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“Still awake?”

Shi Qingxuan startled out of his daze, tearing his eyes from the horizon. He was seated on a ruined rooftop, shingles broken and jagged, digging into his thighs and buttocks through the thinning cloth of his trousers. They would leave indents, maybe even break skin. But he’d learned to welcome pain, especially over these past few weeks. Only when he hurt did He Xuan soothe.

He Xuan stood before him now, taller than Ming-xiong had been, leaner, darker. There were curves to his face where Ming-xiong had hard edges, an elegance to the sweep of his robes that clashed with the iron-hard resolution in every line of his every expression. His eyes bore down on Shi Qingxuan from above, bottomless, lightless, chasms that held no emotion but still shook Shi Qingxuan to his very core.

He drowned in those eyes. Every night, every second spent pinned by that gaze, he was drowning.

Of the two of them, it was obvious which one should have been the god.

He Xuan broke eye contact to scan their surroundings. Dark hair whipped around his face and shoulders as he took in a ruined city, long abandoned, and hills rolling in every direction so far Shi Qingxuan could imagine it was ocean. In the moonlight, when greens glowed blue, he could imagine anything. Even that this was his brother’s domain.

But it was He Xuan’s. Even the ocean was He Xuan’s now.

“It is cold for mortal bodies,” He Xuan said, returning his attention to Shi Qingxuan. “I have hunted. There is food for the morning.”

“It’s red,” Shi Qingxuan said, and his voice cracked with the effort. Only recently had he attempted speaking again.

He Xuan glanced at the mass just on the horizon. Indeed, Mount Tonglu’s silhouette had darkened since last night. Shifted, even.

“That does not concern you,” He Xuan said.

Shi Qingxuan’s fingers twitched. He opened his mouth. Closed it.

He Xuan noticed. “Out with it,” he said, harsh and impatient.

“I have… a request,” Shi Qingxuan said.

He Xuan’s expression remained impassive. “I will not release you.”

‘I will never release you. You are mine. For eternity, you are mine.’

Shi Qingxuan wet his lips. His fingers curled into the lap of his robes, and he focused on the feeling of the threads chaffing against the lines of his palm.

“I’d like to hear…” he began. He trembled as He Xuan took a single, measured step closer, shingles clinking under his boots. “I-I’d like to know—How did He-xiong conquer Mount Tonglu?”

Silence answered that. Nervous, Shi Qingxuan glanced up at He Xuan, terrified he’d angered him with his question. It’d been weeks since He Xuan’s last outrage, but He Xuan wore the shadows of it like a badge, a reminder of who he was, who they were. For himself as much as the man cowering before him.

Slowly, He Xuan lowered into a crouch, looking closer at Shi Qingxuan’s face. Shi Qingxuan didn’t dare move away.

This close, He Xuan was haunting. “You wish to know how I survived Mount Tonglu?” he asked, eyes somehow darkening further. “How I killed my way to the kiln over the course of twelve years, nothing but the resentment of your brother’s deeds to keep me fighting to survive? How I had to dig my way out of the kiln like digging out of a second grave?”

Shi Qingxuan didn’t allow himself to swallow the lump growing in his throat. He merely nodded.

He Xuan’s expression finally changed as he lifted an eyebrow. “Why?”

Shi Qingxuan rung his hands in his robes so tightly they started to burn. “I want to know more about He-xiong,” he said weakly. “I want to know… want to know what He-xiong went through.”

He Xuan snorted. He rose back to his full height, towering over his companion. Shi Qingxuan shrunk in his shadow.

Then, an offered hand. Pale and elegant.

Shi Qingxuan took it. He gasped as he was hoisted up, more gently than he was expecting, and held tight against a cold chest that was forever still.

As they dropped to the dusty grass below, He Xuan said into his ear, cool breath ghosting over his face and neck, “I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you everything.”