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our roots will always be tangled

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Splinters pierce into his skin, drawing blood as they rub against clumsily chopped wood. His hand trembles while it tries and fails to hold a piece into place, the tremor so violent it nearly knocks over the other part he had barely succeeded in propping up. 

A nail wobbles from where it’s perched between his calloused thumb and pointer finger. He slams it into the wood with his fist, mind too muddled and time too short for him to bother seeking out proper tools. The blood that trickles from his white knuckles goes entirely unnoticed. 

One hundred years have already passed.

Is he too late?

Forgotten gods fade into obscurity no matter how monumental their life and legacy had been, never leaving so much as a trace of themselves behind. None are spared from this cruel fate. He isn’t an exception, especially with temples turned to ash that had long been scattered by the wind, no more than a vestige deemed riddled with misfortune. 

Feng Xin has witnessed more rises and sets of the sun without him than ones with—ones he’d spent by his side. The oath he took in his youth, bestowed as an honorable duty that had grown into a deep friendship, is as broken as the state of his blackened heart. It's also the only reminder that those days of ignorant, blissful naivety had been real. 

But even with the constant ache he carries as a knife lodged into his chest, he’d still failed him. Again. Only this time, his selfishness had consequences much graver than ever before. 

The once Crown Prince may no longer walk this earth, may have closed his eyes one night and never opened them again, may have been trailing through a forest and vanishing with the lightest passing breeze.

All because of Feng Xin.

The board clatters as it frees itself from his palms, slick with sweat and resembling a mini earthquake. Feng Xin feels his stomach somersault as bile rises in his throat, slapping one hand over his mouth and digging the other firmly into the dirt to steady himself. There is nothing to empty out. Gods practice inedia, and he hasn't had a meal in weeks. All he can do is dry heave, coughing and hacking himself hoarse, tears prickling at the corners of his eyes as the world shifts and spins all around him.

And then, he hears footsteps.

Mind buzzed, lips cracked and cold—Feng Xin freezes in his movements. His heart falls in his throat as his ears take in the sound of rustling grass and jaded breaths. 

The steps are light, but they hold a purpose that’s absolutely undeniable. They’re familiar in a way Feng Xin hopes to one day move past and forget. 

The sound cuts through the air like a sharp crystal, a slice right into the back of his head. Feng Xin doesn’t move, his eyes flitting down to land on the pieces of golden wood nestled in his bloodied palms. His heart beats loudly enough to encase the shell of his ear, a slow, consistent pound. Thud, thud, thud. 

The footsteps pause in their motions. 

The silence is deafening. 

“What the hell are you doing.”

Mu Qing.

His voice is low and icy, laced with something Feng Xin can’t quite place—something he doesn’t dare to place. Mu Qing isn’t asking him a question, and Feng Xin knows enough to know that’s true. No. He’s demanding answers. 

Answers Feng Xin doesn’t think he can give.

“Get out,” he hisses, then lurches back from the pain his own voice sends coursing through his skull. The plates of wood fall through his palms immediately, his entire body going slack against his knees. The shabby engineering job lays ahead of him, masked with dirt and leaves and ugly stains of his own blood. 

It’s not beautiful. It’s nothing compared to the thousands of shrines once built for his Crown Prince. 

The realization tugs at his skin, a slow burn settling beneath his fingers as they clench together tightly.

Mu Qing doesn’t respond. Instead, Feng Xin hears his footsteps once more. They’re louder this time, a stomp behind the outline of his shoulders. He doesn’t dare look back. He doesn’t dare look and see what kind of expression is painted upon Mu Qing’s features. 

And then, there’s pressure around his neck, and Feng Xin realizes belatedly that Mu Qing has grabbed him by the collar and is hoisting him up. 

Spit splatters on the surface of his cheeks. 

Mu Qing growls, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

One. Two. Three.

Feng Xin bursts. 

“One hundred years,” he whispers, then snaps back into himself and roughly pushes Mu Qing away. He watches unhurriedly as the latter stumbles back, blinking his obvious shock away. “It’s been one hundred fucking years. What do you think I’m doing?”

Something flashes through Mu Qing’s eyes. The night is dark. The glint in those deep golden eyes of his is not. 

“Do you think this is going to bring him back?” Mu Qing asks then, his teeth audibly gritting together as his gaze flickers over to the shabbily built shrine. “Do you really think that something this stupid is going to bring him back?”

“He’s not gone,” says Feng Xin, but the argument falls weak to even his own ears.

“You said it yourself,” Mu Qing hisses. “It’s been one hundred years.”

“That doesn’t mean he’s gone.” Feng Xin feels his heartbeat pick up speed once again. His breath comes out in short pants, catching in the base of his throat and pushing his internal screams down. “He’s not gone. He hasn’t faded yet. He hasn’t.”

The panic is building up again. He can feel it. His head is spinning. Sweat is trickling down his spine. His robes feel hot and wet and way too fucking itchy—

“What?” Mu Qing scoffs. “You want to descend and check if he’s dead yet?”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Feng Xin snaps through bated breaths. He pushes himself up, staggering to a stop before his feet carry him forward on their own accord. His chest lurches into Mu Qing’s, sending the latter hurtling a few steps back. “Don’t you dare pretend you care.”

Mu Qing’s eyes narrow delicately on his frame. 

Feng Xin isn’t stupid. This? Mu Qing suddenly showing up at Mount Taicang in the middle of the night, demanding Feng Xin tell him what he’s doing when it’s so fucking obvious? 

He almost wants to laugh.

“I don’t,” says Mu Qing. “I don’t even know where he is. There’s no point. Can that small brain of yours not understand that?”

It’s obviously said to provoke him, elicit the regular brawl between the two. It’s an open invitation, a snide little remark that Feng Xin has grown so accustomed to. 

Yet every time it stings just as much as the last. 

His body feels like a corpse, one that’s riddled with muck and dirt and crickety bones. 

He takes a step back.

“Fuck you,” he says, then turns on his heel and stalks away. 

He doesn’t look back. Not now. Not ever. 

 

— 

 

With the startling epiphany of Xie Lian’s mortality comes a buzz in Feng Xin’s nerves he can’t seem to shake.

He hasn't returned to the heavens in six months, dependent solely on junior officials to relay any missions or prayers urgent enough to require his attention. He hasn’t seen Mu Qing either, since he caught him with his bleeding heart and his bleeding hands, kneeling before a pile of broken hope. There are no pointless fights full of empty curses and broken bones for Feng Xin to release all his pent up emotions. Slaying malicious ghosts doesn’t trouble him enough to break a sweat. The pressure just builds and builds endlessly, even when he starts to pull apart at the seams.

He keeps moving, keeps trudging forward. 

No set destination and no plan in mind—Feng Xin wanders the land by foot, as aimless as a lost soul. Would it be too extreme to say he feels as though he is? Xie Lian’s side was the place where Feng Xin had always belonged, not only as his bodyguard or general, but as his best friend. He had built his future there, had never dreamed of anything else. 

Any success was pointless if they could not achieve it together. 

 

“This is Feng Xin. From today onward he will be your most trusted confidant, sworn brother, and shield. He will obey your every command, and protect you until death. If you can depend on no one else, you can depend on him.” 

A firm hand pushed Feng Xin forward, and he dutifully dropped to one knee, bowing his head and placing a clenched fist over his heart.

“I am willing to devote and lay down my life for Your Highness!” 

There was no tremor in his voice, no hesitation in the words he spoke. All that filled Feng Xin to the brim was pride at the honor that had been bestowed upon him, of all people. He would do anything to prove himself worthy of it for the rest of his days.

Two smaller hands, soft and warm, placed themselves over Feng Xin’s fist, unfurling his fingers so they could intertwine together. The gentleness of the notion had him snapping his head back up, lips parted as his breath caught in his throat.

The smile greeting him was as welcoming as the dawn of a new day, a guiding light that washed over him after stumbling through the bitter darkness. It radiated from every bit of his countenance, shining out from deep inside his soul to brighten his eyes and envelop his entire being. The voice that addressed him was just as dazzling.

“Feng Xin, I hope we can become the greatest of friends!”

 

Who was Feng Xin, without Xie Lian? Was there a Feng Xin without Xie Lian? Should there be a Feng Xin without Xie Lian?

Hell if he knows. 

His feet carry him through a bustling market, mortals rushing to and fro, their voices rising and falling as they barter prices. Feng Xin barely registers them, the chaotic noise far off into the distance, as if he’s been separated from his body. Blobs of color surround him, melding together as his eyes pass over their indistinguishable forms. He holds out a hand in front of him and cannot even recognize it as his own.

A grip on his shoulder jolts him back into himself. 

“Young Master!” The eager voice of a merchant floats into his ears. “Such a trained body can only mean you’re well-practiced in martial arts! Why not take a look at some of the weaponry I have here? I’ll sell it to you for half the price!” 

Feng Xin pauses in his step and meets the greedy gaze of the merchant—a middle-aged man with a scar across his nose and a golden tooth glinting through his wolfish grin. His mouth tugs downward as he gives one curt shake of his head, starting to walk away.

“Wait wait wait!” The merchant grabs onto his cloak again, and Feng Xin feels his eyebrow twitch in annoyance. “Young Master! I swear I carry only the highest quality of goods. Some have even been said to be owned by the gods! Don’t miss out on this once in a lifetime opportunity or you’ll surely regret it!”

You’ll surely regret it if you yank me one more time , Feng Xin thinks, snapping his attention to the stall so he can tear this man a new one for his so-called “high quality goods” that were likely no more than cheap knock-offs. Yet just when he’s about to open his mouth to vent his frustrations, his pupils dilate as they catch sight of what's hanging at the forefront of the stall. 

Hong Jing.

Feng Xin launches himself towards it like he’s being drawn by some invisible force, snatching it off the hooks and staring at his own tormented expression through the blade's reflection. Recently, time has felt as if the ground has given out from under him, and he’s free-falling, grasping at nothing but empty air in a desperate plea for something tangible to hold onto. Evidence of a person who only exists in his memory. 

Holding Hong Jing in his hands, his usually tanned knuckles turn pale from the force of his grip; and he feels like he's finally clutched onto a ledge. For the first time in months, he breathes and feels his lungs fill with air. 

“How much for this one?”

In the end, Feng Xin doesn’t bother haggling down the price that would’ve left most people with bulging eyes and slackened jaws. To him the sword represents something priceless, and it wasn't as if it left a dent in his pocket anyway. He turns his back on the triumphant merchant with the first of many pieces of him slotted back into place. He has an inkling of how to find some of the lost ones again. 

Feng Xin stares at the midday sun shining through the gaps of a cloudy sky, the warmth of a long gone smile watching over him as he makes a new oath. 

 

— 

 

General Nan Yang is rarely seen in heaven for the next century, but when he is, it's always with some new treasure from the mortal realm that he quietly stores away before returning once more. 

 

 

Mu Qing’s blade feels heavy in his hands, a sensation so startlingly foreign to him it almost shakes him to his core. His shoulders sag with the weight, pressing down upon him as he leaps through formation after formation, breaths coming out in short exhales.

He has the biggest fucking headache.

The last thing he wants is the world to gift him with an unwelcome visitor from the middle courts, but it’s an official from his own palace, so he zips his lips and sheathes his weapon. 

The junior official doesn’t look too impressive. He’s short and lanky, a cheeky little smile stretching the lines of his mouth. His eyebrows are set, ignorantly determined. He looks like a kid that ascended just a few years too early. An immature little brat.

“What is it?” Mu Qing snaps, his patience already running thinner than grass. 

The junior official doesn’t seem startled at all by Mu Qing’s brusque tone. Instead, he clears his throat and bows, arms and hands stretched out before him. 

“General Xuan Zhen,” he says. “This one was wondering if you require any help here in the upper court.”

Ah. A leech.

Typical.

“I do not,” says Mu Qing, then turns around and lets his hand fall back to the handle of his sword. 

But before he can pull it out, there’s a hand on his arm.

He flinches roughly. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Please, General,” the junior official says, then quickly lowers himself into a bow as if that’s enough to remedy the situation. “I work well. I can be your subordinate! You’re from the Kingdom of Xian Le, right? My ancestors were from there, too.”

Mu Qing freezes.

The junior official doesn’t seem to notice and continues, “I heard that you were once His Highness the Crown Prince’s servant! You used to sweep the floors for him, do his laundry, his chores”—Mu Qing’s nose flares—“and he cast you away, didn’t he? General, with me as your subordinate, you will never have to lift another finger in your life!”

Time seems to stand startlingly still in that moment. Mu Qing’s mind races, clouds over with heat, a fire beneath his skin. He says nothing in response.

But apparently this is seen as compliance. The junior official continues, “I heard the Crown Prince of Xian Le wasn’t very good to you. He made you do a lot of his work, right? You and General Nan Yang? The two of you—”

“I would stop talking if I were you.”

Mu Qing’s voice is cold as ice. The junior official flinches, but he barely notices. 

“Remind me again of your name?” he asks coolly, trying his hardest to suppress the rush of dirty words from coming out of his mouth. Quiet, he thinks to himself, shut up, shut up, shut up.

“I—” The junior official blinks, like he doesn’t know what’s going on. Mu Qing almost scoffs. “Su Hui—”

“Su?” Mu Qing repeats, cutting in without a care. “And you’re an official in the Xuan Zhen palace? Your grandfather must be Su Hongbao.”

This seems to excite the junior official. “General, you know my lao-ye?”

Mu Qing smirks and takes a step closer to him. “Your lao-ye secretly abused his direct subordinates for twenty-five years before being kicked into the lower court,” he says, the words heavy and dirty on his tongue. 

He sees the junior official’s face fall and finds that he genuinely could not give less of a shit.

“He’s no subordinate of the Xuan Zhen palace anymore,” Mu Qing continues. “That’s the kind of ancestry you have? And you come into the upper court and expect to gain my favor? Pathetic. At least my prince gave a damn about me.”

My prince, he says, as if he deserves to refer to Xie Lian as anything at all.

He swallows down the guilt that comes with the harsh memories.

“Get out,” he spits, the ire in his tone coming out in rough, unrelenting spurts. “Get out of my face.”

Thankfully, the junior official seems to have gotten the hint by this point, and he quickly jumps with thinly veiled fright and scampers away like the ends of his robes have caught on fire. 

Mu Qing’s sword comes out of its sheath and is thrown onto the stone floor. The sound it exerts clankers throughout his mind, his breath coming out in uneven bursts. His chest rises, then falls, then rises again, then falls again, until all that’s left is the buzzing of his fingers and the stuttering beat of his heart.

He bends down and picks up the sword he’d just thrown, and lets it fly across him and slice through the air. He points it directly at the wall he’s standing next to, and narrows his eyes into a heavy glare.

He refuses to think more on the topic, instead throwing himself into another fruitless sword dance. He pointedly ignores how every corner of his footwork is identical to the movements Xie Lian once taught him. 

 

— 

 

On the eighteenth of May, Mu Qing finds himself staring sidelong at the deep, swirling purple liquid trapped in the faint white glass between his colleagues’ fingers.

There’s a murky feeling swirling in the depths of his chest. It arrived the moment his eyes opened in the morning, and just like every year before, it would leave when he succumbed to the land of dreams later in the night.

His fingers twitch around his own drink. It tastes of berries, he thinks. He’s not really sure. He’s never bothered paying attention to anything at these banquets, least of all what enters his mouth.

(He makes eye contact with Feng Xin once. Maybe twice. Maybe thrice. They say nothing to each other, and the other heavenly officials pass faint remarks at the rare sight of the two being civil toward each other.)

On the eighteenth of May, every single year, Mu Qing knows exactly what runs through Feng Xin’s mind.

“I want to leave.”

Four words, simple and hardly memorable, that banished Mu Qing down a path of solitude forever, shattering the core of a friendship he didn't even realize he had. A mistake he could never undo. The tremor of a single golden foil knocking the tower down. Good intentions turned bitter with no chance for repentance. 

“I’m sorry.”

The one and only apology he’d ever offered them, met with vicious, heartbreaking rejection. For the first time he had laid his heart bare, and was powerless to do anything but watch as it was thrown back in his face. 

He doesn't delude. He knows who was at fault.

It’s a phrase he hasn’t spoken since.

Feng Xin, of course, understands exactly what is running through Mu Qing’s mind as well. A clawed out heart, shaking fingers, and the dull taste of betrayal. 

But what Feng Xin doesn’t know is this:

Later, when the crowds have dispersed and Mu Qing has found a tight corner in his palace for himself to disappear in, three bottles of alcohol emerge from the darkness, faint, chilly drops of perspiration rolling down their sides. 

Mu Qing once followed the same cultivation path as Xie Lian, one where the two would abstain from pleasures such as alcohol and intimacy. Feng Xin was different. 

But now.

Mu Qing eyes the golden glow of the glass, the way it shimmers like a map of constellations floating in the night sky. 

He lifts it up to his lips. The surface is perfectly smooth—the liquid behind the threshold proudly boasts its color. It’s somewhere between a yellow and an orange, Mu Qing thinks. Or maybe it’s red. Maybe it’s the color of blood.

Maybe it is blood.

He downs the glass before he can dwell longer on the thought.

Mu Qing is no stranger to the taste of alcohol—bitter, vile, sour. It slips into his mouth, squeezing past his lips and sinking into the tip of his tongue. It nullifies him, threatens to steal away reality from his grasp, and settles into the yolk of his mouth. It simmers there for what feels like ages, and before he knows it, he’s already reaching for another.

And another.

And another. 

At first, it’s simply a faint buzz humming beneath his skin. Then he’s throwing his head back and suppressing a groan, his free hand climbing up to rake through his hair and knot itself into the ends of his ponytail. 

He looks around, his eyelids drooping low, fluttering down against the outline of his cheeks. He wrenches his eyes open once more, gulps down the tartness in his mouth, and coils his fingers around the glass sitting tauntingly before him. It feels like silk under the pads of his thumb and index fingers. 

Fill. Raise. Drain till dry. 

He’s never liked the taste. He doubts he ever will. 

Life is a bitter thing. Immortality has an entirely different feel. Mu Qing feels like he’s on cloud nine more often than not, but on nights like these, when his only company is the dreary thrum of his heart, he knows he’d rather be anywhere else. Anywhere, anywhere else. Anywhere but here. 

Once a year. Just once. 

He allows himself to crumble. 

The alcohol falls inside of him in sharp, painful slices. The liquid clings to his walls, buries itself there like it’s always belonged, and stings itself to life. It refuses to leave. 

He wonders, briefly, what Feng Xin is doing right now. Is he sound asleep, lost in the ways of the world like what happened with Xie Lian doesn’t affect him? 

Does it affect him?

He stops, stalls. His eyes glaze over the half-empty cup of liquor. 

He opens his mouth and swallows it whole.

 

— 

 

That’s how Feng Xin finds him, three hours later when Mu Qing is knocked out into oblivion. 

It isn’t the first time. This happens every year. Every year, Feng Xin will sneak into the palace and find Mu Qing laid open on the floor, drool slipping through his lips, his cheeks flushed red with heat. 

The first time it happened, it was a mere ten years after everything that had occurred—

 

“Fuck you. Fuck you. What right do you have to break your vows? To drink? Because of what, because of him?”

“Shut up. Go away.”

“Give me that—” A crash. Twinkling crystal lights. 

“God. Now look at what you’ve done.”

“Oh, so this is my fault now too?”

“Are you saying it’s mine?”

“Mu Qing—”

“You—”

 

—but that ended with blood and sore jaws and cracked lips and fingers and skin. Like always. Just like always. 

The second time it happened was three years after the first, and that was when Feng Xin realized that maybe this wasn’t a one time thing. He remembers holding two empty mugs, a pot full of black tea, shaky fingers curled around the edges of a porcelain serving plate. 

Civil. He wanted to be civil. 

He walked out of Mu Qing’s palace an hour later with drops of blood peppering his skin. 

He stopped going after that. For the next fifty years, on the eighteenth of May, he left Mu Qing alone.

And now. 

“Get up,” says Feng Xin, looming over Mu Qing’s sleeping body and gripping his shoulders with a force that pierces through his arms. “Get up.”

Mu Qing blubbers a sound. The drunk bloom of his cheeks is accentuated by the glowing silver lights up above. His eyelids lift, a thin sliver of his eyes coming to view. Feng Xin watches, his own eyes narrow, as the sleep-drunk haze in Mu Qing’s irises hardens into a sharp, cold glare. 

The first thing that comes out of his mouth is, “What are you doing here?”

It’s not as threatening as he probably thinks it sounds. No, Mu Qing’s voice is slow like this, slurred and bold and heavy. It carries the weight of centuries, loneliness creeping around the edges. Feng Xin thinks he may be able to understand it.

But then, seeing Mu Qing sprawled out on the floor like this, empty bottles of alcohol rolling off the golden tiles of the palace, a spark ignites in Feng Xin’s chest. The anger rises naturally, like it’s been waiting for an excuse to strike. 

He reaches over and grips the fronts Mu Qing’s robes, pulling him up and ignoring the thin gasp of surprise he receives in return. 

“Pull yourself together,” he says, the words sinking into the air between them. “Pull yourself the fuck together.”

Mu Qing’s eyes narrow on his frame. He scoffs through his drunken blur. “Get out.”

“I know what you’re doing,” Feng Xin continues. “You think I’m stupid?”

“Yes.”

“Well fuck you. I’m not the one who breaks my cultivation vows to get sad and mopey over something that was my own fault.”

“You have nothing,” says Mu Qing, and the fierceness of his tone makes Feng Xin’s grip loosen ever so slightly. It’s enough for Mu Qing to break away, staggering back as he attempts to regain his balance. Feng Xin watches him shake his head, swallowing before cutting through the silence once more. “You have nothing to showcase for your loyalty to His Highness.”

“You left him—”

“I came back!”

“There shouldn’t have been any reason for you to come back in the first place! You shouldn’t have left!”

“Oh?” says Mu Qing, and it comes out like a slinky snake hiss. “Then what was I supposed to do? Watch? Sit back and watch? Watch as my mother grew sicker and sicker and sicker and—”

“That was not His Highness’ fault,” says Feng Xin, voice piercingly cold. “And you know it.”

“Yeah,” says Mu Qing. “But you’re asking a damn lot from a person who had to take care of His Highness and his own family.” 

A pause. Feng Xin grits his teeth.

A woman’s face comes to mind then, pretty curves, splashes of makeup. A belt the color of golden thread, a gift from Xie Lian’s hands. Guilt prods through his heart, sharp as steel, cutting as stone.

He releases a breath. “You’re not the only one.”

“What?” comes Mu Qing’s immediate, snappy retort. 

“I said.” Feng Xin stops again, presses his lips together in a tight line. “You’re not the only one who had to take care of your family.”

They’re not in each other’s space anymore, but the distance between them is hardly enough to stop the revelation from bruising. Mu Qing’s brows are furrowed atop his forehead, two thin lines framing the rest of his face. 

“Your parents died when you were barely a year old,” he says. “And yet—yet you still grew up all lavished and cared for. Family? Don’t make me laugh.”

The words spill out before he can stop them. 

“There was a girl.” 

This time, Mu Qing’s reaction is quicker. His eyes widen. His lips part. He releases a breath so succinct that Feng Xin can barely hear it. 

“You…” 

Feng Xin looks up to meet his eyes. For the first time in forever, he doesn’t feel an urge to step forward and yell at him till they’re down and brawling across the floor. 

But what happens next?

Feng Xin should have been expecting the punch that lands to his cheek right then, the burn of skin on skin, the reset of his jaw, the crackling fire against his tongue. His eyes slide close, and though his hands itch to retaliate—to fight back with everything he’s got—he goes still. Completely, utterly still. 

Mu Qing is panting. “You left His Highness for a girl.”

Feng Xin’s eyes fly up. “No, I—”

“You,” Mu Qing repeats, “left His Highness for a girl.”

And with this, he lunges forward once more, his fist clenching by his side as he raises it to hover inches away from Feng Xin’s nose. Feng Xin’s eyes wide belatedly as he attempts to dodge, but he’s a single second too late. The punch lands. He yelps and jumps back on the heels of his boots. 

“How dare you,” Mu Qing is hissing, marching closer and flailing his arms around as he tries to lead his knuckles into making contact with Feng Xin’s face once again. “You have the gall to give me shit when you’re the one who was prancing around with a girlfriend after dawn?”

And that’s—that’s not it. That’s not it. 

But Feng Xin knows Mu Qing is in no mood to listen.

“Did His Highness know?”

Feng Xin says nothing.

“Does he know how disgusting you are?” The words are filthy. They stick to Feng Xin’s skin like rotten honey. “Does he know what you did? Did you ever introduce your precious lady to him? Did you? Did you?”

“I—” Feng Xin fumbles on his own words. His lips feel chapped to death. “It was better if he didn’t know.” He swallows heavily. “And listen to me. You had your life. I had my life. Xie Lian had—”

This time, Feng Xin isn’t expecting the punch that lands at the base of his throat, choking him silent for a few breathless seconds. 

Mu Qing is staring over at him, his glare frigid as stale wind. “Don’t say his name.”

Feng Xin immediately closes his mouth, swallowing down whatever retort he had planned to strike back with. The trickle of saliva stings as it makes its way through, the bruise from Mu Qing’s punches leaking into his skin. 

But the demand—unrelenting, egotistical, prickly as hell. That’s what pushes him over the edge. That’s what makes him snap back to his senses. That’s what makes him ignore the still-flushed state of Mu Qing’s cheeks and dive forward, his fingers curling together and landing squarely on the latter’s right cheek. 

“I didn’t leave him for a girl!” He’s screaming now, ignoring how close to the heavenly court Mu Qing’s palace is. “I didn’t leave him for anyone! I stayed with him till the fucking end!” Feng Xin lifts his hand away and aims another blow. “And you? You left him the moment things got hard for you. You didn’t even defend him when everyone was against him. You pointed your fucking sword at his face when he asked you to take his side.”

The accusation gets to Mu Qing. Feng Xin can tell. He may hate the guy with every fiber of his being, but he and Mu Qing were two planets orbiting the same sun for the majority of their lives. Two planets that clashed together every now and then, an eclipse gone wrong, but Xie Lian had kept them upright. Xie Lian had kept them steady.

And now, with Xie Lian gone, their solar system is devoid of all the light it has ever known.

“And you know what,” Feng Xin continues through the sting on Mu Qing’s face, “I pity you.”

He sees the pale skin of Mu Qing’s wrist fly up, and before he knows what he’s doing himself, Feng Xin is reaching out to grab ahold of it, crushing it between his fingers as he watches Mu Qing struggle pathetically beneath him. 

Mu Qing’s voice sounds crazed, tinged with a heat Feng Xin is sure wouldn’t be there if not for the remnants of alcohol on his lips. “I’m not surprised,” is what he says. “After all, all you know how to do is pity the ones you look down upon.”

“Still on that,” Feng Xin spits, the words harsh, cruel as they can be. He twists his hand and feels the sweat pooling around Mu Qing’s fingers. “You know what? Maybe it’s not me who’s pitying you. Maybe you’re the one who’s pitying yourself.”

Mu Qing goes painfully still, like there’s a crick in his back, his arms, his legs, his chest. One that he can’t get out no matter how much he stretches and prays.

And then he does something that sends a shudder down the stretch of Feng Xin’s spine. 

He laughs. 

It’s low. It’s dark. It’s absolutely pathetic. Feng Xin knows that Mu Qing is drunk—knows that Mu Qing would never in a million years do any of this if he were sober. In fact, if he were sober, he’d waste no time with these pitiful bouts of conversation. This stupid back and forth. No. He’d pin Feng Xin to the floor immediately and start beating the living hell out of him. No words, no nothing. After all, they’ve always been better at talking with their fists.

Feng Xin goes still as stone, eyes glazing over as he watches the sight of Mu Qing crumbling before him.

“Yeah,” Mu Qing says a few moments later, when he’s half bent over and facing the floor, “you’re right. For once. I’m just a sorry case. A person you take as a joke.”

Feng Xin feels his brows furrow. “Mu Qing—”

“I’m drunk,” Mu Qing announces, straightening his spine and staring back at him calmly. There’s a red haze surrounding his eyes. “Get out of my palace.”

Silence.

Then Feng Xin says, “This doesn’t solve shit.”

“It doesn’t,” Mu Qing agrees. “But you leaving my sight would be step one.”

Feng Xin doesn’t move a muscle. “His Highness wouldn’t—”

“His Highness is gone,” Mu Qing snaps, interrupting with a cold splash of his verbal blade. He steadies himself—Feng Xin sees the way he attempts to regain his footing. “And you should be too. Leave.”

“But—”

“I said leave!”

Feng Xin’s eye twitches. “God,” he says. “Fine. Fuck you and your pathetic pity party.”

Mu Qing’s expression darkens. “I said—”

“I know what you said,” says Feng Xin, already spinning on his heel and stomping toward the entrance. “Pah. See if I give a shit anymore.”

He slips through the door and stumbles back outside, but he’s still slow enough to be able to hear Mu Qing’s quiet, “You’ve never given a shit,” from somewhere behind him. 

 

 

Banquets up in the heavenly court are vast, thin tables stretching endlessly long with plates of food stacked on top of one another. The cost of all the fanfare could likely feed a small country, housing and clothing the poor for the rest of their lives. Yet in the end, leftovers are tossed, decor laced with pure gold scrapped for it can never be used on more than one occasion. 

It’s all so disgustingly lavish.

As much as he’d like to, Mu Qing can never erase his origins in the slums with the reputation of a criminal who committed treason for a father. That would mean shunning his mother, weak but gentle, the only person who could love even the ugliest parts of her son. 

Mu Qing’s relationship with his mother was a delicate thing. Before her illness, she was a very lively, stubborn woman. She would sew from dawn to dusk, pricking and scraping her fingers so they could afford a meal each day. He would sit on her lap as she did so, and she’d let him place his tiny hands over hers, guiding him through the motions until he was old enough to do it on his own. Rather than going out to play with other children, he’d find work sweeping and cleaning so that his mother wouldn't have to eat less for his sake. Though she always ended up placing more food on his plate, flicking his forehead for working instead of socializing, it never stopped him from doing it again. 

He knows she always regretted never being able to provide him much more.

So even if he’s revolted by the excessive greed of his fellow officials, even if he sometimes selfishly revels in the extravagance too, he can settle his mind with the thought that his mother could rest peacefully knowing his days of peasantry are far gone.

That is what he reminds himself when Shi Qingxuan decides to plop down right beside him and start babbling nonsense in his ear. 

Fingers snap in his face. “General Xuan Zhen? Heeellooooo? Are you listening to me? This is a very riveting story I’m telling you!” 

Mu Qing’s eyebrow twitches. “Lord Wind Master, I advise you to move your hand before it ends up detached from your body.”

“So salty,” Shi Qingxuan says, sticking their tongue out at him. They comply with his threat anyways, reaching over and plucking a piece of fruit from the table. “Here! Maybe this’ll sweeten you up.”

A scarlet orb dangles from a needle-thin stem, innocently swinging back and forth in a hypnotic motion that has Mu Qing go cross-eyed. It takes a moment for his vision to focus on what’s in front of him, but when it does, his pupils contract and he flinches hard enough to make himself dizzy. 

“Next time you want to pick fruit for your mother, just say I told you to pick them. No one will say anything to you, then.”

A memory Mu Qing thought he had washed down with everything else comes searing back to him. The cherry stem between Shi Qingxuan’s fingers is thinner than the ones from Mount Taicang, but the color of the fruit is nearly identical. 

Zhu-shixiong’s bullying, Xie Lian standing up for him, Feng Xin cursing him out and telling him to stop being so moody—each and every line from their throats comes barreling in all at once. 

It isn’t the first time something like this has happened. No, cherries are a favorite in the heavens. He’s been offered a bowl of them more times than he can count, and every time, he finds himself slipping, running away like the coward he is. Pathetic. He’s pathetic. It’s just a stupid cherry. 

But once upon a time, they were a gift to his mother. 

They were kindness from the Crown Prince. 

Mu Qing feels sick.

“Are you alright?” Shi Qingxuan’s voice cuts through his thoughts like jaded ice. “I—General Xuan Zhen? I was only joking, you don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to. Ah...Ming-xiong, can you check if he’s breathing? I don’t think he’s breathing, ah—”

“He is.”

“Oh...oh, it’s General Nan Yang! General Nan Yang, can you look at General Xuan—”

“Move.”

“Ah, yes, yes yes.”

And then, Mu Qing feels arms around him, hoisting him up, fingers digging into his skin. 

“Mu Qing!” the person, whoever it is, is saying. “Get yourself the fuck together—Mu Qing!” Oh. It’s Feng Xin. “God, are you fucking serious? It’s just a—it’s just a cherry, Mu Qing. Mu Qing.”

Mu Qing’s hands come up, his nails slicing into Feng Xin’s wrist. “Let go of me.”

Feng Xin freezes around him. 

Mu Qing looks up and glares. “Let go of me. I’m fine.”

“Are you sure about that?” Feng Xin asks, and now he’s raising an eyebrow, the bastard. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you fell out of your chair.”

Mu Qing’s glare deepens, and he says, “How can you say that?”

Feng Xin audibly scoffs. “What? That you fell out of your chair? Because you literally—”

“No,” Mu Qing cuts in. He’s shaking. He knows he’s shaking. “That it’s just a cherry.”

Maybe that’s what makes Feng Xin finally remember, because all of a sudden, Feng Xin is pulling him up till their sides are flush against each other, and he’s straightening his body like he’s some kind of fucking children’s toy. 

Mu Qing’s lips part. “The hell are you—”

“Because it’s just a fucking cherry,” Feng Xin is saying. “What? Gonna get all mopey because His Highness once told you you could use his power to not get bullied?”

Mu Qing’s eyes harden. “What did you just say?”

“I said—” Feng Xin takes a deep breath, “—are you gonna get all mopey because His Highness once told you—”

Mu Qing punches him.

The impact sends Feng Xin hurtling back, his back colliding with the large goblets of mango juice and the fine porcelain plates placed delicately along the banquet table. There’s a loud crash, and then suddenly, every single heavenly official’s eyes are trained on the two of them. The attention does nothing to Mu Qing, however. He’s used to it. He doesn’t give a shit anymore.

And then, Feng Xin is jumping back up to his feet and lunging back at him, his fists raised and expression mad with anger. 

It ends like it always does: Feng Xin and Mu Qing in the middle of a complete and utter mess, objects thrown randomly across the room, and people scurrying out of their way in fear of being hit by something. Bruises are formed, insults are spat, and the centuries between them are cast out in the open once more. 

But at least he’s no longer thinking of the cherries, of his mother, of Xie Lian. 

 

 

They never know when or where they’ll run into him.

Sometimes only a few weeks will have passed. Other times, decades. He never shows himself in the same appearance twice. The only consistency lies in how each time blades are drawn and insults are spat like venom they barely escape with their lives. 

Today is no different.

It had been business as usual—a resentful ghost had been wreaking havoc in the south, Mu Qing and Feng Xin were sent to deal with it as a result of their shared territory, and the mission ended with the spirit dispersed and both of them sporting matching bruises. They’d stumbled upon the shrine concealed in the depths of the woods by accident, too caught up in the act of being at each other's throats, and hadn't realized who was being worshipped. 

The only warning comes from a single silver butterfly, one that Mu Qing spots darting toward him like a shooting star out of the corner of his eye. 

He barely manages to dodge it in time, a wing as sharp as glass cutting through a lock of his hair. The silver strands sway, twirling and dancing through the air in a motion that’s nearly hypnotizing. By the time the first has landed on the ground, a chuckle, dark and full of malice, is erupting through the thickening air and sending a shiver down Mu Qing’s spine. The previous liveliness of the forest, marked by birds and crickets and creatures of the night, have gone completely and utterly silent. There's nothing but the sound of unhurried footsteps and a jingling of bells that promises death. 

Hua Cheng never has the same face, but one can never mistake him for anyone else.

“I see someone forgot to take the trash out,” the blood calamity greets, appearing from behind a tree trunk with his arms crossed behind his back. The form he’s chosen is towering in height, accentuated by a long cloak interwoven with shimmering flowers that pool at his heels. He always makes a point to be taller than them, and Mu Qing supposes it’s because he revels in looking down on others so much. “I suppose I’ll have to go through the trouble of cleaning it up myself.”

Beside him, Feng Xin grits his teeth. “Crimson Rain Sought Flower.”

“Seems your memory is still well enough to remember that much, even after the blow your head suffered last time.” Two eyes, black and void of anything but pure loathing, narrow slightly. Hua Cheng drags a sharp, manicured nail along the hilt of his scimitar—E-Ming, if Mu Qing remembers correctly. “My own oversight. I won’t make the same mistake twice.” 

Mu Qing’s feet are rooted to the earth, his body pulled tight like a drawn bowstring. He doesn’t move a muscle, afraid that even a shift in his posture will trigger the ravenous fox to strike. His pride won't admit it, but his logic has no trouble reminding him there's no way the two of them will ever win. 

“Crimson Rain Sought Flower, we’ve done nothing to offend you yet you still pursue us unprovoked,” Mu Qing reasons, yet there's not a hint of affability in his tone. “Is the ghost realm really so idle?” 

Eyebrow raised, Hua Cheng scoffs in response. “Oh? And who said you haven't offended me? That I haven't been provoked, and that this isn't just karma coming to collect its dues?”

“We haven't done shit to you!” Feng Xin erupts, stupidly ignorant of the ceasefire Mu Qing had been aiming for. He almost wants to turn around and throttle him himself, but he has a much better chance of escape if it's two against one. He’ll rip Feng Xin a new one if they live to see tomorrow. “For centuries you’ve chased us to the ends of the earth like some kind of fucking stalker, demanding blood for a feud you started! I’m sick of your shit! Go sate your goddamn bloodlust with someone else!” 

Hua Cheng doesn't visibly react to the provocation, but his killing intent sharpens to such a suffocating degree that it makes Mu Qing’s lungs burn with every inhale. “Me? Stalk you? Don’t flatter yourself. You’re no more than shit stuck beneath my boot. If you don't want to trouble me to scrape you off, then you should simply go and kill yourselves.” 

“You—!”

Mu Qing yanks Feng Xin by his collar as the glittering scimitar swipes right where his neck had just been, the material groaning as it tears in his grip. He barely has a second to shove the idiot behind him as he draws his own sabre to parry the follow up strike. The strength behind it sends shockwaves up his arms. 

An arrow whistles past Mu Qing’s head, aiming to force Hua Cheng back, yet the bastard catches it between two fingers and snaps the piece of heavenly weaponry like it's no more than a twig. Blood, metallic and bitter, bubbles up in Mu Qing’s throat as he counters E-Ming’s next slash. Unwilling to show weakness, he swallows it, and his lips curl up in a half-sneer. “Hua Cheng!”

The man in question levels him a bored expression, continuing to advance like he's exerting no energy at all. “Do you think you are worthy of calling my name?” 

Mu Qing has no choice but to remain on the defensive, Hua Cheng’s relentless onslaught leaving no room to even consider an attack of his own. Arrows rain down from above, Feng Xin darting between the trees like an overgrown frog. All his efforts are dodged before they can make contact, and a string of curses flows through and past his lips as a result. 

But even as martial gods, their energy is limited. Taking on each other, their power wouldn't diminish for hours. Taking on a supreme ghost king, however, means that only an incense stick of time passes before the extent of their exertion becomes obvious. Being on the receiving end of Hua Cheng’s strikes, Mu Qing is the first to feel the strain. All it takes is one lapse in his judgment for Hua Cheng to be able to drive his scimitar straight through Mu Qing's shoulder. 

Pinched-tight lips part, drawing in a sharp breath and releasing a low moan when the blade is yanked out. Hua Cheng takes advantage of the opening and swipes E-Ming across his knees, sending Mu Qing crashing into the ground.

Beyond the ringing in his ears, he hears Feng Xin cry out a useless, “Mu Qing!” 

There weren't many who could lay a finger on Mu Qing, let alone full on stab him. And the ones who could were allies, with no reason to take a friendly spar beyond some bruises and cuts here and there. Even his countless battles with Feng Xin had never exceeded the brutishness of a few kicks and punches, maybe a broken rib on a bad day.

Since he ascended, the only one to injure him so devastatingly had always been this incarnate of hell, this demon who didn't have a shred of the gentleness of a flower but all the savagery of the rain of crimson he’d draw from those unfortunate enough to cross his path.

He’s not accustomed to pain that isn't emotional. The throb of his wounds beats in time with his racing heart, knocking his senses off balance, making his vision blur and reflexes delayed. Red soaks his robes, a breeze making him shiver from the dampening cloth. 

Feng Xin appears in front of him, blocking a fatal strike to Mu Qing’s head with his bow. He pulls a talisman out from his robes, hurling it at Hua Cheng’s face and throwing Mu Qing over his shoulder in one fluid motion. A blinding flash of white throws his already muddled sight even more off-kilter. 

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck!” Feng Xin hisses as he sprints away, hopping over tree roots and ramming through bushes. “Mu Qing! Are you conscious? Can you hear me?”

He sends a stream of spiritual energy through where their bodies connect, and Mu Qing thankfully has enough coherency to channel it into his injuries. The process of melding broken flesh is unpleasant, but he bears it as he grinds his teeth so tightly his jaw aches. Tension escapes in the form of a relieved sigh when it's over, and he pants, “I’m fine now. You can put me dow— ah!”

“Mu Qing?!”

The sensation of having his skin torn open is somehow more painful the second time, like pouring boiling water on an already burnt hand. Rubbing salt into the flesh of a bruised-up wound. Yet the slashes that appear don't carve into the ones he’s sustained today—no, another slits open his chest, and another carves through his abdomen, and another pierces through his hand. Every graze of flesh E-Ming had broken in the past hundreds of centuries relentlessly opened, torturing him into experiencing them all over again. 

This time Mu Qing can’t resist the blood that comes hurtling up his throat, and he spits it all over the tattered cape on Feng Xin’s back. It's only the jostling motion of being carried and Feng Xin hollering in his ear that keeps him from teetering over the edge of consciousness. 

“Shit! He did that goddamn witchcraft with that scimitar of his again, didn’t he? We need to get out of here! We need to— FUCK!” Feng Xin roars out the curse as they’re enveloped in a swarm of silver butterflies, twinkling like windchimes as they circle around their bodies in an endless hurricane. Feng Xin throws up a barrier, but it’s as delicate as porcelain, chipping and cracking with every brush of deadly wings. 

Feng Xin supports the barrier with one arm and cradles Mu Qing with the other, sweat pouring down his rapidly paling face. He sputters reassuring nonsense; even though his full attention should be infested in patching up the growing fractures. “I’ll get you out of here, so don’t you dare pass out on me you asshole! I called for backup, just hold on a little longer!” 

It’s these words, frayed with desperation and a tinge of concern, that make Mu Qing feel like he’s going to puke another mouthful of blood. Feng Xin could have left him. He had plenty of opportunities to escape on his own. Every time they fought Hua Cheng, the red clothed calamity seemed particularly insistent on prioritizing Mu Qing as his first target. But like today and in all the battles that preceded this one, Feng Xin had never shown any signs of leaving him to fend for himself. 

Maybe it’s this realization, or maybe it’s the invigorating pull of death he’d never come so close to embracing before, that has Mu Qing clenching his nimble, trembling fingers into the fabric on Feng Xin’s chest. Maybe it's the ache of hundreds of years of wounds taking him apart, piece by piece, that make him finally, finally admit—

“I-I’ve actually, always wanted, I’ve never hate—” 

A hidden truth is drowned out by the shrieking shatter of the barrier, and Feng Xin moves to cover Mu Qing like he’s his own personal shield. The butterflies puncture into his back like shards of glass, each drawing groans and whimpers from his thinned lips. Mu Qing wants to push him off, to throw himself over Feng Xin and take the blows himself, but his body has been practically immobilized. A different kind of pain grips his dying heart as he watches the life slowly beginning to be drained out of the man hovering above him. 

And then, everything comes to a stop.

The seemingly endless army of butterflies is gone within the blink of an eye.

Mu Qing blearily sees Hua Cheng out of the corner of his eye, the latter’s fingers pressed to his temple and his brows drawn tight across his forehead. Whatever message he’s received is shocking enough to make him blurt his response out loud, “You found traces of him where? Are you sure?”

There’s silence, and the next time Hua Cheng speaks he directs it downward, right at Mu Qing’s face. “It’s your lucky day, something's come up. I’ll be merciful and let you live. We can continue this some other time.”

And, with an arrogant smirk and a toss of his dice, Hua Cheng disappears into nothing.

Like a thread snapping, his swift departure halts the adrenaline igniting Mu Qing’s every nerve, letting him finally free fall into the pit of black he’d been resisting. 

 

 

At the five hundred year mark, Mu Qing finds himself descending to Mount Taicang once more. 

His footsteps are light, barely padding against the surface of the earthy floor. The foliage smells greener than freshly cut grass. 

It’s a stark contrast to every reminder this place brings him. Dull. Achey. Sharp memories of laughter so brilliant and bold, so easy and pleasant on the ear.

There are blisters on his toes, a dark, smudged purple color beneath his feet. They sting as he walks through the grove, but his mind is set ahead. There is only one goal in sight.

It’s been four hundred years since the time he caught Feng Xin here. It’s been four hundred years since the time when he saw the pure panic ridden across Feng Xin’s face, the dried tears splotching his cheeks, his hands covered in his own blood. 

The sight of the small little shrine, however, has been imprinted into the back of Mu Qing’s mind ever since.

It isn’t hard to find. With time comes age, but the sleek panels of gold that can only be found up in the heavens don’t have that particular problem. The half-built, messy old thing is tossed in a corner, hidden beneath wilting leaves and dried rose petals. 

He hoists it out from its hiding place and dusts the dirt cleanly off. The sharp edge slices through the pad of his index finger. He doesn’t so much as flinch at the pain. 

His arms begin to shake as he walks into a clearing, kneeling on his knees and eyeing the pieces in front of him. 

Five hundred years.

Xie Lian would be long forgotten by now.

After all, he has no worshippers. Not a single soul to burn incense for him. Not a single statue to stand proudly overhead. Not a single temple or shrine dedicated to the person he used to be.

Mu Qing knows this. He knows this well.

And yet.

He works quietly. The only sound in the grove comes from the plates of gold clinking together, their nooks and crannies slotting into place as they build up and over. His spiritual power comes out like rain, aiding him in the tedious, tiring task.

He moves to wipe sweat off his forehead and ends up smearing his temples with blood.

The smell is rotten. He ignores it.

And then, after what feels like weeks upon weeks of frantic work, Mu Qing steps back and lays his eyes upon the monument. 

It stands just a little taller than his own height, not at all as grand or as large as anything that was built for the crown prince back in his day. The work is shabby, and Mu Qing’s hands ache. They burn, and the sensation drives him absolutely mad.

He falls to his knees like lightning striking down in the midst of a thunderstorm. His head hangs off of his shoulders, breath hitching and barely stopping the sob that threatens to break free. 

He doesn’t cry. He won’t cry. Not because of something as stupid as this. 

And then, hours later, when he’s nestled in the hard comfort of his own bed, he stares up at the ceiling and lets his mind wander. 

Mu Qing rarely entertains the thought of where he went wrong, how he could have done better.

What-ifs are addicting, will have you following a thread of hopes and possibilities that are no longer attainable until you’ve tangled yourself up into a knot that will never unravel. Just one has the power to send you spiraling, and they can be as damning as a drop of wine for an alcoholic or a single roll of a dice for a gambler. Nothing good will come out of it and nothing will change no matter how many times you pick apart certain actions, writing and rearranging dialogue for the most favorable outcome. It's a complete waste of time.

Yet Mu Qing has enough time to spare, being immortal. And in the moments of stillness when he lays in bed at night, where he’s at his most vulnerable, he can’t help being drawn in by the string. 

Mu Qing is anything if not self aware. He knows better than anyone else that he rarely says what he means, and when he does it takes tosses and twists and turns to find the underlying meaning. He’s become so adept at covering up his true feelings that he can even trick himself. 

But what if he wasn't that way?

Would things have changed?

He’s made harmful assumptions—thought Xie Lian had never taken him as a friend and only as a charity case. He had to find out he was wrong at the worst possible moment, shun the friendship he’d always craved for in his desperation to survive in a world where that bond would never be accepted. 

He hadn't clarified their assumptions either, that he had left for his own sake and not because he had wanted to ascend to help them out of poverty. Rice was hurled unforgivingly at his person, and he didn't mutter a word in retaliation. Mu Qing’s legs ache when he recalls the heaviness of his steps as he walked away, when he recalls how no one tried to stop him.

That’s what hurts the most, though he knows he deserved it.

The truth was he projected his insecurities onto those around him. He stood with his shoulders back and chin held high, thinking himself superior because he’d risen from nothing unlike everyone else. Somewhere along the way, all the doubts he had internalized showed up on the faces of others. He started picturing them whispering worthless peasant, not worthy to stand by the Crown Prince’s side whenever he walked by. 

It hadn't been entirely untrue. He had been bullied. He was more than aware how many people disliked him. But he never tried to change their minds either, and in most cases, had acted to make them expect the worst of him. 

Maybe he and Feng Xin could have gotten along better if Mu Qing had been brave enough to try. He got a taste of it, like a forbidden fruit, in the welcoming smile he’d received in the moments before Xie Lian had exposed his betrayal. 

What a pity that self-sabotage had become second nature to him, and that things between the two of them were mangled beyond repair.

He really is pathetic.

 

 

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Feng Xin stops dead in his tracks, the click of his boots sliding against the tiled floor of the capital building. His fingers tighten around the bag slung over his shoulder as the cutting question burns into his skin. 

“Out,” is the chipped reply that leaves his lips.

Mu Qing’s steps are heavy as he walks up to him. He doesn’t come around, doesn’t make their chests face each other. Instead, he stands behind him, and Feng Xin can almost feel the hovering presence of his hand over the strap of his bag. 

“You?” Mu Qing scoffs. “Leaving the heavens?”

“I’m not a mirror,” Feng Xin snaps back. “You’re the only one who’d never leave.”

He turns around then, just in time to see the way Mu Qing’s eyes narrow, the corners of his lips curling up in a snarl. 

“You’re lying to me.”

Feng Xin purses his lips and says nothing.

“I’ve known you for over six hundred years,” Mu Qing continues, not seeming to mind Feng Xin’s lack of response at all. “You think I can’t tell when you’re up to some shit?”

“Oh yeah?” Feng Xin snaps. “And what is it, pray tell me, that I’m up to?”

“Dunno,” Mu Qing drawls. He leans against the wall of the corridor they’re hustled inside, crossing his arms over his chest and his right foot over his left. “Can’t be anything good.”

Things have shifted over the course of the last few hundred centuries. Their angsty brawling somehow turned into snide remarks and piercing insults along the way, ones that remind Feng Xin of how the two of them used to be, all those years ago. 

His fists clench by his sides. 

“Fine,” he says, “you wanna know where I’m going?”

“Hm?”

Feng Xin takes a step forward, his eyes narrowed into slits as he inches closer. “Everywhere.”

Mu Qing raises a delicate eyebrow. “Great,” he says. “Let me know how that works out for you.”

Fucking—

“You think you’re so amazing, don’t you?” Feng Xin snaps, then leans back on the balls of his feet, ignoring the ache that comes with standing still for too long. 

“You said it, not me,” says Mu Qing, inclining his head forward and smirking in that stupidly infuriating way of his. 

Feng Xin returns the gesture, a blithe little scoff blowing through his lips. “And yet you’re the one who’s forgotten about him.”

This makes Mu Qing stop in his tracks. Feng Xin drinks in the sight of the slight twitch of his eyebrows, because even after hundreds and hundreds of years on end, pinching at Mu Qing’s emotions remains as Feng Xin’s favorite pastime. 

“You—” Mu Qing falters for only a fraction of a second, but Feng Xin catches onto it with ease. “You’re still on that? You’re still looking for him?”

Feng Xin flares out his chest and says, “I never stopped.”

Mu Qing visibly grits his teeth. “But you know he’s gone.”

“No,” says Feng Xin immediately, “you’re the one who thinks he’s gone.”

“That’s because he is!” Mu Qing bellows, his voice rising within seconds. Feng Xin feels a rush course through his spine, his fingers trembling as he swallows down whatever stupid thing is itching to spill from his lips. “You’re searching for nothing. Why do you have to be so stupid? Besides!” Mu Qing’s expression is running wild, eyes wide on his face, lips bent harshly at every last corner. “Even if he wasn’t gone. As a hypothetical. If he really wasn’t gone and one day he came in front of us again, do you really think he’d take us back?”

“Pah,” Feng Xin spits. “You’re the one he won’t take back.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” says Feng Xin. “Why would he take you back? After what you did to him?”

Mu Qing’s eyes flash dangerously. “Yeah?” he starts. “You’re acting pretty confident, huh? You really think he’d take you back?”

“I know he’d rather take me back than you.”

“Oh?” Mu Qing snarls. “And he told you this when? Remind me again, please. My memory seems to be failing me today.”

“You mark my fucking words,” Feng Xin says, stomping forward once more. He feels Mu Qing flinch more than sees him this time. “He’s not gone. He’ll be back. He’s Xie Lian.” He ignores the way Mu Qing’s lips part in anger at the sound of the name. “Don’t make me laugh. I know you believe me, too. I know you have more faith in His Highness than this buttload of crap you always put on. This fucking mask.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” says Mu Qing, chillingly calm.

A century ago, they probably wouldn’t have even made it this far.

“You can’t say shit,” says Feng Xin. “Remind me again what you said not even ten minutes ago? I’ve known you for over six hundred years. Well, right back at you, Mu Qing.”

Silence befalls them, but it’s not the kind Feng Xin is used to. It’s not piqued with an underlying sense of sadness, anger mixed with harsh, biting words. They’re not panting for breath after rolling around on the floor. Their faces aren’t covered in bruises. They’re not tasting the metal of their own blood.

No. They stand tall in front of each other. Unscathed, but just barely so.

Then Feng Xin says, “I just want you to know.” A pause. His gaze flickers over Mu Qing’s body. “That I would do anything for His Highness.”

Mu Qing says nothing, but Feng Xin hadn’t been expecting him to.

Instead, Mu Qing turns around, and Feng Xin watches his figure as it retreats into a point along the horizon.

 

— 

 

And then, after eight hundred years of time has passed, the heavens descend into chaos once more. 

Feng Xin can’t breathe. Air flits past his cheeks as his legs carry him across the capital, a dull ache edging under his skin. He runs into Ming Yi, who’s hand is poised by the side of his head, clearly communicating with someone through the array. His eyebrows are set, narrow, but he looks up when he sees Feng Xin stumbling toward him.

The two say nothing, but the look that’s exchanged between them is enough for Feng Xin to know that the Earth Master too has been made aware of the news.

Feng Xin’s hands, balled tightly into fists, clench by his sides as he runs, leaps, flies through the twisting paths and right up to the entrance of the Xuan Zhen palace.

The door in front of him stands tall, plates of gold sunk into the swirling designs on each side. It’s so typically Mu Qing. Feng Xin’s heart picks up speed.

Then, he takes a step forward, presses his palms into the gates, and pushes himself inside.

Mu Qing is sitting off to the side, his eyes closed. Meditating. He looks so incredibly stupid, so calm and unmoving—Feng Xin wants to break through and grab his shoulders, shake him so hard till he’s screaming at the top of his lungs, and—

Mu Qing’s eyes snap open.

Feng Xin goes still, blinking slowly as he stares.

Mu Qing stares back, and Feng Xin watches as his eyes narrow, a crooked line forming at the tips of his brows.

“What the hell do you—”

The words tumble past Mu Qing’s lips like second nature, but Feng Xin barely pays any mind to them. He feels his fingers ache as they dig into the surface of the thick double doors, his breath catching in his chest as his eye contact with Mu Qing remains steady. Deep.

Mu Qing cuts himself off, the rest of his sentence dying in his throat.

Silence.

“No,” comes Mu Qing’s voice again, this time croaky and halfway to breaking. Feng Xin hears it clear as day, sees the slight tremble in his upper lip. “No.”

Behind them, the capital is descending into chaos. Screams can be heard all around, a bright flash of light is slowly fading with the wind. 

Two words. They slip through Feng Xin’s lips and settle into the air around them. 

Mu Qing’s eyes widen. Shock paints over his features.

And then—

“He’s back.”