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a meeting of worlds

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The first thing Wen Kexing says when he wakes up that day is, “You're not my Ah-Xu.”

Which, while oddly hurtful to hear whilst half-asleep in your husband's octopus grip, is not untrue. This Wen Kexing is not his Lao Wen either. He can tell by the shape of his body, the very feel of him. Zhou Zishu pulls back, forcing himself awake, eyes opening blearily. Wen Kexing - because he is undeniably Wen Kexing, even if he is not the right Wen Kexing - gets up and moves to the window, throwing the blinds open. His hair is a bright white, haloed in the sunlight.

“Where are we? This isn't even the mountain...!”

“What mountain?” Zhou Zishu asks, voice raspy with sleep.

Wen Kexing turns to him. The hoary locks make him look older, despite the youthful curve of his cheek. What a bizarre thing to see. “Mount Changming,” he says impatiently. “Where we live? After the Combined Six Cultivation Method?”

“We never did that,” Zhou Zishu says slowly. He sits up in bed, stretching. Parts of him are still sore from last night, so the person he went to bed with was definitely his Lao Wen, not this one. “What's your name?”

“Wen Kexing,” Wen Kexing says. “You're...”

“Zhou Zishu,” Zhou Zishu replies. “Zhou Xu to some.”

“This must be a dream,” Wen Kexing murmurs to himself, pacing across the floor of the room. “If we haven't done the method yet - wait, does that mean, Ah-Xiang—?” He turns, naked hope in his eyes, and even if Zhou Zishu does not know this version of him, it's painful to watch a man's heart break in realtime.

“She's gone,” he says, not unkindly. “I'm sorry.”

Wen Kexing looks down, his shoulders sinking. His face is so open, compared to what Zhou Zishu is used to. How did a man like this rule the Ghost Valley - if he even did?

“It's not a dream.”

Wen Kexing starts from his grief, looking up again. “How do you know?”

“Because I'm real,” Zhou Zishu drawls. “Which I wouldn't be if you were dreaming.”

“That's not how that works,” Wen Kexing says angrily. “Well, you might be happy to laze around all day, but I am going to find out what's going on!” He pulls on his outer robes, huffing, and stalks out the door.

Zhou Zishu looks after him, eyebrows raised. Fascinating.


After Zhou Zishu has found his wayward not-husband at the local temple, threatening the local priest into telling him everything he knows about soul-switching, they finally have some semblance of a theory.

Like reincarnations, there are lives being lived concurrently, and it seems that two versions of the same man - whose soul is the same, but whose circumstances were more or less different - have switched places, blurring the lines between the two realms.

“You don't seem too concerned,” Wen Kexing says. Zhou Zishu has broken out the strongest alcohol for the occasion, and they're back at the inn, drinking at a low table across from each other.

“I know him,” Zhou Zishu says simply. “I couldn't get rid of him even if I wanted to.”

“But you don't want to,” Wen Kexing questions. His eyes are bigger than Lao Wen’s. He must be much better at playing innocent than the other one would be.

Something about him reminds Zhou Zishu of Jiuxiao, of that silly boy who worked too hard and never learned, but he pulls himself away from that train of thought as soon as he recognises it. Instead, he shrugs, not replying.

“I want to get back to my world,” Wen Kexing says. “No offense, but you're...”

“Different?” Zhou Zishu asks, refilling his cup. “You are, too.”

Wen Kexing blinks, as if this hadn't occurred to him. A few silvery strands fall in front of his eyes, and he brushes them away impatiently. “I am?”

Zhou Zishu laughs. “Yes.”

“Ah.” Wen Kexing frowns, thinking. “Maybe that's the key - if I do something that's so different to this world’s Wen Kexing, it might reject me in his place and switch us back. There's bound to already be an imbalance in the realms now, and if I amplify it, perhaps that would make it... snap back into place, so to speak.”

“Perhaps,” Zhou Zishu says. “It's worth a try. It's hard to imagine anything that Wen Kexing wouldn't do, though, he's not very scrupulous...”

“Unsurprising,” Wen Kexing says “What would be so out of character for this world's Wen Kexing that the realm would reject me?”

Zhou Zishu hums thoughtfully. He studies the rim of his cup, then says, “I suppose there's one thing I can think of.”

“Ah? What is it? Tell me, so we can try it,” Wen Kexing says, leaning forward in eagerness.

“You could let me fuck you,” Zhou Zishu says nonchalantly. His eyes lift to meet Wen Kexing's, holding his gaze.

And then Wen Kexing does the most wonderful thing any Wen Kexing can do: he blushes. “That's not appropriate,” he says, “I'm—”

“Trust me, he won't mind,” Zhou Zishu interrupts. “I'm him, aren't I? And if I know my Lao Wen, they're probably getting up to the very same thing.”

Wen Kexing's eyes widen to the size of saucers, and then he drains his cup in one swallow. “Very well,” he says. His face changes into something smooth, seductive. Alluring. His lips are fuller than Lao Wen’s. Zhou Zishu wants to crack this mask and find out what's underneath, wants to see what his Lao Wen could have been, had the world not been such as it is. “Let's do this, then... Ah-Xu.”

“Xiao Wen,” Zhou Zishu says, and watches with amusement as Wen Kexing's face cycles through several emotions at once, not all of them negative.

He does not ask why that act would be so out of character for this world’s Wen Kexing. For as much as Wen Kexing is a stranger to himself, there is an understanding there, one that Zhou Zishu does not want to know about. Instead, he demands, “Tell me how you usually do it.”

There is less finesse to this Wen Kexing - his movements and speech can be as gracious and refined as Lao Wen’s, but there is a childlike immediacy to him when he lets his guard down. Tell me this, give me that, your attention should be on me.

“Well.” Zhou Zishu moves over to the sleeping mat, folding his sleeves under himself. “Usually, Lao Wen does most of the work.”

“That doesn't surprise me,” Wen Kexing says. His eyes soften with fondness, and despite his white hair and straight nose, Zhou Zishu sees his husband clear as day. “And you always receive?”

Zhou Zishu smirks, drinking. “Not today. Come here.”

Wen Kexing comes, obedient. Some things don't change. He kneels in front of Zhou Zishu, who grasps his chin, pulling him into a kiss.

Were his husband here, he would ask for a show. Zhou Zishu wonders if he would love to watch him take this softer Wen Kexing, or if his Wen Kexing would hate this version too much. Perhaps he will be shocked, appalled when he learns that Zhou Zishu has fucked him.

No - Zhou Zishu doesn't think so. He thinks Wen Kexing will be relieved, that another version of him could satisfy this want of Zhou Zishu's. That he, in one way or another, can be everything and anything Zhou Zishu would ever want.

This Wen Kexing kisses well. He gives as good as he gets, licking into Zhou Zishu's mouth and biting at his lips, pushing him back onto the mat. Zhou Zishu goes easily, intrigued as Wen Kexing looms over him. His robes broaden his shoulders, adding illusion to his silhouette, and Zhou Zishu wonders - not entirely innocently - what he looks like underneath.

“You've got a good mouth,” he murmurs. He feels Wen Kexing's pulse jump where he's got his hand resting on Wen Kexing's shoulder. “Tell me, then, how do you and your Ah-Xu do it?”

It is funny, that every Wen Kexing seems to call Zhou Zishu Ah-Xu. Some things change - like Wen Kexing's hair, still shockingly bright - while some things seem to stay the same. “It depends what we're in the mood for,” Wen Kexing replies. “My Ah-Xu isn't as lazy as you.”

“Then my Lao Wen is a better wife than you are, for letting me grow this lazy,” Zhou Zishu says, laughing when Wen Kexing squawks in indignation. “Take your robes off.”

Wen Kexing kisses him again, as if on instinct - Zhou Zishu wonders if he always kisses his husband before moving away from him. Maybe they too had a time of wondering, will this be the last time?

He palms himself absently through his robes as he watches Wen Kexing strip. Wine rests heavy and sweet on his tongue, and this Wen Kexing is still strikingly beautiful, enough for Zhou Zishu to admire him openly. Where his Wen Kexing is broader and sharper, this Wen Kexing is gangly and soft as he loses his outer robes, leaving him in only thin white cotton.

Wen Kexing's eyes keep darting to Zhou Zishu's hand. “I could give you a real show, if you wanted.”

Zhou Zishu shakes his head. He's not interested in watching an act, suspecting that every Wen Kexing only learned how to perform under duress. “Just keep going.”

Then Wen Kexing lets his inner robes fall to the ground, baring him entire to Zhou Zishu's eyes, and for a moment Zhou Zishu loses all interest in sex.

There are cruel, deep whip marks curling around Wen Kexing's shoulders and across his ribs. He is standing so that Zhou Zishu can see only a little of his back, but he sees how the scars have stretched and curved with age. For the scars to have stretched this much, he must have been whipped as a child. Hard enough for the skin to be permanently marred, even with all the buoyancy of youth.

Is it a divine law, that every Wen Kexing must suffer? And as a child—

Zhou Zishu takes a deep, unsteady breath. He thinks about why his Wen Kexing would never do this, and he looks at this Wen Kexing and hopes, bitterly, that he was spared that fate.

Wen Kexing's lips quirk. “What is it? Surely the other me isn't so different.”

“No,” Zhou Zishu manages. “No, but...” He's had years to learn about Lao Wen’s scars, has had time to accept the brutal injustice they signify. This is different. “Come here, will you?”

Wen Kexing moves closer. He is timid, unsure of himself. What does the other Zhou Zishu possibly do with such a strange man? This Zhou Zishu kisses him, because that seems better than anything else, and the confidence he finds in Wen Kexing's mouth is enough for him to lie back.

With his hands on Wen Kexing's hips, he guides him to straddle him. Wen Kexing looks distant in a way that Zhou Zishu recognises from another face, like he isn’t quite present, and he lightly squeezes his skin to bring him back to the room.

“Does your Ah-Xu touch you?” he asks, stroking over Wen Kexing's hips. His bones lie slightly differently under his skin than Lao Wen’s, and he has moles in new places. As he's touched, the skin on his chest starts to flush, a blush that moves up over his throat to his cheeks.

“Yes, of course,” Wen Kexing says. “Why, do you not touch your Lao Wen? Are you too lazy for even that?”

“Sometimes,” Zhou Zishu drawls, and watches with amusement as Wen Kexing’s blush spreads to his ears. So this Wen Kexing likes that, as well.

“You’re terrible,” Wen Kexing mutters. He leans over him, undoing Zhou Zishu’s sash and pulling his robes apart, trying to see something, but Zhou Zishu isn’t sure what—

Ah. Wen Kexing’s fingers rest over the scars from the Nails. His expression must mirror what Zhou Zishu’s looked like a few moments prior. Is it a divine law...? “You’re still mortal,” Wen Kexing murmurs, tracing the scars. “So how did you...?”

“Da Wu helped me,” Zhou Zishu says. He cocks an eyebrow. “Am I not mortal in your world, then?”

Wen Kexing shakes his head. “We had to follow the Six Cultivation Manual,” he says, somewhat reluctant. “Da Wu was going to help, but Ah-Xu removed them first.”

“Removed them?”

“Because I was presumed dead, and he thought...” Wen Kexing waves his hand. “Ah-Xu, it’s a whole thing, you don’t want to know.”

Zhou Zishu laughs quietly. “Mm, I suppose knowing too much about your world might break some other rule of the universe.” He bucks his hips slightly. “Let me find the oil.”

Wen Kexing draws back, enough for Zhou Zishu to sit up and pull the pot from its hiding place. Were it his Lao Wen, he would be leering already, taking the oil from Zhou Zishu’s hands and using his clever fingers to delve into Zhou Zishu’s body. This Wen Kexing is less sure of himself. If Lao Wen is a stallion, this Wen Kexing is a colt, though Zhou Zishu will never, ever admit that he has compared Lao Wen to a figure of virility.

In all their times together, he has never been the one urging Wen Kexing on, never been the one to take care of him. Lao Wen is a man of stone, unable and unwilling to let himself crack open enough for Zhou Zishu to protect him, and Zhou Zishu has made his peace with that, but that doesn’t mean he will let his opportunity pass. “I was going to make you ride me,” he murmurs, “but I think we’ll start like this.”

“Start like wha— Ah-Xu!” Wen Kexing lets out a startled noise as Zhou Zishu pushes him down onto the bed mat, sliding in between his legs. He lets his clothed thighs slide against Wen Kexing's naked ones, kissing him again as they start to rut against each other. Damn the man, but every Wen Kexing is irresistible - and the sentiment is clearly mutual, by the way Wen Kexing's fingers tangle in his hair, by the way he reaches down to cup his ass.

When Zhou Zishu gets oil on his fingers and pushes them into Wen Kexing, they both stop for a moment. Wen Kexing is flushed, lips bitten red and pupils blown with arousal, but his thighs are tense around Zhou Zishu, and his eyebrows are tight with concern. Zhou Zishu feels a sudden rush of guilt, wondering if he has mistaken Lao Wen’s reaction, imagining that when the right Wen Kexing returns to him, his eyes go distant as he says, you did what...?

No, even in his head, that is too unbelievable. **Wen Kexing would turn to him with a curious smile, saying, Well, was it good, Ah-Xu? Let me get the wine, and then you have to tell me everything.

At first, he prepares this Wen Kexing like he would himself, habitually seeking the slight burn of stretching too-soon, but Wen Kexing goes quiet and still beneath him, and Zhou Zishu realises his mistake. “Tell me about your Ah-Xu,” he says, knocking his knee against Wen Kexing's thigh in apology.

Wen Kexing blinks, returning to himself. “What...? You said that would be a bad idea, didn't you...?”

“You don't need to tell me the specific events,” Zhou Zishu says. His fingers have stilled inside Wen Kexing. A body is a body is a body, but this is still Wen Kexing, and Zhou Zishu wants to do it right. “Just tell me about him. What's different about us, or what's the same.”

“You're both terribly lazy,” Wen Kexing says. “You look older... you're thinner, too.”

“If you're just going to list the ways in which you find me inferior, I suspect I won't be able to do the deed,” Zhou Zishu replies. “I don't find that terribly arousing.”

Wen Kexing laughs, surprisingly deep, and his body unwinds slightly. Zhou Zishu rocks his fingers in him, encouraging. “I could do no such thing,” Wen Kexing says warmly. “Unfortunately, I am a man of weak constitution, and every Ah-Xu leaves me breathless, yourself included.”

Zhou Zishu huffs. “Always a sweet talker, hm? I should have known. Keep going, then.”

“Ah-Xu - my Ah-Xu - is lonelier than you, I think,” Wen Kexing continues softly. “I trapped us on that mountain, because it was the only way I could keep him alive... But he wants to travel. See Chengling.”

“You have a Chengling, too?” Zhou Zishu asks. “Actually - let's not talk about him right now, it feels a bit...”

Wen Kexing laughs again. Different from Lao Wen’s crowing, this Wen Kexing's genuine laughter is like the reverberation of a gong. If Zhou Zishu were a teen, the sound would send happy little shivers through him, but as he is twice that age now, he only finds it mildly pleasant. Wen Kexing's body relaxes around him, letting Zhou Zishu curl his fingers up with ease, and the moan Wen Kexing lets out when Zhou Zishu finds his sweet spot makes them both shudder.

“You're - ah - only slightly less talented at this than he is,” Wen Kexing says breathlessly. His cock is hard and warm between them, searing a line against Zhou Zishu's bare stomach, and he realises that he's achingly hard as well, still contained by his underpants. “How come...?”

“I’m old and wise,” Zhou Zishu replies, twisting his fingers. “Tell me more about your Ah-Xu. Does he make you beg for it?”

Wen Kexing tightens around his fingers, a startled noise escaping him. “H-how did you know—”

“You look like you'd like that,” Zhou Zishu says. He takes care to keep his breathing even, used to appearing unaffected. “You look like you'd beg, too, like a good boy.”

Wen Kexing lets out a strangled moan and covers his face, but he can't hide the way his cock jumps at the words, leaking into the space between them. Zhou Zishu laughs and pulls his fingers out, undoing his underpants and smoothing oil onto his cock. He lies back, letting his hand move slowly over his cock, enjoying the tease of it.

“You stopped!” Wen Kexing sits up, outraged, and straddles him. Their skin is slick with oil and precome where they meet, Wen Kexing's ass on Zhou Zishu's hips, and the slide makes them both stop - Wen Kexing moans, while Zhou Zishu inhales deeply. “You're, ah, you're really just going to lie there and make me do all the work?”

“You're a youthful whippersnapper,” Zhou Zishu replies. He cups Wen Kexing's hip again, familiar and unfamiliar all at once. “I'm an old man, you can't possibly expect me to do anything more...”

“I can and I will,” Wen Kexing says. He rolls his hips, and Zhou Zishu's cock slides along the crease between his thigh and ass - he's unable to stop himself from letting out a quiet groan, and Wen Kexing seizes on the noise with a grin. “See?” He rocks again, teasing.

“Oh, my God,” Zhou Zishu breathes out, half in awe, “you're a brat.”

Wen Kexing lets out an affronted noise. “Absolutely not!”

“Then why aren't you taking me..? Is it perhaps bigger than you're used to?” Zhou Zishu strokes the line of Wen Kexing's thigh astride his own, feeling the muscle there - slightly softer than Lao Wen’s.

“Actually, it's smalle— oh, gods, Ah-Xu—” Wen Kexing braces himself on Zhou Zishu's chest as he sinks down, and Zhou Zishu has to bite his cheek hard to keep himself from making an incriminating noise. Around him, Wen Kexing is hot and tight, and his hips buck before he can help it, seeking more of that encompassing pressure. Wen Kexing cries out, head falling back, his throat bared in one long line. How striking, the way this Wen Kexing wears his vulnerabilities, like they belong to Zhou Zishu as well, like he trusts Zhou Zishu to protect him—

Zhou Zishu feels feverish with want, his hands branding marks into Wen Kexing's hips. Wen Kexing looks content to stay on his cock, lush mouth open and wet as he pants, adjusting to the size of him inside, but Zhou Zishu needs more. The wine must be going to his head, because he wets his lips and murmurs, “Come on now, ride me, show me what a good boy you are.”

Wen Kexing shudders, his whole body tensing at the words, lashes fluttering as he squeezes around him - and that's almost enough for Zhou Zishu, because good god, a body is a whole other sensation than a fist or a mouth, and he can't remember the last time he had this - and then Wen Kexing starts to move, and Zhou Zishu's thoughts fall away in the slick slide of their bodies against each other.

This is Wen Kexing, but it is also not. The way he feels under Zhou Zishu’s hands is familiar, but the shock of his white hair, the high-pitched gasps he lets out as he fucks himself on Zhou Zishu, that’s all thrilling in its newness - all the more so for knowing he will only get this once, will only see this once.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck—” Wen Kexing pants, short and harsh, a curse on every exhale. His hips are losing their rhythm, bucking wildly, and Zhou Zishu rolls them over, one arm resting on the floor and the other one pushing Wen Kexing’s knee up to his shoulder as he fucks into him, hips thrusting deep inside. The only sounds in the room are of their panting and the obscene noises of skin against skin. He smells like him, he smells right, especially with the wine they’ve been drinking. Only a hair’s breadth away from orgasm, Zhou Zishu buries his head in the nape of Wen Kexing’s neck, sighing out,

Lao Wen..” And that’s all that it takes. With his eyes closed, the body under him has dark hair, scarred hands that come up to wrap around his back, and as this Wen Kexing lets out small, desperate sounds, Zhou Zishu keeps his eyes shut as he reaches down to wrap a hand around Wen Kexing’s cock, letting him find release—

“Ah-Xu!”

He is not the one being called for, either, and the knowledge spreads like warm tea through his limbs, soothing and relaxing him. For every Zhou Zishu, there must be a Wen Kexing to call his name.

They stay like that, curled up on the bed mat, sticky and warm. “It didn’t work,” Wen Kexing says finally, voice hoarse.

“It happened while you were asleep, didn’t it? Just give it time,” Zhou Zishu replies quietly. He rolls over on the mat, instinctively missing the warmth of Wen Kexing’s body as he slips out, and pulls the blankets over them instead. It feels as though something has been righted in the universe, something he never noticed was wrong. Wen Kexing must notice the same feeling, because he settles against him without complaint, eyes shutting.

“Usually Ah-Xu cleans us up,” Wen Kexing mumbles. “You’re so lazy. My shixiong would never...”

“Your - what?” Zhou Zishu chokes.

Wen Kexing blinks. “You’re not...?”

“Absolutely not,” Zhou Zishu wheezes. “Good God, Wen Kexing as my shidi? What have I done to deserve such a fate?”

Wen Kexing bites him, hard enough for Zhou Zishu to bat the side of his head.

“Stop that!”

“You should be so honoured,” Wen Kexing says with a haughty sniff, as if he did not just bite Zhou Zishu like a feral animal. “My Ah-Xu was very happy to have me as his shidi.”

Zhou Zishu laughs, stupefied. When Wen Kexing says Ah-Xu, it is like the whole room lights up with the force of his love. It is as embarrassing as it is endearing. Is that what Lao Wen sounds like too, when he calls for him? Could there possibly be this much sincerity in Lao Wen’s heart, which is black enough to match Zhou Zishu’s own?

As long as your affection for me is as mine is for you, I won’t let it be in vain, Lao Wen once wrote on his palm.

Zhou Zishu closes his eyes, remembering. No loss will have ravaged me more.

Perhaps every Wen Kexing is embarrassingly in love, then. Maybe, when he comes back, Zhou Zishu will tell him that he is too - or perhaps he will simply bask in the knowledge that Lao Wen already knows, whether or not Zhou Zishu tells him.


When Zhou Zishu wakes up, a black-haired man sleeps next to him, and it is with pure glee that Zhou Zishu puts his face as close as possible to Wen Kexing and murmurs,

“Good morning, shidi.”

The scream Lao Wen lets out can be heard for miles.

(”Did you like it, then?” Lao Wen asks.

Zhou Zishu shrugs. “It was enjoyable,” he says. “But too much work.”

“Because we can do it if you really enjoyed it,” Lao Wen says. He fiddles with his wine cup. “I don’t have to be...”

“It was too much work,” Zhou Zishu says again. He lifts Lao Wen’s chin with his hand, looking into his eyes. “I’m much too lazy to do it again.”

Wen Kexing looks at him for a long moment, and then he begins to smile, eyes curving into happy crescents. “I see,” he says, so smugly that Zhou Zishu decides that he won’t let Wen Kexing fuck him for at least a week.

A few hours later, he changes his mind about that.)