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Through The Looking Glass

Chapter Text

It’s impossible to simply stumble across Baoshan Sanren’s mountain.

She knows tricks others do not and is experienced enough to twist the paths around her abode so that no unwanted visitor ever gets close. She has woven arrays out of roots and carved talismans in the stones. They bring silence and solitude, and the sense of contentment that inherently goes with it. And even if the maze of mists has long but given birth to rumours of barrier impenetrable to anything but sheer desperation, she is content with that. So are her disciples, even if she gets fewer and fewer of them as the years pass.

And then the Yiling Patriarch arrives, and the mists that usually shroud her mountain lie at his feet.

She’s heard of him, of course; both before and after he received the title that instigated fear in people’s hearts. She senses him now even before she sees him, his aura that of an icicle in the middle of summer. Resentful energy is coiling around him and flowing through him, filling the emptiness in his chest where a golden core should be. He has none, and she wonders how can he even stand without it.

He looks up. In his eyes, she sees his mother’s determination. “Revered one,” he says, his voice hoarse. He is perseverance personified and it amazes her—not that she will ever admit it openly, least of all to him.

“Wei Wuxian.”

He just stares at her without a word. She doesn’t miss the way his fingers fiddle with the flute strapped to his belt. “You… are shorter than I expected,” he finally blurts out, and doesn’t it sound familiar? His face is that of the man who stole Cangse’s heart and took her away, but Wei Wuxian’s eyes and temperament are his mother’s.

“And you don’t look any better than the corpses you raise,” she shots back because subtlety has never been her strong suit. That’s why they understood each other with Cangse – they were more alike than either of them had initially suspected.

He flinches but doesn’t disagree with her opinion. It would be futile to do so – surely he must know he looks like death itself, face gaunt and eyes full of madness. Even his robes, once surely flowing and regal, are covered in dirt and splotches of blood. Whose is it anyway? Judging by appearance alone, she’s not even willing to bet.

Why is he here? She has never given him any reason to seek her out.

“Xian-gege?”

Despite the evident fatigue and the lack of the golden core, Wei Wuxian still moves with the speed and grace many older cultivators would be envious of. He crouches in the grass, mindless of the mists and the morning dew, and opens his arms for a boy who comes running out of the bushes. He is just as dirty as Wei Wuxian himself, but the bags under his eyes are even bigger.

Wei Wuxian pushes the boy’s hair out of his face. There is tenderness in that gesture, one that can never be bestowed upon a stranger.

“A-Yuan, I asked you to wait for me.” The admonishment is barely that, more a whisper than anything else. When he rises up and steps in front of the boy, his hands are shaking. “Revered one…”

“Out with it, master Wei,” she says, perhaps in an unnecessarily curt voice. This is no time for empty pleasantries. He nods at that, gives her a wry, empty smile—

And then he prostrates himself. His forehead touches the ground.

(Cangse knelt before her once, hands clasped and head down, and asked, “Please. Please understand.”

But she did not, could not—would not.)

“Please,” he says, and his voice is so, so quiet, “save them. I don’t care what happens to me, but please. Just… save them.”

The boy is clinging to Wei Wuxian as if to a lifeline, his eyes full of trust. She moves her gaze up from both of them to the direction the child has come from – and aren’t shadows deeper in those bushes than they should be in this bright morning light?

She asks the wind and it tells her a story of heartbeats fuelled by fright.

“Master Wei…” Her voice grows quieter, gentler. “Would you like some tea?”

She raises her hand, and the mists rise with it.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji still hasn’t let go of his hand, and Wei Wuxian is starting to get concerned.

Not because of the unrelenting strength of that grip, no; that is to be expected of Lan WangJi. But the slight trembling of his fingers isn’t, and neither is desperation that nearly bleeds out of him as he twines their fingers together and leads Wei Wuxian back in the direction of Mo Village.

“Hey, hey, Hanguang-Jun,” Wei Wuxian says when the silence becomes unbearable. Even the juniors are quiet behind them, following without a single question. “I’m grateful for the rescue and all, but perhaps you can let me go now? I promise I won’t hold it against you, but I’d really, really like to be on my way. Like, my own, not yours.”

He tugs on Lan Wangji’s hand for a good measure. Lan Wangji just holds on to him even tighter.

“I know I’ve said all those things back there, but it was out of desperation, you know? No one wants to get whipped, so I panicked. That Sect Leader was scary. I’ve seen a fair share of scary people in my life, I don’t need more. So please, Hanguang-Jun, could you just… let me go? I’m already indebted to you, and I’ll be indefinitely grateful if we put this behind us.”

He’s blabbering, he knows it. It used to be enough to infuriate Lan Wangji, to make him storm off somewhere while Wei Wuxian was left behind – and being left behind is exactly what he wants right now.

Lan Wangji stops all of a sudden, turning around to look back at whence they came from. His face is inscrutable as always, but the longer Wei Wuxian is looking at him, the more he sees. There’s a crease between his brows, deep and worrisome. Tiredness haunts his gaze alongside something frantic, a kind of emotion he has never shown before. He resembles a predator ready to pounce on his prey, or a string about to snap—and heavens above, does it snap.

It takes merely a blink of an eye. In one moment, Wei Wuxian is standing beside him, held in place by the hand around his own. In the next one, he’s in Lan Wangji’s arms.

They’re trembling around him.

“Um... Hanguang-Jun—”

“You’re here,” he hears him whisper. Having nothing to do with his hands, he brings them up until they rest on Lan Wangji’s back. For a man of such astounding physique, he’s shaking like a withered leaf. “You’re here.”

“Yes,” Wei Wuxian says, trying his best to sound flippant. A thousand thoughts are running in circles in his head but he can’t focus on any of them. All he feels is warmth surrounding him and a pounding heartbeat that’s not his own. Why are you acting like this? he almost asks. “I’m here. You’ve led me here, after all. I never knew the great and mighty Hanguang-Jun would drag strangers into the woods at night.”

“Not strangers.”

Ah, Wei Wuxian thinks blithely as Lan Wangji’s hands clench around the bloodied fabric he’s wearing. It would be too much to even call it a tunic. But at least now he's aware that Lan Wangji and Mo Xuanyu must have known each other in the past – and probably quite well at that, given this kind of emotional reaction. For all the years Lan Wangji has been a part of his first life, Wei Wuxian has never seen him so shaken.

And now the person Lan Wangji knows – and most likely cares about – is dead, his soul shattered never to be reborn, and his body a vessel for the very person Lan Wangji all those years ago hated more than anyone else in the world.

Now that could be a problem.

He glances at the juniors but they ignore his unspoken plea for help and just keep walking on in the direction of Mo Village. Soon, he and Lan Wangji are alone. With how desperately Lan Wangji is clinging to him, Wei Wuxian doubts he’ll be able to disentangle himself anytime soon and disappear into the night like he wants to.

“You’ve never answered.”

Mo Xuanyu, you idiot, what have you done to this man? “I was... ah. Well.”

It’s not like he can say, ‘I was dead’. Whatever transpired between Mo Xuanyu and Lan Wangji, he’ll have to find a way out of it.

Although, admittedly, it is nice to be held like that. For once, because of all this trembling and hitched breaths, Lan Wangji seems almost human. There’s also some inexplicable familiarity to his actions; something that tugs and prods at Wei Wuxian’s mind. Has it happened before? His memory is hazy at best and disastrous at worst, and the almost botched-up ritual certainly didn't help... but he would have remembered, wouldn’t he? It would’ve been a cause for celebration, the day Lan Wangji had gazed upon him without resentment; something to remember for the rest of time.

“Wei Ying,” he whispers now into Wei Wuxian’s temple. “Come back to Gusu with me.”

Well, Wei Wuxian eloquently thinks as his heart stops—

“Please.”

—shit.

Chapter Text

Of all the places Wen Chao could’ve brought him to, Yiling’s Burial Mounds had to be the worst choice.

Not that the slimy little bastard would know. No one knew, Wei Wuxian made sure of that.

So he keeps his mouth shut and his face blank, and only his heart sings in delight when they reach the top of the hill. Resentful energy is thick around them, coiling around their feet and climbing up their legs looking for something—anything—to feed on. It slithers up the mountain, seeps out of the rocks, and falls down the sky—

And waits. And with it, so do ghosts innumerable.

They gather around the hill. Some of them still resemble humans, others are nothing but wisps of memory they carried over to the afterlife. They wait and watch from afar, long used to the hunger that devoured them centuries ago. Their forms are lanky and misshapen, eyes unseeing and mouths gaping wide if they even have them. The air crackles when they move jerkily around, longing but never getting, reaching out but never grasping.

Wen Chao drones on and on about things he doesn’t understand, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t bother to correct him. It wouldn’t change anything. Not anymore.

He looks to the side instead. A tiny ghost is hovering right next to him, nothing but empty eyes and a mouth perpetually open in a scream no one can hear anymore.

“It’s the little lord,” it says and the murmur rises amongst the ghosts. Resentful energy ripples with it. “What is the little lord doing here?”

He grins even though the ghost can’t see it. “Visiting!” he tells it. “What a lovely place you have here. It could use more colours, though.”

That finally shuts Wen Chao up. His scrunched rat-like face is a sight much worse to bear than the most disfigured of ghosts. “Wei Ying,” he hisses, “has it got to you yet, you lunatic? A fearless man like you, driven mad by the mere sight of this place?”

The little ghost reaches out to caress Wen Chao’s cheek. Its hand is twice as long as its entire body. Wei Wuxian almost pities it – it can’t have looked like that in the beginning.

“This one has a rotten heart,” the little ghost whispers. The wind captures its words and carries them over to the ever-growing tempest of resentful energy around the hill. “It’ll be delicious.”

“Feel free to eat him,” Wei Wuxian tells the ghost. The next thing he knows, Wen Chao pushes him face-first onto the ground. Rocks scrape his skin and draw blood.

“So the rumours were true,” Wen Chao hisses into his ear, and Wei Wuxian has enough of him; of his voice and his face and his entire existence. “You truly are mad.”

Can any of the Wens even hear the ghosts? Or is it just resentful energy they see instead of an ever-undulating mass of souls dancing in it? He’s never got a chance to ask anyone about that. After all, his reputation preceded him and he’s never bothered correcting it. The YunmengJiang and GusuLan disciples he saved after the war are the closest he’s ever had to friends in the cultivation world, and yet they know next to nothing about him. It was too dangerous to let them in on his secrets, and now...

They’re probably dead now. He should have never got attached to them.

He’s kept one of his fists clenched tightly ever since that idiot and his entourage found him. Now he opens it and smiles. “No one’s ever truly sane.”

The dice clatter onto the ground and the ghosts around them fall silent.

“What—” Wen Chao’s voice trails away when a silver butterfly flies past him. It circles him a few times, a speck of light in a place without any. Wei Wuxian smiles and sits up, and the butterfly lands atop his head. “What is—”

“What do you think you’re doing to my son?”

Wei Wuxian has to give it to Wen Chao – the bastard is quick on his feet when he wants to be. Not that it can do him any good. At this point, nothing can. Even the ghosts know this; they have already scattered, wailing, and only the echo carries their voices. It’s as if the air itself get lighter, brighter, and the ever-present, suffocating miasma recedes until it’s nearly undetectable.

After all, it’s nothing compared to Wei Wuxian’s father.

“How did you...” Wen Chao flails around. His guards rush to him, and the Core-Melting Hand’s arm begins to glow. “Who—”

Father just smiles. It’s the kind of smile that makes the gods tremble.

And then he moves.

It’s over in seconds. In a kaleidoscope of silver and crimson, blood flows down Luanzang Hill. Father pays it no mind; he picks Wei Wuxian up and wipes his face clean with his sleeve. Butterflies flutter around them, still agitated. “When we get out of this shithole,” he says, “we’re going to Nightless City and we’ll wipe it from the face of this world. But first...” He goes to the edge of the cliff and looks down. Wind messes his already unruly hair. “I think this might be beneficial to your education.”

Wei Wuxian is tired. He’s sore and sleepy and wishes for nothing more than a few days of rest. Still, he knows there’s no point in arguing when his father makes up his mind about something. There’s never been a person more stubborn and determined than him.

Now father spreads his arms wide and the butterflies flock to him. “Well? What are you waiting for, kid?” And with that, he takes a step back and the shadows of the Burial Mounds swallow him without a trace. Wei Wuxian just shakes his head and looks down. He’s tired and it’s a long way down. One last butterfly speeds past him and dives down, so he takes a deep breath.

And jumps.

Chapter Text

Evening brought a storm and with it, a GusuLan cultivator.

Baoshan Sanren watches him from behind the veil of mists. He barely moves after his arrival, leaning heavily on his sword. His breathing is ragged, his hands – shaking. A nauseating odour of blood sours the air, but she sees no sign of it on his robes. Even if there were, it would make no difference – he’s an outsider, a trespasser, and she’s had enough of them recently.

The protective array is dormant in her palm, but she needs only a heartbeat to activate it. One breath, one move – and he’ll be gone. And yet—

And yet she waits. So does he.

Time passes, but he doesn’t move. Stars turn above them and the night turns into a new day, the storm passes, and still he doesn’t budge from where he’s standing. His determination is, quite frankly, admirable.

Many times have they come to her over the years with their trivial matters. Many times have they tried to drag her back to the world she left behind centuries ago. And regardless of reasons and excuses, regardless of wars that broke in her absence, she’s always ever had one answer.

She wonders if he’s going to accept it without making a fuss. The Lans have always been the most reasonable bunch, even though incredibly stubborn. No matter – she is more stubborn than all of them combined.

Besides, she has a grandchild to take care of now, even though he is neither of her blood nor will she ever call him that to his face. He can never know. It’s easier that way.

And so she lets the mists fall.

“Master Lan,” she says. For a while, he doesn’t even acknowledge her presence. When he finally does, her brow furrows. His movements are sluggish and his eyes bloodshot; beads of sweat trickle down his face.

“Teacher,” he says in a raspy voice. He has no right to call her that, but she gets no chance to berate him for the lack of proper conduct. “Is he... Is he here? Is he safe?”

“And whom do you mean by that?” she asks even though she knows. There’s only one person he can be inquiring about, but as to why, she has no idea.

She doesn’t miss the way his hands clench tighter around the hilt of his sword. “Wei Ying. He was supposed to... Did he find you?”

A birth name? Now that’s something she hasn’t been expecting. “What if he did? What is it to you, Master Lan?”

“Is he safe?”

She’s looking at him for a long while. He returns the glare, unwavering. The smell of blood still permeates the air, potent despite the freshness of the morning. “Yes,” she finally says. She will be content if that makes him leave. If not... well, she’ll simply make him leave. “He’s safe.”

He nods; more to himself than to her. “Good,” he says and collapses onto the ground without any further ado. The entire back of his robes is soaked through with blood.

She’s silent for a moment. The string of invectives that follows the silence is the worst she’s let out in centuries.

(Lan An would’ve laughed.)

Chapter Text

Shi Wu Du barges into the world with an aura of a genius around him and blasphemous claims on his lips.

“I can control them,” he tells the willing and unwilling alike. They laugh at him. How could they not when a madman comes and dares to say he can put a leash on death itself?

Scorn of the masses is a powerful weapon. It crawls under the skin of reality and spreads until it overcomes everything. It begets whispers and mockery. There’s no stopping it, and Shi Wu Du knows it. He doesn’t even try.

He takes it all instead and consumes it, and his determination grows on it. The sea falls to its knees before him. He tramples over it and doesn’t look back. No one notices when the sea turns stagnant. No one cares when it dies under the torrent of blood and the weight of bones.

Battle after battle, Shi Wu Du emerges victorious.

 


 

(Once upon a time, a man said, “I can control them,” and no one believed him.

He knew the depths of the sea and the secrets of what was not of this world. His were quiet waters and the vastness of the ocean under the stars, his were the determination and the cold, calculated passion. He treated the sea with respect and it responded in kind. Water rose to take him. Wrapped around him like a lover, familiar and gentler than any human he’d ever met, he allowed it to happen.

In the stagnant depths full of bones and decay, he found a home and became just like it. The sea was patient, and so was he. Slowly, sunless days after moonless nights, he took the wrongs done to him, built an armour of bones around them and let them grow until no sea could hold them any longer.

And then he waited.)

 


 

“Ge! Ge!”

Shi Qing Xuan is a ray of sunshine in the darkest night. The joy sparked by their presence is a phenomenon no scientist can explain even if they tried. No one ever dares – not when happiness is as rare an occurrence as a day without bloodshed.

“Qing Xuan.” Shi Wu Du doesn’t stop. He slows instead, and soon his hand is a familiar, grounding weight under Shi Qing Xuan’s fingers. “What do you want?”

Shi Qing Xuan smiles at him. For everyone else, he’s the man who controls the uncontrollable. For Shi Qing Xuan, he’s still their older brother who used to carry them in his arms before the world’s changed.

“We’re supposed to eat lunch together today, remember?”

Shi Wu Du’s steps falter for the briefest moment. Shi Qing Xuan doesn’t need to hear so much as a single word to know what it means.

“Qing Xuan—”

“You forgot, didn’t you?” They let go of his hand. It’s spiteful, they know it, but the heart has its own rules – and theirs is bitter. “Ge, I can’t believe you.”

Shi Wu Du stops, finally, and it’s more than he does for the world vying for his attention. “Qing Xuan.” A shadow of the old Shi Wu Du lingers in his voice – of the man who laughed and smiled and messed his sibling’s hair. “You know I have work to do.”

“It’s always work, work, work.” Their words are petty and childish, Shi Qing Xuan is the first to admit it. Lonely nights bred those thoughts and uncertain days have given them voice – and Shi Qing Xuan is tired of both. “I hardly ever see you these days.”

Their brother looks at them. He’s the man with no time, the man who conquered the sea and creatures that dwell within. He’s the man who came out of nowhere with the most daring idea and saved the world because of it.

He’s the man whose sibling knows him no more.

“Qing Xuan,” he says now, his voice tired. “Don’t be like that. If I only could—”

“Can’t you? An hour, ge. The world won’t fall apart without you if you leave it unattended for one hour.”

After all, hasn’t it fallen apart already? Even Shi Wu Du is unable to stitch it back together on his own. And yet he says, “I’m sorry. Tomorrow?”

And Shi Qing Xuan can only watch him leave, knowing that when Shi Wu Du says ‘tomorrow’, what he means is ‘never’.

 


 

(Once upon a time, a man befriended the sun.

He’d already lost everything – his life, his name, his worth, his reason for being. The sun cared for none of that. Through means unfathomable, it pierced through the depths and pulled him out of the sea; up, up, up, all the way to the world of light and the everlasting struggle he thought he’d left behind.

And for a while, the unity of two minds brought him contentment.

He should have known better than expect that his blackened fortune would be gone forever. The sea required sacrifices – and since he had nothing to give, in the end it simply took him.)

 


 

People say Shi Wu Du rules over the sea like a tyrant. He is the genius that turned the tides of war in mankind’s favour. His conquest litters the waters with bones and the praise he gets for it is limitless. Waves grow quiet, depths grow shallow, and the untameable bares its neck in submission.

Despite that, Shi Qing Xuan cannot forget what the sea had taken from them.

They wander the shores under the sun they haven’t seen in years. It’s warm on their skin, completely different from the flickering lights of bases and shelters built to preserve what was left of humankind. Now that they pushed the horrors of the depths back into the sea, the world is open once more but Shi Qing Xuan knows no peace.

In their mind, images of a desperate fight play over and over again. The sea cut one mind in two and left Shi Qing Xuan with no memento. All they have are memories and they, too, are fading.

They go to Shi Wu Du in search of a moment of peace. His time is stretched even thinner now, and the lunch he promised Shi Qing Xuan has never come to pass.

“Ge?”

Shi Wu Du hums, hunched over a pile of notes. This is his world now; has been so ever since his theory proved to be the breakthrough everyone needed. It doesn’t change the fact that Shi Qing Xuan deeply misses their brother.

“Your research...” They let their voice trail away, unsure. Merely a few things are clear in their mind. Sometimes, it seems that only what’s left of his memories is intact—and isn’t that a desperate, pathetic attempt to hold on to what the war has claimed an eternity ago?

(A woman laughs and whispers, “A-Xuan,” into their ear, and Shi Qing Xuan still feels the phantom of breath on their neck even though they never lived through that.)

“I’ve been wondering...”

Shi Wu Du hasn’t looked at them for ages – neither does he look now. His hand rests atop what must be the first and only book on Kaiju physiology. Shi Qing Xuan remembers another hand, filling it painstakingly with pages upon pages of theories and diagrams. They were dismissed at the beginning – it’s taken Shi Wu Du’s determination to make them heard and acknowledged.

“Do you think you would’ve succeeded sooner if you two had worked together?”

What they don’t ask about is, ‘Do you think he would still be alive?’

For a long, long while, Shi Wu Du says nothing. When he finally does, the sheer might of his mind finds its way to his voice and makes it cold like the depths of the sea.

“No,” is what he tells Shi Qing Xuan. “My success is my own. There’s no one else who could have contributed. No one did.”

His determination is abound and with it, he has the power to make his will reality, but what Shi Qing Xuan sees is a man they don’t know anymore. Shi Wu Du might have saved the world but he’s lost himself in the process.

The sea swallows people and gives nothing in return, and only now Shi Qing Xuan realises the emptiness it leaves in its wake. And as they watch their brother make notes in the book that used belonged to someone else, they wonder about the past that has drowned and find no answer.

 


 

The sea is patient. Even in death, it loses none of its power. It takes indiscriminately, but when it decides to give for a change, its gifts are plenty.

Under the starry sky, four behemoths made of bones and vengeance rise and the black water rises with them.

(But this time, the sun shies away from him and that is the curse of the bottomless sea.)

Chapter Text

Rain always reminded Xie Lian of the day on which he had nearly lost himself.

It was easy to forget things when his life spanned centuries. Faces blurred, names vanished, pain diminished – and only he remained unchanged, not a mortal anymore and no longer a god. He was a relic; a mistake time threw aside to move on without him. Sometimes, Xie Lian wished it had not. Sometimes, he wished a sword piercing his heart would kill him.

But sometimes, on a day like this, he was glad to be alive. He would have suffered for nought if he had given up.

The bamboo hat on his head did nothing to protect him from the torrential rainfall that caught him on the road. His robes clung to his body, soaked through and heavy. The stream he’d had to cross earlier carried away his meagre belongings and only RuoYe saved him from sharing the same fate.

And yet, he was content.

It was one of those days when he thought of sunshine despite the thick cover of clouds in the sky. It was the day to remember the sound of his mother’s laughter and the taste of food at the palace. It was the day to reminisce a life long gone – and the day on which those memories brought him no pain.

And so he walked, and the city he had left long dissolved into nothingness behind him while the one ahead was still only a promise. Despite the rain and the early dusk, lights flickered on the horizon. It had to be a big town, then, for it to be visible from afar. The wheels of fortune were constantly turning and maybe this was the day on which his luck for once would not be abysmal.

It happened sometimes, and he cherished every single one of those days.

RuoYe was disgruntled, hiding in his sleeve like an angry kitten. Xie Lian had learnt to tell its moods from the way it curled and coiled around his wrist. Now, it was tight, unmoving – and no matter how many times he poked at it, it did not move. And so he held his sleeve a little bit closer to his arm, an apology as much as a display of affection. Despite everything, he had grown to care for RuoYe. It was all he had left of the past.

“Hey, come on.” He stroked it gently, but it only slithered upwards, away from his touch. “You know it was an accident.”

RuoYe tightened and then went still as if it was just another bandage Xie Lian kept wrapped around his limbs. If it had been able to speak, he would have probably been subjected to a scolding befitting his late father.

But RuoYe had no voice, and so Xie Lian walked forth and the sound of rain accompanied them both.

 


 

Hours passed by the time Xie Lian reached what he had earlier been thinking of as a city. It turned out to be a temple – or rather what was left of it.

The rain kept falling but the temple was still burning, the flames reaching as high as the eye could see. There was no one in sight; Xie Lian hoped the devotees had fled. The night would have been silent if not for the roaring inferno in front of him. The longer he was looking at it, the more he heard.

The fire whispered about retribution. In it, he saw shapes rejoicing in destruction.

He was no god, but something inside him, dormant and buried so deep he almost forgot about it, reached out to the fire and pulled it towards itself, and for a moment Xie Lian’s eyes were burning brighter than any pyre.

He left quickly after that, and his own terror chased close after him.

 


 

All around him, temples were burning.

From tiny shrines to halls of grandeur surpassing even the royal palace of Xian Le – everything was on fire. No accident could have led to that, no natural fire could have kept burning through the rainfall of this magnitude. This kind of destruction was thorough, premeditated.

This was execution and there was no coming back from it.

Weakness had no place in the life of a god. It belonged in the mortal realm. Gods shed it along the way and left it behind like a dead weight it was, and in their absence it fed on the abandonment. It was the first step to overcome, the foundation of greatness, the stone on which godhood was built. Should they fail, should they tumble back to the dirt and the grim reality of blood and death and time passing quicker than thoughts, weakness would be the first to sink its claws in the person that had given it life.

Xie Lian knew it all too well. He had gone through that himself and now his weakness marched hand in hand with him, unseen but always lingering in his shadow. He had learnt to live with it.

Whoever it was whose temples were burning, he hoped they would soon learn that as well. Life as a god was easy but becoming a powerless shadow of oneself was anything but. It happened through the ashes of the dead and rebuilding oneself with what the world had rejected and cast aside. It meant becoming less and more at the same time. It was about discovering the realm that lay apart from reality itself, where everything and everyone was forgotten and where the silence ruled, unforgiving.

Xie Lian had been walking those paths for longer than he could possibly remember. There were no gods there, only the purgatory of one’s own making. And now, in the red haze of dying flames and the dreary grey of the coming dawn, he saw exactly that.

A lonesome red flower was growing on the side of the road, bent under the merciless onslaught of the rain. Xie Lian stopped and what was left of his heart stopped too, as it always did. RuoYe untangled itself from his arm and dropped to the ground, curling around the flower like a lost puppy. Perhaps they were all lost, the three of them; the used-to-be god, the tiniest of demons that was his only family, and the flower that meant nothing to the world but everything to Xie Lian.

He knelt in the dirt and the wet grass.

“Hello,” he said softly to the flower. It had become a habit to him, one he was unwilling to give up on. “I’ve been hoping we’d meet again soon.”

The flower swayed heavily. Without a moment of hesitation, Xie Lian took off his hat and held it over the flower. It mattered not that it was not what—whom—he hoped it to be.

No. This was for him and his conscience.

“This weather is atrocious.” The flames were dying slowly and so was the rain. “Crossing the rivers is already a hassle. I should probably wait until the currents calm down. I’m not exactly looking forward to drowning again.”

RuoYe rose from the ground and caressed his cheek. Xie Lian laughed and let it curl around his neck, uncaring for the mud it must have smeared all over his skin. He was already soaked to the bone – any more of dirt or water hardly mattered.

“I’ll just... stay here for a while with you if that’s all right. I’m...”

The sound of rain was getting louder but no drop of it had fallen onto Xie Lian’s head in a while. He looked up, confused, and saw the underside of a red umbrella instead of an angry vortex of clouds. His instincts flared to life and even though he had no spiritual power left, the physical strength of a former martial god was still enough to take on someone should the need arise.

It only took him a moment to realise that he sensed no killing intent from the person behind him. Even RuoYe, over-protective as it was, was still resting contentedly around his neck.

And so he turned around and saw a sea of red.

“Your Highness,” said the man in front of him and extended a hand towards Xie Lian. A red thread was tied around his finger – it shone brightly in the dim light of dawn.

His voice was familiar and tugged at Xie Lian’s memories. And so he took the proffered hand and let himself be pulled back to his feet. The smile on the man’s face was the softest Xie Lian had seen in aeons.

“How do you...”

If anything, that smile grew even softer. “I will never forget your voice and your face.”

And just like that, admits the rainfall and on a road hardly ever taken, Xie Lian saw the sun again. “It’s you,” he whispered reverently. He had lost a boy barely out of adolescence, but time and chance gave him back a man. “You’re back. I’ve found you.”

The man gently opened up his palm. In it, a white flower lay, small and unblemished. “And I’ve found you.”

Chapter Text

The speaker was late to his own presentation.

Lan Wangji did not even know who was supposed to deliver the lecture, focused as he had been for months on his own research. Books filled his days, ancient scrolls and unreadable tablets haunted his dreams, and he lost himself willingly in them. His reputation was born of forgotten names and written in the ashes of the dead. He had built his life around his work and everything apart from that was a hindrance he had reluctantly learnt to live with but never accepted.

And now, sent to a conference he never wanted to attend, the reason for his detachment was clearer than ever.

History demanded respect; once given, it was returned tenfold. The academia thrived on that as well, but whoever was supposed to be giving their speech now, was trampling over both.

When one’s entire career relied on uncovering what time had buried, wasting it was the most despicable crime of them all.

So when the door shot open and a man with too bright a smile and too long a ponytail barged into the conference hall, Lan Wangji refused to so much as look at him.

“Sorry I’m late.” The speaker waved – waved! – at them as soon as he jumped onto the desk behind which he was supposed to sit. “I’m here now, though, so let’s get started, shall we?”

(Too young he was, too bright, with a smile like the sun and the eyes twinkling like the stars on a cloudless night, and something in Lan Wangji’s heart lurched when he started to speak, and his voice was a melody never heard but still known, and even though he refused to so much as look at him, he could not ignore the lecture, and it was brilliance and novelty and the breath of fresh air after a stifling day, and Lan Wangji was

b u r n i n g

)

 


 

“Professor Lan?”

The glass was brittle under his fingers. Should he tighten his grip, it would shatter – and maybe then he would have an excuse to escape the unwavering attention of the man whose speech had shaken them all.

And so Lan Wangji let out a hum that could be either a greeting or a dismissal; not even he could decide. He kept his gaze focused elsewhere—anywhere but on the man in front of him. The sensible course of action would be to leave without a word, but he could not bring himself to do it.

It would be uncouth, he told himself. Unbecoming of him and unfair towards a fellow historian regardless of how much he irked Lan Wangji.

“Your lecture was splendid. I’d have killed for those sources when I was writing my thesis.”

He hummed again, feigning disinterest while every fibre of his being wanted to ask question after question. It was so rare an occurrence for another scientist to work on the same subject as he did.

“Hey, professor.” The man was closer now, his voice quieter but eyes and smile no less bright. “I have a copy of your book with me. Will you sign it?”

Lan Wangji bit back his tongue lest he snapped. If only it were just as easy to ignore the satisfaction he felt at that question. And so he sighed and looked at the man standing right next to him; this recalcitrant latecomer, the sun made flesh.

“If you wish so,” he agreed and took the book. He ignored the offered pen – he only ever used his own.

“My name is—”

“I know who you are,” he interrupted and wrote his name on the first page in a few quick strokes. After a few seconds of hesitation, he added a dedication above it and immediately felt like an idiot suffering from an overgrown ego.

He was a scientist, not a mediocre writer giving autographs left and right.

“You do? Wow. I didn’t expect... Wow.”

“Of course I do.” This time he did snap and felt even worse for that. This entire conference was a disaster; the banquet following it even more so. He should never have come. “Doctor Wei Wuxian, a historian. How could I not know of you?”

You’re the only one researching the same period, remained unsaid.

“As expected of professor Lan.” Wei Wuxian gave him another bright smile and gods, was he ever not smiling? “You know, I once applied for a position at your institute but I guess I wasn’t good enough at the time.”

His smile turned bitter as he looked away and grabbed the first drink he spotted. Lan Wangji watched him without a word. Seldom did he know what to say, let alone in a situation such as this. He understood books and the times long gone, the secrets hidden under playful words and in a guqin’s strings. People, on the other hand, had always been an enigma too complicated to decipher.

And Wei Wuxian was a conundrum that required a lifetime of careful unravelling.

“Have you read that latest article on the Wen rebellion?” he asked out of the blue. Lan WangJi approached him slowly, unwilling to speak to his back. He could not care less for social cues but even he had standards for a conversation. “The one in which someone implied they had some... magic tools and all that?”

“Ridiculous.”

Wei Wuxian laughed at that, but something about that laugh rubbed Lan Wangji up the wrong way. Wei Wuxian should only ever laugh in joy, he thought, carefree and bursting with happiness.

“Ah yes, I forgot professor Lan negated all those wild theories about cultivation and necromancy.” He raised his glass and the dim lights of the banquet hall turned the drink inside crimson. “As expected of the Yiling Patriarch’s greatest apologist.”

Lan Wangji nearly upped and left at that very moment. Too many times had he heard that, whispered behind his back in scorn and spat at him during academic debates whenever the other side ran out of arguments. And run out they did, plenty of times, and he emerged victorious from each of them even though the success always felt empty and pointless.

“It wasn’t difficult to debunk fairy tales.”

“Professor Lan has always been exceptional.” This time, Wei Wuxian’s smile was wistful, nostalgic, and Lan Wangji realised that if he wanted, he could catalogue his smiles and write a thesis on each one of them.

It was a terrifying feeling, this sheer craving that had awakened in his heart. Out of nowhere it came and brought him to his knees, and he found himself unwilling to get up.

Wei Wuxian was a stranger that did not feel like a stranger at all, and it scared Lan Wangji out of his wits.

“Hey, professor Lan.” Out of nowhere, that teasing grin was back again at full force. It whispered of upcoming troubles and spurred the storm in Lan Wangji’s heart even further. “Do you want to see my flute?”

Lan Wangji choked on his own spit.

(Shameless, something yelled within him, shameless and pathetic and ridiculous, and it was his own voice and his own words and those had been the only words to ever exist.)

“No, really, look!” Wei Wuxian pushed a phone into his face and if only Lan Wangji was not trying to get his breathing back under control, he would have pushed it away and run. “Look.”

It truly was a flute in that photo, a beauty made of darkness and simplicity, a night and a bloody sunrise turned into an instrument. In a blink of an eye, Lan Wangji knew what he was looking at.

He could recite seven different descriptions of that flute and knew of at least fifteen more.

“Is that...?” He was unable to hide his bewilderment even if he tried. So try he did not.

Wei Wuxian’s gaze was a burning brand on his skin. “It is.”

“How?”

“A family heirloom.”

It was probably the most blatant lie Lan Wangji had ever heard in his life but he decided against demanding an explanation. No matter the reason and regardless of circumstances, he had always been willing to give up almost everything to so much as hold that flute in his hands.

They were shaking now, and he could not hide that either.

“You said you wanted to work alongside me?” he asked, his voice rough and clipped like never before. He was unable to tear his eyes off the photograph. Would the flute be heavy in his hand? Did it still work? The black lacquer was so smooth that if someone was unaware of what it was, they would have most likely mistaken it for a brand new instrument.

“Yes.” Wei Wuxian’s words were soft, breathless. His voice wavered and Lan Wangji’s heart quivered with it. “Yes.”

“Monday, two weeks from now, seven o’clock in the morning.” He got up; the chair clattered to the floor and stayed there. He cared nought for it. “Do not be late.”

“Professor Lan,” Wei Wuxian murmured; it stoked the fire under Lan Wangji’s skin until he feared he would burst. “I’m never late to important meetings.”

It truly was ridiculous, that a mere smile and a husky whisper turned Lan Wangji’s self-control into dust and left him reeling. A gaping abyss opened up in his chest – it had the shape of Wei Wuxian’s smile and in it, echoed Wei Wuxian’s voice.

He left immediately after that, and his mind kept running in circles until a memory of flute music he had never heard put him to sleep.

That night, he dreamt of Wei Wuxian.

Chapter Text

“This isn’t what it looks like!” shrieked the Crown Prince of Xian Le. His hair was down, lacking its usual styling and a myriad of ornaments. A vivid blush covered his entire face all the way up to his ears. Not even rouge would be that crimson.

But it was the exact colour of the tunic the prince’s personal guard wore.

“But gege,” said the aforementioned personal guard. He gathered the prince into his arms and kissed the tip of his nose, and Mu Qing saw red. “This is exactly what it looks like.”

 


 

It started with a neglected child and a prince with too soft a heart.

“I want to save the common people,” the prince had always said, but more often than not those words were empty. After all, a prince could only do so much, hands and will bound by obligations and duty. Propriety was a sword pointed to his neck, and the scrutiny of others became a heavy yoke under which he bent until nothing of him remained in the ceremonial robes.

“I want to save the common people!” he had shouted at the empty corridors of the royal palace and met only hollow hearts and deaf ears.

“I want to save him,” he stubbornly insisted and refused to let go of a child he was holding in his arms. He looked down and the child looked back at him, bewildered. “Boy, where is your family? I will take you home.”

The boy clutched tighter onto the prince’s pristine robes, leaving smudges of dirt and mud on the soft fabric. The prince cared naught for it.

“No home,” the boy finally said through clenched teeth, his voice dripping vitriol. “No family.”

The prince only held him tighter. “Then... would you like to come with me?”

And amidst the screams of incredulity and shouts of profanities, amidst the ridicule and scorn, the boy said, “Yes,” and the prince answered with a smile.

 


 

“Step away from him.”

If Feng Xin were here, he would have cursed all the gods and the three realms until he ran out of breath. But he had disappeared gods only knew where, and thus it was up to Mu Qing to find the wayward crown prince and his ever-present shadow.

How Mu Qing wished he could have avoided that fate.

“I don’t think so.” The bloody bastard had a gall to smirk—smirk! At him!—and Mu Qing barely resisted an urge to wrap his hands around his neck and squeeze. “After all, it’s my duty to stand by His Highness’s side at all times.”

“San Lang.” Xie Lian wheezed. He hid his flaming face in his hands, shoulders shaking and hunched, and the nameless idiot snaked his arms around the prince’s waist. He looked satisfied like a cat that caught a mouse – as if he had found home in Xie Lian’s presence.

Mu Qing was never going to steep so low and call him ‘San Lang’ despite Xie Lian’s numerous requests. Forcing himself to spell ‘Wu Ming’ aloud was already stretching his patience thin. Better to stick to ‘the bloody bastard’. No one would know anyway.

(The Head Priest might, but Mu Qing would rather not think about that man’s piercing eyes and too old a glare. He gave him the creeps.)

“Do you want anything specific from His Highness or have you come here just to bother him?” the bloody bastard asked, looking at Mu Qing with those mismatched eyes and a grimace that resembled a predator’s snarl more than a smile. “If the latter, then scram. His Highness’s morning is free of duties and he deserves some rest.”

“You—!”

“San Lang, Mu Qing, please. Calm down, both of you.” Xie Lian patted the bastard’s hand and leant back against his embrace as if it was a normal occurrence for a crown prince to have his personal guard plastered to his back like an overgrown red limpet. How long had this been going on? Just how much Mu Qing failed to notice? “Is there anything important you wanted to tell me? You rarely seek me out nowadays.”

Well, no wonder about that. Mu Qing would rather cut off his own hand than spend more time than necessary in the presence of that red-clad menace.

“Their Royal Majesties have requested your presence at breakfast. Apparently your personal guard...” Mu Qing shot a glance at the bastard who only smiled wider, “was nowhere to be found and thus couldn’t relay the message.”

Xie Lian’s face fell and he stared down at the arms circling his waist. “Oh,” he said quietly, wistfully, and one would think he was being asked to enter seclusion for the rest of his life. “I see. Thank you, Mu Qing. I’ll be there shortly. Could you tell—”

“I’ll tell them, gege.” The bastard heaved a great sigh and detached himself from Xie Lian’s back. Giving him one last kiss to the cheek – and how the prince flushed at that, how he smiled like a besotted fool; so much that Mu Qing had to avert his eyes, feeling like an intruder – he left without further ado.

Now at least Xie Lian had the decency to appear chastised under Mu Qing’s murderous glare.

“What the hell, Your Highness?” he asked because he could not resist, because what he witnessed was unthinkable, impossible. It was forbidden. “How long has this been going on?”

“Ah.” Xie Lian scratched his neck, the collar of his sleeping robe slipping somewhat and—was that a love bite on his collarbone? “A while?”

 


 

Or maybe it started with a neglected child who grew into a shunned teenager, and a prince who doted on him.

Misfortune followed in the boy’s wake, a monster big enough to overshadow his entire life. No matter how hard he fought, how he rebelled, how he thrashed and screamed at the world, it yielded no success. The royal palace was not like the crowded streets and dead ends smudged with blood, and so the fists and kicks the boy was expecting did not come.

Words, on the other hand, could hurt just as deeply and painfully.

The first time the prince found him, curled into a ball in a faraway corner of the palace garden, too tired to scream and yet still too angry to cry, he took the boy into his arms and stayed with him for hours without a word. The second time it happened, he took him to a training field and told him to take out his frustration on a training dummy. They sparred the third time, and the prince smiled widely at the boy.

“You know,” he said afterwards, wiping his face with a sleeve of his training robes. The boy, up to that point precariously balancing on the cusp of adolescence, watched a bead of sweat roll down the prince’s neck and that alone was enough to push him off the edge of a precipice. “I don’t think a sword suits you.”

Before the boy found his voice again, the prince walked away and came back a few minutes later. He threw something his way; only the quick reflexes born of years of surviving on the streets made it possible to catch it.

“But what about a sabre?”

When a few days later the boy swore an oath of the Xian Le royal guard, the prince was looking at him with a smile brighter than the sun itself.

 


 

Xie Lian loved his parents, he truly did. Despite their duties and the need to put Xian Le first and the family second, they were the best he could have hoped for. Even though his father had been distant and absent more often than not, even though his mother could not look past the child Xie Lain no longer was, they were his only family and as such, he has always done his best to please them.

Now a cup of tea slipped from his hand and fell to the floor, breaking into pieces. He felt nothing of that warmth and love – a gap opened up on his chest and swallowed those feeling and him with them.

“You...” he stammered just like he had done the first he had to speak to the court as a four-year-old boy with tearful eyes and a head full of dreams. “You want me to do what?”

How he wished San Lang were here with him. His father would never agree, and his mother and the Head Priest could only heed his order. They had never seen eye to eye, Xie Lian’s father and San Lang.

“As soon as your teacher establishes an auspicious date, you will marry. It’s about time you started taking responsibility for Xian Le.”

“I am taking responsibility for Xian Le.” He was not shouting but it was a close thing. Hysteric laughter bubbled in his chest but he held it down. It would do him no good if he lost control. “I’m working on—”

“Leave caring for... the common people to others. You shouldn’t waste more time on that folly.”

Xie Lian truly loved his parents, but at that moment he understood depths of hatred hidden at the bottom of San Lang’s heart. And so for the first time in his life, he thought of what he wanted rather than what was expected of him.

He rose to his feet and ran.

 


 

But maybe it truly started when the shunned teenager turned into a man feared and hated by everyone, and when the prince accepted the heart he had given him.

He had long become the prince’s personal guard, ferocious in battle and skilled with the blade. His loyalty knew no bounds and he offered no mercy. He stalked the corridors of the palace like a shadow, always a step behind the prince, ready to heed his every command.

It was on the day of his seventeenth birthday that he knelt in front of the prince and offered him a single white flower and a heart trembling in fear. It was on the day of his seventeenth birthday that the prince took first the flower and then his hand, and blushed bashfully when he pulled him to his feet.

The prince’s arms were a safe haven and a home, a promise of a better tomorrow. In the prince’s arms, he could be hated by the rest of the world.

It was not like he ever cared about it anyway.

 


 

“Your Highness.”

He should have known the Head Priest would find them. In the dark of the night, his white robes reflected moonlight like a mirror. Xie Lian took a deep breath but it did nothing to ease the storm raging in his heart.

“Master,” he greeted through gritted teeth. His hands were shaking around the reins. “Did my father send you?”

“His Royal Majesty is still unaware of your disappearance.” The Head Priest looked at San Lang, who remained by Xie Lian’s side like he always had. “Your Highness, I beg you to reconsider.”

San Lang snorted for them both.

“Master.” Of all the people he knew, Xie Lian was hoping at least the Head Priest would understand. Sometimes he acted more like a parent to him than Xie Lian’s real father. “There is nothing to reconsider.”

“His Highness is still young—”

His face grew warm but this time, it was anger that set it on fire. “Do you imply I’m too young to know what I want? Too young to want in the first place? Tell me, master, at which point of my life do I get to want something for myself?”

For a long time, the Head Priest said nothing. And then came, “Never,” and it was quieter than the night around them.

“I see.” Xie Lian looked at San Lang, patient and trusting, and in his small smile found courage. “Then I believe this is goodbye, master. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”

“What of your cultivation?” Why did the Head Priest’s voice gain that desperate edge? Why did he look as if the world was ending? “What of your future? You could become a god if—”

“I don’t care about that,” Xie Lian said and in his heart, those words rang true. “Why would I ascend in sorrow when I can live in happiness? Why everyone else gets to experience joy when all I get is duty? Tell me, master. What did I do to deserve having to relinquish the man I love?”

The Head Priest shook his head – in fondness or pity, Xie Lian knew not. For all the years they had spent together, he still knew next to nothing about the man who practically raised him.

“He’s been born under the Star of Solitude,” the Head Priest eventually said and Xie Lian’s heart plummeted into depths of rage he had never experienced before. “He’s nothing but misfortune incarnate. Where he goes, disaster follows. Around him, people die and familial bonds break. In all probability, he won’t live past his eighteenth birthday. Is this really the kind of person you want to give up your life for?”

San Lang’s expression grew stormy. Xie Lian was familiar with it – an outburst of rage always followed, and more often than not San Lang directed it at himself. And so Xie Lian reached out and took his hand in an attempt to give comfort and reassurance even though he had none to offer.

“My fortune is good enough for us both. Whatever disaster comes our way, I’ll help him fight it. And I swear on all that’s holy that as long as I’m alive, I won’t let any harm befall him.”

“Gege,” San Lang whispered, all anger forgotten. He brought Xie Lian’s hand to his lips and kissed it over and over again until Xie Lian’s face was burning hot once more.

When the Head Priest stepped aside, they rode forth into the night and Xie Lian did not look back.

 


 

No matter how it had started, it ended like this:

Deep in a maple forest, there was a house. Leaves like fire fell around it and danced on the wind. A man was sitting on the threshold, humming quietly to himself. He was carving something out of a piece of wood even though he hardly ever glanced down at it. Every move he made spoke of proficiency that only years could have granted him.

Another man walked out of the forest and the sculptor smiled at him, bright and wide and full of happiness. “Gege,” he said, “you’re back.”

“San Lang.” There was laughter in that voice, and boundless love. “I’m back.”

Chapter Text

What was left of Lotus Pier lay quiet under the moonlight.

Jiang Cheng was sitting on the edge of a pier. Lotus flowers in full bloom surrounded him and turned the night into a fragrant miracle. He had forgotten what it felt like, to be home.

“It’s weird without the people, isn’t it?”

Wei Wuxian plopped down next to him, hard, carelessly, as if his own comfort did not matter. Once upon a time, Jiang Cheng would have scolded him for it. Now, he had no strength left to bother. It had burnt high and bright in the beginning and nearly consumed him whole. He had kept on running with only one purpose and one destination in mind, and only upon getting there did he realise he left himself in the dust along the way.

“It won’t be like this for long,” he finally answered, for that was the only acceptable answer. No other possibility remained, not since the moment he had first taken Zidian in his hand.

“Of course. You’re a Sect Leader now, it’s understandable you have to have a sect to lead.”

Once upon a time, it would have been a jest. He was not so sure now. Nothing was certain about Wei Wuxian nowadays.

He was staring ahead now, pensive and distant. No sign of the old playfulness could be seen in him, no smiles of yore and no laugh that had once rung louder than any wind chime. His robes were grey and so was he. Sometimes, when the sun shone just at the right angle, his skin looked translucent, bloodless.

Wen Chao had mentioned the Burial Mounds but surely that had to be a lie. No one got out of there – not even Wei Wuxian.

“Where were you?” he heard himself ask. Wei Wuxian hummed, still staring at the quiet lake. “Those three months. Where were you, really?”

He laughed quietly, and it was nothing like his old laughter. “Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng, o’ shidi of mine.” Out of nowhere, that flute was in his hand and the air bent around it, distorted beyond recognition. “Didn’t you hear that Wen dog?”

“He lied.” Through gritted teeth it came out, through too tight a throat and from a heart heavy with grief. “No one—”

“Jiang Cheng.”

Had Wei Wuxian ever spoken in such soft a voice? Had he ever been this calm?

“No.” Jiang Cheng could hardly recognise his own voice, hoarse and wavering. “Don’t lie to me. Don’t you fucking lie to me! Don’t you dare—”

A cold hand landed on his; had he not known better, he would have mistaken it for a corpse’s. Some part of him wanted to recoil, the other – to soak in his brother’s presence he had to lose to realise how cherished it truly was. In the end, he sat rigid, not moving away but never leaning in. He was a Sect Leader now, he had to keep up appearances.

“Jiang Cheng.” Wei Wuxian was a whisper these days, the silence of an approaching storm. “I would never lie to you.”

He took a deep breath. “Then... the Burial Mounds? How did you...”

Get out, survive, not lose what little sanity he held. Jiang Cheng was not sure whether either of those had ever been true when it came to Wei Wuxian.

“A miserable place, really.” He laughed now, but something lay underneath that laughter; a shadow no sun could dispel. “Needs more light and running water.”

Jiang Cheng shoved him because old habits die hard and his were as old as they could get. It did not escape his attention how Wei Wuxian flinched, how his fingers tightened around the smooth surface of the flute. He would not act on it, though. Wei Wuxian would rather die than admit weakness, and Jiang Cheng was the last person in the world to call him out on unresolved issues.

“Was there no other way?” he asked instead, even though he was uncertain whether or not he truly wanted to know the answer.

“No other way to...?”

“Get out. Come back.” He gestured at Wei Wuxian’s ashen robes and ashen face, and at the shadow he held in his hands. In that gesture were Wen Chao’s screams and Wen Zhuliu’s blood. “Did you truly have to use...”

Wei Wuxian chuckled at that, a sound so alien, so wrong. “You can say it, Jiang Cheng. I’m not going to take offence.”

‘Heretic path’, Lan Wangji had said. ‘Wicked tricks’, had whispered some of the people who had followed Jiang Cheng to battle, who – technically speaking – were now Wei Wuxian’s shidis.

“I don’t even know what to call it,” he admitted.

“Does it matter?” Wei Wuxian asked, genuinely curious. It was the first time he showed anything but emptiness.

Jiang Cheng gave it a moment of thought. “No,” he decided. “It doesn’t. As long as you can control it.”

And yourself, went unspoken but both of them heard it nonetheless.

“Of course I can control it.” Wei Wuxian spun the flute in his hand and the shadows swirled with it. Something was wrong about it on a fundamental level Jiang Cheng could not identify. “Who do you think I am?”

My brother. “An idiot,” he growled. “As if that was ever going to change.”

Wei Wuxian laughed – and for the first time since his return, it sounded at least a little bit familiar. “Ah, Jiang Cheng. You’ll eat your words when I kill more Wens than you.”

“Is that a challenge?”

This time, the glint in Wei Wuxian’s eyes was not red. “Do you want it to be?”

“You bet I do.”

“You’ll lose.”

“You wish.” Despite the bite in his voice, Jiang Cheng knew he was smiling.

The night was quiet around them, but for once, he did not fear dawn.

Chapter Text

He wakes up disoriented, aching all over.

The bedding under his back is soft, the room around him – brighter than anything he’s got used to over the centuries. It burns his eyes; when he tries to raise a hand and shield them, muscles in his arm spasm. He bites back a pained whine – it scrapes his parched throat and tears the dried lips.

“Sleep,” someone says and puts a cool hand on his forehead. He flinches; wishes to shake it and knows he cannot.

Sleep seems insignificant. He knows not—he wants—

“Sleep,” they say again. The hand on his forehead feels heavier with each passing second and he’s drowning, burrowing in the softness underneath his back, and he thinks—

 


 

Light doesn’t hurt, the next time he opens his eyes. Nothing hurts, actually, so he takes a moment to look around. It’s a room that’s lavish only because of its simplicity and spaciousness, where light streams in through many a high window and the air leaves him lightheaded.

Nothing hurts and that alone is wrong. Nothing hurts when everything should.

Pain is a phantom at the back of his mind, a memory he cannot shake. It’s a barbed manacle around his throat and a shackle around his wrist, and they both cut into his skin and muscles and he can’t breathe and it’s—

“Shixiong?”

No. No. Everything but that, anything

“Shixiong.”

Such wonder in that voice, so many emotions – it’s breathless, choked under the weight of something he can’t recognise. It’s wrong, everything is wrong, and he most of it. Yin Yu, the failed god, the powerless god, the soulless.

The god who died.

Then why isn’t he dead anymore? His heart beats again in his chest; he feels it, a slow and steady thump-thump that’s always measured time when the passage of it no longer did. He feels his lungs expanding with each breath he takes, he feels the whisper of the finest silk on his skin. He also feels the headache approaching, as surely as ever when Quan Yi Zhen is nearby.

Right now, he’s sitting in a chair next to the bed, stiff and proper as never before.

“Shixiong,” he says, soft and quiet. “Shixiong is awake.”

I shouldn’t be. “Where...” Yin Yu coughs, his dry throat protesting as he speaks. And maybe it’s the wrong kind of question after all. Maybe there are no good questions. “Why...?”

“Blood Rain Reaching Towards a Flower showed me how to... nurture souls.” Quan Yi Zhen makes a move as if he wants to reach out and touch him. In the end, he thinks better of it and just wrings his hands in his lap. “I brought shixiong back.”

“Why?” Yin Yu asks before he can stop himself, before he accepts it as a miracle it clearly is and moves on from it. Why would Chengzhu give him to Quan Yi Zhen? Clearly, it’s a question for another day. “Why did you bother?”

Hurt flashes on Quan Yi Zhen’s face. Stubbornness replaces it soon enough; Yin Yu is more than familiar with it. Nothing ever changes in his shidi’s heart.

“Shixiong got hurt because of me. I couldn’t help him then, so it was the least I could do after.”

“The least...” Words fail him. He feels wrung-out, stretched thin and left to erode in the rain and the scorching summer sun. Maybe there’s nothing left of him but an empty body and frayed edges of a soul put together by determination and sheer miracle.

If this is what death feels like, then there’s no surprise that gods don’t come back from it.

In the end, he doesn’t say another word and Quan Yi Zhen eventually leaves, head bowed and shoulders slumped. In his absence, Yin Yu can finally breathe again.

 


 

His Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le visits him next.

By the time that happens, Yin Yu has got used to the brightness and the lightness, to the heartbeat in his chest and the wrist unshackled. His soul has settled, whole but not healed, healed but not content. He’s a lost speck of dirt thrown around by the winds he cannot fight.

Coming to think of it, it’s always been like this.

“How are you feeling?” His Highness asks. He’s sitting in a chair on Yin Yu’s bedside—has been, for a while, but neither of them knew how to break the silence.

Lost, empty, frustrated beyond compare. And yet, “Better,” is what he says and his voice hardly echoes in the large room. “What happened?”

“We’ve won. The Emperor, he...” His Highness touches his neck, free of the shackle. Yin Yu understands – he still looks at his wrist sometimes and sees the outline of the curse etched into his skin and soul even though it’s no longer there. “Jun Wu was Bai WuXiang. He’s been sealed under Mount TongLu.”

A lifetime of deception and power unimaginable – defeating a person like that would seem nearly impossible if only Yin Yu didn’t see the results. He is a result, after all.

“Good.” He looks again at His Highness, still dressed in worn-out clothes, still with a bamboo hat tied around his neck. Nothing has changed about him—save, perhaps, for the power that illuminates his eyes from within and changes them from the usual dull brown to gold. The Crown Prince of Xian Le wears divinity like a second skin, like he was born for it.

Quan Yi Zhen is like that as well, while Yin Yu...

Yin Yu has only ever scraped by.

“Why did Chengzhu do this? Why did he... give my soul away?” he hears himself ask before he even begins to think to stop that question from forming. He should be grateful instead, he should—

“He didn’t have time to bring you back personally.” His Highness’s voice carries the apology Chengzhu would have never uttered. “Which is partially my fault, but... Well, I think he hasn’t realised just how many duties were on your head up till now.”

Chengzhu’s orders had always been infrequent and impossible to predict, and Yin Yu quickly learnt to find work on his own. There was no shortage of it in Ghost City and the reputation he’s built is his own—all Chengzhu had ever given him was a chance.

Does he even have a place to go back to? For all of Chengzhu’s apparent satisfaction with his performance, Yin Yu doesn’t dare to assume.

His Highness’s hand on his shoulder breaks the train of this thoughts. “We’re all happy you’re still with us,” he says with a gentle smile that almost makes him look like the ancient being he is. “Get well soon.”

And with that, he leaves, and the room grows dimmer. Yin Yu – a god with a torn soul, a god who’s been used a ghost’s power for far longer than his own – has no strength to light it up again.

This night, he dreams of Ghost City’s lights.

 


 

The Heavens have never felt so foreign as they do now.

Every building and statue, every street and park – they all seem brand new, untouched by time even in a place where no time has ever been allowed entry. Yin Yu walks out into the bright light and gentle breeze, wades through the streets to the sound of chatter and whispers, and holds his eyes fixed firmly ahead despite the weight of unsubtle stares thrown his way. How he wishes for his mask to hide behind.

For all the changes, the Heavens remain the same.

Laughter and shouting from afar call to him and he turns that way on reflex. In Ghost City, it’s usually nothing. Sometimes, it’s a prelude to a disaster; rarely, and he hasn’t figured out a pattern yet, it’s a call for celebration and he ends in the middle of it, surrounded by joy greater than anything he’s ever seen in the Heavens.

Here, now, it’s a construction site and in the midst of it, Quan Yi Zhen is following orders without a word of protest.

What a marvellous sight it is; almost an earth-shattering revelation Yin Yu has never expected to witness. If only it happened earlier.

“Shixiong!”

An overjoyed scream full of hope and joy catches him before he leaves. A part of him wants to run but there’s nowhere to hide here, nowhere to go. He longer knows the Heavens.

Perhaps he never truly knew them.

When Quan Yi Zhen stops next to him, he’s nearly bouncing. In the beginning, it had been endearing, but life and circumstances changed that soon enough.

“I didn’t know shixiong was up.”

“I have work to get back to,” he says even though he doesn’t know if that’s true. But if not in Ghost City, then... where? Where would he go if Chengzhu no longer required his services? The world is vast and Yin Yu doesn’t even know where to start looking.

Right next to him, Quan Yi Zhen is silent and it’s a novelty as grand as his obedience moments prior. When he finally speaks, his voice is hardly louder than a whisper.

“Will shixiong... visit?”

Why would he? He’s nothing but a patchwork of a broken soul and a non-existent godhood that is bound to fade eventually. A god is nothing without believers – and he has none. He’s never had many to begin with.

“I don’t think so.” After all, what’s there for him in the Heavens but endless scorn and whispers behind his back? He hears them even now, from all around him. “No one will—”

“I will!” Quan Yi Zhen yells even before Yin Yu finishes his thought, overexcited and overeager as always. Some things never change, don’t they? “Whatever shixiong wants, whenever he wants. I...” Once upon a time, he would have looked at Yin Yu with huge, begging eyes. Now he averts them for reasons unknown. “I missed shixiong when he was away. No one’s ever treated me like shixiong did.”

And what good did it to? What did it bring but anger and misery?

“It’s in the past.” One he hopes to never repeat.

“Does this mean shixiong has forgiven me?”

Sometimes, dealing with Qi Rong was easier. “And what am I supposed to forgive you for? Do you even know?”

He’s not expecting any answer – rightfully so.

“I’ve hurt shixiong,” Quan Yi Zhen eventually says. “Plenty of times. I didn’t want to but it happened and shixiong hates me.”

There’s no need to deny that. After all, Yin Yu screamed about his hatred for all the Heavens to hear. And yet now...

Now he’s just tired.

“But I’m trying!” Quan Yi Zhen goes on, heedless of the spectacle he’s making of them both, of the audience that’s gathering around and of Yin Yu’s pained expression. “What shixiong said about being a good person—I’m trying that! For shixiong!”

Oh, the naivety; oh, the ignorance. Yin Yu would have laughed if only his entire life hadn’t fallen apart because of his shidi. What good does trying do now?

What does it even mean, to be a good person? Sometimes, Yin Yu’s not so sure anymore.

“Do it for yourself instead,” he snaps. “If you want to make up for everything, change. Act like the god you are and grow up.”

Like you should’ve done centuries ago.

“I’m trying!” There it is, Quan Yi Zhen of the rising temper and balled fists. In a way, it’s a far more comfortable and familiar sight than the docile, obedient man of the last few minutes. “I’m not fighting anymore!”

“Aren’t you?” Yin Yu folds his arms and straightens his back just like does when he has to deal with the rabid troublemakers of Ghost City. They’ve learnt to obey him over time and now he wonders if they’re still going to, after so long an absence. “Aren’t you, really?”

“What’s the point?” It takes a moment and a few deep breaths but eventually, Quan Yi Zhen calms down. Witnessing it is akin to a revelation; it takes Yin Yu by surprise and leaves him speechless. “It didn’t help before. It brought shixiong troubles. That’s why there’s no point. Shixiong had always wanted me to stop pointless fighting, so I did.”

It’s hard to imagine this stupidly brave man who hits first and thinks later step down from a fight. The mantle of godhood has always been too constricting for him. After all, Quan Yi Zhen is a star that burns brightest without limitations.

“If you want to change, that’s fine, it’ll do you good,” he says after a moment because what else he can say when Quan Yi Zhen is looking at him just as imploringly as he used to in the past. “But don’t do it because of me. You’re not my shidi anymore. Own your mistakes and learn from them.”

Does Yin Yu own his mistakes? The depths of regrets he’s climbed out from prove otherwise.

“Shixiong will always be shixiong.” Stubborn as always. Expecting anything else from Quan Yi Zhen is clearly a mistake. “And if I can be a kind person like shixiong, a perfect person, then perhaps one day shixiong will smile at me again.”

A kind, perfect person, huh? What a joke. Yin Yu has been holding onto that ideal for so long and got nothing in return but pain and disappointment.

“Be a god,” he says through gritted teeth and a haze of bitterness he’s so tired of. “That’s what you’re meant to be. And I...”

I am no god.

 


 

Yin Yu enters Paradise Manor with a heavy heart and a head full of muddled thoughts.

“Fucking finally.” Chengzhu is on his feet the moment he sees him. He puts a hand on  Yin Yu’s shoulder and a rush of spiritual power follows it. It’s so much more than ever before. “They’re impossible.”

His Highness smiles at Yin Yu as if nothing has changed, as if Yin Yu hasn’t left the Heavens and returned to where no god willingly enters. But there’s nearly nothing of godhood left in him and more than enough time to both work and think. If he doesn’t do the former, he’ll go insane from restlessness; and if he doesn’t do the latter, he’ll know no peace.

The hand on his shoulder remains there for just a tad too long – enough for Yin Yu to understand the words Chengzhu will never speak aloud. When he lets go, Yin Yu bows and it’s as genuine as it can get.

“I’ll get right on it, my lord.”

“Take it easy,” His Highness adds. “There’s no rush.”

He should’ve faded – but didn’t. He should’ve never returned to life – but he did and now he has to live it. Without the shackle, there’s no excuse binding him to Chengzhu. Once more he’s holding a borrowed power and pretends it’s his own to use. He’s hardly a god and not even a ghost, and he’s still just as lost as he was before Jun Wu ripped the curse from his body and his soul with it.

Nothing bars him from ascending again if he works hard enough. Nothing holds him from shaping himself anew from the shards of his own life and the splinters of broken dreams. And if even Quan Yi Zhen can change, then so can Yin Yu. Perfection is what he makes of it – and he has an eternity to figure it out.

Determination has never felt so electrifying before when Yin Yu slips on a mask and ventures out into the streets of Ghost City.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji almost broke the curfew.

Of course, no one would dare to say a word about that. Certainly not Wei WuXian, who had spent the last few hours in the jingshi, alone and bored out of his mind. There had been no class to teach and no hunt to supervise, but most of all there had been no husband by his side.

The longer Lan Xichen stayed in seclusion, the more responsibilities Lan Qiren delegated to Lan Wangji. From classes and lectures to meetings and purely administrative work, every passing day took more and more of Lan Wangji’s time.

Sometimes, Wei Wuxian thought his uncle in law was doing this on purpose.

But there was no need to worry about that; not now, when Lan Wangji was finally, finally home.

“Lan Zhan!” he yelled happily and crossed the space between the bed and the door in only a few huge steps. Empty jars of Emperor’s Smile rattled under his feet. “You’re back!”

“Mn.”

Expressive as always. Wei Wuxian smiled fondly and helped his husband out of his outer robe. Lan Wangji went willingly, moving unprompted as if he could read Wei Wuxian’s mind. And maybe he could – after all, they had been inseparable those last few years and Wei Wuxian would not have it any other way.

He had wasted years already. He was not going to repeat the same mistake again.

“Lan er-gege.” He wrapped his arms around Lan Wangji’s waist and all but plastered himself to his back. It was his favourite place on Earth and he was going to live there from now on, consequences and propriety be damned. “It’s so lonely without you. Why would you leave for so long?”

Silence was his answer. After a moment, Lan Wangji turned and simply pulled him into an embrace without a word. Only then did Wei Wuxian realise how greatly his husband was leaning on him, how shallow was his breathing, and how heavy was the head he put on his shoulder.

Once upon a time, it would have been inconceivable for Lan Wangji to show weakness in front of anyone. It didn’t change, not really; only Wei Wuxian had become a sole exception.

He ran his fingers through Lan Wangji’s hair now, mindful of the knots should there be any. Pressing his other hand to Lan Wangji’s back, he felt the tension in his muscles, the steel that allowed his husband to remain strong and unwavering throughout the day. He’d always had difficulties letting go of it when no longer needed.

“Come to bed.” Wei Wuxian tugged at Lan Wangji’s hand for a good measure, even though he knew his husband would follow him anywhere. He did so as well now, letting himself be led without a word of protest. “Ah. Have you eaten?”

A nod was all he got in response. Not even the usual hum that held a myriad of meanings—he had learnt to recognise them all—and that, above all, was the measure of Lan Wangji’s exhaustion.

Boots were the first to go. Wei Wuxian put them away rather than toss them aside as he normally would have done. Lan Wangji would have got up and fixed them himself, and that was something he was trying to avoid.

It had taken a long time for his husband to realise he did not have to do everything by himself anymore.

Wei Wuxian took off, folded and put away every piece of Lan Wangji’s clothing. The forehead ribbon was the last – he left it on the table near the bed and happily climbed into his husband’s waiting, open arms.

As always, he smelt of sandalwood. Wei Wuxian inhaled it deeply, the fragrance as familiar as Lan Wangji’s touch was now. It was the smell of home.

“Long day?” he murmured into Lan Wangji’s neck. Arms around him tightened and that was enough of an answer. He pulled the covers up and tucked them around them both. The nights were still warm but his husband’s comfort took priority. “You know you can always give some of those to me, right? Uncle would probably cough up blood but he’s been doing that since I moved in. I can help you, Lan er-gege. Just say the word.”

That finally earned him a kiss to the top of his head and a quiet, sleepy, “Mn.”

“Imagine how quickly the meetings would end. Everyone would flee from the big bad Yiling Patriarch. Would save you so much work.”

“No.” Somehow, impossibly, Lan Wangji managed to pull him even closer to himself.

“No? What ‘no’? Lan er-gege.” He was whining, he knew that, but shame was something he had thrown to the wind a long time ago when his husband was concerned. “What no?”

“Not bad.” There, another kiss, and Wei Wuxian could not stop smiling.

“Lan er-gege,” he murmured into Lan Wangji’s neck and kissed it for a good measure. “Do you want me to give you a massage?”

The moment of silence was just a breath too long, but in the end Lan Wangji just shook his head. “Not today,” he said. “Sleep.”

Normally, Wei Wuxian would have kept teasing him until Lan Wangji lost it and pressed him into the bedding to fuck him into oblivion. But today was not the day for that; today he decided to honour his husband’s needs first.

He let himself be held and held Lan Wangji just as close, knowing that they had the next day and all the days after that.

Chapter Text

It’s always like this with His Highness.

“It’s fine, San Lang!” he says even as fresh blood flows down his arm. There’s nothing left of his sleeve and yet here he is, smiling at Hua Cheng. “It’ll heal in no time.”

Whatever the wound, no matter its place—he always brushes it off as if nothing happened. His smile never wavers, his eyes never water; and only Hua Cheng’s long-dead heart twists painfully in an imitation of what it would have done had it not been merely a phantom.

“What happened?” he asks. Gently, carefully, he takes Xie Lian’s hand and peels away pieces of fabric that still cling to his torn skin.

“A drowned ghost, very vicious.” Xie Lian doesn’t bat an eyelid when Hua Cheng tugs at his hand and starts leading them in the direction of the bathing chamber. “Whoever General Ming Guang assigned to clear the area, they overlooked a little girl playing by the river. I couldn’t let that ghost get to her.”

That’s it. Pei Ming has been asking for a beating for a very long time, with his multitude of innuendos that never cease to leave His Highness flustered and stuttering. Now he’s done it and Hua Cheng will not let this kind of incompetence slide. Not when His Highness’s blood has been spilt.

There are certain crimes that simply cannot go unpunished.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says. “San Lang, I know what you’re thinking.”

Ah, bummer. “Do you, really?”

“Yes. You get this crease on your forehead when you’re planning someone’s demise. Here.” Xie Lian taps his forehead for a good measure, and Hua Cheng’s heart swells. One of these days it will start beating again, he’s sure of it. “Please don’t plan Pei Ming’s demise.”

“He let you get hurt, gege.”

“He didn’t, I stepped in out of my own volition. It isn’t his fault, San Lang.”

To that, he says nothing. This is neither the place nor the time to argue over rights and wrongs. He will never win, either. One look from His Highness, one whispered plea to let it go, and he will do it all in a heartbeat. If Xie Lian had been anyone else, the world would have already burnt and drowned in blood under Hua Cheng’s blade. Being who he is, he only ever asks for mercy for those who should never receive it, and Hua Cheng is a weak man who loves his husband very much and turns his every wish into reality.

So if Xie Lian says Pei Ming must live, then live he shall. It pains Hua Cheng greatly that he won’t be able to inflict a hundred wounds on that idiot for every scratch Xie Lian has returned home with, but he doesn’t say a word about it.

The moment Hua Cheng closes the door of the bathing chamber behind them, he wills His Highness’s bloodied clothes away and into oblivion. Xie Lian will complain, of course, because old habits die hard and he’s had to make do with only one set of clothes for as long as he had to for much, much longer than he had an entire wardrobe to choose from. This is the kind of complaint Hua Cheng can take in stride and ignore. Poverty no longer follows in Xie Lian’s wake and Hua Cheng makes sure to remind him about it at every step along the way.

His Highness doesn’t even try to cover himself. The time for shyness passed long ago, and comfort and familiarity have taken its place. He stands patiently, his face full of trust, and Hua Cheng can’t hold back from kissing his forehead. Then he takes his mangled, bloodied arm and runs his fingers over the wounds that have already started healing on their own. Immediately, they close, and His Highness’s skin is once more smooth to the touch, unblemished as it should be. Only now does the inferno of rage burning in him go down to an ember. It always flares uncontrollably whenever he sees so much as a speck of blood anywhere on Xie Lian. It reminds him too much of that day at the temple, an eternity ago, when they both died and the world changed.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian whispers and cups his face in his hands. “San Lang, don’t think about it.”

“How... how do you...” His throat is tight, his voice – a croak, and in his heart love burns eternal. “I didn’t even...”

“I always know.” His Highness, so perceptive. Or maybe it’s him who’s too obvious. “Come. Let’s get in before the water gets cold.”

It never does, not unless Hua Cheng wants it to, but he doesn’t mention it. After all, Xie Lian is well aware of that.

And so he strips and follows his husband into the pool. The water is steaming, just like Xie Lian prefers. It pales in comparison with the heat of his body when Hua Cheng gathers him into his arms and presses a lingering kiss to the shoulder where a deep wound was mere moments ago.

“I’m worried about you,” he says some undetermined time later, when Xie Lian once more becomes a familiar shape in his embrace. Every time he steps away, Hua Cheng forgets, and every comeback is learning anew what it means to be whole again. “I know you heal. I know wounds mean nothing to a god, but gege... Xie Lian. You’ve suffered enough.”

“San Lang,” His Highness murmurs. He turns in Hua Cheng’s embrace and tucks his face into the crook of Hua Cheng’s neck. “My dear husband. I know you care. And I know you’ll be there for me whenever I need you.”

Of course he will. He doesn’t even allow himself to consider the possibility of failing to support Xie Lian in times of need. Never again. He had gone through hell and came back with it at his beck and call to ensure he never fails.

“But I’m a martial god with really bad luck. Injuries are bound to happen to me.”

He hangs his head, defeated. “I know. It doesn’t mean I like it when it happens.”

“I know you don’t.” And now Xie Lian’s hand is in his hair and oh, it feels so good Hua Cheng could melt. “I promise I’ll be more careful next time.”

If it were up to Hua Cheng, there would be no next time. He knows it would only make Xie Lian unhappy and he’d rather claw out his remaining eye than allow that to happen. So he nods and kisses his husband’s shoulder again just because he can.

“Good. And San Lang?”

“Yes?”

“Pei Ming’s wounds were much worse than mine.” So there is justice in this world after all. “I think we should ask the Rain Master to check up on him just in case.”

Oh, this is so much worse than anything Hua Cheng could have come up and he loves it. Almost as much as he loves Xie Lian.

“I’ll send someone to bring her the news,” he promises because this is a plan he can’t not put in motion. His expression must show his glee, because Xie Lian looks at him with a furrowed brow.

“You’re far too happy about this.”

“That’s because I have everything I’ve ever needed in my arms.”

That finally brings up a blush to Xie Lian’s face. He’s so beautiful like this, and Hua Cheng doesn’t stop himself from kissing him. Then again and again, and again until time loses its meaning and they lose themselves in each other.

The water never gets cold. Hua Cheng makes sure of it.