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the meanest coiled snakes

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The Nether Water Manor was always dark. Built from black stone, with few windows to let in what little light there was outside, it suited its only inhabitant well. He Xuan felt at ease in the cold marble halls, unadorned, minimally furnished. He had no want for servants and no need for guards, and his solitude was undisturbed.

At least it was on the days that he didn't have a visitor.

Hua Cheng was like a bright splattering of color on a black canvas as he sat opposite He Xuan at a low table. The red of his robes was almost enough to make He Xuan's eyes hurt, the silver of his vambraces, his belt and the tinkling chains he liked to drape himself in somehow gleaming despite the lack of light. His leg was propped up in blatant disregard for courtesy, not that Hua Cheng had ever cared much for courtesy in the seventy years He Xuan had known him.

Hua Cheng was six hundred and twenty-two years old, more than six times He Xuan's age. He had already been a Supreme for centuries by the time He Xuan had fought his way out of the Kiln, and if he had wanted to, he could have crushed He Xuan like a bug back then. He probably still could have now, although He Xuan was confident that he would give Hua Cheng a challenge like he'd rarely had one, should it ever come to a fight between them.

But Hua Cheng had made it quite clear very early in their mutual acquaintance that he had no interest in fighting He Xuan. This had come as a slight surprise; He Xuan was, after all, his first and only peer, his only potential rival, the only one who could become a threat to his status as the overlord of the Ghost Realm. But He Xuan did not covet Hua Cheng's throne. He had no desire for the riches Hua Cheng amassed, felt no need to rule over any subjects like the other Ghost King did. He Xuan only had one purpose, and he had all the power and influence he needed to fulfill it.

And so they had come to this strange arrangement.

Hua Cheng had welcomed He Xuan back into the world personally after he survived Mount Tong'lu. His blood rain had stained the mountainside red as he stood there in a cloud of silver wraith butterflies, held a pale hand out to He Xuan and made him an offer. Guidance and a measure of protection in exchange for loyalty.

He Xuan had his pride, but he'd learned to swallow it down over the decades. He would've been stupid to decline, and for all his faults, stupidity was not something anyone could accuse him of.

Hua Cheng had kept his word. He had taught He Xuan how to harness the unspeakable amount of power that now thrummed within him, how to control it, use it for his purposes. He had helped him establish his territory, lent him money and workers to build the Nether Water Manor, and he had been...

Not a friend, perhaps, but a companion during a time when He Xuan lost himself to his dark thoughts far too often. Originally, that - and the mountain of debt to him that seemed to grow with every passing year - had been the reason He Xuan found it hard to deny Hua Cheng entry when he turned up unannounced at his door and waltzed past him without so much as a greeting, already loudly voicing demands of tea, red robes swishing elegantly and the chains on his boots tinkling as he moved.

These days, however, it had become increasingly hard for He Xuan to deny Hua Cheng anything, even his more outrageous flights of fancy, for... more varied reasons.

Which was how they found themselves here.

"How many clones do you have in the Heavens now?"

Hua Cheng had nearly finished his tea, despite not needing to eat or drink any more than He Xuan did. They both tended to indulge anyway, something else they had in common, though for differing reasons.

"A dozen or so."

Hua Cheng raised a slim black eyebrow. "That many? I'm impressed, Little Ghost King."

"I'm hardly a little Ghost King anymore," He Xuan replied idly. "Which you should be well aware of."

A chuckle. "Indeed. It was me, after all, who taught you everything you know."

He Xuan regarded him with an unimpressed look. "You didn't teach me everything I know, nor did you teach me everything youknow."

"You wound me." Hua Cheng didn't even bother feigning a hurt expression to contradict his cheerful tone. "I always thought it was a shame I couldn't get you to call me shifu, you know."

He Xuan's glare turned withering. "I'm not calling anyone shifu who can't write his own name in a way that doesn't make me want to pluck out my own eyeballs."

"Oh please," Hua Cheng said dismissively. "You wouldn't even know how to properly use your plucked out eyeballs."

Maybe He Xuan was imagining it, but he could've sworn E-Ming's red eye was glaring at him from the corner where Hua Cheng had tossed it earlier like one might a piece of scrap metal.

Hua Cheng rose from his seat, stretching his long legs. He started to wander around the room, hands clasped behind his back in an imitation of propriety, as he spoke. "When do you think you'll be ready?"

He didn't need to specify for what. Hua Cheng had helped He Xuan draw up this very plan, after all.

He Xuan shrugged. "Soon, in theory. But there's nothing I can do until there's a new ascension."

"You could always try to take the place of an established heavenly official. A minor one, maybe."

"You think I'm that good at fooling people?"

Hua Cheng flashed him a smile. "Black Water, you're the best liar I know."

He Xuan's hands fisted in his robes a little tighter where they rested on his knees.

"I only get one chance at this," he insisted. "I'm not going to ruin it with my own impatience."

The smile widened. "Ah, Lord Black Water, you are so vicious. For all the years I have on you, I could never dream of being filled with so much resentment."

"And yet you're more powerful than me."

"Not by all that much." Hua Cheng stepped closer to him, bending at the waist a little, silky hair the color of the night hanging down, close enough to reach out and touch it.

He Xuan looked up at him, only to have to fight the urge to avert his eyes. He'd always found it hard to remain upright under Hua Cheng's gaze. There was a certain intensity to it, even when he was being nonchalant. It didn't help that his pale face was among the most striking He Xuan had ever seen in life or death. Keeping his composure was... challenging at times in his presence.

"I've never taken you for the power-hungry type," Hua Cheng continued, "but you could always take a page out of my book and-"

He never got to finish his sentence.

He Xuan looked up from his teacup and Hua Cheng was gone. As if he'd never been there to begin with.

Teacup forgotten, He Xuan rose in an abrupt movement, eyes scanning the room, as if he was hoping to find his guest simply hiding in one of the dark corners.

His gaze fell on E-Ming. The silver hilt somehow seemed duller than usual, and the red eye was closed.

He Xuan felt the bitter taste of panic rise up his mouth like bile for only a moment before the deafening silence was violently ripped apart by a pained shriek that might have frozen his blood in his veins if he'd had any. He whirled around just in time to see Hua Cheng flickering back into existence in the same spot where he'd disappeared and immediately doubling over and falling to his knees on the hard marble floor. There was a sickening retching sound and blood spurted from his mouth, splattering onto the ground as he convulsed. Just as soon as the first wave had ceased, his body shuddered again and he heaved up more blood, the sounds escaping him akin to the agonized whimpers of a dying animal.

"Crimson Rain!"

He Xuan hurried over and knelt beside him. Hua Cheng's body had an oddly translucent quality, like he couldn't manage to entirely keep his solidity. When He Xuan placed a hand on his shoulder, it sunk in an inch or so before meeting resistance.

Hua Cheng started to say something, but only blood came out. It had formed a puddle on the floor by now, soaking both their robes.

Ghosts didn't have blood. He should not have been able to vomit any at all.

Something dark and cold dug its claws into He Xuan's insides. His mind was racing. He'd been a scholar in life and prided himself on being knowledgeable about many different things even now, but he couldn't think of a single thing that could have caused this reaction in Hua Cheng. He was the most powerful ghost that existed. No poisons or curses could touch him. If his body was destroyed, he would assemble a new one with hardly any effort at all.

But now he was growing more translucent by the second and the pool of his blood grew and grew.

He Xuan had never stopped to envision a future where he was gone. Not unavailable, not grown tired of him. Just gone. It had never seemed like a possibility.

The thought filled him with icy dread. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was startled by just how much it affected him. They were hardly that close, and yet there was nothing he could do to temper the fear that was constricting his throat like a noose.

Helpless, he placed his other hand on Hua Cheng's back, feeling it sink in even deeper than before. He Xuan closed his eyes and did the only thing he could think to do. He channeled as much of his own spiritual energy as possible through his palms and fed it into Hua Cheng's dissipating body in a steady, unwavering stream.

It was the first time he had to lend his fellow Supreme power; Hua Cheng had always had more than enough, so much that he expended huge amounts of it without sparing the waste a single thought, the security of someone who knew he was never going to run out.

Never, until now.

When He Xuan's own cold energy touched him, Hua Cheng let out a ragged gasp, another series of convulsions rippling through him. He Xuan could feel the energy seeping into his body, but it hardly seemed to take, like He Xuan was trying to douse a fire with spoonfuls of water.

He didn't stop the transfer, stubbornly clinging to his only hope of helping Hua Cheng. It seemed to take an eternity, but eventually, the amount of blood that was coming up lessened, until it stopped completely. With dizzying relief, He Xuan watched as his body slowly began to regain solidity, his back once again firm beneath He Xuan's palm.

Hua Cheng had no need for air in his lungs, but he was panting as he tried to push himself up from his position on the floor. He managed to straighten up for all of five seconds before his strength abandoned him and he slumped forward against He Xuan's shoulder.

He Xuan froze for a moment - this might have been the most physical contact they'd ever had, if not the most physical contact He Xuan had had with anyone since his death. Awkwardly he brought his arms up and loosely wrapped them around Hua Cheng's back in an attempt to support him.

"What in the name of the three realms was that?" Hua Cheng's voice was weak and raspier than usual from vomiting.

"Gods, Crimson Rain, I hoped you'd be able to tell me that."

He Xuan felt him minutely shaking his head. "I've never felt anything like that before. It was like I was dissolving from the inside."

"But what could do something like that to you? At your power level, nothing should be able to damage you like that except for..."

The realization came as suddenly and as suffocatingly as a lungful of ice water. He Xuan could tell Hua Cheng had arrived at the same conclusion by the way he went stiff as a board against him. He pulled back slightly, and his eye was wide and filled with something closer to fear than anything He Xuan had ever seen on him.

"Impossible." It was obvious in Hua Cheng's tone that he knew perfectly well it was the only explanation, as bone chilling as the mere thought was.

"Didn't you hide them?"

"Of course I did!" Hua Cheng attempted to get to his feet, but immediately blanched even further and fell more than sat back down. "Do you think I'm an idiot?"

He Xuan only barely held back the urge to roll his eyes. Hua Cheng could get so agitated when anyone dared to insinuate he'd made a mistake. It was astonishing how he could be so full of himself while at the time holding a deep disdain for himself that he tried very hard not to let anyone notice, but He Xuan had always been an observant person.

"I know you're not an idiot, which is exactly why I'm surprised."

Hua Cheng scoffed slightly, but He Xuan ignored him. "Does anyone else know the location?"

Hua Cheng shook his head. That was to expected. Their ashes were something most powerful ghosts were very particular about, especially ones as hell-bent on staying in this world as Hua Cheng. He Xuan's own were hidden in an iron case deep in the ocean floor, warded with multiple powerful arrays. Hua Cheng would have been at least as careful with his.

But there was nothing else that could have affected Hua Cheng so strongly. There was no doubt - someone had found his ashes and damaged them. How was a question for later.

Hua Cheng's hands were curled into fists. He Xuan could see his sharp nails biting into his palms in a way that looked painful. The expression on his handsome face was stormy.

"No one can know," he murmured, clearly mostly to himself. "I can't trust anyone. Any of my subordinates could be involved... Gods." He rubbed his forehead. "What am I supposed to do?"

He sounded... distressed. Another emotion He Xuan had never noticed in him before.

"You're going to have to minimize your spiritual energy use," he said. "You're very weakened right now. If you overdo it..."

"I know!" Hua Cheng snapped. His eye was wide, with a strange wild expression, not unlike a cornered wounded animal. He Xuan frowned.

"Are you scared?"

"I'm not fucking scared." The response came too quickly. "It's just going to be... inconvenient if I can't use my dice or a distance-shortening array. Or disguise myself."

"I'll draw the arrays, then."

Hua Cheng looked up at him, surprise clearly written across his features. He Xuan snorted.

"What, did you think I was going to let you run around out there all by yourself in your state? I'm coming with you, Crimson Rain, and we're going to find whoever took your ashes."

Relief flickered in Hua Cheng's eye for just a moment before he covered it up with his usual smirk. "Oh, Black Water, are you going to take care of me? How unbecoming of you."

"Shut up. Think of it as paying off my debt if you must."

Something in his face shuttered. "Well. In that case, we shouldn't lose any time."

"We shouldn't," He Xuan agreed, already rising to go and look for the chalk needed to draw the distance-shortening array. Hua Cheng remained sitting right there where he was, his blood still pooling on the floor, faintly mirroring the glow of the few lit candles.

 

The first place they went was, logically, the hiding place of Hua Cheng's ashes. The reluctance was clear to see on his face as he described the location to He Xuan. He Xuan assumed it was out of unwillingness to share such a secret with him, even though Hua Cheng would certainly store his ashes somewhere else once this was all over, but he realized his mistake the moment they stepped through the array.

It was a temple in the middle of a dense forest on top of a mountain. Trees in the vicinity were toppled over, the earth torn open in places. The building was hardly more than a ruin, clearly long abandoned, the entrance collapsed in on itself. He Xuan had to shatter several large pieces of the stone ceiling that had fallen down so they could enter.

The inside of the temple looked no better than the outside. Boulders of different sizes littered the floor, the ceiling mostly collapsed and letting the sinking afternoon sun in, painting the floor with deceptively beautiful rays of gold.

The divine statue was almost worn beyond recognition, but He Xuan didn't have to guess whose temple this was. If one knew what to look for, it was still possible to make out the remnants of the sword the prince had held in his right and the flowering branch he'd held in his left hand. Something stung in He Xuan's empty chest as he looked up at the weathered stone face, traces of the beauty it had once held still faintly visible.

His gaze drifted over to the altar. It, too, was destroyed, toppled over and broken down the middle as if a giant had taken his fist to it. There were faint stains on the surface of something that had likely once been blood, and a lot of it by the looks of it, alongside old scorch marks that were also visible along the walls and the floor.

He Xuan's brow furrowed. He had a distinctive feeling that this wasn't just any old Crown Prince of Xianle temple, but asking Hua Cheng about it would most definitely not go over well. His expression had been stony and distant ever since they'd arrived here.

He Xuan watched as the other ghost king crouched down beside the spot where the altar had been. The ground was torn open, leaving a large gaping hole.

"Is that where you hid them?" He Xuan had walked over and peered over Hua Cheng's shoulder into the hole. It was empty except for pieces of shattered stone and old dirt.

"Yes. Buried them here soon after I got out of Tong'lu." Hua Cheng stared at the place where his ashes should have been. "No one comes up here. The whole mountain is abandoned. There's a legend in the surrounding towns that the place is cursed."

He Xuan raised an eyebrow. "Still a bit sloppy of a hiding place for something that important. Any particular reason?"

"None of your business."

"Suit yourself."

He Xuan turned and wandered around the room some more, inspecting the damage along the walls and ceiling. Some of it certainly looked nearly as old as the rest of this temple, cracks in the stone, patches of moss and climbing weeds that were allowed to flourish without anyone looking after the place. He Xuan wondered how long ago it had been built. It had to be centuries at the least.

Hua Cheng's voice came suddenly from the center of the room. "I turned into a Savage here."

He Xuan turned his head and looked at him. He hadn't left his crouching position, nor was he looking at He Xuan.

"These burn marks are on you, then?"

A nod. He Xuan hummed. He could tell that that wasn't the whole story - everything about this place was brimming with untold stories. Under different circumstances, the scholar in him would have loved nothing more than to spend hours here, taking note of every little detail and reconstructing its past from them. But there was no time for that. He decided to let it go for now.

"Some of this damage is recent," he noted, looking a long tear in the wall up and down. Hua Cheng came up next to him, eye narrowed.

"You're right. With the mayhem outside this probably happened no more than a few days ago."

He Xuan nodded. "Looks like it could have been an earthquake. Maybe someone did come through here afterwards and found your ashes under the collapsed altar. They might have mistaken them for something valuable."

"They are something valuable."

"You know what I mean."

Hua Cheng pulled a face, a juvenile thing that somehow didn't look out of place on him despite the six centuries of life and undeath He Xuan knew were weighing down on his shoulders. Hua Cheng had always retained an air of youth to him that He Xuan had lost long before he'd died. They were both ghosts, powerful ones, but the canyon separating them from life should have had the same width for both of them. But Hua Cheng...

It wasn't just that his true form could pass for human except for his pointy ears where He Xuan's would give him away for what he was at first glance, sharp teeth and clawed fingers and gills like blade wounds on the sides of his neck. It was that his skin had a warmer coloration to it than He Xuan's, than that of any other ghost he knew, that his hair would move in the wind without him directing it to, that his footsteps struck the ground more surely, more heavily, that blades of grass would bend beneath his soles like there was real weight to them.

It was like Hua Cheng sometimes forgot that he was dead, that his body didn't remember that it was an illusion, though a detailed, lovingly crafted one. Like he made a fool out of death itself like he did with everyone else around him.

Maybe that was why he'd been so agitated since the incident this morning, so on edge, something unmoored, unsettled about him, like a boat that had been torn off the rope tying it to the dock . Hua Cheng had forgotten what it felt like to not be untouchable.

And he'd seemed so sure that he'd have to do this alone, like the possibility that He Xuan would want to help him hadn't even occurred to him. The lack of trust felt like something sharp lodged in the back of He Xuan's throat.

Stupid. Hua Cheng was what he was, they both were. Neither of them could afford trust. He Xuan couldn't afford the tightening in his gut when he turned his head to observe Hua Cheng's flawless profile and saw the crease between his sharp brows, speaking of the smallest slip of the control he usually kept over his face.

"We should get out of here," He Xuan said. "Whoever took them can't have gotten very far."

"You want to search the area? We don't have time for that."

He Xuan held his gaze. "Do you have another suggestion, then?"

They stood there staring at each other for a few more moments, Hua Cheng's chin raised in something like defiance. Really, it was easy to forget that He Xuan was the older of the two of them when he was behaving like this.

Eventually, Hua Cheng turned away with a scoff. "Fine. Let's go, then."

He started stalking toward the exit. He Xuan followed him, shaking his head.

Hua Cheng had put up with him when he'd just come out of Mount Tong'lu, overwhelmed with his new power, the pain of his own death and losing his family still raw. He'd behaved like a wild animal, scratching and kicking at anything in his path, barely speaking, never sleeping, unable to think of anything but his hands tearing the Water Master apart.

Not letting Hua Cheng's newfound aggression towards him put him off was the least He Xuan could do.

 

They descended the mountain together. Hua Cheng was steadier on his feet than that morning, but He Xuan still kept a close eye on him. The image of him falling to his knees with a scream and vomiting blood wasn't one that He Xuan would forget anytime soon. And the little ball of fear festering in his chest hadn't gone away either. The quicker they got this over with the better.

He Xuan shifted into an inconspicuous disguise of a young man in simple dark blue robes. Hua Cheng couldn't spare the spiritual energy to do the same, but as long as he kept his hair covering his ears, he looked like nothing more than a slightly ostentatiously dressed human. He Xuan had even convinced him to take the chains off his boots and remove his butterfly necklace, leaving him looking somewhat more down to earth, if still eye-catching with his vibrant red robes and startlingly handsome face. Hua Cheng was reluctant to let go of the ostentatiousness he liked to use as a shield, but he knew perfectly well that they could not attract any attention or give away who they were. Even one of Hua Cheng's numerous enemies finding out about his predicament would be enough to jeopardize everything. Any of them would jump at the chance to catch the King of Ghosts in such a vulnerable state.

In the first town, they walked through the market, asking anyone who sold jewelry or accessories if they'd recently procured a ring of extremely hard clear stone. The only thing they received were odd looks and curt answers, none of them what they wanted to hear. Hua Cheng pulled himself together enough to stop a few young women in the street, dazzling them with a fake smile and asking them about the ring. The women blushed and giggled, but none of them could tell them anything new.

They were no more successful in the next town, or the one after that. He Xuan could sense Hua Cheng's impatience growing. It was rare for He Xuan to be the more composed of the two of them, but now he had to shoot Hua Cheng warning glances more and more often to keep him from snapping at people, or worse, threatening them. He knew that Hua Cheng cared very little for lives of ordinary mortals (or gods or ghosts, for that matter). He didn't usually go out of his way to harm them, but was certainly not above doing so to further his goals, or if they irritated him enough. This was one of the traits he did not share with He Xuan, perhaps because He Xuan lacked Hua Cheng's genuine desire for power, eclipsed though it was by his longing for his prince.

He Xuan habitually devoured the ghosts of sailors that had drowned in his territory, but he didn't purposefully lure anyone there. The borders of his domain were clearly established, anyone who trespassed had no one to blame but themselves. And other than those unfortunate souls, he had done nothing to harm even a single mortal since his death. He had no desire to. He gained nothing from it, and others' suffering brought him no joy. He had experienced enough of it in life.

If it became necessary in the course of their quest, He Xuan would fight, would kill if he had to. But if only for the sake of maintaining a low profile, he wanted to avoid violence for as long as he could. He could only hope that Hua Cheng's remaining self control wouldn't dwindle too quickly. Even bereft of most of his powers, an enraged Crimson Rain Sought Flower was formidable.

They combed through another town, with the same results as all the ones before. The sun was hanging lower in the sky, and though neither of them needed to sleep, humans did. They'd have to stop for the night and continue tomorrow, and that was time they simply didn't have.

He Xuan stopped to talk to one last vendor when it was already nearly dark. The man, a peddler of cheap-looking jewelry, was already packing up his stand and clearly wanted He Xuan to leave him alone, probably not aided by Hua Cheng standing next to him and glowering. He Xuan was quite a bit shorter than him in this disguise, he kept having to tilt his head up to talk to him.

"And you're sure you haven't seen a piece like it around recently?" He Xuan put on his best winning smile. He'd always been a good actor and people usually bought his pretend friendliness, but it wasn't working too well on this man.

"I told you, I don't know what you're talking about. What do you need it so badly for anyway?"

He Xuan cleared his throat, trying to stall for time while coming up with a believable story on the spot and silently cursing his negligence in not thinking of one ahead of time. The vendor was looking more and more suspicious, but before the situation could deteriorate further, someone spoke up behind He Xuan.

"Sir, excuse me?"

He Xuan and Hua Cheng turned around and came face to face with a nervous looking middle aged man in brown robes that had seen better days. His hair was up in a sloppy topknot and he was doing his very best to avoid both of their eyes.

"I believe I may know of the piece you're looking for," he said, shuffling his feet. Hua Cheng's eye flashed and he took a step forward, making the man flinch.

"I- I don't have it anymore! The other day after the earthquake I was collecting herbs on the mountain and it started raining, so I took shelter in the old temple, you see, and there I found it lying on the ground." He swallowed. "Money's tight these days, and it didn't seem to belong to anyone, so I... I took it."

He Xuan placed a hand on Hua Cheng's arm to stop him from getting further into the man's face. "What did you do with it afterwards?" he asked pleasantly.

"Sold it, of course. For a couple of silver."

Hua Cheng's hands curled into fists. He Xuan tightened his grip.

"And to whom?"

"A traveling merchant," the man stammered. "He left town earlier this morning. I'm deeply sorry, sir, I really thought the ring didn't belong to anyone-"

"Which direction did the merchant go in?" Hua Cheng spoke dangerously quietly. If his access to his abilities hadn't been so restrained right now, the demonic energy would probably have been rolling off of him in tangible waves.

"South- Southwest! Towards the forest in the valley!" the man yelped.

Hua Cheng yanked his arm out of He Xuan's grip. "We're going. Right now." Without sparing the man another glance, he started walking briskly towards the southern edge of the village, leaving He Xuan to chase after him for the second time that day.

"What do you think you're doing?" he hissed at his fellow Supreme once they were out of earshot. "Didn't we agree on not drawing attention to ourselves? You looked like you were seconds from eviscerating that man!"

"He sold my ashes," Hua Cheng gritted out, "to a traveling merchant. For a handful of silver."

"He didn't know what they were!"

"Since when do you care so much for humans, Black Water?" Hua Cheng bared his teeth at him, making his fangs glint in the dim light. He Xuan was suddenly very relieved that there was almost no one left on the street at this hour. "You're barely a century old, you're too young to grow soft. What are you going to do when you finally have the Wind and Water Masters in your claws, huh? Let them go because they didn't know better?"

He Xuan felt cold fury flaring up inside him. Eyes narrowed, he prepared to snap back at Hua Cheng, but before he could, Hua Cheng's eye grew wide for an instant, and he flickered out of existence once more.

It didn't take as long for him to reappear this time. He Xuan barely had time to panic before Hua Cheng rematerialized with an awful garbled scream, doubling over and clutching his abdomen. He Xuan rushed forward, caught him around the midsection before he could fall to his knees and managed to drag him into a nearby alley just in time before he retched up blood again. He maneuvered them so that Hua Cheng was able to brace himself against the stone wall with one hand while his body convulsed, He Xuan holding him up from the side. Hua Cheng's free hand shot up to clutch at the one He Xuan had wrapped around his waist. His sharp nails dug into He Xuan's skin painfully, but he paid it no mind.

More blood came up. It started to pool on the dirty ground beneath them while night fully settled over the town. Hua Cheng was shaking like a leaf all over and his grip on He Xuan's hand was like iron. Every now and then, soft whimpers escaped him, barely audible sounds of pain that slipped out from between clenched teeth. Each and every one of them felt like a knife to He Xuan's gut. He resisted the urge to bury his face in Hua Cheng's shoulder and settled for holding back his mass of heavy, silky hair instead, the strands nearly slipping through his fingers while he fed him a slow, steady stream of spiritual energy. Keeping up the disguise had slightly diminished his reserves, but he wasn't a Devastation class ghost for nothing. For now, he had enough to spare for both of them.

It seemed to take an eternity until the convulsions stopped this time. Finally, a last spurt of blood came up, and Hua Cheng's trembling began to subside, his head tipping forward so his forehead was resting against the wall.

"Fuck," he whispered, his voice breaking on the single word. "I wasn't expecting that to happen again."

He was still holding onto He Xuan's hand. He Xuan couldn't bring himself to pull away.

"How do you feel?"

"Like shit." Hua Cheng pushed away from the wall and turned around to lean his back against it instead. His lips were tinted red with his own blood, a thin trail running down his chin from the corner of his mouth. He Xuan barely stopped himself from reaching out and wiping it away.

Hua Cheng stared down at his hands. "I haven't felt this weak since before I got out of Mount Tong'lu. It feels like something pulling me apart from the inside." He grimaced at his own words.

He Xuan let out a soft sigh. "We're going to have to stop for the night."

Hua Cheng's head shot up. "What? No, we can't. We don't have time."

"You're too weak to keep going. You need to rest."

"Just lend me some more spiritual energy."

"My spiritual energy can only do so much." He Xuan held his gaze unwaveringly. "We're not going anywhere tonight. I'm getting us a room in an inn."

Hua Cheng raised an eyebrow. "Only one?"

Ghosts couldn't blush, but He Xuan felt a faint phantom heat in his cheeks. "Would you rather not have me close by in case this happens again?" he snapped. "Wait for me here. I'll be back soon."

Finding an inn wasn't difficult. He paid for a single room and, after a moment of hesitation, a large meal to be brought upstairs - eating wouldn't help Hua Cheng, but He Xuan's own stomach ached with the perpetual hunger he shouldn't have been able to feel. He'd been ignoring it all day and could have kept doing so for a while longer, but since they had to stay at an inn anyway, there was no reason for him not to indulge.

Hua Cheng had heeded his words and waited in the alley where He Xuan had left him. He Xuan had to support him on their way to the inn, something Hua Cheng was obviously unhappy about, but thankfully he didn't complain. The innkeeper and some of the guests sitting at tables in the parlor downstairs threw them curious glances as they made their way past, which He Xuan did his best to ignore. They could stare all they wanted as long as they didn't realize just what the two strange men that had just walked in were.

By the time they reached their room, He Xuan was more or less carrying Hua Cheng. He deposited him on the bed as carefully as possible and couldn't resist the urge to brush back some errant strands of hair from his tired face.

"Does this room have a bath?" Hua Cheng mumbled.

Now it was He Xuan's turn to raise an eyebrow. "You want to take a bath?"

"You might be able to just get rid of all that dust from walking around in the aftermath of an earthquake with a snap of your fingers, but I can't. Not right now, at least," Hua Cheng replied with a sour expression.

He Xuan shrugged. "Fair enough."

The room did have a bathtub, although a fairly small one. He Xuan went back downstairs to ask for warm water to fill it with, and not for the first time wondered why he was being so indulgent toward Hua Cheng. They had a certain working relationship because their goals sometimes aligned, and He Xuan owed Hua Cheng more than just money. He would even admit that he enjoyed the other ghost's company from time to time, when he didn't taunt him all too mercilessly.

But this?

Maybe it was just because of Hua Cheng's sudden physical frailty. Seeing him like that inspired a type of instinct He Xuan hadn't felt in many years, something protective.

Maybe he could explain that way why he helped Hua Cheng over to the privacy screen when the wooden tub had been filled with steaming water and removed his silver vambraces for him when he noticed Hua Cheng's own hands were shaking too much to do it himself. He wasn't sure if it could explain the odd clench of his stomach when Hua Cheng gave him a smirk that was mischievous if exhausted and asked him to help him wash his hair.

"I'm not your servant," He Xuan snapped, a knee-jerk reaction. It didn't deter Hua Cheng.

"I would never presume such a thing." His tone wasn't mocking exactly, but it wasn't serious either. "But I did vomit up blood I shouldn't even have less than half a shichen ago. You saw it with your own two eyes."

"Drop the pitiful act, it doesn't suit you."

"Ah, Lord Black Water, so cold." Hua Cheng let out an exaggerated sigh. "Will you help me or not?"

He Xuan exhaled sharply through this nose. "Fine."

His century of life and lack thereof had prepared him for a lot of things. Hua Cheng disrobing in front of him, as it turned out, was not one of them.

He didn't try to stare, but it was difficult not to when Hua Cheng removed his belt, letting it clatter to the floor, then yanked his round-collared red outer robe over his head unceremoniously. Despite his condition, there was a fluidity, a grace to each of his movements. Something in the way the muscles of his shoulders bunched and relaxed under the thin white silk of his underrobe, the way his waterfall of hair tumbled over his lean back and midway down his thighs.

He Xuan's lungs already held no air, but if they did, all of it surely would've left them when Hua Cheng undid the ties on his underrobe and it, too, dropped to the floor. He stood facing away from He Xuan and He Xuan couldn't stop himself from dragging his gaze over the smooth planes of his back, well-defined muscles and milky white skin, unmarred by the scars that covered He Xuan's true form.

It was the first time he saw Hua Cheng in such a state of undress, and he didn't stop there. Seemingly completely free of shame, he kicked his boots off and removed his trousers as well, and He Xuan was suddenly glad he had his back to him, because he wasn't sure if he could've kept his composure in the face of the alternative.

Hua Cheng climbed into the tub - again, frustratingly elegant - and let out a blissful sigh that made He Xuan clench his fists so hard his knuckles nearly cracked.

"Well, are you going to make good on your promise, Black Water?" The smirk was obvious in Hua Cheng's voice. He Xuan wanted to strangle him. Dig his fingers into that pretty white throat. See what sounds he'd make then.

He did nothing of the sort, of course. Instead he took two steps over to the bathtub, grabbed Hua Cheng by the back of the head and forcefully pushed him under water. Something muffled that might have been a squeak of indignation reached his ears, and He Xuan held him under for just a few seconds more while he valiantly struggled against his grip before yanking him back up.

Hua Cheng whipped his head around and glared at him with an intensity that might have made He Xuan take a step back if the way his wet hair stuck to his face in messy strands hadn't given him the vague appearance of a street cat that had fallen into a pond. He Xuan held back a laugh at the sight.

"What the fuck, He Xuan," Hua Cheng snarled.

"Had to get your hair wet somehow, didn't I?"

Another glare, but Hua Cheng settled back into his reclined position from before, grumbling under his breath. "Get rid of that stupid disguise."

He Xuan knelt down next to the tub, pushed his sleeves back and picked up the jug of rice water the innkeeper had brought up along with the water. "Why?"

"It doesn't suit you," Hua Cheng parroted his words from earlier. He Xuan scoffed, but his body shifted back to his true form, all long, thin limbs and sharp edges.

He poured some of the rice water into his palm and reached up to work it into Hua Cheng's scalp. Once again he was mesmerized by how flawless the illusion of his body was, so detailed that He Xuan could count individual hairs. His own disguises were nothing to scoff at, certainly too well crafted for anyone to tell at first glance that they were just that - disguises. But he couldn't quite reach Hua Cheng's level of lifelike, no matter how he tried.

Despite his initial response to Hua Cheng asking him to do this, He Xuan handled him carefully now, making sure not to nick him with his claws or pull his hair and to massage the soap in properly. Every now and then his fingers caught on the strap of Hua Cheng's eyepatch, but he wasn't so presumptive as to ask him to remove it.

He Xuan could practically feel him melting under his hands, slowly sinking deeper into the water and letting out little contented sounds that He Xuan didn't want to admit made something in his gut pull tight. If he'd been capable of it, he was sure his face would have been terribly flushed by now, and he struggled to keep his eyes on what he was doing instead of letting his gaze trail over strong arms and broad shoulders, down the little he could see of Hua Cheng's collarbone and chest. When he shifted a little, he realized that Hua Cheng's eye had drifted closed, dark lashes fanned out over his pale cheek, wearing an expression of something almost approaching peace. The sight made He Xuan want to reach out and caress his face, map out those perfect features with his touch and not just his eyes.

When it was time to wash the rice water out, He Xuan didn't push his head under again. Instead he reached for the small water pitcher next to the tub, filled it and rinsed Hua Cheng's hair gently, until the rice water was all gone. Hua Cheng seemed to have dozed off at that point, head resting against the edge of the tub, boneless and relaxed. He Xuan got up from his kneeling position and allowed himself just a few more moments of studying his face, the sharp cut of his cheekbones, the slope of his nose, the slant of his slim dark brows. His mouth, pale lips, a chiseled cupid's bow, the corners slightly upturned in his sleep, a soft smile more genuine than almost anything He Xuan had seen on him while awake.

He Xuan tore himself away from the sight and walked back behind the privacy screen. Soon after, the food he had ordered was brought, and he sat down at the low table to eat, though devouring was maybe the more apt term for it. It barely took a few minutes for him to clean every single one of the numerous dishes. They didn't make his stomach any fuller, but food never did, no matter how strong the urge to eat became.

Eventually, he heard the soft splashing sounds of someone moving in water, the rustling of fabric, and a minute later, Hua Cheng emerged from behind the privacy screen, wearing only his inner robe and trousers, hair still damp. He seemed slightly steadier on his feet than before, though he still looked tired.

"Didn't even leave anything for me, did you?" he commented with a look at the array of empty dishes on the table.

"It wouldn't have helped you regain any energy anyway."

Hua Cheng pouted. "Doesn't mean I can't enjoy eating. You do all the time."

It wasn't really a matter of enjoying it, but He Xuan didn't say that out loud. "Buy your own food. You're the one of us who's disgustingly rich."

"And you're the one who owes me his entire existence, I get it." Hua Cheng yawned. "I'm going to bed. You do..." He waved his hand around vaguely. "Whatever it is you do."

He Xuan watched as his companion walked over to the bed and laid down on it without further preamble. He didn't ask how they were going to handle sleeping arrangements, which didn't surprise He Xuan. He'd have insisted Hua Cheng take the bed anyway, he was the one of them who needed the rest more, and He Xuan was used to sleeping in worse places than the floor of an inn.

He ended up sitting next to the bed, back leaning against the wall, telling himself he wasn't watching Hua Cheng's peacefully sleeping face and deluding himself into thinking he could see his chest rising and falling with breath that wasn't there.

 

They set off early the next morning in the direction the man yesterday had pointed out. The streets had just begun to fill with people going about their business and the warm morning sun transformed the dust billowing up from the road into particles of gold. There were few clouds in the still faintly red sky, birds singing in the trees, a deceptively idyllic picture. It was the sort of morning when once, decades ago, He Sheng would have snuck outside early and taken the scrolls he was studying in the preparation for the national exam with him; he would've sat below the tree behind the house in the soft grass as he read, a smile on his face, until meimei came outside and told him to come to breakfast.

On this morning, He Xuan walked with Hua Cheng until they reached the nearby forest. Then he took out a piece of white chalk and drew a distance-shortening array on the trunk of an old tree, one that would take them further into the forest and lessen the lead the merchant had on them. Hua Cheng had been on edge since he'd woken, even more so than the previous day. He Xuan couldn't fault him for it, even though his increasing tendency to snap at him for the smallest offense was getting on his nerves. A lot was at stake for him, after all. Everything.

They stepped through the array and found themselves among a different patch of trees that looked much like the previous one. The frequently travelled dirt road was only a few paces off, and there were fresh wheel tracks from what was likely a heavy cart, drawn by a single ox.

They exchanged a look. Ox carts were slow. Maybe they would be able to catch up with it on foot.

Had Hua Cheng had access to his abilities, this would hardly have been a problem - ghosts of their power level were not restricted to human walking speeds. But he needed to save every last drop of spiritual energy he still had to maintain his form, and He Xuan was not going to set off without him, not while he was virtually defenseless.

So they walked, at a brisk, but distinctly human pace. Somewhere in the back of his mind, He Xuan was grateful that his feet no longer had the ability to blister, although that was the least of their problems at the moment.

Every so often, he snuck a glance at Hua Cheng, who was staring at the road ahead with his jaw tightly set and his hands clenched into fists. He hadn't had one of his... collapses since the previous evening, but now that it had happened twice, He Xuan couldn't help but constantly anticipate a third time. He had to fight not to flinch at Hua Cheng's every twitch, every ever-so-slightly off step that could mean he was about to disappear again, and who knew if he'd come back?

The thought was a constant, dark presence in the back of He Xuan's mind, making him restless. It felt like a claw-tipped hand constantly hovering behind his neck, a hair's breadth away from digging into his flesh, and he walked more quickly, as if he could simply outrun it if he tried hard enough.

This part of the forest was thick and dark and not much sunlight made it through the canopies, but He Xuan could tell the sun was beginning to rise higher in the sky as the hours trickled by. They had found no sign of the merchant yet, although the wheel tracks remained. There had been no other travelers either, even though this was a well-used road, and He Xuan supposed it might have been his own paranoia, but even the woods around them seemed too quiet. The birds had stopped singing long ago, and there was none of the normal rustling of animals moving through the thicket. Even the wind in the leaves was silent.

The heat grew, something that might have bothered him once, but didn't touch him now beyond casual observation. He Xuan assumed the same would apply to Hua Cheng and was surprised when two shichen into their journey, he turned to look at his companion and found him looking exhausted. His body physically could not produce sweat and he had no breath to be coming in short bursts, but his eye was glassy, and his steps had lost their previous drive, his gait bordering on unsteady.

He hadn't said anything, of course, but the sight set alarm bells off in He Xuan's head. He slowed his pace.

"Crimson Rain, do you need to rest?"

"I'm fine," Hua Cheng mumbled, voice sounding strained.

"You know if you collapse again we're going to lose more time than if we just stop and-"

"I said I'm fine!" His tone was aggressive, but there was no real heat behind it. No strength. He Xuan's concern grew, and he was about to grab Hua Cheng and force him to sit down when the road made a turn, and they came face to face with what was left of the merchant they'd been chasing,

There was a shallow ravine next to the path, a few puddles of water from previous rain at the bottom. The ox cart had been flipped over and into it, two of the wheels no longer attached, the axle broken. Its contents had spilled out over its side and thoroughly torn apart, with hardly any of the wares the merchant had been carrying left to so much as tell what trade he had specialized in. A piece of fabric here, a bracelet that looked like it might have been beautiful when it hadn't been bent out of shape and covered in mud there, that was it.

The merchant and his ox were both still there, in rather similar states. Both had undoubtedly been dead for at least a day if not longer, and a terrible stench wafted up from the ravine, making He Xuan glad he did not need to breathe. Buzzing flies surrounded the cadavers, and both, particularly the ox, had pieces torn out of them, likely devoured by whatever creatures inhabited this forest. The merchant's once fine clothes were covered in blood, his limbs broken and a dent in the side of his skull to add to the multiple stab wounds in his chest.

His eyes and mouth were open, an expression of surprise mixed with terror on his face.

The sun burned. The hum of the flies filled the dead silence. He Xuan felt cold.

"No." Disbelief colored Hua Cheng's voice. He didn't have to say more for He Xuan to understand him.

How were they going to find his ashes now?

Hua Cheng climbed down into the ravine, getting mud on his boots and robes. There was a haste to his movements, something panicked, as he began to look through the remaining contents of the cart, rifling through them with the fervor of a desperate man. He Xuan knew he should have moved to help him, but he was frozen in place, like the bottoms of his feet had grown roots in the ground.

"They're not here." Hua Cheng had stilled, on his knees down there in the dirt among the flies. He looked up at He Xuan, his eye wide, hair in disarray. The ends hung down into the muddy water.

The merchant's dead eyes stared up into the sky sightlessly. He Xuan knew that when ghosts left this world, died their second deaths, they did not leave behind bodies - they simply disappeared, as if they had never been there at all. But he couldn't help imagine Hua Cheng looking like that. Bloated, bug-eyed, rotting in place while insects feasted on his purpling flesh.

"This was a robbery, not an attack by some animal." He Xuan heard, but hardly felt himself say the words. "Someone took the ring."

Hua Cheng looked around, face blank like his eye couldn't take in what it was seeing. "How did the cart end up down here?"

"Does it matter?"

That seemed to shake him out of his trance. He scrambled to his feet, robes damp and terribly stained, and climbed back up to the road.

"We have to go, right now. Quickly, or we'll never catch whoever this was."

He Xuan caught onto the meaning behind his words. "We can't. You don't have enough power."

"You don't know that. We don't have a choice."

He Xuan didn't want to give into what Hua Cheng was proposing, but he knew he wasn't going to let it go. With a frustrated huff that he hoped masked his concern, he turned, striding back to the road. "Then hurry up."

This time, he didn't restrict himself to human traveling speeds. Trees and bushes and tall grasses blurred together as he moved, wind whistling past his face and not touching him at all. He was vaguely aware of Hua Cheng's presence closely behind him, and for a few precious minutes he thought that maybe he had underestimated how much spiritual energy Hua Cheng had left.

Then there was the sickening sound of something being wrenched apart behind him, and he already knew Hua Cheng was not going to be there anymore by the time he slowed to an abrupt stop and whipped around, phantom rabbit heartbeat in his chest.

It took long, too long, until Hua Cheng reappeared this time. He Xuan hadn't seen him vanish, so he couldn't predict the exact spot he was going to materialize and wasn't there to catch him when his knees gave out under him. There was no scream, just a weak, pained groan and a retching sound before blood spilled out of Hua Cheng's mouth again.

When He Xuan was kneeling next to him, hands gentle on his shoulders as he transferred him spiritual power, he noticed that a thin trickle of blood was coming from Hua Cheng's eye, and two more from his nostrils. The already suffocating feeling of fear in his chest roared as it clawed at him, and He Xuan wanted to scream, wanted to yank Hua Cheng into his arms and hold him there as if that alone would be enough to keep him from fading.

The metallic stench of blood was thick in the air by the time the vomiting stopped. Hua Cheng didn't have the strength to speak, much less to get up, and He Xuan lifted him up without much difficulty. Hua Cheng was slightly taller than him, but He Xuan didn't lack strength, and the other ghost's body barely seemed to weigh anything anyway. He felt like a paper doll in He Xuan's arms as he carried him through the forest, light and like the smallest bit of force could tear him apart.

He Xuan followed the upwards slope of the terrain, being distantly aware this forest covered a valley between two mountains, and not too long after found what he'd hoped for: a cliff side, and an opening in it. The cave wasn't spacious by any means, but it was enough for the both of them.

He Xuan put Hua Cheng down carefully. He seemed to have lost consciousness, but he wasn't bleeding from any of his qiqiao anymore, and his body was solid and tangible, although he was horribly still, none of the peace from the previous night on his face.

After a moment's hesitation, He Xuan shrugged out of his outer robe and folded it up into a makeshift pillow that he pushed beneath Hua Cheng's head. He sat next to him, gently took one of his wrists and fed him more spiritual energy as he slept. He Xuan could feel how depleted Hua Cheng's own reserves were, nearly empty, barely enough to keep his body together. Whatever was happening to his ashes, the damage they were sustaining was getting worse. They didn't have much time left.

A shichen passed, then two, and three. Hua Cheng slept. He Xuan waited, and never stopped the slow stream of spiritual energy he was transferring him.

Waiting was something he was very, very good at, something he had had to do many times for much longer than this, but right now, every moment that Hua Cheng didn't open his eyes was agony. If he'd been damaged to a point where his existence was in danger, his body would have been fading; He Xuan knew that, but it didn't stop the fear.

The sun sank lower, and the sliver of sky He Xuan could see through the cave entrance was painted orange and violet, then darker and darker until it was pitch black in the cave. The darkness was something else he a was intimately familiar with, and it hardly inhibited his vision. In a way, he felt more at ease like this, the night like a velvety blanket that covered him.

It must have been approaching midnight when Hua Cheng stirred. The stream of spiritual energy broke off as he slowly sat up, eye on the cave exit. He Xuan watched him get to his feet and approach the opening, and for a moment he couldn't help but wonder if this was what Hua Cheng had looked like when he'd broken out of the Kiln over six hundred years ago, stepping out through a hole in the mountainside that he had put there with the sky framing his silhouette. But that was nonsense, of course. He Xuan had been to the Kiln himself, and it was nothing like this. There was no forest outside, no soft rustling of trees, no stars scattered across the sky to welcome those who clawed their way to survival inside that mountain. There was just rock, and snow, and black clouds above it all.

Hua Cheng wandered out of the cave, slowly, as if in a trance. He Xuan considered following him, but he didn't go far. A few steps away from the entrance, he stopped, his back to He Xuan. The cool night breeze played with the ends of his hair in a way that shouldn't have been possible.

It was several long, silent minutes until he spoke.

"I died here."

His voice sounded oddly flat, hollow. He Xuan felt a shiver run down his spine.

"Here?" he echoed. "In the middle of a forest?"

Hua Cheng minutely shook his head. "Six hundred years ago, this wasn't a forest. It was a battlefield."

A battlefield. That was more information about Hua Cheng's mortal life than He Xuan had ever been given, beyond the fact that he was from the former kingdom of Xianle, which hadn't been hard to figure out considering his perplexingly ardent worship of the fallen nation's last crown prince.

Had he been a soldier? He had to have died young, considering his true form's appearance. Died fighting wars for his beloved prince.

He Xuan felt faint disgust with himself at the bitterness he tasted in his mouth at the thought.

Hua Cheng didn't speak anymore, but he looked terribly forlorn standing there, staring into the night. His head hung low and his arms came up to hug himself like he wanted to shield himself from the chill He Xuan knew he couldn't feel. He Xuan's hands itched with the desire to reach out, pull him in, hold him close until whatever memories held him captive let him be.

But he could picture the expression on Hua Cheng's face if he dared to touch him too well, his sneer as he pushed him away. And He Xuan was a coward, and so he stayed where he was, sitting on the floor of the cave with his legs folded under him, watching in silence. It was all he'd ever been able to do, even back then.

He thought of the four urns in the room beneath the Nether Water Manor, all of them empty. There had been no bodies, no ashes for him to recover when he'd been released from prison, paper-thin skin stretched tight over his bones, with nothing to his name but the rags that hung from his starved body.

Meimei and Xin-er, taken and violated over and over until their bodies gave out. Mother, starved to death. Father, succumbed to sickness from working in his old age.

Hua Cheng, dissolving into dust, dead in the street, blood pouring from his mouth, his nose, his eye. Crumbling in his hands.

You've spent all this time fooling death, He Xuan thought. Have you finally become the fool? Have you noticed yet?

An eternity later, Hua Cheng turned and walked back to the cave. He sat down next to He Xuan, stiffer than normal. He Xuan wondered if he was in pain, and if he'd admit to it if asked.

"Black Water."

He Xuan looked at him. "Hm?"

"Why are you helping me?"

The question took him aback. He had- he supposed he'd assumed Hua Cheng wouldn't feel the need to ask, wouldn't wonder about his motivations. The fact that he did stung more than He Xuan wanted to admit.

"Why shouldn't I help you?" He leaned back against the wall of the cave, ignoring the way the rock dug uncomfortably into his back. "We're..."

"We're what?" Hua Cheng's voice sounded sharp. "Friends?"

He Xuan didn't reply, unwilling to consider Hua Cheng's reaction to his answer, although the other seemed to take his silence for precisely that. He let out a low, mirthless chuckle.

"Do you think creatures like us need friends?"

"It's not really about need."

"What is it about, then?"

He Xuan narrowed his eyes at him. "You're the most sentimental ghost I know, Crimson Rain. You of all people should understand."

A snort. "Sentimental? What makes you think that?"

"The fact that you've spent six hundred years worshipping a god with not a single temple left to his name, who everyone but you has forgotten."

That brought a dangerous glint out in Hua Cheng's eye. He Xuan knew he was toeing a line, mentioning his Crown Prince, but there was a certain thrill to it, knowing how easily he could get burned.

"Careful, Little Ghost King."

He Xuan decided to push further. "Or what?"

Hua Cheng's grin showed off his fangs, like a tiger baring its teeth. "Have you forgotten what I am? I'm a vicious creature, Black Water."

"You said yourself that I had more resentment in me than you could ever dream of."

"That doesn't mean it's in your nature." He leaned in slightly closer. "I know a lot more about you than you know about me, Scholar He."

He Xuan bristled at the old name, but Hua Cheng paid it no mind. "You're filled to the brim with hate," he continued. "If you weren't such a damned good liar, I'd be worried about how you're ever going to hide it in front of that trash up in the heavens. You dream about tearing the Masters of Wind and Water apart day and night. You want to make them pay, and I don't doubt for a moment that you will. It will be a glorious sight when you give them what they deserve."

If he'd had air in his lungs, He Xuan would've felt Hua Cheng's breath against his ear right now. He fisted his hands in his robes, suppressing a harsh shudder.

Hua Cheng's voice was low and smooth like velvet, and sharp like the finest blade. He Xuan wanted to cut himself on it.

"But you didn't always have that venom in your veins." Hua Cheng's lips almost, almost brushed his cheek. "Me? I was born like this. Violence is inherent to me. Devastation is inherent to me."

He pulled back just far enough for his eye to meet He Xuan's. "Don't forget that, Little Ghost King."

Somewhere amidst the dizzy jumble of his thoughts caused by Hua Cheng's sheer proximity - shamefully - the pounding of his heart that wasn't there and that he still felt so viscerally in his chest, He Xuan thought that Hua Cheng had never answered his question.

And if I'm not careful, then what? Will you tear me apart, Crimson Rain Sought Flower? Will your touch ruin me? I want you to. I want it to.

Gods. He didn't remember the last time he had wanted like this, so much that it felt like a hand wrapped around his throat.

Hua Cheng hadn't broken his gaze, neither had the smirk left his face, but a different undertone had snuck in. Something no less predatory, but it seemed to promise more than pain. His eye was boring into He Xuan's like it wanted to look inside of him, lay him bare.

"Black Water," he murmured.

"Crimson Rain." It shouldn't have been possible for him to sound breathless, but he did.

"Will you lend me some more spiritual energy?"

He Xuan furrowed his brow. Was Hua Cheng in pain after all? Did he feel the next collapse approaching? He Xuan opened his mouth to ask, but something about the look on Hua Cheng's face stopped him.

Silently, he raised his hand, drawing power into his palm, ready to transfer it, but before he could touch Hua Cheng's arm, the other moved, quick as a snake, and cold lips were pressed to He Xuan's own.

It was like a bolt of lightning had struck him. He froze, hand hovering in the air, eyes wide open even as Hua Cheng's hand moved to cradle the back of his neck with startling tenderness. His lips were soft as they moved slowly against He Xuan's, softer than they should have been, though bloodless and cool.

Something terrifying roared to life in He Xuan's chest, exhilarating. The slow, boiling want he'd felt before ignited, a single spark enough to transform the flame into an inferno, consuming him, burning everything else and leaving only the dizzying feeling of Hua Cheng's mouth against his, the gentle pressure of his fingers against his neck, his absence of warmth.

He Xuan's grip on himself slipped. For just a moment, his eyes fluttered shut, and he leaned into the kiss with a gasp, returning it with fervor and drawing a noise from Hua Cheng that made his head swim. He wanted to hear it again, and again, and again, wanted to hear his name from those lips, strangled and incoherent.

Hua Cheng's fingers tangled in his hair and tugged, just slightly, but the barest edge of pain, though it made He Xuan shiver with delight, gave him back a semblance of clarity. His hands came up against Hua Cheng's chest and shoved him roughly, breaking the kiss.

"What the fuck, Crimson Rain."

Oh, but it was so hard not to immediately pull him back in when he was looking at him like that, lips still parted and, somehow, reddened, eye blazing. One of his hands came up to cover He Xuan's where it was still resting on his chest.

"Did I misread you?" His voice was low, and the hint of heat in it didn't escape He Xuan. It made him bite back a whimper. "If you're not interested, I won't hold it against you, although I was..." His grip tightened slightly. "Very sure that you wanted me."

He Xuan hesitated, swallowed. He could have pulled his hand free at any time if he had wanted to, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. They were still close enough that He Xuan could count his eyelashes, smell his scent of flowers that persisted even now, barely tinted by a hint of iron.

Gods, Hua Cheng was right. He had rarely wanted anything as badly as this, had dreamed of it and denied it upon waking, longed for it for almost as long as he'd known him.

And now that it was being offered to him so freely, He Xuan wasn't strong enough a man to resist the temptation.

He fisted his hands in the fabric of Hua Cheng's robe and yanked him in, crushing their mouths together. Hua Cheng let out a surprised sound, but he didn't hesitate to return the kiss, nothing gentle in it this time. He Xuan's tongue swept over his bottom lip, urging him to open up, and Hua Cheng indulged him with a low chuckle that was swallowed up by the kiss.

Hands came up to tangle in He Xuan's hair, tugging again and forcing a moan from his lips.

"You like that?" Hua Cheng whispered, lips abandoning his mouth in favor of traveling along the sharp line of his jaw. "You want to be pinned down and have your hair pulled, Xiao Xuan?"

A shudder ran through He Xuan, and his eyes rolled back into his head when Hua Cheng bit the side of his neck, fangs grazing his skin. He couldn't deny the wave of heat that rolled through him at Hua Cheng's words, the image they conjured up in his mind of Hua Cheng looming over him, hair falling like a curtain around them both, holding him down and marking him and taking what he wanted from him.

But there was something else boiling inside He Xuan along with that heat. Something frustrated, almost angry, that wanted to bite.

His hand moved to grab Hua Cheng by the hair and roughly pulled him back up into a mean, hungry kiss, all teeth and tongue.

"Maybe next time, Hua Chengzhu," he all but snarled when they broke apart, and Hua Cheng must have noticed something in the glint of his golden eyes, because he put up no resistance when He Xuan shoved him again, simply went down, sprawled out on the ground. His hair, that beautiful, silky hair, fanned out behind him like a black halo, his lips were bitten red, his eye half lidded. A feast, ready to be devoured.

"Presumptive of you to assume there will be a next time." His words held little weight when they were gasped out as He Xuan moved to straddle him and bent down to bite at his throat. There was no point in trying to leave marks, but He Xuan dug his teeth into that fragile skin like they'd make red bloom from beneath, proof that this was real, that Hua Cheng had allowed him to touch him like this.

His hands went to Hua Cheng's waist and quickly undid his belt, then grasped the fabric tightly and began to pull the outer robe up over his head. Hua Cheng threw his arms up to make it easier, and He Xuan noticed he had already removed his vambraces.

"Is Hua Chengzhu impatient?" he murmured, leaning down and placing another kiss on his lips. The way Hua Cheng responded was the only answer he needed, licking into his mouth greedily. He pushed up into He Xuan's hands when he moved to undo the ties of his inner robe, pushing it open but not bothering to slide it off his shoulders.

It sent an unspeakable thrill through He Xuan to know that Hua Cheng wanted this, was desperate for it. That heat was pooling low in his gut, pulsing through his empty veins and scorching him from the inside. He was half hard already, and they'd barely even begun.

With one last nip at Hua Cheng's lower lip, he moved lower, down his jaw and throat, his collarbone. He placed vicious bites all over his chest, making him tremble and groan, nails dragging along his sides and leaving deep scratches. Hua Cheng responded to everything beautifully, squirming beneath him and making breathy little sounds that went straight to He Xuan's dick.

He hadn't expected Hua Cheng to let him take control this easily, but he'd not even bothered pretending to put up a fight, almost like this was what he'd been hoping for from the beginning. The thought made He Xuan's head spin, a strange sort of haze settling over him as he roughly scraped his teeth over a nipple. That drew a moan out from Hua Cheng's throat, making He Xuan smirk against his skin. He was still cold to the touch, and that wouldn't change throughout this encounter, but He Xuan hadn't missed the way Hua Cheng was panting softly, despite his lack of need for air, like He Xuan's touch was enough to make him forget that he was already dead.

Hua Cheng's mortal life, so much shorter than his existence as a ghost, had ended not far from here, an eternity ago, but he felt alive as he moved against He Xuan, pliant in his hands. His hips were rolling against He Xuan's, and he felt the evidence of Hua Cheng's arousal press up closely against his own, still separated by layers of fabric. He Xuan ground down against him briefly, and Hua Cheng let out a filthy groan. His eye was glazed over, and he'd kept his hands above his head without He Xuan even having to tell him to.

He Xuan leaned back up and kissed him again, palms mapping out the hard muscle of Hua Cheng's abdomen. His partner's desperation was obvious in the sloppy way he kissed him back, the way he arched up off the floor to bring them closer together.

"Black Water," he panted into his mouth, "what are you waiting for?"

"Hm." He Xuan reached down and palmed the bulge in Hua Cheng's pants, making him gasp like he'd been punched. "Maybe I want to hear you beg."

To his great surprise, Hua Cheng acquiesced immediately. "Please," he groaned. "Touch me, please."

He Xuan slowly stroked him again, relishing the way Hua Cheng's hips bucked up into his hand. "You really want it that bad? You're that desperate for me?"

He sat up and slowly let his gaze drag over Hua Cheng sprawled out beneath him. With his robes open and his hair in disarray, mouth half open and lips spit slick, teeth marks - however faint - down his neck and collarbone, he looked undone, nearly debauched already.

Reaching out, He Xuan trailed one hand down down Hua Cheng's pale, sculpted chest, pausing briefly to pinch a nipple and make him hiss. He'd planned to make Hua Cheng wait longer, tease him to the brink of incoherence before giving him what he wanted, but the pleading look on his face was hard to resist.

After bending down to briefly bite Hua Cheng's bottom lip, He Xuan moved, sliding down his body. He pushed his thighs apart to make space for him, none too gently, fingers hooking into the waistband of his pants and jerking them down without ceremony.

Hua Cheng's cock was fully hard, flushed and already glistening at the tip. He Xuan loosely wrapped a hand around it and jerked him slowly, once, twice, just to watch the way Hua Cheng threw his head back, eye squeezing shut. He moaned lowly when He Xuan thumbed over the slit, and more beads of precome gathered. He Xuan lowered his lead and darted his tongue out to lick it off, the barest touch, but it made Hua Cheng let out a whine that shouldn't have been appealing, yet only served to further He Xuan's hunger.

"Noisy," he breathed, mouthing a little at the length and feeling it twitch against his lips.

"Black Water- ha-ah - I never would have-" Hua Cheng groaned when He Xuan pressed a kiss to the tip of his cock, one hand around the base. "Never would've taken you for such a cruel lover."

The word lover sent a bolt of heat straight down He Xuan's spine. "So you admit you've thought about this, then?"

"Does it seem like I haven't- ah!"

He Xuan took the head into his mouth, keeping his eyes on Hua Cheng's face. His tongue swirled around it, digging slightly into the slit and lapping up more leaking salty fluid. With his free hand, he reached up and cruelly twisted Hua Cheng's nipple between his fingers, feeling his chest heaving with breaths he didn't need.

Something in He Xuan stretched and purred at how much this was affecting Hua Cheng. It was a powerful feeling, having the other Ghost King at his mercy like this, reduced to breathy whimpers and hips twitching up, trying to push more of himself into He Xuan's mouth. There was something raw about it, a vulnerability that might have made He Xuan balk if he wasn't so drunk on the taste of him, the sounds he made, the tremble of him beneath his hands.

In all the years they'd known each other, He Xuan doubted he'd ever seen Hua Cheng with his guard so low. Faintly, he wondered if he'd regret it as soon as this was over, but he pushed the thought aside and lowered himself further, taking more of Hua Cheng's cock. He flattened his tongue against the underside, hollowed his cheeks and sucked. The choked noise it earned him nearly made his eyes cross.

"Shit," Hua Cheng groaned. "You're good at this."

He Xuan pulled off for a moment, a thin string of saliva still connecting his bottom lip with the tip of Hua Cheng's dick. He quirked an eyebrow, never breaking eye contact. "Am I? Do you have a point of comparison?"

He wasn't sure why he had asked, but something possessive in him shook with pleasure when Hua Cheng shook his head.

"Crimson Rain," he cooed, "you're really making me take your virginity on the floor of a cave in the forest?"

"Making you?“ There was almost a trace of hysteria in Hua Cheng's voice, and he propped himself up on one elbow to look down at He Xuan. "Who's the one who pushed me down and told me to beg?!"

"And who's the one who kissed me?" He Xuan shot back. Hua Cheng opened his mouth to respond, but the words were torn from the tip of his tongue when He Xuan swallowed all of him down to the base in one go with no warning. Hua Cheng shouted, one hand shooting out and tangling in He Xuan's hair. He Xuan thought about slapping it away, but the faint tugging on his scalp felt too good as he sucked again, tongue tracing the vein on the underside of the cock.

He could tell how much self control it was taking Hua Cheng not to thrust up into his mouth, and held back a smirk around the dick in his mouth. His partner was close already, and He Xuan had half a mind to let him finish like this, but-

He had other ideas.

With one more harsh suck, he pulled off again, shivering at the protesting whine in response.

"I want to fuck you," he said, closely watching Hua Cheng's expression. His eye widened slightly, but not with displeasure.

"Yeah," he breathed, "yeah, hold on." He twisted his upper body to reach for his discarded outer robe and stuck his hand in one of the sleeves, rifling through it impatiently for a few moments before re-emerging with a small vial of oil. He Xuan watched with no small measure of incredulousness.

"Why do you even have that in there?"

"Did you think I was going to let you put your dick in me dry?" Hua Cheng snapped. "And it's for E-Ming. Was. It has magical properties and I tried to see if it would make the blade any sharper. It didn't work, and I forgot I had it."

He Xuan couldn't help but laugh. This was so like Hua Cheng it was almost painful to behold. Only he would find a magical artifact, probably priceless in value, attempt to use it as sword oil and then forget it in his qiankun sleeve, only to use it as lubricant for sex later. He Xuan snatched the vial from his hand and leaned up to kiss the sour expression off his face.

"Fine. Pants off, gege."

He watched as Hua Cheng nearly choked at the nickname while impatiently kicking his boots off and shoving his trousers the rest of the way down. "You, Black Water Sinking Ships," he said, "are a menace."

"You never would've given me the time of the day if I wasn't." He Xuan settled back between his legs and uncorked the vial with his teeth. Hua Cheng huffed a laugh.

"True."

He Xuan poured a generous amount of the oil over his fingers before setting the vial aside and nudging Hua Cheng's thighs apart a bit further, nipping at the pale flesh. "Relax, or this won't work."

To his credit, Hua Cheng obviously did his very best to do as he was told as He Xuan circled his hole with one finger before slowly pushing it in, just the tip at first. Despite his earlier demeanor, he had no desire to hurt Hua Cheng, and it was his first time doing this. He Xuan didn't have an overabundance of experience himself, but he'd been engaged before his death, and after that the'd slept with a handful of ghosts, male and female, in an often valiant attempt to feel something other than misery. He knew what he was doing, and Hua Cheng clearly wasn't completely oblivious, but studying could only do so much.

He Xuan ignored the mean little voice in the back of his head reminding him of just who Hua Cheng had done all that research for.

Hua Cheng took the first finger well, tensing up only for a moment before relaxing around him. He was hot inside, hotter than he should have been. He Xuan stretched up a little and peppered little kisses over his length while pushing his finger in and out a few times, rotating it as he did to stretch him. Hua Cheng had his hands fisted in his white inner robe, which he'd shrugged out of fully by now, leaving him completely bare beneath the still mostly clothed He Xuan.

He was a vision like that. He Xuan couldn't wait to see what he would look like entirely taken apart.

He added a second finger, which prompted a small gasp, but still breached Hua Cheng easily enough. This time when He Xuan started moving his wrist, he crooked his fingers upward on every stroke, searching for his prostate. He could tell he had found it when Hua Cheng's eye suddenly flew open and he arched off the ground with a noise that was surprise as much as pleasure.

"Oh," he gasped, "that's- do that again, fuck, He Xuan."

His name sounded so sweet from his lips. Dizzily, He Xuan thought that he could get drunk on this, better than the finest wine. Just Hua Cheng moaning for him as He Xuan's fingers worked him open, cock leaking on his stomach and canting his hips into every thrust.

The third finger prompted a hiss, and He Xuan paused for a moment, but Hua Cheng immediately protested. "No, keep going, I'm fine, ah!"

Who was he to deny him?

He Xuan scissored his fingers apart inside him, stretching him further. He was so tight and hot and soft, he'd feel so good around He Xuan's cock. His own impatience was growing, achingly hard in his pants.

He licked a broad stripe up Hua Cheng's length, earning a moan that only spurred him on further. "Think you're ready?" he murmured, taking the head of his cock between his lips and swiping his tongue over it for just a moment.

"Fuck! Yes, yes, I'm ready, just- get on with it-"

"Say please, gege."

Hua Cheng shuddered violently underneath him. He threw an arm over his eyes, teeth worrying his bottom lip. "Gods."

"No gods here. Just me."

He Xuan twisted his fingers inside him and Hua Cheng sobbed.

"Fine, fine, please! Fuck me already!"

Heavens, hearing him begging did things to He Xuan. Every word tumbling from those perfect lips was like a bolt of lightning down his spine. Something inside him felt like it was about to burst with the sheer tension, and his fingers shook slightly as he sat up and untied the robe he was still wearing. Hua Cheng reached up to push it off his shoulders, making the fabric pool at his elbows, and He Xuan allowed it, transfixed by Hua Cheng's gaze raking over him greedily.

"Fuck, you're beautiful," he breathed. "So beautiful, Lord Black Water."

He Xuan couldn't find it in himself to agree. His true form was thin and bony, ribs straining against sea foam white skin, and covered in scars. An especially large one went from his right shoulder diagonally down his chest, stopping just left of his navel, but there were countless others, some less obvious than others, but all of them painful reminders of the circumstances of his death.

Still, Hua Cheng's gaze on him was scorching, and He Xuan couldn't deny that it felt good to be admired. None of his previous lovers had looked at him like that, save for Xin-er, and he tried not to think about her.

Discarding his robe, he pushed down his pants and pulled one leg free first, then the other. "Turn around," he ordered.

"Why? Don't want to see my face?" Hua Cheng's tone was teasing, but He Xuan scowled at the mere notion.

"No, it will be easier for you that way, idiot." He reached over and grabbed his folded outer robe. "Put this under your hips."

This time Hua Cheng did as he was told, obediently turning onto his front and shoving the robe beneath himself so his cock wouldn't be up against the stone. This was going to be tough on both their knees and elbows either way, no need to make the inevitable aches worse.

(He Xuan wasn't sure he was going to heal his.)

He Xuan knelt behind Hua Cheng, once more pushing his thighs apart and grabbing one of his cheeks to pull to the side and give him a good view of his stretched hole. Hua Cheng let out a whine and pushed his hips back into He Xuan's touch.

"Hurry up," he ground out, turning his head to look over his shoulder. He Xuan reached out, grabbed the back of his neck and shoved him back down, claws digging into the skin just shy of breaking it. He'd made them vanish earlier when fingering Hua Cheng open, but now they served their purpose well, evident in the gasp that escaped Hua Cheng's lips at the sharpness against the sides of his throat.

Who knew the King of Ghosts was such a glutton for roughness, even pain? It was such a shame He Xuan couldn't leave any lasting marks on him. Maybe when all this was over and Hua Cheng had his power back, he'd have him shift into a form that could bruise and bleed, just so he could see him covered in the traces of his claws and teeth.

He Xuan picked the vial of oil up again and poured more into his palm. He wrapped a hand around his own cock, slicking it up with several rough tugs that sent sparks of pleasure shooting up his spine, before bracing himself on Hua Cheng's muscular back with his free arm and nudging the head up against his entrance. He didn't push in just yet, just let the tip catch on Hua Cheng's stretched rim, but Hua Cheng moaned at the touch, a rough sound that spoke of desperation.

"Please," he whispered, head turned slightly to the side, just enough for He Xuan to catch a glimpse of his dark eye looking back at him. He clicked his tongue.

"And I didn't even have to make you say it." With a shallow roll of his hips, he let a few inches slip inside, and immediately had to still and dig his fingers into Hua Cheng's back, gasping. Cold as his skin was, Hua Cheng was almost too hot inside, and tight, unbearably tight. It had been a while since the last time He Xuan had done this, but he didn't recall the sensation being nearly so overwhelming.

Then again, he thought, leaning over Hua Cheng and pressing a line of kisses to the curve of his spine, there was no one else like him.

Eyes shut, he heard another whine from underneath him and felt hips bucking, trying to force him deeper inside. Obligingly He Xuan pushed in further, still going slow, listening carefully for every noise that left Hua Cheng's lips, all little gasps and breathy whimpers with every inch that sunk inside him, nothing to indicate discomfort. Still, He Xuan forced himself to stay still when he finally bottomed out, giving Hua Cheng time to adjust to his size. It took all of his self control not to immediately pound into him like he'd been aching to do since they'd started - before that, even. A part of him still didn't believe this was real and not just another particularly elaborate fantasy.

But the way Hua Cheng shook underneath him, his deceptively cool skin against He Xuan's own, the tight squeeze of his walls around his cock felt very real.

"Move," Hua Cheng moaned. "Move, Black Water, or I swear-"

He was cut off when He Xuan pulled out nearly all the way, only to roughly shove himself back into him. The choked sound that left Hua Cheng's lips sent He Xuan's head spinning with the sheer rush of power he had over him. All his taunting, confident demeanor, all his cocky smiles and derisive sneers - all of it washed away so easily by He Xuan's touch, leaving only the trembling, begging mess beneath him that let him shove him into the floor and hold him there while he fucked him.

He Xuan wanted to devour him whole. He wanted to wrap himself around him and never let go, wanted to strip away every defense and touch all the most vulnerable parts of him, wanted to learn every slope and every curve of his body, map them out with his hands, his mouth. He wanted all of it to be his.

Deep breaths. He Xuan grit his teeth, digging his fingers harder into Hua Cheng's flesh. He had to get a grip on himself.

One hand on Hua Cheng's hips, the other still pressing down on the back of his neck, he began to move in earnest, starting up a rhythm that quickly picked up speed. The cave was filled with the obscene slap of skin against skin, He Xuan's groans and Hua Cheng's whimpers, weak little noises, like even the strength to speak was being fucked out of him. He pushed back into every harsh thrust, knees valiantly trying to find purchase on the ground for more leverage, but every snap of He Xuan's hips forced him back down.

He Xuan minutely adjusted his angle with every movement, searching for Hua Cheng's sweet spot. He could tell it wasn't going to take his lover long to come, not with how worked up he'd been just from preparation, and with the way He Xuan knew every thrust was dragging his cock across the ground, softened by the folded robes underneath.

Under different circumstances, He Xuan would have wanted to drag this out - given the choice, he could have spent hours like this, buried deep inside Hua Cheng, listening to him moan for him while his cock dragged along his soft walls in the most delicious way.

But the heat in his own gut was coiling tighter and tighter too, and he wanted to hear what Hua Cheng would sound like screaming his name, wanted to see what he'd look like well-fucked and covered in his own sticky release.

On a whim, He Xuan pulled out entirely, and Hua Cheng made a noise bordering on panic before He Xuan grabbed him by the waist and flipped him onto his back, the folded robes still shoved under his ass. The expression on Hua Cheng's face alone was almost enough to make He Xuan come undone, desperation and pleasure bleeding together in the furrow of his brow, the way his eye wouldn't focus, the bit of drool at the corner of his mouth.

He Xuan wiped it away with his thumb and moved to crush their mouths together in a bruising kiss at the same time as he lined himself up and roughly shoved himself back in in a single thrust. Hua Cheng groaned against his lips, and He Xuan felt him spread his legs wider and lift them to wrap around his waist.

He wasted no time resuming his previous rhythm, the new position allowing him to go deeper in a way that made a moan of his own slip out. He felt more than heard Hua Cheng huff a laugh into the kiss and broke away, pushing himself up onto his hands to lean over his lover and give him an indignant look, never stopping the rocking of his hips. Even like this, Hua Cheng somehow managed a triumphant smirk, though it was tempered by the little punched out noises that escaped him every time He Xuan hit a particularly good angle.

"Who knew," he panted, "the aloof Black Water Sinking Ships- AH-!"

This time it was He Xuan's turn to look smug as he watched Hua Cheng arch his back and thrash beneath him. He'd finally found his sweet spot, and he mercilessly abused this newfound knowledge, adjusting his position so the head of his cock would ram straight into the bundle of nerves with every thrust. The choked little ah-ah-ahs Hua Cheng made were enough to nearly make him lose control over himself.

Hua Cheng, perceptive as ever, picked up on it immediately. "Don't- hah- hold back, I can take it, please, ah- He Xuan-"

He Xuan felt his eyes cross. He bit down hard on Hua Cheng's neck and slammed into him harder, and Hua Cheng all but screamed. His cock was leaking a small puddle of precome onto his belly, bouncing between them every time He Xuan shoved himself in. He Xuan reached down and wrapped one hand around it, stroking it in quick, forceful movements in time with his thrusts.

"Say my name again," he growled into the side of Hua Cheng's neck.

"Black Water-"

"My name."

"He- He Xuan!"

He was so close, but he wanted to see Hua Cheng come first. Focused single-mindedly on that desire, He Xuan kissed him again, tongues sliding together, teeth clacking.

"Gege," he panted into Hua Cheng's mouth, "come for me."

Hua Cheng whimpered, hips rocking desperately back and forth between He Xuan's thrusts and the hand on his cock. He Xuan twisted his wrist harshly on the upstroke, digging his thumb into the sensitive spot beneath the head. One, two, three more snaps of his hips, and Hua Cheng surged up to muffle his scream in He Xuan's mouth as he came, thick ropes of of his spend painting both their chests white.

The sight was enough to snap the last thin threads holding He Xuan's self control, and his movements became erratic and uncoordinated as he ground against Hua Cheng, burying himself as deeply as possible in his limp body.

"A'Xuan," Hua Cheng whispered close to his ear, voice rough and fucked out, and that was all it took to send He Xuan over the edge. Waves of pleasure rolled over him as he spilled himself deep inside Hua Cheng, so much they threatened to drag him under, drown him.

He let them take him gladly.

When he came back to himself, he was slumped over Hua Cheng, face buried in his neck. Hua Cheng was lightly stroking up and down his back with one hand, gentler than He Xuan ever would've thought possible.

"You back?" he mumbled. "I think I lost you there for a moment."

Slowly He Xuan pushed himself up, wincing slightly at the sticky feeling of come drying on his skin. Hua Cheng wore an expression of deep satisfaction, low-lidded with a lazy smile curling the corners of his mouth. His hair was a mess and his mouth was kiss-bitten and swollen, and He Xuan swore he felt his dead heart seize in his chest at the sight.

He bent back down and pressed one more kiss to Hua Cheng's lips, chaste in stark contrast to all the ones they'd shared before, then carefully shifted backwards to pull out of him. Hua Cheng hissed at the overstimulation, and He Xuan soothed him with more small kisses to his cheeks, his forehead, his jawline.

Sitting up, he grabbed his discarded inner robe from where it was thrown to the ground earlier. The spell to drench it with water cost him almost no spiritual energy at all, and he started to clean first Hua Cheng, then himself up. His cock twitched with interest at the sight of his come trickling out of Hua Cheng's hole, but he ignored it. They'd already put more strain on Hua Cheng's weakened body than might have been wise, but He Xuan hadn't been thinking clearly from the moment Hua Cheng had kissed him. He wasn't sure if he was thinking clearly even now, the smell of sex and fleeting warmth of movement between their bodies fogging up his mind. It wouldn't be long before reality caught up with them again, and He Xuan wanted to wait just a little longer to consider the consequences of what they had just done.

He helped Hua Cheng put his clothes back on, cleaned his own robe with another spell and pulled it back over his shoulders. Hua Cheng's eyelid was growing heavy with exhaustion, and He Xuan sat up against the cave wall and guided him to lay his head in his lap, one hand stroking his hair.

"Sleep, Hua Chengzhu," he whispered. "I'll be here when you wake up."

 

The next morning, Hua Cheng was in a better mood than he'd been throughout this entire journey. He seemed stable on his feet, ever-present smirk back on his face, and when they left the cave together, he grabbed He Xuan by the lapels of his robes and tugged him in for a brief, but firm kiss. It made something in He Xuan ache. Hua Cheng's touch was electrifying, and he never wanted to feel anything else, but something in the back of his mind kept prodding at him, setting him on edge.

They should talk about this, he knew, about what last night had meant, what they were. But He Xuan couldn't bring himself to open his mouth, unwilling to shatter the morning's fragile peace.

Coward, his mind chanted, coward, coward, coward.

He ignored it. He had a goal to focus on, had to remember that Hua Cheng's existence was still in danger, even if his shoulder now sometimes brushed He Xuan's when they were walking side by side and his lips were so soft against his every time he snuck a kiss in.

The search for the group of bandits that had most likely ambushed and killed the merchant several days before was an arduous and slow going ordeal. Other than the dead man, they still hadn't encountered a single traveler, which was more than unusual. He Xuan's senses were somewhat sharper than those of a human, and he listened incessantly for the sounds of a person moving through the forest, but every time he thought he heard something, it turned out to be a deer, a fox, and, in one case, a tiger that eyed the two of them with a disdainful expression before turning and slinking away back among the trees.

They didn't attempt to travel quickly again. He Xuan had no desire to repeat yesterday's incident, and even Hua Cheng agreed, not wanting to lose more time, although he was obviously miffed by having to move so slowly.

"Don't take it to heart," He Xuan teased him. "I've always been quicker than you anyway. You wouldn't be able to keep up."

Hua Cheng gawked at him. "You are not quicker than me, don't spread lies."

"Spread lies to whom? The birds? The trees? Besides, it's the truth. You just don't want to admit there's something I'm better at than you."

"How could you possibly be better than me at anything, I'm five hundred years older than you."

"And yet."

Hua Cheng laughed, a slightly high-pitched, tinkling sound that sent pleasant tingles all throughout He Xuan. He'd known the other Supreme for long enough now to distinguish between the fake laugh he liked to use to mock people and this one, his real laugh, one that he only very rarely let others hear. The knot in He Xuan's gut pulled tighter at the thought that he was one of the only people who had that privilege.

Their search was fruitless throughout most of the day. When dusk was starting to settle, Hua Cheng's demeanor had become more tempered again, and He Xuan could tell his anxiety from before was making a return. Not a surprise, considering it was the third day of their journey and they were barely any wiser than when they had started. He Xuan felt the same sense of urgency, but one of them had to stay rational, and it wasn't going to be Hua Cheng. If He Xuan had to hold both of them up, so be it.

Then, when it was already dark enough that it would have been difficult to see much of anything for a human, something caught his eye at the edge of his vision, and he stopped abruptly.

"What's wrong?"

He Xuan didn't turn to look at Hua Cheng, instead narrowing his eyes at the faint speck of orange he could make out among the trees to their left, a fair ways off. He'd nearly missed it.

"I think there's someone over there," he said in a low voice. Hua Cheng made a soft noise of acknowledgement.

"A fire?"

He Xuan nodded.

"Let's go take a look." Hua Cheng made to walk towards the small source of light, but He Xuan's hand on his arm stopped him.

"I'm going to take a look," he said in a tone that left no room for argument, "and you're going to stay here and wait for me to call you over."

A trace of real irritation crept into Hua Cheng's expression, a dangerous thing under most circumstances, but He Xuan didn't waver. "Since when are you in a position to give me orders?" he hissed.

"Since you've been nearly powerless, unable to conceal your presence, and we don't know who or what is over there. It could be dangerous."

"Dangerous." Hua Cheng scoffed and crossed his arms. "Fine, but hurry up."

Soundlessly, He Xuan vanished among the trees. It wasn't difficult for him to sneak up on a mortal - he only had a physical body because he willed it so, after all. He could just as easily make himself intangible or invisible, and normally Hua Cheng could have done the same, but in his condition, He Xuan feared he wouldn't have the strength to reassemble his form afterwards. Better not to take the risk.

As he moved closer, it became evident that the source of light was indeed a small campfire. Sitting in front of it was a single human, a young man, almost still a boy. He wore shabby clothes that had been patched unevenly in several places, his hair was up in a messily done ponytail, and the left side of his face was bruised severely, some blood caked next to his split lip. The only weapon He Xuan could see on him was a rusty looking dagger he was clutching in his hands like a lifeline.

This boy alone certainly couldn't have ambushed the merchant, but his getup was reminiscent enough of that of most of the groups of bandits He Xuan had had contact with.

Well. Asking him some questions couldn't hurt.

He Xuan moved around the campsite and let himself merge slightly with the shadows in the thicket right behind the boy, just enough for his form to lose some of his shape, make him look unreal. He shifted forward until he was close enough to whisper into the boy's ear.

"Turn around."

The boy jumped like he'd been struck by an arrow, whipping around with a strangled squeak, dark eyes wide. Fear turned into outright panic when he caught sight of He Xuan, and he swung the hand holding the knife upward in what was clearly nothing but a knee jerk reaction. The blade sunk into He Xuan's sternum, an intrusion he barely felt, let alone was affected by.

He shifted out of the shadows and regained his solidity. A hand shot out to grab the boy by the neck and lift him off the ground as he kicked out wildly and pried at He Xuan's grip to try to get him to let go.

"What are you?" he gasped, eyes nearly bulging out his skull. "What do you want from me?!"

He Xuan pulled his lips back in a sneer that showed off a mouth full of teeth that ended in sharp points. "I'm a monster," he said, "and I want you to tell me if you're a bandit, little insect."

The boy, clearly beside himself with fear, spent several moments opening and closing his mouth like a fish, no words coming out. He Xuan tightened his grip around his throat, letting his claws puncture the skin shallowly in a few places.

"Yes!" the boy wailed. "I- I was one, I mean, until- until yesterday!"

He Xuan let go and threw him down on the ground, where he crawled backwards a few inches like the insect He Xuan had referred to him as, but He Xuan's boot came down on his chest and held him there.

"Surely not by yourself?" he asked, in an almost conversational tone.

Tears were running down the boy's face, features distorted by terror. "The others kicked me out," he sobbed. "I- I wanted a bigger cut of the, of the spoils. They didn't like that."

He Xuan clenched his fists. They might be the ones we're looking for. "And tell me, did your people ambush and kill a traveling merchant within the last few days?"

Frantic nodding. He Xuan pushed his foot down a little harder. "Among the things you took from him, was there a ring made of clear stone, with no embellishments or carvings?"

"I'm not- I'm not sure, there was a lot of stuff-"

He Xuan pushed enough to make a rib crack beneath his sole. The boy cried out in pain.

"I, I think I saw a ring like that." His words were broken up by harsh sobs. "Please don't kill me."

"Maybe I won't, if you tell me what town your people were heading towards before they cast you out."

"Changqi City," the boy whimpered. "They were going to Changqi City, please, I'll do anything-"

Leaves behind them rustled, and when He Xuan turned his head, he saw Hua Cheng stepping out from between the trees. The expression on his face was murderous.

"You," he snarled at the boy, eye blazing, "you took something that's mine."

He Xuan took his foot off the boy's chest and reached out to touch Hua Cheng's shoulder, but he harshly shook him off. He stalked towards the human, grabbed him by the throat much like He Xuan had done before, and twisted his neck with a sickening crunch in a lightning quick, violent movement. The boy was dead before he hit the ground, where Hua Cheng tossed him like a discarded piece of trash.

He Xuan sighed. "You didn't have to kill him."

"No. I wanted to."

He Xuan didn't reply. With a small gust of spiritual energy, the fire was extinguished, and darkness settled over the clearing along with the silence left by the absence of the mortal's sobbing and pleading.

His death didn't exactly shake He Xuan, but it had been pointless. Pointless killing had never been something he enjoyed, something he and Hua Cheng differed in from time to time.

But he'd told him himself, hadn't he? I'm a vicious creature. Violence is inherent to me.

Hua Cheng walked over to him, the rage gone from his expression. He reached out, hand coming to rest on He Xuan's chest where a sliver of skin was exposed by his sloppily tied robes, and He Xuan forgot about the dead boy.

"Black Water," Hua Cheng murmured, "you've got a little something there."

He grasped the hilt of the dagger that was still buried just right of He Xuan's heart and pulled it out, leaving a wound that didn't bleed. Hua Cheng inspected the weapon briefly, then flicked it aside like he'd done with the bandit's corpse.

"That alone," he said casually, "would've been reason enough to kill him."

He Xuan felt a shiver run through him. "It didn't hurt me."

"No, but he meant for it to."

He Xuan didn't bother arguing that he'd scared the boy witless on purpose so he'd tell him what he wanted to know, and that the response had been natural. In the end, it didn't matter.

 

The journey to Changqi City cost them precious days. Normally, it shouldn't have been a problem to draw a distance-shortening array to take them there, but ever since Hua Cheng's last collapse, he'd been reliant on constant transfers of spiritual energy. After his body had started to grow translucent mid walk for the third time, He Xuan had started forcing him to sit down by the road and rest while He Xuan lent him increasingly large amounts of his own energy every shichen. This had soon left He Xuan with his reserves too low to safely draw an array, especially to take them somewhere he'd never been before. Hua Cheng gave him a look of utter disbelief when He Xuan informed him of it.

"Not all of us have practically unlimited amounts of spiritual power," He Xuan snapped. "And you've been needing a lot just to keep from flickering out. Do you want that, or do you want to walk, Crimson Rain?"

They walked.

It wasn't really that Hua Cheng could do so much more with his power than He Xuan could with his and more that he simply never ran out. He could win any fight by just outlasting his opponent - not that there were many beings in any of the three realms that could match him for sheer might. The Heavenly Emperor, maybe. White Clothed Calamity, if he was still around. He Xuan himself... probably not.

But that wasn't a situation he ever wanted to be in anyway. Seeing Hua Cheng in so much pain was already nearly unbearable. If He Xuan ever was to be the cause of that pain himself, he would simply tear himself to shreds as repentance.

That was, if he survived this trip, which was looking less and less likely with every time Hua Cheng grabbed his wrist and pushed him up against a tree to kiss him senseless. He Xuan could easily forget about the bark digging painfully into his back with the sweet press of Hua Cheng's lips against his, his hands cradling He Xuan's face too gently, like a lover. Hua Cheng would moan softly into his mouth and something would seize in He Xuan's chest, like the black rotten lump that had once been his heart was struggling in its confines, wanting to beat again at the whisper of icy fingertips against his cheek, his name breathed out between kisses.

Somewhere deep down, he knew that Hua Cheng was using him; using him to take his mind off the fact that he was the weakest he'd been in centuries, that his existence might soon be snuffed out, and He Xuan used him in turn. Only the one he was terrified for wasn't himself.

With every kiss his mouth was no longer his own, his arms were no longer his own when they were wound around Hua Cheng's neck, his hair once Hua Cheng ran his fingers through it, his hand once it was held in his grasp.

He made all of it his own without even meaning to. That was the most infuriating thing about Hua Cheng. For all his cocky demeanor, He Xuan knew that in truth, he had next to no regard at all for himself, thought of himself as the lowliest of scum, and he was utterly unaware of the way he could draw people in like a maelstrom, even when he cast them aside like broken toys soon after.

There wasn't much left about He Xuan to be broken, but he didn't doubt that Hua Cheng would find something. He was good at that.

It didn't change that He Xuan would do whatever it took to save him, his undeath that was so much closer to life than He Xuan would ever be again, or wanted to be, for that matter. He felt at home in the darkness around him and the lifelessness in his limbs. Hua Cheng never should have become like this in the first place.

He Xuan was the one of them whose fate had once been to know divinity and walk the streets of Heaven, but he never felt less deserving of it then when he was in Hua Cheng's company.

It took them three days to reach Changqi City. Every night after they'd made camp, Hua Cheng pushed He Xuan onto his back in the grass and repaid what He Xuan had given him in the cave tenfold. The vial of oil was nearly empty, leaving them without the supplies for either of them to take the other, but it proved unnecessary. Inexperienced as he was, Hua Cheng was a quick learner, and his deft fingers and clever tongue found new ways every time to pull sounds from He Xuan's mouth he wasn't sure he'd ever made before, in life or in death.

It was addictive, better than the sweetest wine. Hunger was a feeling He Xuan was well acquainted with, but Hua Cheng gave the word a new meaning. It didn't take long until He Xuan's hands ached with the need to touch him every time they were even a few feet apart, and he'd been exhilarated to find out it seemed to be much the same for Hua Cheng. On their second night together, He Xuan had moved to roll away from Hua Cheng after they'd both finished, assuming that's what he'd want, only for an arm to catch him around the waist and pull him back in, "where do you think you're going" whispered in his ear.

So Hua Cheng was clingy after sex. One more on the seemingly endless list of his charms. He Xuan couldn't bring himself to miss the warmth his body didn't hold when Hua Cheng was pressed into his side, head pillowed on his shoulder and arm slung over his chest. The stars in the sky above them shone inexplicably brighter on those nights, unobscured by clouds.

But the day they finally approached the outskirts of the city, it was raining. Hua Cheng had pulled a red umbrella out of his sleeve and unceremoniously wrapped an arm around He Xuan to pull him close so they'd both fit under, and all of He Xuan's protests about how he didn't mind getting wet died in his throat. He resisted the urge to reach out and take Hua Cheng's hand, the transgression too forward in his mind, even after everything that had happened between them. Instead, he forced himself to be content with the press of Hua Cheng's shoulder against his and the arm he had yet to remove from around his waist. It was better than nothing.

Changqi City wasn't a particularly sprawling settlement, but it was certainly larger than any of the towns they'd visited up until this point. That made inconspicuousness easier, and their search a lot harder, but they would have to manage.

The rain had turned the dirt road muddy, and He Xuan didn't miss Hua Cheng's dismay at the way it was dirtying his boots. He couldn't help but think back to only a few days ago, when they'd found the dead merchant and Hua Cheng hadn't thought twice about tearing apart the remains of the cart on his knees in the dirt. His difference in demeanor now only drove it home further how much of a crack in his facade that moment had been, how real the terror on his beautiful face.

He was holding himself together better now, but He Xuan knew him. The fragility of the current balance didn't escape him, and the urge to keep Hua Cheng safe from anything else they might encounter that could hurt him in such a way conflicted with He Xuan's reluctance to let him leave his sight for even a moment, always fearful he would vanish again.

"You know," He Xuan said as they were getting closer to the outskirts of the city, the first buildings already visible, "if you hadn't been so hasty to kill that boy, we could have questioned him about what his old colleagues looked like. That might have made this easier."

Hua Cheng pulled a face. "Will you let that go already? We don't need some human's help to find who we're looking for."

"Need I remind you that we're short on time and spiritual energy, and neither of us is all-knowing?"

"That's rich coming from someone who acts like he is all the time," Hua Cheng snapped. The arm he'd had wrapped around He Xuan dropped, and He Xuan felt its absence like a brand. "Do you think you're better than me because you stuck your nose into books when you were still alive?"

"That's not what I-"

The pressure against He Xuan's shoulder vanished. The umbrella fell to the ground, mud and rainwater staining the crimson oiled paper. The words died on He Xuan's lips.

He stopped in his tracks, limbs frozen. Hua Cheng was gone, as if he'd never been there at all. It had been days since the last time it had happened, and He Xuan had foolishly dared to hope that it wouldn't anymore.

Now all he could do was stand there, hands flexing at his sides, throat closing up with rapidly rising panic, waiting for Hua Cheng to reappear. Everything in him was screaming at him to move, to do something, but what could he possibly have done? Scream to the sky to give him back, take his claws to the air around him to make it surrender what it had taken?

Helplessness coiled tight in his gut, a familiar, bitter taste on his tongue.

He Xuan waited, and Hua Cheng was still gone. The rain had soaked him entirely by now, hair sticking to his face in wet strands. The umbrella looked like a puddle of blood where it lay on the ground, useless.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the air flickered and a scream ripped apart the silence. This time, He Xuan was there to catch Hua Cheng when he appeared, hands pressed to his abdomen, blood already pouring from eyes, mouth, nose and ears. He was dead weight in He Xuan's arms, dragging them both to their knees in the mud.

He Xuan clutched him tightly to him, uncaring of the blood that soaked his robes, spiritual energy seeping into Hua Cheng through every point of contact between their bodies. He Xuan felt his own reserves running lower and lower, but he didn't care. It had to be enough. It had to.

It seemed to take forever for Hua Cheng to stabilize this time. By the time the blood stopped coming and his shaking died down, the puddles among which they were kneeling had been colored pink by what the rain had washed out of He Xuan's robes and off Hua Cheng's face. Hua Cheng was on the brink of unconsciousness, head leaning heavily against He Xuan's shoulder. His lips were stained red, a perversely lovely sight, even now.

"He Xuan," he murmured weakly. He Xuan's hand came up to cradle the back of his head.

"I've got you," he whispered into Hua Cheng's hair. "I've got you."

He felt Hua Cheng's arms shakily wrapping around him and his face being buried in the side of He Xuan's neck. The rain continued to fall around them, but neither of them paid it any mind. Nothing else mattered but Hua Cheng's weight against him, the solidity of him under his hands, proof that he was still there, He Xuan hadn't lost him, not yet.

Eventually, Hua Cheng shifted, breaking away from He Xuan. He looked more drained than He Xuan had ever seen him.

"We should go." His voice was hoarse from vomiting. "We have to hurry."

He Xuan didn't try to argue. He got up and helped Hua Cheng to his feet, an arm around him in an imitation of their position from earlier to steady him as they slowly resumed their way to Changqi City. The umbrella was left forgotten by the side of the road.

Hua Cheng's steps were unsteady and he leaned heavily into He Xuan's side as they walked. He Xuan wanted to simply pick him up and carry him, but that would have drawn too much attention to them, and he couldn't leave him by himself anywhere either, so they had no other choice. They could only hope that they'd find the bandits quickly.

Contrary to He Xuan's fears, fate seemed to be on their side this one time. The streets were mostly deserted due to the rain, but from the door of the second inn they passed, a ruckus was clear to hear, people yelling and laughing uproariously, nearly drowning out the music of a talentlessly played pipa.

He Xuan pushed the door open and was met with the sight of a group of men in the same kind of tattered clothes the boy in the woods had worn, crowded around a table that was littered with empty wine bottles, cups pushed over and spilling their contents onto the floor. There were few other patrons, and the innkeeper, a meek looking older man, looked terrified of the group to the point where he didn't dare say a word against their conduct in his establishment. Probably a wise decision - all of them were visibly armed, axes, daggers, a sword or two. Nothing of high quality, but deadly enough in the hands of someone who didn't hesitate to use them.

He Xuan sat Hua Cheng down at an empty table, straightened up and strode over to the group of bandits. He'd shifted out of his true form, but the skin he was wearing now was the closest he could get to it without giving himself away as a ghost; deathly pale, golden eyes, sharp features, long, unbound black hair.

Every head at the table turned towards him when he approached. He Xuan carried no weapons, but he allowed his demonic aura to practically waft off of him. It wouldn't be recognizable to a human unless they were a trained cultivator, but they would feel it, and it would scare them.

"You," he said, voice low and filled with thinly masked rage. "Did you rob and kill a traveling merchant several days ago, in the forest northeast of here?"

One of the men, maybe the leader from the way his robes were in slightly better condition than those of the rest of them, spoke up. "What's it to you?"

"Answer the question."

"Or you'll do what, you freak? You don't even have a weapon."

He Xuan let his claws slowly extend from the tips of his fingers. "I don't need one."

The man jumped to his feet. There was fear obvious on his face now, and several of his companions followed his example. Some of them drew whatever blades they had on them. All other chatter in the parlor had ceased, and from the corner of his eyes, He Xuan saw a few of the other patrons hastily making an exit. He let them.

"What the hell are you?!" the leader gasped out. He Xuan walked towards him slowly, claws dripping black liquid.

"You still haven't answered my question."

"We- we did!"

He Xuan turned his head. The admission came from one of the other bandits, a harrowed looking man whose forehead was glistening with sweat. "We robbed a merchant there five days ago."

"Did you take a ring from him, made of translucent stone, harder than diamond?"

The same man opened his mouth, but the leader interrupted him before he could get the words out. "Shut the hell up! We're not telling you shit, who do you think you are?" The hands that were clutching his rusty sword were shaking.

He Xuan's patience ran out. In a flash, he moved, claws swiping out, and there was an awful gargling scream and a spray of blood as skin and muscle was ripped apart. The innkeeper cried out in fright when the bandit leader's body slumped forward over the table, blood seeping out from his torn throat.

He Xuan's eyes found the man who had spoken up earlier and fixed him with his ice cold gaze. "The ring."

"We had it," he whispered, shaking so hard the words were only barely understandable. "We sold it at a pawn shop, along with everything else."

"Where is the pawn shop?"

"East of here. Outskirts of town. It's- it's not hard to find."

He Xuan let his gaze drift over the remaining bandits, some of which looked like they might soil their pants out of sheer fright any moment now. He let out a derisive snort. "I should kill all of you. You're nothing but scum." He flicked some blood off his claws. "Lucky for you, I'm pressed for time."

Without sparing the men a further glance, he turned and walked away, stopping to help Hua Cheng up from where he'd sat and watched everything with glee in his eye.

"Lord Black Water," he breathed as they exited the inn together, still looking tired, but more lively than before. "You're a sight to behold when you kill."

He Xuan gave him a sideways look. "Are you sure this is the time?" He shifted back into a proper disguise mid walk, reducing his height. Hua Cheng took advantage of it by leaning down and pressing a kiss to the top of his head.

"It is when the way you look covered in blood makes me want to devour you," he purred. "Whatever happened to keeping a low profile?"

"I was angry."

Hua Cheng laughed. "Oh, if he wasn't such a bastard, I'd pity the Water Master."

He Xuan sneered, steering them in the direction the bandit had pointed out. "This was nothing compared to what's in store for him and his brother."

The bandit hadn't lied; the pawn shop was easy to find, by value of the simple fact that it was the only building in an otherwise rather rundown part of the city that was in relatively good condition. That didn't mean it was inviting by any means, but He Xuan wasn't put off. He had already blown their cover in this town, and news spread quickly wherever there were people. If he had to threaten, hurt or kill here too, he would do it. The unsteadiness of Hua Cheng's steps by his side reminded him why.

He Xuan pushed the door open with more force than strictly necessary. Beyond it was a small, poorly lit room that smelled of dust and stale air and was crammed floor to wall with shelves and boxes of anything and everything, from worthless junk to gem-encrusted jewelry to several magical artifacts the aura of which He Xuan could easily sense. Behind a table with a handful of books, a few brushes and an ink stone on it, a bored looking middle-aged man sat, chin propped up in one hand as he stared off into space. He perked up slightly when He Xuan and Hua Cheng entered.

"Greetings to the Young Masters! How may this humble one assist..." His sentence trailed off when he noticed the blood that stained the fronts of both their robes, and the look on He Xuan's face that promised nothing good. A trace of apprehension crept into his expression, not quite fear yet.

"We're looking for something that was sold to you by bandits recently." He Xuan kept his tone level and cool. "A ring of clear stone, with no engravings, easy to be mistaken for diamond, though harder than the finest one."

The shop owner nodded warily. "Yes, I indeed had such an object in my possession."

Had. He Xuan only barely stopped himself from turning and smashing one of the shelves in sheer frustration. He forced himself to remain calm. "What happened to it?"

The man wet his lips nervously. "Someone bought it on the very same day. Ah, Chang Lei, the goldsmith. Said it was for his daughter. But, well..."

He Xuan took a step toward the table. "Well what?"

A visible swallow. "His daughter... Miss Chang, she died but hours later in an accident. A horse tore loose from its handlers in the market and trampled her. Terrible affair, really. She was buried early this morning."

Hua Cheng spoke up. "Was she wearing the ring?"

The shopkeeper gave him an indignant look. "How would I know? I wasn't there. She might have been. I heard she loved the piece when her father gave it to her."

He Xuan had an idea where this was going, but still, it surprised him when Hua Cheng asked another question. "Where is this city's graveyard?"

The man's eyes widened when he realized what his intentions were. "Young Master, you can't-"

He Xuan let his eyes flash with gold and his claws extend once more. The shopkeeper broke out into cold sweat.

"West of here, in the forest outside the city gates. You can't miss it," he said quickly. He Xuan nodded and retracted his claws.

"Thank you," he said smoothly, "for your cooperation." He gently took Hua Cheng by the elbow and led him back outside before he could get ideas, like threatening the shopkeeper some more just for his amusement. They didn't have time for that.

It was still raining, though it had lessened to a drizzle that once again dampened their barely dried clothes as they started on their way to the nearest city gates. He Xuan felt apprehension taut in the pit of his stomach. Something about all this didn't sit right with him.

"We're really going to dig up a grave?" he said after some time of silence.

"I don't see what choice we have," Hua Cheng replied. "Don't tell me you're squeamish, Black Water. You're the one whose island is surrounded by an ocean that only used coffins float in."

He Xuan rolled his eyes. "I'm not squeamish. Doesn't mean I have to like this."

There was no response. Hua Cheng's face betrayed none of his thoughts. Did the idea bother him at all? Maybe it didn't. It was in moments like this when He Xuan felt it the most strongly just how much older than him Hua Cheng was. In ghost terms, He Xuan was young, and especially in Calamity terms. He had barely exceeded his natural lifespan where both Hua Cheng and Qi Rong, that nuisance, were over six hundred years old, and who knew how old Bai Wuxiang might be, were he still around. He Xuan's power level was close to Hua Cheng's, but he lacked the other Ghost King's centuries of life experience.

Maybe in five hundred years, he, too, wouldn't bat an eye at the idea of digging up a fresh grave and taking the deceased's belongings.

They found the graveyard easily. It was rather small and clearly very, very old, some of the graves so ancient it was impossible to read the names of those who had been laid to rest here long ago. Trees surrounded it on all sides, the wind rustling through them creating an atmosphere that might have been soothing to mourners, but to He Xuan just felt ominous.

Hua Cheng frowned as they walked into the clearing. "Something about this feels familiar."

"I'm sure it's not the first graveyard you've been to," He Xuan quipped in an attempt to mask his own apprehension. Hua Cheng gave him a look.

"You know perfectly well that that's not what I meant."

He Xuan chose to ignore him. Instead, he approached the grave that looked the most recent, the earth covering it still fresh with no grass growing on it. There wasn't even a headstone yet, though piles of ash spoke of burned paper money. Miss Chang's family must have loved her.

The thought left a bitter taste in He Xuan's mouth, and he pushed it aside. He crouched down and placed a palm on the grave, closing his eyes and calling upon the water he could sense in the earth below. His spiritual energy was running somewhat low, but it was enough for this. Commanding this element came easily to him, felt natural and effortless. The water came to him like an obedient pet, and he could almost feel it affectionately brushing against his hand before it began to do as he'd commanded it to.

Within less than the time it took to burn an incense stick, the earth covering the grave had been turned into a brown sludge, and with another wave of He Xuan's hand, more water bubbled up until it formed a small stream that carried the mud away. He stepped aside to avoid it dirtying his robes, and Hua Cheng came up next to him.

"Not bad. Your abilities really have developed remarkably."

"How could they not have, when I had such a good teacher." The sarcasm was clear to hear in He Xuan's voice.

"Precisely," Hua Cheng said, unperturbed, and stepped closer to the now open grave. "Now, let's-"

His sentence broke off. He Xuan frowned. "What..."

He moved next to Hua Cheng and leaned forward to peer into the grave. The sight he was met with made him feel like the ground had abruptly been swept out from underneath him.

The grave was empty. There was no coffin, no body, no sign at all that anything had been buried here. It looked like someone had dug a deep hole only to fill it back up again with the same earth right away.

He Xuan slowly turned his head to look at Hua Cheng. The other Supreme was shaking so much it was visible upon first glance, hands opening and closing at his sides.

"Crimson Rain..." He Xuan reached out to place a hand on his shoulder, but it was slapped away harshly, making him flinch.

"We'll find your ashes," he told him in a poor attempt at comfort. "We can go back into the city and look around the goldsmith's home. They might still be there."

Hua Cheng didn't react to his words at all. Instead, his knees buckled under him, and for a horrible moment, He Xuan thought he was having another collapse, but no blood came up. He just knelt there and stared at the empty grave.

"Crimson Rain, what's wrong?"

"I knew it," Hua Cheng whispered. "I knew I knew this place. I've been here before. I..."

He Xuan knelt down on the ground next to him. Everything in him was screaming at him that something was wrong, very wrong, that he had to act before it was too late, but he couldn't bring himself to look away from the hollow look on Hua Cheng's face.

"What happened here?" His voice was quiet, almost gentle, a tone one might use to calm a scared animal.

"Right after I died... His Highness..."

He Xuan went stiff as a board at the title. It was always His Highness, wasn't it. Hua Cheng's ashes had been buried in a temple of His Highness. He'd died on a battlefield for His Highness. He was kneeling in front of an empty grave, looking defeated, talking about His Highness.

He Xuan never wanted to hear his name again, never wanted to see the adoring look in Hua Cheng's eye at The mere mention of him again. He wanted to tear him apart if he ever came back from wherever he'd vanished, wanted to spill his damned royal blood, wanted Hua Cheng to forget he'd ever seen his face.

His Highness, the only thing Hua Cheng still existed for, even now, after he hadn't been seen in six hundred years.

He Xuan dug his sharp nails into his palms. "What about him?" he asked, forced calm in his voice.

"It was after his first banishment. He came here... the graveyard was already there, and he... he fell into an empty grave... it was right here." Hua Cheng stared into the pit, small puddles of water still in it. "I was just a Ghost Fire." His voice was trembling. "He was so cold and I couldn't keep him warm."

Every word felt like the slice of the sharpest blade through He Xuan's guts. He wanted to scream. It was selfish, so terribly selfish of him, but he didn't know what he hated more - seeing Hua Cheng in so much pain, or the fact that his pain was for someone else, someone who in a scant few brief meetings centuries ago had dug his fingers deeper into Hua Cheng's heart than He Xuan had been able to in seventy years.

No, he thought when he saw Hua Cheng slump forward, arms barely holding him up with how much they were shaking, fingers digging into the dirt. This is worse. Seeing him like this is so much worse.

Just moments ago he'd thought about how he'd like to tear the Crown Prince of Xianle limb from limb, but now, if it had been within his power, he wouldn't have hesitated an instant to bring him here, His Highness in all his fucking radiance, if only it would wipe that look off Hua Cheng's face.

He Xuan reached an unsteady hand out and carefully wrapped his arm around Hua Cheng. "Crimson Rain, I..." He bit his lip. Why was it so hard to find the right words? "It wasn't your fault. There was nothing you could've-"

The blow to his chest came so suddenly he didn't even register the pain until he was already sprawled out in the grass several feet away. Eyes wide, he stared up at Hua Cheng, who had risen from his kneeling position and turned around. There was a terrifying look on his face, and for the first time since they'd first met, He Xuan felt fear well up inside him.

"Stay the fuck away from me." Hua Cheng's voice was low and simmering with barely controlled fury.

"What-" He Xuan tried to get up, but a kick to his ribs forced him back down.

"What's gotten into you?!"

"Why don't you tell me?" He was getting louder with every word. "For all I know, all of this might be your fault! Did you really think I would just keep falling for it? Mortals just coincidentally finding my ashes and running off with them, and the hunt after them leading to all these- places-"

His knuckles were white against his skin with how hard his fists were clenched. "You could never beat me in a real fight. Maybe you wanted an easy way to get rid of me. Eliminate the competition, huh?" A scoff. "I can't believe I fell for your humble act all these years. I only want revenge, not power. Ha!"

He Xuan couldn't process what he was hearing. His ears were ringing. Eliminate the competition? Get rid of Hua Cheng?

"No!" It came out as a shout. "I didn't- of course I didn't do it! How can you think that?!"

Hua Cheng went to his knees next to him and grabbed him by the collar, yanking him up with surprising strength considering his weak constitution. "Why would I believe a single word your lying mouth says?" he snarled. "You're so good at that, Black Water. Lying. I bet the Water Master will never know what fucking hit him!"

He Xuan's hands came up to grasp at Hua Cheng's shoulders, a sick imitation of the way he'd been holding onto them with tenderness just hours before, pulling him closer where he was now trying to push him away. "Get off of me!"

"Why?" The look on Hua Cheng's face was indescribable. Wild, furious, like a cornered beast, scratching and biting at everything in its path. "So you can kill me now that I'm weak and helpless? What will you do once I'm not in your way anymore? Do you think you can have Ghost City? They'd sooner tear you apart than accept anyone other than me!"

He Xuan shoved him hard, sending him flying backwards this time. "I don't fucking want Ghost City!" His chest hurt. His vision was swimming. "I only wanted to- to-"

"To what?" Hua Cheng pushed himself up on his forearms, teeth bared, eye blazing. With his hair in disarray, eyepatch crooked and robes filthy from the mud, he suddenly looked every bit the street child he'd once been, terrified and angry, kicking and screaming.

Normally, he disguised his origins very well, all elegance and sharp smiles and silver butterflies. But there was none of that now. No bloody rain. No boundless power to protect him. No underlings.

Just a scared boy who'd died long ago.

The place he'd hit earlier still ached. He Xuan wanted to pull him into his arms and hold him until the fear and anger all melted away.

"To help you!" He was disgusted by how unsteady his own voice sounded. His eyes stung with tears he refused to let himself shed.

"I don't fucking believe you!" Hua Cheng hurled the words at him like arrows, and they hit him just as deep, flayed him open more efficiently than the most brutal torture.

Something loud cracked in the forest somewhere behind them.

"What have I done to make you doubt me like this?"

The earth faintly vibrated beneath them.

"I've done nothing but try to protect you! I've given you so much of my own spiritual energy that I can't even draw arrays anymore!"

A roar.

"Does none of it mean anything to you? Do I-"

The words never left his lips, for before they could, something crashed out of the woods behind Hua Cheng, something huge and dark and furious, and He Xuan barely managed to lunge forward and shove him out the way before the thing would have trampled him.

"What-"

The monstrosity slowed and turned, steam rising from its nostrils that were the size of a human head. He Xuan knew a thing or two about monsters, and he recognized a demon when he saw one. This one was particularly large, easily the height of two horses at the shoulder, and covered in thick, corded muscle beneath leathery gray skin. Two long, curled horns grew from its skull, and it had dozens of eyes, all of them blood red. It roared again, revealing a gaping maw full of rows and rows of teeth the length of butcher's knives. Demonic energy rolled off of it in waves that were strong enough that they would've brought a weaker ghost, let alone a mortal, to their knees.

Powerful, but primitive, and dumb. Any other day, this demon wouldn't have been a challenge for He Xuan at all, even less for Hua Cheng, but both their spiritual energy was running low, and they were tired. Hua Cheng could barely defend himself.

He Xuan would have to defend him instead.

The vicious things Hua Cheng had thrown in his face but moments ago were still reverberating in He Xuan's mind as he staggered to his feet, shifting into his true form and letting his claws extend. The demon didn't even pause at the sight. It had to be barely sentient if it couldn't recognize him as a threat. Or maybe he was just that much of a sorry sight.

He Xuan darted forward, claws swiping out and aiming for the demon's eyes. He caught a handful of them, black acidic blood spurting out as the beast let out a scream that sounded more angry than pained. It stormed forward, head lowered, and He Xuan barely managed to evade one of its horns gutting him.

Gathering spiritual energy - what little he had left - in his palm, he threw his arm forward in a punch to the demon's side. The impact was strong enough to throw it off balance, and it staggered, tipping over onto its side, making the earth shake. He Xuan quickly followed up on the attack and took his claws to its soft belly, carving deep, bleeding lines that drew another howl, but barely seemed to slow the monster down. Some of the blood landed on He Xuan's cheek and he felt it eating away at his skin, but he ignored the pain.

From the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of red.

"Hua Cheng, stay back!" he shouted, dragging his claws through the demon's flesh again. "You're too weak!"

The demon thrashed, throwing its massive head around, and one its horns nearly hit Hua Cheng. He Xuan leapt over its body and grabbed him by the collar.

"I said stay back!" He hurled him a dozen feet away without much difficulty and whirled back around just in time to lurch back from where the demon, which had gotten up from the ground, was about to bring a giant clawed foot down on him. He drew a circle into the air with his hand and a stream of water appeared, giving off steam and bubbling with heat. He Xuan threw it forward into the demon's eyes, and the resulting roar was one of real agony this time. Black and red sludge dripped from its face and onto the ground, most of its eye sockets now left empty or filled only with melted bloody clumps.

He Xuan evaded another horns-forward charge, claws catching the demon in the flank, but then it threw its head around, and He Xuan wasn't quick enough this time. Dozens of razor sharp teeth sank into his middle, and a strangled scream escaped him as pain exploded white-hot within him, so much that he must have blacked out for a moment, because next thing he knew he had been thrown to the ground, his guts spilling out of his abdomen.

One of the demon's feet came down on him, crushing the remains of his ribcage. He barely managed to roll of the way of another thrust of its horns. The pain was blinding, all-consuming, and he didn't know where he found the strength to push himself up and ram his claws into the demon's throat. It let out a gurgling howl, blood spurting out and scorching the sleeves of He Xuan's robes along with his skin and the muscle beneath it.

Summoning the last vestiges of his strength, he reached up, grabbing onto the demon's horns. And with a roar of his own and all the spiritual power he had left, he yanked, and the beast's head was wrenched off its shoulders with a sickening tearing sound.

A hand grabbed He Xuan by the shoulder and pulled him backwards, out of the way of the worst of the shower of acidic demon blood. The world tilted in front of him, black spots dancing in front of his vision. Hua Cheng was there to catch him when his knees gave out under him, cradling his limp body in a position not dissimilar to the one He Xuan had held him in but hours ago.

"Black Water, you idiot," Hua Cheng whispered. He Xuan looked up at him, struggling to get his eyes to focus.

"What was I supposed to do?" he wheezed out. "Let you die?"

Hua Cheng stared down at him, mouth opening and closing but unable to form any words.

"You didn't do it," he got out finally, looking stricken. "You really didn't, did you?"

"I told you I didn't."

"I..." Hua Cheng bent down and pressed their foreheads together. "I'm sorry."

He Xuan closed his eyes. His entire being was still alight with pain, but relief welled up inside him at the words. Hua Cheng finally believed him. "If I had known fighting a demon for you was all it would take..."

Hua Cheng inspected the wounds the demon had left him with, paying the weak joke no mind. "Can you heal this?"

"Normally? Yes. Right now... eventually, probably. It'll take longer."

Hua Cheng looked like there was more he wanted to say, but nothing left his mouth. The look on his face spoke of frustration and helplessness, and for several long moments, the both of them silently looked at each other, unmoving. The air between them felt horrible delicate, the things that had been said and couldn't be taken back like a thick fog. Hua Cheng's accusations still burned in He Xuan's chest, just as much as the injuries the demon had given him.

It didn't matter. He couldn't linger on this. The pain he felt was irrelevant in the face of the fate hanging above Hua Cheng's head like an executioner's blade about to come down.

He Xuan pushed himself up into a sitting position, gritting his teeth against the pain. "You were right, you know. All of this is too much of a coincidence. First the earthquake that nobody even mentioned other than the man who told us he'd taken the ring. The merchant and his cart in the ravine. The bandit alone in the forest. Now this empty grave." He shook his head. "Someone is playing games with us."

Hua Cheng sat back on his haunches. "I was suspecting this from the beginning, but... I suppose I didn't want to believe it." He rubbed his forehead. "It's got to be personal. All the places we've been led to... whoever did this knows a lot about me. Too much."

"More than me," He Xuan threw in.

Hua Cheng pulled a face. "Yes. More than you."

"Do you think it could be a Heavenly Official? They hate your guts."

He shook his head. "No. Not their style. They would just come down and challenge me to a duel, the pigheaded pieces of trash."

"The martial gods, maybe, and the elemental masters wouldn't bother, but a literature god... they're more cunning than any of the rest of them."

Hua Cheng gave him a strange look. "You would know, wouldn't you. But I still don't think it's that. I think this is the work of a ghost."

"Well, it's certainly not Qi Rong. You'd know if it was Qi Rong."

Hua Cheng barked a laugh. "Qi Rong is too dumb to even find my ashes, let alone fabricate all of this. No, it's got to be a regular Savage. Anyone weaker couldn't have summoned that demon, and I'm sure it was summoned by whoever is behind this."

He Xuan nodded. "And I don't think it was supposed to kill you. Otherwise they wouldn't have chosen one almost too stupid to tell its own head from its ass."

Hua Cheng stared at the corpse of the demon. "If it was sent here on purpose it might know something."

"I don't know if that thing knows anything at all, least of all details of a conspiracy to destroy you."

"They could have been planted in its mind. Something must have been done to it to make it attack us like that anyway."

"So it would be a trap?"

Hua Cheng nodded. "Most certainly. But even if that's the case... we don't have much of a choice."

That was a sentence He Xuan had been hearing too much for his liking. With a sigh, he dragged himself forward the few paces that separated him from the body and placed a hand on the massive head. He closed his eyes and focused, and sure enough, the demon's spirit was still there, lingering, although it was undoubtedly dead.

This was something as familiar to He Xuan as breathing had once been. He'd devoured thousands of ghosts, starting with the Reverend of Empty Words, then the hordes in Mount Tong'lu, and ever since then the spirits of those who drowned in his domain. A non-human creature like this was slightly different, but not a challenge by any means.

He Xuan grabbed hold of its soul and pulled it into himself, letting his body absorb the dead demon's strength, abilities and knowledge. Because of its primitive nature, it had very little spiritual energy that would have been of any use to him, although he did feel the act of consuming it invigorating his exhausted body and closing up some of his wounds, but one thing stood out among everything he devoured.

A village of no more than two dozen houses. There were flashes of it, images, a tiny settlement in the shadow of a cliff made of dark stone.

He Xuan opened his eyes.

"Crimson Rain," he said, "have you ever been to a town called Heiyan?"

Hua Cheng shook his head. "Never heard of it."

"I think that's where whoever is behind this wants us to go."

They looked at each other silently for a long moment. There was a look in Hua Cheng's eye that He Xuan couldn't place. There was rage there, but also, shockingly, blatant fear, which should have been to be expected, but it looked foreign on Hua Cheng, entirely out of place, and he'd been doing a stellar job of hiding it for the entirety of their journey so far. The fact that he couldn't anymore said more than anything.

"There's nothing else we can do, is there?" Something in Hua Cheng's voice was terribly vulnerable. It felt strange for their positions to be reversed like this. For most of their acquaintance, Hua Cheng had been the guiding force and He Xuan the one in need. Hua Cheng had always seemed untouchable, more so than the most revered of gods, all-knowing, all-powerful.

He was none of those things now. It was like the past six hundred years had fallen off of him in the blink of an eye, all his self-assuredness melted away like candle wax.

He Xuan wondered how long it had been since anyone had taken care of him.

"No," he said. "There's not. But it doesn't matter. Whoever is doing this, we'll deal with them."

Hua Cheng let out a hollow laugh. "Look at me. A ghost fire would be harder to snuff out than me right now."

"Then I'll deal with them for you."

Hua Cheng's eye widened slightly. "That's..." He looked away. "I still don't understand why you're helping me."

How can you still not understand?

He Xuan said nothing. Instead, he rose from the ground, ignoring his still open wounds, and offered Hua Cheng a hand to help him up. "We shouldn't lose time."

Hua Cheng took his hand. "No. We shouldn't."

 

They asked for directions to Heiyan Village in the city and set off without further delay. Hua Cheng was still getting steadily weaker, and He Xuan's powers were stretched thin between keeping him from flickering out and healing himself. He could barely maintain a disguise, let alone draw arrays, and so the journey once more cost them several days.

When the black cliffs He Xuan had seen in the demon's mind finally became visible on the horizon on the fourth day, he felt more drained than he had since he'd come out of Tong'lu. Hua Cheng was barely holding himself together, and He Xuan had had to carry him more and more often, something Hua Cheng was obviously embarrassed about, though He Xuan didn't mind in the slightest.

They hadn't slept together again, but Hua Cheng still kissed him every time they rested, and the hands cupping He Xuan's face were no less gentle, but somehow still more desperate than ever before, even in the throes of passion. Like he needed to hold onto He Xuan just to make sure he wouldn't vanish into thin air, even though Hua Cheng was at much greater risk of that than him.

Just like in the demon's mind, a village of just a handful of houses sat at the foot of the black cliff, but that was where the similarity to the reality they were faced with as they approached ended.

Heiyan had been the site of a tragedy, a massacre. The buildings were all burned to ash, some of the ruins still smoking. Bodies laid in the streets, some of them charred beyond recognition, some covered in blood from numerous terrible wounds that looked too gruesome to have been caused by a blade and too precise to be the work of an animal.

Men. Women. A few children, too.

He Xuan forced himself to look away and ignore the stench of rotting flesh.

A single house was left untouched by the flames, hardly more than a hut at the very edge of what had once been the village. There might as well have been a brightly painted sign pointing at it.

"Whoever this is isn't playing games." Hua Cheng looked unaffected by the violence around them, far more shaken by what they might be about to be confronted with. "Murdering a whole village just to send a message? Well, message fucking received."

They both stared at the intact house. There were no sounds coming from within and no lights in the windows, but a certain presence was emanating from it like a putrid stench. Something was waiting for them in there, and it was impatient.

Hua Cheng moved away from He Xuan's side. "I'm going in. Wait for me here."

He Xuan grabbed his arm. "Are you insane? Why would I let you go in there alone? You can barely stand."

"I don't care." Hua Cheng pulled his arm away. "They only want me. Who knows what they'll do if I have someone with me. You're staying here."

"You can't defend yourself!"

Hua Cheng let out a snarl. "I am much older than you, Black Water. I've seen things you can't even begin to imagine, and I've been in worse situations than this. I can fucking handle myself."

Worse than this? He Xuan doubted it. "Do you really expect me to abandon you now after coming with you all this way? I can't do that."

Hua Cheng lifted his chin. "Have you forgotten what you owe me?"

That, felt like a backhand across the face. He Xuan stared at Hua Cheng in shock, even though he knew this shouldn't have come as a surprise. He'd been naive to believe the past days would have been enough to make Hua Cheng forget about He Xuan's massive debt to him.

But that he'd fall back on it as leverage in a moment like this? It hurt more than the demon's teeth in his gut had.

His hand that he'd still had raised fell limply to his side. He averted his gaze. "Fine. Do what you want."

Hua Cheng turned and walked towards the house without another word. He Xuan watched him go, feeling a sense of dread settling over him. How could Hua Cheng ask him to just stand here and do nothing while putting himself to such danger? If their positions were reversed, would Hua Cheng have agreed to it?

Maybe He Xuan didn't want to know the answer to that question.

Hua Cheng vanished into the building. As soon as the door closed behind him, He Xuan followed after him, pressing himself tightly to one of the walls right next to a window. At the very least, he had to be aware of what was happening in there.

Turning his head incrementally, he snuck a look inside the house. It was very dark, but He Xuan's eyes were sharp, and he could make out the shape of a person standing in the middle of what looked like an array drawn in blood. They were short in stature, young looking, and resentment practically oozed from them, so much that He Xuan could easily feel it even out here.

"So you've made it." Their voice was high and clear, like that of a child whose body had not yet begun to change. "You took longer than I expected. I'm disappointed."

"Who the fuck are you, and what do you want?" Hua Cheng's voice was tight, apprehension fighting with anger for the upper hand. He Xuan felt his stomach clench.

There was a sigh. "Of course you wouldn't remember. I suppose we just were that insignificant to you."

"Are you going to make me wheedle every word out of you or are you going to tell me what the point of all of this was?" Hua Cheng snapped.

"My name," the ghost said calmly, "is Shao Nuan. I died five hundred eighty-four years ago. You killed me."

So that was the motive here. Revenge. Given He Xuan's familiarity with that sentiment, he probably should have seen it coming sooner.

"Doesn't ring a bell," Hua Cheng replied. "I've killed a lot of people. You can't expect me to remember all of them."

"Allow me to help your memory a bit." Shao Nuan's tone had grown sharp. "Five hundred eighty-four years ago, a carpenter lived in this very house. His wife had died during the birth of their only son. They were poor. Often, there was no food on the table and no firewood in the hearth. To protect himself and his child from further misfortune, the carpenter had a statue. It was that of a fallen god, one of plague and misery. Every day when crossing the threshold to his home, the carpenter would spit on it."

The resentful energy from inside the house somehow grew further in intensity, almost enough to make He Xuan recoil.

"One day, someone knocked on the door. When the carpenter opened it, a ghost robed in red stood there, surrounded by silver butterflies. He grabbed the carpenter by the neck, and he said "you're scum whose spit doesn't deserve to touch His Highness's likeness." And then he took his cursed sword and ran it through the carpenter's chest."

He Xuan felt himself freeze.

Of course. Of course it was that. It was always when his Crown Prince was concerned that Hua Cheng lost his cool the most, abandoned all his restraint, gave in to the cruelty he normally kept tightly under wraps. He had probably murdered hundreds of people with statues like that over the centuries.

"And you're the dead carpenter?" Hua Cheng almost sounded bored. Shao Nuan laughed, a sound like clinking shards of ice.

"No. I'm his son, who hid next to the stove and watched you kill his father. I was seven years old. I starved to death not long after."

That was worse. Infinitely worse. Child ghosts were often among the most vicious of all, filled to the brim with rage and hate and sadness.

Under different circumstances, He Xuan might have felt a shred of sympathy for Shao Nuan. But despite knowing his anger wasn't unjustified, he couldn't bring himself to care while it was Hua Cheng he had in his claws.

What did justice matter as long as the result of it would be Hua Cheng's destruction?

"And you're trying to accomplish what exactly?" He Xuan heard him sneer. "You want to kill me? Do you think that's going to bring your father back? Make you alive again?"

An odd thing for Hua Cheng to say. He was usually not someone who let these kinds of sentiments dissuade him from revenge, petty or grand. Never once had he uttered anything like it to He Xuan in response to his own plans for vengeance, something He Xuan had always been grateful for.

"No," said Shao Nuan. "But you're still going to pay."

When He Xuan stole another look inside, a faint ray of light from outside was caught in something glittering in Shao Nuan's hand, and he felt his throat close up.

"You're nearly powerless, aren't you? I've nicked these enough times to make sure of that. I wonder how much it hurt. A lot, I hope. I hope you've been in agony."

There was something disturbing about the way Shao Nuan spoke, so casually, like none of it mattered to him at all, like he was just reading off lines from a scroll, all the while radiating hatred with such intensity He Xuan couldn't help but wonder how Hua Cheng could stand to be around him himself, if he was anything like that.

"You took everything from me," Shao Nuan continued, "so I'm going to take everything from you."

"By killing me?" Hua Cheng laughed. "I've already died twice. Death doesn't scare me."

"I'm going to kill you. And then I'm going to absorb all of your power, take your place as the ruler of Ghost City, and when your Crown Prince comes back, I'm going to rip him to shreds."

He Xuan felt his heart seize.

"You-" Shock mixed with fury in Hua Cheng's voice. "How do you know-"

"I know everything about you." Shao Nuan was beginning to sound more heated. "I've spent nearly six centuries learning. I was a Ghost Fire for two hundred years until I could even form a body. All I could do was listen and watch. And then I was a servant in your own manor for even longer, and you never even noticed I was there. You hide your secrets well, Hua Chengzhu, but not well enough."

"No one knew the location of my ashes. It's not written down anywhere, and I never spoke it aloud."

"There's divination spells that can reveal such things." Shao Nuan laughed again. "You didn't ward the temple with any arrays. How arrogant of you. Your friend Black Water Sinking Ships was more careful. Where is he, by the way?"

"Not here." The response came too quickly. "I sent him away."

"A mistake."

"We'll see about that."

When He Xuan looked inside again, Hua Cheng wasn't standing in the same place he had been earlier. He'd inched closer to Shao Nuan and his array, only by increments.

He Xuan's brow furrowed. Was he trying to...

"So you fabricated all of this? I suppose that explains a lot of things. You put in a lot of effort for something as straightforward as revenge." Hua Cheng's tone was airy, in a put on way, and He Xuan recognized what he was doing. He was stalling for time, trying to keep Shao Nuan talking.

"Everything turned out exactly according to plan."

Hua Cheng hummed, too casually. "The people I spoke to were clones, then?"

"Some of them. Others were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The merchant was one of them." Shao Nuan sighed. "He wouldn't stop screaming when I killed him. I went a little overboard."

So that was how the cart had ended up in the ravine. He Xuan felt stupid for not putting it together sooner.

"And the demon... you really must have done your research if you were able to summon something like that. I'm almost impressed, but do you really think you're cut out to be a Ghost King? It's not as easy as it sounds, you know. Usually they're selected through bloody battle for a reason." Hua Cheng's tone was mocking, but exaggeratedly so, like he was trying to sound more self-assured than he really was. Shao Nuan either didn't pick up on it or didn't care.

"Isn't making everyone bend to my will the point? What does it matter if I'm good at it or not?"

That was the child ghost talking. Shao Nuan might have been nearly as old as Hua Cheng and far older than He Xuan, but ghosts who had died so young often never fully matured, even if they became very good at acting like it over time. Their worldviews remained those of children, simplistic, black and white.

Cruel, sometimes.

Hua Cheng had moved again, standing only a few feet away from the array now. He Xuan felt like he might burst the next moment with tension, fear and apprehension coiling tight in his gut. Every moment that he was forced to stay out here, unable to do a single thing, was torture.

Shao Nuan was still holding Hua Cheng's ashes in his hand.

"Well," Hua Cheng said, drawing the word out, "the citizens of Ghost City are rather... particular about who they recognize as their lord. I built the city. They fear me, but they also love me. What rank are you, Savage? You might be powerful enough, but if all of them pile up on you, you might not make it out of there in one piece, Young Master Shao."

Somehow, he managed to make the formal address sound like an insult. It would have made He Xuan smile under other circumstances.

A scoff. "They can certainly try. Don't make the mistake of underestimating me, Crimson Rain Sought-" His sentence broke off. When he spoke again, his voice was suddenly filled with panic. "What are you doing?!"

He Xuan's head whipped around. He looked inside the house just in time to see Hua Cheng standing inches away from the array, one foot extended as if to smudge it, but before he could, Shao Nuan, eyes wide, dug his claw-like nails into the ring in his hand.

He Xuan knew what was going to happen, but it still felt like ice water filled his lungs when Hua Cheng vanished.

It was the last straw.

By the time Hua Cheng reappeared only moments later, He Xuan had already burst through the wall, not bothering with the door. Shao Nuan let out a scream, one that sounded too much like that of a scared child. He looked like one, too, so short he only reached He Xuan's chest, large eyes, a round face that hadn't lost its baby fat, even in death. And his claws were still closed around Hua Cheng's life.

Hua Cheng only groaned in pain when he rematerialized, collapsing to the floor, blood already coming up and pouring out of his mouth in spurts. Some of it ran over the array, and He Xuan shot forward, bringing his foot down and smudging the blood over the carefully drawn lines and characters. With a few weak sparks of spiritual energy, the array fizzled out.

Shao Nuan didn't get a chance to flee nor make a countermove before He Xuan grabbed him by the collar.

He didn't say a word, just reached out with his own consciousness to dig his claws into the other ghost's, pulling his spirit towards himself. He had done this so many times before that for a moment, he felt like he was back in Tong'lu, devouring ghosts by the thousands.

But then something changed. His eyes flew open.

Shao Nuan was fighting back, and he was stronger than He Xuan had expected. His rage crashed into He Xuan's mind like a wave, overwhelming him and pulling him under. For all his composed exterior, Shao Nuan was burning inside, a roaring inferno of grief and fury that couldn't quite drown out the screams of a starving child.

It reminded He Xuan so much of himself that there was an instant when they felt indistinguishable from each other, mirror images fusing together.

Then Shao Nuan overpowered him, and everything was plunged into darkness.

When he regained a measure of awareness, his head felt like it might explode any moment. He felt hot, a sensation he hadn't experienced in nearly a century. Someone else's anger was bubbling in his chest, and his limbs were not his own.

His lips curled into a smirk that didn't belong to him and his legs moved without his command.

"Oh, this body is so much stronger than my own." He felt his mouth forming the words, heard himself saying them, but they were a stranger's. "Even drained like this... he's not damaged like you, Hua Chengzhu, just exhausted. What did he do with all that energy? Did he give it all to you?"

He Xuan's vision was still blurry, but he could make a red shape somewhere below him moving, making to sit up. His own foot shot out and connected with a ribcage, drawing a pained sound from Hua Cheng that might as well have been a knife through the heart.

"You're staying right where you are," he found himself saying. "I think I like you better like this. Not so arrogant anymore, are we? Are you scared?"

"I'm not fucking scared of you," Hua Cheng spat. Shao Nuan, inside He Xuan's body, ignored him.

"Does it hurt to hear these things coming from his mouth? You care for him, don't you?" He hummed. "What if he told you you were worthless? Pathetic? You let me fool you so easily. I really thought you'd pick up on what I was doing sooner, but you actually believed some human had just happened to find and sell your ashes. Some Ghost King you are!"

He Xuan struggled against the mental shackles he was caught in. He was a passenger in his own mind, aware of everything, but unable to act at all, helpless to do anything as Shao Nuan used his body to taunt Hua Cheng.

It had been so long since he'd last been at someone's mercy like this. Shao Nuan was weaker than him, not even approaching Devastation rank like Qi Rong. He was just an ordinary Savage, the likes of which populated the realms in the hundreds. He should never have managed to get the upper hand over He Xuan; crushing him should have been easier than crushing a fly.

But here he was, forced to watch as Shao Nuan kicked Hua Cheng again, harder.

"You're so obsessed with that Crown Prince, it's sad to watch. He led your country to its doom, and then he vanished, and here you are, hanging onto some flimsy hope that he might come back, going around killing people for disrespecting him, and for what? Do you think you'll be worthy of his attention? You're nothing but scum."

Hua Cheng lifted his head to stare up at him. There was drying blood on his face, in his hair. He'd never looked more like a ghost.

"Get out of He Xuan's body," he rasped. He Xuan felt himself smirk again.

"Why? Do you expect me to believe you'll give a damn what I do to him? He's so weak right now, maybe I could just snuff him out if I tried." He bent down a little. "Oh, will it hurt you if I do? In that case..."

"No!" Desperation had crept into Hua Cheng's voice.

Shao Nuan sneered. "Gods, you're so pathetic. You fuck him a few times and suddenly the idea of his death is this terrifying to you? Do you get this attached to everyone who shows you a shred of kindness? And you don't even know how he really feels about you, what would it do to you if you did?"

He Xuan felt panic strike him like a bolt of lightning. He thrashed in his confines, trying with all his might to break free, but he couldn't stop Shao Nuan from forming the words with He Xuan's own lips.

"He's in love with you, did you know that? All he thinks about is protecting you. Makes me want to throw up. I should kill you both. He deserves it if he's able to love something as disgusting as you."

Shock was clearly written across Hua Cheng's face. A part of He Xuan wanted to laugh at the sight. How could it come as such a surprise to him, after everything?

But He Xuan had never wanted to tell him, not when he knew he could never measure up to the radiant divinity of Hua Cheng's beloved. Hua Cheng could kiss and touch him all he wanted. In the end, none of it meant anything, and He Xuan was used to surviving on whatever scraps where thrown at him, out of pity or boredom. He would have greedily taken anything Hua Cheng gave him, no matter how meager.

Shao Nuan had ripped even that away with nothing more than a handful of carelessly spoken words.

Fury flared up within He Xuan like a fire that had oil poured into it, and a surge in power accompanied it, as befitting a hateful ghost such as him. For just a few moments, he wrenched control over his body back from Shao Nuan, and his hands flew up to wrap around his own neck.

"What are you-"

He cut off Shao Nuan's use of his voice by pressing down with all his strength. There was no air there to cut off, but he felt his own larynx give way under his grip, and any attempt at speech was turned into a disgusting gargling noise. The pain was blinding, but he relished in it.

He reached up and grabbed his own jaw, claws tearing skin. The other hand went to the back of his head, he pressed down and jerked his head to the side with all the force he could muster.

The loud crack as his neck snapped reached his ears before the pain hit him. It was so much that his vision whited out, and he felt himself hit the floor, arms and legs completely numb. Distantly, he heard two different screams, one deep, hoarse voice and one high-pitched and childlike.

Agony radiated through He Xuan's broken body, and his mind was his own again.

The injury he'd given himself would have killed any mortal. It couldn't kill him, but that didn't mean it didn't hurt so much he might never have found the strength to get up if not for the glint of Hua Cheng's ashes in Shao Nuan's hand as he closed his trembling fist around them and broke them in half.

Hua Cheng, who had been in the process of getting to his feet, hit the ground. He Xuan could just see it at the edge of his spotty vision, could see the way he laid there completely motionless, eye closed even as blood bubbled up from beneath the lid. It ran out from under the eyepatch too, and from his nose, his ears, out of his half open mouth, not in violent spurts like before. It just flowed out like a river in a steady crimson stream, soaking into the tamped earthen floor.

His body was growing more transparent with every instant trickling by. Already He Xuan could see the grain of the wooden boards in the wall through his unmoving chest.

He didn't know where he found the strength to scramble to his feet. Distantly, he was aware that his head was hanging oddly to the side where his neck couldn't hold it up, but regardless he shot forward, propelled by some terrifying force from deep within himself, the same thing that had not allowed him to leave the world as long as mother, father, meimei and Xin-er were not avenged, no matter how tired he was, in how much pain.

There was no room in He Xuan's head for coherent thought as his hand flew out and once again grabbed Shao Nuan by the throat. All there was was the blank white, hysterical awareness that Hua Cheng's body was fading from existence not ten feet behind him, and the roaring, primal fury underneath it.

This was what had given him the strength to devour the Reverend of Empty Words. This was what had let him survive Tong'lu. This was what had allowed him to shatter the mountainside and break out of his prison of twelve long, bloody years. This was what had refused to allow him to let himself sink to the bottom of the sea and be crushed by the masses of water, no matter how desperately he wanted to.

This madness, this raging, screaming, dreadful thing inside of him that would have made Xin-er recoil in disgust had she been alive to see it greedily soaked up every drop of hatred for the child ghost in his grip. Strength returned to his limbs, pain faded into the background. Shao Nuan's terrified, much too young face blurred in front of bloodshot eyes until it was unrecognizable.

He Xuan was brutal when he tore his spirit from his body, that carefully composed, solid illusion. Shao Nuan's attempts at fighting back were hardly more than pricks of a needle in the back of his mind this time. It was almost too easy to devour him, rip him to shreds until there was nothing left. There was a savage joy in it, something He Xuan had never felt before, something that smirked with sharp, blood-smeared teeth as Shao Nuan's body collapsed into dust in his hands.

The two halves of the diamond ring clattered to the floor.

He Xuan dove after them, hands shaking as he scrambled to pick them back up. The rage was fading, leaving behind only that throat constricting, chest hollowing fear that he had become so familiar, too familiar during the past days.

Once he had the two halves, he lurched forward, half crawling, half simply throwing himself toward Hua Cheng without bothering to get to his feet. Shao Nuan's power that he'd just devoured thrummed within him, and he could already feel it seeping into his skin, sealing up his injuries, but he didn't want it. Not a single drop of it.

Hua Cheng's body was still there, but barely. All his colors were so washed out they were nearly impossible to see, red and black and the pale gold of his skin. Everything except for the blood that wouldn't stop coming.

He Xuan grabbed his hand and pressed the two halves of the ring into it, closing his fingers around it and pressing it down over his translucent chest. And then he leaned down and pressed his lips to Hua Cheng's, tasting blood that shouldn't be on his tongue as he poured every last bit of spiritual energy he had into him, the last scant remains of his own and everything he'd taken from Shao Nuan. All of it.

A white glow so bright it was blinding even through He Xuan's closed eyelids burst from Hua Cheng's hand. He Xuan felt him regaining solidity under his hands at the same time as his own body gave out, and he slumped to the side. He couldn't move an inch, and he felt himself flickering, body struggling to keep holding itself together now that it was so empty.

The only thing he felt was relief when the last thing he saw was Hua Cheng's eye fluttering open inches from his before he lost consciousness.

 

When He Xuan woke, he knew immediately that he wasn't on the floor of that hut anymore, because everything he was touching was so soft he wondered for a moment whether he was floating in water. But it wasn't cold, and the air was still and didn't taste even a bit like salt. And the colors he could faintly see through his closed eyelids were warm, red and gold.

Something touched his cheek, gentle as a butterfly's wing, warmth igniting against his own frigid skin. With some effort, he opened his eyes just a crack, and found himself staring up at Hua Cheng's perfect face close to his own. The color had returned to his skin, his eye was reflecting the comfortably dim light, silky hair the color of the night gleaming. His right hand rested lightly against the curve of He Xuan's cheek, fingers tracing the sharp line of the bone underneath.

"Welcome back," he murmured. For once, there was nothing sarcastic in his tone, not even a hint of mockery. His expression was serious, but relaxed, not a trace of the fear, nor the anger from before.

"You scared me, you know," he continued. "I thought you wouldn't wake up for a while. You completely drained yourself."

He Xuan was only half registering his words. All he could do was stare up at him, drinking in that sight he hadn't been sure he'd ever get to see again.

Hua Cheng was so beautiful. The light from what had to be numerous candles slid over his face as he shifted, playing chase with the shadows around his eye, his nose, his jaw. There wasn't a divine statue that could've possibly compared, no piece of art that could have captured the way he looked right now, hovering over He Xuan. The most skillful of brushstrokes would've been an insult to his perfection.

He Xuan could only take it all in greedily, commit every line, every curve to memory, everything down to the furrow of Hua Cheng's brow at He Xuan's lack of a response, the slight part of his lips, the way his hair fell over his eyepatch in gentle waves.

If he shattered into pieces tomorrow, his revenge unfulfilled, he wanted this to be the last thing on his mind before he ceased to be.

"Black Water?"

He Xuan opened his mouth, but it took him several attempts until anything came out. He could feel that his neck and larynx were healed, but his throat felt dry and rough with disuse. How long had he been unconscious?

"Don't call me that," he finally croaked out. Surprise flitted over Hua Cheng's face for a moment before he covered it up with something that was too sharp to be a smile and too soft to be a smirk.

"He Xuan." His thumb gently swept over the space beneath He Xuan's eye, as if wiping away an invisible tear. "I thought I made you promise never to do anything that stupid again."

"I never promised anything like that." He Xuan sighed. "And besides, once again- would you rather I'd let you die?"

Hua Cheng laughed quietly. "Alright, alright." He leaned down and, to He Xuan's shock, pressed a soft kiss to his lips. "Thank you for saving me. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

No, was He Xuan's first thought. I don't need your thanks. I'd do it again even if you hated me for it.

His second thought was that he hadn't expected Hua Cheng to ever kiss him again.

Hua Cheng seemed to pick up on his surprise and pulled back. "Something wrong? Are you still in pain?"

He Xuan quickly shook his head. "No, I just..."

Hua Cheng arched an eyebrow. "You just what?"

"... I didn't think you would still want to do that." He Xuan couldn't bring himself to meet his gaze.

"Why wouldn't I? Unless you've changed your mind."

He Xuan let out a weak chuckle. "No. I haven't." Nor was he ever going to as long as he existed on this wretched earth. But if Hua Cheng didn't know that by now, He Xuan wasn't going to humiliate himself further by saying it.

A thought occurred to him. Could it be that Hua Cheng didn't remember everything that had happened right before his ashes had been broken in half?

"Crimson Rain... Hua Cheng." He swallowed. "What did Shao Nuan tell you when he was possessing my body?"

"Nothing of importance."

That wasn't an answer. He Xuan knew it wasn't.

He couldn't quite bring himself to care when Hua Cheng bent down and kissed him again, still gently, but deeper, teeth lightly grazing over his bottom lip. He Xuan could do nothing but close his eyes and let himself melt into the bed underneath him, becoming lost in the press of Hua Cheng's lips against his, the way his hand was still cradling He Xuan's face like a fragile, priceless treasure.

Then again, He Xuan had seen how Hua Cheng handled fragile, priceless treasures as soon as he became bored of them.

He pushed the thought aside.

"Where are we?" he mumbled between kisses, not bothering to pull back any further than he had to to speak.

"Paradise Manor." Hua Cheng nudged his nose up against He Xuan's jawline. "I brought you here after I woke up. I was still too weak to draw an array, but my dice were working again."

He Xuan frowned. "... how long has it been."

"A few weeks."

"Weeks?"

Hua Cheng blindly kicked off his boots and climbed fully into the bed next to He Xuan, pressing himself up against him. "I told you. You were completely drained. You kept flickering in and out of existence. It took a while for your spiritual energy to recover."

"How did you keep me from just disappearing? It's not as though you had any power to spare."

Hua Cheng grinned. "I rounded up every ghost of Severe rank and over in Ghost City and had them transfer as much energy to you as they could without dissolving, of course."

He Xuan stared at him. "Are you serious?"

"Dead serious."

He let his head drop back into the pillows heavily. "Alright, but don't blame me if you have a rebellion on your hands soon for being a tyrant."

Hua Cheng let out something that could almost be called a giggle. "Don't worry your pretty little head about that now. They love me."

"Yes, and I have no idea why." That was a lie. He Xuan knew why better than anyone else, but he'd be damned if he said that out loud.

Hua Cheng just laughed and kissed him again. He Xuan parted his lips for him when his tongue demanded entry, let him shift over him until he was straddling He Xuan, hands braced on either side of his head.

It was blissful, just warmth and soft lips and Hua Cheng's hair tickling He Xuan's cheek. He Xuan wanted nothing more than to lose himself in it, forget about the world around them, forget about the voice in the back his mind reminding him that this wasn't what he wanted, that he was never going to get what he wanted from Hua Cheng.

Weakly, he pushed at Hua Cheng's shoulders to try to get him to break the kiss. "We should... we should talk about this."

Hua Cheng peppered kisses over the side of his neck. "Should we?"

"Yes." He Xuan tangled a hand in his hair in an attempt to stop his movement, to no avail. "This isn't... I'm not-"

Hua Cheng shut him up with a kiss, and He Xuan didn't have the willpower to push him away again. Helpless to resist, he kissed him back, letting him lick into his mouth, savoring every little sigh and quiet groan as the space between them became more and more heated.

I'm not him. I'm not what you want. I'm never going to be what you want.

In the end, it didn't matter. If Hua Cheng found nothing more than passing amusement in the way he placed gentle bites all over He Xuan's throat, pushed his robes open and moved further and further down, then so be it. If this was all He Xuan could have, he would take all of it for as long as he could.

There were worse things to be than Hua Cheng's plaything. His mouth was like a furnace where it moved over He Xuan's colder skin, and he imagined that the affection behind the swipes of his tongue was real.

Hua Cheng had him pliant in his hands in no time, half hard by the time he put his mouth on him, inexperience made up for by enthusiasm and the fact that he'd clearly paid attention when He Xuan had done this to him. He sucked on the length of him, diligently bobbing his head, a hand wrapped around the part that he couldn't reach. He Xuan's head felt like it was stuffed full of wool, hazy with pleasure, reduced to wordless groans and gasps. One hand tangled in Hua Cheng's hair, the other gripped onto the silken sheets for dear life. He didn't think Hua Cheng would mind if he tore them.

When he felt himself getting close, he pulled Hua Cheng back up by his hair. Their mouths crashed together in a hungry kiss, but Hua Cheng tempered it, keeping the pace slow and languid as he lowered himself in between He Xuan's spread thighs.

"Let me take care of you," he whispered against He Xuan's lips. His voice was low and smooth like velvet and He Xuan wouldn't have had the strength to say no even if he'd wanted to.

Words failing him, he pulled at the fabric of Hua Cheng's robes desperately. Hua Cheng sat up and allowed He Xuan to help him undress, undoing belts and ties, pushing fabric off broad shoulders, hands and eyes roaming. The candlelight dancing across Hua Cheng's skin made him look unreal, like a statue, except that the hot press of his cock against He Xuan's own once they were both bare felt very real.

Hua Cheng ground against him in slow, measured movements, reaching down and wrapping a hand around both of them. He Xuan groaned, feeling the tension mounting deep in his belly again, too soon. He didn't want this to be over yet.

Never stopping the rocking of his hips, Hua Cheng produced a jar of thick oil from somewhere, slicked up his hand and grasped both their lengths again, slowly jerking them off. The oil made the slide easier, and He Xuan felt his eyes cross.

"I'm- Hua Cheng, Hua-gege, I'm going to-"

"It's okay," Hua Cheng whispered. "I have you. I have you, A'Xuan."

Just like last time, the endearment was all it took. He Xuan arched off the bed, a long, strung out moan leaving his lips as he came, spilling himself between them. Some of his come landed on Hua Cheng's hand, and he lifted it to his mouth and licked it all off.

"Do you want me inside you?" Hua Cheng's voice was still far too steady, but his words sent a flash of heat through He Xuan's tired body, cock twitching against his thigh. He nodded.

"Use your words," Hua Cheng all but purred.

"Yes," He Xuan breathed. "I want you to fuck me. Please."

Hua Cheng pressed a kiss to his mouth. "Good boy."

It was funny, He Xuan thought dazedly while Hua Cheng was taking his time working him open with his fingers, how their roles were almost a perfect reverse from the last time they'd done this, although, paradoxically, He Xuan had not been this gentle with Hua Cheng. Did the other Supreme feel the need to make something up to him? Was it just his way of thanking He Xuan?

Or was he trying to soothe his conscience over the fact that He Xuan's feelings were not reciprocated?

Then again, Hua Cheng wasn't the type to feel guilty over something like that, never one to be ashamed of himself, even if his self-absorbed facade was mostly just that - a facade.

His oil-slick fingers curved deep inside He Xuan, hitting his prostate, and it became difficult to think. Hua Cheng was still going torturously slow, lightly biting the insides of He Xuan's thighs every once in a while, but never hard enough to actually hurt. It was so easy to imagine that his gentleness was born from genuine emotion like this, a fantasy He Xuan was happy to lose himself in for the moment.

When Hua Cheng decided He Xuan was prepared enough, he slid back up his body, hands gripping his waist, but He Xuan stopped him before he could flip him over. "Let me see your face. Please."

There was only a moment's hesitation before Hua Cheng nodded. "Alright. Whatever my Little Ghost King wants."

He Xuan rolled his eyes and reached up kiss the smirk off his face.

Hua Cheng settled back in between his thighs, hitching one up to wrap around his waist as he slowly pushed inside. A long, drawn out moan escaped He Xuan's throat as he was filled. Hua Cheng was big, and his movements careful and precise, nothing to betray the fact that he had never done this before.

He set a slow, steady rhythm, pulling out almost entirely every time only to plunge back inside with a powerful roll of his hips. He Xuan clung to him, nails digging into his back, eyes slipping shut. Every one of those purposeful thrusts sent waves of pleasure crashing through him, and it was so easy to just let himself be swept along and lose himself in the press of skin against skin, Hua Cheng's panting into the crook of his neck, the friction-generated warmth between them.

Hua Cheng found his prostate again easily, and it wasn't long until He Xuan was once more painfully hard against his stomach, cock dripping. Still slightly oversensitive from his first orgasm, he rapidly found himself approaching a second. His legs shook where he had them wrapped around Hua Cheng, and choked little whimpers escaped his mouth every time the head of his cock brushed against Hua Cheng's abdomen. His lover noticed his despair without a doubt, but he kept up his torturous pace, not going even a little bit faster no matter how He Xuan dragged his nails down his back and whispered broken pleas into his ear.

"Hua-gege, please."

"No." Hua Cheng leaned up to kiss him, entirely too sweet for what they were doing. "I told you, I'm going to take care of you."

And that he did. Displaying an impressive amount of self-control, he kept fucking He Xuan slowly, deeply, almost too gently, until He Xuan could only throw his head back, mouth hanging open in a silent scream as he came for the second time.

This orgasm hit him much harder, the sheer ecstasy of it so overwhelming he must have blacked out for a moment, because he didn't remember when he'd started crying by the time he came back to himself. In wonder, he lifted his hand to touch his wet cheek. It had been decades since the last time he'd shed even a single tear.

"I wasn't sure I was still able to do that."

Hua Cheng kissed his tears away. "I'm going to take that as a compliment."

His voice was slightly strained, He Xuan noted, and he was still very much hard inside him, although his movements had stilled.

He Xuan rocked his hips down a little, eliciting a gasp. "You can keep going."

"Are you sure?"

He Xuan rolled his eyes. "Yes, I'm sure. Now fuck me."

Hua Cheng didn't ask for another incentive. He started moving again, slightly faster this time, but still keeping himself under control. A part of He Xuan wished he wouldn't, but he said nothing, content to lay back and let Hua Cheng use him for his own pleasure.

By the time Hua Cheng's thrusts stuttered and he groaned heavily into He Xuan's mouth as warmth filled his insides, He Xuan was half hard again. Hua Cheng looked down, smirked and barely took the time to pull out before ducking down and taking him into his mouth for the second time that night.

He Xuan thrashed against the pillows, oversensitive, and it took less than an incense's time until he was gasping and moaning, teetering just on the edge of release. Hua Cheng hollowed his cheeks and sucked as he pulled off slowly, torturously. He locked eyes with He Xuan, one hand wrapped around him and lazily jerking him off, and crooned "A'Xuan," and He Xuan let out something that was almost a sob as he came for the third time. Some of his come landed in Hua Cheng's open mouth, some on his cheeks and chin; a sight that shouldn't have been as attractive as it was.

But the flash of heat it sent through He Xuan was weak. He was completely spent, limp against the mattress, not even enough strength left in him to protest as Hua Cheng got up to get something to clean them up with. For the first time in a long time, He Xuan didn't feel cold. He didn't feel cold when Hua Cheng gently wiped his stomach down with a wet cloth, then cleaned up the mess he'd left between his legs. He didn't feel cold when Hua Cheng lifted him into his arms and carried him into the adjacent bath, where there was a basin sunken into the floor already filled with water. He didn't feel cold when Hua Cheng washed his hair like He Xuan had done for him in that inn, and he refused to stop and question why Hua Cheng was doing all of this, where his gentleness was coming from. He Xuan wanted it too much for that, like a cold blooded reptile greedily soaking up rays of sun, the only thing that could warm its blood.

He dozed off against Hua Cheng's shoulder in the bath and only woke again when he was being deposited back in the same bed from before, though the ruined sheets had been changed. Hua Cheng climbed in next to him and immediately pulled him close, and He Xuan tucked his head into the side of his neck and closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to see the red pearl in Hua Cheng's hair, glinting in the candlelight like a warning.

He Xuan could ignore its presence for a little while longer, with Hua Cheng's lips pressed to his temple and his hand stroking up and down his back as he drifted off into a dreamless sleep.