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Scars that burn

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It had been a week since ‘the event’, and neither Feng Xin nor Mu Qing had received any follow up since Hua Cheng had absconded with their friend.

 

As soon as he had regained enough clarity to realise his powers were back and he could get Xie Lian help, he had whisked him away to the safety of their home and gone blackout silent ever since. It was disconcerting, but no news is good news they say.

 

On the other hand, Xie Lian was the type to keep people informed, so if they had heard nothing then in all likelihood he hadn’t yet recovered. He did sustain catastrophic injury after all, and even with the massive spiritual energy reserves between them it would surely take longer than a week to heal. Right?

 

Perhaps being left in the balance of uncertainty was just taking its toll on Feng Xin and he was overthinking and everything was fine. He’d like to think that was the case at least.

 

He and Mu Qing had busied themselves investigating the forest for any signs of stragglers, but the place seemed completely clean ever since. They had even received a plethora of merits and offerings for solving the problem, so officially the case was closed.

 

‘Officially’.

 

‘Officially’ didn’t care how the job got done as long as it was done. After witnessing something like that though, Feng Xin didn’t think he could afford not to care. In a rare moment of camaraderie, he seemed to actually share this sentiment with Mu Qing.

 

Fearsome in their arguments with each other they may be, but united against a common enemy that strength was doubled. That was how they found themselves in the lobby of Paradise Manor, angrily arguing with ghostly staff to be allowed to see their friend.

 

The regular staff! Not even Yin Yu had come to see them away. Even despite the situation, it was hard not to take it as an insult coming from Hua Cheng.

 

(At least being insulted seemed normal to combat that horrendously grief stricken wailing that still echoed in their ears from the last time they had met. They were hardly about to admit to it though.)

 

It took about an hour and a half of arguing back and forth intermixed with attempts to simply force their way in, but eventually Yin Yu did come to deal with them personally, so Feng Xin allowed himself some sense of triumph at the progress. 

 

“Chengzhu respectfully requests that the Generals of the South please leave, lest he come to less respectfully remove them himself.” He bowed, ever the face of propriety even when delivering threats.

 

At least Feng Xin hadn’t tricked himself into thinking this was going to be easy. They had prepared for a battle and they were ready to deliver it.

 

“Tell your Chengzhu he can respectfully get his backside out here to tell us what’s going on before we less respectfully find him ourselves! You can’t just kick us out, we have a right to see His Highness and you know it!”

 

Yin Yu’s eyes seemed to drain a little at that.

 

“Are you sure you want to?”

 

It was at that moment that Feng Xin noticed how strung out and exhausted he looked. Not that he didn’t look like that usually, as was the fate of an overworked errand boy in a city built on chaos. It was just the way he carried himself currently seemed to be of one carrying a weight on their shoulders that was only getting heavier.

 

“What’s that supposed to mean? What’s wrong with him?” Mu Qing needled in a way that was intended to come across as annoyance, but bled with concern. “Is he not getting better? It can’t have gotten worse right?”

 

Yin Yu bit his lip, seemingly debating how to answer.

 

“It’s not just his physical condition…” He trailed off in a sort of mutter, and Feng Xin got the distinct impression that he wasn’t talking to them.

 

“In any case, Chengzhu isn’t in the mood for visitors. I’m sure you’re well aware his temper is best avoided, and he’s been particularly upset lately. You should leave for everyone's sake.”

 

And then in a more gentle, but tired tone:

 

“Let them rest.”

 

It was logically the best decision, but it still didn’t feel satisfying as an answer.

 

“We won’t bother them.” Mu Qing sighed, arms crossed. “Just tell us if His Highness is alright.”

 

It was rare for Mu Qing to express open concern, and Feng Xin suddenly felt the gravity of the situation weigh back on him, opening back up his wounds of repressed exhaustion.

 

“His Highness is stable, but sleeping deeply. He will recover. He just needs time. Please give him space until then.”

 

Feng Xin sighed a deep breath. It seemed to be as good as they’d get for now.

 

“You’ll keep us informed if the situation changes?” He asked.

 

“Of course. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

 

He was clearly itching to close the conversation up and get back to work, but something else was biting at Feng Xin.

 

“...Is Crimson Rain okay?”

 

“...We will see.”

 

--

 

When Xie Lian first woke, he felt like he hadn’t.

 

He floated in between the lines of consciousness and unconsciousness like it was the best place to be. He couldn’t remember exactly how he had come to be asleep, but he thought that perhaps he should stay that way. At least for now.

 

Until he was awake again, but not.

 

His body was awake, his eyes open, half lidded, and he could somewhat envision his surroundings. Despite that his head was cloudy.

 

It was by design, he knew. He didn’t want to think about anything. It was a defense mechanism he had become well aware of over his years, that when something awful finally happened (as it always would) he would simply refuse to acknowledge it for as long as he could.

 

Such a blissful state of mindlessness would not last forever, and he would have to deal with the consequences eventually, but at least for now he would give himself some reprieve. Why scare himself wondering what he had lost this time? There are other, better things to think about. For example, from his position laid on his side and staring at the wall he could see that the paint was starting to chip where it met the floor. They would need to do something about that soon.

 

Who’s they? Nevermind, thinking about the wider world would only hurt for now. He wondered idly what he should have for lunch before wondering if he could even have lunch at all.

 

It was getting harder to ignore what he might have lost.

 

At some point somebody came to feed him anyway, so at least he wasn’t completely alone. He couldn’t really focus on the person, but he felt them take his hands into theirs.

 

(Were they really being that gentle, or was his sense of touch just that muted?)

 

He wasn’t sure what they were doing, hands fluttering all over, until they moved to help sit him up while he sagged bonelessly. He felt a little bad not being able to help support himself, but he was so tired, and his body was in that special stage of hurt where if he acknowledged how bad it truly was there would be no going back.

 

The person at least seemed to realise that though he was awake he was not quite responsive enough to really be considered so, and instead rearranged the pillows to prop him up in a half seated rest. The knowledge that he was somewhere with an excess of pillows made Xie Lian absently realise he was somewhere rather wealthy and luxurious. He was clearly being treated to such, but he couldn't really feel any of the niceties surrounding him, instead feeling numb all over. 

 

He could feel something pressed to his lips, but only because he felt the movement of something warm and liquid being poured into his mouth, bringing some sensation back to him. A broth, he supposed. He suddenly realised how empty his stomach was, and made some effort to swallow. The person feeding him seemed to respond positively to that, enthusiastically moving to stroke his hair and cup his cheek as they fed him more, faint praise echoing distantly in his ears.

 

He was happy to have made them happy, and even more grateful for the kind touches. They had a somewhat soporific effect on him, and he leaned into them when they lingered. Eventually he fell asleep with the sensation of a thumb stroking his cheek, and wondered how long it would last.

 

--

 

When he woke up the next time he remembered everything, and was unable to put it out of mind again.

 

He at least had enough presence to move this time, if only shakily. He didn't want to look at his chest, fearing what he may see there, but still he hunched over in his bed with eyes screwed shut as he ran his fingers over the expanse to map out the damage. It was completely numb, and the feeling of his hands running over the regular, natural lines and divots of his chest became skewed in his mind as his imagination went wild, envisioning them as cuts and carvings of his flesh.

 

Hua Cheng had not left his side the entire healing process. He held him through his tears and screams as he frantically tried to shovel imaginary organs back into his chest, only letting go when the embrace felt too much like restraints holding him down. If his husband wept too, he couldn’t hear it beneath his own.

 

--

 

Eventually his wakeful moments calmed down to numb lethargy again. He spent most of his time sleeping, wrapped up in bed with Hua Cheng, the two of them clinging to each other like lifelines in a storm. He knew Hua Cheng was also suffering, but he didn’t know what to do about it, and instead just held him through his trembling and nightmares, whispering the best comforts he could muster and pressing kisses into his hairline.

 

His beloved was strong, and so was he himself, but to be so thoroughly desecrated despite that weighed on the other, he knew. After all, what was the point of accumulating so much power if it were circumvented so easily? It was a huge blow to Hua Cheng, and he wasn’t sure how to reassure him properly. If he could be reassured at all even.

 

Yin Yu kept them informed of the outside world while they lay in their own to recuperate. They heard of Feng Xin and Mu Qing’s investigation into whatever remained of the forest ghosts and how they had all seemed to have moved on, but Hua Cheng didn’t feel comfortable taking their word for it until he sent his own people to investigate.

 

He knew it was just to make himself feel better, the result of desperate paranoia, but Xie Lian knew in his freshly reformed heart that those ghosts had completed their business now. They wouldn’t be back.

 

It didn’t mean their mark didn’t remain though.

 

--

 

It was about 2 months until Feng Xin and Mu Qing were accepted as visitors, and having been turned away so many times and blocked from contacting via the communication array, they were going a little insane. Being left to one's own imagination is its own form of small torture after all.

 

Of course, they deserved privacy and time to heal, the entire event was obviously traumatising, but Mu Qing and Feng Xin were inextricably part of it too now. Their friend was severely injured in front of them on their job. Naturally they wanted to make sure he was okay.

 

Yin Yu was the one to greet them and lead them through the manor, Feng Xin noted. He had been their point of contact with Xie Lian the past two months so it wasn’t too weird. It was just that before all this it was always His Highness coming to greet them personally whenever they visited, so it just made the situation feel even more wrong. Worse was when he actually saw His Highness himself.

 

He looked dead.

 

Not physically wounded, no, those had healed, but something else hadn’t. The fact that he hadn’t particularly risen from bed to have this conversation spoke to how exhausted he must feel. It wasn’t like him to not even pretend. Feng Xin would have liked to tell himself that maybe it was good that he wasn’t hiding it, that he was opening up instead of repressing things as he used to. As he looked into his friends eyes, dull and unchanging even as he realised he had company however, he knew it was just that he was too tired to pretend at the moment.

 

He wondered if they should have given it more time.

 

“Well?” Hua Cheng spoke from the bedside.

 

Comparatively, his eye was very bright, alive with an intense ferocity Feng Xin hadn’t seen since that final battle with Jun Wu. It was alert and mistrusting, watching for any sudden movements like he didn’t quite believe they were safe. Almost unconsciously Feng Xin decided to keep his hands where the other could see them.

 

“You wanted to be here so desperately, what do you want?”

 

“San Lang, it’s okay.”

 

Xie Lian sounded as tired as he looked, but not in a haggard way. In the way one might when they had just woken up from a nap. In the way that somebody with a known habit of repressing themselves and placating others might speak gently out of politeness. He made small stroking gestures over Hua Cheng’s hand where they were holding each other, but Feng Xin couldn’t tell who was supposed to be comforted by such actions.

 

“I’m sorry we’re not in better shape to greet you. Have you been offered tea yet?”

 

Ah, he was avoiding the real problem again. Feng Xin was about to reply politely, but Mu Qing seemed too impatient to play these games anymore.

 

“We’re not here for tea. Can you just be honest with us and tell us how you’re doing? You’ve been ignoring us for months! And we haven’t been able to finish writing our reports until we get your side of the story.”

 

He obviously only added the last line as an afterthought because he was embarrassed about seeming concerned, but it still seemed harsh to Feng Xin. They were obviously shaken up, and if the way they both tensed uncomfortably was anything to go off, they weren’t too keen on the prospect of recounting the experience.

 

“You don’t need our testimony. If that’s all you’re here for then get out and don’t come back.” Hua Cheng growled, grip tightening on Xie Lian’s hand.

 

“We kinda do! I know you did your own investigations after ours, and if you found anything we didn’t, we need to know! I also asked if you’re okay by the way, but if you’re gonna get confrontational then maybe I don’t care.”

 

“What the hell’s your problem!” Feng Xin wheeled on him. That was too far. “If they don’t want to speak then they do have to, keep your complaints to yourself!”

 

“It’s fine, really.” Xie Lian repeated. “If you need to know then you need to know. The ghosts have all finished their business now, they won’t be coming back. You can close your reports with that.”

 

“We can’t. We could tell on our own they had moved on, we need to know why they behaved like that in the first place.”

 

It wasn’t a lie. They really did need to know for the sake of records, but it was blatantly obvious Mu Qing was needling out of his own curiosity. The two were also rather obvious in that they clearly knew more about the situation than they were letting on, but there’s a limit to how much you can press before it becomes cruel. The point of coming here was to make sure they were okay, not make it worse.

 

“We can just leave the reports open as inconclusive.” Feng Xin offered. He wouldn't force them to talk if they didn’t want to.

 

“But-”

 

“We can just leave the reports open as inconclusive.” He reiterated firmly to cut off Mu Qing’s arguments. The other hesitated a second before giving in, crossing his arms with a huff.

 

“Yeah. Fine. We’ll just do that.” He acquiesced.

 

Xie Lian was silent throughout the exchange, seemingly debating what to respond to, if at all. He didn’t look like he was coming to a conclusion anytime soon, and Hua Cheng hadn’t lessened his warning glare either, so their distress was still more than obvious. Feng Xin couldn’t take the awkwardness anymore.

 

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. But if you do, or you just want to get out of the house or something, we’re here for you.” He said. It sounded a little awkward, but only because he was being sincere. “At least I am anyway. I dunno about this guy.” He added, just as a poor attempt to break the tension.

 

“What do you mean you don’t know? Of course he’s welcome at my palace anytime!” He got in return angrily.

 

It seemed like adding some sort of competitive element really was the only way to get Mu Qing to be honest. Feng Xin would be mad about it, but it made the whole situation feel a little more normal, their old banter bubbling to the surface. Small laughter roused from Xie Lian, and he saw, with mounting hope that some of the light in his eyes was back.

 

“Thank you.” He said, quiet but meaningfully. “And San Lang too?”

 

Ah, he had to ask that at a time when they couldn’t say no. The slight mischievous glint in his smile made him wonder if he was teasing them on purpose and his heart lightened a little.

 

“If he behaves himself.”

 

“I don’t want to go to your trash heaps anyway. I’ll only go to keep Gege company.” Hua Cheng grunted sulkily. He still had a tight grip on Xie Lian’s hand, but he had relaxed a modicum, which was an achievement in itself.

 

“Then, maybe we’ll come over eventually.” Xie Lian said. “I think we might need some more time, but eventually.”

 

It held the weight of a promise behind it, in that special sincere way that Xie Lian spoke when he was trying to reassure someone other than himself, and Feng Xin wondered briefly if they had been too pushy about it. Despite that, the others' smiles never wavered, and he could see gratitude in his eyes.

 

“Whatever. No need to rush. Or get too sentimental about it.” Mu Qing mumbled, looking away abashedly and earning another appreciative laugh from Xie Lian.

 

It’d be alright, Feng Xin thought. Xie Lian had recovered from everything he’d faced in the past.

 

But this time he hopefully wouldn’t have to do so alone.

 

--

 

Feng Xin stopped keeping track of how much time passed after that. After all, wouldn’t dwelling on it just impede the healing process? He worried of course, and still dropped by the manor with Mu Qing to check up on them and talk about this and that, but they had avoided serious talks since. They seemed to be doing better for it, the tension lines in their faces never gone, but receding more with each visit.

 

It didn’t matter if the scars didn’t heal completely right? So long as they were getting better.

 

It wasn’t until Feng Xin caught sight of Xie Lian conversing with Ling Wen outside her palace that he saw the other outside of his bedroom however. He was unsure whether to approach or give him space until Xie Lian noticed him and waved.

 

“Ah, Feng Xin! I was just about to come find you.” He called, excusing himself from talking with Ling Wen with a bow and some muttered words before lightly jogging over. “Sorry, are you busy at all? I can wait.”

 

“No no, it’s fine, I was just on my way back to my palace. Did you want to come?”

 

The real question there was whether he was ready to talk, and they both knew it. If Xie Lian was uncomfortable at all with the question he didn’t show it though. He seemed to be acting as he usually would as if nothing happened, loose and good natured. It should be reassuring, but Feng Xin wondered if that just meant he had become used to hiding his pains worse than he thought. Was it like this before and he just hadn’t realised?

 

He pushed it from his mind as Xie Lian nodded his affirmations and stood to walk beside him. If he wanted to talk now then that was all that mattered. All progress was progress.

 

“Want me to call Mu Qing?” He asked tentatively.

 

“If he’s not busy.”

 

He was and Feng Xin knew it. He called anyway.

 

--

 

The three of them sat around the table at Puqi shrine as they had done so before all this, sipping tea in silence. Xie Lian still hadn’t replaced that table, Feng Xin noticed, and he made extra effort not to put too much weight on it. Mu Qing at his side was sitting with his arms crossed and seemingly avoiding touching anything at all, coming across as very awkward despite his horrible attempt to act casual. He was so bad at pretending not to care, but it didn’t feel right to make fun of him at that moment.

 

“So.” Xie Lian spoke up rather decisively. “Where would you like to start?”

 

With the confidence of his voice, it was as if nothing were amiss to him. They could be talking about the weather with that sort of tone. On the one hand Feng Xin was grateful he had prepared and composed himself. There was no way they were getting around having an emotional conversation, but at least if they kept their wits about them it’d be easier to get through.

 

On the other, it felt inappropriate for the weight of the situation. Wasn’t the point of this to help Xie Lian? How could they achieve that if he were still suppressing his upset?

 

“Where’s Crimson Rain? Should he not be here for this too?” He asked. He’d been so clingy ever since, and suddenly not having his ever ominous presence hovering about felt unusual.

 

“Did you particularly want him here? I thought I’d spare you all the struggle of trying to get San Lang to talk about things in front of the two of you.” The lilt in his voice made it obvious he was attempting to rouse banter, but it just made that growing pit in the bottom of Feng Xin’s stomach feel even more uneasy.

 

“It doesn’t matter, you’re right, he’d be awful to deal with. So why don’t you just tell us for yourself what the deal with those ghosts is?”

 

God, can he ever reign it in a little? Mu Qing was as frustrated as he was, Feng Xin was sure, but this sort of bluntness was too much. Xie Lian’s fingers twitched a little where he was holding his cup, but his face didn’t change from a casual placating smile.

 

(It was a fake smile, Feng Xin had come to know. It was well practiced, but when compared to the way he smiled with Hua Cheng it became impossible to mistake how forced his usual were. He had been smiling more genuinely more often before all this. He hadn’t since. It was remarkable how so much progress could be lost in an instant.)

 

“They’re people whose death I was responsible for a long time ago. Their business was with me and upon completing it they moved on. So it’s over and done with now.”

 

“So it was revenge?” Mu Qing asked a little skeptically

 

“Something like that.”

 

He spoke conversationally, but it was obvious his words were carefully chosen. How long had he rehearsed this? It seemed like he was trying to give enough of an explanation to sound reasonable, but avoiding giving any specific details at the same time. Feng Xin coldly and abruptly realised that he wasn’t opening up to them at all, and instead was simply trying to appease their concerns by making it seem like the situation was over.

 

They’d seen too much for that however. Feng Xin, in his frustration, suddenly remembered something that made him even more uneasy about the claim.

 

“Wait wait, hold on. It was revenge? That didn’t seem like revenge.”

 

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

 

“I had HongJing with me that night. I saw those ghosts as they were alive and I saw you too.” Xie Lian’s smile finally faltered a little, becoming more strained as he paled a little. “I don’t know what that was, but it was not revenge.”

 

“Wait wait, what did you see? And you didn’t tell me!” Mu Qing asked, scandalised.

 

“It wasn’t pleasant, and I still don’t know what I saw! I didn’t want to go gabbing if it were personal to His Highness or something!”

 

“Well good job bringing it up on your own then, really tactful!”

 

“At least I’m trying, just admit you’re just here to sate your curiosity!”

 

“Bullshit, don’t project your own problems onto me!”

 

“You-”

 

“Enough.”

 

Xie Lian had dropped his smile at last, now replaced by a tight frown and a troubled look. It was hardly an improvement, but at least he wasn’t pretending everything was okay anymore.

 

“It doesn’t matter. Speak how you will. You’re right, I should have been honest, I’ve been a bad host inviting you all the way out here and not even- Do you want more tea? I can get us more tea, let me go boil some more water.”

 

He was obviously flustered, fiddling with his sleeves and flapping about a little before attempting to stand up. It was only an attempt, because in his haste he knocked the table with his knee sending the buns on the plate in the centre rolling off the edge again and quickly stumbled to catch them. It was unsuccessful flailing really, and he tripped over his robes to land on the floor, ultimately only being able to catch one. Despite that, Feng Xin and Mu Qing were quick enough to catch the remaining two each, returning them to the centre with a sigh.

 

“Are you okay? You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, just be more careful yeah?”

 

Xie Lian half picked himself up from the floor, looking at the buns in the middle with a contemplative expression. After a moment's hesitation, he placed his own back on the plate with them, and resettled himself with an odd expression as he continued to observe them.

 

“No, it’s fine. I’m fine.”

 

“You don’t look it. We can leave if you’re not ready, it’s fine-”

 

“It was White No-Face.”

 

He said it suddenly and in one breath, quick enough that Feng Xin didn’t have enough time to be shocked before he continued to speak.

 

“During my first banishment he lured me and a bunch of people to that temple and began spreading the Human Face Disease among them. They were forced to kill me to cure themselves, but were interrupted before they could all finish as the temple burned down, killing them.” A deep breath. “We believe Jun Wu was keeping them sealed in case he… needed them again. And after his defeat they were able to break free and seek to complete their task.”

 

“San Lang was the one who stopped them, so they built up their power to make sure he couldn’t stop them again. That’s why the two of us were targeted and not you. We were the ones involved in their death.”

 

He spoke so detached it was disturbing, stoney faced but pointedly avoiding meeting anyones eyes. Despite that, he practically radiated anxiety, and Feng Xin finally felt confident that he wasn’t holding back anymore. He was just incalculably tired and trying to hold it together for the duration of the conversation.

 

The weight of his words sunk in. This had happened before.

 

“When was this?” Feng Xin asked.

 

“Huh? During my first banishment. I just said.”

 

“No, when during your first banishment? Before or after I left?”

 

He knew the answer wouldn’t be good either way, but he had to know. He would have had to deal with it alone given the timeframe. It wasn’t healthy to dwell on ‘what ifs’ he knew, but he still needed to know if it was preventable. If he had just left his friend to that fate. He barely registered his fists trembling where they were clenched in his robes.

 

“It doesn’t really matter does it? I was the one who told you to leave in any case, so if you were going to blame yourself, don’t. It’s all in the past.”

 

“But it’s not!” He was frustrated enough that he didn’t have it in him to care that he had raised his voice. “If it were over with we wouldn’t be here! You wouldn’t be this upset!”

 

“I’m not upset-”

 

“Yes you are! Stop schooling yourself, stop talking like you’re detached from the whole thing, stop pretending like you’re okay! You’re hurting and that’s fine. If you don’t want to open up with us then don’t, but don’t bottle it up like this. Find an outlet. And if you need help with that we’re here.”

 

There was a beat of silence after that. Mu Qing was uncomfortably silent on the side while Feng Xin panicked a little wondering if he’d been too pushy. Before he could speak up, he heard a shaky exhale instead.

 

“You’re right, you’re right.” He brushed a hand through his hair anxiously, voice wavering. “It’s just- It’s just hard to talk about you know? And there’s nothing to even do about it anymore so I don’t- I don’t know it’s just-”

 

And the dam broke. He crumpled in on himself a little, finally allowing himself to cry deep and unrestrained sobs. Flustered, the other two shuffled up to his side, hands fluttering around in little panicked touches, unsure what to do.

 

“Ah, to hell with it.” Feng Xin mumbled, and finally settled on pulling the other into a tight hold.

 

He felt marginally less awkward when Xie Lian didn’t pull away and instead adjusted to curl into him, though whether it was in appreciation of the comfort or the grounding nature of a familiar presence he wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter he supposed. Mu Qing continued to hover abashedly, looking like he wanted to join in but unsure of how to proceed. God if he couldn’t be a little more spontaneous. Looked like he’d need a nudge along.

 

“Get in here idiot.” He hissed, but couldn’t bring himself to be too annoyed. It was a little too high emotion for that. At least he obliged without looking too horrendously aggrieved before it could get anymore awkward.

 

The three of them sat like that for a while, until Xie Lian burned himself out and then some, just sat holding each other in silence. Another time they may feel embarrassed, and maybe they would later, but for now they only felt a strange sense of catharsis.

 

And from the tired body nestled safely in the depths of their embrace he heard a faint voice. 

 

“You know, back then, White No-Face was trying to convince me I was alone. That nobody cared.”

 

A tiny, but genuine giggle resounded, and Xie Lian sat up straight beaming from ear to ear. His eyes were still a little teary but it was the first real smile he had worn in far too long.

 

“Thank you.”

 

--

 

When Xie Lian returned home, it was with a lighter heart. Not completely healed, that may never happen really, but one with the knowledge that even if it didn’t it could always get better. He was not alone anymore. Maybe adjusting to that fact would take time, but he had made the first steps.

 

He certainly couldn’t forget his companionship with his husband clinging to him like a particularly affectionate octopus as soon as he walked through the doors anyway. Had he been waiting there the entire time?

 

“How did it go? Was Gege okay? Do you need anything? Come back to bed, you must be tired, I’ll have someone bring us something to eat.”

 

He had been exceptionally reluctant to part with Xie Lian since the event , and even now seemed to be attempting to stay as close as possible, wrapping him up in his arms and pressing soft kisses to everything in reach. It brought a tired smile to Xie Lian’s face as he tried to navigate them back to the sanctum of their room without tripping over each other.

 

“I’m fine, it went okay I think.” He said, returning a light kiss to the cheek back. “Is San Lang okay?”

 

“Of course, San Lang’s been at home all day waiting dutifully for Gege’s return.”

 

It was a simple and confident reply, as if it were perfectly natural, but it was an answer Xie Lian had been concerned about receiving. It was easy for Xie Lian to brush off his own discomforts and act like everything was okay, but it left him an expert on spotting the same behaviour in others. He had his friends to call him out on it, but Hua Cheng had no one. No one except Xie Lian.

 

As they reached their room to settle into bed, Hua Cheng made to continue holding him to his chest, but Xie Lian took the opportunity to collect him into his arms instead. The embrace was returned and Hua Cheng snuggled in contently

 

“You’re allowed to be honest you know? You don’t have to just say you’re okay for me.”

 

“I’m not. I’m honestly happy to just have Gege in my arms like this, where I know he’s safe.”

 

“Then why haven’t you left the manor?”

 

“To look after Gege of course.”

 

“And while I was away? You had time to get back to your own life.”

 

“Gege’s my life. I needed to be here when he got back.”

 

It was something of a battle to get Hua Cheng to talk about his feelings on most days, but now he seemed to be particularly closed off to admitting any sort of vulnerability. It wasn’t hard to guess why.

 

The truth was that Hua Cheng was as affected by the whole event as Xie Lian was, and instead of confronting his supposed weakness, he was instead compensating by trying to eliminate it. Becoming overprotective, anxious enough when Xie Lian left to await his return, refusing to leave the safety of their abode when they were together. Of course this wasn’t regular behaviour, but it wasn’t just for Xie Lian’s sake. It was as if he were trying to make up for a failing on his part.

 

Xie Lian sighed and stroked a hand through his hair.

 

“San Lang… You know it wasn’t your fault right?”

 

Hua Cheng didn’t say anything. From this position his head was resting on Xie Lian’s chest, visibly relaxing into his touch, but his eye was open and not looking at anything in particular, mouth in a thin line. It gave the impression that the touch was a comfort, but not something he was actively able to enjoy.

 

“Anything that happened was Jun Wu’s fault. Not yours.” He continued, not happy with receiving no answer. He didn’t want his beloved to keep ignoring his own struggles as he had done for so long.

“But I couldn’t stop it.” He finally spoke faintly. “Then or now. What was all this strength for if it made no difference?”

 

“San Lang…” Xie Lian exhaled, unsure how to proceed.

 

There were plenty of words he wanted to say, but he didn’t know how to speak them. What if he couldn’t get through to him? What if he spoke wrong and Hua Cheng internalised it? What if Hua Cheng just simply didn’t believe he wasn’t at fault?

 

“San Lang.” He settled on more firmly, cupping his cheek to pull his face up so they were looking at each other.

 

Like this, his chin was resting on his chest and looking up with such a face he could pretend he was simply play pretending to be mopey. It was more serious than that of course, but it made it easier to bring a smile to his face so that he could speak more reassuringly.

 

“Strength isn’t just physical, I’m sure you know well by now. San Lang is the strongest person I know, to stay with me through so many horrid occurrences. To go through so many of his own. Noone else could do that. Does that not matter?”

 

He beamed at him softly as he spoke, and Hua Cheng’s face softened a little, but didn’t ease up completely.

 

“But I couldn’t stop it.” He repeated again. “And I- I caused it too. Gege would not have had to go through that again if it weren’t for me.”

 

“What does that mean? It couldn’t possibly be San Lang’s fault.” It was an absurd conclusion, and Xie Lian couldn’t fathom how he had come to it, but he sounded genuinely ashamed.

 

“I was the one who killed them. I cut them short and they weren’t able to- to finish. They continued on because of me. And now Gege feels that he has to comfort me instead of focusing on himself. I’m sorry.”

 

He clung to Xie Lian a little tighter, but faced away again to lay his cheek on his chest. His expression was the mournful kind you’d see on somebody awaiting a sentence at trial, and it hurt Xie Lian’s heart more deeply than any sword ever could. How long had he felt this way? Had he blamed himself back then too? And Xie Lian hadn’t noticed…

 

“San Lang, listen to me.” He said, shifting Hua Cheng back to look at him again, “It’s not your fault. Everything was Jun Wu, and you were a victim too. No matter what happened you’re allowed to accept comfort and support regardless of my circumstances, and I’d be grateful to give you it. Do you believe me?”

 

He had started the sentence speaking firmly, but a smile slipped back onto his face as he finished, in what he hoped was an encouraging gesture. Hua Cheng’s walls were visibly breaking down, so he felt reassured that it was working at least.

 

“Always.” Hua Cheng croaked a little emotionally.

 

“Then will you believe me when I say I want to protect San Lang too? Even from his own bad thoughts, I want San Lang to be happy. Will San Lang support me in this goal?”

 

“...Okay.” He whispered.

 

He ducked his head back down again, but it seemed to be more to hide that he was choking up a bit this time, so Xie Lian let him be. He could feel the other trembling a little, and ran his fingers through his hair softly, not mentioning the growing wet patch he could feel through his robes.

 

“I love San Lang very much. I hope you know that.”

 

“I love you too.”

 

--

 

Four fools were seated at Puqi shrine, one serving food enthusiastically, one equally keen on what was being dished up, and the other two politely keeping quiet about their queasiness. It was the first time the four had gotten together in a while after all so they didn’t want to ruin it, even if the present company seemed adamant about using this fact against them.

 

“Gege’s cooking has really improved lately. Won’t you try his new recipe? It’s so good you should be grateful I’m willing to share.” Hua Cheng smiled insincerely at them as he lent on the (newly constructed) table, head in palm.

 

“Oh yes, I’d appreciate some more feedback!” Xie Lian chimed in more seriously. “San Lang will just say anything’s good, so your opinions would be great.”

 

“Well maybe all of Gege’s cooking is good!” He pouted. “Do you not trust my opinion anymore?” 

 

“Of course, but San Lang is a flatterer! It’d be worth it to ask other people.”

 

“Fine, fine. Though it pains me greatly, it looks like I’ve no choice but to allow the two of you to eat your fill.”

 

The concession and accompanying grin was as good as a threat, and they could only pale as they realised it was not one they could back down from. Not with Xie Lian looking so hopeful on the sidelines.

 

“Right. Okay.” Feng Xin muttered in an attempt to hype himself up.

 

It’s nothing deadly. Probably. It’s only… uh… what was being ladled up right now? It couldn’t possibly be stew, it’s thicker than tar… At the very least it didn’t smell bad, but he was fairly certain it was its own bad sign that an entire bowl of food had no smell at all. He eyed Mu Qing to see what he thought only to catch him doing the same at him.

 

“You first.” He hissed in faux politeness.

 

He almost shot back, but Xie Lian was so wide eyed and expectant looking that he could only acquiesce. Deciding to just rip the band aid off in one go, he scooped a random spoonful and shoved it in his mouth, swallowing as quickly as he could. It was not quick enough to avoid the taste.

 

“You okay?” Xie Lian asked.

 

He thought it was Xie Lian anyway. He couldn’t particularly make anything out through his watering eyes and choked out coughs, but he saw a vaguely human shaped white blob hovering over him so it was safe to assume.

 

“He was moved to tears, it was so good! I could hardly say better myself.” Hua Cheng exclaimed in far too chipper a manner, clapping his hands together in appreciation. “Perhaps the good General Xuan Zhen would like to sample the same delights?”

 

Mu Qing, who had not taken his eyes off Feng Xin now writhing on the floor, started as if his very life had been threatened.

 

“Uh. You know, you seem to be out of water. We’ll go get some more. Need a palette cleanser to really uh. Appreciate. The flavour.” He stuttered in a hurry. Jumping to his feet with the speed of someone preparing for a great battle, he grabbed Feng Xin by the legs and dragged him away over the porch, taking no care for the others head knocking into everything in its path limply. “We’ll be outside, no need to wait for us to start eating, feel free to continue without us!”

 

The door slammed and they were on their own. Xie Lian finally allowed himself a fond laugh.

 

“San Lang that was mean.”

 

“Meaner than Gege? I know you have ‘safe’ food for guests tucked away, you wanted to tease them too.”

 

That just made them both laugh, not loudly, but in a comfortable, content way.

 

“I couldn’t help it. It was just nice to see everyone back to normal, so for old times sake.”

 

The first dregs of normalcy had set in a while ago, but it took its own time to really feel like ‘normal’ was normal again, after getting used to simply existing for so long. Even longer to adjust to the new normal of having people to lean on.

 

“At least they only excused themselves outside instead of running away this time, maybe they’ll stick around for longer now.”

 

“Do they have to? What do they even have to come over for, wasn’t it nice to just have a day out of the manor ourselves?” 

 

Hua Cheng’s mopey face as he pouted his cheeks at Xie Lian was too adorable to not squish, and he indulged the impulse gleefully as he slumped to lean into him.

 

“They asked first this time actually!” He was quite chuffed to not be the one extending the invite for once. “Well, sort of. They said something about me winning a bet? I don’t really remember it, but they asked what I wanted to do and I just wanted some quality time together really. Does that bother San Lang?”

 

“Nothing that makes Gege happy could ever bother me.” He said, pressing a soft kiss to his hair fondly. “It’s nice to see Gege smiling again.”

 

“Ugh, you haven’t eaten and you’re being sappy?” Mu Qing groaned as the door opened back up.

 

Feng Xin was trailing behind him, looking faint as a ghost but functional enough to stand. He was holding himself like if he opened his mouth he might puke though, which generally wasn’t a good sign. It was probably fine.

 

“I thought you were getting water? I don’t see anything. Maybe you’d like to leave us again to do it properly?” Hua Cheng wasted no time in firing back, but Xie Lian couldn’t scold him for it. It was just casual fun at this point.

 

“Just shut up and give me the damn food if you’re not gonna eat it yourself.”

 

It was the defeated tone of someone who had resigned himself to his fate, and Xie Lian might have offered him some of that ‘safe’ food, had he not already started shovelling as much as he could in his mouth like he was trying to get it over with. Feng Xin turned away in horror, unable to watch as Hua Cheng audibly snickered.

 

It may not be a peaceful normal, but it didn’t have to be. It was theirs, and that’s all that mattered.