People liked to say that a Devastation was born out of hated, though to be honest any emotion elevated to the level of world-ending, manic obsession would probably do the trick.
The secret to it wasn't that a human soul must experience so much pain that their suffering drove them to the deepest pits of hell (though that certainly helped), it's that the only kind of person who could actually fall that far and not just disappear into the abyss forever are the ones who were born with the ability to rise even higher if only things hadn't gone so horribly wrong.
That's what truly makes the birth of a Devastation both so spectacular and so spectacularly rare, because the price for their bloodied crown will always be for their innate potential for divinity to shatter completely, for them to stand by and watch the god they could have been (should have been) collapse in on itself until only a Ghost King remained.
That's why Hua Cheng was a Devastation while Qi Rong wasn't (and never would be, even if he lived until the sun went out) and although no one knew the full story of Bai Wuxiang, conservative gamblers would put their money on him being very much the same even if the finer details were lost to time. It's certainly why He Xuan ended up the way he did, his bright fate stolen from him and twisted into darkness and pain by an arrogant, unfeeling god with a raging brother complex.
At the time it had felt almost like fate finding the soon to Ascend Earth Master while he was hiding from his pending heavenly tribulation deep beneath the earth which loved him, and that the two of them even looked something alike was just further proof of the righteousness of his goals. With his shapeshifting power it wouldn't really have mattered too much either way, but playing the role of a double agent for centuries was trying enough at the best of times without worrying you'd give everything away by wearing the wrong face at the wrong time, and their resemblance meant any potential dysphoria caused by prolonged deception was kept to a minimum.
Of course keeping something to a minimum isn't the same as getting rid of it all together. While it's true that both of his identities were known to be recluses, unlike ghosts the gods have responsibilities and the terms of his bargain with the original Ming Yi meant he could never avoid other people entirely. And so he ended up in the admittedly surreal situation of having what he'd wanted so badly for so long, and more often than not hating and resenting it.
Maybe that was part of the reason he'd ended up spending so much time with the fucking Wind Master of all people, after he had latched onto him at their first meeting and wouldn't let go. Not only were they so full of excitement and energy and life, the likes of which he hadn't even known when he was still alive himself, but the fact they could be two different things and still be so wholely themselves regardless was fascinating. Though the way they constantly bugged him to use a female form as well was just a pain in the ass.
The ghost is silver and the god is gold, he reminded himself whenever he had to interact with the people who had ruined his life.
The ghost is silver and the god is gold, he reminded himself every morning when he got dressed, crafting his appearance with care to ensure that wherever (whatever) he was today he looked the part.
The ghost is silver and the god is gold, he reminded himself every time he looked around at his life in heaven, the life that should have been his by right, and knew he'd only ever be second place.
Despite all the many good reasons why he'd gone to such great lengths to be here, some days the only way he could remember who he was and which role he was currently playing was the colour of the trim on his robes.
After all the excitement at Banyue Pass and being 'rescued' from his incarceration at Paradise Manor (which was mostly spent being forced to listen to Hua Cheng wax poetic about his beloved Dianxia while He Xuan ate his way through half the food in Ghost City and considered the merits of hiding at the bottom of the sea until the two of them finally got together and stopped being insufferable) and all he wanted was to have some time to come to terms with what was about to happen.
But time waits for no one, and especially not a pretender god who's living (or not) on borrowed time. By now it was only a few days until the Mid Autumn Festival Banquet, and true to form Shi Qing Xuan had dragged them both down to the mortal realm to go shopping in one of the clothing stores she favoured in the Imperial City.
Whatever she'd said to the person who greeted them at the door they'd been immediately led upstairs to a spacious private dressing room, and the manager had poured them both tea while a small army of shopgirls had marched in one after the other to hang armfuls of clothing on racks and pile up the accessories on some side tables. The Wind Master chatted happily while He Xuan ate all the complementary snacks and brooded, so basically it was a pretty normal day out for them.
Distracted by thoughts of the upcoming carnage and some really delicious little cakes he almost missed the manager showing herself out.
"-- hope you and your husband find something you like, please don't hesitate to ring the bell by the door if you require any assistance."
Wait. "What the hell--"
"Thank you so much!" Shi Qing Xuan said loudly over his protests, closing the door and locking it with a wave of her fan.
"Why does she think we're married?" He demanded, already knowing he wasn't going to like her answer.
The Lady Wind Master just laughed. "Because I told her we were Ming-xiong, why else?"
"We're not married!"
"Of course we're not, but how else was I going to convince her to let us be alone in a dressing room together?" She rolled her eyes, not at all seeing the issue and flipping through a pile of brightly dyed silk. "Really Ming-xiong, you have to think of these things practically."
Of all the people who might stand a chance at lecturing him about such things without facing death for their troubles, she was at the absolute fucking bottom of that list. "You have never been practical a day in your life!"
The Wind Master looked aggrieved. "Ming-xiong why are you so mean to me?"
"Because I hate you." Especially how pathetic you look when you're pouting at me like that, it's ridiculous.
Far from whine and complain as he would have expected her to do she just giggled into her fan.
His eyes narrowed, instantly suspicious. "What's so funny, why are you laughing?"
She beamed at him, eyes sparkling like starlight over the top of the fan, and it was almost enough to make him forget why he was cross in the first place. "It just makes me so happy when Ming-xiong is all grumpy with me. You're like a prickly cat, it's how you show you care."
"What care, dream on!" He said angrily, but even he could tell how weak it was as far as comebacks went.
Satisfied with his lack of any real response Shi Qing Xuan resumed talking a mile a minute about one of the minor literature gods getting caught having an affair with one of the junior officials from Ling Wen's palace and Ling Wen losing her mind. She sorted through one rack and then another, holding some things up against herself in front of the mirror then discarding them when they weren't quite right. Tuning her out with the ease of long practice while he finished the last of the snacks, he wondered if this was going to be one of the last times things could be this simple and carefree before he could finally have his revenge and inevitably lost her forever in the process.
Goddammit he was so hungry. It occured to him, much in the way a captain resigns himself to going down with his ship, that maybe if he indulged her for once they'd get done with all this stupidity quicker and they'd be able to go get dinner. She had promised to treat him in return for coming with her after all. So when she dragged him up in front of the mirror with her and started throwing robes on him like he was a doll he just sighed and let her.
"Tell me what you think of this one Ming-xiong."
Resurfacing from his gloomy thoughts he looked down at the robe in question and froze, the heart that he only kept going in order to maintain his cover skipping a beat because he was wearing silver. Shi Qing Xuan was right there, tugging on his collar like someone's nagging auntie and nattering on about the Mid Autumn Festival Banquet, and He Xuan was wearing silver.
Jerking back and nearly tripping over his own feet in the process he shoved the half-done up robe off, flinging it away as if it was somehow both on fire and made out of spiders.
"Ming-xiong!" Shi Qing Xuan cried, hands waving around like an idiot. "Ming-xiong what's the matter?"
I'm dead, starving, and plotting your brother's murder, and not necessarily in that order. Oh, and just now some embroidery nearly made me forgot who I was. Everything's just fucking fine.
"No silver." He snapped, because that was close enough.
"There's no need to fling it away like it's offended you!" She scolded as she went to pick it up, apparently calming down now he wasn't potentially being attacked by rogue apparel. "It's not nice to throw things around before you pay for them, didn't your mother teach you better manners than that?"
Of course she did. And she's dead because of you and your co-dependant sociopath of a big brother.
"Come on Ming-xiong, this is the biggest event of the year for the Heavenly Court! If you wear this one with the silver moon embroidery then I can wear the one with the silver rabbit embroidery, won't it be way more fun if we match?"
He'd sooner shapeshift into a blushing maiden and proposition General Pei. "Not happening."
"But that's why I bought us here in the first place, they specialise in making matching outfits for couples!"
"We are not a couple!" If his voice went very shrill as he said that it was no one's business but his own.
The shameless excuse of a god apparently had no idea why this was a big deal, and looked perilously close to actually stamping her foot. "Of course I know that Ming-xiong, but it doesn't explain why you're being so stubborn!"
It really was like arguing with the goddamned wind. "I don't wear silver. Pick something else."
"That's true come to think of it." She said thoughtfully, ignoring his increasingly bad mood. "For as long as I've known Ming-xiong you've always worn black and gold."
"Not all of us can be like you." He grumbled under his breath.
"What about me?" She said, hands on her hips.
"You know." He said, gesturing at her and the general cloud of ridiculous, rainbow-coloured happiness she floated around in like an annoying goldfish in an even more annoying bowl. "You're all bright and cheerful, so you can get away with just about anything. If I wore silver with my usual black I wouldn't look like a god at all, I'd look like a drowned ghost." Quite literally in fact.
"You shouldn't let something silly like that stop you from having fun and doing what you want, why do you care so much about what other people think?"
"I don't." He totally did, but in his defence he was a spy so it was kind of in the job description.
"Ming-xiong." She whined, tugging on his sleeves.
"Just drop it. You know you wouldn't want to be seen in heaven hanging out with a ghost, even if it was only me looking ridiculous, your brother would have a fit." Which would almost be enough to make it worth it to risk his cover come to think of it, but only almost.
"I could if I wanted!" Shit, when she scowled at him like that it was not unlike a tiny, pampered puppy trying to intimidate a wolf.
"Well His Highness is friends with Hua Cheng and he isn't just any old ghost he's Bloody Rain Reaching Towards a Flower. Yeah he's a bit of an ass and far too gleefully sadistic for my taste, but it's clear he loves His Highness and His Highness is definitely falling for him as well even if he's too clueless to realise it yet."
Oh wow, if the other Devastation had heard that he'd probably spend the next week crying in his armoury, fucking again, or start building his precious Crown Prince yet another elaborate temple. "So if His Highness can be friends with a ghost then why can't I be friends with one too?"
How the fuck did they start out clothes shopping and end up arguing about Shi Qing Xuan befriending random ghosts? As much as he hated to have anything at all in common with that self-righteous bastard, between Shi Wu Du being an overbearing ass and He Xuan being willing and damn near elated at the prospect of eating any other ghosts which tried to crawl their way into the Wind Master's good graces there was no chance it was going to happen. Not now, not ever.
"Being excited by the novelty of pissing off your brother doesn't actually mean that you want to be friends with a ghost, drowned or otherwise." To distract her from how much he did not want to be having this conversation he grabbed something at random off a nearby rack and shoved it at her, wincing when he realised it was sky blue and covered in pale green bamboo leaves. "Come on I thought we were shopping for the banquet, help me pick something."
But the god would not be deterred, even when the usually stubborn Earth Master was inviting her to pick out clothes for him. "Of course I do! It doesn't matter if they're god or ghost, if a person is a good friend then that's all that matters to me. Even if - even if Ming-xiong was Black Water Sinking Ships, the biggest drowned ghost of them all, Ming-xiong is still my best friend and that means I'd still like Ming-xiong most of all!"
He Xuan dropped the robe and stared at her in absolute horror.
"What the fuck did you just say?"
Now normally there was almost nothing she or anyone else could throw at him which he couldn't shrug off or make a disparaging remark about. But with the Reverend striking in a matter of days and his own uncertain feelings about that, she couldn't have landed a better hit if he'd pried his ribs open for her with his Earth Master shovel and drawn a target on his heart.
"Um." He said, very eloquent but still somehow frozen in place as he stared incredulously at Shi Qing Xuan, who for her part was staring back just as incredulously at her usually stoic friend.
"Ming-xiong what is it? You look like someone's walked over your grave."
"Um." He was sitting on the ground, when had he sat down?
"Ming-xiong! Why are you crying?"
As if he was crying, who was crying? He opened his mouth to say just that, but somehow all that came out was: "That's not my name."
"Ming Yi. It's not my name." Oh shit. You can't do this, not now it's almost time to unleash the Reverend, you can't.
Shi Qing Xuan looked like she'd seen a ghost, and at least in her case the sentiment was even truer than she knew. "What? Are you serious?"
"En." Stop talking idiot!
"Well..." she trailed off, looking perplexed. "What is your name then?"
"It's Black Water Sinking Ships." Shut up shut up shut up! "It's He Xuan."
"Oh." She said blankly, and he could tell the exact second it really clicked because her face paled until it looked like she was the one who was secretly a ghost this whole time. "Oh holy fuck."
Of all the ways he'd imagined this happening (and hell had there been a lot of them over the years) this one had never occurred to him, not even once. It was all just so impossibly hilarious, and just as he realised he was giggling hysterically the giggles dissolved into choked sobs. Between one breath and the next he was bawling his eyes out on the floor of the dressing room in a mortal clothing shop, while the person who had stolen his life panicked and tried pointlessly to calm him down.
"What...what happened to you?" She asked softly when the worst of it was over, sitting close enough to be heard easily without actually touching or throwing herself at him like she usually would have by now, and he couldn't for the life of him work out if he was grateful for it or gutted. "If you don't want to tell me that's okay. But you told me when you didn't have to, so if you need to talk I'm here. I'll always be here."
There was no chance in hell a person could be this good without it being a trick, it was impossible. "Even though I've lied to you? Pretended to be something I'm not ever since we met?"
"I'm sure you had your reasons." If that wasn't an understatement of Devastation-level proportions then he didn't know what was. "And it's not like I knew the er, the original Earth Master before his Ascension. I mean, I'm pretty sure anyway. Was there even an original Earth Master? Is he still around? Wait, that was a dumb question. Nevermind, hahahaa." She broke off, laughing nervously into her fan.
"There was an original Earth Master, and he's dead." Seeing her shocked expression he felt the ridiculous urge to clarify his statement. "It's not what you're thinking though, and I didn't kill him either. He was a scholar who wanted the perks of immortality but didn't want anything to do with the heavens, so we made a deal. I took on his name and in return he got his freedom to pursue his studies, it was a fair trade. I would never steal someone's destiny from them, not for any reason."
Something in the way he said that made her look at him very closely. "And why's that?"
"BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT HAPPENED TO ME!" It came out before he could even hope to hold it in, the raw emptiness in the pit of his stomach making him feel wounded.
"Oh, oh no. That's just too awful!" Shi Qing Xuan said, looking about ready to start crying herself. "I'm so sorry that happened to you, that someone would do that is unforgivable."
"Are you fucking serious?" While it was true he'd suspected over the years that the Wind Master was clueless about what her brother had done, for her of all people to say that to him meant she either had the thickest face in history or (far more likely) the little idiot honestly had no fucking idea.
"Why wouldn't I be?" She asked, clearly confused, and he wished there was a higher power which wasn't just that smiling bastard Jun Wu so he could pray for a higher grade of enemy. Definitely enemy.
Well fuck it. They'd gone so far off script already, why the hell not burn it all to the ground and see what happened.
Telling Shi Qing Xuan about his mortal life was surreal. Telling her about his death and the deaths of his family was excruciating. Telling her about his early years as a ghost and about throwing himself into Mount Tonglu to either become strong enough to defy the heavens or die trying was too weird to contemplate, especially when she just wouldn't stop crying. It was pretty annoying actually, because what right did she have to cry like that when it wasn't her pain, wasn't her life which got ruined? Once he started talking though he couldn't stop, as if now he was finally draining the poison out of a festering wound he wouldn't be able to stop until it was all over.
At no point did he tell her who exactly it was who stole his destiny and why. Even as good an impression of a babbling moron as he was currently doing he knew that if he didn't first give the full context for how and why he'd ended up like this there was no chance she would understand when he did tell her.
It was about then that he realised what should have been obvious long before now to anyone not a complete fucking idiot. When he told her. Not if, when.
Had he been planning to tell her before now, or was it a symptom of his apparent mental breakdown? Regardless of his very justified reasons for seeking revenge it didn't change the fact that he'd been lying to her, letting her befriend him and trust him all so at the right moment he could betray that trust as viciously as he knew how in order to kill and disgrace both her and her brother. Only at some point he'd gone and fallen for his own con like an amateur, and instead of all the meticulously crafted lies he could spin to get her on his side he wanted her to see him, to understand him. To know what her and her brother had done and be really fucking sorry, and then choose him anyway over everything.
"It can't have been easy keeping all this locked up inside." She said softly when he finally fell silent, fiddling with her fan like she often did when she was nervous or overwhelmed. "I'm sorry you had to carry this burden alone for so long, I wish I could have known you when you were still alive so I could have helped stop it."
"How could you?" Well here goes nothing. "It was all your fault."
She froze, eyes widening into big round saucers. "W-what?"
He plucked the fan out of her unresponsive fingers, flicking it open to reveal the elegant calligraphy which spelled out the character for 'wind'. "The destiny which was stolen from me, it's yours."
"But Ming-xiong, how could I --"
"Don't call me that!" He shouted, snapping the fan closed and throwing it back at her. "I told you, my name isn't Ming Yi, it's He Xuan. He Xuan."
It was clear she was desperately trying to find a way for him to be wrong, so he looked her dead in the eye and said a name which no one living apart from her and Shi Wu Du should know her connection to. "The Reverend of Empty Words."
"H-how do you know about that?" She demanded, trembling even as she slowly backed away from him. "No one should know about that."
He didn't even bother moving, just kept staring her dead in the eye as he drove the knife home. "You wouldn't know this but on paper we have a lot on common. Two boys who were born with the same birthday and the same name. That's how the Reverend knew who you were, how he could find you. How he kept on finding you. And there's only one surefire way to stop him once he sets his sights on his prey, and that's Ascension."
"No." With her eyes turning red with even more unshed tears and her back pressed against the wall, she was the very picture of desperate, heartbroken denial.
"Your brother knew this of course." He continued mercilessly. "Just like he knew you would never be able to make it past the Middle Court and Ascend properly, not on your own."
"Stop." She begged. "Please."
"I imagine finding me was like finding a phoenix feather. He distracted the Reverend and stole my fate for you, it was like killing two birds with one stone. Especially since with the curse I was unlikely to live long, and I didn't. Just long enough to lose everyone I ever loved and who had ever loved me."
Huddled against the wall like it was the only thing holding her upright, Shi Qing Xuan was shaking uncontrollably with her hands pressed over her ears as if that would be enough to hide from his words. It didn't matter that she was a god, she looked seconds away from throwing up. Her hands clapped tightly over her mouth while her face went nearly as green as Qi Rong's and he realised that yes, the exalted Lady Wind Master really was about to puke her guts up.
"Shit." He said, quickly grabbing a fancy ceramic vase and shoving it at her just in time.
She heaved into the vase like her torso was doing it's best to turn itself inside out and he could have left her to it, he really could have. That he'd even fetched a suitable receptical for her at all instead of just letting her be sick all over the floor was a nigh unprecedented act of kindness on his part. But as it turned out years of following someone around while they drank and partied their way across three realms was kind of habit forming, and without even stopping to think he was holding her hair off her face and keeping all the hairpins and other assorted bits of jewelry and ribbons from ending up in the vase along with her stomach lining.
Once she stopped he passed her a cup of cold tea to rinse her mouth out with and banished the vase to who knows where, just waiting for Shi Qing Xuan to pull herself together and start denouncing him.
It didn't come though, and once the tea was gone she gently pushed him away only to get down on her knees and prostrate herself in front of him.
"He-gongzi." She said, kowtowing so deeply he could hear her forehead banging against the floor. "This one apologises sincerely f-for the pain and disrespect done to He-gongzi and his beloved family."
Oh fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. What was she doing? This was wrong, this was all wrong. He had a plan dammit, there was a plan for exactly how this was supposed to go down and he'd fucked it up. Hundreds of years of planning and not even a few days before the opening act he'd fucked it up.
"Idiot, what the hell are you doing being all formal?" He rasped. "Get off the floor."
"No, it's not right! This one has lived a life which did not belong to them. Ignorance is no excuse for cruelty and nothing can be said or done which will ever make up for the wrongs committed, but this one still offers up their unworthy life to He-gongzi to do with as he sees fit."
Seeing her like this, it felt like he was dying all over again. "Get off the fucking floor Shi Qing Xuan."
She sobbed a little but shook her head, still kowtowing. "This one knows that they have no right to ask He-gongzi for anything when they have already taken so much from him, but this one still begs that he will accept their life as payment and spare their brother's."
Ah, there was the anger. He'd been wondering where it had gone. "After everything he's done - to both of us - you're still taking his side?"
As if she could sense his rage Shi Qing Xuan hunched over even more. "Everything he did was for me and because of my own weakness and failures, so it's only right that I be the one to atone for it. Disgrace him, reveal his crimes to the Heavenly Court and get him banished to the mortal realm, He-gongzi is well within his rights to do so. Just please..." Her voice cracked, raw and pleading. "Please don't kill him."
"Why the hell not?"
"Because he's my family!" She cried, finally looking up at him only to make him wish she hadn't because Shi Qing Xuan should never, ever look at him with an expression like that. "He's cold and a bully and I will never forgive him for what he did, for what he made me a part of without even asking, but he's still my brother and I'll do anything for him. Just like you would for your family."
"MY FAMILY IS DEAD!" He screamed. "Why do the two of you get to still have each other when I have nothing, how is that fair?"
"I know it's not fair." She agreed miserably. "It's not even a little bit fair. But please, let him live in disgrace as a mortal but let him live! You can kill me or torture me or do anything else you want, I won't fight back or curse you, just please."
Watching her beg while she listed off her grisly fate at his hands as if it was a forgone conclusion made him feel colder than the bottom of the ocean. "Is that really what you think of me?"
"I don't know!" She wailed, her frustration and confusion as evident as her sorrow. "He-gongzi has always been there even when I made him angry, and now I find out it's because he was waiting to take his revenge on me and my brother. And that makes me feel sad and hurt because all this time I thought we were best friends!"
"We're not best friends." He snapped, because that's what he always said when she was being annoyingly sticky, but for some reason saying it this time made him feel sick to his stomach.
That seemed to break something in her even more, and the ever-present light in her eyes dimmed even further than it already had.
"I know." She whispered, once again lowering her gaze in either contrition or fear, he couldn't tell. "I'm annoying and silly and thanks to my brother everyone treats me like a child, or someone to make nice with to get closer to him. But He-gongzi was never like that. You were upfront and sincere even if you were mad, and you never talked down to me. You always accepted all the different parts of me and I...I loved that. That's why I've always tried my best to help He-gongzi have fun and be happy, because you never smiled and it made me sad that someone who made me so happy wasn't happy too. Knowing now that it's all my fault, that no matter how hard I tried it would never have worked because I'm the one who stole your happiness in the first place?"
She trailed off, weeping softly. "It doesn't matter what happens to me, I won't blame He-gongzi for anything because I know I deserve it. And now that you're telling me all about it I guess this means you're either about to kill me or something's happened which has changed your plans, but I don't know which one it is and I just... I just don't understand!"
Staring down at how the Wind Master was still prostrated on the ground, He Xuan grabbed a thick handful of her hair where it was lying against the back of her neck. More of the pins fell out from his rough treatment and she was shaking like a leaf, but still she didn't dare to look up from the floor.
"I planned this you know." He told the deathly silent room. "For hundreds of years I planned this. Ever since the day I died while the Water Tyrant watched every single thing I've done has all been to lead to this moment, and I had all of you right where I wanted. In a few days time my revenge was going to begin, and from that moment on it was going to build and build until it was an unstoppable wave made of all of my anger and resentment and hatred. However it ended, for good or bad, it still would have drowned you both and I would finally have had my revenge. The determination to leave nothing intact in your pursuit of your reason for still existing, not even yourself, that's what it truly means to be a Devastation."
He dragged her to her knees by her hair, and met her desolate, red-rimmed eyes. "But now you know everything, and I still can't decide what to do with you any more than I did this morning. " He shook her for emphasis, though it wasn't anywhere near enough to actually hurt. The small whimper she tried so hard to swallow was absurdly satisfying, almost as satisfying as the way she finally met his gaze without flinching, as if this was the last time she'd ever get to see him and was trying to carve his likeness into her heart so she'd never forget. "How could I have predicted every single tiny thing which was going to happen Lady Wind Master, but never have predicted what you'd come to mean to me?"
"What?" She breathed, eyes shining with disbelief and the first, tiny embers of painful hope.
He shook her again. "Tell me you're sorry."
"He-gongzi I'm sorry! I really am so, so sorry!"
"Don't ever call me He-gongzi again, I hate it." He said flatly, letting go of her hair and slumping back against the wall beside her. "Try again."
She looked at him uncertainly through the corner of her eye. "Lord Black Water?"
Shi Qing Xuan flushed a little and hid behind her messy hair, realising exactly what it was he wanted. "He-xiong."
"En." Much better.
Taking his hand in both of hers she pressed the back of his palm to her forehead. "I'm so sorry He-xiong. Qing Xuan was wrong."
Oh shit. It didn't matter that he'd been the one to ask for it, hearing her call him that still made half of him want to drown her and the entire fucking world, and the other half want to crawl into a hole and hide. The most distressing thing of all was that he couldn't even work out which half was which, the two sides of himself which were usually so distinct overlapping and making him feel unbalanced.
"He-xiong?" She said after a while when he didn't say anything.
"What?" God he was hungry.
"Can...can we go home?"
He looked around at their surroundings. It was getting late, the shadows lengthening, and it was no doubt only thanks to Shi Qing Xuan charming the manager that they hadn't already been bothered about taking too long. Definitely time to leave. "Yeah. Come on, I'll take you back to your palace."
Wow, even knowing it was coming that had hurt a lot more than expected, and he yanked his hand away. "What, don't want a filthy ghost in your holy Wind Master Palace anymore?"
"No!" She said, looking horrified. "I mean, of course that's not it. I just...I don't want to be alone and I don't think I could even look at my brother right now, so I don't want to go somewhere he'd find me. I want to go back to He-xiong's home and talk some more."
Maybe it was vindictive pleasure from knowing she was choosing him over the Water Tyrant, even temporarily, but he couldn't think of any reason why he should refuse. "Fuck it, why not. We'll go back to my palace then."
Okay, now she had to have been trying to annoy him on purpose. "Make up your damn mind you idiot! What the hell do you want?"
"I want to go back to He-xiong's home! Black Water Sinking Ship's home! There has to be somewhere you stay when you're not in heaven right, the Black Water Demon Lair? That's where I want to go."
What the actual hell? "Why do you want to go there of all places?"
Her hands twisted in her sleeves. "Don't laugh."
He scowled at her. "Do I look like I want to laugh?"
"It's just..." She trailed off, looking embarrassed. "I really meant it you know, when I said that no matter what I'd still want to be your best friend. I already know all about He-xiong's life in heaven as Mi - as the Earth Master. So now I want to know all about He-xiong's life in the ghost realm too."
He stared at the unusually subdued god, trying to get his head around what she'd just said, and as she got more and more flustered by his silence he couldn't help it and eventually burst out laughing.
Her jaw dropped. "He-xiong you promised!"
She sounded far too scandalised for someone who had recently thrown up in a vase and kowtowed until they bruised their head, and he just laughed harder because Shi Qing Xuan knew. She knew everything, and instead of immediately reporting him to Jun Wu or running to hide behind her brother she was calling him He-xiong and wanted to visit his territory.
"I did no such thing." He said, flicking her lightly on the nose just to be spiteful. "And besides, even if I did so what? I'm a ghost, you're lucky I'm not just killing you for being so annoying."
"Awww He-xiong!" She whined, rubbing her nose and looking pitiful again. "I'm trying to be a good friend here and you keep bullying me!"
"I always bully you." He pointed out. "When has that ever put you off?"
"That's not the point!"
"So what is the point then? That you're a masochist?"
"Clean up your mess, I'll draw the array."
Setting up the Distance Shortening Array which would take them to his Black Water Demon Lair didn't take long, and while he was busy drawing it Shi Qing Xuan actually did as she was told for once without complaint, tiding up the evidence of their argument and leaving a few gold leaves as an apology for disappearing without buying anything and the ruined vase.
Standing together in front of the door, he couldn't help but look down at her "Are you really going to come with me then? Even though I'm a Ghost King and this could all be a trap?"
"If the plan was to tell me how my entire life was a lie to somehow influence me to ask to visit of my own free will - and then look really, really shocked when it actually worked - then you are a lot more cunning than I give you credit for." She paused and looked at him, really looked. "Are you going to kill me Black Water Sinking Ships?"
"No." Not even if you begged for me to do it. Especially not if you begged me.
She bit her lip, clearly not wanting an answer to her next question but having to ask all the same. "Are you going to kill my brother?"
Yes. Just as soon as I can work out how to do that without losing you forever. "...I don't know. Maybe. Probably."
"Well that's somewhere to start I guess." She said, and opened the door to the South Sea and stepped through to the other side.