Chapter 1: Celebration
He Xuan/Shi Qingxuan
* * *
“THERE’S A GHOST! A GHOST!” A frightened voice from the kitchen rang. There wasn’t any particular reason why would Shi Qingxuan jerk up on that particular phrase. After all, today there were too many weird people and not only people in Puji Shrine – its opening celebration was truly something only His Highness could achieve like this! However, somehow that phrase caught in his ear. He trailed off from bickering with Heaven’s Eye over the food and suddenly made up his mind.
“Ol’ Feng, where are you going?”
“We want more soup, Ol’ Feng!”
“Is there any more chicken over there?”
Shi Qingxuan did not hear any of these. He ran, hobbling hopelessly, through the crowd and tables, towards the entrance, his face twisted with effort. Only when he ran into the open, he stopped, frantically looking around, searching at least for a glimpse of… black! That person, he thought he saw him at the end of the street. Shi Qingxuan gritted his teeth and continued to hop in that direction.
His clothes became even sweatier, but he didn’t give up, still chasing after…
“Wait! Please, wait!” He called out, desperately struggling to catch up. In that manner he reached until the end of the village. The road further on was empty, and on the sides there were farmers’ fields. Shi Qingxuan slumped onto the ground, catching his breath. The night breeze blew over, and he shivered, but paid no attention to it. Somehow, his vision was blurred – it was only then that he realized he was crying.
Just then, somebody pulled him up roughly, lifting him to his feet. Shi Qingxuan sobbed, as he looked around to see whom it was, and froze on the spot his eyes widening.
“What are you doing running around all sweaty? You’ll catch a cold like this,” a grumpy voice came.
Black hair, black clothes, cold eyes and air of both gloom and solitude around him. Shi Qingxuan was looking at He Xuan, unable to speak, although there was so much he wanted to say. But in the end, all he uttered was, “I broke the fan again,” as he pulled his torn Wind Master fan out. He Xuan’s expression did not change, as he accepted the fan from his hands. Shi Qingxuan wiped his tears with his dirty sleeve, “I’m sorry,” he said, “For going after you. I just wanted to see you, I guessed it was you from what they spoke over at the kitchen, and I… I… wanted to see you again,” he finished miserably.
He Xuan silently stood on his spot, merging with the darkness. Then, “I don’t know if I can repair it again,” he said quietly.
Shi Qingxuan shook his head, “It’s okay, it’s okay, I didn’t even mean it like this, I just… I thought you said you never wanted to see me again,” he spoke barely audible.
He Xuan looked at him, “Let’s go. I’ll take you back to the shrine.”
Shi Qingxuan’s legs trembled from all the running and he tripped with the first step, and then halted, staring at the hand that was extended to him. The last time that death-pale hand was seen atop of his brother’s head, tearing said head off the body. Now that hand was offering him support, and the choice was his for accepting or denying it.
Shi Qingxuan pondered over it for a while, before making his final decision.
Chapter 2: Fate
He Xuan/Shi Wudu
* * *
Fate was something that could be changed all too easily, from what he learned.
Fate was something he was robbed off all too easily, when he was unaware.
Fate was something that should have been controlled by him, yet somehow it always escaped into others’ grasp. Somehow, it seemed as if everybody had an influence over him, but himself.
First, those examiners and officials – he could do nothing about the exchange of the scroll, he could not prove anything back then, while they held his fate in their filthy hands and laughed at him.
Then there was that man who took the two of his most precious ones away, and again he could do nothing, even though he tried, and tried hard. But all he got was…
Death of his parents.
Merchants and robbery.
More deaths to follow.
Including his own.
And each time there was something, someone pulling the strings behind the scene. Something too powerful for him to confront and fight it back.
(Although he did. Oh, he did!)
No, not the Reverend of Empty Words. That jinx demon, he never feared him. It was rather than he felt there was something horribly wrong in the whole situation as such, something that should not have been here, but was.
And when he floated there, nothing more than a barely faint ghost fire, circling around his own ruined body, he finally saw the one pulling the strings. That person came descending from the skies, like the brightest of stars, that heavenly official with proud features clad in white. So beautiful he was, so magnificent and gorgeous, with porcelain like skin and dark hair, decorated with the finest jewels. A true god from heavens!
At first he thought he was blessed with that person coming to pass his spirit over to the other side and into the rebirth cycle. He thought he somehow earned the glory of being served at his funeral by this celestial deity.
But then that person said something that almost made him dissipate on the spot and turned his world upside down.
“Finally,” the beautiful god uttered, and left with his head held high, no looking back at his tormented body again.
And so, he followed that person up there. He committed so many sins, he did so many wrongs, just to follow, just to find out who that man was. Just to find out why would he say such a horrible thing.
And as he did, as the veil of secrets that man and other heavenly officials held was gradually uncovered, his heart filled with disbelief and disgust.
He never expected heavenly officials to be this dirty on the inside. He never expected that particular one person to be that unpleasant and drown in sins and pride too. And so, he succumbed to hatred in the end.
And as he held his hands upon that person’s neck, while his brother pleaded for mercy, that one word flowed through his mind, repeating itself over and over again.
When he mouthed that word, mere second before ripping Shi Wudu’s head off, He Xuan thought he caught a glimpse of recognition and understanding in those eyes.
And then, it was truly finally over.
Chapter 3: Regrets
He Xuan (as Ming Yi), Xie Lian
* * *
Ming Yi looked up slightly, staring at Xie Lian, “Your Highness. What’s the biggest regret of your life?”
Regrets… he had too many. There was pretty much everything, so many things that he had done, and he should not. Xie Lian lowered his gaze, thinking.
It had been eight hundred years, and there were truly too many. Ever since his first banishment, he was making mistake after a mistake, even though he has been trying so hard to save Xian Le and everyone. True, there was White No-Face to blame, but also was not everything at least partially his own fault?
Then, there was a thing he would never admit to anyone that he regretted greatly – speaking so harsh with his mother about all the food she made that day. He never got a chance to apologize to her later, but instead adopted a habit of calling his dishes names.
All the regrets he had… too many to number, too many to bear.
However, one particular image haunted him through all his nights repeatedly. The image of the black clad figure with a smiling mask ripped and devoured by all of those ghosts. That “Wu Ming” person who has been helping Xia Lian at the worst of his time.
He should have taken that blow by himself. He should have taken the curse onto himiself. Xie Lian inadvertently clutched his bamboo hat too tightly. Maybe that person is already reborn after all. Xie Lian held a hope “Wu Ming” would have a good life this time – he deserved it. He forced a small smile and raised his gaze towards Ming Yi.
It was a moment before Xie Lian answered, “My second ascension.”
Chapter 4: Family
Shi Wudu, Shi Qingxuan
* * *
“It’s okay. It’s okay, Qingxuan, calm down,” Shi Wudu was saying that, but his own face was twisted in terror, his eyes widely opened. The Reverend of Empty Words has just found Shi Qingxuan! It was going so well for ten years, but now… Shi Wudu pressed his weeping brother against his chest tighter and stroked his hair. He wanted to cry too at that moment, feeling completely helpless. Out of all the people in the world, why Qingxuan?! Why, heavens, why? What has his little brother done to deserve such a fate since his birth?
“What should I do? Just what can I… how can I help?” Shi Wudu thought hopelessly, as he wiped the blood and rice from Shi Qingxuan’s face. His brother was his most precious person to him, ever since he was born. The only one who would understand him and who would admire him so earnestly and vigorously. The only one who would always be by his side and the one Shi Wudu was supposed to protect and take care of. He stared into the darkness around them, seeking for any sign of that vile creature, but the Reverend was nowhere in sight.
“I’m sorry, it was my fault,” Shi Qingxuan sobbed and sniffled again, “And I ruined your food too…”
Shi Wudu once again hugged him, “Sh-h-h, it is alright,” he repeated and kept repeating until Shi Qingxuan’s sobs quieted down, and the horror on his face faded. Shi Wudu then picked him up in his arms and carried down the mountain.
The initial shock from the sudden appearance of the Reverend of Empty Words had passed, replaced by the fury towards that monster.
Shi Wudu should have warned Shi Qingxuan to stay home and never go out on his own. He should have predicted that. He should have… oh, what is the point in all that now. Alright. First things first.
“Ge, you’re hungry, don’t waste your strength, I can walk…” Shi Qingxuan sniffled into his neck. Shi Wudu only tightened his grip on him.
Later that night, as Shi Qingxuan fell asleep after a bath, Shi Wudu sat at the corner of his bed, looking into his face. Determination grew in his eyes gradually. Every problem must have a solution, so why would this one be an exception? First, he will try to search for cultivators to try to fend that monster off. Should they fail… Shi Wudu clenched his fists. He will train hard and do his best. Then, no matter what, he will ascend, and once up there, he will have more opportunities and ways to protect Shi Qingxuan. It does not matter even if they are forbidden. Anything that works will do. Anything at all, the cost is irrelevant.
“We will get there,” he whispered, “We are family, and we have always depended on each other. So I promise to you that I’ll protect you forever, no matter what it takes. If I will have to march through the pile of bodies to make it there – then I will. But you will be safe, Qingxuan. You will be safe.” Shi Wudu leaned down and placed a gentle kiss upon Shi Qingxuan’s forehead.
“We will get there,” he stated firmly once more. Nobody and nothing will stand in his way, for he, Shi Wudu, is meant to be a god, and he will make sure he is the strongest one. For Shi Qingxuan’s sake.
Chapter 5: Weapons
Hua Cheng/Xie Lian, E-Ming, RuoYe
* * *
“Were you scolded again?” Xie Lian gently lifted E-Ming from the floor it lay sprawled upon. Its eye was trembling, clearly sad and in pain. Xie Lian sighed and tapped its hilt lightly, “E-Ming, calm down, it’s okay,” he soothed, “No matter what you did, you are a good child, so calm down.”
E-Ming trembled stronger, but once getting stroked by Xie Lian, it has gradually calmed down. However, its eye was not squinting happily, rather glancing warily to sides. It was quiet in the Paradise Manor today, as Hua Cheng was busy with something in the city. But to say – he left without taking E-Ming? How unusual. Xie Lian began to worry – what if something happened, and Hua Cheng wouldn’t let him know in order not to disturb his peace?
“Um, should we go find San Lang?” Xie Lian carefully asked, and then raised his brows in surprise, as RuoYe slid from his wrist onto the floor and formed a big ‘X’ in front of him, as if saying, “Absolutely not.” On the other side, E-Ming jumped on the floor its eye twirling – clearly agreeing with RuoYe.
“But… what is it with you two?” Suspicion rose in Xie Lian’s heart. After all, today he was not supposed to be here yet, he went to answer some prayers earlier in the morn, and had expected to be busy all day long. It’s just that it took him faster, and so he hurried back to the Ghost City only to find this sort of strange situation at hand. Just what is going on? Xie Lian already wanted to go out after all, despite being stopped by both E-Ming and RuoYe, but then he heard a melodic cling-clang of silvery chains and turned around with a smile, “San Lang!”
“Ge ge,” the latter smiled in return as he leisurely walked up to Xie Lian and touched his chin with his fingertips, “Was this useless thing giving you trouble?” He glared at E-Ming. The scimitar immediately trembled and jumped behind Xie Lian, as if seeking for protection.
“Not at all,” Xie Lian reached behind and took E-Ming in his hands, “But were you scolding it again? It was too sad just a moment ago. Also, where were you? I came earlier, but you were nowhere to be found, and these two,” he gestured upon E-Ming and RuoYe, “Would not let me go looking for you.”
Hua Cheng threw a glance at the both, and RuoYe hurriedly curled into a heap and hid behind E-Ming. Then Hua Cheng suddenly smirked, “Stop that act, you two. It’s fine now.”
Xie Lian was looking at Hua Cheng now with an obvious question in his eyes. RuoYe rubbed itself about E-Ming, as if praising it for a good work, and then peacefully settled itself upon Xie Lian’s wrist, taking its rightful place. E-Ming also jumped to Hua Cheng then, and he casually sheathed it. “Let’s go, ge ge,” he said then, extending his hand to Xie Lian, “San Lang wants to show you something.”
Xie Lian glanced at RuoYe and E-Ming, but said nothing, biting back a smile. Those two have become a true team, seeing they worked so hard together from keeping him going into the city. As he stepped into the main street, Xie Lian understood, why.
“San Lang!” He exclaimed in wonder. The whole street was decorated with lanterns and flowers, it seemed to shine from within from all the lights glowing around – a truly magnificent sight to behold! All of the ghosts seemed to take care of themselves too, as Xie Lian saw the boar butcher wearing a new tie (say what?), and the rooster spirit wore some truly bizarre looking hat on the top of his head. The tentacle of who-knows-what Xie Lian remembered from the last time giving him riddle-lanterns was wearing several randomly colored tapes tied in ribbons.
Xie Lian turned to Hua Cheng, and the latter smiled, “No need to think too much about it,” he said, “Just wanted to make ge ge’s evening special.”
“You are making all of my evenings special,” Xie Lian wanted to say, “You made my life special in the best of ways.” But he could not say any of that in the middle of the street, yet he wanted somehow to let Hua Cheng know of all the feelings overwhelming him from the inside… Before he changed his mind and lost his courage, Xie Lian stood on his tiptoes and kissed Hua Cheng on his lips.
The Ghost City mob exploded in waves of approval, from whistles to claps, from all the sides. Xie Lian blushed violently, but still held Hua Cheng’s hand in his, refusing to let go.
“Grand Uncle, you’re so cool!”
“Our Lord Hua Chengzhu has done his best today!”
“Yeah, we did too!”
“Grand Uncle, you absolutely have to see my stall!”
“Mine as well, I clean it best!”
Hua Cheng glanced at the mob, his eyebrow slightly arched, and they all fell silent at once. Xie Lian entwined his fingers with Hua Cheng’s, “Everyone,” he said gently, “Thanks for your hard work.”
The ghosts seemed to look overjoyed and pleased with themselves. Hua Cheng looked down upon Xie Lian and stroked his cheek, “You really like these decorations, ge ge?”
“I love them,” Xie Lian answered honestly, “And I love you.”
Hua Cheng smiled happily, “Well, then, let us take a nice evening stroll down the street, and go on a date somewhere to eat? I know just the right place behind the corner.”
“I’d love to!” Xie Lian said, accepting the rules of the game for the night. RuoYe hung one of its ends from his wrist, and inconspicuously touched the E-Ming, as if giving it ‘high five’ for a good work, and E-Ming’s eye happily turned crescent.
Chapter 6: Fall
He Xuan/Shi Qingxuan, Hua Cheng
* * *
It was like falling to the nothingness. That feeling, when you were flying, and then collapsed down with no bottom to see. Shi Qingxuan was answering to the beggars, but in his ears there was a strange ringing and his hands were shaking from not the effort of the fanning, but from the realization.
The moment he caught that fan it felt as if he is falling to the abyss. It could not be… could it? But, but… COULD IT? There was no time, there was never enough time for the most important things, and so he swung the fan, taking care of the problem at hand first.
After he blew the flaming meteors away, he looked up, searching with his gaze, but that person was nowhere in sight. Shi Qingxuan above all else wanted to follow, to try to search, but this was far from over yet, as the new threat to the human guarding array arose in those swarming rats… Why is there never enough time?!
Shi Qingxuan gritted his teeth and continued to fight.
* * *
“Hua Cheng” watched him from the shadows by the corner of the street. His lips pressed into a thin line, his expression overly grim.
“Care to pay me off a bit?” the real Hua Cheng casually spoke to him earlier that day.
“What you want?” He grunted.
“I need my ‘clone’ down in the Royal Capital. Some humans to watch over, while I will be busy on the other side. So I figured I might as well address to the best actor in heavens.”
He Xuan snorted and rolled his eyes, “How funny. Alright. Anything else?”
“I need your Black Water Demon Lair at my disposal freely. There might be a good damage to it in the aftermath.”
“…Alright,” it is not that He Xuan was thrilled, but Hua Cheng would not request something like this without a good reason.
“You’re leaving for the Capital now?”
“Yes. Just have a thing to grab from the Nether Water Manor.”
…He Xuan already expected he would meet Shi Qingxuan. Let’s say he had a hunch. But… like this?
He Xuan still wearing Hua Cheng’s appearance looked as Shi Qingxuan hopped and wobbled over the place, and his hands involuntarily jerked.
He did not mean to… not like this…
He Xuan abruptly turned around and walked away. Or so he wanted, but found himself unable to move a step forward. He looked back at Shi Qingxuan questioning something from Xie Lian, and the real Hua Cheng.
As he watched, suddenly, Shi Qingxuan lifted his head and met his gaze.
* * *
Shi Qingxuan’s eyes grew wide, and he felt his sweat once again going from hot to cold. The crimson clad figure in the shadowy narrow passage between the houses was unmoving, but Shi Qingxuan could feel the tension coming from that direction.
His whole body was shaking, reluctant and afraid, waves of terror coming from inside. He once again had that feeling of the fall in his gut, as he took the first step towards that figure. And another one. And another.
“Hua Cheng” was staring at him coming closer and Shi Qingxuan wondered distantly, how he could even take him for the real Crimson Rain Sought Flower at first. Their faces were so different…
He extended the Wind Master fan towards him warily. “Hua Cheng” shifted, “What for?”
Shi Qingxuan licked his lips nervously, “It broke again,” he said flatly.
“And… it is… yours now anyway, so…” Why was there such a tight knot in his chest? Why was it so hard to speak? He has ever been so chatty, and now hopelessly stuttering at each word.
“Keep it,” “Hua Cheng” said darkly and turned to leave.
“Mi… Young Master He,” Shi Qingxuan called softly. “Hua Cheng” stopped, and the next moment Shi Qingxuan recoiled back, as he rapidly transformed to his real appearance.
“What?” He snapped, not turning around. Shi Qingxuan looked at his dark hair and black clothes, and although he remembered every single bit of that day, he was unable to hate. Because he was…
(already fallen so long ago, the both of them)
Shi Qingxuan swallowed hard, “Thank you… for the help,” he uttered. And then shook his head, took a deep breath and jumped into the void again – after all, what more was there for him to lose?
“But honestly!” He spoke in an outraged tone, “You could have been at least a bit nicer to me in lending those spiritual powers! Your kick was really hard, and why are you so mean to this poor old cripple anyway? It’s not like I…”
He Xuan froze in his tracks, and Shi Qingxuan halted too, thinking that maybe he has gone too far. Then…
“Shut up!” His face was still gloomy, but his tone was filled with astonishment it made Shi Qingxuan laugh, “Be grateful I came at all!”
“Will you stay more to help about?” Shi Qingxuan asked.
He Xuan blinked, and then ran a hand through his hair, “You really want me to?” He specified.
Shi Qingxuan nodded. A long, long time ago, he has already fallen in love with this man. So what, so his true form turned out to be a little different? So what, so he was dead to start with? So what, so they were enemies in the past, as it turned out to be? After all… sometimes all one needs is to jump down to see if anyone will catch.
Shi Qingxuan has just jumped.
Chapter 7: Missed Chances
Pei Ming/Shi Wudu
* * *
The strangest thing in his life was that he was mostly known for his affairs with the women. No matter how undignified that sounded, Pei Ming knew all too well it was, in fact, true. And yet, the one who would claim his heart was not a woman in the end, but…
“Morning, Shui-shixiong,” Pei Ming whispered, not waking up the other man sleeping next to him. He would never admit that to anyone, but there were these mornings that he loved most of all. Because he usually woke up before Shi Wudu, and got a chance to look at him. Sound asleep, with his hair messy and scattered all over the pillow, and his face would be calm and serene, without any sign of his usual smug arrogance. The Water Tyrant was gone in those moments, there was just Shi Wudu, and he was… beautiful.
In those moments Pei Ming wanted to reach forward, to hug him tightly to his chest and kiss him, claim Shi Wudu as his only.
Of course he would not do that, not ever.
Probably if he would tell Shi Wudu that he has actually fallen for him, the latter would have Pei Ming drowned in the nearest sea, or laughed at – and there is no telling which one would be worse. That is why Pei Ming kept quiet about the two of them, allowing for Shi Wudu to be sure they are no more than friends with benefits.
“Already morning, Pei-xiong?” That sleepy, husky voice Pei Ming would have listened to all day if he had the chance. Shi Wudu stretched and turned over, still not opening his eyes, “Few more minutes…” he breathed and yawned.
“You may have all the time in the world,” Pei Ming wanted to answer, his heart pounding in his chest like crazy.
“Of course,” he answered aloud, his tone as carefree as ever, “I’ll go ahead first.”
They never dressed up and took a bath together.
There were never any romantic encounters between the two. Nothing like Pei Ming used to deal with the women. No, there was pure sex and lust, and also spending a lot of time with each other, but just to discuss business and such things, often joined by Ling Wen to their company.
There were times when Pei Ming would think he wants to tell Shi Wudu about his true feelings. But then he was afraid to lose what they already had – Shi Wudu, after all, was not an easy person to deal with. That character of his was rather complicated and annoyed many of others. So Pei Ming never said a thing. They both are gods, he mused, immortal deities, so there is all the time of the world for them. Later, he will tell him. Later, some other time.
There was no other time in the end.
Because then came the third Heavenly Calamity and all that came along with it. Pei Ming was shaken to the core of his being, when he saw the bloodied headless corpse with no arms lying there in that filthy place.
“Shui-shixiong…” He muttered in shock, being unable to comprehend this is what was left of his one and only… Just a few days ago Shi Wudu would clutch at his shoulders, hissing his name as Pei Ming would thrust in him deeper. Just a few days ago Shi Wudu would bury his hands in his hair as he moaned, throwing back his head, and now his arms were lying separately in the corner of that chamber, thrown away like a piece of trash. Just a few days ago Shi Wudu would kiss him passionately, and now his head is torn from the body and who knows where it was taken…
There was a glint on one of the fingers of that torn arm. Pei Ming’s pupils shrank, as he recognized the ring he once gave to Shi Wudu as a gift. The latter was wearing that ring all the time… Pei Ming crossed over to that corner, crouched down and took the ring off Shi Wudu’s finger, then tucked it away.
“I should have told you,” Pei Ming breathed to the bloodied corpse, unable to look elsewhere, unable to turn away from the sight, “I should have. And now I will no longer have the chance. Shui-shixiong… I’m sorry that I have never told you that… I love you.”
Chapter 8: Forgiveness
Xie Lian, Mei Niangqing
* * *
“Why don’t you ask him?” Guoshi suggested.
Xie Lian’s hand jerked at the thought of that man. He… could have go for a visit. He could have go ask, in fact. They might have even talked just like before, when Xie Lian was yet ignorant of his identity, and that talk might turned out to be pleasant too.
But he could not bring himself to do it.
There were many good things and many bad things in his life. Xie Lian has long ago forgiven to those who may have wronged him at some point. With Hua Cheng’s help, he even went as far as forgiving himself for losing his country and all that followed. There was no need in keeping any grudges that would lead to another wave of hatred and loss.
But… he could not forgive that man just yet.
Perhaps with time, when everything gradually sinks in and will be lost in the past – perhaps then it will be possible for Xie Lian to think of that man calmly, not as the White No-Face, but just as the man he once was. But there is a long path until then, and at this point, Xie Lian did not wish to see him, because it might hurt too much.
He could not forgive nor forget yet the fall of Xian Le and the death of his parents. With the time, there is no doubt he would forgive, for Xie Lian knew himself too well. Right now, the wound still was too fresh for him, after all those revelations and craziness that followed.
That is why…
After being silent for a while, Xie Lian still shook his head.
Chapter 9: Silence
He Xuan/Shi Qingxuan, Jun Wu, Hua Cheng, Mei Niangqing
* * *
It was strange – the feeling that Mount TongLu is now unlocked and anyone can roam in freely at any time. He Xuan still kept it low, when he came. Avoiding any possible chances to be seen, sneaking closer to the Kiln and that place he knew the former Emperor was kept at. The Earth Master’s Shovel would have come in handy this time – alas, he no longer had it.
He Xuan, keeping his hands behind his back, entered the dark chamber in the deep underground. Jun Wu was in the middle of it, in a meditation pose. He Xuan kept his guard and did not approach further on, when Jun Wu’s eyes snapped open.
“Of all the guests I might have expected, you are the last one I would think of,” he commented.
He Xuan straightened up, looking over Jun Wu’s simple white garments and his face, “Just a quick question, if you don’t mind.”
Jun Wu shrugged, “Of course.”
There was a long silence on the other end, but Jun Wu knew perfectly what He Xuan was asking about, and He Xuan waited. He came to ask, because he had to confirm his suspicion. Because, if so… If what he thought of was true, then…
“Shi Wudu was a threat,” Jun Wu answered indifferently, “Too much power, rising rapidly. Too much arrogance. He needed to be moved out of the picture. Your grudge against him was a perfect weapon, so when the right time came, you did a good job for me.”
He Xuan’s fist clenched behind his back, but he kept his calm appearance, “Should he not rise to such power – you would not utter a word?”
“Perhaps. But then again, you are – and always were – a smart man, He Sheng. You would have found out either way.”
“I see,” He Xuan turned and left, saying no more. Jun Wu looked after him for a while, and then closed his eyes again, sinking back into the silence and meditation.
“What were you doing down there?!” The moment He Xuan came to the surface, he was attacked by infuriated Mei Niangqing, “What did you do?” He demanded, worried about his Crown Prince’s safety.
“Nothing,” He Xuan looked at him blankly, “Only asked a question of personal importance.”
Mei Niangqing seemed to want to say something more, but then hurried to the depths of the mountain. He Xuan hmphed, and walked away, his hair covering his face.
* * *
He did not even remember reaching the Royal Capital. Obviously, at some point, he drew the Distance Shortening Array, but he would not recall that at all, his mind in disarray. He stumbled upon some bench beneath the tree and collapsed to it, mechanically taking on the appearance of an average seventeen-year-old youth. His hands were quivering.
It was just as he suspected. If not for Jun Wu, he would not have known for sure. If not for Jun Wu, Shi Wudu would have lived on as a god, and so would have… Shi Qingxuan.
Now that He Xuan has clarified that thing that has been bothering him for a while, he was feeling… used. Once again, he was not in control, it was somebody else’s doing all along. At first, he was used by Shi Wudu to replace his brother, to take on all the misfortunes that were Shi Qingxuan’s. Then Jun Wu used him too, manipulated him into avenging his life and deceased family, while in fact, dealing with Shi Wudu by He Xuan’s hands. Basically, He Xuan did all of his dirty work, while thinking he is so high and smart, thinking he has finally discovered the truth behind his miserable life. In reality, it was all a beautifully made set up, way more beautifully done than he made it through with the Reverend of Empty Words, the Bloody Fire Social at Fu Gu and Terrace of Cascading Wine. From the moment he ‘ascended’ as ‘Ming Yi’ everything was already known to Jun Wu, and he just relaxed and watched the show all this time.
He Xuan choked, feeling he is drowning in the whirlpool of his own emotions and thoughts. It was killing him. Not the thought of him dealing with Shi Wudu, but the thought about Shi Qingxuan.
“I’ve given you chances!” He Xuan’s own voice echoed in his ears. And he desperately wanted for Shi Qingxuan to make the right choice at those moments, true. And he was furious and enraged when Shi Qingxuan didn’t. But even so he never meant for him… he never meant for him to become like this – a beggar, crippled and in the streets. Dammit all, even if the brothers would have chosen the first option back then, He Xuan thought about looking after Shi Qingxuan and not letting him deteriorate into a madman. It seemed so simple back then, yet now things just suddenly became too complicated.
He Xuan doubled over at the bench, as always, when he was in emotional turmoil, the insatiable wave of hunger jolted through his body, and he clutched at his stomach, gasping for air even though he did not need one. He did not notice a red clad youth leisurely strolling down the street. At first, that youth passed the bench by, but then halted and turned around, his eyes widening in surprise.
“Black Water, is that you? What are you doing, having a panic attack in the middle of the day by a busy street?” Hua Cheng’s voice was mocking and lazy as usual, but as He Xuan did not utter an answer, his face darkened, “Wait, for real?” He blurted in amazement. He sat next to He Xuan and pressed a bottle to his lips, pouring some liquid into his mouth, forcing it down his throat, “Black Water! Pull yourself together!”
He Xuan coughed, as he drank that down – apparently some wine or something, he did not actually care, and raised his gaze to Hua Cheng, “Crimson Rain Sought Flower?” He asked weakly, slowly coming to his senses.
Hua Cheng nodded, “What happened?”
He Xuan let go a muffled laugh, “Nothing much. Just connected a few dots in my life,” he licked his lips and shook his head, “You wouldn’t understand, as you have always been the one in control. Of your own fate, that is, and over many other lives lesser than yours too. You never knew that feeling, as if you are a tiny boat floating upon a stormy sea, being tossed around and about in the waves with external forces in control.”
Hua Cheng arched an eyebrow, “How poetical of you, Black Water.”
He Xuan smirked bitterly, “It’s nothing,” he said, “In truth, nothing that important, really. At least not anymore now that everything is already over.”
“Then snap out of it!” Hua Cheng smacked the back of his head lightly.
He Xuan blinked, gradually calming down, “Ow.”
Hua Cheng seemed to hesitate. Then, “You… don’t think of dissipating now, do you?”
The question was too sudden. He Xuan looked up dubiously, “You’d become lonely?”
“Don’t bullshit around, I’m serious.”
He Xuan shook his head, “No.”
“Good,” Hua Cheng studied his face and nodded to himself, then rose to his feet, “It is Yuanxiao Festival today,” he observed the people passing by, “Go and have some soup at least.”
“Yuanxiao?” He Xuan repeated slowly, “Oh…”
Hua Cheng rolled his eyes, “Don’t tell me you don’t have money for at least a decent meal?”
“I have,” He Xuan snorted.
“Then get some. See you around.”
“How did you recognize me?” He Xuan called after him.
Hua Cheng halted, not turning around, “You always wear the same grimly sour face expression nowadays. You should try to learn to smile, Black Water, honestly. It would suit you.”
* * *
Shi Qingxuan sat by the fire, surrounded by other beggars. Some were coughing, some were weeping, and some perhaps would not last until the morning. He knew it all too well. He did not like his present life, not in the least. But never once he thought of complaining about it, because he knew he deserves every single bit of it. It is what was supposed to be his from the beginning, so let it be. It’s alright like this.
Warmness of the fire made him sleepy, and he vaguely thought in a drowse, that it was Yuanxiao Festival today. Usually he would eat sweets and things together with Shi Wudu, in the past years more often with Ming… with that person.
“Ming-xiong, you’ll ruin your waist in this form if you’ll continue to eat so much! Women like to be thin!”
“Ming-xiong, let’s get another bowl? I want to try a different flavor.”
“Ming-xiong, here! I bought these decorations for your hair so that next time we match!”
And the truth is, Shi Qingxuan would not mind doing it again. All the better than this silence inside of him. As if he had gone numb at some point, numb and empty, and there was nothing, nobody to fill in that void within. Ever since his inner wind stopped blowing, there was nothing but silence in his heart.
He was ever so talkative, social and easy to befriend anyone, yet now he had nobody to talk to about the things he wanted. Yes, the beggars were okay to him, they treated him normal, and he was helping around too. But that was not it. These people were not ‘the’ people. Even His Highness would not be ‘the’ one Shi Qingxuan longed to talk with.
“Ol’ Feng!” Somebody touched his shoulder, and Shi Qingxuan jolted up.
“What?” He asked drowsy.
The middle-aged man in rags was looking down at him, “Come.”
“No idea. There is this strange guy who paid me couple of coins to see you.”
Shi Qingxuan raised his eyebrows, “But who would want to see me?”
“Beats me,” the man shrugged, “He’s about seventeen, dressed up plainly, nobody rich from what I see.”
Shi Qingxuan hobbled behind the man, a bit suspicious but also curious about why would anyone need him in the first place. Just then, they reached a small stall of snacks and bites along the corner, “Here,” the man said, “That table in the back.”
Shi Qingxuan hopped to the table and settled himself on the chair, “What would Young Master want from this lowly beggar?” He asked in a cheerful tone, but when he discerned the features of the youth sitting on the other chair, he stiffened, his face blanched.
He Xuan silently moved a bowl of yuanxiao towards Shi Qingxuan, “Eat.”
Shi Qingxuan stared at the bowl, then at He Xuan. The latter did not look at him any longer, he dipped a spoon in his own bowl and took a bite. Shi Qingxuan watched him eat, and felt there was something stirring in that void of his. As… the wind started to blow again, when he was looking at this man. There was a silence between them, but it was not an unpleasant one.
Hesitantly, Shi Qingxuan picked up his spoon and took a bite of yuanxiao as well.
He Xuan glanced up at him, “How did you recognize me at once?”
Shi Qingxuan let go an awkward laugh and scratched the back of his head, “Um… well… Your face is always so grim it’s rather easy? Besides, who else would seek to see me?”
He Xuan choked on his yuanxiao and coughed.
“I’ll kill that bastard Crimson Rain Sought Flower,” he groaned, “I swear I will.”
Shi Qingxuan was dumbfounded, “What about Crimson Rain Sought Flower?”
He Xuan waved off his hand, “Pay it no mind,” he gestured for the waiter to bring two more bowls and turned to Shi Qingxuan, “It is Yuanxiao today,” he said quietly, “So I… wanted to spend it together with a person who is dear to me. The only person left that is dear to me, that is.”
Shi Qingxuan’s hand trembled, “Mi… He…”
“‘He-xiong’ is fine if you wish.”
“He-xiong,” Shi Qingxuan repeated obediently.
He Xuan cleared his throat, “You don’t mind spending a bit of time with me?”
Shi Qingxuan fell silent for a while, thoughts rapidly going through his mind. Was not this what he wanted for days, for months already? Was not this what he had dreams about in those cold nights?
He raised his head and looked at He Xuan, “I would love to,” he honestly said, and then blinked in surprise, as that gloomy face across the table suddenly beamed up in a small smile.
Chapter 10: Wounds
Hua Cheng/He Xuan
* * *
“You smell of the sea.”
“Mmm,” He Xuan grunts drowsily.
“It’s a pleasant smell,” Hua Cheng adds softly, as if remembering something far and distant.
They are lying upon red silky sheets in the bed at the Paradise Manor. It is late night outside, and starlight faintly lights up the dark in the room. It is quiet here, only rustle of the night’s breeze through the curtains and distant sound of the water – there is a creek nearby the place.
“Mhmm,” He Xuan agrees, not opening his eyes.
Hua Cheng supports his head with one hand, the other travelling across the back of his lover’s body, “How did you become like this?” He wonders.
He Xuan stiffens at the question, but then shrugs and says simply, “Out of hatred. Didn’t work out quite well, so here I am. And you?” He inquires in return.
Hua Cheng halts briefly before answering, “Out of love. That didn’t work out either. However, what I meant was not about us becoming the Supremes but rather about your wounds,” his fingers follow scars of the many cuts upon He Xuan’s body. So many wounds, they must have bled excessively, and yet he kept on fighting…
He Xuan reaches to take Hua Cheng’s hand in his. Then, he puts his fingers at the scar at his side, “This one is a butcher’s knife,” his tone is calm and impassive, but Hua Cheng feels the chill creeping up his spine. He Xuan moves his hand further to his stomach, “This one is a small knife from the neighbor’s second son. One knife, two strokes,” Hua Cheng’s fingers feel the two similarly small scars one near the other. In the meantime, He Xuan continues, “This one – a long nail, he thought it would be fun, that man. This one is…”
He goes on and on, and with each scar Hua Cheng, feels as if he is being stabbed too. So many. There are so many…
“Which one was the fatal one?” Hua Cheng hears himself asking before he can stop.
He Xuan slides Hua Cheng’s finger over his body to the scar at his chest, “This one,” he answers softly.
Hua Cheng regrets he was not there at that time to rip all of the bastards apart. It is all too late now even to think about it.
“Do they still hurt?” Hua Cheng knows it is a stupid question, but for some reason he wants to know.
He Xuan turns over to face him. His dark grey eyes are cold and dim, “You never showed,” he accuses.
Hua Cheng smiles bitterly, “There was no need for you to see. I died in a battle against Yong An, pierced by the few arrows. Ouch.”
He Xuan hmphs and shifts on the bed. Hua Cheng thinks he is beautiful despite all those old wounds and scars. He shudders when He Xuan’s fingers touch his eye patch with the silent question.
“En. This one hurt,” Hua Cheng confirms darkly, “Not that much when I ripped it out, but before, when I was alive.”
He Xuan strokes his right temple, expecting the story further on.
“I got beaten up often because of its color,” Hua Cheng explains dryly, “So at some point it has gone blind.”
“People are cruel, but so are heavenly officials,” He Xuan observes absently. Hua Cheng does not find an objection to that one.
“I’m cold,” He Xuan then pouts, acting as a spoiled child all of a sudden, and Hua Cheng realizes their moment of revelations is over for good.
“Then come here,” he says, as he shifts closer and leans over He Xuan’s thin body.
Their wounds will always hurt, it is true, but at least at moments like these, they can find consolation in each other.