How the Ocean Loved the Moon
“the tide rises
the tide falls
only to let go
a never ending tale
destined to repeat
wistful eyes whisper
in silent tears
their eternal love
never to become one
for if they touch
the world will be undone”
Ghosts have a reason to exist. They would cling to that last string and remain in this world. Be it an old grudge or the smallest of unresolved conflicts, it was enough for them to stay. Some of them were special: some even stayed for love.
He Xuan didn't fall within either category. He didn't exist for a love so great it could burn the heavens and topple worlds, nor were his unresolved conflicts anywhere near small and his grudges old. Oh, but He Xuan was indeed a special individual. In fact, his hatred, though it had been accompanying him for a long time, still burned as vividly as ever, and, when set free, his rage could very well destroy everything in its wake, swallow it all like ships in a stormy sea.
Alimenting his wrath was the blood of his loved ones —mother and father, sister and wife—, brutally murdered by the people's evil and by the hands of the gods, gods he was now standing amongst as he should have long before, yet that had stripped his happiness from him and stolen his fate.
He Xuan wasn't capable of love anymore, but he was capable of loathing, and that was more than enough to make him stay.
Ghosts have a reason to exist.
He Xuan's was to avenge his family.
When He Xuan first entered the Heavenly Realm in place of the Earth Master Ming Yi, he didn't think he would have to endure such pain and go to such lengths just to carry out his revenge.
Now, don't get him wrong. He did want to get close to the Shi brothers. He would do anything just to make his evil machinations go according to his plan.
For the sole purpose of revenge, obviously. Did he already say that? Well, that's how things are, don't get the wrong idea.
In any case, he didn't expect he would accidentally and —most of all— unwillingly get this close to one of them. More specifically, to the one that possessed what was supposed to be his fate, his divinity.
It wasn't like he cared about godhood. What use was there for it, anyways? He was a Ghost King now, much more powerful than most gods in Heaven and ghosts in Hell, let alone the useless literature god he would've been if his fate hadn't been switched.
And yet, knowing that was reason enough for cursing the lives of his family, he was angered beyond measure by the sole presence of said god. But he endured.
He Xuan was a patient man. When he first ascended as the Earth Master, he decided he'd avoid any contact with Heavenly Officials until he'd perfected his act.
He didn't intend to rush things and risk putting his real identity at stake. Not that it could ever even happen: the people who walked the streets of the Heavenly Realm were all —except for Ling Wen and Jun Wu— idiots, utter imbeciles that couldn't even tell the difference between a demon and a Devastation like himself.
After all, when would he get to take his long awaited revenge if he blew everything up before he as much as started?
He'd rather stay away and be considered cold and unapproachable.
Not that it was a difficult task, if you asked him. He didn't feel the need to socialize with any of them; his family's death and his own had stripped that from him long before. And it wasn't like the twelve years he'd spent in Mount Tong’Lu had helped him much on that front. Who would he have talked to? Crazy ghosts and monsters? He didn't have time for that back then. He had only one thing in mind: killing. And death was what all those monsters had been faced with when they came upon him.
Long story short: he didn't like to talk to people. Even more so if they were Heavenly Officials, because in the end, they all had that something that was taken away from him. They were all lucky and happy, while he didn't even get to live his life.
So he decided he'd take his time before approaching the Water and Wind Masters, disguising himself as a Heavenly Official and waiting for a Heavenly Calamity to happen, so that he could bring both of them down in the process.
He hadn't captured Ming Yi long before, and needed time to study his mannerism and perfect his technique as an Elemental God. Even though he could pull off the best of impressions and make the best of fake skins, not even he could do so much in so little.
He didn't need to befriend the Shi Brothers, nor did he want to. They were always together anyways: in the end, he would still get what he wanted, even without going through the pain of being close to one of them.
But his fate had never been in his hands. How could he even fathom the thought of making a decision for himself and expect it to go according to his plan?
It all began with a gentle smile and the sound of peals of laughter like chiming bells.
It was the Mid-Autumn Festival, one year after his so-called ascension. He Xuan was sitting at the banquet table, the spot beside him empty, waiting for the Battle of the Lanterns to take place while eating his fill. Even though it was still fairly early, voices rang loudly all throughout the Heavenly Court as the Officials began to gather up and take their respective seats, chatting idly among themselves.
As it was the first time He Xuan took part in such ostentatious celebration, other than knowing that as the Earth Master he must sit relatively close to the Heavenly Emperor, he was feeling a little out of place; even more so than usual.
His goal for the evening was to make the best out of the Mid-Autumn Banquet —he was not going to waste an occasion to try and placate his hunger; and this, although it made him unimaginably uncomfortable and nauseated, was the perfect opportunity for him to stuff his face as much as he pleased without adding to his frighteningly increasing debt— and then leave as soon as the feast was over.
And so, while He Xuan was very gracefully stuffing his mouth with whatever delicacy his hands landed upon, almost unhinging his jaw like a snake and making a rather disturbing sight, someone took the seat beside him, coughing lightly.
As the almighty Ship Sinking Black Water was busy focusing on the task at hand, he ignored the newcomer, not even sparing them a look.
Another cough, louder, yet again answered by the sound of He Xuan chewing.
It couldn’t possibly be directed at him, could it? No, that was out of the question; no Heavenly Official was dumb enough to approach him, considering the fame of “lone wolf” he’d made for himself among the gods.
And yet, despite his conviction, just as he was taking a sip of wine, someone tapped lightly on his shoulder. Startled, He Xuan raised his eyes, ready to tell them off for interrupting his dinner. But as soon as he met the other person’s gaze, the words got caught up in his throat together with the wine he was about to swallow, his eyes widened exponentially, and he almost choked.
If he weren’t long dead, he was sure he would die right then and there.
It has to be noted that He Xuan wasn’t one to swear frequently. And yet.
‘Damn the fake breathing, DAMN THIS WHOLE PRETENSE,’ he thought as he watched Shi QingXuan, the very reason of the aforementioned ‘damned pretense’, looking at him with his head tilted, shiny eyes and an amused smile he was very unsuccessfully trying to hide behind his Wind Master fan. This alone almost made He Xuan drop his glass to the ground, fall off his chair and die a second time, out of rage.
Clearing his throat and snapping his fan closed, Shi QingXuan managed to regain his composure.
“Good Evening, Earth Master Ming,” he eventually greeted him.
Luckily enough, He Xuan’s first death had brought an appearance of calmness upon him, which he quickly pulled off even though he was already enraged beyond belief.
When he was still alive, and before entering Tong’Lu, he would sometimes feel wonder at how powerfully his fury would burn at the sole thought of Shi Wudu.
After his broken soul had been reshaped and hardened in the kiln, and after infiltrating the Heavens, he would feel wonder at how calm and collected he acted when around the enemy. It was like his whole being had been engulfed by a cold cape, while whatever evil entity lay in the depths of Mount Tong’Lu burned out the fire from within him till it dimmed down to solid, glacial frost.
So, what was even more surprising to He Xuan was the situation he found himself in.
He was always angry. Anger was what sewed the remnants of his soul together; it was what sharpened the edges of his being and gave him solidity.
That was his nature, it was what kept him in this world, as undead as he was.
But the emotion he was feeling at that moment… was very different from what he had grown accustomed to after his descension as a Supreme.
Not an ounce of his calm and aloofness remained in front of the Wind Master: he was livid, and he didn’t even know why. Maybe it was because Shi QingXuan was invading his personal space, maybe it was because he was too close.
But it wasn’t the first time they had interacted: when duty as Elemental Masters called, as reluctant as He Xuan was to be anywhere near the Wind and Water Masters for longer than necessary, he complied and did his utmost to keep up the facade.
Then why was he so angry now, of all times? Was it because this interaction wasn’t necessary and Shi QingXuan was forcing it upon him? Probably.
‘Or maybe,’ a voice in his head supplied, ‘you are angry because the kid seems genuine and he looks like he has no clue about the true nature of his brother’.
And as much as he would've liked to brush said voice off, what it said was, in fact, the truth. A truth he wasn't ready to accept.
So he simply ignored it.
In the end, he recomposed himself, swallowed back the wine that was about to drip from his nose, and faced his nightmare.
Oh, how intimidating the nightmare of a Supreme Ghost King was! Bright eyes and a benevolent, sweet smile. Truly a fearsome thing to behold.
Or maybe it was just that He Xuan liked to wallow in his own misery, bringing misery wherever he went. And so, he was consequently frightened by anything lively and joyous, as his fellow Supreme Ghost King, Hua Cheng, liked to put it.
(“At least I accept the fact that I am dead”.
“What do you mean? I accept the fact that I am dead as well. I've been a Ghost King for longer than you have, Black Water. I think the acknowledgement itself is enough of an acceptance”.
“You have fifty bedrooms”.
“And what of it?”
“You're dead, you don't need to sleep”.
“You don't need to eat either, and yet the money you owe me is proof of how you're STILL indulging in mortal pleasures”.
“Shut up, you Cyclops”.
“That’s emotional damage. I’m adding this to your debt, just so you know”.
Neither of them could, in fact, accept that they were dead.)
Either way, he had to put up with Shi QingXuan, who was now looking at him expectantly.
“Good Evening, Wind Master Shi,” he finally greeted back, a tight smile —one that looked a little too close to a sneer— on his face.
As Shi QingXuan was now avoiding his eyes without adding anything else, stroking his own chin as if contemplating existence itself, He Xuan thought it better to be courteous, despite himself, so he (very) reluctantly added, “...To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Turning his gaze back to him, Shi QingXuan looked him dead in the eye. For a moment, his expression seemed almost resolute.
Only for a moment.
And then, as his face was reddening noticeably, his lips started to twitch and his eyes to water, and he eventually broke into a very undignified fit of laughter.
“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA I— I'm sorry but I couldn't… hahahaha… I couldn't control myself after seeing your face. You looked as though you'd seen a ghost and were about to fall off the chair,” he explained, while he wiped the tears from his face.
He Xuan, on the other hand, wasn't very amused.
‘So you weren't having a seizure… just my luck’.
“My apologies,” he replied, not caring about concealing the bitterness in his tone.
Shi QingXuan paid it no mind, though.
“No need to apologize! To be fair, your reaction was unexpected. Master Yi looked so genuinely horrified! I pray my amusement didn't offend him,” he smiled.
He Xuan, as the very patient and mature man he was, hmphed at him, the sneer and the annoyance in his voice now obvious.
“By the way, what are your plans for the night, Earth— can I call you Ming Xiong?”
As a Supreme Ghost King and infiltrate of Heaven, He Xuan thought he had witnessed everything there was to see. He thought that nothing could surprise him anymore. And yet.
He blinked at him, incredulous.
Shi QingXuan grinned, ever so oblivious. Or just… careless. How audacious and bold he was.
“I'll take that as a ‘yes’. Alright then, what are your plans for the night, Ming Xiong? Did you intend to spend your time alone at the banquet?”
“Well, I'm sorry to break it to you, but that's not going to happen. As long as I'm around, that is”.
‘Which has already been far too long,’ He Xuan thought, but didn't say.
“Don't I have any say in this matter?”
Shi QingXuan beamed at him.
“You don't,” he giggled, and ‘ How could one single person make so much noise and infuriate me to this point in such little time?’ alongside a very long line of curses was all there was to He Xuan's thought process.
Then, still grinning, the god scooted closer to him.
“Let’s keep each other company!” he said, throwing an arm around his shoulders.
Just as he was about to add something, He Xuan shrugged his arm off. Grimacing, he said, “I'm sure the esteemed Wind Master is very popular among other Heavenly Officials, as well. I wouldn't dream of keeping him from a better company than my humble self”.
Said esteemed Elemental Master tilted his head.
“Oh, no worries, Ming Xiong! I would rather spend the Festival with you!”
‘ How much more oblivious can this man get? Take the hint and get out of my sight already’.
At this point, He Xuan was already at his limit. But he endured. That was his speciality, after all.
And Shi QingXuan… Shi QingXuan didn't take the hint. Obviously.
Thus, He Xuan ended up spending the Mid-Autumn Festival with him.
Don't get him wrong, though: he didn't want to stay.
In fact, he had tried to look for a way out several times, but caught sight of Shi Wudu staring at the two of them.
Sneaking away from the Wind Master under the scrutinizing gaze of his very brother would have put him under a bad light, worsening his situation drastically.
And he didn't dare risk ruining his long awaited chance at revenge out of a feeling of discomfort and annoyance.
Eventually, he gave up on his escape plan in order to avoid arousing any suspicion in the Water Tyrant, letting himself get dragged along to celebrate by an enthusiastic Shi QingXuan when he made the top ten in the lantern competition as the newly ascended Earth Master.
“Ming Xiong, Ming Xiong! That's you, you made it ninth place! Come on up! Come on up!”
And once again when the Wind Master made it third place.
“Oh, that's me! Ming Xiong!”
Then, after what felt like centuries, the festival was over.
‘Finally,’ he let himself breathe out despite not needing to do so as soon as he was back inside the Palace of Earth.
‘It's over, it's finally over…’ he was exhausted, to say the least. But knowing that he wouldn’t have to go through that again for at least one entire year made him settle, finally.
For a moment, the utter silence inside his palace was a welcome presence. After so many years, he felt like sleeping again, and he did just that.
When he woke up, it was to the sound of laughter.
The sound of laughter… Coming from the entrance hall…
His sleepy mind hadn’t yet registered the implications of that.
And then, he was up in an instant, just as Shi QingXuan made it past his clone attendants and knocked unabashedly on his bedroom door, opening it right afterwards.
“Ming Xiong, good morning!” he greeted him, his head popping from behind the door frame.
Noticing he was already awake and dressed —as he had collapsed on the bed without discarding his clothes the previous night—, he made his way inside and sat by his bed.
“I came here to personally invite you to have breakfast with me in the mortal realm,” he declared.
He Xuan was going to decline the invitation as politely as he could, because (he alone believed) he was a calm and patient man.
Yet, he'd only managed to utter half an excuse when his stomach started growling loudly.
He hadn't succeeded in placating his hunger during the Festival.
He looked up at Shi QingXuan, whose eyes were now glinting.
“Shall I take that as my answer?”
And who was He Xuan to say no to the possibility to subdue his ravenousness?
From that day onwards, he knew he wouldn't hear silence for a long, long time.
Every morning — aside from the days they were on duty — was the same. This progressed to the point of becoming their routine.
Ever since things had taken this turn, He Xuan found himself feeling more and more exhausted, so he’d developed a pattern of sleeping at least once a week.
Sometimes, he would wake up to the sound of pounding on his door and a cheerful voice greeting him.
Sometimes, despite himself, he would wait for that nightmare of a so-called Heavenly Official to raid his palace first thing in the morning and pull him along for breakfast.
And thus, He Xuan endured.
He endured the endless bothering, the dragging out to drink in the middle of the night. He endured the teasing, and the obnoxious laughter that seemed to never leave Shi QingXuan’s eyes and voice.
He endured his kindness and his lightheartedness, and even his obliviousness.
At some point in time, a few months after the Mid-Autumn Festival, his patience wore thin and he snapped.
He finally asked Shi QingXuan why he insisted so much in staying around someone who so obviously disliked him.
That bitter look on his face, he could never forget. The same way he could never forget his words.
“I… I know you do not like me, you’ve made it clear. But, as ridiculous as it might sound, I feel at ease when I'm around you. Because you're the only one that doesn't lie to me. You are the only person whose behavior towards me is genuine. Even though you disdain me, hate me, you’re yourself even when you’re with me. You’re not after merits and you are certainly not trying to get in my brother's good graces”.
At that point, he snorted.
“You look like you hate him even more than you hate me,” he added, resigned.
“I know I've been selfish to this point. But if… if you really despise my company so much, I won't force myself on you anymore. You don't have to tolerate my presence any longer. Thank you for putting up with it, and I'm sorry”.
That was the first time He Xuan saw sadness in those eyes. And that was also the moment He Xuan realized —accepted— the truth: Shi QingXuan didn’t know.
“I… I do not hate you,” he said, and, as surprising as that sounded, it was true.
He was guilty, and yet, he was innocent. He did not know what crime he had committed, nor did he know who the blood on his hands belonged to. No, he didn’t even have blood on his hands. His brother did.
He hadn’t done anything, and yet someone else’s fate was stolen and five people were killed for him. Because of him.
He Xuan’s family was gone. He thought he would blame Shi QingXuan for his loss, as well.
That he would hate him, because he had been able to live his immortality as if it was rightfully achieved, knowing no guilt or regret, while he was dead, cold and alone.
He was angry with him.
But try as he might, He Xuan couldn’t bring himself to hate him.
So he simply directed all of his loathing towards his brother.
Because, no matter how one looked at it, Shi QingXuan was a kind, lively soul.
But Shi Wudu was a filthy bastard whose hands were stained with the blood of the innocent.
And he would never forgive him.