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Shadow of a Smile

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One month ago, a ghost lit lanterns in his god’s honor, and waited for him to come home.

One month ago, they fell into one another's arms as if they would never let go again.

That was then. This is now.

“What do you make of it, Daozhang?”

The old man wrings his hands as he asks, his grip catching and tugging on loose skin and joints made knotted as tree bark with age.

Xie Lian stands in the doorway to the house, smiling a fixed, calm smile as he gazes inside. A whole family, gone. Their dinner has gone cold on the table between them, untouched. The bodies have just begun to swell, but not too badly yet. They had good neighbors, it seems, to have found them so quickly.

Xie Lian does not fail to understand why one would pray to a god of misfortune after such an event.

He gives the old man a bow, lowering his head. “This one will have to take a closer look at their remains. [Elder], you may wish to return home while this one works— it would likely be unpleasant to behold.”

“It’s not right,” the elder is still wringing his hands in a steady, aching pattern. HIs skin is red from repeating the motion. “They were good people. Now everyone is too scared to even bury them…”

“This one will ensure any resentfulness is cleansed, and leave their bodies prepared for burial,” Xie Lian promises, bowing to him once more, this time more deeply. “Then elder may assure the villagers there is no danger to caring for them.”

“Many thanks, many thanks,” the old man mutters, grief in his lined face. His eyes keep being dragged back to this family he must have known. Xie LIan recognizes the way his face moves looking at them— the look of one who would cry if they weren’t so wrung out.

He walks away in stiff motions, knees threatening to buckle with every step. Xie Lian watches him go, and aches at all that he cannot do. The old man was kind, but even he didn’t dare go inside and gentle the contorted bodies, however he may feel about the other villagers not doing so.

Still, he prayed for them, and Xie Lian can answer those prayers now. He waits until the old man is out of sight, then he takes a deep breath of the clean air and goes to tend the dead.

‘Gege, am I interrupting anything important?’

“You aren’t,” Xie Lian says with a careful smile in his tone, as if he were not cleaning the dead body of a child before setting it outside to be buried or burned. “Is everything alright, San Lang?”

‘En, all is well. I found a beautiful river while debt collecting. Pray I might bring your highness here to cool your feet one summer’s day?”

“With my luck it would rain,” Xie Lian laughs, “but alright.”

‘I like the rain.’ San Lang lies.

“I have a bit more to do,” Xie Lian answers him rather than continuing the game, feeling guilt twist in his stomach for even this much of a deception. “Will San Lang forgive this god for spending a little more time away?”

‘Dianxia’s followers are blessed beyond belief by his care and attention.’ San Lang chuckles. ‘I'll be waiting when you're done, gege.’

Please don’t, Xie Lian wants to tell him. Please don’t wait for me any more. You spent so long waiting. If you want me to come back, call me back.

But San Lang only closes the connection.

Even when Xie LIan was working hard on Puqi shrine he could not have imagined a world where he answered more than one prayer in a day. He answers seven more after laying out the dead. He always arrives as a wandering cultivator in simple white robes, hidden beneath his bamboo hat and smiling peacefully.

He is not a god of luck, or fortune, or love, or success. He is not really the god of anything but scrap picking. But desperate people pray to him, so he goes. He has fake names prepared if anyone asks. No one does. They are only happy that a priest arrived, willing to listen to their troubles and happy to help if he can.

Xie Lian is happy to help. He cannot offer much, but he offers freely. Usually his advice is enough, though he’s learned to be cautious giving it. He’s seen the hatred that carelessly spent words can buy. However, he has also seen the devotion they can foster.

More than anything, he wants to go home. The prayers are wonderful. The tasks are wonderful. Being useful is wonderful. And yet…

San Lang looms in his mind, an aching absence at his side. He was back, and Xie Lian wasn’t with him. The two truths lived side by side, and he could not reconcile them.

( It was his own choice, made so Hua Cheng would not have to make it. 

“So, what, you’re just glued together now?” Feng Xin had asked, brow furrowed in fury. 

“Of course not,” Xie Lian had replied. “Hua Cheng has an entire realm to rule.”

“And gege will be busy with his worshippers, of course,” Hua Cheng agreed, his smile widening and his eye bright with adoration. )

He’s still thinking of that shining, happy eye when misfortune strikes again. He shifts to the side of the woman he’s speaking with and holds out his hand. The cart that would have run them down veers to the side, but not without snagging his palm on jagged wood, and tearing a stripe across his hand and down his forearm.

“Daozhang!” The woman cries. Her brows turn down, nearly as severe as Feng Xin’s. It makes a helpless fondness swell in Xie Lian’s chest.

“No need to fear,” Xie Lian tells her quickly, tucking his hand into his sleeve where Ruoye can wrap around the wound to catch the blood without startling her. “It wouldn’t have hit us, this one was only being cautious. Please, continue.”

Her son is missing. He promises to look.

He only finds bad news.

She beats his chest when he tells her, with those familiar brows twisted in agonized sorrow. Xie Lian withstands her anger. She is not strong enough to harm him. He wishes she was. Guilt wears at him like the wind and rain over an ancient statue. She deserves a better god, who could find children before there were only pieces left to find.

If San Lang were there, he would not have let her beat Xie Lian’s chest.

If San Lang were there, they might have been lucky enough to find the boy alive.

The sun is setting when at last he stops. A freshwater stream breaks free of the jagged mountainside, gushing in a frothy white into the open air.

“Okay,” Xie Lian whispers to no one, coaxing Ruoye away from his wounded forearm, “okay.”

He can’t help but think he should be used to this by now. His lips curve in a wry smile at the thought. The mossy forest floor sinks beneath him when he kneels, blessedly soft. He takes deep, deep breaths, and watches the red splatters of blood stain the ground as Ruoye peels away. He hopes that the moss will feed on his blood as his thanks for the kneeling cushion it has given him. He suspects his blood will only kill the poor plants instead.

Ruoye flutters around him, keeping watch. It is a true boon in these moments, following his intentions without him needing to speak aloud. It watches for silver butterflies, and Xie Lian tries to focus himself.

The wound is an angry red, worse for the crown of black-purple bruising it wears where skin was ripped away in a ribbon. His spiritual power isn’t an issue— it flows freely through his meridians despite the broken base of his cultivation. But to heal any wound, one must apply their focus to how the blood, skin, and muscle should be.

Xie Lian has spent 800 years trying not to think about the body he was trapped inside. It’s better now— everything is better now— but he has been learning that better and simple are different creatures.

“Okay,” Xie Lian repeats as he presses his thumb over the sluggishly bleeding gash in the meat of his arm. “Just this, and then we can go home.”

Ruoye brushes against the back of his neck as it twines around him— a silken, familiar comfort as he forces himself to accept the injury. To feel it. He presses his stinging, sweaty palm against the raw wound, and coaxes his skin to inch back closed. He won’t move until the last traces of blood and discomfort are gone.

A dark eye swimming with desperation looms in his memory. Pale hands, desperate to help. Cold lips, sealed against his, giving everything.

He shudders. It is not from the pain.

He will never let Hua Cheng see him hurt again.

Atop Taicang mountain, Chui Niu the ox is chewing cud out in her pasture. The maple leaves are green and bright, promising a splendid fall. The pathway Xie Lian carved through the trees two years ago to ease the way for travelers has stayed remarkably clear, dark and smooth in the thick forest.

At the top of the path, Hua Cheng waits with his back turned. His left hand is folded behind himself neatly, tucked into the curve of his spine. His red robes are billowing like banners in the wind, stark against the blue sky and rioting green mountainside. The dark curtain of his hair, wild and unbound, tangles as he waits. Xie Lian draws in a breath, taking a moment to simply admire— The shining nobility and patience of a man who waited 800 years.

“San Lang!” Xie Lian cries, throwing his arms wide, refusing to make him wait a moment longer.

“Gege!” Hua Cheng whirls towards him in a storm of black hair, red silk, pale skin, and flashing silver. He always pretends that Xie Lian took him by surprise, his eye shining and his grin a wicked flash of sharp teeth.

They sprint towards each other, and Xie Lian launches himself forward into his beloved’s arms. He does every time. Hua Cheng always catches him, and no matter how hard Xie Lian flings himself, Hua Cheng has never fallen— He has never even stumbled under Xie Lian’s weight.

(Only once. Only once, on the ruins of a bridge to heaven, when he took a step back, and then sank, and then vanished. It isn’t a test, Xie Lian tells himself as he flings himself into Hua Cheng’s arms. It’s only a fun ritual. It isn’t a test to make sure Hua Cheng will stay.)

Hua Cheng’s arms are strong, wrapping tight around him. Xie Lian laughs as he’s lifted off his feet, the Ghost King spinning with him as lightly as if they were children.

“Gege was gone so long,” Hua Cheng whines, even as he buries his face in Xie Lian’s hair.

“San Lang was busy today too,” Xie Lian reminds through laughter, clinging on tightly and taking a deep breath.

Hua Cheng always smells like wherever they are. He doesn’t sweat. He’s not alive. The only scent he carries with him is a distant waft of smoke and the copper tang of blood. Xie Lian breathes in deeply against him anyway. Today he smells like maple wood, Chui Niu’s hay, and—

“Did San Lang make dinner?” Xie Lian asks, pushing back in their hold to beam up at his beloved. “You didn’t have to!”

“That trash in heaven keeps gege so busy,” Hua Cheng’s tone is teasing and his smile is bright, but there’s a wildness in his eye. “I have to make sure gege has plenty to eat when he finally comes home.”

“It’s not their fault,” Xie Lian slides his hands up from Hua Cheng’s shoulders to cup his cheeks. “I really was only answering prayers, San Lang. Forgive this gege for being slow?”

A flash of expression he can’t read follows his words, then Hua Cheng’s smile grows brighter, his brows curving into something wistful.

“If gege is answering prayers,” Hua Cheng offers, the wistfulness clearing into a wicked grin, “pray grant this follower a kiss?”

“S-So forward!” Xie Lian chokes, squeezing Hua Cheng’s cheeks.

It makes his eyepatch scrunch up, but Hua Cheng only laughs, the expression helplessly silly under Xie Lian’s hands. There’s no way he couldn’t kiss him. Honestly, Xie Lian thinks, for San Lang to laugh like that, so sweet and childish, when a moment ago it looked like he wanted to burn temples…

Hua Cheng lets him control the kiss. So long as Xie Lian doesn’t surrender to his embarrassment and grant him only a peck, Hua Cheng is more than happy to let him lead in every way. The so-called Scourge of Heaven bends at Xie Lian’s lightest tug.

Xie Lian knows, of course, that there’s no way Hua Cheng’s lips were this soft in life, for all that this is his true form. He knows that the hands sliding up and down his sides tenderly would have been rough and ragged from Hong Hong-er’s desperate, clawing attempts to live. He knows the breath that sighs out of Hua Cheng as Xie Lian bites gently at his mouth is fake.

He knows that Hua Cheng’s form is true, and he knows that his love is true. He also knows that his San Lang is still lying to him in the smallest ways— still making himself softer than he is while hoping for approval he already has.

“Gege is thinking too much,” Hua Cheng whispers, tilting out of the kiss to press his forehead to Xie Lian’s temple.

“Sorry, San Lang,” Xie Lian breathes in return, tilting his head till their noses bump together, lingering there in his beloved’s arms.

“If gege is injured—”

“I’m not,” Xie Lian says quickly. “There was only… A strange case this morning. It’s still on my mind.”

Not a lie, exactly. The event had been brewing in the back of his mind all day, even as he attended to his other prayers and knelt in the moss to heal himself. The green stains in his robe won’t alarm San Lang, at least. He’s clearly already gotten used to Xie Lian’s white robes steadily tilting towards dingy grey.

“Oh?” Hua Cheng perks up noticeably, eye sparkling as he straightens out of their standing cuddle. “Will gege tell this humble believer what he found over dinner?”

With anyone else, Xie Lian would have refused. It’s hardly a conversation to take a meal with, after all. With Hua Cheng, he only smiles and nods indulgently. There is no horror on earth that seems to make Hua Cheng upset except for Xie Lian’s own pain. Well, and the continued existence of Mu Qing and Feng Xin, but that’s easily avoided over dinner. Xie Lian treasures his renewed friendship with his fellow gods, but he’s willing to keep that joy private for the sake of everyone else’s comfort.

It is as challenging as ever to praise Hua Cheng’s cooking. The ghost king is slippery as an eel and clever as a fox, twisting away from every compliment and sending it back, like an archer snatching arrows out of the sky. If Xie Lian compliments the effort put into each dish, Hua Cheng will give a dreamy sigh about how heartfelt Xie Lian’s meals are. If he compliments the flavor, Hua Cheng will tutt that it’s merely peasant food— hearty enough but with no real soul . If he compliments the textures, Hua Cheng will click his tongue and name one of Xie Lian’s awful dishes that had a texture he found more interesting.

Every day that passes, Xie Lian finds he has more sympathy for those foolish civil gods who tried to debate this unflappable man. If Hua Cheng’s constant rebuttals were based in scorn rather than adoration, Xie Lian doesn’t doubt he would spit blood too.

As they eat, he tells San Lang about the old man. He describes the deaths he came across when answering his first prayer that day. He spares no detail— The little girl still in her chair, turned eerily towards the door. The mother collapsed with her hands raised defensively, but unmarked. The father with a clawed hand at his throat. The son collapsed on the table, over an empty plate, their dinner prepared but never served.

“The whole family seemed to die together in an instant,” Xie Lian says, setting the bowl of light, fresh soup back on the table and meeting Hua Cheng’s eye. “Between one heartbeat and the next. They had not begun eating, so I doubt poison. There was no blood spilled, no bruising, nothing in their throats or mouths…”

“Gege, you could have called me,” Hua Cheng objects, reaching out to place particularly fine cuts of meat on Xie Lian’s plate before taking any for himself. “It was a dirty job for your highness to undertake.”

“San Lang, I’ve seen bodies before” Xie Lian keeps his smile fixed on his face, calm and gentle. He steers the conversation back stubbornly. “Have you heard of anything like this before?”

Hua Cheng hums. He twirls his chopsticks, flicking them into the air and catching them neatly again. The bells on his boots chime when he crosses his legs. He thinks deeply and seriously for several moments, though he continues fidgeting almost playfully.

“Gege’s description reminds me of a sight I’ve seen before, but the circumstances do not match.”

Xie Lian nods. “I had the same thought. The posing was similar to some of the ash bodies of Wuyong. However, although this family did live beneath a mountain, I could find no evidence of any movement inside the stone to have caused such a tragedy.”

Hua Cheng hums again. The chopsticks dance higher on his next toss. He carved them himself in an idle moment, commenting on the set he’d ruined back during their first days at Puqi shrine. The delicate etchings of flowers down their sides catch the light of the candles as they spin in Hua Cheng’s long fingers.

“To kill a family so cleanly, a ghost would need to possess a very unusual temperament,” Hua Cheng says at last, eye steady on Xie Lian even as he plays around. “Control is not something that comes naturally to creatures bred from resentment.”

“Indeed,” Xie Lian nods, crossing his arms and frowning. “Though the heavens say a Menace can kill a household, I believe that the death referenced is usually more…”

“Violent?” Hua Cheng supplies, splitting into a sharp, dangerous grin.

Xie Lian nods, tilting out of his frown indulgently at the careless display of Hua Cheng’s wild nature.

“If gege would like, this humble follower could inspect the scene,” Hua Cheng offers. “Or better yet the bodies. If there is some resentment lingering—”

Xie Lian is already shaking his head. He smiles down at the table between them rather than meeting Hua Cheng’s shining gaze any longer.

“San Lang, you need not trouble yourself.”

“It’s no trouble.” Hua Cheng insists, catching his chopsticks in a decisive gesture and leaning forward onto the table. “I would be happy to assist.”

“They’re already buried,” Xie Lian says softly. “Let’s just let them rest, San Lang. Most likely…”

He trails off. He doesn’t like saying such things aloud. Families often decide to go together, for one reason or another. Too hungry, or too discouraged, or too broken by the world to stand it any longer. Even after centuries, it feels too close.

He still doesn’t know whether to feel grateful that he couldn’t die when his parents did or not. He doesn’t know whether that’s something to hate Jun Wu for, or to feel grateful to Bai Wuxiang for, or just something that happened— neither good nor bad.

Hua Cheng’s face shifts at the direction of the conversation. Xie Lian can’t tell if it’s at the implication of that family’s suicide, or at the thought of ‘families’ in general. Hua Cheng never speaks of his past, even now that everything is out in the open. Xie Lian will never push him to. He knows enough to know it wasn’t good.

Ruoye’s soft silk brushing over his cheek draws him from his thoughts and speculation. The silk always seems to know when he’s thinking of its birth.

“It’s alright,” Xie Lian laughs, lifting a hand to shoo Ruoye away with a smile before his thoughts run away with him. “Anyway, you haven’t told me about your —”

Hua Cheng moves so fast that it takes Xie Lian a moment to catch up to the change. Only a moment ago San Lang was lounging across the table, enjoying their game of domestic bliss. Now he’s lunged forward, snatching Ruoye out of the air and tugging it closer to his eye. Xie Lian sees the bloodstain on white silk, and catches a breath.

“San Lang,” he starts.

“Gege, show me.” Hua Cheng demands, his voice low and strange.

“I’m not hurt.” Xie Lian lifts his hands, palm out. Somehow, despite all his effort, Hua Cheng’s gaze fixes where his palm had been slashed open. Xie Lian closes his fists and drops them into his lap. “Please let go of Ruoye.”

The silk still wrapped around his forearm is squeezing and wriggling in discomfort, unsettled and unhappy about being grabbed. Hua Cheng’s fist squeezes, before abruptly releasing the wiggling silk to retreat beneath Xie Lian’s sleeve.

“It was nothing serious,” Xie Lian insists, gazing balefully down at their meal. His appetite has suddenly fled…

“Won’t gege permit me to—” Hua Cheng reaches forward.


Xie Lian flinches in the wake of his own word. It came out much too sharp! The silver butterfly Hua Cheng has already summoned to attend him flutters its wings as if buffeted by storm winds and melts back into his vambrace. Xie Lian is already opening his mouth to apologize when Hua Cheng’s worried expression melts and smooths into a smile of his own.

“Of course, gege,” he says easily, sitting back in his seat. “Forgive me for being over eager.”

Xie Lian stares, blinking. Hua Cheng’s smile is soft and adoring, curving his eye into a gentle crescent. There’s something so sad about it… Then Xie Lian catches himself forgetting why San Lang had looked so upset in the first place.

“Ah, sorry, sorry San Lang!” He waves his hands quickly. “I didn’t mean to snap.”

“No, no,” Hua Cheng’s grin is warm and true. “Gege has every right to make such decisions. This San Lang apologizes. I’m very glad to hear the injury was minor, and has healed.”

Xie Lian regrets a lot of things as he shifts awkwardly in place. Most of all, he regrets not being more careful. Even if he hadn’t thought to clean the blood from Ruoye, he should have been ready to lie. He could have told Hua Cheng it was anyone else’s blood, and the ghost would have at least pretended to believe him.

“Stargazing tonight?” Hua Cheng offers, as if nothing had gone wrong. “Or would dianxia like me to light the lanterns so you can read for a while?”

“Oh,” Xie Lian blinks. He thought surely there would be more than this? That there would be scolding, or that he would have to beat off Hua Cheng’s worry with every comforting word he could find. It’s almost disappointing, though he should be glad his comfort was so well received. 

“If you would light the lanterns, I do intend to write a report of the incident for Ling Wen!” he agrees quickly, clapping his hands together. “If there is anything suspicious, I am certain she will have the information.”

“En, surely.” Hua Cheng agrees.

I’ll be more careful next time , Xie Lian promises himself. Next time I’ll make sure not to bring any blood home at all.

He tries to focus on writing his report. The bodies of the dead swim in his memory. So does the boy in the mountains. He keeps thinking about that mother’s fists, pounding against Xie Lian’s chest in revenge for him returning with a corpse where he should have brought a child.

He keeps thinking about how badly that rough rope must have hurt against the boy’s neck. Even the softest silk had burned.

Hua Cheng sets tea at his elbow, then drops to sit across from him. He’s clearly, visibly bored, idly toying with the tassels on his belt and staring at the ceiling like it’s personally offended him.

It’s cute, Xie Lian reminds himself as annoyance roils in his gut. It’s cute, and it isn’t San Lang’s fault that Xie Lian hasn’t explained why he’s upset.

As Xie Lian works through the characters describing the location, he notices from the corner of his eye a silver butterfly hovering over his shoulder. He lets a smile curve his lips despite his annoyance. Despite his act of boredom, Hua Cheng really is always interested in anything he’s doing.

“You can just read it if you like,” he offers in a low voice, the quiet of the evening softening his voice.

Hua Cheng’s eye snaps over, and he smiles. “Gege, I would never peek without permission.”

Lovely and insincere as ever… Xie Lian sighs, and finishes his work, rolling up the scroll and setting it aside.

“Would you like me to send it straight to Ling Wen?” Hua Cheng offers, twisting towards him rather than glaring at the ceiling, as if he’d been restraining himself before.

“I’ll take it in the morning,” Xie Lian replies, waving a hand. Even if it is a little funny to think of Hua Cheng’s butterflies bursting into existence in the heavens just to deliver a scroll… “Let’s just go rest?”

“En,” Hua Cheng agrees at once, swinging easily to his feet. “Tomorrow will go better, Gege, don’t doubt it.”

He doesn’t doubt it at all. For all that Hua Cheng says nothing aloud, Xie Lian feels the trickle of luck like a soft electric charge against his skin while they curl in bed together.

It doesn’t quite silence his doubts.

The new heavenly capital is too much like the old one, but Xie Lian would never say so aloud. He avoids the heavens whenever possible, and has refused every sort of responsibility or accolade they have tried to lay at his feet. It’s not his place to comment on the choices of those who live here above the clouds.

Still, he finds himself eager to descend again the moment he steps foot on the gleaming gold-lined streets. He glances behind himself just once, checking for silver butterflies, but if they are there, he cannot see them. It isn’t unlikely. After all, Jun Wu didn’t notice an entire Hua Cheng slipping into heaven at the rain master’s side.

“Your highness!” Feng Xin calls, raising a hand and waving.

“Stop.” Mu Qing hisses at his side, sneering. “Do you think he can’t see? Are you ten, to be waving like a child?”

“Hello, hello!” Xie Lian says quickly, trotting up to join them before a fight can truly brew. “I’m sorry I’m late! San Lang—”

“I don’t want to know.” Mu Qing says quickly.

“Ah, that’s— it’s fine, your highness!” Feng Xin offers at the same time. “Only, um…”

He swallows, then looks to Mu Qing.

Strangely, Mu Qing only looks back instead of snarling.

“What’s wrong?” Xie Lian asks, skin crawling at the sudden, unprecedented truce between them. Seeing them on the same side… It really never happens unless someone is about to be killed!

“Maybe we should speak privately,” Feng Xin offers, the line between his brows deepening. “Somewhere you can sit.”

“Someone tried to break into Jun Wu’s mountain last night.” Mu Qing says with a blunt and furious expression. “They nearly succeeded.”

“Oh.” says Xie Lian, because he doesn’t know what else to say to that.

It feels like poor San Lang’s luck is curdling in his veins. In his head, a cry-smiling mask watches him from every gleaming corner of gold surrounding him, just waiting. Waiting as he waited for 800 years, watching Xie Lian’s heart rot and ferment, until he was ripe for the picking.