“Shifu,” Zhang Chengling murmurs, and Zhou Zishu inhales as he’s snapped back to reality, glancing sidelong at his disciple and down to the cup being offered to him.
Zhou Zishu blankly taps his own glass against Zhang Chengling’s, more reflexively than anything else. He has no idea what he’d just toasted to, mind too fogged to think of anything else but Wen Kexing’s face when he—
“Zishu,” comes Jing Beiyuan’s voice suddenly, and Zhou Zishu glances up as he reaches for the pot of liquor by the table, “this shidi of yours is really very capable. Wen gongzi, a toast to you!”
Zhou Zishu drinks blindly. He’s not had much, and he knows for a fact he’s not even close to being tipsy, but the murky feeling in his belly is simmering like he’s already in a state far past drunk. He barely catches onto the next words being spoken at the table, how Wen Kexing explains his arrangement with the scorpion prince and Gu Xiang suddenly turns to Zhou Zishu to explain as well. Wen Kexing cuts her off, and Zhou Zishu belatedly wonders if he can tell what he’s thinking.
“Shifu,” Zhang Chengling says after what feels like hours, “this disciple would like to humbly request a toast to you in the name of punishment.” Zhou Zishu’s eye twitches. His fingers curl tighter around his empty cup. “You knew shishu’s identity long ago, but why didn’t you tell me? Was it because you didn’t trust me? Or the tie between me and shishu?”
“Eh,” Wen Kexing says before Zhou Zishu can form a response, “me too. I’ll toast one too.”
Then he stands up and walks right to the side of Zhou Zishu’s seat, clinking his drink with Zhang Chengling’s. Zhou Zishu doesn’t look at him. Zhou Zishu doesn’t dare to look at him.
“A-Xu,” and ah, there it is, “Chengling is so promising. In such a short time, he managed to grasp the mechanics of the…”
Zhou Zishu’s eyes flutter as Wen Kexing’s voice turns into white noise. So close to his ears, he can almost feel it at his fingertips.
He stands up and turns to face him.
Wen Kexing is smiling. Zhou Zishu loves his smile, loves his laugh, loves that he’s alive. But—
“How could you not tell me?”
Wen Kexing’s expression falters ever so slightly, his eyebrows curving atop his forehead. “A-Xu?”
“Lao Wen,” says Zhou Zishu. The seven shards on his chest ache with the reminder of what he’s done. “Do you not trust me?”
“No, A-Xu—” Wen Kexing cuts himself off, looking helplessly back at him. “It was dangerous, and I—”
“So?” says Zhou Zishu. His palms are sweating, but his entire body feels frigid as ice. “How...how could you not tell me?”
The others have gone completely silent, not daring to speak a word. Wen Kexing stands taller than him as always, but in this moment, he looks so incredibly small. His eyes are blazing, explanations at the tip of his tongue, but Zhou Zishu is exhausted. His shoulders sag as he shakes his head, a quiet we’ll talk about this later unspoken between them.
Somewhere along the way, Wen Kexing became Zhou Zishu’s soulmate.
Zhou Zishu doesn’t ponder on it too much. After all, it was fate that brought them together, fate that kept Wen Kexing by his side. His precious shidi, the one he adored more than life itself, was once again brought into his line of sight several years after their brief childhood together.
So what else could they be, if not soulmates?
The door to his bedchamber opens later that night, as Zhou Zishu is lying in bed with his hands clasped over his stomach. He doesn’t have to look up to know who it is.
Several seconds pass, and then the sound of footsteps, slowly inching their way closer.
“A-Xu.” Wen Kexing’s voice is purposely left light, Zhou Zishu can tell. It’s like he’s treading on thin ice. “A-Xu, are you asleep?”
Zhou Zishu says nothing.
“Oh, you’re not asleep. Your eyes are open,” Wen Kexing murmurs, a whisk of his ivory robes catching in the corner of Zhou Zishu’s peripheral as he lowers himself to his knees by the bed. “A-Xu, A-Xu, will you look at me?”
For a moment, Zhou Zishu almost wishes he had pretended to be asleep.
He takes a breath and tilts his head, meeting Wen Kexing’s eyes through the dimly-lit room. They’re beautiful, Zhou Zishu notes without meaning to. All of him is beautiful.
“Lao Wen,” he whispers.
An image flashes through his mouth: blood painting Wen Kexing’s mouth, a smile pulling at his lips, eyes shining with a calm kind of resignation as he falls further and further away from Zhou Zishu’s grasp.
He’s watched so many people die, but the fear he felt in that moment is unparalleled.
He reaches out, and Wen Kexing falls still. Zhou Zishu’s hand finds his cheek, fingers grazing over his skin and curling around his jaw.
Please don’t let this be a dream.
“A-Xu?” Wen Kexing blinks. “Ah, if you wanted to touch me, you should have just said so!”
“You told me you’ve never lied to me,” Zhou Zishu finds himself croaking, ignoring him.
Wen Kexing’s smile softens, and Zhou Zishu swears he leans into his touch. “But that was before, A-Xu. When I told you that, it was true I had never lied to you.”
I’m dying, Zhou Zishu wants to tell him, I don’t have much time left. Even less time than before. I thought I lost you. I thought I lost you and I was ready to lose myself too.
After all, what good were his last couple of years if his soulmate wasn’t with him by his side? In what universe would he choose to live while his soulmate was dead? What good was Zhou Zishu without Wen Kexing?
I love you, Zhou Zishu thinks mutely. The ache on his frontside tinges with pain.
“A-Xu,” comes Wen Kexing’s voice once again, “my knees are beginning to hurt. Move over a bit, will you?”
Zhou Zishu complies without a word.
The mattress dips as Wen Kexing clambers on top and gets comfortable, smoothing out his robes as he lays on his side and holds his head up with his arm. He peers down at Zhou Zishu’s figure, the latter breathing evenly under the scrutiny. Wen Kexing, after all, has never made him feel anything but safe.
“You weren’t yourself today,” Wen Kexing murmurs, “the others tried to get your attention so many times. You barely spared them so much as a glance.”
“Did you honestly expect me to?”
“No,” says Wen Kexing, and he shakes his head. “I...no, I didn’t. You were lost in thought. What were you thinking about?”
“You know what I was thinking about.”
“A-Xu, come on, humor this one, will you?” Zhou Zishu looks up to see him biting at the corner of his bottom lip. “I’m trying to...I’m trying to distract you.”
“From what?” asks Zhou Zishu. “From how you faked your death and didn’t bother telling me you were alive? How you persuaded my disciple to kill you in front of me?” His eye twitches. “I woke up and tasted blood on my tongue. I burned that fake body you left for bait. I told A-Xiang her master was dead, and that I was too late in saving you. I went down to the valley where you fell and drank myself till I was numb.”
Wen Kexing drops his head down onto the pillow, mere inches away from Zhou Zishu’s side. It’s not the closest they’ve been to each other, far from it, but for some reason it feels different this time.
Zhou Zishu feels a tug at his waist, and he glances down to see Wen Kexing’s index and thumb fingers gently pulling at his robes.
“I’m sorry, A-Xu,” he says, “I’m sorry. Forgive me?”
Zhou Zishu swallows shakily. “What if I chose death?”
Wen Kexing’s breath hitches. “What do you mean?”
“What good is my life if my soulmate doesn’t have his?” Zhou Zishu mutters, teeth grinding together as he forces the words out of him. “I don’t care about the world. Not anymore. It’s been a while since I’ve cared about anyone’s life but yours.”
It’s a confession in its own right. Zhou Zishu doesn’t know what Wen Kexing’s expression is like right now.
He’s too afraid to find out.
“Did you?” Wen Kexing’s voice cracks as he utters the question, like he knows Zhou Zishu is entirely capable of giving up his life for him.
Zhou Zishu smiles weakly. “Lao Wen,” he says, “I’d rather meet you in death than be alive in this world alone.”
Wen Kexing’s two-fingered grip on him suddenly turns into the entire palm of his hand. “But you didn’t do anything, did you, A-Xu? Don’t think you can lie to me. I know every poison master in the country. Half are under my command.”
“How silly of you to think I would poison myself,” says Zhou Zishu.
Wen Kexing’s next breath comes easy, and Zhou Zishu feels it by the base of his throat. It fans over his skin, and somehow, it’s more reassuring than Wen Kexing’s hand on his stomach. “Oh, good,” says Wen Kexing quietly, “so you didn’t.”
A lie for a lie. But it doesn’t matter, because Wen Kexing will find out soon anyways.
Then Wen Kexing travels closer to him on the bed, close enough to drape his arm over Zhou Zishu’s chest. Zhou Zishu subconsciously holds back from outwardly flinching when he feels the pressure on his scars, too used to the feeling already.
“A-Xu, my A-Xu,” Wen Kexing hums as he hooks his chin over Zhou Zishu’s shoulder. Zhou Zishu’s heart flares, burning hard and hot against the shell of his ribs.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh? So now you can talk in your sleep?”
“Yes,” says Wen Kexing, and then he fakes a snore that makes Zhou Zishu release a muffled laugh. “A-Xu, you looked so sad. I hope I never make you feel that way again.”
Zhou Zishu doesn’t know which instance he’s referring to. He reaches his left hand out and lets it hover over Wen Kexing’s fingers. It drops slowly, and then he’s clasping their hands together and gently squeezing. “Then don’t.”
Wen Kexing clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth, squeezing back. “So blunt, A-Xu.”
“I’m glad your plan ended up working,” says Zhou Zishu then. “And I’m glad that you’re alive.”
Wen Kexing moves his head so that his face is pressed up against Zhou Zishu’s neck. “Did you miss me a lot?”
“More than anything,” Zhou Zishu says without missing a single beat.
“I’m sorry,” Wen Kexing says again. He mouths the apology against Zhou Zishu’s skin. “I’m so sorry. A-Xu, I promise to never do anything like that again.”
He’ll have to tell him, Zhou Zishu realizes. He’ll have to tell him soon. Three little words, the most meaningful ones he’ll ever say in his life. But Wen Kexing needs to hear them—needs to hear them directly from Zhou Zishu’s lips, before the inevitable eventually happens.
He could say them now, Zhou Zishu thinks. Or he could say them tomorrow morning. Or the morning after that. Or—
Just not on his deathbed.
That would be too cruel.
“You don’t know, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing murmurs, so quiet that Zhou Zishu barely hears him even from their position. “I was planning on ruining this world and myself.”
Zhou Zishu’s breath catches in his throat. “Lao Wen—”
“But thankfully I met you,” Wen Kexing cuts in before Zhou Zishu can pathetically form words. “You who showed me how to live life fully.”
“It’s the same for me,” says Zhou Zishu.
“Do you want to know a secret?”
“What is it?” Zhou Zishu asks, and Wen Kexing moves to hover his head above his chest. His eyes are lidded as they stare down at him, sparkling and wet.
“When I saw you back there,” says Wen Kexing, and Zhou Zishu knows exactly what he’s referring to, when Wen Kexing had revealed himself to be alive and flew down to share the stage with him. “When I saw you back there, how you looked at me, A-Xu, I really wanted to kiss you.”
Zhou Zishu’s gaze flies down immediately on reflex, down to the gentle curve of Wen Kexing’s mouth and the quivering corners of his lips. He looks back up to see Wen Kexing frozen still. “Why didn’t you?”
“You know why.”
Zhou Zishu does know why. “Lao Wen.”
He feels like he should be more surprised at this development, at Wen Kexing’s sudden confession from out of the blue. Except—except that it isn’t really from out of the blue. Maybe Zhou Zishu already knew long ago.
“Can I?” Wen Kexing asks, shifting just the smallest bit closer. “Right now?”
Yes, Zhou Zishu thinks, yes, of course, you don’t have to ask, you never have to ask.
He untangles his hands and reaches for his face, bringing him closer.
Wen Kexing whimpers against his lips, bringing his hands up to cup Zhou Zishu’s neck and snake around the back of his head. Zhou Zishu’s heart falls into his throat as he kisses him back, warm and glowy like a crooning bulb. Their chests burn together as Wen Kexing falls on top of him, and Zhou Zishu gathers him between his cracked palms.
His heart twinges when they break away.
“Mm, we should do that more often,” says Wen Kexing, mumbling his words. “A-Xu, after A-Xiang gets married, after everything is over, let's spend the rest of our days together, okay?”
Zhou Zishu whispers quietly, “Okay,” and the next thing he knows is Wen Kexing tightening his hold on him, slotting himself back into the space along his side and sighing into the beginnings of sleep.
Come tomorrow, he’ll tell him. For now, there’s this, and this is enough.