Xie Lian wants to fight Bai Wu Xiang. He wants revenge. He wants—
(He doesn’t know what he wants.)
He walks to the temple and expects a one-on-one fight. Instead, what he finds are a hundred people. What he gets is unimaginable, constant pain. What he receives is a sword through his stomach, his neck, his chest. He cries for mercy but they cover his mouth and refuse to grant it. He calls for help but nobody comes.
He loses consciousness and wakes up alone with the knowledge that something inside him has irrevocably changed.
He walks back to the small excuse of a house he’s been living in and drives away the last of those he’d called his friends, and regrets it immediately afterwards. He wants to run and call out for Feng Xin, wants to apologize, to ask him to stay and never leave him, but—
He knows it will be useless. He knows no one will listen when he cries for help, when he asks for something entirely selfish. And if no one will listen, if his words only serve to drive away those he holds close, then—
What reason is there for him to talk at all?
He wakes up the next morning and finds his parents hung from the rafters with a cloth around their necks. He knows his parents had nothing but good intentions, though he cannot think of what these reasons may be through the feeling of abandonment that consumes all his thoughts.
He hangs himself with the same cloth because he no longer has anything to live for, but he cannot die. The silk cloth unwinds itself from around his throat and reaches for him like a baby chick towards its mother. He screams without words and bats it away, trying to make it leave him.
(He hates the relief that chokes him when it doesn’t.)
He blames those of Yong’an. If it weren’t for the war they’d brought, his kingdom wouldn’t have fallen. His family wouldn’t have been forced to live like fugitives. His parents wouldn’t have died. He wouldn’t be alone.
(But he knows he’s only making excuses, pinning the blame on the people of a kingdom that don’t deserve it. The blame lies on his shoulders, on his arrogance and stubbornness.)
He rallies the ghosts of the soldiers that fought for him, for his kingdom. He asks if they’d like to take revenge on those who killed them, his fury overpowering the fear that swells in his chest; the fear that they will not hear him, the fear that he will face retribution for daring to speak. He smiles a smile devoid of joy when they gather around him with rage-fueled determination.
These are the last words he speaks to them.
He relays orders through the nameless ghost, speaking to him with a mix of hand gestures and pictures drawn in the dirt. Beneath the rage that fills him, there is a part of him that is amazed at the level of understanding the nameless ghost has with him, at the way the nameless ghost knows what he wants without him having to try too hard to express it. Still, he does not let his voice be heard.
(He is afraid no one won’t listen.)
He tries to take revenge on the emperor of Yong’an. The man dies before he can do anything. He burns the palace down instead.
Bai Wu Xiang gives him the sword that brings the human face disease, gives him a way to exact revenge on those who have wronged him. The sight of the demon does not give him the same fear that would have choked him so many days ago; now, it is drowned out by the rage and frustration that consumes him. This is his chance to make the people of Yong’an suffer the way his people had, and he will not waste it.
But—he still remembers the determination he’d had before, to save the people. To save everyone he could. A part of him wishes he could go back to those days, when things were simple, when he’d loved humans, when they’d loved him back—and he decides to give them a chance. If they don’t take it, he will do what he originally set out to do—he will destroy them, the way they destroyed him. He drops in the middle of a city in Yong’an with the sword through his stomach.
(He lays there for three days and wishes for someone to save him.)
Jun Wu defeats Bai Wu Xiang. The nameless ghost sacrifices itself for him. Xie Lian ascends for the second time, but he shakes his head when Jun Wu congratulates him.
Banish me again, he tries to say, but the words snap back into his chest and drown under a wave of irrational fear. He’s glad when Jun Wu does not give him a strange look, when Jun Wu somehow reads it in his eyes.
“Are you sure?” he asks, and Xie Lian nods.
He points to his ankle, to his neck. He bends and drags his finger through the dirt at his feet.
I want the same cursed shackle I had before, he writes. And I want another to seal my luck.
“Are you sure?” Jun Wu repeats, and Xie Lian smiles and nods.
If my luck is what has brought me to this point, he writes, then I don’t want any of it.
He crouches next to the flower that blooms in the place his last worshiper had disappeared. There is no one around him.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” he whispers, caressing the petals gently, because it’s the least he can do, for his last believer.
He learns a new language from a young girl, one who cannot hear. He learns how to manipulate his hands to make words and phrases. He learns how to speak without talking.
He does not have to fear his voice and words driving people away from him if he never opens his mouth.
He does not have to fear his voice going unheard if he does not use it in the first place.
He ascends for the third time. He smiles politely at the one who greets him in the heavens, and replies to her with the language gifted to him by the little girl. Ling Wen raises an eyebrow when he does not open his mouth, but she replies to him unquestioningly. She is the literature master, after all. She knows a lot of things, including sign.
He bows in apology to Mu Qing and Feng Xin and tries to convey his intent to repay them, thankful when Ling Wen steps in to interpret for him. He ignores the strange glances from the other gods, the confusion written across the faces of his former subordinates.
They've already left him, once. Mu Qing did not listen when he tried to speak; Feng Xin was driven away by words spoken out of fear, and he never heard the words hidden underneath.
Xie Lian does not trust them enough to give them another chance to break him all over again.
He does not know Nan Feng or Fu Yao. He ignores the way they look at him as though he were strange, different. He tells them his—their—assignment in words written with tea on Ruoye, who obediently stays still.
“Why don’t you talk?” Fu Yao asks, his eyes narrowed with annoyance.
Xie Lian remembers the countless times he’d tried, in the beginning. He remembers opening his mouth, trying to force his voice out, only to choke on the all-consuming fear that rises in his throat. He is afraid to speak. He is afraid that his words will not be heard. He is afraid of what will happen if he tries to speak and no one listens. He is afraid of opening his mouth and saying the wrong words, saying something that will make people think he isn’t worth staying with.
He remembers what it had felt like when something inside of him had broken apart and shattered, when he’d called for help and cried for mercy only to be silenced. He does not have to fear it happening again if he never lets his voice out in the first place.
But he does not say any of this, cannot say anything to his two temporary, reluctant assistants. He merely smiles, and remains silent.
Xie Lian looks up when he hears a soft laugh, his eyes falling on the form of a handsome teenager reclining on a pile of hay in the cart they are both riding on. He tilts his head in a wordless question, and the boy smiles.
“You’re wearing such a strange expression,” he says in response, and Xie Lian immediately tries to rearrange his face into something more neutral. He tries to sign his response before pausing when he realizes that the teen probably does not understand it. He picks up pieces of hay to rearrange them into letters, but he is interrupted when a hand appears in his vision, gently taking away the hay.
“I can understand you,” the teen says softly, gently, and though the boy’s face seems neutral, Xie Lian can somehow sense a deep sadness from him.
He doesn’t ask why.
Xie Lian opens the new door of his small shrine and is greeted with the familiar appearances of Nan Feng and Fu Yao. He tilts his head questioningly.
“Some officials overheard Ling Wen talk to you about Banyue Pass,” Nan Feng says immediately. It’s all the explanation Xie Lian needs.
You do not need to come with, he signs. You are welcome to escape at the first sign of danger.
And he is confused when their faces hold identical expressions of incomprehension, before he remembers that they do not know this language. It’s almost shocking, because he’s gotten so used to San Lang over the past few days that he almost forgot that barely anyone knows it. And San Lang is a special case, because he always seems to know what Xie Lian is trying to say before he even finishes signing it.
(The only other one who has this kind of deep understanding is the silk bandage wrapped around his arm.)
“There’s no need for you to be here,” the teen’s voice says from behind him. “And if there’s some kind of problem you’re welcome to run away with your tail between your legs.”
It’s not quite what he’d said, but he supposes it’s close enough. He keeps his gaze on Fu Yao and Nan Feng. The rage that rises in their expressions is not unexpected, but the way their faces twist when they see the teen is. He startles when his arm is grabbed by Nan Feng, who pulls him away from San Lang and charges forward at the same time.
“Stay back!” Nan Feng yells, but Xie Lian does not.
“What’s wrong with you?” Fu Yao asks as they walk through the desert. Xie Lian is not surprised when he hears this, because he knows it’s a question Fu Yao has been wanting to ask since they first met.
“If there’s a problem with your throat, we can find someone to check it for you,” Nan Feng adds.
Xie Lian smiles and shakes his head in response like he always does, when people ask the same question. It’s none of your concern, is what he always means. He knows there is something wrong with him, that he has a problem. But he does not know how to explain it, nor does he want to. He startles when San Lang speaks up from beside him.
“There is nothing wrong with gege,” he says, in the coldest voice Xie Lian has ever heard from him. It sounds dangerous, threatening, and yet—Xie Lian only feels a pleasant warmth spread in his chest at the teen’s words.
“Gege does not need to speak if he doesn’t want to,” San Lang continues, and his glare almost dares the two gods to argue. They glare right back at him, but something about San Lang makes them subside, though not without grumbling a bit. Xie Lian goes to tap lightly on San Lang’s arm to get his attention, though the teen is already turning towards Xie Lian before his hand even reaches the boy’s arm.
Xie Lian smiles warmly, trying to convey as much of his feelings as he can within the curl of his lips. San Lang looks taken aback for a few seconds before returning it, the tips of his ears tinged red.
Xie Lian lands in San Lang’s arms and pats at his chest and shoulders with panic, trying to see if the teen has been injured at all.
“I’m okay, gege,” he says, and Xie Lian calms down enough to start feeling embarrassed about how he was all but feeling up the other a few seconds ago. It’s too dark to see anything clearly, so Xie Lian traces his words on San Lang’s neck, the closest area not covered with cloth.
Are you really okay? Please put me down.
“No,” San Lang says. “The floor is dirty. I’ll let you down later.”
Xie Lian is distracted by Ke Mo’s screaming as he mourns the death of his brethren, and Xie Lian realizes that the floor is dirty with their bodies and their blood, dead at the hands of the one holding him in his arms. He grips tightly onto San Lang as the young man easily dodges Ke Mo’s attacks and counters them, sending out Ruoye so he doesn’t feel so useless.
Did you do all of this? Xie Lian asks, tracing each letter out carefully.
“Yes,” San Lang says, without hesitation. Xie Lian lets out a small sigh, though it sounds incredibly loud in the dead silence of the pit.
Don’t jump in by yourself next time, he writes, letting his forehead rest on San Lang’s shoulder. I didn’t know what to do. I was worried.
He almost picks his head up when he hears a slight hitch in the other’s breathing.
“You don’t want to ask anything else?” San Lang asks, his voice oddly tense. “Like whether I am human or not?”
Xie Lian shakes his head.
It does not matter whether you are human or not, he says, tracing out the words as firmly and confidently as he can. I like you for who you are. Everything else is irrelevant.
Xie Lian feels San Lang’s grip tighten the slightest bit before he lets out a small laugh and relaxes.
“Thank you, gege,” he says, his voice light, and Xie Lian pats his shoulder in response.
Will you let me down now? Xie Lian asks after a pause, and San Lang chuckles.
General Hua, Ban Yue signs, her fingers shaking with the force of her emotions. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m—
Xie Lian places a gentle hand over hers, and waits until she looks up and makes eye contact. He raises his hands and keeps his gaze on hers as he signs back.
Not your fault, he says, and he gently embraces her until she stops shaking, until she pulls away and begins to explain the situation, her fingers steady, her eyes firmly locked on his.
“Hello! How’re you doing, your royal highness?”
Greetings, fellow cultivator, Xie Lian signs, and San Lang automatically begins translating for him, but the woman dismisses him with a wave of her fan.
“I can understand,” she says, flicking open her fan to hide her smile. “Ming-xiong here refused to talk to me in the beginning, so I thought she was deaf or something and asked Ling Wen to teach me.”
The “Ming-xiong” in question scowls at the woman with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Wait,” Nan Feng says from beside Xie Lian. “Wait. Ming-xiong? As in, the earth master Ming Yi?”
The woman in black glances at him and snorts condescendingly. Nan Feng ignores it and turns his gaze towards the other woman instead, his eyes gazing intently at the character for “wind” written on the open fan in her hand.
“Your fan...the wind master Qing Xuan?”
The woman nods, still smiling.
Oh dear. It’s...quite embarrassing, that Xie Lian had mistaken them for some kind of spirit. But from the way Nan Feng is acting, he thinks he can safely assume that the two look different than they usually do in the heavenly court.
The wind master bends down in front of Pei Su.
“You’ve crossed the line this time, General Pei Jr.,” she says.
Hua Cheng? Xie Lian signs, and San Lang smiles.
“Your royal highness, the crown prince,” he says.
“What did I do wrong?” Ban Yue asks from inside the pot, her voice soft and sad. “What have I been doing?”
Xie Lian can do nothing but place a hand on the side of the pot in a failed attempt at comfort.
I don’t know, he thinks. I ask myself the same thing every day and I still haven’t found an answer.
Can I see your real face? Xie Lian asks, before rapidly backpedaling when he sees the way Hua Cheng’s face tightens. His hands flutter around anxiously before he’s able to wrestle them back under his control.
You don’t have to show me, he signs, his hands trembling. I shouldn’t have asked. I shouldn’t have—
(Please don’t leave me.)
Gentle hands close over his, and he pauses in surprise. Hua Cheng squeezes his hands briefly before letting go, and Xie Lian allows his hands to fall to his sides.
“I will show you my true form the next time you see me,” Hua Cheng says, his tone serious, his eyes unwavering. “Do not be afraid to ask me for anything, gege. I would do anything—”
He cuts himself off and stops abruptly, letting his eyes close for a brief moment before opening them again.
“Do not be afraid to ask me for anything,” he repeats, firmly, and Xie Lian can do nothing but nod.
Xie Lian wakes up the next morning with a thin chain around his neck, a clear crystal ring hanging from it.
Xie Lian gently pats Lang Qian Qiu’s shoulder to wake him up, and smiles when the god looks around in confusion before focusing on him.
The meeting has ended, he signs.
“Already?” Lang Qian Qiu asks, rubbing his eyes. “What did I miss?”
Nothing much, Xie Lian responds. It was unimportant. Go ahead and leave first.
The crown prince of Yong’an gives him another confused look, but eventually complies.
“Be careful of Hua Cheng,” Jun Wu says. Xie Lian bows, but refuses to agree.
“Be especially careful with the wicked scimitar E-Ming,” Jun Wu continues. Xie Lian raises his head and tilts his head to the side with curiosity.
“The wounds inflicted by the wicked scimitar E-Ming are all cursed. Even when healed, should Hua Cheng desire it, they shall bleed once more,” Jun Wu says, in response to Xie Lian’s unspoken question.
I understand, Xie Lian replies, and bows.
I don’t have money, Xie Lian signs. Do you mind if I just have a look?
And then he panics slightly because he’s gotten so used to being around those who understand sign, that he forgot most people don’t. Oh no. He looks around for something to write with, but his search is interrupted when the attendant giggles.
“Our lord forced us all to learn sign,” she says. “And it doesn’t matter if you lack money. Those who play here don’t use money anyway.”
The attendant covers her mouth with her hand and starts walking towards the back of the main hall, waving at Xie Lian with her other hand, signalling for him to follow.
“The lord has invited you up,” the croupier says respectfully. “He says he’s willing to teach you the proper way to roll the dice.”
Xie Lian ignores the whispering and muttering of the ghosts and demons around him as he walks to the red curtains, his gaze focused on the form of the one standing behind them. Hua Cheng had promised to show his real form the next time they meet. Xie Lian is used to not getting what he wants, but he thinks he might be incredibly disappointed if Hua Cheng does not fulfill his promise.
The man steps close to him, his elegant hand wrapped gently around Xie Lian’s, holding the gambling cup. He is tall, his clothes maple red, his skin white as snow. Xie Lian has to crane his head up to see Hua Cheng’s face, and his eyes trail upwards to where the man’s left eye twinkles like stars while his right is covered with an eyepatch.
And something deep within Xie Lian knows for sure that this is the man’s true form. He smiles, small and secretive.
You’re very handsome, he says, gently tracing the words on the man’s hand. Hua Cheng gently traces his response on the hand in his grasp. It takes Xie Lian a while to decipher it, but he does manage, in the end.
Did you leave this? Xie Lian asks, and reaches for the silver chain around his neck.
Hua Cheng glances at it and smiles.
“It’s for you,” he says, and Xie Lian releases the chain to let it fall back onto his skin so he can sign.
What is it?
Xie Lian has a feeling that it’s not as insignificant as Hua Cheng seems to think it is, but—the man has not led him astray before. He can trust that it’s not dangerous to him in any way. He tucks the ring back under his robes and looks back up to smile in thanks.
Are you from Xian Le? Xie Lian signs, his hands trembling. Hua Cheng relays the question to the child in front of them. The boy shakes his head.
Do you know of Bai Wu Xiang? Xie Lian wants to ask, but his hands are shaking so hard that he can’t. He tightens his lips and tries to force his hands to stop, force them to move the way he wants them too. But—
“Do you know Bai Wu Xiang?” Hua Cheng says from behind him, and Xie Lian is pathetically grateful for his presence, for the unnatural way he always seems to know what Xie Lian wants.
“Yes,” Hua Cheng answers before Xie Lian can even finish his question with hands fluttering in excitement.
Xie Lian reaches for the closest sword, his gaze flicking between Hua Cheng and the sword, carefully watching for any change of expression. His fingers trail hesitantly over the hilt, and he glances at Hua Cheng one last time, allowing himself to relax when all he sees is gentle encouragement. He hesitantly picks it up, running his fingers over the scabbard reverently, and draws the sword, giving it a few swings.
He lets his enthusiasm consume him as he flits around the armory and examines as many weapons as he can. He doesn’t think he’s felt this happy in years.
He never notices the small sounds of amazement that rise in his throat when he finds an especially good weapon. He misses the way Hua Cheng’s eyes soften with fond amusement, the way his lips curl with satisfaction.
(He does not see the love written in every inch of Hua Cheng’s face.)
“You are Head Priest Fang Xin.”
“You killed my family.”
In the beginning, Xie Lian would try to warn people of threats to their safety, would try to yell and tell them to watch out for the danger that rushes towards them so quickly. He would open his mouth and try to scream, but his lips never let him. His fear strangles his words and pulls them back down and locks them in a chest without a key.
He hates it when he cannot help people. He hates it when he sees someone right in front of him and cannot do anything but make a loud sound with whatever is in his vicinity in the hopes that they will listen to the words he cannot say. They never do.
He hates it.
(He hates himself.)
Xie Lian cannot scream no matter how much he wants to. He cannot do anything but move his hands rapidly, trying to inject as much of his rage as he can into his movements, his gestures sharp and violent.
Why did you do this? Why did you think there was a need for him to know the truth? This does not make me any more blameless than before. I still killed his father. I didn’t want—
He’s helpless to stop the tears of frustration that spill from his eyes, and he angrily wipes them away with his sleeve before abruptly sitting on the ground and covering his face with his hands, letting out small, choked sobs. He struggles to stop, breathing shakily as he tries to calm himself down. He looks up after a while, his face back to its usual calmness, though there’s no way to hide the slight redness around his eyes.
I’m sorry, San Lang. I shouldn’t have gotten angry at you.
“No, this is my fault,” Hua Cheng says quietly, lowering himself to sit next to Xie Lian. “Maybe I shouldn’t have told him. But I couldn’t bear it anymore, listening to him pin all the blame on you when not all of it belongs there.”
Xie Lian stares at the ground, focusing on keeping his breathing steady, trying not to let his anger and frustration spill over again.
“What you did was not wrong,” Hua Cheng continues, his voice low and steady. “I would have done the same. You were not wrong.”
Xie Lian hums an agreement, but he does not believe him.
It’s only until after he returns to the heavens that he realizes he hadn’t been afraid of Hua Cheng leaving him after he’d ranted at the other. A part of him already trusts the other, has already decided that it is safe to share other broken parts of him that he’s held close since his parents died. It’s simultaneously terrifying and amazing.
He’s not sure if he wants to think about what it means.
Xie Lian screams wordlessly as he attacks his cousin, blind with rage towards the one who’d desecrated his parents’ graves. He involuntarily lets out frustrated noises, strained screams, his vocal chords unable to fight against the anger that courses through his body, but he does not say a word. He wants to kill the demon, wants to let his anger out on something, anything, but in the end he cannot, and his sword strikes the ground.
He will not deprive a child of their father, even if the soul inhabiting the body is not that of the father.
Xie Lian tilts his head up and stares at the thousands of lanterns that float far above him, dotting the night sky with a brilliance that outshines the moon and stars. He parts his lips slightly and smiles where he stands, alone, on his way to take care of the Qi Rong problem.
“...Thank you,” he whispers, his voice hoarse from disuse, his words barely audible. He hopes they reach Hua Cheng somehow.
Xie Lian’s eyes widen when he feels a pair of lips fit over his, and he struggles as the man presses him closer and deepens the kiss, strangely gentle, as though the man were afraid of causing him pain. He pauses in shock when he realizes that the other is giving him air, and he stops struggling altogether when he focuses enough to see that the man is Hua Cheng. Hua Cheng looks down at him, and though they cannot talk as they are, Xie Lian can almost hear what the man wants to say just by the look in his visible eye.
And he does.
Xie Lian does everything he can to help Shi Qing Xuan, but in the end it is not enough. He is only able to stay long enough to see Shi Wu Du’s head roll and hear the piercing screams, the sobs of the man whose body he is playing spectator in.
He returns to his own body and feels the spiritual energy he’d borrowed being sucked out from his body by a pair of lips on his. He tries to take the energy back so he can return to the wind master, but he cannot.
He is a god, yet there is nothing he can do but pray.
Xie Lian can’t stop himself from wrapping his arms around the shrunken form of Hua Cheng, letting out a small noise that sounds almost like a squeal. He’s glad he’s the only one who hears the embarrassing sound, but who can blame him for making it? The child is adorable.
You’re so cute! he signs, a bit sad that he has to let go of the child to do so, but Hua Cheng only frowns and looks down hatefully at his small hands.
“I hate this,” he says, his high-pitched voice dark with something Xie Lian can’t place. Xie Lian tilts his head.
“I can’t do anything like this,” Hua Cheng responds, examining his small body with distaste. “I can’t fight. I can’t protect—”
He abruptly falls silent.
“...I can’t do anything like this,” he repeats eventually. Xie Lian lets out a small noise to get Hua Cheng’s attention.
You don’t have to, he signs. You’ve been protecting me this whole time. It’s my turn to protect you, now.
“You knew it was us all along,” Fu Yao—no, Mu Qing—says. “Did you think it was funny?”
Xie Lian tries to shake his head, to disagree, but Mu Qing refuses to listen. In the end, his two former subordinates begin yelling at each other again, and do not pay attention to Xie Lian at all. He tries to get their attention and fails, which. Fine. His plan probably wouldn’t have worked anyway, with how much Mu Qing hates him.
In the end, Hua Cheng is the one who frees them, when Feng Xin confirms that Xie Lian is with them.
(Xie Lian had not been able to make even the smallest of sounds in their presence. He no longer trusts them with his voice.)
It comes suddenly, the realization that Xie Lian feels inexplicably safe in the presence of Hua Cheng. He only realizes after he laughs out loud, for the first time in so long. He’d almost forgotten what his own laugh sounds like. They are both stunned into silence, Xie Lian staring into the eyes of Hua Cheng disguised as Lang Ying. And then Hua Cheng pouts.
“You were teasing me,” he says, his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes filled with delight.
Which one is the most handsome? Which one is the richest? Would you like me to invite him over? Xie Lian signs after a beat, his hands trembling from the force of the laughter that escapes him again as he recalls the questions he’d asked Hua Cheng a few minutes ago.
“Was it really that funny?” Hua Cheng asks, and his delight gives way to something more soft and fond.
Yes, Xie Lian signs, calming down enough that his hands stop shaking, though he still lets out the occasional chuckle.
This is the most fun I’ve had in years.
(He'd forgotten how easily happiness could come to him.)
Don’t you think you deserve to know?
“Can dianxia please not tell me?”
I’m sorry. I don’t think it’s right if this isn’t made clear.
Hua Cheng takes a deep breath, his fists clenched, his shoulders tense, resigned acceptance written all over his face. Xie Lian doesn’t understand how such a smart man can be so dumb, sometimes. Then again, he doesn’t really have room to talk.
He steps forward and wraps his arms around Hua Cheng’s waist, resting his head on the man’s shoulder. He squeezes tightly and tries to push as many of his feelings as he can into the embrace, tries to convey all of the things he feels when he’s with the other.
You make me feel safe. You make me feel loved. You look at me like I am worthy of happiness. You look at me and see someone worth loving.
I look at you and see someone who has already given me his heart without expecting mine in return. I look at you and see someone who doesn’t realize that I’ve been giving mine to you little by little since the day we first met.
He feels Hua Cheng let out a breath, and he relaxes his hold when he feels Hua Cheng return the embrace. Hua Cheng buries his face in Xie Lian’s hair.
“You will be the death of me, dianxia,” he says softly, his voice muffled, but Xie Lian hears, and listens.
Hua Cheng has always heard him, has always listened. It wouldn’t be fair if he didn’t do the same.
Jun Wu has been Bai Wu Xiang all along.
Xie Lian is glad he had never trusted the god with his voice. He thinks something else might have broken inside him, if he had been betrayed by someone who had received that much faith from him.
Hua Cheng fights side by side with him, their movements fluid, their teamwork flawless. Hua Cheng seems to know what Xie Lian wants him to do just by looking at his expression, at his eyes.
But it’s not enough.
Jun Wu lifts him by the neck and slams him against the rock wall until he is covered in blood.
“Is it painful?” Jun Wu asks.
Xie Lian can’t stop the tears that flow from his eyes as he nods, breathing heavily when Jun Wu releases him, shuddering when Jun Wu crouches and gently wipes away his tears.
Jun Wu asks why he does not look back, why he does not change the way he is.
“You no longer speak,” Jun Wu hisses. “You are afraid. You are weak.”
And he is. He is afraid. But he will never let it show in front of Bai Wu Xiang.
I will never look back, Xie Lian conveys with the force of his glare. I will never change.
Jun Wu lifts him by the neck again and slams him into the wall again, his face twisted with anger and frustration. Xie Lian does not waver.
He refuses to give Jun Wu the satisfaction.
Xie Lian opens his eyes and sees blood everywhere. Barely any of it belongs to Jun Wu. He looks down at his hands and hates how weak he feels.
He doesn’t know if they can win.
“Dianxia,” Hua Cheng says, cupping Xie Lian’s face, his visible eye firm and unwavering. “You can win. You are better than him. Do not give up.”
Xie Lian sees the steady belief that Hua Cheng has in his abilities, and it’s almost enough, but—
Jun Wu has millions of believers, he signs, his hands trembling minutely. I have none.
Hua Cheng shakes his head.
“You have one,” he says, pulling Xie Lian closer until their faces are a mere centimeter apart.
“And one is enough.”
Spiritual energy flows into Xie Lian like a river that’s just broken through a dam. It’s overwhelming. It’s too much. He tries to break away, tries to stop Hua Cheng from giving him what feels like all his power.
Hua Cheng refuses to let him go.
The shackles around his neck and ankle shatter.
He is not used to having so much power, after centuries of wandering the mortal realm with none. But he is not a martial god for no reason. His body still remembers, even if it takes a few tries to get used to it.
The power given to him by Hua Cheng is enough for him to finally put an end to Jun Wu’s reign, to finally allow him to defeat his fear of the white-clothed calamity and bury it under a pile of rock.
I should have told you this a long time ago, Xie Lian signs, slow and hesitant. But I—
“I already know,” Hua Cheng says, quietly, with a sad smile. “You almost became a white-clothed calamity, right?”
Xie Lian’s eyes widen.
“Do you remember, dianxia?”
Xie Lian thinks of the nameless ghost, the one who followed his every order without question. His last worshiper.
That was you? The nameless—
Hua Cheng nods. Almost immediately, what feels like a thousand emotions fill Xie Lian's chest at once—gratefulness, sorrow, pain, ecstasy. A love so strong he thinks his heart could burst.
He lunges forward and knocks Hua Cheng down, his arms wrapped around the man’s neck, tears falling from his eyes even as a laugh escapes his wide smile.
Hua Cheng knows everything about him: knows what he was like at his worst, knows him as he is now, knew him as he was before. And somehow, he still loves Xie Lian with everything he has.
Xie Lian thinks he could give all of him to Hua Cheng, and Hua Cheng would treasure every piece of it, would cradle the broken shards like they are something precious.
(He already has.)
“It’s nothing,” Hua Cheng says, smiling. “I just gave you too much power.”
But it’s not nothing. Hua Cheng is disappearing, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. It’s his fault, again. He’s losing someone else now and the blame rests on his shoulders. If only he’d been stronger, if only he hadn’t asked for those two cursed shackles all those years ago, if only—
Hua Cheng cups his cheeks, gently tilts his head so he is looking at Hua Cheng’s face.
“This is not your fault, dianxia. I chose to do this, and I would do it all over again if it meant protecting you.”
Xie Lian can’t stop the sob that leaves his throat. He’s so, so incredibly grateful that Mu Qing and Feng Xin stepped far away to give them privacy. Hua Cheng smiles.
“Besides, I won’t be gone forever,” he says. “I will always come back to you.”
Xie Lian tightens his grasp.
“You dream of saving the people, but I only dream of saving you,” Hua Cheng whispers. “Dianxia, I know all about you. I know your bravery, your despair; your kindness, your pain; your resentment, your hatred; your intelligence, your stupidity. If I could, I would like for you to treat me like a stepping stone, cross over me like a bridge, use my bones to climb. But I know you won’t.”
Xie Lian buries his face into Hua Cheng's neck.
“Dianxia,” Hua Cheng says, his voice low, his visible eye glittering with honesty and a strong, unwavering love. “To die for you in battle is my greatest honor.”
Those words are like a fatal strike. Xie Lian opens his mouth.
“...You said you wouldn’t leave me,” he whispers, pulling back so he can look at Hua Cheng's face, his voice hoarse from disuse.
Hua Cheng’s eye widens, and then he smiles, resting his fading forehead on Xie Lian’s.
“I will definitely come back,” he says softly, his voice fading with the rest of him. “Trust me, dianxia.”
Xie Lian is left clutching at nothing but air. He wishes he could disappear too, wishes he could be with Hua Cheng, because he doesn’t want to live without the other by his side. But—
Trust me, the man had said, and—
If there’s one thing Xie Lian can safely believe in, if there’s one person he can trust will never betray him, it’s Hua Cheng.
So he stands.
Xie Lian becomes a de facto leader of sorts, helping to reorganize the heaven realm. The other gods look to him for guidance, respect for the man who had defeated their previous leader written in their every gesture. They struggle with understanding him, sometimes, because he does not speak.
They find Ling Wen and punish her for her betrayal with mountains of paperwork, which she starts working on with a long-suffering expression and clear reluctance, but it’s better than being tortured. Though one might argue that paperwork is, in itself, a kind of torture. She’s allowed a break once in a while, though it isn’t really much of one because she’s dragged around to translate Xie Lian’s signing for the other gods.
(“The ring hanging from your neck is his ashes,” Ling Wen tells him once, and Xie Lian clutches the ring like it is the most precious thing he’s ever owned.)
“You’re going to stay in Tai Cang Mountain?” Mu Qing asks. Xie Lian nods.
He can’t explain how, but he knows that this will be the first place Hua Cheng comes to when he returns.
“...You really believe he will come back?”
Xie Lian nods again unhesitatingly, his gaze firm.
He’ll come back. He promised.
Hua Cheng waited over 800 years for him. Xie Lian would wait a thousand.
Xie Lian watches the lanterns floating through the sky as he walks back to the small house he'd built, and he remembers the thousands of lanterns from Hua Cheng that had floated through the sky so many months ago during the Mid-Autumn festival, the ones that nearly blinded him with their brilliance. He pauses to let himself reminisce before he shakes away the sadness that had crept up on him, and continues walking. As he draws closer to his house, he sees lanterns being released from the direction of his house, and he stops in his tracks, staring at the trail of lanterns in shock, and—
Before he knows it, he’s running, his eyes straining to see past the trees around his house, his heart pumping faster and faster with anticipation and a hope he’s afraid to let grow—
He stops in shock when he sees a tall man in red standing in front of the small house, releasing lanterns into the air. He almost does not believe his own eyes, but when the man turns, he looks just as handsome and breathtaking as Xie Lian remembers, maybe even more beautiful with the soft glowing of the lanterns behind him. And he knows there is no way this isn’t real.
He takes a few steps forward, and then he's running towards the man, who takes a few hesitant steps forward before he’s running, too. Xie Lian lunges forward, wrapping his arms around the man’s neck, and the man catches him, spinning him around with the momentum. He does not worry about falling.
Xie Lian presses a close-mouthed kiss on the man’s lips, and his cheeks are flushed red with happiness when he pulls back to touch their foreheads together.
“Welcome back, San Lang,” he says softly. Hua Cheng smiles.