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Risk Assessment

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It’s long past noon when Wen Kexing notices the silence stretching out over the yard. He has been busying himself in the kitchen and later wandering through the halls and rooms he still hasn’t all mapped out since they arrived in Siji a few months ago. Wen Kexing pauses and listens to the wind in the trees. A few birds are picking at some fallen, half-rotten fruit. Zhou Zishu should be shouting instructions at Zhang Chengling but all Wen Kexing can hear are some thuds in the distance. Now that he thinks of it, he hasn’t seen — or heard — Zhou Zishu since lunch.

He makes a turn and enters the yard to follow the sound, pebbles crunching under his feet. He finds Zhang Chengling training on the mu ren zhuang1. Wen Kexing notices that his stance is too small and his upper body is twisting in the wrong direction. He could knock him over with a gentle hit to the shoulder.

“You’re lucky your shifu is not around. He’d make you run ten rounds for that poor footwork of yours,” Wen Kexing calls out to the boy who jumps out of his skin at the sudden sound, hitting his elbow on a wooden arm. Zhang Chengling winces and turns around but his feet get tangled. Wen Kexing catches him at the last moment and pulls him upright before he can fall to the ground.

“Ah, shishu! I’m sorry, I thought you were shifu,” the kid mumbles, still a little jittery from the scare. He is rubbing the sore spot on his arm. “If I were your shifu, you’d already be running those ten rounds. Apropos, where is A-Xu? I haven’t seen him since lunch,” Wen Kexing inquires as he’s gently patting the boy’s shoulder. Having recovered a little, Zhang Chengling pulls his robes back in place and straightens his back. “I don’t know. After lunch, he told me to practice my forms until dinner. He said he had something to do but I shouldn’t dare slack off in his absence. He’d know if I did.” Zhang Chengling lowers his gaze sheepishly.

Wen Kexing chuckles. Zhou Zishu would definitely know. “Then you better continue before your shifu comes back and makes us both run ten rounds,” he jokes and watches as Zhang Chengling’s face pales a little. Without saying a word, the boy immediately turns back towards the mu ren zhuang. “Eh, but not with that stance,” Wen Kexing admonishes. “What did A-Xu teach you? Show me.” Zhang Chengling seems to think for a moment, trying hard to remember Zhou Zishu’s exact words. Then he takes a new stance, feet a little further apart than before. Wen Kexing eyes him up and down. “Better, but put your right foot a little further back. And point your toes outwards.” He nudges Zhang Chengling’s foot with his own. “Alright. You practice and I look for your shifu.” Already leaving, Wen Kexing remembers something, “And stop hitting that thing so hard. It’s as if you were trying to break your own arms on it. You’re supposed to practice your forms, not your strength,” he adds with no real bite to his voice. Zhang Chengling simply nods, though maybe a little red in the face, and Wen Kexing sets out to look for Zhou Zishu.


There are not many places Zhou Zishu is likely to be in. Usually, he spends his afternoons in the yard drinking wine while supervising Chengling’s training. If he isn’t in the kitchen watching Wen Kexing work, he’s in his shifu’s old rooms or his own trying to make sense of scrolls and scripts. With Siji Manor lying dormant and unattended for so many years, there is a lot to be found and cleaned up yet progress is slow with only the three of them around.

Wen Kexing’s legs are carrying him through the halls without much thought but before long he finds himself out of ideas and no A-Xu in sight. The main part of the manor is empty save for Chengling and Wen Kexing himself, just as the kitchen is how he left it at noon, and their bedrooms and even guest bedrooms are as abandoned as the rest of it. Thus, Wen Kexing decides to wander off further into the back buildings.

They haven’t had much time to tend to all the remaining rooms in this portion of the manor yet aside from sweeping the dust, removing the cobwebs, and picking up broken decor. As clean as it might be, Wen Kexing thinks it looks sad. He enters the canopied hallway and marvels a little at the wooden structure. When he came here with his parents, this part of the manor wasn’t yet built. All the carved details, although a bit damaged, are still standing out from all the architecture Wen Kexing has come across in his life. Appreciatively, his hands move over the wooden railing in passing.

There is still no sign of Zhou Zishu until Wen Kexing notices that one of the rooms’ doors is slightly ajar. He softly knocks against the wooden frame and calls out for Zhou Zishu, but doesn’t receive a response. Carefully, he enters the room on silent feet. He is immediately met with a sweet, thick scent that is suffusing the air. As he is looking around to find the source of the smell, his eyes glance over a few shelves and a table, seemingly the only significant objects in the room. Protruding further, he calls for A-Xu again and sees that there’s an adjoining room, hidden from view by a folding screen. The scent seems to be coming from that direction.

“A-Xu? Are you in here?” Wen Kexing asks as he passes the folding screen. Behind it, an even smaller room opens up. And right in the middle of it, on a bed, sits Zhou Zishu, slouched with one leg hanging off the bed. He doesn’t seem to sense neither Wen Kexing’s approaching nor his calling.

“Here you are. I’ve been looking for you, A-Xu!” Wen Kexing exclaims excitedly but Zhou Zishu doesn’t even look his way. Instead, he’s staring at the ceiling and giggling to himself like he had just heard something amusing. The lack of a reaction makes Wen Kexing wary. “A-Xu?” he asks again, slowly approaching and waving a hand in Zhou Zishu’s line of sight, “Hey, A-Xu, what’s wrong with you?” With Wen Kexing so close, Zhou Zishu seems to finally notice him but his eyes don’t focus on him. He doesn’t appear to recognize Wen Kexing either. Wen Kexing starts to worry.

Closing the remaining distance, he strides over to the bed and comes to a stop in front of the stranger. He reaches out and shakes Zhou Zishu gently by the shoulders. “A-Xu. Look at me,” Wen Kexing demands. Zhou Zishu’s head is swaying from one side to the other, so it takes a moment for Zhou Zishu to really look at him. But when he does, there is neither recognition nor his usual fond annoyance present. His words come out slurred and incoherent. “Mmmmhhh… pwetty,” he says as he grins so hard his eyes vanish behind his eyelids. 

Never before has Wen Kexing seen Zhou Zishu in such a state, not even all the times he was drunk. Worried, he touches his forehead to feel for a fever but it doesn’t feel hotter than usual. One hand still on Zhou Zishu’s shoulder, he uses his other hand to gently pat him on the cheek. “A-Xu, do you know where you are?” This only earns him a soft laugh, sight unfocused and distant again. “Please, A-Xu. Look at me. Do you know who I am?” Wen Kexing asks anxiously, now holding his face in both of his hands. “Hehe… handsy,” Zhou Zishu swoons, shamelessly rubbing his face a little deeper into one of the hands.

Wen Kexing is looking around the room, trying to find a clue to what might be going on, when Zhou Zishu lets out a little “ow” and frowns. He scrunches his nose in obvious displeasure and reaches for a teacup sitting by the bed. Before he has even lifted it to his lips, Wen Kexing snatches it out of his hands. He takes a sniff and knits his eyebrows in much the same fashion as Zhou Zishu, though he doubts it’s for the same reasons.

“A-Xu, did you drink that?” he asks but Zhou Zishu is only trying to get the teacup back. With his lack of coordination, his arms are loosely grabbing at Wen Kexing who is holding the tea out of arms’ reach for him. “Nooo, give it back,” he wails but Wen Kexing has no intention of doing so. He knows what he smelled. “No. No more of that,” he declares resolutely. When Zhou Zishu throws himself at him again, he empties the cup right on the spot, making the man in his arms scream in agony. “Noo, give it back to meeee. I need that,” he enunciates very clearly, suddenly seeming much more sober than before. 

Zhou Zishu continues to struggle for a bit more until his face suddenly changes, confusion dragging his eyebrows down. “Ow…,” he lets out, voice pressed and sounding hurt, before holding his stomach and curling into himself. Passing out, Zhou Zishu slumps right into Wen Kexing’s arms.


The first thing Zhou Zishu notices when he comes to is the nausea. Next, he realizes that everything around him seems to be spinning even before he opens his eyes. He tries to roll onto his side but the movement just makes it worse. His stomach tightens. He thinks he’s going to be sick as he hangs his head off the side of the bed.

“Serves you right,” is the first thing he hears from Wen Kexing who is sitting on the edge of the bed, arms crossed. “Only an idiot would drink tea made from rotten leaves.” His tone is lecturing but it lacks real bite. Being reminded of his choices, the nausea washes over Zhou Zishu again. He claws his hands into the wooden frame. Fearing Zhou Zishu might really throw up this time, Wen Kexing’s strict expression vanishes. He pushes a prepared bucket closer to the bed while rubbing soothing circles into Zhou Zishu’s back. Zhou Zishu can do nothing but wait until the waves of nausea slowly abate. Thinking he will be okay for a while, he rolls back on his back and closes his eyes, panting. He doesn’t want to see Wen Kexing’s stricken face but he doesn’t have to in order to learn what Wen Kexing is thinking.

“You’re an idiot, Zhou Zishu. What were you thinking using these clearly rotten herbs? Where did you even get them? Did you raid the manor’s herb storage?” The questions, which are sounding much more like accusations, hit Zhou Zishu so fast that he can’t even get a word in. Eventually, he sighs and drops the hand that’s been covering his eyes to the side. He opens his eyes but doesn’t dare look at Wen Kexing yet.

“I know,” he admits, “It was worth it though.” Next to him, Wen Kexing is bristling with anger, trying to contain his words. He is visibly reining himself back in before he speaks. “Explain,” is all he says and Zhou Zishu can’t possibly deny him this simple request. Not now.

“I’ve been feeling… bad lately. Like ‘insides made from hot metal and knives’ bad. So I wanted to recreate a pain reliever I remembered making for my shifu shortly before his death. I didn’t even know if we still had all the ingredients for it. I just went with what I had.” That Zhou Zishu didn’t want to burden Wen Kexing with his pain goes without saying, but it hangs between them like heavy fog.

Wen Kexing listens to the words and a series of questions pass through his mind immediately. Did A-Xu just not notice the rotten smell and taste or did he ignore it? Wen Kexing can guess. Why didn’t A-Xu say anything to him, in the morning, at lunch, if he’s been feeling so much pain? But he settles on the most burning question for the moment.

“How long?” The words lie heavily between the two. Zhou Zishu could feign confusion, ask what he means by that, but he knows. He knows just all too well what Wen Kexing wants to know. He would want to know the same thing if their situations were reversed. 

“A few days. Maybe a week,” Zhou Zishu whispers, yet Wen Kexing hears the words just all too clearly. They dispel the fog between them and in his mind until only the realization settles in his thoughts. A-Xu has been in pain, such extreme pain that he sought an experimental relief, for days without telling him. Worse, Wen Kexing didn’t notice that something was off himself. His own hand that is lying between them on the bed quivers with the indecision of being angry at Zhou Zishu or at himself. In words that come out all wrong, Wen Kexing asks, “And instead of trusting me and asking for my help, you gamble with your own body and hide it from me by vanishing for hours?” 

Wen Kexing’s eyes are burning with the same intensity as Zhou Zishu’s face. Zhou Zishu wants to avert his eyes but he knows he has to look at him. He scrambles for the clenching hand and clumsily unfurls it. “I am really sorry, Lao Wen. I simply didn’t want to burden you further. I didn’t know my actions would feel that way to you. I do trust you,” Zhou Zishu says with emphasis on the last part. He makes a conscious effort to give Wen Kexing a gentle, comforting smile at the end, despite his insides feeling like shards and needles. An effect which cannot be fully blamed on the nails or his experimental medicine. 

For a moment, Zhou Zishu thinks Wen Kexing might lash out at him but then his facial expression changes suddenly. He sees sadness more than anything on that face. “A-Xu.” The air between them is heavy with words unspoken. Wen Kexing looks like he wants to say more but doesn’t. Instead, he squeezes Zhou Zishu’s hand and lays it back down, still covering it with his own. “Please tell me next time. Will you, A-Xu? I might not have grown up in the Healers Valley but I have learned a few things nonetheless. Just don’t vanish like that again. And obviously don’t drink rotten herbs,” he pleads but not unlike a command.

Zhou Zishu is feeling too weak to object. And after all, Wen Kexing’s requests are reasonable, though maybe not for a pain-ridden ex-assassin. So he hears himself agreeing, “Okay, Lao Wen.” Seemingly having heard all that he wanted to, Wen Kexing gets up and gathers himself to leave. Filled with fear, Zhou Zishu quickly grabs his arm, making his dizziness flare up. For a moment, he thinks he might have said the wrong thing, still. “Stay. Please,” he begs in a small voice. His gaze is locked on Wen Kexing, trying hard to discern any small twitch, yet said face quickly softens. Wen Kexing pries Zhou Zishu’s fingers off his arm before taking his hand in both of his.

“Later. Relax. I’m just going to cook you something to eat to dispel all of that nasty concoction out of your body. Or do you wanna feel this sick all night?” he asks half-earnestly. Meaning sinking in, Zhou Zishu slowly shakes his head and settles back down. Wen Kexing leans over him, tugging the blanket closer around Zhou Zishu’s neck. “Sleep a little if you can. When you’ve eaten, you can tell me more and we’ll figure something out,” he reassures him, not without gently patting his head and rearranging his hair so he lies more comfortably. Before he can really react to the gestures, Zhou Zishu realizes he’s already nodding off. His body suddenly feels a lot heavier than it did just mere seconds ago. The sharp pain is reduced to a deep ache, settled at the bottom of his chest like a sunken ship. Zhou Zishu thinks he said something to Wen Kexing but he only feels a warm hand cradling his face before he drifts asleep.