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wretched beginning, wretched end

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Crimson Rain Sought Flower is sitting on his makeshift throne, feet up on the handrests when He Xuan walks in. There is a tall white lily in his hand that he’s playing with, not meeting He Xuan’s eyes even when he stands right in front of him

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” He Xuan says. He feels - has felt completely numb since the moment he had the satisfaction of tearing off the head of the insidious spider that has plagued his entire life. Instead of bone-deep pleasure -

“If I wasn’t me - I should end your miserable existence right now ,” Hua Cheng says. He twirls the stem of the lily a little faster. “But it wasn’t my affair, not until you involved His Highness in it. Since he’s safe now, I suppose there’s nothing I can say to you.”

“It wasn’t his affair either.” The words are automatic, coming from somewhere far away.

“I suppose. His Highness liked her, you know,” Hua Cheng says conversationally. “I hadn’t seen him make such a good friend in years.”

“We can’t all be -” He Xuan stops, and Hua Cheng’s laughter is particularly nasty.

“Can’t all be what? Stalkers? Pretenders for hundreds of years?” He flicks the lily into the air, and it lands gently in his palm again, starting to do little dances at his bidding. “Full offense, Black Water, you have that covered, don’t you?”

“Crimson Rain -”

“Oh, I didn’t mean had,” he says. “Had implies you’ve stopped pretending.”

Silence. Paradise Manor is still, more silent than it usually ever is, He Xuan thinks - or maybe it’s the roaring in his ears.

“What,” he says calmly, “did you expect me to do? I don’t regret any of it.”

Dimly, he realizes he’s shaking.

“Of course you do,” Hua Cheng finally meets his eyes. “We’re all here because we regretted something. Heaven’s mandate and the shitstorm the higher ups cooked up for us the moment we were born, right?”

“I -”

“Depends on what you regret, though,” the other bulldozes forward thoughtfully. “What haven’t we done to get here? There’s a mountain of corpses on our heads - what’s one more?”

There’s a little voice in his head, one that sounds a little like Qi Rong saying As expected of a Supreme! Crimson Rain Sought Flower, at his finest, is a cold-blooded killer of thousands.

“That wasn’t my fate,” he grits out. I have fought against it. I have won .

Shi Wu Du’s expression taunts him every time he says it - what has he won?

What has he done?

“Curious, that.” Hua Cheng sounds bored now, but there is a dangerous edge to his words. The lily on his hand stops dancing. “I thought you were all about overturning fate? Isn’t your job finally done, your revenge taken? Why do you care now?”

He Xuan breaks eye contact. “I don’t.”

“You don’t?” There’s a flash of darkness, and Hua Cheng lets the lily go as he transforms, swaying gently to the floor.

The girl on the throne is beautiful - hair curling around her face and down to her wait, pretty bust barely revealed, in blues and greens and pinks that accentuate her features and soften them. He Xuan is moving before he even realizes he is, looking into eyes that are at once mocking and painfully, horribly intimate as his hand grasps the fragile neck in front of him.

“Not her,” he snarls. “Any form but this, Crimson Rain -”

The nasty laughter is back, echoing in the halls. “I thought you ate in one go, just like your fish, but you played with your food for centuries.

“Shut up -”

“You’d have let it go on longer, even past this calamity -”

“Shut up -

“Did you know,” she says, this form of hers so much more venomous, with its bright sweetness and curves and intimate body language that he has known for centuries will never know again - “she wanted you so badly , Black Water - His Highness knew, it’s why he never complained about those little games we played in the shrine His Highness so graciously allowed you to enter - he told me about the locket too, the way you pretended to be her friend until the very end. Your own blood, really? How tacky.

“CRIMSON RAIN, YOU DARE -”

“Tell me, He Xuan.” Hua Cheng’s voice is back to detached. “What did the Reverend say about Shi Qing Xuan’s fate?”

He freezes, the words clicking in his head as he crumples, and Hua Cheng lashes out in this form, smacking his hand away and forcing him to the floor.

Wretched beginning, wretched end.

“No,” he says. No.

Hua Cheng doesn’t transform back. She picks up the lily on the floor, settling down into her throne again. The Manor is still oddly silent - Hua Cheng had probably seen this breakdown coming, had told the staff to stay away. How sentimental and foolish for a Supreme, just like the wretched form she had taken.

I think it’s sweet, Shi Qing Xuan would have said, sidling up to him, head bobbing slightly from side to side to disagree. He cares so much even for these demons, Ming-xiong!

“Wasn’t it fun?” Hua Cheng doesn’t seem to be interested anymore, but her eyes - Shi Qing Xuan’s eyes - are still bright and sharp, with a cruelty he’s seen so often in them but never directed at him. “Hurting her - it was worth all the merits you would have gathered in Heaven, year after year, wasn’t it?”

“WHAT WAS I SUPPOSED TO DO,” he bellows from the floor. The Manor sways and the tiles crack, and Hua Cheng looks as pleasant as ever. “I AM A SUPREME - A DEVASTATION - I WAS MEANT FOR THIS -”

“Meant for this?” Hua Cheng’s smile isn’t pleasant. She twirls the lily again, setting it into a gentle spin on her hand. “When I was born they told me I would destroy the world as they knew it, that I would have a fate blacker than anyone else’s, He Xuan. Not even the worst suffering in the world made me anything but stronger.”

He Xuan knows - he knows - there is a memory, a recent one gently tapping at his head, said in the same voice as this one.

What is the worst suffering in the world to you?

“I know what yours is too, He Xuan,” Hua Cheng says conversationally. “It’s watching your loved ones die and suffer all without you, right?”

There is something wrong with those words - something he’s missing, a dull pain that lies beyond the surface of what he has known and grieved over for centuries. He Xuan follows the curve of Shi Qing Xuan’s - Hua Cheng’s wrist as she tugs on the pibo she usually carries, fastening it around her throat. “Catharsis - it’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” The pibo tightens, and his dead heart jackrabbits in his ribcage.

“What are you doing with that form,” he says, voice rising again. It cracks on the last word, and Hua Cheng laughs, high and cold and cruel - he has never heard it in that voice.

“This is just a little shell I cooked up for myself - why, don’t want to see me rip it apart? Is Black Water too attached?”

“WHAT DO YOU KNOW!” He Xuan’s spiritual energy flares out of him like a bleeding wound, dark enmasse, and Hua Cheng laughs. “I HAVE NEVER CARED! NEVER! SHE TOOK EVERYTHING FROM ME!”

“And yet,” Hua Cheng says, “yet, you made her believe she was everything, wasn’t she?”

Time stops, the realization hitting him full force. Three hundred years - three hundred years of knowing her, knowing she was there every waking second for him if he needed her.

“Oh, you stupid wretched bastard,” she sighs in a voice so intimate he wants to rip her throat apart. “You’ve fulfilled the fate you exchanged without even realizing it.”

Hua Cheng changes back, dismissing the dark energy enmasse with another flick of his wrist. He Xuan doesn’t answer. He curls up and thinks of wind in his face, of a single voice that melds in with all the other voices that have tormented him for years, of his parents, of the girl he was supposed to marry - a voice that stands apart, separated by hundreds of years.

…To watch your beloved be trampled and ridiculed, with your own eyes, yet be unable to do anything.

… To be responsible for it.

There is pity, or something like it in Hua Cheng’s eyes, but it is overtaken by scorn - like He Xuan is nothing but the filth underneath his boots.

“For her sake,” he says. “I wish she hadn’t loved you like she did. It’s not rare, that it falls to the undeserving, but even they usually reciprocate.”

For her sake, He Xuan thinks wildly, he wishes she hadn’t too. Didn’t she know the fate to which he was consigned? The fate that she had given him - No, she hadn’t. She never had.

“It’s none of my affairs, after all,” Hua Cheng adds. “But if I see you hurt His Highness again - even indirectly - ah, what could I even do? It’s impressive, really - I couldn’t hurt the one I loved like that even if I tried. Why would I arrest you, waste a perfectly good cell in my dungeons? You’re in a prison of your own making.”

Hua Cheng sweeps out of the room, leaving He Xuan kneeling in the dirt. The lily from earlier lies crumpled on the floor, one with the dust.