Little is known about the Ghost City— to some, it is a place of endless wealth and fortune; for others, it is a death knoll at their doorstep. Situated at the crossroads between the mortal and ghost realms, few mortals would dare to venture past its garish painted doors.
But for otherworldly creatures, Ghost City is a welcome respite from the buzzing, billboard-covered chaos of the mortal realm. With the nostalgic thrum of magic infused in every leaf and pebble, it’s an oasis of primal energy, with an eclectic mix of the five elemental foundations spreading out like a thin mesh across the lands. Here, there’s no need to hide their attributes. Here, the supernatural roam free.
In the mortal realm, there are famous celebrations one may often partake in, such as Christmas, New Years, and Easter, to name a few.
In the ghost realm, one festival steals the show.
For one night, and one night only, the crossroads are accessible to both humans and non-humans alike.
And that night is known as…
We don on our masks, and roam through the streets
For tonight, the hungry ghosts shall feast.
“He-xiong, He-xiong!” A familiar voice chirps. A glowing wand pokes up from the sea of masks. It leaves a shimmering trail of golden sparkles in its wake.
“He-xiong,” the same voice sings. “You made it! Isn’t this exciting? I haven’t been here in years!”
He Xuan breathes it in. Beyond the dangling lanterns and twinkling skies, there’s a cacophony of scents and sounds— red-faced store vendors hollering their wares, sweat-dusted chefs clanging their pots and pans, sleazy alchemists wafting hundred-flavour scents in an effort to entice unsuspecting couples into their knobbly, overstuffed booths…
“It’s too loud.” He wrinkles his nose. He’s already regretting leaving his room.
“It’s a festival, it’s meant to be loud!” Shi Qing Xuan counters. “We’ve gotta get into the spirit of it all… Oh! Speaking of…”
With a deft flick of a wand, they’re blanketed in a shower of sparkles.
He Xuan glances down at himself. His low-effort hoodie and jeans have been replaced with an unnecessarily troublesome getup. “…no.”
Shi Qing Xuan pouts, “But He-xiong…” he whines, swishing his robes left and right. There’s an intricate climb of blooming cherry blossoms twining up his sleeves. “Look, I even bought us matching hanfu for the two of us! Don’t you like it? It’s spring and autumn! I’ve put in so much effort so we look like a couple, don’t change out of it and be a spoilsport, pleaase—”
“…” He levels his boyfriend with an unimpressed glare.
“Besides, it’s our 6-month anniversary! This is the least you could do for me, right? Right? I put so much effort into choosing our clothes, too! It’ll be such a waste, such a waste,” Shi Qing Xuan shakes his head, “After all, I look pretty not-bad, don’t I? Don’t I?” He leans in, expectant. The compliment never arrives.
Instead, he feels a hand slip into his. His mouth clicks shut, surprised.
The black-clad man doesn’t look at him.
Shi Qing Xuan clings to his boyfriend like a limpet. Fingers laced together, they wander through the never-ending snake of lantern-lit stalls. It’s surprisingly normal, for the most part— apparently, the latter half of the festival stalls were a lot less human-friendly. Somewhere between the tanghulu sticks and the dragon boat noodles, He Xuan is certain he’d caught a glimpse of a disembodied leg.
“He-xiong, He-xiong!” Like a kid at a candy store, literally everything under the moon has caught his attention. “Let’s buy some lamb skewers, do you want the extra spicy ones? Excuse me Mister, I’ll buy half-spicy, half not, —oh! Goodness, look at how big those pork buns are! Do you think I could finish one? Let’s find out!”
The way Qing Xuan works himself up over the smallest festivities reminds him of his sister. With his constant sparkling and bright laughter, even He Xuan’s sky-high walls have weathered down over time.
“I’ll pay for the skewers,” He Xuan steps up, paper money in hand. The other man pauses at his words.
“Ah… okay…? Then I’ll pay for the pork buns! Thanks, He-xiong,” he smiles.
Shi Qing Xuan tosses paper money left, right and centre, acting as if his clothes are lined with gold. Over the next half an hour, the handful of skewers somehow transforms into a veritable mountain of food.
“—let’s sit down,” Shi Qing Xuan announces, halfway through a skewered grilled squid, “and finish these first.”
He Xuan grunts in assent.
They thread their way through to an unoccupied table. Sitting down with a sigh, Shi Qing Xuan beams at the other man and gestures at the food, as if saying, go on, eat!
As He Xuan powers through the food, Shi Qing Xuan steals occasional bites from whatever he’s attacking. Pan-fried dumplings? Where’d the sixth one go. Pomegranate juice? The liquid level dipped lower than the housing market during the global financial crisis. Spring rolls, egg tarts, fried dough sticks… as the mountain shrinks in size, He Xuan continues to inhale the food like a man on death row.
“Hey, He-xiong,” Shi Qing Xuan teases, head propped up by the palm of his hand. “Are you secretly a shape-shifter or something? The way you put away all that food is super impressive! Where does all that food go, it’s not fair, it’s like everything you eat just disappears!”
He hooks their ankles together underneath the table. He Xuan continues to eat.
“I’ve always wondered,” Shi Qing Xuan continues, “are you actually superhuman? I mean, we both know I’m a wind mage, that’s pretty obvious. And you’re pretty good with earth magic— with those teleportation arrays and talismans, your brushstrokes are impeccable! What’s your superpower,” the white-clad man squints at his silent counterpart. “Are you secretly like, that masked character from Spirited Away, or something?”
He Xuan takes a break from his fried egg noodles. “Ridiculous.”
“Me? Ridiculous?” Shi Qing Xuan pretends to be offended. “I’m being serious! With the way you’re putting away all that food like it’s nothing, there’s no way you’re ‘just human’! Share your secrets with me, He-xiong, I wanna have a slim figure like you do!”
“You look fine.” He Xuan dismisses.
“Haha, of course I do!” Qing Xuan preens. “I’m gorgeous, after all, isn’t that right, He-xiong? You really lucked out, having a best-friend-turned-boyfriend like me.” He flutters his eyelashes.
He Xuan reaches over and grabs a steaming bowl of congee.
Shi Qing Xuan is blinding, at times.
“He-xiong, look at this!” Holding up a necklace, he admires the delicate metalwork entwined around the central stone. “Don’t you think the deep emerald matches my eyes?” He throws up a peace sign.
“Not really.” He Xuan leans over and lifts up a silver choker. “This one’s better.”
The soft silver tones really do complement Qing Xuan’s eyes. He’s bright enough already, without all that extra gold.
“Oh, those baby blue crystals are gorgeous!” Qing Xuan coos, tracing the trail of aquamarine. “But it doesn’t go very well with my locket, does it.”
He Xuan shrugs. “Then pick a different one.”
He gets tugged towards a face painting stall.
“He-xiong,” Shi Qing Xuan leans in, eyes bright. “Wanna get matching designs?”
Nearby, little children run around, painted murals dancing across plump cheekbones. Years ago, he had visited with his sister once. At her insistence, he’d gotten a cherry blossom painted across his face— over the course of the night, it had budded and bloomed, disappearing the next morning.
He was younger, then. And his sister was still around.
Like the cherry blossom artwork, things changed.
“No.” He catches his boyfriend’s faltering expression. “Let’s get matching masks, instead.”
Somehow, he’s been roped into a fortune telling booth.
“C’mon, it’ll be fun!” Shi Qing Xuan giggles from behind his fan. “I can’t wait to see how compatible we are, don’t you agree? Besides, it’s just palm reading. What could possibly go wrong?”
He Xuan hates fortune tellers. They’d often either lie about good fortunes to pander to their customers, or tell the cold, unrelenting truth. He Xuan isn’t sure which one he prefers.
“Nothing good will come of it.” That’s for sure.
“Aw, don’t be like that,” Qing Xuan pouts. “It’s just a little bit of fun, and I’ve never tried this with anyone before! You can be the first one,” he tugs at the other man’s arm, “C’mon, just this once? Pleaase?”
“I’m gonna regret it.”
“Don’t be such a spoilsport, it’ll be fine, I’m sure!”
“I don’t want to do this.”
“It’s harmless; it’s just a game, right? Isn’t there that famous saying— what happens in Ghost City, stays in Ghost City? What’s the worst that could happen?”
Famous last words.
The booth opens up with an elderflower-scented smokescreen. He Xuan frowns at the tacky décor— glow-in-the-dark stars? Really? Even an 8-year-old could do better than that. At the other side of the crystal ball, there’s a youthful looking girl. She could either be really young, or really old, he can’t tell. The dark circles under her eyes felt too deep and sunken to be easily wiped away.
“Welcome,” her lips don’t move, but the words ricochet around the purple circus tent. It’s the appropriate level of mystical and eerie, if they were merely clueless mortals. Which they’re not. A simple non-verbal spell could do a lot more than vocalise a single word. He can tell even Shi Qing Xuan is having second thoughts on following through with this terrible idea.
“We’re, uh, here for our fortunes?” Shi Qing Xuan squeaks. “But it’s okay if we walk out too, I’m okay with not getting them read anymore, haha, would you look at the time—”
“Sit.” He Xuan internally rolls his eyes as he feels the coercion charm lock his knees.
A foul stench permeates from the fortune teller’s robes. It reminds He Xuan of his time on the streets, dumpster diving for morsels of food.
Shi Qing Xuan silently gags beside him.
“You,” she taps the grungy hand pillow, and Shi Qing Xuan’s wrist shoots out. “Strong in luck, strong in love, but pitifully short on years left to live. Your love line is very strong, very strong indeed… you must be loved by many.”
“And you,” He Xuan raises his hand to be inspected, “Abysmal. Absolutely abysmal. Unloved, discarded, abandoned, alone. But your life line is long… too long for someone as unlucky as you. It’s been frozen in time. Your yearning hunger… is forever unsated. You will never be full again.”
The fortune teller cackles. “Your relationship is doomed to fail. But you knew that already, didn’t you?”
Shi Qing Xuan is watching him, confused and concerned.
He Xuan stares into the fortune teller’s mismatched eyes.
“What’s the price I have to pay, for us to leave this place with no memories of our fortunes?”
“Hey, He-xiong?” Shi Qing Xuan leans into his boyfriend’s shoulder, none the wiser. “What were your favourite stalls, as a kid?”
They’ve walked past a fair number of novelty stalls, by now. The supposedly ‘acceptable’ side stalls have morphed into ghastly renditions of previously child-friendly games. On one side, there’s rotating skulls propped up like clown ball games, their mandibles unhinged as hairy-handed patrons push slimy eyeballs into their gaping mouths. On the other, there’s a revamped game of darts, with an unfortunate victim strapped to the board, wailing and begging for mercy. Shi Qing Xuan reacts in a mixture of surprise, disgust, and intrigue. He Xuan reacts like he always does: with indifference.
“Actually, if you don’t want to answer, that’s fine too, don’t worry about it—” Shi Qing Xuan tries to laugh it off. It’s a different type of laugh to what he’s used to. There’s an undertone of disappointment, like he’s forcing himself to act happy for the sake of it.
“Stop that.” The words escape, unnecessarily harsh.
Shi Qing Xuan steps back, as if slapped. “I…” The grip on his hand loosens and falls. “I’m sorr—"
“Hey.” He clicks his tongue. “My favourite stall is that one, over there. I was looking for it. Let’s go.”
“Wow,” Shi Qing Xuan stares, wide-eyed, at the assortment of spiritual fish. In his hand is a talisman, shaped like a paper scoop. “They’re so cute,” he coos, as the multicoloured marine life swish their tails in dismissal. “Look at that one, He-xiong, doesn’t it look like you?”
“I’m gonna catch it!”
“…do what you want.”
“I will! Just watch me, He-xiong!”
After half-a-dozen unsuccessful attempts, He Xuan finally steps in.
Shi Qing Xuan holds up the talisman, “Yes please.”
“So you hold the scoop, gently like this,” he guides his boyfriend’s hands. “Position the bowl so the fish land into the water. Be patient. Don’t soak the talisman for too long, or it’ll break.”
It takes a couple of tries (and a few more soaked talismans) for Shi Qing Xuan to catch the fish.
“So,” Shi Qing Xuan holds the bowl up to eye level. “What do we do with this cute little bub?”
He Xuan shrugs, as if saying, ‘you wanted it’.
“I’m gonna name it Hei Shui.” Shi Qing Xuan nods to himself. “I’ll give it a nice home to swim in. It’ll have a nice house, and pretty seashells, and maybe some ghost coral too,” he hums.
He Xuan tosses the broken talismans to one side. “Whatever.”
“Speaking of fish,” Shi Qing Xuan grins, “there’s this place a couple of friends recommended to me, a few months ago! Apparently, they have the best— oh, actually, let’s make it a surprise. I’ll take you there!”
Before they know it, they’re here.
“Look at how cute the restaurant is,” Shi Qing Xuan coos, “I love how they’ve themed the entire joint to be similar to a seafood restaurant— you can even look at the uncooked food in storage tanks, swimming around aimlessly, hahaha! Look at how cute they are, nibbling at the glass.”
He Xuan is silent.
“Ah, what are you doing? Let’s go, let’s go find somewhere to sit, I’ll go order one of everything, just the way you like it, isn’t that right, He-xiong?” Shi Qing Xuan laughs, and floats off to grab dessert.
Years ago, many years ago, he made yuanxiao, just like these ones. He remembers the soft round spheres in his palms, the way he’d pinch and shape the fish fins and tails, how they’d roll around in the boiling pot, like lost buoys bobbing in the sea.
“I noticed you always get this look in your eyes, whenever you eat yuanxiao.” Shi Qing Xuan admits. “It’s like I’m learning something new about you, but not really. You’re so secretive about your past—ah, not that that’s a bad thing! It just makes me endlessly curious, you know?” Shi Qing Xuan sighs. “Ah, I’ve spoken too much again. Here, here, take some more yuanxiao, these rice dumplings are really juicy! Here, take mine, I know you like the black sesame flavoured ones, don’t you?”
Shi Qing Xuan holds up a spoon. In it, a speckled grey dumpling flip-flops uselessly in protest.
“Here, have a bite!” He beams.
Thu-thump. His traitorous heart moves.
He Xuan closes his eyes, and leans in.
After the sweet dumpling soup, the atmosphere between them is soft, like cotton candy. It’s a rare moment for He Xuan— temporarily sated from the warmth of tonight’s date, he’s free from his churning stomach. And it’s nice.
They’re strolling through the stalls, hand-in-hand. The layout of Ghost City changes with the fickle heart of the city’s red-clad head honcho.
“Hey, He-xiong,” Shi Qing Xuan leans in, lips brushing against his cheek. “What do you wanna do now? We have some time before the fireworks begin…” He trails off, expectant.
“Come here.” He Xuan tugs the bright-eyed man along, and avoids eye contact.
“Wow, this is gorgeous!” Shi Qing Xuan gushes, as he peers at the moving specks below. From above, the night stalls look like a winding dragon, with its fiery scales and glowing belly. It’s unusually obedient today, docile as it lies, belly-up; a living, breathing shopping street. It matches the dozing dragon in his chest.
“He-xiong,” the voice is much closer now. It tickles the shell of his ear like an unspoken promise; skittles down his spine to stoke the fire down below. “Here, it’s just the two of us, isn’t it?”
Shi Qing Xuan pushes him down.
“He-xiong,” he bats his eyelids, coquettish. “He-xiong, what do you think of me? We’ve been dating for a few months now, do you have anything to say? No? Well, I have things to say to you,” Shi Qing Xuan leans over the taller man.
“The truth is… I like you. I like you a lot.” He cradles his boyfriend’s cheek. “I like how you wake up in the mornings, with your messy bedhead and your grumbling words. I like how patient you are, over the smallest of things. I like how you say things how you mean it— whether it’s grocery shopping or clothing trends, and I like how you’ve been banned from so many all-you-can-eat restaurants! I like how you always have a tub of my favourite ice cream in your freezer, how you’ll suffer through marathoning hours and hours of trash TV and dating shows just to carry me to bed when I fall asleep midway. I like how you braid my hair sometimes and help me out whenever my pot plants start to wilt, you’ve really got a green thumb, He-xiong, you do!”
He brushes a thumb over a cheekbone.
“I like how you took care of me when I was at my worst. Every time I showed up at your doorstep with my smeared mascara and my ruined shoes, you’d let me in and hold me close until I felt a little more… human. So, thank you.”
“Ah, I’m not expecting you to say these cheesy lines back to me, I just wanted to let you know, haha,” Shi Qing Xuan tucks a stray hair behind his ear. “Thank you for staying by my side, He-xiong. I really do appreciate it.”
What’s he supposed to say to this? Shi Qing Xuan is the one with an overabundance of words. There was a time, where he’d thought about leaving this all behind. Of turning Qing Xuan down the day he confessed, half-drunk and on the rebound from a particularly bad break-up. They had taken things slow, by his request. And now, they’re here.
He could still pull out. Fold, without revealing his hand. Logically, he knows it’s the best course of action, but somehow, he just can’t bring himself to pull the plug. After all, every romantic relationship with him was cursed to end as a tragedy.
But haven’t things been going well?
It had started with the smallest things— the way the other man brightens up the room with his tinkering laugh and close-eyed grins, how he keeps ‘emergency rations’ in his handbag for whenever He Xuan gets particularly peckish, how he lip syncs to pop songs in the shower, and remembers to feed He Xuan’s fish.
Shi Qing Xuan is someone he’s grown to love.
A bright splash of crimson lines Shi Qing Xuan’s lips, as he whispers, “He-xiong…”
The rouge on his lips is …distracting. He reaches up to run a thumb against his boyfriend’s upper lip. It smears.
“He-xiong,” His gaze flicks up, eyes burning. “Can I kiss you?”
He Xuan surges up like a tsunami, tangling his fingers into his boyfriend’s hair.
With every kiss, he tries to convey his feelings. A peck on an eyelid, lips brushing over flushed cheeks. When they lock their lips together, Shi Qing Xuan squeaks into He Xuan’s waiting mouth as he feels a hand creeping up his robes. “Mmgh!” He trails his lips down Shi Qing Xuan’s neck, leaving red smudges like fresh blooms in its wake. There’s fingers clutching at his robes, as the panting whine of heavy breaths dance like music in his ears.
“Qing Xuan…” It’s a rare occurrence, uttering the other man’s name. It rolls off his tongue like it belongs there. “I…”
Something explodes behind them.
The man in his arms jumps in response. “What was that?” He sits back, whipping his head around.
He picks up other sounds— soft whistles, cannon-fires. The crackling shower of colourful sparks blooming across the sky.
“My goodness, is that— He-xiong, quick, take a look, aren’t they beautiful?” Shi Qing Xuan flops over to sit next to his boyfriend, reaching out to tangle their fingers. He squeezes his excitement with one hand, pointing out his favourite fireworks with the other. No matter where he goes, that youthful exuberance, that unbridled wonder in his eyes, shines brighter than any star.
He Xuan’s gaze never leaves his boyfriend’s smile. “It is.”