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By the Gullet

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"Hey," says Ye Baiyi. "Qin Huaizhang's disciple, you look like dogshit today."


"Thanks," says Zhou Zishu, squinting up at Ye Baiyi. He's crouched by the stream near their campsite, doing his best to clean the dishes from breakfast. "Can this unworthy disciple help you?"


"You can grow an imagination, for one," Ye Baiyi suggests, and kicks a pebble at his wrist with lazy accuracy. It hits him right at an acupoint that's been aching a little lately; the impact shatters the obstruction and leaves his skin stinging but his meridian cleared.


Zhou Zishu shakes his hand out with a grimace. "Please elaborate, senior."


"You think the only pain killer in this world is wine? You're more useless than I thought," Ye Baiyi sighs.


"I'm aware it's not," Zhou Zishu says. He was a career assassin for ten full years. He knows about killing pain. "I like wine, and you can buy it anywhere. I'd rather save the willow bark and poppy seed for more severe circumstances."


"Peh," says Ye Baiyi. "More severe circumstances! Idiot, you've been moving as slowly as your little toad of a disciple for days. I knew you were dying, but this seems too fast. What's wrong with you, did your wife finally knock your head askew?"


"Did my —!" Zhou Zishu starts, then sucks his teeth in exasperation. He turns back to the bowl in his hand and scrubs at it. The stream is so cold his hands are going numb. "He hasn't done anything. It's the weather changing, it makes everything worse. Once winter has settled in I'll be back to normal."


Ye Baiyi grunts skeptically. He watches in silence as Zhou Zishu finishes with the third bowl and starts on the last. Zhou Zishu's scalp is just beginning to prickle in discomfort at his surveillance when Ye Baiyi says, "Well, I've got a handful of medicinal dama that wants smoking before this weather spoils it. I suppose in my generosity I could be convinced to let Qin Huaizhang's worst little fool help me use it before it goes to waste."


Zhou Zishu blinks. "Thank you," he says, surprised. "I haven't tried dama for the nails. Senior Ye's kindness is endless."


Ye Baiyi scoffs. "I wouldn't go that far. Hurry up with that, we should get moving if we want to reach the next town while there's still light."


Zhou Zishu sighs and turns back to the bowl. "Yes, Senior."



They reach town before nightfall, which means Wen Kexing swindles Zhou Zishu into treating everyone to dinner.


"One of these days I'll find out where you keep your purse," Zhou Zishu tells him, as they watch Ye Baiyi shovel his eighth bowl of dan dan mian down his throat. "And I'll steal it."


"Why, husband, what's mine is yours," Wen Kexing says cheerfully. Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes. "And what's yours is mine, so, my purse is the one kept in your sleeves."


"Aren't you supposed to be some sort of rich young master?" Zhou Zishu wonders. "I realize you aren't really, but shouldn't you have some money to keep up the ruse?"


"Ah, a-Xu, don't you know this? In this world, people tell how rich you are from your behavior, not how many coins you have," Wen Kexing says.


Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes. "How much of your behavior is just dressing well, huh? How can you dress well with no money? Do you spin that linen yourself?"


"So you admit I dress well," Wen Kexing says with a grin.


"I think you're annoying, not unstylish," Zhou Zishu sighs. "Chengling ah, if you end up an empty-headed fop like your Wen shushu, I'll break out of Hell just to smack you."


Chengling nods obediently. "I really don't have any sense of style," he admits. "I'm lucky that Wen shushu has been buying my outfits. So, shifu doesn't have to worry about that at all."


"That's worse," Zhou Zishu tells him plainly. "I'll find him and smack him too."


Wen Kexing clicks his tongue. "Find me? A-Xu, when you're in Hell I'll be right there beside you. You can just reach over and smack me."


Ye Baiyi puts his bowl down, declares, "Enough talking! I'll do it myself," reaches across the table, and smacks Wen Kexing on the back of the head. Wen Kexing ducks away and whacks his hand as he draws back, and the two of them grapple over the table for a second before Zhou Zishu reaches between them and pulls Wen Kexing back down to sit properly.


"Every day," he mutters.


"Oh, as if the two of you are capable of finishing a conversation without going at it," Ye Baiyi says.


Wen Kexing grimaces. "Don't you go trying to compare our squabbling to what a-Xu and I have," he complains. "It's completely different."


"No, no, he's got a point," Zhou Zishu says, leaning back to hold his chin in his hand. "Lao Wen, do you like me or do you just like fighting? You two-timer."


"A-Xu," Wen Kexing gasps, wounded. "I'll never fight anyone else ever again. My heart and hands belong to you alone."


"If you're not going to fight anyone for me, why should I keep you around? Useless," Zhou Zishu says.


"Why, for my hands, of course," Wen Kexing says with a leer.


"Little melonhead, you should get lost," Ye Baiyi says to Chengling. "Hanging around the two of them will rot your brain."


"Ah," Chengling says, and makes to obey until the rest of what Ye Baiyi said sinks into his little head. He looks desperately to Zhou Zishu for advice.


Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes. "It's getting late. Practice your steps two hundred times and go to bed."


"Yes, Shifu!" Chengling says, and scampers away after a series of bows.


Wen Kexing looks after him and clucks his tongue. "What an obedient little duckling of a disciple we have," he says lightly. Zhou Zishu grunts. Wen Kexing puts his last slice of beef in Zhou Zishu's bowl, which is ridiculous of him. Zhou Zishu nudges it aside and gives him his last mushroom top in retaliation. 


Maybe Ye Baiyi has a point.


"Alright, I'm done," Ye Baiyi says, throwing his chopsticks into his empty bowl with a clatter. "You," he points at Zhou Zishu. "— come with me." To Wen Kexing he says, "You, I don't care what you do."


"I don't care what you do, either," Wen Kexing says loftily. "A-Xu, whatever you're up to, I'm rooting for you. Maybe I'll go heckle Chengling."


Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes and stands. Wen Kexing will figure out that was permission to join them soon enough.


Back in the room Zhou Zishu sets about making tea. When he looks up, Ye Baiyi has produced a small rosewood box from somewhere and is removing the contents: a small porcelain jar, tea forceps, and an elegant clay smoking pipe. Jin Wang had had a pipe; although he mostly preferred to burn dama in a normal pot-bellied incense burner, he liked to use the pipe sometimes. When he wanted to appear particularly worldly, or when he wanted more control.


Ye Baiyi glances at him. "It was a gift," he says, and doesn't elaborate. "You used one before?"


"Yes," Zhou Zishu says, and doesn't elaborate. 


Ye Baiyi grunts and sits down. Zhou Zishu watches him pack the pipe with loose dry leaves from the jar, the tea forceps precise in his steady hands. He wonders why Ye Baiyi has such a supply. Does pain live in his body the way it lives in Zhou Zishu? He doesn't ask.


Ye Baiyi produces a little pinewood stick and thrusts it into the fire below the tea, then uses the smoldering end to light the dama. Zhou Zishu pours tea for Ye Baiyi, then himself, as Ye Baiyi sucks away at the end of the pipe. Ye Baiyi taps a finger on the table in thanks and exhales smoke like mist off a waterfall. "Where's your wife, then? Figured he'd be back by now."


"Is he invited?" Zhou Zishu asks, just to be contrary.


"Is he invited anywhere he goes?" Ye Baiyi counters. "I prepared enough for three, am I wasting my stock?"


Zhou Zishu hides his smile behind his tea. "He'll come find me soon," he says. "He likes to waste my time in the evenings."


"You have such little time left," Ye Baiyi points out. "Just kick him out."


"It's finally my time to waste," Zhou Zishu says.


Ye Baiyi stares at him and sucks at the pipe again, making the ember in the top of the little bowl glow. Zhou Zishu bears his scrutiny for an uncomfortably long moment, until Ye Baiyi takes the pipe out of his mouth and says over Zhou Zishu's shoulder, "You heard him. You might as well come in."


Zhou Zishu turns to watch the door slide open. Wen Kexing lets himself inside, looking entirely unashamed to have been caught eavesdropping. Zhou Zishu fights back discomfort. He doesn't really mind that he overheard that exchange; Wen Kexing should know by now that Zhou Zishu likes him. What bothers Zhou Zishu is that he hadn't realized Wen Kexing was there: he hadn't heard his approach, hadn't felt the tremor of his footfall in the floorboards.


Wen Kexing wanders over to kick a chair out and collapse cheerfully next to him at the table. "A-Xu ah, I know you love me," he says, giving Zhou Zishu's sleeve a tug.


Zhou Zishu pulls his sleeve away and says, "Don't get cocky."


Wen Kexing grins and bumps his shoulder into Zhou Zishu's. Then he tips his chin up in Ye Baiyi's direction and demands, "What's all this about?"


"Medicinal dama," Ye Baiyi says, through another cloud of smoke. He always looks sort of exasperated, but after so many breaths of smoke, his pinched expression has relaxed a little into something less annoyed, more plain tired. He passes the pipe stem-first across the table to Zhou Zishu. "Take it or don't."


Zhou Zishu takes the pipe, checks that the ember is still alive, and sets it in his mouth. When he sucks the smoke into his mouth, he can only just barely perceive the pungent herbal scent of it, like passing someone in the street who had smoked hours before. But it feels the same as it always has, hot and dry in the back of his throat. He holds it in his lungs, offers the pipe to Wen Kexing. Exhales slowly through his nose.


Wen Kexing takes the pipe and looks at it. The ember extinguishes while he looks, so Zhou Zishu picks up the pinewood match. "You'll need to light it again," he says. "Or not, whatever. You don't have to smoke."


Wen Kexing looks at him. Seems to make a decision. "It's always good to try new things," he says lightly, and sticks the pipe between his teeth. He takes the match from Zhou Zishu and lights it, then makes a face of great concentration as he tries to light the dama leaves.


Zhou Zishu reaches over after only a moment of watching his actions. "Light unburned leaves, don't try to reignite anything," he says, taking the match from Wen Kexing. He holds the bowl of the pipe in his left hand and carefully dips the smoldering end of the match into it with the other. "You'll end up inhaling ash that way. Now suck. With your mouth, not your lungs."


Wen Kexing looks up at him and raises his eyebrows. Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes, makes a judgmental sound with his teeth. Wen Kexing's cheeks hollow, and the leaves turn red, then gold.


"This is excruciating," Ye Baiyi says. "If you're like this all night I'll kill you both myself. Little monster, please just inhale so I can watch you choke."


Wen Kexing makes a face at him, but breathes the smoke slowly into his lungs without coughing. Ye Baiyi sighs in disappointment. Wen Kexing goes to take another breath, but Zhou Zishu reaches out to tilt the pipe away from his mouth. "Aha. Start small," he advises. Wen Kexing gives him a wounded look, which dissolves into something slyer when Zhou Zishu takes the pipe and puts it back in his own mouth. He takes another hit, then gives the pipe back to Ye Baiyi. Twice is enough to start; it's been a long time since he's used dama, and he's not as young as he used to be.


Ye Baiyi has no such reservations. He sucks at the pipe twice more, and lets out his second breath as a series of rapidly spinning smoke-rings. Wen Kexing sits up curiously and pokes one through the center, and it destabilizes, shakes itself into disintegration. 


Ye Baiyi sucks on his teeth and says, "You see an interesting thing and you destroy it just to see what happens."


For a moment Wen Kexing freezes, his gaze lost to the middle distance. Then he laughs and says, "Well, it was interesting. The destruction. Am I wrong?"


"You're so," Ye Baiyi says in disgust, and Zhou Zishu is ready for that sentence to end: monstrous, or brutal, or shallow. But Ye Baiyi finishes, "young."


That shuts Wen Kexing up. Ye Baiyi sets the pipe on the table and sits back. "Drama," he sighs. "May neither of you live to my age. You get sick of it all and then you keep going. The only theater in the world worth watching is a pot full of boiling dumplings. Shiwu?"


Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing exchange a sidelong look. Wen Kexing looks away first, so Zhou Zishu says, "Alright."


They have to modify the rules in order to accommodate a third player, so turns end up going in a little circle rather than back and forth. After Ye Baiyi's little speech they don't bother setting stakes: the point is play, not competition. Unfortunately, Zhou Zishu is barely any better at shiwu than he is at finger guessing, for all that his chances are higher. 


"Five! — Damn."


"Better luck next time."


"Ten! — Fuck you!"


"A-Xu, the mouth on you," Wen Kexing laughs, as he swivels to offer his closed fists to Ye Baiyi instead. "What, I only get so many months of politeness out of you before you're back to being mean?"


"Was I polite to you?" Zhou Zishu wonders. The smoke settling into his body has loosened him up; the pain that lives in his chest remains, but its ache is dulled, and he feels comfortable and slow. He folds his hands into his sleeves and watches Wen Kexing and Ye Baiyi play.


"Twenty! Hah! — Fifteen! Haha! I win! — Well, no, of course not. But you stopped swearing so much," Wen Kexing says. "Peanut?"


"He can feed himself," Ye Baiyi says. "Zero. Zero. I win."


"Senior, I wasn't playing yet!" Zhou Zishu protests. Ye Baiyi heaves a great sigh and presents his closed fists again, and they successfully play a round, one which Zhou Zishu wins for once. Ye Baiyi scoffs.


Wen Kexing places a peanut on the back of Zhou Zishu's hand. "For the victor," he says. Zhou Zishu brings his hand to his mouth and eats the peanut.


"I haven't smoked nearly enough of this," Ye Baiyi mutters, picking up the pipe again. "You people are insufferable. Qin Huaizhang must be so pleased to have such a ridiculous disciple."


Zhou Zishu looks at the table. Ye Baiyi's words are a fishhook; it's caught something in his chest, and it's coming up as a smile he can't swallow down. "Yes," he agrees. "I think he finally must be."


"A-Xu," says Wen Kexing.


Zhou Zishu clears his throat. "Enough. Lao Wen, our turn. Ten!"


After a while Ye Baiyi gets hungry, so he and Wen Kexing argue over what to order from the kitchen downstairs. Zhou Zishu pays attention for approximately three sentences before tuning them out; he won't be able to taste anything anyway. He's having a great time sitting quietly with his eyes closed, until Wen Kexing tugs at his sleeve and says, "A-Xu ah, you have to break our tie."


Zhou Zishu opens his eyes and tips his head to the side to look at Wen Kexing, who's doing his best to look charming and handsome and like someone who deserves to win an argument. "I don't care," Zhou Zishu tells him. "But I know you aren't hungry, so Senior Ye should order what he wants."


Ye Baiyi laughs in Wen Kexing's face.


"A-Xu," Wen Kexing gasps. "You are so mean to me. I'll cry, I really will."


"If you can make yourself cry right now on the spot, I'll give you my purse to do as you please," Zhou Zishu decides.


"No — What! Why would you say that," Ye Baiyi snaps, as Wen Kexing's expression shifts from wounded to pleased to watery. Zhou Zishu watches in fascination as his lower lip wobbles, his eyebrows knitting together. He sniffles convincingly.


"Very pitiful, but I'm not seeing any tears," Zhou Zishu says.


"A-Xu," Wen Kexing whines. Zhou Zishu pouts mockingly at him. 


Wen Kexing sighs in a way that suggests that no one has ever been more oppressed than he, and then he stands up, takes the single step between his chair and Zhou Zishu's chair, and yanks Zhou Zishu's chair around by the arm so that they're facing each other. Then he falls to his knees and crosses his arms quite delicately over Zhou Zishu's lap, and lays his head in the crook of his elbow like a maiden, and blinks wetly until a single tear falls like a raindrop from his eye.


Ye Baiyi stands up. "Qin Huaizhang's disciple, where is your purse," he says. "I'm taking it."


Zhou Zishu removes his purse from his sleeve and hands it to him without looking. Wen Kexing makes a wordless noise of outrage and goes to leap up again, but Zhou Zishu grabs his ear. "Ahah, I said 'on the spot,'" he says. "You left your spot."


Wen Kexing darts a hand out to pinch his waist, so Zhou Zishu knees him in the chest, and they dissolve into scrabbling at each other like children. After a couple strikes Wen Kexing manages catch Zhou Zishu's arm and drag him off the chair onto the floor, where they roll around grappling for a couple moves before Zhou Zishu laughs, "Alright, alright, that's enough." He closes his eyes against the spinning room, lets the tension drain from his limbs, thunks his head back to the floor. "Ah, I'm too dizzy for this anyway."


"Dizzy?" Wen Kexing asks, pushing himself up off the floor to settle his weight on Zhou Zishu's thighs. Always taking advantage.


"From the smoke," Zhou Zishu says. He opens one eye to look over at Wen Kexing; he looks cheerful, but his eyes are still wet from his performance earlier. Zhou Zishu clicks his tongue and heaves himself up, bringing himself about eye level with Wen Kexing's shoulders. "Look at you," he tuts, and reaches up to brush the tears away with his thumb. "Lao Wen ah."


Wen Kexing lets him do it, his expression wavering. 


Zhou Zishu says, "Lao Wen," and then the doors slide open again, and Ye Baiyi and a waiter are staring down at them. Zhou Zishu is too — too something, from smoke and pain and proximity to Wen Kexing, to move his hand or push him off, and Wen Kexing doesn't take initiative himself, so the two of them just stare right back up at Ye Baiyi.


"Wrong room," Ye Baiyi says flatly, and he tosses Zhou Zishu's purse at his head, turns on his heel, and shuts the doors behind him with a slap. The waiter pipes apologies after him.


Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing look after the closed doors for a beat. Then at each other. Then the smile Zhou Zishu has been holding back since earlier wriggles its way back up again, and he snorts, and then he's giggling, light, uncontrollable. He can't stop looking at Wen Kexing, and Wen Kexing can't seem to stop looking at him. His eyes are wide still, and he's smiling in the way that makes him just look silly instead of alluring. He laughs, too, then, and Zhou Zishu laughs louder, sways into him. He's so handsome.


"Hey, lao Wen, I'll teach you how to blow smoke-rings," Zhou Zishu offers into his collars.


"YES," says Wen Kexing, and scrambles off of him.


They sit on the floor back at the table and re-light the dama, and Zhou Zishu walks Wen Kexing through the art of the blown smoke-ring. Wen Kexing is an attentive student, although smiles keep curling out of him to ruin his embouchure. The more they practice, the more they have to watch each other's mouths; the more Zhou Zishu has to say things like, "Push the smoke out with your tongue, like this — no, like this, see," and show him.


Unfortunately, Wen Kexing has a very beautiful mouth.


When Wen Kexing has stopped giggling long enough to successfully puff a smoke ring into the air, he immediately starts showing off, playing around with direction, size, chains of rings. He doesn't put his finger through a single one, although some he aims at the table or the pipe. Or Zhou Zishu's face, and then Wen Kexing says, "I wonder if we could get it so one of your rings went through one of mine," so they try that — they can! — and then he says, "I wonder, if I blew a smoke-ring into your mouth, would you be able to blow it back out?"


"No," says Zhou Zishu flatly. "But you can — here, take some smoke in your mouth like normal, then hold it…"


Wen Kexing sucks on the pipe, then gives him an expectant look. Zhou Zishu leans over to look at him, then reaches out to palm his jaw. Wen Kexing's mouth drops open slightly. A little curl of smoke escapes as he says, "Ah…?"


Zhou Zishu dips in and sips at the smoke before it can dissipate. He flicks his eyes up to meet Wen Kexing's gaze and says, "Like that. You get it?"


"Yeah," Wen Kexing says slowly, and Zhou Zishu takes that word into his mouth, too. Wen Kexing licks his lips and slowly exhales the rest of the smoke, his dark eyes fixed on Zhou Zishu's mouth as he takes it, takes it. By the end of their breath they've leaned into each other more fully, their open mouths almost touching. Wen Kexing says, "A-Xu," very quietly.


"My turn," Zhou Zishu says, equally quietly, and breathes the smoke back into Wen Kexing's mouth. At first it spills between them; then Wen Kexing figures out how to breathe with him, and the smoke disappears back into him. This sort of thing looks, Zhou Zishu knows, like two people passing a single soul back and forth between them; he wishes he could watch and participate at once.


He empties his lungs, dizzied by the smoke, the shared air, the proximity. Their noses brush. Wen Kexing whispers, "A-Xu," again.


"What," Zhou Zishu whispers back. He watches Wen Kexing's mouth curve up into a goofy smile. This close together, he can hear the tiny wet sound of lips sliding over teeth.


"A-Xu, a-Xu," Wen Kexing repeats.


"Lao Wen, lao Wen," Zhou Zishu teases. "What are you calling my name for, huh?"


"Just to call you," Wen Kexing murmurs, and ducks closer, smears his cheek along Zhou Zishu's in an insistent nuzzle that Zhou Zishu returns, thinking, Finally, finally. He feels prickly all over with awareness. Wen Kexing presses his nose against Zhou Zishu's face, lets his open-smiling mouth leave wet traces along his skin. His breath is so warm. "Some trick," he says.


Zhou Zishu turns his face to hide his own smile against the bolt of Wen Kexing's jaw. He breathes, "Wen Kexing," into the soft skin of his throat, and then, "You can touch me, if you want."


Wen Kexing lets out a shuddery breath, and then his hands come up to grasp Zhou Zishu's arms at the bicep and yank him closer, and Zhou Zishu ends up half in his lap, their legs thrown haphazardly over and around each other. Wen Kexing squeezes the muscles of his arms, skims his hands up Zhou Zishu's shoulders to clutch at his back, tug at his hair. This close, his breath is hot and humid, loud in Zhou Zishu's ear. Wen Kexing nuzzles him again, open mouth catching at his temple, his cheekbone. Zhou Zishu presses his nose into his throat, closes his eyes against a fresh wave of dizziness, wishes he could smell him.


"A-Xu," Wen Kexing mumbles, his words muffled by Zhou Zishu's hair. "A-Xu, you really… "


"Mn," Zhou Zishu agrees, winding his arms around his back. He likes how big Wen Kexing is, how solid, how Zhou Zishu can hit him or squeeze him as hard as he wants without worrying that he'll break, or even really disapprove.


Wen Kexing pushes his fingers through the loose hair at the back of Zhou Zishu's head, cups his skull in his hand, tugs at his hair so that he'll lean back a little. Zhou Zishu opens his eyes halfway, meets Wen Kexing's gaze from under his eyelashes. 


"Are you done," Zhou Zishu says quietly. Their faces are so close together that the sides of their noses are touching; their lips brush when he speaks.


"Done with what," Wen Kexing says.


"Stalling," Zhou Zishu says.


Wen Kexing goes, hah, and fits their open mouths together at last. Then he immediately bites Zhou Zishu's lower lip. "Who's stalling," he says into Zhou Zishu's mouth, and thrusts his tongue inside. Zhou Zishu bites him back, just hard enough for him to get it, and then he just sucks, slides his own tongue along the slick underside. Wen Kexing makes a desperate sound into him and presses impossibly closer.


Then the dizziness hits again, accompanied by a wave of nausea and pain, and Zhou Zishu breaks away from the kiss with a groan he can't quite swallow back. "Fuck," he gasps, and pitches his forehead against Wen Kexing's chest.


"A-Xu," Wen Kexing says in alarm. "A-Xu, is it the nails? I'll let you up."


Zhou Zishu tightens his fists in the back of Wen Kexing's robes before he can move. "No," he pants as the pain recedes, and then it rolls back through him. His jaw clenches involuntarily; his breath catches in his lungs.


"Hey," Wen Kexing says, "hey, hey, breathe. A-Xu ah, has it gotten this bad?"


"Caught me. By surprise," Zhou Zishu manages through his teeth.


Wen Kexing clears his throat twice, and his hands appear firm on Zhou Zishu's back, a thread of spiritual energy passing into his body. "Well, it's alright now," Wen Kexing says. "You can cry all you need, your A-Xing will take care of you." That makes Zhou Zishu snort a laugh even through the pain rioting around his meridians. Wen Kexing sniffs. "I don't know what you're laughing about."


Zhou Zishu doesn't bother answering. He couldn't even if he had anything to say. He screws his eyes shut and clutches Wen Kexing closer reflexively, like a cicada crossing its legs in death. 


For once Wen Kexing is quiet. He just sits there with Zhou Zishu in his lap and strokes his back as Zhou Zishu's body shakes itself apart.


When the agony recedes enough for Zhou Zishu to open his eyes, the room is dark; Wen Kexing must have extinguished the candles with his fan. Zhou Zishu grunts to let him know it's over and starts carefully prying his own fingers loose from Wen Kexing's robes. Wen Kexing stirs and makes a soft mmn sound into Zhou Zishu's hair; he must have dozed off. "A-Xu," he says sleepily. "You'll walk it off? Or sleep…"


"Sleep," Zhou Zishu decides. He pushes clumsily at Wen Kexing's waist. "Come on, I'll let you up now."


Wen Kexing lets himself be heaved sideways onto the floor, where he sits for a moment with his legs stretched out in front of him, rolling his ankles out. His legs have been folded awkwardly for so long that they must have fallen asleep, but he doesn't say anything about it. Zhou Zishu pulls himself into a sloppy lotus pose and shudders through the last of the pain.


Wen Kexing's hand appears at his shoulder. "Aiya, you madman, you aren't done? Come here," he says, and scoops Zhou Zishu off the floor like a child.


"I'll bite you," Zhou Zishu mutters, but he doesn't bother struggling as Wen Kexing carries him over to the bed. Wen Kexing sets him down to sit on top of the quilt, then briskly sets about disrobing him. Zhou Zishu has the urge to make some sort of snarky comment —  Lao Wen, you won't even wait until I'm asleep to harass me? — but their interrupted kiss is too fresh for that kind of joke to be funny, and he's too tired besides. Instead he sits quietly and focuses on quelling the last of the pain, and Wen Kexing unwraps him layer by layer, his robes pooling around his waist where he's sitting on them. 


He listens as Wen Kexing steps away and undresses himself. The agony is over; the ache remains, as it always does. Zhou Zishu stands up and hangs his robes over a courtesy screen, then wanders over and takes Wen Kexing's hand and leads him to the basin of clean water. He wets a cloth and cleans Wen Kexing's face in silence. His elegant hands. When he's finished, Wen Kexing takes the cloth and returns the gesture, his strokes gently insistent.


"Imagine," Wen Kexing says quietly as he rubs Zhou Zishu's hands, "how boring we would find each other, if we had only ever made good choices."


"I actually only like you for your looks," Zhou Zishu says. 


Wen Kexing laughs and bonks their damp foreheads together. "My husband is such a sweet-talker," he sighs.


"Mmn," Zhou Zishu agrees. "Your husband is so tired. Lao Wen ah, let's go to bed."


Wen Kexing is quiet again for a moment, and then he says, "Okay," very softly.


Zhou Zishu slips into the bed and scoots to the far edge, flopping down with a huff. He stills when he realizes that Wen Kexing has sat on the edge of the bed and is reaching over to tuck the quilt around Zhou Zishu's shoulders. "What are you doing," Zhou Zishu says.


"Tucking you in?"


Zhou Zishu heaves a sigh and flips the far corner of the quilt up. "How's it feel to have egg pudding in your head instead of a brain?" he asks. "Come here. What's the point of marrying you if you won't even warm my bed?"


Wen Kexing stares at him for a beat, then slithers in next to him. 


"You're not even dressed. What were you going to do, just go back to your room?" Zhou Zishu wonders.


"Shut up," Wen Kexing says, and wriggles closer. They shuffle around together until Zhou Zishu is tucked comfortably up against Wen Kexing's side, both of them on their backs, pressed close enough together that neither is quite in danger of falling off the bed. With Wen Kexing's arm under his neck and his own arm pressed to Wen Kexing's chest, Zhou Zishu is very aware of his pulse: again, the animal of his body. He tips his face in Wen Kexing's direction, and Wen Kexing turns his head to look back at him in the dark.


Zhou Zishu studies his mouth for a moment. Then he says, "Go back to looking at the ceiling. All the pudding in your head will come out through your ears."


Wen Kexing laughs. Zhou Zishu closes his eyes.


Wakefulness comes with the prickling feeling of being watched. Then a threat: the heat and weight of someone in his bed. Then recollection: the inn, the smoke, the kiss. Wen Kexing. Zhou Zishu relaxes and opens his eyes.


Wen Kexing is curled on his side looking at him in the dim blue light of early morning. His arms are tucked in towards his chest so that his knuckles only just brush Zhou Zishu's bicep. "Even your Wen Kexing warrants a moment of vigilance, eh? How cold," he teases.


Zhou Zishu gives him an unimpressed look, then closes his eyes and turns away from him. Wen Kexing scooches dutifully over to tuck his knees against the backs of Zhou Zishu's thighs in a surprisingly chaste spoon. "It's alright. I'm not used to sharing my bed either," Wen Kexing says lightly. Some part of him comes to rest between Zhou Zishu's shoulder blades; his forehead, maybe, or his cheek. "A-Xu kept me up all night just by being here."


Zhou Zishu grunts. It doesn't shock him that Wen Kexing should be a light sleeper; ordinarily Zhou Zishu is too, but he's been sleeping more heavily recently, weighed down by exhaustion and aches. And now dama smoke, and — well. 


"How are you feeling?" Wen Kexing asks his back.


Zhou Zishu closes his eyes and breathes in. He does usually feel alright in the mornings, provided he gets to sleep a little; it's in the evening that the movements of the day begin to drag at him and his qi circulation irritates the nails. Still, he feels a little better than he has been. The recent ache caused by the cool wet of the changing weather has been soothed by the dry heat of the smoke, and his sleep was mostly dreamless. He says, "Fine."


Wen Kexing makes a considering sound. "Fine is better than normal," he guesses.




Wen Kexing rubs his face against Zhou Zishu's back. "Let's buy more in town then. Dama. I don't know where he got that pipe, I haven't seen one like that, but we could just put it in an incense burner or make tea like normal. Or — I could make you a pipe, if you like it like that."


"You just want me to kiss you again," Zhou Zishu says, to cover up how touched he feels.


"Yes," Wen Kexing says shamelessly, and slings his arm around Zhou Zishu's waist. His hand ends up tucked against Zhou Zishu's pectoral muscles, his loosely curled fingers brushing the edges of his collars. Beneath his knuckles is the final nail, the one Duan Pengju had had the honor of driving into Zhou Zishu's chest. Zhou Zishu can feel it when he notices; his arm tenses, then relaxes. "A-Xu," he says.


Zhou Zishu shifts in his embrace until he's on his back again. Without looking at Wen Kexing, he unties his shirt: one side, then the other.


"A-Xu," Wen Kexing repeats.


Zhou Zishu lays his arms by his sides and turns his head to look down at him finally. Wen Kexing looks handsomely disheveled, all pale-and-dark, and smudgy somehow, like a painting on slightly damp paper. Black ink, bleeding. His eyebrows are drawn together in concern.


"You want to look," Zhou Zishu says. "So look."


Wen Kexing uncurls and slowly leans in to set his temple against Zhou Zishu's cheek. Zhou Zishu watches the dark sweep of his eyelashes distort as his eyes move. He draws his fingertips across Zhou Zishu's chest, so slow and light that Zhou Zishu's muscles twitch.


"Does it hurt?" Wen Kexing asks. He doesn't move his fingers.


It always hurts. "It tickles," Zhou Zishu says, because that is also true, and Wen Kexing laughs in delighted surprise, his breath a warm huff at Zhou Zishu's neck. He lets more of the weight of his hand rest on Zhou Zishu's chest and continues his exploration. The scars are almost flat by now, just little white twists of tissue like improperly tanned leather. Wen Kexing's fingertips catch at each one; he's feeling for the nails underneath. Zhou Zishu breathes into his hair. When they met, perfume hung around Wen Kexing like weeping willow catkins. Now there's nothing at all.


When Wen Kexing has investigated each nail, he transitions to drawing abstract designs on Zhou Zishu's skin. He traces between the nails and up along Zhou Zishu's sternum, where the softness of muscle gives way to bone. He rests his hand for a moment at Zhou Zishu's collarbones, his thumb settling in the dip between them. He murmurs, "I can feel your heartbeat here."


"Mmn," Zhou Zishu agrees.


"You should put your arm around my back," Wen Kexing says. Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes, but he lets Wen Kexing arrange their arms as he sees fit, and then tilts his hand back towards himself so he can pet Wen Kexing's hair. Wen Kexing makes a smug sound and goes back to stroking his chest, drawing long slow loops from Zhou Zishu's collarbones to the waist of his trousers. Just touching for the sake of touching. It feels good to hold him — to be held and touched by him. Zhou Zishu closes his eyes and breathes with him. Wen Kexing strokes at his waist, his pectoral muscles, his throat. His lower belly, where there are no nails at all.


Zhou Zishu rolls his hips up minutely against his hand. Wen Kexing breathes out. His forehead is pressed still to Zhou Zishu's temple; his breath is warm on his neck. Zhou Zishu turns his face and opens his eyes to look at him. Wen Kexing's eyes are dark and half-lidded; their noses brush.


Wen Kexing's fingertips slide under the hem of his trousers. The moment draws out like sugar floss between them: their shared breath, shared gaze. Wen Kexing's fingertips trailing over soft skin, then brushing through hair. He's still moving so slowly, but he's betrayed by his rabbiting heart, which Zhou Zishu can feel against the inside of his arm where it's pressed to Wen Kexing's throat.


Zhou Zishu doesn't bother telling him he can, and Wen Kexing doesn't bother asking. They just watch each other as Wen Kexing slips his hand lower, lower. They give twinned soft sighs when he makes contact; Zhou Zishu's eyes close almost involuntarily, but he opens them again and shifts his hips for a better angle. Wen Kexing fits his palm around him and squeezes; his expression is one of wonder as he registers how hard Zhou Zishu is for him.


"A-Xu," he breathes.


"Yeah," Zhou Zishu replies, and pushes up into his palm.


Wen Kexing makes a sound through his nose and strokes him slowly: once, twice. "How do you like it," he murmurs. "You want it faster?"


Zhou Zishu shakes his head without looking away. "Just like this," he says. "Like this is good."


"Hah," says Wen Kexing.


They can't seem to look away from each other as Wen Kexing touches him. Some part of Zhou Zishu — some minute part that's still capable of critical thought — is aware that it will never feel like this again. Even if they fuck for hours every day until he dies. He has more sensation in this moment than he will ever have again, so he makes sure to pay attention: he catalogs each soft sigh, each susurrus of cloth against cloth, skin against skin; the hot weight of Wen Kexing's hand, how they move together in breath, the softness of his mouth when their lips brush. The way Wen Kexing's eyelids flutter when Zhou Zishu makes a sound. 


All of this he'll remember. For however long he's got left, he'll remember it.


"You feel good," Zhou Zishu tells him blearily.


Wen Kexing's lips curve into a smug little smile. Ah, complimenting him was a mistake. "Yeah?" he asks, twisting his hand in a way that makes Zhou Zishu's hips stutter up into him. "Does it feel like —"


Don't say it, you moron, don't say it.


"— a pussy?"


"You idiot," Zhou Zishu sighs, "Now you've ruined it."


Wen Kexing's expressive eyebrows tell him exactly how sad he is. "Have I?"


"It feels like your hand," Zhou Zishu says plainly.


Wen Kexing huffs. "Well, sorry for my subpar powers of transformation. I'm only a man, you know."


Zhou Zishu bonks their foreheads together and sighs again and says, "You're so stupid. It's your hand, that's what I like about it."


"...Ah," says Wen Kexing. "Haha. Hah. Ahhh, fuck," he moans, and kisses him. It's too much at first: too fast, too hard, but when Zhou Zishu gets both hands in his hair and pulls him back a little, the kiss slows and softens: more lips, less teeth. Sweet, desperate sounds: from Wen Kexing mostly, but yes, from Zhou Zishu too. He keeps half-opening his eyes just to see Wen Kexing looking back at him through his eyelashes; his breath comes soft and warm on Zhou Zishu's face. His tongue is wet and insistent, and it tastes like nothing at all.


They stop kissing again when he gets close, just pant into each other's slack mouths. Wen Kexing's cheeks are flushed; Zhou Zishu's hands in his hair are trembling. He comes like that, on his back with Wen Kexing pressed against his side, fucking slowly into Wen Kexing's right hand. He watches Wen Kexing watch him come for as long as he can stand to look, before pleasure wins and his eyes close. The sigh that escapes him feels like it comes from the pit of his belly.


"Beautiful," Wen Kexing breathes after a long moment of nothing but silence. "You are so beautiful. A-Xu."


Zhou Zishu actually can't talk yet, so he bites Wen Kexing's lower lip in punishment for saying such a thing. Wen Kexing laughs into his mouth and kisses him back, sticks his tongue gleefully between Zhou Zishu's teeth. Zhou Zishu tugs at his hair and shoulders until Wen Kexing rolls properly on top of him, his narrow hips fitting easily between Zhou Zishu's spread legs. He's so — 


Zhou Zishu shoves a shaking hand between them, catches Wen Kexing's hand on its way back up. It's sticky and wet and disgusting, and Zhou Zishu wants to press it to his face. He wants to lick it, wants Wen Kexing to lick it, wants them both to lick it and meet in the middle.


Wen Kexing stops kissing him to ask, "Do you have a thing about cum the way you have a thing about blood?"


Ha. Zhou Zishu ignores him and pulls his hand back down, this time to untie Wen Kexing's trousers and push both their hands underneath. Wen Kexing is — he's really so —


Well, he's two and a half strokes from coming, which he does all over their hands and Zhou Zishu's belly with a punched-out gasp. Zhou Zishu kisses him through it, petting his hair and shoulders, moving their hands together until Wen Kexing shudders and pulls them off. He collapses sideways then, his mouth a wet smear against the side of Zhou Zishu's face. "A-Xu," he sighs, "A-Xu, A-Xu."


"Lao Wen," Zhou Zishu replies, and Wen Kexing groans a breathless laugh.


"A-Xu ah, my spend isn't even cool on your belly yet, and you can't find a more intimate way to call me?"


Zhou Zishu screws his face up and clutches Wen Kexing to him and moans, "Oh, oh, fuck, Wen-xiong, yes, uhn, right there!"


"Shut up shut up shut up," Wen Kexing wheezes. "I'll kill you! I'll beat you up!"


"You won't," Zhou Zishu says, relaxing back to grin at the ceiling. "My zhiji is too good to me."


Wen Kexing sucks on his teeth and turns his face away, flustered but trying to hide it. He's so funny. How bold: to wear a mask of shamelessness over a well of shame too deep to mark.


They lie there side by side until their breath has slowed. Then Zhou Zishu flips up onto one elbow, leans in, and kisses him soundly: his top lip, then his bottom lip after Wen Kexing has had time to make a muffled sound of surprise. Zhou Zishu rolls his lip into his mouth and sucks on it, then pulls back and kisses him again; and then he pushes himself up and away, slaps Wen Kexing's shoulder with his clean hand, and says, "Alright, lao Wen! Time to get up. My little cabbagehead of a disciple should be awake by now, we should get going."


"Hah?" Wen Kexing says dumbly, as Zhou Zishu rolls out of bed. 


"Up, up, the whole day will pass you by, you indolent creature," Zhou Zishu says, turning away to shrug out of his shirt, then step out of his ruined trousers. Laundry, laundry. Behind him Wen Kexing squawks and audibly flips over for a better look.


"A-Xu, a-Xu, what an embarrassment of riches!" he calls. "You'll really spoil me. Once you've seen the vast blue sea, there are no other waters. I'll kill whoever did that to your back."


Zhou Zishu scrubs the worst of it from his hands and belly with his shirt, then splashes water on his face from the basin. "You won't," he says again. Wen Kexing makes an affronted sound, and then he seems to recognize the echo: the meaning of it.


Zhou Zishu's zhiji is too good to ask stupid questions.


"Violet purple or orchid purple?"


"For you?"


"No, for you. Yes, for me. Would you wear orchid if I gave you orchid robes?"


Probably. Zhou Zishu scoffs, "No."


"Exactly. Anyway, violet or orchid?" Wen Kexing pokes his head around the courtesy screen and brandishes two sleeves at him. Zhou Zishu thinks the courtesy screen is a ridiculous gesture: playing at being coy. They've already done so much this morning and he doesn't want Zhou Zishu to watch him change? Absurd.


Zhou Zishu is staring at his own reflection in the mirror, still deciding whether it would be worse to engage or to ignore him, when there's a loud knock at the door. They both look up.


"You have one fen to cover up anything you don't want to be seen and then I'm coming in!" yells Ye Baiyi through the door.


They're both decent already, despite the conceit with the courtesy screen; new underclothes have been retrieved and donned, and the soiled ones packed away for the next time they do laundry. Wen Kexing has already succeeded in wrapping Zhou Zishu in a second white shirt, and a dark, mild middle layer; Zhou Zishu is procrastinating on the celadon outer robe, because he quite likes it, which feels like losing.


He has enough time to exchange a raised eyebrow with Wen Kexing, and then Ye Baiyi barges in. "Qin Huaizhang's disciple, I'm taking — oh, gross, you two really did it? I was joking," he says, throwing a crinkly-nosed look of disgust around the room. He doesn't give them time to respond before continuing, "Anyway, I'm taking your purse again. They won't serve me a fourth bowl unless I prove I can pay."


Zhou Zishu's head is firmly in his hands. Wen Kexing says, "Didn't the kitchen only just open? How have they had time to do more than boil a pot of tea, you old freak?"


Ye Baiyi snorts. "What time do you think it is? Even your pathetic excuse for a disciple is up and about. He ate his first bowl as I ate my third."


Zhou Zishu raises his head from his hands to throw his comb at Wen Kexing's head. "What did I tell you!" 


"Here it is," Ye Baiyi says to himself over Wen Kexing's cry of protest. He stoops down to retrieve the purse from the floor, where it's been since he threw it at Zhou Zishu the night before. He stands up and strides back to the door, then stops at the threshold and whirls around to glare at them. "Hey."


Zhou Zishu straightens. "Senior," he replies, feeling cautious. Ye Baiyi looks too serious all of a sudden. Has he figured out Wen Kexing? Decided not to help them after all? Could he find it so awful, what they've done?


Ye Baiyi meets Zhou Zishu's gaze, then Wen Kexing's. Then he tips his chin up and says, "I have three things to say to you. Wash your hands before you touch anything. Be grateful you can't get pregnant by accident." He pauses for the two of them to take in that mortifying advice, then finishes, "Be good to each other," and leaves.


Zhou Zishu stares at the door.


Wen Kexing clears his throat after an excruciating pause, during which Zhou Zishu tilts his head back to face the ceiling as if the power of his stare might collapse it. "When he said, by accident," Wen Kexing starts. "Do you think —"




Wen Kexing laughs and wanders over to sit on the arm of Zhou Zishu's chair. He chose the orchid after all. "And here I thought Zhou-xianggong's face was so thick," he sighs, caressing Zhou Zishu's cheek. 


Zhou Zishu swats his hand away. "Ai, enough," he complains, so that Wen Kexing will do it again. He feels strange, sex-smug, raw with approval, wriggly with some kind of anxious delight. 


When he was a child in Siji Manor, his shifu used to make all the boys abandon their training for a day in the spring to go round the mountain and watch the rabbits impress each other. He told Madam Qin it was to practice stealth, and technically it was: you had to be very still and very quiet, if the rabbits were to forget or ignore you. But the point was to spend a day outside watching rabbits flip-flop all over the hill. Those creatures which were so careful all winter to spend the least energy possible were suddenly so full of zest that they didn't seem to know what to do with themselves, and so they would chase each other, and execute great leaps into the air, and pause to eat voraciously, and then chase each other again.


That's how Zhou Zishu feels, looking up at Wen Kexing in the morning light. He wants to chase and be chased, catch and be caught. He wants to throw Wen Kexing through the air and then eat breakfast with him. He wants to be good to him.


"Hey," Wen Kexing says then. "Let's go eat. I'm so hungry, a-Xu. I've never been hungrier."


"...Mn," Zhou Zishu agrees. "Yeah, Lao Wen. Let's go."