Chapter 1: i live to make you free
It’s nearing sunset and they’re alone. Well, alone together. It’s so wonderful to be anything other than just alone.
Xie Lian sighs, feeling the soothing spiritual energy flow into his veins. Wuming’s hands are cool and gentle.
“You don’t have to keep following me, you know,” Xie Lian says. He looks at his wrist, still tinged grey. No matter how many resentful spirits came for him, the cursed collar made sure he couldn’t die.
“I know,” Wuming says. His long fingers brush over the inside of his wrist before trailing back to trace the lines of Xie Lian’s palm. Xie Lian shivers; it tickles. Wuming pulls his hand back completely, staring out at Xie Lian from behind his mask, dark eyes deep and unreadable. How strange to think he’s never seen Wuming’s face.
He looks around at their dilapidated home for the night. They stay the night in a broken-down shack on the side of the road. Set in the deep woods it's not much more than a roof and three walls. Vines and flowers sprout up and between the floorboards. Amazing how things can grow in the most unlikely of places . It might have been someone's hunting cabin at some point in time, but nature has long since reclaimed it. They’ll have to keep moving, it’s not safe for Xie Lian to stay this close to the Yong'An border. “Is--is this alright Wuming?”
“It’s perfect, dianxia.”
Xie Lian freezes. “Please don’t call me that. Anything but that—at least for now.”
Wuming stays silent, then turns to stoke the fire a few feet away from them. “Anything?”
“Within reason,” Xie Lian says, smiling. Wuming has been so deferential and respectful towards him, almost too much so. It must be from serving in the army. Xie Lian is no longer a god essentially, he’s a prince in title only, the last army he commanded was an army of ghosts that he turned on himself, there is no homeland to return to.
It’s so simple but it brings warmth to Xie Lian’s heart. The easy intimacy. The fact that Wuming refuses to call him by his given name but asks to call him gege . He’s never had anyone call him gege before.
“But what about you? Wuming isn't a proper name, so what should I call you?”
"I was third in my family, gege can call me San Lang."
"San Lang, I like that." Xie Lian looks down and draws a flower in the dirt with his fingers. "It feels like we've done this backward. You've seen me at my lowest and I didn't even know your name."
San Lang hums a noncommittal noise. He reaches down with long elegant fingers and adds several petals to Xie Lian's drawing. "Why should it matter? Because they say so? They don't mean anything. They're nothing. Just keep doing what you want to do."
"Alright," Xie Lian reaches out to tangle their fingers together. "But then you do what you want to do, too."
San Lang seems comfortable heading into the forest to forage and hunt for their dinner.
While San Lang gathers food, Xie Lian looks for soft grasses they can make into bedding for the night. It's quiet here.
"Gege look what I found." San Lang emerges from the dense forest with an armful of wild mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, and maticai. His hair is a mess around his mask.
Xie LIan moves closer and scoops half of the bounty into his arms. It’s fresh and he gets dirt on his white robes but it doesn’t matter. He leans down to smell and almost sneezes when the maticai tickles his nose. "San Lang is so talented!"
"It's nothing, just some basic things I picked up from...around."
"Well since San Lang found the food, the least I can do is cook." It doesn't take long for Xie Lian to realize that's more challenging than usual--they don't have any cooking supplies. "As soon as I figure out how."
"Not to worry, gege." San Lang hands Xie Lian the rest of the forage and reaches back to take a few thick tree branches from his back along with two or three wild rabbits. "We can cut these into planks to put over the fire."
Like they've practiced it, they both unsheathe their swords. Fang Xin hums in Xie Lian's hand, the resentful energy built up in the sword resonating with the resentful energy built up in Xie Lian's body. Xie Lian circles his wrist and steels himself against the hum, but the longer he holds Fang Xin, the worse it gets.
"Ready?" San Lang twirls his sabre in the air, the blade catching the firelight.
Quick as anything, they slice the branches into planks. San Lang takes a small knife out of his belt while Xie Lian re-sheaths his sword. His hands are dark grey, the color snakes all the way up his forearms, lighter by his elbows, but worse than it was before. Xie Lian drops his arms, letting his sleeves fall down and cover everything. He feels a little better without Fang Xin in his hands but the ache is still there.
San Lang looks up, right in the middle of skinning a rabbit "Is gege alright?"
"Fine!" Xie Lian smiles and picks up a few planks of wood. "Ready to get to work."
In a few minutes, they have the planks set up over the fire, the meat and vegetables roasting away.
Dinner is....adequate. It's food and there's no reason justifying complaints when San Lang worked so hard. But Xie Lian has never missed salt so much.
After dinner they lie on the pile of soft grass, bodies stretched out side by side. It's a warm night, starlight illuminates the grove, and it's quiet aside from the rare twitter of birds. Xie Lian isn't used to sharing a bed, but then again San Lang isn't just anyone. San Lang flops back onto the makeshift bed and folds his arms behind his head while they wait. "Gege come look at this."
It should be strange, lying beside a masked ghost on a bed of grass, close enough to feel how there's no heat coming from San Lang's body. It should be strange how often he forgets that San Lang is dead, but perhaps the dead truly are better company than the living.
"What am I looking at?"
"The stars, they're so much brighter out here."
It's true. The woods around them are dense and deeply wooded, hard for anyone to make their way through the trees and underbrush unless there's a very strong reason to brave the trip, but they've found a small crescent-shaped clearing to stop for the night. The trees here bend their boughs backward like some sort of supernatural force shaped the sky for just the two of them.
"We'll go into a village tomorrow to get supplies," San Lang's voice is soft, gentle in a way it never was on the battlefield.
Xie Lian can't keep himself from smiling. The joy of being seen, the mortifying ordeal of being known, both are thresholds they've passed. Both are stormy seas and skies gone quiet. It's just...Xie Lian wants to know San Lang, too.
Without conscious permission, Xie Lian rolls over and traces his fingers over the mask on San Lang's face. It's cool and hard, echoing a little when Xie Lian's nails tap the cheek. Although it's only a moment, as soon as he realizes what he's doing, Xie Lian pulls his hand back as though he's been burned.
"Ah! Sorry, so sorry San Lang!" Xie Lian flips onto his back, shielding his face with his hands. "I don't know what's gotten into me..."
"What was gege looking for? Does he think that there's something waiting behind the mask?"
"No! Well, yes, but..."
San Lang turns onto his side, leaning on his elbow to prop up his head. "But what?"
Xie Lian turns his head. His cheeks are hot, and the starlight is bright enough that there's no doubt San Lang can see his flush. How strange to be embarrassed by this. Xie Lian had to develop a thick skin, fierce and fast--it's not like the world left him another choice. "San Lang is the only one I have left by my side--not that you're a last choice! You're the only choice! Just that...it would be nice to see your face." Xie Lian rolls over to face San Lang. He owes him that much--how can he ask to see San Lang's face if he can't even face him while he asks?
"I'm sure gege knows I have many faces. Maybe he could tell me what he prefers."
This time Xie Lian reaches out on purpose, tracing the edges of the mask, fingers skimming the soft, cool skin that only hints at what lies beneath. "I'd like to see San Lang's true face," Xie Lian goes to pull his hand back but San Lang stops him. For a few heartbeats, San Lang's hand rests on his own.
There’s no response for a while, and Xie Lian’s heart clenches, fearing he’s offended the one person left in his life. “San Lang--”
"What if...I were ugly." San Lang says suddenly.
San Lang's voice is usually cool and steady but, almost imperceptibly it wrenches, stumbling over the word "ugly". Xie Lian doesn’t need to be able to see his face to know that he’s hit a nerve.
"I...don't take it to heart, I was just curious." Xie Lian turns his hand so that he can lace their fingers together. "San Lang can look however San Lang wishes. It's just that it would be nice to see a face and not a mask."
"I'll show you someday. But no more masks."
"No more masks," Xie Lian repeats. He squeezes San Lang's hand one more time and smiles, hoping San Lang can see it in the dark. In the past few days, San Lang has already done so much for him, he can be patient. Looking at a mask hurts, but it's not Bai Wuxiang’s. There is no crying, only a soft, static smile. "I'll see you in the morning. It's been a long day and sleep overcomes him before he even notices its approach. But he goes to sleep with a smile.
San Lang stays awake long after Xie Lian's fallen asleep. He needs a name. San Lang is for Xie Lian and Xie Lian alone. He needs to be stronger, strong enough to protect Xie Lian. There's no getting around it: he's still a failure, letting Xie Lian take on those resentful spirits by himself. It should have been me , San Lang thinks. To his left, Xie Lian is asleep, face relaxed and almost completely at ease. His sleeves fell down, revealing his wrists, his forearms; the creeping threat of resentful energy still threaded through his veins, the cursed collar on his neck; they're all eyesores, unworthy of touching Xie Lian's skin. There has to be some way to break it.
He looks around, bored. Ghosts don't need to sleep and truthfully he's not interested. If he closes his eyes...
He's not going to close his eyes.
There's a branch nearby. It's rough and unsuitable, not nearly good enough for Xie Lian, but there's no other option. Too many statues have been destroyed already.
It's easier working with the subject right there, but it's hard to look away. San Lang's knife glints in the moonlight as he whittles away at the wood.
His hands don't move the way he wants them to, every slice seems just slightly out of place, the proportions aren't right. The only thing that seems to unfold the way it looks in his mind is Xie Lian's smile. But that's something San Lang could imagine at the point of a blade, a million meters underwater if his soul were dissipated into uncountable pieces.
It doesn't matter. If they face that in the future, San Lang will gladly lay his unlife down for the sake of Xie Lian's health. This time he’ll make sure nothing happens to his Highness. He deftly slices away another piece of bark, not caring when the knife cuts into his finger. A small drop of blood oozes out, sliding down his finger smelling of copper, sticky and wet. He's not sure bleeding is necessary or just a habit, but he could say that about so many things. How much time has he spent paring down his useless habits, sharpening himself into a weapon for Xie Lian's honor and safety?
Xie Lian is strong, can clearly take care of himself, but San Lang has to admit, he feels better knowing that he can be by Xie Lian's side. Especially now when those useless pieces of trash that used to call themselves Xie Lian's friends. San Lang will never take Xie Lian for granted.
Another slice, another drop of blood. It's drying on his fingers, some of it smears over the wood. San Lang looks down at it darkly before whittling it away. When he's finished, he's got a rough, malproportioned statue that vaguely looks like Xie Lian. The real thing is still asleep, but he's curled in on himself, like he's trying to take up as little space as possible. San Lang slips the small statue into his sleeve and he can't help himself, he reaches out and brushes a stray hair away from Xie Lian's forehead, watching him shift in his sleep. Xie Lian still looks troubled. San Lang watches him for a while, ready to jump up at any moment should the chance present itself. He’s failed before, he can’t accept that again.
In the deep quiet of the woods, in the presence of the person he loves most in the world, he watches and waits.
He's at the top of a wall, the Shangyue parade circles the capital. There’s a figure in black on the float, representing a ghost, cutting through countless guards and soldiers. A ghost in black. He’s good with a sabre, but not his Highness, he’s never seen anyone who could match his Highness when it came sword to sword. All those people, praying for safety, for prosperity, for peace. When has he ever had the luxury of any of those things? What is a sabre to a person willing to be his Highness’s sword. His shield.
The feel of his face swaddled in dirty bandages, watching the procession below, and then suddenly he's falling falling falling. A lithe white figure, smelling of osmanthus, streaks upward, catching him from below. He can smell his own fear, his own sweat, feel the anger rising up in his throat. But the scent of flowers, the soft caress of finely woven cloth, the gentle voice he'll never forget telling him "I'm here, I won't let you fall."
There's a clamor in the heavens. Jun Wu seems obscenely unconcerned with the fact his former (?) favorite ascended, stabbed him, and then descended once more--disappearing into the mortal world as though he were no more than an ant.
Feng Xin looks around the Great Martial Hall, brows drawing together, the kindling of grievances in his heart bursting into flame. There are too many twittering to one another behind open palms.
"I heard he didn't even last against Jun Wu for half an incense stick."
As though you'd last long enough for someone to even light it , Feng Xin thinks, face dark. Across the hall, Mu Qing stands, chin lifted, surrounded by a circle of sycophants, each one running their mouths like they've got more merits than Jun Wu, not that any of them would have the balls to admit it. As for Mu Qing, Feng Xin is sure that he's doing his best to look superior, but from this side of the hall, it just looks like he's stepped in dog shit.
Not so far off of his everyday bitch face, like he's got a closet full of the same shirt except instead of shirts it's expressions.
Jun Wu enters the hall and the weighty whispers die down to a slow susurrus. Even his presence isn't enough to deter it completely. He doesn't waste any time. "Xian Le has been banished to the mortal realm once more."
Complete silence. There's no one there to speak up for Xie Lian. Feng Xin himself is unable to find a voice.
The rest of the meeting is far less eventful, though various heavenly officials hint and hem and haw around it, looking for any loose thread they can pull to unweave the story from the tapestry.
Pei Ming keeps hinting that they all know his stories, that they're a family.
Jing Wen snorts, saying "we'd find those out whether we wanted to or not. It's like trying to plug one's ears while stealing a bell."
A wave of laughter spills across the court, Jun Wu makes a motion dismissing them, but Feng Xin lingers until all but a few have filed out. Mu Qing stands near the throne, giving Jun Wu as much deference as he ever gives anyone.
"...know where he is," Jun Wu says.
Mu Qing nods, "Then I'll take my leave."
Feng Xin is caught between stopping Mu Qing and asking Jun Wu about Xie Lian.
The truth is that he could turn around and follow Mu Qing out, and throttle him till he sings. But no. Feng Xin isn't willing to test his luck with Mu Qing—if anything that's plan Z. Or whatever you call the very bowels of hell.
Jun Wu looks at him, accommodating and graceful, a small, wry, smile fluttering at the corner of his lips. "What are your concerns?"
Feng Xin kneels, bowing his head, then looking up to meet Jun Wu's gaze, "My lord, this humble servant was curious as to taizi dian—Xianle might be at this moment."
"As I told Xuan Zhen, Xianle has descended to the mortal world and has not kept in contact with the Heavenly Court as requested. We are doing our best to locate him; the Palace of Jing Wen is working on his whereabouts as we speak. Jing Wen speaks very highly of Nangong Jie, perhaps she might be of help?"
Feng Xin rises and gives his thanks, striding through the Great Martial Hall towards the doors at the back. Fucking useless. The Palace of Jing Wen has never been anything other than inefficient. Jun Wu might as well have said Xie Lian disappeared. He might as well be a ghost.
Feng Xin can't fucking catch a break--Mu Qing is waiting outside the Great Martial Hall, an insufferably smug look on his face.
"You're not going to find out anything, you know."
"You don't know shit."
"If Jun Wu doesn't know where he is, what chance do you have?"
"Shouldn't you be saying that to yourself?"
Mu Qing clenches his fists, his pale, pretty-boy face flushing red. Feng Xin wants to punch him. "I was just curious, you're the one who looks like a lost puppy."
"Shut the fuck up!"
So Feng Xin does. Mu Qing's nose breaks with a satisfying crack. It's bullshit that it's not going to last more than an hour. Then Mu Qing hits him with a sucker punch to the gut. Cheap move but effective.
"Just face it, you left him too. And you're never going to find him."
"Fucking watch me."
Mu Qing looks like the snotty-nosed teenage boy he truly is inside. "You're a joke."
Feng Xin gets in one last good punch and walks away; neither of them is laughing.
"I'll find him, just watch me."
The cave is small and cramped, there’s barely enough room for two people. His Highness’s cries are pained, erotic. When he steps through the barrier, his Highness is twisted, writhing. There’s blood, there are pained whimpers that San Lang’s brain tells him could be something else, something like pleasure.
San Lang would give him everything if he ever got the chance. Gets the chance. His Highness’s skin is covered with a thin sheen of sweat, glinting every so often in the low light.
“San Lang, come here, I need you.” And in a matter of moments, San Lang is at his side. But his Highness--no, gege--never called him San Lang back then, something is off. Something is wrong.
It's barely sunrise when San Lang wakes up. He touches the mask on his face, then takes it off, sliding into a skin he hopes his Highness will like. If he doesn't then he can just change it. He's not ready to show his true face, yet. Someday.
Xie Lian is still asleep, curled in on himself, brows drawn together. It must be nightmares. San Lang reaches out to cup Xie Lian's shoulder, the warmth burning through the fabric of Xie Lian's robes and straight into San Lang's heart.
Xie Lian stirs sleepily, he blinks awake and rubs his eyes. "Ah is it morning already?"
"En, we should get going. It's not safe to stay in one place too long, makes us too easy to find."
Sitting up and straightening his robes, Xie Lian still looks regal--his posture, his poise, they're unmistakable. "This one understands," he says. He reaches out, it seems like he's going to touch San Lang's face but his hand swerves at the last moment and pulls a leaf out of his hair. The touch is soft and gentle, just barely skimming the lobe of San Lang’s ear.
San Lang can't remember the last time he felt so nervous, "How is it?"
They both know he's talking about his face. He chose to change his eye so they’d be the same color, his hair is pulled back in a ponytail. It’s pretty close to what he remembers looking like when he was alive. Close enough to get a hint of what Xie Lian would think of his true face, far enough for plausible deniability.
"Not bad, I like it." Xie Lian says with a smile. He seems to realize exactly what he's said, flushes a bit, and scratches the back of his neck. When his sleeve falls back, it reveals that delicate slender wrist, still mottled with grey and black. Xie Lian's eyes are red, there's grass tangled in his long hair and just a little bit of dirt on his nose; San Lang has never seen anyone more beautiful.
"This humble servant aims to please."
Xie Lian starts combing through his hair, bits of grass and leaves falling to the ground as his fingers move through the tangles. "One disadvantage of sleeping in the woods."
"Would gege let me?"
"...Alright. If San Lang doesn't mind."
"Not at all."
Xie Lian turns, his back facing San Lang, long hair cascading over his shoulders.
"Are we going into town today?"
We, how wonderful that sounds.
"Mmm, it would be best if we had supplies."
San Lang laughs, "yes, like salt." San Lang does not mention money. He has some stored away. It can be useful, even for ghosts. It's useful if he wants to become stronger--strong enough to protect one person. "We should probably use fake names. What does gege think?"
"En...now we just have to come up with them. I guess...I'll use Hua Xie for now. What about San Lang?"
"Well, this San Lang spent part of the night thinking about it."
"I hope San Lang slept."
"I did. But only gege can call me San Lang."
Xie Lian smiles, "Are you planning to make a name for yourself? You can be anyone you want."
"It seems gege and I are of one mind. San Lang remembered the flower gege drew yesterday and decided on Hua Cheng."
"Hua Cheng," Xie Lian says slowly. "It suits you."
"Begging gege's pardon that we share the same family name." He can’t fully quell the wave of nerves that washes over his chest.
"No, it's nice. I--I don't have a family anymore. Except for you."
"I will be here as long as gege wishes."
Xie Lian places his hand over San Lang---no, Hua Cheng's own. It’s still mottled grey, and before he can think about it Hua Cheng sends a stream of spiritual energy circling through Xie Lian’s meridians. A name, a purpose, Xie Lian has given him everything. "You'll be welcome for as long as you like, Hua Cheng."
Chapter 2: ebbing and flowing
Running into problems and running from them.
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.”