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the last cup of tea

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Zhengyue chusi. The fourth day of the Lunar New Year. The road to the Underworld is crowded to the brim, the mass of spirits barely shuffling along like a traffic jam in the world above them. Today, the souls awaiting their turn to reincarnate are returning to their dwellings in the Underworld, after being invited into the world of the living by their families to celebrate the New Year.

For the Ghost Slayer, this marks the end of one of the busiest times of the year. While most of the spirits visiting the mortal realm are docile, simply eager for a chance to reunite with their loved ones for a few days, there are always some vengeful ghosts mixed in with the crowd.

Shen Wei walks silently amongst them. The job of herding souls back to where they belong is usually a task for the Hell Guards, but today Shen Wei finds himself following along as well. For the past few years, whenever his duties are not demanding his attention, Shen Wei has been scouring the mortal realm, looking for the wooden token Shen San had been born with. On this day, however, he finds that he cannot stay behind in the land of the living, which feels as lifeless as Hell to Shen Wei with the only mortal he cares about gone.

So instead, he drifts along with the ghosts towards the Underworld. He has shed his cloak and his layer of mist. In his dark robes, he looks like any other spirit returning home, albeit a particularly beautiful one. Their journey is quiet and slow under the muted yellow light of the lanterns, accompanied only by the softly burbling waters of Huangquan on either side.

Except Shen Wei knows that he doesn't belong in the Underworld either. His place is further below that, underneath the waters around them, deeper and deeper until they become still and quiet, and then further beneath that still.

Shen Wei doesn’t want to go there, either.

So he lets himself be swept along by the crowd, and by the time he collects his thoughts enough to look at his surroundings, he sees that he has arrived at the Ghost City. The tempo of the other ghosts' footsteps pick up as they leave behind their longing for their previous lives and begin to go through the motions of their current undead one. Some return to their own dwellings while others seek out their friends for yet another round of celebrations. Shen Wei is left alone once again, a single still pebble in the flow of activity around him.

After a few moments of hesitation, he picks a direction at random and begins to wander through the streets. The one he finds himself on appears to be a commercial street. Its sides are filled with stalls selling trinkets advertised to bring good luck in a subsequent life, and restaurants serving tea grown on the banks of Huangquan and morsels of food flavoured with some sort of grassy-smelling herb meant to mimic the scent of life. For Shen Wei, who is neither truly dead nor truly alive, none of these hold any appeal. He wanders on, thinking on the vivacity that colours the days of even these dead humans.

He is just about to turn onto another street when a figure catches his eye. His lungs open up into a wide, empty cavern as his gaze sweeps over the man sitting by himself at a table outside a teahouse. He would know that silhouette anywhere, has watched it grow from the chubbiness of an infant to the trimness of a young man, to a frail figure curled up motionless on a sickbed. Shen Wei stands frozen, wanting so much to step forward but held back by the memories of the damage his selfish desires have already wrought on that soul.

That one moment of hesitation is enough to take the decision out of his hands. The figure looks up, his gaze lands on Shen Wei and his entire face transforms. "Yao-xiong!" He shouts, joy dripping like honey from his words, and waves Shen Wei over.

Without even realizing it, Shen Wei finds himself heeding that call.

"What are you doing here, Xiao Wei?" Shen San asks as Shen Wei gingerly takes the seat in front of him. "I thought you yao live many years longer than we do. How will we meet again in the next life, if you need to start cultivating again from a seedling or a tiny fox kit? I'll be old and wrinkled before I get to see your beautiful human form again." As Shen San reaches out to gently take one of Shen Wei's hands in his own, a mischievous twinkle enters his eyes. "That's not to say you aren't beautiful in whatever form you take, of course. I suppose I'll have to be the strange village pervert who's known for loving plants and beasts."

Shen Wei stares at him, a greeting dying on his lips as he is rendered momentarily speechless. Affection and exasperation war inside him in a way that is so familiar that he has to swallow down the sob threatening to spill out.

"Are you living close by?" Shen San continues as if the shameless quip had never crossed his lips. "I haven't seen you these few years at all. I hope you haven't been here long. Would you come stay with me? I don't think I would mind being down here forever if it's with you."

The thought of that fills Shen Wei with possessive satisfaction, strongly enough that it spills easily over into condemnation and horror after a millenium of practice. "I cannot stay," he forces himself to say.

The happiness on Shen San's face falls immediately at that, before evening out into bland pleasantness. "Ah, Yao-xiong must have great merit after the virtuous life you've led, so you wouldn't have to wait in line like the rest of us," he says.

Shen Wei shakes his head. He doesn’t say that he isn’t a yao, that he collects no merit and doesn’t reincarnate; he has an inkling that Shen San already knows, that what he is really looking for is an answer Shen Wei can’t provide.

Instead, Shen Wei reaches for the teapot and pours another cup for the both of them. He can allow himself this one last indulgence, he thinks. He cannot do Shen San any more harm if he is already dead. One more cup of tea, he tells himself, then he will leave the Ghost City to find the King of Hell. Kunlun should not be made to wait like the other mortal souls; he is the one with the greatest merit, after all.

"You remember our promise, don't you, Xiao Wei?" Shen San says when the tea in his hands has long since cooled, the meager cup of liquid having been made to last long enough that the shopkeeper has already glared in their direction several times.

Shen Wei hesitates, not knowing how to take back a promise that he wants to keep, that he knows he cannot keep. Shen San is looking at him, eyes not just hopeful but trusting. A trust that Shen Wei knows he will betray. He is silent for long enough that a shadow of uncertainty starts to flicker across Shen San's face.

"I will see you again," Shen Wei finally says, quietly.

It is not a lie.