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it takes a village

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WINTER

“Gege...why is there a kid here.” Hua Cheng says slowly. The kid, he notes, seems to actually be able to stomach Xie Lian’s cooking, which is a miracle in itself. Actually, he’s even a little impressed at the speed in which he’s devouring the unidentifiable mass of... food. Soup? He’s not brave enough to ask.

“Ah, San Lang!” Xie Lian beams from where stands at the stove, stirring something that bubbles ominously in a pot. He points with the stirrer, never mind how when a little splatters on the floor, the floorboards sizzle. “That’s Wei Ying. I brought him back from the streets.

Hua Cheng blinks.

“He can live with us.” Xie Lian says mildly. He stirs the pot again. “It’ll be nice to have someone else around again.”

“Gege- what- we can’t just- doesn’t he have parents?” Hua Cheng protests weakly.

They haven’t seen each other in a while, with Xie Lian having to deal with some kind of Heavenly Court issue, and Hua Cheng some issues of his own within the Ghost City, but having come back together with the full intent of spending time with each other, he had not expected to find... this.

“Not really, no.” The pot makes an unsettling gurgling noise, and Xie Lian frowns, adding a chopped handful of... something into the pot. “He said they went on a night hunt once, but then never came back. So he’s lived on the streets since then.”

“Ah...” Hua Cheng falls silent then, and he glances back over at the boy, who’s still eating, then back to Xie Lian. His brows furrow briefly. “Gege...”

“I know, I know. You’ll say that we’ll get attached again, and then someday, he’ll pass on, but we’ll still be here, but really, San Lang, what was I supposed to do?” Xie Lian ladles out a bowl of the pot’s concoction and hands it to Hua Cheng, who accepts it instinctively. “I might not be able to save all the common people anymore, but I can save one person, at least.”

“Well...” Who is he to question his god? His husband, to whom he devotes his entire being? Besides, it can’t possibly be that much of a hassle, can it? “If you’re sure, gege, then I’m sure.”

“Alright then. It’s settled.”

Xie Lian pats his husband’s back and gives him a gentle push towards the main living space.

“Go on,” he says, turning back to the stove, but not before leaning up to press a light kiss to his lips. “I’ll come over in a moment. You go and introduce yourself.”

So Hua Cheng ambles over, sits down across from the child, tucking his legs into a cross-legged sit. He doesn’t say anything as the boy tips back the bowl to drink... whatever Xie Lian had made. When he eventually sets it down on the table with a solid clack, he stares at Hua Cheng.

“You’re tall,” Is the first thing the child says, quite suddenly, which leaves Hua Cheng at a bit of a loss as to what to say, given that he hadn’t expected his day turning out this way at all.

“Taller than daozhang,” He continues, and squints at Hua Cheng. “And really pale. Are you a ghost? Are you married to daozhang?”

Hua Cheng... doesn’t exactly have a response to that. Well, he does, if he’s being honest. He arches a brow at the boy.

“He’s my husband, yes. But what would you do if I said I was a ghost?” He says. The boy blinks, and narrows his eyes.

“Are you a bad one?” He crosses his arms.

“Oh, the worst .” Hua Cheng waggles his eyebrows and smirks, letting a flash of fangs peek out. “They call me Demon King Crimson Rain Sought Flower, menace of the lands and scourge of the heavens, you know.”

“Really.” The child doesn’t seem impressed, though he peers at Hua Cheng’s fangs with mild interest. “That name’s way too long and it doesn’t sound that scary. Are you really a bad ghost?”

“...No,” Hua Cheng finally concedes with a soft chuckle after a moment of silence. “Not really. Only to those who deserve it. ”

“Oh.” He wrinkles his nose. “Alright then. I’m Wei Ying.” He says.

“Hua Cheng. You don’t actually have to call me by my full title. I don’t expect you to.”

“Oh, good. Then you’ll be Hua-ge.” Wei Ying nods, seemingly to himself. Then, he uncrosses his arms, setting his hands in his lap. He seems to tense a little.

“Um, is it true what daozhang said? About... letting me live here?”

Hua Cheng blinks. “You heard that?” He asks, and he gets a small nod in response.

“Mm. It’s just... I don’t want to be a burden, but I definitely don’t want to go back there. It’s already cold, and it’s gonna get colder, and back there there’s dogs with nasty teeth and claws who won’t stop even if you hit them back and-“

“-Stop, stop, stop.” Hua Cheng interrupts before the kid spirals further. As it stands, he’s already breathing hard and his eyes shine with unshed tears.

Good grief. He doesn’t want to say it, but this kid actually reminds him of himself, centuries and centuries ago. A scrap of a thing, living it rough on the streets fighting hard to even find something to eat. Back then, someone had saved him too, and he hasn’t looked back since.

This child shouldn’t either.

“Stop,” Hua Cheng says again, and raises a hand when Wei Ying looks up, protest ready on his lips. “His highness doesn’t break his promises, you can be sure of that. You’re not a burden to us, so don’t worry about it. All he wants to do is make sure you’re taken care of, okay?”

Then, Wei Ying finally smiles, the corners of his mouth tugging up slightly in a wobbly smile.

“Okay, Hua-ge.” He says.

Not a minute later, Xie Lian bustles over and drops down, nudging up against Hua Cheng, who drapes an arm over his husband’s shoulders automatically to draw him closer.

“Sorry, that took a little longer than I thought it would. Did you introduce yourselves?” Xie Lian’s brows furrow slightly as he notices the untouched bowl of his cooking. “Ah, San Lang, you haven’t eaten yet? It’s going to get cold. Wei Ying, do you want any more?”

“No, thank you.” Wei Ying says.

“Sorry, gege.” Hua Cheng says, and pulls the bowl closer to start eating.

It’s alright. He can get used to this.

It’s actually a little eerie how easily Wei Ying slots into their lives. He does as though he was meant to be there in the first place, and the two of them find themselves growing more and more attached to the bundle of energy.

Xie Lian takes over lessons within the first few weeks after he quickly provides an excellent counterpoint to Hua Cheng teaching by saying that ‘San Lang may know quite a lot, but his calligraphy still leaves quite a lot to be desired, so how is A-Ying supposed to learn anything when he can’t read anything?’ which has the dual effect of shutting him up and making him pout petulantly, until Xie Lian sighs and covers him with kisses until the pout turns to a smile.

“Fine then. You can join in, but absolutely no writing, alright?” He says sternly.

Hua Cheng grins, poking Xie Lian’s dimples up into a smile until he doesn’t have to anymore, Xie Lian smiling on his own. “Sure thing, gege. I’ll leave it to you.”

As it turns out, Wei Ying is quite the precocious child, picking things up with incredible ease, at least, when he’s bothered to sit still long enough. He asks questions when he doesn’t understand, and works to get everything done quickly so he can run off to play, which, as much as Xie Lian despairs over, still lets him do out of the softness of his heart and wish for him to have the childhood that neither of he nor Hua Cheng did.

Days pass, and the nights get colder, little by little, but the inside of Puji Shrine is always pleasantly warm.

That is, until one day, they wake up, and the outside world is blanketed in soft white.

“It’s snowed!” Wei Ying dips a bare toe into the white, and instantly snatches his foot back, pulling a face at the cold.

“Hm, we’re almost out of firewood. We’ll have to get more.” Xie Lian says, rubbing at the bridge of his nose as Hua Cheng drapes a warmer cloak over his shoulders. He pats his husband’s arm and kisses his cheek in thanks.

“No worries, daozhang!” We Ying chirps.

“Come here, A-Ying. Wear something warm, or you’ll get sick.”

So on a frosty winter morning, a god, a ghost and a child head out into the first snow of the year in search of firewood.

Xie Lian soon splits off when they enter the woods, shutting up a protesting Hua Cheng with a kiss and squeeze of his hands.

“We’ll get more done this way,” He says. “You just do what you can, and take care of A-Ying.” He smiles, and ambles off before Hua Cheng can wheedle him into staying.

So the next part of the morning finds just the ghost and the child in the woods together, looking for wood that isn’t completely soaked and can be used for fuel.

Or, should have been, until something wet and cold impacts the back of Hua Cheng’s head. He whips around instantly.

“Did you just throw a snowball at me?”

“What snowball?” Wei Ying asks innocently, as even in one hand, he forms yet another, and Hua Cheng gapes.

The audacity of this child! To deny that he had been the one to throw it, even as he holds evidence of his crimes in his hands.

“A-Ying-“ He begins, and gets a mouthful of snow for his efforts. He blinks, and wipes away the snow on his face with the back of his hand. He feels his eye twitch.

“Yes, Hua-ge?” Wei Ying smiles pleasantly, a snowball in each hand.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” Hua Cheng returns that smile with his own, just as sickly sweet.

Xie Lian isn’t here to see this. Good. He doesn’t want to disappoint his husband.

“What-“ Is as much as Wei Ying says before a snowball slams into his chest, a soft ‘oof’ escaping his lips as he takes a step back.

“You’ll find out just why I’m a demon king, little brat.” Hua Cheng says, tossing a snowball up and down with one hand. He smirks. If he wants to try his luck, he’ll have to match up against Hua Cheng’s ungodly good luck.

To his credit, Wei Ying does not shrink back. Instead, he bristles, a determined glint in his eyes. “I’m not scared of you,” he declares, and in quick succession, pegs both of the snowballs he made before at Hua Cheng, both of them hitting their target in the chest. “Demon king? Don’t make me laugh! The only thing that they’ll call you after today is loser king!”

“Loser king?! I’ll show you loser king-!”

It quickly devolves into chaos after that.

Wei Ying is agile and small, ducking behind trees and bushes that serve as excellent shields, which makes him hard to hit, and despite his shots not having much power behind them, they don’t stop coming, especially since the red of Hua Cheng’s robes stand out against the whiteness of the snow.

Fortunately for Hua Cheng, he’s not opposed to using dirty tricks to take pot shots back, and he smirks as a shrill shriek echoes through the clearing. Seems as though the butterflies he’d sent out had found their mark, dumping a load of snow down.

But his brief victory is short lived, and his eye widens as that shriek turns to a feral scream when a weight attaches to his back and arms and legs wrap around his torso. Seconds later, he lets out a shallow gasp as something wet and cold slides down the back of his neck, Wei Ying having stuffed a handful of snow down his back. The boy crows in victory, clinging like a piece of sticky rice in an attempt to resist being pulled off.

Hua Cheng finally gets his respite when he sends out a few butterflies to tickle off his hanger-on, and limbs untangle off in a fit of giggles. He whirls around, a snowball in each hand, fully intent on seeking revenge, but Wei Ying is already gone.

Another snowball collides with the back of his head, accompanied by a chorus of giggles and rustling.

Bad move.

He snaps a snowball in the direction of the noise-

“A-Ying? San Lang? Are you here-!“

Oh, no .

Xie Lian stands there for a moment, blinking. Then, he calmly wipes away traces of snow from his face, and the back of his head- there’s Wei Ying behind him, looking just as horrified, so that’s where he was! But, his husband got caught in between their little spat-

“To be fair,” Hua Cheng starts. “He was the one that started it.”

From behind Xie Lian, Wei Ying takes a step back, as if ready to flee.

“Sorry, gege, I didn’t mean-“

For the second time that day, Hua Cheng is interrupted with a mouthful of snow. Only this time, there’s enough force behind it to make him stumble back slightly.

“Ah,” Xie Lian says pleasantly, already halfway through a throwing motion with a snowball in his hand. “Would you look at that? Sorry San Lang, my hand must have slipped.”

“Yeah! Get him, daozhang! He- mmffph!” The rest of his words cut off with a crunch of snow, Xie Lian’s second shot landing with deadly accuracy.

He can’t believe this. Was this where Wei Ying got his shameless attitude from?

Ah, screw it. There’s no going back now.

A well placed strike forces Xie Lian to drop his ammunition.

“What a coincidence,” Hua Cheng says. “So must have mine.”

He meets Wei Ying’s eyes from behind Xie Lian, and the two of them nod, an unspoken agreement being struck in that moment.

The next, all hell breaks loose as volleys of snowballs fill the air.

For all that he might be a rubbish god now, Xie Lian is still very much a martial god, which is evident enough in his devastating flurries of attacks to both husband and ward, and impenetrable defences.

But all walls will crack eventually, and Xie Lian’s comes in the form of a tag team attack where Hua Cheng sends a tiny snowstorm towards his husband, carried by his butterflies, and as he’s distracted by that, Wei Ying attacks with the same tactic he’d used earlier, jumping onto Xie Lian’s back armed with handfuls of snow.

Xie Lian lets out an undignified yell, and a moment later, Ruoye uncoils and wraps around Wei Ying, hoisting the child into the air, who also lets out an undignified shriek.

“Ack! Father, let me go!! Ahh- Baba, help-

A ripple of shock passes through both of them, and Ruoye’s grip loosens. Even so, the sight of the falling child (Son? Could they call him that now?) spurs Xie Lian into action, and he surges forward as Wei Ying plummets down into the safety of his arms.

He squirms, and Xie Lian carefully sets him down, vaguely aware of how utterly soaked the three of them are. He may not feel the cold as strongly, but damp robes are still rather uncomfortable.

“That wasn’t fair!” Wei Ying pouts. Both Xie Lian and Hua Cheng continue to stare, and he notices, gaze darting between the two of them.

“Ah... what is it? If it’s about starting this, then I’m sorry! Why are you both staring? What did I do?”

Finally, Xie Lian speaks.

“A-Ying, what did you say just then?” He asks gently.

“What, once wasn’t enough? I said I’m sorry, okay?”

“No, before that. When you were in the air, you called us...”

A beat passes, and then a brilliant pink bursts across Wei Ying’s small face, and he throws his hands up to cover his face.

“Ah- that- I mean- I don’t- I don’t know why I said that- I’m sorry-!”

“A-Ying,” A voice interrupts, and a gentle tug pulls his hands away from his face. He peers up at a warmly smiling Xie Lian, Hua Cheng laying one hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay. We’re not mad. It was just surprising, that’s all.”

“Then... is it really alright if I call you guys by... that, from now on?” He asks shyly, and something impossibly warm blooms within Xie Lian’s chest, bubbling up and out of his throat into bell-like laughter. It might be cold outside, but at the moment, all he feels is the warmth of home. He pulls his son into a tight hug, laughing into damp strands of hair, and smiles when his husband’s arms wrap around the both of them.

“You can call us whatever you want, A-Ying. If that’s what you want us to be, then that’s what we are.” He says.

“No!” Wei Ying wriggles a little, grabbing Xie Lian’s face with his cold little hands. “The both of you were already that, so that’s why you’re Father and Baba! Okay?”

Xie Lian melts again. “Okay then.” He scoops up Wei Ying, settling the boy in his arms, and stands up. “Let’s head home before we get sick.”

Hua Cheng winds an arm around his waist, and together, they start walking back home.

It’s only when they get back do they remember that they didn’t take any of the collected firewood back at all, and they all burst into laughter.

Fortunately, there’s just enough for one more night. They’ll get more tomorrow, as long as they don’t get into another snowball fight. Until then, they snuggle together under the blankets, Wei Ying tucked in between Hua Cheng and Xie Lian, and that’s plenty warm enough.


SPRING

The sky is perfectly clear, dotted with fluffy white clouds. It’s a fine day out, neither too hot nor too warm, and the birds sing their joy from the treetops.

It’s another wonderful day for Wei Ying, but...

He’s just! So! Bored!

Ah, technically, he shouldn’t complain. Because his life has been nothing but great since he started living with his new parents a few years ago, and, even though Puji Shrine is a bit old, it’s still way better than the streets, with all the dogs, and the cold, and digging through other people’s trash- which he doesn’t really understand why Father is allowed to do that, but he isn’t- it’s home. It feels lived in.

It feels loved. He feels loved.

But! Father got called away on some Heavenly Court duties and hasn’t come back yet, and he couldn’t even go with him, because something or other ‘too dangerous for you, little one, so stay here with Baba, okay?’, which would have been fine, but then Baba had gone somewhere too, so he was here. Alone.

Which was great! In the beginning! He could mess around all he wanted, and neither of them would know, but soon, he just got tired of doing the same things over and over. Like sword forms. Or calligraphy, which no matter how hard he tried, still looked... not great. But that was okay, because Baba’s wasn’t any better, and was maybe a bit worse, actually.

So he reaches up and around, and gently plucks one of the silver butterflies resting on top of his head to cradle it in his hands. Its wings flap slightly. Wei Ying tilts his head at it.

“I’m bored!” He tells it. It only flaps its wings again. “Let’s go find something to do!”

It doesn’t say anything, but that’s alright. He doesn’t expect it to anyway.

What it does do is suddenly flap up out of his hands, flutter gently against the tip of his nose before flapping off, only hovering briefly for a moment.

“Oh?” Is this a sign... it wants him to follow it?

“Okay!”

It flaps off, and Wei Ying follows.

It continues like this for a little while, until he finally follows it to where it lands on the finger of a boy dressed in red about as old as he is, and then bursts into sparkling light.

Wei Ying stares, but just for a moment. Then-

“Who are you?” He asks, maybe a little rudely. He’s never seen this boy before, so he’s not one of the village children. There’s something familiar about him though...

The boy’s eyebrow raises for a moment, and Wei Ying giggles, the action reminding him of Baba, but then slaps a hand over his mouth, Father’s voice sounding in his head something like ‘don’t laugh at others, A-Ying. It’s rude.’ even though again, somehow, it’s alright when others do it to him, but whatever, he supposes. Father’s usually right about these things anyway, even if he doesn’t really understand.

“You can call me Hong Hong-er.” The boy says, tucking his arms behind his head. “Who are you?”

Wei Ying puffs out his chest. “I’m Wei Ying! How did you do that with Baba’s butterfly?”

Hong Hong-er’s eyebrow raises again. “Your Baba’s?” He shrugs. “Well, I don’t know. It just did that.”

“Huh.”

“Hey.” Hong Hong-er says suddenly. “Are you doing anything right now?”

“No?” Wei Ying says back, unsure. Is he? Well, no. Not really. The last thing he’d been doing was following the butterfly and now it had disappeared here. With this Hong Hong-er.

“Then...” Hong Hong-er smirks, and suddenly, Wei Ying feels a light tap on his arm, and Hong Hong-er is running off. “Tag, you’re it!” He says amidst peals of laughter.

“What?! That’s not fair, I wasn’t ready!” Wei Ying hollers after him, and Hong Hong-er stops for a few seconds to look back at him, and sticks his tongue out, blowing a raspberry.

“Too bad! I bet you can’t catch me!” He yells back.

Wei Ying bristles, and sets off, running after Hong Hong-er. “Just you wait! I’ll show you!”

In the end, they exchange tags dozens of times, running through the woods surrounding Puji Shrine and the nearby village, the trees ringing with the sound of laughing children. They run until the sun dips in the sky, and bathes the trees in an orange glow and Wei Ying is reminded that he needs to head back by the soft, but insistent bumping of a butterfly against the side of his face.

“Ah,” he says. “I have to go! It was nice to meet you!”

“Okay then,” Hong Hong-er says, and tucks his arms behind his head again. “I’ll see you around?”

“Maybe.” Wei Ying chirps. The butterfly’s nudging grows more insistent, and he brushes it to the side. “Okay, okay, I’m going home!”

He turns around, headed back to the path that leads home, but spares one last glance to where Hong Hong-er still stands. He sticks out a hand in farewell. Wei Ying matches it with a grin, and begins to hurry back.

When he arrives, dusk has begun to fully settle. He crosses over the threshold, and, at the smell of whatever was cooking, his stomach gives a rumble.

“Welcome home. Did you have a good day?”

“No! Baba left me alone!” He’s greeted with a laugh, and a hand gently ruffles his hair before it takes hold in the back of his robes and moves him off the counter.

“Careful, Ying-er. It’s hot. I didn’t mean to, you know, but Baba had something to do. Very important things.”

A black eye peers down at him, crinkled with amusement. “But surely it wasn’t all bad, was it? Come, dinner’s ready. Why don’t you tell me what you did today?”

Wei Ying trails after his Baba, chopsticks in hand, and plops himself down across from him at the table.

“Father isn’t home yet?”

Baba slides a bowl of rice over to him. “Not yet. But he said he’s almost done, so I think he’ll be back tomorrow.” He says wistfully.

“Ah, okay. I miss him...” Wei Ying drops a few slices of meat onto his rice, followed by a wobbly piece of tofu. He doesn’t like to pick favourites, but if he had to choose, he actually does prefer Baba’s cooking over Father’s, because sometimes... well, they could eat it, but it really probably wasn’t supposed to be that colour.

“Me too, Ying-er. Me too.” Baba carefully transfers a few pieces of greens to his own bowl. “But he wouldn’t want us to be sad. So, what did you get up to today?”

“Ah!” He quickly chews and swallows his mouth full of food, chopsticks clattering on the table loudly. “I met someone and I think we’re friends now. He’s a bit like you, but if you were this tall and a kid, and with two eyes, not one. His name is Hong Hong-er, and he did this thing with one of your butterflies even though he said he didn’t know anything about it, and then we played tag! Argh! He’s a sneaky one! I felt like we were actually playing hide and seek sometimes, but nooo, it was tag!”

He inhales at the end of his long speech. Across the table, Baba’s non-chopstick holding hand is poised in front of his mouth, and his eye is curved as he shakes in silent laughter.

“What? What’s so funny?” Wei Ying asks, but this only makes Baba shake harder. “Tell me! I wanna know!”

His Baba’s shaking soon subsides, and he wipes a tear away with the back of his hand. Wei Ying frowns. What was so funny? Was it something he did? Or said? But, all he said was what he did with Hong Hong-er today, and that couldn’t have been that funny, could it?

“It’s fine. It’s nothing.” Baba says, smiling. Mirth twinkles in his eye. “Eat, Ying-er, or the food will get cold.”

Wei Ying pouts, but shoves another bite of meat and rice into his mouth.

Baba huffs a laugh. “If you see him tomorrow, why not invite him over for dinner? I’m sure your Father would love to meet him.”

“Oh..! Yeah! Okay! I’ll do that!”

“My, I bet you’re looking forward to that, aren’t you? Finish your dinner, Ying-er, and then let’s get you cleaned up. If you’ve been running around day, you certainly look like it.”

The rest of the night is a hazy blur, because he had come to the sudden realisation that even someone with as much energy as he had wasn’t immune to spending hours on end running around. Maybe Baba had ended up giving him a bath, and maybe had tucked him into bed, but if he did, it was with only half remembered snatches of memories and the soft glow of a butterfly that winks out of existence as he drifts off.

But the previous day’s exhaustion might as well have not existed when he wakes up the next day.

Again, Baba is gone, but a covered bowl of congee sits on the table along with a scrap of paper with a cutesy drawing of his Baba. There’s also scribbles on it that may have been a message at some point, but must have been crossed out, considering his handwriting is very... bad.

Well whatever! He eats it quickly, thankful that it’s still warm. When he looks out the window, it seems like just a beautiful day as yesterday.

He steps out of the shrine, blinking in the sunlight. As his vision adjusts, he blinks again, but not from the sun.

No, it’s because, for some reason, Hong Hong-er’s sitting on the steps, toying with a kite?

At the sound of footsteps, he turns his head. “Oh. Hello.” He says. “Do you live here?” His hands settle on top of the kite.

Wei Ying blinks again, and nods. “I do... But what are you doing here?”

Hong Hong-er rises, arms full of kite. “Didn’t you say we’d meet again, yesterday? So here we are, meeting again.” He says, as if that answers his question.

He hefts his load as though to draw attention to it. “It’s a bit windy today, so it’s the perfect time to go fly a kite. Have you ever flown one before?”

That’s... that’s complicated. He has before, he thinks. Maybe one day, long ago, with his old parents, before they left and never came back, before he was running away from dogs on the street, before Father rescued him and brought him back to live here.

Maybe, but memories of his mother’s free spirited laughter and his father’s gentle hands around his own as they guided the kite’s strings are faded, and he isn’t quite sure that he really remembers them as clearly as he ought to and something wet rolls down his cheek and-

“Xiao Ying... Are you alright? You’re crying...”

He wipes away his tears and grins through it. “It’s fine,” He says, hoping his voice doesn’t shake. “It was just something in my eye, that’s all!”

“...”

Hong Hong-er looks over at him in concern, brows furrowed together, but he doesn’t say anything. Instead, he grabs Wei Ying’s hand and tugs gently. “Come on,” He says, “I know a place. If you don’t know how, I’ll teach you.”

So Wei Ying lets himself be tugged along, sheds one last tear, and grins, a little more genuinely this time.

So maybe, he is forgetting. But, he doesn’t think his mother and father would mind, because if there’s one thing that he remembers it’s that you should remember what others do for you, and he will never forget all that Father and Baba have done for him so far. Most of all, they would want him to be happy.

And... he is.

So, he lets himself forget about the past and lets himself worry about the present, where Hong Hong-er presses the kite strings into his hand and points up, where it loops and dips in the sky.

They fly it for the better part of the day, and at some point, they each take turns trying to knock it down from the sky with pebbles picked up from the ground. None of their throws quite manage to reach, but that’s alright, because it’s enough to make them laugh at how abysmal their attempts are.

When they grow tired of that, they flop down into the soft grass and point out shapes in the clouds, which is harder than it seems, since they’re so small.

“That looks like a rabbit!” Wei Ying says, and Hong Hong-er will squint, and shake his head. “It’s a pig.” He says back, quite seriously, and the two will share a look before bursting into laughter, and the cloud changes shape again so it’s neither a rabbit nor a pig.

“Come over to my place for dinner!” Wei Ying says suddenly to Hong Hong-er, who blinks, laughs a little, and replies with a “Sure thing.”

They get up slowly, and this time, it’s Wei Ying who grabs Hong Hong-er’s hand and tugs him in the direction of home.

When they get back, a light is on inside, and a pair of boots are by the door. Excitement bubbles up in Wei Ying’s chest, because he knows who those belong to.

Father! Is! Home! He’s home from whatever thing he had to do for the Heavenly Courts, and he hasn’t seen him in days, but Baba’s boots aren’t outside, so he musn’t be home yet, for some reason, but he’s sure he’ll be here soon!

He rushes up the steps and through the door, slamming full force into his Father’s legs. Arms come around to pat his back reassuringly.

“Father! You’re back! I missed you!”

“Oof- slow down there, Yingying, I’m an old man you know, I can’t keep up with young ones like you!”

That’s a lie. Father may be over nine hundred years old, but he’s a god, so of course he can keep up.

“Ahaha, sorry! But look, look! I met someone, and we’re friends now, so-“

“Eh..? San Lang... What are you doing?”

The rest of Wei Ying’s words die in his throat, and he looks over at his friend.

“Ah,” Hong Hong-er blinks. A lazy grin stretches itself across his face. “I got busted. Gege, I wanted to keep it going a bit longer. But it’s okay. It was fun while it lasted.”

Father’s cheeks are dusted with a light pink. “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t realise...”

Wait a minute. His line of sight flips back and forth from Hong Hong-er and Father. This... doesn’t make any sense. Father only calls Baba ‘San Lang’, and Baba only calls Father ‘Gege’... so, why...?

Unless...

Wei Ying looks away from Father, and back to Hong Hong-er, who is still smiling. Their eyes meet, Hong Hong-er’s head tilts, he smirks, and he shatters into hundreds of silver butterflies so bright and blinding that Wei Ying has to close his eyes.

When he finally opens them again, small peeks at first, he has to crane his neck up and up before he finally stares up at the face of his Baba, grinning amusedly down at him, still with his hands tucked behind his head.

He can’t help it. His jaw drops.

“Baba- you- Hong Hong-er- this whole time- you were-?” He stutters. Baba chuckles, and beside him, Father also stifles laughter behind his hand.

“But- but- yesterday you- yesterday you said you were busy doing something important!” He cries out indignantly.

Baba’s eyebrow raises, and he sticks his tongue out playfully. “I didn’t lie. Is playing with my dear son not something important to me?”

Babaaaaa- “ Wei Ying hammers his fists against his Baba’s knees lightly, pouting. He can’t believe it. Hong Hong-er was Baba all along! He feels so betrayed. No wonder they were so similar! They were the same person!

This time, both of his parents laugh, but it is Baba who picks him up and settles him in his arms.

“Okay, okay,” Father says, shaking his head. A smile still tugs at the corners of his mouth. “San Lang, stop teasing Yingying. Yingying, settle down. It’s time to eat.”

The sky outside has begun to dye itself dark blue, and stars begin to wink into existence, each as bright as a silver butterfly. Wind rustles the leaves gently, and on a grassy hillside lays a forgotten kite, ready to fly another bright, spring day.


SUMMER

“Remember, you have to stay close to us, at least for now. There’s going to be many people, and we don’t want you getting lost or caught up with the wrong types. Do you understand, A-Xian?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah! Can we go now?”

“Hold still for one more second, dear-“ With a final adjustment to the red ribbon woven through locks of dark hair and a pat on top of his son’s head, Xie Lian steps back, taking a single moment to admire his handiwork. He smiles. “Alright. We’re set. Shall we go?”

“Yeah!”

“San Lang, if you would?”

“Do you even need to ask? A-Xian, gege, here.”

And they step into the Ghost City’s city limits.

In the red light of the City, his Baba’s robes seem an even deeper red, and when he grins, it makes his sharp teeth look a bloody scene.

Wei Wuxian loves it.

He loves the Ghost City, with its surrealities and dreamlike quality. He loves how despite being a city of the dead, the streets seem to have a life of its own, how the city itself seems alive. The crowd swarms up and down the streets, a sea of shapes and misshapen heads.

In festival season, it’s busier than normal, with visitors from far and wide coming to celebrate. Celebrate what, exactly? Nobody knows. Who cares?

Lanterns, streamers, ribbons and other decorations paint the buildings and stalls, and a steady chorus of conversation carries along the street, broken by hawkers and unearthly howls.

The bustle of ghosts and demons part around street performers, monkeys in patchwork clothes performing a play in their own, screeching monkey languages, and the audience roars with laughter.

There, a ghoul of a thing with lank long hair plays shadow puppets with fingers and toes far too long and gnarled to have ever been human.

The Ghost City is a special kind of hell, and Wei Wuxian loves it.

Careful hands steer him away from looking too long, and come to rest on his back, guiding him around the crowd.

Wei Wuxian wrinkles his brow, peering up at his Father.

“Where’s Baba?”

“He went on ahead,” His Father replies easily, and tugs him gently out of the way of a shambling, sludgy thing. “The ghosts got a little excited, since they haven’t seen him in a while.”

“Oh, okay.”

Eventually, they come up to a part of the street that’s set out with stalls displaying all sorts of wares.

Father hands him a small pouch of money. “If there’s something you’d like,” He says, eyes merry, and gives him a small push in the direction of a stall where someone in red is inspecting wares- Baba- and flutters off to two stalls over.

He wanders around the stall for a moment, briefly stopping to see what had caught his Baba’s interest before deeming it not of his concern. His Baba gives a soft laugh, and pats his head.

He wanders away, and that’s when he hears it.

“Step right up, step right up! We’ve got a real beauty of a specimen here for you today, fine, fine freaks and folks! That’s right! Challenge it if you dare! A rare chili pepper from the southwest, spicy enough that it’ll send you to the grave a second time! Have it fresh, have it dried, have it stir fried, have it pickled with baby’s breath, straight from the mouth of a babe itself! Try it if you dare!”

The raucous cry of the hawker, punctuated with trumpeting sounds, from across the street makes Wei Wuxian’s head whip around.

There, from a stall decorated brightly in red and orange, an elephant headed man beckons passerby festival-goers with hands and trunk, and a headless ghost with three arms works a stovetop with blinding speed, juggling ingredients, knives and a wok in perfect synchronisation.

The hawker trumpets again, and slowly, a crowd begins to form, if not for his wares but for the incredible show of skill from the ghost chef.

Wei Wuxian is amazed himself, and a slight sniff of the air has his eyes widening in surprise. How hadn’t he noticed this earlier? Of course, the street is sure to be swimming in a sea of different scents from the sheer number of street food vendors lining it, but the absolutely divine aroma of spice is so heavy and thick he could hit himself upside the head for not noticing. Please! Just feed him to the dogs already! How could he call himself a lover of spicy food after this?

He squeezes past a shambling, bush like thing of a creature, coming up to his Baba, who’s eyeing a misshapen statue centrepiece of a goods display. It’s... kind of ugly. Maybe if he squints he thinks it sort of resembles his Father.

Nevertheless, he tugs on a corner of his Baba’s robes, who casts a sideways glance down at him.

“What is it, A-Xian?”

He points. “Can I go over there?” There’s a crowd building now, and he wants to get to the front of the crowd...

His Baba doesn’t quite spare a full glance to where he had pointed before turning back to the statue, looking at it with a critical eye. A toadlike shopkeeper stocks wares at the back of the stall, very clearly trying to make himself look inconspicuous. We Wuxian might be imagining it, but he seems oddly nervous as well. Well, whatever.

“Go ask your Father, see what he says.” Baba says, and narrows his eye at the statue.

“But Baba...”

“Go. What would happen if I let you go, but he didn’t want you to? What then, A-Xian?”

The shopkeeper lets out a sudden, loud croak as a single black eye fixates on him, boring into his back.

“Fine...”

Wei Wuxian lets out a long sigh, and slinks two stalls over, where his Father has engaged with great enthusiasm a younger looking ghost, who seems to be floundering under the nonstop blathering. He can understand why, perhaps. This stall has a grand assortment of weapons on display, some a little underwhelming and some so grand they radiate a powerful aura. It’s perfect for an enthusiast like his Father, but maybe not so great for the shopkeeper, who looks like she’s about to die a second death.

He ducks under a nasty looking spear, drawing up beside his Father to tug lightly on his robes.

“-that’s why you’d have to be careful about the process of things like that- a little imbalance could totally ruin the effect! One time, there was this rogue cultivator I met-  Oh, A-Xian, there you are. What is it?”

His Father, a little haphazardly, sets down a wicked looking dagger on the counter. The shopkeeper shrinks away somewhat, still looking ready to melt into a puddle.

Wei Wuxian points across the street again. “Can I go over there?” He asks.

“Hm?” Father turns his head, squinting slightly to where he’s pointing, and then turns back to the dagger.

“Go ask your Baba, A-Xian. If he thinks it’s fine, then you’re allowed.”

He picks up the dagger.

“But Father-!”

“I’m sure he’ll let you, A-Xian. Don’t worry. Now, about the grain of this... Wait, I was saying, about that cultivator...”

“But... fine...”

By his Father, this is going to go nowhere. This isn’t an unfamiliar situation. He’s been stuck in this cycle before, running between his parents in search of a clear answer. And then he never got it in the end.

Well, he’s not having it this time. If they get angry, he’ll apologise later, copy the Ethics sutra in penance, whatever.

He returns back to the toad shopkeeper’s stall, where the owner is pinned to the spot the the gentle flapping of two small butterflies hovering on either side. He looks like he’s ready to be frogmarched to a dungeon or something, and knowing his Baba, there’s a chance that could actually happen.

He skirts around a display case, drawing up next to his Baba, who has drawn E-Ming and has very carefully, placed the tip to the statue. The red eye at the hilt rolls to look at him balefully, and he shrugs back.

“Did you get an answer, A-Xian?”

Yes. Father said that I should ask you! So, Baba, can I go?

Yeah, right.

“He said it was fine!” Wei Wuxian lies smoothly. He even puts on his brightest smile for good measure. “I’m going now!”

There’s a shnk sound, and a long slice of whatever material the statue had been made of falls off and to the ground.

The stall owner makes a long, keening croak that cuts off suddenly.

“Be careful, A-Xian- just let us know if you need us.”

“Will do!”

And with that, Wei Wuxian hurries out, across the street, using his smaller size to squeeze through the crowd of ghosts and demons and other foul things that live in the night. He pops up at the front of the crowd, hair and clothes only somewhat mussed, just in prime position to witness the showmanship of the ghost chef.

Closer now, the pungent aroma of spice is thick and tingling, and whatever’s cooking adds another layer to the deliciousness.  Strings and strings of chili peppers dangle from the frames of the stall, tied with golden ribbons. His stomach grumbles just a little, but he ignores it.

“Ghost chilli! A single chilli with the spice of a hundred thousand! If you’re not dead yet, one of these will be sure to kill you! Does anyone dare try?”

The hawker punctuates his bold proclamation with a trumpeting laugh, the crowd erupting into murmurs that quiet when a single ghost steps forward, rugged and brawny looking.

“It’s just one tiny pepper,” He says arrogantly. “Surely, you can't be serious.”

“Oh?” The hawker’s eyes widen, glinting. His trunk curls.

Wei Wuxian’s seen this trick before. Most of the time, it was his Father who did it, when he was out of money and needed to do a little busking. The first step is to proclaim something outrageous, so obscenely so, that people can’t help but listen.

Then, prove it.

Something tells him that the challenger ghost is about to eat his words.

“Then, if I’m hearing correctly,” He wiggles large, elephant ears, which garners a smattering of laughter from the crowd. “My good sir, you’re going to volunteer to try and take on the challenge?”

There it is.

“I’m already dead! There’s no way that this puny chilli could kill me again! You’re on!” The ghost snaps, and the crowd bursts into rabble once more.

“Bold words, bold words,” The hawker rubs his hands together, smiling. “I’d recommend our chargrilled chilli chicken skewer, just as spicy but with a bit more to it! Or,” he drops his voice slightly at the ghost’s doubtful look. “Are you too chicken?”

He winks.

The crowd ‘oohs’ as the ghost is left gaping momentarily. Then, he bristles.

“Fuck off!” He roars. “Chicken or no chicken, I can take it! Hand it over!”

The hawker trumpets uproariously, and gestures to the chef, who spares a hand to signal back. They dive into work, chopping and slicing with furious speed. When the pieces are tossed into the air, one arm hurls a skewer straight through, impaling the ingredients. It continues through, stopping only when it’s caught in the firm grip of the hawker’s trunk.

He presents it to the ghost with a bow amongst the crowd’s applause.

“Be our guest,” He says, grinning slyly.

The entire skewer is an alarming shade of red, topped with a grilled pepper at the top, and the aroma cuts through the spices, uniquely savoury and spicy. Wei Wuxian’s stomach rumbles again.

The ghost snatches it, scoffing. “I bet it isn’t that bad at all,” he says, and tears the entire contents of the skewer into his mouth, and chews.

The crowd watches with bated breath.

“It’s not even-!” He starts, then cuts off.

“It’s not even what?” Someone in the crowd bellows back.

But the ghost doesn’t respond. His pale face, etched with scars, begins to oscillate between red and white, which is something Wei Wuxian has never seen before.

He lets out a short hiccup, and topples over, unresponsive.

A beat passes, and then the ghost wails.

“AHHHH! WHAT DID YOU FUCKING FEED ME?!” He takes a shuddering breath, hiccuping again. “I’M ON FUCKING FIRE!! WHAT HAVE YOU- WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?! WATER- I NEED-“

The hawker, rather helpfully, hands him a cup, which the ghost downs in a single gulp.

And then proceeds to shriek even louder, cutting over the uproar of the crowd.

“By the way, I forgot to mention, water makes the burn worse.” The hawker says cheerily. “But if it wasn’t enough before, then it is now!”

A fresh wave of uproar bursts from the crowd, and movement jostles Wei Wuxian slightly from his spot. It nudges him closer to the ghost, currently sobbing and rolling on the ground, and he looks on in horrified fascination.

The spice level... man, was this guy a wimp, or was it really just that spicy? Either way, it makes him want to try it out.

It’s probably a good thing that his parents aren’t here with him. They would never let him try this if they saw this.

“IT’S AN EXCELLENT WAY TO TORMENT YOUR ENEMIES!! FORCE FEED EM SOME, AND WATCH THEM GET SET ON FIRE, WITHOUT THE MESS!! BUY EM NOW, WHILE THEY’RE STILL IN STOCK!!” The hawker bellows over the crowd, and like that, it’s enough, waves of ghosts surging forward.

It’s chaos, with money, limbs and sharp objects being waved around indiscriminately as everyone tries to get to the front of the crowd. Wei Wuxian’s almost sure that the poor guy who’d been dying his second death has been trampled to his second death by now.

The renewed jostling of the crowd shunts him straight up to the stall, and blinks. The elephant headed hawker is right there.

“Hey mister,” He says loudly enough to cut through the noise. “I wanna buy one of those skewers like that guy had.”

The effect is instantaneous. The whole crowd grinds to a halt, and the hawker whips his head around to stare incredulously at him.

“You want to?” He trumpets unsurely. “Listen, kid, I don’t think you could handle it. I mean, did you see what happened to the other guy?”

“Yeah.” Wei Wuxian says. “It’ll be fine. So can I have one? I’ll pay.”

Here’s the clincher. He’d expected this might happen, but lucky enough for him, his Baba is loaded as hell.

He extracts a gold piece from his sleeve, and bares his teeth in a grin as the crowd ripples with shock.

The hawker’s eyes widen, and he trumpets loudly, belting out a laugh. “Fine then, kiddo, if you want it so much, then you can have it! Whatever happens next is on your head!”

He takes the proffered gold piece, gesturing to the chef, and a minute and a blur of motion later, Wei Wuxian is handed an eye searingly red skewer. The aroma drifting from it makes both his eyes and mouth water.

“Well, this is it,” He announces loudly, and starts to eat.

The crowd is dead silent.

The spice doesn’t hit him at first. It almost tastes sweet, actually, and it pairs well with the smokiness of what he hopes really is chicken. It tastes good.

Then, it burns .

He lets out a short cough, taken by surprise.

Oh wow. They really weren’t exaggerating. He can see why the other guy might have felt like he was being set on fire.

The inside of his mouth feels both numb and searing at the same time, as though maybe if he breathes out, he’ll breathe out a gout of flame. Sweat begins to bead at his temples and gather in his palms, but he swallows down the bite he has in his mouth and takes another one. He’s a little dizzy, but whether that’s from the pain or euphoria, he doesn’t know.

It’s...

It’s really, really delicious. One of the best things he’s eaten in his life.

Sure, it’s spicy. Spicy might be an understatement, actually. The way the inside of his mouth feels like Mount Tonglu can attest to that. But it’s also tolerable enough, especially to him, who contends with his Father’s cooking by at any given time, dumping half a bottle of chilli flakes onto it.

Suddenly, he’s holding a stick that’s completely empty of anything. At some point he had finished the skewer.

“Ah,” He says, the inside of his mouth throbbing. “I ate it all.”

Pairs and pairs of eyes bear down on him, the hawker’s included, who frankly, looks amazed.

“You... you... kid, you finished that?” He stutters.

Wei Wuxian shrugs, and licks his lips. He could go for another one, actually.

“I liked it!” He says, and then suddenly hands grab at the back of his robes, hoisting him into the air, and then he’s being passed around by upraised arms on top of the crowd, who laugh and cheer.

“Who the hell is this kid?”

“Who cares! Did you see that?!”

“That was fucking unreal! The way he just downed that without even blinking!”

“Wait, what if the other guy was just so weak even a kid could beat him?”

“Oh, shut up! You think he was faking it? Why don’t you try it then, see how you like it!”

“But seriously, who is this kid?”

Then, the arms passing him around suddenly stop, and the crowd moves away. Unbalanced by the sudden change in momentum, he topples down-

-Hands catch him under his arms, and he’s lowered to the ground.

“H-Hua-chengzu! You guys, it’s the lord! And the lord’s husband! You’d better shut up and show some respect!”

“Wah! It is! It is! Good evening, yer lordships! Ya missed an incredible show! This kid just ate hellfire hot chilli chicken like it was nothin’! And ya should have seen the other guy!”

Wei Wuxian looks up into the faces of his parents, both who seem completely impassive. He laughs nervously.

He’s dead, for real this time.

Baba arches an eyebrow.

“Did he now?”

The crowd rabbles.

“Yeah, yeah! Ya should have seen it, yer lordships! It was like nothin’ we’ve ever seen! Seriously, who the hell is he?”

The arched eyebrow climbs higher, and his Father stifles a laugh behind his free hand. The other is entwined with Baba’s own.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know if it’s the spice or anticipation that’s making his heart thunder.

“He’s my son.” Baba says, simply and the crowd erupts.

“BLOODY HELL!! THE LORD’S SON?! NO WONDER! THEN IT’S ONLY TO BE EXPECTED! ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE!!”

“Alright, alright! Quiet down, you lot, and get going!” Baba roars over the din of the crowd, and with a bit more roughhousing, they eventually clear off, some returning back to browsing the streets and some once again clamouring over the spice vendor’s stall.

They’ll have good business tonight, it seems.

“A-Xian, it wasn’t very nice of you to lie, you know,” Father says, hands carefully coming to fix his hair and clothes. That being said, he doesn’t sound mad...

“Sorry,” Wei Wuxian only says meekly in reply. “But if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten a response from either of you.”

Father sighs, smiling fondly. “Would it really have killed you to wait for us?”

“Um...”

“Well, I hope you’re happy, little brat.” His Baba says beside him, just as fondly, even though his words aren’t quite so. That’s alright. He knows what his Baba means by now. It would be sad if he didn’t. His hand gently pats the top of his head.

“You’re really something else, huh?”

“What else would I be if I wasn’t?” He replies cheekily, and gets a pinch of his cheeks for his efforts.

“Brat.”

“Baba!”

Wei Wuxian slips both his hands into one each of his parents, walking in between them as they head on down the street.

“Next time, just wait for us, alright A-Xian? You need to be careful buying food here- who knows where some of it’s been? You could have gotten sick.”

Wei Wuxian thinks briefly back to the bright red skewer, and thinks of tomorrow.

He hopes he’s lucky.

“Okay, Father,” He says brightly. His Father makes a pleased sound in reply.

“Good. Now, let’s keep going. I think last year, there were these games where you could win prizes...”

The night is still young, and the Ghost City, contrary to its name, is warm and alive with cheer and festivities. There’s still much more to discover before the moon begins its descent back into its slumber yet.

They walk on, hand in hand, and their laughter joins the rest that echoes through the streets like a familiar song.


AUTUMN

It’s not a secret that the mountains and woods surrounding Puji Shrine and the neighbouring village are resplendent in autumn, the maples dappled in the colours of fire.

It’s also not a secret that the village has its own patron god, a young man in white who passes by every few days to grant requests and accept offerings, amongst gathering of scraps. To the outsider, it might seem as though it were just any other cultivator with an unusual hobby, but the villagers know better.

He is a god of scraps and rubbish, of broken and lost things, but a god all the same. They bring their requests to the little shrine on the outskirts of the village, and if it’s within reason, it’s granted to the best of this god’s abilities.

A humble god, who accepts small kindnesses and offerings as payments, despite the roughshod shrine he calls home and shares with his family.

On days such as these, it isn’t uncommon for a young man and a teenager to come down the road, one dressed all in white, and the other in red and black. As they stroll down with the sun bearing down on their backs, a fluffy fox winds around their ankles, and they laugh, walking onwards.

The youth raises a flute to his lips then, and plays a merry little tune that sways in time with the falling maple leaves, and the man in white smiles, picking up the fox and twirling around in a half-dance. The fox licks his face, and he giggles.

The tune pauses, the youth grins, and then he plays on as they walk up to the village square. The song summons children over, who clap and join in, dancing with delight. The fox, who may certainly be considered a threat to the chickens kept by the villagers, is paid no mind by them instead. They are already used to the sight of the fox with the cultivator, and he has never been anything but respectful towards them, and the fox, nothing but well behaved.

The tune ends with a bright trill, and many of the children squeal in delight.

“It’s Xian-gege! Play another song, Xian-gege! Have you come to play with us again today, Xian-gege?”

The youth, Wei Wuxian laughs, and shakes his head, the end of his ponytail swaying. “Sorry, not today, kids! I’m helping out Father with something in the village!” He laughs again at the disappointed sighs of the children. “Hey, don’t be like that! How about this? After I’m done, I’ll come play a song for you kids, alright? A story? Would you like to hear a story? How about one of the Four Famous Tales?”

“Yay!”

“Okay, okay, settle down-“

It’s a scene that brings a smile to Xie Lian’s face. The fox in his arms noses at his chin, and he blinks down it, huffing out a laugh. He presses a kiss to the tip of its nose.

“He’s a good kid,” One of the old village aunties say to him, a fond expression on her face. “You must be proud.”

“Yes,” Xie Lian says, still smiling. The auntie in question has known him since she was a young child herself, a fixture in the village over the years.

It’s been nearly ten years.

Ten years since that fateful day long ago, on the streets of Yiling where a dirty, scrap of a child had ran straight into his legs before shrieking and hiding behind him as a pair of stray dogs ran out of the alley, hot on his heels.

Xie Lian hadn’t even needed to think before he swept them away in order to get them to stop chasing the child.

A young boy, dressed in tatters, wide eyed as he stared up at his saviour.

How could he not bring him back?

Xie Lian is a god of forgotten, broken things. He finds them, and he fixes them. He gives them new purpose.

He is a god of pre-loved things, and things that are to be loved again.

This child is no exception.

“What’s your name?” He’d asked gently.

“It’s... Wei. Wei Ying...” The boy had replied unsurely.

That was the beginning, and now, ten years have gone by, the wild child from the streets has grown into a free young man, happy and content, and most importantly, loved.

The fox in his arms wriggles slightly, and Xie Lian loosens his grip to let it leap down. With a series of yips, it bounds over to his son and the children, causing another round of delighted squeals.

“He’s a fine lad. Why, if I were younger, I’d snap him up, just like that!” The auntie jokes, a weathered hand patting on Xie Lian’s arm. He smiles, shaking his head,

“Please stop joking around, auntie. What did you want me to help you with? Some issue with your vegetable garden?”

The auntie guffaws once more, and settles. “Yes, that’s right,” She says. “For some reason, the radishes that I’ve grown...” A distasteful expression passes over her face. “They bleed when I cut them open. It’s really quite an issue. Could you spare some time to fix it?”

“Of course,” Xie Lian says amicably, and then raises his voice slightly. “A-Xian! Are you finished playing? Come here, we’re going to help out auntie with something.”

“Okay, Father! I’m coming!”

Wei Wuxian dusts off his clothes and jogs over, the fox trotting at his heels. He draws up next to his father, beaming at the auntie.

She stares for a moment, then starts laughing.

Xie Lian sighs.

“Please stop laughing auntie. This isn’t funny.”

“Your son is taller than you are! He’s what, fifteen? And how old are you, nine hundred? A thousand?” She wheezes. “You haven’t gotten taller since you ascended?”

“Auntie, please.”

“Alright, alright~! Follow me.”

His son pats his shoulder, even though his eyes too, sparkle with amusement.

“Don’t worry about it, Father. At least A-Ba wasn’t the one standing next to you- hey!”

The fox headbutts Wei Wuxian’s leg and bounds ahead of them. It’s ears flick, and Wei Wuxian pouts slightly.

“Are you two still following? We’re almost- ah.”

The sudden shift in tone from energetic to flat blindsides both Xie Lian and Wei Wuxian, the latter of which who cranes to peer around the auntie.

She pinches the bridge of her nose.

“Ah... my good sirs,” She begins, sounding slightly pained. “This... was not meant to happen.”

“What is it, auntie?”

She sighs, and points.

There, at the end of her finger, is clearly a garden. Hers, if it’s any indication. But, Xie Lian is pretty sure that a vegetable garden isn’t meant to be...

“Why is your garden covered in talismans? And who is that guy?” Wei Wuxian blurts out.

Indeed. The auntie’s garden, which is well maintained and orderly, now has the addition of probably a paper talisman to every above ground vegetable, and the disturbed soil appears as though some had been pulled up and replanted, and not very well, at that.

And currently, there’s a man in the middle of the garden, pasting even more onto the trellises.

The auntie grumbles something under her breath. Xie Lian thinks it’s something about ‘useless husband’, ‘told him not to’, ‘what does he go and do?’. Frankly, he’s just glad he doesn’t have the same problems with his own.

She lets out a long exhale.

“Please don’t pay that any mind, you two. I mentioned the issue with the crops to my husband the other day, and that man overheard and offered to take care of it. The thing is, I already knew that I could count on you two, but he’s a bit of a pushover, and this man was insistent, so it seems as though-“ She sends a short glare in his direction. The man, still doing who knows what with some talismans, does not notice. “He ended up allowing this to happen. Honestly, if you want something done, you have to do it yourself...”

She trails off into another round of incomprehensible muttering, and Xie Lian, somewhat awkwardly, breaks off to draw up next to his son.

The son in question had wandered over to the patch, and was squatting down between a tangle of melons. With a flourish, he plucks one of the talismans off a fat melon, inspecting it between thumb and forefinger. He frowns slightly, and shorter than husband and son he might be, but Xie Lian is still plenty tall enough to be at an inconvenient angle to see what’s written on the talisman, so he bends over slightly to get a better view.

No sooner than he does does he feel the conspicuous feeling of someone’s eyes on his back, but the auntie has moved away with a determined stride towards the man at the other end of the garden, so it can’t be her, but it could be-

Xie Lian glances over to the side. The fox sits there innocently, tail curled around its paws. It lifts one to lick at briefly, pauses when it catches Xie Lian’s eye, and continues, nonchalant.

Xie Lian narrows his eyes at it. The fox flicks its ears back.

That fox..! Oh, never mind. He turns back to the talisman, but the moment he does, it’s swiped out of view. Wei Wuxian lets out an indignant squawk, and springs up.

In that time, it seemed as though the man who had stuck the talisman on in the first place had made his way from across the garden.

“Don’t touch that!” He snaps, and then proceeds to haphazardly slap it onto a crawling vine. “You could have ruined my entire process!”

Oh dear. Xie Lian can feel the oncoming headache already.

This... is not an unfamiliar situation to him. In the past however many centuries he’s been alive, there have always been those times where he’s had to deal with arrogant people who think too highly of themselves to accept when they’re wrong. He’s sad to say that he has been one of those people, but that was a long time ago.

Alright, yes, he might have looked not that impressive, and certainly, that was a cause for doubt, but experience counts for something, and he has plenty of that.

Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to retort, but Xie Lian gestures quickly, and he shuts his mouth just as quickly. He settles for sending a scathing look at the man.

“Our apologies, fellow cultivator,” He says as diplomatically as possible, and tries to paste on what he hopes looks like a convincing smile. “We did not mean to disturb you or your... process.”

Can. Can this even be called one? Could he really think of no other, more effective way to draw out the spirit other than with a load of talismans? Is this what cultivation sects are teaching their disciples these days?

He shakes his head. “This one is called Xie Lian and my friend here,” With extra emphasis added to friend, he shoots a meaningful look towards Wei Wuxian, who shrugs. “Is Wei Wuxian. Might I ask who you be?”

The man sniffs. “You may call me Zhao Wenxiu.” He says shortly, crossing his arms. He doesn’t say anything else.

“Ah...” Xie Lian clasps his hands together and slowly counts to five. Thinks of how cute his husband looks when he smiles. He continues. “We came on behalf of auntie, from the shrine from out of town. Are you passing through the village? Usually, they ask us to deal with matters such as these...”

Zhao Wenxiu huffs. “I am. I wasn’t aware there were other cultivators here who could deal with it, but it can’t be helped. I have this settled, so you can just go back to what you were doing before-” A low growl fills in his pause, and he glances disdainfully at the fox, who has perched itself in front of Xie Lian.

“-and take that mangy creature with you.” He finishes, turning away. The growls grow louder, and two small butterflies flutter into view.

Xie Lian lays a hand on the fox’s back, and the growling stops. It looks up at him, and he shakes his head gently.

The butterflies flutter off.

“It’s nice of you to help out auntie, but I really don’t think that you’ll do much.” Wei Wuxian suddenly pipes up, another talisman in hand, and everyone turns to look at him. He twirls it in between his fingers.

“What do you mean?” Zhao Wenxiu spits out, already striding forward, and Wei Wuxian shrugs, throwing the talisman to Xie Lian, who catches it on instinct.

“I mean, they’re drawn correctly, so that’s a point to you, but these are talismans for keeping evil out. Not going to do much use if the evil’s already here, you know?”

Xie Lian glances down at the talisman in his hand.

He’s right. This is for keeping evil at bay, and it’s not a bad one to do it either, but really not what he would have used in this situation. He folds it, slipping it into his sleeve.

Zhao Wenxiu stops short in front of Xie Lian, eyes frantically whipping back and forth from Wei Wuxian to Xie Lian.

“If I were you, I would have started with some evil-dispelling talismans, just to gauge the strength of this thing.” Wei Wuxian continues, pulling yet another one off a melon. “The more stubborn ones won’t be affected, so that’s when you try something else.”

He lets out a low whistle, oblivious to Zhao Wenxiu’s rapidly reddening face.

“This one’s sunk its roots in pretty deep, wouldn’t you say, dao~ zhang ?” He winks at Xie Lian, who sends him an unimpressed look back.

Xie Lian crouches down, swiping a trace of the soil onto his finger. He tastes it, and ignores the seemingly disappointed look coming from the fox and the disgusted one from Zhao Wenxiu.

“From the taste of things, it’s probably a mid to upper level rot spirit.” He says absently. “You’d probably have to dig up the entire garden, replace the soil and replant everything to get rid of it, a bit like a waterborne abyss.”

Zhao Wenxiu opens his mouth to speak, but before he can, Wei Wuxian scoffs, bounding over to Xie Lian.

He folds his arms, taking advantage of his height to lean on his shoulder.

“Who has the time to do that? What a waste! No, no, no,” He shakes his head. “Let’s just do this the fast way, shall we?”

He moves to pull his flute from his belt, but before he can start playing, an iron grip clamps down on his wrist.

“Hey, you brat- Where do you get off just coming over here, criticising me and my methods?! Who raised you?! Didn’t they teach you to respect your elders?! I’m perfectly capable of-“ Zhao Wenxiu rages.

Xie Lian moves to intervene, but before he can, Wei Wuxian only rolls his eyes, tugging his wrist out of his grip.

“Have you ever tried thinking before you speak? No? Well, maybe try it sometime. Now, do be quiet. Father, I’ll be counting on you.”

And, ignoring Zhao Wenxiu’s gobsmacked face, Wei Wuxian lifts his flute to his lips, and begins to play.

Honestly, this child! Where did he go wrong in raising him?

Ah, well, he can’t lie to himself. Troublemaker or not, Xie Lian still loves his son with all his heart and more, and that’s fact.

The effect of the flute is almost instantaneous, with wisps of dark energy curling up from the ground. It’s something that sets Xie Lian on edge, but it’s only a minor discomfort, so he bears it as best he can.

Wei Wuxian plays on, and the wisps darken, solidifying.

“This... this isn’t right. What- how- You can’t do this-!”

From out of the corner of his eye, Xie Lian sees the horrified Zhao Wenxiu begin to move, but his gaze doesn’t narrow until the other cultivator motions to draw his sword.

“Oh no, we can’t have that.” Xie Lian mutters to himself, and flicks a hand out.

Ruoye responds to his will, slithering out in the blink of an eye. In seconds, it wraps tightly around Zhao Wenxiu, dangling him in the air. His eyes widen.

“Hey-!”

Ruoye wraps itself over his mouth, and Xie Lian breathes a sigh of relief.

Much better.

The fox at his feet yips in amusement, and Xie Lian spares a minute to huff a soft laugh himself.

By now, the haunting flutesong has summoned a coalescing mass of dark energy in the middle of the garden.

The song flutters to a close, and Wei Wuxian lowers the flute from his lips, tucking it back into his belt. He narrows his eyes at the mass.

“Come out, why don’t you? We’re waiting~!”

Then, the mass begins to shift. Waves of energy roil under the surface, and tendrils of darkness burst out, looking like withered vines. Rotted fruits of dark shapes bloom out from the vines and splatters of ink black drip to the ground below.

Wei Wuxian clicks his tongue, baring his teeth in a wide grin. “There’s a handsome lad! Let’s not keep it waiting! Father!”

“Yes, yes, A-Xian. This old man can still keep up with you yet!”

The two of them share a look, and in conjunction, two swords flash out of their sheathes, glimmering with spiritual energy.

Not a moment later, they flash towards the rot spirit, slashing it apart in an x-shape. It lets out an ungodly shriek, black wisps shredding themselves as the swords cut through it.

However, one escapes from the net of spiritual energy, rising up, flickering like a black coloured flame.

It speeds towards the immobile Zhao Wenxiu, and Xie Lian’s heart skips a beat. He motions for Fang Xin to chase after it, but it won’t make it in time-

A blur of orange and white intercepts it halfway, and the fox lands on all fours, tail lashing.

The wisp is caught in its jaws, and with a vicious snarl, its jaws clamp down. The wisp dissolves into black smoke with a rattling scream.

Xie Lian breathes a sigh of relief. He summons his sword and Ruoye back to his side, letting Zhao Wenxiu drop ungracefully to the ground.

The fox trots back over, tail swaying. It paws at the hem of Xie Lian’s robes, and he huffs, but he picks it up all the same. It settles comfortably in his arms, pressing its face to his chest and licking the exposed triangle of his skin.

He sends it a stern look, but all it does is lick again and peer up at him expectantly. “Not now.” He says quietly, scratching behind one of its ears. “Fishing for compliments? Fine then. You did an excellent job. Truly, the strongest, the bravest, the fastest of them all. This Crown Prince bows down before your might.”

The fox wiggles in delight.

Wei Wuxian ambles over then, a satisfied smile on his face.

“Did a pretty good job, don’t you think, Father dear?”

“Just be careful when you do that, A-Xian. If something goes wrong...”

“It’s fine! A-Ba would have stopped me if there was any issue.”

The fox yips in agreement, and Wei Wuxian laughs.

“You... the two of you... What are you? You can’t possibly be... human!”

Ah. Right. They had totally forgotten about Zhao Wenxiu, who now stares at them, pale-faced and leaning on his sword for support. He’s also covered in dirt, but that’s not the issue here.

Wei Wuxian turns to blink at him, then sticks his tongue out.

“Me? Nah, I’m as human as they come! Father, on the other hand...” He drapes himself on Xie Lian’s shoulder, who makes no effort to shove him off, save for sending him an exasperated look.

“I wonder, do you believe in gods?” He asks sweetly.

Zhao Wenxiu is silent for one moment before he looks away, making what sounds like stuttering apologies.

He stumbles away, and Wei Wuxian breaks into laughter.

“You know he’ll go back and spread stories about that,” Xie Lian chides his son gently, but his words are light. Wei Wuxian waves his hand, flippant.

“Nobody will believe him. It’s fine.”

“A-Xian.”

“Yes?”

“You did well today. I’m glad that you came with me, considering you’ll be leaving tomorrow.”

“Why would you think that I wouldn’t? I have to make our memories together count, don’t I?”

“Oh, A-Xian...”

“Done already?” They whip around to look to the side, where the auntie has returned, a mousy looking man trailing behind her. “Where’s the other guy?”

“He left,” Xie Lian says simply, picking his way across to her. “And yes, we’re done.”

He fishes around in his sleeves for a moment, and passes her a small pouch.

“I recommend holding off on harvesting for a few days at least, and steep these herbs in whatever water you use to water them. It will help to purify any last traces.”

She barks out a laugh, turning to the man behind her. “See, I knew we could count on them, but nooo, you just had to let that other man in here. Look at the mess he’s made!”

“I couldn’t just turn him down..!” The man protests weakly. The auntie waves a hand dismissively.

“Sure, sure. That’s what you always say, and who ends up paying for it in the end?”

Ah. This is...

“Anyway, we’ll be taking our leave now, auntie. Come by the shrine later if you’d like,” Xie Lian says hurriedly, beginning to walk away. “A-Xian, let’s go.”

“Eh? What- Ah!”

Ruoye coils around his son’s wrist, and Xie Lian drags him away and back down the path to the village.

They’ve barely stepped foot when Wei Wuxian is swarmed by children. They crowd around him, the tallest only coming up to his knees.

“Xian-gege’s back! Where’s your flute, Xian-gege? Are you playing for us again? Are you telling us a story?”

“Aiya, such energetic children! Won’t you let this poor Xian-gege rest a little first? Hah! No matter! If it’s for you all, then there’s nothing I can’t do! Did I say I’ll tell a story? How about the Tale of the Crown Prince Who Pleased God?”

Xie Lian watches the scene unfold with soft eyes. The weight in his arms suddenly disappears, but arms encircle him in a hug.

“He’s grown up well, hasn’t he?” A warm voice sounds in his ear.

Xie Lian nods, placing his hands over the ones on his waist. He shuts his eyes for a brief moment, then opens them again.

“I think we’ve done pretty well,” He replies softly. “I’ll worry about him, of course but...”

His husband chuckles and presses a soft kiss to the tip of his ear. “That’s only natural, gege, but you should have more faith in him. He’s not that scared little boy anymore.”

Xie Lian sighs. “I know...”

Truthfully, he had been expecting that this day would come eventually. There was always a day where children seemed to suddenly be children no longer, but grown and seeking their own fortunes. He perhaps understands what his own parents might have felt like when he left for his own studies.

Pride. Sorrow. Joy. Anxiety.

Love.

Their son, their A-Ying, was growing up. Had grown up. He’d come to them one night, not long ago, with the stars in his eyes and a twitch in his fingers, and in that moment, Xie Lian knew that he had learned all he needed to learn, could learn from him, and was ready to move onto greater things.

Things that he had to learn for himself.

And so, he grants his blessing to one half of his heart, and the other half of his heart grants his own to the other.

Their son is ready to leave the nest, and fly on his own. He’ll rise by the time the sun is at its highest tomorrow, and leave at its highest as well.

Things will be different after that, but Xie Lian and Hua Cheng have always had each other. It’s just that there’s been someone else there too for the past while, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But for now, for just this autumn afternoon with the maples raining down on them and the laughter of children on the breeze, Xie Lian’s heart is light.

It is light, illuminated by a sun that appeared ten years ago completely by chance, and it will continue to shine for a long time yet.

“I love you, you know?” He says aloud, and gets a chuckle in return. “I love you both, so, so much.”

“I know.”

Xie Lian closes his eyes, and smiles, sun bright.


epilogue; the seasons of youth

“Dear Father, his Highness Crown Prince of Xian Le, patron of scrap collectors and broken things...”

“Ah, just in time! What did you do today, A-Xian?”

“What is he saying, gege?”

“He’s... oh.”

“Gege?”

“Well, this is certainly new. Let’s see...”

“What is it?”

“Father, A-Ba, I think I’ve fallen in love. I’m dying. Send help.”

“It seems, San Lang, our dear A-Xian is experiencing the wonders of first love.”

“Oh? Well, that certainly is new.”

“Isn’t it? Here, come over and listen.”

“I am literally not joking when I say this, but I may have met the most beautiful boy in the world. Not only that, but he is so kind, and graceful, and well, actually, a little boring, but that’s charming in its own way, and anyway- Huh? Jiang Cheng? What do you mean what am I doing? I’m sending an important message to my parents- Praying? Well, duh, but How else is Father supposed to hear? What? No, they’re not dead! Well, A-Ba is, but that’s not the point- Anyway- You- come back later! I’m busy! And no, I’m not weird, you’re just being an idiot!

“Anyway, where was I- oh, right. His name is Lan Zhan, by the way- And I’ve been trying all sorts of things to get him to notice me but- I feel like I’m just annoying him? But, he’s just too cute when he gets teased, the tips of his ears go pink! So cute! But I don’t know if- Argh!

“Please help. How do I get him to like me back?”

“Heh. You’d better leave this one to me, gege. I still remember how long it took for you to realise-“

“-San Lang!!”