When the first tremor runs through the ground, Ling Wen thinks nothing of it. It happens sometimes. The Heavenly Court is old, after all; streets shift and move on their own, old palaces creak and rumble in the least expected moments, and dust dances in corners when no one’s looking. It’s to be expected in a place where power sometimes gets a life of its own.
But then there’s another tremor and the next one, and before she knows what’s happening, they turn into a quake that topples walls and people alike. Even the ancient clock, that poor thing with a temper befitting a martial god, doesn’t stand a chance against the onslaught of raw power that makes Heaven shake in its foundations.
New gods. Always so dramatic.
She walks in the direction of the epicentre, ignoring officials running past her the same way. Someone crawls from under the rubble of a palace. Not much further, General Xuan Zhen is standing with a raised hand and a furrowed brow, two halves of the clock lying at his feet. Another official loudly bemoans the complete annihilation of the golden roof of his palace and Ling Wen mentally calculates the cost of every broken thing she passes by.
She almost pities the new god for causing so much damage. It will truly be a disaster of debt to pay off. It’s already reaching millions and she’s not yet halfway through the Heavenly Court.
When she finally sees the new god, she drops her scrolls.
He’s sitting in a shallow crater, rubbing his head and back. He doesn’t seem to be aware of where he is—Ling Wen hopes that if he were, he would’ve tied the flimsy red robe he’s wearing tighter around his body. Or that he would’ve tied it, period, because being as it is, it’s currently falling off his shoulder and thus displays his naked chest for everyone to see.
And there are many people around, all more than willing to gawk at the newcomer.
“Your Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le?” she asks even though she doesn’t have to. She could never forget his face.
Unlike other gods, if their gasps of incredulity and indignation are any indication. At this point she’s not even surprised – they have proven time and again to have the memory span of a fish. It makes it so easy to keep them under control.
Xie Lian looks up and blinks a few times. When he finally focuses his gaze on her, it’s full of confusion.
“Ah, hello,” he says in a voice much hoarser than she remembers. “I’m, uh. What happened?”
Did she hear that right? He can’t have said that. “Your Highness has ascended again,” she says. “Congratulations.”
She doesn’t mention he’s officially indebted to everyone. He’ll find out soon enough.
“Ascended?” he repeats, looks at his hands, then back up at her. He makes no move to tie his robe. “This must be a mistake, I didn’t...”
He breaks off and puts his fingers to his temple. His eyes get that faraway look of speaking to someone over the communication array, but she hears no word of it. It must be a private array then, but that brings another load of questions she’s not sure how to ask. His presence is unexpected, his name – almost forgotten save for the oldest gods, and she doesn’t know how to treat the stranger he’s become.
It was easy in the past, with him being just another hot-headed martial god who grabbed his sword too quickly and never stopped to think about consequences. After his second banishment, she lost track of him almost immediately and never found him again, much to Jun Wu’s displeasure and her own even greater disappointment. Now, after centuries, there’s no sign of the brash boy he used to be.
Whoever he’s speaking to, they bring a smile to his face. It disappears the moment his hand falls, and when he stands up, his face is closed-off again, neutral and distant.
At least he wraps that robe around his body, even though it hardly passes for appropriate clothing. It looks more like a sleeping attire, especially combined with his loose short pants, bare feet, and unbound hair. He’s wearing jewellery of some kind, but she only sees a thin chain around his neck.
There’s also a lot of bruises on his neck. Some of them are shaped like teeth. And... isn’t he supposed to have a cursed shackle, too? Except for the bruises, his skin is unmarked, and that’s definitely not how it should be.
“My apologies, but this must be a mistake of sorts,” he says with a disarming smile. “I shouldn’t be here.”
Ling Wen blinks. What she can’t say, the other officials scream at the top of their lungs. They speak of outrage and audacity, of gifts rejected as if they mean nothing. He continues to smile through it all like it doesn’t bother him in the least. And maybe it doesn’t – there’s no telling what may and may not faze him after so many years spent away from the Heavenly Court.
“There’s no mistake,” she says. “It means Your Highness was clearly meant to ascend again, even if it happened at a seemingly unfortunate moment.”
He laughs and scratches his head. “Yes, I... I was asleep, actually. It’s all incredibly inconvenient.”
That doesn’t even begin to cover it. “If Your Highness would follow me, I will inform him of his duties and provide more suitable clothing for the time being.”
“Ah, there’s no need.” He’s still smiling. Although she’s older than him, she feels like a child being chided by their grandparent. “I’m going back down. Is there anything I need to sign before I leave? Some official resignation of sorts? I’ve heard there’s more paperwork these days.”
Someone snickers in the crowd. Another one follows soon, louder this time. Of course other gods would perceive this whole affair as laughable. They’re always lacking entertainment, looking for it where they shouldn’t, and never does it fail to grate on Ling Wen’s nerves. Even now, Heaven falls deeper into ruin as they laugh. They aren’t aware of the extent of damage His Highness’s ascension caused. As always, it will fall to Ling Wen to fix things.
Sometimes she wonders how soon Heaven would collapse if she left it to its own devices.
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” she says in the most indifferent voice she can muster. “Your Highness’s ascension has caused quite an uproar. And lots of damage.”
Now, finally, his smile falls. “Oh, I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.”
“I know. Alas, it doesn’t change the fact Your Highness is responsible for it.”
“But I... I didn’t mean to.”
Ling Wen’s job is fairly simple – everything that must be done, seen, and heard in Heaven, falls under her scope of responsibilities. She’s the force that keeps the fabric of the Heavenly Realm from falling apart and knows what others won’t learn until it becomes gossip-worthy. That’s why she notices the Earth Master approach before other officials even think of turning around. It gives her a moment to school her features into a mask of indifference, because the Earth Master never, ever, comes to where disasters are out of his own volition.
“Move aside,” he tells the gathered gods, crass and succinct as ever. And move they do, clearly as surprised as Ling Wen but not as skilled in hiding it.
Xie Lian’s face lights up which is... unexpected, to say the least. And Ling Wen doesn’t like unexpected things. Ming Yi isn’t the kind of man to befriend others left and right, and a long-forgotten and banished former god is the last person on a very long list of people to befriend.
“Oh, it’s so good you’re here!” Xie Lian climbs out of the crater, slipping on the stones as if his famed grace of old was nothing but a memory. Just like his status and dignity, it would seem. “Me, ascending again. Can you imagine that?”
The Earth Master’s mouth twitches as he takes off his outer robe and hands it over like one would a poisonous snake. “Not here,” he says – or grumbles, actually, like he usually does. “Come.”
Xie Lian quickly wraps the robe up around himself. He follows Ming Yi without a word of protest or surprise, as if they’ve known each other for at least a couple of years, and that’s definitely a development Ling Wen didn’t see coming. Shi Qing Xuan will be devastated.
She’ll seek them out in a few hours, when this whole mess is at least partially cleared and all damage is accounted for. The number of merits needed to pay for everything will be staggering – even more so for a god without a single one to his name. But that’s easy to fix; there are many open positions in the Heavenly Court and Xie Lian’s expertise as a martial god will be more than needed.
No intention of ascending again, what a ridiculous notion. Once a god, always a god, because Heaven isn’t keen on letting go of its own. He’ll realise that in no time and come around sooner or later, but it’s not a problem for now.
Now she has to tell Jun Wu his once upon a time favourite is a god once more.
Pei Ming has heard stories.
Who hasn’t? Once upon a time, when he was still a young god, the story of His Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le’s fall from grace was the main topic of conversation amongst martial and civil gods alike. From the lowest streets of the Middle Court to the tallest tower of the Great Martial Hall, there wasn’t a day without someone mentioning His Highness. The darling of Heaven, Jun Wu’s favourite, the Prince Who Pleased The Gods – all of those intermingled with hushed whispers about the god of misfortune, the laughing stock of the three realms, the prince without a crown who climbed high only to fall to the lowest depths. A madman who dared to raise his sword at the Heavenly Emperor favouring him, a horror story to teach the new gods to never dream too big.
Pei Ming knows what His Highness looks like – he saw his portrait in Ling Wen’s archives. He remembers the soft smile and the outdated cut of his robes, knows the rumours of his peculiar nature, sharp tongue, and martial prowess.
Now he sees His Highness in the flesh, barefoot and dressed in Ming Yi’s too big outer robe, and ho ho, that’s a lot of love bites on his neck for a virgin.
“Your Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le?” he asks just to make sure. He has to, even though he’s come here with Ling Wen who explicitly – and repeatedly – told him who they were going to talk to and why.
His Highness looks up, his unbound hair falling down his back and arms in gentle waves, and smiles at Pei Ming from above the cup of tea he’s holding in his hands. “Yes,” he says. “Though I’m clearly at a disadvantage here, because I don’t know who you are, my lord.”
Ming Yi, sitting at the table next to Xie Lian, snorts into his own cup. That’s... actually incredibly rude, but Pei Ming has stopped expecting anything else from the Earth Master by now.
“Pei Ming, General Ming Guang, at your service.” He adds a flourishing bow for a better effect and—yes, Ming Yi is definitely snorting again.
“I don’t need it, but thank you, I guess.”
The sketches didn’t do his smiles justice. They were... warm, for lack of a better word, but this one? Oh, this smile is superficial, given out of habit more than genuine intent, and Pei Ming starts wondering if it truly is derision underlying it, or perhaps it’s just his imagination that makes him feel this way.
He decides to ignore it.
“I must say Your Highness is not what I expected.” He sits down opposite him, much to Xie Lian’s confusion. Ming Yi rolls his eyes which is incredibly telling, but yet again incredibly rude. It looks like he’s in one of his frequent moods.
It’s a miracle Shi Qing Xuan still puts up with him.
“And what did you expect?” Xie Lian asks with a curious glint in his eyes. He is objectively attractive like this, looking slightly dishevelled and more than a little lost.
Too bad Pei Ming isn’t into men.
“Certainly someone more...” he gestures vaguely at Xie Lian’s neck, “virginal, so to speak.”
Xie Lian spits out his tea. Ming Yi is no longer snorting – he starts cackling like a madman instead. Ling Wen only sighs deeply and the lack of a scathing remark tells best how tired she is today. Pei Ming pities her sometimes but knows there’s no better person to keep Heaven in check. Jun Wu isn’t suited for that kind of job. No martial god could ever survive as much paperwork as Ling Wen deals with on a daily basis.
Still, Xie Lian gathers his bearings much quicker than Pei Ming would have expected him to. He wraps Ming Yi’s robe tighter around himself, but it does little to hide the bruises on his neck.
“My apologies, General... Pei Guang, was it?”
Okay, that stung. “Ming Guang, Your Highness.”
“General Ming Guang. My apologies.” He smiles in a way that tells Pei Ming he’s not sorry in the least. “I regret to have failed to meet your expectations.”
“Oh no, it’s not that at all.” Pei Ming has certainly never expected to meet another god with whom he could trade tips and tricks in matters of the heart and it’s such a welcome change. The Heavenly Court can get so incredibly suffocating and stuffy at times. “On the contrary, I’m thrilled to know Your Highness has been living his life to the fullest even in banishment. The stories of Your Highness’s chosen path of cultivation clearly need corrections.”
Ling Wen only groans. Poor woman. She’s so overworked she never loosens up. Pei Ming knows – he tried to convince her to relax a few centuries ago. It happened only once, because the amount of paperwork he had to take care of himself as a consequence definitely wasn’t worth it.
“Clearly,” Xie Lian agrees with a smirk, “considering I’ve been married for over seven hundred years now.”
“Married?” Pei Ming repeats after him, the fact and its implications not really registering in his brain. Not yet, at least. “As in... tied the knot? Donned the red? Legit married, with the three bows and the tea ceremony and the feast and—”
“Yes, General. Legit married.” He raises his left hand. A red thread is tied around one of his fingers, vivid and good as new. “Even ‘tied the knot’ was quite literal.”
Ling Wen leans forward a bit, her brow furrowed, but refrains from commenting. Pei Ming sees her grip her brush, as always more than ready to write down every scrap of even remotely useful information. It must pain her so much to have missed this.
“Marriage,” Pei Ming repeats. “Good gracious. I mean... congratulations? And for so long, it’s... Who’s the lucky lady?”
Ming Yi outward laughs. Pei Ming has never seen him like this, bent almost in half, one hand covering his eyes and the other clutched around his own midsection. There must be something between him and His Highness, something no one in Heaven knew about. It’s a thrilling kind of secret – even more so, considering Ming Yi’s preference for solitude and the complete lack of friends, Shi Qing Xuan’s one-sided flood of affection excluded.
“Ah, I...” Xie Lian scratches his neck, his face suddenly redder than it was moments ago. It’s cute in an innocent kind of way, which – as it turns out – is the trait that can’t be attributed to him any longer. “I don’t have a wife. I have a husband.”
A husband. A husband? “Well, I’ll be damned.” Pei Ming’s eyes zoom on the love bites again... and okay, he can definitely see that. Those must have been some sharp teeth. “Then who’s the lucky man?”
Ming Yi stops laughing. He rests his chin on his face, the gleam in his eyes reminding Pei Ming of a beast about to swallow the world. It’s unsettling, to say the least. The Earth Master is not the kind of man to look at people like they were his prey. More often than not, he refuses to look altogether.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard of him.” That annoying smirk is back on Xie Lian’s face. Ming Yi rolls his eyes again – he’s getting better at it than Mu Qing. “His name is Hua Cheng.”
The brush falls out of Ling Wen’s hand.
“Don’t know if I...” Pei Ming stammers, heart thumping in his chest. “Don’t know... What the fuck?”
Hua Cheng is the terror everyone refuses to speak of as if it would somehow summon him. Hua Cheng is what keeps the gods from descending to the mortal realm out of fear of running into him. Hua Cheng is the unspeakable, the sword that cuts down the officials as it sees fit, the promise of temples burning and of devotees turning their backs on their gods and leaving them to fade and vanish in misery. Hua Cheng is the last person to ever marry someone. More than that – to even think fondly of someone, let alone love them. He’s more likely to devour the unlucky fellow, spit out his bones and weave his skin into a cloak – especially if the person in question is a god. Even a former god.
Pei Ming snorts. Then snickers. Then bursts out laughing and not even Ling Wen’s furious jabs aimed precisely at his ribs can stop him. At least Xie Lian’s smirk is gone – face slack, he stares at Pei Ming like one would at a fascinating animal or a deranged lunatic.
“I don’t see what’s so hilarious about this,” he says eventually, putting away the cup. “Would General Ming Guang be so kind to enlighten me?”
Ming Yi grabs his and Xie Lian’s cup and leaves. That’s unusual; doesn’t he have servants like every self-respecting official? Pei Ming resorts to asking around about that later. No friend of his friend’s little brother should suffer through poverty when he clearly shouldn’t have to.
“Forgive me, Your Highness.” He takes a deep breath to stave off laughter that still strains against his lips. “I get it, I shouldn’t pry into your private affairs. I won’t do it again, so let me just tell you I’m happy for you regardless of who the person you’ve chosen truly is.”
“Who the person...” Xie Lian’s brow furrows. He starts rubbing the red thread around his finger, most likely without realising what he’s doing. “Are you implying I’m lying?”
“Don’t listen to him, Your Highness, he’s just an idiot who doesn’t know when to stop talking,” Ling Wen says before Pei Ming can protest and oh my, her mood is truly foul today. “Now please, can we get to the matter at hand?”
Xie Lian looks at her. Even in too big a robe and with the neck covered in love bites he looks every bit like the prince he used to be. It’s the little things – the tilt of his head and that small indulgent smile, the way he twines his fingers together and puts them in his lap. It’s in his voice when he says, “By all means, do go on.”
Ling Wen unfolds a scroll and slides it over to him. He glances down—and that’s the extent of his reaction, so she takes the scroll back. “This is the current estimate of how much it will cost to repair damage caused by Your Highness’s ascension.”
“Eight million merits.”
“Is that a lot these days?”
“It’s a lot, yeah,” Ming Yi says as he enters the room again. He’s munching on some unspecified pastry Pei Ming prefers not to look at. What is it with this guy and food anyway? Whatever the occasion, no matter the time, he seems to be always, always eating something. “It’s eight million more than you have.”
“Huh,” Xie Lian says. “That’s a bummer.”
And then he puts his fingers to his temple and falls silent. Ling Wen’s mouth twitches, but Ming Yi only chuckles to himself and continues eating without a word. He’s so incredibly unneeded here, so why hasn’t he left yet? Surely he can’t be friends with Xie Lian. Ming Yi is the kind of man who simply doesn’t have friends unless someone makes a conscious decision to trail after him like a lost puppy.
When Xie Lian lowers his hand, Ling Wen unexpectedly touches her own forehead for a change. After a moment, she makes an annotation on the scroll. Then another, and the next, and the next, and her expression gets more complicated with every single one.
That won’t do, so Pei Ming nudges her unsubtly. “Hey, Noble Jie, everything’s good?”
If it was anyone else, he would’ve said the look he got was full of fear. But it’s Ling Wen who fears no one, so it can’t be right. She turns her eyes to Xie Lian before Pei Ming can inquire about it. “It... looks like Your Highness’s debt has decreased considerably.”
“Oh?” Xie Lian’s smile is full of innocence. “And how much is ‘considerably’, exactly?”
She notes down a few additional characters and shakes her head. “It’s now at two million merits.”
He has the gall to smile wider. “That sounds better indeed.”
What the actual fuck.
“Make that one million,” Ming Yi grumbles.
It wipes the smile off Xie Lian’s face in an instant. He reaches out and grabs the Earth Master’s hand in an astonishing display of familiarity no one in Heaven has ever seen before. Not even Shi Qing Xuan would’ve been able to do it without being shaken off and dismissed. But here Xie Lian is, the lost, forgotten god no one remembered before today, treating Ming Yi like a friend and being treated the same way in return.
“You don’t have to,” he tells him and for once there’s sincerity on his face rather than the polite mask of indifference he’s donned upon his arrival at Heaven.
“I’m doing this for myself,” Ming Yi barks but doesn’t take his hand away. Xie Lian lets go, but not before giving it one last squeeze.
“Thank you,” he says, his voice soft and warm and that’s definitely not how you talk to strangers.
“Don’t think it’s going to happen again.”
Xie Lian smiles and this time it’s actually pleasant to look at rather than disconcerting in its haughtiness. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Ling Wen pointedly clears her throat and that’s enough to catch everyone’s attention. “Your Highness, if I may.” She hands him another scroll, one he immediately unrolls and quickly reads. “This is the assignment you’ve been given so that you can repay what you owe the Heavenly Court. Or what’s left of your debt after a handful of random officials suddenly decided to throw their merits at you.”
“A ghost?” Xie Lian doesn’t even react to her obvious jab. It is incredibly unusual and all the more suspicious for a bunch of gods to give up their merits for a person they don’t even know, and Pei Ming will get to the bottom of it if it’s the last thing he does. “All right, me and Sa—my husband will take care of it, it falls under our domain anyway. But, my lady, I wasn’t joking. I’m not coming back. This ascension is a mistake I didn’t intend to happen.”
“Your Highness...” Ling Wen starts in a voice so tired as never before, but Xie Lian raises his hand and stands up. She obeys his unspoken request.
“Surely you have a list of officials who refused godhood, don’t you?” he asks, smile gone and eyes serious. He almost looks his age now, solemn and distant and so incredibly out of place. “There should be one name on it. Or no name, actually, he wouldn’t have given you any. Put mine right next to his, would you? That’s the way it should be.”
There’s a crack Ling Wen masks with a smile and a courteous nod. Only when Xie Lian and Ming Yi leave the room does she let the broken remains of the brush fall to the table. Her hand is shaking.
“Noble Jie?” Pei Ming asks gently lest she startle like a terrified animal. He’s never seen her like this and it’s so wrong. “Hey, jiejie, are you all right?”
She looks at him, opens her mouth, closes it, then slumps against his shoulder like a dead weight. “I need a drink,” she mumbles into his sleeve and who is he to deny her anything?
Finding the real name of Xie Lian’s mysterious husband can wait. For now, Pei Ming has a friend to revive.
Feng Xin knows Mu Qing better than anyone. He knows the curve of his angry snarl and the way he bares his teeth in derision. He knows the precise curvature of his eye roll. No fake skin can change that, which is why he recognises that fucker at first glance the moment he runs into him in a nameless village at the feet of Mount Yu Jun.
“You,” Mu Qing seethes which probably means he’s recognised Feng Xin as well despite his own painstakingly crafted fake skin. Oh well, moments of enlightenment happen to everyone, so perhaps even Mu Qing is granted one once a lifetime.
“You,” Feng Xin responds in kind.
And then – silence.
Fuck it all to the Ghost Realm and back, can they not run into each other for a change? Is that too much to hope for? Feng Xin has put up with that bloody idiot for almost a millennium now, both before and after His Highness’s second banishment and subsequent disappearance, and every century grew more tedious and unbearable than its predecessor. Old habits die hard, old grudges even more so, and what lies between them is an entire ocean of enmity.
“I urge everyone to avoid Mount Yu Jun for the time being,” Ling Wen announced in the main communication array a few hours after His Highness’s ascension and destruction that had followed it. Her voice was stern and left no room for objections. “His Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le won’t be joining us, but he’s doing us a favour of taking care of an assignment of sensitive nature in that area. Once it’s done, he will keep no ties to the Heavenly Realm whatsoever, so please respect his decision and let him leave in peace and without unnecessary hassle.”
Now that was the biggest bullshit Feng Xing has ever heard, so of course he muted the array, grabbed a generic sword from his armoury and descended to the mortal realm in an even more generic disguise. By the time he got to the vicinity of Mount Yu Jun, unease has settled heavy in his stomach and regret has turned his heart stone-cold.
In Heaven, he saw His Highness’s face, animated and bright like it used to be centuries ago, but it wasn’t for him. It was because of the Earth Master, who led His Highness through the streets of the Upper Court unbeknownst of Feng Xin watching them from afar. Xie Lian looked so different from what Feng Xin remembered – dressed in a borrowed black robe that didn’t hide his bare feet and bruised neck, face stretched in a wide, slightly bashful smile as he listened to the Earth Master’s tirade.
“It’s good you had that pitiful excuse of a sleeping garment on,” Ming Yi kept ranting in an astonishing display of eloquence he’d never shown before. “It means your idiot of a husband won’t go on another murder spree because the gods saw you naked.”
Xie Lian laughed, loud and happy, but Feng Xin’s mind stopped at the word ‘husband’ and refused to process anything further. “He wouldn’t do that for something so insignificant.”
“Yeah, all right, he would.” And then His Highness burst out laughing like he just heard the funniest joke in the universe and, seriously, what the fuck?
And now, hours later, Feng Xin is watching him from afar just like he did in Heaven. His heart is writhing in an iron grip of conflicting feelings – just like it did in Heaven. The only difference is Mu Qing he’s stumbled across upon descending and really, he must be here only to piss Feng Xin off because he hasn’t cared about His Highness since forever.
It’s Feng Xin who scoured the mortal realm after His Highness’s second banishment, not Mu Qing. It’s Feng Xin who came up with nothing for years after years of continuous search, not Mu Qing. It’s Feng Xin who cared and still cares, even though he has no idea how to fix the millennium-old chasm between him and His Highness, not Mu Qing.
So why the fuck is Mu Qing here?
“Why the fuck are you here?” Feng Xin asks because he can’t stop himself and even if he could, he wouldn’t want to. Heaven knows he never has.
Mu Qing rolls his eyes like he always does and Feng Xin wants to punch him into the next century. He hasn’t done that in a while, he realises. It makes his fists itch.
“What, because suddenly only you can descend to the mortal realm? Give me a break.”
“I’ll give you something else if you—fuck.”
At some point in between glaring at Mu Qing and wishing he’d vanish and save Feng Xin the trouble of beating him up, His Highness disappeared and this is the exact opposite of what Feng Xin has come here for. So he ignores the bane of his existence and strides forth, his eyes darting around in search of familiar white robes and an unfamiliar bamboo hat. Mu Qing follows him like regret made flesh.
At least he’s silent. Feng Xin’s patience can only withstand so much.
It takes him a while to notice His Highness amidst all the people milling about the village’s main street. Given all the red decorations, it should’ve been a wedding procession, but the mood permeating the air befits a funeral. Xie Lian is standing in the middle of it, surrounded by wailing families and slightly less wailing but definitely more sulking men. He’s listening to them with a soft smile Feng Xin remembers from the days of the Xian Le court, but unlike then, his eyes are attentive, taking in everything around him with unwavering focus.
His clothes are simple but of fine quality, white outer robe with hints of butterfly-patterned red peeking from underneath. There’s a sword at his belt and much to his own surprise, Feng Xin recognises it as one of those he pawned himself all those centuries ago.
Then His Highness notices him and his smile gets a strained edge. “Please excuse me for a moment,” he tells the wailing grandmother he’s been talking to and strides to where Feng Xin is standing. “Can I help you two with anything?”
Two...? A quick glance to the side tells Feng Xin that yes, Mu Qing is still there next to him, sulking like a child dragged to a festival he didn’t want to attend. Splendid. Just what Feng Xin needed.
“Your Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le?” he asks, trying to buy himself the time he doesn’t have. He tried to come up with an excuse on his way down, but between worry and astonishment, he failed spectacularly.
“A long time ago, yes,” His Highness says, smile waning. He puts his hand on the hilt of his sword and Feng Xin involuntarily takes a step back. “And who might you be?”
Don’t you recognise me? wails something in Feng Xin’s mind before he recalls his disguise. “My name is Nan Feng from the palace of Nan Yang, Your Highness, and this is...”
“Fu Yao,” Mu Qing grumbles, for once not ruining Feng Xin’s plans. “From the palace of Xuan Zhen.”
His Highness blinks a few times, brow furrowed in obvious confusion, before his eyes light up in recognition. “Oh, you mean you’re Feng Xin’s and Mu Qing’s subordinates?” he asks and lets go of his sword. “Why are you here?”
Now that’s a good question and Feng Xin doesn’t know the answer to it.
“We were sent to assist Your Highness in his task,” Mu Qing grumbles and never did Feng Xin expect a day on which he would be grateful for his existence. Thankfully, that feeling passes quickly.
“By whom?” There’s a genuine surprise in His Highness’s voice and before Feng Xin can think of a believable excuse, he shakes his head and huffs. “I told that literature official me and my husband will take care of this matter, so your presence here is completely unneeded. I appreciate the thought, though.”
That’s the second time Feng Xin hears the word ‘husband’ in relation to His Highness. Once could’ve been a joke. Twice, and from His Highness himself? Not so much.
“What husband?” Mu Qing asks from behind Feng Xin, all the grace and tact of a demon barrelling towards Mount TongLu. “I... My general follows the same cultivation path as Your Highness, so it’s—”
“There are many cultivation paths available, official,” His Highness interrupts him in a voice of steel and with a smile of a saint. “No one’s restricted to only one way of conduct if circumstances call for changing it.”
Feng Xin can’t even begin to comprehend the idea of His Highness marrying someone, let alone a man. He was always above earthly temptations and pleasures of flesh, his attention focused on cultivation and ascension ever since he’d learnt what they were. His late parents bemoaned, but not even calling the most beautiful women in all Xian Le to the palace and presenting them to His Highness changed his mind. A preference towards men would explain why he didn’t so much as look at them, but it was as bizarre an idea then as it is now.
Mu Qing just huffs and says nothing, but Feng Xin can’t shake off the feeling this entire situation is wrong at its core.
“It wasn’t Ling Wen,” he says, desperately filling the silence with the first thing that comes to his mind. “It wasn’t her who sent us.”
His Highness tilts his head. “Then who did?”
“Who’s your husband?” Mu Qing asks and thus saves Feng Xin from having to come with a plausible lie and fuck, with how things are progressing, he’s going to be indebted to that idiot before nightfall. “And why isn’t he with you?”
“He’s busy right now and will arrive later.” Oh, this is a smile Feng Xin has never seen on His Highness’s face. Wide, bright and so full of incandescent happiness it’s almost painful to look at. “And it’s Hua Cheng. You might’ve heard of him.”
“What?” Mu Qing echoes Feng Xin’s thoughts to a fault.
“Hua Cheng,” His Highness repeats in the voice of a parent patiently telling his child for the umpteenth time not to beat up the neighbours’ kid. “The ghost king? Blood Rain Seeking Flower? Really, considering everyone’s reactions one would think you forgot about him.”
And what even was everyone’s reaction, running away screaming? Fainting on the spot? Feng Xin can’t even draw a breath through the heavy fog of terror that has settled in his chest. It can’t be. This is impossible. There’s no world in which His Highness would ever look favourably at the epitome of evil Hua Cheng is.
Which means, Feng Xin’s mind dutifully supplies through the haze of overdrive it’s launched itself into, His Highness either wishes to keep his spouse’s identity secret (is there even a spouse in the first place? Maybe it’s just a convenient lie?), or it’s not His Highness at all but a very convincing imposter.
“Hua Cheng,” Mu Qing seethes through an angry snarl and it turns the Devastation name into an insult. “Right. Did Your Highness hurt his head during his ascension? Has he seen a physician while he was at the Heavenly Court?”
Xie Lian takes a step back, a grimace of hurt flashing on his face. It’s quickly replaced by indifference. “Believe what you will, I don’t care,” he says and turns around. “Don’t get in our way.”
He walks off to the people he was speaking with, purpose in his steps and pride in his posture, and Feng Xin grasps at words that elude him. What does one say to their sort of a friend they haven’t seen in nearly a millennium and who now treats them like a stranger?
“He’s gone insane,” Mu Qing says. Feng Xin spares him a glance and knows the same expression of utmost confusion is mirrored on his own face.
“And now you scared him away. Congratulations.”
“Shut up, you idiot,” Mu Qing grumbles like the charming fellow he is.
“You shut up,” Feng Xin retorts and straightens his back. “I’m going over there to help him with whatever this is about, regardless of the mythical husband. Do what you will.”
“Oh please, as if you stand a chance if it really is Hua Cheng,” Mu Qing snorts but there’s a hint of uncertainty in his voice Feng Xin notices only because of the years of their shared history.
“It’s not Hua Cheng.”
“I know, but... what if it is?”
“It’s not. It can’t be.” His Highness would never. No matter what happened to him during exile, he would never have fallen so low. “It’s not.”
It is, as it turns out, someone called ‘San Lang’.
By the time Feng Xin and Mu Qing drag a horde of base slaves away from the bridal sedan and slaughter them all, His Highness is long gone. They find the palanquin he rode in on their way to the mountain temple – it’s empty but thankfully missing any signs of struggle. The only way left is up, so they run through the forest of corpses and arrive at the empty, silent temple filled with shadows. Its door is wide open and there’s no sign of a living being anywhere in the vicinity.
Out of habit, Feng Xin looks at Mu Qing, catches him doing the same thing, nods and strides forward. Mu Qing trails after him, quiet and ready to strike anything on their path. Feng Xin’s nerves are on fire, his grip on the sword – tight and sweaty, and he’s so full of adrenaline he’s going to strike anything that moves. It’s terrifying. It’s thrilling.
He hasn’t felt like this in a long time.
A sudden thud comes from somewhere within the temple. He tenses, ready to lurch, but Mu Qing grabs his hand and presses a finger to his lips. Feng Xin needs an embarrassingly long moment to shake off the fog of bloodlust, but he nods eventually. Quietly, they approach the open door and promptly freeze when echo carries His Highness’s drawn-out, “San Laaaang.”
Someone laughs in response – a low, breathy chuckle. A man without a doubt. Feng Xin glances at Mu Qing and sees his eye twitch.
“Gege looks stunning in wedding robes,” San Lang says—and really, ‘gege’? A rustle follows. “Have I told you recently how much I adore seeing you in red?”
His Highness giggles. Giggles! Feng Xin dies a little inside when he hears it. “You have, but I’m not opposed to hearing it again.”
“Your wish is my command.” Rustle. “I love how you look in red.” Rustle, shuffling. “It suits you better than it does me.” Rustle, a moan. “Every time I look at you when you’re wearing my clothes, I recall the day of our wedding and want to do it again, because I can never get enough.”
Mu Qing grabs Feng Xin’s hand and holds onto it with the desperation of a dying man, and Feng Xin doesn’t have it in him to shake him off.
“San Lang,” His Highness says and holy shit, that can’t be him. His voice was never like that, so heavy with feelings. “Whose temple is it again?”
A moment of silence. Something bright flickers and disappears somewhere deep inside the temple. “Pei Ming’s.”
“Oh, him. He didn’t believe me when I told him we’re married.”
Another rustle. “Do you think he’ll believe you if you take me on the altar?”
Feng Xin drops his sword. In a stunning display of skill, Mu Qing catches it before it hits the ground. His face is pallid in darkness and Feng Xin knows his own is exactly the same.
“Or,” San Lang continues, “I can take you on the altar and then you can fuck me against the wall and—”
What in the actual fuck.
A loud thud and an embarrassingly loud moan follow that exclamation. Then come the noises Feng Xing prefers not to decipher—and he’s had enough. This is sacrilege and whoever San Lang is, he’s clearly corrupted His Highness beyond saving. “Fuck it,” he whispers to Mu Qing, who looks horrified and honestly? Feng Xin isn’t blaming him. “I’m going to...”
Voice dies in his throat when a bright speck of light lazily flutters past them. It’s small and silver and when Feng Xin’s eyes adjust enough so that he makes out the shape of butterfly wings, his blood freezes.
“Run,” he whispers to Mu Qing, but Mu Qing doesn’t move, staring ahead. Heaven above, Feng Xin doesn’t even want to look that way but he has to and—
A flurry of silver butterflies explodes all around them and from within it, a natural disaster clothed in red and silver walks out and slams them both against the suddenly closed door. His hand is a heavy unshakeable shackle around Feng Xin’s neck that barely allows any air to his lungs.
“San Lang? Who is it?”
Through the haze of terror, Feng Xin sees only the Devastation’s snarl and the boundless hatred swirling in his only visible eye. Some detached part of his mind realises it’s the first time anyone’s seen this particular form of Hua Cheng. No legend he knows of ever spoke of an eyepatch hiding his right eye.
“Just pests, gege,” Hua Cheng says and oh gods, he truly is the man they heard before, even though now his voice lacks every trace of warmth. “Nothing to worry about.”
His Highness approaches them, stops right next to Hua Cheng and puts his hand on his arm. “I know them, they came with me from the village.”
“Those two minor officials?” When did His Highness tell him about them? Feng Xin would really rather it didn’t happen. Nothing good ever comes out from Hua Cheng knowing about someone’s existence. “I thought they were just some random idiots with too much free time, not... them.”
“Do you know them?” His Highness asks, without making a move to drag this nightmare away from them. He seems content where he is, plastered to Hua Cheng’s side, and it is so deeply wrong Feng Xin can’t even find words to describe it.
“Gege knows them too.” This fucking ghost has the audacity to grin as he lets them go. He wraps an arm around His Highness’s waist and His Highness does the same. Feng Xin would rage if he wasn’t so preoccupied with taking huge breaths into his air-deprived lungs. “They’re your servants, don’t you recognise them?”
How the fuck did he...?
“Really?” His Highness looks at them with a furrowed brow. It takes every bit of self-control Feng Xin has not to squirm. Next to him, Mu Qing’s ragged breathing hitches. “Are you sure?”
“Of course. First of all, there are no minor officials with those names. Second, why would some random trash follow you to the mortal realm unasked and unwanted?”
Mu Qing is the first to drop the disguise. Feng Xin can only follow. His Highness’s eyes light up in recognition, but he doesn’t step away from the bloody ghost at his side. He just smiles at them from where he’s standing. Hua Cheng glares at them, a few butterflies bobbing languidly up and down around him. One of them lands on top of His Highness’s head and stays there, wings spread wide and twitching slightly.
“Your Highness,” Feng Xin says and stops. What’s there to say anyway? Reconciling after a few years of separation would be difficult. But between them, oh – centuries lie between them, filled with the unknown and experiences unimaginable.
“Feng Xin.” His Highness inclines his head towards them, then looks at Mu Qing with a slightly more complicated expression. “Mu Qing. Why are you really here?”
And just like he didn’t know at the time of his impulsive decision to descend to the mortal realm, neither does Feng Xin know now. Looking at His Highness is like beholding a stranger with whom he has nothing in common despite their shared childhood.
“Is he making you reject Heaven?” Mu Qing asks without thinking, just like he’s prone to. Hua Cheng snorts and shakes his head, and His Highness runs a hand up and down his side until his expression softens somewhat.
“Why would you think he’s making me do anything? Marriage doesn’t work like that. I’m not his slave.”
That’s a terrifying prospect and so, so possible. It would be just like Hua Cheng to trick an unsuspecting person into believing he cares about them.
Feng Xin runs a hand through his hair and refuses to dwell further on that concept lest he go insane. “Then why are you giving up something you craved so much?”
His Highness falls silent for a moment. He presses his face into the side of Hua Cheng’s neck, and Hua Cheng kisses the top of his head in a sickeningly sweet display of affection. It’s so unlike him. It makes Feng Xin nauseous. It’s wrong; so wrong. A ghost king shouldn’t be acting like that.
“Eight hundred years is a long time, Feng Xin,” His Highness finally says, eyes closed and voice distant. “Many things happened. I met many people and learnt many things. Priorities change when you have friends and a family. What is ascension compared to a home? Why would I give up people I care about for pointless duty?”
Feng Xin flinches. He can’t help it; not when Jian Lan’s face flashes in his mind like an unwanted reminder of the biggest failure of his life.
“Let it be known that I didn’t forget the shit you both pulled on His Highness,” Hua Cheng says before Feng Xin can go further down the never-ending hole of regrets and bad decisions. “Neither the attack nor the abandonment. And let it also be known that I’m not cutting you both into pieces right now just because I think my husband might be cross with me if I did.”
“Very cross indeed,” His Highness agrees and kisses his neck. Hua Cheng sucks in a breath he definitely doesn’t need, being dead for almost a millennium. And then His Highness leans back and looks towards the interior of the temple. “RuoYe!”
There’s a moment of silence. Then, incredibly fast, a white silk band comes dragging a struggling ghost with it. Feng Xin doesn’t know who she is, but the resentment comes off her in waves. And yet, the silk’s aura is somehow worse.
All the more surprised he is when it unwinds from her and shoots towards Xie Lian’s extended hand. Contracting in the air, it wraps itself snugly around his wrist. He strokes it a few times like one would pat a dog for a job done well.
“This is Xuan Ji,” he explains as Hua Cheng pushes the ghost towards Feng Xin and Mu Qing. She doesn’t retaliate and frankly? Feng Xin can relate. “She’s the one responsible for the trouble in this area. Take her to Heaven with you, that literature goddess knows what this is about.”
“Why don’t you—”
“I am not going back there, Feng Xin,” His Highness interrupts. His voice is full of finality no one can hope to change. Feng Xin knows best what he’s like when he makes up his mind about something. “If you want, we can meet in the mortal realm for a chat, but you won’t see me in Heaven ever again.”
“Now scram,” Hua Cheng adds, “we’re busy.”
With what, desecrating Pei Ming’s temple?
At his side, Mu Qing says nothing as be binds Xuan Ji and leads her – or drags, more likely, considering the ruin her legs are – away without a word of goodbye. Coming to think of it, Feng Xin still doesn’t know why he came, but it’s a question for another day. Now, he bows to His Highness, who nods and immediately turns to his husband. It’s still a fact impossible to acknowledge, but Feng Xin isn’t going to overstay his welcome.
Behind him, there’s rustle and a sigh, and a quiet whisper of, “You all right?” in a voice that sounds unmistakably like Hua Cheng’s but at the same time can’t be his. It’s soft, devoid of fury and full of concern instead. Maybe even full of love if Hua Cheng was capable of that emotion.
“Yes,” His Highness says just as quietly. “You’re here, so I’m more than all right.”
“As if I’d ever let you deal with this shit alone.”
Feng Xin hears another rustle, immediately followed by a sudden yelp. His heart speeds up in fear. Against his better judgment, he stops and turns around – and then wishes he didn’t. His Highness is holding Hua Cheng in his arms. The Devastation’s legs are wrapped around his waist, his hands – around His Highness’s neck. Their foreheads are pressed together. It’s an impossible, unfathomable scene, and Feng Xin’s mind refuses to process it. He feels like he’s intruding upon something precious and intimate.
“San Lang,” His Highness whispers against Hua Cheng’s lips. “Let’s go home?”
Hua Cheng wastes no time in closing the distance and kissing him and yes, this is definitely something Feng Xin shouldn’t be looking at but he just can’t stop. “A-Lian,” Hua Cheng murmurs when he pulls back. The dreaded ghost king, the Devastation, the nightmare of Heaven is looking at His Highness with adoration so profound Feng Xin feels it like a punch to the gut. “Yes, let’s go home.”
And then they disappear in an explosion of butterflies, Hua Cheng and His Highness, and Feng Xin is left staring at the empty space where they were standing. It takes Mu Qing to shake him out of his reverie.
“Coming?” he asks, gruff as always, but Feng Xin sees what hides beneath that façade. He’s known him long enough.
Deep down, Mu Qing is just as shaken as he is.
“Yeah,” he says, throwing one last look over his shoulder, but His Highness is gone and somehow he feels more out of reach than he’s been all these centuries. “I’m coming.”
“Have you heard?” The latest gossip spreads through Heaven with the speed of light. “The laughing stock of the three realms is married to the Ghost Realm’s number one big shot!”