“A-Xu, come give me a hand.”
Zhou Zishu canted his head against the door’s frame, the pearl-bare of his neck long and graceful in the sparkling afternoon sun. He smiled. It was full of teeth. “I told you, I don’t do kitchen work.”
A snap of the wrist, a flash of silver—Zhou Zishu caught the thrown knife with two fingers, the blade tip an inch from his nose. His smile broadened, unimpressed.
Wen Kexing grinned back, sharp and syrup-sweet. “Aiya, A-Xu, I seem to have lost my knife.”
The afternoon was cool, the air pollen-ripe. Zhang Chengling was practicing in the courtyard, after Zhou Zishu had rattled off another list of inadequacies in the boy’s six hundred and forty-second attempt at Bagua Palm. The day unspooled before them, glorious and golden. Trees in full bloom stretched for the sky. There were no lanterns calling for the wrath of the heavens. Wen Kexing could take two steps forward and bury his mouth in the hollow of A-Xu’s throat, drown in the fondness there.
The pot burbled dangerously to Wen Kexing’s left. He fanned it quickly and skimmed the foam off its surface, slanting a woeful look back. “Zhou-shouling may not know the kitchen, but surely he knows a knife?”
Zhou Zishu laughed, full-throated and low, exasperation alighting dark eyes. He did not deign to reply, but he levered himself off of the doorframe. His robes brushed past the back of Wen Kexing’s hand, silken.
“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing gasped, “this lowly one is grateful for your—”
“Ah, shut up Lao-Wen, before I change my mind.” This close, Wen Kexing could feel the smile rather than see it; it delighted him like nothing else had before or since. Zhou Zishu slotted into place on Wen Kexing’s right, surveying the ingredients piled there with a mildly mystified air. “What am I supposed to be doing?”
“Tofu, cubed—about this big. Ginger, sliced. Green onions, slivered. Try not to drink the wine.”
Zhou Zishu eyed the bottle of shaoxing wine with a mock-affronted scowl. “Why not?”
Wen Kexing sighed, dramatic and with feeling. “Why do I feed you, A-Xu, if you can’t tell cooking wine from drinking wine?”
Zhou Zishu snorted, waving the knife threateningly. Wen Kexing shoved him towards the waiting produce with a smile that could not be called innocent.
Chop, chop, stir, stir. Their attentions were not on the food. There was a weight to their gazes, slow and heavy like sap trailing down a tree; the tiniest brush jolted them both, though they were too composed to let on. Just the drag of lingering gazes, tracing the veins of their throats, the curl of long, pale fingers. Just the feeling of hearts swelling, bursting, with rare, stolen joy.
Ghosts and humans weren’t meant to be. Revenge was a burden writ into his bones. But on days like these, greedily swallowing A-Xu’s radiance and his laughter and the sounds of his breaths, Wen Kexing wished Ye Baiyi would never return. Touch-drunk, the both of them, skin on skin, mouthing the maps of their scars like the embroidery veining their silks, little smiles splitting their unguarded faces. Wen Kexing wanted to open him up like a robe, like a letter, like a promise, and hide inside forever.
“Lao-Wen,” Zhou Zishu said behind him, perfectly idle and perfectly soft, “where did you learn how to cook?”
Wen Kexing stirred the soup. “I taught myself.”
Another snort. “And it’s edible?”
“You’re still here, aren’t you?” Wen Kexing turned to swat him, tangling his fingertips in blue-grey silks; held on, a second too long, to the breadth of Zhou Zishu’s arm. Zhou Zishu looked down and didn’t shrug him off. “Ah, A-Xu, don’t make light of my difficult childhood.”
“Difficult? You have a servant following you and fluffing up your sheets.”
And now I warm yours. The thought was rich, honey-sweet; he smiled with it, licked it off. “She’s not here, is she? Don’t tease, A-Xu. It’s not like you didn’t have servants. You didn’t cook your own food at Four Seasons Manor or the palace; you’d have long poisoned yourself otherwise.”
Zhou Zishu scowled, a real one this time, a marginal tightening around his eyes. His voice flattened, levelling smooth and untextured and as brittle as glass. “No man can be pampered forever. I’ve tasted what the world has to offer, and very little of it was good.”
“So have I.” Wen Kexing’s mouth tipped, soft and serrated. “When you’ve been where I have, you learn how to make even the most unpalatable taste good. You don’t know when, or what, your next meal will be.”
Zhou Zishu cocked his head, a curious challenge. “Oh? And what’s the worst thing you’ve eaten?”
He didn’t even think. “Human flesh. Raw.”
Even Zhou Zishu, the former ruthless leader of Tianchuang, recoiled.
Blood was a currency that evil understood. Every son should have a part of his parents that he could keep. Gristle and bone, metallic foam between baby teeth. Survival of the fittest, where the fittest were cruel. Where cruelty bought—not safety, but passage to another hell. A hell he would one day conquer, and lay waste to at his feet.
He’d earned his place, the infamy of his name. Those who would eat humans were all monsters anyway.
Wen Kexing grinned at Zhou Zishu, sly and guileless and as radiant as the sun. “Kidding.”
Zhou Zishu flicked a clove of garlic at him. Wen Kexing easily dodged. The clove flew past him and punched a small dent into the far wall. “A-Xu, I’m trying to cook here, must you treat me so?”
“Bastard,” Zhou Zishu muttered, but there was no heat in it, just a faint sadness. The joy had bled dry. He studied Wen Kexing, eyes hollow, like the dark side of the moon. Funny; he looked like he had seen a ghost.
Wen Kexing waited for it: the question, the dark sigh, the “Who are you really, Lao-Wen?”
But it never came. They would gladly open their veins for each other, lick each other’s blood off their lips, peel back every inch of their skin…and yet words were too terrible, too frightening, to lay bare. The truth was sharper than any blade.
“I’m going to check on Chengling,” Zhou Zishu finally said, soft, and moved for the door.
“Wait!” Zhou Zishu paused halfway into his pivot; Wen Kexing returned his brightest smile. “Help me taste the soup.” He ladled the broth and held it out, a deflection and apology both, simmered with pork ribs and daikon. Watched, unblinking, as Zhou Zishu slowly inhaled the aroma, the taste of devotion and love.
Zhou Zishu sipped. “It’s perfect,” he said quietly, then slipped out of the kitchen.
After he left, Wen Kexing tasted it. With a bitter twist of his mouth, he added more salt.