Mu Qing snarled wordlessly as he stomped through the temple, torches flaring alight with every stride along the darkened corridors. For fuck’s sake, he had far better things to do than to clear Jun Wu’s rediscovered temples of any traps or unwelcome guests so that the literature gods could catalogue their contents and strip them of anything useful for the Heavens.
His robes skimmed the floor, sending clouds of dust swirling in the air. Seemed like no one had stepped foot in the place for decades; most of the temple having already fallen apart to ruins. It was a rather small one all things considered. There had been hardly any protective measures in place so he fully expected to be in and out within minutes.
Just as he was about to write off the temple as cleared, silver glinted out of the corner of his eye and Mu Qing immediately spun around, sabre in hand.
But there was nothing to be seen - only the empty stretch of hallway that he’d walked through, shadows from the torches dancing on the walls. Remaining on guard, Mu Qing slowly backtracked the way he’d come, ears straining for the slightest whisper of sound that would give away the enemy’s position.
That was when he caught sight of the silver gleam again, coming from a shallow indent in the wall.
Mu Qing approached cautiously. As he drew closer, it became clear that the reflection was from a thin plate of silver resembling a latch of some kind, with a faint array scratched into the stone around it. Deciphering it, Mu Qing scoffed.
Blood as an entry fee. How barbaric.
It was a wonder that the former Heavenly Emperor managed to hide his Devastation status for so long if his temples had these kinds of wards as protection for its contents.
Drawing a finger lightly across the edge of his blade, Mu Qing smeared the drop of blood that welled up onto the silver, then sealed the minor cut with spiritual energy.
A rumbling groan echoed through the enclosed space as a section of stone slid backwards then to the side, revealing a hidden chamber. Mu Qing sent a brief stream of spiritual energy through the doorway to check for any dormant arrays or hostile presence.
Nothing. He’d have to go inside to check the place more thoroughly.
Entering the chamber, Mu Qing couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. The room was startlingly bare - the sole item in the empty space being a bronze full-length mirror taking centrestage.
There was no fucking way that thing was an ordinary mirror.
He circled the thing from a distance, careful not to look directly at the shining surface. But despite studying it from every other angle possible, the mirror gave absolutely no hint of being anything other than what it looked.
Mu Qing rolled his eyes and sighed exasperatedly. Fucking Jun Wu and his stupid fucking shit. He was going to have to look straight at it, wasn’t he? Well if that stupid mirror made any signs that it might kill him (the permanent kind), he was going to descend and spend the rest of eternity haunting the fucking bastard.
If Crimson Rain could ascend as a ghost, surely he could do the opposite?
Shelving the thought, Mu Qing strode confidently to stand in front of the bronzed surface. His reflection glared right back at him, a perfect mirror of his own stance - from the casual drape of his robes over his arms to the unforgiving set of his mouth, even the slight arch of his raised eyebrow. A minute passed, but there was not even the most infinitesimal change in his reflection’s posture.
Well… that was surprisingly anti-climatic.
Having had enough, Mu Qing made to turn and exit the chamber. But before he could move, a splash of white bloomed beside his reflection, as if someone had poured a trickle of ink into a pool of water.
A strangled sound escaped Mu Qing.
Because somehow Xie Lian was beaming brightly at him - no, the reflection of him - from the mirror.
“Dianxia? ” he exclaimed flabbergasted, head snapping to the side - for some reason expecting to see the martial god by his side even though he knew fully well that no one could’ve entered the room without him noticing.
He refused to acknowledge the way his stomach dropped slightly when he was met with empty air.
Turning back to the mirror, Mu Qing startled backwards violently. Another painfully familiar god had joined the figures in the bronze surface, filling the empty space to the left of his reflection.
A vambrace-covered forearm rested on Mu Qing’s shoulder as the male leaned in to speak lowly into his ear. Mu Qing’s reflection rolled his eyes, but a small smile played on his lips, clearly amused by what was being said.
Feng Xin - because it was Feng Xin standing next to him in the mirror - laughed, a genuine one that crinkled his eyes and softened his features. Mu Qing’s chest tightened. When was the last time Feng Xin had ever laughed in his presence? So genuinely and with him, not at him.
Xie Lian leaned forward slightly to say something to the archer, to which Mu Qing’s reflection shot a reply. Whatever he’d said earned him a playful shove from Feng Xin - Xie Lian bracing him with a fond smile so that he didn’t topple over - before he was once again crowded by the martial god of the southeast.
A surge of longing washed over Mu Qing like a tidal wave, knocking the very breath out of him. It was everything he’d ever dreamed of. The three of them standing side-by-side as equals. Without the spectres of the past misunderstandings, hurts and animosity that haunted them.
The figures in the mirror turned around and began to walk away, still caught up in their conversation. And like a moth drawn to a flame, Mu Qing stumbled forward blindly, reaching out to keep hold of them for just a little bit longer.
He realised his mistake far too late.
The bronze surface rippled and parted at his touch, then dragged him inside.
And spat him back out into the private gardens of his palace.
WHAT. THE. FUCK?
The riot of colour around him was jarring, near-blinding in fact, after the drab tones of the temple and the burnished copper tinge of the images in the mirror. Shielding his eyes from the light, Mu Qing cursed under his breath.
Ahead of him, the trio made their way to the shelter of a large flowering tree near the walls of the garden as if nothing had occurred, utterly unfazed by the sudden change in location.
Xie Lian, or whatever it was pretending to be him, sat down on the ground beneath the tree, patting the space beside him in invitation. The other versions of Mu Qing and Feng Xin casually folded themselves down next to him, uncaring of the possibility that they might dirty their robes, and Mu Qing felt a sour taste coat his mouth.
He watched himself mutter something to Feng Xin, who reared back with an offended look on his face.
“You take that back!” the archer shouted, before leaping onto the other Mu Qing and knocking them both to the ground.
In that split second Mu Qing’s heart dropped.
Of fucking course their fragile peace wouldn’t last long. It was just like him to fuck up every single good thing he had. He took a few steps forward, having half the mind to go grab that version of himself and shake the stupidity out of him.
Xie Lian’s bright laugh brought that train of thought to a screeching halt. “Nice punch, Feng Xin! Mu Qing, pin his legs!”
Mu Qing’s jaw dropped. Was… was dianxia yelling encouragement? Did the idiot hit his head?!
He took a second look at the scuffling pair. They were rolling around in the dirt, hair and fists flying everywhere. But conspicuously absent was the massive property damage that came along with their centuries-long rivalry.
And he would know. He’s had to entirely rebuild this exact garden five times because of it. Mu Qing’s lip curled. The pair’s roughhousing resembled that of the younger disciples of the temple in Xian Le. For fuck’s sake, he’d seen literal children do more damage to each other that the two figures on the ground. Martial gods his ass.
“Alright, alright, that’s enough,” Xie Lian called out.
The two gods of the south paused. Feng Xin had pinned the other Mu Qing to the ground, knees bracketing the other’s hips. With a huff, he rolled off the god to lie on the ground beside him. Xie Lian shuffled over to them and smiled.
“You two never change,” he commented softly, gently tugging the other Mu Qing’s hair from beneath him to spread it out, then picking out the few leaves and blades of grass that had tangled in the strands.
Mu Qing had to suppress the instinctive urge to swat the hand away at the sight.
(A prince shouldn’t be helping to neaten his servant’s hair)
Once Xie Lian had gotten all the bits out, he patted Mu Qing’s shoulder, and the other god sat up with a sigh.
Looking over at Feng Xin, the other Mu Qing snorted. “Come here, idiot. You look stupid like that; your hair’s a fucking mess.”
Feng Xin must’ve heard the affection veiled by the insult because he merely huffed and sat himself up, turning his back to that Mu Qing as the other got to his knees for a better angle.
Mu Qing fisted his robes as he watched himself carefully pull out the knocked-askew crown and undo the thoroughly messed-up topknot. Long fingers gently carded through waves of chestnut hair, straightening out the dishevelled locks and removing tangles.
Beside them, Xie Lian rested his back against Feng Xin’s shoulder and pulled out a small pouch from his sleeve. Tipping the ruby-red contents out onto his palm, he wordlessly offered them to the archer.
Quietly thanking him, Feng Xin took a few of the sweet fruits. Then held one of them up for the other Mu Qing. Mu Qing choked as the latter bent down to eat it right out of Feng Xin’s fingers in a single smooth motion, as if it had been done a hundred times before.
The sheer intimacy of it all had heat suffusing Mu Qing’s cheeks and he tore his gaze away.
What the fuck was going on?! It had to be something the mirror came up with! There was no way they’d- he’d- ! He’d never! His fingers twitched by his side as a dark emotion dug its claws heavily into his chest.
His traitorous eyes wandered back to the pair. The other Mu Qing was gathering all of Feng Xin’s hair together, easily twisting it into the familiar bun and pinning the crown back in place. A part of him couldn't help but snidely question just why the action looked so practised. With the hair ornament securely attached, Feng Xin tipped his head backwards to look at the god.
And the breathtaking smile that he gave the other was the final straw that broke the chains on the ugly emotion curled around his heart.
Why?! Mu Qing’s blood roared loudly in his ears. Why was this version of him the one who had it all?!
He wanted he WaNteD HE WANTED -
He snapped his head to the side so fast he couldn’t believe he didn’t end up breaking his neck. Then stared hard, looked at the pair in front of him, then back again.
Wait a fucking second. TWO Feng Xins?
He gaped at the newest version of the god. Why the fuck was there TWO of them now? Alright that confirmed it; he’d lost his fucking mind.
But if the mirror’s depiction of Feng Xin was like the sun at its zenith, this one was the pale imitation of that light from a waning moon. Weariness weighed on him as heavily as the armour he wore, the leather and metal scuffed and worn from days of constant use instead of the polished gleam Feng Xin usually took meticulous care to ensure.
Strands of hair had fallen free from the topknot to hang limply around his face. But unlike the bird’s nest from the other Feng Xin’s earlier scuffle, this one looked like it had been caused by fingers running roughly through the tresses from frustration.
“Mu Qing,” his name was exhaled with no small amount of relief as the new Feng Xin hastily strode over.
He watched as the god lifted his hand to touch him then hesitated, fingers just hovering above the skin of his wrist - so close, yet so far.
“Mu Qing...” A thin undercurrent of pleading buoyed the words.
(But whatever could he be asking for? Feng Xin would never beg. Not to him)
Mu Qing lifted his gaze to meet red-rimmed eyes.
“Let’s go back, ok? Dianxia and everyone... we’re- we’re all waiting for you. So let’s go back.”
What was he saying? There was no way this Feng Xin was talking about Mu Qing. He must be referring to the other one from the mirror. The one who stood beside the other two gods like he belonged there, was wanted there-
But this Feng Xin had eyes only for him. It was as if the perfect group of three in the garden didn't even register.
“Don’t-” Feng Xin’s voice cracked. “Don’t leave me again. Please.”
Fuck... Mu Qing was a weak, weak man.
(Then again, he’d always been ready to give the other the world. All he’d ever had to do was ask)
So what did it matter if it was yet another illusion conjured by the damned mirror to destroy him?
Feng Xin had asked.
He took in a shallow, shuddering breath, letting his eyes fall down to that miniscule gap that separated their hands. And why not? Everything he’d wanted was already within his grasp.
Taking that terrible leap of faith, Mu Qing reached out to link their fingers, and held tight.
“Gege, he’s waking up.”
Mu Qing groaned and cracked his eyes open just in time to see a flare of crimson pass by him. His head ached fiercely like he’d attempted to break a stone wall with his skull alone (been there done that; 0/10, would not recommend) and his ears felt like they’d been stuffed with cloth. Blinking, he looked up to see Xie Lian’s face hovering over him.
“Oh good!” said Xie Lian brightly, but remaining mindful of keeping his voice down. “You’re awake!”
As Mu Qing became more coherent, he was slowly made aware of the almost-crushing pressure that was being exerted on his left hand. Angling his head downwards, he caught a glimpse of gold armour, dark red and brown robes, and long hair tied up in a messy but unmistakable knot.
Xie Lian followed his gaze and smiled. “Feng Xin was the one who finally found you,” he said in a hushed whisper. “He ran himself ragged for days. It was pure luck that on the third time all of us searched the area that he managed to locate the entrance to the temple.”
“And just in time too,” Xie Lian continued, Mu Qing finally noticing the worn-out look the other had been trying to conceal.
“The mirror had been draining your spiritual energy for nearly a week by the time Feng Xin managed to break through the array around the chamber. Even if you had managed to escape the mirror, the array would’ve sealed you in, having fed off your energy.”
“A week?” Mu Qing repeated dumbly, aghast.
Xie Lian nodded. The weight across his legs shifted, and Feng Xin slowly sat up in his chair.
“Dianxia?” he asked blearily. Then shifted to look at Mu Qing who was watching him, face carefully blank. “Mu Qing! You’re awake!” he said loudly, devastating relief crossing his features and dripping from his words like too-sweet honey.
It sent a pang through Mu Qing, reminding him of the Feng Xin in the mirror who had so casually touched him, laughed with him, and looked at him like… like…. He ruthlessly squashed that train of thought before it could lead somewhere dangerous. He couldn’t afford to mix the mirror’s illusions with reality. Not again.
To cover his moment of weakness, Mu Qing rolled his eyes and fell back into old (safe) patterns. “Thanks for stating the obvious, idiot. You look like shit.”
Feng Xin let out a wet half-snort, half-giggle. “Now who’s stating the obvious, idiot.”
“Oh look at the time,” said Xie Lian, unsubtly trying to give the pair some privacy. “I’ve received a few prayers I need to attend to. Get better soon Mu Qing!”
Before Mu Qing could even open his mouth to protest, Xie Lian had fled the room, leaving the two remaining gods in awkward silence. Feng Xin seemed content to just stare at him, the weight of his gaze pressing unerringly onto the tender wounds that had been split open by the mirror’s illusions.
Mu Qing desperately searched for anything that might serve as a distraction.
His eyes landed on the archer’s mop of hair and he scoffed amusedly as the words dropped unthinkingly from his lips. “Come here, idiot. You look stupid like that; your hair’s a fucking mess.”
Then froze, the perfect echo of his reflection’s words ringing in his ears.
Feng Xin blessedly decided not to comment on his strange actions, and his even stranger reaction, sliding himself off the chair to sit on the floor beside Mu Qing's bed.
Puzzled by the easy acquiescence but thankful that he hadn’t been outright rejected, Mu Qing gingerly sat up, scooting over to the edge of the mattress. He settled his feet on either side of Feng Xin’s waist, pressing his ankles to the other’s hips in wordless encouragement for him to lean back.
The archer obliged, letting his head rest in Mu Qing’s lap. Taking a deep breath, Mu Qing moved to remove the crown and topknot.
And promptly found out that it was much harder than the other him made it look.
With a lot of cursing, tugging, and obligatory teasing from Feng Xin, Mu Qing finally managed to divest the other of the various hair implements that secured the hairstyle. Aiming one final jab into Feng Xin’s side with his toes to shut him up, Mu Qing allowed himself to lightly run his fingers through the strands.
In all honesty, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience. The unwashed hair was grimy from the accumulated dirt and oil that had built up and carried a faint scent of stale sweat. It also fought against his attempts to straighten it out, stubbornly clinging to the kinks formed from remaining pinned up as it was for so long. The battle to get the hair into a style with some semblance of neatness was a long and arduous one.
But he wouldn’t give the opportunity up for the world.
Finishing, Mu Qing leaned back to study his handiwork. The knot was a bit lopsided, with a few strands sticking up rebelliously, and the crown was always just slightly off-centre no matter how many times he’d tried to adjust it. It was incomparable to Feng Xin’s usual hairstyle - the other having centuries of practise in doing it the way he liked it - or even the other him’s effortless work.
(It was fucking perfect)
“How do I look?” Feng Xin asked.
“Why’re you asking me?” Mu Qing deflected, embarrassment at his uncharacteristic actions seeping in. He pushed the other off his legs and turned his face away. “Go see for yourself.”
A hand caught hold of his and Mu Qing looked back to find Feng Xin standing in front of him, eyes fixed on their joint hands.
“I think… I’ve had enough of mirrors for a while,” he murmured.
Mu Qing let his gaze drop to join Feng Xin’s. “Me too,” he said quietly.
“I- I saw a bit of what the mirror showed you,” Feng Xin began, and Mu Qing’s blood ran cold.
He jerked backwards, mouth opening to say something - anything - but Feng Xin’s grip on his hand tightened painfully, unequivocally thwarting any escape attempt.
“I couldn’t believe it at first,” the words spilled out of Feng Xin’s mouth almost desperately as he got louder and louder. “It seemed so crazy; that- that the three of us could spend time together so peacefully, without immediately breaking into a fight.”
“But I want that!” he was almost yelling, as if he could simply drown out anything Mu Qing might’ve said to pretend the whole thing never happened.
“I want us to be like what the mirror showed we could be! I want the three of us to laugh together, to sit together without breaking into a fight. I don’t want us to be enemies anymore! I want to spend time with you, to be close to you, to- to be something more.”
Feng Xin took in a deep breath, and the sudden lack of sound in the room was almost deafening.
“Do- do you think you might want to?” he asked quietly. “Be something more with me?”
Fuck, all Feng Xin ever had to do was ask.
Mu Qing grasped Feng Xin’s hand equally tightly. “Yes,” he exhaled, trying to conceal the tremor in his voice. “I want to- I want to try. L-let’s try. To be something more.”
The answering smile he received was far brighter than anything that mirror could’ve shown him.