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An Un-admitted Defeat

Chapter Text

The Bet

"Why do you have to bring him into it? I hardly whiff my nose at the going-ons of Erlang Shen." Sun Wukong set down a chess piece.

The Jade Emperor tapped a finger upon the table, thinking. "Now, just let me think…"

A series of limestone bridges were crisscrossed in perfect symmetry over the lake, meeting in the middle of a small pagoda. One tier high and more of a sunroof than anything grand, it would have been plain had it not been made out of solid gold. Gold and gleaming to the point where it was almost hard to look at. Carved with intricate patterns and filed down to the millimetre, it's curled up eaves where adorned with small, gold bells. Two figures peered over a bejeweled table, one haunched over in concentration, the other leaning back and stroking his beard. 

Wukong reclined in his seat, a surly look on his face. After a few minutes more of chagrined politeness, he got up, removed a plate of armour and pair of flared shoulder guards, and lumped them down on the floor. The marble mosaic floor cracked under its weight. Wukong made sure not to react. The Emperor already knew. He did not suggest he did. When Sun Wukong got an imperial summons from the Heavenly court, this was not what he had dressed for.

"Ah."

The Emperor set down his chess piece with a sting of a smile, drawing a line of Wukong's pieces away. His chess pieces, polished black onyx; Wukong's, marble white.

They had spent the past three days playing a single game of go. More than half of the pieces were spread over the board, cluttered and uneven.

"I'm just stating that it is what it is. There's much chatter up here since Yang Jian has taken on the role of the Enforcer. Much thanks to you," the Emperor said, lips turning up slightly. "But I digress."

Wukong pressed a finger to his temple and sighed lengthily. Every time he did something of the sort, the palace guard stationed on the bridge tensed, their shoulders rising in reckoning. Wukong had to be reminded that not everybody dared to remove armour and sigh before the three realm's Emperor. He clutched the table with both hands, bending down to reach the go pieces at eye level. His beady eyes darted about, nose scrunching at the board.

"What part of stingy Yang Jian's promotion has anything to do with me?" he piped up. Wukong took four white pieces, and, without warning, threw them high into the air one after the other. Startled, the Emperor jolted back. His expression drooping in offence and Wukong thought he might call for the guards. The go pieces landed one by one in procession, forming a perfect line on the board. The Emperor raised his brows, looked impressed at the feat, and then nodded.

"You have more work in this than you know," the Emperor said, picking up a black piece. "Yang Jian's always been somewhat of…" his voice trailed off.

"A Heavenly disgrace—"

"A solitary soul…"

"—Who ruins the view of wherever he stands," Wukong finished. He downed his cup of tea like a shot glass. Wukong loved seeing the Emperor's reaction jump and the little string of calculations in his eye on how to remain still, how to continue exchanging pleasantries. He was a diplomatic man like that. But Emperor was far from unflappable. Being an eyesore in this palace of gold was Wukong's forte. He gestured between them exaggeratedly. "Hah!"

The Emperor rolled his eyes before reaching for his tea. Wukong started tapping his feet as the Emperor poured them both a new cup. Hot steam furled above and the fragrant smell of chrysanthemum flowers wafted above. 

"There's resistance to him getting promoted?" Wukong asked with a tilt of his head, amused. They were talking about it as if it were current, and it still was, would always be when it came to now-Commander Erlang and his complicated family. Which included the Jade Emperor himself, his uncle, even if he'd never admit it. The news was at least some fifty years old and people were still talking.

"Hmm…just chatter. Just chatter." The Emperor smiled. "Yang Jian's a difficult man. But a loyal man all the same. But - when his name is mentioned, yours goes along with it."

"Spare me," Wukong snapped.

The Emperor laid down another line of black peices. Wukong's brow twitched. He skimmed a hand over his hair, concentrating again.

What was the reason for this meeting? The Emperor had time for hedonism, but Wukong was sure his account of hedonism would not entail playing go with the likes of him. It seemed that the first to break character and ask would lose. So Wukong played along. 

"It was the incident a couple centuries ago. The incident where…" the Emperor huffed. "When Heaven was in peril and Yang Jian stepped up." The Emperor smiled, a cold, uncaring thing. "It was a turning point for him. His position today is the fruit of his efforts."

He was trying to rile him, the old man. Nobody in Heaven liked to mention his little…escapade, ehem, to his face. But the sodden old man did not shy from that. If anything, the Jade Emperor was one to wave it in front of his face. It was always, 'thank you for joining us in the Heavenly court, but oh, we've just had the north palace wing renovated back to it's pre-Great Sage assault status, how fortunate!' It was not as if Wukong went around reminding the Heavenly court of their gross misfeasance when it came to laying out job descriptions. Or how his left shoulder blade had never felt the same again after a stabbing, how anything more than a stiff breeze hurt his eyes. The Jade Emperor liked to remind him. It was bordering on defamation, these days. If Wukong felt half guilty about it, it might had been a sound tactic. Instead, it just put him on edge.

Wukong got up, red flashing in his mind as he turned to haunch over the gold railing of the pagoda. He fumed quietly to himself for a moment, trying not to let the Emperor get to him. "My trip to the Heavenly palace? So this is it, isn't it, Ol' Emperor?"

Wukong turned around, jumping back into his seat. He sat with his knees up, fingers motioning above them, jumpy and deliberately petulant. 

"You want to blame Erlang Shen's promotion on me? Old friend, you're the one who offered him the job and no one forced you to do it." What with him being the King of the three realms and beyond. But Wukong knew how Heaven worked and the Emperor had his hands tied where Erlang Shen was the strongest warrior in the realm. Wukong picked up the teacup, gulping down the scalding thing in one go again. The guard outside had tensed. "And you're forgetting just one important detail. Great god Erlang Shen, Yang Jian, did — not! — defeat me in battle," he finished, shrill.

His bearing refined, his visage noble, his three eyes shining and Celestial Howling Dog at his heel, Erlang Shen had been one of his stronger adversaries. Erlang Shen and Wukong's duel had lasted days, starting from above the skies of Mount Huaguo to beneath the sea to the surrounding land at miles away, utilising countless transformations and every whimsical, petty trick he had in the bag.

He'd turn into a fish and Erlang Shen would turn into some man-eating shark, he'd turn into a trusty dove and Erlang Shen would turn into a giant golden eagle. They took turns trying to outgrow each other when Wukong hit the same height as the mountain and then Erlang Shen had to make himself taller than that. It was tiring and electric and he'd never had to do so many quick transformations to save his reputation for transforming. He'd managed to keep one step ahead because Erlang Shen was a brutish fighter who expected patterns and predictability, but he was, by all accounts, a monkey. Who was he to have any idea how to act like a normal, functioning celestial being, never mind humanity; he fought like he lived and breathed — with elation, without holding back, with every last bit of venom in him.

At every twist, at every corner, from wielding his weapon to flashing his magic, Erlang Shen had kept up and matched him until eventually, they'd both started running out of ideas.

Then, as they were both rasping for breath, weapons raised but languid, they pounced for the last blow. It could have gone on for a few more days. It could have gong on until one of them slipped up and got stabbed through the chest and then some. It might have ended in a perfect draw. But Erlang Shen advanced not knowing Wukong was walking into ambush.

He was on the floor, teethmarks on his leg, the back of his head throbbing with an acute kind of pain. And then he was in the air, something binding his limps, the smell of smoke sickeningly lurid. It was Huaguo Shan. Burning.

The Emperor hovered his hand over the hot tea. "It's the only loss that you'd fault over a dog and an old frail man," he replied sweetly, words curling in the air like something fragile and breakable.

Wukong peered over the board one more time before reaching for his white pieces. "Nm. He should be thanking me for helping him up the altar. Bastard can't win me in a fair fight and no matter how many eyes he has, he won't have the gall to see it." Wukong scratched himself behind the neck. "Bastard."

But he leaned back, a glint in his ember eyes and something cruel in his smile. Wukong placed a line of white on the board. With a flick, he scattered a large portion of black chess pieces off the board. They clattered to the floor.

"Heheheh — Hahahhah!" Wukong bellowed, an artificial laugh.

The Emperor's fist thudded on the table, making Wukong laugh harder. "I wonder if that's what you'll say to the boy when he comes looking," he said snidely.

Wukong stopped laughing immediately. "What boy?"

The Emperor began piling up spilled chess pieces, gathering them with too-slow hands and tiny movements. He looked up suspiciously. "What do you mean, what boy? Don't you know you're been searched for?" He chuckled, a low, repressed burst of it. "I thought that was why you came all the way up here. To avoid him."

Wukong's eyes followed the Emperor as he swept up the chess pieces one by one, until a frown crinkled his face and he couldn't take it anymore. Fulling a hand before his face and blowing on it, magic spilled into the air. The chess pieces flew into the air, whirling like a waterspout back into their respective cases. The pieces on the board had magically straightened as well. Wukong laid his hands upon the table, leaning his head into his hand.

"What — boy?" he repeated, surly.

"Oh—ho, that's new. The entire three realms are in uproar and…" The Emperor broke off, a dramatic hand flying to cover his mouth. "Well, I guess you do live under the equivalent of a rock. In the mountains down, there, I mean."

The Emperor hadn't thought twice about said phrase, 'living under a rock,' but Wukong took it in a literal sense. His eyes flashed gold, something darkening his eyes. "Just spit it out, Emperor."

"Liu Chen Xiang. Heard of him?"

"Liu — who?"

"A boy from the mortal realm. His father, a scholar. His mother, a mountain guide. The boy's wholly misguided, thinking that Heaven owes him where he has been wronged. He's managed to cause a lot of trouble for some minor soldiers sent down to apprehend him," the Emperor said, a flatness in his voice.

Wukong blinked, mulling over his words. "A human?" he started, surprise changing his face for a moment. "You won't bore me with this unless it's something else," Wukong said lightly, eyeing the board again.

"He's no human," the Emperor said, lips curling up humourlessly. "He's a halfbreed."

Wukong looked up. The Emperor's tone had completely changed, something scathing and ugly on his tongue — as if he were above saying it, and it was commendable that he had. Wukong put his legs down, crossing them and taking a short breath. "Half god, half human?" he mused, taking a sip from his cup. "That's news."

"I thought you were aware," the Emperor said above his cup. He sipped slowly, his words hanging dense and thick in the air between them. "The heathen is Erlang Shen, Yang Jian's nephew."

"Nephew?" Wukong echoed.

The Emperor's lips curled back. "Liu Chen Xiang."

Wukong blinked twice, pulling a face in confusion. "Erlang Shen's nephew wants to see me?" Wukong sat back with a grin, his foot rocking back and forth. He regarded that thought for a moment. 

"Tch. Does he have a right?" he finally stated, and the look on his face was vicious. "If he knows what's good for him, he'd stay in the mortal realm and be a human. That's what a smart boy would do."

"Exactly my view," the Emperor said, his hand floating up and touching a corner of his mouth with a silken handkerchief. He seemed to relax. The way he let his guard down only reminded Wukong that he had it up before. "But this halfbreed does not know how high the sky is, nor how thick is the earth. He's been very…trying." The Emperor glanced up, regarding him darkly. "He's caused trouble for Heaven. Evaded armed soldiers and scorned Heaven's name."

A brow quirked up and it took effort for Wukong to not do the same with his lips.

"…But he's still young. He's looking for someone to teach him magic. That person will probably be you."

"Pfffft," Wukong chuckled into his shoulder and slapped his knee hard. "Me?" he pointed to himself, and then tapped himself on the nose. "Does it look like I have time to humour you?"

"Humour me?" the Emperor repeated mockingly. He took another sip of tea. "If only," he said lightly. Then he turned up, the mirth wiping off his face. "Take this as a warning, Sun Wukong. The boy will ensnare you." 

"Now that's funny." Wukong smirked. 

"On the contrary." There was an edge to the Emperor's words now. "I think it would be quite humorous to see a union with Erlang Shen in this way. Train his nephew. Heheheh."

Wukong stared at the chessboard, having already lost track of who was supposed to go. It had to be the Emperor, or he'd have complained by now. "Emperor, what I find humorous," Wukong started, his voice dropping an octave in a way that made his voice rasp with grit, "Is the fact that you think I'll place my name next to someone in the likes of Yang Jian."

"Bahahaha!" The Emperor rolled his back, his smile cutting like a grimace. "Then what about this. How about a bet?"

Wukong peered slowly up from the chess pieces. A smile stretched across his face, mirroring the Emperor's with much more sharp teeth and immodest flair. "What's the stakes?"

The Emperor was fiddling with a chess piece in his hand. Wukong held his stare, never looking down at it.

"You keep your word, and I cordially invite you to every single last Heavenly Peach Banquet until the end of time," he said, finishing by dropping the chess piece. It hit the golden table and shattered on impact. "Heh. Guards." The Emperor motioned to the guards, who immediately turned around to face them. They were to witness should he take up the challenge. 

But that….was not what he expected. Sun Wukong didn't care for the peaches. He did not care for elixirs of immortality, which he'd already achieved. He didn't even care for the thousand year old fine wine, the exuberant dances or lavish cerebration and study in extravagance.

But, he thought, an invite would be nice. An invite to remind Heaven for thousands upon thousands of years to come, that they owed him entrance to their most esteemed ceremony, the pinnacle of Heaven, the most sought-after right of all gods and goddesses. To be named on that heavenly guest list was reverence and worship and reputation.

He cared to be invited to parties even should he not attend them. To be forever invited to the party he'd once crawled into and torn asunder, sounded delicious. A bet from a King was not an invitation, but a duel. But more than that—

If nothing else, Sun Wukong wanted to best the Jade Emperor, and would not stand down even for something as meagre as this. It mattered not - he already knew who would come out victor. 

"You're on."

"But if you lose," the Emperor chimed in,"…if you lose…what will you do if you lose?"

"Jade Emperor," Wukong started, fingers tapping on the table and making the pieces jump. "The day I take in Yang Jian's nephew as a disciple, is the day I gladly take another five hundred years under any mountain of your raising."

The Jade Emperor's eyes widened. His lips quirked in an involuntary spasm.

"Forgive me, Jade Emperor," Wukong cooed, eyes narrowing sheepishly and not meaning it, "There's nothing in this world I won't give up to scorn the name of Erlang Shen."

"And the heathen?" The Emperor tested, leaning forward and reaching out a hand adorned with many rings. 

"What heathen?" Wukong said, taking it with might and shaking it once up-down.

Little did the old Emperor know, with this quaint bet, that Sun Wukong had made the quick and easy decision to scorn his name. 

The Emperor smiled.

Chapter Text

"You're Sun Wukong?!"

"—The one and only," he gargled, food in his mouth.

When Chen Xiang came to him, he really was just a boy.

Red-faced, huffing, wide-eyed and young; he was naive, greener-than-grass and full-to-the-head loaded with idealism and silly banter; he was dangerous, for any being with fickle, celestial power was immeasurable and unpredictable, and this one was full of emotion, of desire. And everything, Wukong thought, from his paper drum heart to his shaky-straining lungs to that glint in his eye, everything about this boy was so utterly, undeniably, human.

"Please."

Chen Xiang, though he hadn't bothered to remember his name, then, this black-haired, pony-tailed, muddy-faced boy, had clasped left hand over right fist and bowed low. The cheap conical straw hat fell from his head, rolling a short distance before wobbling and falling at the leg of Wukong's table. The boy held himself there, still and stoic and bowing in perfect form.

"Please teach me."

The first time they'd met was a sunny day in Guiyang, Guizhou, in the south. Sun Wukong, terracotta cup in his hand, mouth full of over-brewed black tea to wash down whatever over-seasoned food he'd just downed without thinking, was sitting crosslegged at a table to himself. It was in a human settlement that welcomed demons, among others, to stay, and the outdoor tea house was crowded. Wukong was sat in the shade drinking tea, Chen Xiang was stood in the midday sun. The boy had, after many years, he'd later realised, succeeded in tracking him down.

That was a lie.

Or, rather, that was a hyperbolised overstatement he'd told others to get them off his back. The boy had stumbled headfirst into his path, two random people on the road who happened to meet by chance. T'was the will of the gods, he might say, jokingly, while pointing to the sky. But he did not, because this was Liu Chen Xiang: the boy the gods had ceremoniously warned him of in a summons to the Celestial Palace, That boy is trouble. That boy is unholy.

And, above all, that boy shared blood with Erlang Shen.

On that one condition, Wukong's policy was to turn-tail and refuse, no matter how ludicrous the request was anyway. That condition.

"Get lost, kiddo." Wukong picked up the straw hat, tossing it into the boy's teeth. "And next time, don't talk to strangers. Not all demons are ready to eat alongside humans, rather than eating them."

He left with a single step, wind gusting behind him.


 

"I finally found you! Sun Wukong!"

"You wha—?"

The second time they met, that was honestly a result of the boy's intuition and smarts. That, or the boy's unrelenting soul, stubborn head and pure ruthlessness. Luck must have been on the boy's side no matter what the gods thought of him. Chen Xiang was looking shabbier, the conical hat hanging at his hip with three new rips and two large holes, his clothes and shoes an unravelling mess.

It was a month or two later when Wukong was sat on his arse watching the sunrise, a few humans out in the early daylight, overseeing crops. The Guizhou rice paddies layered the hills from the top of the mountain to the bottom, perfect, flooded paddies reflecting the sunrise in dozens of squashed oval patches. Wukong had whipped around, startled by a boy's shrill voice. He turned only to see top-of-the-head and bent shoulders and outstretched, saluting arms.

"Please, Sun Wukong," he said, lifting his head to show near-starry eyes, "I need to be your disciple!"

"You need to go home, is what you need to do." Wukong frowned, disgust touching upon his face for a moment. He flashed his fangs to scare the kid off. It didn't work.

"Please — I've been looking for you so long because you're the only one I can go to."

Wukong raised a brow. "Why?"

Chen Xiang straightened up, his arms cramping from being held out so long. It didn't look like he had expected to get this far. "You're the one who upturned Heaven," he said, a fire in his eyes and harshness to his high voice. "You fought one-on-one hundred thousand of the Heavenly army and succeeded."

His brow crinkled, then, and Wukong knew right then that this boy knew what he was doing, knew who he was going after with a vengeance. This was a boy that had grown up on his stories, the fairy tales and folklore come to life. If he thought Wukong was some sort of hero, he really was just a little boy.

"What's your name, kid?" he asked him, and Wukong had already turned back to face the sun.

"Liu Chen Xiang."

"Chen Xiang," Wukong remarked. "Go home before I kick you and your hat a hundred and eight thousand, 十万八千里, li away." He jut a finger into the air to make his point.

Chen Xiang didn't seem to budge. "If you do, then I'll run back a hundred and eight thousand li."

Wukong didn't move, but his face drooped immensely while watching a sky he was no longer paying attention to. He settled on a single dragonfly a hundred metres away. It's legs balanced on the surface of the water before buckling. It was struggling to stay afloat.

"I'm not a normal human," Chen Xiang exclaimed, "I'm a halfbreed. I — I have powers that act out and spark and hurt people. I can break down a tree with my bare hands and run without ever getting tired," he said, tiredly. "Look, I need to learn how to fight and use magic!"

Wukong blew air out his nose. "Well go ahead then. Hurt people and break trees and run. What do I care?" Wukong leaned back on an arm, eyes taking care not to leave the front. He tried to forget how shabby the boy looked. "Ask any old godly fart to teach you. I've got things to do, places to fly. Don't bother me again."

"Wait!"

Chen Xiang jumped forward for too late. Wukong had easily launched himself into the air, a swathe of clouds manifesting at his feet as he ascended into the red skies. He looked down, golden eyes watching Chen Xiang's little, still form on the earth until he was just a dot, just a speck, until he became too small to see.


 

"Sun Wukong, this one is Liu Chen Xiang! We meet again!"

Wukong turned his head, spotting the mess of black hair and brown eyes. At least he'd gotten a change of clothes and rid himself of that insufferable hat. It was one year on and he'd grown a bit. Not by much. Never much, by celestial standards. But enough.

"Who?" Wukong said wryly, taking a bite out of a peach.

The third time they met, he was standing in a crowded Sichuan market place, eating a fruit straight off a stall that he had not yet paid for. The merchant was fuming from behind the stall, quietly staring him down. Chen Xiang, of all people and plot twists, reached to his side pouch and produced some money.

"Here. It's all I have," he said, trying to hand the merchant the coins.

The merchant squinted at the money, and then at the boy. His nose flared. "You bastards, this isn't even enough for one peach. You thieves!" The large, burly merchant came around to the front of the stall holding a rather large and heavy carving knife, clearly not intended for use on peaches. Chen Xiang's mouth opened dumbly as he slowly backed away.

Mildly confused, Wukong stepped between them, half-chewed peach in his mouth. "What thieves?" he spat, pieces of peach falling out of his mouth. "Have you not heard of quality control? I was just testing one out."

With a loud, nasal retch, he spat the pit dangerously close to the merchant's face. Behind him, it dented the steel pole of the stall before rebounding back into the man's head. The merchant buckled forward, a look of confused pain etched on them.

Wukong licked his lips. "You!"

Chen Xiang swallowed nervously behind him. Wukong reached to the side of his head, pulling out a few strands of hair. "Kiddo," he said calmly, "hand out."

"Uh?"

"Hand. Now."

Chen Xiang held out his hand. Wukong placed the strands in his palm. "Now pay the damned man for his mediocre peach!" Wukong walked backwards into the crowd, disappearing into a sea of men and demons as Chen Xiang failed to keep up.

"What are you—Sun Wukong?! I'm not done with you!"

Wukong watched Chen Xiang sweat as the merchant closed in. Then, he watched him notice the weight in his hands. Then, he watched him get swamped by passerbys and merchants alike while struggling to hold onto hundreds of dollars worth of tongbao that had exploded out of his hand.


 

"Is…is that really you? SunWukong?" Chen Xiang slurred, face mushed against a round gourd of alcohol, chin leaned on the wooden table. "Aaa—hahahahahah," he chuckled into his elbow, too young to drink and too young to know what being hungover felt like, or make informed decisions about doing this in the middle of the night, while travelling alone, in an inn full of pick pocketers somewhere up North.

"No. No, it's just another walking, talking monkey demon, of course."

"I fiii-nally found you…got'cha," he cooed.

It was the fifth or sixth time they'd met by now.

Chen Xiang had traced Wukong to this tiny city with only one inn. He'd staked the place out for four days without sleep and got himself piss-drunk when Wukong, honestly in town, decided he should step in and prevent his alcohol poisoning.

Oh! Someone's looking for you, the innkeeper and waiter said to him as he entered looking completely inane and human. He'd signed his name on the registry.

I know, was his immediate reaction, and then, after a second of thought,

—What?

Yes. Someone by the name of Sun Xingze! the innkeeper beamed and Wukong could hardly believe someone, not least a snot-nosed kid, bothered to remember that moniker of his.

Chen Xiang gurgled, coughing a fit as Wukong watched him opposite. Humans were so fragile. He could never forget how easy it was for them to curl over dead from a cough, from a slow heart, from bad food, from staying awake for too long…

The sound of the boy's breath was heavy and uneven and straining. Wukong thought it was rather like a mourner's after someone had died. Wukong sat up straight, prying the gourd from Chen Xiang's fingers and pouring himself a cup.

"Make…make me your disciple," Chen Xiang spluttered, reaching to tug on his hand. Wukong retracted his hand, holding it comically up high when he tried to get at it again. It was a stupid gesture. Everything felt stupid when it came to Liu Chen Xiang. Oh, yes, he remembered his name now, loud and clear like a stalker tailing him over China. Wasting years searching for a demon that had already decided, before they'd ever met, that he was never going to take a disciple. He wan't made for that nonsense. He was made from stone, for demons' sake.

That, and the holy-Celestial bet he'd taken upstairs in the palace, made him sure that Chen Xiang had started this escapade futile.

"…please."

Wukong's eyes snapped up. Chen Xiang's voice had choked up, syllables breaking in a way that didn't necessary point to alcohol. Wukong frowned as tears welled in Chen Xiang's eyes, trailing sideways down his nose and cheek alongside the drool.

"I beg you, please take me…as…disciple…" he muttered. "It's my only h—hope…to…to—"

Wukong curled a hand into a fist beside him. "I'm your only hope for what? Chen Xiang?"

Chen Xiang catches his breath, smiling at him, smiling. "To save…my mother…"

"Your mother?"

"Mo…ther…"

Wukong's lips curled, nose wrinkling in distaste. He downed the cup of wine. It was good wine, strong, tangy and enough to overwhelm anybody, not least a boy. "Look, kiddo." He set down the cup with a clang, cracking it all the way up to the top in a singe, meandering line. "Stop following me around. This is getting ridiculous."

"…ridiculous…" Chen Xiang repeated.

"Ridiculous," Wukong went on. He leaned forward, pointing a finger right at Chen Xiang's sideways nose, close enough to poke. "Don't be delirious, kiddo. You're playing with fire that you don't know how to put out. That can't be put out once it burns too big. Stop searching for gods," he hissed. "Stop searching for demons. And leave me alone."

Chen Xiang's brown eyes, dilated to their widest in the candle light, shivered. He hiccupped, a cross between a sob and a retch. Tears leaked out of his eyes. In those eyes, determined even when wasted like this, he was desolate.

It was not easy for Wukong when there was a thing and it was a thing in which he could not punch away. He could stay a moment longer, couldn't he? Just for a moment.

"What the hell is wrong with your mother?" Wukong sighed, pulling back his hand to lean his face in. It was not as if Chen Xiang was about to remember any part of this preceding week.

Chen Xiang huffed, grin faltering. "Underneath…Mount Hua. She's beneath the mountain. She's…stuck there…"

A chill went down Wukong's spine. The air around him changed. The hairs at the back of Wukong's neck pricked in realisation.

"Mount Hua?" Wukong breathed, looking at Chen Xiang in a strange, new light. A puzzle he didn't really want to solve clicked into place. "You're Goddess Sanseng Mu's boy. Erlang Shen's sister is…Sangseng Mu," he stated more to himself than anyone else.

Chen Xiang, despite being piss drunk, startled. He managed to pull himself up, hands desperately and groggily detaching himself from the table to stare at Wukong. "You know…my-my, mother?"

And then, as if the fact were delayed, his eyes glossed over in a dark, sinister look. Wukong stared. There was too much hate in those glassy eyes; no kid that young could hate like that. But there it was, as hateful as anything he'd seen. Then it seemed the second part of his sentence kicked in.

Chen Xiang leaned forward, damp with tears, and sneered, "Erlang Shen…is a punk bitch."

Wukong scoffed, a snort bursting out of his nose and mouth.

"So this is why you're doing this to yourself," he said. "Erlang Shen doomed your mother beneath a mountain." He got it now. But that wasn't it, something else squirmed in his gut like a lie coming to the surface but not.

The Jade Emperor had not lied to him, per se: that Chen Xiang was looking for trouble, that Chen Xiang was the nephew of Heavenly super cop, Erlang Shen. He had left out the one small, acute detail of why he was willing to trek China looking for trouble.

The pieces fell together, and like all the gods knew, Wukong knew:

 

On a cloudless day and lightless sky, the warning bell rang three times through Heaven, shaking the grounds and changing the air. The Emperor thudded his fists on the gold-carved arm rests of his throne, demanding explanation. A lower god returned, shaking, knees on the ground and hands in the air, "An abomination has been born."

A scene not unlike what had happened before, when a stone burst open and something unfathomable came into being. But this was a goddess from heaven, untouchable and pure and divine, who fell in love with a human man so low. Their marriage was but a befouling of blood, her husband nothing but a dead man from the start, her son an insult to Heaven. The bell rang above the clouds, the solders shouting, "Treason!" and the gods declaring, "Disgrace!"

Freshly armoured, adequately titled as Heaven's finest, and the newly appointed Upholder of Divine Law, Erlang Shen descended to seal her fate. Sanseng Mu fought half a legion alone before a combined effort of gods struck her down. Even now, she remained there, remained alone, under the mountain she used to oversee for so long.

 

He hadn't stopped crying. Chen Xiang had gotten fully up, treading to one side of the table. He looked darkly down at Wukong at his seat. Then, suddenly, Chen Xiang dropped. Wukong caught him mid-fall, one hand holding up his entire weight as his feet dragged the floor but his knees hovered in the air. Chen Xiang sniffed. He put up a pathetic fight trying to take away Wukong's hand. Wukong dropped him, letting him fall into a pile.

It turned out that Chen Xiang had not, in fact, fallen from drunkenness, and that the bottom of Wukong's seat was exactly where he planned to be. He moved to kneel, hands suddenly neatly placed before him, head bowing once before bobbing dangerously up. "Make me your disciple, Sun Wukong," he said. "Teach me…so I can save…my mother," he breathed, a plead.

And that was all that Chen Xiang wanted in the world. No kid like that should be pleading anyone for anything other than candied apples and a day off school before they skipped it anyway. Wukong forgot he was holding onto his cup as when clenched his hand, splintering the thing into two dozen pieces.

"Get up." He looked away.

Chen Xiang shook his head. "I need to be your dis…" He paused, looking earnestly up. "Let me be your disciple. Please, Master—"

"I said get up!" Wukong snapped, turning abruptly and physically pulling him to his feet.

Chen Xiang flinched, sobering in Wukong's hold as Wukong balanced him to stay upright. Chen Xiang watched anger flash over Wukong's contorting face, lighting his eyes in a startlingly animal look. Wukong's mouth quivered, his teeth gritted together. "I am not taking any disciples. Nor will I in the future. Nor will I in the future's future. Not in this life. Not the next, if I can so help myself," he said, glaring at Chen Xiang with fire in him. "I'm not teaching some kid how to destroy shit, and I'm not teaching a demigod to rebel against some other gods!"

Then, without thinking, and against his better nature, Wukong pushed Chen Xiang. It wasn't a harsh push, really, but the boy was wasted and fumbling and Wukong pushed him three tables back where he skidded to a stop on his side.

It was dark outside, it was the middle of the night, the 24/7 hour waiter was in the back, and the few candles in the room were blown out not by the force of the push, but by the slight, stark shock of Wukong's anger.

"I can't save your mother," Wukong said. His voice crept through a room filled with silence. "I couldn't even save myself from beneath a mountain. What makes you think I can save someone else?"

Chen Xiang heaved himself into a sitting position, the floorboards creaking twice beneath his palms. He sniffed in the darkness. It was so quiet, Wukong could hear the sound of moths beating around the lanterns outside, the bristle of tallow leaves against the windows, Chen Xiang's tears hitting the floor.

"Sorry, kiddo." Wukong got up to leave. He put some money on the table for Chen Xiang. Then he winced and removed some, so that it only covered the fees and drinks for one night. There was no point trying to give false hope or hospitality. It would only make matters worse. And it could only get worse from here, now that he got the whole story. The faster Chen Xiang's wishes of saving his mother die, the faster he could get on living his life.

"Annoy me again, you're going to say hi to whatever country is a hundred and eight thousand li away."

 

Chapter Text

Two years passed.

"Sun Wukong," a slightly lower version of a familiar voice said. "Prepare to…take me as your first disciple or face the wrath of the Lotus Lantern."

Chen Xiang placed his legs apart, bent to lower his centre of gravity, and shoved the jade-carved lotus flower of a lantern in his face. Wukong squinted, looking over the jade petals of the lantern. Frowning profusely, he poked it to the side with one finger. It tumbled out of Chen Xiang's hands, Chen Xiang fumbling after it. Wukong watched Chen Xiang run and pick it up with all the care in the world, huffing as he checked it over and blew off dirt.

The boy clearly could not control something as powerful as the Lotus Lantern. Wukong knew how those kinds of temperamental, two-faced, lollygagging magical artefacts worked — they yielded to nothing and no one unless it pleased them so. One time his Jingou Bang refused to extend for him after he waved it around in a fish market and had them both smelling like three day old salmon for more than three days. Wukong had to make do with fighting with a needle, which mostly consisted of him jabbing enemies at high frequency. It was not his style.

He wondered whether those kinds of things had a soul. Wukong had seen the Lotus Lantern work just once from afar: power that disintegrated dark aura like fire combusting, power that permanently blinded the impure with white eyes, power that embroiled and blanketed the immediate hundred metre vicinity and took apart your master's captors at a molecular level.

Chen Xiang was only half a god and had no capacity to command the Lotus Lantern. It was as useless as a normal lantern. A paper lantern. Except even less than that, since paper lanterns had about six or seven uses in them before they could be dismissed. This Lantern would never light for him. Wukong frowned as he watched Chen Xiang fasten the thing safely to his side.

"How did you find Mount Huaguo," Wukong asked him, words weeding out from between deathly grit teeth.

Chen Xiang clicked his tongue, tapped the Lotus Lantern at his side, and pointed at him. "Not telling. A little birdie told me…"

"Which birdie? 'Imma break its neck."

"That's not what I…" Chen Xiang trailed off. "Never mind." Suddenly, he whacked his right fist into his left palm, giving a strong salute. "Please take me as your—"

"—Not interested."

Wukong spun on his heel and whipped around. He'd have slammed the door in his face had his mountain abode had a front door. Instead, it had a stone sign and hundreds of demon monkeys crowded around them, suspiciously watching their king talk to a stranger. A human stranger. Wukong sauntered away.

"I'll make you interested!" Chen Xiang yelled.

Wukong felt a rush of wind at the back of his neck. He lurched, evading an attack he didn't see. Behind him, a tree had an oval shaped blast hole in it. He looked to Chen Xiang. Chen Xiang, face crossed in the opposite kind of look he'd expected, was struggling to cover his gawping mouth as his fingers sparked with unspent energy.

Wukong's eyes narrowed. This boy was something. Able to channel celestial aura despite not having all his inner pathways open, able to take aim, well, sort of, and charge with the magic in him. But it was crass and unrefined, stray sparks fluttering everywhere and losing momentum before it hit a lazy target. The smell of smoke caught Wukong's attention and, with a quick swipe of his hand, invisible to the naked eye, he put out a patch of fire with a gust of wind.

"I…" Chen Xiang stammered, reaching out dumbly. "I didn't mean to…didn't expect—I wasn't trying to hurt…"

To hurt him? Wukong burst out chuckling and Chen Xiang snagged backwards as if he'd been the one on the receiving end of a sneak attack.

The magic in him was brewing with no end in sight. The magic in him would bubble and grow and if he went on at this rate, there was no way to keep it down. A halfbreed demigod could live a normal life as a human, could choose to put aside the magic. Even subconsciously, Wukong realised, Chen Xiang was really trying his patience.

"Kiddo," Wukong said, after a long time of laughing and scratching behind his neck. "Get the hell off of my mountain."

"No."

Wukong lifted a brow. "No?"

Chen Xiang shook his head. "I'll get off your mountain once I'm closer to saving my mother."

Wukong scoffed. "That your answer?"

"Yes."

"Final answer?"

"Yes, Master."

The skin under his hair spasmed. Wukong pointed his thumb backwards as he turned again. "Ladies and Gentle-monkeys. Girls and runts. Get'm the hell off our mountain."

"What—"

Wukong didn't hear the rest. Chen Xiang's cries were mixed in with a flagrant disarray of monkey chirps and screeches and slurred-words in between, as Chen Xiang was jumped by some fifty demon monkeys. They pulled his limbs, pulled his hair, and then merrily carried him all the way out. Wukong nodded in satisfaction as one of his sentries gave him a thumbs up. He gave a thumbs up back.

"Keep an eye on that one for me, yeah?"

"Understood, King!"


Someone was yelling at the foot of his mountain. It sounded vaguely like, "Sun Wukong! If you don't take me as your disciple, then I'm not going to leave this spot, if it kills me!"


"King…"

"What is it?" Wukong muttered, sitting on a stone throne adorned with tiger skin, two fingers mushed into his cheek as he leaned on his elbow.

"He's…still there…" the sentry said timidly.

"It's been two months."

"He…hasn't moved."

Wukong got off his arse, his back clicking into three places as he took a lengthy sigh.

"Should we…continue to ignore him?"

"Keep ignoring him," Wukong agreed, stalking away.


Wukong peered into the distance. Chen Xiang, back straight, clothes ruffled and turned upon him, was knelt on ground before Mount Huaguo. Wukong chewed on a piece of grass, just watching. One day became two days, and two days became a few weeks, and a few weeks became months. He sat on a flat slab of rock under a minor veil of magic, just eating one peach after the other and spitting pits in a perfectly circular pyramid. He hated this.

Chen Xiang knelt there like he was made of stone, with unmovable resolve and unbending force. But Wukong knew, intently, that stone, too, would erode. Stone weathered and chipped and chiseled, cracked and broke and shattered with enough time and enough force. Time moved at a snail's pace for those who wait. Wukong knew that all too well. Chen Xiang knelt there like he was heaven-sent (Hah!), like he couldn't count all the million million bad odds and millions more bad omens (for he himself, was a bad omen indeed). Years spent crossing the country and doubling back on demon's paths and stranger's good words, a childhood going a hundred miles in fraying shoes and then bare feet and six pence, it culminated in this. A wait all for nothing.

Wukong spat the blade of grass out as he scoffed. Startled, Chen Xiang whirled around. He rubbed his eyes but saw nothing.


"My King?" one of the monkeys started.

"Uh-huh?" Wukong finished clearing a recent landslide off the side of Mount Huaguo, flicking his staff and ridding it of dirt. He leaned it snugly into his shoulder, giving his subject full attention.

"Should we not ask the human to leave?" she said, standing up and pushing herself higher on her tail. "It's been almost a year."

Wukong made a face, the side of brow twitching. He sighed and swung the Ruyi Jingou staff to one side. By the time the stroke finished, the staff had disappeared into his hand. All that was left was a red and gold-tipped needle. Wukong sat himself down right on the spot beside her.

"I don't make empty threats. If he's annoying youse I'll kick him to gods know where."

"No, King," the monkey piped up, shaking her head, "The human does nothing."

"Figured."

"But this distresses the King, does it not?"

Wukong violently scratched his cheek. She got back up on her hind legs again, and she was taller than Wukong when he was sitting down.

"We will dispose of this ordeal at your command, King."

Wukong shook his head. "Can't force him away. If I force him away, I lose," he said sourly. "He's a fool of a human kid that wasn't making empty statements either. He'll come crawling back the second he heals his broken legs. Which would be fast, taking into account he's Erlang Shen's nephew."

The monkey nodded faintly, cocking her head to one side.

"No, the only way is to stake this out. We — I don't force him. The kid has to give up." Wukong patted her twice on the shoulder. "Keep doing what you're doing. The silent treatment. He has to lose heart or he won't stop trying," Wukong said viciously. "He won't go home to the mainland unless he chooses to."

"Yes, King."


It was the first summer: Chen Xiang yawned, back faced to him, looking into the sky and baring his neck to it like he was unafraid. The sun seemed to shine down twofold until Wukong could see heat waves gathering, Chen Xiang cooking in the brunt of it as he sweated and huffed and slumped like the flowers wilting beside him. Wukong sighed, pressed a tired finger to his brow before his eyes twitched, watching the boy sway and lean and—

Chen Xiang went splat into the ground, a dust cloud rising a few inches high in his wake. Wukong's sentries jumped on him, monkey tails flickering left-right as one tugged on his collar, another nudging his leg.

"Don't just poke him!" Wukong leaped there in a instant, startling the monkeys. "Get me some water!" he chided. Wukong crouched, rolled him over and helped him up by his back.

"Chen Xiang," he said tryingly. "…Chen Xiang?"

The boy hadn't eaten in a long time. He was running entirely on subconscious magic and demigod tomfoolery, Wukong had guessed quite a while ago. Gods, though they chose to eat and drink and shit, didn't need sustenance the way humans did. It must have been why the boy had survived such a long trek around the country, chasing after Wukong's shadow. He was sapped completely dry.

Wukong sat him up, used a freezing technique to keep him still. Wukong sat behind him. Slowly, he breathed in and out, moulding his aura, thinning it out into something transferrable and light enough for a human body to hold without bursting. Pointing an index finger and holding it much like a modern day handgun, he pressed into Chen Xiang's back. With a quick, deft force of energy, he shot two bolts of aura into Chen Xiang.

Wukong then jumped over him and ducked down to eye at him entirely too close. If this boy happened to be allergic to demon's aura there would be problems. It seemed alright so far. He backed away.

"King!" The first sentry reappeared struggling to carry half a gallon of water. "As you asked!"

"All my thanks," Wukong said, lifting the weight from him. Wukong unfroze Chen Xiang, lied him down, and then splashed water over his face. "Now c'mon, let's gap it!"


It was the second autumn: yellowing leaves swirled around Chen Xiang, piling up on his side like moths at a light. Rain beat down, showering the mountainside and turning the world grey. Back in position and still as a statue, puddles had started to form in the indents under his knees. Rain dripped off his nose and chin and clothes unbidden, rain trailed down his face in too-many-rows and too-fast to be like tears, but it seemed just as solemn, just as morose. Wukong had just returned from the Celestial Realm when he realised it had been raining for many days below on earth. He stood quietly next to as Chen Xiang as he concentrated, holding a paper umbrella with a leak he'd badly patched with a leaf. Chen Xiang hadn't moved for a long time and clearly wasn't paying attention. He didn't think he had been into it for days. 

Suddenly, Chen Xiang jerked, water flying in every direction like a startled wet dog. Wukong, very startled, dashed behind a tree and threw the umbrella somewhere where he'd never seen it again. Chen Xiang sneezed. Immediately after, he half-spun around to glare at the bushes. "Hel-hello?"

Wukong slumped against the backside of the tree.

Chen Xiang frowned, sniffing again. "Great. Now I'm talking to myself."

Chen Xiang brushed back his hair, curling it in his fists and wringing some water from it like pouring from a full cup. "I'm taking to my damned self," he echoed, holding back another sneeze.


It was the third winter: the days became short and the nights became long, the dawns became cold and the eves were laced in white. Snowfall fell in a blitzes, blanketing all and glazing the ground in black ice. In the midst of a blizzard, Wukong was wrapped up in tiger skin and bull hides and cashmere. With a start, Wukong split his red wine all over his front. "Oh shit!" He squeezed his eyes painfully shut. "That kid's still outside the mountain."

When he jumped outside, looking around and on the verge of celebrating the boy's departure, his heart jolted against his ribcage like he'd been struck by lightning. Chen Xiang's lone figure was still on the ground, his back haunched and his head bowed. If it weren't for the mop of black hair in the sea of white, Wukong would not have noticed him. He breathed slowly, a soft wisp of mist furling up like a dying stick of incense. Wukong ambled closer to him, sure that he was asleep, or something.

Chen Xiang's knees had frozen to the ground, ice slate all around him. Wukong winced. His eyes darted left, right, thinking about what to do. Suddenly, he straightened up, pulling out his Jingou Staff. With a nod of his head, he breathed in crisp air and then breathed out fire. Aiming it at the staff, Wukong settled on shattering the ice with his weapon on fire. That way, the ice goes away and the boy wasn't in any danger of getting burnt.

Then, Wukong dragged the Jingou Bang around him, casting a circle of magic. The same sort he'd used before on the Journey, but altered to curtail nature, even if only as much as he was capable. 

When Chen Xiang woke, the ice had been kept at bay in a perfect circle. He didn't think anything of it.


It was the last spring: Wukong hated this because he didn't want to acknowledge, didn't want to admit that that was him, back in his faraway youth, knelt on the floor and ready to ask, to demand, to fight in any way he could, even if it meant to beg and persist:

A young monkey, soaked to the bone, was knelt before the great stone steps on the towering domain of the great Taoist deity, just waiting, just hoping to be let in; he'd taken too many leaps of faith to get here, and there was no such thing as turning back, and he had a choice. Summer and he braved through heatstroke, Autumn and he was never once dry, Winter and he was buried deep in snow, Spring and the great doors opened for him.

This was deja vu and incredulity, this was a blast from the past and so distant a memory he'd gotten whiplash when remembering. A little known fact of history: before he was great or a sage or anything, he was a fledging searching for guidance too. This was him waiting and demanding with no right and no cause for his teacher, Master Puti and gods — how it discombobulated him, how it flabbergasted Wukong that he was now on the other end of that picture.

It was Springtime and daylight when Wukong leapt to the other side of Huaguo Shan and, red staff in one hand, decree to leave him alone echoed through the place, he promptly destroyed the woods. It was then that he realised, only then, that he had been played. That Sun Wukong had unabashedly, unadulteratedly, unmitigatedly walked into this simple trap the very same way he'd walked into Buddha's palm.

"…Jade…

"EMPEROR!" Wukong yelled at the sky, downing another hundred year old tree.

Because Wukong had won the match and then lost the real game. Jade Emperor had planned all along to tie Wukong down with words he knew Wukong could not refuse. A chat over wine and a chessboard of 'go' and Wukong had been so blind.

"Yang Jian's nephew indeed," the Emperor said above his cup. He sipped slowly, his words hanging dense and thick in the air between them.

The Emperor had appealed to his vanity, and then appealed to his grudge match with Erlang Shen, and the funny thing was, Wukong knew it. The Emperor may play laughing stock for losing that day, but he knew that arrogant, posturing Sun Wukong could not, for the damned immortal life of him, resist a bet.

"You're on."

So here was the godly verdict: a Liu Chen Xiang that hid away and lived and died forgotten was only proper conduct. A Liu Chen Xiang with magic was a threat to Heavenly Supremacy. Who knew. For they were not dealing with a simple mountain squatter, an expert evader of Celestial soldiers, they were dealing with euphemisms - trouble looker, dirty blood, petulant child - an avenger. For when Chen Xiang asked Wukong for magic and power, what he meant was that he wanted justice. 

Wukong was still not going to humour Chen Xiang, that was against his code. But the knowledge that Wukong had been played and played like an erhu fiddle was enough to drive him to fury. The knowledge of knowing he'd been tricked into binding contract weeded into his mind like a nail.


In the middle of the night, he landed in front of the boy and startled him awake. Chen Xiang gasped as Wukong sat down and crossed his legs. "Chen Xiang, if I remember correctly?" he said lightly.

Chen Xiang pouted. There was a flare of anger on his face before he blanked it near expertly. "Yes, yes that's what they call me. That's what Mum called me before she—"

"Tch, tch, tch…" Wukong flicked his hand, cutting him off flippantly. "Look, kid," he began, saying something he'd already said too many times, "I'm not taking disciples."

Chen Xiang blinked. "I'm untrained. Not deaf," he bit back immediately, and his expression looked as if he immediately regretted it. Though Wukong had the distinct impression that he couldn't play suck up if his life depended on it. "You don't need to take 'disciples,' Master. Just 'a disciple.' No plural. Just one."

Wukong shoved his irrational anger down into a ball below his stomach. "Now you listen here, you stupid, hairless ape," he said straight-faced and completely unironically, "this, is what they call a threat."

"Who?"

"Everybody who said 'who' before they joined that categorisation."

"Um…"

"I, Sun Wukong, am not, will not, most certainly not—"

"Take a disciple. Yeah, yeah, yeah." Chen Xiang rolled his eyes.

"You're wasting your time," Wukong remarked.

"You're wasting yours," Chen Xiang bit back. "I need your help, Master."

"Shut it."

"Shutting it isn't going to stop me from needing your help, Master."

"The number of tongues I've ripped out is about to go up and you're not helping the odds."

"How about the odds of you getting over yourself and helping me?"

"How about you show me some damned respect."

"I'm literally on my knees."

"Be on your knees on someone else's mountain."

"Can't. My heart's set."

"This is going nowhere."

"Could be going somewhere if you'd just take me as your—"

"You — quiet!" Wukong brushed his hair backwards, slouching into a haunched position that was lower than Chen Xiang on his knees.

Chen Xiang quietened. Wukong took two breaths to calm himself. "You — I — you…Gods! Where the heck was I?"

"Threat," Chen Xiang reminded him.

"Right, threat." Wukong pointed his index finger at him, making Chen Xiang go crossed eyed frowning at it. "Leave. Or die here. I don't care which you choose. Decide in your own time, yeah?"

Chen Xiang balked, his lips going thin, his eyes flickering ever so slightly. Then he smiled a very particular smile, one that didn't go further than his mouth. It made him look absent, in that moment, like he was not all there. 

"Are you going to kill me?"

Wukong's chest heaved. It took effort for Wukong to remain straight-faced. "That's below my ego."

"Then why are you here?"

"Doing charity."

"How so?"

"Trying to save your idiot life."

"By threatening my idiot life?"

Wukong leaned in close, his face contorted in a taut, grim frown at Chen Xiang's blank sheet of one. He'd contradicted himself at least twice in the last minute (did he care if he died? did he not?) and took two slow breathes to un-seethe himself. Chen Xiang blinked. Wukong pulled back, physically restraining himself from face-palming and instead opted to sigh. He sighed for six seconds straight.

"I don't care about my birthright," Chen Xiang murmured. He was looking away from Wukong now. "I don't care about the power or the magic. I really don't." After charging at him head on and holding a stark, unflinching stare for so long, it bothered Wukong that he was looking to the floor. "I only found out what I was when they took her, you see. She'd wanted me to just be human." Chen Xiang took a shaky huff. "It would have been more than enough for me. But I'm doing what I'm doing for her."

"You're deluded, kid."

"Are you that cold?" Chen Xiang swallowed. "She's my mother."

"Can't say I relate, Kiddo."

"Look, that's the only reason. If I can just get her out," Chen Xiang paused, squeezing the corner of his eye to clear his sight, "I swear — I swear that once she's safe, I will never, ever use a dram of anything you teach me." Chen Xiang sucked in air. "I'll incapacitate myself. Give up every last bit of magic. You can have it back! I'll give it all back to you!"

Wukong shook his head twitchily, laughing in a high pitched frenzy that operated more on the level of a coughing fit. He tapped his fingers on his knees, rocked back and forth, body full of jittery energy that he couldn't get out.

"All I want is to fix my family."

Wukong stopped him abruptly. "Not. My problem."

Chen Xiang didn't move.

"You really think it's that cut and dry? No goddess gets a slap on the wrist for some minor offence. Heaven doesn't just down mountains on celestials willy nilly. Your mother is a criminal," Wukong said soberly. "She did something wrong, and then she discovered consequences."

Chen Xiang's hands balled into fists. "Shut it."

"I would know. I've been there, done that."

"Shut up."

Wukong stood up, stretched out his arms, and then bobbed down again. "Sit tight. Because I will tell you two truths. One of which you will set into motion. One: you get the hell off of my lawn and run back to where the people are. Or two: you stay and keep begging for something you're never going to get." Wukong scratched the dip of his chin, scoffing. "Go ahead, stay and wait. Wait until you grow old and die. But let this Old Sun tell you — if you die on my mountain, I won't bother to clean up the body."

A silence came between them, lurid and cold. That far-away, distant look set back on Chen Xiang. "Why?" Chen Xiang said, and there was a note of uncertainty that shook Wukong. "…Why?" There was no more rope for Chen Xiang to hold onto, nothing left to cling on with his teeth.

Wukong knew this was the best chance he'd get.

"Take your pick," Wukong said, jerking his neck to one side and letting the crack reverberate. "I like hoarding my magic. I hate your Uncle. I like not being chased by Heavenly disappointments. I despise children. I hate nagging. I won't get caught dead coaching a human runt. Heck, I'm a celestial being," he added wryly. "Maybe because I'm just like them."

Chen Xiang's fists were shaking, his shadowed face as blank as ever.

"Maybe because I'm repulsed by the offspring of a human and a goddess," Wukong sneered. "Liu Chen Xiang, you don't have a birthright." Making those words come out of his mouth gave him more of a rush than administering a killing blow.

It was completely ludicrous that he was suddenly reminded of him trying to convince someone else of his innocence, swearing upon it, begging for it — what he had quietly and nonchalantly considered as one of the worst chapters of his life alongside his expulsion from his first teacher, his punishments in Heaven, him under the mountain, watching Huaguo Shan burn…And now he was trying just as hard to convince the boy of how wrong and horrible and irredeemable he was. Somehow, it made him feel worse than that.

Wukong snickered, scratching himself in the neck until he bled under the hair. "Go back and live as your human."


He'd lied and lied before, a trickster god with no sense of abashment; he spoke white words and pretty fibs with a smile on his lips. Wukong had never before felt so dirty for telling a lie though the skin of his teeth and hair on his face. To insult and spit and slander was supposed to be in his nature, but if this was how shame felt, he shouldn't be so sure. (Remember shame, Wukong? He knew how that felt.) An utter, debilitating sickness that made him claw at his face and bury it in his hands and wish he could take it back. If there was one thing Sun Wukong knew, it was that you could not take back something you've already done.

There was an extremely thin line where hoping for the best and not giving up became block-headed foolishness. Wukong didn't know where the differentiating point was.

The boy, bless his stupid, unrelenting idiocy, remained in place.


It was a tricky subject.

He set his resolve and decided it was better this way, that the Emperor should have his way. If the Victorious Buddha took him in, if the Great Sage Equal to Heaven took a student, if he so much as shook the boy's hand, he would be dooming Chen Xiang a fugitive. Walking and walking all his young life — how would the boy fare while running, this time?

Heaven had denounced him, Hell was ready to take him by the hair. This boy would break.

This boy was too persistent, if he took no for an answer, no no no — he would find another way. But he had chosen Sun Wukong for a reason, Chen Xiang had looked to him because what he wanted was something Sun Wukong had done before.

For Chen Xiang to live was disrespect Heaven. For Chen Xiang to fight was to challenge it. And it was a last resort — to go wandering the only realm he knew out of three for some folklore demon best known by his Chang'an opera mask, because when he set off, searching for infamy was only logical for a child. 'Another way' was not the same as Sun Wukong, who had fought and fought his way to myth and true immortality, undying and ineffable life after non-existence in household story, who had dared where no one else had dared.

(And Sun Wukong spent years of his life amongst humans, years of his life walking the earth, humbled and changed. For Sun Wukong was born on earth, a son of the Mortal Realm. The gods did not care. With him, there was a chance. Without him, without him…who would be the 'somebody else?' that would come along?)

But Wukong had long made up his mind. Chen Xiang, the lost boy, could scream and cry and howl, he could beg and plead and grovel and curse — and Wukong would watch with a smile on his face, then pack up his three worldly possessions (the clothes on his back, the lotus lantern, a red ribbon hair tie) and send him back to where he came from. He could keep this peace and harmony if he never saw his wide-eyed baby face again.


He met Erlang Shen down a narrow palace hallway in heaven.

Wukong had made his way up to the floating palace above, someone that belonged to this world on paper and title but not really, it seemed, in practice. He had history with dear, old Erlang Shen.

Erlang Shen who always walked so stoically with his head-up, chin straight and eyes plastered forward on a target, silver armour clinking together with every step, like it was a military manoeuvre to breath. It wasn't arrogance. Erlang Shen was never outwardly pompous or haughty. But that, Wukong decided, made him blithe. In that he was perfect and proper and absolutely indifferent to the rest of the world; that he did not think himself above anyone else, just didn't care altogether. Nothing mattered to Erlang Shen except orders.

Erlang Shen came down the hall like an incoming tide. He was due to report back to the Emperor's court. Wukong popped a knuckle, looking up from staring down at the cloudless sky below. They skimmed eyes, gold orbs meeting inky blacks. Erlang Shen didn't smile. Wukong didn't think he knew how to. Would it kill the god, to smile once in a few blue moons? The notion sounded less and less preposterous to him every time. 

"Victorious Buddha," he greeted.

"Loyal dog." Wukong tipped his head to him.

Erlang Shen stopped. The twelve men behind him froze but stopped too close. Wukong's eyes flickered down to the soft growl at his side. The literal loyal dog, Erlang Shen's pure black, pointy-eared, lean muscled and leg-biting bastard of a Howling Skydog, circled him. Xiao Tian Quan growled softly as his side, teeth bared but just barely.

"Xiao Tian," Erlang Shen commanded. The mutt looked something like a cross between a great dane and a doberman — he didn't know what the man fed the dog with, that towering thing — he silenced and slunk back to Erlang Shen's side. Erlang Shen patted him gingerly behind his ears.

Wukong glared at the dog. "Tch. Yang Jian, control your dog."

"I control my dog just fine. Much better than how you controlled your horses."

Wukong's nose crinkled, giving him a predatory look. Because he had an fine eye for the trivial, his days as a heavenly stableboy would remain a sore subject. Wukong was about to retort when Erlang Shen spoke again.

"Surprisingly, I didn't stop to chat," he stated flatly.

Wukong lifted a sardonic brow. "Unsurprisingly, I'm devastated."

Erlang Shen looked away, fixing his eyes on the distance where he'd seen Wukong watch before. "There's a renegade on the run. A boy."

Wukong already knew what he was going to say, but it hit him all the same like an airship to the stomach, a carriage wheeling through and flattening the sense of calm in his wake. He felt an unadulterated pang of disgust roll through him. Everything that Erlang Shen did and said was disgusting. It was as if Wukong had, suddenly, remembered that. Now he was intent on not forgetting it.

"Liu Chen Xiang," Erlang Shen said. "Heard of him?"

"Doesn't ring a bell," Wukong sang, sticking a finger in his ear and turning it like a screw. He gave him a short, sweet grin, one laden with sugar that he'd always reserved for dear Erlang Shen. Nothing about it was warm.

Erlang Shen nodded. "Then farewell. 告辞."

They went their very separate ways, Wukong turning after five steps to stare at his back with dark eyes. Erlang Shen marched down the corridor with his twelve best soldiers following him in two neat, perfect lines. Wukong's chest felt heavy, as if a great weight had pressed into lungs and was now slowly suffocating him from the inside out. He turned around and cringed at the floor.

Erlang Shen was ready to uphold heavenly law. Erlang Shen did not bat an eye to kill. Erlang Shen was hunting Chen Xiang and Wukong didn't like it. Because this was rigid, commanding Erlang Shen, who shot down the suns and transformed into limitless forms, who stole and pillaged and burned under Heaven's decree. A god that commanded and never compromised. For he was law and order and executioner all the same.


It was silent. He could hear Chen Xiang's irregular breaths, soft, shaky, weak. Beside him, a faint glow blossomed. The Lotus Lantern lit aflame in the rhythm of his sleep, like heartbeat, or a lullaby.

In the middle of the night, he watched over Chen Xiang as he waited for the moonrise, it rising above the mountain and bathing him in pale light, the Lantern pulsing, pulsing. How could Wukong be so helpless? How could he be so powerless to help?


This boy who had everything before he knew anything, and was stripped of a life and family that should be, was taken of that everything before he could understand why — why he was titled: heathen. But Wukong didn't like that, didn't like titles given without them being earned, he bit his tongue until it bled, pressed his nails into his fleshy palm until it marked and closed his eyes tight before convincing himself — he was swallowing pride.

That pride didn't exist.

Or maybe, calling it that — blaming it on pride was pride itself.

It wasn't that Sun Wukong didn't want to teach him. It wasn't that he could hold onto grudges like his golden band held onto him. It wasn't even about Erlang Shen, the bastard. It was that if he closed his eyes and left this alone, Chen Xiang could live and die a human. It would be a best case scenario for him, wouldn't it? To eat two to three square meals a day, go to literature class and sell lantern paper, or farm chickens, or wait tables for a living. It would be a life where he could have normalcy. It would be a life where his mother could be proud of him, what she would have wanted for Chen Xiang. A blissfully unknowing, simple, and magic-less Chen Xiang. He could just live.

But this boy, with iron will and a golden heart, of compassion and power and full of love, this boy with breakable bones and tearable skin, with such a human soul and noble wish — he would have to give up a life of peace, to give up everything once again. He would have to endure so much for what he wanted.

Wukong knew. And, finally, against some better nature and those million million odds, he was willing to give him what he wanted. Sun Wukong: Mount Huaguo's, Water Curtain Cave's Handsome Monkey King, Great Sage Equal to Heaven and Victorious Fighter Buddha, had not the power to turn Liu Chen Xiang away.

And thus, of course, Wukong forwent his petty grudge (words that couldn't be taken back once he'd spit them out) and the damned, holy celestial bet with the Jade Emperor of the three realms, the only way he knew.

 

Chapter Text

A brown hare hopped right into Chen Xiang's face. He spasmed, bobbing out of the way in the last second and feeling its fur graze his neck. The hare stopped to stare. Chen Xiang stopped stare. "…What the heck, man?"

Chen Xiang, now fully alert, heard the twang of a longbow before he saw the weapon launched in his direction. Fingers buzzing, he dodged the arrow right before it flew dangerously close to his shoulder. Chen Xiang dropped, looking affronted. Evading the first arrow had rather been a stroke of luck. There were no promises he could dodge a second. Chen Xiang scanned the area flusteredly, the brown hare lingering at his side.

Footsteps clambered into the clearing and pulled Chen Xiang's attention from the hare.

"Oi! Kid, grab it! Grab that thing!"

Chen Xiang's eyes went wide. A man on the mountain? Did he not know where he was?

"The — hare!" he screeched, fingers pulling down his face.

Chen Xiang grabbed the hare by the ears and, after watching it awkwardly hang for a moment, clasped it to his chest.

"Oof. Good reflexes," the man huffed, leaning his hands on his knees as he calmed his breath. "Thanks."

"You're, uh, welcome," Chen Xiang blinked. He took in the man's image. A short, stout guy with long black hair and a short beard. There was a longbow and arrows on his back. "You're a hunter."

"Yeah. Yeah I am," he huffed, looking down. "Laodao of the silk road."

Chen Xiang's lips wobbled with anger. "You almost shot me! You almost shot the hare as well!"

"I almost shot— what?" The hunter straightened, seeing the arrow right next to Chen Xiang. "…Let me just confirm that that arrow was for him," he pointed to the hare, "and not for you," he pointed to Chen Xiang.

Chen Xiang held the hare closer. "Well neither of us want it, thank you."

Laodao pursed his lips. "Well. I, er." He scratched behind his head, long hair flying everywhere. "Sorry about the close call. Wasn't my intention, kiddo."

Chen Xiang frowned, sighed, and the slumped. "Yeah, I know. I'm fine. Don't go too near to the foot of the mountain, and stay away from the waterfall. For your own good."

He pet the hare. Laodao hadn't moved where Chen Xiang had expected him to pick up the arrow and leave. The hunter pointed to the Chen Xiang and Chen Xiang jolted. "I still have to get what I came for," he said gruffly.

Confused, Chen Xiang's eyes darted left and right, habitually trying to find help where there clearly wasn't going to be any. He was totally alone. He had been for years. "I don't even know you," Chen Xiang bit back. "And I don't have money."

"Tch." Laodao scoffed. He eyed Chen Xiang's moss eaten sleeves and frayed hems. "Evidently." He pointed to Chen Xiang again, his look going sinister. "I meant the prey, not you, you dummy."

That made much more sense. What didn't make any sort of sense was Chen Xiang holding the hare tighter, turning him away from the hunter. "Sorry. He's not for sale."

Laodao's smirk evaporated. "This ain't a market."

"Finder's keepers, losers weepers."

"A target's a target, he who sees it first gets it."

"Liar liar, pants on fire," Chen Xiang sneered.

The hunter faltered, a misty look on his face. He seemed to be at a loss for words. "What in tarnation are you insinuating? I saw the thing first!"

"How do you know the hare you were chasing was this hare?" Chen Xiang said. He lifted the hare to his face, regarding it with an exaggerated look. He wasn't about to get shot for nothing. The least he could do was cause inconvenience. The hare nibbled his finger and Chen Xiang smiled stupidly. "There are hundreds of hares around here, I bet. Get your own."

"Look. Are you going to give me the hare or not?"

"Not."

Laodao's brows flew up. Chen Xiang braced himself to be hit.

"Fine!" Laodao said suddenly, and reared his head. He stepped backwards two paces and began shedding a layer of clothes.

Chen Xiang made a face. "…What are you doing?"

"You and me. Right here, right now. Let's go."

"Go…where?" Chen Xiang shrugged.

Laodao set down his bow and arrow and brushed his long hair to one side, gesturing to Chen Xiang. "We do this like men, then. A fight for the prize."

Chen Xiang balked. "I'm seventeen."

"Man enough. Get up."

Laodao motioned him to rise and ready himself for a fist fight. This was incredible. Years spent alone in the woods surrounded by monkeys half the time, and a random hunter was challenging him to a duel at the end of it.

Chen Xiang, in addition, didn't feel like getting pummelled by a lean, mean, seasoned, forty year old hunter. (Well, perhaps not seasoned, considering how close Chen Xiang was to getting skewered to his death and righting Heaven's rule with it.)

"I can't."

"Get up," Laodao said, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet. He bounded left and right, practicing the blows that would pound in Chen Xiang's face. "A fair fight, that's what I want."

"I can't," Chen Xiang said, voice hoarse.

Laodao stopped, flinching.

Chen Xiang's knees creaked from under him. Every part of his body hurt from staying in this position for so long and it was starting to get painful even when he wasn't moving. It was as if his legs had merged as part of the earth, having dug roots into its mantle and cemented him there. He remembered spending an entire winter unable to feel them. Everywhere ached.

"I can't…get up," Chen Xiang said. "I've been like this for at least two years. I can't move."

A flash of something went through Laodao's demeanour. Chen Xiang looked away, annoyance flooding his insides with a sinking feeling. He didn't want the likes of Laodao to feel sorry for him. Chen Xiang grit his teeth together. It didn't occur to him then that a hunter had just accepted finding someone kneeling in the wild and there were no questions asked.

A shadow was cast over his body and Chen Xiang snapped back up. Laodao was holding out a hand to him. " 'Ere. Hold on."

Chen Xiang lingered a moment. The prospect of someone wanting to help overshadowed the fact that this was all for a duel over a mountain hare. He wasn't thinking. Chen Xiang clasped the hunter's hand. The effect was immediate and jarring. Chen Xiang felt his entire body heat up and the numbness recede like a tide going out. A wave of something else came over him, and he felt as though hard rock was getting melted into magma in him. And he didn't for one second doubt that this Laodao was a hunter as he slowly pulled him up, his rough and calloused hands — a fighter's hands — grazing his own.

It was like refusing a magnetic field, getting up, and Laodao was a polar force. Chen Xiang stood, his bones creaking like an old man's. He wobbled a little, finally getting upright, and the sudden sensation that he could move his muscles without stiffness sent a smile across his face. "Gods, I thought I'd have to stay like that forever."

"Pffft," Laodao chuckled, flicking his hand to his face as if there was an itch he wasn't allowed to scratch. "The gods don't care about what you do in your own time. The gods, however, will care if I can't reach my quota for the market."

Just like that, Laodao heaved back and launched a fist at Chen Xiang. Chen Xiang reacted a moment to late; the fist connected with his side as he moved to turn.

"Hnn!"

"Ding, ding, kiddo, the duel's begun."

Laodao went in for a second strike. Chen Xiang was ready this time, leaping to one side and getting clear. "Hey! Wait! I don't even want to—"

"Look out!"

Laodao jumped towards him, throwing out right and left hooks with precise juts of power. Chen Xiang was chunky and unrefined in his movements as he lurched and jerked away. "Ugh! I never even agreed to this!"

Chen Xiang banked left and, catching Laodao's left hand, he punched him in the nose.

"—AH!"

Chen Xiang wobbled backwards. Laodao's left hand remained extended in the midst of trying to knock him out. Slowly, he turned his head back down, his nose just a tinge redder than before. "Kiddo. You're going to have to hit harder than that."

Chen Xiang, unbeknownst to Laodao, was a halfbreed. His knuckles were already shaking from rush and adrenaline after the attack. Chen Xiang closed it back into a fist and shook himself. If he hadn't managed to quell himself in the last moment, if he'd used his real strength — Laodao would be dead.

"You're too scared, kid," he said, jumping back up on the balls of his feet. "Don't be. I spend my time hunting beasts. A kid can't hurt me." Laodao was doing all of this for a hare less than the size of his forearm. Laodao swung at him again.

Chen Xiang smirked, dropping to the ground and swiping his feet to get him off balance. Laodao jumped, evading the move and then pressed Chen Xiang's face into the dirt to his surprise. "Tch!" Laodao sauntered towards where the hare had somehow remained, Chen Xiang trying to catch his breath again.

"Looks like the prize is mine!"

"AAAHHHH—"

Chen Xiang rocketed himself onto Laodao, actually managing to take him by surprise. They went down wrestling.

Chen Xiang never noticed the hare disappearing and a strand of brown hair in its place instead. Nor did he account for the bow and arrow that had faded into nothing like water evaporating on a hot day.


When Chen Xiang actually got around and had the place mapped in his head, he happened across a random monk at a lakeside. The monk was only a child. There were no adults around. The child looked about eight or nine years old. The child was skipping stones across the water surface, making it go 'plip, plip, plip,' as it sailed across.

The monk child raised an arm, about to throw another before he spotted Chen Xiang. He smirked at him, and, without refacing the lake, he flickered his wrist and sent the stone across it with ease. The kid didn't even look back to confirm his success, just smirked. "Jealous?"

Chen Xiang pointed at himself. "A little," he said, humouring him and giving him an impressed look. "…What the heck are you doing?"

"Skipping rocks. Duh."

Chen Xiang went forward, eyeing him carefully. If there were malevolent demons on Mount Huaguo, the monkey would have gotten rid of them. The child looked convincingly like a child, lowering Chen Xiang's guard. "…Where are your parents?"

The kid glanced back nervously and skipped another stone across the lake. "Village." It went at double speed and broke into two at the other side.

Chen Xiang's mouth dropped open. "…How are you doing that?"

"This?" The kid did it again.

"Or this?" The kid did it again at double the speed. He turned his nose up, his smirk growing pointed. If only Chen Xiang could have that kind of pride in skipping stones.

The monk kid tipped his head towards him. "Wanna play?"

Chen Xiang picked up a stone, gave it an unsure squeeze, and threw on its side into the water. It jumped up twice before losing speed. It submerged into the water.

"Ba—hahahha!" The kid leaned back and giggled. Chen Xiang sat down and smiled lopsidedly as he watched him laugh. Suddenly, the kid jumped towards him. "Here!" Pushing a smooth stone into his palm, the kid grasped his arms and pulled him up. By the grace of the genetic lottery pool, Chen Xiang had always been stronger than the average person. For the moment, it slipped him that monk kids couldn't usually take his weight and pull him up like it was nothing. Chen Xiang followed as the kid lead him to the water's edge.

"Like this," the monk smirked again, that same smug, knowing smirk. He skipped it across the lake slower this time, but enough to make the entire length. He beamed up at Chen Xiang expectantly.

"…Yeah, you're just going to laugh at me again."

"Probably."

Chen Xiang closed his eyes, turning the stone around with his fingers. Without knowing it, he'd summoned power to his hands and the stone began to smoke. Pulling back, he threw it into the water where it proceeded to do the exact same thing as last time, but harder. It bounced harder, went harder, sunk harder.

"Ahhh—hahahhhahahah!"

Chen Xiang threw another two to their demise, looking back to more of the monk's laughter. It was getting irritating but Chen Xiang wasn't about to antagonise a child. On the fifteenth try, he sighed and rolled his eyes at the monk as he held in laughter. "I'm holding it right, aren't I?"

"Y-yeah!"

"I'm throwing it with all I've got but it's not working."

"Yeep!"

"Guess I'm just not cut out for rock-throwing, then," Chen Xiang said, chuckling himself. He threw another one before the young monk stepped in again.

"You're holding it right, you're throwing it right, but you're not getting it right," he said pompously, as if that were any help. Chen Xiang lifted a brow at him.

"Use some strength," he said wth a gleam.

"…I have been."

"No, no you haven't."

Chen Xiang stared at the new stone in his hand, thumbing it.

"You're trying, but it's not enough," the monk said suddenly, and Chen Xiang looked down at him. The monk leaned on one leg and stroked his chin. "Errr…you gotta use strength, but you're not trying to use it as raw power. You're not trying to make a more powerful throw. You should be trying to use it to cushion it."

Chen Xiang had no idea there were such gratuitous rules for stone skipping. He wanted so badly to quit already, but he didn't want to let down the monk either. Not after he'd put so much effort into him. "Cushion it?"

"To guide it. And make it more accurate. You've got to use your strength, but not in a physical manner. Get it?" the young monk said, quirking up.

Chen Xiang nodded. He did not get it. When the monk looked away, he looked inwards and reached inside himself, moulding and changing his aura. Aura was the base of magic, and it worked pretty much like manipulating bodily chi, 内功, in martial artists. Fighting with Laodao had helped him strengthen him outwardly, but he didn't touch his aura if he could help it. It was unpredictable and often dangerous. His magic wasn't disciplined and that made him dangerous. Laodao had been close to losing his nose.

Chen Xiang breathed in, letting it flow in and out with his breaths. Slowly, he forced power to his hand, infusing it with the stone. Chen Xiang skipped it across the lake. It went about halfway until it slowed and sunk. He was sure he cheated. But the monk was ecstatic.

"Haaah! Hahahah you're a fast learner!" He threw another stone with more control and finesse than Chen Xiang could ever hope to achieve. "Try this! Match mine!"

"Yeah, that was a lucky fluke." Chen Xiang scratched his head, shrugging coyly at the child.

"Doesn't have to be. It's like chi in martial artists. You've got to let it flow and pool at your hand. It's not the rock that needs the brunt of it, though, it's your hand." The monk raised his hand, took two steps back, and made another perfect throw. This time, the rock danced across the surface and landed square on top of the stone he'd sent across just before. Chen Xiang's mouth dropped open again.

"Bullshit." Chen Xiang said before he could stop himself. He flinched and put the back of his hand to his mouth before puling it down and pretending nothing had happened.

The young monk smirked again. "Hah! Throw a couple more times and it'll be easy. As easy and natural as breathing."

Chen Xiang perked up at that. "Tccch. Like this?"

Aura began to move and glide within him, meshing into a ragged heap at the centre as he tried to summon more power. Chen Xiang closed one eye, leaned back, and flickered the stone into the water. It made it just a bit more over the halfway mark. It sizzled on the water on impact and Chen Xiang balked at that. He hoped the monk wouldn't notice. He didn't.

"C'mon," he said, biting his lip, "let's have a competition. Loser has to go collect all the stones that make it."

Chen Xiang scoffed, readying himself. "Pffft. Are there not enough stones for you on this side of the lake?"

"Not when I'm done with you."


Chen Xiang ached all over. There were bruises on his knuckles and red marks everywhere else. It was a different kind of aching from before: keen, stark and throbbing. With his powers, it should go away in a matter of hours. The dirty tricks he'd picked up from the hunter, Laodao, however, would be harder to forget. He was sat in the clearing with a half eaten apple in his hands, giving himself a break.

A shrill voice rang through the forest like the sound of soul leaving body. Chen Xiang jerked away, tossing the apple and jumping into a battle stance with his fingers splayed. The scream had sounded close. Chen Xiang waded through the greenery, the sound of a creak getting louder as he advanced.

"Hello?! Anyone here?" Chen Xiang stumbled out into the open. The creak he'd been following had widened into a large stream. Chen Xiang had a double take.

Flowers were littered over the ground like a spill in the middle of a meadow: orange hibiscuses, yellow roses, lilacs, peonies, white tulips and neatly cut stems that lay on their sides. Petals floated downstream, collecting at rocks that broke the flow. A long-haired woman was clutching her foot, a woven flax basket tumbled near her. She blinked up at Chen Xiang with a strange look on her face. "…You're a human?" she breathed, equally taken aback by him.

"I…" Chen Xiang stopped himself. "Yeah, I am." He fully got out of the bushes, crouching near her. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," the woman said, sounding very calm compared to the scream Chen Xiang had heard. "I just tripped. That's all."

The woman examined her ankle, tapped it in two places, and breathed out slowly. Chen Xiang picked up the basket, scooping the spilt flowers back into it. "Are you going to be able to make it off the mountain alone? Or should I call for help?"

The woman shook her head fervently. "Forgive me for startling you. I just need some rest, that's all," she nodded surely with a twitch of her nose. Chen Xiang nodded as he bent to pick up more flowers. It was awfully fragrant, the thick smell of perfume and flowers laying thick in the air until he lingered too long and couldn't discern it anymore. After a minute of silent flower-picking, Chen Xiang turned to her.

"What were you doing in the woods?" Chen Xiang asked quite bluntly.

The woman shrugged. "I was just in the area to procure flowers. There's a festival coming up and I've been sent for a fresh supply."

"You're a flower arranger," Chen Xiang said, hands full of camellias, as if it weren't totally obvious.

The woman smiled. "Danfei," she introduced.

Chen Xiang wrapped his right fist into his left hand, politely bowing. "Chen Xiang."

Danfei seemed to seize up an inch. The change was so slight that Chen Xiang would have missed it, if he weren't watching her in the moment. "You tell every woman you meet in the woods your name?" she said very impolitely. Danfei seemed to realise it and looked back to regard her ankle.

"You went first," Chen Xiang replied.

"Yes. But I'm an adult," Danfei started. "And you're just a child." She sighed. "Just be careful of who you give your identity to. It's not safe out here in the mountains."

Despite the strangeness of her, Chen Xiang noted down her words. She was right. If it wasn't safe for him to admit he was a halfbreed, it was not safe for him to freely give out his name. He mentally kicked himself.

"Here." Chen Xiang held out her two full baskets of flowers. "All done."

Danfei beamed at him. "Thank you, Chen Xiang. I really don't know what I'd have done without you. But there's no need."

Her expression sunk, and Chen Xiang placed the baskets down before bobbing next to her. "What's wrong? You do need help…I'll see if I can go down and find someone to—"

"No, no, Chen Xiang," Danfei said. "It's nothing. The next village is days away and the flowers can't make it with my leg in this state." Danfei rubbed her ankle. It looked significantly more purple than it did a moment ago.

"Forget the flowers!" Chen Xiang started, getting flustered. "I'll find you some medical plants and bandages."

"Forget the flowers?!" Danfei cried, her voice indignant at the very thought of it. "These flowers need to get to the royal servants in Chang-an or I lose my livelihood!"

"Your what?" Chen Xiang leaned back, face full of worry. It made no sense to him, Chang-an city was an age away. There was no way Danfei could be at Mount Huaguo when she needed to deliver royal flowers to somewhere a million miles away. "Danfei," Chen Xiang started, touching her forearm, "How did you get here in the first place?"

Danfei retracted her arm and grimaced. "I cloud-sailed."

Immediately, Chen Xiang's mouth dropped. "You can cloud-sail?" But his smile withered a moment after. "But…your foot. You can't…trip in mid-air."

Danfei covered her mouth in a short coughing fit. "I…erm, hurt it upon landing," she said exasperatedly. "Cloud-sailing isn't easy, you know."

Suddenly, Danfei snapped up, eyes going wide, hands covering her mouth. It was as if a bulb had lit up behind her eyes and an incredible idea had bloomed. "You can deliver the flowers."

Chen Xiang winced inwardly at himself. "Me?"

"Yes!" Danfei began collecting the folds of her robes, pulling back a silken scarf to give herself more mobility. Slowly, strenuously, she wobbled on her legs before Chen Xiang came to support her side.

She pointed to him starkly. "I'll teach you how to cloud-sail. Then you go by cloud to Chang'an and deliver." She clapped her hands together. "Fantastic. It's decided."

"What?"


Chen Xiang bounded through the air, wind ripping past his ears in a high speed frenzy, deafening him to everything but the thrill. He twisted in midair, righting himself before forcefully slowing down and sending every dram of power in him to his feet. Vapour turned to mist turned to tangible cloud beneath him, wispy white tufts circling around to stop his decent. Chen Xiang kicked off of it, throwing himself back into the air.

"WHOOOO!"

He chocked on his own voice as a rush of cold air travelled straight to his lungs, making him cough and splutter as he slowed a few feet. Gaining speed again, Chen Xiang lurched and repositioned his body. Now he was just gliding, legs out and arms poised like wings, watching the mountain tops peek above the clouds. He never appreciated how high up he was, even when on the mountain. From the sky, this could be heaven.

His weight crumpled. Chen Xiang broke form, that thought pulling him from his peaceful set of mind. Praised all across the country, across the world as perfect and divine, he hated heaven and anything to do with it. Chen Xiang forced himself to create clouds and dull the fall, but control was hard when you were free falling to a death so far away on the ground. He was quiet as he panicked, cold fingers and bloodless toes twitching and screaming to hold on to something.

Chen Xiang didn't close his eyes as he watched the mountain tops disappear above the clouds, this time, the rest of it becoming visible to him. He closed his eyes the second he felt something tug on his leg and the fall stop so abruptly, the air in his lungs was jolted out of him. Chen Xiang breathed in deeply, trying to get upright. A wad of cloud was drifting above his head, the blue sky in his sights. Danfei spun him around and regarded him upside down as she held his ankle.

"…I told you not to go so high when you're already low on aura from the first sixty eight attempts," she said, surly, lips pulling back in what was an already a low frown. "Turn upright." She dropped him. Chen Xiang gasped before changing his weight and righting himself. He shared the same cloud as hers.

"You…your foot!" Chen Xiang exclaimed, hands flying behind his head. "You're okay! Hey!"

"You're reckless!" Danfei cried over him, pinching her fingers at the bridge of her nose. "If you're going for height then at least do it somewhere where I can see it!" She sighed and looked to the skies. "You need to concentrate. Cloud-sailing…is like playing a song on an instrument. At first, it's incredibly hard and you need to read scripts. But after a while, once you've memorised a song, it stays forever." Danfei lifted a hand, conjuring a magic that was lurid and thick, so strong that Chen Xiang could see it. "Hold on," she said, giving him a hand.

Chen Xiang took it. Her grasp was strong. One moment, they were floating above mountain peaks, the sun in the air, and then Chen Xiang felt the pressure change and push and clench everything inside of him until he felt sick. The speed at which at the change happened was too fast for him to comprehend, and he only knew that they'd moved when they'd stopped moving.

Danfei let go and Chen Xiang stumbled to the ground, leaning over. Retching once, twice, he emptied his stomach. "What….what was that?" he murmured, weak from the motion. "How did we…"

"That's a perfected song," Danfei said lightly. "It becomes so simple and natural to you that it might as well be you breathing. You'll get it soon, I believe." Chen Xiang had the strangest feeling that she was smiling behind him. "It's a little harsh on humans. Don't take humans with you when you're cloud-sailing."

Danfei patted his back. The warm-familiar feeling of blood rushing back into him and something more circulating into his aura centre. The exact same pull and pulse that Chen Xiang had written off when Laodao had pulled him to his feet after he'd ruined his body kneeling. And the same one he'd felt merging in him once when he woke up from exhaustion. Before he knew what he was doing, Chen Xiang flinched away from her, hands splayed out in defence. Danfei twitched, looking surprised. She huffed, saying nothing.

"…Where are we?" Chen Xiang asked to divert her attention. "We—"

Chen Xiang was lost for words. The smell of skewered candy apples and fumes of smoked meat wafted from all directions. He twisted and turned in the corner of a crowded streets. Lanterns hung on roof eaves and streamers hung from those. The street was alive with food and children and people and commotion. Chen Xiang stepped into the crowds, eyeing the great buildings in the distance and horse drawn carriages clogging across the unevenly paved grounds.

"This is Chang'an."

"Yes, Kiddo," Danfei said, patting him vaguely as she marvelled at the lights too. "Today's the Lantern festival. That's what the flowers were for. Happy festival time."

"Happy festival time," Chen Xiang murmured back.

Danfei squeezed his shoulder. "If you want to stay a while, I'll wait and follow. You deserve a good night under the lights. There'll be firecrackers after sundown. Catch them by the stage grounds right…there." Dance pointed past his face to where a row of drums were kept for the night performances.

Chen Xiang chuckled. He only let himself lapse for a moment before his horror caught up with him. "…No…"

"Pardon?" Danfei asked.

"No! Danfei! Dan—" Chen Xiang whirled around, grabbing fistfuls of her flowing robes as he huffed manically.

"What?! What's wrong?!" Danfei clutched him back, eyes going wide and fearful. "What did I—"

Chen Xiang gulped. "Please take me back. I need to get back to Huaguo Shan"

Danfei froze, a stroke of confusion falling over her face. "No, it's alright. Just enjoy the festival, I'll help you get back afterwards."

"Please! I need to get back immediately!" Chen Xiang cried. Faces began to turn in their direction, but Chen Xiang was too flustered to care. "Look. I've been on that mountain forever to wait for someone. I need to be there or I might miss them and they'll never put an eye on me again."

Chen Xiang bowed and Danfei stumbled back from him.

"I'm not powerful enough to sail back, I need you sail me back to the mountain, it's—"

"Chen Xiang! I'll take you back!" Danfei said, exasperated. "But please be quiet or you'll draw attention to us both," she said through her teeth.

Chen Xiang nodded. He and Danfei stepped back into the wind in a street, disappearing from festival-goers' eyes.

"You're sure you don't want to stay longer?" she asked him, eyes glowing against the shadows of the walls. In the dark like this, her eyes glowed golden. It was hard to notice during the day. "It's alright," she huffed noncommittally, but she was squeezing his shoulder hard. "Let me tell you, whoever you're waiting for won't fault it."

Chen Xiang swallowed. "Take me back."

"Hold on tight."


Chen Xiang was skipping stones across the lake. They whirled through the air, skimming across the water like birds touching down before jumping back up to fly again. It reached the other side and landed in a neat pile of other stones. The corner of his lip turned up even if his heart wasn't into it. The smell of roasted chestnuts and buns filled his sense and he turned.

A blue demon had walked out from the bushes into the open with a picnic basket. Chen Xiang got up, throwing himself into a defensive stance as he stared. The demon stared back through his long purple hair and flowing, braided beard. "Sorry for startling you."

He was well over six feet tall. His broad shoulders and brick-wall-like body near blotted out the sun. Chen Xiang dropped his fists. "…Sorry…that was rude of me." If he was on the mountain, that must mean he knew the monkey.

"No, it's normal," he said lightly, and his voice was much softer than he'd imagined. The blue demon looked left and right. "…Are you here alone?" he asked timidly.

Chen Xiang was still on guard. He ignored his question. "You know Sun Wukong, don't you?"

The blue demon froze, paused, and then grinned a set of block-like teeth. "Not personally. I was just passing through."

"…Alright." Chen Xiang sat down at the water's edge. The man seemed to stare at his back for a long time before joining him. He laid the basket so that it was between them. "I'm Old Sha."

"…I'm just a guy in the woods."

"Fair enough, kiddo." Old Sha opened the basket, reaching for a handful of chestnuts. There were steamed buns and pickled cabbage next to it. He held out a couple of chestnuts to Chen Xiang.

"Thanks," Chen Xiang said, taking it.


Finally, Laodao turned up again.

"Chen Xiang! Spar with me!"

Chen Xiang shook his head, getting up and crossing his hands. "Where've you been?"

The hunter stopped mid-step, brows going up at his words. "Huh?"

"You said you were coming back to show me how to stop an enemy if they jump me from behind and then you never showed up."

Laodao dropped his arms and then began frantically scratching the top of his head. He knew he didn't have lice, it was just habit, for some reason that Chen Xiang didn't want to ask. "Well. Soooo—ry. That I had to go all the way back to the Silk Road to do my business. What am I, your personal trainer?"

Chen Xiang pouted. "Fine. Sorry. Didn't think you were coming back, is all."

Laodao opened his mouth dumbly. "…Anyway, that can wait till later I'm sure no one will jump you in the wild."

"If I had my back turned, you most certainly would have jumped me," Chen Xiang said lowly.

"Today, I bought weapons."

"I can see."

There was a large package on Laodao's back that extended far above his head, and that was alongside his usual longbow and arrows. Laodao dropped the bags and unwrapped them. Setting his bow and arrow aside, he flung the new weapon to Chen Xiang. Chen Xiang caught it and frowned.

"…Laodao?"

"Yah?"

"…This is a stick."

"It's a bamboo stick, be a little more precise, Chen Xiang."

"You chopped this off the north side of the mountain."

"WATCH OUT!"

Chen Xiang jumped out of the way, totally used to jumping out of the way when Laodao didn't feel like explaining something in more detail. Chen Xiang flickered left, right, evading strong thrusts of the bamboo that sent a chill of air across his face. Laodao spun the stick with one hand, threw it into the air, and then caught it with his neck in the most dangerous looking way possible.

Huffing, squinty-eyed and in disbelief, Chen Xiang peered behind him. The force of the shockwave had levelled the grass behind him in strokes. It was as if someone had taken a machete and felled the greenery back in the exact length of a standard bamboo. He looked back to Laodao, who straightened considerably under his stare.

"Why is your chi, 内功, so strong?"

"Chi, aura, it's the same thing," he said flippantly. "Main thing is that you learn the movements. Your inner strength develops normally so I wouldn't think about it so hard. You think about too much stuff when you're fighting. It makes you wonky." Laodao gripped the stick and swung it down after two revolutions around his neck. It dug into the ground.

"Ready to hit me?"

"Yeah, right," Chen Xiang scoffed. "If my chances of hitting you with a stick are the same as me hitting you with my fists, I'd have terrible luck."

"That's cos yer too slow!" Laodao leaned back and harrumphed loudly. "If you want to hit me you're going to have to try harder," he grinned, showing a toothy smile. Laodao had an extra two canines lined both atop and bottom. It made his smile always look pointed.

Chen Xiang gripped his own bamboo and set it against Laodao's. "I'm going to win one of these days, Laodao."

"That's what I like to hear."

Chapter Text

"You know. I met my Uncle, once."

That line made Old Sha whip his head back and look at him with an incredulous look. They were sitting at a cliffside with their feet dangling over the edge as Old Sha shared his noodle soup with Chen Xiang. Chen Xiang did not ask how he managed to carry noodle soup up the side of the mountain and still have it warm. Chen Xiang made a point not to do many things.

"Your Uncle?" he said with surprise. "The Upholder of Law, Erlang Shen?"

Chen Xiang nodded. He put down his half finished bowl. Old Sha ate as Chen Xiang whispered over the edge of the cliff, his words disappearing down it. It was like that old game where you whispered in a shell that locked away your secrets and kept them safe. Safe from what? Chen Xiang didn't know. Chen Xiang threw his down the hundred metre drop with no remorse. "Yeah. That one."

It was easier to talk to Old Sha when all he did was sit in silence with him every other day. It was easy because he didn't ask any questions. None of the others ever did, and if they had to it was only the minimal few. Don't lie to me, do your arms hurt or do they not? It's a yes-no answer, kid. Have you eaten? How about I give you a hand with that one? He wanted to ask Old Sha why he shared his food with him, but never did. He thought that, if he asked, he might disappear. That was a danger he was not willing to risk.

"When I was seven years old. I didn't know who he was, then. My father was going to get the door and my mother squeezed my hand tight. I don't remember what they said. Just knew that it wasn't right. Wasn't right that Mum was trying to keep her voice down and step in front of me."

Old Sha began slurping food loudly and intently.

"Erlang Shen. You want to know how I found out he was my Uncle?"

Old Sha looked up. "How?"

"Glad you asked," Chen Xiang said stiffly, like this was some terrible game of charades with no prompt. He chuckled even more stiffly. "Well. Well, Mum invited him in for tea. She always said there was no need for impoliteness. No need for any of that bustle. He'd come alone. She invited him in and when he wasn't looking she told Dad and I get out through the back."

"She told you to run," Old Sha said lowly.

"Something like that," Chen Xiang agreed. "But we didn't get that far. Erlang Shen wanted to see me. I remember this bit."

He played it back in his mind like a reel of dark film.

Small cottage in the woods, water colour paintings hung in symmetry on the walls, Erlang Shen in noble civilian clothes, a thin slit on his forehead. Sanseng Mu sat opposite, saying something that elicited a soft smile from him. It was the only time Chen Xiang had ever seen him like that, without armour or aura or prestige. He knew what he had come to do but his guard was still lowered around his mother. Or so Chen Xiang thought. So it looked.

"Will you not even show me my nephew?"

"So you've come to see my son and not me? How disheartening, brother."

Something under the slit in his forehead moved. It opened abruptly, an eye catching Chen Xiang through the hole in the door. "Chen Xiang?" He was looking right at him, his third eye staring while his other two stayed fixed on his mother.

"Chen Xiang!" Sanseng Mu crassly opened the door. The look on her face was something he'd never forget. Not angry; not just fearful. She swallowed down and held his hand. "Chen Xiang. This is your Uncle, Yang Jian."

All three eyes were trained on him. He smiled. It was a genuine smile.

Chen Xiang hadn't known better. What was so bad they had to leave? Dad was busy and Mum was there and this was his Uncle. He had smiled back, big and bright. He went to hold his hand. He trusted so easily.

"I don't know how he does it," Chen Xiang said, throwing his chopsticks down the cliff. But he refrained from doing the same to his bowl and opted to set that aside. Old Sha had stopped eating. He was just staring out into the open with a very controlled look on his face, not looking at him. He nodded. "I don't know how he can say the things he says without looking like it half-bothers him," Chen Xiang started. "How he could ask Mum to go back to Heaven and get fucked over with a straight face!"

Chen Xiang had started yelling. "How Erlang Shen could do that to her! How he could do that to us!" He leaned sharply forward, sharp enough for Old Sha to flinch and hold out his arms to stop him from leaning over the edge. He only meant to lay his forehead oh his knees. Old Sha shuffled awkwardly. Chen Xiang just half himself there, trying catching his breath when he had not lost it at all.

"I've seen the reports," Old Sha said suddenly. "Fifty thousand of the celestial army hidden above the clouds. One Erlang Shen to take the charge. Heh," he snorted. "It was overkill, was what it was, kid. It was cruel."

Chen Xiang didn't make any noise. His knees were getting wetter by the moment. Old Sha didn't seem to notice and he was grateful for that. "He gave me a jade necklace. As if that could replace what I'd lost! As if a green rock was going to win me over. He told me we were family, and that we looked out for each other, he said family was all we had," Chen Xiang muttered, getting up and leaning back on his arms. "And he had my Mum imprisoned."

Chen Xiang's shoulder was just short of Old Sha's elbow. Old Sha knocked into his side gently. "I know how it feels, to be betrayed."

Chen Xiang shot a look to his left. Old Sha was fiddling with the tip of his long beard. "I know how it feels to be wronged," he said gruffly, taking at glance at Chen Xiang. "It feels…unfair. We're taught that life is not fair. But that does not warrant us unfairness. Being beat down for feeling scorned is not unfair. Being beat down for living your life," Old Sha said, turning fully to him, "That's wrong."

He said it so fervently, with such anger and ardour under the gruffness of his voice that it surprised Chen Xiang. Old Sha had never asked anything of him. He felt, all of a sudden, incredibly guilty. "Old Sha. I haven't told you everything."

"Yeah? There's no need. You live on your own terms, never on another's. Just remember that."

"No, no!" Chen Xiang struggled, throwing his hands up and then down. He pressed a fist to his mouth , sighing into it before collecting himself. "I'm not human, Old Sha."

"Demon then?" Old Sha shot in a very unconvincing way. But Old Sha was not a fool and the connection was too obvious to miss. If he was related to Erlang Shen that made him—

"I'm a part human part god hybrid." Chen Xiang shrugged, giving a lopsided smile. "In other words. I got my Mum put under the mountain."

The air around them had completely changed when Old Sha's demon aura cracked and then leaped from the cracks. It had been so perfectly concealed that Chen Xiang never given thought to it until it flickered heatedly in his face, Old Sha's hair swaying through the air like it didn't adhere to gravity. "That's not right," he said — stated.

Old Sha had never imposed anything on him except those words. "Don't you ever think that way again, kid," he wrinkled his brow, leaning uncomfortably in so that his eyesight was at Chen Xiang's. His face was almost as large as Chen Xiang's torso, his eyes glowing gold. "Because this Old One will tell you that that is bending over backwards to take blame. Being the one to blame is never much fun. This Old One tells you from personal experience." He glared until Chen Xiang nodded.

Old Sha got up with a dejected huff and Chen Xiang had to shuffle back to give him space. With speed he hadn't yet achieved, Old Sha swiped downwards and scooped Chen Xiang up with a blue hand, distancing him from the cliff edge and setting him aside. "The circumstances of one's birth does not give Heaven a right to pick off even one of your hairs," he said, a cold, stark fact. "Heaven can act where you have faulted. Let me remind you, Liu Chen Xiang."

Old Sha stepped back so that Chen Xiang didn't have to raise his head and look significantly up at him. Chen Xiang blinked up anyway. "The only apparent crime you've committed is living to seven years old. And then living to eighteen. Sanseng Mu's crime was living life as she wanted to, with who she wanted to."

Chen Xiang took in his words, staring at him with a totally unguarded look. Old Sha was not shying away. He held onto his attention without giving him a chance to doubt this. There was no space for doubt; Old Sha stated it as the truth, and Chen Xiang wanted to listen and believe more than ever. For he had something that Erlang Shen would never have: his trust.

"That is not unfairness," Old Sha said aloud. "That, that is what we call - unjust."

Chen Xiang just stood there, watching Old Sha watch him. Finally turning away, he shrugged, chuckled a little, and then shrugged again. "You really don't care if I'm a halfbreed?"

"New rule," Old Sha started, jutting up a pointer finger, "you don't call yourself that again. You, Chen Xiang, are a demigod." He stamped his foot on the ground. "Demigod," he repeated in a way that made Chen Xiang want to forget and disregard every single other person in the world that had called him otherwise, like they were all crazy in the face of this demon.

Chen Xiang nodded sternly, trying to match Old Sha's enthusiasm. He brushed a nervous hand through his hair. "Yeah."

"And no. No, why in damnation would anyone of respectable standing care?"

Old Sha did something like a little wiggle with his nose, showing disgust at the thought of it. Chen Xiang bobbed down and chuckled. "I've met a load of celestial soldiers before, you know, when they were on my trail. I've met a lot of guys from Heaven, and no one's ever been as sweet to me as a big river demon," Chen Xiang said, tipping his head the side. "Not least my Uncle. Of all those with 'respectable standing.'"

"I hate to say it, Kiddo. But your Uncle sucks more than previously anticipated," Old Sha remarked. He didn't acknowledge the first half of what Chen Xiang said.

"Don't I know it."

"It just proves it, kiddo. He's not of very respectable standing, is he?"

Chen Xiang leaned over and laughed.


"Race me."

"To Chang-an and back? You're so on," Chen Xiang grinned, bending his legs and readying himself to fly.

Danfei, with her robes blowing in the wind and her hair obscuring her face, grinned back as she kicked off the floor. She slowly levitated into the air. "Not there." She pointed a finger upwards. "Here."

Chen Xiang kicked off too, following her as they rose above trees and water, mist rushing to greet them from nothing. Chen Xiang's lips twisted. "Where?"

"Up."

With that, Danfei looked skywards, putting her hands to her sides before launching herself into the air. Her takeoff was so sudden, so without warning, that Chen Xiang was momentarily blinded by the force of the shockwave. Pushed backwards until he lost balance, Chen Xiang was forced to stop and brace himself. When he regained his footing and re-centred his aura, he put what the monk kid drilled into him to use. Wracking up everything inside, he set off. Chen Xiang sped against the current, forcing himself after her. Two lines of white trailed behind them.

But Danfei had a head start Chen Xiang had no idea where she'd gone. Chen Xiang kept going up, his eyes darting to find a trace of her shadow. The air pressure was starting to get to him and his breaths were getting thinner. His lungs were beginning to tire until he caught a glimpse of something shiny. Chen Xiang paused his flight and looked down. He squinted in disbelief. It was only when he flounced to another angle and rubbed his eyes once more that he accepted that this wasn't a mirage.

Below him was a path paved of gold, long and winding and stretching into the far distance. He was so high up in such short a time that the sudden glare of extravagance and luxury was jarring. Slowly, Chen Xiang lowered and landed soundlessly upon the golden path. A large archway was so far in the distance that it appeared clouded and blue. He turned around to weapons pointed in his direction.

"What are you - he's an intruder!"

Two guards were staring beady-eyed at him. They were armoured, helmeted with the insignia of the military, and one held the flag of Heaven. Chen Xiang felt his spine freeze up his back - this was the Heavenly Army. They looked to each other before turning up their spears and jutted them at Chen Xiang. Chen Xiang put his hands up, the cogs in his mind whirring about what to do.

"Hey, hey," Chen Xiang started, swallowing. "Just a misunderstanding, it's a misunderstanding, that's all."

The taller of the two guards nodded unsurely at the other. "Who…who are you? What are you doing here?" he asked.

Chen Xiang pursed his lips, putting on as natural a smile as he could. "I'm Laodou," he said simply, "I was following someone here but got lost on the way."

The two shared a look again. "Who is it?" the shorter one said menacingly.

Chen Xiang was about to make up a name. Any name from the village he used to live near would have done. But something stopped him in that instance. Danfei had warned him about giving over his true identity. So he used Laodou's. But the fact that she'd given him that warning unsettled him nonetheless. All he knew was that Danfei was a lower goddess that remained on earth and sometimes served important people with flowers. It sounded just as nonsensical in his head the first time as it did imagining how it'd sound out loud. Chen Xiang swallowed again, making his decision. He didn't want to get Danfei in trouble. But he was also dying to find out who she was. This could be his only chance.

"A lower goddess. Danfei."

"Danfei?" the taller guard repeated. He didn't look convinced. "Who taught you how to do that?"

"Do what?" Chen Xiang's arms were getting sour above his head, his fingers already stone cold. "Fly?"

"Who taught you to be able to come here?" he sneered.

"It was Danfei!" Chen Xiang said, watching for their reactions. The taller one looked confused while the shorter one looked…almost angry. Chen Xiang noted it down. He watched for their feet — if this was going to escalate into a fight he'd go for the shorter one with the poor stance first.

The taller guard seemed to lower his spear, watching Chen Xiang with a very peculiar look.

"What are you doing?" the shorter guard whispered to him, taking a frustrated glance in his direction. "What are you doing? He's trespassing!"

"That's not…"

Chen Xiang's act dropped. He lowered his hands, concentrating completely on the taller guard and ignoring the other. "Not what?"

His lips seemed to quiver, his eyes going dark. He whispered to his companion. "That wasn't cloud-sailing. That was the Somersault Cloud."

Chen Xiang's eyes narrowed. "What do you—"

"Boy."

Chen Xiang whirled around. His heart dropped down into his stomach. Standing with his spear braced on the ground, Erlang Shen's three eyes were looking past him.

Something warm and barbed began to overrun his veins, seeping into his insides like an oil spill before it flooded and took everything rational in its wake. And the realisation came delayed. He thought about this often: him meeting Erlang Shen face to face, him being on the end of his three-tipped spear, him lying dead and impaled with an apology on his lips, him proving Heaven right. That his death, despite so-called immortality, was inevitable and lawful and just. It would not be a heroic death. Just a useless one. Less than fodder, for fodder still served a purpose. It was going to come to this, him and Erlang Shen. It was always going to come. But when he opened his eyes wide, it has never been so real before, so present, in tense and within reach, with his two feet planted firm on the gilded ground and the path before him blocked by the silhouette of his enemy as he passed him with no heed, and Chen Xiang let him.

He remembered how high up he was — high enough to feel as if the atmosphere was growing teeth, closing around him and snapping shut like jaws. Paralysis worked between his tendons, locked around his bones and put a stopper on his aura like capping a bottle.

But, then, Erlang Shen suddenly turned his head, jolting Chen Xiang out of it. His breath caught in his throat. There was a dark look of fear on Erlang Shen's face. But the moment passed and it wiped away as abruptly as it had come. Erlang Shen turned, taking a calculated step to obscure him.

"Guards, my greatest condolences," he said, slightly exasperated. "I've bothered you in your line of work."

"Lord Erlang!" the guards chanted, dropping their pointed weapons downwards. Erlang Shen stepped forward and looked down at the two.

"The child here is part of a case I'm investigating. This is strictly on the Emperor's orders. You won't be needed to disclose this."

The taller guard bowed low. "Of course, Lord Erlang."

"As Lord Erlang commands it," the other guard saluted.

Erlang Shen lingered there, seemingly saying a few more words. Chen Xiang didn't hear the end of them. As he regained control of his limbs, he dived off the side of the gilded pathway, falling back down to the earth below.

 

Chapter Text

"Too fast, Chen Xiang!"

A woman's voice.

Chen Xiang opened his eyes. He was falling headfirst back down to Huaguo Shan. The world was inverted — blue skies at his feet, green ground above his head. If he waited another two minutes or so, his head would bash against rock and that would be the end of all of this. Chen Xiang gasped for air, the pressure no longer grasping to collapse his lungs. Tears rolled down his cheeks right-way-up from the friction. He smothered a whimper and opened his mouth to yell. Another voice called out after his, a man's voice.

"CHEN XIANG!"

With a deft and savage burst of power, Chen Xiang ended his fall in an instance. Twisting his torso to get upright, then forcing himself to a deft stop. His bones rattled within him as he finally went still, the blood pumping between his ears no longer drowned out by air rush. Huffing, Chen Xiang looked down, judging the distance towards the ground. He was about four or five metres above the tallest tree. The trees here had grown undisturbed for hundreds of years. He was still quite high up for any human.

Above him, the face of Erlang Shen contorted and Chen Xiang squirmed. Erlang Shen, his Uncle's face, began to swirl and dissolve, his hard jaw and sharp lines disintegrating into a face full of worry. Danfei lurched forward, grabbed his wrist, and pulled him the rest of the way down. The callouses on her palms hurt when she was holding him so hard. When Chen Xiang looked at her again, she was still Danfei. Danfei and Erlang Shen — they felt the same. They felt angry.

"What was that?!" Danfei screeched in a voice that didn't suit her at all, too shrill and with rasps caught up in the shrillness of it. Her long hair was swaying and dancing, the ends of it vibrating despite the fact that there was no wind or draft.

Chen Xiang stepped back. "What was that?" Chen Xiang echoed. His expression darkened, a flicker of something in him that wanted to be angry as well, wanted to tear the weakness out of his shaking fingers. He trusted Danfei, but seeing that god was simply too much. He hadn't expected it. "You were Erlang Shen."

Danfei closed her mouth and looked up for a moment. She must have known that for that moment, it was real for him. Too real. "Yes, I was Erlang Shen, Erlang Shen's someone everybody loves to grovel to." She sighed, brushing back hair that didn't need to be brushed back. Chen Xiang hated the way his hair was still on end, how he felt faint, how he hated that he hated her for pretending to be him.

"You can transform," Chen Xiang said, trying to say something to fill the silence. He shook himself, willing himself to calm down. 

"Yes, yes I can transform." Danfei sighed, reaching for the back of her neck before relaxing again. "I know you don't like it, but his face was going to get us out of that pickle," Danfei said in a very jittery manner, like there was something she could barely contain. Chen Xiang pressed his nails into the fleshy part of his palms, breaking the skin and making the sting of it pulse. Danfei should not know about him and Erlang Shen. He'd never told her and she'd never asked. His true identity should be a stranger. "So you're welcome, I solved that one for us," she stated.

"Us?" Chen Xiang said, stepping forward. "Who are you, Danfei?"

Danfei didn't skip a beat. "It was a flawless transformation, wasn't it? Chen Xiang?" She grinned too much like Laodou and too much like someone else. There was a pointedness to her grin that Chen Xiang couldn't ignore anymore. "I can do heaps of other impressions. Once you've mastered flying, maybe I'll show you."

Chen Xiang leaned back, putting his hands behind his back and wiping off the blood and nail marks onto the hem of his clothes. "Why don't you show me now?"

Danfei paused, dissecting those words. Chen Xiang got the feeling that she was doing some quick thinking. She lifted her brows.

"As you wish." Danfei took a breath, turned in a circle, and closed her eyes. "Who do you want to see?"

"Erlang Shen."

Her eyes moved behind her lids. "Sure?"

"Show me."

"Touchè."

She rolled back her shoulders. The movement sent a jolt of magic through the air. Immediately, she was Erlang Shen. Chen Xiang looked up, regarding him. Tall, disciplined, three-eyed and he felt exactly like Danfei. Only the outside had changed and if he tried, if he really looked for it, he could test the magic around her and know it was still her. Chen Xiang was too shaken to feel for aura before, though he had the faintest feeling that Danfei was doing it on purpose — not making her aura mound into a mimicry of Erlang Shen's. Though the outer exterior really was convincing. Chen Xiang exhaled, trying to still his heart when his eyes screamed danger but his head knew it was false.

Danfei didn't move. She knew that form irked him and that fact that she knew irked Chen Xiang. "Convincing, no?" she said, and it was her voice coming out of the wrong mouth.

Chen Xiang nodded. "Try…Ah — Goddess Chang'e."

Erlang Shen smiled, she tipped his chin up, and then dipped it deftly. "Bian!" When the motion was done, she was the lunar goddess, Chang'e. With her pure white robes and long, dragging scarves, Chang'e smirked. "See? Just a transformation technique. Nothing to worry about," she said rather crassly.

"The God of Wealth!" Chen Xiang piped up.

"…of Wealth? Whatever you say, then," Chang'e lifted her arms, dragging two trails of long sleeve across her face. She was obscured for a few seconds before she put her hands down. When she did, it was as if her robes had simply switched colour. One moment, they were white, the next, they were gold and red. Chang'e's face was gone, and in its place, there was the God of Wealth's. Red sashes and a jade-studded belt was stretched over a large belly and stout figure.

"Anymore?" he grunted, trailing his beard out of his hand.

"…The Queen Mother. You know what the Queen Mother looks like?"

"The Queen Mother, huh?" Danfei said in the Wealth God's gruff voice. "Hah!" He turned his face, obscuring it for a moment. When she turned back, she was the Queen Mother, regal and tall. Chen Xiang had never seen the Queen before, her sharp red lips and severe eyes looking down at him more warmly than they had any right to do so. A few beads dangled above her eyes. "I suspect you want the Jade Emperor next?" she mused, tilting her headdress.

Chen Xiang shook his head, his faculties completely in control again. "Someone else," he exclaimed.

"Shoot," Danfei said.

"Transform into Sun Wukong."

There was a fraction of a second where Danfei's face flashed between the Queen Mother's and Chang'e's, making a strange, soulless mesh of an expression before settling back onto the Queen. The Queen Mother narrowed her eyes, the line of green beads clinking against one another as they shook. "Him? You already know what he looks like."

"Yeah, but I already knew what Erlang Shen looked like, too."

"Sure? Thought you wouldn't like him."

Chen Xiang crossed him arms, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "You won't do it?"

A smile fell onto Danfei's face, soft and fragile like it was made of glass. "Bian," she recited.

Danfei looked downwards. Sometime between her dipping towards the floor and rising to face him, the Queen had dissolved into Sun Wukong. Her hair scrawled back into her scalp, going brown, her body jumped a head or two shorter and her voice changed into his, raspy and inhuman with a range that went from a shrill high-pitch to a nasal, dangerous low.

"Tchh," he hissed. Sun Wukong covered a yawn with the back of his hand and then uncovered a fanged grin from behind it like he was a maiden with a fan. With a flicker, he shot a couple steps forward. All the while, he moved in a large and exaggerated fashion, as if he could only turn to see with his whole head. "What do you think? Do I look like him?"

"I fucking got you, Sun Wukong."

Sun Wukong's eyes, gold in a way that was almost hard to look at under the shadows of the trees like this, gleamed like a deer caught in lamplight. They bore back into him, harsher than the time he told Chen Xiang to leave, brighter than the time he first met him. He looked unfazed. "You got what? Chen Xiang?"

"Don't play dumb," Chen Xiang spat, "it's not a good look on you."

"It doesn't need to look good on me," Wukong said viciously, in the most un-Danfei-like manner ever. (Or maybe not, since Danfei was simply vehement with a need to be subtle. And even then, often she was not.) "It just needs to get me the desired result."

"Is this the desired result?" Chen Xiang questioned.

Wukong's brow twitched. Without moving, the air around him changed, a flare of magic blinding Chen Xiang for a moment. When he turned back, frowning, he was Danfei again.

"Drop the act, Sun Wukong." Chen Xiang growled when Danfei looked at him with a completely innocent look, her face going artificially red. She feigned surprise. Chen Xiang scoffed. "I know it's you."

"Ch!" Danfei twisted her lips and off-handedly waved off the comment. "You're the one who wanted me to show you that face."

"What face? That's your face!" Chen Xiang said, hands flying up. "Transform back," he demanded, pointing at him accusatorially. Danfei grimaced, the shadows dappled across her face shifting from her drooping look alone. Jutting out her own finger, she tilted Chen Xiang's away from her.

"Transform into what?" Danfei bit back, frustration weeding into her voice like a thistle plant strangling another, "Stop being delirious, Chen Xiang."

"You're Sun Wukong!"

"I'm Danfei."

"You. Are. Sun — Wukong!"

"I said I'm Danfei!"

"Then you're Danfei!" Chen Xiang yelled.

"I'm Wukong!" Danfei screeched.

Birds scattered in the surrounding area, chirping warning calls as they flew overhead. Chen Xiang went silent, just staring with wide eyes. Danfei's mouth snapped shut. Danfei looked at him, then at the sky, and then her head sunk disappointedly to the floor as she slouched. In a wisp of smoke, Danfei's long robes began to dematerialise, the material unravelling and changing right before Chen Xiang's eyes. When the transformation wore off, Sun Wukong stood in her place. He appeared to be pecking at the dirt from under his nails. They just stood there without words for a long moment.

Sun Wukong clicked his tongue and looked nonchalant. "Fuck."

Suddenly, Chen Xiang toppled. Sun Wukong reached forward, flinching as if to catch him, but then thought better of it. Chen Xiang doubled over onto the floor, clutching his stomach for dear life and laughing his guts out. Sun Wukong waited for him to finish.

"AHhhhh— hahahhahahaha! Danfei — you — she — hehheh—"

"Hah. Ha. Ha," he said humourlessly. "Hell yeah, I'm Danfei, what are you going to do about it?"

Chen Xiang quieted himself as he helped himself up into a sitting position. "What am I going to do about it? Nothing. It just proved everything, that's all."

Sun Wukong's mouth curled downwards, surly. "Proved what?"

Chen Xiang waved a vague hand at him. Sun Wukong twisted his lips in a very Danfei-like manner. (Or, to put it better, Danfei had always twisted her lips in a very Sun Wukong-like manner.)

"Laodou," Chen Xiang counted off a finger, "Danfei," Chen Xiang counted off another, "the monk kid," he did another, "and Old Sha."

It was astounding how Sun Wukong could raise one angled brow and not another muscle on his entire stone-carved face. "…Who?"

Chen Xiang sat bolt upright. "There's no point in denying it. I know none of them actually exist. They're all you," Chen Xiang put neatly, trying to seem as confident as possible. "You're them. You've been masquerading around as different people. Pretending to teach me different things. So that you don't have to appear and actually look like you're doing something."

"Ambitious theory," Sun Wukong cooed, combing his fingers through the hair on the back of a hand. "But a load of demon stench. Laodou's a hunter around these grounds, I know that. Old Sha is Old Sha…I have no idea who the monk is."

"AaAARRGHh!" Chen Xiang squeezed his palms to his eyes, bounding back up to get in Sun Wukong's face. "You think I'm a total stupid idiot? I didn't just notice that Danfei was whack as hell before today — what flower arranger travels to the foot of a demon monkey mountain to pick flowers?" he said, chest heaving, and Wukong cautiously backed away. "What flower arranger knows how to fly!" he cried, hands floating to clutch at his head.

As if that point weren't the most ridiculous thing, Chen Xiang went on, fuming, "What flower arranger knows how to transform! And all this time it wasn't even cloud-sailing I was practicing." Chen Xiang stomped a foot onto the floor, forcing the clouds above to swirl like a dying tornado above them. "It was the Somersault Cloud. That's why it's so draining," he said so quietly he finished by mouthing it.

"Tch," Sun Wukong scoffed, crossing his arms and then unravelling them to scratch at his back. "Yeah, so what if it's the Somersault Cloud? What good is the cloud-sail for running from shitheads at your heel?" he murmured under his breath. "Every celestial and his dog knows how to cloud-sail."

Chen Xiang's knuckles clenched so hard they cracked. He shook alive again, remembering another point. "And the hunter! Laodou uses a bow and arrow! A bow and arrow to hunt! To hunt using a bow and arrow!" he enunciated. "And what does he get me to do? Practice staff wielding techniques!" Chen Xiang hollered, arms in the air.

"Oh pshhh," Wukong sneered, spitting everywhere. "What? A hunter knows how to use a bow and also knows how to use a staff! How odious. How improbable. Is that so strange?!"

"Yes!" Chen Xiang said over him without a drop of hesitation. "Nobody damn uses a blunt force trauma staff in the celestial world other — than — you!"

Wukong's nose scrunched. He began frantically touching the back of his neck while staring daggers at Chen Xiang. "I can name at least four other—"

"—And Laodou?" Chen Xiang said over him, "Laodou of the Silk Road? The Silk road is an eon from here!"

"Well! Maybe he just hunts in exotic places!" Wukong's eyes were flashing with irrational anger.

"And, and-and the kid! The monk helping me skip rocks was actually showing me how to control energy and aura!" Chen Xiang pulled back, making a scornful, exaggerated face. "What eight year old knows how to use chi to throw rocks all the way from one side of the lake — to another! WHAT HUMAN KID?!"

"THE OVERACHIEVING KIND, CLEARLY," Wukong cried back, his voice sounding like he had somersaulted it two octaves higher.

They were huffing at each other, Sun Wukong frowning immensely as Chen Xiang caught his breath. "The blue demon. Old Sha," he started again, and the tips of Wukong's ears went redder with frustration, "he was there…just to…bring me food."

Sun Wukong narrowed his eyes and looked to the side to avoid eye contact.

"…Thanks."

Sun Wukong furrowed his brow. "Don't mention it. And I mean it, it really wasn't—"

"—Then how do you explain the monkey hair on my steamed buns?"

Wukong flinched, his fur seemingly standing up on end like a ruffled up bird or startled cat. "Confirmation bias," he stated civilly, the words gnashing through his clenched teeth.

"You were shedding," Chen Xiang corrected.

Sun Wukong flared his nose and the number of folds between his eyes near doubled. "Enough, Kiddo."

"Kiddo," Chen Xiang chuckled. Wukong glanced wearily at him. "Kiddo," he said again, a sort of warmth seeping into his voice. "…They all called me that. You called me — call me that." Chen Xiang looked up, unsure of himself. Sun Wukong didn't deny it, just looked down and blinked hard, pursing his lips like he'd said something that couldn't be unsaid.

It was getting harder to listen to quiet, now that he'd laid everything bare. But Chen Xiang didn't think he could run with the facade anymore. It was getting more and more incongruous and he noticed things. Noticed things when too many people did too many nice things without any questions. No sane individual — celestial being or not — stopped on the side of the road to congratulate a lone human in the woods. Not if they knew what was good for them. And Chen Xiang wasn't human.

"Can you show me the Ruyi Jingou Bang?"

Sun Wukong looked up. His ears twitched. "What?"

"Just to see," Chen Xiang said dumbly. "No other reason."

Sun Wukong shrugged downwards, leaned back, and reached into his right ear. Slowly, he drew out a golden needle. It grew, the needle still clambering to its full size as he pulled it between two fingers until he had to swap to grasp it with a hand. "Out, you," he said to it, bringing it out before him and habitually swinging it across his shoulders, much like Chen Xiang had seen Laodou do not so long ago.

Red, tipped with gold on it's two ends, and engraved with the words: As You Will…

Chen Xiang smiled, his aura gleaming at the mythical weapon. The trademark tool of the Great Sage Equal to Heaven. Sun Wukong smirked (much like the monk child) and grasped it with his left hand. "Want to try it?"

Chen Xiang brightened like a kid seeing red-pocket money. Then he balked and stopped himself in his track. "…You won't let me try your precious beating stick."

"Aha, so you have learnt something about me."

Chen Xiang made a face, mashing his lips in show of wordless offence.

Sun Wukong sighed. "Once you build your shit up maybe I'll let you. It's too heavy for you at the moment," he explained.

Chen Xiang slowly drew his eyes up again. "…Build…You'll keep teaching me?"

Sun Wukong sniffed. "I thought that was implied."

"…"

"…"

"Thank you." Chen Xiang put his feet together and placed his right fist against his left palm. He bowed, dipping his head forward and holding up a salute. "Thank you, Master."

"Mother of gods," Sun Wukong uttered. He turned the other way. "Just call me Wukong, Chen Xiang."

Chen Xiang stiffened, peering up from the bow. "…You just admitted to teaching me all your shit. And your bullshit, atop of that," he said without holding back, "Master."

Wukong picked up his hand, wagging a finger at him. "No, no I didn't 'admit' to anything."

Chen Xiang frowned at that. "Master, what the fuck?"

"Watch your tongue, lest you lose it." In an instant, Wukong had closed the gap between them and then passed him, leaving a gust of wind in his wake. Wukong had gotten behind him, put a hand on his shoulder, a hand on his back, forcibly straightened him up, and then reappeared leaning on a tree at his side.

"And besides," he added monotonously, without betraying a smidgen of expression, "what bullshit? We're not up to that part of the curriculum yet." Wukong scoffed again and made a motion to scratch the top of his left hand. "That stuff's reserved until you learn to fly and shit magic like a pro."

Chen Xiang couldn't hide his smile. He nodded.

Wukong turned his back, leaning his staff lazily on his shoulder. "Now I'm really, really tired. Let me think about what I've done for a few years before I—"

"Master…"

"—For a few days, then — don't call me that. Rest up for a few days, Chen Xiang. You've been flying too much anyway." With that, he tipped his head, finished.

Chen Xiang watched him trot away. It wasn't long before Wukong paused and glanced around with his brows lifted. "Aren't you coming?"

Chen Xiang's eyes widened. "With you?"

Wukong looked at Chen Xiang like he'd grown a sixth head. He waved a hand about. "I don't see Erlang Shen inviting you to his castle in the sky," he said defeatedly. Then, "Your call. I live in a waterfall."

Chen Xiang caught up to him with one bound. Wukong's brows shot up and down, quietly impressed.

"Well, if Master insists."


White lies were what made the world go round. He spout half-truths and hyperbole and played men for fools like it was a sport. But, on his honour, he had never broken his word so spectacularly before. There was a difference between telling a fib or nodding to seal a double crossing and swearing to give one's word. A pinky-promise with a child was to the death. Shaking on it in Heaven was in the same camp. He could count the number of important promises he'd broken on a hand. The most significant: don't cause trouble when you leave, when he'd left the Taoist estate after learning his craft. Since, Sun Wukong did not break his word if he could so help it.

With a lopsided smile, an impenetrable determination and a goal so lofty to the point of impossibility, Liu Chen Xiang had wormed his way into his chest, lodging there as sure as a bullet. It was the point of no return. He had defeated Wukong at his own game without even knowing the rules. Not just defeat, but utter capitulation. Liu Chen Xiang had taken Sun Wukong apart without lifting a finger, and that, Wukong noted, was something not even the Buddha was able to do. That was something that only one other human had ever been able to do.

The conundrum had complicated: Now that Chen Xiang knew where he stood there was the very real chance that he'd disappoint him. How was Wukong supposed to petition Heaven for a fugitive? If he could escape the guilt of breaking the terms of the bet, somehow, he couldn't possibly escape the guilt of harbouring a criminal. Being a traitor he could stand, but being a failure to the kid was not an option. It did not matter to him who or what Chen Xiang was; that had never been part of the equation, never taken space in his mind. It did not even matter to him if what he was doing was truly right. What was right was ineffectual. So long as he did it to the end, so long as he got Chen Xiang what he wanted, what was his due, nothing he did would be for naught. 

Chapter Text

Before a boy trekked China looking for the Great Sage:

There was something about the walls that frightened him. Too high, so high that it cast shadows that could fill an entire courtyard and bathe the place in darkness, and straighter and thicker than he thought was possible. Long stretches of it went on and on, shaping corners in sharp ninety degree angles, great parapets broken up by the occasional fire signal. Hanging square flags denoted rank and fealty all along the top until they grew too small to see. From the highest point he was allowed to be, he could not see where the palace started nor where it ended — if it did at all. That scared him. That there was the possibility that this place never ended.

Chen Xiang peered over the side of the stone railing. It was hard to differentiate day and night. Above the clouds, immersed in them, there was no rain, no wind, and no sunrise. It was as if this exalted palace was veiled in a dusk that would not lift. The horizon was ever-blue, the shadows were ever-slight, the servants always ever-jittery, and the blueness of it felt like it had crept into his bones and frozen them in the moment he'd left earth. The lack of signs of time passing made it feel like, since he'd arrived here, it was all one continuous, unending day. Chen Xiang laid his chin onto the stone, watching.

He heard the echo of chatter before he saw the people appear. Two servant girls walked side by side in line with a queue of manservants, each one holding a lantern by the end of a long stick. He watched the red tassels on the end of them dance and fly as the party walked underneath him.

There was a giggle from one of the men. "—But get this, it turns out that Xiaoling wasn't sleeping with Ahbao. But Ma Que. Ma Que! Hnhnn!"

"What?!"

"Yeah, right," someone said unenthusiastically.

"Tchh! I heard it from the seamstress," the first voice said. "But you didn't hear it from me, ay? Not from me."

One of the lanterns bobbed up and down nervously.

"What are you on about? That's news to me…If that's true, I doubt I'll be seeing Ma Que at kitchen duty for the rest of my days. How about that," a girl whispered.

"Why are you whispering?" the other girl piped up in a normal voice that was jarring to hear. "No one goes straight through the courts except us lot."

"Shh!" the first one snapped back. She stopped, suddenly putting distance between the men before they stopped to wait. The girl grabbed the other's arm and tugged her back to the group. "I heard that Lord Erlang is back."

"He what?"

"He's back at the palace. That's what I heard from the doorman."

There was the faint sound of feet shuffling. "Which doorman?"

"The one that slept with Ah— that's not relevant!" She pointed the lantern down. It lit a perfect circle of light onto the floor. The men drew in closer, their voices hushed even more than before. Chen Xiang leaned over the railing as far as he could.

"I heard…stop pulling! — I heard that he bought a child back to the Zhenjun 真君 palace," she said lowly, and a chatter of interest rolled through the group. "A half-human, half-celestial hybrid."

"Shh!" A manservant said, coming between them. "We're not supposed to talk about this."

"That's why we're whispering, Yihu."

"Don't you think it's fitting?" It was the one of the men again. The unenthusiastic one. He sounded harsh and tense. "It must have been pity. Hm."

"What do you mean?"

The pause gave Chen Xiang the impression that he had shot an incredulous look.

"Of course he'd bring that kind of thing back to his palace." He swung his lantern behind him, holding the hilt like an umbrella over his shoulder. "Don't you know?"

"Know what?"

"That Lord Erlang is also a—"

"—Shut up."

It was the voice of the first man who Chen Xiang had heard. For a second he thought it was a different person, but it was surely the same man that stared down the other. He held his lantern to the offender's face, illuminating a hard look — as if they were both well aware of why the he had been cut off. The change was so virulent it felt as if the giggling servant from before had been replaced with another entirely.

"Shut up about Lord Erlang," he said lowly. "You don't. Sully him in front of me."

"Chen Xiang."

Chen Xiang whipped around, his nails dragging on the surface of the rock.

It was Erlang Shen. His eyes were open unsettlingly wide, an arm outstretched as if to touch him. Upon his eyes darting to it, Erlang Shen retracted his hand slowly. He stood with a stillness that gave Chen Xiang the same intent feeling that the walls did.

"Don't lean over the side. It's dangerous."

In the blue light, his skin looked pale. Chen Xiang noticed that he was still wearing breast plates, except that the large shoulder guards and flared belt had been removed. There was a slim, gold pin holding his hair in a tight knot. Chen Xiang was surprised to see him without a complete set of armour, and at the same time was surprised still that he would remain wearing armour at his own palace.

Erlang Shen turned his head. "Come here."

Chen Xiang took a step back towards the stone rails. He worried if he'd made the wrong choice, but Erlang Shen didn't seem to react.

"…If it's height you want, I can introduce you to the archer's tower."

He hated how his heartbeat was already climbing by the sight of him.

"I can ask a servant to introduce you to the tower if that's what you want," he said, fixing his statement.

"I want to be alone." Chen Xiang waited for him to rebut.

"…Fine. But you will be alone inside. Where there is no danger of you falling from the third floor."

Chen Xiang stared upwards as Erlang Shen expectantly looked down. There was a quiet moment where Chen Xiang was waiting for Erlang Shen to leave, and Erlang Shen was waiting for Chen Xiang to go inside. Erlang Shen gave in first. Going in himself, he waved away the manservant and took his place holding the door.

Chen Xiang wanted to glance back at the other servants, but didn't deem it wise in front of him. He went in.


Where the outside was tinged blue, the inside was embellished in deep reds and dark maroons and garish golds to the point where it was almost cruel on the eyes to look at. Grand rooms were furnished to the utmost luxury, with redwoods and glazed surfaces and patterned cloths, while keeping its decorating at a minimal. Expensive drawers with nothing on them. Torch holders with never-lit torches. Wide spaces with nothing but woollen rug. Everything was beautiful and magnificent and Chen Xiang doubted that this place had ever spared an expense to keep it that way.

When he'd first arrived here, it had taken a long time for Erlang Shen to return and then longer for him to say something that was not directed past Chen Xiang to someone else.

"Everything here is yours," Erlang Shen had said, turning vaguely in his direction after Chen Xiang had being here for at least months. "Chen Xiang. All that I have is all that you have. There is no need to be reserved."

Chen Xiang had nodded slightly. It seemed that Erlang Shen wanted an answer, but what was he supposed to say about that?

There was a sense of emptiness to this place that Chen Xiang had never known in his small cottage home. Like nothing had ever been or would be touched, just remained there until the next time the servants needed to go through the motions of cleaning an already clean room. He could see it in the pristine tables, how rarely a speck of dust fell on the floor and how the diagonal placings of the cushions were to the centimetre point. It was a wonder to him that anyone 'lived' here at all.

"This is where you'll stay."

Erlang Shen didn't try to soften things or coddle. He was extremely blunt. Some part of Chen Xiang was glad for that.

He almost wished the other people in the palace could be more blunt, the way they sharply closed their mouths when he entered a room, the way they smiled weakly and talked down to him and acted like they weren't privy to who he was. Chen Xiang followed the rules nobody said out loud: stand straight and don't talk and keep his hands to himself. Those that were good to him were too wary for it to be genuine.


In the bedroom at night, he clutched at himself beneath the covers, sniffling. Everything had gone so wrong and he didn't really know why. One moment, he was getting hugged and kissed by his parents, the next, Dad was rowing him away on the longboat and the feeling of wrongness could have struck him down right them and there as they left Mum behind. He had never been apart from either of them for long. There was no decision to be made. Chen Xiang jumped off of the bend in the water, running back to the house.

So mother was a goddess and father was a human. Just what was so wrong about that?

Every time Chen Xiang glanced himself in a yellow mirror, in the water of his morning pail, in the garden pond, he was reminded of what he was. It sent a sick, jarring jolt up his back. Because Chen Xiang had become aware that some deep, unconscionable part of him was made of the same things that made him classify as a god, as part of this palace, part of this blue, blue realm — because he was made of the same things that made Erlang Shen. As well as the fact that there was nothing he could do about it. There was absolutely nil he could do about the stone cold truth that he too was cold and hard and part of them.

It might have been a reassuring thought if he'd slept on it. That in the very least he belonged. That before was somehow wrong and this was right. But even amid this lofty world, he knew the people here saw themselves as "us," and he as "them." Or maybe less that that. An it.


Sitting up back-straight on a golden chair at a dinner table longer than the arched bridge he used to take on earth, his stomach growled relentlessly. The chair he was sitting on was carved of solid gold. Chen Xiang had never seen so much gold in his life. He wondered why someone would waste so much gold on something that couldn't meet the minimum requirements for sit-ability. Leaning back, his head was uncomfortably rested on a pair of intwined dragons, resting his hands on the chiselled phoenix-feather armrests was like gripping thorns.

When he grew tired and forgot about it, leaning back, the kitchen servant's lip would jump in a big, jerky twitch. He didn't like Chen Xiang, no matter what position he sat in. He was also not allowed to insult him. That made for a combo of very strange twists and spasms on his face.

Chen Xiang's stomach growled again.

"I'm hungry."

"Shh."

He tried to keep his neck from touching the spiky dragons.

"…I'm really hungry."

"Young Master, we do not start until Lord Erlang is present."

Chen Xiang very much regretted sleeping in to skip breakfast. He'd kept his head under the covers because the servant that called in the mornings had to do his hair. Chen Xiang's hair was absurdly thick and took his mother time when she brushed it over and over with a bone comb. The lady that came in needed to do it fast and she did it harshly and Chen Xiang's hair was still in a mess. He'd done it up the best he could but he knew that the kitchen servant did not approve.

"Can I drink some water?" Chen Xiang asked. "…I really want to—"

"Do you have any idea how generous our Lord has been to you?"

Chen Xiang sat bolt upright. Then, a wave of anger going over him, he looked the servant in the eye and slumped. Slouching, his hands curled into fists on the table, he showed his defiance in a blank look. It was how Dad used to look when someone tried to rip him off the groceries as if a middling academic did not know the first thing about fresh eggs and its market worth. Chen Xiang was feeling lightheaded from hunger.

"You don't know anything, do you? You don't know what lengths Lord Erlang had to go to for your ungrateful behaviour."

Chen Xiang narrowed his eyes. "I don't think I really care, mister."

The servant's eyes went as wide as saucers. There was colour rising on his cheek and Chen Xiang thought it made him look less dead.

"No, I don't 'think.'" Chen Xiang reared his head, knocking it loudly into the dragons. "I know."

The servant squirmed. It looked as if he was about to say something when the door whacked open all the way back, hitting the walls and probably denting them.

The blueness from outside clung onto Erlang Shen like a pale second skin. He shed it as he entered, his footsteps clinking as he stalked in. His footsteps left prints on the floor. It was only when Erlang Shen's cape furled to one side did Chen Xiang see the weapon still clutched in his hand and pointed carefully downwards. His favoured three-tipped spear. It was coated in blood. The blood that dripped onto the floor of the dining hall was in a straight line as well. Like everything else in this place.

A burst of celebratory chatter sounded outside before the double doors slammed shut and it was silent again, before it swung out and there was laughter, before it finally settled and sealed Chen Xiang back in.

Erlang Shen marched in without noticing either Chen Xiang or the servant.

"Lord Erlang!" the servant exclaimed.

Erlang Shen stopped in his track. He turned to them. Something flashed in his eyes. "Chen Xiang?" he said incredulously.

Chen Xiang sunk. It was a lot to take in when he'd seen how Erlang Shen used that spear. Seen how it had cleaved his house apart.

At the best time possible, Chen Xiang's stomach growled embarrassingly loud. He sunk further into the spiky seat and looked away.

Erlang Shen's three eyes flew to the servant while his head stayed put. "Why is he just sitting there. Why hasn't he had something to eat?"

The servant blanched back into a ghostlike manner. "Lord Erlang, it's custom for guests to wait to be joined with—"

"My guests are heading to the grand hall."

Chen Xiang knew who Erlang Shen was talking about. It was the Six Brothers of Mei Shan. His comrades in battle. Erlang Shen trusted them enough to bring them when he fought his mother.

"Do you think I will deny my guests a respectful reception?" he said without a rise in his voice.

The servant took a step back and Chen Xiang thought he could see where the horror started and ended on his face, for one thing. "No…no, Lord Erlang," he stammered.

From the time he'd noticed the two until now, Erlang Shen had yet to blink once. "Then you do not mean 'guest,' when you speak of the boy. What you mean is 'subordinate.' Is Chen Xiang a subordinate, Mister Tao?"

"No."

"No. Chen Xiang," Erlang Shen said, without the slight needle tip of regard to Chen Xiang at all, "is family."

The servant nodded sternly in response. He bowed his head.

"Get the boy something to eat," he said simply. "And clean up the floor."

Erlang Shen looked about as happy as if the servant had murdered Chen Xiang. Which was the faint look of how one would regard their dying houseplant.

Chen Xiang noisily got up, pushing the chair out from the table and jumping out.

"Master Chen Xiang?" the servant called after him.

"Not hungry."

Erlang Shen did not call after him as he left.


Someone knocked on his room late at night. Or maybe it was not late at all, Chen Xiang had never learned how to tell.

"Hello?" they said, the door muffling them. "Young…Master? Chen Xiang?" It was a gruff, raspy lady's voice.

Chen Xiang chose not to answer. The lady let herself in. It had taken Chen Xiang all his strength to barricade the door with his tall, burgundy dresser but the lady had swept it aside as if it was nothing.

"Young Master?" she asked, putting down a tray. The smell of dumpling soup made Chen Xiang sit up from bed. There was also a steam bun larger than any steam bun he'd ever seen and he gratefully took it.

"…Thanks," he said, giving her a smile. "Really."

"Welcome," the lady rasped.

The lady leaned on his other dresser, looking around. She moved her eyes by turning her entire head. Chen Xiang was too hungry to care about being watched. What could she possibly tell Erlang Shen, anyway? He hadn't eaten and was trying to sleep off the starvation? He already knew that. If he wanted to know if Chen Xiang was an utter incurable slob he could ask the kitchen servant for that. Chen Xiang stuffed his face without caring about manners.

"You like to take walks. Outside. On the balcony, don't you?" the lady piped up.

Chen Xiang nodded. There was nothing new about that news either. She talked in short phrases and didn't seem to be able to say more.

"But you go and hide in your room. When Lord Erlang is back." Chen Xiang looked at her between mouthfuls. He nodded sharply. She can go tell him that. That he liked being outdoors in his dark, dank courtyard but did not like him.

"Well. I'm not going to lie. He sent me here to take you outside. Said something about the tower. Where the archers are stationed, except they're off duty at the moment. Would you like me to take you?"

Her honestly caught him off guard. She was not sickeningly nice, like some of the people here, and if she found him not-appeasing she didn't let him know. She was actually good at that, unlike others.

"I'd like that, um."

"I'm Xiao Tian."


"Up here," she rasped. It felt like her voice was getting lower and raspier by the minute. Chen Xiang's hands were getting slippery climbing the ladder. Feeling a pair of hands at his side, he gasped as she easily lifted him the rest of the way up.

"Here!" she pointed to the sides.

On the archer tower, Chen Xiang followed her direction and peered out into the far distance. He could see an end to this place. He could see a way out.


He needed to get out as soon as he can. He'd the map of the place memorised after a few trips to the archer tower, but it was too risky to keep going now. He didn't want to become suspicious.

"We could play catch," Xiao Tian suggested.

"Let's not. We'll never find the ball in a million years."

Xiao Tian sniffed indignantly. "I'm a great finder," she said.

"Fine." Chen Xiang stopped, cocking his head up to her. "Let's get a ball." Chen Xiang was hoping to throw it over the edge of oblivion and see if it would be fine at the bottom — like dropping a rock into a dark well to see how deep it was. The plan made no sense at all since he couldn't see the bottom of the earth from Erlang Shen's palace in the sky.

But in the worse case scenario, he got to play with Xiao Tian. Xiao Tian grinned with many teeth. "Okay. I bet we can find one in the servant's quarters."

There was a servant's quarters? Chen Xiang nodded.

"Follow me." And when they were at a crossroads with many paths to many places Chen Xiang had never been, she said, "Wait here. I'll find something…" Xiao Tian's run was rather like a skip and a hop.

There was a word that perfectly described how the people in the palace treated him. Foundling. He was foundling. A child that had been abandoned and discovered and cared for by others. And it infuriated Chen Xiang, because who were they to treat him like a burden and a motherless tramp when it was Erlang Shen's fault in the first place. He had not being abandoned. He had been taken.

Everything was Erlang Shen's fault, how he tried to make everybody revolve around him when he didn't want to, how he was always absent from his loyal, loyal servants, how he had crushed Chen Xiang's mother under a trillion tonnes of weight and then bought him up here to suffocate quietly. Quietly, quietly. That was how Chen Xiang would end if he didn't escape soon. He wanted to say it out loud but someone would tell Erlang Shen — he wanted to shout: he was not foundling.

A few guards seemed to have finished shifts guarding the nigh impenetrable walls. One stopped in their track, putting a hand out to stop the other two as if stopping them from jaywalking. "It's the kid," the first man said.

"Shit, you're right. Haven't actually seen him yet, he's all the guys talk about," the second said, yawning.

"He can hear you," the third man started. "You can hear us, right?"

Chen Xiang stared. They were in full armour and helmet, with swords strapped to their sides and short daggers next to those. "Yeah," he said after a pause.

"Heh. He's slow. Maybe ones like him are all slow," the first man said.

"Tch. Xiaoling don't be rude." His companion knocked him heartily in the shoulder.

Ah. So this was Xiaoling. The one who was sleeping with Ma Que. Xiaoling suddenly walked up to him and Chen Xiang felt the need to step back.

"Rude? I'll show you rude." Xiaoling placed his hand neatly on Chen Xiang's shoulder. Chen Xiang froze. "Relax, not doing anything. You think I'm rude…uh…"

"It's Young Master," one of his companions said behind them and Chen Xiang wanted to kick him.

Xiaoling seemed amused. "Aight. Young Master," he slurred. "Do you think so?"

"Yes." Chen Xiang finished saying it before he finished thinking.

Xiaoling looked taken aback, but then he dipped his head and chuckled. He gripped Chen Xiang's shoulder tighter. "Rude. Don't you think someone who's eating and drinking and boarding for free in Erlang Shen's palace is rude? Someone who's ruining Erlang Shen's reputation?"

"Hey, Xiaoling, knock it off man."

Xiaoling's grip was growing tighter on Chen Xiang and he couldn't help it but let it show.

"No. Reputation's all we got. We all know. It's what keeping Erlang Shen in the sky and what's feeding our families, yeah?" His mouldy breath blew in Chen Xiang's face. "He stuck his neck out for you, you know. And it's costing him, big time. Now that's rude, isn't it?" he went on, and Chen Xiang was trying to decipher what he was saying under the heavy slur.

Costing him? Costing him what? Chen Xiang hardened. It didn't need to cost him anything. He could toss him over the side of oblivion and the problem would be solved. But Chen Xiang had the distinct feeling that even that would be a mercy. Xiaoling's grip was bruising his shoulder. Chen Xiang felt it stilling his insides, bracing for something he was powerless to stop. He never considered he could go like this. Alone in a palace back alley by a drunkard.

"Back off," someone grunted.

Chen Xiang's head shot to the side.

Xiao Tian had come back. There was an patterned green ball abandoned a bit behind her. The two guards perked at her arrival, but did nothing.

"Yeah, Xiaoling, listen to the kitchen girl. We should back off to our quarters. C'mon."

He ignored them and shrugged. Xiaoling used a thumb to push Chen Xiang's face back towards him. "He doesn't like you and you sure as fuck don't like—"

Xiao Tian didn't give a second warning. She pounced on Xiaoling. In the time between her body-slamming Xiaoling away from Chen Xiang and then jumping atop of him, her entire body had shaken and slipped and turned into a dog's. Her rasp of a voice had morphed into a low, rumbling growl.

He felt an odd sort of fascination over the entire thing: Xiaoling mercilessly dragged away, the dog spitting and angry, him standing on the spot and watching everything go by as if he were behind a sheet of glass, there and not really there. On the day he left earth, Mum had shouted at him to run. He hadn't run. 'Why didn't he run?' he often thought to himself, too transfixed and empty and raw. If he'd listened to her, would anything have been different?

The dog tore into the guard's armour, taking it apart. His companions jumped to help, but two ground-shaking barks repelled them. Then the dog pushed the guard into the dark. In the dark, all that was visible was the shine of bits of armour. The dog had completely sunk into the blackness until nothing could discern a dog except for the low, primal growls echoing down the walls. There was a moment between Xiaoling's silent wrestle with the dog and when he started screaming. 

Chen Xiang turned and ran.


As the sounds of the dog attack subsided, Chen Xiang did not slow down. He ran down corridor to corridor, from empty courtyards to weapons holds to staircases that led to nowhere. It was as if he was running into mirrors that wouldn't shatter — everything looked and felt the same — cold, stark, never-ending.

The neverending-ness was what scared him the most about this place. Sometime from the time he'd come here to the time where started to look forward to going out and balancing on the high-up, stone railings, his fears had changed. When he was very young it was small, dark corners or hands that would grab him from under the bed. He was not scared of the dark anymore. And no longer was it falling from a great height and then ending up in that same, dark place, under a great, mountainous weight. It was here. It was living like this.

Sometime when he'd realised he was looking forward to something as mundane and frivolous as balancing on a railing, he'd accepted that he would be here forever, and that was as good as it was going to get. Chen Xiang was so incredibly, asphyxiatingly scared. Chen Xiang bobbed between two large columns. He pressed his hands to his eyes, squeezing them hard as he leaned in, trying to not to make any noise.

He was young. When you were young, you forgot things. Even things as important and indispensable as a face. What did his parents look like? Mum had always said Chen Xiang had his father's looks. He tried to bring up an image of Sanseng Mu. It was fuzzy. The edges weren't entirely there.

"I miss you." Chen Xiang buried his hands into his sides. "I miss you so much."

Even with his eyes closed, he could see the flash of light whiten the space behind his eyelids. Chen Xiang jerked alert. "What—?"

Right before his face, there was a spot of light. He squinted, tried to look closer, but that was what it was. A spot of light like a firefly, except there was nothing encapsulating it in the middle. Just…light, floating freely.

Chen Xiang blinked.

He reached out to grab it. Just as it hit his palm, the light evaporated like smoke into nothing. But then, up ahead, the light appeared again. A bit away, a second light appeared behind it. Then another, and another. Chen Xiang got up, wiped his face, and then followed the lights. Down a flight of stairs, down a marble pathway, down to another empty courtyard just like every other one. Chen Xiang captured the lights in his hands before they fluttered away. The last one, and he knew it was the last one when no other light lit up behind it, hovered right in the middle of a wall.

"…I don't understand."

Chen Xiang thought for now that he didn't need to understand. Closing his eyes, taking a leap of faith, he stretched his hand out to grab the last light. As he did, he felt a pressure fall over his body, as if he were going against a tide. When he opened his eyes, he was on the other side of the wall. It was a smaller room, considering how large the dining hall was. At the end of the room was a shrine with a large, smiling woman stood tall and staring up at the heavens.

On the table of offerings was the source of the light. A warm, yellow light illuminated the jade petals neatly curled around the lantern's heart, bright enough to make the tips of it seem translucent, bright enough to make the goddess's shrine swathed in it.

"Baolian Deng." Chen Xiang ran the rest of the way, half tripping over himself as he reached the stand and, "It is you! Lotus Lantern, Mum's lantern!"

Chen Xiang gripped it and held it close. It had been so long since he'd seen the lantern. It was like finding a part of home all the way out in the Celestial Realm. Chen Xiang rubbed his eyes and readied himself to see where he was.

It was as if he was in another one of this place's grand halls, as if there were not enough of those that Erlang Shen needed. This one was smaller, the inside less spacious, but the decor and carvings and gilded portrait said otherwise. Lined up in rows were the unmistakable figures of long swords, broad swords, short spears, arrows and other kinds of weaponry that Chen Xiang had never seen before. This seemed to be an armoury. What kind of an armoury required a lady's shrine? What kind of armoury needed to be kept in secret?

Chen Xiang held up the Lantern, using it to light the path. After one trek around the room, he circled back to the front where he noticed something else. Opposite the area where he'd found the lantern, it too placed in front of the lady's statue, was a great, shining axe.

Chen Xiang noticed there was dust on the axe, but not on the lantern. From the broad, sleek side, he could see his reflection on the axe. It's tip started to thin off as early as from the centre of the weapon. Just by that count, he knew it was sharp. Chen Xiang blinked. In addition, he knew what kind of value it had when it had been placed next to the Lotus Lantern. No — the Lotus Lantern was placed next to the axe.

The light had been glowing fainter all the while and Chen Xiang knew it would go out before he finished surveying the place completely. But that did not matter. The Lotus Lantern had never lit for him before and now it did. He knew where it was being held and that was all he needed. Chen Xiang placed the Lantern back before the statue of the lady. It went out.


When he was younger, his father used to carry this square piece of cloth on him. It was misshapen, one tip of it was discoloured from a tea spill, and there was a embroidered pink starfish holding a green stick on it.

"It's a lotus, Chen Xiang. Gosh." Dad shook it open and presented it for Chen Xiang to see better. "With a stalk. And a leaf. Can't you see?" He pointed to the embroidered mess and then began to trace it when Chen Xiang raised a questioning brow.

"I see." Chen Xiang nodded noncommittally and non-convincingly.

Wherever he went, it was always with him. Tucked in his clothes, hung around his neck, or folded in a pocket. Whenever he took it out his mother looked like she was seeing the intangible thing that was slowly killing their crops.

"Why do you always bring it about?" Chen Xiang asked finally. "It's ugly."

Dad gasped sharply, clasping a hand to his mouth. "You take that back."

"Nuh-uh."

"Take it back, son."

"But you said lying was bad."

Dad harrumphed and patted his chest. "It…it is…but…" Dad backtracked. He folded the Lotus cloth back up. There was a moment where he stopped and made sure that the flower would be visible when he finished the folds, thumbing over a petal to smooth it.

"Your Mum gave it to me. That makes it the most perfect thing ever."

What a liar. But Chen Xiang learnt fast and it wasn't hard to figure out why everybody else's Mums made refined, extravagant scarves and hand cloths and his Mum made the equivalent of how Chen Xiang's handwriting looked next to Dad's award winning essays. She hadn't learnt how to embroider things like other ladies from a young age. Dad had said she'd never had that luxury, but she learnt how to do it and then given the Lotus embroidery as a gift. This was before they married. Dad was awfully, sickeningly fond of it.

"Heavens, Yanchang!" Mum said one day. "Can you get your grubby fingers off that grubby cloth? I'll make another one for you if you're that infatuated."

Dad gasped. "You take that back. I love it."

Mum smirked. "If you're so in love with it, maybe you should marry it."

"You know, that is my motto in life."

Then Dad gave that awful, sickening grin, and then Mum pretended badly to protest as he petitioned for a kiss.

"Ew Chen Xiang. Your parents are being gross again," one of his friends said as they looked up from their chirping crickets.

Chen Xiang shrugged. "Eh. They always are."

Looking back, they both did lots of ridiculous things for the sheer ridiculousness of it. Dad bought azalea seeds and then tried to grow them in secret for Mum when he had absolutely no farming experience — and also he was scammed and they were actually blackened pumpkin seeds. Mum ran all the way out to the market with an umbrella when Chen Xiang told her Dad had gone out and it had started pouring, and they came back squished together under one umbrella that they were clearly too big to fit under together.

Dad once came back limping with a black eye and blood running from his nose to his chin while balanced on Mum's shoulder, and when Chen Xiang asked what had happened Mum had said, "It's alright Chen Xiang, nothing to worry about. Dad tried to fight for my honour again."

Dad had no funny bone in him for fighting and their garden chickens were more deadly than him.

Dad blinked up at him. "Shoulda sheen the other guy, Chen Xiang. Hah ha…"

"Honey, I took out the other guy…"

"That's what I was shaying!"

At night, Chen Xiang was oftentimes woken up by the sound of someone choking. It was Dad. He wasn't choking. It was him and his ugly laugh. Mum had told him something funny. How Mum could find so many funny things to make him laugh was incredible. Then Chen Xiang got up to see them fully awake and making dumplings in a very botched and floury kitchen before it was even light outside. But Mum's lantern — every time Dad hiccup-laughed and Mum smirked, the lantern glowed like it was happy with them.

Anyway. Anyway. There were cynical people in the world. Chen Xiang had heard what those cynical people had to say. When some older kid told him that true love, true love did not exist — it was the biggest lie he ever heard.

Because true love was sleeping squished between your parents in their bed, true love was never having to question whether you were supposed to be on this earth or not, true love was the ugly embroidery on a cloth, the sound of broadsword hitting a three-pointed spear. True love was hearing the sound that came out of his father's mouth as he watched. Watched what Erlang Shen did to his wife.

How, when Dad looked at him with fear and worry and with his heart splitting clean into two, there was no blame in his eyes. Even though it was Chen Xiang's existence that had angered Heaven. Because it was Chen Xiang's fault that they'd been ripped apart.

All his life, all he'd known was love. And now when they say that his parents were wrong, that they had sinned and breached the balance of the cosmos in that special, high-pitched voice to him, he wanted to laugh in their face. He thought back often on that day family had shown up at their door. That day that Chen Xiang had learned to hate, really hate. But that didn't matter anymore. Because he knew, deep inside, that love was right. That his parents were right. That everybody else that tried to make him think otherwise was stupid and wrong.

Chen Xiang was no fool.

It was the thought of his parents, how much they cared for him, how they loved each other, that got Chen Xiang through the days at the Palace. It was what made the Lantern light up. Chen Xiang also knew it was that that would get him out of the Palace.


"Young Master Chen Xiang?" someone called.

"Yeah?"

"You've been summoned."


He lingered to the side. Erlang Shen was haunched over his throne, at eye level with his dog.

"…You didn't have to take his hand." He sounded extremely…tired.

The dog growled softly. He barked twice.

"I know what I said," Erlang Shen started and sighed. "I said to make it so that anyone that hurts him won't touch him again." Erlang Shen's lips twitched. "You didn't have to take it so literally."

The dog, in his defence, growl-whimpered and then looked distinctly to the ceiling.

"Of course I wasn't there. If I were there we wouldn't be having this problem, would we?"

The dog barked.

"What do you propose I do? Reattach the guard's hand that you've already digested? Give you a pat on the back for your good work? Xiao Tian Quan, you traumatised him for life."

Chen Xiang felt as if he'd walked in on something he ought not have. The dog, Xiao Tian Quan, quietened. His ears drooped as he sauntered around Erlang Shen's throne as the god touched the bridge of his nose with two fingers. Very suddenly, Xiao Tian perked up as his head shot right to where Chen Xiang was standing.

"Yes?"

Xiao Tian growled. He sniffed the air, taking one bound to be in front of Erlang Shen.

"Who?"

The same time that Xiao Tian stopped growling as fast as turning a switch, Chen Xiang had stepped out.

Erlang Shen's eyes went wide. "Chen Xiang." After a moment, he patted Xiao Tian Quan vaguely on the back. "Leave."

Xiao Tian Quan slunk behind the throne into the darkness. As Chen Xiang approached the throne, the Sky Eye on Erlang Shen's head shut closed.

"Chen Xiang," Erlang Shen started. "…I'm glad for you to join me."

"I didn't really think I had a choice," Chen Xiang said.

The corner of Erlang Shen's lip turned up, a half-hearted apology. But an apology meant a confirmation. "I know things have been hard. I know things have been unexpected. Life does not turn out as one expects. It seldom does. It has been very hard for you. I know."

He hardly spoke more than ten syllables at a time to him.

"The servants can be…clumsy," he opted to say. "But they are loyal. You can trust them."

He said it as if it would magically change Chen Xiang's mind, as if it was going to undo months of ostracisation.

Erlang Shen sighed lightly, his fingers itching to grab and claw at the armrests. The chrome and silver throne looked just as comfortable as one of the dining chairs. "If the palace is too stuffy for you, I could take you to one of the higher layers."

Higher layers? Chen Xiang fidgeted. "What do you mean? Isn't this Heaven?"

Erlang Shen dipped his head. "This is the Zhenjun, 真君 Palace. This palace is the fifth layer under Heaven."

Chen Xiang noted it down.

"Would you like to see Heaven?"

Chen Xiang didn't stop himself from frowning. "What's there to see?"

Erlang Shen managed to coil back without moving a single muscle. "More Palace. I suppose."

"Nm."

"Distasteful. I understand."

Chen Xiang really doubted it.

"But I hear that in the eight layer, there is—"

"What do you want from me?"

Erlang Shen seemed to be ready for his straightforwardness. "Nothing," he said. "I want to give you something."

Chen Xiang frowned. Erlang Shen stretched out his hand to his right, slowing drawing it back like there was a current of resistance. With it, came a small, gold box. Chen Xiang was nigh sick of gold.

When Erlang Shen popped it open, Chen Xiang's brows flew up. It was a jade pendant: beautifully cut, beautifully polished, with two red beads on each side of the string. The jade of it reminded him of the jade that his mother's lantern was made of, dark and yet transparent enough to see the pink of your hand through the other side. It was the sort of thing his mother would have loved. Erlang Shen raised his hands, hovering them near Chen Xiang. When Chen Xiang didn't move, he put the necklace around him and fastened it.

"It suits you," Erlang Shen said. "It's nice."

It was. Chen Xiang looked down, turning it around in his fingers. It was heavier than he expected, but still warm from when Erlang Shen had held it. That surprised him, somehow. "What's it for?"

"It's a necklace. You keep it around your neck."

"I mean, why give me this?"

Erlang Shen's third eye opened along with the movement of two eyes blinking. It took concentration for him to keep it closed, when he was caught off guard, it flew open and he wouldn't realise. He looked at Chen Xiang with a strange, controlled look.

"Today is your eleventh birthday."

"It — What?"

Chen Xiang thought he was nine and a half at most.

Erlang Shen's mouth curled upwards. The look that it achieved was very different from the one he'd seen on the day he met him. Was it genuine? Of sorts. Did Chen Xiang like it? No. He smiled, though, a careful, strategic motion of lip.

"Happy Birthday, Chen Xiang."

He thought he might move to embrace him. He didn't. Chen Xiang was oddly…disappointed. Something tightened in his chest and he crushed it down.

"Thank you," he said, dropping the pendant. The weight on his chest felt strange.

Erlang Shen sat back staunchly in his throne. "Chen Xiang," he started, a little more sure, "If it would make you more comfortable to be here, I would like to teach you how to protect yourself."

Chen Xiang looked up, puzzled. What did he mean?

"You are a god of the House of Yang. As such, you will learn the disciplines of our line." Erlang Shen paused, looking sheepish for a second. "Well. Since nine generations of Yang were eradicated, there is only my sister and I's discipline left. It will suffice."

"I'm not a Yang."

Erlang Shen stirred in his seat. The assuredness of him had evaporated.

Chen Xiang raised his head and looked him in his three eyes. "I'm Liu Chen Xiang. My father was Liu Yanchang." Chen Xiang swallowed down his second thoughts. "I don't want to learn whatever your style is."

Erlang Shen's shoulders raised and them drooped and Chen Xiang thought he was finally reacting and not just accepting. "Chen Xiang. Your mother was Sanseng Mu, Yang Chan. There are parts of us that we cannot refute, no matter how hard we may try. You cannot disregard who you are no more than I."

Suddenly, Chen Xiang felt a wave of pressure come over him, like something pressing inwards on his lungs. Erlang Shen's dark eyes lit up. Slowly, he stood. It had been so long since he was up so close, Chen Xiang forgot how he towered over him.

"You are a god of the Celestial Realm." Then, without hesitating this time, and somehow practiced, Erlang Shen put his hand on Chen Xiang's shoulder. "It's hard. But it won't matter. I'll take care of you," he said. "We're family."

Chen Xiang rocked backwards, grasping the armoured plate of Erlang Shen's wrist and ripping it off of him like it was something repulsive. As he did, something sharp and carnal blitzed through him, whitening inside his head as he was swept his hand away in a pang of rage. When Erlang Shen's hand came away, his gauntlet was smoking.

"Chen Xiang," he said tryingly.

"No we're not," Chen Xiang said, eyes watering though he wasn't feeling sad. "How could you? — How could you possibly say that and expect me to believe you after what you did?!"

He shook his head fitfully, gasping, and before he knew it he was screaming at him. "How could you call her family, and then do what you did to her?!—How do you have the gall to call me family after what you did?!" Chen Xiang messily bit into his lip. "How could you…" Chen Xiang broke off, breathing hard to compose himself.

"You took away everything from me. My family — my home — and now you want to force me to give up my name?!"

Erlang Shen seemed to freeze, his feet rooted to the spot, his hands still at his sides, his eyes open wide and staring and unblinking.

"My name is Liu Chen Xiang. And I'm not a god! I'm never going to be like you — be like them! I'm not learning your style, I'm not pretending that everything is okay when it's not. I've not been ok since the day you took me to this giant prison of a palace! Yang Jian," Chen Xiang heaved, his breath stuttery and harsh, "I'd rather die than be anything like you."

All three of his eyes looking like he was a deer caught in headlights, frozen in time, in a strange sort of reckoning. Chen Xiang grimaced, grinding his teeth, wanting for him to react, to bite back, hit him or something — but he did nothing, just stood there like Chen Xiang did watching, watching Sanseng Mu fall.

All of a sudden, there was a screech of claws skidding on the marble floor as Xiao Tian Quan came rounding the corner, looming out of the dark with his jaws fixed in a rumbling, vibrating growl. He closed the gap between them in an instance, lurching to Erlang Shen's side faster than any palace guard, so fast Chen Xiang didn't see him until he was already there. Chen Xiang didn't even try to move, if he was to be mowed down by dog then it was better than what his mother got, then so be it.

But the moment changed, Erlang Shen swivelled, putting a still-smoking hand out to curb Xiao Tian Quan's anger — he hadn't pounced and wasn't going to, but his teeth were shiny white against the black of his coat — and Erlang Shen shoved him back with a push. "Stop it."

Xiao Tian Quan immediately hid his teeth. Erlang Shen turned back to Chen Xiang without another thought to the dog, as if they were never interrupted. His three eyes told the truth that his attention had never divided. When he turned back, Chen Xiang was redder, calmer, and drier.

Chen Xiang's shoulders heaved as he sucked in a last breath. Erlang Shen watched as he ripped the pendant off of himself. His voice was level. "Nothing you say and nothing you do can change the fact that I wish — Erlang Shen — I wish was never related to you."

Chen Xiang threw the jade pendant at his feet. It hit the floor hard, cracking in three places, one bead splitting clean off and then rolling part way away.

There was nothing more to say and nothing more to rebut. Chen Xiang, mind static and clouded and angry — he'd never been so angry before — turned slowly. Without looking back or saying anything else, he ran.   


"Run, Chen Xiang! Run and don't look back!"


And his legs, unknowingly, bought him down empty hallways, past servants, past glaring guards and through intangible, magic-weaved walls. His legs bought him to the Lotus Lantern.

It was there, still placed beneath the woman's shrine, unlit, gathering dust. Chen Xiang scooped it up in his hands. As he left, he skimmed over his reflection in the silver axe.

Without another moment to lose, Chen Xiang operated on autopilot, letting the map he built in his head after looking out of the archer towers so many times guide him, zigzagging his way to the furthermost point of the palace. And, for the luck of the world, he finally, finally reached it.

Chen Xiang leaned over the stone rails once again. He climbed atop until there was nothing between him but the fifth layer of the Celestial Realm and a frightening, unfathomable drop.

There it was. Blueness that lit up his eyes, blinding him for a moment, blueness that was the colour of the sky. He had finally escaped that lurid, enveloping blue of the palace, was finally free from looking into that kind of abyss. Up here was coldness and hardness and a type of cynicism that put holes in his heart, that hurt and ached. Below was the mortal world.

Chen Xiang didn't know if he belonged there, anymore. But it didn't matter. So long as he could get away from this lonely place, it didn't matter. The hardness had rubbed off on him after all. Chen Xiang closed his eyes and clutched the lantern like a lifeline. He didn't see the faint glow, stuttering, light it up.

"I'm going home," he said, and his words barely made it past the petals of the lantern. "I'm coming back for you," he said to his parents. "I'm coming."

Chen Xiang leaned over the edge.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

When Chen Xiang was small and afraid and powerless, thinly sheltered by a fragment of the grey brick roof he'd grown up under, before it, too, crumbled away to smithereens by sheer traumatic force, he'd watched with wide eyes and couldn't really separate fear from admiration. He'd watched his mother do battle with a god and remain toe to toe until she faltered, until a wrist popped, until she missed a beat, until she lost her step breathing though one remaining, unpunctured lung — toe to toe until suddenly she wasn't. Because she was strong and she showed it, conjuring weapons out of thin air to replace them as they broke, drawing fire through the sky making artificial suns, raging, fighting and clawing for him.

Someone who'd only ever looked up to his mother looked up once more and she was a bright star, falling, fizzling out, her head lain on the carpet of old stones, the fragmented pieces of their outdoor patio alongside the inky blue outline of their vintage vase beginning to scramble and buzz so near her heated presence.

Chen Xiang thought he could see the moment where she rearranged the lines on her face: instantaneous and reactionary, almost like a burn reflex. She saw Chen Xiang and she shifted her head, gaunt lines turning up into a smile. And it wasn't as terrible as it could have been. In fact, it was perfect. A perfect, almost brutish kind of smile in that it was goddamned ruthless in giving a sense of security. In those tipped odds, it was giving a false sense of security. But in that moment 'false' was the furtherest thing it was from. It was real to Chen Xiang. It gave him hope.

Bloodied and mussed up and only really half breathing, Sanseng Mu did not know how to correlate the brink of death, dishevelment, or being on the floor with not finishing the job. In her last moments, there was only one mission left. And that was making Chen Xiang live. She smiled, giving him her earnest before she pushed herself up and said,

"Run, Chen Xiang."

But Chen Xiang, who remembered those stories Dad used to whisper at the end of his bed each night, the ones he kept in his chest and gave him the strength to stand up for his friends in a school yard scuffle, the ones that told him standing down in the face of doom was second rate — they welled up within him and kept him still.

Something as small as a smile had given him the hope that everything was going to be alright, somehow. His mother was one of those heroes right then, right before his eyes, clashing hook swords with spear and showers of arrows, raging and burning. He didn't know how hard it was already for her to breathe or how her eyesight was blinking in and out of focus, making her time her defences for the seconds-long blackouts.

Then there was Erlang Shen, descending with his three-tipped spear, chanting old magic and new, blitzing his way through her shields and layers of aura. Chen Xiang watched heavy blow after heavy blow land, knocking his mother off her stance until she wobbled, wobbled, fell. This time she was metres from him, her reaction delayed as her eyes blinked back into focus to see Chen Xiang through tight lips, watching her blankly. But this time there was no smile to reassure and maybe that was the thing that hurt Chen Xiang most — that Sanseng Mu could no longer pretend it was okay.

She got up, shaking her hair out of her face, launching herself into the sky to strike again, her voice booming shrill and scratchy with unspoken spells,

"Run, Chen Xiang! Run and don't look back!"

"Run!"

"Run!"

"Go—"

Chen Xiang, in that moment, too small, too afraid, too powerless, he stared blankly above, too petrified to run.

The celestial soldiers closed in. The smoke of their little house rose far above his head. His freshly grazed knee stung in the dirt. He didn't even cry. Just stared. Sanseng Mu was fighting and making her swords revolve two to three times per second, razing into enemy armour and weapons, battered and still bruising.

"Chen Xiang?" His mother's voice said suddenly in his ear, and Chen Xiang whipped around, startled.

It was Sanseng Mu, but her voice was whispered in his ear even though she was a far, far way away. The Sanseng Mu above was fighting. He looked again and she was close now, her hair undone, wild and moving like it was full of static; she spoke over the other Sanseng Mu in the sky that screeched a battle cry.

She said, "Silly boy, why didn't you run?"

"What?" Chen Xiang turned fully to face her, finding that his voice was not that of a child's. "M—Mum?"

Sanseng Mu shook her head darkly, her hair shaking with it, drawing lines through her face. "Chen Xiang, oh, Chen Xiang, my little boy, why didn't you just run?"

Chen Xiang choked. His eyes flitted back to the Sanseng Mu in the sky. She evaded a thrust, but wasn't fast enough to do it again as Erlang Shen began to close his two eyes, leaving his third open. He cut straight through her shoulder. In the air lay the smell of old magic, of sulphur, a faint light glaring through the opening of Sanseng Mu's wound and the spurt of arterial blood.

Beside him, not far, Sanseng Mu was also lain on the ground. He could see she was trying to reassure, but she was not even able to lift her body to do it. She just shifted her head so that she faced Chen Xiang. This time, it was different and she didn't smile. Her red lips, the same colour of the blood on her shoulder, quirked downwards and the frown on her face was the moment Chen Xiang saw her through the crack in the door of their living room. She said, to another him, sheltered under that same roof fragment, "Run, Chen Xiang."

All of the Sanseng Mus looked strange and slightly clouded, like there was something keeping him from seeing their faces without distortion.

But a hand clutched Chen Xiang's arm, pulling him violently back in the other direction. It was Sanseng Mu, tear stained, her clothes dirtied and ruffled and the look in her eyes was lifeless, "Why didn't you run, Chen Xiang?"

And the other Sanseng Mu kept saying, softly, "Run, Chen Xiang."

"If you just got away — he wouldn't have taken you."

"Please get away, now, Chen Xiang…"

"You wouldn't have wasted so much time. Humouring him."

"Run, Chen Xiang! Run and don't look back!"

"You didn't run and you were caught and now I'm still there. I'm still under the mountain. You wasted so much—"

"Why aren't you running!"

And then Master was sitting on a cushioned cough out in the middle of the battlefield, trying to roast his brown hare on the part of the couch that had caught fire. "Kid," he said, turning to him, "You know this is a godsdamned dream. Don't drag me into your horror show."

Then he lifted the suddenly plucked and prepared hare to his mouth, taking a messy bite out of it. "Enough. Wake up."


 

Chen Xiang woke up sweating.


Chen Xiang tied up his bag, a few integral necessities. On the break of dawn he set off.

"Where ya going?" someone said lightly.

Chen Xiang near jumped out of his skin. "Wha…where are you?"

"Up."

Chen Xiang looked up, rolling his eyes hard as he did so. The first thing that caught his eye was the glint of the golden band, garish and bright. He tilted his head out of the way to see Sun Wukong seated on a high tree, leaning on the trunk with a leg hanging down. He was swinging it leisurely. He held two blue-painted cups in his hand and a square teapot in the other. Making a big show of it, Wukong lifted the tea up and poured it from a metre high. Steam billowed above, causing him blink to get it out of his eyes. Water spit from the cups and landed like light rain on Chen Xiang's face.

"Going somewhere?"

"Yeah."

"Where?"

Chen Xiang swallowed. Closing his eyes a moment, he opened them ready to go through with what he'd rehearsed.

"Hand out," Wukong said.

"Huh?"

"Just do it."

Chen Xiang went alert just in time to put out a palm and catch the cup that Sun Wukong dropped. Then a lid followed and closed it with a cling.

"Your favourite. Green tea. With sugar. Because you disgrace me."

"It's just water dipped in leaves, Master, I can put sugar in it if I want."

Wukong was visibly uncomfortable at what he called him, but didn't comment. "You can put sugar in your rice or your meat or your salted egg too. Leave me out of it." Wukong threw the rest of the teapot behind him with a lazy flick. It broke into a dozen pieces. (That was dickish of him. Chen Xiang knew it was one of the monkeys that would end up cleaning it up.)

"We going to do something un-smart?" he asked snidely and Chen Xiang didn't like the tone of it.

"Not we. You don't need to worry about it la."

"Hahahah — no."

The script went out the window. It always did with Sun Wukong. Chen Xiang cleared his throat. "Hey, I've been hanging with you for years. I know I can—"

"—I'll tell you a story, should I, Kiddo?" Wukong swung his leg high enough to hit the tree once or twice. "It's a story about yours truly. Once upon a time, I got put under a fucking mountain for no less than five hundred fucking years—"

"Do you have any other, better stories to tell?" Chen Xiang scraped the ceramic lid on the side of the cup. He blew on the tea. "Consider something more relatable."

Wukong did the same, except he picked the lid up with his mouth and then spat it somewhere else beforehand. It broke. An eye twitched on Chen Xiang. Chen Xiang sighed, lifting his cup up above his head as if to clink glasses. Wukong jut his out to the side to mirror him. And, if his tea was really the same as Chen Xiang's, Wukong was gulping seventy eight degrees celsius down his oesophagus in one go.

"Just listen, kid, gosh," Wukong said, and it sounded like whining. "Point is. I'm telling you so that it doesn't ever become relatable."

Chen Xiang's eyes widened briefly. He'd said it in the same lacklustre but slightly judging tone as everything else, but did so while staring into Chen Xiang's soul. Wukong's bright, gold eyes gleamed.

He was briefly reminded of a time he tried to sneak away in the dark only to be met by two shining eyes and seemingly nothing else attached to them. He wondered if anyone had realised that Sun Wukong's eyes were reflective, and that would have made for an acutely distressing sight when trekking through the woods alone.

Wukong cleared his throat. "The bigger point is. Someone warned me not to get ahead of myself. Someone had predicted the kind of trouble I'll waltz into. They'd known I was too…me."

Chen Xiang sipped some tea. "Well don't they deserve a medal?" He huffed. "Who?"

"They also made me promise I wouldn't say who."

"Pfft," Chen Xiang burst out. "And you're going through with that?"

"To my dying breath."

That was an odd thing for him to say. Chen Xiang wished he knew what he meant.

"The bigger, bigger point is," Wukong continued, balancing the empty cup with a pinky finger. "You're not ready."

Chen Xiang felt a lump forming in his throat.

"There's more to do. With your footwork. Your aura. When you transform and look like uncanny valley. The way you lean slightly too left when you kick up from a crouch and miss the next opening—"

"Yeah, yeah, I can list your flaws and it would be the same, Master," Chen Xiang said, holding up his tea in a little salute. "You nap at all hours of the day and have no sleeping schedule. Your body clock is screwed up — screwed up, Master. When you laugh too hard you sound like a chimpanzee dying. You're so incredibly reckless you drink your tea scalding. You have no idea how to calm down when—"

"Well maybe scalding is just how I like it!" Wukong burst, answering only one out of four of the listed accusations.

Chen Xiang coiled backwards with a cringe. "Liar, liar."

Wukong made a low grumbling nose in his throat. "I will light your pants on fire. Kid."

He was not going to let this go easy, was he? Everything was easy until it suddenly wasn't, with him. Chen Xiang tossed his cup behind him too. Wukong's eyes narrowing was the only indication he needed to know that it had landed upright without a scratch. Lid included.

"I'm not going to be dumb about it."

"I'm not concerned with your IQ, I'm talking about your apocalyptic impatience," Wukong said, his nose scrunching in a way that wasn't a sneer, but always carried the suggestion it could turn into one quickly, and was halfway to it. Or maybe his face just gave that impression in general. He blew air from his nose. "And, lemme say, your precedence isn't exactly applause-worthy."

Chen Xiang still couldn't believe he had the guts to comment on his impatience. "Think whatever you want, then! I can't control what goes on in your brain!"

Wukong leisurely changed the foot that was hanging on the tree, starting to rock the other one. "We've gone over this before, Kiddo."

"Exactly!"

"Precisely," Wukong said flatly.

"I need this." Chen Xiang winced at himself for the break in his voice. "…Do you get it? This is everything to me. I've worked for this. I can do it now. I've been building for it every day—"

"This is adding to your precedence," Wukong piped up.

All of a sudden Chen Xiang walked to the foot of the tree, twisted around, and then kicked in with the force of his frustration. The entire thing cracked, snagged, and then crashed down as Chen Xiang sent Wukong flying. Wukong set himself down a bit behind him.

"Kid. I was on that tree."

"So I saw." Chen Xiang gritted his teeth. He put up his palms, leaning into stance. "And I'm done watching everything I say go in one of your ears and out the other. It's almost tangible."

Wukong straightened up, frowning. "You really going to fight me?"

Chen Xiang jerked forward, throwing an upward punch at him. Wukong flexed out of the way, getting pushed back two large steps.

"You're really going to fight me," he echoed.

Chen Xiang parried a half-hearted hit and then slipped behind him. Wukong swivelled in time to catch Chen Xiang's first in his. Chen Xiang pulled back with his other hand, but Wukong snatched it in a single shot. He held their interlocked hands high above their heads, stopping the scuffle immediately. They glared at each other, deadlocked.

"We're really doing this?" Wukong said, his words lilting darkly.

"I'm not a stupid idiot," Chen Xiang said lowly. But this time he had come ready and this time he had an edge. He smiled in a way that said he knew something Wukong didn't. Wukong squinted. "I know you're a piece of hair, Master."

Wukong twitched. "I'm a pitch perfect hair clone. Nothing like your uncanny valley transformations. How did you know?"

Chen Xiang smirked. "The real Master would have picked me up and and suplexed me when I said he laughed like a chimpanzee dying. You don't want to fight me, that's why you have to keep your mouth shut."

Wukong's eyes narrowed into slits. "Touché."

Then Chen Xiang swivelled, using his momentum to throw Wukong to the side. Wukong let go immediately, sticking the landing with great priority. If he was hit hard, he would disappear.Turning around, Wukong reared his neck, strangely hurt.

But Chen Xiang had an edge and he had to end it as soon as he was able if he wanted it to last.

Wukong's demeanour changed as he quickly wiped the look off his face. "I can't believe you, sometimes," was all he said. 

Chen Xiang shrugged. "I'm sorry." He really was.

"Waiting for real-me to leave and then gap it. Classic, that is, classic," Wukong nodded. "Dumb all the same, though."

"And now you're trying to keep me talking. Nice try, Master." Chen Xiang jumped closer, Wukong jumped and skidded back. Chen Xiang matched his speed and landed a hit. "Real-you made me fight dozens of you day and night. I can take one of you easily."

"Holy shit has real-me rubbed off on you," Wukong muttered, wiping his chin.

"And another thing. Real-Master would never go without saying 'stop calling me Master' for so long. You're so fake." Chen Xiang lunged at him and Wukong evaded again, careful to put his hands in front of him before smashing into a tree.

"Real-me isn't going to be happy," the hair-transformation of Sun Wukong said, a tinge of something regrettable in it. He turned up his nose, tipping his head in the direction for the fastest way down the mountain. It told Chen Xiang that flying now would alert the real one. "You don't have a lot of time, the original's catching up. Start flying when you're out of range. Chop, chop now," Hair-Master said.

He disappeared into nothing from the feet to head, giving him enough time to shoot a wry look as he went away. "Hope you know what you're doing. Good luck, Kiddo."

"Thanks." Chen Xiang turned around.

"I'm. Not happy. Kiddo," Wukong sneered, his lips drooping immensely as he stared Chen Xiang down from four inches away.

Shoot.

Chen Xiang looked distinctly to the side. "…How long were you there?"

"You know I know everything he knows." Wukong swung back, holding the bridge of his nose. "Mmph," he started muttering more to himself than Chen Xiang, "they all go traitor in front of your pouting mug I can't believe—"

"Not my fault. They're you, anyway, so…"

Wukong flung his hand down. "You can't go, Chen Xiang."

Chen Xiang was inwardly alarmed at how calm he was. But asking why he wasn't angry was just going to make him angry so he did not.

"Is that a suggestion or just an open comment?" Chen Xiang crossed his arms. "You're gone for days at a time and then watch me with Hair-Master. Okay. What is your problem?"

Wukong growled, mushing his lips together. He pointed a finger at him. "Don't call the hair 'Master.' "

Chen Xiang threw up his arms defeatedly. "See?!"

"You can't go because every celestial that hasn't forgotten the memo will jump you from fifty thousand feet."

"Then let them come." Chen Xiang's eyes narrowed.

Wukong stiffened. Visibly, he stiffened. And then bobbed his head this way and that. A low snicker laced between his words. "Look, kid—"

"No, you look." Chen Xiang parried Wukong just as he started to do the pointing again, pushing his arm down. "I can't wait anymore."

"It's not like she's going anywhere! You can pipe down and—"

"She's been there for years. I don't even know how many years it's been — I have no idea. It's been so long," Chen Xiang breathed, feeling pressure behind his eyes. "I spent four years in Heaven. Master, when I came back, more than four years had passed." 

The pause between them drew too long, lurid like how the silence was suffocating. Time passed differently in Heaven. The way time passed in Heaven changed between great light-year leaps and slow crawls. What was that saying Master had said once? If you're in the right part, one day in Heaven can be a year on earth...not strictly so but some such about that logic, he'd said, and unbeknownst to Wukong, Chen Xiang's breath had sucked out of him until his body was a vacuum, completely devoid of matter.That's partly how people up there stay young and pretty. Partly how the world can change and the musty old celestials up there stay the damned same. 

How long had Sanseng Mu really been imprisoned? There was no way to know. How long ago was it since he'd last seen Dad? In the heart of his two-a.m ugly thoughts, the small, prickling thing that came to his mind's eye unbidden, was a voice that said, What if Sanseng Mu thinks no one is coming? 

What if she thought no one was coming for her. 

What if-

"I think of her often, you know." Chen Xiang looked away, not wanting to watch Wukong stare at him with those bright, searching eyes, in the way he was looking at him right now. "I see her in my sleep, and I see her in my memories and daydreams. Do you know what I see, Master?"

Wukong's lips tightened. "What?"

"I don't really see anything," Chen Xiang breathed. He huffed aloud, finally cracking a grin. "It's so embarrassing! I think of her and think of her but her face — it's so fuzzy. I can't remember Mum's face." Chen Xiang shook his head, shrugging defeatedly. "I can't bring up a clear enough image of it."

One side of Wukong's lip twitched. Lines creased his face. What was Master thinking? Once again Chen Xiang was reminded of how animal Sun Wukong was, but there was no anger on his face. Just a foreign, uncomprehending look. His lips thinned into a straight line. "Why don't you," he said, "tell me something a little more relatable."

Chen Xiang breathed, tired. He didn't even have the heart to rebut that. "I'm trained. I know what I'm doing and I know how I'm going to do it. I'm going to do what I came here to do — you can't stop me."

The sorry look on his face wiped away. Wukong ripped his hand away, indignant. "The hell I can't!"

The scream echoed down Huaguo Shan, making it shed a layer of birds.

"Sorry, Master. But I'm going to test that." Chen Xiang got into a battle stance. This was crazy. This was so utterly crazy.

It was as if Wukong was watching this from behind glass, taking in the wholesale craziness of it at once and it showed when he winced and furled his hands into fists. "You know I'm not hair."

"No, you're not."

"Then why don't you try me, you child-friendly circus act."

Chen Xiang lunged.

Wukong lunged.

It was a series of quick jerks and knuckle jabs and then knee-ins. Chen Xiang wished Wukong knew he wasn't a piece of crap and could read movements fine, as he dodged and then braced for a hit he didn't account for only to have it fall short, or a square opening to be missed and then Wukong just pushed him behind him with half the strength he used during training.

Chen Xiang moved again, ducking to sweep Wukong off his feet as he jumped and landed in a handstand only for Chen Xiang to sweep him off of that. Wukong used his legs a lot during fights. The fact that he was only using fists as if Chen Xiang wouldn't notice was a stupidly red flag. Chen Xiang leaned right, feigning a shot. He hit Wukong in the solar plexus instead, sending him skidding.

Wukong stopped. His eyes flickered up, dark and narrowed. Chen Xiang was huffing and he was not. Wukong unhinged himself from the newly downed tree, straightened, and patted himself down. Chen Xiang started doing those breathing exercises he always neglected, trying to bring himself back down to normal.

"Are you done?" Wukong started.

"What the hell is wrong with you?"

Wukong's face crossed in a sudden bout of anger that he didn't let out. "Care to rephrase?" he said lowly.

"Sorry," Chen Xiang nodded, "What the hell is wrong with you, Master."

Wukong jerked awake, his eyes glowing unmitigatedly gold. "Alright. Spit it out. What the hell is so wrong with me, Chen Xiang?

Chen Xiang's hands had rolled into his fists at his side. There was Wukong, challenging him, taunting him to send either send the horses charging in or back down and crawl back into his hole, the six metres between then feeling like they were miles and miles apart, on unrelentingly opposite ends. And then, with his soul, he had to decide on the spot what was more important: Sun Wukong or the reason he'd come to find him in the first place. The years spent getting to where he was right now.

"You've done nothing but aid me these past few years, and I'm grateful. But," Chen Xiang said, "You're too afraid."

He watched Wukong's brow hitch up, a strange sort of stillness settling over his skin like he was mulling it over in deep thought.

"You help me but you do it from the shadows - like you're ashamed, like you know you're doing something that needs to be hidden away and forgotten. Outside of training, do you even think if I exist?" Chen Xiang asked lightly, cocking his head without moving his eyes, "Or is it easier to just forget?"

Wukong's mouth parted, the shadows on his face shifting. "That's not true and you know it."

"If you wanted to help me you would have already — all you do is eat and sleep and hide on your mountain and when that gets too much — you go away and drown your sorrows in travelling to far places," Chen Xiang added, an air of laughter in his voice. "And if you had it your way you'll be happy playing me for a fool and pretending to be someone else. Because I'm just the offspring of a goddess and a human, right?"

Wukong's breath caught, his eyes widening as he looked at him wildly. 

Chen Xiang swallowed, lips going into a straight line. "All of a sudden you're trying to keep me here. What's so different from this and Erlang Shen's giant prison?!"

He gave him a soft smile tipped in melancholy, ironic and out of place. Wukong squirmed, head turning left-right jerkily. On an off day he could find six rebuts and fire them all at Chen Xiang with no hesitation, but this was different — this was something ugly and hideous coming out of Chen Xiang's mouth, the kind of curse word that ate into skin and bone and hung on his mind days after he'd said it. Chen Xiang could see him processing his words, could see them sinking in and stinging.

No one was invincible. Not really.

To think that this was actually working and a few mean words was what it took to disarm his Master was something Chen Xiang would not pause to think on deeply. He compartmentalised, rationalised and belittled it away. 

"You know what I'm after but I think you're just too scared. Too scared and too useless to look Heaven in the eye," Chen Xiang stepped forward, leaves crunching beneath his feet, "Too scared of my Uncle to try to care."

Chen Xiang thought he would rebut. But Wukong bared his teeth, a low growl that didn't leave his throat. "What good has caring done for me in my undying life?" he sneered, livid, something that he would never say to Chen Xiang before.

Chen Xiang leaned back, turning away. "But that doesn't matter. You don't need to care — I didn't ask you to teach me so you'll care. I asked you to teach me so I can save my mother and there's nothing I won't do to see that happen. If I waste anymore time here then you'll be dragging me down."

Chen Xiang took two steps back, looking like he was about to launch off. But he faltered and faced him with a hand floating vaguely up-down. "I don't know how to repay you...Thank you, Master."

"I don't want your gratitude!" Wukong shouted, and Chen Xiang peered at him from the corner of his eye. "I don't want your— You turn around! — Turn around!"

But Chen Xiang didn't turn around, and Chen xiang spent years trying to be worthy of his time, to be someone worthy enough for him to admit what exactly they were. But he didn't think, what did Sun Wukong want from him? for so long. It was only when he'd gotten older and stronger that he'd begun to wonder that there would be a catch to all of this. Liu Chen Xiang had nothing to offer.

He thought that any qualms about it would come later but he didn't want to leave without paying his debt. He simply could wait no longer. In one fell swoop, Chen Xiang jumped right up to Sun Wukong with an abruptness that nauseated him. He ignored it. For the first time, Chen Xiang used his height to tower over him, his insides turning into knots as the wrongness of what he was doing sunk in too late.

"But I'm not scared. I don't fear Heaven, and I don't fear death." In the heat of the moment, Chen Xiang reached up lightning fast, using two fingers to flick Wukong's reminder — that he was conquered. He pinged the golden headband hard.

Wukong rocked back and flinched, moving entirely involuntarily. The band vibrated from the impact, its ringing reverberating shrill through the air. Wukong's hands had flown up, clutching onto the two sides of his head as he tried to stop the ringing. His motions were so spastic and reactionary to the point of trying to defend himself that Chen Xiang reached out. He'd gone too far.

"Master!"

"Don't come near me."

The calm of Wukong's voice, wildly mismatched with the foreign tenseness of him, startled Chen Xiang.

Chen Xiang stopped himself. He did nothing as Wukong dropped his arms, his entire being going languid. The audible ringing had stopped. Wukong just stood there with a terrible look in his eyes, like he was dazed. It looked like he could have been dead, or that he had been already, for a long time.

"Fine," he spat. "Fine. Go."

Wukong sniffed, scratching the back of his neck. It was as if the moment passed, and it was as if Sun Wukong was none the wiser to all that had happened. Wukong rose, dusted himself off, back into that demeanour where everything was a minor inconvenience to him. "Do whatever the hell you want."

"Master."

"Don't call me Master."

Wukong turned around easily and sauntered off. Chen Xiang watched him go with a sudden and pressing bout of anger. "You wanted me off your mountain. I'm off!"

"Go! I said to do whatever the hell you want, you want off, then go!"

He hoped Wukong would flit his hand up and wave with two fingers like he usually would. He didn't. His stomach opened up into a pit and felt oddly sick. He tried to think up an image of Sanseng Mu, but all that came to him was her clinical smile and the angle of her face from below. Chen Xiang kept staring at Wukong's back as pulled himself into the air, watching it turn small and insect-like. 

"Sorry. But you've done enough for me. I'll come back, Master."


 

"Erlang Shen cannot be defeated. No one has ever done it. No one ever will."

Said everyone who had a brain.

When he was a child, he thought he knew the types of stories of honour and valour and gods and monsters like the back of his hand along with all the other kids. Even though he was still a child after falling from the fifth layer, he could no longer think of himself as the same person that used to be scared of hands grabbing his ankle from under the bed or dark shapes in dark rooms. To Chen Xiang, the boy peeking through the crack in the door on his mother and uncle's conversation was a listless child who didn't know any goddamned better. At eleven years old, young and restless, he thought with every fire in the world he was an avenger. It was more important for him to be an avenger, and so, he was.

Because falling ten thousand nautical miles changed things.

All of a sudden the stories he so loved as a child, the ones that Dad had quietly mouthed at the side of his bed as he failed to hide his enthusiasm, had turned on a dime and grown heady with teeth. The legend of Dong Yong and the Seventh Fairy, who were forever forbidden to see each other except for once a year across the milky way. Cowherd and Weaver girl, parted by the gods and saved by the quaint mercy of magpies. The seas that hungered for human children, preferably a young girl and young boy, no different that that of demons and yet abided by. The Third Prince who was put away by his father by the grace of heaven — these, too many more, and their dozen variations.

"Gather round, gather round, good people! The next story is about to start, gather close!"

Chen Xiang skirted a crowd, sneaking into the side of an open-air stage and getting himself squished around by the milling audience all trying to shuffle closer to the white screen. Behind the screen were carefully crafted cutouts of characters — beautiful, swooning women, well dressed heroes and the sad visage of ones fighting a losing battle. He'd been to a few of these before with Mum back in his old village:


When the hulking silhouette of the monster Nian had come on screen and the clanging of the cymbals became shrill, he'd felt her hands squeeze his tight.

"Don't worry, Chen Xiang," he remembered her saying. "It's shadow puppetry. They're only shadows."

Which would have been reassuring had Chen Xiang not been afraid of that exact thing at night. Chen Xiang leaned into her shoulder, squeezing her back. It was enough of an indication to her as ever.

Sanseng Mu whispered in his ear as they watched the characters come alive to run from Nian. "It's okay, son." Sanseng Mu fixed his hair and tightened his ribbon with one hand. "We're only scared of things we don't understand. So if I tell you how shadow puppetry works, we won't be scared anymore, will we?"

Chen Xiang felt much better at that. "How do they get the shadows to move?"

Sanseng Mu bent so they were at an eye level. She pointed to the far side, stopping once to check Chen Xiang's line of sight. "There's a lamp illuminating the screen from behind. Do you see it? The little people are paper and leather cut-outs, pressed onto the surface of the screen - that creates a shadow when there's light. People, smart puppeteers, move figurines attached to sticks around. So they can dance and walk and even move their mouths to talk!"

"So there's people behind there?" Chen Xiang exclaimed.

Sanseng Mu nodded. "Yeah. If you listen closely, you can hear their footsteps, all shuffling around trying to get to their position to make people run around Nian in circles. The puppeteers are all moving too."

Someone shushed them from the row behind and Sanseng Mu sat up comically straight as Chen Xiang tried to hold in his giggle. Sanseng Mu pressed a finger over her mouth but still continued whispering. "See? Now that you understand, there's nothing to be afraid of." 


Alone in the cheering crowd, he watched the Seventh Fairy float down to earth lightly and graceful, feeling sick to the stomach that he knew something that Seventh Fairy didn't know. How short her freedom would be. It was peak god-fearing times: shrines were kept in pristine conditions, hundreds flocked to temples to fill the skies with prayers, the fattest fruit never made it to hungry stomachs and were instead piled atop gold trays, trees were draped with red sashes and scribbled blocks for wishes, and though the many myths had an edge to them, they were seen as distant and amiable. Real, but benign, like remnants of a natural disaster; wrath lying forever dormant.

But now things had changed — there was a lethalness to once-harmless folk tales, fond memories turned rancid and foul and a completely different kind of real. Chen Xiang then balked at how ready he was to take them at face value and how nobody else seemed to see how terrifying it was. The legends had taught lessons and more often than not the lesson to be learned, unequivocally, was: Do not cross Heaven. People were terrified of that kind of power found in floods and great droughts, and the off pissed-off deity coming to down to avenge their desecrated temple. But the thing was, it was nothing more to them than how the world turned.

"Um," a peasant lady quickly picked up her bound books and looked meekly down at him with the kind of piteous but arm's-length look one would give to a pig going to slaughter. "Honey, could you tell me again what you need?"

"I need to know all the battles Erlang Shen has been in. How they started, how they ended, if he's ever made mistakes."

"Dear," she shifted uncomfortably, making eye contact with someone behind Chen Xiang who looked to be taller than them both judging by how far she had to reach with her neck. "This is a reputable bookstore. That's…" she swallowed, pursing her lips. "That's kind of disrespectful. I wouldn't say it so loud if I were you, Honey."

Then she warmly but strongly directed him to a stack of poetry talking about how amazing his mother's captor was.

How the world turned was equivocal to that of Erlang Shen, who was and had being the most powerful combat fighter in Heaven since his inauguration, many centuries ago. The day he lost a match would be when dogs began to talk, the sky would go purple, and the moon would be devoured.

There were hardly first-hand accounts, only spindly notes passed down from fifty or so years ago. But no matter where he went and no matter how far he travelled, there was little doubt in people's minds. The general consensus was: since his name was known, and ever since the beginning, it was true that Erlang Shen had never lost a fight. Demons and monsters he'd slain in the hundreds. Heavenly defectors and unruly dissenters he'd taken down in droves. Villages that needed to be reminded of their place burned to the ground and the earth salted by his ruthless army. Conquests spearheaded by his command had never seen a non-victory banner. He was ever-vigilant, merciless and thorough to the point of notoriety. In other words, when looking for dirt, all Chen Xiang got was a perfect record down to the millimetre.

The purple prose sang: His bearing was refined, his visage noble, and his eyes shone. At his waist was a bow, curved like the moon, in his hand a Three-Pointed Double-Edged Spear. Widespread was his fame for killing the Eight Demons, And he had become one of Plum Hill's seven sages. His heart was too lofty to acknowledge his relatives; he was the Merciful and Miraculous Sage of the red city, whose transformations were numberless.

And the facts went something like this:

As a master of martial arts, Erlang Shen possessed the Nine Turns Divine Skill, 九轉玄功, granting him vast physical durability of undefined limits and nigh-invulnerability to conventional weapons and various magic spells. Lovely.

As a God that embodied justice, Erlang Shen could execute 'Heaven's Punishment' by calling down countless massive, devastating bolts of Holy Lightning to strike and disintegrate evil beings. Fantastic. Reading those lines made Chen Xiang want to peel his eyelids off at the word, 'justice.'

As the Eye of Heaven, Erlang Shen had a hideous third eye that differentiated truth from lies and saw through all deceptions and disguises, as well as being able to emit calamitous blasts of concentrated power. And the only thing Chen Xiang could think of was, I've seen this before, seen the Sky Eye disintegrate his old home like it was made of cotton. Elating.

Erlang Shen had no noted weaknesses, no exploitable preferences, and left no careless openings.

Freshly eleven, Chen Xiang walked the earth scavenging for things that did not exist. He had wandered around the mortal world aimlessly, trying to do something, trying to find a way to do what he needed to do. It seemed simple back then — there was a clear line from the Fifth Layer to Mount Hua, and in between them was Erlang Shen. He had to take him down if he ever hoped to free his mother. But the words 'take down' and 'Erlang Shen' in itself was an oxymoron sentence.

"Little kid, that's crazy talk," a weathered old man said as he handed him some coins for running an errand. He spat absently to the side as Chen Xiang took a safe step back. "Beating Erlang Shen? That's mental is what it is."

Chen Xiang kicked the guy's potted plant over, spilling dirt all over the ground. "I'm not mental," was all he managed, seething, red hot, strutting away with all the dignity he could muster as the old man called wryly behind him.

"Keep your head down, then. You don't want him or his goonies to hear you, do you? He's got three eyes. He can see what you're doing. He sees everything we do, little kid." But it was a warning tone and not mocking.

His great advice had made Chen Xiang lie awake for three days on end, dry, unblinking, and terribly jumpy at any loud noise. It was afterwards that Chen Xiang decided that at the very least, that was untrue. If Erlang Shen really could see what he was doing at all times, he would have been dead the moment he had walked out under the blue sky from the tree he had taken shelter beneath after falling from Heaven.

"I'm not scared—" he breathed into the hollow of his wrists, breathing warm breath over his cold hands. There was no choice but to believe it. He had to believe it. "—Of him.

"I'm not."

He had the facts and the objective and miles and miles of raw determination, with nothing to show for it, nothing at all; not the threadbare clue of how to go on and exist with all the need trapped inside him. He needed to fight for what was true and right, needed to give voice to the terrible and unbelievable things that had befallen him, that had wiped his family from living memory — as if Liu Yanchang had never sat at the end of his bed to tell him the stories he still remembered, as if Sanseng Mu had never tugged his hair or kissed his cheek, never drawn her weapons full of conviction to live and fight for it.

All the memories of flowers in his garden, of the wooden rocking horse in the kitchen or his cloth toys strewn on the table, Sanseng Mu's smile, laced with blood, collecting neatly between her teeth and then some. He thought of how his mother went down and his own nonexistent powers, dormant, flowing magma-like through his fingers, thinking that even touching Erlang Shen like this was illusory and futile.

"Put your hands together, good people; now we welcome:

"The Great Sage Equal to…Heaven!"

The crowd of children older than him, but less weathered, cried and cheered. It wasn't before long when he joined in as well. There was the Great Sage puppet dressed in armour, two additional puppetry sticks there for the express purpose of making his long cape billow. The feather crowns that stretched right up to the middle of the screen were bent and the tips of his shoulder pads looked shabby from the puppet's overuse. He was a foot taller than the Four Kings that he was currently locked in bloody battle with.

"But the Four Heavenly Kings can't stand up to our Great Sage—" the narrator said — more like yelled over the now whooping crowd, just as wild and uncontainable as the Great Sage, mimicking him, almost.

"The Great Sage hasn't lost yet," a girl said amiably to herself.

"Yeah, but he will," another said smugly.

Chen Xiang remembered.

The first girl looked back on the other, scowling. "No, he won't. Erlang Shen didn't defeat him — it was Laozi."

Something meandered up his back, hot and cold.

"Nuh-uh," an older woman put her hand on the former's shoulder, giving her two cents. "It was the dog. Hahahahah!"

Erlang Shen was a breathing, living god.

"—Enter, his eminence: Yang Erlang!"

If so.

"Yang Erlang — attacks!"

Then so was Sun Wukong.

Chen Xiang quietened, intent to not cheer this time with the others. The puppet of Erlang Shen appeared in the corner of the screen, poised. He watched them fight as if lives depended on it. Erlang Shen lunging with his stick-ish spear, the Great Sage skidding and then launching himself right back, both loathe to lose to the other and fighting to the death all the while Chen Xiang's head was spinning down the layers of heaven all over again in circles.

He was real.

It clicked so simply. The only blemish on Erlang Shen's perfect rapport was an unsaid, well-known a truth. A truth so large it swallowed gainsays like a black hole.

But there was still that mild disconnect between believing in the famed stone monkey and doing thin cut outs of him to hang on a window, and truly knowing — having undeniable, god-sent proof, that everybody's beloved Great Sage was a living, breathing being.

And that he spat in the face of every myth and legend that had come before, had disproved the fundamental thesis like putting out a candle that had burned for a history between two measly fingers. Sun Wukong had laid waste to the glorified doctrine for conformity and keeping your head low, for living under a Heaven that scarred the earth below. And what if he did it out of pride? Out of the slight scathe that was his ego? Was someone like him not even allowed that much? (Someone like Chen Xiang, who people thought were better off not-existing.) He thought of Sun Wukong and his army of lowborn demons, jumping headfirst into trained celestial soldiers, locked in bloody guerrilla warfare on home turf, defending and asserting and clawing.

(He thought of talking and eating alongside benevolent demons: fish men, pupil-less shop owners and cat-eyed women who had only recently achieved human form. In a normal village, it was not as if they cared what kind of hybrid he was.)

It was then that he remembered that Heaven had been ridiculed before. Nothing was untouchable, not really. Not even the order of the world that had changed many times since the age of Nuwa and Pang Gu. Hadn't his parents already done the unspeakable? Hadn't they looked the Absolute in the eye and made the objective decision to run amok? To live? To be?

Sun Wukong's win was more than glory, more than defiance; it was revolutionary, it was absurdity, it was unadulteratedly cathartic.

And he'd be lying if Chen Xiang proclaimed that his greatest motivation did not consist of wanting to make a demonstration to Erlang Shen — Erlang Shen, specifically. It was true that no other celestial would help him. There was no celestial that would risk falling to help him. There really were no other options. But he still wanted to be a reminder — the decisive moment that saw Erlang Shen's rise to grace and thus cemented his role in Heaven was not a clean win.

It was a dirty win.

The announcement called out over the image of the Great Sage's puppet leaning back, his mouth opened wide, laughing, laughing.

"The Great Sage is locked in deadly battle with Yang Erlang when…"

Chen Xiang's watched as the shadow of a ring was cast off from the shape of Tai Shang Laojun, Laozi, stood in the black cloud. It hit the Great Sage stark in the back of his neck, knocking the Jingou Bang out of his hands. As he fell, a large black dog appeared on the screen suddenly, black jaws wrapping around him. The music swelled. The cymbols clashed. The show had ended.

No one was truly invincible, not the Great Sage Equal to Heaven who thought he was opponentless, and not Erlang Shen, who Chen Xiang had seen look wide-eyed and unsure — hurt — the few moments before he jumped.

There was nothing in the world he wouldn't give to save Mum. Not the barest of chances that the monkey from stone might help him. So Chen Xiang went to Erlang Shen's greatest military controversy, because notoriety could only be matched by infamy.

Chen Xiang went to find his rival: Sun Wukong.

Chapter Text

There it was. That bone-crushing, soul-sucking, head-spinning kind of feeling that made him look totally composed and deadpan on the outside to the point where mothers were pointedly dragging their children away from him in the street.

One of the young, pig-tailed girls pointed at him. Looking down, he gave a little smirk.

"See, he smiled!" she sing-songed. "He doesn't look that dead."

He watched as the woman next to them shepherded her away. "I told you not to stare at people who are different!"

Well. Wasn't that a frightful notion Heaven should look into?

But to be fair the ratty coat he was wearing did make him look like an unapproachable hobo. Sun Wukong had left Huaguo Shan as soon as the scuffle was over and now it had been days. So it was back to being an aimless ruffian. He walked down the main road, sulking wholeheartedly without worrying about disguises.

(When one travelled a lot under a transformation spell, one usually forgot they were under said transformation spell. Sometimes, when he was really out of it, the spell either wore off or gave the same effect as that of a vivid hallucination of bigfoot. It was all porcelain smiles and exchanging pleasantries until someone was gawping and pointing and you look down and — and there's nothing wrong. It's just you. But you are a demon. Wukong immediately magicked a hat out of thin air and pulled it strongly over his head. There.)

Walking in no particular direction, he followed the flow of people.

When you lived so long, things changed. It had been a wonder to him how Chen Xiang managed to care about everything. Things not part of his problem and not something he ought to have the energy to care about. But he did, fervently, with vigour, with a damn-well vengeance that pressed into your mind and made all else disappear. Nothing else was as important to him as cleaving apart Mount Hua. Sometimes, and certainly to him, it felt like nothing else would ever be.

When you lived so long, all things made of that which would eventually wither, or break, or dust, was a flippancy — like the turning of a wheel. Wukong had reached Leiying Temple and achieved buddhahood, he'd escaped the grasp of the three worlds, he was out of the reincarnation cycle and had seen Nirvana with his own eyes. It was within his touch. And he, he had said a quick, polite 'no' to it.

Was it because he was afraid to give up the decadence and masquerading? Or maybe perhaps because he just wasn't ready. Time was of the essence. Time that did not touch him or cause an immortal consequence. To reach full enlightenment, however, was to give up life as you know it.

"A state of spiritual release, marked by emptiness, and realisation of non-self," his Master had said, grinning. "It's all the rage."

A well-forgotten fact that Wukong didn't like to tell: when he was young, he feared death. That unknowing, fathomless kind of blackness when he closed his eyes and there was nothing more to see — except there was no waking up from it. That nothingness. And that was before he knew that he was a cosmic accident, an outlier, and this was his very first life. And he knew he learned to fear death because he loved living. He loved living because he was attached to this world.

The very reason he'd sought to better himself was the same reason why he did not accept the Buddha's invitation, the supposed greatest reward. Sometime between escaping the Five Elements Mountain and then walking down a busy road right now, Wukong had failed the first most rule at every fundamental, logical level. He could not detach himself from the world. He'd never even considered it.

So. After he got past the 'thousand plus years' line, he finally understood how some gods could turn a blind eye to everybody else. When the Celestial Realm operated on such a colossally different time scale to humanity, it was hard to remember that the two were once one and the same.

Humans lived and died like ants, and their empires and dynasties rose and fell like ants swept away in a flood. He had started to feel it creeping into the tips of his toes and fingers, freezing them, stiffening them, wrapping around him like rigour mortis: the acquiescence. That thing where you lived so long and had seen so much that caring seemed tiresome; or certainly, extraneous.

To everything, there was an end — except when you were immortal and didn't want to be a non-self. It was full of contradictions. If gods were so dismissive of the world they could just become Buddhas. (Of course, it didn't work like that, but the contradictions still boggled him.) To the average god, humankind were a whimsy — a fleeting, fading novelty. To Sun Wukong, Liu Chen Xiang was anything but.

It used to give him some very minimal comfort that when Chen Xiang mumbled in his sleep, the thing he would call was 'Sun Wukong.'

'Sun Wukong,' with a side of 'Sun Wukong, take me as your disciple,' or even 'Sun Monkey,' he'd often hear Chen Xiang say, drearily, as he nodded back into deep sleep.

"Sun…Monkey…"

"That's me," Wukong looked up from picking out a gnat out of a monkey's hair. "What?"

"Chen Xiang's asleep, King."

"Oh."

He didn't know what to think when that had finally changed on a dime some day, when Chen Xiang was dream-fighting and was falling back, was lost, was deep in the grips of a nightmare, and the thing he muttered out was, "Master."

Since then, it had never changed. He'd never slipped up.

"Master! The soldiers—"

"There's no soldiers. There's only monkeys for miles you dunce."

"I need to…"

"Kid…Nobody's trying to fight you, you're in a dream."

"MAS—"

"WAKE UP, KID!"


When he wasn't at Huaguo Shan, Wukong was doing other business.

Above head, the clouds stirred and rumbled. Wukong counted the seconds between the strikes, but stopped when the number got too high and he couldn't see any lightning. The birds were flying particularly low. He knew this rain would last a long time when it came. Wukong went to the next stall.

"Hey, seen this guy around?" he slid over the crumpled portrait of a middle-aged man he lifted from another province. A self-portrait. It was pretty good. "Last name, Liu…"

The shopkeeper squinted at it. "Ee-yup."

"What?!" Wukong perked up, going rigid. "Last name, Liu, given name, Yanchang. Where?! When?"

"Passed right by here. Bought some supplies and left. Been a while though." The shopkeeper wagged his finger at the picture. "But I remember this guy…real nerdy, wears that scholar's hat…"

"That's right," Wukong replied, nodding his head and tucking the picture back. It wasn't much since he didn't know the guy, but it was something.

The shopkeeper flinched as thunder rumbled again. Wukong took no notice. "Oh. It's bad luck, you know. Would you like an umbrella?"

Wukong sniffed, thought on it, and nodded. "If you'd please." He paid for the umbrella, painted blue with just a single painted fish on it.

"Careful now, Mister," the shopkeeper said, "The Gods are angry."

Wukong swung the umbrella over his shoulder, smiling largely.

"So am I."


 

Months ago:

They landed on the damp undergrowth of Mount Hua at the first crack of dawn. Wukong touched down delicately, tippy-toes curling downwards to his heels. Chen Xiang plummeted at terminal velocity doing the equivalent of a mile long obstruction-less skid in midair, plodding into the ground flat-footed. He sent lines of cracks in four directions, one going so far as to snake up a tree. The tree split apart, the two straight sides about to fall and make a giant commotion.

Wukong jumped to one half and Chen Xiang jumped to the other, stopping the fall. Meeting eyes briefly, they shared a look before pushing the two sides back together.

"Are you trying to start an earthquake, Kiddo?"

"Sorry."

"Drawing a crop circle would have been less inconspicuous."

"I can't help it, Master."

"Well, you better help it soon or I'll have to make a real earthquake just to throw us off."

"Thanks, Master."

Wukong turned around just in time to see Chen Xiang mouth the end of his sentence while he was in the middle of saying it, "—and don't call me Master."

Chen Xiang straightened his face immediately. Wukong's mouth twitched.

"Right. C'mon, let's scout this place out." Chen Xiang took the lead as they walked around Mount Hua. They weren't planning to do anything, Chen Xiang just needed to see and Wukong wasn't about to have him loiter around the place alone.

Mount Hua was dangerous.

He knew because he'd made multiple trips to scout it out himself. It wasn't like the Buddha's work. For starters, there was no prison seal in sight. And it was guarded. Heavily. At least a squadron of guards, a whole half between a quick transition period, and tens of soldiers stationed within its one kilometre radius. He wondered why a mountain prison had to be manned (and shot down his confusion and slight indignity as to why that hadn't happened with him. It was not the time to be jealous he didn't get better prison security).

"I think the odds are alright."

Chen Xiang's words made Wukong feel like he'd just spiralled through a small hole.

Wukong kept to the side, on the alert for signs of guards should they break the form he'd memorised and come close to this blindspot. Wukong watched Chen Xiang reach out and touch the mountainside. The shakiness of the motion showed the roughness of the rock. The dawning sun cast pink shadows over the length of it, bathing Chen Xiang in a rosy tinge.

Wukong kept to the shade. "C'mon. You've had a look. Let's split."

Chen Xiang turned back to him, face impassive. Kind of the like the time when he insulted him while he knelt, except without the vast, blasé vacantness — he was impassive but his eyes were alight.

"I can do it. I know I can."

Wukong heaved himself off of leaning on something gross and mossy. "Maybe. If you tried hard enough. I know you can."

Chen Xiang put his attention on him now, anticipating a catch. "Then what?"

Wukong lingered a moment, not sure what to make of this. His brow creased, giving him the look of someone who had chronic bags under his eyes. "Kiddo…what do you think is keeping your mother under there?" he said. Not in sarcasm or taunting, Wukong was genuine.

Chen Xiang turned to the side, shielding himself from the sun. The pink tinge of the dawn had too quickly changed into reds and oranges, replacing the softness with harsh light. "What do you mean? I'm too weak?"

"Kiddo." Wukong walked into the glare, shielding Chen Xiang from it. "You know with me — I broke myself out from under the mountain, technically. Yet I stayed there helpless for five hundred years. Why?"

Chen Xiang closed his eyes, something dawning in his mind. "The seal."

"Bingo. Next question. Double points," Wukong went on. "Do you honestly think a mountain could hold the likes of Sanseng Mu?"

Chen Xiang sat down on the least-wet looking part of the grass. "I don't know."

He really didn't, did he? The thought made Wukong's insides squirm uncomfortably. After all, the kid had been separated from the goddess since he was a walking foetus. He used to find it patronising and ugly, the way adults talked down to children the way they did. But then again it was their way to protect them, wasn't it? Another type of white lie.

"Up until I saw her fight, she'd always been…" Chen Xiang shrugged. "The best. Kind. Loving. Really cared, about everything. Always took her time to do a good job of things, you know, from cooking to gardening. She took me to the market heaps."

Wukong nodded.

"She took me to shadow puppet shows," Chen Xiang said crassly. "She said — that people only got scared of things they didn't understand."

He looked vaguely away, but Chen Xiang knew he was listening.

"I had no idea what she was until she had to fight." Chen Xiang shrugged again. "Or, maybe, I had no idea who she was."

"Is." Wukong's head snapped back around. "Who she is. She's not dead, you pinecone. She's right goddamned there." He snorted. "We'll figure it out, then you can ask all your questionnaire questions to your heart's content."

"Heheh!" Chen Xiang chuckled. They began walking off to somewhere it was safe to fly. "What's she really like?"

Wukong lifted a brow.

Chen Xiang lifted his in the same way. "You knew her, didn't you?"

"Not really."

"But you've met her."

"For t-minus sixty minutes maybe."

"What kind of a goddess was she?"

"A guardian. That guarded Mount Hua."

"Really, Master."

Wukong turned and sniffled. "Listen kid. You don't really know somebody until you've seen them at their best and their worse. I've seen neither. But let's just say — it's a miracle to me how you could think she can't withstand some heavy weight." Wukong looked him straight in the eye. "Sanseng Mu was a magic user who didn't hesitate to use it."

Chen Xiang's eyes widened, but he nodded soberly.

"But you're right about those things. She helped me save my master going West." Wukong huffed, a half-snicker. "The Buddha's seal is what kept me." Wukong pointed to the mountain without taking his eyes off of Chen Xiang. "Maybe it's not quite like the Buddha's, but there's a seal keeping her there as well. You saw it too, when we walked around this place there's nothing on the outside. Where's the seal?"

Chen Xiang pursed his lips, huffing. "It's inside."

"They stuck it somewhere inside," Wukong repeated sourly. "So the only way to get to the seal is to split it with the mountain anyhow," he said. "And I'm still working on that…"


For years, Wukong had watched Chen Xiang kneel at the bottom of the mountain and nothing, apart from the elements, had ever happened.

Now, in the hollowed out cavern next to his, Wukong leaned in, trying to decipher mumbled words. Chen Xiang did not writhe in his sleep. Didn't kick his blankets, didn't shout or scream or even spasm out a wayward punch. He was still.

Somewhere inside Chen Xiang there lied an unfathomable sadness. A sadness that did not see tears or daylight, tucked away under each day's new objective and always 'what can be done,' and not 'what could have been done.'

He was a positive thing who believed, against all odds, that the Great Sage Equal to Heaven would help him because what he was doing was worthwhile. He knew that bad things happened for no reason, but he also believed that bad things could always be righted if you tried hard enough. It was a child's way of looking at the world. Wukong didn't want him to grow out of it.

He was still in his sleep, eerily still as he spoke the incredulous with but the slightest crease in his brow. Wukong pit his aura against Chen Xiang's, weeding himself in between an invisible wall of pressure. His magic was growing. If it was anything like Sanseng Mu's, it would keep growing.

"Get away from…" he mumbled. "Need to find a way out."

Wukong frowned, twisting his lips. Why was he acting up so suddenly like this? Why could he suddenly get no peace?

"I can't stay. I can't stay forever…"

"What are you on about?" Wukong asked, expecting no answer. He didn't want to stay here forever? That was good news, was what it was.

"The Lantern…" Chen Xiang stuttered, a large pause in between, "under the woman."

The what under the who? Wukong darkened. His hands curled into fists at his sides. "Where are you, Chen Xiang?"

"Where?"

"Where—" Wukong stood over him, pulling the blankets away in the face of his sweaty overheating, "—What are you trying to get away from?"

Chen Xiang sighed softly, still deep in his sleep cycle. "Zhenjun Palace. The…palace…"

The…Yang Jiang?

When did the kid have time to fluff around the man's palace? Wukong's mouth widened in tactless revelation.

In the end, he had to find out all about his good ol' pal's kidnapping spree through somebody else's cold sweat.

Piercing brown eyes staring right at him at the outer edges of Heaven. He'd shed the form of Danfei for something more suitable. The way that Chen Xiang looked at him was the very way in which Sun Wukong never wanted to be looked at by the kid again. But Chen Xiang wasn't really looking at him — he was looking at Yang Jian. Then that night, he started mumbling about 'the soldiers.'

How old was Chen Xiang when he came looking for him? That first time he saw him at the teahouse? He couldn't have been more than what? Eleven or twelve he—

When Sanseng Mu was sentenced, Chen Xiang could describe to him what he'd seen — he was present in the face of the Heavenly horde. What had happened after? Where had he been from the time in between Sanseng Mu's imprisonment and him walking the country to find him? Had Wukong never bothered to ask?

Why for the love of Buddha did he have to turn into fucking Erlang Shen of all people in the Heavenly Pantheon?

"Falling," Chen Xiang muttered, his throat strained.

Wukong grimaced, putting his focus back on Chen Xiang. He stood awkwardly over him, trying to make out what else he was trying to say.

"Falling?" Wukong muttered. "Falling, where?"

Chen Xiang's lips trembled. "I'm scared of falling."

"Where?"

"Heaven."

(He'd been kept in the palace all that missing time. He'd been kept as a prisoner.)

That same kid with the unravelling shoes and dirty face and hole-ridden hat. Now he could quaintly accompany that image of Chen Xiang with one of him plummeting from where there was no end to see. And then Wukong remembered when he'd first tried to trick him into flying — how he stopped and shuddered before just…falling.

Wukong shook his head wildly, franticly trying to get rid of those images. Chen Xiang falling, Chen Xiang walking until his toes bled through his shoes, Chen Xiang closing his eyes tight when he jumped and disappeared to who knows where.

"You know. I met my Uncle, once."

Did an understatement count as a lie?

What about one of such colossal proportions?

Like, 'What has caring ever done for me?'

"Kiddo, wake up."

"Hn." The face he made during a terrible dream was one that was serene. It was always like that. It made Wukong furious.

Operating on a sudden and violent urge, he shook Chen Xiang's shoulder hard. "I SAID WAKE UP!"

Chen Xiang opened his eyes simply, like there was nothing at all wrong. The only thing that showed was the great flow of his aura, all racing to cram back into his body.

"Huh?" Chen Xiang sat up, blinking. "Master? Am I late? Sorry." He huffed, throwing his feet over the bed frame. "Ah. The dreams are terrible. Alright, I'm up, let's go, let's go."

To think that the kid would keep things from so as to make him feel a bit better about stuff. He felt the odd idea that it should be the other way around. Shouldn't he make up something comforting and make him believe it? Like, 'Kiddo, your Mommy knows your coming for her,' or, 'your Mommy's all powerful, she'll be alright down there.'

Was he ever all right down there? Had he not had the life crushed out of him until he was ready to beg to get away? To take any godforsaken terms?


"Hey Master," the kid had said before he'd grown tired of him, them leaning back-to-back on a hot summer's day, dragon fruit juice in hand, and he was too comfortable to remember that he didn't like being called that.

"Hn?"

"You think you can win them? Heaven, I mean."

It was such a broad question. He hated it when anyone bought that kind of stuff up. It was like getting hounded by paparazzi that also doubted his honour.

"Expand on that."

"Er," Chen Xiang bobbed his head up and down the top of his. He was already taller than him. Wukong wasn't sure about how he felt about that, that the kid would undoubtedly shoot far past his head in the future. "I mean, individually, sure. What about if they jumped you at once. The bigwigs, anyway. Third Prince Nezha, and the Four Heavenly Kings."

"Kiddo," he said, slurping the drink from a hollow water plant that served as a straw, "the point about Heaven. Is that it's one giant dick-measuring extravaganza. They bought their entire army for show, and then the bigwigs fought me one-on-one. And when that failed that's when they called in the army."

Chen Xiang slurped juice on his end. "Jumpin' you would have been more effective."

"Maybe." Wukong slurped some more, twiddling the straw around. "But Heaven also liked its reputation. What kind of bigwigs would they be if they had to gang up on a monkey?" Though that was exactly how things had ended. "The Four are annoying pricks, Nezha was a decent one, I don't remember who else."

It turned out that Chen Xiang was only asking that to ease him into what he really wanted to know.

"Master," he said, keeping his voice meticulously level, "Can you beat Erlang Shen? If they didn't resort to dirty tricks, could you have beaten him?"

Wukong put down his cup, finished with it, Chen Xiang still leaned on his back.

"I thought I could."

And here was the crux of what the hell was wrong with him:

Wukong liked what he liked. Paper-scissors-rock, a game of picking lots, ref'ed snail races, a good arm-wrestle, the heads of his enemies strewn at his feet while he scraped their still-warm blood off his custom boots, timed I-spy, a hearty row of shots. All those things had something in common: there would come out a loser, and there would always come out a winner. Nothing felt quite the same to him as some healthy, straightforward competition. But the thing about competition was that there was always more; somewhere on the horizon, somebody could be beat.

In the beginning, it was just that. Just games and one-trick shots and what could be called harmless fun. A way to test himself, of sorts — for what he was capable of when he awoke one day and realised he could think. But there was nothing else like him on the earth, and he wanted to know what he could do.

If driving himself off a cliff was going to give him the rush and satisfaction of knowing, he'd jump. If he could leave everything he ever knew in order to better himself, he'd leave in a heartbeat. It was as simple as the day he knew he could do, and so he did. Shallow, true, but innocent and curious all the same.

It was this primal, base tenet of his offbeat character that made him jump the impossible and dangerous eighty five metre drop from a slippery, rocky cliffside to Water Curtain Caverns, made him worthy of the title 'King', and gained him the respect of the Jingu bang. It was the very same mentality that got him expelled from his teacher, made him play into the bet with the Buddha, the trap of the Jade Emperor's, and the little shouting match with Chen Xiang while pretending to be 'Danfei.' Why he'd transformed back into himself like he didn't know it defeated the entire point of the act, why he had fought Erlang Shen to moot point: fighting him and fighting him and fighting him.

As long as there were stakes to a game, he'd play it. So long as it was presented that it was his own choice to play, he'd never back down — to his success, detriment, or other.

Nowadays there was no one left in the three realms that did not know: Sun Wukong loved a challenge.

What they did not know was that things had long changed, and Sun Wukong had grown weary. He could not say 'no', because he couldn't stand the possibility of not measuring up. He thought that maybe things were getting a little out of hand, that maybe, his obsession with proving himself was inexplicably tied with his slowly-piling demises. That maybe he had a slight gambling problem, and not in the pawn-off-your-wordy-possessions human sense. In the sense that he liked to gamble life and limb. Which, arguably, was worse.

Maybe, if he couldn't fulfil the expectations of those who held him in high enough regard to expect things of him, he had not met the standard. He had failed them.

And it felt like letting down the one kid who tried too hard to be inconvenienced by Sun Wukong of all people.


"So," The Great Sage Equal to Heaven lay down on a fluffy cloud, his black boots dangling off one edge and his feather crown dangling off the other. "Which one of you is the big guy's nephew?"

"Guan Jiangkou's: Yang Jian, Yang Erlang is my name." It was as if that exchange was all the regard he afforded the most infamous criminal in the world yet. He lifted up a hand, cocking his head to the side. His six subordinates backed off. "Nobody touch him. This one's mine."

"Hahah!" Wukong giggled, his legs uncrossing as he sat up. "You're a treat. My name is—"

"I have told you my name. You need not tell me yours."

Sun Wukong didn't know he hated Erlang Shen until he came across Chen Xiang. He remembered the half-second pause he took between his thrust attacks. He thought of the way Yang Jian misdirected parries back at him. It was a game to Wukong, then. God after god after god they sent after the heels of the last guy who failed to entertain him. High and mighty, Wukong laughed like a dying chimpanzee, out of breath, ecstatic, as he waved to the next guy with his then-still-attached-tail. When nothing and no one could match him, he was starved for game.

When no-rank Erlang Shen stuck his spear through his torso with the air of someone cutting cake, the only thing he could think was, 'well done.'

He felt Yang Jian's emotionless and routine-like motions grow wild. The way he himself had started out clumsily, just like Yang Jian had fought robotically, because they both thought the other was nothing; another fight that would end quickly. Even Wukong had to admit it — though only to himself — that he'd never gotten a kick from any fight thereafter that was quite as fun his brawl with the three-eyed god.

He thought of the almost angry way Yang Jian threaded blades into his pipa bone, putting a cap on all of Wukong's learned abilities. Almost as if he was unsatisfied with the outcome. Wukong had remained begrudging ever since for the same outcome.

So Wukong began to train Chen Xiang differently. Maybe just as loonily and trickily as before, but different. He began to train him as if he would always be the smaller guy fighting the bigger guy. He began to train him especially to face the Yang Jian who was used to and bored of being the best.


"Why won't you make me your disciple? Really," Chen Xiang asked one day, and the moment he said it Wukong knew what he meant to say was, 'am I that much of an embarrassment to you?'

He had to do some mighty fast thinking around the first thing, the real reason, that came to his head, and then some more to avoid saying something as shallow as: bet.

"Doesn't matter and don't ask," he snapped, though he knew it wouldn't be enough to repel Chen Xiang, smart thing. "You don't need to worry about that. Don't need to worry about any of this," he said, flapping his hands vaguely.

"Can pretend it never happened if you want." Wukong snickered under his breath. Not malicious, not even mocking, just for the sake of it. "You don't have any obligation towards me — not for the magic, or the martial arts, or the bullshit."

Wukong, feet crossed in a long wooden couch furnished with cashmere next to a small fire tray, felt himself reach for another piece of mooncake. There was none left. Chen Xiang broke a piece of his off and, without looking, held some out to him. Wukong broke a piece off for himself. They raised their cake to each other as if they were clinking glasses.

"There is no debt," he said lowly, "There is no duty. And there sure as hell is no fealty. You take what you want and then you leave."

This little escapade of his, Chen Xiang's time with him, would be wholly temporary. For the good of all parties involved, and if he had a shred of common decency in him left, he needed to keep it that way.


It felt really, really weird when he told Chen Xiang to write down the forms and then he didn't so Wukong shoved a brush in his hand to physically watch him do it — because how else was the kid going to learn if he didn't know what he was doing and in what order — and then Chen Xiang was about ready to bolt into the river; and it turned out he wasn't sassing him, it was just that he didn't want to admit he couldn't write it down.

"Ok. You got me. I'm illiterate."

It felt terrible that things had changed so fast that Chen Xiang hadn't had the chance to be a schoolboy (when Wukong was a monkey and even he'd gone to a damned school). That Chen Xiang could've been churning out poetry anthologies like Li Bai next to his accomplished father, who's right Wukong was stealing by having to teach Chen Xiang how to read and write. And by 'terrible', he meant it made him want to pluck Erlang Shen's third eye out of his head, and then replace it with a peach pit, like forcing an ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle in place.

He trained him other ways too. Not just for fighting, not just for the killing and maiming (all the top ten greatest feats the Great Sage could do. Wasn't that what he was giving Chen Xiang, in the end, when you pulled back the layers?). Wukong taught Chen Xiang to listen to bird calls in the sleepy dusk until he could differentiate a thrush from a starling and all sorts of different hoots of owls.

"Well now, since when did Sun Wukong have the time to become a star bird watcher?" the kid'll say. 

He showed him how to pass aura to others by tip of the finger, what kinds of demons that were particularly weak to celestial magic, covered the ground in magic circles to the point where the monkeys had to jump around them to get back into the caverns.

Anti-demon rings. No demon gets inside the circle, but it's useless against celestials. If you shift the magic ever so slightly, mumble a spell or two to stabilise the fundamentals, you can pay customisation on these dirt circles. If you do this and that, the circle stays forever, but only so long as the magic caster stays vigilant. Keep out, for example, the average demon, maybe a certain species of skunk, or, say, the cold.

Wukong taught him how to play chess on the carved marble set next to the rushing waterfall, taught him how to do cannonballs into the deep part of the basin, and that it was ok to have sweets for dinner sometimes. He made mighty sure Chen Xiang knew all the best places to get takeout all over China.

They shouted obscenities at each other on opposite ends of a mountain-wide cricket fighting event. (Chen Xiang named his cricket Great Sage Equal to Earth, Wukong named his Yang ErFuck. The monkeys put bets on them and Yang ErFuck became quite the lucrative bug.)

Chen Xiang grew the-rest-of-the-way-up at Huaguo Shan, in a labyrinthine cavern system lined with cosy animal hides that the King skinned himself, with scuffed chairs from how the monkeys liked to lean on two wooden legs, where the commons was always rowdy with laughter and shouting and chirps. And under a sunny sky that stretched on forever, Chen Xiang learnt to trust his body to fight.

"Hey Chen Xiang, want to race?" Wukong heard Red, his first and foremost council and sentry say, and she tipped her head for him to join them. Wukong made a 'nah' face, vaguely flapping his hand in her direction.

Red smirked. She pointed in the direction where Chen Xiang was heaving two other monkeys onto his back.

"So much for staking this out, huh, King?" she said beside Wukong.

Wukong didn't know what the heck she was talking about, before his brows pulled taut as he registered that it was a go at him. "Don't rub it in, Red."

"Master, coming? Race," Chen Xiang said.

"Wrong! I'm not your master. And it's not a race if I join Kiddo. It'll be a slaughter."

A monkey crawled off of Chen Xiang to poke his tongue out at Wukong. "Bleugh, no fair, Meihou Wang."

Wukong rolled his eyes at him. "It wouldn't be fair if I 'somersault-clouded' to the top of this place first either, Yu, so what do you suggest?"

Yu hissed uproariously before jumping back onto Chen Xiang.

"Yeah, you better get on the Kid."

As Yu hopped climbed up Chen Xiang's shoulder, Chen Xiang batted at the other monkey grabbing at his hair. "Hey!" he snapped, nose scrunching, "No — give that back! No no no, I'm sorry please don't leave — give me back my hair tie I only have one!"

Chen Xiang swung to the side trying to catch Sun Jing's tail (but missed), and the motion almost threw Yu off of him. "Don't scream at me," Chen Xiang said, offended. Wukong watched him square up, about to start a riot for that hair tie.

"Kid."

"I'll skin you for interior decor! I'll poison your favourite tree! You'll never know what's coming—"

"Kiddo he's a monkey."

"Who isn't one here?!"

"No, I mean Jing Jing's not a demon." Wukong made a noise in his throat, asking the monkey give the thing back. "He can't talk. He only screams. He's an animal."

Chen Xiang crossed his arms. The array of demon monkeys behind him and on him crossed their arms too. "So who else here has been living me a lie?" he said under his breath. "Anyone else want to admit they let me hold conversations at Sun Jing without telling me?"

Wukong ignored the wave of high pitched snicker went through the room. Instead, he turned to Red. "Pick me something nice to eat on the way back."

"What do you want, King?"

"Yeah, what do you want, Master?"

"Just pick me something. No bruises. If I find a bruise I will throw a fit."

"Yes, we know, but what sort of fruit would you like, My King?"

"Just use your intuition, Red."

"Master," Chen Xiang huffed. "Just pick a noun — I bet when we bring back a watermelon or something you're going to sulk and say that's not what you felt like eating."

"We don't have watermelons here you blob fish!" Which sucked for Wukong since he felt exactly in the mood for watermelons now.

"It was a figure of speech. Look, I'll fly and get you a beef noodle or—"

"I'm a vegetarian, Last-Name-Liu." 

"You — What?!"

"My King, you still haven't said—"

"Okay! Bring me a nectarine."

"You're a — he's a vegetarian?"

They bought him back a peach. To be fair, it roughly reached the size of small dinner plate. On the downside, Chen Xiang had taken a bite out of it first.


In the groggy hours of the night, Chen Xiang sat up disorientated. He yawned, rubbing at his eyes until his entire face went red. "What are you doing?" he asked Wukong.

Wukong was sitting crosslegged at the foot of the bed where Chen Xiang's legs didn't reach. "Sitting crosslegged at the foot of your bed where your legs don't reach."

His back was turned on him. There was a large spot of light streaming through the openings of the cavern ceiling that Chen Xiang had punched through to get some window in his room. There was some crescent moon tonight, just a picturesque spot in the dark ceiling that Wukong was staring at.

"Go back to sleep." Wukong stretched his arms upwards and yawned into his shoulder. "I'll ward all the unnecessary away."

"You can do that?"

"Yup," he lied.

Chen Xiang huffed into his hands and flopped gracelessly back into bed. "You don't have to stay the whole night. No more shit dreams. I'm fine now."

Chen Xiang pretended to go back to sleep. The fact that he tossed twice meant it wasn't going to happen. Wukong scratched the back of his head even though it wasn't itchy. Chen Xiang just lied there like a log, staring at the ceiling. Wukong sat there like a rock, staring at a different part of the ceiling. 

"I used to do this for my Master," Wukong said.

Chen Xiang shuffled under the covers. "For Tang Monk, the great Tang Sanzang?"

"Great?" Wukong echoed. He was surprised that there was surprise in his voice, but let it go. "Yeah. He was pretty great." Wukong shook a hand through his hair. "Forget it. It's nothing."

Chen Xiang yawned again, lying on his back. Wukong could damn near hear him choosing his words like picking out antidote to a poison. "Did he get shit dreams a lot, too?"

Wukong thought about if he should answer. If it was right for him to talk about his master in this way — in the way that only people who'd lived and fought and travelled together for so long would know. But he thought about how Chen Xiang felt like there was a weight in the world that he had to hold, and how his master had been the very same way. To them, there was no one else in the world willing to hold it, so there was only them to shoulder it.

"I'm not afraid of dying," Chen Xiang said out of the deep blue, and paused long enough for Wukong to jolt to high heaven wondering about where exactly he started going wrong with the kid.

"Well, not in the way you think. You think I'm scared of that — scared of going away, or maybe the pain. But I'm not really," Chen Xiang went on, his voice operating on the same level as small talk. "I think, I think I'm afraid of dying because I'm nothing to them. Because my parents mean nothing to them. I don't care if I die right this moment. But, Master," he said, and it sounded like someone who had never used their voice before trying to speak up for the very first time, "Master, I'm terrified of proving them right."

Wukong flipped around, impassioned. "Don't be ashamed about the fear. Fear isn't the same as cowardice," he said, and he never thought in his life he would have to repeat these words to someone else, or for all the things inside him to tumble all at once.

"Yeah," Wukong said, lifting his brows to Chen Xiang.

"Yeah, what?" Chen Xiang said to the ceiling.

"He did have shit dreams. The shittiest."

That coaxed a laugh from Chen Xiang that he smothered with his blankets.

"Back then, malevolent demons ran free in the world like a free-for-all buffet diner. It was not fun times for my Master, a gleaming beacon of the Chef's Special on wheels."

The blanket could no longer muffle Chen Xiang's laugh and he came back up for air.

"I knew he was afraid," Wukong said, "Everybody knew he was afraid of his own shadow. I think I hated him for it, at the start."

Chen Xiang went quiet. He nodded carefully. "It must have been hard as hell. Going to the West and back." He lingered awhile, both of them bathing in the silence, before adding, "Especially for a normal guy. I don't know how I'd have dealt with things, not having superhuman strength."

Wukong agreed with a short sigh. "But, you know, everyday he got up and acted like nothing was wrong. And every time some village or some guy needed help, he'll help. Despite the fact that he knew how much more danger it would put him in."

Wukong uncrossed his legs, and recrossed them again after doing some rearranging. "We — my disciple-brothers and I, we took turns guarding him in the night. You know, lest he be dragged away and get swallowed before daybreak."

Wukong scratched the backside of his hand, unable to keep still. "I really hated him for it," he said, in a lumpy, exaggerated voice, but one that wasn't enough to cover the embarrassment searing down his throat, "but then, I respected him for it. For waking up and living his fears every single day, as a mortal who was so aware of his own mortality."

"That's…pretty intense. When you put it that way." Chen Xiang scratched his head, winding down enough to yawn for real, out of his irrational fight or flight settings. "You know, your Master," Chen Xiang said, and Wukong braced himself for it for some reason, "after a while of being so scared — it's not really that anymore. That's just being brave."

Wukong's lips curled uncontrollably upwards. That was just it — just the thing that made him realise he used to be so very wrong about Tang Monk, hand in hand with the moment he realised he was much ready to take a sword to the head for him. For someone who hadn't the gall to face death himself, it was just real glossy talk from a bitter, self congratulating Xingze.

"The fear is what makes you alive," Wukong said, turning back to face the moonlight. "Being alive is to fear death, isn't it? It's to fear what will hurt us." He sighed. "You can be afraid of not-mattering. But you also need to know that's—" Wukong leaned back to give him a look Chen Xiang didn't sit up to see, "—really wishful thinking, judging on how you've jumped to Number One Wanted Man in the continent."

"Hahahahahahaha…"

(If you really didn't matter — then your uncle wouldn't be ripping up the earth trying to find you, or heaven wouldn't be tripping over themselves to silence you, or I wouldn't retake the role of a guardian that I've left so long ago.)


Sometimes he thought that seeing Chen Xiang romp around the never-cut grass and loudly singing out-of-tune songs was good enough. Hoping that he wasn't really doing foolhardy things like making up fun games to teach how to play with fire, in order to do something more foolish and dangerous. Here was a Chen Xiang that was free and carefree, unshackled by terrible, unfair things. Maybe, bit by bit, maybe if Chen Xiang stayed long enough, he could replace that ineffable sadness in him. Maybe it wasn't so ineffable after all. In moments, laughing along with the kid, he could believe it.

Sometimes he caught Chen Xiang looking at him like he was his hero. Then all of a sudden, it was like he was sitting at the roundtable around his six sworn brothers, and then when he crowned himself Equal to Heaven, and then on the journey beside his closest companions, when that had only been his life's ambition.

Anyhow. In reality Wukong was trying to be functional for once — to not jump in and lock-on to who to punch first. It was against his will to put some gangly kid's life on the line. He needed to refrain. He couldn't cave in to Chen Xiang's goddamned kiddo whims, his imagined straight line from point A to point B where Wukong saw a spider's web entangled all around them — every do-gooder, Emperor-lover, Heaven-hugger out to get a kid. He couldn't be a wreck because of how much Chen Xiang meant to him, how important and insurmountably dear he had become. Wukong could not, for the life of him, afford to mess this up.

And now he'd finally used up Chen Xiang's patience. He was no closer to finding a way to rid Heaven of its injustices than he was getting Sanseng Mu her freedom. He was a failure, pure and simple.

There was little difference between the time he was trying to keep up transformations to teach Chen Xiang, and now how he was trying to keep up appearances.

The more he lived the lesser he knew about anything, apparently.

What did he know of how Chen Xiang felt, someone who had inherited his crimes and not caused them? What did he know of that thing between mother and child, that unconditional thing that was driving Chen Xiang? That informed all his lifelong decisions. Everything saddled on Sun Wukong was conditional.

He needed to help free Sanseng Mu where it mattered — to clear her name. Otherwise what was he supposed to do? Suppose he even could, lift the mountain off of her and wink at the newly materialised army of one hundred thousand? Shepard off Chen Xiang and Sanseng Mu and wave them off to live a happy life as forever-fugitives? They could live for fucking-ever — or close enough to; that would mean running and hiding in holes until either existence itself ended or they were eventually captured and murdered at the very same stake that once held him.

The only thing really real and consistent in this world was how utterly useless and unusable he was becoming, rust eating up his sides like a cold winter chill.

Because before he did everything alone — taking Heaven head-on on a one-man rampage. Selfishly charging ahead and, though the responsibility lied with him and him alone, it was Huaguo Shan that had paid the price along with him. In Heaven he let everything go because, with Huaguo Shan finished, he thought he had nothing remotely left to lose. He wore his arrogance and pride like a crown; and he was doing it for revenge, for grief, for getting what he at least deserved for what they did to him — to be remembered.

To win.

Right now, he had so fucking much to lose.

There was nothing he had that he wouldn't risk, but Chen Xiang — thinking of winging him away like high stakes in a bet was something unfathomable. How could he possibly live with himself, how could he walk and breath and exist if he knew he had totally, absolutely, single-handedly ruined Liu Chen Xiang's life when he trusted him not to.

And still, he was a failure. Because either way he had being nothing more than a blight on him, considering their little brawls. Of all the late-night regrets, however, Sun Wukong was intent on not letting this become one of those.


Even in the mortal world time did not touch them they way it did others; Chen Xiang was just a bit shy of being considered tall and not a snot-nosed kid and five times the young thing he was, with that steep tunnel vision lit with vengeance in an illusory light, with ardour and reason and resolve Wukong never had at that age, with a time bomb ticking in his head that ended when he'd let someone down.

He still looked kiddish because that was how celestial's time scale worked, but Wukong thought, and his bones quivered for it — in human terms Chen Xiang was about the same age Master was when they started journeying west. Early twenties, wasn't it? Twenty two or twenty three. Bastardly young. Had Master ever been as young as this? Had Wukong ever bowed into the tutelage of someone as young as this?

He had never realised exactly how harsh that was, when he was too busy thinking about an easy trip. 

He thought to himself, justified to himself, that he had taught Chen Xiang to fly first because one day he’d have to run. 

But this was the truth: one day Chen Xiang would need to get to Heaven, charge up in their faces and demand for justice. That day didn't need to come so soon, not now, now when Wukong didn't know how to assure a victory. 

Wukong pulled a strand of hair from the back of his neck, the ones best for making clones. With a flick, he blew it out of his hands.

The clone looked left, right, and yawned. "Pretty early. Just me?"

"Just you," Wukong said to clone-him. He pointed between the clone and Huaguo Shan. "You're gonna keep an eye on Chen Xiang and make sure he doesn't wreck himself leaving this mountain."

"I'm what?" The clone made a face.

Wukong frowned at him.

"Hey original," the clone said with a lilt to his query, "We're keeping him on the mountain? That's a shitty thing to do and you know it."

"Oh shut up, you know what happens if he jumps the gun!"

"I do. That's why I know this is exactly what we're afraid of."

"What?"

"Being a controlling control freak."

Wukong pointed at him again, menacingly. "I don't need to be psychoanalysed by myself. Stay here and watch out for the Kiddo while I look for a guy."

"Whatever," clone him said, and settled down in a tree in a very Wukong-like fashion. "Come back soon. You know Chen Xiang's getting upset with me. Er — you."

"Us!" Wukong scoffed. "Don't try to wipe your hands clean, you're me, too!"


The way his body went ahead without regard for his mind infuriated him. How he knew the odds but went ahead, anyway. He wouldn't risk Chen Xiang, but he would his relationship with him.

"My King?"

Wukong turned around, surly. It was Red, up at the crack of dawn with him. "Hn?"

Her tail flickered anxiously left-right. "Is Chen Xiang gone?"

"Yep."

Her eyes crinkled, though in a way that told Wukong that she'd expected it. "It distresses the King, doesn't it?"

Sometimes he hated how goddamned forward Red had to be. Though that was why she'd remained been the most high ranked official for all this time. 

"Just keep it to yourself, Red. No, no I'm not "distressed.""

Red huffed and trotted away. "He was always going go."

"Don't act like like I didn't know that!" Wukong rolled his eyes.

He'd made peace with that as soon as Chen Xiang had disappeared off of Huaguo Shan, without leaving the slightest track behind him. It was as if he was never there at all. No one would know, no one would care, and he was alright with that.

Red stopped in her track, pushing herself up on her tail for the extra height. "Chen Xiang'll come back. Even though he isn't one of us, he'll always be welcome here. Won't he?"

Wukong's eyes flickered open, glinting. Red was still waiting for an answer. "Yeah."

Maybe his fears were less unfounded now. Chen Xiang was right: he was too afraid. Too afraid to do what he'd always done because when did it ever end cleanly? If he screwed up this time, it was Chen Xiang's life on the line. It was better this way.

Sun Wukong didn't expect the kid to want to see him again.

And he told himself he was alright with that, too.