It's not hard to pack up. Xie Lian is getting used to carrying his life on his back. Of course, there's not much to carry, and what little there is, Hua Cheng insists on carrying himself.
"Gege, this San Lang would be poor company if he didn't help."
Xie Lian doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Weren't you the one who gathered and cooked dinner last night? Still, there really is no way to say, please don't help me so much, when Xie Lian is forcing himself to believe San Lang isn't just doing it out of pity. San Lang isn't that kind of person--well, isn't that kind of ghost.
"Ah, okay, but when we get into town San Lang has to let me take care of money." Not that he has any. But that's never stopped him before. He can find a busy plaza and busk.
San Lang frowns, "Gege, I don't think that will be necessary."
"I have money."
Xie Lian stiffens, then folds his hands into his sleeves to try and hide his discomfort. "I don't...there must be something I can do to help."
"All gege has to do is be himself."
But myself wasn't enough , Xie Lian thinks but does not say. He merely nods. He'll think of something he can do. He has to.
It's still relatively early in the morning. They stalk through the forest silently, leaves crunching under their feet, the fall chill turning the tip of Xie Lian's nose red. He's a little cold, but he's used to it.
"I just...want to be useful."
San Lang stops walking and touches Xie Lian's forearm. "San Lang has no doubt that you are."
Xie Lian shakes his errant doubts free.
It turns out that the nearest town is a ways away. They spend the morning side by side, walking towards their destination. It's mostly vast open fields and the occasional rice paddy, but many of them are dead and dried out, evidence that the drought consuming Yong'An hasn't fully disappeared.
Xie Lian turns his head, taking in the devastation. It's a painful reminder of what he couldn't do. The people he lost.
There's a brush of soft, cool skin on his hand. Or at least he thinks there is, but it's gone too quickly for him to be sure.
"Have you ever been here, gege?"
"No, I roamed for a while but never passed this way. Has San Lang?"
Hua Cheng shakes his head, "Before now I've never left Xian Le."
Xie Lian doesn't miss the fact that Hua Cheng still calls it Xian Le instead of Yong'An.
"Well, now we can see the world together," Xian Lian smiles. It even feels real. Getting as far away as they can sounds like heaven--better than. Xie Lian would know.
"Anywhere gege wants to go." Hua Cheng's smile is like a visceral ray of sunshine to his heart.
Just one person is enough.
Things get a little greener the closer they get to the village. There are farmhouses every so often, though they all look like they've weathered a storm. Xie Lian knows how that feels.
Soon enough, there are low, squat buildings that grow closer and closer together until they resemble something like a small city, the outer edges of what a sign tells them is Ping Yan. Toward the center are the fortified walls and the rich inner quarters. The markets will be somewhere in between. Shops and stalls may court rich patrons the most, but the poor are a far larger customer base.
As soon as they get into the city proper, Hua Cheng taps Xie Lian's hand before lacing their fingers together. When Xie Lian looks at him, Hua Cheng turns, flashing a tight, lopsided smile as his ponytail swings in the breeze. "I don't want gege and I to get separated. Who knows if this San Lang would be able to find you again."
Xie Lian squeezes his hand twice and feels the tips of his ears burn red, but he can't argue. He doesn't want to. "En. Best for us to stay together."
"I'm glad gege thinks so, too."
As they get further and further into the city, the buildings crowd closer and grow upwards. There are clotheslines that stretch from window to window, garments fluttering in the breeze. It's a smaller city, but there are parts that remind Xie Lian of the Royal Capital--or what was the Royal Capital. On the outer edges of the market, there are vendors selling dubious wares. Hideous portraits of fearsome men from far off lands. Talismans are drawn incorrectly, dubious bundles of herbs that smell like they're days away from going bad, and masks that have absolutely no spiritual properties whatsoever. Hua Cheng looks at the artifacts with unveiled amusement.
"Gege what do you think?" Hua Cheng holds up a golden necklace with a cracked gem set in the center. The description says it's meant to prevent demons from stealing pieces of your soul at night, but the gem is nothing more than a common crystal and there's no spiritual energy embedded in any part of it.
Xie Lian pretends to examine it, as though deep in thought. "Not bad, not bad. Though I think that San Lang is more than up to the challenge of keeping our souls safe."
Hua Cheng returns the necklace to the vendor with a sarcastic smile. "I think we'll pass."
The vendor snatches the amulet back, scowling. "If you ain’t buying you better get out."
Hua Cheng mockingly bows, "As you wish."
"San Lang," Xie Lian hisses, but he's fighting back laughter. Really, San Lang is too much.
"Gege," Hua Cheng says with a raised eyebrow. He links his arm through Xie Lian's and guides him out of the shop. "They were obviously not worth our time."
"And yet San Lang spent time having his fun."
"What can I say? Gege just brings it out in me."
Xie Lian doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Hua Cheng seems to understand, "Alright, let's keep looking."
And there are plenty of places to look.
"We need the basics, right?" Xie Lian looks around, peering at the herbs and vegetables sitting in haphazardly displayed piles, clearly disordered by uncountable pairs of hands.
"En. A pot, some spices, salt for gege."
"The salt is for San Lang, too. It's for both of us."
They wander through the maze of stalls, picking up things here and there; a string of garlic, the aforementioned pan, a tin of salt, two packs to carry their supplies, and the most extravagant purchase--candied strawberries. Unnecessary? Yes. But Hua Cheng insists they get a treat and wanderers though they are, this isn't the austere living Xie Lian expected. He wonders when they'll run out of money, but he can always busk if he has to.
After several hours of weaving through the market, they enter the Yellow Dragon Inn. Hua Cheng goes to reserve a room and Xie Lian grabs two seats in the tavern that occupies the bottom floor.
Nearby, there's a large party of drunk day workers. They're sunburned and ripe, pouring rice wine down their throats, telling increasingly bawdy and improbable stories.
"I'm telling you, the whole place burned down. We barely got out alive."
"Who'd be bold enough to burn a temple? Some trash who wants to risk the wrath of heaven."
A tall, broad man shakes his head, "Ling Xin said that he was guarding the door the whole time. The fire started behind him without a sound, and he'd just done his rounds, there was no one inside. Besides, there was a section of the forest that burned"
"Ling Xin is a drunk. He probably had a bottle in one hand and a match in the other." A short, bearded man shakes his head. Xie Lian supposes it's meant to be outrage but it looks more mocking than anything.
"Like you're one to talk, Fei Ming. I've never seen you sober."
"I'm sober right now!"
"You have a glass of wine in your hand."
"Aiyah, it takes a lot more than that to get me drunk," Fei Ming says, tipping his head back to drain his glass.
"With your nonsense, it sounds like you're three sheets to the wind already."
"I'll show you three sheets to the wind."
A panicked waiter bustles over, standing between the two men "Gentlemen, there's no need to fight," he says. His eyes flicker between the two of them, arms shaking slightly.
"What do you know?" Fei Ming pushes the waiter who stumbles to the ground, crab crawling away from between the two of them. "Zhou Chang, stand up and fight me, you coward."
"Gege, what are those useless trash going on about?" Hua Cheng slides onto the bench next to Xie Lian, leaving the other side of the table empty. When Xie Lian looks at Hua Cheng, head tilted to the side, Hua Cheng just smiles. "Dinner and a show."
"San Lang, shouldn't we help them?"
Hua Cheng shrugs, "why?"
Xie Lian doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Next to him, Hua Cheng props his feet up on the opposite bench, following the drunken grappling with clearly evident amusement. At this point the waiter has completely given up and is cowering against the back wall, looking towards the hired muscle lingering by the door. It's only when a stool breaks, shards of wood flying everywhere that someone finally does something about it.
"Gentleman, can't we discuss this?" A fist flies past Xie Lian, and he easily dodges. "Or at least fight outside so there's less broken furniture?"
Fei Ming fills and empties his glass once more then throws it at the wall, flying just over Xie Lian's shoulder. "And why should we listen to you, little white face?'"
It's nothing that Xie Lian hasn't heard before and despite the fact that his powers are sealed, his body is plenty strong and it doesn't take much to separate them. It helps a little that Zhou Chang stumbles over his feet, teetering backward on his own. He's clearly a big believer in his own ability, so he pitches himself forward, ignoring Fei Ming and heading right for Xie Lian--only to be stopped by a tall, lanky wall of muscle.
"I'd stop right now if I were you." Hua Cheng's voice is like icicles, freezing enough to paralyze, piercing enough to pin Zhou Chang in his place.
Fei Ming spits at Hua Cheng's feet and in a startling display of camaraderie Zhou Chang follows.
Hua Cheng draws his sabre, voice mild, "You shouldn't have done that."
"Well maybe we wouldn't if you'd stop fucking telling us what to do!" Zhou Chang puffs out his chest trying to make himself a little more menacing. Although Hua Cheng had been keeping a lazy hold on his spiritual energy, right now he drops the reins entirely. A chilling blast of killing intent spreads out circling Xie Lian, Hua Cheng, and that little band of ruffians. Though Xie Lian doubts they'd take well to being called little, he wouldn't put it past Hua Cheng to try.
"I'm going to give you one more chance, and that's two more than I give most people. Stand down."
"You and what army?" Fei Ming cracks his knuckles.
"Don't want one." Hua Cheng twirls his sabre, catching the light with a menacing glint. "Don't need one."
"You piece of shit I'm going to beat your head in--"
"Not if you ever want to drink here again."
Zhou Chang swings wildly at Hua Cheng, but his fist freezes mid-air.
Xie Lian grips Zhou Chang's wrist, holding it just tight enough to bruise. "As I suggested before, the gentlemen should take this outside."
But Zhou Chang and Fei Ming are regular customers and it's Xie Lian who ends up out on his ass. Hua Cheng joins him shortly after shaking down the innkeeper to return the money for their room.
"Come on, gege, we'll find a better place to stay."
Hua Cheng's hand is a warm burst of heat against the small of his back. Xie Lian is a little cold, he's used to being cold. But the warmth is nice so he leans into it. There's nothing comforting about being forced to leave, but everything comforting to leave and have someone to stay by his side.
It's not hard to find another place to stay, merchants flow in and out of the market quarter all the time. Inns are a natural byproduct.
"Aiyah, the Golden Dragon is no good, stay with us at the Azure Star, we know how to treat our customers! That mean old Rong Song, he wouldn't know good customer service if it cut off his balls."
The proprietor of the new inn is white-haired, bent at the waist, and Xie Lian has to wonder how he doesn't get food in his beard constantly .
"We'll take good care of you here," he says, leading the two of them up the stairs to their room. It's basic, with one bed that doesn't look very soft. The grass they slept on the night before was probably much more comfortable.
"Leaving would be an excellent start," Hua Cheng says. He sits on the edge of the bed and pats the spot next to him. Xie Lian closes the door and then it's just the two of them, alone.
Heart racing, Xie Lian tells himself it's nothing more than the after-effects of their almost fight. Sharing a bed feels far more intimate with four walls surrounding them. Still, he sits on the bed and they stretch out alongside one another. Neither bothers to get undressed, they'll have to find a bathhouse or stream tomorrow. Xie Lian is too tired to care.
"I'm sure gege is used to better--"
"No this is good, just right."
"Then this San Lang is glad."
"San Lang would do better not to pick fights." Xie Lian picks at a loose thread in the worn but starched clean blankets underneath them.
"If someone insults his high--gege, then San Lang cannot let it slide by unchallenged."
Xie Lian turns to lie on his back. "It would be better if we both forgot. I'm not that person anymore and there's no way I could be."
Hua Cheng wraps his fingers around Xie Lian's wrist. The now-familiar feeling of Hua Cheng's spiritual energy runs through his meridians and some of the creeping grey threaded through his veins recedes, like a night-blooming plant drawing back from sunlight. "If that were true, you would have released the resentful spirits on someone else."
Xie Lian hums. He's not sure what words would come out if he tried to verbalize an answer.
"Gege, as someone who has chosen to die for you, I hope you will remember how to live for yourself."
Complete silence smothers the room. Xie Lian draws in on himself.
"Good night, San Lang."
"Good night, gege."
Feng Xin descends to the capital of Yong'An first. It's hot and dry and there are people crowding the streets. In truth, it doesn't look like they're doing much better with the refugee situation. Those who hadn't been slaughtered in vaguely veiled genocides were shunted to the slums, crowded, dirty, and desolate.
According to Jun Wu, this is the last place they have a record of his Highness. Feng Xin listens to gossip on the street, but gleans nothing more than an averted plague--and hadn't there already been too much of that--but no whispers of his Highness. Granted, if anyone had seen him they'd probably be yelling rather than whispering.
With nothing to go on, Feng Xin wanders through the rest of the quarters of the city, just in case. But as the sun draws lower to the horizon, it becomes clear that Xie Lian must have left here long ago, and every minute Feng Xin spends here is another minute that Xie Lian gets further away.
There are no clues, all he can do is pick a direction.
Which one will let him get the farthest from Yong'An?
Feng Xin heads to the far city gate, making himself invisible to passersby. Once he arrives, he hides behind the wall, makes himself visible, and approaches the city guards. It pains him to talk with Yong'an Soldiers, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made.
"A guy with elegant brows, about 178 centimeters, elegant brows, gentle face? What are you looking for your lover or something? Fella, if he already left you then you're better off letting him go." There's something like sympathy in the guard's eyes and it makes Feng Xin sick.
"He's my friend," Feng Xin says from between his teeth. And I was the one who left him , he does not say.
"Well, if he didn't tell you, he probably doesn't want to be found."
Feng Xin tenses, confronted with the ugly truth. He's not welcome, and neither is anyone else from the Heavenly Court.
He keeps heading West anyway.
When Xie Lian wakes in the middle of the night Hua Cheng is gone and his own body takes up most of the bed. How long had he been sleeping alone? Didn't Hua Cheng say he wouldn't leave him? Xie Lian curls in on himself, trying to focus on his breath and calm his mind.
Being alone in a small room like this reminded him too much of the last house he'd shared with his parents. About what being alone there meant. Ruoye, still a bit clumsy as a spiritual device, winds its way around his arms in a facsimile of a hug. Xie Lian's cheeks are wet but he stays quiet. There's no one else to witness this. It can be okay.
It's unclear how long he stays like that. When Hua Cheng returns, Xie Lian pretends to be asleep. There's a small basin of water in their room and Xie Lian hears Hua Cheng wash his hands as soon as he comes in. Where was he? Why did he have to leave? Xie Lian squeezes his eyes shut. He'd learned long ago that there are some things he'll never get an answer for. Perhaps this is just one more.
Hua Cheng can tell that Xie Lian is upset the moment he enters the room, even if he's unconscious. Dianxia is curled in on himself, taking up the least amount of space possible. Hua Cheng's hands are bloody from hours of carving small statues to place around the city. When his hands are clean he wanders over to the edge of Xie Lian's side of the bed, hand hovering just above Xie Lian's face, before he thinks better of it and settles in on the other side.
"I'm sorry your Highness," he mouths, facing Xie Lian's back before falling into a restless sleep.
Morning comes too soon. Hua Cheng watches Xie Lian get up from the bed and pad over to the bowl of water, quickly washing his face, drops of water scattering all over the floor. When he turns around, Hua Cheng can see that his eyes are a little red.
Maybe things are catching up with him? Maybe he's regretting saying yes to their arrangement?
Even if his Highness sends him away, Hua Cheng won't let that stop him from protecting Xie Lian. He promised himself a long time ago that he'd do whatever he could, even if that meant that Xie Lian no longer desired his presence.
"Is San Lang ready?" Xie Lian straightens his robes and combs through his hair with his fingers. Hua Cheng remembers how soft it was under his fingers.
"En." There's nothing else to say. Or rather, there are too many things to say but none of them seem right.
They walk downstairs and Xie Lian keeps a careful, conscious distance between them. Last night, Hua Cheng managed to convince the innkeeper to include meals in their stay--if he truly wanted to prove that his establishment is superior to the Yellow Dragon. Easy.
But the dining room is drawn and hushed when they enter. There are still people eating their meals, waiters darting to and from the kitchen with trays of food, but the atmosphere--something's wrong.
"I think we should go talk to the innkeeper."
Hua Cheng doesn't necessarily agree--they'd be better off ignoring whatever bullshit's going on in this middling city and get on their way. After all, they can only stay inconspicuous if they keep their cover. Too bad, Xie Lian's already across the room having an animated conversation with the innkeeper, brows drawn together, mouth slightly pinched.
"Gege, what's the matter?"
"Something happened at the Yellow Dragon last night."
Of course, weren't they there for that pitiful excuse for a bar brawl? "Oh?"
"It burned down."
It wasn’t him. Dianxia has to know that too—hadn’t the incidents started before they’d arrived? He wasn't anywhere near there last night. In fact, he'd gone outside of the city to collect materials. Still, Hua Cheng remembers the sight of Mount Tai Cang, the fiery red maples transformed into actual flames.
He knows there’s no connection. His luck is good now, after all, if it weren’t he wouldn’t be able to stay by his Highness’s side. “Then let’s go take a look.”