The battle miraculously sheds a tremendous amount of the prejudice that Rin carries from her Sinegard days. It instils in her a small relief that her fight for revenge, justice, her scrabbling and hesitant path towards the Vermilion Phoenix’s power is no longer solitary for just that split second.
In large part, her change comes because of Nezha, the boy with the almond eyes, the force she’d hated and cursed and been humiliated by for so long. Yet in his attacks she feels a change; he is fighting with her, almost guarding her protectively, the air blazing with the heat of war and a curious contentment spreads in Rin’s heart. It is the adrenaline of engaging in conflict beside a partner who is inexplicably synced with her every move.
So naturally, Nezha’s apology comes in time, and though Rin is loath to admit it out loud, she’s began caring for him in the days to come. The conversation flows when they are keeping watch outside the Cike’s headquarters, and Rin finds it so utterly normal for once. Sinegard was painful. But there’s not much worse than the fear that strikes in the heat of her shamanism; the flames. The call of the Phoenix.
Nezha’s presence alleviates some of that turmoil. Some days she even starts yearning for Sinegard, for Jiang, before she reminds herself.
What she craves is power. Not companionship.
And the road to it is a path split with vines and poison ivy that is only wide enough for one to cross.
The illusion flickers, and his younger brother’s eyes are slashed with crimson. Nezha wavers.
“Nezha,” The soft, sweet voice rings out as his face solidifies again, and suddenly something inside Nezha is breaking. He misses the child - the burden still hangs over him like a shadow always lurking in the darkness. The burden of - of what?
“Nezha, you know how much I miss you. Please let go - you’re hurting me again, Nezha, you caused it, you killed me-”
Nezha howls, unleashing some long-forgotten pain buried deep inside him. Why is his sword lodged in his brother’s flank? Distantly, he hears someone scream. It’s not his brother’s voice, and it’s frantic, but Nezha is drowning so deeply. He opens his mouth to retort, to cry, to say anything but there’s nothing, and he feels claws from another world close in on him.
Everything shatters as Nezha falls.
He shakes his head to clear the fog clogging up his senses. It is not him. The beast, the chimei returns with full force, and Nezha sways. A sensation of imbalance sweeps over him. Disoriented, he props himself up, scrambles for his sword and aims, charging forward at the chimei and swinging wildly at its limbs.
The chimei’s fur blocks his blow entirely.
Terror splits through Nezha’s body as the chimei, abandoning him, turns wickedly to Rin. Rin, defenseless, gets swept up in the chimei’s beautiful hallucination.
A scream rips out of him. He rushes headlong, grapples with the chimei before he gets a chokehold on the beast’s back and stabs with all the energy he has left inside him. He misses. The chimei flings him off tiredly, swatting him off like he is a mere fly on its fur. Momentarily Nezha feels sickened again by the motion; so dismissive. Like he is nothing.
(A small voice in the back of his mind asks him if he is anything at all. If he’s not able to wrench Rin out of that ghastly mirage, if he's not able to save his enemy-turned-partner-turned-friend, does he even deserve to be a Combat apprentice? Does he even deserve his former top spot at Sinegard under Jun's tutelage? Or is he better off lying here, crashing into the dust, broken?)
Next he hears Rin’s voice. Loud and forceful and strong, it cuts through the haze of Nezha’s fall and his senses jolt to attention.
Rin is burning. Not physically, not the way her entire body blazed alight at Sinegard. But emotionally. Her eyes are the colour of molten wax, and her face is twisted with a myriad of emotions. They flicker on and off; anger, desperation, disbelief, helplessness, vulnerability, love.
Love? Nezha pauses, a flicker of curiosity igniting in him, the raw emotion on Rin’s face palpable. He’d exhibited the same towards the chimei - they turn into those who can hurt you the most. Those you are closest with.
The chimei erupts in frantic screaming as Rin thrusts her torch into its face, with an intensity that Nezha has never witnessed before.
Who is she seeing in the flames and smoke, Nezha wonders dully. His side hurts. He’s probably fractured a bone. In the light Rin almost seems unearthly, her presence so powerful, and Nezha has to admit that she possesses a quality that makes him afraid. Has always done so. Even at Sinegard.
Then he hears a name breaking out of Rin’s lips, whispered, almost a sob. Almost as if something intangible is ripping her open. But Rin’s face hardens, and Nezha thinks he’s imagined it. Or not.
Rin speaks again, clear as day.
“I don’t love you. And I can kill anything.”
And in that second she smashes the torch into the chimei’s face, repeatedly, tendrils of ash and screaming interweaving around her. Nezha bears witness to it like a bypasser in a sacrificial pyre. Rin’s eyes are brimming with a darkness. A pained darkness. Every blow is heavy in her hands, and understanding seems to seep into Nezha by the second.
Rin burns the chimei out with the utmost ferocity.
So when Nezha asks, “Who was it for you?” it is perfunctory. The chimei has fallen, and an unnamed feeling has wormed its way into Nezha’s chest. It feels like rats are gnawing on his insides, and will not be assuaged until Rin answers. In a way he recognizes the allure that Rin has fallen for, the way someone can both love and respect and hate a person at the same time, but he wants to see if Rin will trust him with the truth.
Rin doesn’t answer.
Nezha’s gaze drifts up into the sky, where the heavens preside over them. The rats have multiplied, expanded inside him, and there is a light feeling of alarm in his mind as he realises what the emotion precisely is. At Sinegard he’d chalked the dynamic between him and Rin to rivalry, or even hatred. Now he feels a shift; a shift that he’s never wanted.
A shift that says, admire Rin, and how beautifully she fights. How she slashes and burns and conquers, like the warrior you’ll never be.
Nezha is not who he was at Sinegard.
His heart is aching because he heard Rin call out a name, softly, almost in adoration, while fighting the chimei. A name that spells hero-worship and a charm that Nezha can never hope to compete with.