from the three of them.

Still, Jing Beiyuan chose his words with care.  “It seems to me your soulmate also bears some blame, here,” he offered.

Damn old friends and their ability to see right through a person.  Zhou Zishu scowled, but he couldn’t keep it up for long.  “We’ve talked,” he admitted.

“He does love you, you know,” Wu Xi said after a moment.  “As soon as we arrived, he cornered me to demand that I restore your meridians.  All but threatened to disembowel me if I failed.”  He laughed, as though the threat of the Valley Master was the whining of a spoiled child.

Zhou Zishu, who didn’t doubt that his soulmate was capable of keeping that promise, didn’t.  “I’ll speak to him.”

Wu Xi waved that off.  “It’s fine.  He’s worried.”

How many friends and family members did he see in similar conditions?  How many times had he been threatened if he didn’t succeed in curing his patients?  Many, Zhou Zishu suspected, and wondered if it ever got easier to watch someone die when you wanted them to live.

In another life, Wen Kexing might have found that out.  If his parents had lived, if he’d learned the arts of the Healer Valley from them, he might have been someone like Wu Xi right now.  A healer, not a killer.

Somehow, Zhou Zishu couldn’t imagine it.  His Lao Wen was his – bloody hands, demonic grin and all.

“Here.”  Wu Xi offered him a small box that rattled as he took it.  “This formula is similar to the one I gave you before.  It should help regulate the energy.”

“Keep it from ripping me apart as fast, you mean,” Zhou Zishu muttered.

“Take one a day.”  Wu Xi hesitated.  “I brought my most advanced tomes in the hopes of removing those nails of yours.  I will see if I can find anything.”

But don’t hold out hope, Zhou Zishu completed.  He sighed.  “Thank you.”

He could accept this, he told himself as the pair left.  He had accepted the imminence of his own death before, and he could do it again.  Wen Kexing would take care of Chengling and the new disciples from the Window of Heaven; Wu Xi would not let Wen Kexing follow him into death.  He would enjoy however many days he had left and not worry about tomorrow.

He would.

Oh, but it was hard, hearing Wu Xi confirm what he’d already known.  Hope, the insidious little parasite that it was, had wormed its way into him somehow.  He should have known better than to let it enter, but it had taken root before he’d noticed.  And now…

Now, he was not going to drown himself in sorrow.  He was going to help with the wedding preparations, steal every moment he could to be alone with his soulmate, and let the future worry about itself.

He pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the wave of dizziness that washed over him.  He still had enough strength to hang up banners and drape garlands, and that was what he was going to do.

***

Zhou Zishu hadn’t known that a wedding could be planned in under a month, much less in three days, but, three days after Wen Kexing had announced his absurd idea, everything was in place for the ceremony the next day.  Wen Kexing claimed it was an auspicious date, the best date in the next year, in fact, but Zhou Zishu wasn’t so sure.  His soulmate was planning something that had nothing to do with matrimonial bliss.

What, though, he still didn’t know. 

He’d asked, but Wen Kexing had given him such a pitiful look.  “Don’t you trust me?” he’d asked, eyes wide.  “Let me surprise you, A-Xu.  Just once more.  It’ll be a good one, I swear.”

Zhou Zishu had been helpless to deny his soulmate that, but, now, standing next to Wen Kexing as they waited for the first guests to arrive, he was starting to regret that decision.  “Lao Wen… now can you tell me why the rush?”

“Why, A-Xu, don’t you want to see these two get married?  You do know you’re part of my A-Xiang’s family now, don’t you?”

He did know, and it bewildered him.  When she and Weining made their bows, they’d be bowing to him as well as Wen Kexing and Mo Huaiyang – it still didn’t feel real.  What had he ever done to deserve such an honor?

Yet A-Xiang called him Zishu-ge now, and he hadn’t had the heart to tell her otherwise.  He pretended that it didn’t make something deep inside him flush with pleasure whenever she said it, though.

Zhou Zishu sighed.  “Of course I do.  But…”  He nodded towards the great gates, which were firmly shut against the besieging soldiers lurking somewhere outside them.  “Guests, Lao Wen?”

“They’ll be here,” Wen Kexing replied with supreme confidence.

“They have to get through an entire army,” Zhou Zishu snapped back.  Too harsh – he regretted his tone as soon as he’d said it.  But his meridians were sending spikes of pain through him every time he shifted his weight, while his feet ached as though he was standing on a bed of coals.  He was not in the best mood.

“Ah, A-Xu, you worry too much!  The army won’t be a problem, never fear.”  Wen Kexing turned to look at him.  “Are you…”

“I’m fine,” Zhou Zishu interrupted.

Wen Kexing’s shoulders tightened.  “Ahhh, A-Xu, don’t be like that!”

Zhou Zishu closed his eyes.  “My apologies.”

His throat tightened as a hand took his.  “No,” Wen Kexing murmured.  “No apologies, alright?  Not now.”

“Not while I’m dying, you mean?”  Zhou Zishu tried to smile.

Wen Kexing dropped his hand in favor of smacking him.  “You are not allowed to die!”

“Oh, Lao Wen, if only you could change fate,” Zhou Zishu murmured.  “Maybe we’ll find each other in another life.”

That would be nice, he thought.  Maybe they’d have more time together in their next reincarnations.  Time to live together, grow old together.  Maybe they’d even raise a family of their own.  He’d never thought he’d dream of domesticity, but it held a powerful appeal now.  Peace, children running around, disciples training under the warm spring sun… he could almost smell the blossoms of Siji Pavilion surrounding the daydream.

“No,” Wen Kexing repeated.  “You are not dying.  I am not going to let you die.”

Zhou Zishu didn’t reply to that.  He’d already said all he had to say – this was not the first time they’d had a conversation like this.

In fact, all of their conversations seemed to veer in this direction, and it was preventing him from getting answers from his soulmate.  He shifted onto the other foot, hissing under his breath at the renewed surge of pain.  “Lao Wen, why must you be like this?  Why must everything be a plot?”

“Ah, A-Xu, so cruel!  This is nothing more than my A-Xiang’s wedding!”

Zhou Zishu leveled a dry look at him.  “You and I both know there’s more to it than that.”

Wen Kexing made a face.  “I just want to see your face when you figure it out.  Can’t you give your loving wife that much?” he whined.

Zhou Zishu tried to harden his glare, but Wen Kexing’s pout had his lips twitching.  “Fine,” he muttered, as he’d done every other time he’d tried to ask.  Old habits were hard to break, but his Lao Wen was trying.  He would give him that much.  “As long as you swear to me that no one is going to get hurt in this scheme of yours.”

“No one who doesn’t deserve it,” Wen Kexing promised for the tenth or twentieth time.

Before Zhou Zishu could prod further, the great drums above the doors beat out a warning tattoo.  A ghost skidded around the corner, panting.  “Guzhu!  The first guests are here!”

“Open the gates,” Wen Kexing ordered.

Zhou Zishu’s hand dropped to Baiyi’s hilt.  Despite his soulmate’s promises, he expected an army to come pouring in the second the gates creaked open.  Duan Pengju was no idiot – he wouldn’t pass up an opening like that.

But the people standing on the road as the gates pulled wide were familiar and unthreatening.  Shen Shen led the pack, flanked by Gao Xiaolian and Deng Kuan.  A gaggle of disciples trailed behind, looking around with wide, nervous eyes.  They were all armed, but their hands were held conspicuously far away from their weapons.

Wen Kexing stepped forward, and Shen Shen bowed low.  “Valley Master.  We thank you for your invitation.  Congratulations on the wedding of your sister.”

Wen Kexing raked his gaze over the men and women, then beamed.  “Come in, please!  I hope the journey was pleasant?”

Small talk.  Zhou Zishu hadn’t expected his zhiji to know how to make small talk, much less deign to do so with a man like Shen Shen, but he kept up the stream of chatter as he led the group into the main hall.  There, he waved over a ghost and ordered, “See Hero Shen and his people to the guest quarters.”  He turned to Shen Shen.  “The first banquet will be in several hours.  I’ll have one of my girls fetch you when it’s time.”

Also known as, please don’t wander, Zhou Zishu thought to himself.  Wen Kexing was showing his claws.

Shen Shen pressed his hands together and bowed in acknowledgement of the warning.  “Of course.”

Wen Kexing watched the group depart, smirking.  “See, my dear A-Xu?” he purred.  “I told you they’d have no trouble.”  He spun on his heel, sleeves flaring wide.  He was in one of his pale pink outfits today, rather than full Valley Master regalia, but it didn’t soften him one hair.

Zhou Zishu expected him to head towards their quarters, but he strode back towards the gates.  Zhou Zishu bit back a curse as he hurried to keep up.  “Are you expecting others?”  Shen Shen, he could understand, at least a bit.  But who else might be arriving?

“Oh, many!”  Wen Kexing waved a hand.  “What better way to show the jianghu that we have no ill will towards them than to invite them to the celebration?”

“You.  Invited the jianghu.”  Zhou Zishu couldn’t have heard that right.

“The heads of the remaining sects, at least.  As well as their retinues.  You can’t expect them to travel alone, of course.”  He ran a finger along the side of his fan.  “It was lucky that we already had the honorable Mo Huaiyang and his sect here for Weining.  Otherwise, who knows how long we might have had to wait?”

Sometimes, Zhou Zishu wondered how Wen Kexing had survived long enough to become Valley Master, much less years after it.  “The jianghu hates you,” he pointed out.  His soulmate had to remember that, didn’t he?  Did he think the embittered remaining masters would forgive and forget so easily?

Who all in the valley could he trust to watch for assassins?  Luo Fumeng had the skills, and seemed devoted to Wen Kexing; Wu Xi and Jing Beiyuan could both take care of themselves in a fight.  The girls from the Department of the Unfaithful adored their master, and might be able to keep an eye out if she commanded it, but most were untrained.  The ghosts were better fighters, but he didn’t trust them not to change their allegiance if the winds of fortune shifted.

He sank his teeth into his lower lip, tasting copper.  If only his new disciples were here.  But they hadn’t arrived yet, and he hadn’t dared to try to contact them.  Duan Pengju would notice that for sure.

Wen Kexing, oblivious to the thoughts racing through Zhou Zishu’s head, laughed.  “So many worries, A-Xu!  You’d think you were an old granny!”  He hesitated.  “I can tell you the rest, if you really want.  But…”  He trailed off.

Zhou Zishu pinched the bridge of his nose.  Would it matter if he knew the plan, now that it was already in full swing?  If this plot was the last thing his soulmate could give him, it would be cruel to force his Lao Wen to spoil it.

He pushed away the burning, frustrated curiosity.  “Do others know?”  Or had his Lao Wen kept everything close to his chest yet again?

“Yes,” Wen Kexing admitted.  “Luo-yi, A-Xiang, Chengling… they helped me put this together.  It… it should be a good surprise, A-Xu.”

He was like a cat presenting its owner with a dead mouse, Zhou Zishu thought.  So proud of his accomplishment.

No, he could not take that away from his soulmate, not now.  “You swore no one was going to get hurt,” he reminded Wen Kexing.  “Do you still stand by that?”

Wen Kexing snapped open his fan.  “Why, are you doubting my sworn word?”  He pressed the fan over his heart, trying to look wounded.

Zhou Zishu’s patience snapped despite his best intentions.  With a snarl, he grabbed both of his soulmate’s shoulders and yanked him around to glare into his face.  “Lao Wen!”  He had to take a breath to keep from shouting.  “You have to know how dangerous this is.”

The playfulness fell away from Wen Kexing’s face, leaving him stone-cold and determined.  “I do, A-Xu.  But the cost will be worth it, I swear.”  He kissed Zhou Zishu on the lips once, twice.  “Trust me, A-Xu.  You do trust me, don’t you?”

Zhou Zishu swallowed.  “I do,” he whispered, and prayed he wouldn’t regret it.  After all, he’d thought that he trusted Wen Kexing before, hadn’t he?  But his soulmate had squandered that trust like a gambler with a fresh handful of coins.

No, that was unfair, Zhou Zishu chided himself.  And it’s not like your own hands are clean.  “I do,” he repeated, stronger this time.

Wen Kexing kissed him again.  “Then help me greet the rest of our guests, will you?  I can already smell the delicious things the cooks are making for the banquet tonight.”  He winked.  “Technically, I suppose this one should be hosted by me, and the feast tomorrow should be hosted by the old fox, but they can’t produce a feast from thin air.  So they volunteered to help cook both days if I supplied the ingredients.”  He chuckled to himself.  “I thought they would burn everything, honestly.  Either they’ve proven better cooks than I expected, or my ghosts have chased them all out of the kitchens by now.”

If Luo Fumeng was overseeing the cooking as she had overseen everything else, Zhou Zishu would bet on the latter.  Young jianghu disciples were taught many things, but cooking – as evidenced by Chengling’s attempts to slaughter and clean game for the table – was not one of them.

He sniffed.  His senses were fading once more, but he could still smell the mouthwatering scent of meat roasting over a spit, along with some sort of baked goods.  No, if the Gentle Wind Sword Sect disciples had produced that, he would eat his boots.

Above them, the drums pounded once more.  Zhou Zishu tensed.  No matter what Wen Kexing said, he couldn’t believe that all of their arriving guests would be peaceful.

But group after group trickled in, and none launched an attack.  Though Shen Shen’s people had been allowed to keep their weapons, Wen Kexing demanded that the others surrender their swords – the only wise precaution he’d taken.  Zhou Zishu wasn’t sure if he should be grateful for it, given the headache brewing behind his eyes, but at least weaponless martial artists were easier to kill than armed ones.

By the time this wedding was over, he’d be lucky if he could see past the pain in his temples.  Next time, Wen Kexing was not going to be allowed to plan a single thing.

At last, though, night drew closer and the gates swung shut with a final boom.  Wen Kexing beamed at Zhou Zishu as he led him back to the hall where the banquet tables had been laid out.  “See, A-Xu?  It’s all going perfectly.”

“So far,” Zhou Zishu muttered.  If an assassin was going to strike, they’d do it once everyone was drunk.  He hoped Wen Kexing had thought about that.

Zhou Zishu surveyed the hall, which already held most of the guests.  Female ghosts dressed in their red and white uniforms circulated, offering guests small cups of liquor or leading others to their seats.  Graceful shadows – Zhou Zishu suspected most of the men saw them as nothing more than beautiful furniture.

He wasn’t about to make that mistake.  He’d seen some of these girls drilling with Luo Fumeng, and they all moved with more grace than most servants possessed.  “Thank you,” he murmured to Wen Kexing.  One more precaution meant one less headache for him.

Wen Kexing winked at him.  “Your wife is no fool, A-Xu.  Don’t worry.”  He glanced around.  “My A-Xiang, though…”

Sure enough, A-Xiang was nowhere to be seen, and neither was Cao Weining.  Zhou Zishu was about to offer to go look for them when one of the girls glided up.  “Guzhu,” she murmured.  “Luo-shifu requested that this one watch Mo-zongzhu and his disciples, and alert her or you if anything seemed strange.”  She took a breath.  “Guzhu, Mo-zongzhu has requested an audience with Cao-gongzi and A-Xiang, and has sent all of the servants away.”

Wen Kexing’s hand tightened around his fan.  “A-Xu, why don’t you start the banquet?” he asked, tone airy enough to set a lantern afloat.  “I’ll go see what might be keeping those three.”

Zhou Zishu bared his teeth in something very far from a smile.  “Good luck, Lao Wen.”

So, he thought to himself as he moved to the head table.  The wheels have begun turning.  Now he just had to pray that this, whatever it was, was a part of his soulmate’s plan.

Chapter Text

Gu Xiang did not like Mo Huaiyang.  Every time he looked at her, she had to fight the urge to scrub her palms against her skirts to rid them of the feeling she’d just reached into a bin of rotting food scraps.  Oh, he would smile and address her politely, but he made no bones of the fact that he did not like her.

She sneered at his back.  It was mutual, and she didn’t see why she should have to be polite to him, even if he was barely polite to her.  If not for Weining, she would have thrown him out of her rooms as soon as he’d knocked at the door, hospitality be damned.

Ah, but Weining, sentimental fool that he was, hadn’t been able to resist a chance to win his shifu’s regard back.

Idiot.  Foolish boy.  Gu Xiang paced back and forth by the door, pretending that she wasn’t listening to what they were saying.  They were supposed to be heading to the banquet right now, not talking to some ancient old fool who hated Ghost Valley and everyone in it.

Not that he was saying that out loud, of course.  But it was clear in every word he spoke, in the way his eyes kept darting around the room as though expecting someone to leap out and stab him.

Maybe she could stab him.  Kexing-ge wouldn’t mind, would he?  He didn’t like Mo Huaiyang either.

Kexing-ge.  It was strange and wonderful to be able to call him that, but he’d given her permission, and he couldn’t take it back now.

“Weining.  Listen to me.”  Mo Huaiyang’s voice was low and heavy.  “Think about what you’re doing here.”

Weining, to his credit, didn’t flinch.  “I’m…”  He flushed bright red.  “I’m marrying the girl I love, shifu.  Isn’t that supposed to be a good thing?”

“If she was a girl from a good family, yes.  But she’s no one.  Worse than no one!”

Worse than no one?  Gu Xiang scowled.  Stabbing was too good for the man.

Maybe part of Kexing-ge’s plan, whatever it was, would let her do something creatively awful to Mo Huaiyang.  She didn’t know everything he was plotting – or even most of the things he was plotting – but he was going to do something awful to someone, she just knew it.  He was setting a trap, and maybe she could push Mo Huaiyang into it.

“She’s everything!” Weining protested.  “She’s my soulmate.  I want to spend the rest of my life with her.  I want to grow old with her, have a family, have… everything!”  His words tumbled over themselves as he hurried to get them all out.  “Maybe she didn’t have the best childhood, but that doesn’t matter!  She’s a good girl, shifu.  I know she is.”

Despite herself, Gu Xiang felt heat creeping into her cheeks.  Such a fool.  How could he say such things so baldly?  It was embarrassing.  Definitely not something she loved about him, no, of course not.

“She’s a ghost, boy,” Mo Huaiyang snapped back.  “She is not good.”

“Yes, she is!”

No, I’m not.  Gu Xiang held no illusions on that score.  She would kill without blinking if she needed to, and she wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.  Nor was she a philosopher or sage, spreading wisdom and clarity in her wake – she was an uneducated brat, and she knew it.

Weining ought to have known it, too.  He’d seen her fight when the Scorpion Sect had attacked – had seen her kill that supposed beggar.  And he had to have realized that she had no graces to speak of, no training in how to be a proper wife for a high-ranking member of the jianghu.  Her attempts at weaving always turned into snarled messes, full of holes in places and far too bunched in others; she had no idea how to arrange a household or keep a sect running smoothly.

Still.  It was nice to hear Weining pretend otherwise.

Mo Huaiyang sighed.  “You are young, Weining.  Do not throw away your entire life for this… this…”  He seemed to be struggling to find the right word, or maybe just to find one that wouldn’t immediately enrage Weining.  Gu Xiang would have snorted if she hadn’t been pretending not to hear them.  “Girl,” Mo Huaiyang finally concluded limply.  “Come, Weining.  Think about it.  If you go through with this marriage, you will never leave this valley.”

“As long as I’m with her, I don’t care,” Weining declared.

“You could be so much more!”  Mo Huaiyang leaned in.  “The jianghu is in chaos.  The Five Lakes Alliance is a shadow of its old self, and Hero Shen is the only master remaining with any power.  And he has never been ambitious.”  He scoffed deep in his throat, shaking his head.  “He will not bring peace back to the jianghu.  But someone needs to, Weining.”

“And you are that someone, shifu?” Weining asked politely, while Gu Xiang tried not to burst out laughing.  The old fox wanted to seize power?  Let him try.

Mo Huaiyang nodded slowly.  “Weining.  You still consider yourself a part of the Gentle Wind Sword Sect, I hope?”

“Of course, shifu!” Weining burst out.

Gu Xiang stifled a sigh.  That, right there, was why she was letting Mo Huaiyang make them late.  Stupid, loyal Weining, always thinking the best of everyone.  His heart would be broken if his shifu cast him out of the sect, even if he said it was worth it.  She didn’t want him to make such a sacrifice for her.  Not when he had a chance of reconciliation.

And the Gentle Wind Sword Sect did have a few people who weren’t utterly abominable.  Master Fan and what’s-his-name, the fox’s son… Mo Weixu, that was it.  Yes, they weren’t too bad.  Master Fan had made her dumplings and they’d both ensured that she wasn’t alone for the New Year’s celebration – they’d been some of the best dumplings she’d ever had.  She wouldn’t mind calling them in-laws.

If only they didn’t come with such an arrogant asshole for a master.

As though he could hear her thoughts, Mo Huaiyang glanced over his shoulder at her.  His voice dropped into a whisper as he looked back at Weining.  “You have a duty to the sect, Weining.  It must come first.  I will not see you fall into wicked ways because of some childish infatuation, not when you have always been one of my favorite disciples.”

That had to be a blatant lie.  She might not know much about the ways of the jianghu, but good masters didn’t ignore their so-called favorites for months on end.

But Weining’s face lit up at the words.  “Shifu,” he breathed.  “I…”  He trailed off, throat working as though a dozen different sentences were trying to spill out all at once.

Mo Huaiyang laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.  “Come home with me, Weining.  Leave this place.”

“Without A-Xiang?”  He blinked, eyes so wide he resembled a doe.  So trusting, so foolish… couldn’t he see what his master wanted?

“She cannot leave here.  She is a ghost, and ghosts are bound to Mount Qingya – you know that.  But you… you don’t have to trap yourself here, Weining.”  Mo Huaiyang sounded sorrowful, almost regretful, but Gu Xiang couldn’t see any hint of that on his face.  Stupid liar.

She shifted her weight from foot to foot.  She’d given him the time with Weining he’d requested, but now they were well and truly late to the banquet.  If she had to listen to one more minute of his blathering, she was going to scream.  Would it be so bad to interrupt now?  Weining wouldn’t mind that much, would he?

Weining looked down at his feet.  “But, shifu, you can’t leave here right now either, can you?  I mean, isn’t there an army out there?  And… and people hunting you?”

“All of that will be dealt with soon,” Mo Huaiyang promised.

Gu Xiang’s hackles rose.  “What do you mean?” she demanded, stomping over.  Forget pretending to be polite.  “What are you planning?”  Would it conflict with Kexing-ge’s plans, or was her brother planning on Mo Huaiyang planning things?

She frowned to herself.  That seemed overly complicated, even for Kexing-ge, but she wouldn’t put it past him.  

Maybe that meant she would have a chance to carve him into tiny pieces after all.

Mo Huaiyang sneered at her.  “This is none of your business, little girl.  Let me speak with my disciple alone.”

“It’s my business if you’re trying to drag away my fiancé,” she hissed.  “And it’s my business if you’re trying to cause trouble for my brother.”

Mo Huaiyang looked her up and down like a housewife evaluating a chicken at the market.  Then, wrinkling his nose, he turned his back on her.  “This, Weining?  Truly?”

Weining stepped to her side, taking her hand.  A flush spread over her cheeks as he squeezed her fingers, and she clutched back just as tightly.  Foolish he might be, but he did have courage.

“I love her,” he told his shifu simply.  “Nothing you say will change that.”

“And he’s staying with me,” Gu Xiang declared before Mo Huaiyang could speak.  “So you can forget whatever stupid thing you’re planning to get out of this mountain.”  She traded him sneer for sneer.  “I’d like to see you try.  We can hang your bodies at the gates when the soldiers out there are done with you as a warning to anyone else who wants to be an idiot.”

He gaped at her, mouth opening and closing like a beached fish.  “You… you…” he spluttered.  “Weining!  Did you hear what she said?  She would murder all of us and leave our bodies for the crows!”

Weining shuffled his feet.  “She didn’t really mean it, shifu.”

Yes, I did.  Gu Xiang lifted her chin, glaring at the Gentle Wind Sword Sect leader.  She let him see every bit of hatred and bloodlust in her eyes, every bit of darkness that made her a ghost.  He’d named her right, and she was proud of it.  Weining might be too soft to protect himself, so she’d have to protect him – that meant not letting anyone, even his horrible shifu, walk all over him.

Besides.  If Mo Huaiyang got himself killed by the army out there, that wasn’t her fault, was it?

“You said you were loyal to our sect,” Mo Huaiyang hissed.  “Yet you would let her threaten all of us?”

“Shifu, I…”  Weining ducked his head, fingers tightening around Gu Xiang’s.  “I don’t want to fight with you!”

Mo Huaiyang sucked in a breath.  “Then come home with me.”

Gu Xiang rolled her eyes.  “You’re still forgetting about the army.”  Though he had to realize that the ghosts wouldn’t lead him back out the way he’d come in, so how was he planning on getting out?  She had to let Kexing-ge or Zishu-ge know – they would know how to handle him.

Mo Huaiyang ignored her as though she was nothing more than a buzzing insect.  “Weining, please, may I speak with you without interruptions?”

Weining glanced at her, indecision written all over his face.  She huffed a sigh and, reluctantly, let his hand go.  “Fine.  One more minute.”  If it would make Weining happy, let him keep trying to persuade his shifu to change his mind.  She knew pigheaded idiots when she saw them – half the ghosts in the valley qualified – and she knew the nasty old man wouldn’t budge even if the emperor himself commanded it.

But it might make Weining feel better before the wedding tomorrow.  After all, they were supposed to bow to Mo Huaiyang after they bowed to Kexing-ge and Zishu-ge, and that would go much more smoothly if he didn’t throw his tea in Weining’s face.

Would a master of the jianghu disrupt the ceremony so publicly?  Maybe he just wouldn’t show up.  She wouldn’t mind that, but it would break Weining’s heart.

Mo Huaiyang led Weining several steps away, taking his face in both hands and talking softly, urgently.  She frowned at him, but he was still ignoring her.

What was his real purpose in coming here?  If he was as cunning as Kexing-ge said, he had to have known that he would have a hard time persuading Weining to abandon her.  Was he just trying to sow discord?  He was nasty enough to do so, she judged.

But then there was all that about leaving, and things being taken care of, and the way he didn’t seem to care that he’d come to the valley in the first place to escape Scorpion Sect hunters.  He didn’t have the Glazed Armor anymore – Kexing-ge had made sure of that – and his sect had been stripped of their weapons.  Did he think he was going to strike some sort of deal with the troops besieging the place?

If so, she didn’t think highly of his intelligence, no matter what her brother said.

Then again, her brother was the one who’d come up with the absolutely idiotic scheme to fake his own death, so maybe he wasn’t the best judge of such things.

“No!”  Weining’s voice rose, then dropped back to a whisper. 

She glanced over at them, scowling.  “Thirty seconds.”  Then she was dragging Weining out of here.  By the ear, if necessary.

Before she could break up the little tête-à-tête, though, a rap sounded at the door.  Her scowl deepened as she strode over to it.  Now what?  If it was another one of the Gentle Wind Sword Sect, she was going to slam the door in their face.

Maybe it was someone coming to fetch them for the banquet, though.  That would be perfect.

She opened the door to see Fan Huaikong and, behind him, Mo Weixu.  Her hand tightened around the door, tempted to do as she’d promised, but she hesitated.  These two were acceptable.

Unless they were coming to join Mo Huaiyang’s attempts to persuade Weining to leave her.  She narrowed her eyes at them.  “What?”

It was rude, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.  Fan Huaikong smiled gently at her as though she’d greeted him properly.  “Miss Xiang!  We were told that Mo-zongzhu was here, and wanted to ensure he made it to the dinner on time.”

So it was a rescue, then.  She stepped aside.  “Then yeah, come in.”

Mo Weixu beamed at her.  “We’ve been helping prepare the meal, and I think you’ll like it!  Fan-shishu taught the girls how to make his dumplings.”  He lowered his voice.  “Then we got kicked out by that very scary lady.”

Gu Xiang laughed at him.  “You probably deserved it.”

“I’m sure we did,” he agreed.

Some of her temper leached away.  It was nice when Weining’s older brothers agreed with her – it was a good omen for their marriage.

Fan Huaikong walked into the room, then hesitated.  “Huaiyang…” he started.

Mo Huaiyang looked over, face tightening.  Something dark and cold shone in his eyes, sending a shiver down Gu Xiang’s spine.  She didn’t like that look one bit.

Then she saw the way his fingers were white on Weining’s face.  The way his hands were placed just so, in the exact same position Kexing-ge had taught her to use to break a man’s neck if she ever needed to escape someone.

She lunged for him, knowing even as she moved that she would be too slow.  Time expanded, every heartbeat taking an eternity, and she screamed inside as she watched his arms start to move.

Fan Huaikong was faster.  A pulse of raw qi hurtled past her, smacking into Mo Huaiyang’s shoulder and knocking his arms aside.

Weining went sprawling.  Gu Xiang changed her course to hurtle towards him, screaming out loud now as his body crashed to the floor.  He couldn’t be dead.  He wasn’t allowed to be dead.

A faint groan issued from his throat.  She collapsed to her knees beside him, tears springing to her eyes as she frantically patted him down.  “Weining!  Weining, say…”

Horrible pressure cut off her words.  She spun to see Mo Huaiyang in mid-leap, qi a storm around him and knees bent in preparation for a kick that would smash through her sternum or crush her windpipe. 

She threw up her arms in an x-shaped block, refusing to dodge.  This is going to hurt, she thought in the split second remaining to her.

Then a spear of fabric – a sash, she realized – hurtled out of nowhere.  Mo Huaiyang dodged it gracefully, face reddening.  “Huaikong!  What are you doing?”

“What are you doing?” Fan Huaikong demanded.  “Huaiyang, stop this madness!”

In answer, Mo Huaiyang pulled out a dagger.  Where he’d gotten it, she had no idea – maybe from a ghost whose corpse they’d find when it began stinking.

She hunched her body over Weining.  Was he still breathing?  Had that groan been his last?

No.  No, there was a heartbeat beneath her fingers, tremulous and weak but there.  “Keep breathing,” she murmured.

On shaky legs, she rose to her feet.  Tears streamed down her cheeks, but she didn’t bother to wipe them away, for her Weining was still alive.

He needed a healer, though, and fast.  Which meant she had to deal with that damn dagger somehow.

She couldn’t.  She knew that.  She’d seen how fast he was when he tried to kick her, and she could feel his qi, a blazing inferno inside his chest.  If she’d been armed and he weaponless, she might have had a slim chance, but like this?  Who would have thought she’d need a whip for a wedding banquet?

Mo Weixu scrambled to her side, crouching over Weining as he, too, sought for a pulse.  When he found one, he whirled to face Mo Huaiyang.  “Father!” he cried, eyes wide and confused.  “What is this?”

Mo Huaiyang shook his head.  Still no regret on his face, just resolve.  “Very well.”  And, with no more prelude than that, he lunged for Fan Huaikong.

Fuck.  He was so damn fast, she could barely see him move.  Afterimages trailed behind him, glittering silver where his dagger arched through the air.  Fan Huaikong threaded qi through another length of fabric, the same way Zishu-ge turned his flexible blade into something solid, but it wasn’t going to be enough.  She wasn’t as good as either of them, but she could see that.

“Give me a weapon,” she demanded of Mo Weixu.

“I don’t… I don’t have any!”  He looked close to tears.  “I don’t know how he got that!”

So he hadn’t even bothered to inform his own son of his plans.  Such a great father, as well as a great shifu.

Gu Xiang squared her shoulders, shifting one foot behind the other so she could kick or block with equal ease.  She wasn’t going to get between those two, but she wasn’t going to let Mo Huaiyang at Weining, either.  He was going to try to kill all of them – once Fan Huaikong had interrupted, that was a given.

The ghosts would be proud of him, she thought bitterly.  Killing your own son for some mad scheme?  “You call us monsters,” she yelled at him.  “You’re the monster here!”

His concentration didn’t flicker.  Fan Huaikong was blocking the strikes so far, but he already bore a shallow gash on his upper bicep, and others had torn through his flowing sleeves.  He kept trying to reason with Mo Huaiyang, and it was stopping him from fighting with full killing intent.

Mo Huaiyang had no such reservations.  She could sense the death trailing behind each blow, and it made her grit her teeth.  She was not going to let some arrogant old fox ruin her wedding!

She couldn’t stop him by herself, though.

Showing weakness in Ghost Valley was a terrible idea.  Ghosts were more likely to pounce on injured prey than help, even if they hated the jianghu and all its men.  But she couldn’t come up with anything better, and Fan Huaikong couldn’t hold off his sect leader much longer.

Taking a deep breath, praying this wasn’t about to get them all murdered, she opened her mouth and shrieked as loudly as she could.

The sound broke Mo Huaiyang’s flow for a single breath.  Fan Huaikong took immediate advantage, driving the heel of his foot into Mo Huaiyang’s knee.  Something crunched, a dreadful sound, and Mo Huaiyang wobbled.

Then he straightened, glaring.  His face was puce now, eyes so dark he might have been a demon himself.  “Huaikong!”

“Please, Huaiyang…”

That was all Fan Huaikong got out before Mo Huaiyang was on him once more, moving faster than ever.  Back and forth they darted, bouncing from wall to wall in a tangle of limbs and fabric and harsh breaths – no more speaking, now, just fighting.  Just killing.

Gu Xiang screamed again.  No words, just sound, and she prayed someone was near enough to hear it.

The next second, the door crashed open to reveal a wild-eyed Wen Kexing.  He took in the scene at a glance and was at her side before anyone else had a chance to react to the intrusion.  “Weining?”

“He’s alive,” she told him.  For now.

She wanted to drop back to his side, scream her heart out and beg him to get back up, but she didn’t dare take her eyes off Mo Huaiyang.  He’d paused his assault on Fan Huaikong to assess his new opponent, but Fan Huaikong didn’t look to be in any shape to take advantage of the pause.  He’d gotten several new gashes in the last few seconds, including one that streamed blood down onto a twitching left hand that hung at his side as though he couldn’t lift it anymore.  He still stood strong, but his breath was short and pained.

When Wen Kexing’s eyes landed on him, he stepped backwards.  “Valley Master.”

Wen Kexing ran a frozen gaze over the room.  “What is this?”

Gu Xiang pointed at Mo Huaiyang.  “He tried to kill Weining.”  Her voice broke, to her horror, and she couldn’t stop a fresh wave of tears from spilling down her cheeks.  Hold on, Weining.

That was all Wen Kexing needed.  His mouth stretched into a feral smile.  “Well, then,” he purred, too softly.  He plucked one of Fan Huaikong’s sashes from the ground and handed it to her.  “He’s yours.”

She ran the fabric between her hands, never taking her eyes from Mo Huaiyang.  It wasn’t a whip, but, with enough qi, it would do.

“Ours,” she murmured, stepping away to give her brother room to fight.  Though she would have loved to claim the kill on her own, she wasn’t stupid.  On her own, she would die.

But, with Kexing-ge at her side?

Her grin held nothing but hunger.  “Let’s play.”

Chapter Text

Zhou Zishu stared out at the assembled guests, cataloging each and every one in a mental tally of who was here as a friend, who was here to cause trouble, and who simply wanted to gawk.  There were depressingly few of the former, but that was hardly a surprise – neither he nor Wen Kexing had made many friends in the jianghu.  Other than Wu Xi, Jing Beiyuan, and possibly Shen Shen, Zhou Zishu wouldn’t count anyone here as a potential ally in case of trouble.

Zhou Zishu was not naïve enough to think that they’d be able to avoid trouble.  The majority of the guests were gawkers, not overt troublemakers, but he didn’t miss the whispers making their way through the crowd.  People wanted revenge, and it wouldn’t take much to fan the sparks into an inferno.

With a sigh, he took his seat at the head table.  Lao Wen, return soon.  He did not like being the center of attention – it was easier to watch for potential assassins when no one was paying attention to you.

But, as though his sitting had been a signal, the girls from the Department of the Unfaithful began to usher everyone to their own seats.  He did his best to remain a statue as their gazes landed on him, questioning and wary.  “Is he the real Valley Master?” he heard one young man whisper to his companion.

“No, look, there’s a spot next to him,” the older of the two hissed back.

Zhou Zishu let the murmurs pass over him like water over a streambed.  It did not matter what they thought about him – Lao Wen would correct any erroneous assumptions soon enough.  Probably in some dramatic, bloody fashion…

Luo Fumeng made her stately way to the seat on the other side of Wen Kexing’s spot, hands demurely folded in her sleeves.  Her elaborate jeweled headpiece sparkled in the lantern light, highlighting the snowy fall of her long white hair; her lips gleamed red and bright as she inclined her head to him.  “Zhou-gongzi.  May I suggest beginning the banquet?”

“Without Lao Wen?” he asked softly.

Her eyes narrowed.  “He may be some time.”

Dammit, Lao Wen, what are you doing now?  Zhou Zishu eyed Luo Fumeng, trying to guess how much she knew.  It had been one of her girls who’d fetched Wen Kexing – how much trouble was she anticipating from Mo Huaiyang?

Schemes within schemes.  Maybe he should have pressed Wen Kexing harder after all.

Ah, but pressing too hard opened scars that never healed.  He knew that better than anyone.

With a grimace, Zhou Zishu reached for his cup.  As he rose, he swept his sleeves back in a practiced motion, and the room hushed.  “Thank you all for coming,” he declared.  “We appreciate your presence as we celebrate the first wedding Ghost Valley has seen in many years, and we hope that this can serve as a rapprochement between Ghost Valley and the jianghu.”  He hoisted the cup.  “A toast to peace.”

As the assembled guests scrambled to join the toast, he glanced at Luo Fumeng.  Speeches were not his specialty, but she gave him a small nod.

Gratefully, he dropped back onto his seat and drained his cup.  The liquor tasted bitter, with an astringent aftertaste that had him fighting not to make a face.  If this was the quality of the wine here, he would need to talk to Lao Wen.

He touched his tongue to his palate, then sniffed the cup.  The aftertaste was growing stronger, cloying and thick in the back of his throat, and there was something familiar about it.  Something he’d tasted in another life, before he’d impaled himself with seven nails…

Maybe it’s the nails.  Maybe that’s what you’re tasting.  His senses had been malfunctioning since he’d removed the nails, and this could be just one more symptom.

But that taste was far too familiar.  He locked eyes with Luo Fumeng as he set down his cup, and watched as her eyes widened.

Cursing under his breath, Zhou Zishu bolted back to his feet.  “Put down the wine!”

Half the assembly had already drunk.  Zhou Zishu felt his heart seize in his chest as he spotted Chengling, so proud to be counted as an adult, lowering an empty cup with a puzzled expression.  “Shifu?” his disciple asked.

Everyone around him mirrored the look, confusion and disdain spreading across their faces.  Everyone, that was, except for a handful of young men in blue.  They were tense, reaching for weapons that they shouldn’t have had, and none of them had drunk a thing.

Mo Huaiyang had volunteered his sect to help prepare the banquets. 

Mo Huaiyang was currently missing, along with Gu Xiang and Cao Weining.

Wen Kexing was walking into a trap.

Zhou Zishu couldn’t run after his soulmate, though.  He had to deal with the impending crisis here first.

Fuck.  He had seconds to prevent this from breaking out into all-out violence, but he had no idea what to do.  Inciting a riot was easy, but quelling one?  He couldn’t let the Gentle Wind Sword Sect disciples escape, but any attempt to seize them would get every other member of the jianghu up in arms.  The poison would start its work soon, but not soon enough to prevent things from getting very, very messy.

And Chengling, skinny little Chengling, had drunk a full cup of it.  Zhou Zishu’s throat was tight, and it wasn’t just the early effects of the poison.  Chengling couldn’t die here – fate could not be that cruel.

Luo Fumeng rose in a swish of fabric as he ran through option after option in his head.  “I would like to make a second toast,” she called, cutting across the rising tide of murmurs like a blade through viscera.  “Can all the members of the Gentle Wind Sword Sect step forward, please?”

Wild gazes darted between the disciples.  Neither of their elders were present – Zhou Zishu couldn’t see Fan Huaikong, either – and it was clear that they didn’t know what to do.  So, reluctantly, they shuffled forward.

Luo Fumeng favored them with a brilliant smile.  “One of our soon-to-be newlyweds hales from the Gentle Wind Sword Sect, and so these young men were kind enough to volunteer to help prepare tonight’s feast.  Now, before you reach for your wine glasses… girls?”

Her girls, red and white silks swirling, padded forward to face the young disciples.  Luo Fumeng’s smile sharpened.  “They were so kind, in fact, that they didn’t care who died to their poison.”

The word poison bounced through the hall, repeated by voice after voice.  “Poison?  What’s she talking about?”  “Treachery!”  “What’s going on?”

Luo Fumeng held up a hand.  “If you care to surrender peacefully, we can end…”

The eldest of the disciples didn’t let her finish.  “Surrender to scum like you?  Never!”  He yanked a knife out from his sleeve and lunged for the nearest girl, catching her by the arm and forcing her around to put the knife at her neck.  Hostage, Zhou Zishu thought, and swore.

But the girl flowed with her attacker’s movement, spinning so he held nothing but air.  Her free hand lashed out in a pinpoint strike to the side of his neck, two fingers stabbing into the pressure point in the hollow of his collarbone.  He shrieked and fell to his knees.

His fellow disciples took that as a signal to attack.  Grabbing for their own hidden knives, they launched themselves at the nearest targets – the girls from the Department of the Unfaithful.

Zhou Zishu’s breath caught in his throat.  Trained or not, could they truly hold up against the Gentle Wind Sword Sect disciples?  He gathered his qi to leap, knowing he couldn’t save all of them, but refusing to let them all die.

He shouldn’t have worried.  As one, the young women drew war fans from their sleeves and threw themselves into battle.

The hall erupted into chaos.  Zhou Zishu yanked out Baiyi, leaping from the table to somersault above the knot of girls and disciples.  He landed in the middle of the hall just as someone yelled, “Ghost Valley is trying to kill us all!”

“Sit back down!” he barked.

Only a quarter of the assembled group listened.  The rest were grabbing cutlery or channeling qi into their hands, surging forward to try to defend the Gentle Wind Sword Sect.  Fury turned their faces red as they howled for blood, screaming about treachery and murder.

“They want to destroy the jianghu!” a young man yelled.

“Kill them!” another screeched in response.  “Save the Gentle Wind Sword Sect!”

Zhou Zishu spared a single moment to glance behind him, expecting to see pools of crimson spreading across the floor, but the women hadn’t gone for the kill.  Instead, they fought to subdue, striking at pressure points to disable and disarm.

It wasn’t enough to stop the oncoming horde.  Zhou Zishu caught a man’s fist by the wrist and spun, throwing him into another sprinting attacker.  Both careened into a table, sending dishes smashing to the floor as a third leapt over their tumbling bodies to kick at Zhou Zishu.

Zhou Zishu deflected the kick, returning one of his own that sent the man stumbling backwards, gasping.  “Stop this!” he roared.  “No one has to die here!”

No one listened.  Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Shen Shen wrangling his disciples into a defensive position around Gao Xiaolian, keeping them out of the fight.  Wu Xi and Jing Beiyuan had leapt to defend the girls trying to round up the Gentle Wind Sword Sect, but they were two against many.

A pulse of agony stabbed through Zhou Zishu’s meridians as he blocked another kick.  For a second, his vision went white, breath catching in his chest.

Then he was back, just in time to see the fist that rocketed into the side of his jaw.  His head snapped backwards, spinning him around as the taste of blood filled his mouth.

The pain didn’t matter.  He threw himself into the flutter of rapid steps his sect was known for, turning the spin into a sweep that took two attackers off their feet.  Dizzy, seeing sparkles where he should have seen bodies, he kept spinning.  Block, strike, absorb a kick to the thigh when he couldn’t get out of the way… qi was a maelstrom inside him, threatening to wash him away.

Thank fate Wen Kexing had forced the guests to disarm.  He couldn’t see anyone lying in a puddle of their own blood yet, but it was only a matter of time.  Tempers were too taut, fury a palpable heat in the air… he was sweating as he swayed around blows, panting around a dry mouth and cracking lips that tasted metallic and bitter and burning all at once.

Poison, he realized.  It was starting to worm its way into his system.

At first, he thought the distant pounding was his own heart.  But it was too loud, too staccato, and it kept getting faster.

“Intruders!” a ghost screamed.

“They’re here to rescue us!” a boy’s soprano declared, rising high over the chaos of fists hitting flesh.

Zhou Zishu wanted to scoff, but the words made him shiver.  His skin, still soaked in sweat, pebbled with goosebumps.  If Mo Huaiyang had planned this, then this very well could be a rescue, of a sorts – maybe not for the jianghu, but for his own sect.  If he’d been working with Prince Jin or with the Scorpion King all along… ah, had they taken the serpent to their breasts after all?  He’d been so sure they were taking the right precautions, anticipating every possible betrayal, yet they’d clearly failed.

Where was Wen Kexing?  Was he lying in some forgotten room even now, bleeding out?  He was skilled, yes, but could he take on both Mo Huaiyang and Fan Huaikong?  The two were old masters with long years of experience under their belts – many more years than Wen Kexing had.

Zhou Zishu had to close his eyes for a second, overwhelmed by the sight of his soulmate tumbling off the cliff once more.  Robes flaring, one hand outstretched, fingers so close to touching… Zhou Zishu could smell the acrid tang of Chengling’s dart-thrower, could feel the humid heat of the cliffside air pressing in on him, swallowing him…

A length of fabric sailed past him, and he jerked open his eyes.  He was in the dining hall of Mount Qingya, not falling after his zhiji.  He was alive.

Lao Wen had to be alive too.

Something rumbled beneath his feet.  His legs shook, and he locked his knees, forcing yet more qi into his muscles – the poison could not take him yet.

But the shaking wasn’t just him.  All around the room, ghosts and martial artists alike toppled, knocked off balance by the tremor in the earth.  Just as it subsided, another wave hit, then another.  Each was preceded by a low boom, almost inaudible under the shouting – Zhou Zishu felt it in his bones more than he heard it.

He stared wildly around the room until he spotted Chengling, who was beaming.  He’d been corralled by Shen Shen’s people too, and relief nearly drove Zhou Zishu to his knees.  His disciple was safe.

Poisoned, he reminded himself.  He had to end this fight quickly so Wu Xi could work his miracles.

Poison.  That was the answer.

The thought burned across his brain in a flash of fever heat, scorching through him, and he sank his teeth into his lip to keep from crying out.  The small pain grounded him enough to redirect his qi into his legs, sending himself flipping up and over a table to the jars of wine arrayed along the back wall.  Most had shattered in the fight, but some remained intact.

He seized the first to come to his hand and cracked it open.  Jincan poison was a nasty toxin, causing hallucinations before a long, agonizing death, yet it could be a soporific in small doses.  In aerosolized form, it might be enough to slow or stop the combatants.

If he’d identified the poison correctly.  If his senses hadn’t failed him this time.

If he could channel enough qi into the wine to do what he needed.

This is going to hurt.

Taking a deep breath, he reached into an inner pocket for one of the smoke bombs he routinely carried.  He almost hadn’t bothered with them today – he hadn’t carried them since they’d arrived at the valley – but he’d wanted to be prepared.  Now, as he cracked open the case of powder, he thanked fate that paranoia had won out.

Another deep breath, and he reached for the energy swirling through his body.  His meridians shrieked in protest as he drew more and more from his core, sending it through all seven points before concentrating it in his palms.  He would need every last drop if he was going to make this work.

One more breath.  He allowed himself one more breath and one more prayer that his Lao Wen was still alive, then forced every bit of energy into wine and powder both.

A purple-grey cloud exploded from his hands.  Holding his breath, he vaulted away, dropping the shattered remains of the wine jar from hands that refused to move any longer.

When he landed, he stumbled.  His legs, limp as overcooked noodles, felt like he’d completed a three-day endurance run with an hour-long duel at the end.

Beneath him, the ground trembled once again, and that was the last straw.  He collapsed to the floor, bruising his tailbone as he lost control of his breath.  He tried to catch the last of the escaping air, but it was too late – he had to inhale.

The smoke tasted like wine – that much, at least, had gone right.  Fog inched into the corners of his vision, tempting him to lie down.  To sleep, and dream, and let the world pass him by.

Poison?  Qi drain?  He couldn’t tell, and refused to give in to either.  Gritting his teeth, he clawed for the edge of a nearby table, hauling himself upright.

A warm arm latched around his waist.  “Good thinking,” a feminine voice purred in his ear.  He turned his head to see Luo Fumeng holding him upright.  A swath of fabric was wrapped around her mouth and nose, shielding her from the smoke.

He turned his gaze back to the room.  It hadn’t worked as quickly as he’d hoped – most of the combatants were still on their feet.  But they were moving slower now, punches halfhearted and kicks pulled.  Some of the younger disciples, along with many of the Department girls, had collapsed.

Alive, he prayed.  Please don’t be dead.

Part of him wanted to join them on the floor.  His qi was a dwindling ember in his chest, nowhere near strong enough to drive out the poison coursing through his veins, much less combat both that and the smoke.  If he slept now, would he wake up again?

Maybe that would be for the best.  Slide into darkness and never know when it turned to the sleep of death.

No.  He’d made a promise – many promises – and he was going to keep them.  He was not going to leave his Lao Wen without a fight.

Somewhere in the distance, a shout rang out.  A triple set of booms followed, then a single great snap like a mousetrap closing.  Zhou Zishu swayed against Luo Fumeng as he tried to face the sound.  The intruders… where were they?

Where is Lao Wen?

As if in answer to his first question, a fresh wave of people poured into the hall, weapons drawn.  All of the ghosts still on their feet jerked to attention.  Luo Fumeng dropped Zhou Zishu unceremoniously against the table as she pulled a swathe of fabric tight between her hands.

For a second, Zhou Zishu thought that the first stage of the jincan poison had hit.  He had to be hallucinating the faces approaching – slower, now, not running full tilt, but still wary.  Their blades bristled in all directions as though they didn’t know who was the enemy, but their faces lit up when they spotted him.

He blinked, then blinked again, but those faces didn’t change.  “Wait,” he croaked, holding out a hand to stop Luo Fumeng from attacking.  “They…”  Could they truly be his?

The one in the lead, whose name he really should have known, jerked his head into a cautious bow.  “Zhou-shifu?”

They were his.  His new disciples, somehow here at the perfect time.  Zhou Zishu felt tears gather in the corners of his eyes.  “Stop them,” he ordered, waving a shaking hand at the martial artists still trying to fight.  “Don’t kill.  Just restrain.”

How had they gotten here?  Where were the rest of them?  Han Ying?  They looked like they’d been in a fight already, clothes dirty and splashed with blood, but they were hale and whole.  The smoke from the smoke bomb was dissipating as they moved in, and they moved so fast compared to the fighters still on their feet.

Zhou Zishu leaned against the table and tried not to cry.

It didn’t take the former members of the Window of Heaven long to complete their task.  Luo Fumeng quickly took charge of their prisoners, and they, after a glance at Zhou Zishu for permission, obeyed without a murmur.  Zhou Zishu tried to stay upright and watch them.  They deserved that much recognition, even if he couldn’t give them anything more.

But the fog was creeping back into his vision, and his legs had gone numb at some point.  If not for the agony in his withered meridians, he would have been unconscious already – it was a sad situation when pain was the only thing keeping him upright.

It wasn’t the first time, though, and so he kept himself standing by will alone until the crowd cleared enough for him to see the group Shen Shen had formed.

One look at the old hero’s face had Zhou Zishu sprinting across the floor, weakness be damned.  It was a wobbly run that must have resembled a colt’s first steps, but it got him moving, and that was all that mattered.

He dropped to his knees by Chengling’s body.  Don’t be dead, he prayed, begging in the privacy of his own mind.  Please don’t be dead.

“He’s alive,” Shen Shen said quickly.  The old man looked utterly exhausted, lines drawn starkly across his face.  His disciples were all on their feet, though – how had they purged themselves so quickly?

Shen Shen knelt beside him before he could follow the thought to its conclusion.  “He said he was fine,” he murmured.  “But he got one whiff of that smoke, and…”

Zhou Zishu pressed his fingers to his disciple’s pulse.  Stupid boy.  He’d drunk the wine – Zhou Zishu had seen it.  He didn’t have the inner strength to handle poison as virulent as jincan, even with the strides he’d made recently.

Where was Wu Xi?  Zhou Zishu stared around, searching for a black-clad figure, but there were so many people in the hall now.  He couldn’t see the Great Shaman anywhere.

Lao Wen.  I need you.  Where are you?  His soulmate could play a strengthening song, help Chengling recover as he’d helped Zhou Zishu so many nights…

Lao Wen wasn’t coming.  Zhou Zishu had to force himself to breathe at the thought, and the finality it implied.  He hadn’t meant that – hadn’t meant to curse his zhiji.  Fate, don’t listen to me.  His Lao Wen, wherever he was, was fine.

But Chengling, right here in front of him, was not.

Zhou Zishu looked over at Shen Shen.  “Help me,” he demanded, not caring it was rude.

Shen Shen bowed his head.  “I will give what I can.”  He glanced at his own disciples.

Zhou Zishu didn’t bother to thank him as he flattened his palm on Chengling’s chest.  Once more, he delved into his core to retrieve the last dregs of his qi, gritting his teeth when his body burned.  Pain did not matter.  Pain never mattered.  Pain was weakness, and he did not have room for weakness.

His world shrank to the thin stream of energy flowing from him to Chengling.  Every breath tore through him, but that was pain.  That was immaterial.  All that mattered was Chengling.

Beside him, he could feel Shen Shen channeling his own qi, just as tremulous and weak as Zhou Zishu’s.  He must have done this for all of his disciples, purifying them and keeping them on their feet.

For a second, fury turned Zhou Zishu’s vision red.  Why hadn’t the man helped Chengling, too?

As quickly as it had come, the red subsided, swamped by shame.  Shen Shen had already provided the answer – Chengling, little fool that he was, had said he was fine.

He would be fine.  Zhou Zishu would accept no other answer.

Dimly, he was aware of the haze creeping over his vision, the rainbows that now danced in the fog at the corners of his eyes.  He hadn’t spared a moment to deal with the poison in his own veins, and it was taking over every corner of his body in its slow, stealthy way.  The caterpillar legs dancing over his skin weren’t real; nor was the flute playing almost too soft to hear.

The drums might have been real.  He couldn’t tell.  Maybe that was just his heart, or maybe it was Chengling’s.

Lao Wen, where are you?  You should be here.

He’d been sweating before, but now he was so, so cold.  A distant corner of his mind knew that that was a bad sign, but he refused to stop channeling energy into Chengling.  The boy was lying so very still in his lap, lips blue and breath a ragged whisper that kept halting for long stretches.  Only his eyes, shuttling back and forth behind lids squeezed shut, proved that he still lived.

Someone would need to figure out how Mo Huaiyang smuggled jincan poison into the mountain.  Someone would need to handle cleanup here, smooth over relations with the jianghu as much as possible.  Not that rapprochement seemed likely, after this… had that been Mo Huaiyang’s goal all along?

Schemes within schemes within schemes.  Zhou Zishu was so tired of schemes.

He was tired, period.  His body longed to sink to the ground and let go, and he was losing the fight to keep himself upright.  He kept forcing droplets of qi into Chengling, but he couldn’t feel his fingers where they pressed against his disciple’s chest.  That, too, was a bad sign, wasn’t it?

The flute music was growing louder now, a dizzying descant that threaded around his bones and danced through his veins.  The corners of his lips twitched up.  That had to be Lao Wen – he had returned at last.

But where was he?  Why couldn’t Zhou Zishu see him?

A palm slammed into his back.  He jolted upright as a flood of energy brutalized his abused meridians, a lightning strike that made him shriek behind clenched teeth.

“Relax,” a voice murmured.  Not Lao Wen – Zhou Zishu wanted to cry at that, but he did know this voice.

So, as the stream stabilized, he obeyed.  Qi in, qi out – he let himself become a conduit, emptying his mind and letting the energy do as it would.

Beneath his hand, Chengling’s heart beat once, twice, skipped, and settled into a steady rhythm.

Zhou Zishu slumped forward.  “Thank you,” he murmured to Wu Xi.  His tongue felt thick in his mouth, and he wasn’t sure the words emerged as he’d meant them to.  “Thank you,” he tried again.

“Shhh,” the shaman told him.  “Sleep.”

Zhou Zishu could do nothing but obey.

Chapter Text

By the time Wen Kexing was done, Mo Huaiyang was going to beg for death.

Wen Kexing had promised himself that the moment he saw A-Xiang’s tearstained face twisted in horror, and the sneer currently decorating the sect leader’s mouth was only adding to his determination.  “This is all your fault,” Mo Huaiyang yelled, circling slowly with his dagger held ready.  “If you hadn’t seduced him away from the righteous path, none of this would be happening!”

“You’re the asshole attacking him!” A-Xiang shouted back.  She matched him step for step, never letting her movements falter, just as Wen Kexing had taught her.

Mo Huaiyang lunged for her as she opened her mouth to add something, but she snapped it shut and pivoted on her heel.  Her makeshift whip lashed out in an arc, forcing Mo Huaiyang backwards.

Wen Kexing smirked.  Good girl, A-Xiang.  She wouldn’t let the exchange of taunts make her foolish.

He stayed several steps diagonally behind her, allowing her plenty of space to maneuver.  This was her fight, first and foremost, but he wasn’t going to let her die for it.  She had too much to live for.

And he did not want to imagine a world without his A-Xiang, his shining purple flower who always grinned and laughed and made the mountain brighter.

Mo Huaiyang flashed into a rapid set of strikes, blurring as he moved.  A-Xiang backpedaled, breath hissing with effort, and Wen Kexing tensed.  Each blow came closer and closer to her skin, weaving around her defenses, and his instincts screamed at him to intercede.  That knife could not be allowed to draw blood – Mo Huaiyang did not deserve a single drop of crimson from his A-Xiang.

His.  Mine.

Beneath his skin, the Valley Master purred.

Ah, but he couldn’t interfere too soon.  This was a practiced game now, and he knew its steps like he knew the planes of his A-Xu’s body.  A-Xiang deserved the space to use her skills to the fullest.

The first time they’d played this game, she’d been nine, or maybe ten.  One of the newer ghosts – one who’d quickly earned the scorn and disgust of all but the worst of his fellows – had taken an interest in her, and she’d been too young and unskilled to drive a dagger through his heart the first time he attempted to touch her.

She’d tried to hide behind a smile, but Wen Kexing had sensed something wrong.  He hadn’t been the Valley Master then, but he’d already earned a reputation of viciousness.

The day he’d caught the ghost backing A-Xiang into a corner, he’d been fully prepared to add to that reputation.  But, once he’d given her the opening, A-Xiang had outdone him in cruelty.

Today, she looked just as feral, just as hungry.  Her lips peeled back in a ghoulish snarl; killing intent poured from every strike of her qi-infused whip.  Her steps were sure and quick, light against the polished stone floor, and, if her eyes drifted towards Weining, she didn’t let it distract her.

Wen Kexing slid his own glance towards the corner where the boy lay.  Both Fan Huaikong and the younger sect disciple were crouched over him, trying to help him; both quailed when they noticed Wen Kexing’s glare.

Wen Kexing held their gaze for just long enough to convey what their fate would be if Weining died, smiling when they shrunk into themselves.  Let them cower and try to hide – he would not forget them.

At his sides, his hands crooked into claws.  Echoes of a violent song vibrated through his bones – the Valley Master’s song, a hymn of bloodlust and hunger and power.  With each beat of his heart, the Valley Master sank deeper into him, and he into the mask.

It made him sick.  It made him want to laugh.  He’d shucked this mask, yet it kept clinging to him, a shadow he could never shake.

A shadow he needed, poison and all, for the battle before him was not going well.  A-Xiang was no match for a sect master, and Mo Huaiyang was skilled even among sect masters.  Desperation drove his blows, giving him the strength to power past A-Xiang’s attempts to block.  Not that she did much of that – her twisted cloth rope wouldn’t hold up against a direct knife strike, and she knew it.  But her dodges weren’t as fast as his blows.  Several cuts decorated her arms, while another dripped blood down her cheek – none deep yet, but the sight of the blood made something deep inside Wen Kexing howl.

She was his. 

She was bleeding.

He had to stop it.

This was her kill, he reminded himself.  He would assist, but she deserved the final blow.

Of course, he could prolong the man’s life for quite some time without killing him.  Hamstring him, open him up in a dozen places, then let her play cat and mouse with him.  Let him know what it felt like to be powerless and hunted.

His tongue darted out to wet his lips.  Yes.  She would still have the final blow, and as many blows before that as she wanted, but he needed to make the man scream.

But Mo Huaiyang was too skilled.  As Wen Kexing lunged in, the older man pivoted into a vicious upwards strike at his gut, one that passed close enough for Wen Kexing to feel the whoosh of air as he aborted his attack.  Where he’d gotten the blade – how he’d gotten the blade – oh, heads were going to roll.

Later, though.  Wen Kexing swore under his breath as Mo Huaiyang launched a fresh series of blows, lightning fast and aiming to maim or kill with each strike.  Neck, gut, inner thigh, neck again, face… Wen Kexing panted as he dodged and blocked, fan twirling in his hand.  One, two… he lashed out with a kick, catching the sect leader in the thigh.

Mo Huaiyang retaliated with a snap kick to the groin, followed by a reverse slash to the throat.  Fabric ripped with a hiss as Wen Kexing swayed out of the way.

“Ge!” A-Xiang screamed.  Her fabric whip cracked through the space between him and Mo Huaiyang, stopping the sect master from following up on his momentary advantage.

Wen Kexing bared his teeth.  Wet blood trickled down his arm, but the pain was a gnat’s bite compared to the red seeping into his vision.  He’d failed to cripple the man.

“Huaiyang, please!” Fan Huaikong pleaded from the corner of the room.  “Stop this!”

A laugh burst from Wen Kexing before he could catch it.  “There is no stopping now,” he hissed, swaying aside to give A-Xiang space as she attacked Mo Huaiyang in a frenzy.  “He signed his death warrant the moment he laid hands on Weining.”  And signed away any hope of a merciful death when he’d attacked A-Xiang.

Valley Master, Valley Master, when will you stop?

Some sniveling coward had asked him that once, tears pouring down his face and snot dripping from his nose as he begged for his life.  When all of you are dead, Wen Kexing had snarled then, and A-Xiang had hissed her agreement.

How many deaths would be needed this time?  Severed heads were not traditional wedding presents, but he could make such a dowry of them.  He’d promised her three streets full, after all…

With a flick of his wrist, he sent his fan screaming through the air.  Mo Huaiyang threw himself backwards, a full flip, and Wen Kexing snarled as the fan cut only fabric.

A-Xiang, though, was quicker.  As Mo Huaiyang caught himself on the wall, her whip lashed across his side, startling a pained grunt from him.

The Valley Master laughed with glee.  Yes.  Let him bleed, let him scream.  He might not be screaming yet, but he will soon.  Soon.  He sucked in a breath, ready to unleash his fan once more.

“Father!”

Wen Kexing squeezed his fan hard.  He was not the Valley Master, or at least not only the Valley Master.  He could…

He didn’t have time to complete the thought.  Mo Huaiyang, seizing on his moment of distraction, was on him in a flurry of slashes and kicks, each one stronger than the last.  Wen Kexing blocked one, two, three, but another slipped beneath his guard – a heel thudded into his solar plexus, sending him skittering backwards.

“Ge!” A-Xiang yelled.  “No!”

Mo Huaiyang spun back to her at the yell, and she backpedaled.  Wen Kexing flipped his fan in his hands, managed to gulp down a scant handful of air, and threw his fan once more.

With a thwarted snarl, the sect leader spun back.  “Why can’t you just die?” he growled, resuming his assault.

“Take you…”  Wen Kexing hissed as the dagger sliced open his forearm.  “With me!”

“Father, please, what are you doing?”

Neither Mo Huaiyang nor Wen Kexing paid the boy any heed.  Wen Kexing couldn’t bring himself to care, apart from the little corner of his mind that remained free of the Valley Master’s frozen rage, and even that corner was struggling to find the shreds of mercy left in it.  Mo Huaiyang wanted to destroy the Valley Master?  Then let him face the Valley Master.

That was when Wen Kexing heard the drums. 

Fear spiked through the ice surrounding his heart, and he redoubled his efforts to get through Mo Huaiyang’s guard.  Was this a part of his plan, or some new mischief of Mo Huaiyang’s doing?  Either way, he should be out there, not in here.

A-Xu.  Where are you?  Are you alright?

His chest tightened.  Not helpful, not now – he couldn’t think about his soulmate now.

But he couldn’t stop thinking about A-Xu either.  What was going on out there?  Had Prince Jin’s men attacked at last?  Had his plans fallen to pieces or fallen into place?

A fist smacked into his jaw.  He barely managed to turn in time, dispelling some of the force, but he could taste blood as he straightened.  Focus.  He had to focus.

He reached for the Valley Master’s dizzying fury, the mask of madness that had served him through so many fights, but now – now that he needed it – it slipped through his fingers.  He couldn’t be the Valley Master and worry about A-Xu, and he couldn’t let go of his worries for his zhiji.

“Look out!”  A-Xiang hurtled across the space, interposing her own body between him and Mo Huaiyang.  Wen Kexing had less than a second to shove her aside, taking the blow that would have gone through her heart in his upper bicep.

He couldn’t help it.  He screamed.

“Ge!” A-Xiang screamed in return.  Her whip flicked out like the tongues of an inferno, driving Mo Huaiyang backwards.

Wen Kexing flexed his fingers.  Blood poured down his arm, staining his sleeve, but he was deep enough in the madness not to care as much as he should have.  The sight of A-Xiang, backing up step by step but refusing to falter, was more than enough goad to get him back in the fight.

The drums continued to pound.  Mo Huaiyang continued to block and dodge and attack.

He was always attacking, always looking for an advantage.  Wen Kexing snarled.  He will not find one today.

One lightning-quick step, and he was at A-Xiang’s side.  Another, and they’d reversed the direction of battle, forcing Mo Huaiyang back instead of A-Xiang.  Together, they moved like water – Wen Kexing didn’t need to see her to know what she was going to do next, and she had the same awareness of him.

Together.  He’d fought so rarely with another, but it didn’t feel strange – it felt like coming home.

Piece by piece, the Valley Master slipped back into the depths, leaving diamond-hard clarity in its place.  Step by step, he and A-Xiang drove Mo Huaiyang backwards.

They paid for it – he tried to take the worst of the blows, but A-Xiang, stubborn girl, kept trying to help.  Blood smeared across both of their robes before they were halfway across the room, each foot paid for with pain.

He was so tired of pain and blood.  Tired of the sticky crimson on his skin, the copper smell and the taste that lingered in the air even when the spills had been cleaned up.

He’d never thought he’d be tired of killing.

Tired or not, though, it didn’t prevent him from exulting in the scarlet flowers blooming on Mo Huaiyang’s robes.  Each was a herald of his forthcoming death, and each made Wen Kexing’s grin sharpen further.  “Give up yet?” he taunted, slicing at the man’s hand with his fan.

“Never,” Mo Huaiyang spat.  “Demons like you should never be allowed to walk the earth!”

Wen Kexing barked a laugh, and A-Xiang echoed him.  “Demons?” she snarled.  “You’re one to talk!”

Mo Huaiyang didn’t bother to answer, being too busy fending off Wen Kexing’s fan.  He was slowing now, if only by a hair, and it made the battle hymn in Wen Kexing’s blood soar.  Soon.  Soon he’d be able to make the man pay.

Soon was good.  He was slowing too – he could feel it in his bones, in legs that weighed twice as much as they should and a fan that flew more sluggishly with every throw.  His left arm was shaky, sleeve soaked in blood, and he’d cracked or broken at least one rib.

The pain made him just slow enough to miss a feinted kick that turned into a real one, hooking back around and slamming into those broken ribs.  He flew backwards, flipping midair and catching himself on the wall, only to see Mo Huaiyang’s dagger driving straight for A-Xiang’s throat.

Then, like a miracle, Fan Huaikong caught his sect brother’s arm.  With a sickening snap, he shattered Mo Huaiyang’s elbow.

Mo Huaiyang reeled backwards, screaming, and Wen Kexing sprang forward to seize him by the throat.  “Any last words?” he purred.

The sect leader’s face was a ghastly white, but it reddened as Wen Kexing squeezed.  Flesh pulped beneath his fingers, but he didn’t crush the man’s windpipe.  Mo Huaiyang didn’t deserve that quick a death.

A-Xiang, almost as white as Mo Huaiyang, limped over.  Her pupils were wide with adrenaline and anger, her knuckles white around her makeshift whip.  “Ge?” she murmured.

Fabric shifted behind them, and they both whirled to see Mo Weixu bowing his head.  “Please,” he asked quietly.  His voice sounded choked, but there were no tears on his cheeks.  “Mercy.”

Wen Kexing looked at A-Xiang.  The remnants of the Valley Master howled in his blood – howled for blood – but he’d told himself at the start that this was her kill if she wanted it.

She eyed him, then Mo Huaiyang, then his son.  Her eyes narrowed.  “Make it quick.”

Wen Kexing did.

The silence was very loud after Mo Huaiyang’s body hit the floor.  The drums had stopped – Wen Kexing didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing.  Would they leave this room only to find themselves facing off with an army?

Or had everything finally fallen into place?  Hope, cruel monster that it was, reared its head in his breast once more and unfurled tattered wings.  As it did, the last shards of the Valley Master’s madness shrank back into his bones, hidden for now.  He smiled.

Mo Weixu closed his eyes.  His lips moved, but no sound emerged.

Fan Huaikong laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.  “My deepest apologies, Valley Master.  I did not…”  He swallowed.  “I did not know what Huaiyang had planned.”

Wen Kexing turned to look at A-Xiang, who’d sprinted to Weining’s side as soon as Mo Huaiyang breathed his last.  She looked back at him with wild hope in her eyes.  “He’s alive,” she breathed.

And he would stay that way if Wen Kexing had anything to say about it.

He turned back to the two from Weining’s sect, studying them with cold, hard eyes.  It would be so easy to kill them both in retribution, and it might even be the safer choice.  Fan Huaikong could claim innocence all he wanted, but there was no one who might contradict his story.

The man he’d once been would have taken their lives without a second thought.

His gaze strayed back to A-Xiang and Weining.  The boy was still unconscious, but Wen Kexing could see his chest rising and falling.  With the help of the Great Shaman, he would surely be walking for his wedding day, even if the consummation would need to wait.

Wen Kexing’s lips twisted at that, memories of horribly embarrassing talks with A-Xiang rising to the surface.  Luo-yi had handled most of that, but, once they were on the road, he’d wanted to ensure that his A-Xiang was prepared for anything.  Which she was, she’d assured him many times, face flaming red and refusing to look him in the eye.

He had to look away before his eyes could mist up.  He was truly growing too soft.

And maybe it was soft to let these two live, but their deaths would not be a good wedding present for his A-Xiang.  Not unless she demanded them, and she didn’t seem likely to do that.

Indeed, after one more whispered command to Weining to wake up, she rose and smoothed down her torn skirts.  “Fan-qianbei, Weixu-ge, thank you.  Without you…”  She trailed off.

It was the politest Wen Kexing had ever seen her.  He hid a smirk as Fan Huaikong bowed.  “I must apologize to you, too.  Had I had any inkling that my sect leader would do such a thing…”  He, too, trailed off, shaking his head.

Mo Weixu shifted on his feet.  “Shifu, guzhu, shouldn’t we find a healer for Weining?  And I heard warning drums…”

Wen Kexing snapped open his fan, waving it lazily.  The effect was somewhat spoiled by the blood on the white silk – he’d have to clean it once again.  “Ah, yes.  Shall we see if my mountain has been overrun by an army?”

Fan Huaikong and Mo Weixu exchanged confused glances, but A-Xiang bounded to her feet.  She knew what he’d been hoping for – she’d badgered it out of him when he’d asked her to hold her wedding so suddenly.  He hadn’t put up too much of a fight – he really was trying to share more.  Even if it deprived him of the thrill of maneuvering everyone just so and watching them dance, all unknowing, on his strings.

She grinned at him, following the trail of his thoughts.  “Yes, let’s!  And we can find that old shaman and make him fix Weining.”

Despite the hope growing around his broken ribs, Wen Kexing found himself holding his breath as he stepped out into the corridor.  He couldn’t hear any fighting, but that didn’t necessarily mean that things were safe.  If the army outside had brought overwhelming force, or if the Scorpion King had managed to sneak Drug Men into the mountain, silence might be a very bad sign.

But he encountered no trouble as he strode back towards the hall where the banquet had been set up.  No Drug Men, no soldiers, not even a stray ghost – and that in itself was suspicious.  Where was everyone?

His plan had to work.  He would not accept any other outcome.

He laid his hand against the door to the main hall, but couldn’t bring himself to push it open.  Fool, he chided himself.  Since when are you a coward?  Open it!

He could feel eyes boring into his back as he shoved open the door, revealing a scene of chaos.

It took every ounce of steel in him to stop from rushing forward, shouting for his A-Xu.  He would not, could not make himself look like a fool – not in front of his ghosts and the jianghu both.  But his legs trembled with the need to move, to find his A-Xu and reassure himself that his soulmate was safe.

Surely he was safe.  Surely he had survived whatever had happened here to leave bodies sprawled across the floor.  So many bodies, yet so little blood… and the bodies nearest him were still breathing.

The sight of the ghost’s chest rising and falling let Wen Kexing take a breath of his own.  If his people still lived, then this had not become the massacre he had feared.  His plan must have worked.

Or had it?  He scanned the room and frowned.  The only people present were ghosts and invited guests, no Scorpion Sect assassins or soldiers from Prince Jin’s army.  He’d heard the drums – had he imagined that?  Had the Scorpion King and that asshole who’d taken over the Window of Heaven not taken the bait?

If not, what had happened here?

He spun to glare at Fan Huaikong.  “What did your senior plan?”

Fan Huaikong held up both hands.  “I don’t know, I swear.”

A snort had Wen Kexing turning once more.  “A likely story,” Luo Fumeng purred, sweeping up in her elegant scarlet robes.  The delicate golden headpiece that she wore remained immaculate, but sweat dotted her forehead – she’d been fighting.

Wen Kexing nodded at her, a silent order to continue.  She dipped her head.  “My lord.  I regret to inform you that the Gentle Wind Sword Sect attempted to poison you and your guests.  We have restrained them, and I believe that most still live.”  She hesitated.  “There was also an attack from outside – it seems that one of the guests attempted to open the gates and let in the attackers.  However, they have been contained as well.”

Wen Kexing would not let himself sigh with relief, but it swept over him anyway in a dizzying wave.  “The traps?”

“Quite effective.”  She permitted herself a small smile.  “A wise decision, guzhu.”

Some of the effervescent joy in him faded at the title, but he kept his face stone.  Valley Master he was, and Valley Master he would be until he could relinquish it, yet even that would not rid him of the mask fragments clinging to him, he suspected.  Madness and bloodlust and power were etched into his bones.

He let them shine through as he faced Fan Huaikong once again.  “And you claim to have known nothing?”

“No!”  The older man shook his head, almost frantic.  “I would never condone such a plan!  You have granted us hospitality – more than hospitality!  You gave us a refuge when no one else would.  I do not know what Huaiyang was thinking to do this.”

“He was thinking he could get away with it,” Wen Kexing observed.  The man hadn’t suffered enough before his death.

Fan Huaikong swallowed hard.  “If there are any reparations you would accept, Valley Master, please.  Allow me and my sect to provide them.”

Wen Kexing bared his teeth in something that was not a smile.  “Let’s see what the damage is, shall we?  Then we can discuss reparations.”

“The Gentle Wind Sword Sect members are over here,” Luo Fumeng informed him.  “And…”  Again, she hesitated, face falling into somber lines.  “You must know, guzhu, that your Zhou Zishu is the reason that this ended with as little death as it has.  But…”  Her gaze drifted to a corner.

Wen Kexing followed her stare and blanched.  Before he could think twice, he was in the air, soaring towards the little group clumped around Shen Shen.  Clumped around the unconscious – dead? – form of his A-Xu.

No.  Not dead.  He could not be dead.

Red bled into the corners of his vision, cold and jagged.  A-Xu.  Please.  He would not, could not imagine a world where his A-Xu was gone.  Not when he was so close to putting every single piece into place.

Wu Xi caught him by the wrist before he could drop to his knees by his soulmate the way he wanted, needed to.  “He’s alive,” the shaman said quickly.

Wen Kexing wrenched away, ribs screaming with the movement.  Despite the pain, he lifted his hand to strike Wu Xi, but the shaman held up his hands in a gesture of peace.  “Breathe, Valley Master.  You can’t touch him unless you get your qi under control.”

The command made no sense until Wen Kexing reached inside himself and realized that his fear and anger had overflowed his meridians.  A virulent river coursed through his body, poisoned further by the gashes still bleeding freely on his arms, knotted where it snarled around his broken ribs.

Wu Xi nodded slowly.  “He’s exhausted himself completely, and his body cries out for energy, but he cannot be allowed to have more than a trickle.  He can’t handle it.”

Those damn nails.  Would this be how he lost his A-Xu?  Did fate hate him enough to take away even the last few days they might have had together?

His throat tightened.  Yet again, a small snarl in one of his plans had metastasized into disaster.  He hadn’t expected Mo Huaiyang to be so bold…

I did this for you, he wanted to cry.  I promised you that no one would get hurt, and that it would all be alright.  And I thought I could keep that promise!  How many promises to his A-Xu was he destined to break?

Stupid.  He was so very stupid.  He’d wanted this one last triumph, wanted to see the delight on his A-Xu’s face when he presented him with a cure.  He’d made sure to take all the right precautions this time, hadn’t he?  He’d even allowed others to know large swathes of his plan.  If he hadn’t told his A-Xu everything, it was only because he wanted to present this as a fait accompli, and his A-Xu had understood – hadn’t pushed.

Yet fate was still punishing him.

Eyes stinging with tears he refused to shed, he pushed down his unruly qi and knelt by his soulmate.  A-Xu’s hand was so, so cold in Wen Kexing’s, but a faint pulse beat in his wrist.  So, so faint, but there.

Wen Kexing concentrated on that steady beat as he whispered, “You are not allowed to die.”

“He won’t.  Not today.”  Wu Xi did not touch Wen Kexing, but he stood as though he wished to offer comfort.  “He will survive the exhaustion.”

“But not the rest?  Isn’t that what you mean to say?” Wen Kexing snarled.  He jerked himself around to glare at the healer, only to be caught up short by a stab of pain from his broken ribs.

Though he tried to keep his flinch off his face, Wu Xi noticed and frowned.  “You’re injured.”

“I don’t care.”  He would heal.  His A-Xu wouldn’t.

Wu Xi’s lips flattened into a thin line.  “If you puncture a lung by moving too fast, you will.  Let me…”

Wen Kexing bared his teeth.  “Heal my A-Xu first!” he snapped, cutting off the offer before it could begin.  He didn’t need any help.

Others did, though.  Shame coiled in his gut, leaching away his anger and forcing the madness back into its little corner.  “I…”  The words stuck in his throat.  He would not apologize for putting his soulmate first.  “A-Xiang,” he managed.  “She and Weining need help.”

He should have said that first, or at least once he’d ascertained that his A-Xu wasn’t on the verge of death right now.  How had he forgotten?

“Where are they?”  If Wu Xi was annoyed by Wen Kexing’s attitude, he didn’t show it.

Wen Kexing swallowed.  “I’ll show you.  But…”  He didn’t want to let go of his A-Xu’s hand.  “Why, dammit?” he whispered to his soulmate.  “Why are you such an idiot sometimes?”

As quickly as it had gone, the fury was back, but it had no target.  He’d already yelled at Wu Xi for failing to find a solution, and it had gone nowhere – the words had rolled off him like water off a duck’s back.  And he couldn’t yell at his A-Xu, not when the man was unconscious.

A choked-off gasp echoed from behind, and the fury roared.  Wen Kexing reached for his fan, ready to slice apart anyone who dared interrupt them, but he knew that face.  With a silent snarl, he forced his hand to relax.

Han Ying stared at all three of them, face blanched white.  “Zhou-shifu is dying?”

“He’s been dying since he stabbed himself with those damn nails,” Wen Kexing hissed.  He squeezed his soulmate’s hand tighter, ignoring the blood that dripped down his arm and onto A-Xu’s hand.  His soulmate wouldn’t mind a bit of blood.

Han Ying did not rise to the bait.  “He… how long?”

Wu Xi bowed his head.  “You must be one of the Tian Chuang folk.  Zhou Zishu spoke very highly of all of you.”  At Han Ying’s impatient glare, the shaman shook his head.  “A week or two, at most.”

Unless a miracle occurs, Wen Kexing completed.  Well, he was going to provide that miracle.

And Han Ying – oh-so-loyal Han Ying – might prove useful there.  Wen Kexing looked him up and down.  He’d liked the boy during his convalescence at Siji Pavilion – thought him and his undying loyalty useful even then.

Oh, yes, he’d had plans then.  Plans for a brighter future that he was not going to let slip through his fingers.  Not now.

Han Ying swallowed, looking down at his fingers.  For a second, it looked like he might cry, but he mastered himself with no more than a small tremor of his lips before looking back up.  “Shishu.”  He bowed, low and formal.  “If I may call you that.  I have news you may wish to hear.”

It was bad enough for Chengling to call him that – did he really want all the new disciples using that title too?  Wen Kexing grimaced, and tried to imagine the delighted little smile that his A-Xu would try so hard not to show when he heard it.  “What is it?”

Han Ying straightened to attention.  “My men and I were on the final approach to the valley, escorted by one of your sentinels, when we heard a fight break out.  We hurried to help, and saw a group of…”  His voice faltered for a split second.  “Abominations struggling to escape a series of traps.  Many were dead, but others moved despite what should have been fatal wounds.”

“Drug Men.”  Wen Kexing waved a hand, only to regret it as the deep gash in his bicep shrieked with protest.  “Go on.”

“These, ah, Drug Men were accompanied by members of the Scorpion Sect, shishu.  Most of the Scorpion Sect had escaped the traps, but we were able to prevent them from entering the valley.  Many fled, but…”  Now a touch of triumph entered his voice.  “We were able to capture their leader.”

Wen Kexing wanted to shout his joy to the sky.  This was the best possible outcome of all his maneuvering, and it had come true!  He hadn’t expected little Xie’er to take the bait himself – he’d thought he’d have to chase the boy down once his army was decimated, or lure him out with another offer of negotiation.  But he’d come himself.

“What about Prince Jin’s men?” he demanded.  “And where is he?”

“The prince’s men were not a part of the assault,” Han Ying replied.  “The, ah, formidable lady took custody of the Scorpion King.”

That had to be Luo Fumeng.  Wen Kexing smirked.  “Very well done.  Your shifu will be proud when he awakes.”

A blush spread across Han Ying’s cheeks.  “Thank you, shishu.”

Oh, he was delightful, wasn’t he?  And skilled enough to capture the Scorpion King.  Wen Kexing could definitely use him.

His smirk widened.  The Scorpion King was here – the last piece of the puzzle was in place.

And he had so much hunger simmering in his blood.  He hadn’t gotten to take Mo Huaiyang to pieces, but now he had a scorpion to play with.

He glanced at the unconscious body of his A-Xu, roiling heat filling his gut once more.  Yes.  A talk with the little Scorpion King would be the perfect way to spend the time until his A-Xu was on his feet once more.

Chapter Text

Xie’er woke to a pounding headache, the scratch of harsh rope against his wrists, and flaring pain in his shoulders.

It was not the first time he’d awoken in such a state, though he never enjoyed it.  But, by now, he had a routine for such things.

First, he took stock of his body.  Pain pounded through every muscle and bone, but he shunted it to the back of his mind.  Pain was information, nothing more – it deserved no more attention than that needed to ascertain the boundaries of his current predicament.

The strain in his shoulders, for instance, told him he hadn’t been bound long.  They ached where his arms had been forced up over his head, but not in the screaming, cramping way they’d get soon.  And his captors had left enough slack in the ropes for his weight to be on his feet, not his shoulders and wrists – how considerate of them.

Of course, with how he was slumped, he was taking rather more weight on his bonds than necessary, but that was easy to remedy.  After listening for a minute to ensure he was alone, he shifted to get his feet properly beneath him.

That told him more things.  He was blindfolded, of course, but he could feel the way his robes swirled around his legs.  Light, too light – someone had stripped his outer layers from him, leaving him in just his inner robe.  He still wore trousers beneath that, but no boots.  No little tricks secreted away to help him get free.

He had failed.

Not just failed, but failed utterly, entirely, horribly.

It was strangely freeing.

A harsh sound filled the room, and he tensed.  It took a second for him to realize it was his own laughter – it sounded more like a crow’s squawk than anything from a human throat.  He, Xie’er, had failed.

(He had to stop thinking of himself like that, as yifu’s son.  He knew it, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.)

For years, failure had meant something very particular.  Something… special, almost.  But now?  With no yifu to punish him, no yifu to grovel for, what was he supposed to do?

Survive the coming torture, he supposed.  That would be a start.

The creak of a door announced the arrival of a newcomer.  Xie’er shifted in his bonds, tensing to strike, but the susurration of silk stopped out of range of any kick.  “Ah, little scorpion, you look gorgeous like this,” a low voice purred.

Xie’er knew that voice.  “Wen Kexing.  I’d return the compliment, but…”  He shrugged, letting the thin robe carry the motion.

A whisper of wind answered him.  He flinched as the blindfold fell away, sliced cleanly by the fan already returning to its master’s hand.  Such a blow could have easily sliced open his neck, yet it hadn’t even broken skin.

Something electric and unnamable shivered down his spine.  He let his gaze roam freely over the room, making no pretense of his scan.  It was a large room hewn from raw stone – several low benches rested against one craggy wall, while a cabinet sat alone against another.  The floor was unadorned granite, sloping slightly downwards towards him.  He couldn’t see behind him, and didn’t dare twist to get a better view, but the echoes in the room made him think the rest was just as barren.  Maybe a copper tub or a brazier sat back there – the place was warm enough for a fire to be present.

Wen Kexing watched him look around and smirked.  “Hoping for a weapon or two?”

Bravado filled Xie’er’s chest.  I don’t need a weapon to kill you or I am a weapon hovered on the tip of his tongue, but those were the sorts of things the jianghu braggarts would say.  He wouldn’t demean himself like that.

Instead, he matched Wen Kexing’s smirk.  “Such wonderful hospitality, Valley Master.  Is this how you treat all your guests?”

“Guests?”  Wen Kexing prowled closer.  “Guests, my little scorpion, don’t come with armies of Drug Men.  Guests don’t try to murder my people.”  He traced a finger down Xie’er’s cheek.  “Of course, I could always do to you what I did to my last guest.  I think it took him… hmm, six days before he passed over the yellow bridge?”

Xie’er could not stop himself from tensing as that finger dragged down his jugular.  He tried to keep his breath steady, but it was hard, so hard, when Wen Kexing wrapped a hand around his throat.  Not squeezing, yet – just holding.

“The famed justice of Ghost Valley,” he managed, in a voice that almost sounded calm.  He was proud of that calm.

“Justice?”  Wen Kexing barked a laugh.  “I’ve never claimed to dispense justice.”

“Then what was all that with the jianghu?” Xie’er challenged.

Wen Kexing leaned in.  “Revenge.”

His breath was hot on Xie’er’s ear.  This was the time to strike, Xie’er thought, but he couldn’t bring himself to move.  He’d failed – failed his last, self-appointed mission, failed to avenge his yifu, failed in every way that mattered.  Which meant nothing mattered anymore.

When Xie’er declined to respond, Wen Kexing huffed a laugh and shifted backwards.  Not by much – Xie’er could still feel the Valley Master’s heat – but enough to look Xie’er in the eyes.  “Nothing to say, little scorpion?”

Xie’er still said nothing.  He was going to die here no matter what he said, so why bother saying anything?

Wen Kexing’s hand cracked across his cheek.  He gasped before he could stop himself – not from the pain, but from the sudden sharp sting of familiarity.  For a second, he might have been facing his yifu, begging for forgiveness for some transgression.  Begging to be punished, if that was what it took to be back in his yifu’s good graces.

(Begging to be punished for its own sake.)

The caress that followed was also familiar, sickeningly so.  “You know, if you beg prettily enough, I might just spare you,” Wen Kexing whispered.  His voice was edged with something rough, something that might have been pain.  “It would be a shame to kill such a lovely opponent.”

“Didn’t get enough last time?” Xie’er retorted.  Not that he’d begged last time, but he’d come close by the end.  At the time, he’d thought it worth the cost – momentary shame for long-term gain. 

And such a delicious way to profit, a corner of his mind whispered. 

He ignored it and the rush of memories that came with it.  Sensory memories, tangled memories… no.  He would not, could not let himself think of those now.

Instead, he studied his captor.  Was that blood on the Valley Master’s sleeve?  His breath came in shallow pants, and he moved with a shadow of his normal grace – an injury to the ribs, perhaps?  That was certainly blood on his hands, though Xie’er couldn’t tell whose.

The sight made his lips curl into a smile.  “Someone marked you up nicely, didn’t they?”

Injured or not, Wen Kexing was a predator, and it showed in his eyes as he bared gleaming teeth.  “Thinking you can take advantage of that?”  He prowled in a circle around Xie’er, and Xie’er refused to twist to try to follow.  The bonds around his wrists would allow him that much movement, but it would be a sign of fear.  He would not fear the Valley Master.  The fluttering in his gut was not fear – if he told himself that enough, it would become true.

But it was hard, so very hard, not to tense when a hand slid beneath his hair to catch the back of his neck.  He could feel sticky drying blood press into his skin as Wen Kexing squeezed.  “You’re going to tell me what I want to know, Scorpion King.  Where is the last piece of the Glazed Armor?”

Xie’er barked a laugh.  “How should I know?”

Sharp nails dug into the skin of his throat, hard enough to draw blood.  “Don’t lie to me,” Wen Kexing purred in his ear.  “I’m not in the mood.”

“What are you in the mood for, then?” Xie’er taunted.  A heady sort of wildness filled his blood.  If he was going to die here, then he wasn’t going to make it easy for the Valley Master to get what he wanted.

At least, that was true if all Wen Kexing wanted was information.  But that was such a boring desire.  Xie’er didn’t think that was all the Valley Master wanted – he’d be in much more pain already if that was the case.  No, Wen Kexing wanted to play.

That should have terrified Xie’er.  He knew the stories, knew what the man behind him was capable of.  But the butterflies circling in his stomach were soaring, not beating their wings in frantic panic, while heat coiled low beneath them.  He knew how to play games, how to turn them to his advantage. 

And he had nothing left to lose, now.

Wen Kexing’s chuckle was low and dark.  “What do you think?”  He let his hand fall away and continued his circle so Xie’er could see him once more.  His eyes were very dark as he held up a necklace with a very familiar piece of glazed glass strung on it.

Xie’er arched an eyebrow.  “Proud of yourself?”  It was hard to keep his tone level, but he did his best.  He hadn’t noticed the absence of the necklace until now, but it wasn’t a surprise to find it gone.  Presumably it had been taken when he’d been stripped of his weapons – one more failure to add to his ever-growing list.  His last link to his yifu in the hands of his captor.

Why did his neck feel lighter without it?

Wen Kexing swung the necklace back and forth like a fortune-teller’s pendant.  “Your yifu must have loved you very, very much to give you this,” he drawled.  “I suppose that’s why you’re trying to collect the rest of the set?”

Xie’er bristled at the condescension in the older man’s tone.  It took him a breath or two to push down all the tangled emotions, to smooth his face out once more.  “Jealous?  I don’t suppose you ever had a loving father, did you?  Or, at least, not for long.”

He hid a smirk as the barb hit home, bracing himself for the blow that was sure to follow.

To his shock, Wen Kexing laughed.  “Loving fathers don’t want to fuck their sons, little scorpion.  I may not know much about families, but I know that.”

“Yifu didn’t…” Xie’er started, then choked back the rest of the words.  His yifu had never wanted anything like that, no matter how many hints Xie’er had dropped.  No matter that he would have given Zhao Jing his body in a heartbeat, and considered himself blessed for the privilege.

Wen Kexing tilted his head to one side, eyes bright like a bird of prey’s.  “Oh?”

This game wasn’t going quite the way Xie’er had expected.  He forced an empty smile, determined to bring it back into territory he could control.  “Why?  Spoiled some fantasy of yours, have I?”  Flirting, taunting… anything to draw out a reaction.

And he got one, alright – Wen Kexing drew a small blade from his sleeve.

Xie’er did his best not to react, but he knew that blade.  It was one of his, and that added insult to injury when Wen Kexing dragged it down his face.  Gently, the touch barely there, but the blade was sharp enough to cut despite that.

Wen Kexing traced the tiny slice with a finger, gathering up the lone droplet of blood that seeped out.  He studied it with an odd expression before lifting his eyes to Xie’er.  “Where is the final piece of the Glazed Armor?”

Xie’er pouted.  “Back to that already?”

Wen Kexing flipped the knife through his fingers, and Xie’er watched it like a mouse watching a cat, unable to look away.  What would he have to say to keep the blade away from his skin?  What could he say to earn another mark?

He shouldn’t want that.  But his blood sang in anticipation, a feral need to keep pushing, provoking.

Wen Kexing’s tongue darted out to wet his lips.  With careful deliberation, he dragged the blade down Xie’er’s chest, leaving his flimsy robe gaping open.

The cold air hit first.  Then the sting followed.

Xie’er sucked in a breath.  So.  It would be this kind of game, after all.

Still moving with dreamlike slowness, Wen Kexing laid the knife against Xie’er’s jugular.  “Where,” he repeated, “is the last piece of the Glazed Armor?”

It would take a single twitch of his wrist, no more.  One small jerk, and Xie’er’s lifeblood would be pooling on the floor.

He laughed, high and wild and delighted.  “Tell me why you want it, and I’ll tell you how to get it.”

The blade moved, but only to draw another thin line.  This one traced down his jugular to the hollow of his collarbone, where it lingered for a long moment.  The tip of the scorpion tail dug into his flesh, the pain as bright as his laugh.

It sent a shiver down his spine.  The fluttering wings in his gut swirled, hot and heady.

Wen Kexing’s pupils were very large as he studied the newest line.  “Why does it matter to you?” he purred, so close that Xie’er could feel his body heat through his robes.  “You’re never going to be the one to open the armory.  And you’re going to tell me eventually.”

“Am I?”  Xie’er shifted so his chest brushed against Wen Kexing’s.  “What makes you so sure?”

The slap made tears spring to his eyes.  He blinked them away and smirked as Wen Kexing seized him by the throat once more.  So very familiar

The kiss that followed, harsh and hungry, was also familiar, if only in dreams.  Electric anticipation danced through his veins as Wen Kexing sank punishing teeth into his lower lip, pulling back as quickly as he’d surged forward.  “Because,” the Valley Master breathed, “I know how to make you beg.”

You said that already, Xie’er wanted to say.  Instead, he went with, “And that lovely soulmate of yours doesn’t mind?”

Wen Kexing’s smirk was all angles.  “If he was here, he would want to watch.”

Ah.  Xie’er slotted that little tidbit of information away for future use.  His spies had assured him that the former master of Tian Chuang was in the valley, which meant that either Wen Kexing was lying or something must have happened.

Xie’er considered himself a good judge of liars, and Wen Kexing wasn’t lying right now.  So what had happened to Zhou Zishu?

Possibly, he decided, studying Wen Kexing with his own predatory intensity, the same thing that had left the Valley Master bleeding and trying not to bend too far.  Not his Drug Men – they hadn’t gotten past the benighted traps that had filled every approach to the valley, much to his chagrin.  He hadn’t expected to find the Longyuan Pavilion’s tricks here, and hadn’t prepared for them as he should have.

He’d thought to find the valley defenseless, open to his attack thanks to the spies he’d planted among the wedding guests.  Duan Pengju, fool that he was, hadn’t wanted to get involved – if he had, they might have overwhelmed the traps with sheer numbers.  But he’d agreed to let Xie’er set the trap anyway, agreed to let the guests through unmolested.

Much good it had done, in the end.

The kiss of steel on skin startled him from his thoughts.  Wen Kexing had the blade at his neck once more and was drawing slow, sinuous curves downwards, seemingly at random.

Xie’er’s breath caught in his throat.  He froze, not daring to exhale, as the blade dipped lower and lower.  His skin, already bared from the way his robe gaped open, prickled with cold anticipation.  Everything narrowed to the bright line of lightning and the shine of metal under lantern-light and the soft brush of Wen Kexing’s breath on his throat.

He clenched his jaw, refusing to whimper when the blade lifted away a finger’s width from his hip.  The world was hazy and hot and all the voices in his head were quiet, leaving him alone with the sharp sting of need.

It made him reckless.  It made him hungry.

He locked eyes with the Valley Master, wetting his lips with the tip of his tongue.  “I thought you were going to make me beg.”

Light as a ghost, the blade trailed over the waistband of his trousers.  He sucked in a breath, and Wen Kexing laughed low in his throat.  “So impatient, little scorpion.  Do you want to spill your secrets already?”  Then, before Xie’er could answer, Wen Kexing seized his already-torn robes and yanked them open further.

Xie’er hissed as his wrists jerked against the rope binding him to a hook in the ceiling.  That made Wen Kexing laugh again, breathless and cruel, as he sliced open the sleeves pooled around Xie’er’s shoulders.  The robe fell to the ground in a whisper of silk, and Xie’er shivered.  Not from cold, though his skin pebbled with goosebumps – he couldn’t have named why if he’d tried.

Wen Kexing took his time looking Xie’er over, keen eyes noting the silvered scars sketched over his ribs and abdomen.  Many scars – a patchwork of them, all earned when he was younger.  Xie’er stood straight, refusing to be ashamed of them.  He’d earned every mark, and paid back every man who’d given them to him.

Every man but one.

The Valley Master traced one of the worst scars with the tip of his knife, following it as it curved around Xie’er’s ribs.  Then the knife stuttered to a halt.

Xie’er took a cold satisfaction in the indrawn breath he could hear from behind him.  “Not a fan of spoiled goods, Valley Master?” he murmured.

It took all he had not to jump as cold metal touched his shoulder.  He swallowed hard.  He knew the scar there, a cane mark that hadn’t healed properly.  A mark from yifu… maybe he hadn’t lost his only link to the man after all.

The scar stung as Wen Kexing dug the knife into it.  “Tell me, scorpion,” he purred.  “Did you thank him for giving you this?”

Blood rushed to Xie’er’s cheeks.  He would never tell the man this, but he had.  His yifu had demanded it, and… and Xie’er had eagerly complied.  Back a mass of welts, he’d thrown himself at his yifu’s feet and pleaded for forgiveness, all the while silently pleading for more.  To be allowed to reach out, to touch, to be allowed just one touch of his own…

He’d touched himself afterwards, and hated himself for it.  But that hadn’t stopped him from doing it again the next time he was punished, or the time after that, or the time after that.

The purr in Wen Kexing’s voice told him the Valley Master knew or guessed at least some of that.  “It’s alright, you know,” he breathed in Xie’er’s ear, faux-kind.  “You can always give in.  Some people look better on their knees.”  Lazily, he traced one scar, then another.  Each stung and burned and set Xie’er’s blood alight.  It would be so easy to give in, to tell the Valley Master what he wanted to hear…

But Xie’er wasn’t done playing yet.  “I’m sure you’re quite the sight kneeling,” he taunted.

Quick as a flash, Wen Kexing’s arm was around his throat, choking off air and blood both.  Dizziness washed over Xie’er, followed by a hazy sense of warmth spreading out from his chest.  Who needed air?

The rope chafed against his wrists, the only sensation to make it through the haze.  He clung to it, laughing silently as he felt himself begin to slide into darkness.

Then Wen Kexing released him and his lungs gulped down air without his conscious approval.  He couldn’t help the small moan that escaped his lips as he breathed out, far too aware of every point of contact between him and the man at his back.  Wen Kexing’s silk robes were sleek and soft against the fresh cuts decorating his skin; his own trousers felt rough by comparison.

He shuddered when Wen Kexing’s fingers brushed his back, smearing wetness down his spine.  Blood – his own blood.  That shouldn’t have made him dizzy, burning for more, but it did.

You can end this, a little voice whispered in the back of his head.  Just tell him what he wants to know, and he’ll stop.

Would he? Xie’er wondered.  Or would that be a signal that his life was no longer worth preserving?

He wasn’t sure he cared.  And he wasn’t ready for this to be over.

Wen Kexing wound a fist through his hair, yanking his head back to expose his throat.  He choked back a gasp as steel dug into tender skin.  “What would you give me if I kept hurting you, just like this?” Wen Kexing whispered.

Xie’er had to laugh.  Rivulets of blood ran down his neck, but that just made him laugh harder, straining into Wen Kexing’s grip.  Such a lovely world, floating and foggy at the edges, electric and bright at the core… every nerve was on fire, and the scornful voices were silent, and he’d failed, and he didn’t care.

Wen Kexing pulled his hair harder when he didn’t reply, arching him into a bow that made his shoulders scream.  He licked his lips and tasted copper.  “Do your worst, Valley Master.”  He closed his eyes and bared his teeth, blood singing in anticipation.  Make me beg.

***

The bedroom was dark and quiet, the hush broken only by the faint whisper of his A-Xu’s breathing.  Steady breathing, even breathing… it made something in Wen Kexing’s chest relax just to hear it.

He padded across the floor on shaky legs, discarding layers as he went.  Let them lay where they fell for tonight – he couldn’t find it in himself to care.  He was drained and exhilarated all at once, a hurricane of emotions cascading through his bloodstream and twining around his bones like a friendly cat.  The world was a coruscating haze of rainbows and shadows.

He rounded the screen separating the bed from the rest of the room and stared down at his A-Xu.  Asleep, his face lacked the forbidding lines of his usual stern expression, making him look younger.  Fragile.  Even in sleep, the iron core at his center shone through, but the flesh laid over it was so very breakable.

Wen Kexing, heart in his throat, folded into a kneeling position.  Praying that he didn’t wake his A-Xu, he took his soulmate’s hand and pressed his forehead to it.

A-Xu’s skin was chilled, not much warmer than the air of the bedroom, but his pulse beat strongly in his wrist.  Qi dripped through his body in slow, lazy circles.  No more than the trickle of a nearly-dead stream in the heart of summer, but it was present all the same.

He could have died today, and it would have been Wen Kexing’s fault.

Wen Kexing’s fingers tightened around his soulmate’s hand.  The stone floor beneath his knees was cold and hard, biting into his kneecaps, but the lassitude creeping over him left him reluctant to move.  This felt right, kneeling here with the taste of blood still lingering on his lips.  It felt good.

It might have been minutes or hours when a rustle of fabric snapped Wen Kexing back to awareness.  He flinched as his A-Xu opened sleepy eyes.  “Lao Wen?” he murmured.

Wen Kexing pressing a kiss to the back of his soulmate’s hand.  “Go back to sleep, A-Xu.  I didn’t mean to wake you.”  Fierce, feral joy welled inside him, and he fought to keep his voice low.

Zhou Zishu blinked slowly at him.  “Lao Wen, why are you kneeling?”

Wen Kexing’s throat closed up.  Mutely, he shook his head, and his A-Xu’s face softened.  With careful, deliberate movements, he pulled his hand away from Wen Kexing’s fingers and brought it to cup his cheek.  “Come to bed, Lao Wen.”

Again, Wen Kexing found his head shaking.  The stone didn’t hurt at all anymore – he’d lost feeling in his knees at some point, and hadn’t even noticed.  The ache in his ribs and arm was similarly distant.

A-Xu’s eyes slid shut, but his hand stayed steady on Wen Kexing’s face.  Still chilly, but warming as the seconds ticked by.  Wen Kexing leaned into it and sighed.  “It’s done.”  Everything was done.  All his schemes, all his plots… done.

And he’d gotten what he wanted, in the end.  Yet it wasn’t pure triumph he felt now – instead, as he knelt beside the bed, his stomach roiled, and he had to swallow down a lump in his throat.  His A-Xu had almost died because of him.

Never again, he swore to himself.  “I’m a slow learner, aren’t I?” he whispered, half to himself and half to his soulmate.  “I’ll do better.  I swear.”

Zhou Zishu said nothing.  Wen Kexing wasn’t sure if he was awake, or if it would be better if he’d fallen back asleep.  Better, maybe, if he didn’t hear the words that spilled out.  “I’m not a good person,” he blurted, throat tight.  “I don’t know…”  He shook his head.  “I enjoyed it.  All of it.”  All the scheming, moving all the pieces into place, and then, in the end, dragging the knife over Xie’er’s skin… something hot and vicious curled in his gut.  “And… and he did, too, in the end.”  The memory of making the Scorpion King beg, lost in a haze of blood and pain and pleasure all twisted up so tight they couldn’t be separated, made Wen Kexing shiver.

“He?”  Zhou Zishu’s voice was sleepy, almost inaudible.

“The Scorpion King.  Little Xie’er.”  Wen Kexing swallowed.  So very broken, edges sharp enough to gut anyone who got near him, and so very beautiful in his hatred.

“Ah.”  Zhou Zishu didn’t say anything more for a long moment, and Wen Kexing wondered if that was it.  But then his soulmate sighed.  “Is he alive?”

It took Wen Kexing a moment to get the affirmation out.  Would his A-Xu think less of him for leaving such a dangerous enemy alive?  And unharmed, even, or at least not harmed in any permanent fashion.  If he was smart, he wouldn’t even have scars from tonight.

He’d had so many scars.  Wen Kexing didn’t pity him, but something too close to pity had invaded his chest for a moment there.  He knew, intimately, what cane scars looked like.

Zhou Zishu hummed an acknowledgement, and something deep inside Wen Kexing relaxed.  “He begged, at the end.  Begged for more.”

“Did you give it to him?”

The question made Wen Kexing smirk, some of his earlier high returning to him.  “Some.  Enough.”  And, oh, it had been glorious to let go.

It wasn’t the same way he’d felt taking apart the would-be assassin, back when they’d first arrived in the valley, but it was the same thrill of power.  The same knowledge that he held life and death in his hands.

He wondered, suddenly, if his A-Xu felt like that sometimes.  If he felt like that when he put Wen Kexing on his knees with a hand around his throat, squeezing until sparks danced across Wen Kexing’s vision.  Squeezing until Wen Kexing would do anything for just a bit more.

“Hmm.”  Another acknowledgement, with no hint of emotion in it.  No clues as to what his A-Xu was feeling.

Wen Kexing trapped Zhou Zishu’s hand with his own.  “I said you’d want to watch, if you could.”

A low laugh echoed through the darkness.  “Is that a request, Lao Wen?”

Maybe.  No.  Yes.  Wen Kexing had no need to talk to the Scorpion King again – Xie’er had, in the end, given him what he wanted.  Duan Pengju was a cautious man, but not cautious enough to hide from the eyes of the scorpions, and now Wen Kexing knew exactly how to get the last piece of Glazed Armor.

“Lao Wen?” Zhou Zishu prompted when the silence stretched on too long for his liking.  There was something dark in his tone.  Not jealousy – something hungrier.

Wen Kexing shivered.  “Maybe,” he whispered.  For there were others who might be fun to play with, and one face in particular was swimming through his mind.

But that was for later.  He shuffled forward on his knees so he could rest his forehead against the mattress.  Words bubbled up inside him, words that he didn’t want to say, except that he did.

His A-Xu said nothing this time, waiting for him to break the silence.  “I didn’t have to do it,” he admitted at last.  He had Wang Feiyan in place, after all, and she would have found the hiding place eventually.  This made it safer for her, but it didn’t change the underlying truth – he’d walked into that room because he wanted to make someone scream.

He’d arranged everything to get to that point because he wanted to make the world bow to him.

“Why, then?” Zhou Zishu breathed.  Still so sleepy, the words almost a mumble – it made Wen Kexing’s insides twist and shudder.  He did not deserve this man.

If he told the truth, his A-Xu would know that.  But he couldn’t lie.  “Wanted to,” he murmured, hoping – praying – that his A-Xu wouldn’t ask for more.

Yet more spilled out anyway.  “You were so still, lying there.  So cold.”  He’d needed something to distract him, some way to spill out all the anger and fear boiling within him.  A way to wrap the world around his fist and convince it to bend.

His soulmate’s fingers tightened around his jaw.  “Ah, my wonderful Lao Wen,” he murmured, slurring slightly.  “Sometimes, it’s hard not to crave the pain.  The control.”

Wen Kexing swallowed hard.  Inside, the broken shards of the Valley Master laughed, exultant and so very cold.

He wanted poetry, some pretty way to dance around the conflicting needs simmering inside him, but all his elegant words fled when he reached for them.  All the quotes he’d memorized as a way to spite the jianghu, to prove to them that he was their equal, vanished like dew under the morning sun, leaving him with nothing but a single word.  “You?”

His A-Xu made a sound that might have been a laugh or might have been a sigh.  “Told you, we’re soulmates, Lao Wen.  Scars and all.”

It wasn’t an answer, but it rang through Wen Kexing like a bell.  “I… I don’t know if I would have stopped,” he admitted softly.  If Xie’er had given up the location earlier, if he’d begged for it to stop rather than pleading with words and body for it to continue…

Wen Kexing wanted to think he would have stopped.  Wanted to think he wasn’t like some of the ghosts from his past.

Yet he was the Valley Master.  He was the worst of the ghosts, a nightmare made flesh.  Lunatic Wen, who laughed as he skinned men alive.  A few marks and that simmering hungry tension, begging and tears and need… why did it leave his blood singing and nauseated in equal measure where far worse things had left him unmoved?

It was different, somehow.  He’d stared into the Scorpion King’s eyes and found himself looking into a flawed mirror, and the echoes still resonated through his body.

“Come here, Lao Wen.”

Unable to refuse, Wen Kexing pulled himself to his feet and crawled into bed beside his A-Xu.  His ribs screamed in protest as they were jostled, but they mattered little beside the chilly comfort of his soulmate’s arm around him.

When he buried his face against Zhou Zishu’s shoulder, his A-Xu sighed.  “It’s alright, Lao Wen,” he murmured into Wen Kexing’s hair.  “You’re alright.”

Wen Kexing shuddered as fingers drifted lazily down his spine.  Even through the thin fabric of his inner robe, he could feel the way his A-Xu’s hand trembled, ever so slightly.  “My A-Xu,” he mumbled into the cloth pressed against his face.  “I love you.”

Zhou Zishu tensed against him, just a little.  They’d exchanged so many words, but somehow those three had never come up.  Wen Kexing had tried to show it in a dozen different ways – he didn’t know why he hadn’t said it out loud earlier.

He almost laughed at himself there.  Oh, he knew why.  It was one thing to call his A-Xu his soulmate – that could be brushed off as a joke if necessary, just another part of his flirting.  But those three little words?

Zhou Zishu’s lips pressed against his forehead.  “I love you too, Lao Wen.”

“Even…”  Wen Kexing didn’t want to ask.  Even though I’m a ghost?  Even if I’m the monster everyone claims I am?  Even if I sometimes want to be that monster – revel in being that monster?

“I love you,” Zhou Zishu repeated.  “Shh, Lao Wen.  It’s alright.”

Wen Kexing closed his eyes, pretending that they didn’t sting in the slightest.  “Good,” he told his A-Xu’s shoulder.  “If my husband didn’t love his gorgeous, faithful wife, I’d be very sad.”

Zhou Zishu’s exhale held both amusement and exasperation.  “Go to sleep, Lao Wen,” he ordered.

Wen Kexing wrapped an arm around his soulmate, pulling him in tight to his chest.  If he could, he’d claw open his own ribs so he could keep his A-Xu safe inside him, protected from the whole world.  “Love you,” he repeated once more, and did his best to obey.

Chapter Text

Wen Kexing had never truly imagined his A-Xiang’s wedding day.  At first, it was because they were ghosts, and celebrations like weddings were for the living.  The dead did not deserve such happiness.

Once he’d handed her over into Weining’s care, he’d begun to hope that she would get a wedding after all, but he still hadn’t let himself wonder what it would be like.  Each time he started to think about what her wedding robes would look like, or what they might serve at the banquet, or how the tea ceremony would go, he would force his thoughts to turn away.  She might get a wedding day, but he would not be there to see it.

If he had allowed himself to imagine her wedding day, though, it wouldn’t have looked like this.

He ran his eye over the small group assembled in Luo-yi’s salon.  A-Xiang was sitting very close to Weining, who looked pale and shaky and wasn’t meeting anyone’s gaze.  An ugly collar of bruises encircled his neck and crept up his face, with darker fingerprint marks to show where his shifu had tried to murder him.  A-Xiang’s face kept turning red every time her gaze landed on those marks, and she kept one hand very close to the rope whip at her waist.  Rather than red wedding finery, she wore her usual lavender silks and a fierce, protective expression.

Wu Xi sat on the other side of Weining, casting him equally protective glances now and then.  The Great Shaman was the only reason Weining was walking right now, and Wen Kexing knew it, but it didn’t leaven the bitterness he felt whenever he saw the man.  If Wu Xi was so skilled, why hadn’t he been able to heal Zhou Zishu?

It was an unfair thought, and Wen Kexing knew that too.  But it didn’t help.

As though he could read Wen Kexing’s uncharitable thoughts, Jing Beiyuan had placed himself where he could easily step between his partner and any attack.  His white robes were pristine, but the dark circles under his eyes were proof of the late night he’d spent supporting Luo Fumeng and Liu Qianqiao as they interrogated all of the guests.

Both women looked equally exhausted, and were sitting just as close as A-Xiang and Weining were.  Luo-yi in particular kept pursing her lips as though she wanted to say something but didn’t quite dare, while Liu Qianqiao simply looked like she wanted to sleep.

The last two members of the little group were Chengling and the oh-so-loyal Han Ying, who kept his head down and his eyes respectfully lowered.  Part of Wen Kexing wanted to bark at him to straighten up, but that immediate deference was a breath of fresh air in this group – no one else was likely to take what he had to say as law.

He didn’t care, though.  He had a plan, and he was determined to keep his promise to his A-Xu and share it.

Once Luo-yi finished pouring tea, he caught everyone’s attention by the simple expedient of rapping on the table.  “Luo-yi.  What news from the prisoners?”

She straightened to attention.  “Most are innocent of any plot, and simply sought to defend themselves.  Some genuinely believed that we had attempted to poison them, while others did not want to look weak in front of their fellows.”  She wrinkled her nose.  “Only the senior disciples of the Gentle Wind Sword Sect knew of the plan.  They are locked in the cells once more, their juniors separated from them in another cell.  The rest of the jianghu, apart from those belonging to Hero Shen, are under guard in the apartments we gave them.”

Wen Kexing smiled like a shark.  “And the ones who let in the Scorpion Sect?”

Luo-yi’s eyes were frozen pebbles.  “Dead.”

No one flinched at that, not even Weining.  Wen Kexing felt a small pang of sadness at that.  “I’m sorry,” he found himself saying.  “You two deserved better.”

A-Xiang snorted.  “This is exactly what you wanted to happen, ge.  Stop pretending.”

He scowled at her.  “Impudent girl.  What do you know?”

That earned him an eye-roll.  “You invited the entire jianghu here, ge, or at least all the important ones, so you could set a trap.  Did you really think we’d get a normal wedding after that?”

“You were much less mouthy when you were my maid,” Wen Kexing muttered to cover the heat rushing to his cheeks.  Yes, he’d wanted a bit of chaos, but that was why he’d had Chengling make all those traps – he hadn’t intended for the Scorpion Sect to actually disrupt the wedding itself!  It wasn’t his fault that Mo Huaiyang, that old fox, was such a backstabbing bastard.

A-Xiang stuck her nose up into the air, not deigning to respond.  Wen Kexing had to bite back a smile.  “At least you got some lovely wedding gifts out of it,” he pointed out.  The sects had brought a wide range of treasures with them, probably fearing the wrath of Ghost Valley if they were stingy.

“I’d rather have a real wedding,” she muttered, then flushed.  “Are we…”

He let her stammer for a few seconds, enjoying the way she refused to look at Weining as she did so.  “You will get the best wedding I can provide,” he said at last.  “But…”

She leapt to her feet and threw her arms around him before he could continue.  “Thank you, ge!”  Her eyes narrowed.  “But?”

“Well, you can’t exactly have a wedding when one of your brothers is dying, can you?”  The words sent a pang through him, but he kept his tone light.  Zhou Zishu was not going to be dying for much longer – the cure was so close he could almost taste it.

She drew back.  “Ge…”  Suspicion filled her face.

It might have bothered Wen Kexing on any other day, but he’d woken suffused in languorous joy and it hadn’t faded yet.  Four pieces of Glazed Armor nestled beneath his heart, the key remained safely hidden as a hairpiece, and he’d already sent a message to Wang Feiyan to inform her of her new mission.  Within the next few hours, he’d have everything he needed to open the armory.

He fixed Wu Xi with a look.  “If I can retrieve the Yin Yang Book, can you use it?”

“What?  But, shishu, I thought…”

Wen Kexing waved Chengling to silence.  “Let the Great Shaman answer.”

Wu Xi hesitated.  “I have heard of this book,” he said after a long pause.  “Zishu mentioned it, but the rumors of its existence had reached as far as Nanning long before I returned here.  It is not a good book, I believe.”

“It’s not!” Chengling burst out.  “Long-shifu said it caused Rong Xuan to go crazy!”  He turned wide, scared eyes on Wen Kexing.  “You can’t do that to shifu!”

Wen Kexing didn’t let his gaze leave Wu Xi.  “A life for life,” he said softly.  “An eye for an eye.  Can you trade my meridians for his, Shaman?  Can you do it safely if I get you the book?”

“Shishu!”

“Ge!”

A-Xiang and Chengling exchanged glances, and Chengling flushed.  A-Xiang continued, voice rising with every word, “Ge, you can’t!  I thought you were done making stupid schemes!  You said this wedding plan was the last one, and you swore no one would get hurt, and look what happened!  You can’t do this, you just can’t.”

Wu Xi looked down at his hands, twisted together in his lap.  “I… do not know,” he said, each word falling like a pebble into a stream.  “I would not attempt it if I was not certain it would be safe for Zishu.”

“And safe for shishu!” Chengling insisted.  “Shishu, what will you do if you lose your meridians?  You’ll die!”

Wen Kexing flinched.  “I won’t die, foolish boy,” he chided, though he wasn’t sure of the truth of that.  But men could live without martial arts, couldn’t they?  He could find a way to survive.

And, if he didn’t… wasn’t it better for his A-Xu to live?  If one of them had to die… A-Xu had so much more to live for.  Siji Pavilion was reborn, and it needed its master if it was to flourish.

Ghost Valley, on the other hand, was dying, and deservedly so.  Luo-yi could shepherd it through its death throes.  Maybe she’d finally see herself as free after that… it could be his last gift to her.

And she could take care of A-Xiang and Weining, too.  Between her and his A-Xu, they’d all be safe – what more could he ask for?  He could watch them from the other side of the yellow bridge and celebrate their happiness in silence, a ghost in truth at long last.  Let his A-Xu live a long, full life – Wen Kexing would be waiting when he finally made his way to the bridge.

A small smile tugged at the corners of his lips.  He did not fear death, and he’d sent so many people to it over the years.  Maybe it was time for him to go that way too.  If it let his soulmate live…

“How do you think he’s gonna feel, huh?” A-Xiang demanded.  “You already made him think you were dead once, ge, and he went crazy!  You think he’s going to be happy if you’re actually dead?”

“He’ll forgive me,” Wen Kexing protested.  “Eventually.”  Wouldn’t he?

Some of the lazy pleasure coursing through his veins faded, along with his confidence.  A flash of memory surfaced – A-Xu asking why he’d want to live if his Lao Wen was gone.

But he has his disciples! Wen Kexing protested to himself.  He has reasons to stay!  Did he truly want a monster like Wen Kexing at his side for the rest of his life?

You know he does, a little voice whispered in the back of his head.  Remember last night?  Remember the day in the hall, with your bloody handprint collaring him for all to see?  He loves you.

The words sounded like a lie.  Ghosts did not deserve love.

Were they a lie?  Had he been lying to himself all along?

No, the little voice told him, so sure of itself it rang like a bell.  No.

Wen Kexing wanted to laugh.  He’d finally found a way to save his zhiji, and his own mind was turning against him!  Maybe the name Lunatic Wen was more than just a mask – maybe it had sunk its claws so deeply into his bones that he would never be free of it.

A quiet cough recalled him to himself.  “Let me do it, shishu.”

Wen Kexing’s head flew up.  He stared at Han Ying, who looked back with dark, resolute eyes.  “Let me,” he repeated.  “I would be glad to give my life for Zhou-shifu.”  A slight, broken smile passed across his lips.  “It would be a fitting thing for his disciple to do, wouldn’t it?”

Hope and hunger flared, sharp and fiery.  Oh-so-dutiful Han Ying, so dedicated to his lord… yes.  That would work.

A corner of his mind shrieked in triumph.  Lunatic Wen was purring.

Wu Xi looked between Han Ying and Wen Kexing, brow furrowed.  “I still cannot promise anything.  I cannot promise you would survive,” he warned Han Ying.

“Then I will die happy,” Han Ying said firmly.

Laughter rose up in Wen Kexing once more, wild and joyful, but the creak of the door cut it short.  “Foolish boy,” Zhou Zishu breathed from the doorway.  “Lao Wen.”  He looked straight at Wen Kexing.  “I thought I told you, I did not want anyone else to die for me.”

Wen Kexing bolted to his feet.  “A-Xu!”

“It would be my greatest honor, shifu,” Han Ying protested.

Zhou Zishu turned a deceptively mild gaze on him.  Though he clung to the doorway, face blanched white and voice a mere whisper, his tone was still stern as he said, “Are you tired of calling me that already?”

“No!  Never!”  Han Ying flushed bright red.

“Then live for me.  Don’t die,” Zhou Zishu ordered.  His gaze switched to Wen Kexing, who squirmed beneath it.  “Lao Wen, come with me.”

Wu Xi frowned.  “Zishu, you should be in bed.”

Zhou Zishu laughed.  It was a painful, harsh sound, and it made his fingers tremble where they wrapped around the edge of the door, but it was a laugh nonetheless.  “I do not wish to spend my last few days bedridden, old friend.”

Wen Kexing swallowed hard.  His A-Xu had more time than that, didn’t he?  Two days, three… it wasn’t enough.  Three years wouldn’t be enough.  Three decades, three centuries, none of it would be enough!

Yet his soulmate looked like a strong wind would blow him over.  His cheekbones pressed against his skin, sharp as knives; lines surrounded his eyes and mouth as though he was an old, feeble man.  He wore nothing but a sleeping robe, undyed cotton, and it clung to his frame, making him look skeletal.  Breakable.

Unable to stand it any longer, Wen Kexing kicked away his seat and hurried over.  “A-Xu, please, save your strength.  I have a way to fix all this!”

Zhou Zishu’s answering smile was sad.  “I heard, Lao Wen.  No.”

“Please, shifu?”  Han Ying rose to his feet as well, hovering uncertainly as though he didn’t dare go near them.  “I don’t want you to die!”

“And I won’t have anyone else dying on my behalf.”  Zhou Zishu shook his head slowly.  “Come, Lao Wen.  We must talk.”

Wen Kexing’s heart skipped a beat.  Was his soulmate about to tell him that he was leaving?  Returning to Siji Pavilion to die in the burnt remains of the home he’d once loved?  Tell him that his words last night had been the product of a fever dream?

No, he told himself, clinging fiercely to his A-Xu’s hand as they walked through the halls leading outside.  Zhou Zishu walked so, so slowly, as though hoisting a great weight with each step, and Wen Kexing wanted to sweep him up into his arms and never let him go.  But he contented himself with holding his A-Xu’s hand and letting him set the pace.

They walked in silence to the door Wen Kexing had shown him only a few days earlier, the one leading to the meadow outside.  Zhou Zishu paused, leaning on the door for several heartbeats, before pushing it open.

It should have been raining, Wen Kexing thought as he stepped into glorious golden sunshine.  The weather should have respected the tragedy unfolding.

But the sky was a cloudless blue and the hillside a glowing green, so vibrant and alive it made Wen Kexing’s teeth ache.  He could almost see the house and training yard he and his A-Xu had spoken of, and it made him want to scream.  How was Siji Pavilion supposed to survive if his A-Xu insisted on dying?

Zhou Zishu sank onto the grass with a small grunt, then patted the dirt beside him.  “Come, Lao Wen.  Sit with me awhile.”

Wen Kexing did not want to sit, but he obeyed.  He would not, could not refuse his A-Xu anything now.  “Please,” he begged.  “Would it be so bad to accept help for once?  Let Wu Xi use the Yin Yang Book.  Please.”

“Let you die in my place?”  Zhou Zishu shook his head.

“Let Han Ying!”  Wen Kexing should have been ashamed of how quickly he said it, but shame was not one of the emotions tangled in his chest.  Han Ying wanted to do this for his lord, and who was Wen Kexing to say no?  When it could give them both everything they wanted…

Zhou Zishu had to see that, didn’t he?  Han Ying was offering himself up on a silver platter – Wen Kexing hadn’t even had to hint!

“Please,” he whispered once more.  “Year after year will it break my heart?  The moonlit grave, the stubby pines.[1]”  He tried to take a breath, throat suddenly clogged.  “Don’t abandon me, A-Xu.  Don’t force me to go on alone.”

Silence fell for a long moment.  “Did you ask him to say that?” Zhou Zishu asked at last, so soft Wen Kexing had to strain to hear it.

“No!” he protested at once, but the purring, laughing corner of his mind laughed harder.  No, he hadn’t asked, but he’d make sure Han Ying was in that meeting, hadn’t he?  Hadn’t he wondered – before he’d forced himself to stop wondering – if the man would volunteer himself for such a duty?  Oh-so-loyal Han Ying.  A child could tell that he would do anything for his lord.

No, Wen Kexing hadn’t asked him.  He’d known his A-Xu would hate him for that.

But, if he’d manipulated the pieces so they’d all fall into place… was that such a crime?  Zhou Zishu knew who he was.  Wen Kexing was a monster, after all – selfish, cruel, and hungry.  He would not let his A-Xu go if he had any other choice.  He would die for his A-Xu with a smile on his lips, but, if someone else fell on that sword… was it wrong to celebrate?  He was sharing his plans, just as he’d sworn to do, wasn’t he?

“Lao Wen.”

Wen Kexing shuddered at the dark intensity of that hoarse voice.  “A-Xu.”

Zhou Zishu sighed.  “You want to die for me.  Han Ying wants to die for me.  Why can’t someone want to live for me?”

“Because you don’t want to live for yourself!” Wen Kexing snapped, then immediately regretted it.  He did not want his last words to his A-Xu to be angry.

Not that these would be his last words.  He cursed himself as a chill washed down his spine, praying he hadn’t just handed fate the perfect opportunity to fuck with them both.

When Zhou Zishu did not keel over, Wen Kexing dared to relax, but not much.  “I…” he started, then faltered.

Zhou Zishu took his hand.  “No, Lao Wen.  Be angry.”

“I don’t want to be angry with you.”  Wen Kexing’s voice cracked.  “But I don’t want to lose you, A-Xu.  You can’t leave me like this.  I don’t want to be a shadow, forever chasing after memories that will never satisfy me.  Ten thousand miles of grey clouds…[2]”  He had to stop talking to blink back tears.

“Ah, Lao Wen… I’m sorry.”

Wen Kexing tightened his grip on his A-Xu’s hand.  “Don’t.  Don’t sound like that, dammit!”

What could he say to convince his zhiji to change his mind?  There had to be some magic combination of words or touches that would convince him to stay, to live.

Or did he not love Wen Kexing enough for that?

The thought tasted as bitter as tears.  Wen Kexing didn’t realize he’d said it out loud until Zhou Zishu winced.  “No.  Lao Wen, no.  I’d give you forever if I could, I swear.”  It was his turn for his voice to crack.  “You’re my soulmate, and I will always love you, no matter what happens.  I promise, Lao Wen.  I promise.”

“Then why won’t you live for me?” Wen Kexing cried.  “You keep talking about wanting people to live for you, but you won’t live for me!”

Zhou Zishu opened his mouth, but nothing came out.  His eyes glistened as he stared at Wen Kexing, mouth still slightly ajar, until at last he shut it with a snap.  Then he sighed.  “I… Lao Wen, I’ve bought each day of my life with death.  I will be going to hell after I die, and I know it.  How could I face myself, face my disciples, if I traded yet more blood to save my own miserable hide?”

“It’s a trade gladly made,” Wen Kexing argued.  Live for me, A-Xu.  Please, live for me.

But his soulmate wouldn’t.  He could see it in those dark eyes, so very familiar after all these months, yet they looked like a stranger’s eyes right now.  Zhou Zishu was not going to bend.

Wen Kexing looked away, feeling hope shrivel inside him.  “I thought you said you’d give me forever if you could,” he murmured.  It was unfair, and he knew it as he said it, but he said it anyway.  No trick was too underhanded if it brought his A-Xu back to him.

Zhou Zishu swallowed audibly, but said nothing.

Wen Kexing let the silence stretch on for a long time before finally breaking it.  “Promise me something, A-Xu.  If I can find a way for you to live that doesn’t require anyone dying, you will take it.”

Zhou Zishu reached out and caught his chin, turning him so they were eye to eye once more.  “Then you must promise me something in return, Lao Wen.”  He tried to smile, but it faltered, shattering like a dropped cup.  “You will not follow me until it’s your time.”  He clamped down on Wen Kexing’s jaw to forestall a response.  “You will take care of Chengling and the other disciples, and you will not try to speed your own death.”

Damn him.  Wen Kexing wanted to hate him for asking such a thing, but he could never hate his A-Xu.  “I promise,” he spat.

Zhou Zishu managed a real smile this time.  “Then I promise too.”

They stayed like that for too many breaths to count, just looking at each other.  Idea after idea tumbled through Wen Kexing’s head, each more implausible than the last, but his blood felt like it was burning and his skin sparked like he was coated in lightning – he had to figure this out.

What if Wu Xi knocked Zhou Zishu out?  They could use the Yin Yang Book then without him ever knowing the difference.  Coerce a ghost into providing the required sacrifice, and no one Zhou Zishu knew would die – that was surely sufficient for his promise, wasn’t it?

But that might send his A-Xu as mad as Rong Xuan.

No, he couldn’t risk that, even with a healer as skilled as Wu Xi to help.  Unwilling sacrifices were too likely to taint his A-Xu’s qi, and that would be a disaster.

For a moment, Wen Kexing entertained the thought of knocking Zhou Zishu out, then taking Han Ying up on his offer, but the thought of Zhou Zishu’s wrath when he awoke made Wen Kexing shiver.  That, he suspected, would be one of the few things his A-Xu couldn’t forgive.

And, more importantly, he’d sworn to do better.  To lie to his A-Xu like that?  He swallowed.  He would keep his promises, damn it.

What of the other secrets hidden in the armory, though?  Maybe the Yin Yang Book held other techniques, or maybe the armory would yield a different answer.  The old toad monster’s secret recipe for immortality was supposedly hidden there, and its price couldn’t be worse than the Yin Yang Book’s, could it?

Or… Wen Kexing’s stomach turned over.  Ye Baiyi himself might have ideas.  After all, he’d claimed to have a solution to the nails, even if it would have cost Zhou Zishu his martial arts – would that solution still apply now?

The thought of his soulmate without any martial arts made Wen Kexing want to throw up.  Zhou Zishu had made it clear how much he despised that option.

Yet… he’d made a promise.  He would accept any solution as long as no one died for it.

Wen Kexing had to look away, startling Zhou Zishu into a sharp inhale.  As long as his A-Xu was here and breathing, Wen Kexing didn’t care if he never lifted a sword again.  But… would that condemn him to hell on earth?  Would he hate me for it, in the end?

There was no way to know.

And maybe it was immaterial, for Ye Baiyi wasn’t here.  The ghosts had searched for him, as had Jing Beiyuan’s people, but no one had been able to find him to deliver a wedding invitation.  The chances of finding him now were slim, at best.

You can bet he’s watching, though, Wen Kexing thought cynically.  He wants to ensure I uphold that damn promise I made him.  And, with most of the jianghu currently imprisoned in the bowels of the mountain, he couldn’t imagine the old monster was too far away.

The thought sparked an idea.  He turned back to Zhou Zishu, holding on too tight to his hands.  “We need Chengling,” he said abruptly.

Zhou Zishu frowned.  “Lao Wen?”

Wen Kexing mustered up a smile.  “I have a plan,” he promised, and prayed it would be the last time he had to say it.

Chapter Text

Every one of Zhou Zishu’s bones ached as though they’d been filled with hot lead as he shuffled after Wen Kexing.  Each step sent stabbing pains up through his feet and into his lowest meridians, while the still-healing wounds beneath his collarbones burned with a distant agony that might have worried him once.

Now, though, he let the pain wash over him like rain over stone, flowing through him without leaving any traces behind.  His body felt strangely distant, as though he was only loosely tethered to it – only the seven points of bright pain felt truly real.

Seven bright points of pain and the pressure of Wen Kexing’s fingers wrapped around his.  That, too, was real, more real than anything else, and Zhou Zishu clung to his soulmate’s hand like a drowning man.  He would not regret saving Chengling, nor using his life force to stop the chaos in the banquet hall, but he bitterly regretted putting desperate agony in his soulmate’s eyes.  His shidi deserved so much better.

Wen Kexing would never say it.  Never even think it, Zhou Zishu knew.  But his soulmate would never think he deserved a single shred of happiness, no matter the evidence otherwise – someone needed to teach him better.

Once, Zhou Zishu had thought he could do that.

His grip tightened on Wen Kexing’s hand.  Fate truly did hate them – maybe Wen Kexing’s beliefs had some merit.  But he would find joy again – Zhou Zishu was determined to ensure that much.

And maybe this newest plan of his will find a solution against all odds.  Zhou Zishu did not want to believe that, for hope was too poisonous to entertain, but it clawed its way into the crevices of his mind anyway.  Maybe.

Wen Kexing was chattering, babbling something about Ye Baiyi and fireworks, but Zhou Zishu was only paying attention with half his mind.  The other half was focused on keeping himself upright and breathing steadily.  It wasn’t fair to his soulmate – good behavior ought to be rewarded, and sharing plans was definitely good behavior.  But Zhou Zishu couldn’t catch more than one word in three past the hazy fog filling his mind.

He scarcely noticed when Wen Kexing caught a passing ghost by the arm.  “Guzhu!” the ghost squeaked, trying to bow despite the grip on his bicep.

“Find Chengling,” Wen Kexing ordered.  “The boy who arrived with me.  Bring him to my chambers.”

“Yes, guzhu!”  The ghost dropped into a bow as soon as Wen Kexing released him, then sprinted away.

“Fireworks,” Wen Kexing explained as the ghost vanished around a corner.  “If your foolish disciple can make those traps, he can make fireworks, can’t he?”  His lips twitched.  “After all, he didn’t blow himself up the first time.  He’ll be fine,” he added, though Zhou Zishu hadn’t said anything.

Zhou Zishu licked dry lips.  “Fireworks?” he croaked.  He’d missed the part of the plan that explained why fireworks were necessary.

Wen Kexing didn’t seem annoyed, though.  “To summon Ye Baiyi!”  He tried to laugh.  “The old toad monster has got to be watching us – I bet he thinks I’m going to try to murder all the sect leaders, or something else horrendous.  If we send up a signal, he’ll come.”  He paused.  “He has to,” he murmured, almost to himself.

“Lao Wen.  What if he doesn’t?”

“Then we’ll find another way,” Wen Kexing said firmly.  “I keep telling you, you’re not allowed to die!”  He twisted to capture both of Zhou Zishu’s hands, squeezing hard enough to hurt.  “If Ye Baiyi doesn’t have an answer, then I will ransack the entire damn armory to find a cure.  I will not let you die!”

Zhou Zishu had to look away from the fire burning in his zhiji’s gaze.  “I don’t want to,” he admitted.

It tasted like lying.  It felt like tearing himself open, cracking open his ribs to expose his still-beating heart to the air.  Acid burned on his tongue, searing his throat; Wen Kexing’s hands on his were equally scorching.

Fool, he chided himself.  Fool.  Death had dogged his footsteps every day of his life since he’d taken over Siji Pavilion.  He should have accepted its presence long ago.

A kiss brushed against his forehead.  He glanced up, startled, to see the beginnings of tears forming in Wen Kexing’s eyes.  “I know,” his soulmate whispered.  “I know.”

Zhou Zishu swallowed hard.  Dammit, Lao Wen.  “I don’t want to leave you.”

“I know,” Wen Kexing repeated.

They stood like that for a long moment before Wen Kexing dropped one of his hands.  “Come, A-Xu.  Let’s get you somewhere more comfortable.”

He led Zhou Zishu back to their rooms, settling him with tender care onto the low couch.  “Here,” he murmured, pulling a blanket over his lap.  “Stay warm.”

Zhou Zishu wasn’t cold, but he accepted the blanket anyway.  “Sit with me?”

He hated the way his voice came out, so tremulous and weak.  He was not scared of dying, but a kernel of fear sat in his gut anyway, cold and rock-hard.  Fear for his Lao Wen, fear for Chengling, fear for his new disciples…

With an effort, he pushed it away.  If he only had a few more days left of life, he would not spend them moping.  “Lao Wen, where’s your wine?  We never got any at the banquet, and that is a great shame.”  He raised an eyebrow.  “I assume we are not having a wedding tonight, and therefore there will be no wine forthcoming then, either?”

Much to his relief, his soulmate’s laugh sounded real, if relieved.  “It’s not my fault Mo Huaiyang is a snake!”  He sank onto the couch beside Zhou Zishu, close enough that their legs brushed.  “I promised A-Xiang a proper wedding, once you’re better.  It’ll have the best wine money can buy, I swear.  Though it’s truly a pity you didn’t get to enjoy the excellent vintage I picked for last night.”

“Poison is not an excellent vintage,” Zhou Zishu replied dryly.

Wen Kexing gaped at him, then snorted.  “Not my fault, A-Xu!”  His smile faded slightly.  “I do wonder how they got it, though.  We searched them quite thoroughly when they arrived.”

“That secret may have been lost with Mo Huaiyang,” Zhou Zishu pointed out.  “I doubt his disciples did anything more than obey him.”

“Ah, well, let it rest, then.”  Wen Kexing waved a hand, brushing off the question.  “I’ll make sure nothing like that spoils her actual wedding.”

Zhou Zishu raised an eyebrow.  “Your A-Xiang is going to let you anywhere near the wedding preparations after this?”

“Oh, she wouldn’t deny her brother, would she?”  Wen Kexing fluttered his eyelashes.  “Luo-yi, on the other hand…”

“Let her re-plan the wedding,” Zhou Zishu advised.  “And no plots this time.”  Even if part of the scheme had actually gone to plan – Zhou Zishu had to admit, capturing the Scorpion King was a stroke of genius.  But that poison had to come from somewhere, and the most likely suspects were the guests from the jianghu.  Letting in potential assassins, even knowing that they were potential assassins, was always a double-edged sword.

“My A-Xu is so smart.”  Wen Kexing chuckled.  “I yield to your wisdom, shixiong.”

A shudder ran down Zhou Zishu’s spine at the word.  “My shidi is wise to accept the wisdom of his elders,” he murmured back.

Wen Kexing’s tongue darted out to lick his lips.  “Ah, A-Xu, you know I will always listen to you when you make sense.”

He arched an eyebrow.  “I always make sense.”

Wen Kexing smirked, reaching out to smooth away a tendril of hair from his forehead.  “Of course you do, A-Xu.  Of course you do.”

Zhou Zishu smacked his shoulder, and immediately regretted it, but he didn’t let his wince show.  “Fool.”

Wen Kexing brushed a kiss over his lips.  “So cruel, A-Xu.”

He leaned in for another kiss, but a knock on the door interrupted him.  With a scowl, he pulled back to a distance that might have been proper if not for the hand lingering on Zhou Zishu’s knee.  “What is it?”

“You wanted to see me, shishu?” Chengling called through the door.

Wen Kexing bounded to his feet.  “Yes!  Come in, boy.  I have a new task for you.”  He beamed as Chengling slipped into the room, shutting the door behind him.  “I need you to make fireworks.”

“Without setting yourself or anyone else on fire,” Zhou Zishu added from the couch.

Chengling turned big, wide eyes on him.  “I won’t, shifu, I promise!”

Wen Kexing ruffled his hair.  “Good boy.  Now, I need these by tonight, understand.”

Chengling looked between him and Zhou Zishu.  “Will this…”  He flushed bright red.  “Shifu, will this help you?”  His voice shook, though he clearly tried to keep it steady.

Zhou Zishu wanted to rise and go to him, but suspected that the sight of him wobbling across the room would not ease his disciple’s worries.  Instead, he smiled gently.  “We think so, yes.”  His voice turned stern.  “But only if you don’t get hurt in the process.”

“Shifu!” Chengling protested.  “I didn’t get hurt making all the traps for shishu, did I?  Fireworks are easier than that.”

“You did set a few things alight,” Wen Kexing teased, and Chengling managed to flush even hotter.  He ducked his head, and Wen Kexing laughed.  “I trust you not to burn down my mountain.”

Chengling bowed.  “Of course, shishu!  I mean, no, I won’t!”

Wen Kexing flapped a hand at him.  “Off with you.  I want a whole heap of fireworks by the time the sun sets!”

The brightness faded from his face as Chengling bowed once more, then hurried out the door.  “Ah, A-Xu…”  He let the sentence trail off.  Retrieving his fan from his sleeve, he began to pace, robes fluttering behind him.  “This has to work,” he muttered.  “It has to.”

He spun to face Zhou Zishu, only to resume walking a second later.  “The old toad monster doesn’t hate you, does he?  I know he hates me, but, well… he did offer to cure you, once.”

“I think he might hate me too, now.”  After Zhou Zishu had stood between Ye Baiyi and Wen Kexing, he wouldn’t be surprised if the old immortal had decided to wash his hands of them both.  He’d claimed that Zhou Zishu was a disgrace to his master, hadn’t he?  Zhou Zishu still thought Ye Baiyi was wrong there, but immortals were not known for changing their minds.

Wen Kexing’s sleeves flared as he turned on his heel.  “What does an immortal want?”  He paced across the room, fan fluttering in his hands.  “What could we offer him?”  Another turn, accompanied by a grimace.  “He’s immortal, A-Xu!  Doesn’t that mean he had no need of anything from the mortal world?”

“Bribe him with dumplings,” Zhou Zishu suggested, mostly to try to make his soulmate laugh.

It worked, but only for a second.  Wen Kexing’s face soon sank back into stressed lines, and he resumed pacing.  Six steps one way, six the other, all accompanied by the swish of silk and the snap of the fan opening and closing in his fingers.

Zhou Zishu’s lips tightened.  “Lao Wen.  Come here.”

The command cracked through the room, and Wen Kexing started.  His eyes widened, and he took a step towards Zhou Zishu, only to halt, fingers twisting around themselves.

Zhou Zishu glared at him.  “Now, Lao Wen.”

On coltish legs, Wen Kexing hurried forward.  He hesitated in front of the couch, then, shakily, lowered himself so he was kneeling beside Zhou Zishu’s legs.

Already he looked calmer, but there was still too much tension in his shoulders, in the flicker of his gaze as he turned over plan after plan in his head.  “Shh,” Zhou Zishu murmured.  Ignoring the pain in his bones, he caught Wen Kexing by the throat and squeezed.  “Breathe, Lao Wen.”

It was a strange thing to say to someone whose neck was in your hand, but it sent a wave of relaxation through Wen Kexing.  He gulped for the little air Zhou Zishu permitted him as he sank forward to press his forehead against Zhou Zishu’s thigh.

Zhou Zishu petted his hair.  “Good boy,” he murmured.  He tightened his fingers for the pure pleasure of hearing his soulmate gasp.

Wen Kexing murmured something into Zhou Zishu’s robes.  “Shh,” Zhou Zishu ordered once more.  “Just breathe, Lao Wen.”

Inch by inch, the tension sank out of Wen Kexing’s shoulders and back.  Inch by inch, he folded farther forward until his body was flush against Zhou Zishu’s leg.  It couldn’t have been a comfortable position, especially with a hand still tight beneath his jaw, but he didn’t protest.  Zhou Zishu kept stroking his hair.  “Better,” he whispered.  “Keep breathing.”

Time trickled on like a half-frozen stream, dreamlike and slow, as they sat there in languid stillness.  Wen Kexing’s skin was warm beneath Zhou Zishu’s fingers – warmer than his own skin, of a certainty – and he felt his own tension seep out of his body as he breathed in the scent of his soulmate.  Faint, so faint – his senses were fading once more – but the tantalizing wisps were enough.

When the knock sounded at the door, he reluctantly released Wen Kexing.  It took his soulmate a moment to pull himself out of the haze he’d slipped into, even without Zhou Zishu’s hand encircling his throat, but at last he rose.  Graceful as a swan, he made his way to the door, each step measured and slow.

Zhou Zishu felt a small smile tug at his lips as he watched his zhiji from behind.  All the frenetic energy had drained away, leaving his Lao Wen centered and calm.  He was stunning in any mood, but this, quiet and confident and strong, held a special allure.

The knock sounded again as Wen Kexing pulled open the door.  “Ah,” he purred, stepping aside to let the visitor enter.  “You made it.”

Wang Feiyan stepped through the doorway and bowed low.  “Yes, guzhu.  I have what you requested.”  She reached into her robes and withdrew a small blue piece of glazed glass.

Wen Kexing took it with a steady hand, face a mask.  “Were you seen?”

She shook her head.  “I had free reign of the camp, guzhu, and its master was drilling his troops when I retrieved it.  Do you wish me to return?”  She slid a glance at Zhou Zishu, and he spotted a flash of uncertainty in her eyes, quickly cloaked.

Wen Kexing hesitated.  He held the piece of Glazed Armor up to his eyes, studying it with a faraway expression.

Zhou Zishu found his own gaze drawn to it.  Such a small thing, to have caused so much trouble, yet that was always the way of things.  Fate hinged on the smallest of actions. 

Did Wen Kexing still intend to seek out the armory, even knowing that the Yin Yang Book did not hold the solution he’d hoped for?  Selfishly, Zhou Zishu hoped otherwise – he did not think his body would tolerate such a journey.  But banked longing burned in his soulmate’s eyes, need so deep it verged on desperation.

With a sigh, Wen Kexing lowered the piece of glass.  “How is the army?”

“Restless,” Wang Feiyan told him.  “Duan Pengju was not pleased with the failure to infiltrate the mountain, though he’d made sure that he could bear no blame for it.”  She looked down.  “The soldiers are growing rowdier by the day.  He’s given them double watches and extra chores and drills, but they have begun tormenting the servants to relieve the tedium.”

Zhou Zishu leaned forward.  “Is he planning an attack soon, then?”

Wang Feiyan shook her head.  “Not that I heard whisper of, my lord.  He knows he cannot get in with force alone.  The, ah, ghost he captured made that clear.”

A thin smile slanted across Wen Kexing’s face.  “I suppose I owe you congratulations for that?”

Wang Feiyan’s eyes were as hard as granite as she looked up at him.  “It was my pleasure, guzhu.”  She hesitated.  “I cannot take any credit for the events afterwards, though.  The Scorpion King proposed an attack as soon as he read the wedding invitation; I did not need to hint at anything.”

Wen Kexing’s smile widened.  “Do you know how rare such honesty is here?  You do Luo-yi credit.”

Color filled Wang Feiyan’s cheeks.  “Thank you, guzhu.”  She bowed her head, but not before Zhou Zishu caught a glimpse of pride in her eyes.

He smiled to himself.  His Lao Wen needed more reliable people around him, and she, it seemed, would suit.  Anyone who could keep the wool pulled over Pengju’s eyes was a canny player – Duan Pengju had his faults, but he was not stupid.

Wen Kexing tumbled the piece of Glazed Armor between his fingers.  “What does he plan, then, if he isn’t going to attack?”

Her eyes remained downcast as she shook her head.  “I do not know, guzhu.  I am sorry.”

Wen Kexing heaved a sigh.  “I am growing tired of being under siege, A-Xu.  Why is your subordinate so stubborn?”

Zhou Zishu raised an eyebrow.  “Do you expect him to pack up and leave?”

That earned him an eye roll.  “A man can dream, can’t he?”

Zhou Zishu returned the eye roll in kind.  “Be sensible, Lao Wen.  He moved a large chunk of the army down here – he won’t go back to Prince Jin without something to show him.”  The prince had never taken kindly to failure, and Duan Pengju knew that better than almost anyone.

“He considered sending assassins into the mountain,” Wang Feiyan offered quietly.  “But most of the Scorpion Sect vanished after the failed attack, and he was… scornful of his own men’s chances.”

Zhou Zishu frowned.  He’d trained those men himself, and they were just as skilled as any scorpion.

With a snort, he pushed away the feeling of offense rising in his chest.  He had no reason to resent Pengju’s failure to send assassins!  The fewer troubles they had, the better.

He did wonder, though, how many others had left the Window of Heaven after his nineteen loyalists had deserted.  Had others decided to try their luck elsewhere?  Had the handful of men who’d attacked him and Wen Kexing back in the city been the only ones left?

It would be a fitting punishment for Pengju if his men deserted him.  He didn’t deserve to lead anyone.

Wen Kexing glanced at him, then smirked.  “A-Xu, did you train your men so poorly in the Window of Heaven?”

“Challenge Han Ying to a duel and see for yourself,” Zhou Zishu suggested.

Now that was a delightful thought.  Han Ying wouldn’t win – he didn’t have Wen Kexing’s willingness to fight dirty – but the match would be a sight to see.  If Wen Kexing thought it would be easy, he would be in for a surprise.

“Maybe I will,” Wen Kexing murmured, lips tugging up at the sides.  “Maybe I will.”  His expression sobered.  “You said most of the scorpions fled?  Where are the rest?”

Wang Feiyan hesitated, shoulders tensing as though she expected a blow.  “As a matter of fact, guzhu, I have a message for you from them.”  She retrieved a folded piece of paper from her sleeve.  “From the one known as Du Pusa.”

Wen Kexing’s eyebrows flew up.  He took the paper before Zhou Zishu could stop him, and Zhou Zishu almost protested, but found himself sagging back before he could.  If there was a contact poison on the paper, Wang Feiyan would surely show signs of it.

He hoped.

Wen Kexing unfolded the paper, blinked, and passed it over to Zhou Zishu.  “When were you given this?”

Trying to only touch the paper with the tips of his fingers, just in case, Zhou Zishu accepted it.  It was not a long message, just a single sentence: “If you release him alive, we will owe you a favor.”  The characters were hastily scrawled, the ink blotchy on the last one; the paper had been folded when the ink was still slightly damp.

Wang Feiyan bowed to Wen Kexing.  “When I was retrieving the Glazed Armor, guzhu.  She… she was waiting for me there.”

“Interesting,” Wen Kexing crooned.  “Yet she let you live?”

She shook her head.  “She did not even threaten me.  Simply gave me this and bid me good luck.”

Interesting indeed, Zhou Zishu thought.  The meaning was clear enough – Du Pusa wanted her king back – but he hadn’t thought the scorpions cared so much for each other.  This was her chance to take over the sect, if she wanted it, yet she wasn’t taking it.

“She… she would make a good ghost, if she wasn’t already sworn to another,” Wang Feiyan admitted cautiously.

Wen Kexing barked a laugh.  “Oh, yes, she’d murder her way to the top soon enough, I’m sure!”  He sounded almost approving.  “Well.  A favor, hmm?”

Wang Feiyan did not move a muscle.  “Is that what she asked for?”

“You didn’t read it?”  Wen Kexing’s eyes narrowed.

Heat filled her cheeks as she ducked her head.  “I… cannot, guzhu.”

The tension seeped out of Wen Kexing.  “Ah.  No matter, then.  Yes, she offers a favor in trade for the Scorpion King’s life.  A good thing I chose to leave him alive, don’t you think, A-Xu?”

Good was not the word Zhou Zishu would have chosen – it was never a good idea to leave enemies alive behind you.  But he recalled how keyed up his Lao Wen had been after interrogating the man, everything in him ringing like a tightly-tuned harp string.  Sated, yet adrift with it, wood tossed on the waves.  If he’d had to kill the Scorpion King then… for all the blood on his hands, Zhou Zishu couldn’t help but wonder if that death would have left scars.

“If he can be useful, then use him,” he told his soulmate.

Relief flooded Wen Kexing’s eyes.  He hid it quickly, but Zhou Zishu saw it and gave him a small, quiet smile.  You are mine, Lao Wen, he said silently, hoping his soulmate could read it in his gaze.  Scars and all.

“Perhaps I will,” Wen Kexing drawled.  “But not right now.”  He turned back to Wang Feiyan.  “You asked me if I wanted you to return.  Do you wish to return?”

Suppressed fear flickered across her face.  “If my lord wishes,” she replied, sinking into a bow once more.

Wen Kexing gave a dramatic sigh.  “That’s not what I asked, and you know it.”

She was too controlled to shift away from him, but she tensed as though she wanted to.  “I… my wish is to serve you, guzhu.”

In answer, Wen Kexing flicked open his fan.  With the edge – an edge that had cut through dozens of throats – he lifted Wang Feiyan’s chin.  “You are a good ghost,” he murmured.  “But I asked you a question, and I expect you to answer it.”

Her throat bobbed as she swallowed.  “Then, no, guzhu, I do not wish to return.”  Her gaze was flinty.  “If, however, you wish me to take a blade to Duan Pengju’s heart, I will gladly do so.”

“Is that what happened to the ghost I sent?”  Wen Kexing’s voice dropped low.  “I noticed he never returned.”

She did not flinch.  “He did not survive the camp, no.  He will not be missed.”

He didn’t let her chin down, but he smiled.  “A good ghost indeed.”  He studied her for a long moment before finally removing the fan.  Her chin lowered, but she kept her eyes up as he folded it and slipped it back into his sleeve.  “Then I have a different task for you.”  He pulled out the piece of Glazed Armor that she’d given him.  “This is part of a key to unlock an armory hidden high in the mountains.  Supposedly, the armory holds treasures from across the jianghu.  I need someone I trust to go there and bring back anything that might possibly relate to healing.  A book called the Yin Yang Book, but anything else that looks promising.”

Wang Feiyan gazed back calmly as he stared at her.  “I would be honored, guzhu.  But... how am I supposed to know which are useful?”

Zhou Zishu felt his spine melt.  His Lao Wen was not planning on venturing to the armory himself.

Close on the heels of relief came frustration, though.  “Lao Wen…”  He shook his head.  “Have you forgotten so quickly what we discussed?”

Wen Kexing spun to him, eyes alight.  “A-Xu, you promised you would take any cure that did not require another dying for you!”

“And I will,” Zhou Zishu replied steadily.  “But the Yin Yang Book?”

Wen Kexing waved a hand.  “It may provide a clue.”  His voice cracked.  “Please, A-Xu.  Let me try this.”

Zhou Zishu closed his eyes.  “Very well,” he whispered, unable to face the anguish on his soulmate’s face.  He would have to pray that his Lao Wen did not try something stupid once he had the Yin Yang Book in his hands.

Wang Feiyan, looking horribly uncomfortable to be in the same room as them, cleared her throat.  “Guzhu?” she prompted.

Wen Kexing didn’t bother turning to look at her.  “You may take anyone you want with you to help.”

Zhou Zishu forced himself to open his eyes once more.  “Take Han Ying.”  If Wen Kexing was set on this course, Zhou Zishu would give him all the aid he could.  “And speak to Jing Beiyuan.  He has a network of messengers who can help you travel swiftly.”

She bobbed her head.  “Yes, my lord.”  Her gaze shifted to the back of Wen Kexing’s head.  “Is that all, guzhu?”

He turned reluctantly, gaze locked on Zhou Zishu until the last minute.  “Here.”  He handed her the piece of Glazed Armor, then retrieved a small silk bag from his sleeve.  “And…”  His robes flared as he spun back to Zhou Zishu, and his lips twisted as he swallowed.  “I wanted to give this to you,” he whispered.  “I never got the chance.”  His hands shook as he pulled the white jade hairpin out of his hair.

The breath caught in Zhou Zishu’s throat.  “Lao Wen?”

His soulmate’s smile was bittersweet.  “You’ll need this, too,” he told Wang Feiyan, eyes still locked on Zhou Zishu’s.  “Bring it back safely.”

She hesitated before taking it.  “Yes, guzhu.”

Wen Kexing straightened his shoulders.  “Go.  And hurry.”

As soon as the door was shut behind her, he sank to his knees in front of Zhou Zishu.  “Please, A-Xu,” he repeated.  “If we can find a way to use the Yin Yang Book safely, say you’ll let us.”

Zhou Zishu laid his hands on Wen Kexing’s shoulders.  “Didn’t I already swear it?  If it’s safe, I will accept it.”  He squeezed hard enough to make his soulmate wince, then levered himself to his feet.  “Let’s go find my disciple, Lao Wen, before he blows himself up.”  He summoned a grin.  “And bring the wine, would you?  I notice I still don’t have any.”

To his relief, Wen Kexing laughed.  If it was shaky, Zhou Zishu pretended not to hear it.  “Ah, A-Xu, has your wife been neglecting you?  Come, I will make it up to you!”  He followed Zhou Zishu to his feet.  “I’ll find a ghost to bring you the best vintage we have, and you can drink beneath the sun to your heart’s content.”  His face hardened.  “Then, when the sun sets, we will see if the old toad monster feels like showing up and keeping his damn promises.”

“You’re putting a lot of store in Chengling’s abilities,” Zhou Zishu pointed out.  His bones groaned as he stood, and he couldn’t prevent the little hiss that escaped him. 

Wen Kexing immediately caught his arm.  “You don’t have to move.  I can go check in on him.”

“No.”  Zhou Zishu forced himself to take one step, then another.  “He’s my disciple, isn’t he?”  At least for a few more days.

Wen Kexing’s expression lightened.   “Ah, A-Xu, are you worried I’m going to spoil him?  Don’t worry, I like my mountain the way it is!  I won’t let him burn the place down.”

Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes.  “Regardless.”  He bit back a curse as his knees threatened to buckle.  Every meridian throbbed as though the remaining qi floating inside his body was poisoned.

Wen Kexing’s hand tightened on his arm.  Then, without warning, he scooped Zhou Zishu up into a bridal carry.  “Ah, come, husband!” he teased, ignoring Zhou Zishu’s spluttered protests.  “Let your wife take care of you, hmm?”

Zhou Zishu was too tired to fight.  “This is undignified,” he mumbled into his soulmate’s shoulder.  What would Han Ying or the others from Tian Chuang think if they saw him?  What would Chengling think?  Or, heaven forbid, A-Xiang… Han Ying was too respectful to tease, and Chengling still in awe of him despite everything, but A-Xiang wouldn’t hold back her scorn for a second.

He squeezed his eyes shut.  “Lao Wen!”

Wen Kexing’s breath huffed through his hair.  “Don’t worry, A-Xu, I’ll eviscerate anyone who says anything,” he laughed.

“You are incorrigible.”  Zhou Zishu tried to make it sound petulant, but it came out fond.  It was surprisingly nice to be held like this, cradled like a baby bird in his soulmate’s arms – Wen Kexing’s chest was warm against his side, his grip firm but careful.  It was still embarrassing, but somehow, he didn’t actually mind much.

He kept his eyes closed, though.  His eyelids were filled with lead, and he had no need to see the expressions of anyone they passed.

It was easy to drift into a doze in the quiet darkness beneath his eyelids – maybe too easy.  The whisper of Wen Kexing’s robes came from a great distance as the rhythm of his steps synced with Zhou Zishu’s heart, and even the occasional hushed murmur of “guzhu” couldn’t disturb him.

It wasn’t until Wen Kexing’s grip shifted that he pried open his eyes to see Wen Kexing looking down at his face with raw, open tenderness.  As soon as he spotted Zhou Zishu looking back, he tensed, but then forced his expression to relax back into softness.  “We’re here,” he murmured.

Zhou Zishu wriggled.  “Then put me down.”  He hadn’t entirely lost his dignity, had he?

Wen Kexing made a face, but obeyed.  Zhou Zishu did his best to ignore the needles stabbing into his legs as he stood, clumsy as a newborn calf – without Wen Kexing’s arm around his waist, he would have fallen.

Wen Kexing waited until he’d found his balance, then pushed open the door in front of them.  A wave of fresh air washed over them, along with the acrid scent of black powder.  “Chengling!” he called.  “Are we risking our necks by coming out?”

“No, shishu!” Chengling yelled back.  “I just finished a test!”  He scampered up to them, face and hands black with dust.  More splotches covered his robes.  “Shifu, shishu, I told you I wouldn’t burn anything down!  Did you not trust me?”

Zhou Zishu looked him up and down.  “Are you sure you haven’t blown yourself up, foolish boy?”

Chengling clasped his hands in front of himself.  “I’m not hurt, shifu, don’t worry.”

“You look like you’ve been rolling in a coal heap,” Wen Kexing observed, leading Zhou Zishu outside.  They were higher on the mountain than the meadow where they might rebuild Siji Pavilion, high enough that the peak was no more than a twenty minute walk away.  Zhou Zishu breathed in the smell of explosives and tried not to grimace.

Chengling, noticing, bowed.  “Sorry, shifu!  I know it’s kinda messy.  But I think I’ve got some working fireworks!”

“Truly?”  Wen Kexing arched an eyebrow.  “Show me.”

“It’s not dark yet,” Chengling protested.

“How will you know if they work if you don’t test them?” Wen Kexing asked reasonably.  He slanted a glance at Zhou Zishu.  “Don’t you think so, A-Xu?”

Zhou Zishu opened his mouth to reply and promptly choked on the dust.  Alarm flared on Wen Kexing’s face.  “Sit, A-Xu, sit!”  He lowered Zhou Zishu carefully to a nearby boulder.  “Shall I get you some water?”

Zhou Zishu favored him with a scornful look.  “You promised me wine.  There is still no wine, Lao Wen.”

Wen Kexing winced.  “Right.  One minute.”  With one final pat to Zhou Zishu’s shoulder, he hurried back to the half-concealed door in the hillside.  Zhou Zishu watched him go, heart swelling until he thought it might explode from all the feelings burning inside it.  His Lao Wen was… everything.

“Ah, shifu?”  Chengling crouched beside him.  “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Zhou Zishu told him.

Chengling eyed him skeptically.  “I…”  He shook his head.  “Wu Xi told me you healed me.  Thank you, shifu.  I…”  His throat bobbed.  “Please, shifu, tell me shishu has a plan that will work?  Not one that’s going to drive you mad, but one that’ll heal you?  I don’t want to lose you.”

The poor boy had lost more than enough people in his short life, Zhou Zishu reflected.  He didn’t deserve to lose a master, too.  “I hope so.”  He couldn’t bring himself to say more than that.

“He…”  Chengling rocked back on his heels, fiddling with the hem of his sleeve.  “He said that building traps would help, for Xiang-jie’s wedding, I mean, but he didn’t really tell me more than that.  Did he… did he tell you everything, this time?”

Zhou Zishu wanted to laugh.  “Not exactly.”  Though it made his arm burn, he reached out to lay a hand on Chengling’s knee.  “Promise me, Chengling.  If I don’t survive this, you’ll obey him as you do me.”

Chengling’s back straightened.  “Yes, shifu, I swear I will!  But…”  His lower lip wobbled.  “You aren’t really going to die, are you?  Shishu said he could fix you!  That was the whole point of me making all those traps.”

It would be easy to lie to him, but lies were a poor way to repay his loyalty.  “I don’t know, Chengling.  We’ll see.”  He swallowed, mouth dry and tasting of black powder.  “I do not regret anything, though.”

That was a permissible lie, he thought.  It ought to comfort his disciple, who looked perilously close to crying.

Then a tear did slip down his cheek, and Zhou Zishu winced.  “What’s this?”  He brushed it away.  “You can withstand torture from the Scorpion Sect without crying, yet now you’re in tears?”

Chengling sniffed.  “I don’t want to lose you, shifu.  Please don’t die.”

“I will do my best.”  Zhou Zishu leaned back against the boulder, turning his face to soak up the sun.  “Show me your fireworks, boy.  Show me what you’ve learned.”

Chengling bounded to his feet, pride wiping away the sorrow from his face.  “The Longyuan Pavilion books are fascinating, shifu!  I’ve learned so much from them already.”  He shuffled his weight from foot to foot.  “Uh, just… stay here, alright?  I’ll be right back.”

Like he was going anywhere?  Zhou Zishu didn’t bother to reply as Chengling scampered off.  “Alright, brace yourself!” he yelled back, voice high with nerves.  “In three, two…”

An explosion rocked the air.  Zhou Zishu winced as the sound buffeted his eardrums, carried on a blast of wind that yanked at his hair and robes.  “Chengling?”

“I’m fine, shifu!” the boy yelled back.  The sound of coughing echoed up the hill.  “I’m…”  More hacking.  “That was expected!”

Zhou Zishu, who had not seen a single light sparkle in the sky, frowned.  Belatedly, he wondered if Prince Jin’s army could hear the noise – surely it carried that far.  Would they come investigate?

Chengling came trotting back up the hill, smeared with yet more soot.  “It’s almost working,” he announced.

Wen Kexing emerged from the mountain in time to hear that.  “I can see that,” he said, eyeing Chengling pointedly.

“Lao Wen…”  Zhou Zishu jerked his chin towards the plume of smoke drifting into the air.  “You do have guards set, right?”

“Guards, scouts, and plenty of soul-tangling threads,” Wen Kexing replied cheerfully.  “That army isn’t getting around the back side of the mountain, never fear.”  He sank onto the grass beside Zhou Zishu’s boulder, pressing his shoulder against Zhou Zishu’s legs.  “We do need to figure out how to deal with that army, though.”

Zhou Zishu dropped a hand to tangle into his soulmate’s hair.  “Use the Scorpion Sect.  They’ll owe you if you release their king, won’t they?”

“Hmm.”  Wen Kexing turned to press a kiss into the fabric covering Zhou Zishu’s thigh.  “My clever A-Xu, don’t you think your Pengju will be expecting such a betrayal?”

Zhou Zishu couldn’t help barking a laugh.  “I would pit the Scorpion King against him any day.  For an assassin, Pengju is rather too predictable.”

“Perhaps,” Wen Kexing murmured.  “There would be a poetic justice to it, at least.”  He hummed low in his throat before shifting his attention to Chengling.  “Boy!  Why are you just standing there?”

Chengling flushed red under his coating of dirt.  “Sorry, shishu!”

Wen Kexing laughed as he ran back to his experiments.  “Your disciple is too easily distracted, A-Xu.  You need to train him better.”

“You encourage him,” Zhou Zishu pointed out.

“Ah, but I’m not his master!”  Wen Kexing held up a hand before Zhou Zishu could protest.  “And I won’t be ever, because you’re going to live, so don’t you start!”

Zhou Zishu tugged lightly at his hair, and Wen Kexing pouted.  “My A-Xu is so cruel to me!”

“And you love it,” Zhou Zishu murmured.

That earned him a genuine laugh.  “Ah, A-Xu…”

Another explosion cut him off.  They both looked up to see faint sparkles dart across the sky – near-invisible against the blue, but there all the same.  “It worked!” Chengling screamed from over the hill.  He came pelting back like a pack of wolves was at his heels, beaming.  “Shifu, shishu, did you see?  It worked!”

“Now we just have to wait for dark,” Wen Kexing declared.

So they did.  To pass the time, Zhou Zishu directed Chengling in exercises until sweat poured down the boy’s face and he could barely lift his arms, then bade him to fetch them dinner.  They ate beneath the setting sun, all three of them, and it made Zhou Zishu want to laugh and cry at the same time.  After losing all of his shidis, he hadn’t expected to find a family again.  Yet now he had one, misfit as it was.

Slowly, the sun sank below the mountains and the sky darkened.  Wen Kexing, unable to stay still, fetched a lantern, then paced with it swinging from his hand.  Chengling fussed over the fireworks, setting them up in neat rows – he’d made an astonishing amount for such a short time.  Enough to draw the attention of anyone nearby, of a certainty.  Would it be enough to lure Ye Baiyi in?

As soon as the sky was a shade resembling black, Wen Kexing snapped.  “Fire,” he ordered Chengling.

Chengling bent down and lit the first fuse.  The firework screamed into the air with the smell of smoke, exploding into a red rosette against the midnight blue sky.  Another followed, then another, white and green showers of sparks that blotted out the stars.

“Another,” Wen Kexing ordered when Chengling paused.

“Shouldn’t we save some of them, in case he isn’t looking this way right now?” Chengling asked hesitantly.

Wen Kexing scowled.  “Just one or two more, then.  For now.”

Obediently, Chengling set off two more.  Their brilliant violet and white sparks filled the sky, cracking loud enough to wake the dead.

And then something else was flashing white in the darkness, something bright and gleaming and moving fast.  Zhou Zishu forced himself to his feet, Wen Kexing at his side, as Ye Baiyi dropped out of the darkness to land several paces away.

The immortal regarded them with cold, hard eyes.  “I suppose this was all for my benefit?”

Wen Kexing’s arm tensed around Zhou Zishu’s waist.  His throat bobbed as, to Zhou Zishu’s shock, he stepped forward and dropped to his knees.  “Yes, Ye-qianbei.”  He bowed low enough to brush the grass with his forehead.  “We need your help.”

Chapter Text

Shame was a hissing serpent in Wen Kexing’s gut as he knelt before the old toad monster, head bowed and eyes lowered.  Every muscle in his back tensed in preparation for a blow; his senses strained to catch the least little whisper of silk or shush of a footstep.  No matter that he was years older than he’d been the last time he’d knelt like this – the power differential was the same.  If Ye Baiyi chose to take his head off, he could do nothing to stop it.

He hated it.  Wanted to scream with the sheer force of that hatred, howl it to the sky.  His fingers trembled against the ground with the need to seize his fan and launch himself at the immortal – dying in battle was far, far better than dying like a worm in the dirt.

He dug his fingernails into the grass and forced himself to breathe in and out, in and out.  “Please.”  He didn’t dare look up.  “I will give you anything you want, Ye-qianbei, if only you would grant me one favor.”

“Stop groveling,” Ye Baiyi demanded irritably.  “I don’t want to talk to the back of your head.”

Humiliation choked Wen Kexing as he sat back on his heels.  Even at his most humble, he couldn’t please the damn old man.

He swallowed down the heat rising in his throat.  “Please,” he repeated.  “I know you hate me and all my kind.  You have reason to.  But…”  He had to swallow again, mouth dry as a bone.  “You once offered to find a cure for my soulmate.  He has done nothing wrong.  Please.”  He stared at Ye Baiyi’s pristine white robes, unable to meet the immortal’s eyes.  He didn’t want to see the scorn that had to be filling them.  “Help him.”

Ye Baiyi looked at him for a moment that stretched into an eternity.  Wen Kexing didn’t dare look up, but he could feel the gaze scorching him, flaying him alive.

He had to clamp down on a tremulous laugh at the thought.  If the immortal wanted to flay him in truth, it would be easier than this!  No price was too high to keep his A-Xu alive.  Let Ye Baiyi cut him, beat him, take him to pieces – it wouldn’t be the first time, nor even the tenth.  As long as Zhou Zishu lived, it would be worth it.

A hand clamped down on his bicep.  “Get up,” Ye Baiyi demanded, hauling him to his feet.  “Didn’t I already do enough for you?”

Startled, Wen Kexing made the mistake of looking up.  He choked once more, the words falling from his lips before he could claw them back.  “What the hell happened to you?”

The immortal let him go with a scowl.  “What?”

Wen Kexing clamped his lips shut.  Be polite, he ordered himself.  A dozen taunts rose like a tide, threatening to overwhelm his good sense, but he pushed them away.  If the immortal was now aging, that was none of his business.  Despite the new white streak in his hair and the fine lines around his eyes and mouth, the power radiating from him was as thunderous as ever – he could still squash Wen Kexing like a bug.

Ye Baiyi rolled his eyes.  “You didn’t answer my question.”

Wen Kexing ducked his head, choosing to interpret that as referring to the first question, and not the second.  “You did help, Ye-qianbei, but…”

Zhou Zishu took a step forward.  “I was a fool, Ye-qianbei, and the Great Shaman cannot fix the results of my foolishness.  We were hoping you could.”  With slow, aching movements, he drew open his robes to reveal the gashes left by the nails.

Beside them, Chengling gasped in horror, then stuffed a fist in his mouth.  Ye Baiyi glanced over at him, mouth softening for a breath.

Wen Kexing dared to suck in a breath of his own, hope blooming, but the trace of sympathy vanished as quickly as it had come.  “Fool indeed,” Ye Baiyi spat.

Zhou Zishu fumbled to rearrange his clothes, hands trembling.  “I will not disagree, qianbei.  But…”  He offered up a painful shrug.  “I thought my soulmate gone, and my only purpose left to avenge him.  What would you have done in my place?”

Ye Baiyi’s expression turned distant.  “Fool,” he repeated quietly.  His hand drifted to the hilt of his sword, but it wasn’t a threat.

Wen Kexing tensed anyway, unable to stop a twitch towards his fan.  Ye Baiyi barked a laugh.  “You have some nerve, boy, calling me here to beg for help after slaughtering most of the jianghu.”

“They’re not dead!”  Wen Kexing glared at the immortal, gladly trading shame for rage.  “Only one sect leader is dead, in fact, and he tried to murder my A-Xiang’s betrothed.  Do you dare say he didn’t forfeit his life when he did that?”  He bared his teeth.  “She and I took it in payment for his trespass, and if you claim that wasn’t…”

Ye Baiyi snorted, interrupting him.  “Where are the rest of the guests for this so-called wedding, then?”

“Enjoying our hospitality,” Wen Kexing said coolly.  Suspicious old monster, jumping to conclusions…

“Much has happened in the last few days,” Zhou Zishu said, shifting to place himself between Wen Kexing and Ye Baiyi.  “If you would accept our hospitality, we can explain everything.  You can see the jianghu disciples for yourself.”

Ye Baiyi eyed him, then sighed.  “Sit down, fool, before you fall on your face.  Your master must be rolling in his grave to see how stupidly you’re behaving.”

Chengling hurried forward to assist Zhou Zishu back to his boulder, and, rather than brush him off, Zhou Zishu accepted.  Wen Kexing blinked away the stinging in his eyes.  He would not show such weakness to the old monster, even if it tore his heart to see his A-Xu so ground down.

Zhou Zishu sank onto the rock with a groan.  “I promise you, Ye-qianbei, Lao Wen has not harmed anyone who did not try to harm him first, and neither have I.”

Ye Baiyi regarded them all with a skeptical frown.  “I suppose you expect me to believe that?”

“It’s true!” Chengling protested.  He dipped into a bow when Ye Baiyi looked at him.  “Qianbei, I swear, it’s true!  All the sects are fine, except the Gentle Wind Sword Sect, and they tried to poison us.  But they’re all alive too, except Mo-zongzhu, because he tried to kill Xiang-jie.  And I think he deserves to die for that.”  His expression was fierce as he looked up at Ye Baiyi with no trace of fear.  “But shifu is dying, Ye-qianbei, and you said you’d find a cure for him once, didn’t you?  Please, help him now!”

“Your shifu is an idiot,” Ye Baiyi replied crisply.

Chengling flushed.  “Just because he loves Wen-shishu?  That’s not fair!”

“Because he first decided to stab himself with seven nails, which is nothing more than a prolonged form of suicide, then decided to rip them out to commit suicide more swiftly.”  Ye Baiyi shook his head.  “It’s not my job to fix stupidity.”

“You swore you would help!” Wen Kexing snapped.  He reached for fury to swallow up the fear welling inside him, cold and growing like a tsunami wave.

“And I did!” Ye Baiyi shot back.  “I found the Great Shaman for you, didn’t I?  It’s not my fault if he didn’t take the cure offered him.”  A long pause.  “Children.”  He spun on his heel to stare out into the night.  “I am plagued by children.”

Chengling crept to his side.  “Please, Ye-qianbei, don’t say that.  Isn’t there anything you can do to help?”  He took a shaky breath.  “Whatever you want in payment, we’ll pay it!”

That earned him an incredulous snort.  “You think I want money?”

Wen Kexing tugged Chengling out of the way before the boy could say something rash.  “Qianbei.  What do you want?”

“Peace,” the immortal muttered.  Standing there under the stars, white streak in his hair gleaming, he suddenly looked old.  Ancient, rather, and exhausted, an oak battered by storm after storm until its roots barely clung to the soil and its branches had long since shattered in the winds.

Wen Kexing gritted his teeth.  “You demanded that I seal Ghost Valley.  I’ve done that.  You wanted peace between the jianghu and the ghosts – well, I’ve tried to accomplish that, too!  If it failed, it was through no fault of my own.”  He laughed bitterly.  “I gave sanctuary to the Gentle Wind Sword Sect, and they tried to stab me and mine in the back in thanks.”

Ye Baiyi rolled his eyes.  “You are not the philanthropist you call yourself, Valley Master.  None of the actions you’ve taken have been selfless, and don’t try to pretend otherwise.”

Wen Kexing considered snapping back something about the wedding, but stifled it.  He suspected Ye Baiyi knew that inviting all the sects had been part of a larger scheme, and trying to claim otherwise would only brand him as a liar.  Not that he cared what the old toad monster thought of him, but he did need a favor.

Instead, he took a steadying breath.  “I am not a good person,” he agreed, the words tasting like spoiled wine.  “But my A-Xu is.  He doesn’t deserve to have fate toy with him as it has.”

“As you have,” Ye Baiyi pointed out dryly.

The words slammed into Wen Kexing like a blow.  He took a step backwards, legs shaky as he tried to muster up some sort of argument.  Yet what could he say?  Ye Baiyi was only echoing the truth that haunted Wen Kexing’s nightmares.

Zhou Zishu cut in before he could make his throat work.  “Ye-qianbei.  Do not insult my soulmate.”

Ye Baiyi turned slowly to look at him.  “Qin’s disciple.  You still call him that?”

“Yes.  I do.”  Zhou Zishu gazed steadily back at Ye Baiyi, not giving a hair.  “He is my soulmate, and will always be, in this life and the next.  I don’t care if you help me or not, but do not insult him.”

To Wen Kexing’s surprise, Ye Baiyi smiled slowly at that.  “Even dying, you have fangs.  Good.”  His lips quirked to the side.  “But don’t give me orders, boy.”

“Will you help him or not?” Wen Kexing burst out.  It was a simple question, and he was done with all this dancing around.

Once again, he fell to his knees, reveling in the way the rocks bit into his kneecaps.  The pain was laughable compared to the agony inside him.  “I don’t care what payment you extract from me.  Kill me, kill every ghost in this damn mountain!  Raze the place to the ground and salt the earth.  But let.  My.  A-Xu.  Live!”

“Didn’t I already tell you to stop groveling?” Ye Baiyi demanded irritably.

Just to annoy him, Wen Kexing bowed until his forehead hit dirt.  It was less shameful when he could feel the immortal’s anger boiling above him – that made him smirk.  “Take whatever you want,” he told the damp earth.  “But help him, damn you!”

A hand grabbed the back of his collar and hauled him back to his feet.  “You have no idea how to ask for a favor, do you?” Ye Baiyi mused.

Wen Kexing squirmed in his grasp, not quite willing to strike the immortal.  Not yet.

Zhou Zishu, however, showed no restraint.  Metal hissed as his blade whipped free from its hidden sheath.  “Put him down,” Zhou Zishu panted.

Contemptuously, Ye Baiyi brushed the blade aside.  Zhou Zishu staggered, and Chengling ran to his side.  “I thought immortals were supposed to be good!” he yelled at Ye Baiyi.  “You’re just being a bully!”

Ye Baiyi snorted, but there was a trace of pain in it.  “Is it good to forsake the world, boy?  Isolate yourself on a mountaintop and let time pass you by?”  His lips pressed together.  “Immortals are powerful.  That’s it.”

“Well, you’re supposed to be good!” Chengling snarled back.  “My father told me stories about you, you know!  The great Mount Changming Sword Immortal who would come back and wipe out the scourge of Ghost Valley.”  He flushed, glancing sidelong at Wen Kexing.  “Well, I don’t think you should do that, because there are some good people here.  Even if they don’t think they’re good,” he added with another glance at Wen Kexing.  “But, if you’re so powerful, why won’t you help my shifu?”

The boy had courage, Wen Kexing had to give him that.  But he was still a fool.  How could he look at the events of the past week and still think Wen Kexing good?  It boggled the mind.  If some small corner of himself, deep down, warmed at the boy’s regard, then that corner was equally foolish.

Ye Baiyi lowered Wen Kexing until his feet rested on solid ground once more.  He sucked in a breath, rearranging his robes with studied nonchalance.

Ye Baiyi watched him do it with a strange expression on his face.  “I could kill you right here,” he told Wen Kexing.  “You have to know that.  You…”  He shook his head.  “I swear, I think half of you wants me to do it!  Is that why you summoned me?”

Wen Kexing had to laugh at that.  It was wild and feral, more than half mad, but he didn’t care.  “I called for you because I have no other options.”  The words fell from his lips like stones, each one leaving him lighter.  “I’ve sent a ghost for the armory and the Yin Yang Book, but my fool of a soulmate refuses to let anyone else sacrifice themselves for him.”  He spread his hands, almost gasping now.  “What am I supposed to do?  I will not stand by and watch him die!”

His broken declaration rang across the hills in the silence that followed.  Slowly, Ye Baiyi’s shoulders fell.  “I couldn’t either,” he whispered.

Chengling sucked in a breath that sounded like a sob.   “Does that mean you’ll help him, qianbei?”  He dashed away a tear that crept down his cheek.  “Please?”

Ye Baiyi closed his eyes.  “I’m as much of a fool as the rest of you,” he said roughly.

Wen Kexing didn’t dare to hope.  Didn’t dare to so much as breathe until Ye Baiyi opened his eyes once more.  “Fine,” the immortal growled.  “Take me to the Great Shaman.”  He held up a hand before anyone could move.  “I make no promises, though,” he warned.  “What this idiot did to himself could very well be incurable, even if your ghosts get back from the armory in time.”

“But you’ll try?”  Chengling’s eyes shone, and he didn’t bother to scrub away the next tears that fell.  “Thank you, qianbei, thank you!”

Wen Kexing swallowed down a lump in his throat.  “Thank you,” he echoed hoarsely.

Zhou Zishu caught his hand.  His fingers were so, so cold, but Wen Kexing clung to them like a lifeline.  “Thank you,” he repeated, louder this time.  “Ye-qianbei…”

“Stop that,” the immortal barked.  “I liked you better when you were a pain in the ass.”

Wen Kexing managed to find a smirk somewhere.  “Oh, really?  Then I’d be happy to oblige, old monster.”

Ye Baiyi rolled his eyes.  “Let’s go, boy.”

***

Wu Xi looked surprised to see Ye Baiyi, but willingly went off with the immortal to discuss what might be possible.  Wen Kexing squeezed his A-Xu’s hand, careful not to clutch too hard.  “They’ll solve it, you’ll see,” he murmured.

Zhou Zishu kissed him gently on the lips.  “We can hope.”

Wen Kexing couldn’t resist kissing him back, savoring the taste of his soulmate’s lips.  Once, twice… he nipped at his A-Xu’s lower lip, winning himself a gasp before going back to gentler kisses.  Every instinct urged him to deepen them, lick inside his A-Xu’s mouth and let hunger overtake them both, but he fought to restrain himself.  His A-Xu was too fragile right now, skin cool under Wen Kexing’s hands and heart fluttering like a trapped bird’s wings, and Wen Kexing would not risk him overexerting himself.

An awkward cough sounded from behind them.  Wen Kexing spun, putting Zhou Zishu behind him, to see Chengling, bright red and looking anywhere but at them.  “Ah, shishu…”  He shuffled his feet on the floor.  “What can I do now?”  Something that takes me away from here, his eyes begged.

Wen Kexing found his lips twitching despite himself.  “Little fool, your part in this is done for now,” he said fondly.  “Go practice your Swift-Moving Steps.”

“Wait.”  Zhou Zishu pulled himself off the wall where Wen Kexing had backed him.  “Lao Wen, we still have an army outside our doors.  While we wait for Wang Feiyan and Han Ying to return, perhaps we should deal with them?”

Wen Kexing’s heart swelled at the use of the word ‘our.’  “I suppose my brilliant A-Xu has a plan?” he teased.

To his surprise, Zhou Zishu nodded.  “The message Wang Feiyan brought from Du Pusa.  Do you think the Scorpion King would honor her promise?”

Now, that was a delicious idea… “Possibly,” Wen Kexing admitted.  “Would the army leave if he assassinated your Pengju?”

“He’s not mine,” Zhou Zishu responded grumpily.

Wen Kexing pressed a kiss to his cheek.  “Yes, yes, formerly yours, I know.  Would they?”

Zhou Zishu’s smile was dark.  “It would depend on how many of their commanders ended up dead.  Cut off the head of one serpent, and they might hold together.  Cut off a dozen?”  He shrugged.  “The men out there are soldiers, not members of Tian Chuang, apart from a few that Pengju has with him.  Prince Jin did not train his soldiers to think.”  He turned to Chengling.  “Do those books from the Longyuan Pavilion contain information on portable traps?  Poisoned smoke bombs, perhaps, or other things someone could use to sow chaos?”

“I’ll check, shifu!”

At Zhou Zishu’s nod, Chengling sprinted off down the hall.  Zhou Zishu watched him go with a soft expression that vanished as soon as he saw Wen Kexing watching him.  “What?”

Wen Kexing laughed.  “Aren’t you glad he pestered you until you gave in and accepted him as your disciple?”

Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes.  “Don’t tell him that.  He doesn’t need any encouragement to be annoying.”  He made to take a step forward and stumbled.

Wen Kexing caught him around the waist.  “Let’s get you back to our chambers, hmm?” he murmured into his soulmate’s hair.  “Chengling will find us there.”

No more than twenty minutes later, Chengling did.  “I found something, shifu!” he announced as soon as Wen Kexing ordered him to come in.  He crept in cautiously, eyes downcast, but immediately straightened once he spotted Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing seated a respectable distance apart.  “There are a few different recipes that might be useful.  Smoke bombs, like you said, and little things like mouse traps with poisoned teeth that you can scatter.  Dart throwers, too, that you can attach to trip wires.”

“How long would it take you to make them?” Zhou Zishu demanded.  He was sitting up very straight, Wen Kexing noted – trying to present an image of strength for his disciple.  It made Wen Kexing want to smack him for using his strength so foolishly, but it was so very A-Xu, too.

“Um, well, it depends how many you want?”  Chengling bit his lip to hide a yawn.  “I can get started right now, if you want, but it’ll take a bit.”  He yawned once more, then blushed furiously.

A few nights of lost sleep wouldn’t kill him, but he’d been spending an inordinate amount of time working on devices lately.  Wen Kexing sighed.  That was probably his fault, wasn’t it?  “Start work tomorrow,” he ordered.  “Your shifu and I will decide what you need to build.”  They did need to speak with little Xie’er, after all.

Chengling sighed with relief.  “Thank you, shishu!”

The lack of protest made Wen Kexing wince, guilt an unfamiliar blade in his ribs.  “Go to bed, boy.  Get some rest.”

Chengling bowed.  “Yes, shishu!”  He hesitated.  “Shifu, you’ll rest too, won’t you?”

Zhou Zishu flapped a hand at him.  “Don’t lecture your elders.”

“He’s right, though,” Wen Kexing murmured once Chengling had departed.  “You should sleep.  Conserve your energy.”

Though exhaustion darkened the skin under his eyes, Zhou Zishu shook his head.  “I’m not sure I can,” he admitted.

Wen Kexing shifted closer, wrapping an arm around his zhiji’s shoulders when he didn’t pull away.  “Shall I tell you a bedtime story?  Give you a massage?”  He smirked.  “Suck you off until you can’t think, much less stay awake?”

“Lao Wen!”  Zhou Zishu swatted at him.  “So impudent.”

Wen Kexing leaned against him, breathing in the fresh scent of his hair.  “Ah, A-Xu, you know me so well.”

Zhou Zishu sighed.  “We should speak with the Scorpion King.  There’s no point in having Chengling build anything unless we can secure his cooperation.”

“Well, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life under siege, so we’d better find some way to make that army move,” Wen Kexing complained.  “A-Xu… do you really want to go all the way down to the cells right now?”  Are you sure you can?

He didn’t say the last part, though.  Hinting at any such doubts was a surefire way to get Zhou Zishu to push himself past his limits.

Another sigh slipped past his A-Xu’s lips.  “Better now than later.”  With a groan, he tried to rise, only for his legs to give out beneath him.  “Lao Wen, help me up.”

“Dammit, A-Xu, Wu Xi is going to kill you,” Wen Kexing grumbled, but he obeyed.

Step by painful step, they made their way down the many flights of stairs to the cells deep in the heart of the mountain.  Wen Kexing carried a lantern in one hand and supported his A-Xu with the other, praying with each step that his soulmate wasn’t about to collapse.  “You know, I could talk to him myself,” he murmured when they were halfway there.

Zhou Zishu glared at him.  “Shut up and keep walking.”

Again, Wen Kexing obeyed.

They paused around the corner from the Scorpion King’s cell for Zhou Zishu to extricate himself from Wen Kexing’s grip.  “I walk in there under my own power,” he hissed, and Wen Kexing couldn’t deny the sense it that.

It hurt, though, seeing his A-Xu force steel into his spine as he tried to walk with something resembling his normal grace.  It wouldn’t fool anyone who saw him in daylight, but maybe, in the light of a single lantern, it would suffice.

Xie’er was lounging against the bars when they walked up; he didn’t look surprised to see them.  “What a pleasure,” he drawled.  “Back for more?”  His gaze switched to Zhou Zishu.  “Do you know what your lovely soulmate did with me, lord of Tian Chuang?  I must say, he’s quite skilled.”

Zhou Zishu didn’t bother to reply.  Wen Kexing rolled his eyes.  “Do you know that your subordinate has been making promises in your absence?”

Xie’er waved a lazy hand.  “Has Du Pusa taken over already, then?  Good for her.”

“No, actually,” Wen Kexing replied, and smirked as the Scorpion King stiffened.  “No, it seems she wants you back.”

“Then she’s weak.”  The Scorpion King snorted.

“Is she?”  Wen Kexing leaned forward, tracing the boy’s body with his eyes purely for the pleasure of watching him squirm.

Xie’er declined to oblige him, though.  Instead, he looked Wen Kexing up and down with just as much calculation.  “Unless you’re far softer than you look, Valley Master, I know full well I’m not getting out of here alive.”

“Do you want to?”

He barked a laugh.  “If this is your newest form of torture, you need some pointers.  Giving hope only works when your captives believe you.”

“It’s no lie,” Zhou Zishu replied.

The Scorpion King’s eyes narrowed.  “Did someone slip poison into your wine this evening?”

Zhou Zishu tipped his head to one side.  “Tell me, Scorpion King, what did you think of Duan Pengju?”

Xie’er shrugged.  “Cruel, more brawn than brains, but cunning where it matters.  He’s missing a strong hand on the reins, though, and I hear I have you to thank for that.”

“And I heard you have ambitions of taking that seat,” Zhou Zishu replied.

The Scorpion King laughed once more, the sound empty of anything but bitterness.  “Once, perhaps.  Now?”  He gestured to his surroundings.  “If I may beg a favor, my lords, I grow bored with this.  End it and be done with it.”

“Your Du Pusa promised a favor should we return you safely.  Shall I tell her you’d rather die?” Wen Kexing purred.

A flash of shock, quickly suppressed, darted across the Scorpion King’s face.  “She truly is blinded by her own weakness, then,” he muttered.

“Ah, but we can use that favor,” Zhou Zishu said lightly.  “If, that is, you bear no love for Duan Pengju.”

Xie’er spat on the floor.  “Why should I care about him?  He was going to stab me in the back as soon as he had the armory key and all the pieces of Glazed Armor.”

“Would you like to stab him instead?” Wen Kexing asked softly.

Something hot and hungry materialized in the boy’s eyes – something that echoed within Wen Kexing.  Oh, I’m so glad I kept you alive, a little voice inside him purred.

Xie’er smiled slowly, all jagged edges.  “I’m listening.”

Wen Kexing let an equally feral smile spread across his lips.  “Let’s make a bargain, Scorpion King.”

***

In the end, as Wen Kexing had expected, the Scorpion King agreed.  “I’ll kill him for you,” he’d said, eyes glittering, “and then we’re even.”

The threat had been obvious, but Wen Kexing couldn’t bring himself to care.  Not as hours melted into days and his A-Xu grew weaker with every passing second.  He maintained a brave face, insisting that he wasn’t in pain, but Wen Kexing saw the way his breath caught whenever he moved too fast.  Bruises bloomed on his skin and didn’t fade; the shadows beneath his eyes grew deeper with every heartbeat.

Wu Xi and Ye Baiyi remained closeted in a guest room, emerging only to gingerly feed Zhou Zishu drips of qi every few hours.  Much to Wen Kexing’s surprise, Ye Baiyi did so without complaint, though the lines creasing his own face were deeper every time.  It could not possibly be worry – the old toad monster didn’t have it in him to worry – but he didn’t look happy, either.

If he had, Wen Kexing would have gone for his throat.

But the immortal just seemed weary.  Even the arrival of Han Ying and Wang Feiyan, bearing armloads of books and scrolls, didn’t do anything to lift the thundercloud hanging over him.  He merely took the offerings and disappeared back into his cave, grunting something that might have been thanks over his shoulder.

As soon as he’d delivered his armload, Han Ying ran to Zhou Zishu’s side.  “My lord!”

Zhou Zishu tried to smile.  “None of that, now.  You found it?”

“Yes, my lord,” Han Ying whispered.  Tears sparkled in his eyes.  “Nearly ran several horses to foundering in the process, but we found it.”  He twisted to hold out Wen Kexing’s jade hairpin, now in the shape of the key to the armory.  “Shishu.”  He bowed.

Wen Kexing took the hairpin with trembling hands.  He had to blink back tears of his own as he knelt beside his A-Xu.  “I said I wanted to give this to you, didn’t I?” he murmured.  Willing his fingers to still, he slid the hairpin into his soulmate’s hair.  “Ah, A-Xu…”

Han Ying bowed his head.  “My lord.  Valley Master.  How can I serve you?”  His voice cracked on the last word.

Oh-so-loyal Han Ying… Wen Kexing ran a jaundiced eye over him.  He looked terrible, hair tangled and covered in road dirt; sweat had drawn dark lines down his robes and face.  The circles beneath his eyes were almost twins to those under Zhou Zishu’s.  Yet Wen Kexing suspected he could ask the man to ride right back to the armory and Han Ying would leap to obey.

Faint bitterness filled the back of his throat, along with something that tasted like awe.  Ghosts did not possess such loyalty.  Even Luo-yi, for all her strengths, wouldn’t throw her life away for Wen Kexing.  Die for him, possibly, but not die senselessly.

Han Ying, though… oh, yes, that was useful.  And…

Something inside Wen Kexing twisted, eyes stinging once more.  “Go rest before you collapse,” he barked.

“Are you sure?”  Han Ying looked between him and Zhou Zishu, chin lifted with determination.

Wen Kexing’s lips quirked.  “There’s nothing you can do.”  Nothing I can do.  Oh, and that had burned – did burn.  Waiting was the only option left.  He’d exhausted all his schemes, all his plots, and now the fate of his soulmate rested in the hands of the Great Shaman and the old toad monster.  Both of whom had kicked him out of their workspace and, in Ye Baiyi’s case, threatened to disembowel him if he interrupted again.

He’d almost gone back in when he’d heard that, just for the pleasure of tweaking the old monster’s nose.  A spar would be a welcome way to get his mind off the churning stress swirling inside him.  But he’d restrained himself for his A-Xu’s sake.

Han Ying bowed low.  “Yes, shishu.  Wake me if I can do anything at all.”  He locked eyes with Wen Kexing, a message lurking in the dark depths, and Wen Kexing’s breath caught.

Oh, it was tempting.  They had the Yin Yang Book now, and Zhou Zishu was in no condition to object strenuously.  If Han Ying wanted to sacrifice himself for his lord, who was Wen Kexing to stop him?  Philanthropists did not stand in the way of others’ destinies.

He closed his eyes.  So very, very tempting.  But he’d forsworn the temptation once, and he would not give into it now.  He’d made promises to his A-Xu, and he was going to keep them, dammit!

Han Ying left in a whisper of silk.  Wen Kexing didn’t dare open his eyes until the door shut once more.  “Ah, A-Xu, you had better appreciate what I’m doing for you,” he whispered into his soulmate’s hair.  Zhou Zishu’s eyes were closed, and he didn’t stir.

Wen Kexing pressed a kiss to his shoulder.  “I’m being so very good, A-Xu.  You had better come back and reward me for it.”

His A-Xu’s eyes opened just a crack.  “I’m not going anywhere,” he breathed.

Wetness trickled down Wen Kexing’s cheeks as Zhou Zishu’s eyes slid closed once more.  “You’d better not.”

He held his soulmate as time drifted past them, feeling himself slip into a doze.  It was night, he thought, but he wasn’t sure – he’d started to lose track of time, unwilling to sleep when a single moment of inattention might prove fatal.  It was doing little for his ability to concentrate, but he didn’t care.  Nothing but his soulmate mattered right now.

He startled into full alertness as a knock rang out at the door, though.  “Yes?”  He shifted to have easier access to his fan without letting go of his A-Xu.

Ye Baiyi yanked the door open.  “Bring him,” he ordered.  “We have a plan.”

It took a second for the words to sink in.  Then Wen Kexing bolted to his feet, heart pounding so fast he wondered if it was going to explode from his chest.  Energy crackled through him, shrieking through his veins.  “You do?”  He spun to Zhou Zishu.  “A-Xu!  Zhiji!  Wake up!”

Zhou Zishu’s lips pulled into a scowl.  “What, Lao Wen?”  He didn’t open his eyes.

Wen Kexing scooped him into his arms.  “They have a cure!”

Ye Baiyi frowned at them both.  “It’s a possibility.  Not a cure.”

“Fuck your possibility!”  Could someone float from sheer happiness?  Wen Kexing was shaking, laughter bubbling up from all the cracks deep inside him where the Valley Master lived.  “You’re going to fix him.”

He said it as a statement of fact.  If he said it enough, fate would have to listen.

Ye Baiyi heaved a sigh.  “Come on, then.”

Zhou Zishu pulled himself back to the waking world as they hurried through the halls, but Wen Kexing ignored his grumbled complaints.  “Just a bit farther,” he promised.  The lightning in his veins was making him dizzy enough to shatter like a badly-made wine jug.  He kissed his A-Xu’s forehead.  “Soon, A-Xu, soon!”

Wu Xi was waiting for them inside the chambers he and Ye Baiyi had taken over.  Wen Kexing set Zhou Zishu carefully on the low bed, then sat next to him, thighs pressed together.  His A-Xu was so very cold, far too close to the chill of the grave, but that would all change soon.

Ye Baiyi dropped heavily onto a chair opposite them, raking a hand through his hair.  He had more white streaks now, Wen Kexing noticed, as well as more lines around his mouth.  The power that always emanated from him had condensed around his skin, flavoring the air with the taste of dust.

Wu Xi took his own seat more gracefully, but he, like everyone in the mountain, bore a palpable aura of exhaustion.  “Zishu.  Valley Master.  We think we’ve found a potential fix.”  He held up a hand before either of them could say anything.  “But it will not cure everything.”

“There’s a good chance you lose your martial arts for good,” Ye Baiyi said bluntly.  “You will definitely lose them for at least a year, probably more like three or four, and, even if you keep some of them, you may never be back to where you were.”  His lips thinned.  “You have no idea the damage you’ve done to yourself, fool.  If you can get back to where you were with the nails suppressing half your damn power, consider yourself blessed.”

At Wen Kexing’s side, Zhou Zishu stiffened.  Wen Kexing swallowed hard.  To lose his martial arts… Zhou Zishu had already rejected such a solution.  Yet, if it would let him live…

Who would his A-Xu be without his martial arts?  Without that fluid grace and whip-crack speed, the steps that were his birthright and the heritage he bequeathed to Chengling?  Would he grow to hate himself if he could not teach his disciples or spar with Wen Kexing?  If he could no longer keep Chengling and the rest of his shidis safe?

I will keep them safe for you, Wen Kexing swore fiercely.  I will let no one touch you or them.  What did it matter if his A-Xu could not fight?  Nothing could take away the innate strength of his spirit or the way he could make Wen Kexing’s knees turn to water with a look, nor the sheer presence he could command at will.  Nor his brilliant, devious mind, a mind that could match Wen Kexing scheme for scheme if he desired.  He hadn’t become the leader of the Window of Heaven purely for his brawn, after all.

Ah, but would he want to live like that?  Broken, lost inside himself?  Would he see it that way, or would he seize the chance to live?

What if he never recovered even a fraction of his martial arts?  Would he still want to live, then?

Or would he abandon me?

Wen Kexing thrust the thought away with all the violence inside him.  No.  He would not lose his A-Xu this way.  All he wanted was a living soulmate – martial arts or no martial arts, it didn’t matter one whit.

He seized Zhou Zishu’s hand.  “Please, A-Xu.”  He had to lick his lips to get the rest of the words out.  “You swore you would take a chance, if they could find it.  Please.  Say yes.”

Zhou Zishu looked up at him, eyes swimming with pain.  “Lao Wen.”  He, too, faltered, and his throat bobbed as he swallowed.  “I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

I don’t know.  It felt like a betrayal to say it out loud, but those were the only words left to Zhou Zishu.  He stared at Wen Kexing, heart shattering as he saw the heartbreak on his soulmate’s face, yet he couldn’t find a way to take the words back.  I don’t know.

He’d promised to take any solution that would allow him to live, as long as it didn’t require anyone else to die.  Yet, to live without his martial arts… was that life? 

The future stretched out before him, grey and joyless, day after day blurring into one unending stretch of helplessness and frustration.  How long would Wen Kexing stay by his side if he was reduced to the skill of a child?  No, worse, for even Chengling, fool that he was, had mastered the Swift-Moving Steps.  If Zhou Zishu lost his martial arts, even such simple techniques would be beyond him.

Oh, fate was cruel indeed.  Was this the final price he must pay for all the blood on his hands?  He’d done so much to atone already…

Yet perhaps this was fair.  He’d stolen the futures from so many, including every single one of the eighty-one who’d looked to him for protection.  Wasn’t it fair for him to lose his own?

He forced himself to look at Ye Baiyi and Wu Xi.  “What chance?” he croaked.

“How should we know?” Ye Baiyi demanded irritably.  “It’s not like anyone has ever done anything like this before, because no one before you has been stupid enough to torture himself like this!”

Wu Xi cast him a quelling glance.  “Perhaps two in five,” he offered softly.

“Better than none,” Wen Kexing pleaded.  His free hand fisted in his robes; the hand that held Zhou Zishu’s was tight enough to hurt.

“Is it?” Zhou Zishu murmured.

“Of course it is!” Wen Kexing burst out.  “Damn it, A-Xu, you said you would fight to live!  Are you giving up already?”

Heat boiled up inside Zhou Zishu.  “What is life?” he demanded.  “Does it count as life if all of life’s pleasures have been stripped from it?”

Ye Baiyi snorted.  “Stop your melodrama, boy.”

Zhou Zishu wondered how fast he could draw his sword.  Not fast enough to stab the old immortal like he wanted, but it would relieve some of the maelstrom inside him.  “You have never been helpless in your life,” he hissed.  I have.

Jiuxiao’s face swam before his eyes.  Smiling, happy, carving a hair pin for his lover, not knowing how soon he would die… die because Zhou Zishu hadn’t been strong enough to protect him.

His blood had never touched Zhou Zishu’s skin, not directly, but Zhou Zishu would swear he could feel it now, hot and sticky as it cascaded down his arms.  He pulled away from Wen Kexing and clenched his hands into fists, digging his nails into his palms.  Eighty-one red flowers, eighty-one corpses moldering beneath the dirt, all because Zhou Zishu had failed.

How many more would join them if he took this cure that was not a cure at all?  He had enemies – the army outside proved that.  If he could not so much as flee from them, how many would die in a futile attempt to protect him?  Would his Lao Wen be the first?

Or would it be Chengling, Han Ying, all the juniors of Tian Chuang who looked at him now with such stars in their eyes?  They deserved better than a broken master unable to fight.  Unable to teach them or protect them or do fucking anything…

Shame choked his throat.  How could he stand before them if he lost his martial arts for good?  How could he face himself?

“A-Xu, please,” Wen Kexing begged.  He swallowed hard.  “I know what it’s like to be helpless,” he whispered.  “But you wouldn’t be alone.”

It was exactly what Zhou Zishu didn’t want to hear.  “For how long?”  He laughed bitterly.  “I will not be a burden on you, Lao Wen.  You deserve better.”

“What if I don’t want better?  What if I want my soulmate at my side?”  Wen Kexing’s eyes shimmered with tears.  “What about that, A-Xu?  Have you considered that?”

“You say that now.”  Maybe it was even true now.  But in five years, ten?  Ghost Valley was a harsh place.  How many ghosts would seize the opening in the hopes of wounding their master’s spirit, if not his body?  How many more deaths would join the ones already on Wen Kexing’s soul?

He would accept them without a thought – Zhou Zishu had no fear of that.  But it was not his shidi’s job to protect him.  Wen Kexing should be able to live whatever life he wanted, not find himself tethered to a duty he would grow to despise.  If he never wanted to kill again, he should be free to do so!

“Now and forever!”  Wen Kexing caught his hands once more.  “A-Xu.  We are soulmates.  I will never leave you.”  He spun to face Wu Xi and Ye Baiyi without letting go of Zhou Zishu’s hands.  “How does this work?  What do you need for this cure?”

The two exchanged glances.  “Well, if the little idiot at your side agrees, it’s simple.”  Ye Baiyi cast a caustic glance at Zhou Zishu.

“Simple may not be the right word,” Wu Xi muttered.

Ye Baiyi rolled his eyes.  “Yes, yes, it will take some arranging.”  His gaze raked over Wen Kexing.  “We’ll need your help.”

“Yours, and anyone else who is willing to participate.”  Wu Xi hesitated.  “We are hoping to modify a technique from the Yin Yang Book, but it is experimental.”

Zhou Zishu jerked upright at that.  “I said…” he started.

“No one is going to die,” Ye Baiyi interrupted.  “He said modify, didn’t he?”

Something akin to disappointment shot through Zhou Zishu.  Shame followed after in a surging wave, heating his cheeks – it was selfish, surely, to wish for such an easy out from his promise.  Yet it would have made everything so much simpler.

Ye Baiyi clucked his tongue as though he could read such thoughts written over Zhou Zishu’s face.  “As you know, the Yin Yang Book explains how to trade one life for another.  Which, as you’ve made very clear, is not acceptable.  So, we kept digging.”  His lips twisted to the side.  “You know, I always said I would keep the Combined Six Cultivation Method to myself.  Dangerous, destructive… it snarls up the natural order far too much.  But it held some useful clues.”  Before either Zhou Zishu or Wen Kexing could say anything, he held up a hand.  “No, I’m not teaching it to you idiots.  That would end in disaster.”

Part of Zhou Zishu couldn’t care less about these maunderings.  How did the method matter?  If the result was the loss of his martial arts…

Yet he found himself leaning forward anyway.  “What, then?”

That earned him a scowl.  “What, you want to be immortal?  Live on a mountaintop and eat snow, never taste wine or good food again?”  He slanted a glance at Wen Kexing.  “Possibly see your soulmate wither and die in the process of gaining said immortality?”

Wen Kexing blinked.  “I…” he started.

Ye Baiyi heaved a sigh.  “Before you go and volunteer, shut up.  The rule was no one dying, right?”

“Yes,” Zhou Zishu replied before Wen Kexing could.  “Lao Wen, you are not allowed to die for me, understood?”

“Then you’re not allowed to die,” Wen Kexing shot back.

“Neither of you are dying,” Wu Xi cut in.  “No one is going to die.”  He took a long, slow breath.  “It is our hope that we can borrow small amounts of energy from a number of people and use it to build a set of shells around your meridians.  Your meridians would no longer bear the force of the qi flowing through your body – instead, each would be shielded and safe.  But the amount of qi that the shields could process would be severely limited.”

“If you’re lucky, your meridians might heal if they’re given enough time,” Ye Baiyi said sourly.  “But I think you’ve used up all your luck for several lifetimes.”

Zhou Zishu almost laughed at that.  He’d certainly had plenty of ill luck – maybe, for once, fate would smile on him.

But he couldn’t bring himself to believe that.

Wen Kexing stared at him, face full of naked hope.  “What do you say, A-Xu?  Will you try it?”  His throat bobbed as he swallowed.  “No matter what happens, I’ll be there.”

Zhou Zishu had to look away.  “Why so many people?” he asked, for lack of anything else to say.

“Do you want the technicalities?” Ye Baiyi demanded.  “Have you become a healer now?”

“Old monster…” Wen Kexing started, then cut himself off.

The immortal snickered.  “One day, boy, you might learn some manners, and then I’ll drop dead of shock.”

“There will be a price for any who help,” Wu Xi warned.  “This technique combines the Yin Yang Book’s sacrifices with the way the Combined Six Cultivation Method uses another person as a vessel for the raw energy.  The sacrifice will not be as great as the Yin Yang Book demands, as it will be spread out among many people, but it will be permanent.”

“And you’re the lucky vessel who gets to transmute all that energy,” Ye Baiyi told Wen Kexing, smirking.

Wen Kexing scowled at that, but nodded.  Zhou Zishu’s heart skipped a beat.  “You said no one would die.”

“Don’t be stupid, boy,” Ye Baiyi chided.  “This will be much safer than actually obtaining immortality.  Your lover will be fine.”

Wen Kexing turned to look at Zhou Zishu, eyes wide and dark and filled with too many emotions to name.  “A-Xu.  Say yes.”

The word trembled on the tip of his tongue.  He swallowed hard, drinking in every line of his soulmate’s face.  A stray tendril of hair curled over his cheek, and Zhou Zishu had to clench his hands to keep from reaching for it – the second he touched his zhiji’s skin, he would shatter into a thousand pieces.  Wen Kexing was gorgeous at any time, but like this, pleading and furious and so very hopeful it hurt to look at?  He shone like the sun.

Zhou Zishu would have willingly basked in that light for the rest of his days.  He would have taken every drop of affection Wen Kexing would give him and grabbed for more, swallowing it down like a snake forging itself on too large a meal.  Greedy, selfish… starving tendrils curled inside his chest, snarling up his insides as they drank down everything Wen Kexing so foolishly offered up.

Would it be selfish to burden his Lao Wen with his own failing form?  His thoughts kept circling back to that, and the shadows that lurked beneath the thought that he shied away from acknowledging.  To live without his martial arts, a burden on those around him, unable to protect or serve…

Pride – arrogance? – laughed somewhere deep inside his bones, baring gleaming claws.  To be weak.  As helpless as a child.  Such a horror.  You are Zhou Zishu, head of Tian Chuang, lord of Siji Pavilion.  You can never be weak.

He shuddered all over like a fly-stung horse.  He was head of nothing now, leader of nothing but a handful of men who’d been a sect for mere weeks. 

If he let himself slip into darkness now, he would never see Siji Pavilion rise again.  Never see the dream Wen Kexing had sketched out bloom into reality.  Never see Chengling find a spouse of his own, or master the rest of the Longyuan Pavilion techniques, or become the man he was going to be.

He’d never see his Lao Wen again, if he died now. 

He’d leave so much unfinished business behind him.

Was it selfish to take the chance Wu Xi and Ye Baiyi offered?  Maybe.  But it was surely just as selfish to cling to his pride and refuse it, force his Lao Wen to watch him die in agony.

Was he willing to pay the price?  He would have some semblance of a future, but it would be such a bleak, monochrome one…

But it would be one with his soulmate.  And it would keep his soulmate from following him down into death.

Zhou Zishu reached for his Lao Wen’s hands.  “Yes,” he whispered.

Joy, fierce and feral, bloomed in Wen Kexing’s eyes.  He didn’t speak, merely stared back at Zhou Zishu as though every single one of his dreams was coming true at once.  Once, twice, he blinked, then let the tears gathering in his eyes fall.

Zhou Zishu’s own eyes stung, and he didn’t bother trying to hold the tears back.  An abyss yawned within him, seven hooks anchored in each of his withered meridians; icy cold filled his chest.  But his Lao Wen’s hands were warm in his, pinning him to the world and to all the courage he had remaining inside him.

Ye Baiyi’s snort collapsed the moment into oblivion.  “Finally,” he grunted.  “Come on then, we have no time to waste.”  He looked Zhou Zishu up and down, eyes narrowed and weighing.  “Strip,” he barked.

When both Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing stared at him, the old immortal rolled his eyes.  “Just to your inner robe, fool, I don’t want to see any more of you than I have to.”  He shifted to glare at Wen Kexing.  “Go find anyone who cares for this fool and bring them here.  Hop to it!”

“Toad monster,” Wen Kexing growled beneath his breath, but he leapt up to do as ordered.  Zhou Zishu shivered at the sudden loss of contact.

He didn’t think he’d blacked out, but suddenly Wu Xi was there, one arm around his shoulders.  Carefully, as though Zhou Zishu was a baby bird, the Great Shaman helped him undo the ties of his simple outer robe.  “Build up the fire,” he called to Ye Baiyi.  “His skin is like ice.”

“Don’t give me orders, boy,” Ye Baiyi grumbled.  But, like Wen Kexing, he obeyed, and Zhou Zishu hid a smirk.  Maybe that was the trick to handling both of them – simply tell them to do things that they had a vested self-interest in completing.

Of course, Wen Kexing responded so beautifully to other types of orders, too, when it came down to it…

The memories were enough to send a trickle of warmth down his chest.  He’d have so much more time to experiment, now, and he didn’t need martial arts to put his soulmate on his knees, did he?

Wu Xi smiled softly at him, and Zhou Zishu realized he was grinning like a fool.  He modulated his expression.

Wu Xi huffed a laugh.  “I’m glad you chose this, Zishu.  I promise, you won’t regret it.”

The promise was meant to be encouraging, but it cascaded over Zhou Zishu like a bucket of cold water.  I hope not, he thought, and swallowed hard.

As though he could read his mind, the shaman sighed.  “Relax, Zishu.  I mean it.  This will be easier if you can relax and stop all those worries spinning around in your head.  Meditate, if you can.”

Automatically, Zhou Zishu took a deep breath, then let it out slowly.  A count of seven, and he inhaled again, slow and even.  Hold, breathe out, hold, breathe in.  Seven counts each, the pattern seared into his brain – to his surprise, it pushed away some of the ice twined around his bones.  His stomach, which had been churning with something like nausea, subsided into the light flutters of the occasional butterfly.

He managed to lose himself in the meditation until Wen Kexing burst back into the room, trailed by a handful of people.  Chengling and Han Ying were right behind him, but, surprisingly, Luo Fumeng followed as well, as did A-Xiang and Weining.  Jing Beiyuan and the rest of the former Tian Chuang men made up the rear.

Ye Baiyi’s eyebrows flew up at the sight of the group, but he made no protest.  Instead, he heaved a dramatic sigh and waved them all in.  “Go stand over there and don’t make a sound,” he snapped.  Then he pointed at Wen Kexing.  “You, come here.”

“I’m not a dog, old monster,” Wen Kexing hissed as he padded across the floor.

“If I say bark, bark,” Ye Baiyi retorted.

Wen Kexing’s face flushed red.  “Old toad!  No wonder you don’t have any friends!”

A trace of sorrow flickered over Ye Baiyi’s face, so quickly Zhou Zishu thought he might have imagined it, for in the next second the immortal’s expression was as irascible as ever.  “Whereas everyone adores you for your sweet and humble temperament,” he drawled, the sarcasm thick enough to be cut with a knife.

Wen Kexing opened his mouth, and Zhou Zishu coughed.  “Lao Wen.”  He looked at his soulmate, trying to silently convey that Ye Baiyi was about to perform an experimental procedure that could very well end in Zhou Zishu’s death.  Antagonizing him at this juncture was not the brightest idea.

Wen Kexing subsided sulkily.  Wu Xi made a choked sound that might have been a stifled laugh.  “Alright, Zishu, lean back.”  His hands were cool as he helped Zhou Zishu lay back on the bed, then pulled open his inner robe to expose his chest to the air.

Zhou Zishu did his best not to snarl.  It felt terribly vulnerable, lying there half-naked and knowing he’d have a snowball’s chance in hell of defending himself if anyone launched an attack.  Showing weakness around Wen Kexing was one thing, but around the whole group?

He didn’t have long to stew, though, for Ye Baiyi took two steps forward and laid his hand over Zhou Zishu’s sternum.

For a second, he felt nothing but the chill of the immortal’s skin.  Then agony cascaded through him.  Every nerve burned, lightning crackled through his veins, and his meridians… there were no words for the inferno that surged through them.  It bypassed pain to become something else entirely, something that shocked him out of his body and sent him soaring.

A cool hand brushed over his forehead.  “Breathe, Zishu,” Wu Xi murmured.  “With me.  In… out… in… out…”

Zhou Zishu couldn’t tell if he was breathing.  Stars danced across his vision, bright and glittering and as sharp as knives; the world beyond them was reduced to a mere blur.  His body felt like it was melting, dissolving into the air itself.

He’d been stabbed, tortured, and beaten nearly to death multiple times.  He’d spent a year and a half digging iron nails out of his flesh so they sank in at an even rate.  He’d torn those same nails out of himself with nothing but alcohol to numb the pain.

None of that compared with this.  It wasn’t pain anymore – it was something that transcended pain.

A new hand touched his forehead.  He wasn’t sure how he could tell it was new, for he couldn’t see who it was attached to, but it sent shockwaves down his body, and somehow he recognized that.  “Han Ying,” he said, or tried to say.  He wasn’t sure if the words made it out of his throat.

“Shh,” Han Ying whispered.  “Don’t try to speak, my lord.”  He touched Zhou Zishu’s sternum, then the two burning meridians in his upper chest.  His fingers were very warm.

The world blurred further as the scent of clean sweat and sword oil wreathed Zhou Zishu.  The bed beneath him softened into mist, and he fell down, down, down into fog.

“Hai!”

The shouts rang out in unison, torn from exhausted throats, as the men completed the last move of the form.  Zhou Zishu paced up and down their lines as they held the final position.  More than one shook like a leaf, but none collapsed – a year ago, half of them would have been on the ground already.

They’d come so far in such a short time – they weren’t ready to hear it yet, but he was proud of them for that.

The man at the end of the line did his best to straighten an already-straight spine as Zhou Zishu strode towards him.  He did not let his eyes waver from the tip of his sword, but Zhou Zishu could feel his attention nonetheless.

He stopped in front of the man, a finger’s width away from the point of his blade.  The young man – not much more than a boy – quivered, and the sword point wavered just a hair.

Zhou Zishu nodded in approval when the man caught and stabilized it.  “What is your name?” he demanded.

Caught between bowing and holding the stance as protocol demanded, the man flushed.  “Han Ying, sir.  My lord.”

Zhou Zishu permitted himself a sliver of a smile.  “Good job, Han Ying.”

A wash of cold air blew away the scent of the training yard, and the memory – vision? – went with it.  Zhou Zishu cracked open his eyes, not sure when he’d closed them, in time to see the blur that had to be Han Ying retreating.

He was a good boy.  A good man, now.  Too loyal for his own good, but… oh, it was selfish, and Zhou Zishu knew it, but he didn’t want to relinquish that loyalty.

Another blurry form approached, slighter than Han Ying.  “Shifu,” Chengling gulped.  “Please get better, okay?”  He, like Han Ying, laid a gentle hand on Zhou Zishu’s chest, hand trembling as though he expected to be punched for such daring.

Once again, Zhou Zishu fell.

“Please, shifu!”  Chengling was on his knees, head bowed.  “Please accept this humble one as your disciple!”

“Get up,” Zhou Zishu growled.  “You don’t know what you’re asking.”  How could Chengling still want him as a master after this night?  After Zhou Zishu, in attempting to save him, had managed to get captured himself?  What sort of master did that make him?  If Wen Kexing hadn’t come to the rescue, they’d both still be under the hands of the Scorpion Sect.

But the boy didn’t move.  He hadn’t cried a single tear when Du Pusa tortured him, but now tears shone in his eyes.  “Please,” he repeated.

Zhou Zishu closed his eyes.  He knew he ought to say no, but the sheer amount of hope in Chengling’s voice was enough to unravel something inside him.  If the boy could still have hope after everything he’d been through, who was Zhou Zishu to crush it?

He slid a glance at Wen Kexing, who was watching the whole thing with amusement, and sighed.  “Fine.”

Chengling beamed as bright as the sun.  “Thank you, shifu!”

“Thank you, shifu.  For everything.  Please don’t die.”

Zhou Zishu swam back to the real world as Chengling’s voice rang in his ears.  His body didn’t hurt anymore – it didn’t feel like anything.  Was that a bad thing?  He should have been worried, he thought, but the worries felt as far away as his body. 

He barely saw the next blur approach him, and he couldn’t feel the touch at all, but he wasn’t surprised when the fog swallowed him once more.

“One day, Zishu, you’ll understand,” Wu Xi laughed.  He held hands with Jing Beiyuan, heedless of the impropriety – they were in a public wineshop!  Yet the shaman didn’t seem to care.

Zhou Zishu was too polite to voice his disagreement out loud, but he couldn’t hide it all from his expression.  His life was not one to share with a lover, much less a soulmate – what sort of person would want to love a man like him?

The laughter faded from Wu Xi’s face as he took in Zhou Zishu’s tiny frown.  “One day,” the shaman repeated.  “Hold onto love if you find it, Zishu.  You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

Fog shifted.

“If you hurt my A-Xing,” Luo Fumeng whispered, dragging a sharp nail down his cheek, “I will slit you open from navel to throat and let the ravens feast on your entrails.”

“If I hurt him,” Zhou Zishu replied, “I will let you.”

Flicker.

“What kind of beggar are you to refuse coins?” A-Xiang demanded.  She stomped her foot, and Zhou Zishu had to hide a smile.  Such a proud young girl, and he could tell she had some skill, but she was no match for him.  It was child’s play to stumble away from her attacks, pretending to be drunk and thoroughly enjoying himself.

Until he looked up and met the eyes of the man watching them from behind a fan, and felt a chill run down his spine.

Flicker.

“Your prince needs this.  I trust you to get it done.”  Zhou Zishu stared into the man’s eyes, knowing he was asking too much.

But the operative did not protest.  “Yes, my lord.  As you command.  They will die before daybreak.”

Flicker.

“Ah, gods, it hurts, it hurts!”

Zhou Zishu gripped the man’s hand hard.  “Breathe,” he barked.  “Hold on.”

“Yes, sir,” the man – boy, really – gasped.  It was the last thing he would ever say.

Flicker.

“Is this… right?”

Zhou Zishu frowned at his subordinate.  “That is not for us to decide.”

The man bowed his head.  “Yes, my lord.”

Flicker.

“Yes, my lord.  Yes, sir.  Didn’t you ever get tired of that?”

Zhou Zishu turned slowly.  “Jiuxiao.  What are you doing here?”  His shidi wasn’t supposed to be here.  Was he?

The young man – so painfully young – smiled.  It was not a gentle smile.  “Why shouldn’t I be?”

Zhou Zishu frowned.  There was a reason, he was sure of it, yet it slipped from his fingers like a squirming fish in the river when he grasped for it.  Jiuxiao was… off on a mission, wasn’t he?

No.  Jiuxiao was dead.

He looked around slowly, taking in the fog that surrounded him.  “Shidi, where are we?”

“You don’t know, shixiong?”  Jiuxiao’s lips quirked to the side.  “Ah, ge, you’ve walked along the edge of this place your whole life.”

“And sent many people here,” a new voice said.  A slender young woman emerged from the fog and took Jiuxiao’s hand with a proprietary air.  Her eyes were dark and accusing as she studied Zhou Zishu.  “By all rights, you should be here, too.”

“Am I?” he whispered.  If he was talking to Jiuxiao and Princess Jing An…

More forms slipped out of the fog.  Familiar faces, long-gone faces… he spotted his own shifu, face drawn in sad lines, staring at him from the growing crowd.

“Isn’t this where you belong?” Jiuxiao asked.  “This is where your family is, shixiong.  Don’t you want to be with us?”

Zhou Zishu’s throat tightened.  This wasn’t real – it couldn’t be real.

But it felt real.  Jiuxiao’s face, the cheerful face he remembered in his dreams, wavered before him as his eyes watered.  “I don’t…” he started, then faltered.

“It’s alright,” Jiuxiao said.  He held out a hand.  “Come with me, shixiong.  Stop fighting for once in your life and relax.  It’ll do you good.”

There was a reason he was fighting, though, wasn’t there?  He strained to recall it, and phantom pain flared in his meridians.  Seven nails, seven infernos… he cursed and doubled over.

Then, as fast as it had come, the pain ebbed, leaving a horrible leaching weakness in its wake.  Zhou Zishu tried to straighten and found his bones creaking and his muscles shaking from the effort of merely staying on his feet.  He fell to one knee, then pitched forward onto his hands.  His eyelids felt like lead, his body as wrung-out as a well-used towel, and he wasn’t sure why he was trying to rise.  This was his life now, wasn’t it?  Never-ending lethargy and difficulty doing the simplest things…

“A-Xu.”

He knew that voice.  He knew it better than he knew his own name.

Gritting his teeth against the heaviness of his limbs, he pushed back onto his heels.  He would always answer that voice, no matter how much it hurt.

The call came again, closer this time.  “A-Xu.  Come on, love, come back to me.”

Love?  Yes.  Love.

Wu Xi’s words came back to him then.  Hold onto love if you find it.  You’ll regret it if you don’t.

His breath hissed between his teeth as he forced himself to his feet.  “Lao Wen.”  Where was he?  Where was his soulmate?

He turned, swaying on his feet, and peered into the fog.  For a heart-stopping moment, he couldn’t see anything but grey – no white fan waving lazily, no embroidered silks draped over a lithe form, no source for the voice he loved.

Then Wen Kexing was there, a familiar smile on his lips.  “You always make everything so difficult, A-Xu,” he complained teasingly.  “Haven’t you dallied here long enough?”  He, like Jiuxiao, held out a hand.

This one, Zhou Zishu took without hesitation, and the fog dissolved around him.

When he opened his eyes, his vision was crystal clear.  “Lao Wen,” he breathed.

His soulmate kissed his lips.  “Welcome back, A-Xu.”

Chapter Text

Welcome back.  Zhou Zishu’s eyes stung – such simple words, yet the depth of feeling beneath them shook him to his core.  “Zhiji,” he whispered.

“A-Xu.”  Wen Kexing looked like he was blinking back tears of his own, but his smile was brilliant.  “You’re finally awake.”

Zhou Zishu frowned.  “How long?”  It hadn’t felt like he’d spent that long in the fog, but the way Wen Kexing said it made him uneasy.

He shifted to sit up, and Wen Kexing hastily caught his shoulder.  “No, no, don’t move yet,” he chided.  “Let Wu Xi check you over first.  You’ve been out for… a while.”

“Three weeks,” a new voice put in.  Jing Beiyuan moved into view, shaking his head.  “Zishu, you never do things by half, do you?  We’ve been taking it turn and turn about to watch you, after you nearly willed yourself to death by qi starvation right after the procedure was complete.”

“I… what?”  On reflex, Zhou Zishu tried to sit up once more, but Wen Kexing’s hand was still on his shoulder.

The light faded from his soulmate’s smile.  “Oh, yes,” he murmured.  “I thought you were going to leave me, A-Xu.  You’re not allowed to do that.”  He brushed a tendril of hair away from Zhou Zishu’s forehead.

“I came back, didn’t I?” Zhou Zishu pointed out.

That didn’t seem to reassure his zhiji much.  “Never again.  Promise me that, A-Xu.  Never again.”

Zhou Zishu swallowed hard.  “I swear.”  He huffed, trying to lighten the mood.  “Stop looking at me like that, Lao Wen, I’m fine.”

“Are you?” Wen Kexing asked softly.

It was a good question.  Zhou Zishu reached inside himself, probing with tentative fingers for the energy that normally coursed through him, only to find smooth, glassy walls in its place.  Seven spheres encircled his meridians, cool and heavy and foreign – not too dissimilar from the nails, in that sense, but much kinder.  Not softer, but they lacked the jagged edges that the nails had possessed.  Rather than tearing apart the flow of his qi, these worked with it.

And, he quickly realized, inhibited it, throttling it down to the merest trickle.  Even Chengling had more spiritual power than he did now.

It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t feel good, either.  Experimentally, he tried to move his arm, and sucked in a breath.  It felt like wading through a chest-deep river, each movement dragged back by the current – he could do it, but it took far more effort than it should have.

His throat tightened.  This was exactly what he’d feared.

Wen Kexing must have seen that in his face, for he opened his mouth to speak.  Zhou Zishu shook his head.  “Lao Wen.  Let me up.”

“You’re not supposed to…” Wen Kexing started, then sighed.  “And you won’t give me a moment’s peace until you do.  Fine.  Here.”  He slid an arm around Zhou Zishu’s shoulders and carefully levered him upright.

Zhou Zishu batted him away.  “I’m not an invalid,” he snapped.

But that was exactly what he was, wasn’t he?  He swung his feet onto the floor and hissed at the chill.  Trying to stand sent a wave of dizziness over him, strong enough to make his knees buckle – if not for Wen Kexing’s quick grab, he would have face-planted onto the stone floor.

“Wu Xi said you’d feel like this,” Wen Kexing murmured into his hair.  “You’ll be running around in no time, but you have to take it slow for a day or two, alright?”

Jing Beiyuan cleared his throat.  “He’s right, Zishu.  Why don’t you sit down?”

Frustration clogged Zhou Zishu’s throat.  Was this going to be the rest of his life?

He allowed Wen Kexing to help him to sit back on the bed – it was either that or fall over – but he couldn’t keep the scowl from his face.  Pain was preferable to this floaty, dizzy lethargy, a lethargy far too similar to the weakness that had crept over him in the fog.  Had that been a true premonition?  Was he cursed to live like this forever?

He dug his fingers into his Lao Wen’s arm and breathed in the scent of his soulmate.  A scent he could smell again…

He took another breath.  He’d returned for his Lao Wen, and had a lifetime to spend at his side now.  That had to be worth something, right?

The door swung open, and he startled.  “I see someone is already ignoring my orders,” Wu Xi commented from the doorway.  “Zishu, you are the worst patient I’ve had in years.”

Zhou Zishu stared up at the shaman.  “Is this…”  He couldn’t complete the sentence.

Ye Baiyi pushed Wu Xi aside to stride into the room.  “Are you complaining already?”  He folded his arms.  “I’ll have you know, this went as well as it possibly could have gone.  You’re going to feel like shit for a few days, but that’s expected.  You’ll be a pain in my ass again soon enough.”

Zhou Zishu blinked at the immortal.  Why was Ye Baiyi still here?  If it had really been three weeks, he would have expected the man to be long gone.  It wasn’t like he bore any love for Ghost Valley, after all.

Wu Xi, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, joined Ye Baiyi by the bed.  “How are you feeling, Zishu?”

“Like a menagerie animal,” Zhou Zishu muttered.  He was wearing nothing but a sleeping robe and trousers; the growing number of people staring at him was starting to grate on his nerves.

Wu Xi chuckled.  “Apart from that.”

“Fine.  It doesn’t hurt,” Zhou Zishu admitted.  That didn’t mean he liked it, though.

Wu Xi pressed a finger to his forehead, frowning absently.  “And now?”

“Nothing,” Zhou Zishu replied honestly.  If the shaman was doing something, he couldn’t feel it.

A smile broke across Wu Xi’s face.  “Good.  I want you to take it easy for a few days, but you’re past the worst of it.”

Zhou Zishu had to look away.  Was he?  He wanted to spit it, but that would be terribly ungrateful.

Yet the weakness coursing through his veins made it hard to feel as appreciative as he should.  He wanted to run, to fight, to do something – anything – that stretched his muscles, yet he couldn’t.  And he might never be able to again.

The thought burned.  Yes, he’d agreed to this, but the reality… he clenched his hands into fists.

“Alright, everyone, out.”  Wen Kexing began shooing people towards the door.  “You’ve checked on him now, and everything else can wait.”  He slid a glance at Zhou Zishu, worry turning his eyes flinty.  “Give him some privacy.”

Much to Zhou Zishu’s surprise, no one protested, not even Ye Baiyi.  The old immortal sauntered towards the door as though it was entirely his own idea, pausing only once to cast an unreadable glance over his shoulder.  His mouth twitched, as though he considered saying something, but he just shook his head and continued onwards.

Wen Kexing shut the door behind the group and slumped against it with a sigh.  “Ah, A-Xu…”  He padded over to the bed.  “You scared me,” he admitted softly.

Zhou Zishu had to double-check that he’d heard that right.  His Lao Wen, admitting to fear?

He leaned into the arm his soulmate wrapped around him.  “I’m sorry.”

“No,” Wen Kexing insisted.  “Don’t say that.  You don’t ever need to apologize to me.”

Zhou Zishu had to laugh at that.  “What, no poetry for such a noble sentiment?”

“Ah, my A-Xu deserves far more than the paltry efforts this humble philanthropist can produce,” Wen Kexing joked, but the smile slid off his face as he twisted to face Zhou Zishu.  “Is it really so bad?” he whispered.

Zhou Zishu flinched.  He did his best to hide it, but he could tell Wen Kexing felt it through the arm he still had around Zhou Zishu’s shoulders.  “No,” he tried to say, but the word got stuck in his throat.

Wen Kexing blinked hard.  “Is it?  Really?  Being here with me?”

“No,” Zhou Zishu replied instantly.  The word came easily this time, no barbs or acid, and he knew it for the truth.  “No.  Lao Wen, I never want to leave you.”

“Then…”  Wen Kexing reached out to smooth away a frown line between Zhou Zishu’s forehead.  “You look hunted, A-Xu.  Trapped.  Like I took a wolf and yanked out its fangs, then put a leash and collar on it.”

The metaphor hit Zhou Zishu like a blow.  He swallowed and glanced down, guilt welling.  “No, Lao Wen,” he repeated, but it didn’t feel as true this time.

Was it selfish to mourn the loss of his martial arts?  Everything he’d ever striven to become relied on them.  Was his shifu looking down on him now and shaking his head in disgust?  Was Jiuxiao?

Or, maybe, a treacherous little voice whispered from inside him, they’re happy that you’re alive.  That you can restore Siji Pavilion.  After all, you can still teach, can’t you?  What you can’t demonstrate, Lao Wen or Han Ying can.

As though he could hear Zhou Zishu’s thoughts, Wen Kexing tried to smile.  “I know you’re supposed to be gentle with your body right now, but I, for one, am sick of being stuck inside.  And you’ll feel better with sunlight on your face.”  He winked.  “I’ll even get some wine, how’s that?”

Something sour filled Zhou Zishu’s chest, but he pushed it away.  Bracing himself on his soulmate’s shoulder, he forced himself to his feet.  “Let’s go.”

Wen Kexing tensed, hands twitching, but didn’t say anything as Zhou Zishu took several experimental steps.  His muscles ached as though he’d just completed a long mission, while his joints creaked like an old man’s, but the dizziness that had overcome him last time didn’t return.  Though his body felt heavy and clumsy, it obeyed his commands.

He took a step towards the door, then looked back over his shoulder.  “Well?  Are you coming?”

Wen Kexing leapt to his feet.  “Of course!”

Zhou Zishu gritted his teeth as they walked down the corridors at a snail’s pace – a month ago, he could have been outside in a tenth of the time it was taking him to walk from one turn to the next.  But he kept placing one foot in front of the other and did his best to breathe slowly and evenly.  Now that he was moving, the strangeness in his body was melting into something closer to the weakness of a long convalescence, something he knew all too well.

It was a feeling that had never failed to drive him half-mad with frustration in the past.  But he refused to snarl at his Lao Wen, so he swallowed down the growl building in his throat and focused on his feet.

If only he knew this would fade like it had all the other times…

The thought niggled at him like a stone in his shoe until Wen Kexing pushed open the door to reveal a sun-washed meadow and the beginnings of a large wooden structure in its center.

It wasn’t much, yet – just bare earth and the start of a frame.  But it was there.  It was real.

Siji Pavilion was returning.

Zhou Zishu’s eyes stung.  He took one step into the warm sunlight and stopped dead, staring at the construction.  Staring at Han Ying, marshaling the junior members of Tian Chuang, and Chengling, industriously debating a sketch with Gao Xiaolian.  And Shen Shen, supervising some of his juniors as they dug… was that going to be a well?

Half the group spun to face them as they emerged, but Wen Kexing waved them back to their labors with a fierce enough glare that no one protested.  Zhou Zishu did his best not to let the welling tears slip free.  “You… did this?” he managed, voice choked.

“How could I do less for my zhiji?”  Wen Kexing snapped open his fan, waving it as though he didn’t have a care in the world.  But he kept it between his face and the people working on the structure, Zhou Zishu noted, and there was a faint shimmer in his eyes.

Zhou Zishu had to sit down.  He swayed back against the door, knees wobbling, and took a deep breath.  “Ah, Lao Wen.”  His sect was truly coming back to life. 

“You like it?”

There was an unusual hint of uncertainty in Wen Kexing’s voice, one that had Zhou Zishu reaching out before he consciously decided to move.  “Yes,” he said firmly.  He caught Wen Kexing’s hand and brought it to his lips, pressing a kiss to the palm.  “Yes,” he repeated, voice shaking. 

He’d never dreamed of seeing this.  Never let himself dream.  To see Siji Pavilion rise again, with the best shidis he could ask for…

Shidis he would not fail, this time.  He looked at his Lao Wen, who beamed back as though he’d never experienced a single moment of worry.  “They’re mine, too, you know,” he informed Zhou Zishu lightly.  “And I don’t let anyone touch what’s mine.”

“Ah, Lao Wen…”  Zhou Zishu shook his head.  He was older now, and hopefully wiser, and he’d found the perfect soulmate to ensure his disciples would never, ever die the way his shidis had after he brought them to Tian Chuang.  Chengling, Han Ying, all the other youngsters from the Window of Heaven… they would train, and grow stronger, and the name of Siji Pavilion would ride the winds once more.

Shifu… I hope you can see this.  I hope you’re happy.  He could never fully atone for his unconscionable mistakes as a young, foolish sect leader, but he had a second chance.  And a soulmate to share the burden.

“Lao Wen.”  He squeezed his zhiji’s hand.

“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing countered.

“Lao Wen.”  Zhou Zishu found himself smiling.  That moment in the wine shop felt so very far away, with so much heartbreak and pain between then and now, yet here they were.  Nail-free, together, and with a family around them.

“A-Xu.”  Wen Kexing must have been remembering the same moment, for he drew closer.  Heat and something softer burned in his eyes.  “I love you,” he murmured, pressing their foreheads together.  “I will always love you.”

“What, still no poetry?” Zhou Zishu teased.

Wen Kexing shook his head, face sober.  “I already told you.  I am no poet, and you deserve more than others’ words.”

Zhou Zishu’s throat tightened.  It was such a simple thing to say – it shouldn’t make his throat close up.  But it did.  His Lao Wen, no masks or shields…  “I love you too.”

Wen Kexing kissed him at that, hard and fierce.  Zhou Zishu licked into his mouth and reveled at the taste – he could taste again, smell again, feel again!  Wen Kexing’s lips were rough against his, bitten ragged by nerves; he tasted like wine and salt and something sweet.  His hair, as it cascaded around them, was a silken waterfall.

Zhou Zishu ran his fingertips over the embroidery on Wen Kexing’s robes, feeling each strand of thread over the hard muscle of his soulmate’s shoulders.  He hadn’t been able to detect such subtle textures in nearly a year.  And the solidity of his Lao Wen, rock-solid and diamond-edged in his arms… ah, it was more than he ever deserved, and he was never letting it go.

He bit Wen Kexing’s lower lip, feeling blood surge south as his soulmate moaned.  They were in public, in full view of his disciples, yet he couldn’t bring himself to care right now.  He’d never truly thought he’d get to have this again – his disciples could forgive him the shameful impropriety.

A scandalized voice from behind them finally broke them apart.  “Ge!” A-Xiang exclaimed.  “You have a room, you know!”

Wen Kexing, half in Zhou Zishu’s lap – how did they end up on the ground? – looked up at her with a lazy expression.  “I can still beat your ass if you mouth off,” he informed her without any bite.  “Respect your elders.”

She rolled her eyes.  Zhou Zishu extracted himself from beneath his soulmate, flushing – it was far easier to say he didn’t care when he couldn’t think past the heat in his blood, he realized.  Now that they weren’t actively kissing… he gave A-Xiang a look that dared her to comment.

She looked him up and down, scowled, and threw herself into his arms.  “Zishu-ge!”

Zhou Zishu staggered back against the mountainside, hissing as his body protested.  A-Xiang was a slender girl, but she was solid muscle, and she’d hit him with enough force to drive the breath from his lungs.  He gasped for air and did his best to hug her back, unsure what exactly to do with his arms – hugs were not something he was accustomed to.

“Zishu-ge,” she repeated, sniffing.  Her arms tightened around his waist.  “You’re finally awake!”

Zhou Zishu patted her back.  “Did you doubt it?”

She twisted to glare up at him without letting go.  “You’re not allowed to do that ever again.”

“Don’t worry, he won’t.”  Wen Kexing gave him a stern look, only half faked. 

Zhou Zishu scowled at them both, but, before he could say anything, A-Xiang gave him one last squeeze.  As he wheezed, she broke away and propped her hands on her hips.  “He’d better not.”  She hesitated, cheeks pinking.  “Does this mean we can finally do it?”

Zhou Zishu, confused, raised an eyebrow as Wen Kexing scoffed.  “Selfish brat!”  He cuffed her hard enough to make her wince and glare.  “He’s been up for less than an hour, and you’re already pestering him?”

She stuck her chin out mulishly.  “You said we could get married once he was awake for us to bow to,” she told Wen Kexing.

“What, are you so impatient to leave me?”  Wen Kexing laid a hand over his heart, pulling a sorrowful face.  “You’ll have me thinking you don’t love me anymore.”

A-Xiang shuffled her feet.  “It’s not that!” she protested.  “It’s just…”  She flushed bright red and clamped her mouth shut.

“Ah, so it’s the wedding night you’re impatient for?”

A-Xiang looked like she wanted to melt into the ground.  “Ge!”

“Is Weining that appealing a specimen?” Wen Kexing persisted, eyes gleaming with mischief.  “You just can’t keep your hands off him?”

A-Xiang spun around, burying her face in her hands.  “Ge,” she wailed into her palms.  “Stop it!”

Wen Kexing ruffled her hair.  “You are far too young for such salacious thoughts, you know.”

A-Xiang hunched her shoulders.  “I’m not thinking anything like that,” she muttered, still muffled by her hands.

“Ah, it’s alright if you are.  You’re almost a married woman, after all!”  He heaved a theatrical sigh.  “My little A-Xiang, all grown up.”

His voice was light, playful, but Zhou Zishu caught a sad undertone.  He reached for his soulmate’s hand.

Wen Kexing shot him a grateful look before turning his attention back to A-Xiang.  “You can be patient for a bit longer,” he scolded her.  “Let your Zishu-ge recover, won’t you?”

She muttered something that might have been an apology.  Zhou Zishu laughed.  “Ah, Lao Wen, it’s alright.  Let’s hold a wedding.”  If he was going to celebrate being alive, what better way was there?

Well, other than getting married himself…

He shook his head, biting back a smile.  Maybe not yet.  But it was a thought to remember, nonetheless.  If he could make it through a year like this…

Wen Kexing chuckled.  “If my A-Xu wants it, then how can I say no?”  He tugged A-Xiang’s hands away from her face.  “Go get dressed, my lovely bride.  It seems you’ll have your wedding today after all.”

A-Xiang’s red face lit up.  “Thank you, ge!”  She threw her arms around Wen Kexing, then released him to hug Zhou Zishu once more.

“She’s a good girl,” Wen Kexing mused as she ran back into the mountain.  “Ah, A-Xu…”

“She won’t go far,” Zhou Zishu told him.  Technically, she couldn’t, though he was sure he and Wen Kexing could find a way to sneak her and Cao Weining past Ye Baiyi’s restrictions if they had to.  But he saw the way she looked at Wen Kexing – she didn’t look like a girl eager to flee beyond her brother’s reach.

“Ah.  Well.”  Wen Kexing flipped open his fan.  “Come, A-Xu, we have a wedding to set up!”  He took Zhou Zishu’s hand and reached for the door handle.

Zhou Zishu gave him a flat look.  “Luo Fumeng will geld you if you mess it up again, and I prefer you whole,” he informed his soulmate.

Wen Kexing pouted at him.  “You make me sound like some kind of monster, A-Xu!  I’ll have you know, I am perfectly capable of putting up decorations and setting out gifts.”

“Let Luo Fumeng handle it,” Zhou Zishu advised.  Though his bones ached, he pulled his zhiji away from the door and started down the hill.  “Why don’t you show me how things are going out here?”

Wen Kexing’s pout didn’t lessen, but he followed Zhou Zishu towards the structure growing in the meadow.  The former Tian Chuang men, taking that as permission, dropped their tools to cluster around the pair.

Zhou Zishu nodded to them all, back stiff.  Old instincts flared – he couldn’t limp, couldn’t show a hint of pain or emotion in front of these men, these assassins-in-training.  He had to be stone.  Ice.

Han Ying eased out of the crowd to bow low.  “My lord.  You’re looking well.”

Zhou Zishu felt the corners of his lips twitch, and abandoned his attempt to look untouchable.  “No need to lie, Han Ying.  I’m sure I look like a boulder ran over me.”

Han Ying hesitated, laughter pulling at his mouth before he gave in and chuckled.  “You’re up and about, sir.  That’s more than enough.”  Hero worship, trust and something more, shone in his eyes.

Zhou Zishu shook his head.  “Back to work, all of you.”

“Yes, my lord!” the men chorused.  Zhou Zishu sighed.  He’d have to tell them not to use that honorific – it held too many shades of Tian Chuang.

Han Ying lingered as the others dispersed.  “Shall I show you what we’ve planned, sir?”

When Zhou Zishu nodded, he launched into a tour, pointing out all the different things they planned to build.  Zhou Zishu did his best to listen through the growing weight of his bones and an ache that felt like hot lead dripping through his tendons, but it grew harder and harder to focus as the minutes ticked on.

Gods, he hated this weakness.  Hated the way Wen Kexing and Han Ying kept slanting glances at him, assessing his remaining strength – it made him bite his tongue and stiffen his shoulders, teeth gritted against the pain.  He did not need nursemaids.

He did, however, need to sit down, or he was going to fall down.  And that would be even more humiliating.

Before he could say so, though, Wen Kexing heaved a melodramatic sigh.  Fluttering his fan in front of his face, he declared, “Well, this is all spectacular, but I just remembered something crucial.”  He winked at Han Ying.  “After all, it’s rude to show up to a wedding covered in sweat, wouldn’t you say?  And I haven’t been able to take a bath with my soulmate in weeks.  I’ve been so very lonely.”  He winked at Han Ying, whose ears went pink, then wrapped an arm around Zhou Zishu’s waist.

Zhou Zishu leaned into that arm, unable to keep himself from scrutinizing Han Ying’s face.  But the younger man showed nothing but a mix of faith and concern, with more than a trace of embarrassment.  “Of course, shishu.”

“Why don’t you all call it a day and get cleaned up as well?” Wen Kexing suggested.  “I’m sure my A-Xiang would appreciate it.”

Han Ying looked at Zhou Zishu for confirmation, which made something deep inside him warm.  “Obey your shishu,” he told Han Ying.

Han Ying bowed.  “Yes, my lord!”  He caught Zhou Zishu’s tiny flinch.  “Shifu,” he corrected.

That spot inside Zhou Zishu warmed further.  He nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and Han Ying bowed once more before trotting off.

“Come, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing whispered in his ear.  “I wasn’t lying about being lonely these last few weeks.”  He slid a hand down Zhou Zishu’s back to squeeze his butt.

Zhou Zishu swatted at him.  “Shameless.  Can’t you wait until we’re alone?”

“And miss seeing you make such gorgeous faces?”  Wen Kexing sighed like a swooning maiden.  “Would my A-Xu deny me such a simple pleasure?”

Zhou Zishu gave him a cold stare.  “Behave, or I’ll deny you more than that.”

Wen Kexing shivered visibly.  Zhou Zishu hid a smile – it was far too easy to rile up his Lao Wen.  “Well?”  He raised an eyebrow.  “Are you going to stand there, or are we going to find that bath you promised?”

Wen Kexing’s eyes darkened.  Zhou Zishu couldn’t keep all traces of his smirk from his face – he truly did love his soulmate.

They didn’t end up doing much in the bath, though – by the time they made it back to their rooms, Zhou Zishu’s body ached like he’d just been pulled off those damn meat hooks of Duan Pengju’s.

He said as much to Wen Kexing, whose hungry expression sharpened.  “Then I’m sure you’ll be glad to know he paid the price for that,” he purred, sliding Zhou Zishu’s outer robe off his shoulders.  “I heard he took a full two days to die, thanks to our Scorpion Sect friends.”

It was probably dishonorable to take pleasure in the man’s death – he had, after all, been a capable subordinate for many years.  But Zhou Zishu found his lips curving in a cruel smile.  “Good.”

Wen Kexing kissed the side of that smile.  “I thought you’d be pleased to hear it.”  He worked his hands into Zhou Zishu’s robes to run over the planes of his stomach.  “And the army dispersed, so…”  His teeth caught Zhou Zishu’s earlobe.  “Everything…”  He nipped Zhou Zishu’s neck.  “…is perfect.”

Zhou Zishu sank back against his soulmate and let Wen Kexing finish undressing him.  He could feel Wen Kexing’s hardening cock pressed against his back, but he couldn’t find the energy to do much about it.  His own cock made a valiant effort to get interested, only to sink back down as he slipped into the steaming water a ghost had brought while they undressed.

Wen Kexing kept up his stream of little kisses as he joined Zhou Zishu in the bath, but they held no urgency despite his obvious erection.  Zhou Zishu squinted at him suspiciously – he didn’t need to be coddled – but Wen Kexing just beamed and offered to wash Zhou Zishu’s back.

With a sigh, Zhou Zishu shifted to let him.  Wen Kexing’s clever hands dug into his back muscles, releasing knots he hadn’t realized he had, and he found himself sighing once more.  Happily, this time, albeit with an edge of pain as a particularly nasty knot released.

Wen Kexing kissed his shoulder.  “My A-Xu.  So beautiful.” 

Zhou Zishu shifted, feeling cracked open.  Wen Kexing nipped him just hard enough to sting.  “You’re not allowed to argue with that,” he informed him loftily.

Zhou Zishu gave him a look over his shoulder.  He did not like feeling so naked, ribs pulled wide to expose soft, squishy organs – he wanted to pull away, pull up all the masks he’d spent so long constructing.  Yes, this was his zhiji, but that didn’t matter to his instincts, which were screaming at him loud enough to drown out the splashing of the bath water and Wen Kexing’s soft breathing.

But his Lao Wen was slowly peeling away his own masks, and Zhou Zishu couldn’t do less.  He forced himself to tip his head back onto Wen Kexing’s chest.

His soulmate kissed his temple.  “Beautiful,” he repeated.  “Oh, my gorgeous, wonderful A-Xu… I shall have to learn to write my own poetry, for no one who hasn’t seen you could do you justice.”

Zhou Zishu hummed in response, too tired to come up with words.  If A-Xiang hadn’t been expecting them, he might have taken a nap, but he couldn’t let himself rest quite yet.

Wen Kexing pouted at him when he hauled himself out of the tub, but followed suit.  They dressed in a relaxed quiet broken only by the shush of fabric and the whisper of Wen Kexing’s makeup brush painting careful red lines beneath his eyes; Zhou Zishu reclined against the bed and watched with appreciation.  He was still so tired, but now he was languid with it, the world taking on a faintly dreamy overtone.

He sunk deeper into a trance when Wen Kexing gently rearranged him so he could brush out Zhou Zishu’s long, black hair.  Each stroke was slow and gentle, tender as Wen Kexing almost never was, and it made his throat tighten.  He’d spent so much time on the edge of tears today… normally, he would have resented it, but right now?

He leaned back against his Lao Wen as Wen Kexing slid the jade hairpin into his hair.  “Perfect,” Wen Kexing told him.  “You are perfect.”

Zhou Zishu allowed himself to close his eyes for one long moment before reluctantly straightening.  He didn’t have his soulmate’s facility with words, and didn’t try.  Instead, he kissed Wen Kexing hard, open-mouthed and messy, then pressed their foreheads together.

This time, it was Wen Kexing who pulled away.  “As much as I’d like to stay here forever, I’d rather not get my throat slit by my A-Xiang,” he said lightly.  “And we do have duties to perform.”

Zhou Zishu squinted at him suspiciously.  “You’re not planning on testing Cao Weining, are you?”  It might have been tradition, but the poor boy had been through a lot already.

Then again, this was Wen Kexing and his A-Xiang.  Zhou Zishu wouldn’t put it past his soulmate to create some truly nasty challenges.

But Wen Kexing shook his head with a laugh.  “That, A-Xiang made it clear, is something I am not allowed to do if I like my nose unbroken.”

Zhou Zishu tried not to look relieved.  “Then…”

Wen Kexing took his hand.  “Don’t look so worried, A-Xu, I’m not going to let anything ruin this wedding!  Even me.”

With that promise hanging in the air, he led Zhou Zishu out into the main hall, where a number of ghosts had assembled.  Shen Shen and his disciples, as well as the former Tian Chuang men, had gathered as well, but no other members of the jianghu.  Not even Fan Huaikong, Zhou Zishu thought for a moment, until he spotted the Gentle Wind Sword Sect elder standing uncomfortably in a corner with Mo Weixu pressed to his side.

“The rest are no longer welcome here,” Wen Kexing explained with a bladed smile.  “They were… escorted out.”

Zhou Zishu wondered briefly how many of them would make it home, but he didn’t bother asking.  As long as Wen Kexing didn’t bring Ye Baiyi’s wrath down on their heads, he could enact whatever revenge he wanted.

All chatter ceased as Luo Fumeng, gorgeous in scarlet and white, swept onto the dais at the head of the room.  Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu hurried to take their seats beside her, while Fan Huaikong, face locked in tense lines, followed more slowly.

Luo Fumeng nodded to all three of them before raising her voice.  “Honored guests!  We of Mount Qingya are proud to have you all here to witness the first ever wedding performed in this valley.”  Her gaze, fierce as a hawk, raked over the group.  “If anyone has any objections, I suggest you keep your mouth shut if you wish to keep your tongue.”

No one moved.  Zhou Zishu wasn’t sure anyone was breathing.  Luo Fumeng smiled a feline, satisfied smile.  “Now. Cao Weining?”

Cao Weining, resplendent in his crimson wedding robes, padded forward.  His face shone with nervous exhilaration, while his hands were clasped behind his back – Zhou Zishu could see his knuckles had already turned white.  But all the tension melted away as Luo Fumeng gestured to the far end of the room.

Massive doors swung wide to reveal A-Xiang, looking very grown-up in her own wedding robes.  She paced forward with smooth grace to step over the lit stove in front of the doors, not flinching as the coals spat.  Weining’s eyes went doe-wide.

Wen Kexing, blinking hard, reached for Zhou Zishu’s hand as A-Xiang walked forward.  Zhou Zishu squeezed back.  I’m here, he told his soulmate silently.  Things may change, but I will never leave you.

They kept holding hands as A-Xiang and Weining made their three bows, then served steaming cups of tea – first to Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu, then to Fan Huaikong.  Luo Fumeng presided over it all with a proprietary air, but tears sparkled in her eyes as she passed the newlyweds the lucky red envelopes.  A-Xiang looked torn between laughing and crying, a plethora of emotions filling her face; Wen Kexing sniffed and tried to keep his smile from shaking.

Zhou Zishu tightened his grip on his soulmate’s hand.  I am here.  I will never leave you

As though he could hear the mental promise, Wen Kexing slanted a grateful smile at him as the ceremony concluded.  “Ah, A-Xu,” he murmured beneath the sounds of the guests cheering.  “Isn’t this…”  His lips twitched as he fell silent, unable to complete the sentence.

“Yes,” Zhou Zishu told him simply.  He leaned into his soulmate and watched as A-Xiang and Weining clutched each other’s hands.  So much love shone in their eyes; pride and joy filled the faces of the guests surrounding them.  Everyone was smiling, laughing, celebrating life, and he almost couldn’t believe he was here with them.  He’d grown so accustomed to his lack of future, the fact that he now had one hadn’t yet sunk in.

He pressed his shoulder harder against Wen Kexing.  “I love you,” he murmured.  And I am so very glad to be alive.

He had a future.  He had a sect, and his sect had a future!  It was enough to make him dizzy.  A sect, shidis, and the best soulmate a man could ask for…

It was worth it.  It was all worth it.  To keep this future, to see their family grow… as long as he had that, he could fight through anything.

Wen Kexing looked over at him, eyes wide and dark and brimming with emotions.  Zhou Zishu leaned in for a kiss.  “I love you,” he repeated against his soulmate’s lips.

His Lao Wen, heart in his eyes, kissed him back.  “I love you too.”

Chapter Text

One year later

“Han Ying!”  Zhou Zishu’s bark echoed through the training yard.  “If you keep going easy on A-Xiang because she’s a girl, I will have Luo-guniang put your ass into the dirt!  She’s not going to get better if you keep this up, and neither will you!”

The aforementioned Han Ying, halted mid-attack, bobbed his head.  “Yes, shifu!”  Embarrassment colored his cheeks, but his next attack on A-Xiang held more force.

Wen Kexing hid a smirk behind his fan.  “Good choice,” he called to the former Tian Chuang man.  “I wouldn’t want to face off against Luo-yi either.”

A-Xiang flicked her whip at Han Ying before he could respond.  He flipped backwards, flinging out a throwing knife as he went, and she cursed as she dodged.

Wen Kexing applauded slowly.  “Much better.”  His A-Xiang needed to be pushed, and Han Ying needed to stop underestimating women.  If the Tian Chuang disciples had one weakness, that was it – they’d trained in an all-male force, and most of them tended to forget that certain women would slit their throats without a qualm.  Luo-yi had been doing her best to teach them otherwise, but it was slow going.

Zhou Zishu heaved a sigh.  “Once,” he muttered, “I wouldn’t need other people to be the threat.”

Wen Kexing squeezed his hand.  “Ah, my lovely A-Xu, don’t fret so much!  They’re still terrified of you.”

Zhou Zishu laughed, shaking off his fey mood.  He still sunk into them from time to time, but he no longer spent days in frustrated, self-hating morasses like he had over the winter, which had terrified Wen Kexing.  Seeing his soulmate so visibly regret his decision had been… he had no words.  None of his memorized poems came close to capturing that horrible feeling.

Now, though?  He leaned into his A-Xu, reveling in the heat of his soulmate against him.  Zhou Zishu might not have most of his former martial arts skills, but he still had his native speed and decades of muscle memory.  Even without qi to fuel his blows, he could break a man’s neck, as he’d proven several months previously when the last remnants of the rebel ghosts had launched one last attack.

Wen Kexing was trying very hard to be less of a monster, but the memory of his A-Xu, hands bloody and face stone, set something alight inside him.  Zhou Zishu had spent much of the past year learning what he could do without more than a drop of qi, and he was inventively vicious with it.  It was no lie, what Wen Kexing had said – the Tian Chuang men respected him as much as ever.

As did the ghosts. 

Wen Kexing smirked as Wang Feiyan, dripping sweat from her own practice, padded over.  “My lords.”  She bowed low.  “If it would not be out of line…”  She hesitated until Zhou Zishu nodded for her to go on.  “If you do not wish to disturb Luo-guzhu…”  She inclined her head towards Han Ying, who now had A-Xiang on the defensive.

Zhou Zishu ran a considering eye over her.  “You’re that confident in your skills?”

She bowed.  “Yes, sir.”  Her tone was soft, but there was no yielding in it.

Zhou Zishu glanced at Wen Kexing, who fluttered his fan.  “They’re your students, shixiong!  I wouldn’t dare to interfere with your decisions in training.”

Zhou Zishu snorted, probably remembering all the times Wen Kexing had done just that.  Wen Kexing didn’t bother to look ashamed.  There were privileges to being the second disciple of the renewed Siji Pavilion, and he took full advantage of them.  Plus, of course, the terror that lingered from his reign as Valley Master…

Zhou Zishu nodded once.  “Han Ying!”

The man stilled his bout once more.  “Sir?”

Zhou Zishu’s smile was positively evil.  “You have a new opponent.  If you go easy on her, you’ll be eating dirt, so I hope you use your skills to the fullest.”

Han Ying’s eyes flickered to Wang Feiyan.  She wore the red and white robes of the Department of the Unfaithful, her fan folded demurely in her sleeve, but he had to know she was Luo Fumeng’s left hand.  Trained by Luo Fumeng herself, then by Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu over the last year with Luo-yi’s blessing – when she fought all out, she was a storm come to life.

Han Ying bowed.  “Of course, shifu.”

Wang Feiyan padded across the dirt training yard to face him, giving him a respectful bow only a shade less low than the one she’d given Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing.  Her fan slid into her hand.

Wen Kexing laughed low in his throat.  “You think he’ll remember what you told him?” he asked his soulmate.

Zhou Zishu, amusement hovering around the corners of his mouth, shook his head.  “Not the first time.  After the first fall or two… we’ll see.”

“He’s a good disciple.”  Oh-so-loyal Han Ying… oh, Wen Kexing had so many plans for the young man.  None ready to come to fruition quite yet, but there was no way he was going to let someone like that sit idle.

Not that any of them were idle right now, though.  The new Siji Pavilion was going up at a rapid rate, but only the main building was finished.  They still had to build more extensive disciple quarters – the disciples hadn’t complained about sleeping in one drafty hall, but it was no fit situation long-term – and improve the outbuildings.  Storage sheds, with stores laid in for hard winters; more training equipment; a place for Chengling and the others learning the Longyuan Pavilion techniques to practice without filling the entire building with noxious smells… the list went on and on.

Still, for a year’s work, it was impressive.  And, if most of the jianghu shied away from visiting a sect so closely allied with Mount Qingya, that was fine.  They were, in theory if not in practicality, independent.

Wen Kexing snorted at that.  Independence only meant so much when the second disciple of the sect was the former Valley Master and the current Valley Master was, for all intents and purposes, his aunt.  When the Siji Pavilion disciples regularly trained with the Ghost Valley fighters.  When their very sect perched on the side of Mount Qingya itself.

But he’d given over the reins to Luo-yi, which satisfied Ye Baiyi, and both Shen Shen and Fan Huaikong had made diplomatic overtures.  So it was fine.  He didn’t need the jianghu’s love.

“Han Ying!  Get back on your feet!”

Startled from his musings, Wen Kexing looked over to see that Wang Feiyan had indeed put the man into the dirt.  He didn’t seem injured, though a spectacular bruise was already rising on his cheekbone.  Wang Feiyan stood by with a demure expression utterly at odds with the competent way she balanced on the balls of her feet.  No smugness, just a gentle smile that any courtesan might have worn.

Wen Kexing had to laugh.  “She looks innocent until she strikes,” he called to Han Ying.  “Don’t let that fool you!”

Han Ying hauled himself up, dusting off his dark robes.  “Yes, shishu,” he said, shamefaced.  He settled into a ready stance, blade held in front of him at a defensive angle.

Wang Feiyan bowed, then launched into another attack.  Wen Kexing hid his face behind a fan.  Oh, yes, things were perfect.

His A-Xu nudged him with a shoulder.  “What are you thinking?”

“Oh, nothing much.”  He fluttered his fan.  “Just admiring the lovely day and our lovely disciples.  And, of course, wondering what plans my lovely soulmate might…”

A bang interrupted him before he could make his A-Xu blush.  Chengling and the trio of boys also learning the Longyuan Pavilion techniques stumbled over the rise of the hill, coughing.  “Sorry, shifu!” Chengling choked out.

“Foolish boy.  Didn’t I tell you not to get yourself killed?  Repeatedly?”

Chengling’s face was bright red.  “Sorry!” he repeated.

“It was my fault, shifu,” the youngest of the boys said.  He scuffed his foot in the dirt.  “I… I wanted to see what would happen if I combined powdered realgar with quicksilver.”

“Maybe we should prioritize that building next,” Wen Kexing murmured to Zhou Zishu from behind his fan.

“And have to rebuild it five times a year when they blow it up?” Zhou Zishu muttered back.  Raising his voice, he told the boy, “Now you know.  Will you do it again?”

The kid’s face lit up.  “If I can figure out how to control it, it’ll be useful for all sorts of things.  Like… like we could get rid of those stumps out back without having to dig them all out, or make the cellars much easier!”

Wen Kexing did not want to ruin his soulmate’s stern expression by laughing, but it was hard not to.  “That’s why you picked these boys to learn from our little Chengling,” he told Zhou Zishu.

His A-Xu heaved a sigh.  “Only when you’re far away from the compound,” he ordered.

The quartet bowed.  “Yes, shifu!” they chorused in unison, before trooping back the way they’d come.  Hopefully not to create more explosions, though Wen Kexing wouldn’t have put any money on it.  Between the frequent mishaps and Chengling’s growth spurt, they’d had to get the boy new robes twice in the past year, and he wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down.  Like A-Xiang, he was growing up.

It was a bittersweet realization.  “Ah, A-Xu…”  Wen Kexing leaned into his soulmate once more.  “Why does time have to pass so fast?”

Zhou Zishu arched an eyebrow.  “Would you rather freeze it in its tracks?”

“Perhaps.”  Wen Kexing fluttered his fan.  “Some moments deserve to be frozen, don’t you think?”

“Maybe.”  Zhou Zishu slipped an arm around his waist.  He’d been so shy of such displays at first, but he was slowly growing accustomed to them, and it made Wen Kexing’s heart warm every time his soulmate touched him in public.  They’d found each other, and fought for each other, and they were never, ever leaving each other – each touch reaffirmed that promise.

His A-Xu, watching as Wang Feiyan trounced Han Ying once more, sighed.  “But time doesn’t stop for us mere mortals, Lao Wen.  We are leaves drifting on its current, nothing more.”

Wen Kexing swatted him with a fan.  “When did you become a poet?  That’s my job, A-Xu!”

“I learned from the best,” Zhou Zishu said dryly.

“Ah, shixiong, you say the nicest things to your shidi.”  Wen Kexing batted his eyelashes, laughing as his A-Xu’s cheeks pinked.  Despite the way he could turn his face to ice in a blink, a single word was enough to fluster him sometimes, and Wen Kexing loved it.

But the blush faded as quickly as it had come.  “Do I?”  Zhou Zishu quirked his lips to the side.  “I seem to recall saying some not-so-nice things in these past months.”

Wen Kexing waved that away.  His A-Xu had already apologized for his outbursts during the worst of his recovery – cruel they might have been, but they’d been driven by fear, and Wen Kexing had known it.  “You’re mine.  No matter what you say, you won’t ever drive me away.”  He smoothed a finger over his soulmate’s jaw.  The bones were still stark against his skin, weight lost to the nails that he hadn’t yet regained, but he was healing with every day.

And, sometimes, when Wen Kexing touched him, he could feel echoes of himself inside his soulmate, wrapped around his A-Xu’s meridians.  It made the possessive, Valley Master shards of him purr.  “Mine,” he repeated.  If not for the disciples training just feet away, he might have pressed his A-Xu back against the building and kissed him senseless.  “Mine.”

Zhou Zishu took a deep breath.  “Yours,” he agreed.  A trace of something – was that nervousness?  Something odd, at any rate – flavored his tone.  “Did you know,” he asked, searching Wen Kexing’s face, “That it’s been a full year since I woke up?”

Woke up reborn, he didn’t say.  He didn’t have to.  Wen Kexing swallowed hard.  “Ah, I might have had an inkling,” he admitted, as though he hadn’t been counting every day he had with his soulmate.  Every wonderful, glorious day, even the ones where Zhou Zishu had raged and wept at his weakened body – even those days were gifts.

Zhou Zishu took another breath, chest rising and falling beneath his old, practical robes.  “One year,” he repeated.  That was definitely nervousness in his tone now, and Wen Kexing felt butterflies grow in his own stomach.  What was his A-Xu about to say?

Zhou Zishu took both of Wen Kexing’s hands.  “I… made myself a promise,” he said softly.  “The day I woke up.  One year.”

Wen Kexing tried to laugh.  “A-Xu, you’re not saying you’re leaving, are you?”  He tried to keep his tone light, but couldn’t quite keep all the traces of butterflies from his voice.

His A-Xu’s eyes widened.  “What?  No!”  He squeezed Wen Kexing’s hands tight enough that the bones creaked.  “No.  Lao Wen… I’m asking you to marry me.”

For a heart-stopping moment, the words were so much gibberish in Wen Kexing’s ears.  His mouth opened and shut like a beached fish, unable to find any of the words he was normally so glib with.  “Marriage?” he squeaked at last.

Zhou Zishu lifted a brow.  “Didn’t I just say that?”

Wen Kexing took a steadying breath.  Marriage.  Of all the things he never could have dreamed of…

His A-Xu was watching him, eyes dark.  His face slowly sinking into frozen lines, he bit his lower lip.  “Will you?” he asked softly.  “If you don’t want to…”

Wen Kexing cut that foolishness off with a hard kiss.  “Yes, you idiot man!  Of course I will!” he exclaimed once they had to come up for air.  “What do you think ‘mine’ means?”  That his A-Xu could have thought, even for a second, that Wen Kexing would refuse him…

He kissed his A-Xu again, ignoring the way the disciples were politely looking in any other direction.  Let them stare if they wanted – his A-Xu was his, and now the whole world would know it.

Not that they didn’t already, he thought ruefully, biting Zhou Zishu’s lower lip.  It was, at this point, rather obvious.

Zhou Zishu pulled back at last, cheeks flushed.  “What are you all doing?” he barked at the disciples.  “Get back to training unless you want to run laps up and down the mountain!”

“Yes, shifu!” the group chorused, hastily returning to their drills.

Wen Kexing couldn’t hold back his delighted laughter.  “Why, A-Xu, don’t you want to tell them the good news?”

“Fine,” Zhou Zishu grumbled.  He clapped his hands twice, and the drills stilled, everyone looking over far too quickly if they wanted to pretend they hadn’t been listening.  “Everyone, listen up.  We’re getting married.”  He paused to let that sink in, then scowled at all of them.  “Now get back to work!”

“Congratulations, ge!” A-Xiang yelled cheekily from the side of the field.

“Congratulations, shifu!” Han Ying added, bowing low at Zhou Zishu’s deepened scowl.

Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes.  “Laps, all of you!”

With groans, they sheathed weapons and obeyed.  Wen Kexing suspected the gossip would start up as soon as the group was out of sight over the hill – if anyone actually worked up a sweat on this run, he’d be surprised.  “So cruel, my zhiji,” he lamented.  “Won’t you let them share in our happiness?”

“They can celebrate later,” Zhou Zishu muttered, face even redder than before.  “Right now, it’s time to train.”

Wen Kexing looped an arm around his waist.  “Ah, A-Xu, we will have a celebration fit for the ages.”  He slid a glance at his soulmate.  “And I expect proper bridal gifts, I hope you understand.”

“Shameless,” Zhou Zishu muttered.  But he kissed Wen Kexing anyway, hard and hungry, and that was all Wen Kexing ever wanted.

***

From the blasted-out area over the ridge, Chengling grinned.  About time, he told his shifu silently.  He’s only been calling himself your wife for a year.  He did his best to ignore what his shifu and shishu got up to, but some things were impossible to miss, and their love was one.

An elbow nudged his side, and he jumped, spinning to see A-Xiang with her hands on her hips.  “Pay up,” she demanded.

Chengling, still grinning, obeyed.  “You were right, and I admit it.”

She stuck her nose in the air.  “I always am.”  Her expression turned conspiratorial.  “Want to bet on how long it takes them before Luo-yi forbids either to have anything to do with the planning?”

Chengling held up his hands.  “Not taking that one!”

She rolled her eyes, but didn’t seem unhappy.  “I’m going to go tell her.  You can bet my master won’t remember to do so till far too late.”

Chengling had to agree with that assessment.  As she trotted off, he crouched back down over his work, everything inside him warm and bubbly.  His shifu was happy, his family was happy… everything was, as his shishu liked to say, perfect.