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carve the boat in search of a sword

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He does not expect to see Wen Kexing again this night. That is likely exactly why he does; the man’s very existence serves as constant contradiction, always doing that which he should not. But then he has been doing this from the very beginning of their extraordinary acquaintance.

He has not even had shame enough to go out and come back, robes dry of the rain pounding still against street and roof and river. Zhou Zishu grinds his teeth together, hands fisting at his sides. Though he takes a lungful of air he’s still half-breathless when he speaks.

“Wen Kexing. The cannon’s already behind the horse, and I’ve made up my mind. I will not give up my martial ability for ten years as a drooling idiot.”

The answering silence of the man sits so very odd between them. All they have instead is the patter of the rain outside, relentless as hands over wardrum. And below them moves still the darkened river water, lantern light drowned deep in uneasy depths.

When Wen Kexing steps forward, he does so both sudden and sure. The purple robes move with him like the wings of some great bird of prey – but while he’s keen and sharp-sighted, he’s feathered in the iridescent plumage of a kingfisher. It’s a clever illusion, and one Zhou Zishu has still not managed to plumb the true purpose of.

 But when Wen Kexing tilts his chin upward now, that odd vulnerability of his follows without shame. Zhou Zishu has never quite sure of his age, but there’s something terribly young and defiant in the motion that turns in his stomach like sour wine.

“We’ve never even played xiangqi,” he says, and his voice is so light Zhou Zishu must strain to hear it over the storm outside, “So how could I trap your general between my horse and my cannon if you’ve never even let me on the board?”

“You didn’t do anything, Wen Kexing.” It should have been spoken hard and sure, the words of a master to a fool disciple. They’re only tired instead. “And there’s nothing you can do now, either.”

“So you say.”

He closes his eyes, but only for a moment; there’s no point in being aggrieved with the behaviour of one so thick-faced as Wen Kexing. “I suppose it’s too much to expect an apology?” he asks all the same. “Because at the very least, I’m not having this argument again. You can get out, if that’s what you want.”

For a moment his lips part, and there’s a flash of those mildly crooked teeth, white and sharp. But there’s no sound – instead there comes a swallow, then a tightened jaw. Only then does he speak.

“I won’t go.”

Zhou Zishu blinks. It does nothing to quell the fury rising in his chest. But it comes ever closer to midnight, and his meridians are beginning to ache from the rising flow of qi that they can no longer contain. He has not the time for this. “Wen Kexing—”

“If you’re going to leave me, the least you could do is fuck me first.”

Even with the amount of rubbish that’s come out of the man’s mouth before now, Zhou Zishu is surprised to find that he still has the ability to be surprised by Wen Kexing’s demand. It’s on the tip of his tongue to laugh, to scorn, to shove him backward and out the door and into that driving storm.

But he does not. And there is no smile on Wen Kexing’s face in turn. It is instead dreadfully still, an actor’s painted mask, eyes darker even than the rain-riddled sky.

Zhou Zishu keeps his own silence in turn. The ache of his meridians is a constant hum beneath his skin and flesh instead, withered and cracking under the pressure of nails he’d driven there himself. It seems appropriate; they are after all the mechanism of the death that will separate them before the passing of another two years.

But they could have those two years yet. He’d meant it, when he’d said but an hour ago that he wanted nothing more than to spend said two years with Wen Kexing, drinking wine and wandering as far away as they might find themselves together.

It’s a mistake. He knows it’s a mistake. Wen Kexing has been a shameless flirt since their very first meeting, and Zhou Zishu has never taken it seriously. But then Wen Kexing makes it difficult to take anything he says with any gravity; at least half of what comes out of his mouth might as well be dog farts. But he feels now that they are as the army of the legendary Xiang Lu, as if they have both been told to take to the front, to discard their supplies and burn their boats and go only forward to a battle they now have no choice but to win.

With gentle care Zhou Zishu rests one hand upon his cheek. The skin there burns cold against his own, startlingly so. His brow furrows, lips not quite parting on a question. In answer Wen Kexing remains still, eyes ever watchful. But there is a tremor to his lower lip, faint but unmistakable.

Delicate as a butterfly’s dance, Zhou Zishu moves his thumb over the full curve of it, marvels in its fullness, in how it reddens in the middle. Resting the pad there, he presses faintly downward, the faintest warmth of his breath barely felt. It is as if he communes with the dead – as if Wen Kexing, just to be the contrary bastard he always must be, has gone ahead and been the first to die, and now stands before him a wronged and ravenous ghost waiting to avenge misery and loss.

“A-Xu,” he says, sudden, broken – and without thought Wen Kexing leans in at last and presses their lips together.

Zhou Zishu has never been much for the physical acts of intimacy. Like anything else, they have their uses, and he has indulged when both opportunity and need have arisen. But there’s something different to this, something: harder. Fiercer. And not just because Wen Kexing makes a sudden aching noise, oddly like the shrieking cry of a magpie. Startled, Zhou Zishu rears back, staring into the eyes of a man who is both soulmate and stranger.

“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says, again, and that is the last thing he says. The storm only picks up outside the opened window as Wen Kexing carefully, gently, pushes Zhou Zishu back towards the bed.

At first he sits there alone, unmoving; it is Wen Kexing who instead begins this. Dark eyes never leave his own as he reaches down to remove first one boot, and then the other. He then hitches up his outer robes enough to get his hands to his waist; beneath the heavy silks Zhou Zishu can just make out the movement there of undoing ties and laces. The skirt and trousers are pushed down over what are undoubtedly slim lean hips before he steps free, kicking them carelessly aside. But he makes no move towards sashes or belt. He only lets his outer robes fall again, and steps forward.

On one knee before Zhou Zishu, Wen Kexing takes his right foot before tugging his boot free as if he is a servant. It seems an impossible thing for all it is happening before his eyes. Zhou Zishu cannot imagine Wen Kexing as a servant, and yet he plays this silent role well save for one thing – he never looks away. No servant could be so bold, eyes so dark and fixed upon their master.

But then, from their very first meeting, Zhou Zishu has always felt that gaze upon him, fascinated and occasionally forlorn. Whatever is between then now, Wen Kexing had known of its existence from the moment they’d met. Zhou Zishu doesn’t know if one would count that as luck, or as a curse the man has had to bear alone.

Sure hands move now up his thighs; clever fingers shift to undo his belts. Zhou Zishu does not remain passive, shrugging away the heavy outer robes before Wen Kexing sets them aside with far more grace than he had his own clothing. Still, Zhou Zishu cannot quite calm a curling unease as those fingers move to the collars of his underrobes. Already he has been so exposed tonight, and yet some part of him fears it happening again.

Those long fingers are gentle this time – and he only spreads him open, does not strip him entire. It leaves Zhou Zishu absurdly grateful, for all that they will presumably do together this night.

Callused fingertips first ghost light over the curve of his collarbone. They then shift upwards, to the meridian high on the left where one nail lies just beneath the skin. Yet, he does not touch. His eyes, instead, are the only pressure upon the embedded iron. And he sighs, eyes hooded and  dark as they rise again to his own.

Before Zhou Zishu can even form a coherent thought – let alone words to match – Wen Kexing’s hand shifts with that lightning-quick grace of his, moves to just below the level of his pectorals. The fingers there are barely any pressure at all, and yet Zhou Zishu follows their trajectory to lay himself down upon his back upon the bed.

Wen Kexing comes to straddle him, the weight of him barely noticeable. That should be hardly strange; for all his convoluted origins, his qinggong is an extraordinary thing. Wen Kexing himself is an extraordinary thing. With such a strange creature hovering above him, a lesser man might be afraid.

But to a lesser man, such a creature could never be his soulmate.

Those clever hands remain as restless as their mercurial master, moving now to Zhou Zishu’s hips, still clothed by his trousers. Thumbs echo the curve of his at the iliac crest, fingers light where they curl. His silence is striking, considering he at last has his hands on the slim and lovely waist he has so often pontificated upon.

Instead of words, he speaks now with a different kind of rhythm: a slow shift of his own hips, sliding forward over pubic bone and thigh. Already Zhou Zishu can feel a growing hardness between the other man’s legs. His own has in turn begun to stir only now. It has been a long time, and the slow pulse of Wen Kexing’s movement is an awakening from a sleep he does not even clearly remember having fallen into. But then, Zhou Zishu has never had a head for music.

He recalls, now, that first night Wen Kexing had played for him. The way his qi, bright and silver and sharp, had shifted through the xiao and wrapped around his own to give calm and relief he had not asked for. But even as Zhou Zishu draws a trembling breath inward, Wen Kexing sighs, and stops. A frown touches his own lips, but Wen Kexing moves again, shifting back along his legs. He’s opening his mouth to ask what he is doing when the fingers move to his trousers, abruptly yanking them down to bare his cock.

A gasp escapes – and then a groan to match, for Wen Kexing has lowered his head and taken him into his mouth: that clever, playful mouth, that mouth seems never to stop spouting an endless stream of nonsense and nothingness. It’s something different now, as he shifts and swallows him very nearly whole, taking him down almost to the root.

Zhou Zishu cannot help the way his hips thrust upward, closing what little space remains between them; it’s the movement of an unseasoned boy, one who’s never had his cock in anything but his own grasping fist. But Wen Kexing takes him deeper still, uncaring of the fat head now pushing up the back of his throat. He does not cough, does not gag; he only hollows his cheeks, tongue pressed up to the bottom of his shaft in cradling tease.

His hands, at least, Zhou Zishu has the sense to fist in the sheet. Still he wants nothing more than to raise them, to yank the jade hairpin loose and tangle fingers in that long dark hair, to hold him close and fuck him hard.

But he does not. He will have some grace in this. And Wen Kexing rises, lips in obscene pout, cock limned in shining spit as he works his way upward. But he does not break away. Instead he keeps his lips about the head, moves his head in lazy circle even as his tongue explores the tip from within the heat of his own mouth. And of course his eyes remain ever on Zhou Zishu’s own; he is suckling, thoughtful, fixated.

A shiver shifts through him like the first touch of winter frost. Zhou Zishu has been the focus of Wen Kexing’s strange attentions for weeks now, and yet this is the first time he has felt – not afraid. But – uncertain. Unknowing of where this might lead, or how it might end. It occurs to him that for all Wen Kexing’s tantrums, perhaps even death might not end this between them.

Wen Kexing presses down again, taking him deep before rising once more. His dark head moves in bobbing motion as Zhou Zishu now closes his eyes, chest rising as he tilts his head back. He can’t seem to catch a full breath. It has been such a long time since this was last done for him, and never with such skill. Such care. It had usually a hurried thing, just to get off and get done. A task. Wen Kexing takes this as instead a gift.

But here, and now, he can let himself drift on the hazy wave of pleasure, pulsing like a tide against the shore. These are the hours at which the circulating qi through withering meridians is an agony which he cannot ignore. But what Wen Kexing gives him now is its opposite. One does not cancel the other – instead they exist in perfect tandem, the balance of it purest pleasure and pain blurred irrevocably together.

At last Wen Kexing rises completely and away, night air cool upon the slick length of his cock. Zhou Zishu opens his eyes, gazes upon Wen Kexing with lazy desire. Long fingers, slick with oil, now curl around his shaft; they move as knowing here as they are over his xiao, as if he will coax from him some great unknown melody. Some vague part of Zhou Zishu is surprised he has lasted this long; he ought to have gone off long ago, it’s been so long since he has been touched by another. Perhaps it is the nails that hold him back, their agonised vibration sharp through the bleeding channels where the qi runs riot with the night.

But: in Wen Kexing’s hand, there is pleasure, too. Zhou Zishu notices for the first time that while one hand works his shaft, the other is unseen behind him. A faint frown opens upon the beginnings of words, but Wen Kexing rises before he can speak, shifting his own body over Zhou Zishu’s hips. His lips are still half-opened when he feels the head of his cock press to something warm and slick and strong.

While he’s brought off more than one man, had the same done for him in turn, this is not something he’s done before. It is different than the heat of a woman, something he’s known always to be welcoming and warm. Instead there’s a press, a hint of resistance, the spasm of muscle like an unyielding gateway. And then Wen Kexing sighs, and he opens, and he draws him deep even as he slides downward in slick slow slide until he rests in the cradle of his hips. Beneath him Zhou Zishu cannot move. He can only stare, eyes wide and mouth open on unspoken cry to heaven. In turn there’s a strange soft smile on Wen Kexing’s lips as he begins to move.

Out on the street, in that battle between him and Ye Baiyi, he’d been fierce and bold: a tiger unleashed, a wolf hungry and careless in snarling desperate fight. Zhou Zishu does not think himself a fool for having expected the same thing from him here and now, in this bed. Whatever else Wen Kexing is, he is a bright and burning maelstrom of emotion; he cannot contain himself. Zhou Zishu often thinks he does not want to contain himself.

And yet: here, he is perfect grace and grave control. He moves slow and silent and serene, riding Zhou Zishu like full-sailed ship over ocean wave. His eyes have gone distant, head tilted as if listening to the song of a distant musician. Dressed in purple with a slash of red about his throat, he has not even opened his collars nor his belts even as he takes Zhou Zishu into his body and holds him tightly there.

The heat of him, the strength of him: they’re as infuriating and intoxicating as the man himself. Zhou Zishu wants suddenly to do nothing more than to surge up, to take that perfect lovely face between his own hands and kiss him deeply, to draw him back to himself. There’s an odd distance between them now, for all they are joined together. He does not like it. He does not want it. He wants

He is about to move when Wen Kexing stops. As he looks down, Zhou Zishu can only look up. It reminds him, oddly, of when they had gone to the depths of the river after their idiot fight. When they had been suspended there for a moment in time. Without words they had understood. They had risen as one, breaking the surface together.

The smile upon Wen Kexing’s face now is a broken bleeding blade, unsheathed and bright and impossible. “A-Xu,” he whispers – and then, he moves. The rise of him comes fierce as a racing heartbeat, heat tight as a crucible about him as he comes down, then starts it all over again. Zhou Zishu can do nothing, body rocking in abrupt spasm. It’s but moments before he comes hard, even as Wen Kexing’s entire body goes stiff in his own release. He expects a shout, perhaps even a shriek. And yet there is only silence, Wen Kexing still as a bronze statue upon him, braced back on shaking arms with hips thrust forward and head thrown back.

Wracked with shivers, Zhou Zishu cannot parse the border between pleasure and pain; his qi is fire beneath his skin, his meridians burning gateways where it pools and flares and never ever turns to ash. He cannot look anywhere else but to Wen Kexing. As he rises, his outer robes fluttering down around him once more, he has the odd realisation that he has still not seen his cock.

Wen Kexing does not go far. After a moment he pads back across the room, a warmed cloth in his hands. In silence he passes it over Zhou Zishu’s thighs and stomach. Only when cleaned and dried does he adjust his trousers, his underrobe, as soft and solicitous as a doting wife. And he says not a word. He does not even meet his gaze as he goes about his work. And Zhou Zishu cannot stand it.

“If I’d known that all it would take to shut you up was sex, I’d have done it right from the beginning.”

Those hands still. He has spoken wrongly yet again, and he wonders if it will always be this way between them. If his history will condemn them when this is all they have left of a too-short future.

Wen Kexing resumes his tidying, long-fingered hands careless in such a way that speaks of absolute care. “If I’d known how little time we have, I’d have let you.”

In the silence that follows again, Zhou Zishu takes a swallow. “You’d have let me anyway.”

A snort is his only answer, but it somehow feels close to a laugh. It’s enough, even though Wen Kexing does not look at him now. Instead he moves to lie on his back at his side, staring at the ceiling. The rain outside has slowed but not stopped; Wen Kexing is by contrast silent and still, is usually expressive face unreadable. Its profile points to the heavens, the lean muscles of chest and belly moving with long slow breath. They are so close, and yet so distant, and his heart aches. He has done much wrong in his life. This is something he yearns so desperately to be right.

“Lao Wen—”

“We should sleep.”

Zhou Zishu blinks. Wen Kexing ending a conversation is not something he had thought to live to see. But finds now he had not wished to. It is a miracle he could have done without. He suspects they both could have done without it.

Turning his own eyes to the ceiling, he lets his frustration roil through him the same way his disordered qi does. Words have never been his forte. He’s been always a creature of the shadows, gathering and sorting information before ultimately turning it over to another to use. Even in this short time he has gathered much information about Wen Kexing. He still has no idea what to do with it.

Zhou Zishu wakes suddenly, without even having been aware of falling asleep. Turning, he discovers that the bed lies empty save for himself. A strange chill shivers through him, though even with the window still open and dawn barely broken, the temperature has not actually dipped that low.

He rises alone, moves near-silent in underrobes as he finds the water, the teapot. At the table he only stares into his cup, and does not drink. He has no idea how much time passes. And it should be impossible, but he does not hear him until he speaks.


Zhou Zishu looks up, frowns. Wen Kexing stands before him drenched now in rain, resembling nothing so much as a chicken fallen into soup. He looks back down to the teapot, shaking his head. Deep in his gut, relief and unease come together in hot tight twist.

“You’re an idiot.”

“I always have been.” He takes his place at the low table without shame, dripping on the floor; already one elbow is on the table as the hand cups his chin. The faint memory of a smile plays somewhere about his lips, eyes bright and black and bold.

Zhou Zishu shakes his head, looking down again to his cup. “If you’re not going to get out of those wet clothes, at least have some tea.”

“If you want me out of my clothes, A-Xu, you don’t have to offer me tea first.”

He looks up, eyebrow cocked in unimpressed arch; old habits die so very hard. “Lao Wen.”

That smile is a precious, lovely thing as Wen Kexing reaches across the table, plucking his own cup from Zhou Zishu’s hands. With head back, throat bared, it disappears entire in three swallows, as though he downs wine. Setting the cup down, he then allows his tongue to play over his lips, sweeping up the last of the flavour there. Zhou Zishu can only stare. It’s why he doesn’t notice him leaning forward until he flicks his nose. He rears back, indignant; Wen Kexing’s answering smile is crooked, strange. Something curls low in his gut as he abruptly wonders where the other man had spent the rest of his night.

“Now, now, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing chides, and though his words come gentle as an indulgent mother, there’s something darker brewing behind those eyes. “There’s no time for debauchery. We’ve a play to see.”

He frowns. “What do you mean?”

Standing, hand extended, he tilts his head in the manner of a child who had always thought to play before study. “Will you come with me?”

Zhou Zishu stares at those long fingers for a moment. Then he places his own in them, feels them curl tight about his own, and is pulled to his feet as though he weighs little more than a feather.

“What is that you want, Wen Kexing?” he asks. It earns him a slow smile, head tilted even further.

“What makes you think I don’t already have it?”

There is more he should ask. More he must ask. Whatever has passed between them this night, it is not all that they will have. As they leave the room, Zhou Zishu understands that the road they will walk together is hardly ended yet. But they only have two years. It will have to be enough.

He will make sure it is enough.