Feng Xin was tired of this meeting. They’d been going over the same argument over and over and getting nowhere. He’d long given up trying to participate and was just leaning back in his chair, arms crossed.
He glanced over at Mu Qing, wanting to see if he was as annoyed as Feng Xin was. Mu Qing tried to be so proper and controlled at all times, but his usual sour expression broke through a little when he was pushed to the limits of what nonsense he could handle.
Feng Xin blinked. Mu Qing was sitting straight up, of course, and staring blankly at the table. But when Feng Xin looked more closely… he was moving a little. Shivering.
Feng Xin stared at him for a long moment. It wasn’t cold today, and nothing had happened during the meeting that would make Mu Qing afraid. Was he… shaking in rage?
All of a sudden Mu Qing jolted out of his chair. The banging sound when the chair hit the floor was jarring. The room went silent. “Xuan Zhen?” said some official whose name Feng Xin didn’t know.
Mu Qing grabbed at his own hair, his breaths heaving. He looked up at Feng Xin and choked out, “He- he’s- there were-”
At this, Feng Xin rushed over to him and dragged him out of the room before he or anyone else could say more. Everyone knew Xuan Zheng, Nan Yang, and the disgraced Taizi Dianxia of Xian Le were soulmates, but that didn’t mean they needed to see something so deeply private.
Outside the doors, Feng Xin grabbed Mu Qing’s shoulders and shook him. “Snap out of it! Where is he? Did you see any clues? Tell me you weren’t dumb enough to forget to check.”
Mu Qing yanked out of his hold and whirled away to lean against the wall, hiding his face from Feng Xin. “Nothing,” he gasped out. “Only you would be that stupid. There was nothing. It was just a pine forest. He’s hungry- no, he’s starving. I couldn’t move and there were wolves-”
At this Mu Qing cut himself off and crouched down, curling around his stomach and making painful-sounding gagging noises.
Feng Xin’s body went cold. “Where- the wolves what were they-”
Mu Qing just moaned and shook his head, banging it lightly against the wall.
“No,” Feng Xin said, backing away in horror. His head was ringing. “No.”
He barely had the presence of mind to pull Mu Qing away from the wall and drag him to the front door of the Palace of Xuan Zhen. Not long ago, he’d still been so furious with Mu Qing for leaving him and Xie Lian that he might’ve just left Mu Qing kneeling there in the hallway.
But Mu Qing had been there the time Feng Xin came back to his body screaming and screaming, cowering away from the king and queen who’d been hanging from the ceiling—Xie Lian’s ceiling. Even thinking about it now made Feng Xin’s mind cringe away in terror.
Mu Qing had been the one who’d pulled Feng Xin away from the crowd of heavenly officials, brought him to a more private place, and gone to look for Xie Lian at the old shack the royal family had been living in. Xie Lian had been gone by then along with the bodies, leaving behind only blood and powerful resentful energy.
But Mu Qing had still tried, and he’d come back to Feng Xin to let him know what he’d found.
So Feng Xin pulled the still shaking Mu Qing to his bedroom, made him lay down, and ordered one of the deputy officials to bring him some water. Then, Feng Xin descended to the mortal and raced to find Xie Lian even though he knew it was useless.
He ran through the forests near the old Xian Le, and then far away, all the way to countries he’d never been to before. He called for Xie Lian again and again until it didn’t sound like a real name anymore.
Xie Lian was just a drop in the ocean now, and they were never going to find him unless he wanted them to.
Mu Qing could tell the second that Feng Xin switched because his angry yelling suddenly cut off into silence. Feng Xin blinked, dazed, and then looked sheepish. Yes, that was unmistakably Xie Lian in his body.
Mu Qing grabbed the front of his robes, all the fury from his fight with Feng Xin redirecting into anger toward Xie Lian.
“WHERE ARE YOU?” Mu Qing roared.
Xie Lian just shook his head- Feng Xin’s head. “I’m nowhere, Mu Qing. I’m just wandering around.” He was trying so hard to avoid Mu Qing’s gaze. Mu Qing hated it.
“Tell me where you are,” Mu Qing seethed.
Xie Lian shook his head again. “Please just forget about me, Mu Qing. Feng Xin, too. Just let me go.”
“How can we?!” Mu Qing screamed, and to his fury, he felt tears spring up in the corners of his eyes. “How can we when we switch bodies all the time?”
“All the time” was a bit of a stretch. Really, it only happened every year or so, and only for about a minute at a time. But with the amount of distress and turmoil that rippled through Mu Qing’s days long after the body-switching was over, it felt like “all the time.”
“I’m sorry,” Xie Lian said quietly. “I promise I’m trying to find a way to break it.”
The words hit Mu Qing like a physical blow. “Our s-soulmate bond? ” he whispered. “You’re trying to break our soulmate bond?”
Xie Lian nodded. “I know it’s an inconvenience for you and Feng Xin. I don’t want to bother you anymore-”
“Fuck you,” Mu Qing said, his voice breaking. “We really mean so little to you? We don’t matter at all, do we? We were just your attendants, nothing more, and-”
“No, Mu Qing, that’s not what I meant-”
“FUCK YOU TOO!”
Mu Qing’s head jerked up. What-
Ah, it was just Feng Xin, back again. Mu Qing blinked at him. “Did you just curse at me without knowing what I was talking about?”
Feng Xin blushed and stepped away, rubbing the back of his neck. Mu Qing’s hands fell to his side again. “Ah- well if you’re yelling at me then obviously I have to yell back.”
Mu Qing rolled his eyes and turned away so he could wipe his eyes without Feng Xin seeing. His chest still ached. “So? Where was he?”
“Just busking,” Feng Xin said with clear relief, and Mu Qing relaxed a little too.
When they switched with Xie Lian, they often found themselves digging through trash with a pile of rotten food next to their feet, or covered in barely bandaged wounds. Once Mu Qing had even been frozen in a winter river. He had nightmares about that sometimes, even after Feng Xin had reported that the next switch brought him to a desert.
Seeing their former god still begging for money after all these centuries was difficult, but seeing him suspended in an immortal’s death-beyond-death was worse.
“He’s trying to break the soulmate bond,” Mu Qing blurted out. It was gratifying to see Feng Xin’s expression twist into the same terror Mu Qing was feeling.
“What the fuck?” Feng Xin yelled. He turned to the side as if Xie Lian was there and could be yelled at, too. But of course, there was just empty air where Xie Lian had once stood, so Feng Xin turned back to Mu Qing and yelled again, “What the fucking fuck??”
“Yeah,” Mu Qing said grimly.
“No. No! No way,” Feng Xin said, fists clenched. “There’s no way he could. Soulmate bonds are- are eternal, they’re unbreakable, he-” Feng Xin looked up at Mu Qing, and there was such despair in his eyes that Mu Qing had to look away. “He wouldn’t do that to us, would he?”
Mu Qing turned and walked away without another word. He refused to let Feng Xin see how wet his eyes were.
Every time Feng Xin switched with Xie Lian, he would send a brief message to Mu Qing in the communication array: “He’s next to a lake somewhere, so at least he has water. Still hungry, though. Still tired. His stupid ribbon tried to smack me in the face when I yelled at it. I guess it realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t Xie Lian.”
Mu Qing never responded to those messages. But he, too, sent a message to Feng Xin each time it happened—always just two words: “He’s alive.”
Then the switches started to happen less often.
It’d started out as once a year at least, and they’d felt assured that, if nothing else, they knew he wasn’t dead. But over the course of the next century, it was slowly reduced to every decade or so.
Feng Xin couldn’t believe it. Xie Lian was really doing something to weaken the soulmate bond. Breaking the bond was impossible (Feng Xin prayed, he hoped). But apparently, there were methods out there to weaken the body-switching effect.
An entire century passed by before the next switch.
It was Mu Qing’s body again, during a meeting. This time Feng Xin knew the signs well enough to catch the brief window he could speak to Xie Lian. He pulled Mu Qing’s body into the hallway by the elbow, and then it was just the two of them.
Xie Lian—his prince, his best friend—looked at him with a gentle expression. They stood there in silence while Feng Xin’s mind raced. He had so many things he wanted to say. He often laid awake at night trying to find the right words, but nothing ever felt right. Now, too, Feng Xin couldn’t decide what to say.
I’m so sorry.
Please tell me you’re alright.
Please come back to us.
Feng Xin couldn’t say any of those thoughts out loud, no matter how fiercely they pressed against his lips because a simple “sorry” could never make up for the greatest mistake of his life. And how could he ask Xie Lian if he was alright when Feng Xin knew he wasn’t. How could he ask Xie Lian to come back to Feng Xin and Mu Qing when they’d been the ones to leave in the first place?
So instead Feng Xin said, “Dianxia, I’m begging you to not do anything more to our soulmate bond.”
It was shocking to watch Mu Qing’s face become so heartbreakingly sad. “Feng Xin,” Xie Lian whispered. “I’m doing it for you both, too. You’re gods now, two of the pillars of the heavens. Being tied with a beggar like me... it’s not good.” He bit his lip and looked down.
Feng Xin shook his head. “Dianxia, we don’t care about that. The three of us are soulmates . We’re tied together for as long as we live.”
Xie Lian smiled sadly. “You have each other. You’ll be fine.” He closed his eyes. “And… I don’t really want you to see the way I’ve been living. It’s a bit… embarrassing since you knew what I was like before. It’s better to just move on. I’ll be fine, I promise.”
Feng Xin didn’t know what else to say. “Dianxia, please, ” he begged, but that gentle expression had already disappeared. It was Mu Qing staring back at him now.
“Where is he?” Feng Xin whispered.
Mu Qing just shook his head. “He’s alive. That’s all we need to know.”
Feng Xin was suddenly furious. “Do you not want to find him? You don’t care about anyone, do you?!”
Mu Qing snarled at him. “Does he want us to find him? Does he care?!”
Feng Xin found himself once again at a loss for words.
Feng Xin stood in the middle of his training rooms, trying to exhaust all his energy. His muscles shook, his joints hurt, and his hands were torn bloody, but none of it helped.
Exactly a hundred years had passed since the last switch, and he couldn’t stop the thoughts from coming.
We don’t deserve to be his soulmates.
We left him. Doesn’t he have every right to leave us now?
And then all of a sudden he was in the Palace of Xuan Zhen in front of a tower of paperwork.
When Feng Xin arrived back in his own body, he was standing in his bathroom, his hands trembling under a stream of cold water. For a moment, Feng Xin just stood there taking in the gentle sensation.
Abruptly, the thoughts came back full force again.
He’s dead. He died alone and we can’t even find his body to bury and-
A loud knock at the door. “I’m coming in,” Mu Qing announced, and then he was standing at the doorway, looking at Feng Xin in the mirror.
“Is there any force in the world that can stop you from being such a reckless idiot?” Mu Qing said.
Feng Xin scowled. “If you’re here just to mock me, you can get out.”
Mu Qing rolled his eyes but didn’t speak for a long moment. Then he said, “Idiom trains,” and it was so out of the blue that Feng Xin thought for sure he’d misheard.
“The fuck?” he said, turning the faucet off and slowly turning around. “What?”
Mu Qing huffed in annoyance. “I said we should do idiom trains. You go first. You always take way too long if you go second.”
Feng Xin’s jaw dropped. His mind went blank. A laugh rose up in him like little soapy bubbles. “What the fuck?” Feng Xin said again, but this time he was smiling.
Mu Qing didn’t quite smile at him, but he didn’t leave either. “Didn’t realize you’d be so slow even if you went first.”
Feng Xin walked past him and sat on the edge of the bed. He gestured at the small desk chair next to the bed. “Get ready to lose, you loser.”
Mu Qing rolled his eyes and muttered, “Very creative,” but sat down and waited expectantly.
The idiom trains worked. Feng Xin was calmer now—felt less like he was going to destroy everything in sight and then implode.
Instead, he imagined Xie Lian sitting next to them with that same exasperated smile he’d always worn when mediating between Feng Xin and Mu Qing. This was just a blip in their endless arguing, but Feng Xin thought Xie Lian would be delighted to know they were voluntarily doing idiom trains together.
It was unbearable, never knowing where Xie Lian was, always desperately trying to hold out faith that he’d see him again one day.
But at least he didn’t have to do it alone.