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how the black sheep breathe

Chapter Text

 

White lies, sweet words, bitter insinuation; a dip of a hill, an east-facing cottage, a place where the entire sunset was caught in a valley. There were words scrawled on notes, a jittery so-called witness, people playing dumb on every turn, a hundred and sixty eight decimated training targets to let out the frustration. Rumours ran rife, baseless accusations piled, the beads of a headdress clinked, and the hammer came down as the order went through.

On a cloudy afternoon, a man knocked on the door.

"I'll get it!"

"No." Sanseng Mu swept up her child and plopped him into her husband's arms. She usually forgot he was getting too big to be picked up already, what with her strength and how normal children were. Chen Xiang fumbled and she cooed at him to let go. Her husband 'oof-ed!' as he sat their son in the crook of his arms and only dropped his dewy eyes when he shot her a suspicious look over Chen Xiang's shoulder.

"It's happened," she said neutrally, fixing the collar on her clothes, and there was nothing she could do but watch the light go out in her husband's face, his lines creasing as if he'd aged ten years in the light speed time in which she'd said finished saying the words.

Words they'd exchanged over a candle light in the middle of the night, words they'd whisper two rooms away from their sleeping baby, when they cherry-picked the best case scenarios and mouthed contingency plan over contingency plan like veterans on a warfront. They'd both played and rewound and replayed this part over in their heads. That there would be a day in which this day would come.

"Take Chen Xiang and get ready to go," she breathed through the small space between them as she kissed him lightly. Chen Xiang put his hand in her hair and tugged.

"What's-"

"Shh, no, you," her husband, Yianchang, chided, but Sanseng Mu just reached out and tugged on Chen Xiang's hair instead.

The door knocked a second time, steady and light. Yianchang took Chen Xiang to go. Glancing at herself in the yellow mirror as she passed, Senseng Mu put on her best smile. Soft, lithe, and totally unassuming - a maiden's smile. She opened the door. After years of dreaming up how this would go, she'd familiarised herself with it so much it felt like an old memory that played out a lifetime ago, and now that it was happening like this instead it was alien. She faltered.

A tall man hid his surprise behind—he didn't hide his surprise. He tried to and failed quite spectacularly. Dressed in embroidered civilian clothes — they were a nobleman's clothes, Sanseng Mu mirthfully noted — his hand jumped to brush over his forehead. It was a nervous habit of his. He looked just as much flustered as she was, just an incredibly uncomfortable. The visitor quirked his mouth.

"Three," he said softly.

"Second Brother," Sanseng Mu smirked. She imagined this moment bold, wherein she'd talk without fear and open the door wide. Instead, she only creaked it open far enough to frame her. "Look what the harsh winds have bought to my door."

The man narrowed his eyes but the look was not one of scrutinising.

"Or do you prefer Erlang Shen now? General, 真君? Or perhaps Upholder of Divine Law, 司法天神 these days?" Sanseng Mu remarked, not even listing his name as a probability.

She had no business feeling guilty over it. She really hadn't. Even if the little scrunch of his nose was worth it.

"Three," Yang Jian started, dipping his head, "…Third sis, if you called me anything but 'Second' I'd never forgive you."

They were close once. He chased her in the summer with their little red kite, she bandaged his broken arm after a fall from a tree, he lied about having already eaten when they went hungry, she picked fights with kids who called him 'three-eyed freak.' For he had three eyes but he was not, and she'd never let anyone call him, a freak.

"It's been a long time, hasn't it?" he said.

Nothing had so much gone wrong except that Heaven had favoured one twin over the other. One was driven, stoic and absolutely loyal, the other, stalwart and unyielding in a completely different way. It turned out being about thirty minutes older had its perks. That was what she'd told herself before she'd learnt to accept the truth. That her brother was better at obedience than she ever could be. There were many truths in reality - not least that he'd been born a man and she a woman - but they were so close for so long and now the two measly steps in the doorway between them felt like eons, still widening between them.

"I wish you'd given me a letter beforehand. It would have given me time to fix the place and impress you. I could have gone for a haircut," Sanseng Mu said. Her hair flowed down to her waist, half of it twisted in an elegant up-do. "So is this a family event, or a business trip?"

Yang Jian answered brutally honestly. "This is business."

He always did, and that was what she liked about him.

But why doesn't Three like me! some motherfucker whined when they were fourteen.

Because you're ugly, Second Bro stated monotonously.

"Can't you at least pretend you're happy to see me?" Sanseng Mu teased, but it was less a joke that she'd thought.

"I can't."

A silence fell over them. There was something stirring in the air, in the atmosphere above, something bright and carnal. Light silhouetted soft shadows in the clouds and Sanseng Mu couldn't have guessed in a million years that this was how it would go. Yang Jian hadn't come alone. Yang Jian moved to brush a few stray strands of hair away, moving to tuck two parts back into his silver pin. He flitted a finger over the centre of his forehead as he did. Bad habits, she thought, staring; bad habits died hard.

"So. Are you going to let me in?"

" 'Course," and she moved aside before she could decide otherwise.


Sanseng Mu shut the door snugly behind him and led them into a small sitting area. It was a humble house. She caught Yang Jian's sight moving shiftily around the place, creasing as it fell upon an undried calligraphy set in someone else's writing. It was her husband's writing. Opening a cupboard, she laid out the best china. Luxuriously painted blue and white porcelain, each delicate cup depicting a different folk story. A flock of birds in a half circle, a man and woman on top, another with a figure stretching a bow towards the sun.

"Sit."

"Thank you."

"I have your favourite. Oolong tea."

"Thank you."

"Are you going to say something other than that?"

"Not yet."

They sipped down scorching hot tea at the same time. She could have been more discreet with things, what with her and her husband technically being in hiding, but this was still her home and how discreet did they need to be when they lived in the middle of nowhere in a valley no one could make it out of, save for her godly mountaineering skills?

Even as a youth, Yang Jian had stacked his bamboo books in perfectly symmetrical stands. Any stray piece of paper was purged away and he didn't shy from using magic to keep it like that. It was not untidy, but Sanseng Mu's sitting room was full of signs of usage. The calligraphy was of course still drying, her husband's bound, blue-cover books were strewn over a wooden table and then onto the floor, and there were children's toys lying about. On the counter, under the table they were currently sitting at, on a chair, she'd spotted one in the teacup cupboard, and there was a rocking horse's head poked out from the kitchen. The kitchen.

"You were always the messy one, growing up," Yang Jian chided with a huff, but the look that he gave each and every one of those mundane things was intent, as if he was holding back from just looking at it.

"No," Sanseng Mu bit back over her cup, "I was the I-had-it-together one. We both know you couldn't sleep until you straightened the rug in your room."

"Yeah. Yeah."

"But I'm glad," Sanseng Mu took another sip. She magicked the temperature of the tea into something drinkable. "You never quit at any speck of dust until it was gone," she said brightly, "and now you're doing it on the battlefield. Just as well. It took too long for Heaven to recognise you, you know." Sanseng Mu lifted her cup. By the time it hit their lips, it would have turned into wine.

"Congratulations on your new position!"

Yang Jian was taken aback, his brows lifting high before dropping quickly. "Thank you." He seemed to stop a grin by shoving the teacup into his face, and then his expression changed so suddenly that Sanseng Mu frowned at it. It was not as if Yang Jian was adverse to drinking.

"The position…it's good. Good for my people, my Mei Shan comrades are finally getting recognition too."

"And Xiao Tian," Sanseng Mu chuckled. "Dear Xiao Tian as well." The dog she'd helped him hide for the better part of their childhood.

Yang Jian perked at that as Senseng Mu giggled. Yang Jian leant forward to refill the cups, pouring Sanseng Mu's first. Sanseng Mu tapped her finger on the table, a show of politeness. "Why didn't you bring him?" Sanseng Mu thought, suddenly, "It's not as if we're strangers."

"I didn't think it wise. Xiao Tian's very lively, you know. He'll startle small children."

Sanseng Mu nodded wryly, showing no other reaction. They lifted their cups, clinking them over the table and spilling oolong-turned-wine over a broken bamboo book piece and a carved wooden toy. Yang Jian was getting tense and she braced for what would come next.

When he lifted his head, Sanseng Mu did not expect that face on him. That dip his lips made that did not tell a happy story, a sad and solemn look that looked like he was pleading.

"Three," he started, and his voice sounded like the time he was consoling her when she was multitasking between crying and fixing his broken arm, "Three, will you not even let me see my nephew?"

She felt a great wave of moroseness fall over her like a veil.

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

Like a red wedding veil — one that she lifted over herself and quietly sulked under as she overthought in the only carriage the village could provide, a rickety thing that bobbed her headdress up and down to show glimpses of the kind baker man that rode her out from the mountains to the small ceremony. It was both the most happiest and loneliest time of her life, screw Heaven if she had any idea why.

She was getting married to the man she totally, inexplicably, voluminously, egregiously loved, the only man for her in this life and then after. And at the same time, she felt such a keen sadness stab though her: that she would be alone except for the few kind villagers who didn't know who she truly was, that her only family could not be there for her wedding day.

And now her fears were realised to the full extent, even if they were numbed, pushed away, disregarded, even, before as she let in the face of Heaven's fury. Her fears that it was going down like this: that when Heaven finally came to knock on her door, it was her Second Brother that they chose to send. Yang Jian had not asked to see her husband, her soul, her love, at all. He'd dismissed him like he dismissed the shadow of his things in the room, something less than a glower at them before he forgot it in that very same instance. Yang Jian had asked for her son instead, and there was nothing but reverence in his voice.

"My nephew, Three. Where is he?"

She slammed her cup down. Slammed it so hard that the painted cowherd and weaver girl cracked apart down the middle of the bridge made of birds on the porcelain.

"Second Brother, if this is about—"

The skin on Yang Jian's forehead split open. Without warning, a large, beady eye watched her in line with the others before it abruptly shot to the right. Yang Jian continued to wait for her to finish. His cup of tea hovered, the steam wafting up into the air. His two eyes were fixed totally on her. His Sky Eye was opened wide, glaring deftly at something to the side.

Sanseng Mu spun to the right. Through the crack of the wooden door the first thing she noticed was the red of a ribbon. A hair tie. Her heart jumped into her throat, her stomach plummeted to somewhere else as she forced her aura back down into a pit.

"I think we're being watched, Three."

Sanseng Mu couldn't keep her nerves down. Without thinking about it, without thinking otherwise, she fluttered immediately to the door. There was not a full second between the moment she left her seat and when she pulled open the door and stood so that she blocked Yang Jian's eye.

"Chen Xiang!" she was whispering now, "Chen Xiang, what are you — where's your father?! Why…"

But there was no time to consider why. Chen Xiang flinched, wobbling dangerously back before he fell with little, bumbling child steps. There was a strange, startled look in his eyes. She hadn't even had the heart to think of how Chen Xiang had never seen her use her powers before. But bless the boy, Chen Xiang was young and young ones were frighteningly fearless. Chen Xiang quickly picked himself up.

"Dad's behind me," he whispered back, catching on to the game. He was always too smart for his own good.

"Three?"

She glanced behind. All three of Yang Jian's eyes were fixed to the front now, not looking at what wasn't made privy to him. They stayed that way. She glanced back to her son.

Sanseng Mu's world was breaking down around her. Chen Xiang must have realised that his father was taking him in the longboat and rowing away. If they'd only made it into the mountains, into the serpentine meanders that made a giant maze, they might have had a chance. But they'd never gone rowing without all the three of them present. Yianchang wouldn't have told Chen Xiang what was going on, because they'd both decided that he didn't need to know. Chen Xiang didn't need to know anything unless the apocalypse was coming and his name was on the list. It seemed that that analogy was closer than they thought and now she hated herself for even coming up with it. So Chen Xiang must have jumped off and ran down the banks back home for his mother. He was too good a kid.

Her husband rounded the corner, huffing profusely with his mouth closed in a thin, tight line. They locked eyes. Yianchang's demeanour changed straight from worry to determination without anything in between. He nodded silently. Everything would depend on Sanseng Mu's judgement now. Yianchang trusted her unconditionally, but Sanseng Mu had a mind full of conditions. It was what the world had always given her.

"Three." Yang Jian piped up behind her again.

Sanseng Mu took Chen Xiang's hand as he came up, putting her lips to it briefly before she gave him a goofy smile. Chen Xiang beamed, near lighting up like a lightning bug.

"Chen Xiang," she said in a sunny voice, "Come. Meet your family, Chen Xiang."

Chen Xiang walked hand-in-hand with her into the room. Yang Jian rose from his seat. Someone of Yang Jian's calibre didn't rise for anyone except for the very select few who commanded him. But, despite herself, Sanseng Mu's lips curled. How like Second Brother, to take it like a military introduction, when he finally gave himself permission to look at Chen Xiang who skipped in front of him. Chen Xiang beamed. The missing bottom tooth seemed to surprise Yang Jian. Sanseng Mu put a hand to her mouth like a flustered palace girl.

Then, slowly, Yang Jian lowered himself to a knee.

Sanseng Mu nodded to Chen Xiang. "Chen Xiang. This is your Uncle, Yang Jian."

The novelty of Yang Jian's three eyes had already worn off and Chen Xiang was nodding enthusiastically at him as they blinked in unison.

Yang Jian tipped his head slightly. "It's very, very nice to meet you, Chen Xiang."

Chen Xiang, his blood running with the stories Yianchang told him, held up his arms and saluted Yang Jian. It was a gentleman fighter's salute: wherein one punched one's right fist into their left palm, a sign of halting conflict, of harmony. "Nice to meet you, Uncle!"

Yang Jian's eyes widened.

Then, after a moment's delay, an unsure delay, he smiled back. He smiled largely, until the corners of his eyes creased and his brows furrowed and colour flushed his cheeks. Perhaps out of habit, or the sight just triggered the routine-like Upholder of Law inside him, he lifted his arms and mirrored the salute strongly. Looking a little affronted, Chen Xiang shifted his lopsided salute, fixing it to match his Uncle's.

As Sanseng Mu watched, she couldn't help but hold back a laugh, that sight of Yang Jian being so utterly clueless but so absolutely warm to the point where his aura was overheating from underneath him. If she'd known it would be like this she would have let him meet Chen Xiang in the first place, the cheeky child.

"Two eyes," Yang Jian started, all his three unabashedly watching Chen Xiang in immeasurable wonder. "What a pity."

"He takes after his mother," Sanseng Mu added.

"Oh I wouldn't doubt it, Three."

She shared a low chuckle with her Second Brother at that. Chen Xiang, upon not being let in or understanding the joke, twisted his lips. "Why do you call Mum Three?" he asked.

Yang Jian sighed. It was a feigned, spirited sigh, the type you would do at children when they asked what was a hard question to them and you had to abide in their excitement.

"Because your mother is my Third Sister, 三妹. And I am her Second Brother. She has many names, including Third Goddess 三娘, Third Princess 三圣宫主, and of course, Sanseng Mu 三圣母. So I call her 'Three.'"

"Nobody calls me that except you," Sanseng Mu said, crossing her arms. "You don't see me using 'Two,' " she said with feigned indignity. She used to do — during the old times, but now was not the same as then. There was something innocent and childish about still calling him 'Two,' but she'd stopped sometime when they had left their training.

Chen Xiang seemed to find that extremely amusing. He chuckled loudly until the room was filled with his laughter. Yang Jian chuckled quietly along with him. It was Sanseng Mu's turn to be left out of the very joke she made.

"Why do you have three eyes?" Chen Xiang asked his Uncle. Chen Xiang turned to look at Sanseng Mu tentatively. "Why could you move so fast? Can I do that later? Can you show me again?!"

Sanseng Mu's jaw clenched. She watched Yang Jian's shoulders clench. Put in the same awkward situation, they acted in the same way. Yang Jian peered to her solemnly. The look he gave her was not one that should have made her feel guilty, guilty.

"You didn't let hm know."

Sanseng Mu unclenched her fists. "He doesn't need to know."

"Doesn't need to know? It's who he is, Three."

"He's my son, Second Brother. I'm raising him on my terms. Not yours."

"The same terms that kept us in the dark until it was too late? Until it led us to run with powers we couldn't control, Three?"

"Think about the reason why we had to run, Two," she said snidely. "Not knowing is a mercy."

"Need to know what?!" Chen Xiang cried. Their attentions snapped back to him.

"Chen Xiang," Yang Jian said. He paused but Sanseng Mu didn't stop him. He continued. "Your mother can move like that because she is a goddess. The goddess of these very mountains, actually. The mountains of Hua. Their protector and guardian." And then. "…I have three eyes to see better."

Sanseng Mu wanted to laugh, to throw her hands up to her face and bellow. But there was a heavy, crushing feeling in her stomach, a sad sort of warning playing in her head. Something inside her began to roar. 

"Then…doesn't that mean that I'm."

"Yes." Yang Jian lifted himself up, filling spaces with his shadow. He suddenly towered over Chen Xiang. "You, too, are a god of the Celestial Realm, Chen Xiang."

Chen Xiang stopped, drinking in those words. It wasn't long before he was beaming at them.

"You deserve to be there, Chen Xiang, you—"

"Enough."

Sanseng Mu stepped casually between them. "That would be all, brother. You should sit down."

Yang Jian stayed still. Not a hair on his head or thread in his magicked-up clothes betrayed emotion. "This is a business trip, Three. I've come to speak to the both of you. Cheng Xiang is a god, he doesn't belong down here."

"Then what am I?"

She didn't want to lose her cool in front of Chen Xiang, but the way Yang Jian could say the ridiculous with nothing in his face was always something that infuriated her now. "This is my house. My family. We're home here." She could feel Chen Xiang suddenly tug on her clothes behind her, and then she worked to stand in front of him.

Yang Jian sighed shortly. "You've made your decision. I know that. I know I'm hopeless to try change your mind."

"Then you should know that I won't let you feed propaganda into my son."

Yang Jian's mouth twitched. "Three. It's not as if you don't understand the gravity of this situation. How…" Yang Jian's voice broke. "How could you be so stupid?"

Stupid. Sanseng Mu could handle being called most things. Ugly, in her childhood, was the prime suspect. It used to matter to her a lot whether she was beautiful or not, but it quickly stopped mattering when she'd grown up and beautiful was thrown at her like it was fire and she was supposed to be some moth. Of course there were the other ones, the ones that made her skin crawl: Dirty. Heathen. Halfbreed. Wench. Those hurt, but it didn't matter in the long run when twin halfbreed god and goddess became two of the most powerful celestials in Heaven.

The Western Armada had revolted. In fact, only a faction under a wayward commissioner had, but that didn't matter. It would be treated as treason, and the entire armada held responsible. Yang Jian and Yang Chan stood on the deck of a sky-ship, armoured in a common soldier's armour, weapons drawn at their sides. There was mocking laughter behind as they looked upon their enemies hand in hand. They were laughing, and then they weren't.

But stupid. She couldn't stand stupid. For every little thing she did was reduced, in Heaven's eyes, in every celestial's eyes, to stupid. Spending more time on earth was frowned upon. Building her cottage was delirious. Openly talking to humans was sacrilege. Healing their diseases was nothing short of excessive. But oh, her act of saving Liu Yianchang, her slow-falling in love, her leaving Heaven to be happy, her giving up divinity to be herself with her beloved, that was stupid, stupid, stupid.

Sanseng Mu raised her chin, loosened her hands and bit Yang Jian back where she knew it would hurt most.

"How could you be so heartless?"

The air seemed static. Yang Jian took a step forward and—

"Brother-in-law."

—stopped.

The Sky Eye flickered once more to the side, his normal sight strained on Sanseng Mu.

"Liu Yianchang," he remarked. "How very pleased I am to meet you." His voice was completely levelled. He did not turn to regard him, just stared with his Sky Eye.

"And I, you."

Sanseng Mu did not release her sight from Yang Jian. Yianchang walked confidently in, picked up a toy off the floor, and then bobbed behind his wife. "Chen Xiang, you're a fast runner and I wish you'd give me some warning next time." He huffed exaggeratedly. "C'mon. Your Mum's got some beef with your Uncle. Let them sort it out."

Sanseng Mu's brow twitched. For a literary academic that was a choice way of putting it.

Chen Xiang frowned.

"I'll let you draw with my calligraphy brushes. The nice ones," he added.

Chen Xiang perked, immediately forgetting the raised voices. He couldn't be used to raised voices, but he forgot so simply. "Hm." Yianchang picked him up (with some trouble - not because he was weak but rather, Chen Xiang was not a normal kid) and carried him out. He skimmed eyes with Yang Jian, deliberately breaking his contest with Sanseng Mu. Sanseng Mu smirked.

"Now will you sit?" she said dryly.

Yang Jian nodded once. He took a seat again. "He looks like a cross between a mule and someone who digs graves for a living."

Sanseng Mu gasped indignantly. "How dare you! He's an excellent poet and writer. Highly educated. Intelligent." For someone with the amount of eyes her brother had, there really were no excuses to acknowledge that Yianchang was an absolute catch.

"So he's a book nerd."

"If you're here to insult my husband I find that to be an extremely strange business agenda."

"Three," he sighed. "You married…that mortal—"

"—That scholar." Sanseng Mu took one of the teacups after remembering they were there, and then downed a cold glass of tea.

After a pause, Yang Jian poured her another lukewarm cup. She tapped her finger on the table.

And she didn't settle down until she felt Yianchang's heartbeat dwindle back down to sixty beats per minute in another room. 

Yianchang: tall and soft and beautiful in all the ways that mattered — a straightforward man that saw black and white and when she told him who she was, finally, he'd been preparing to cross heaven with his weak, motley self without skipping a beat.

They met at two hundred feet in the air where Yianchang was falling to his quite unremarkable death. She didn't mean to keep meeting him: in a sunny teahouse talking about the latest published limerick, under the trees as he sang an old show song while she touched his hair, in one of his classes as they struggled not to snicker under their breaths, and suddenly Yianchang was twenty five and then twenty nine and ageing and — she asked him to ask her to marry him.

She'd been the happiest in her life, with Yianchang.

"Alright, Second Brother," Sanseng Mu said. "What does Heaven want?"

"Marrying a mortal is treason."

"I said. What do they want from me?"

"Your sentencing."

"My death."

"No!" Yang Jian put down his cup with force, this time. But not enough force to crack the cup. "…No. Listen to me, Three. I have an incredibly high position in the Heavenly Court right now. It's done. It's sealed."

He looked up, his eyes flickering in agitation. "We're going back to Heaven. You're going to confess your sins and ask for forgiveness. If you do that — if we go together and ask for forgiveness, they'll let you live."

Sensing Mu took his words as if he'd just asked her whether her gardenias would bloom this year or the next. She sat back in a way that said she was totally sure of herself and then some. "I asked for what Heaven wanted from me. Not you. I don't think what you want is how it's going to go, brother." She simpered. "You want me to go back there and admit I'm wrong. Maybe get on my knees, and grovel and cry, renounce everything I am. Perhaps even renounce our parents, perhaps renounce the House of Yang on the side. Beg them for absolution, isn't that right?"

Yang Jian looked away sternly. "Please. Come back to Heaven with me. I can make a case for you. And Chen Xiang. If you come before the court there's a chance that—"

"So fuck Yianchang, I suppose."

Yang Jian darkened. "Listen to me!"

"Don't joke with me." Sanseng Mu shook her head slowly. She sounded as empty and still as her brother now. "I'll tell you what Heaven will do. Heaven will murder me. My husband. And then Chen Xiang. In that order. Don't pretend you don't know the Jade Emperor," she said soberly. "Look what he did to his own sister," she opted to say, because they didn't speak of their mother anymore, "You think the likes of me could be let go?"

For they were the blood of the Jade Emperor, his own niece and nephew. Yang Jian shook his head after her, distraught. "You have a chance."

"I don't want my chance to be given to me by the hand that denies me." Sanseng Mu's anger rattled the room, the roaring threatening to overtake her. Her hair flickered in a buzz, like it was full of static, and the energy she rolled in the pits of her stomach got free. She didn't retract it.

Yang Jian's brows crinkled drastically, ageing him by a decade. "…I think of the last time we met all those years ago and how we left things. Then I think of how I tried to reach out but never did." Now Yang Jiang looked up, facing her starkly. "And now I remember perfectly why we stopped talking. You're a fool for choosing them," he said, bitter, and hurt, "You willingly blind yourself to reality, to the truth, how could I expect you to be anything other than selfish!"

"Selfish?!" Sanseng Mu chuckled humourlessly. "You — oh, Two," she said, "You still think I'm wrong?" Sanseng Mu said, not truly talking about the goddamned law, and suddenly causing the cups and glass and porcelain dolls on the shelf began to shatter around them at random, strewing sharp shards everywhere. "— That you're — we're wrong?"

"You were always wrong!" Yang Jian shouted, causing the ends of the floorboards to gnarl and curl backwards in a instance, unleveling the room.

Sanseng Mu shook her head. "What are we? Wolves dressed in black sheep?" It was a pin drop silence that followed. "Down here, Yang Jian, we're neither," Sanseng Mu said, terse. "Down here, we're human."

"But we are not human." 

In the esteemed, venerable Erlang Shen's head, there always one side that was going to be a little more right, and one side that was going to be a little more wrong. As soon as which side was which was labelled, there was no going back in his mind.

He closed his eyes. "To be proven otherwise is to rightfully accept it. To be proven otherwise and refuse to take your place in Heaven," Yang Jian said. He didn't finish his sentence.

Sanseng Mu huffed, taking the chance to look out her window. It hadn't started to rain yet, but she thought there was a burgeoning hope for it. She didn't want to hear anymore from him. She didn't care for it.

Yang Jian looked down. "You know why I'm here, Three. You also know why I came by myself."

"I'm not stupid," Sanseng Mu said. "The second Chen Xiang came back for me I knew it was over. They had only little chance of getting out by the longboat, anyway. It was a stretch. It supposed to be so Chen Xiang wouldn't have to see violence."

Yang Jian swallowed. He gave her a particularly rueful look. It reminded her of the day when they'd finally stopped running together. That short moment where they'd both realised, exhausted to the point of huffing and throwing up, that there was nothing else. That they only had each other.

"Look at the sky," he'd said, "the sky…" At first Sanseng Mu thought it was the smoke. The blazing trail of their wealthy estate, the House of Yang burning with everyone still inside. They were far away enough that the line of smoke looked about the same size as her pinky finger. But Yang Jian wasn't talking about the smoke, he was talking about the clouds.

Rumbling and toiling like there was something brutish trapped inside; twisting, primal and hungry; flashes of white light blaring without the rain. The gods were angry. Yang Jian was crying, his hands shaking as he clutched her, grieving. She was crying too, but little, stupid Yang Chan, she was not grieving. She was angry.

They were close once. Close in that way where they both knew why Heaven had sent their Upholder of Law, Erlang Shen, to take down his sister. It was a last test, of sorts. To be totally loyal to Heaven's rule, jump the last, spiked hurdle. And for Sanseng Mu, who would not be able to fight her own dear brother. For her, they sent a targeted weakness. They used to be close like that.

Yang Jian closed his eyes hard before opening them sharply. "There are fifty thousand soldiers above us. The Mei Shan brothers are here. A few first rank warriors. Li Jin."

"Is Xiao Tian Quan up there?" Sanseng Mu asked, quirking her brows.

"…Yes, he is."

"Goodness," Sanseng Mu moved to touch her chin. "Then this will be some work."

Yang Jian shifted uncomfortably. There was nothing more to say. The business should be concluded soon. They had kept the fifty thousand heavenly soldiers waiting far longer than they should have. It would have been an abuse of power had Yang Jian not had such a title of prestige — none of them would talk back to him. None of them had the gall to.

She didn't know what was about to happen to her — whether she had the ability to hold fifty thousand soldiers back the way she was now. Whether she could look someone like Li Jin and the Mei Shan brothers in the eye, old friends once upon a time. Whether she would be enough as a distraction to allow Yianchang and Chen Xiang to escape. Whether Yang Jian would earn a bad name over this little escapade. But one thing was for sure: Sanseng Mu knew she didn't blame her Second Brother for having to do this. Perhaps she tried to, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. Sanseng Mu waited for Yang Jian to give the order.

"…I'm here to take you in, Three."

"I know, Second Brother."

Yang Jian drooped. He haunched over completely, leaning listlessly into his hand and covering his forehead completely. It was as if, all of a sudden, he could finally show just how tired he was. His breaths heaved slowly, painfully so.

They had shared the same master. When they left him, Yang Jian had been better than Sanseng Mu at brute force, but she was better than him at speed. His magic was mainly composed of transformations and stamina that went on forever. But Sanseng Mu's magic was fluid and electric and razor-edged. They used to be evenly matched. They used to be able to hold their own against anyone together. It was how the sheep survived the hunters — by becoming hunters themselves.

Yang Jian stood up. With a simple flick of his wrist, his clothes began to fall away like a dessert mirage in a far distance, plates of metal surfacing like how dragons flared their scales. Armoured in silver and black, he reached into thin air, clutching snugly around his favourite weapon by the time he'd fully extended his arm. The shining, three-pointed spear with edges of sabres and steel totally attuned to Yang Jian's aura. Powerful enough to penetrate and cleave through metal and stone like it was made of wool.

For the time being, Yang Jian closed his Sky Eye. "You decided how this ends, Three. You did."

"Yes. Yes she does," came Liu Yianchang from the kitchen.

The look on Yang Jian's face was one that looked as if he was feeling distinctly interrupted. He turned to see him. Yianchang strut into the room with unwavering confidence and resolve. In his hand was the black and red sheath of a Chinese longsword, a red sash tied around the hilt. The notable thing was how thin it was, the width of it the size of two fingers closed together, and long enough that Yianchang had to bend his arms to stop it dragging on the floor.

Looking from Yianchang's deadpan face to Sanseng Mu, Yang Jian narrowed his eyes, sighed lightly, and then cocked his head to the side. "Truly. You're really going to test your sword against my spear? " he said, stepping forth, his eyes flickering with a backlight. "Very well. Then come, Liu Yianchang. Fight me."

With a flash of confusion over his face, Yianchang scoffed at him when he settled.

"You cur," Yianchang said. "I thought you were aware. I'm a literary man. I'm an accomplished poet and scholar. Don't fret against me, I've simply come to equip my wife with her sword."

At that, Yianchang switched the sword between his left hand to his right and then haphazardly tossed it to his wife. Sanseng Mu caught it between three fingers.

"Please don't do this. You can still come quietly." Yang Jian's bottom lip seemed to quiver with anger. "What can you possibly hope to achieve?"

Liu Yianchang faced down Yang Jian with a glare.

"Fratricide, if we're lucky," he said with complete neutrality.

Sanseng Mu watched Yang Jian look from her to Yianchang, from Yianchang to her. And, as if to back Yianchang's point — because now it was between everything she held dear and true and everything that made her fallout with Yang Jian so unbearably hesitant and quiet — to back her world, she unsheathed her longsword.

Yang Jian watched as she drew it out, watching the straight tip of the blade expectantly as it buzzed and reshaped, curling itself into a hook. Both edges sharpened, the inward curl shortening the sword into the standard size. Sanseng Mu had a flair to her that Yang Jian had done away with sometime, when she knew that he thought flair was for show, and he had nothing else to prove in this already decided world. But Sanseng Mu did not let the world decide, and she had something to prove.

They'd watched street performers as young disciples in training, and Yang Jian used to turn his head each second for thirty seconds, each with a new transformed face. How their master had admonished them for sneaking showmanship combat into real, lethal martial arts. Sanseng Mu still hadn't forgotten how to do daylight tricks. Clutching her sword with both hands, she jolted it once, a jerky movement that made the guarding crescent blades at the hilt of the sword appear out of nothing. Then she positioned the blade before her face so that the hook disappeared from Yang Jiang's view, sharp side facing them both. With another deft jolt, she separated her hands and revealed the two flat sides of the duplicated swords, hooks linked together.

She remembered when she picked those things off a dusty domestic shelf and their Master nodding his head agreeably, "Nice eye, Yang Chan." He flicked two fingers on the metal, nodding again at the high, reverberating 'ting.' "Sounds nice too." They were duo hook-swords, designed for mid-to-close combat whereas Yang Jian's spear was mid-to-distant. And they'd chosen them to compliment each other — depending on what it was, Sanseng Mu was to redirect and use precision shots to decapacitate, and Yang Jian would come in to deal hard damage and overwhelm. Then they'd switch mid-motion, without warning. The way they alternated between support and first-line was impeccable — until they'd both grown so deadly the scheme suddenly and famously stopped working.

Was she still as lethal as she was in her prime? When was the last time she fought for real, without inhibitions? Could she still hold her own again Yang Jian, who now lived and breathed to fight the vast array of Heaven's enemies? He was the Upholder of Heavenly Law, had being since the high Tang dynasty when he cleaned up the Havoc in Heaven. She was a rural mountain guide. 

Sanseng Mu turned up one sword at Yang Jian. 

There was a soft curl of lip, not a smile. "Three. This," he blinked at what this was, a warning? A delusion? "This is unofficial. The moment I return to my post, the siege begins."

She felt Yianchang's heartbeat climb again, right beside her. Sanseng Mu nodded, putting down her sword. "Go."

"Yang Chan?" Yianchang murmured, unsure.

Sanseng Mu tipped her head towards the door. "Get out. Go to your faithful battalion, Erlang Shen, and then come at me with everything you and your Heaven have got."

Yang Jian did not react. He closed his eyes, slid his hand down his spear slightly, and then obliged. Yang Jian turned staunchly to head to the door, using tunnel vision doing something as minimal as that. His black boots clacked against the floorboards.

Then he turned around, taking another glance at her, and Sanseng Mu's hands clenched around her weapons. Yang Jian said nothing more. It was uncanny, in that instance, Sanseng Mu thought — that he'd been Two, he came here as her Two, he was Yang Jian even in that shiny armour and rank-showing hairpin with that familiar spear. He'd come as a brother first and executioner second.

Yang Jian turned around to say goodbye and he was not who he wanted to be. Yang Jian brushed his forehead with the back of two fingers, tipping his head slightly. Then he reared up and straightened. And Just like that, he was Erlang Shen.


Yianchang shot forward, shakily boarding the door up with a large plank of wood before sinking his back into it. He let out a long sigh. "Alright. Alright, c'mon, we have to go—"

"Yianchang."

"Or what can I do? Let me do something—"

Sanseng Mu dropped her swords — they remained in mid-air as she went forward to hold Yianchang's face and Yianchang reacted by buckling, holding hers. "Yianchang — it's alright. It's alright," she smiled. "We knew this was coming."

"We did." Yianchang's hands slid back to hers on his face and he put their foreheads together. "I'll see you in the next life."

Sanseng Mu hesitated. "I'll look for you."

She didn't want to give him false hope because false hope was cruel, but still, she vowed right then and there that at the very least, Yianchang would live. She would make it so. If she made it out alive, her crimes were such that the right kind of people would make sure she would never reincarnate again. But she would make it out alive. She was determined.

"Your chest is glowing," Yianchang said, sniffling back a silly laugh. 

"Oh." Sanseng Mu bought her hand before her, concentrated her magic, and reached inside her ribcage. It was where she hid the Lantern - no one was able to get at it unless it was over her dead body, quite literally. The Lotus Lantern pulsed alive, bathing them both in light. She willed it to go dark, but found she couldn't for the time being. 

Maybe it was so that Yang Jian and Yang Chan thought they would always have each other, if the world spontaneously combusted and the Heavens fell out of the sky. But right now they were here: he was Erlang Shen, and Chen Xiang and Yianchang needed her to be Sanseng Mu. Because to be Sanseng Mu was to reserve a right to choose. It was what she wanted, and of course, it was what she needed too. 

(She was much like their mother after all. Some people fought by giving up everything and cramming their immortal aura into the heart of an heirloom jade lantern. Some people ripped off their billowing long sleeves and summoned their hook swords to pick a fight. Today, her little house would be where the little line of smoke rose, she was the one living out a fate that had been laid out for her after all. By now it had finally caught up to her, a deep, yawing chasm that roared and roared. The roaring had never left her; Sanseng Mu felt it still her chest, her head, everything, everything roaring.)

The Lantern glowed.

"I love you," Sanseng Mu said.

"Yeah," Yianchang chuckled. "And I, you."