When Shi Qing Xuan opens his eyes, he’s met with a dark grey ceiling. It takes a while for his senses to start working, but when he registers the rise and fall of his chest, the soft exhale tickling his philtrum, he becomes crushed with disappointment.
He’s still alive.
No, that isn’t right.
He isn’t dead—there’s a difference. Being alive implies having an attachment to the living world, but he hasn’t the luxury. Not ever since he witnessed his brother’s murder at the hands of the man he once called his best friend.
What was once a term of endearment now serves as nothing but a trigger for painful memories, as he recalls the way Black Water ripped his brother’s head clean off his shoulders, right after he begged him using that false name.
You called the wrong person, he had said, eyes boring into Shi Qing Xuan’s soul, mocking him. As if they were saying this is your fault.
And it was. It still is.
The only reason why Shi Wu Du did what he did was to protect his younger brother. His pathetic little brother who could not ascend on his own, who instead spent his days crossdressing and drinking wine with the other deities of the middle court.
To Shi Wu Du, He Xuan’s downfall was nothing more than collateral damage. Even until his very last breath, god never apologized to demon; neither did he reflect on his actions, instead choosing to provoke He Xuan into killing him. And even then, it was to spare his younger brother the trauma of killing him with a rusty sad excuse of a sword.
One last sacrifice.
Shi Wu Du had lived, fought, sinned and ultimately died for Shi Qing Xuan.
And now, he’s gone. The only piece left of him is his detached head that sits somewhere in the manor, eyes open and unblinking.
In his dreams, Shi Wu Du’s voice is warm. He scolds Shi Qing Xuan over trivial things, but somehow the younger cannot help but smile at his brother’s admonishment. Perhaps, it is because he knows how to read between the lines, and appreciates the underlying message.
How can you parade around so shamelessly in that form? What if an unsavory person were to target you?
Why would you need to involve yourself in such affairs? If you need merits, gege can always spare some for you.
How can you be proud of only coming eighth? You deserve only the best.
“Qing Xuan, do you miss me?”
Shi Qing Xuan looks up at his brother, and he sees a painful longing in those grey eyes that he, too, shares. He knows that this is not real, that this is a mere figment of his imagination, acting as a coping mechanism against his recent trauma.
Yet the voice, the ache it carries—is all too real.
Shi Qing Xuan cries.
Cries for his brother, his friend, and above all, the life he’s lost.
But how can he lose something that was never his to begin with?
His dream self has tears and snot streaking down his face as he throws himself into his dream brother’s arms, feeling like the child he was centuries ago, when he would trip and scrap his knee and his big brother would be there to hold him through the pain. As Shi Wu Du fixed the wound, his voice would be soft yet harsh, lecturing him not to be so clumsy again.
Stupid, stupid gege.
Shi Qing Xuan wakes up for a second time that morning, gaze automatically directed to the doorway. There is no food laid out yet, so it must be early.
Sitting up in bed, he thinks. About everything and nothing at the same time. His hand fiddles with the locket around his neck, the glow of the golden core having diminished that day along with Shi Wu Du’s life. He wonders how His Highness is doing; if that Crimson Rain Sought Flower, too, is hiding behind another disguise, waiting to dig his claws into Xie Lian’s back when the time is right.
Shi Qing Xuan shakes the thought off. No, he’s seen the way the demon king looks at the Crown Prince. He may claim to be tagging along for fun, but he has always kept a watchful eye over His Highness.
What about him then?
The question he has been trying to avoid arises with a pang to his heart. Flashes of memories flood his entirety; he recalls the countless number of times that firm silhouette jumped in front of him to shield him from an attack. Had all that been a ruse too, to gain the his trust? His mind delves dangerously deeper, further, into those sacred moments they shared in the moonlight, when fingers touched a little too intimately, noses nuzzling, lips threatening to follow—
The hand around the golden core locket squeezes tighter.
He closes his eyes, attempting to compose himself. But he is pulled out of his reverie soon enough by—an earthquake?
The whole house seems to have taken on a life of its own, vibrating in its place, a sound akin to a wailing animal encompassing the air. Shi Qing Xuan is so absorbed in trying to make out its source that he barely notices the door to his room opening; it’s one of those hairy, stumpy minions that attend to the manor, carrying a tray of breakfast in hand.
At the lack of He Xuan’s presence, the fallen god cannot help but experience a difficult mixture of relief and disappointment. Since he first awoke in his chamber, they have not crossed paths, not even once. Then again, it isn’t like either side has been actively trying to see each other—one never leaves his room, the other never visits.
Is this Black Water’s way of ‘pretending he never existed’? Or does he have something more in store for him?
The minion places breakfast on the table next to the bed, not minding at all that the food contents are spilling out as the tray dances with the house. “Eat up!” he yells over the roaring.
Shi Qing Xuan clears his throat, and finds it hoarse from crying and not talking for so many days. “E-Excuse me—”
He tries to speak over the almost deafening sound. “EXCUSE ME!” When he sees that the minion is listening, he cups his mouth and yells, gesturing in no specific direction, “What’s going on?” He chokes immediately upon finishing the sentence, the air pressure rubbing against his vocal cords too much to bear after days of absolute silence.
The minion yells back, “Oh this? It’s nothing! Mount Tong Lu’s reopening so this is just Master going crazy over the demonic energy!”
Shi Qing Xuan understands immediately. A new Supreme. But then why is this minion unaffected…? He gives the question no further thought. Instead, he goes against his better judgment and asks, albeit hesitantly, “I-Is he okay?”
However, he doesn’t speak up loud enough this time and the minion shouts out another “HA?!”
Unable to bring himself to repeat the question, Shi Qing Xuan waves it off. “Never mind!” His cheeks flush red, but the minion doesn’t pay him any further attention, shrugging the conversation off and leaving the room.
As always, Shi Qing Xuan leaves his food untouched.
He can’t help but notice that in an all-demon lair, the food served to him thus far has been… unusually suitable for human consumption. A part of him hopes, but he crushes it as quickly as it comes. Hope is a dangerous thing to have—he should have learnt that lesson by now. He Xuan’s time in the heavens probably means that his palate has adapted to fancier foods, compared to the questionable dishes served in Ghost City. That’s right, Shi Qing Xuan tells himself; it most definitely isn’t because the demon is being considerate toward him.
The house does not stop groaning and rumbling, causing anxiety to rise in Shi Qing Xuan. Despite himself, he makes to leave his room for the first time.
Peeking outside, he looks left and right, and waits for a while to confirm that the coast is clear. It is only then that he registers the oddity of the freedom he’s allowed—there are no shackles on his body chaining him to the room, unlike during the incident at the altar, where he had been paralyzed for the better half of the time.
He doesn’t know where he’s going—he allows his feet to move as they please, uncaring for speed, direction, or even destination. At one point, he encounters those foul underlings of He Xuan at the turn of a corner. Without spiritual energy or devices, he should have fled, but the adrenaline coursing his veins pushes him forward, jumping and kicking at the confused minions.
Shi Qing Xuan continues to run, not minding his depleting oxygen supply or his aching muscles. Those disgusting creatures are hot on his tail, making incoherent sounds amongst themselves; the only words he makes out are “GET HIM!”
He presses forward, not looking back.
Eventually, their garble fades into the distance as he makes a turn into an impossible stretch of corridor. But he doesn’t stop, not even when his lungs threaten to explode. The blood rushing to his head creates a vacuum that fights against the grumble in the air that only seems to get louder. His vision is blurring, on the brink of blanking when—
He falls through a pair of loosely shut doors, body tumbling head first onto the ground.
When he finally regains enough sense to look around, he finds himself in a dark room, illuminated by some sparse candles. It’s not as grandiose as the chambers in Paradise Manor, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is the master bedroom. Shit. He had only wanted to escape the suffocation of being stuck in a shaking room. But even without directions, he still managed to end up in the demon king’s chambers of all places.
As if to confirm his thoughts, a low growl resounds from the far-left corner of the room. Shi Qing Xuan freezes, not daring to look at the source, feeling all the tiny hairs on his body stand.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
Shi Qing Xuan’s heart drops. The voice is as cold as he remembers, albeit raspier, but it is not the memory from that day that pains him this time. He smiles bitterly, biting his lower lip to hold the tears back.
Guess I was right about him wanting to pretend I don’t exist.
He takes a deep breath, steadying his emotions that threaten to spill out. But it proves more difficult than he thought, when his voice cracks as he announces his leave.
Shi Qing Xuan is halfway to the door when he catches that one word in the silence.
And he does, fingers digging into the door handle. Willing himself to take several deep breaths, he braves a glance to his side, where the shadows drape over He Xuan’s figure leaning against the wall like a formless black blanket. His mortal heart is beating rapidly in his ribcage, and he readies it for whatever He Xuan plans to throw at him next.
Yet, even with the expectation of everything and nothing at the same time, Shi Qing Xuan is still surprised when the next few words escape He Xuan’s mouth.
Shi Qing Xuan stays rooted to where he is, in disbelief. Before he can ask the demon king to repeat himself, He Xuan takes the initiative.
“Stay with me.”
There is desperation in that voice, a plea, and against all odds, it drives a knife right through the fallen god’s heart. Because what He Xuan does not realize is that he is not the only one in that room who yearns, for simpler times and familiar faces.
Timidity traces the steps Shi Qing Xuan takes to cover the distance between the demon king and him, as he tentatively mumbles, “Young Master He…?” A candle burns nearby, allowing him to vaguely make out the long black locks melding into equally dark robes. He Xuan is leaning against his drawer, arms crossed as if hugging himself. Worry worms into Shi Qing Xuan’s heart when he notices that the other man seems to be clawing at his own elbows raw, if the sound of nail against dry skin leading way to blood was anything to go by. “Young Master He…?” he repeats, reaching a hand out.
Which proves to be the wrong move, as He Xuan hisses as if burnt and promptly moves to attack.
It all happens so fast, and the next thing Shi Qing Xuan knows he is on his back, He Xuan glowering down at him from above like a madman, teeth bared. Despite the dark that engulfs them, his obsidian orbs seem to glimmer in a strange way, and Shi Qing Xuan briefly wonders if he even recognizes him.
Paralyzed with fear, he can only lay there, waiting with abated breath for whatever should come next.
Then He Xuan swings his right arm back, and Shi Qing Xuan closes his eyes, readying himself for the blow.
It never comes.
As he blinks his eyes open, willing them to adjust to the lowlight of the room, Shi Qing Xuan is startled to find above him He Xuan, who maintains his twisted glare and snarls, except this time the flesh of his arm is trapped between his teeth.
Amidst his own blackened senses and sanity, He Xuan had managed to stop himself from attacking the one below him.
Shi Qing Xuan almost let slips the name that can never be uttered between them again.
The flurry of emotions swimming in He Xuan’s eyes, clouded as they are, reflect the confusion in Shi Qing Xuan’s own mind. The latter listens to the uneven breaths, the pained groans; watches how those eyes glare, squint, close. There is pain, helplessness, and want. And so, he clings onto the last one on that list, and speaks.
“Y-Young Master He, you should let go.”
He Xuan makes no move to do so, only grunting in response. As Shi Qing Xuan racks his brain to come up with ways of appeasing the feral demon, his conflicted feelings voice themselves.
So what if he’s in pain? Remember what he did to gege?
But gege was the one in the wrong in the first place!
He took everything away.
So did we, so did I—
A weight drops onto his chest, wiping Shi Qing Xuan’s mind blank. His entire body tenses, on high alert. He chances a downward glance, but can barely make out the face covered by the mop of hair splayed across his chest. But he feels the press of the other’s head against his sternum, the weight of the arm sitting below his ribcage.
Shi Qing Xuan takes a deep breath. “Young Master He, I—I’m going to touch you.” He doesn’t know if the other person can hear him. But when there is no negative response, he places a tentative hand on the arm trapped between their bodies.
Like before, He Xuan hisses at the touch. But this time, he doesn’t pull away.
“D-Don’t bite, yeah?” Shi Qing Xuan says, unable to stop the bubbling nervous laughter from spilling out. With the other hand, he brushes He Xuan’s hair to one side, giving him a better view of the demon’s face. The differences between this face and the face he saw every day in the heavens are small yet stark; He Xuan’s forehead is sharper, eyebrows thicker. In his godly disguise, he had a softer look, although his stoic face remained the same.
Shi Qing Xuan is distracted from his thoughts by the sound of teeth sinking even deeper into flesh. Immediately, he panics. “N-N-No, don’t do that!” His hand that has been lying on the arm squeezes, trying to pull it away. But he is scared that if he pulls too hard, with He Xuan’s teeth still latching onto it, a chunk of flesh might just come off. With one hand on the arm, the other hand makes its way to the underside of He Xuan’s jaw. Shi Qing Xuan pales when he feels the bottom jaw jerk upward, followed by an undeniable scrunch sound.
He Xuan’s biting through his bone.
“No! No, don’t do that! Come on, let go!” Shi Qing Xuan pleads, pulling at the arm and trying to pull the bottom jaw down. But He Xuan only snarls, refusing to let go. The scene is akin to a dog fighting its master for a bone, except in this case, the bone is a part of the dog’s own body. “Please, don’t be stubborn! He-xiong!”
At the slip of the tongue, they both freeze.
Seconds tick by, carrying eternity within them. And then, there is the slightest movement against Shi Qing Xuan’s hand—the bottom jaw relaxes.
Shi Qing Xuan lets go of the breath he didn’t know he was holding. He tries not to think too much into it, and trying his luck again, prompts, “He-xiong?” For added measure, he brushes the side of He Xuan’s face with but the ghost of a touch. It’s a bold move, but Shi Qing Xuan is appealing to the side of him that he knew as Ming Yi. Ming Yi, who, in his indifference, never once turned away from Shi Qing Xuan when the latter cleans around his mouth.
Jeez, you sure eat like a child.
It works, and with a few more tries, Shi Qing Xuan manages to pull He Xuan’s arm off his mouth. Being a demon, He Xuan does not bleed, but Shi Qing Xuan still grimaces upon seeing the gruesome bite mark.
The mass of black on his chest remains unmoving, and Shi Qing Xuan thinks that the other must have fallen asleep. To his body, it’s a familiar weight, even if the current circumstances are vastly different. He allows himself a moment of nostalgia before he makes to leave.
Shi Qing Xuan is trying his best to wriggle out from underneath when the voice speaks again, repeating the words from earlier.
His body tenses, those two words enough to reignite all the questions his heart has been burning to ask. They sink into him the way Black Water sinks every ship that dares to cross his domain.
Was any of it real?
Were you happy at all during your time in heaven?
Did you ever me?
But Shi Qing Xuan doesn't ask, and never will. He will carry them in his heart, until he reunites with his brother in death.
"Stay with me."
The words cut like a knife, distant memories bleeding out of the wound, of comforting touches and inconspicuous smiles. He remembers drunken times, alcohol spilling onto the table and now, into the open gash in his heart.
He will never heal.
And as Shi Qing Xuan lies back down, allowing the enemy—the enemy he created—solace in the crook of his neck, he does not know if he deserves to, or even wants to heal.
They had stolen everything from each other.
But they still have each other.