No one really knows what to make of Shi Qing Xuan’s soulmarks. He grows up wondering why he has the same characters written on both his wrists, wondering why he can’t wash them off when it looks just like regular ink. Wondering why the people around him give him looks varying between sorrow and disgust.
“Poor child,” some whisper with pity, looking at him sadly. “The one he is destined to love will be his downfall.”
“Vile child,” some mutter as they sneer, looking at him with distaste. “The one he is destined to love will find him irredeemable.”
He wants to ask what they mean. He wants to ask why they they look at him like he is abnormal, like some kind of animal in a cage put on display. But when he looks up at his brother’s face, Shi Wu Du’s face is pinched with suppressed anger and something deeper, more unreadable.
He doesn’t ask.
“People are born with this thing called soulmarks,” Shi Wu Du tells him, years later, when they have moved to a different city, when Shi Qing Xuan has learned how to hide the markings on his wrist under his sleeves and a layer of ink or dirt.
“Soulmarks?” Shi Qing Xuan asks.
“Yes. These soulmarks take the form of names written on people’s wrists, in the handwriting of the people the names belong to.”
“People are born with two names, one on each wrist. One is the person you will love most in the world, though it won’t necessarily be romantic. The other is destined to be your worst enemy.”
Shi Qing Xuan glances down and rubs at his wrists. The characters written there are covered in dried ink, but he knows what they say, and he knows that they say the same thing twice.
He’d lived for so long wondering what those people in their former home saw in him that they felt he had to be pitied, or that he was someone so horrible they shouldn’t even bother to know him. Now he knows the reason, and—
(“The one he is destined to love will be his downfall.”
“The one he is destined to love will find him irredeemable.”)
He wishes his brother had never told him.
“Ge, do you have soulmarks?” Shi Qing Xuan asks, once, when his curiosity gets the better of him. “What do they say?”
Shi Wu Du gives him a long, unreadable look, and he looks like he’s warring with himself before he seemingly comes to a conclusion.
“...I don’t have soulmarks,” he says eventually, and turns away, his sleeves fluttering just enough that Shi Qing Xuan can see a hint of black on his brother’s wrists.
Shi Qing Xuan knows that his brother is lying to him, knows that Shi Wu Du has something written on his wrists. But he also knows that his brother would not lie to him without reason.
So he doesn’t push.
By the time he ascends, Shi Qing Xuan has replaced the ink on his wrists with makeup. His wrists will forever be a shade darker than the rest of his body, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not like anyone will see them.
He looks around the feast the gods are holding for his and his brother’s ascension, and he spies a man sitting by himself at the end of one of the tables, doing nothing but focusing on his food. Shi Qing Xuan makes his way over to the man, the alcohol in his hand sloshing around in the glass when he stumbles a few times. He may be slightly drunk.
“Hello!” he says brightly when he reaches the man, clearing the area so he can sit across from the man and place his glass on the table in front of him. “What’s your name?”
The man looks up from his food to give him a dark look. Shi Qing Xuan keeps smiling.
“It’s rude to ask my name without giving yours,” the man says eventually, his voice monotone. Shi Qing Xuan laughs.
“I thought you’d know because this whole celebration is for me and my brother!” he says, before bowing with exaggerated respect. “I am Shi Qing Xuan. May I ask what your name is?”
“No, you may not,” the man says, before taking a cutting a piece of steak and eating it. Shi Qing Xuan pouts and tries increasingly outlandish ways to get the man’s name, but the man steadfastly refuses.
Shi Qing Xuan refuses to give up.
Shi Qing Xuan watches with pleased satisfaction when Ming Yi jolts at the sound of his name, looking up at Shi Qing Xuan with a wide-eyed look of shock that melts into a narrow-eyed glare.
“I asked someone else to give me your name,” Shi Qing Xuan says smugly in response to the unfinished question, snapping his fan open.
Ming Yi looks like he’s about ready to murder whoever had told him. His next question comes out through gritted teeth.
“Well,” Shi Qing Xuan says, his smile growing as he fans himself slowly, “you’re also an elemental god, and you’ve been here longer than I have! So, Ming-xiong.”
The man glares at him for a few more seconds before letting out a long-suffering sigh. He looks like he’s resisting the urge to rub at his forehead. Shi Qing Xuan’s smile widens even further.
The other gods look at him and see someone who is always happy, a social butterfly. They see one half of the pair of brothers that ascended at the same time, something extremely rare. They look at him and do not see past the mask that he always wears to divert attention away from the bareness of his wrists.
They assume that he has no soulmarks, that he is ashamed of it. They stop trying to ask. They go to him if they want to be around someone friendly, someone endlessly happy, someone always willing to have a drink.
Shi Qing Xuan feels like he’s in a cage again, this time of his own creation. He’s the god of wind, yet he doesn’t feel like he can fly.
Ming Yi sees him as nothing more than an annoyance. Ming Yi doesn’t seem to care about what Shi Qing Xuan does at all. And Shi Qing Xuan doesn’t know if Ming Yi can see past the thin mask he’s created, but nevertheless—
Ming Yi feels like a fresh breath of air.
Shi Qing Xuan startles when Ming Yi throws something at his head, and he catches it before it falls to the ground, staring at it in surprise and growing delight.
“Happy birthday,” the man says gruffly, looking like he’s one more word away from sprinting away.
Shi Qing Xuan’s face gets impossibly brighter.
And then he has to lunge forward and hug Ming Yi around the waist, his feet dragging on the floor, to stop him from leaving. The earth master stiffens under his touch, but Shi Qing Xuan keeps his arms around the man until he relaxes.
“Thank you,” Shi Qing Xuan says, tilting his head up to smile at Ming Yi’s stiff face. He slowly lets go of the man once he’s sure he won’t run away, his smile brightening even more when the man jerks away as though he is going to run, before visibly settling himself.
Shi Qing Xuan turns his attention to the fan in his hand, opening it and snapping it closed over and over again with growing delight, his eyes lingering on the slightly crooked structure of the fan, on the character written on it in familiar handwriting.
“Did you make this?” he asks. Ming Yi shrugs, crossing his arms and looking away. He doesn’t say anything, but Shi Qing Xuan knows it’s all but a solid agreement. He glances back at the fan, his smile giving way to something softer and more fond, before he looks back up at Ming Yi.
“Thank you, Ming-xiong,” he says again. “I’ll treasure it forever.”
“...Whatever,” Ming Yi says eventually, and he sounds like he’d rather be anywhere but here, except—
Shi Qing Xuan can see the hint of red on the man’s ears, and his smile grows a touch fonder without him even realizing it.
Sometimes he wishes that one of the names written on his wrists had been “Ming Yi.”
(He uses the fan until it breaks apart in his hands, and after, he lays the pieces out on his bedside cabinet, arranged in a way that helps him pretend it is still whole.)
There is a demon, Shi Qing Xuan hears. A Devastation. A calamity. They call him Black Water Submerging Boats.
And his name is He Xuan.
Shi Qing Xuan glances at his wrists and wonders if it’s the same He Xuan that always clings to the back of his mind.
(He’s not sure if he wants it to be.)
Part of him wants to track down this He Xuan, so he can see once and for all if it’s his He Xuan. The other part of him is too scared to. He doesn’t know what he’ll feel or what he’ll do if he does meet his He Xuan. He’s scared of doing something wrong, of messing up so astronomically that his He Xuan will start to hate him.
He’s scared that he already has.
Besides, he reasons, any kind of relationship between a god and a ghost or demon is unheard of.
And he can’t afford to be seen as anything other than the happy-go-lucky wind master.
And then he meets the Crown Prince of Xian Le, Xie Lian. He sees the way Xie Lian gets along with the Bloody Rain Reaching Towards a Flower. He sees the way they treat each other like they are equals, like there is nothing stopping their relationship. He sees something deeper than friendship in Hua Cheng’s eyes, and sees the beginnings of it in Xie Lian’s.
“You don’t care that he’s a demon king?” Shi Qing Xuan asks, once, and Xie Lian shakes his head.
“Whether he is a demon king or not doesn’t matter to me,” he answers, with his usual polite and gentle smile. “I like him for who he is, and that’s enough. Besides, it doesn’t matter whether one ascends or descends; in the end, we are all still human.”
All the other gods look down at Xie Lian for being a scrap-collecting god, for having descended twice, yet he does not care. The other gods will look at his bond with Hua Cheng and think it strange, or try to find a way to exploit it like Shi Qing Xuan had at first, but Xie Lian will stand fast with his own beliefs. And Shi Qing Xuan can’t help but think that this man is the strongest and wisest person he’s ever known.
He’s never asked anyone before, because if he isn’t willing to talk about his own, then he doesn’t really think he deserves to ask about others’, but he asks Xie Lian anyway.
“Is he one of your soulmarks?” Shi Qing Xuan asks, snapping his fan open to cover the anxiety and anticipation that makes his hands shake. Xie Lian smiles and pulls back the sleeves on his wrists. One of them, he traces with fingers that tremble minutely before showing to Shi Qing Xuan.
“This is the name of my enemy,” he says, no doubt present in his voice. And when Shi Qing Xuan reads it, he can’t help but agree. Bai Wu Xiang, it says, and he knows enough about Xie Lian to know that it can’t be anything but the name of his worst enemy.
“This is my soulmate,” Xie Lian says before Shi Qing Xuan can ask, and he stares down with confusion at the strange mess of scribbles and twisting lines that makes up the name on Xie Lian’s wrist.
“Is that a different language?” Shi Qing Xuan asks, wrinkling his nose before realizing his question could come off as rude. He looks up, ready to apologize, but Xie Lian doesn’t seem to have cared at all.
“I don’t think so,” he says, laughing gently, “but my soulmate has such bad handwriting that I have not been able to read it at all.”
“What would you do, if Hua Cheng was your soulmate?”
Xie Lian places his hand on his chin in thought.
“...Well, I would probably try to teach him proper calligraphy, first,” he says eventually, and Shi Qing Xuan can’t help the shock that runs through him.
“You would accept him?” he asks. “Without fear of repercussions?”
Xie Lian nods without hesitation.
“People can say what they want, but if he truly is the one meant for me,” he says, “then I will do everything I can to stay with him.”
Shi Qing Xuan rubs at his own wrists and wishes he could say the same.
“Black Water Xuan Ghost,” Xie Lian says, using Shi Qing Xuan’s mouth, and Shi Qing Xuan shakes with fear and something else as he looks at the back of the man he is following through the forest. His feet slip.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ming Yi snaps, but Shi Qing Xuan can’t seem to talk. Ming Yi turns back to continue walking, and Xie Lian uses Shi Qing Xuan’s body to mouth the real name of the man in front of him:
Shi Qing Xuan allows Xie Lian to control his body, his own mind frozen in shock as Xie Lian asks Ming—no, He Xuan—to take a break and sit by the river. The name repeats in his head, over and over, and the feelings rising in him feel like a tidal wave. He—
He doesn’t know what he feels.
“The real Ming-xiong never existed,” Xie Lian says, by the river. “The real Ming-xiong is already dead.”
Shi Qing Xuan splashes water on his face to try to shake away the panic fluttering in his gut, the feelings that are fighting so fiercely inside his chest. He thinks a part of him is relieved, because the one he’s been with the whole time, the one he’s refused to let himself love for so many years, is the one whose name is written on his wrist, but at the same time—
He doesn’t know if the one he’d fallen in love with is He Xuan himself, or the role He Xuan had acted while masquerading as the earth master.
“Ming-xiong,” he pleads, tears running down his face, “Ming-xiong! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please, none of this is gege’s fault, it’s all mine, please, I’m so sorry—”
He Xuan pauses, turns towards Shi Qing Xuan, and for a second, Shi Qing Xuan thinks that the ghost will stop, will spare his older brother, but—
“You called the wrong name,” he says, coldly, something unreadable in his eyes, and then he rips Shi Wu Du’s head from his neck.
Shi Qing Xuan can’t do anything but scream, can’t see anything except his brother’s blank eyes, the blood pooling under his body, and then he sees nothing through the tears that blur his sight.
He loses consciousness for a while, then wakes up and stares at his brother’s body and feels like he’s drowning.
“Do you want to say anything,” He Xuan eventually says, after a while, still holding the head of Shi Qing Xuan’s brother.
“...I want to die,” Shi Qing Xuan says, his voice empty.
His brother is dead.
By the one whose name is written on both his wrists, the one he’d fallen in love with so many years ago.
He doesn’t think he can learn how to live without either of the people he’d loved the most, and he doesn’t think he wants to.
He hates that he cannot hate the man standing in front of him, the man who’d taken them both away from him.
He Xuan hates the newly-ascended wind master.
He hates how the god seems so carefree, so happy, so optimistic. He hates that this should’ve been him, should’ve been who he had become, before his fate had been switched with the wind master’s. He hates that the names on his wrists are those of the two newly-ascended brothers.
He tries to drive away the wind master at first, afraid that his hatred for the other will be too obvious if he stays too close. But the wind master is persistent, wears down at him until he’s become used to having the bubbly presence by his side nearly all the time. And by then, he’s too late to stop the wind master from breaking through his other walls, from finding a place in his heart and settling there, the only bright spot in a sea of dark.
Shi Wu Du is his enemy. He knows this with certainty, the name scrawled over his wrist like a brand. A memory of the one who had brought him to this point. And as he stays with the wind master, he realizes that the wind master is ignorant of what his brother had done. He Xuan wants to hate him for this, wants to hate him for being able to live in such blissful ignorance, but—
Shi Qing Xuan, his other wrist reads, and he knows that Shi Qing Xuan is the one he is destined to love, the one he knows he already does. The only thing he can hate is the fact that Shi Qing Xuan knows nothing. The only thing he can hate is that his determination to destroy the lives of the two brothers wanes every time Shi Qing Xuan smiles at him and yells the name of the body he is inhabiting.
(He hates that he yearns for his real name to be the one to leave Shi Qing Xuan’s mouth.)
He scrambles to pick up the scattered pieces of the hatred that had kept him going so many years ago and tries to hide them from the warmth that sweeps them away when he sees Shi Qing Xuan’s face. He hoards them into a box and hides it away from the light that touches his unbeating heart.
And now, as he holds Shi Wu Du’s head in his hand and stares at the broken form of the wind master on the ground, he refuses to feel the regret rising in his stomach.
They’d deserved this.
This was their fault.
He had to.
(He wishes he didn’t.)