Xie Lian has spent eight hundred years in the cold.
It's not the terrible, freezing winds of a harsh winter. The wounds on his heart have long since scabbed over, memories lost in the darkest recesses of his mind and he builds a weak armour of bricks and stones around himself to keep the worst of it away.
It is the subtle chill of loneliness that follows him wherever he goes. Xie Lian does not expect company and has spent countless days walking alone on aimless roads with no one but Ruoye to chat with. Occasionally, there is someone that stays with him for an instant in the vast sea of his isolation, like a ship in the night passing him by, their smiles and stories like a distant light in the darkness. But it is not much of a comfort: it is not enough, never enough to fill the biting absence of a warm hand in his, no one quite fits the jarring, empty hole that hangs beside him like a forlorn symbol of his mistakes.
Xie Lian has learned to live with it. He is almost numb, weathered down by years and years of existing as an outcast from all the places in which he once belonged. If Mu Qing deigned to remember him, he would scorn Xie Lian, "The great Crown Prince of Xian Le, once beloved by all, now cursed to live as a forgotten god of scraps and rubbish! Ha!"
But Mu Qing is not here, with his biting words and grudging care, and neither is Feng Xin's reproachful horror at a prince being reduced to such destitution. And so Xie Lian ploughs on, ignoring the past that clings to him like a stubborn child. By day, he smiles as widely as he can, collecting bits and trinkets and rubbish, and bows low with gratitude to the kindness of the odd person who helps him. By night, he curls up into whichever corner he finds comfortable enough and tries to ignore the chilly tendrils of melancholy that curl into him like an old, unwanted friend.
The next morning, he lets the memory of the previous day, with all its pain and despondency fade away. It is a new day. He is alive. That is enough.
(He keeps the occasional, flotsam pieces of joy though. The roar of laughter around a village campfire he was invited to, the smile of a child as they shyly give him a flower, the bright laughter of the woman who once shared a meal with him under the shade of a blossoming tree. He stores it away in a treasure box, feeding the flickering flame of weak warmth that resides within.)
And then, there is San Lang.
San Lang appears in his life, seemingly unassuming, in the vibrant colours of autumn. His smile is quick and his eyes twinkle in a sinister way that makes everyone but Xie Lian freeze up around him. His past is vague and his actions make Xie Lian doubt if he's the idle runaway he paints himself to be, but Xie Lian hardly thinks about the mystery surrounding him.
When it becomes clear that his San Lang is Hua Cheng in disguise, Xie Lian hardly pays it any mind. There are whispers and warnings around him, kindly given advice to stay away from the feared Ghost King who had the gall to challenge heaven and won. But Xie Lian looks at Hua Cheng—San Lang—and decides that for once, he will be selfish.
For the first time in centuries, San Lang is the first person who stays.
The space next to Xie Lian had been empty for so long, that he doesn't quite notice it, until San Lang quietly carves himself into it, with his fond smiles, tinkling bells and the softness of butterfly wings against Xie Lian's skin. Xie Lian wonders if he can dare to ask for more, wrap his fingers around Hua Cheng's wrist and ask him to be by his side forever. Wonders, if he will fill all of Xie Lian's empty spaces with the happiness he thought was impossible to grasp, and love him for who he is
And every time Xie Lian hesitates, San Lang meets him in the middle, their fates irrevocably tied like the scarlet string on his finger, sees him, in all his glory, in all his shame and never looks away.
The ache he had numbed came back with a vengeance when San Lang bursts into a thousand glowing butterflies, fading into Xie Lian's arms with a devotion that he wanted to scream at San Lang to come to his senses—what had he, a disgraced god, a man with so many mistakes in his past, done to deserve it? Why did San Lang have to be the sacrifice for Xie Lian's redemption?
The cold is glacial now. Eight hundred years of dazed wandering had not broken the ramshackle walls around Xie Lian's heart, but Hua Cheng's absence tears him open and he is bleeding, shuddering in the bitter darkness with no one to pull him out of it. It is worse, in some ways, than the darkest night of his life, bleeding out from being stabbed a thousand times over by his own sword while his worst nightmare watched his fall from grace, cold and alone on the very same altar that had once been his glory. It is worse because Xie Lian had latched on to hope, this time, and the one person who looked at him like he was worth something more than a forgotten god had been ripped away cruelly.
(Xie Lian never stops hoping. He hangs on to the one single thread of hope in the endless dark, the thin string of red that still ties him to his beloved, who had promised to return to him. San Lang has never broken a promise he made to Xie Lian.)
There is nothing for him to do but wait. San Lang had waited for him, for eight hundred years, patiently and relentlessly, his faith in Xie Lian unwavering and constant like the sunrise in the east. Xie Lian muses that perhaps, without San Lang’s devotion, his love, he would have faded away, like any other god cast away to obscurity.
And now, it is his turn. Xie Lian will bear the bitter winter of being alone, wrap himself up in the memory of San Lang’s warm eyes the same way he curls his hand around the crystal ring hanging from his neck, and he will endure, for the sake of his beloved. However long it takes, he will wait for San Lang.
“San Lang,” he whispers, on a sleepless night. His fingers fiddle with the ring on his neck. “I never understood the way you looked at me, you know. I thought myself unworthy of it—what did a lowly god of nothing but trash do to deserve the devotion of someone like you?” He laughs. In the gentle midnight blue, he can almost imagine that San Lang is lying next to him, the graceful edges of his face somehow softened as he focuses intently on Xie Lian, his raven hair spread out around him. “I… I meant what I said, that day. I never knew happiness could be such a simple thing. Just being in the company of someone I—I love. I miss you, San Lang. I never really cared much for living before. It is something I did because I could not die. It’s so terribly cold without you here. Please come back to me.”
He spends his days quietly, in the same way he has for centuries. He travels a little, and picks through the trash and helps out wherever he can. His newly returned spiritual powers mean that he can sometimes pretend to be a cultivator to eliminate smaller threats and ghosts plaguing poor villages that don’t have the means to pay for an exorcism. It’s all mindless work, but Xie Lian revels in the feeling of being somewhat useful again.
Sometimes, he has visitors—Mu Qing and Feng Xin, as predictable as ever with their petty fights and faked nonchalance, are the most frequent.
“I can’t believe that demon left you alone, that fucker,” Feng Xin says, gruffly. “Is there no way for him to come back?”
“It wasn’t his choice,” Xie Lian reminds him, gently. “He gave up too much of his spiritual power for me, and…” He takes a trembling breath, memories of Mount Tonglu still as fresh as a raw sword wound. “San Lang promised me he’d come back. I know he will.”
Mu Qing scoffs and mutters something under his breath, brow furrowed as though he’s thinking deeply. Xie Lian hides his smile—Mu Qing is really quite transparent once someone figures him out. His bravado is just a shield for his concern and all the other emotions he hides deep inside him.
Xie Lian does not talk much about San Lang in their company after that brief conversation, but his former companions can tell when he gets melancholy. Xie Lian goes quiet, whenever he sees a flash of red or the sunlight filtering through the maple trees of Mount Taicang, eerily reminiscent of the few days of peace and joy he spent with no one but San Lang for company in the Puji Shrine.
(Xie Lian had long ago given up the title of the Flower Crowned Martial God in his own heart. It had drifted away on the day his power and his luck was shackled away. But he looked at San Lang and thought that perhaps, he is still worth something more than old, dull gold thrown away and kicked to the dust. Without San Lang, he is hollow.)
Feng Xin and Mu Qing do their best to distract him from his brooding, but it’s not quite effective. After all, Mount Taicang is a place that holds a heavy past above all of their shoulders, and Xie Lian looks at the two people he trusted the most to have his back and only sees a kingdom razed, a fallen prince, and turned backs. He does not like to think of his past much, preferring to bury away the pain under a smiling mask, but his third ascension brought on a slew of events so closely connected with all the places he has tread, and all the ways he has been hurt, that the pain wells up, bubbling over, and he sees the ghosts of his past everywhere.
He tries to mend the cracks in his friendship with Mu Qing and Feng Xin, he really does. And it works, mostly, and they fit together as seamlessly as the threads Mu Qing wove into Ruoye to mend it. Feng Xin and Mu Qing bicker on and on and Xie Lian breaks them apart with a peaceful smile and mild admonishment, or even more effectively, suggesting they have lunch at Xie Lian’s. He doesn’t understand their aversion—San Lang likes his food well enough, doesn’t he?—but if it works to keep them quiet for a few minutes, Xie Lian isn’t going to complain.
But sometimes, there is a misstep, a faux pas in mentioning the life Xie Lian lived after they left, a passing comment about Xian Le’s downfall, and silence descends upon the three unnaturally. The shadow of Xian Le stretches wide, especially on the ruins of the temple they once lived at for a majority of their youth and Xie Lian taps his fingers nervously on his knee as he scrambles for ways to solve this.
“Your Highness,” Feng Xin says, after a particularly awful silence following Xie Lian’s throwaway comment about his life alone, “I can never apologize enough for leaving you.”
“Feng Xin,” Xie Lian says, tired of this old refrain. It is not something they discuss explicitly, but Xie Lian can see the guilt often enough in Feng Xin’s demeanour to know what he is thinking. “It is not your fault. I asked you to leave, and you had no choice.”
Mu Qing looks away, brows furrowed and fists clenched.
“I don’t want you to blame yourself.” Xie Lian meets Mu Qing’s stormy eyes. “Neither of you.”
Feng Xin frowns. “Still, I would like your forgiveness.”
Xie Lian tilts his head, frustrated. “I already told you that it’s not your fault. Why do you insist on seeking forgiveness for it?”
“Because we left you,” Mu Qing snaps, and Xie Lian looks up, surprised. “We abandoned you at your lowest, and that’s not what… that’s not what friends do. Just do what he says, Your Highness.”
Xie Lian stares at Mu Qing, head jutted up in the ever-present pride that he wears like an armour, eyes burning. He looks at Feng Xin, equally stubborn, and bows his head, a smile pulling at the corners of his lips. “I forgive you.”
On the worst nights, Xie Lian is trapped in awful nightmares.
There are burning cities, temples with broken statues, horrific faces upon faces upon screaming people begging him to save them, and delirious wandering leading nowhere and Hua Cheng fading away as Xie Lian stumbles and trips over sharp, jutting rocks on the road, trying to tell him to stay—
He is shaken awake by Shi Qingxuan.
He gasps and sits up. The sun is already shining brightly into the small cottage, which is odd because Xie Lian rarely sleeps in so late.
“Your Highness?” Shi Qingxuan exclaims, their wide eyes brimming with concern. “Are you alright? I apologize for barging in without invitation, but you were twisting and turning in your sleep, and I could hear you, so I thought I should wake you up.”
Xie Lian wipes a bead of sweat from his brow and keeps a hand on Ruoye to stop it from writhing back and forth as it usually does to mirror Xie Lian’s distress. He smiles up at Shi Qingxuan, whose eyes are still darting about with worry.
“I’m fine, thank you for waking me up,” he assures them and pushes himself to stand up. “What brings you here so early in the morning?”
Shi Qingxuan perks up and begins explaining how they were hoping Xie Lian could accompany them to the nearby village, where they currently reside, to check on a ghost that is possibly haunting the hapless townspeople.
Xie Lian nods his acquiescence and picks up his straw hat and ushers Ruoye to fit around his wrist as he follows Shi Qingxuan out of the door. They look as cheerful as ever, except for the lack of the Wind Master regalia that they wore before… everything. There is genuine joy in their wild gestures and lilting voice and Xie Lian wonders how they found the strength to keep moving forward despite losing their brother, and their closest friend and being condemned to the life so different from their previous one, crippled and homeless and so far from the opulence and glory of a god.
(Xie Lian had lived once, after he lost everything, but it was a half-life at best. Shi Qingxuan still seemed to be as lively and brisk as the wind they once controlled, even after their fate irrevocably took a turn for the worst.)
“You know, I thought Ling Wen should know about this first since she usually handles all these kinds of cases, but I don’t really have any way to contact her now,” Shi Qingxuan says conversationally, their limp pronounced as they hobble on the path downhill. “You were the only heavenly official close enough to talk to. I hope you don’t mind that I came to you for help.”
“Not at all,” Xie Lian answered, helping them down the rocky path. “I’m glad for the company. How have you been?”
“Ah, holding up,” Shi Qingxuan waves, with a laugh. “Sometimes, I wake up expecting it to see the golden walls of my palace in the Heavenly Capital, but I’m staring up at a straw ceiling and it’s…” They bite their lip, “It’s overwhelming. But, I’ve accepted my fate, and this life seems more normal now. The village is nice, you know? And I’m never short of friends.”
Xie Lian chuckles, thinking back to the friendly, motley bunch of beggars Shi Qingxuan had befriended. Xie Lian walks slowly, letting Shi Qingxuan set the pace, and occasionally contributes to their pleasant chatter. He is lost in his thoughts when Shi Qingxuan calls for his attention.
“Your Highness?” Xie Lian startles, looking at them questioningly. “Are you alright?”
Xie Lian smiles, and if it’s a bit insincere, Shi Qingxuan is kind enough not to comment. “Just fine, Wind Master. I was lost in my thoughts.”
Shi Qingxuan raises an eyebrow, amused. “I’m not the Wind Master anymore, Your Highness. And that’s the second time you’ve said you’re fine. Usually, that means you aren’t,” they drawl. Suddenly, they look at Xie Lian seriously. “It’s alright to be sad, y’know. That Crimson Rain’s gone.”
Xie Lian looks up at them, surprised. “In the morning, you were calling his name when I tried to wake you up,” they tell him, smiling sympathetically. “You must miss him, huh?”
Every minute of every day, Xie Lian wants to say. So much that it feels like my soul is going to be torn apart.
“He promised me he would come back,” Xie Lian says, and even to his ears, he sounds unsure and small, so different from the first few times he said those words to himself confidently in the middle of lonely, shivering nights.
“He will, then.” Shi Qingxuan assures Xie Lian. “You know, I don’t like the word ‘fate’ much.” They snort, “At least, not anymore. I realized what a fickle thing it is, and how easily it can change its course. I mean—look at me! How crazy is my fate, eh? Exchanged for some other innocent person’s because it was full of suffering, and now it’s come back to bite me in the ass.” They look down, studying the crippled hand they always hold close to their body. “I was thinking about my brother and… Black Water—He Xuan, and I understood that it was nobody’s fault. Fate played us all, and Brother was just trying to protect me, and He Xuan was trying to get his revenge for the pain we brought upon him. We were all victims, and I don’t believe in fate, or destiny much, at all. I’m only grateful I’m still alive.”
They look at Xie Lian, eyes crinkling with mirth. “But for your sake, and Crimson Rain’s, I will believe in fate just once more. Because I’ve never seen two people who belong next to each other more than Your Highness does with Crimson Rain. And I’m sure that if fate doesn’t think so, both of you would fight all odds to reach each other.” They beam, “Just you see, one day he will be waiting at your doorstep and you can run to his arms and then your story will be made into a play up in that stuffy Mid-Autumn festival with all those boring heavenly officials watching with their mouths hanging open!”
Xie Lian laughs at the sudden absurdity, and watches Shi Qingxuan babble incessantly on something or the other, and allows the tiniest flower of hope to bloom.
When San Lang returns, it is another autumn evening.
The colours are brighter than ever. Xie Lian is picking his weary path back home, thoughts meandering and hands cold. The days are blurring into each other now, the way they did before his third ascension. He thinks it might be a year since San Lang has been gone. It feels like a century has passed.
He keeps his head down, stepping on the familiar path up to the cottage. He thinks about moving back to the Puji Shrine, or perhaps visiting the Qiandeng Temple again, but there is a bone-deep tiredness in him, freezing him in a fugue state of pain and loneliness and the feeling of having something missing. For now, he will stay here. He is still waiting.
His eyes wander, too used to the terrain to need to pay attention to his steps. As his eyes pass over the clearing in the east, Xie Lian pauses.
In the distance, there is a figure in red.
Xie Lian thinks it might be a mirage. He has seen plenty of those in his days in the deserts of Banyue. It is his last memory in his life there—bleary eyes blinking away the sand as he lay broken under a stampede of the soldiers he had tried to pacify. The vision was shimmering, a grand oasis in the haze of heat and pain and aching body. The figure in front of him, in the maple grove, looks similar, like the thing he wants the most and would break his heart if it was just his imagination.
He blinks once. The person is still there. It looks a lot like the best of his dreams.
Xie Lian takes a step forward. Then another.
San Lang is still there.
And Xie Lian runs.
Xie Lian throws himself into San Lang’s arms and clutches at his back, his face, his smile to make sure he is real. His skin is silky and cool because he is a ghost, but he is warm because he is San Lang and Xie Lian has never felt the warmth better than he has in San Lang’s embrace. San Lang's arms tighten around him when he sees Xie Lian's tears when he looks up. "Gege, I'm here," he says softly, "I'm here," and Xie Lian allows himself to breathe.
He's here. He's here. Xie Lian's heart shudders to life again, flinching in the sudden brightness of San Lang’s presence. He isn't quite used to the love, the devotion that San Lang lavishes upon him, at every instance of every day but he does not hide away. He blushes and meets San Lang in the middle, pulling him into a gentle embrace. He is much taller than Xie Lian, but he bends to him, like a sunflower to the sun.
“San Lang,” Xie Lian whispers. Xie Lian touches Hua Cheng’s cheek reverently and thinks that perhaps, gods can worship too. “You came back.”
“I promised you I would, didn’t I?” His smile is as roguish as ever, but Xie Lian can see a whole universe behind it, now. It is softened by fondness, shines like the summer sun and Xie Lian feels love well up inside him, encompassing his entire being.
“Yes,” Xie Lian agrees, softly. He smooths his hand over San Lang’s hair, fingers the red coral pearl woven into it. “And I never doubted you.”
San Lang’s smile melts, and he leans down just as Xie Lian reaches up and his lips are soft and cool and wonderful against his. And Xie Lian thinks: this must be happiness.
“San Lang,” Xie Lian giggles breathlessly, as San Lang peppers butterfly-soft kisses all over his face. “You’re holding me too tight! And that tickles.” He does not try to get out of the circle of San Lang’s arms, despite his own words.
San Lang grins, knowingly. “Ah, I apologize. How can I ever make it up to gege?” His arms loosen fractionally, but Xie Lian is still held close, and tight, and it’s more wonderful and real than anything Xie Lian has ever experienced.
Xie Lian’s grin fades a bit and he tries to blink away the tears before Hua Cheng notices them. “Just don’t leave me alone again, San Lang,” Xie Lian asks, trying not to let his voice waver.
San Lang frowns, troubled, and Xie Lian smooths away the furrow in his brow gently. “I promise, Your Highness. Never again.” It sounds like an oath, like a promise he will never break and Xie Lian beams.
They walk back up the well-worn path to Xie Lian’s dilapidated cottage, San Lang curiously enquiring about everything he did in the past year. Xie Lian answers that it was terribly boring and monotone without San Lang around and revels in the shy half-smile he receives. Somewhere along the way, his hand slips into San Lang’s, their fingers intertwined and locked tight. He squeezes San Lang’s hand, just once, to make sure he is here, he is real. The maple leaves flutter around them, fiery red and orange against the setting sun, and his beloved walks beside him.
Xie Lian is warm.