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ours a love that will last for eternity

Chapter Text

The little red flower’s petals against his hand was cool to the touch, and Xie Lian ever so gently petted them, ensuring not to so as much leave a dent on the delicate petals.

“I hope we shall meet again.” Were the god’s first and final words to the flower.

The god left.

The little crimson flower bobbed in the wind long after the god was gone, petals tilting upwards as though reaching to the heavens.

A season passed, the flower bloomed brilliantly before dying, crimson beads scattering to the ground, before they too moved on.

 


 

Years slipped by since Xie Lian’s second ascension and fall.

By then the other heavenly officials in disguise who had nothing better to do than to observe the twice ascended Xie Lian had given up out of boredom, and Xie Lian could at last abandon that load off his back. Moving from place to place, he drifted on in the mortal realm doing whatever honest work possible to get by which eventually ended up in scrap picking, misfortune falling upon those soft enough to hired him otherwise.

Time flowed on.

It must have been centuries of years since the fall of Xian Le, the unasked for thought occurring to Xie Lian one cold day in early spring. He had momentarily stopped travelling to drink by a gushing river and as he dawdled, in the glistening waters his appearance was mirrored back at him. The identical youthful face as that of years long gone by, if far less naive after all that had happened. Wistfulness embraced him like an old friend at that moment, worn memories stirring. The heavens uncaring above, the mortal realm moving on, with Xie Lian accepting it so even while his appearance remained locked to that day so long ago, when he first ascended.

Xie Lian scattered away the thoughts and continued onward.

For memories that were seamlessly branded into his being for time to fade, it was prudent not to dwell on the past.


 

After the Banyue kingdom perished, Xie Lian ceased counting the years and continued simply living, demurely visiting places making his rounds, never staying in one part too long.

His sole companion throughout these years was Ruoye, the spiritual device’s comforting presence wrapped around his wrists wherever he wended. Xie Lian convinced himself he was quite content living like this, that he had long adjusted to whilst his days away wandering around.

This belief echoing in Xie Lian’s soul continued, until irrevocably silenced by a determined meeting.


 

It happened on a clear autumn day. Xie Lian had decided to travel down south as the weather got colder. Right then he was passing through a forested valley, crowded with trees splendidly showing off their rich autumn colours. According to directions he had gotten from the previous village he had visited a few days past, by late morning Xie Lian ought to have reached the next village. It was now already mid-afternoon and there was not so much of a hint of that he was getting close.

In other words, he was lost!

If he had been centuries younger and less inexperienced, Xie Lian may have been more fazed considering there was no civilization in sight but as he had already truly gotten lost there was no point in losing his head. Right now, it was best to enjoy the vivid foliage as far as he could see and continue treading down the barely visible trail.

In hindsight, perhaps he should have spent less time admiring the scenery and more time looking down at the path, watching where he was going.

Something sharp glanced across Xie Lian's ankle level and instantly he stumbled. ‘Stumbled’ was indeed an apt word for all of Xie Lian’s training and experience as a martial god, he wasn’t paying attention and thus like any ordinary person fell over. Reflexes instinctively kicking in, Xie Lian’s hands spread out to break his fall before a surge of spiritual energy slammed into him from behind throwing him forward by several feet, ending him in sprawling out on the ground. Despite being well accustomed to pain, Xie Lian couldn’t help but cry out. Not from the impact of the rocky ground but from how that burning energy had seared through him, coursing through his being if only for a few vivid seconds.

The sensation of his whole body pierced was far too hideously familiar.

Ruoye unwrapped itself and fluttered anxiously over Xie Lian’s body, trying to get its master’s attention.

Gasping a bit, Xie Lian recovered his breath, before sitting up. Sweat beading his temple still, he mentally checked his body's condition. Xie Lian's body was much sturdier than a mortal's so nothing was broken, only slight bruising that would heal soon enough. He extended a hand to Ruoye, stroking it and reassuring the spiritual device. Ruoye brushed his knuckles before curling once more against his wrists, the silky softness a familiar balm.

Dusting himself off, Xie Lian cautiously walked back to where he had tripped, stopping just before the spot.

Now Xie Lian wondered how he hadn’t sensed it beforehand.

Even with his spiritual powers severed by the cursed shackles, the surge of spiritual energy thrumming thickly in the air was too blatant to ignore. The space cutting across the path behind where he had come through shimmered. His sight was excellent, and so Xie Lian realised whatever array it was had only activated when he had fallen across. Glancing left and right, Xie Lian's way was blocked by thick vegetation unless he decided to physically beat a path through. Even that would only have minor results, for Xie Lian could see like a fisherman’s net cast wide, the barrier continued to stretch beyond his visibility.

He looked downwards. Besides pebbles and yellowed grass growing along the trail, there was nothing abnormal that could hint at an array to trap him. Gaze flickering upward, Xie Lian’s sharp eyes could spy the odd swallows high above darting back and forth. They danced in the heavens, uncaring of what troubles laid on the earth so evidently, they weren’t affected by the boundary. Was it only humans that were unable to leave? And yet there were no signs of conflict around here that would suggest people had passed by for quite a while. Or was it for gods? Or just him?

"This is a bit of a mess isn't it," Xie Lian casually spoke the words aloud, more to hear the sound of his voice than to address anyone.

Looking back the way he came, Xie Lian pondered whether he should just try walking through the barrier again to see if he could get through by brute force before trashing the thought. His pain tolerance was notably high but to pointlessly experience that terrible heat once more, just to test it was asking for misfortune.

He couldn’t go back the way he came and so Xie Lian gave up and trudged onward. Perhaps if his luck wasn’t too bad today, he would soon come across some clue that would allow him to realise where he was. If this was a trap, well, Xie Lian had faced far more immediate dangers in his long life.

The woods surrounding him were relentless. Hours passed as the sun blazed across the sky and Xie Lian wordlessly counted his blessings for his bamboo hat that kept off the worst of the heat. Shortly afterwards, he heard the sound of gushing water ahead and quickened his pace. Turning the corner, he came across a stream. The stream was a deep and wide one, merrily rushing water downstream. The trail Xie Lian had been walking on ended here. After some sharp surveying, Xie Lian very faintly saw a narrow pebbled path leading upwards to the left side of the forest.

Once he had quenched his thirst and nibbled a stale steamed bun to maintain his stomach, Xie Lian hosted his scrap bag over his shoulders once more and carried on.

The path turned up slope, leading Xie Lian further up a hill. Plum blossom trees were scattered intermittently alongside the path, the sweet smell enveloping the air and Xie Lian took the opportunity to pluck some of the small fruit growing, stuffing it into the scrap bag. Even if the quality was bad, it was free and it was not like anyone else was around to eat them besides the forest animals. While he walked, taking wide steps to accommodate the rise of the slope, Xie Lian realised that underneath all the leafy debris there were stone ridges carved deep into the slope, which many years ago could have acted as stairs.  

The slope eventually evened out, letting Xie Lian catch his breath, pushing up his hat to wipe away at the sweat beading his forehead.

He then saw it.

Ahead of him, at the end of this isolated path tucked far away from prying eyes, was a dilapidated and long forgotten shrine.

Calling it a shrine was a generous term as Xie Lian approached it, senses alert for anything amiss. It was a far cry from even the most humble and modest Earth Gods’ shrines he had observed throughout his journeys. More accurately, it resembled a rotting shack as Xie Lian stepped through the entrance, the door long rotted or destroyed away.

Inside there was only dust, creeping plants lacing the structure, mould, rotting wood and most notably, a rectangular piece of carved wood that could have been part of an offering table centuries ago.

On top of that miserable table, was a faded carved statue, no longer or bigger than Xie Lian’s hand.

Xie Lian examined it.

His hands trailed gently over the decrepit imagery of the god worshipped in this abandoned place. The statue was too worn down and crumbled by the passage of time for Xie Lian to distinguish any distinct features, besides that of a human sitting. But whoever would build a shrine here, in the middle of nowhere? The more Xie Lian thought about it, the more his thoughts screamed at him this was clearly an isolated trap and yet he didn’t feel any lurking presence of danger. Stowing away his thoughts to examine further later on, Xie Lian stepped out of the shrine again. This time he drew himself to his full height and surveyed his surroundings once more, bright eyes absorbing every detail.

Despite the terrible state of the shrine, this location wasn’t a bad place to live, as such. It was quite a convenient if out of the way place for anyone to be trapped frankly. There was a source of running water nearby quite possibly with fish inside, fruit trees blossoming nearby, sturdy trees that with a martial god’s strength Xie Lian could use to build rough planks for furniture and such if only he had the additional materials to do so.

Of course for someone as unfortunate as Xie Lian in particular, with his bad luck he would end up spending hours before so much as catching a shrimp, the wood chopped would be rotting inwards and the shrine would choose to inevitably collapse on his head before the end of the month. However, Xie Lian had long decided to put away his worries over such occurrences and let fate take its course. In his faithful scrap bag he did have a few scarce belongings; his bamboo mat, cooking pot, needles and thread for mending clothes and other miscellaneous items that would do for now.

Xie Lian made his decision. Till he investigated and figured out exactly what kind of array was encircling, trapping him in this region, or the person responsible made their move, he would stay here in this shrine.


 

It was hard work but after the sun had risen and set four times, the shrine was at last in livable conditions.

Xie Lian was rather tired by then, the ache in his limbs from the laborious tasks making themselves well known and decided to go to the river to wash up before even thinking of dinner.

Once he had cleaned himself off to the best of his ability and his clothes had adequately dried, Xie Lian prepared to go back to his new residence. The last few days he hadn’t caught any fish though he had seen silver flashes in the stream and so Xie Lian had survived off whatever fruit and scraps remained in his bag. With no other people around in this area, no scraps would be available and hence he would need to hunt or forage for food.

It was during this trail of thought, hiking upwards the now familiar slope to the shrine that Xie Lian felt for the first time in days, eyes upon him. It wasn’t a malevolent gaze so Xie Lian didn’t immediately react violently.

Xie Lian stopped and cleared his throat. “Ahem. Would whoever is watching me be kind enough to come out and introduce themselves?”

Not surprisingly, no one came forward. He had expected it, though it was still common manners to give others a chance to explain themselves.

In that window of time Xie Lian had narrowed down his search for wherever that gaze came from and determined it was to his right, behind a sturdy beech tree.

One swift leap with no prior warning and Xie Lian appeared behind the tree, arms ready to block any blows that tried to land on him.

There was no one there.

Or rather, there was no human there.

Instead a little auburn fox, body height just reaching the tips of Xie Lian’s knees, was watching him with shining eyes.

“…” Silence reigned. Xie Lian found this fox rather strange. Any wild animals upon crossing paths with humans would either flee or act aggressive. Considering Xie Lian had leapt behind the tree at a speed even a normal human wouldn’t have anticipated, any animal should have been spooked and fled and yet this little fox was watching him intently, eyes startlingly bright and inquisitive.

They both continued to stare at one another. Xie Lian felt rather foolish at his dramatic reaction, and so as to make himself not appear a threat to the little fox, he crouched down slowly.

“Hello there.” Xie Lian soothingly said, the fox’s ears swivelling upright as it listened to Xie Lian speaking. He was prudent not to directly stare into the fox’s alert eyes least it felt threatened.

“What are you doing here?” Xie Lian asked, not expecting a response. If this really was an ordinary fox, it would be beyond disturbing if it replied him in human tongue. This close, it was easy to see the fox’s sunset dyed fur was thick and luxurious, not some poor, skinny barely able to find food predator. The fox blinked at him several times, not giving any other reaction.

…The urge to reach forward and pet that soft fluffy looking fur was really overwhelming. Xie Lian couldn’t help himself. Reaching out a hand, Xie Lian stopped just short of the fox’s snout, palm facing upwards, allowing the other to sniff him. “May I touch you, little fox?”

The fox’s body was rigid, dark eyes watching him. It lowered its head, ever so slightly, one paw taking a step forward, its forehead fur just barely touching Xie Lian’s palm.

Warmth welled up in Xie Lian at the trust this little creature showed in him, a stranger and a different species at that. The fox’s forehead fur was short but soft to the touch and inwardly Xie Lian cooed. “There, there. Good -” Boy? Girl? Xie Lian risked a look. “- Good boy.”

He stayed that way for several tender minutes petting the little fox, marvelling at how tame this forest creature was. Perhaps the fox had encountered humans nearby and had gotten used to scavenging among them? And yet, Xie Lian knew well in his heart no one had been here for a long, long time.

Reluctantly Xie Lian got up, giving the fox one last stroke.

“Thank you. Now, shoo, shoo. Go back to your home,” Xie Lian said, wiping any loose hairs on his thighs before properly straightening up. It was time to be coldly practical, he had wasted enough time with this detour. It would be night soon and he would be best making dinner and getting a good night’s sleep.

The fox didn’t ‘shoo’ and instead followed Xie Lian, pacing forward to entwine itself around his legs, rubbing against Xie Lian like a pet cat would. As he did so, tiny rumbles emitted from the animal’s throat. Xie Lian was startled at its friendliness but felt the little fox was indeed very endearing and so stood still until the fox was done, brushing against his left leg.

Could it be a heavenly official’s familiar or a demon’s? Xie Lian discarded the crass thought. Surely something so adorable couldn’t mean any harm.

“Hmm? You want to follow me back to my place?” Xie Lian asked the little fox. No verbal reply came and Xie Lian wasn’t versed in fox speaking but from the intent stare upon him, the little fox had taken a shine to him.

Ah well. It wasn’t like Xie Lian was cruel enough to make the little fox go away and surely he wouldn’t stay for long either.

And so both of them walked back to the old shrine, the little fox quite elegantly trotting by Xie Lian’s legs.

Xie Lian made a fire, simmering a simple vegetarian soup with the water and ingredients he had carried back from the stream. Luckily, he had some dried fish in his scrap bag that could be given to the fox if it wanted so. After all, Xie Lian could survive eating half rotten vegetables, unidentifiable fungi or old scraps, a fox could only eat meat.

Once the murky soup looked about done, Xie Lian fished out the basic crockery he carried with him and set up their meal.

“There you go.” The fox’s tail fluffed up upon seeing the dried fish, ears pricking up and Xie Lian warmly smiled, sure that the little fox would say thank you if he could. Xie Lian began eating, only to realise the fox wasn’t doing the same. Xie Lian frowned. “What’s wrong?”

The fox was seemingly looking at the food he was eating. On Xie Lian’s own plate he didn’t have any of the fish, since there was barely enough for one person. Besides the watery soup that Xie Lian helped himself directly from the pot, there honestly wasn’t much else worthwhile to describe on his plate. Indeed, normal people upon seeing the ominous platter would assume Xie Lian was desperate, to eat dried up scraps with spots of mould if they weren’t on death’s door. But beggars couldn’t be choosers and Xie Lian’s stomach was well acclimatised to this dismal quality.

The little fox didn’t seem interested in his fish anymore and instead began to groom himself, licking his front paws and bending his snout to lick his fluffy throat fur. Xie Lian clucked his tongue. Could he be a picky eater? Reaching forward, Xie Lian picked up the fox and placed him in his lap, letting go once he was done in case the fox spooked and fled.

The fox froze in the midst of Xie Lian’s lap, fur fluffed, ears straight up, and pupils dilated. “Don’t be scared,” Xie Lian murmured, softly petting his sides. A few heartbeats later, the fox relaxed, muscles becoming less rigid, his bushy tail whipping against Xie Lian’s stomach.

“Oh you,” Xie Lian sighed and smiled, not really meaning any harsh words. His arms were full of warm fur and Xie Lian couldn’t help but tighten his arms around the little fox, delighting in the softness of the fur, bending his head to kiss the fur on the little white snout. The fox’s fur was so soft, and remarkably clean, no trace of dirt or any debris at all. When he was young, Xie Lian never had pets as a child in the palace and even when was he allowed to venture outside, he was forbidden to touch strays least his mother rebuked him in case they carried diseases. Now there was no one to stop Xie Lian and so he cuddled the fox all the more. Throughout Xie Lian’s loving administrations, the fox had constantly been making little whuffles of contentment, vibrations pressed against Xie Lian’s chest.

Cradling this vibrant warmth against him, Xie Lian felt - something, fleeting emotions he hadn’t dared to let himself feel for a long time stirring in his chest, a painful and yet loving ache he thought that had been buried away with his former self.

Even centuries later, he couldn’t let go of sentimentality.

Blinking rapidly, Xie Lian reached forward and broke the fish in half, offering half to the fox. The fox accepted it, dainty teeth and pink tongue swiping out to nibble gently at the fish caught between Xie Lian’s elegant fingers. When offered the other half, the fox however rejected it and instead looked upwards into Xie Lian’s eyes, as though to say, you eat it.

In the end Xie Lian seeing how this little fox had a determined mind of his own, obeyed and finished the rest of his dinner in peace with the fox contentedly whuffling away on his lap.

By now it was very late and so reluctantly, Xie Lian lifted the fox to the side, cleaned up, stamped out the fire and walked to the bamboo mat. He unhurriedly removed his outer clothing, folding and placing them neatly on a spot on the floor next to his bamboo hat where he had cleaned previously.

With that done, Xie Lian cast a glance to his companion. The little fox looked a bit lost since he no longer had Xie Lian’s loving attention and Xie Lian gave in, reaching downwards and and cradling the fox to his chest once more. He proceeded to walk back to the bamboo mat and carefully stretch out. Movements slow and controlled, Xie Lian turned on his side, his arms loosely embracing the little fox in case the creature decided to leave in the dead of night. Foxes were nocturnal creatures after all and as glad as Xie Lian was to have this unusually tame fox keeping him company, he knew it wouldn’t last.

“Goodnight.” Xie Lian whispered, eyes fluttering shut as he snuggled the fox safe in his arms, the soft rumbles from the little creature rocking him into sleep’s embrace.


 

Xie Lian woke up suddenly, feeling rather disorientated. Something was amiss and so he sleepily sat up, senses still waking up, hand coming up to massage his sore temple. Seconds passed before the night’s events flew through his mind. But that wasn’t what had woken him up.

It was because firstly, his arms, previously full of warmth, were empty.

And second, there was someone else sitting on the mat next to him.

There was no light source in the shrine except for the moonlight spilling in from outside and so Xie Lian could only dimly make out the outline of a youth, their face turned towards Xie Lian’s own. The person’s posture was impeccable, slender back straight even as moonlight illuminated their side profile, their face still cast in shadow. Whoever it was, they were taller than him even sitting down, their shadow covering Xie Lian’s frame, moonlight spilling in between the gaps of their inky black hair tied high up. Their frame was too wide for a woman’s and yet slimmer than a fully-grown man’s, so the person must still be young. Eyelids heavily lidded from sleep and mind befuddled, a little bewildered sound unintentionally slipped out from the back of Xie Lian's throat.

Xie Lian didn’t have time to react further before the youth spoke first, deeply bowing his head.

“Gege, I’ve wronged you.”

Chapter Text

The youth’s voice was smooth and melodious like silver melting with sand, only his was tone deeper than Xie Lian anticipated. Those words uttered in such close proximity, with only the two of them together in the blanket darkness of the shrine caused Xie Lian to tense, shivers tingling across his skin.

Before the true weight of the stranger’s words came crashing down on him.

Gege?

Wronged you?                    

Those ominous words rang out like clear bells in Xie Lian’s mind and he shot up, the last dregs of sleepiness gone, gone! The youth remained unflinchingly still, as though he had betrayed his sworn lord and was now awaiting punishment.

Wronged me? Wronged me exactly how?! The sheer ambiguity of those words! Xie Lian’s body felt as taunt as a bowstring ready to snap, mentally checking over himself. Ruoye sensing his distress, curled tighter around his wrists, ready to strike at a single command.

Nothing felt out of order but why else were those words so misleading! Xie Lian swiftly calmed down once he had affirmed the fact that yes, everything present on him was in place and…intact. Confusion swirled within him battling the urge to think calmly, anger yet to catch up with this ridiculous farce. How could he have been so careless to be unaware of a stranger next to him as he slept! Wouldn’t Ruoye have warned him if the other had any malicious intent? Why hadn’t he himself awoken up if there was such a threat!

The silence had seemingly stretched beyond what the youth could withstand, and he spoke once more, sorrow evident.

“This one begs for your forgiveness.”

Xie Lian's head snapped up, focusing on the source of his problematic state. His eyes were sharp enough in the darkness to see the youth going down on his knees with one swift clean movement, red robes pooling around him, dark locks sweeping downwards as his forehead touched the dusty floor, kowtowing to Xie Lian. Xie Lian panicked, speechless, dropping himself down and ungainly falling off the mat’s side in his haste to stop the other.

“Don’t!” This action was too overboard if nothing really had happened! Xie Lian’s hands wildly brushing over the youth’s own entwined hands in the darkness and both of them froze.

Even though he could only see the other’s figure and not his distinct features, Xie Lian could feel the cool flesh of the other’s slender fingers, contrasting vivdly against Xie Lian’s own warm hands.

He could feel the youth’s hands trembling beneath his, a sharp exhale of air, warm breath brushing against Xie Lian’s cheeks, his face mere inches away from the teenager’s own.

Xie Lian snatched his hands back as if being scalded, heart stuttering wildly in his chest. He really couldn’t take this turn of events anymore! Determined to dig his grave to the end, he jumped up, words hysterically tumbling out of him. “Stop! There is no need to apologise! There is nothing to apologise for! After all nothing happened! Yes, that’s correct, there is nothing to apologise for! Do not apologise!”

In the stunned silence enveloping the two after blurting that impromptu speech, Xie Lian considered perhaps it would be for the best to just bite his tongue off to end his shame once and for all.

With controlled movements the youth rose, not uttering a word, prudently stepping backwards. After withdrawing, moonlight from the doorway illuminated his features and Xie Lian finally had a clear view of the youth.

The youth was taller than him adorned in red robes, figure lean and exuding a lazy sort of gracefulness. Xie Lian estimated he was around sixteen or seventeen years of age, on the cusp of adulthood. His pallid face had well-defined features, inky hair spilling messily out of a tied high ponytail, pink lips pressed firmly into a thin line, sharp eyebrows set above gleaming eyes. Without exaggeration, the other’s looks were very striking, certainly able to catch one’s eye even among a crowd. The otherwise flawless features were marred by the abashed expression on the youth’s face.

While Xie Lian examined the other, he was well too aware of those earnest, dark eyes locked onto him.

The stare was undoubtedly familiar, akin to the piercing gaze he had felt yesterday.

Xie Lian swallowed, his throat dry.

“Gege, believe me.” The conviction and sincerity in the other’s voice were undoubtedly genuine as Xie Lian met the other’s shining eyes, gaze sharp yet soft. “It is all my fault for deceiving you last night. I should have revealed my form as soon as we met and yet I did not, the blame is solely mine.”

Xie Lian didn’t need any more confirmation.

The little fox was not here but this youth was. By his own words, even a blind beggar could put it together. Who else could this youth be but the fox from last night! Xie Lian had managed to gather his wits but as last night’s memories rushed back, embarrassment flooded him once more.

Oh.

Oh.

He had caressed, cuddled and played with the little fox for so long, who could have anticipated it was an actual youth in disguise!

Xie Lian couldn’t meet the teenager’s eyes any longer, it was unbearably difficult. He strangulated down the overwhelming urge to put down his head in hands and scream or better yet, flee.

 Gathering all his courage, the tenacity that had pushed him through all these years alone, Xie Lian spoke.

“…Let’s first go outside to talk, I’m afraid I can’t gather my thoughts well here,” Xie Lian managed to say, hurriedly yanking on his boots and outer robes before walking to the entrance, neck prickling as he resolutely ignored that burning gaze upon him.

“Of course, Gege.” the youth murmured, following in suit behind him, keeping a respectful distance.

The night’s air was chilly against Xie Lian's exposed skin as he exited the shrine and inwardly Xie he sighed, thinking of the preparations he would have to wrangle if by the time winter came he was still trapped here. Sitting on the edge of the dilapidated porch cross-legged, Xie Lian gestured to his side, inviting the youth to sit down besides him. Obeying silently, the teenager joined him, his meek demeanor contrasting with the feline grace in every movement he made.

Out in the open, underneath the moon and stars as their witness, Xie Lian took the first plunge, meeting that heady stare determinedly once more.

“How may I address you?” Xie Lian asked, manners ingrained into his being regardless of the situation.

The other dipped his head, eyes glittering.

“This one would be honoured for Gege to address him as San Lang.”

“San Lang.” The name felt natural on his tongue, off his lips.

“It suits you,” Xie Lian lamely said. After centuries of thickening his face, Xie Lian had boldly assumed he was fluent in being able to hold a tactful conversation.

Clearly, there was still an endless path to tread.

Was it too presumptuous to ask the youth why he had immediately addressed him as ‘Gege’? Xie Lian ignored that thought and carried on, remembering all too clearly those unnaturally cool hands under his own.

“Mine is Xie Lian. So San Lang, you are a fox spirit? A shapeshifter? A ghost? May I ask what brought you to around here?” Xie Lian asked, searching for any trace of hesitation or doubt in the other’s face that could hint to sinister intentions. His bewilderment had simmered down by now and instead had morphed into curiosity about the other. Exactly what intentions did you have watching me so?  

San Lang nodded solemnly. “Mnm, Gege is right to call me that. A ghost would be an apt description as well, Gege knows there are all sorts. As for what brought me here,” the youth leaned back, a faint smile appearing on his lips.

“No such grand reason. If I have time to spare, I just do as I please, wandering to and fro to slake my interest. When I saw Gege here, my curiosity was piqued.”

…This was surely too suspicious for even a child to believe, right? Doubt pooled in Xie Lian’s gut as he watched the lackadaisical youth, turning the other’s words over in his mind, measuring the worth of them.

His expression became more serious as he continued, smile slipping off. “But Gege, from the beginning, I never had any malicious intentions towards you. If I overstepped Gege's boundaries -” the youth had tensed up as he spoke, whether he was aware or not - "Then I will accept whatever judgement Gege bestows upon me."

Xie Lian had to smile. The genuineness, the yearning in this San Lang’s voice, if it was fake then San Lang was a supreme actor.  

It really was somehow very hard to be angry at this youth. “I believe you.”

The other looked startled at Xie Lian’s response, eyes widening, as though he had not expected to be let off so easily.

“Gege truly is not offended?” a tentative question, blooming in the tranquillity between them.

Xie Lian shook his head, coughing slightly. “I was rather surprised.” Xie Lian paused to think about it, leaving aside his own feelings. “Since no harm came to be, let bygones be bygones.” Like water running downstream, impossible to flow back up, it was best to put the awkwardness of what happened behind them. That’s right, it was for the best. Xie Lian certainly didn’t know how else he would bring up the topic of embracing the other without fading away into dust.

“Gege is too kind,” the youth murmured. Only once Xie Lian had finished speaking then the youth at last seem at ease, slender legs dangling off the edge of the porch, swinging back and forth. Xie Lian was content to sit as he was, Ruoye finally sneaking its way out of Xie Lian’s covered sleeve, fluttering inquisitively towards San Lang’s direction. San Lang raised an eyebrow at the sight of the spiritual device and Xie Lian hastily petted Ruoye, least the little spiritual device went over and irritated the other.

Continuing to pet Ruoye’s ends, Xie Lian pondered the strange turn of events. He had many, many more questions to ask San Lang. But. Hesitation curled in his bones, he didn’t want to fracture this developing peace between them. “San Lang, sooner rather than later, do you not have to return to your home?” Xie Lian asked, deciding to go with a safe question. Even with the other’s careless attitude, Xie Lian knew from first-hand experience wandering aimlessly was weary on both body and soul.

The other paused, shaking his head.

“Not at all Gege,” the other spoke in a low tone. “I live alone. Indeed, I have more time on my hands than I know what to do with. This San Lang would enjoy nothing more than the pleasure of accompanying Gege around.”

How could anyone be able to reject a request like that? “Company would be wonderful. It seems I will be stuck here for quite some time anyway.” Xie Lian sheepishly replied, smiling wryly.

San Lang’s eyebrows raised. “Gege, I’m afraid I don’t quite understand? You intend to live here from now on?”

“Ah, it happened four days ago…” Xie Lian told the other what had only occurred a few days ago. San Lang was surprisingly a good listener, quietly listening to Xie Lian’s every word without interruption, long legs swinging back and forth on the porch, kicking out into the night’s air. When Xie Lian came to the part where he had been blasted back by the barrier, San Lang's expression fleetingly changed, looking rather cold but Xie Lian didn’t think too much attention to it. Perhaps San Lang was pondering how could a daozhang have such bad luck.

“And so you see San Lang, that’s my present situation.” With a smile and a shrug, Xie Lian had finished reciting his current unfortunate state.

“For Gege to encounter such a boundary, the one who set it so…truly without a lick of taste.” San Lang sneered, pale fingers curling as though imagining them around the culprit’s throat. At his actions, Xie Lian felt rather warm that the other would be indignant on his behalf, even if the two had only just met and ‘mmned’ in response.

“If Gege allows, may San Lang take a look at where Gege encountered the boundary?” The youth asked, eyes alert, even as he looked deep in thought.

“Oh, San Lang knows about curses?” Xie Lian inquired, his curiosity rising once more. He regretted now not being able to remember the countless lessons Head Priest had drummed into his head when he was young. Among the multitude of ancient texts he had poured over there were sure to be a few mentioning about animal spirits and curses, alas those texts were well lost to time.

San Lang waved a hand dismissively. “Bits and pieces. It is the least I can do for Gege.”

“That would be a great help, San Lang.” Xie Lian relaxed, settling back, rolling his stiff shoulders. Despite the chilly atmosphere, the night sky was a lovely sight to behold, awash in the radiance of countless stars. Admittedly Xie Lian hadn’t been interested in watching the night sky since he was a child with his parents, let alone all the years spent by himself, but he didn’t want to disturb the gentle peace unfolding between him and his companion. Huffing his breath, Xie Lian rubbed his palms together, trying to coax some warmth into his fingertips. Ruoye had retreated back into his sleeves, wisely hiding itself from the chill.

“Gege are you cold?” the other’s eyes were filled with concern. This time Xie Lian had braced himself, accustoming himself to the other’s gaze and smiled carelessly. “It’s nothing, I’m well used to worse conditions.”

San Lang’s expression furrowed for a heartbeat, before changing impishly. He grinned. “Gege, allow me.” Finished speaking, San Lang pressed his hands together, fingers entwined. Xie Lian watched him closely. When San Lang opened them, nestled in San Lang’s palms was a pure silver spiritual butterfly. Eyes brightening, Xie Lian watched as it fluttered upwards, a few feet away from them. Xie Lian’s lips parted, wanting to ask San Lang how he had summoned it before a tremor shuddered through the butterfly, scattering sparks and what remained was a little ball of shimmering flame, no bigger than Xie Lian's fist. Despite its small size, the flame fiercely glowed a vivid red with a white center, washing their bodies and surroundings with cheery glow.

Xie Lian smiled, the sight flickering in front of the two was reminiscent of the ghost fires, except where those were cold, this little light was warm.

“Thank you, San Lang.” Xie Lian said, grateful for the other’s consideration.

San Lang’s eyes were very gentle looking, lips curving upwards into a smile. “It’s nothing if it brings Gege joy. There will be more for Gege next time.”

Xie Lian couldn’t help but laugh at the youth’s enthusiastic response, inwardly surprised at how content he felt now speaking to the other. San Lang took it the wrong way, that Xie Lian was amused by his words and pouted at him. “Gege, I’m very sincere.”

“Mnn, I believe you. I’ll look forward to them.” Xie Lian replied, eyes crinkling.

There were still a few hours till dawn, and yet Xie Lian now wished this night wouldn’t end despite the turbulent awakening. Uncaring of the mess, San Lang laid back, folding his arms under his head, stretching out. Xie Lian fell into silence, assuming the other wanted to relax and stargaze, his own eyes drawn to the little bobbling ghost light floating happily around them. Before an incense stick time passed, the other asked him very politely, would gege wish to retire for the rest of the night and if so he would not bother gege.

Xie Lian mulled it over, trying not to laugh again least San Lang’s feelings were hurt. Having decided, his lips quirked up, unconsciously revealing a gentle smile.

“Let’s wait a little longer.”

Chapter Text

“Gege, any luck?” San Lang called, his voice carrying by grace of the wind to where the other was. Xie Lian turned to face the direction of the now familiar voice, a small smile rising to his lips. The sky was overcast, billowy grey clouds hanging low over the horizon warning of imminent foul weather, yet to Xie Lian it was far more pleasing to focus on the edge of San Lang’s profile, the cheekiness of the youth’s grin.

“I’m afraid not San Lang!” Xie Lian yelled back, taking the opportunity to wipe away the spray spiking his eyelashes, not even bothering to try the same with his now dampened robes clinging to his skin from the condensation. Ruoye squirmed in Xie Lian’s grip, eager as a young child to assist him but getting in the way instead and Xie Lian hushed it distractedly. It was late morning and he and San Lang were spending their time up to calf-length in the river’s icy waters, trying their luck at fishing. They hadn’t gone into the deep parts of the river where their feet wouldn’t touch the riverbed but just far enough from the banks to close in on the silver flashes Xie Lian could catch a glimpse of every so often. His robes were hiked and pinned to knee-length as he stood patiently in the water, intent on not causing any ripples. Technically, Xie Lian knew the two of them shouldn’t be shouting in such a carefree manner, least any fish present were spooked.

Sparkling water rushed around his freezing calves, his feet having long gone numb, a lovely and empty sight.

Perhaps I should have gone hunting after all, Xie Lian conceded as he sneaked a glance to the bankside where the two had left their things, feeling mournful at his meagre catch. Earlier when the sky had begun to lighten, Xie Lian had begun his daily routine of sprucing up the shrine. The place looked far more respectable after his efforts and Xie Lian was rather proud of himself. However, before he and San Lang went out to investigate the array there was something very important lacking.

Breakfast.

Regardless of the circumstances, it was unthinkable to have a guest over and not offer a proper meal, right? Xie Lian would live surviving on scraps but there was no way he could knowingly let scraps be offered to San Lang, his face wasn’t so thick he wouldn’t succumb to that. Xie Lian had suggested the idea to fish in the nearby river, to procure some substance of meat. It had seemed a good plan, even if Xie Lian hadn’t the materials to construct a net or rod he still had Ruoye to stun and catch and San Lang agreed, saying they would make do.

The key point, Xie Lian thought as he soothed Ruoye, was that phrases ‘seemed to be’ and ‘ought to happen’ didn’t work well when it came to him. He only hoped San Lang didn’t regret going along with him now even if ghosts couldn’t die from hypothermia.

He heard San Lang laugh unabashedly and Xie Lian glanced over once again to see the youth waving a hand to catch his attention.

“Gege let’s go back.” San Lang yelled as he slushed his way against the current, clearly having lost interest in further continuing, free hand shading his eyes as the youth started towards the far end of the bank. Nodding in lieu of agreement, Xie Lian began to move, shaking feeling back into his frozen legs. As they reached the side, carefully avoiding the muddy parts of the riverbank, Xie Lian sombrely glanced at his empty hands. San Lang had been making trips to the bank, so Xie Lian guessed the other had recent success whereas he had little.

“How was it Gege?” Splashing sounds reached near him and San Lang approached him from the right, having shook on his boots already. Besides his crimson robes darkened due to the water spray, San Lang looked as proper as before, certainly less soaked by the river than Xie Lian was. Initially, San Lang had offered Xie Lian his own boots to wear when in the water but Xie Lian had firmly rejected, not wanting to ruin either of their clothing. San Lang’s gaze flickered downwards before back to Xie Lian’s face as he helped the other balance himself while Xie Lian adjusted his boots. The two had reached the place where they had left their belongings, a safe distance away from the mud.

“I’m afraid I’ve no such skill. How about yourself -” Xie Lian’s voice trailed off, seeing the fish that had neatly been stacked in the earthen pot they had brought back from the shrine to hold the catch. The last time Xie Lian had seen it, the pot was only quarter filled. Speechless, he glanced once more at the hoard and then gave the other a look.

“Gege?” San Lang still had the gall to cheekily smile at him, mirth alight in his eyes.

“San Lang keeps surprising me,” Xie Lian replied, biting back an answering smile as he gestured to his own empty hands. It was his honest feelings, the fox spirit was a delightful enigma. Even if San Lang was a timeless spirit and no longer aged, his appearance and attire all pointed to that of a young master come out to lark and Xie Lian hadn’t expected the other to be so skilful in manual tasks.

San Lang shook his head as he adjusted his own robes, deft fingers tugging at his collar knots. The movement caused black locks to escape from San Lang’s messily tied ponytail, darkened with glistening water droplets as they fell over his face. idly Xie Lian wondered if they would feel as soft as they appeared.

“Gege just needs to practice more.” San Lang spoke, eyes once more dipping down and Xie Lian realised too late the cursed shackle wrapped around his ankle was exposed, a stark contrast against the slim white ankle.

“That’s no excuse San Lang…” Xie Lian lamented, one last squeeze of straining the excess water out of his robes before flattening them down, shrouding over his lower legs to his boots.

Xie Lian decided to change the subject. There was a pail that Xie Lian had fashioned out of spare wood two days back he had brought along as well. It was a far cry from the glistening precious-metal worked jade containers back in Xian Le’s palace or even the carved wooden buckets the villagers used, but it was workable and hence perfect as far as Xie Lian was concerned.

“It’s been hard on you San Lang. Just give me a few minutes, I’ll bring the catch and water back to the shrine.”

The other gave a swift nod, reaching to pick up the basket of fish. “I’ll help.”

Xie Lian tutted, making shooing movements with his hands. The other’s confusion was visible, cocking a brow at him and Xie Lian explained quietly. “You’ve already caught most of our breakfast San Lang, let me contribute more.” Xie Lian very reasonably pointed out. San Lang appeared unsatisfied with the response, lips parting to speak and so Xie Lian hastily employed his most soothing tone to win the other over. “San Lang’s been working so hard. Why don’t you return to the shrine and take a break? I’ll be with you shortly, I promise.”

Xie Lian having said so much, San Lang gave in albeit reluctantly. “…Alright Gege. Hurry back.” The other looked petulant at his help being refused and Xie Lian silently promised he would make it up to San Lang another time.


 

“Gege, stay.” San Lang urged, authority evident in his tone. Xie Lian had come back and fetched water twice to the shrine, and the other had lost all patience waiting for him if the pitiful looks San Lang was giving him any judgement.

“A bit more San Lang. It’s good practice to stock up on water.” Xie Lian said pacifyingly.

“Ge-ge…” San Lang whined, cheeks puffed out, shoulders slumped as he gazed pleadingly at Xie Lian, who outwardly did not give an inch, squashing down the urge to smile at San Lang’s childish antics.

“If Gege doesn’t return soon, San Lang will die from loneliness and not starvation.” The other sulked, sinking downwards on his belly for all appearances seeking to become one with the floor.

For lack of a better response, Xie Lian threw him a mock suspicious stare. Even if San Lang for all appearances was lazing about on the mat in the shrine, it hadn’t escaped Xie Lian’s notice that the condition of the shrine had been improved since they had left it together earlier; the roof was heavily thatched where before many holes were scattered through, the rotting floorboards that Xie Lian had replaced with rough planks were polished till they gleamed and heavens, even flimsy rice paper in the former holes had appeared allowing them to function as proper windows, all tasks that Xie Lian couldn’t physically do without the required materials.

“San Lang, patience is a good virtue to practice.” was Xie Lian’s innocent response as he walked back down the steps of the shrine. A mutter of ‘San Lang just wants to help Gege’ followed him and Xie Lian was touched at the earnest response even as he wondered at the boldness of youth.

Refilling the pail and walking back to the shrine for the third time, Xie Lian considered his actions up to now. Over the last four days besides cleaning the shrine to make it liveable, Xie Lian had put aside some time for investigating the array. Having retraced his path from the stream, it was simple to follow the thrum of spiritual energy emitting from the boundary and from that point walking beside it to find out where it went and possibly ended. It was not the most easy-going journey, with Xie Lian being whacked and foiled by every possible odd vegetation and root that blocked his way obtusely. However, after walking along the boundary for roughly six li or so it curved and Xie Lian understood what he had initially suspected; the boundary being a circular array created to trap and encroach whoever was unlucky inside. And so, Xie Lian had taken it as his loss for the day and retreated back to the old shrine thinking, well he was in no immediate danger so it would be prudent to take each day as it came and logically plan his next course of action step by step.

Striding up the steps to the shrine, Xie Lian didn’t immediately step through the entrance and instead settled down the pail and peeked inside. San Lang was still where Xie Lian had left him, currently sitting cross-legged. Cupped in his hands were several little silver butterflies identical to the one last night. As Xie Lian watched, they trailed over the other’s fingers and palms, completely at ease. In contrast, San Lang’s expression was cool as he watched them, broody even. Quietly so as to not startle the other, Xie Lian softly remarked as he entered the shrine, “They’re pretty, San Lang.”

“Gege. You’re finally back.” San Lang perked up, his expression swiftly changing to a warm one, the butterflies dissipating into pearly dust.

“Yes.”

San Lang looked doubtful, gazing with wide eyes at Xie Lian. “No more trips? San Lang has been waiting so patiently for Gege.”

Xie Lian hummed noncommittedly. “One more pail.”

San Lang groaned.

Xie Lian laughed.


 

Finally, Xie Lian was back for good and began his preparations for their meal, starting the fire and washing the fish. Perhaps it was because he still wasn’t used to having company, but Xie Lian had found it easy to make conversation with San Lang while he sliced and deboned the caught fish. Words flowed out whilst cooking, the other replying him with ease. Xie Lian had to keep one eye on San Lang while he worked and directed Ruoye after declining the other’s help cooking, citing Ruoye was enough. San Lang became restless, first jostling two dice out of his sleeve before stowing them away, unwilling to settle down and prowling around the small room. Xie Lian chided him lightly when San Lang tried to further tidy the place, telling the other to not busy himself over such minor matters. Being reprimanded so, San Lang threw him a terribly wounded gaze, mournfully remarking how ‘Gege’s words cut deep’ before the youth mooched over to the former table with the god’s statue. He appeared to consider it before grasping and lifting the imagery up as if to test the weight of it.

“What do you think of it, San Lang?” Xie Lian casually asked, seeing the other’s actions out of the corner of his sight. Truthfully Xie Lian hadn’t put much thought into the simple question. He was concentrating on turning the fish – the evenly black outline of it meant the fish in question was crispy - and anyway the statue was too worn out even for Xie Lian to make out any features of it.

The other had put down the statue without a word and didn’t respond. Having gotten accustomed to hearing the other’ swift reply, Xie Lian found it strange, ceasing his movements and padding forward till he was at San Lang’s side, peering at the motionless statue and then at the other’s closed expression. Not a glimpse of emotion could be captured from the other’s face, that was as smooth as a festival’s mask.

“San Lang? Do you recognise it?”

San Lang didn’t reply, still maintaining that emotionless expression and concern gripped Xie Lian that San Lang would show this kind of face. He was reminded of San Lang’s cool expression from earlier and sensed that the youth had a lot on his mind. Ready to withdraw if the other reacted negatively, Xie Lian gently tugged at San Lang’s crimson sleeve, feeling the tension of the other’s arm through the wisp of touch.

“San Lang, are you alright? What’s the matter?” Xie Lian gave a gentle squeeze, voice soothing. San Lang exhaled slowly, eyes becoming softer, hand reaching to touch Xie Lian’s own, patting it gently before moving away.

“It was just an unpleasant memory. Gege doesn’t need to concern himself with such petty matters.” The cold words uttered by San Lang was a sharp contrast to the soft tone used to address Xie Lian.

If it’s important to San Lang, it matters to me, Xie Lian wanted to say but couldn’t quite let the words slip out. Notwithstanding his casual reply, San Lang’s expression was tight, darkened eyes narrowed and so Xie Lian didn’t push the conversation further.

“En. Breakfast is ready.” Xie Lian said instead, his voice calm and smooth as still water, nudging both of them towards the makeshift table around the raised fire. San Lang’s expression gradually grew lighter as he gave his thanks for the food and helped himself.

“How is it San Lang? I’m afraid I didn’t have any spices to season it,” Xie Lian apologised, eager to steer the mood into a more cheerful one. He was curious of San Lang’s opinion despite himself as he nibbled the blackened fish with his pair of chopsticks. He…thinks it’s fine even if the fish may have cooked too long once he checked on San Lang.

Taking dignified bites as if he was in a high-class establishment and not some abandoned shrine in the middle of nowhere, San Lang remarked, “Pretty good, I can taste the effort Gege put in. Does Gege often cook for himself?”

Xie Lian smiled, relieved that San Lang seemed back to normal. “Ah…most of the time if I’m on the road. If not I’ll just depend on scraps.” The last bit was said hurriedly, Xie Lian didn’t want to linger on it in case San Lang rightfully was curious and asked Xie Lian where he came from and why he now was a scrap collector wandering along. He diverted the conservation, the two discussing topics on various curses and arrays. Xie Lian was pleasantly surprised at how knowledgeable San Lang was, both of them swapping stories and laughing at some of the more pointed ones, San Lang’s eyes shamelessly gleaming as he detailed one such tale. Xie Lian almost wanted to chasten him at some parts, but it wasn’t like he disliked San Lang’s arrogance when the other was clearly confident of his capabilities.

The two finished eating and had begun to prepare to wash up, when suddenly outside the pitter-patter of rain announced its presence, the heavy clouds finally losing their burdens. Xie Lian winced, recalling the weather conditions earlier. He should have anticipated the rain if only his mind hadn't been completely occupied while talking to San Lang. Rain pelted downwards, the trees swaying from the force outside and there were still gaps in the roof as water dripped down. If Xie Lian wasn’t all too aware that gods didn’t generally answer minor prayers, he wouldn’t mind sending a thought or two to pray the roof didn’t decide to crumble on them. “Looks like it won’t be stopping soon,” Xie Lian murmured as he got up, staring out the window before using the empty pail to put underneath the biggest of the leaks. He was glad of his foresight to bring in the firewood beforehand that was neatly stacked in a corner. More importantly, the two of them couldn’t go out to investigate the boundary till the rain died down unless they wanted to be drenched.

San Lang clucked his tongue from where he had stayed by the dimmed fire having soaked the dishes, poking another log into the fire. “How unfortunate.” The words were uttered without an ounce of sincerity and Xie Lian bemusedly side-eyed the other as he sat down once more besides the youth.

“San Lang we can’t go out if it’s raining like this,” Xie Lian said, aware of how close San Lang’s body was in proximity to his on the bamboo mat, bringing up tingling memories of the previous night. The smoke from the fire thankfully went out through the entrance so the air in the shrine did not become stuffy, the rain a constant thudding presence outside. Xie Lian focused on feeding the fire instead of staring at the other for too long.

“It’s not too bad either, staying here.” Came the blunt response as San Lang curled up on his side of the mat, nimble fingers picking at the frayed edges before getting bored.

Xie Lian laughed at that. “The roof is leaking on us, San Lang.”

The other shrugged, now playing around with the small braid woven among his dark locks as he brought his knees together, pillowing his head on them. “It’s the company that matters, Gege.”

Xie Lian’s smile broadened. “Mn, true.” A thought swam across his mind as Xie Lian gazed at the other who in return was watching him openly, expression calm with just a hint of slyness dancing in the depths of those dark eyes, the svelte half-moon curve tugging at his lips. The longer Xie Lian gazed upon the other the more he felt his own heart stir, restlessness simmering through his veins. His own expression must have clouded, becoming conflicted for San Lang's expression changed, concern filling them.

“Gege?”

Xie Lian decided to just state what was hovering on the edge of his mind. Pushing away other thoughts he wasn't sure how to explain even to himself, focusing on the imminent one refusing to go away. “San Lang, are you comfortable? As in are you warm enough?” While San Lang looked far from sickly, the other’s pallid complexion made Xie Lian uneasy, especially if the other had been using up his spiritual energy behind Xie Lian’s back with the adjustments made to the shrine. He didn’t know how much available spiritual energy San Lang generally used, so even with the other’s confident demeanour Xie Lian still felt worried.

At his question, San Lang’s brows furrowed. “I’m fine. Is Gege still cold? I can make this place warmer if you so wish. Gege, just say the word.”

Xie Lian coughed lightly. “I’m fine, I’m fine. But San Lang your body’s naturally cold and you’ll be expending more spiritual energy as well.”

“Gege doesn’t need to worry so much,” was the other’s immediate response.

Xie Lian frowned further at the uncaring tone San Lang had towards himself. “How can I not? San Lang, you’ve been a big help, I'm very glad we met.”

“…” San Lang's gaze hadn't changed, if anything he looked pleased, smile growing wider. Xie Lian stopped that line of thought right there as the other 'mmn-ed' in response, seeming as if he was taking herculean efforts not to act smug about Xie Lian's praise.

Those words were embarrassing, weren’t they.

Xie Lian coughed again, wanting to hack himself to death. An idea appeared. It would work but…

“Even a little adds up over time San Lang.” Xie Lian protested. This he would not concede.

The smugness from the other vanished, as if wiped clean away. San Lang appeared unsure of himself now, delicately picking his words piece by piece as he gazed sideways at Xie Lian. “Then, what is Gege asking about?”

“San Lang, are you sure you’re comfortable like this? You don’t feel tired or need time to recover? Would returning to another form help?” Worse and worse, he hadn’t meant to phrase it like that! Worry entwined with embarrassment seeped into his being, his chest tightening up. What if San Lang thought Xie Lian was looking down upon him? His cheeks were flushing crimson red by now, from how hot they burnt.

“Form? Gege, you mean my real appearance?” San Lang’s voice turned hesitant, becoming quieter than it had before and Xie Lian realised that the other must be thinking that Xie Lian was still suspicious of him, that Xie Lian suspected his intentions. It wasn’t that Xie Lian wasn’t curious of what a fox spirit like San Lang would choose to look like as a human, his original appearance. And yet while they were getting along, for the two who had just properly met, it would be impolite to ask San Lang about his chosen appearances.

Shaking his hands wildly, Xie Lian forwent pride and decided sincerity was most important.

“I was concerned, San Lang. Please don't take it the wrong way! I did notice the changes to the shrine and you’ve been helping me since last night till now, I don’t want to see you wearing yourself out so…if you were more comfortable as a fox spirit...then please go ahead if you need to…” Xie Lian trailed off averting his gaze, agonising over how ludicrous he sounded.

“Gege…” San Lang didn’t sound offended, his tone peculiar but Xie Lian still didn’t dare to look the other in the eyes.

This time it was San Lang who coughed, head dipping down veiling his own expression. The youth uncurled himself, sitting straight once more. “Actually, Gege has a point. To conserve spiritual energy, a smaller form would be beneficial. If Gege insists.”

“Mn,” Xie Lian mumbled, barely audible over the pitter-patter of the rain outside. Xie Lian wondered if yet again he had made another mistake before the air around San Lang shivered, silver light stealing over the other's silhouette and a blink later Xie Lian was once again greeted with the sight of the little auburn fox.

The awkwardness Xie Lian was wrestling himself with melted away. His heart felt full at the sight of the little fox as San Lang squatted on his hind haunches, prim and proper if not for his bushy tail twitching back and forth. San Lang appeared even fluffier than before, big eyes beseechingly gazing at Xie Lian. Xie Lian crooned, picking up San Lang, supporting the other’s hind legs with one hand and the other curled carefully around the small body. Xie Lian snuggled San Lang in his arms, stroking the other’s soft fur, feeling the little heartbeat rapidly thudding against Xie Lian’s chest. San Lang really was very sweet in this form, blunt nose nudging against Xie Lian’s palm as he kneaded Xie Lian’s lap with little dappled paws, tiny whuffling sounds causing San Lang's whole body to vibrate, fur fluffing up. Xie Lian let out a strangulated sound, the urge to scoop San Lang up sweeping away all of his self-control.

Xie Lian couldn’t resist fluffing San Lang’s auburn fur, petting the other’s ears, cooing at the silken softness. The other was eager to play with him, even rolling onto his back on Xie Lian’s lap, exposing his snowy belly fur to be lovingly stroked. Xie Lian gladly took advantage, running his fingers through the soft fur, tickling and stroking the other very gently till the other all but melted in his lap. For all of San Lang’s mischievousness, the other didn’t so much as play-bite Xie Lian’s hands, at the very most giving tiny warm licks to the soft white jade skin of Xie Lian’s hands and forearms, continuously letting out little pleased growls and whines as Xie Lian beamed and cuddled the other with all his might.

That’s right it wasn’t weird, weird at all like this! Xie Lian shoved away those criticising thoughts. The two of them were simply sharing warmth so San Lang could conserve spiritual energy. No more, no less! Once the rain stopped the two of them could get back to business.

He was happy.

And if according to the deep rumbles the dear fox safe in his embrace was emitting, San Lang was too.

Chapter Text

“What to do…” Xie Lian murmured aloud, voice feathery soft so as not to awake his companion. He was flat on his back, pondering the cause of his woes. A dilemma faces him, one Xie Lian considers among the hardest trials he has faced.

Xie Lian risked a glance. The culprit responsible for his turmoil was at the present curled into a heaving ball on Xie Lian’s stomach, snoozing blissfully away. From Xie Lian’s viewpoint, San Lang was snug tight, not looking likely to move anytime soon, eyes wrinkled shut into smiling slits and black-tipped tail just long enough to brush against that tiny button of a nose.

To not disturb the other, Xie Lian had long since calmed his breathing, taking only shallow breaths even as his thoughts were wretchedly bouncing back and forth as to whether to move abruptly or not. With each slow breath exhaled, San Lang’s heaving fur rose and lift following Xie Lian’s own rhythm. Xie Lian reached forward. As gentle as if tracing over gossamer wings, he petted the fluffy fur, fingers rubbing in little circles as he trailed along the curve of San Lang’s spine. San Lang shivered despite the tenderness of his touch and uttered a shrill cry in his sleep, tucking himself up even tighter, warm weight pressing down on Xie Lian’s stomach.

Xie Lian laid back down, his own eyes closing in defeat.

Give up, it’s impossible.

His heart wasn’t carved from stone, how could he bear to wake the other resting so peacefully? Best to acknowledge when he had been beaten and wait for San Lang himself to awake.


 

It was now the sixth day since he and San Lang had met.

Initially Xie Lian had taken into consideration it would be awkward having to share the one room shrine with a near stranger, cramped even. While he himself was well adjusted to winging it in uncomfortable living situations, San Lang was a different matter. From Xie Lian’s perspective, even though they had gotten along well on the second day, San Lang at times still seemed reserved, at other times at ease, always obeying Xie Lian’s instructions and giving him space if the other so much as indicated so. By unspoken agreement, San Lang would curl up to sleep as his fox form every night and share the mat with Xie Lian. Originally, the third night San Lang had slunk off to curl up by the fire and Xie Lian was puzzled before understanding San Lang wanted to leave the mat for him. The mat, Xie Lian reasoned, was barely big enough for two grown people and he understood if San Lang wanted his space after how their first night had gone.

On the other hand, the mat’s space was more than adequate if someone was to curl up in his much smaller form.

It was a little embarrassing but without actually speaking the direct words, San Lang had understood what Xie Lian’s meaningful gazes and ‘ahems’ were trying to convey. Xie Lian shut his eyes tighter as he recalled how San Lang’s lips had twitched before changing forms. In the end he had curled up on the edge of the mat besides Xie Lian and no further words were spoken on the matter. Yes, it was a perfect arrangement for two people who had to make do under these circumstances. And yet, Xie Lian lamented, somehow over the nights the two would end up curled up next to each other. Xie Lian didn’t know which of them had moved in their sleep to the other, when he blearily woke up. Perhaps both were just instinctively seeking the other’s body warmth in their sleep. If it was indeed him, Xie Lian reassured himself, it was purely to share warmth when the fire inevitably died during the night. The nights were getting colder after all and spirits weren’t immune to the coldness. San Lang didn’t seem to mind either, from the way the other would be found curling up on Xie Lian’s inky locks or more recently, fluffy fur nudging against the small of Xie Lian’s back in the mornings and so the subject wasn’t broached further.

The fourth day the skies were clear and so after eating, both of them had gone off, Xie Lian leading to the place where he had encountered the barrier. San Lang seemed quiet, even displeased, otherwise making no comment when Xie Lian explained how he had been thrown away once passing the barrier, only asking if there were any other side-effects. As Xie Lian had ventured nearer to the place where he had fallen, the spiritual energy thrumming increasingly violently as he edged closer, San Lang had blocked his path, barely sparing the sea of energy a glance before saying he understood the situation. The array only affected one target – Xie Lian – as San Lang strolled through it without a scratch, not looking impressed.

Despite Xie Lian being sure he was the older one – centuries of living would do that to you – he felt a bit chided as San Lang returned, not as if the youth was reproaching that Xie Lian was careless but that he had gotten hurt. Xie Lian wanted to brush it away, to comment that he was used to it, but his instincts told him not to test San Lang’s mood. In the end, the two returned to the shrine, San Lang casually saying he had an idea of what kind of curse it was but needed time to ascertain and Xie Lian nodded peacefully in agreement before switching the conservation to a lighter topic.

By the next day San Lang’s usual mischievous way of speaking and behaving as he followed Xie Lian had returned and Xie Lian was relieved, liking San Lang to be his playful self. However, San Lang was too helpful at times. Honestly, Xie Lian felt rather embarrassed that throughout their time together the bulk of chores were carried out by San Lang even before Xie Lian had the chance to do so. Furthermore, the youth admittedly carried out the chores better than Xie Lian himself could do, contrasting vastly to his well brought up appearance. The other had only given him a look full of boyish innocence at Xie Lian’s protests when he pointed out San Lang really was doing far too much, stubbornly stating he was content enough to be able to aid gege and gege already paid him back by his company and meals.

With such sincere words, Xie Lian reluctantly gave up persuading the other to stop helping, seeing how it would be rude to insist further. He mentally resolved to carry out his household tasks earlier. If Xie Lian didn’t know any better, San Lang knew what he was thinking and did the same, both of them trying to outperform the other till the shrine was almost unrecognisable from its original state.

Xie Lian opened his eyes, throwing a look of unspeakable agony towards the shrine’s entrance, the gaping hole now neatly fitted with a polished wooden door.

Really, how did San Lang not expect him to notice!

Where had he even conjured it from in the first place!

Xie Lian sighed internally, eyes fluttering shut once more as he thought back, hand absentmindedly still stroking the little fox as he did so. His mind’s focus had switched from further investigating about the barrier that was currently no threat besides restricting his movements to being on bent on doing something to help the other in return. He had to repay San Lang back somehow, even if the other only stayed with him on a whim to pass time.

The fifth day Xie Lian chanced upon the opportunity to do just that. He had come back from hacking wood for the fire to see San Lang writing on sheets of parchment, before burning the messages over an incense burner, watching as the smoke curled up into glowing characters that flashed once before disappearing. The other’s face spoke volumes of how boring he found the task but Xie Lian was intrigued and moved over to see.

It was indescribable, what San Lang had managed to do with an innocent brush and paper.

The wild strokes of each character were mangled to such a terrible extent on the parchment that they seemed to cry out voicelessly, causing Xie Lian to spend a good few minutes staring blankly at the unburnt ones, scrambling to understand San Lang’s writing.

…If Xie Lian’s former calligraphy teachers were to see such a sight, they would be rolling over in their graves.

“Gege.” The other greeted Xie Lian once the other turned to look at him, silently asking what San Lang had done. San Lang’s face was forlorn, sweeping away the ashes to the side as Xie Lian sat down beside him.

“San Lang was…” – there was no other way to address the monstrosity – “writing a message?”

The other nodded solemnly, as if to say circumstances had ventured out of his control and he was not the one to blame for the atrocious writing.

“San Lang was writing instructions,” San Lang exhaled a sigh that seemed to shake his entire body from sheer defeat, “but it’s very tedious Gege, San Lang never had the patience to learn how to write well.” San Lang gestured to the crumpled balls of parchment lying by the ink pot. “And very boring.”

Xie Lian barely spared the abandoned messages a glance. If the messages San Lang had burnt were written well by his standards, Xie Lian dreaded to think about the ones San Lang deemed unreadable.

Instead he smiled encouragingly at the other, reaching for a fresh scroll of parchment.

“Then San Lang, would you like me to guide you?”

The other visibly cheered up, expression sharpening to pour all of his attention on Xie Lian as the other rolled out the parchment.

“If Gege is the one teaching, San Lang will take every word to heart.”


 

Xie Lian blinked open his eyes once more, this time forcing himself not to fall back into the trap of resting further. He needed to stretch his limbs desperately, as he silently apologised to San Lang for disturbing him. Hours had passed by now and while it was a sweet peace resting with San Lang, night was still to come.

“San Lang…” The faint words hung in the air, guilt seeping into his tone at breaking the quietness.

A whuffle was his sole response as San Lang finally stirred, yawning. San Lang himself seemed surprised to have fallen asleep on Xie Lian, onyx eyes fluttering open, blinking rapidly in shock. The sight was a direct knife to Xie Lian’s heart, wanting to indulge San Lang if only for a little longer. With immense care as if cradling a baby bird fallen from the nest, Xie Lian cupped San Lang’s fluffy sides with firm hands, wanting to tug San Lang up to his eye level while still lying down. The little fox trembled despite the gentle touch, seeming to overcome his shyness to protect his resting place. San Lang’s nails clung to the soft cotton of Xie Lian’s inner robes, tiny paws protesting in vain as Xie Lian tried lifting him off.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian sternly said, smile fading away as he cast a very serious gaze at the other. Still, he was unable to keep the tenderness out of his voice.

The other relinquished the fabric, body hunched down, appearing all for as if his world was ending.

San Lang’s pricked ears drooped, as though expecting Xie Lian to remove and place him over to the side.

Instead, Xie Lian raised San Lang up a bit till San Lang’s face was directly opposite his own, murmuring sweet nothings to reassure the other. This close, the other’s face was inches away from Xie Lian’s kindly gaze. San Lang’s bushy tail was wagging furiously back and forth, eyes burning brightly.

“San Lang is the sweetest, cleverest spirit among the three realms.” Xie Lian pronounced each word with great solemnity, silently apologising to Ruoye as he lifted San Lang and shook him very gently, not violently like a little girl might do to her doll but as a proud parent would do. He sounded ridiculous, talking to San Lang as one would to a little baby but San Lang’s thick fur visibly puffed up with pride at each praise, the spirit preening himself. Xie Lian smiled to himself, thinking that San Lang was very much like a demanding kid in this form, wanting to receive words of praise and be fussed over. Xie Lian didn’t mind and thought compared to the teasing tone and manners the other behaved at times that left Xie Lian at a loss for words, this side of him was very dear.

He continued.

“San Lang is very cute.”

Oh dear.

Xie Lian felt sure the other was pouting.

“Ah my apologies, San Lang is handsome and charming but most definitely not cute.” Xie Lian apologised, as he moved to a sitting position still holding onto San Lang. The other huffed, fur still puffed up and Xie Lian cheerly ran his hands through San Lang’s belly fur, smoothing over the ruffled fur, not regretting his initial words one bit. A sly thought swum up amidst the depths of his mind over how soft and fine San Lang’s fur felt beneath his hands and Xie Lian restrained his grin, facial expression changing to a dismayed one, catching the other’s attention.

“Oh but…if only San Lang was a bit bigger, he would be even lovelier to hug. Such a shame.” Xie Lian sighed heavily and glanced away to the window as if to say ‘what to do, fate was merciless like that’. He placed San Lang back down on his lap, fingers dropping to his sides. The words were of course spoken in jest. Whether as the graceful youth accompanying him during the day or the little fox gambling around his feet at night, Xie Lian felt at ease around San Lang, playful even despite what you would expect someone his age to act. In a nostalgic manner, it was like these past few days had been spent was relearning the remnants of his own youthfulness, lifetimes ago.

Xie Lian glanced back to see how San Lang had taken his words.

He hadn’t taken it well.

San Lang’s splendid tail had stopped wagging, ears drooping till they touched the base of his skull. The fox flattened himself onto Xie Lian’s lap, squishing out to become a puddle of autumn dyed fur, fur radiating warmth that Xie Lian could feel through the thin layer of his inner robes.

San Lang gazed up at him with rounded eyes that looked seconds away from turning damp, too crestfallen to attempt to move.

Okay, okay I know my mistake! Xie Lian laughed and swiftly scooped the other back into his arms, tumbling back down on the mat as he comforted the little one, whispering his humble apologies.

San Lag let out a low yip and Xie Lian took that as an affirmative that his apologies were accepted, squeezing the other against his chest as he shamelessly continued petting the other.

After playing with San Lang a bit longer, the other started squirming in his grip, yipping softly. Xie Lian paused his fluffing actions, judging if he had overexerted his strength in cuddling the other. Instead to Xie Lian’s astonishment, San Lang was visibly growing in size, ears flicking back and forth as he almost doubled in size before stopping. Throughout Xie Lian was careful not to hold the other not too tight, at the same time refusing to let go. Now the not so little fox weighed down in his arms, a satisfying weight Xie Lian was all too glad to hold. San Lang seemed to give off a vibe of gratification at his current size, nuzzling his cheek fur against one of Xie Lian’s palms as he intermittently licked him and Xie Lian happily returned the favour, lifting San Lang up and pressing his cheek against the other’s, while stroking the luxurious fur.

Shortly afterwards, San Lang grew restless and Xie Lian bestowed one last cuddle, letting him wiggle out of his grip, slipping onto the floor. Xie Lian got up and stretched, bones creaking as he did so before smiling tentatively down at the fox, awaiting San Lang to become human once more before they would continue speaking. The other would change in a blink of an eye, flustering Xie Lian, before he became accustomed soon enough.

“…” Xie Lian’s smile faded, replaced with an edge of shock.

San Lang was standing in front of him, except now the other clearly was older, perhaps in the bloom of his eighteenth or nineteenth year. The other had already been taller than Xie Lian previously but now Xie Lian had to tilt his head up to look into the other’s one visible eye - his right now covered with a black eyepatch. This just drew Xie Lian’s attention to that glittering gaze from the other’s sole shining eye as he stared back at Xie Lian wordlessly. San Lang’s hair was loose, raven locks cascading down his back to waist-length, unbound except for a small braid decorated with a red coral bead on the right side of that stunning face, the braid falling to the side accentuating all the more the sharp curvature of the other’s features. His clothes had changed as well, crimson robes more elegantly weaved and styled than before, silver vambraces wrought with intricate patterns peeking out of long flowing sleeves, the resounding jingle of silver adornments that decorated his boots as San Lang shifted.

Seeing Xie Lian’s bewilderedness, San Lang smiled warmly, white teeth visible for a flash.

“Gege wanted me to be bigger, so I grew.” To that exceedingly casual response, voice lower than before, Xie Lian felt more than a little dazed, eyes lingering over San Lang’s full form. This…wasn’t what he meant. For the first time since meeting San Lang, he was abruptly reminded once again that San Lang was no common spirit and one that was as a matter of a fact, renowned for their cunning and seductiveness - now that’s a dangerous thought, back, back Xie Lian.

Why now of all times?

The other was still patiently waiting for his response. Xie Lian remembered very clearly the hesitation in the other’s voice a few days back. Eyes snapping back to that questioning gaze, Xie Lian smiled softly to smooth over the awkward moment.

“Ahh my apologies San Lang, I was unprepared. So this is your original appearance?” Xie Lian ventured, his whole body tensed in contrast to his forcefully relaxed tone. Nervousness clawed at his stomach for some unfathomable reason as he took in the other’s appearance, taking care not to linger over the other’s body like he unwittingly did before.

“Almost,” The other remarked, inquisitiveness etched over his face, the manifestation of innocence if it wasn’t for the way his brows arched up.

Xie Lian paused.

Almost?

San Lang had admitted he was a fox spirit after all.

Did that mean…

Xie Lian hadn’t realised he had paused too long till San Lang snickered, crescent smile widening, appearing very pleased with himself. To his horror Xie Lian felt his cheeks bloom red, the flush working its way down to his neck and tips of his ears as he stuttered wordlessly, thoughts failing him, knowing that San Lang knew exactly what he had been thinking.

“San Lang is pleased Gege appreciates his forms. So, what does Gege intend to do next?” playfulness shrouded San Lang’s tone, teasing words with just a hint of provocativeness, fully enjoying the situation.

“Mhn. Not bad.” Xie Lian retorted without hesitation, ignoring the last bit, breaking eye contact as he couldn't take it anymore. Before the other could utter anymore misleading words, Xie Lian walked to the clean table, expression thankfully hidden with his back turned.

San Lang was about to move to his side before Xie Lian turned around, this time facing San Lang once more with a genial smile gracing his expression, grey eyes with endless gentleness in their depths as they met San Lang’s dark one. Smiling had come natural to Xie Lian ever since he was small, never needing to be taught how royalty was to behave and act in public, the radiant flower of his smile endearing whoever met the little crown prince. The other was so caught off guard by that tender look directed towards him, his eye never leaving the other’s pale face, that it took San Lang several heartbeats to realise what Xie Lian was offering him.

Xie Lian had gathered the ink pot, parchment and brush in his arms.

His smile was endlessly and mercilessly benevolent.

“We’re staying right here. San Lang, in order to improve at calligraphy, you need to practice every day.”

“…I’ll switch back, Gege.”

Chapter Text

“I haven’t done this for anyone besides myself for a long time. Pardon any faults.” With steady hands, Xie Lian begins to use a comb to flow down through San Lang’s inky locks, methodically feeling out any tangles or kinks and proceeding to work on a small section each time. As San Lang is easily a good head taller than himself, the other sits on the floor, lowering his head forward while Xie Lian perches behind him on the offering table.

Throughout the process, Xie Lian repeatedly catches himself settling down the comb in favour of skimming his fingers down through jet black strands as they drape across his hands, deftly seeking out any remaining stubborn tangles to undo. Or at least that’s what he tells San Lang, whose lips quirk upwards in a smile as he nods in silent contentment. Xie Lian can’t help but note how at ease San Lang is, leaning back against his touch as each section is smoothed out. The simplicity of their surroundings further enhances San Lang’s glamorous appearance, all his forms having their distinguished charm to capture one’s attention.

Really, San Lang absolutely requires no help in maintaining his appearance, stoking Xie Lian’s earlier suspicions over the innocuous request. He’s been turning the thought over in his mind and the parallels of San Lang’s reactions as a fluffy fox and now as San Lang preens at his touch further cements the prince’s convictions: San Lang truly enjoys having someone to fuss over him, doesn’t he.

Well, not that he minds indulging San Lang, Xie Lian muses, tucking a stray lock that escaped back behind an ear before picking up the comb once more. After all, Xie Lian is no longer the spoilt crown prince of old, having paid the toll of his foolishness. Even though he’s tried burying away the notion, he can’t wholly get rid of the yearn for something more than fleeting interactions with strangers, to have someone who listens back and to converse with, sharing both joy and sorrow alike.

“Gege seems deep in thought today.” San Lang’s words echo in the small space, a question hanging between them and Xie Lian snaps back to attention, patting the other’s shoulder somewhat awkwardly before continuing.

“Sorry San Lang, I shouldn’t have gotten distracted while reminiscing. You must tell me if I am tugging too much or overly rough. Besides simple ties and braids, I’ve never had much practice.” That much was true, it was mainly Feng Xin and rarely Mu Qing who had been the ones to fiddle and fuss over with the required adornments and styling when the Xian Le court occasions had required extravagant formal attire.

San Lang’s makes an ‘ah’ of acknowledgement, Xie Lian not needing to see his face to envision the impish gaze painted on his features. “Gege paying close attention already makes me content. And Gege shouldn’t speak too soon before he allows San Lang to return the favour.”

Xie Lian takes his time as they engage in idle chitchat, checking every now and then with San Lang whether this action was too much or sharp, San Lang cheerily reassuring him he wasn’t each instance. The other remains still during the drawn-out procedure, breath steady as Xie Lian fusses over the last strokes before the prince finally securing San Lang’s back braid with a loose tie, the heavy weight of San Lang’s locks sweeping down as Xie Lian lets go. He takes a moment to admire San Lang’s form and his own work before speaking.

“I’m done. San Lang, wait a moment.”

Xie Lian slides down from the table and gets a shallow bowl, filling it up with rainwater, before cupping it with both hands as he walks back. Xie Lian places the bowl carefully down before dragging over the mat for both of them to sit down on.

San Lang takes the opportunity while Xie Lian is busying himself to lean forward, peering at his reflection in the water, seemingly highly pleased. The minor movement causes the slim braid with the crimson coral bead to swing slightly. Xie Lian’s gaze lingers over it, faint nostalgia sneaking through the crooked halls of his memories even as he lifts his gaze to scrutinise the curvature of San Lang’s features.

Lost in thought of where he had seen such a familiar adornment before, Xie Lian starts when San Lang calls him several times.

“Gege? Gege’s mind has flown away again to reminisce, leaving San Lang all alone.” San Lang’s words with a lilt to the end break through and Xie Lian shakes his head.

“When you get to my age San Lang, you slide into the bad habit of reminiscing about the past. Take care this doesn’t happen to you too.” Even speaking with a straight face and solemn voice, Xie Lian’s lips twitch. Before San Lang’s brows could reach any further, the prince plods on, diverting their light conversation to the realms. For Xie Lian who has been out of touch with the three realms after being outcasted in the mortal realm for so long, discussing these topics were indeed a wonderful opportunity to refresh and update his memories. San Lang easily responds in detail to whatever Xie Lian asks as they lie on the mat. The other has not a hint of impatience in his tone as he explains or comments on the prince’s views. Not surprisingly San Lang lingers on his experience in the ghost realm, explaining how his current residence is at the infamous Ghost City itself. San Lang casually remarks that once this mess was taken care of, Xie Lian was welcome to come over to his house to mingle if he wanted to. Xie Lian smiles warmly at him for the invitation, mood uplifting at the thought of still seeing San Lang after this was over, giving his thanks.  

“San Lang is well versed on all three realms,” Xie Lian says after a while, “Does San Lang pay attention particularly to the heavenly realm?”

San Lang hadn’t anticipated for Xie Lian to return to that line of questioning, resting one hand on his cheek as he thought.

“Those uptight heavenly officials? What does Gege desire to know about that lot?” Light disdain weaves through his tone like before and Xie Lian wonders who the unfortunate soul or indeed the number of heavenly officials had the misfortune to cross wrong paths with San Lang.

“I’m still curious on how the heavenly courts have changed throughout the centuries.” Xie Lian offers up.

“What’s worth knowing, which is little enough.”

Xie Lian huffs back a laugh at the curt answer, reminding himself it was never polite to laugh at others even if San Lang wasn’t impressed by those seated among the heavens, the other’s lackadaisical smile holding a very much unkind edge to it.

Xie Lian takes this all in. With both of them lying so close, it's second nature to guess what the other's feelings are. “So San Lang has been around quite some time? Centuries even?”

San Lang’s visible eye widens as he nods, expression innocently wounded as he looks at Xie Lian.

“I see now why Gege asked so many questions earlier. To think he wants to mock San Lang for his age, San Lang is saddened.” San Lang appears petulant at the notion, as if Xie Lian teasing him so pierced him irrevocably.

“San Lang, you are…completely wrong. It’s not that.” I don’t have a foot to stand on either about age. Xie Lian sits up, San Lang languidly mimicking his actions.

“I was wondering,” Xie Lian speaks without a change in tone, expression as tranquil as if he broaching topics as mundane about household chores or the weather, “Since San Lang is knowledgeable about the heavenly realm, whether he has heard of the Four Famous Tales, of the God Pleasing Crown Prince, the crown prince of Xian Le.”

The cheeky smile Xie Lian has become accustomed to seeing dissolves like morning mist, San Lang’s expression faltering and Xie Lian’s own expression sharpens despite his smile remaining. Both refuse to look away from each other, the contentment replaced with uncertainty as to what the other was thinking.

“I’ve been thinking San Lang,” Xie Lian says lightly when no forward reply came, “Why would someone as knowledgeable and capable as yourself perchance to walk around the mortal realm without a specific aim, choosing to interact with a no name daozhang and offer such thorough help otherwise? Even if on a whim, San Lang’s been helping out far more than a stranger would. Unless, by chance or fortune we met before and took to each other.”

No matter how hazy his memories were worn down to, Xie Lian is wholly confident he would have remembered someone who lives as vividly as San Lang. Narrowing the options down, that meant San Lang either had been disguised at the time of their meeting or they only had seen each other from afar and circumstances had led them to work together without overstepping each other’s space.

San Lang remains quiet, eye bright before his head bows.

“Dianxia. Yes, we met before, though Dianxia may not remember. To San Lang, our meeting has always been burnished into my mind.” San Lang pauses for a breath he doesn’t need.

Xie Lian accepts the title with a quiet murmur of acknowledgment, body and mind surprisingly aligned in their calmness at the confirmation. Hearing that glamorous title after centuries of silence is a double-edged sword, as if someone had whisked his memories out from a vault tucked away in times gone by, without letting Xie Lian steel himself for both the sonorous pride and regret those words enfold.

San Lang continues, tone neutral and controlled. “It was before your first ascension, at the God Pleasing Ceremony. ”

To think they had met so long ago. The incidents that occurred during God Pleasing Ceremony were unforgettable, and Xie Lian digests his words.

“Then, that child that fell was you.”

San Lang inclines his head further.

“Yes. Dianxia. I’ve disappointed you again. Concealing the truth, committing mistakes one after another.”

Sensing the path San Lang’s words would lead down, Xie Lian withholds his curiosity on what had happened next, interrupting. “No. On the contrary, San Lang, I’m truly glad. Raise your face, look at me.” San Lang obeys, looking strangely unsure of himself.

Xie Lian doesn’t want to see him make such a twisted face. San Lang’s usual confidence suiting him best.

“It’s arrogant of me to say so since my memory is not the best, but even the fact that we met somewhere before if only for a little while, that San Lang still recalls it so, makes me happy.”

“That’s why I hoped we met early on. You see, these past centuries were, not my best to put it mildly.” Xie Lian clears his throat, remembering the emptiness of the recent, the last couple hundreds of years.

Xie Lian is relieved more then he would like to admit that he doesn’t see a trace of pity or disbelief in that burning eye, just a wordless understanding.

Xie Lian hurries on, compacting away those desolated memories he’s accustomed to doing so.

“It was strange that San Lang didn’t have any questions for me from the start. But everyone has their own reasons for their actions and San Lang is no different in that sense, so I thought a little harder.”

On an impulse, Xie Lian reaches forward and squeezes one of San Lang’s stiff hands with his own before giving the other space. “Since we’re already at this point where we’ve been living together harmoniously, I hope I haven’t assumed we don’t see each as good companions. I want to know more about San Lang if he is willing, it’s only fair to ask the same of myself. So San Lang doesn’t need to worry over offending me, I don’t think badly of San Lang one bit.”

San Lang’s gaze is no longer clouded over with guilt and for that Xie Lian is endlessly relieved.

“Dianxia.” San Lang speaks, voice soft with genuine joy, devotion Xie Lian has not been enveloped in ages. Giving time for Xie Lian to pull back, the red robed spirit reaches forward for the hand Xie Lian had offered him, the touch of icy skin against Xie Lian’s own warm flesh.

“San Lang?”

San Lang bowed his head further, taking the hand offered to him. Breath ghosts over the back of his hand, before San Lang’s lips brush against his skin, the gesture quietly intimate. Xie Lian goes still, his own thoughts flat-lining at the feathery soft press of those bitten lips. San Lang went no further than that, before he lifts his head, drawing back, eye clear, devoutly looking at him as though Xie Lian wasn’t a tarnished crown prince of a long-forgotten kingdom fallen by his own hand but as someone as noble and gracious as the protagonists of old fables.

“Dianxia never needs to apologise for anything. This one is so, so grateful.” San Lang’s words were devout worthy, brimming with such sincerity Xie Lian could believe he deserves such faith.

“Dianxia, I have…many things I would like to talk with you about. If Dianxia doesn’t mind.”

“Yes, I want to hear them. We have all the time to spare. And San Lang doesn’t need to address me formally, calling Gege is fine. Whatever San Lang feels comfortable with.”

“Dianxia will always remain as such to San Lang, regardless as a god or banished.” San Lang’s face is flushed, the paleness of the spirit’s skin making the tinge of pink  all too prominent, something Xie Lian would definitely be more flustered over if the pressing fire of his own skin wasn’t turning his mind to mush either.

“But, San Lang is selfish and admits he likes calling Dianxia by Gege as well.”