Even when the shocks resume, Song can barely feel the pain anymore. His anger courses through his veins like molten lava, his heated emotions snuffing out the shocks to mere tiny pricks. Kiin, that bastard, is the reason for all of their suffering, and after all his sins he can still be so proud of himself, completely devoid of remorse.
“You say that now, but I’m sure you’ll come back to it later.”
Song could tell that Kiin was looking down on him when he said that. The more he thinks about it, the hotter his fury burns. Kiin even had the nerve to treat his pleas to save Shu as a joke. It’s clear that he has no heart.
“Shu…” Song looks towards his partner, who hasn’t been conscious for awhile. Or at least, he doesn’t look like it. He can’t even tell if Shu is still alive. “Please… hold on for a little more.”
Time has no meaning in this accursed place. All this while, Song has been clinging on to his hatred in order to keep himself sane. After seeing Kiin though, it’s now ironically the thing he’s fighting against to maintain his sanity. His hatred right now is no longer a lifeline, but a demon thrashing against its chains, wanting so desperately to unleash itself into the world for freedom and vengeance. But Song knows that if he lets this demon win, then Shu will die.
Suddenly, the shocks cease. Song can hear the sound of metal rattling and urgent chatters from outside. The door bursts open.
“Song! Shu! We’re here!” a familiar voice cries out. Song looks up to see a distraught Mei rushing over to him, with his partner Lin following close behind. “We’ve got water and sugar, so don’t－”
“No!” Song bursts out, freezing both of the Purgers in their places. “Save Shu first, please.”
Neither of them argue. Mei is immediately on Shu, injecting him with a needle syringe, while Lin begins removing his restraints.
“Shu…” Song coughs. “He’s… he’s－”
“Alive,” Lin answers. “He’ll make it, don’t worry.”
“That’s good.” Song can feel a huge burden lifted from his chest, but his relief is quickly replaced by rage once more. Kiin has never left his mind. “I’ll kill him for this. I’ll kill him for sure.”
Mei glances worriedly at the silver-haired boy. “Song… you shouldn’t－”
The chains holding Song’s cuffs suddenly snap. It’s like he’s possessed, his body fuelled by the murderous emotions that’s been pent up within him for so long. His wrists tear through the nails, ripping his flesh, and a burst of blood splatters onto the already-bloodstained floors.
“Song!” Mei cries out in horror.
But Song doesn’t stop there. The barbed wires embedded in him splits as well, tearing even more of his flesh. Pain continues to crush his body, but this is exactly what he wants. The pain is like oil, more fuel to the hatred that’s burning like an inferno within him, and he can’t get enough of it. He needs this emotion to remind himself the person responsible for their suffering.
“Song…” Mei’s eyes are welling up now.
Lin bites his lip and looks away, choosing to focus on Shu’s restraints.
With every part of his body drenched in fresh blood, Song puts one foot ahead of him, heavily. Then, the next. And the next.
“I’ll kill him for sure… just you wait…”
That worthless trash doesn’t deserve to walk on the face of this realm for any longer than he already does. Once he’s recovered from his wounds, he’ll end that wretch’s life with his own hands once and for all.
Often times, Song finds his quiet room to be the wisest entity he knows. As he stares at the ceiling and the tapestries on the walls, he finds himself being questioned on many things that normally wouldn’t have crossed his mind.
Every time he thinks about Shu, he wonders what makes them so different as individuals. For the longest time, Song has always known that hatred is what drives him forward, to be stronger, to fight harder, to live on, so that one day he will have Kiin’s throat in his hands and the Palace burning at his back. But Shu’s motivations are clearly different, and there’s something about it that Song feels envious about. Is harbouring all this hatred the right way to live?
Kiin has ordered for all the boys who’re involved in the electrical torture to have at least two weeks to recover. For the past five days, Song has done nothing but eat, sleep and laze about. As much as he enjoys not needing to risk his life for money or Kiin’s orders, the sedentary life is making him restless.
“I should go see Shu,” he mumbles.
With a groan, Song pushes himself from his bed, and pain immediately chains his muscles once more. The wounds may have closed, but they’re still far from full recovery. Just as Song is about to reach the double doors, a shadow looms from the other side of the paper screens.
“Great… now?” Song mutters.
After a double knock, the doors swing open with a creak. Standing before him is a Purger with smooth, dark green hair that flows down to his waist, with his left eye covered by his absurdly long fringe. It’s Xu, one of the most phlegmatic boys in the Blossom, and someone who’s just about the same age as him as well.
“Good afternoon, Song,” he says with a short bow. “How are you feeling today?”
“With these wounds?” Song points at the bandages wrapped around his navel. “Splendid. I can take you on right now if you’re up for it.”
“I’m glad you feel that way.” Xu’s response is composed as always, but his sarcasm isn’t inferior to Song’s. “Anyway, I’m sure you know why I’m here.”
Song rolls his eyes. “No, I don’t know where the creature from the mines is. No matter how many times you ask me, I’m just gonna give you the same answer.”
“You also know that Father is aware you’re lying. May I ask you, what’s the point of hiding that creature in the first place?”
“None of your business.” Song steps in front of Xu, glaring straight into his eyes at point blank. “Now get out of my way or you’ll be sorry.”
Xu narrows his eyes, and so does Song, neither side refusing to budge. Deep down, Song curses Kiin for sending such a stubborn Purger to interrogate him.
Lin then appears from behind with a tray of food. He’s about to say something, but quickly stops himself after seeing the the two boys.
“Oh, uh… am I interrupting something?” Lin asks.
Xu looks back over to the blue-haired boy, then back at Song, and lets out a sigh. “Fine, have it your way. I’ll report back to Father about your attitude again, but know this－ nothing good will ever come out of protecting a Seeker.”
With that, Xu turns around and leaves, brushing against Lin’s shoulder along the way. After a quick glance in Xu’s direction, Lin sighs.
“As much as I want to side with you and all, Xu has a point. Why are you doing so much for that Seeker anyway?” Lin asks as he sets the food on the table.
“Because he wasn’t evil,” Song answers matter-of-factly.
“That’s it?” Lin folds his arms, unconvinced. “And how would you know that? Please don’t tell me it’s your gut feeling.”
“It’s my gut feeling.”
“You…” Lin is starting to look annoyed.
Song steps forward and grips the side of the door frame. “But you’re right.”
Lin looks back at his friend.
“I’m doing so much for something I’m not even sure I can trust. What I did almost killed Shu too.” Song drops his gaze to the stone floors, trying to fight the storm of emotions raging within him. “I want to believe what I’m doing is right, but I can’t even say that with absolute confidence. And yet somehow, I just felt that killing that Seeker was the wrong choice. You kill someone, and he’ll never come back again; it’s a mistake that can never be undone.”
Lin relaxes his shoulders and shakes his head. “Song…”
The two Purgers remain silent, the tension in the air like taut flesh, where one wrong word will be the knife that triggers a bloodbath.
“That aside, I think we have another problem,” Lin says.
Song gives him a sidewards glance.
“What Father said to you, in the chamber,” Lin continues. “I know. Mei knows.”
“Is that so?” Suddenly, Song is feeling very tired.
“Kiin won’t be killed that easily, so don’t even think about it.” Lin heads over to Song and softly clasps his shoulders. “I know it’s what you’ve always wanted, but please think more about Shu. What would he do if you’re dead?”
“You think I haven’t considered that? You think I don’t care about Shu?” Song shakes Lin’s hands off, whirling around to face his friend with a piercing glare. “You’re just another ordinary Purger, like everyone else in the Blossom. You understand love, but you don’t understand my hatred for him, and for the Blossom. You never will. It’s easy for you to say all that when you don’t share my emotions, or my point of view.”
Lin’s gaze doesn’t falter from Song’s hate-fuelled glare. He knows his hatred isn’t directed at him.
“I just know it, that there’s a better life than this,” Song says, clenching his fists. “I’m sick of these tortures, sick of all this training, sick of fighting, killing, risking my life all the time for that trash because he tells me to, sick of all the bullshit and enmity from the other Purgers. This isn’t the kind of life I want, but it’s the one I’ve been forced into because of him. Saving the world? Purging the Seekers? You think I care about any of that?” Song leans forward, so close to Lin that he can feel his breath on his skin. “I’m just a boy who wants to live a normal life. Can’t you understand that there are people in this world that just aren’t interested in being killing machines?”
Lin closes his eyes and nods. “I understand.”
Song sighs and turns away, wondering if he really does.
“I suppose I can’t stop you from accepting Kiin’s offer－ or rather, challenge－ but how are you going to convince Shu about your decision?”
“Shu doesn’t know it yet, does he?”
Lin hesitates. “No, not yet.”
As expected, Shu was completely unconscious when Kiin said all that back in the chamber. And if Lin and Mei already know this, then chances are so does every other Purger in the Palace. It won’t be long before Shu finds out as well.
“I’ll deal with it when it comes. Until then, can you and Mei promise me that you won’t tell Shu about this?”
“I can do that, but I can’t speak for Mei.”
“Fine. I’ll talk to him later.”
As Song steps out of the door, Lin calls out, “What about your lunch?”
“I’ll come back for it.” Song pauses. “And uh… thanks.”
Although it’s just a short walk to Shu’s quarters, the wounds are making each step a herculean effort to perform, like he has invisible swords embedded in his body. Song shoves the double doors open as if it’s his own home. Inside, a startled Mei and Shu flinch from shock.
“Haven’t you heard of ‘knocking’?” Shu bellows.
“Geez…” Mei shakes his head, taking deep breaths.
“Hwoh! You’re right, my bad.”
Shu is on his bed, while Mei is seated by his side with a plate of steamed chicken in his hands.
“That’s my partner you’re feeding.” Song folds his arms.
“Oh my…” Mei smirks. “Are you jealous?”
“Yes.” Song marches towards Mei and sticks both his hands out.
“You’re like a baby.” Mei can’t help giggle. He hands Song the plate and flashes a wink. “My… isn’t Shu the lucky one. Must be fun to have a boy get jealous over you like that.”
“W-would you stop it already?” Shu sulks, blushing. “Thanks for taking care of me, but really…”
Mei laughs. Just as he’s about to leave, Song moves over to bump him on the shoulder. “We need to talk after this.”
The pink-haired boy nods, already aware of what’s on his mind. As he leaves, Song settles down on Shu’s bed.
“What was that about?” Shu asks.
“Nothing big.” Song shrugs. Using the pair of chopsticks, he takes the piece of steamed chicken and raises it to his partner’s lips. “How are the wounds?”
Shu takes the bite. “The burns are healing, according to Shen. The wounds still hurt, but honestly I’m more worried about the scars.”
Shen is both a Purger and the Black Blossom’s healer; most of his medicine are imbued with powers from his Arcana ability.
“Trust in Shen’s ointments. They’re magical, literally.”
“Yeah, I know that.”
The two share a calming silence as Song continues feeding Shu. Though he’s no stranger to showing his affection for his partner, Song can’t help but feel a little out of place.
“You’re… actually clueless when it comes to pampering others,” Shu mumbles.
“Huh? What’d I do wrong?”
Shu blinks, staring at the boy as if not quite believing what he just said. Then, he chuckles.
“What?” Song frowns. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, really.” Shu’s laughter is full of warmth. “It’s just that you’ve only been feeding the chicken and nothing else. Come on… there’s the rice too. And the vegetables. Switch it up, will you?”
“Oh. Sorry.” Song puts the plate of chicken down and takes the bowl of rice.
“Seriously…” Shu rests his chin on his palm, fixing his partner with a doting gaze. “What would I ever do without you…”
Shu’s innocent remark causes Song’s heart to bleed. While he has no intention of losing to Kiin, Song knows that if Shu ever finds out about his plans, he’d be wrecked with worry. And if he actually dies…
“Hey! What’re you spacing out for?” Shu waves.
“Just not used to this, that’s all,” Song lies, bringing a small mouthful of rice to Shu’s lips.
“I can tell. Since we were children, you never did like doing this sort of stuff, even for me. You’ve got to be the most spoiled beggar that has ever existed, hands down.”
“Oi… I don’t think that’s a compliment at all.” When Shu laughs again, Song says, “You’re unusually happy.”
“Yeah, I guess I am.” Shu wipes a tear from his eye. “I just… I don’t know, I think I just feel really lucky to be alive right now. Alive with you. Back in the electric chamber, I thought I was going to die. But then before that, I started hallucinating about our childhood.”
“It wasn’t anything embarrassing about me, was it?”
“What? No, you idiot!” Shu slaps his partner’s knee. “It was… something else.” His eyes become melancholic. “I’ve always been complaining about how crude you are, but y’know… if it hadn’t been for you, I don’t think I’d have made it out of those days. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but you’ve been the one protecting me since we were kids. Frankly, I relied on you way too much. It kinda pisses me off but… if it’s you, I guess it’s not too bad.”
He’s really making it hard for me, Song thinks grimly to himself as his soul continues to drown in guilt.
“So don’t do anything stupid while I’m around, okay? If you’re gone, then I wouldn’t have anything to live for.” Shu touches Song’s hand. “And for the love of Qhelios, can you rely on me a little more? I’ve gotta even out the score too, y’know? I hate to see you take on everything by yourself.”
Make it stop. Each word is like a hammer blow to his conscience. Song’s eye twitches, and he can feel his entire face shrivelling the more his partner speaks. At this rate, Shu is going to kill him before Kiin does.
“Eh? What’s wrong again? You don’t look so good today.”
“A-ah… no, not at all.” Song forces a laugh. “It’s just that you’re being so mushy.”
“You didn’t have to rub it in, dumbass.” Shu pouts. “Anyway, have they been sending you someone to ask about ‘that creature’ too?”
“Oh, yeah. Like hell I’m giving them an actual answer.”
“Same.” Shu sighs. “I wonder how he’s doing though. It’s only a matter of time before people find out about those massive ears. Or maybe the tail popping out of his pants.”
“But we bought robes.”
“That’s not the point, moron.”
“Oh. Well… no point worrying about that now when half our bodies are still toast from the torture.” Song shrugs. “We’ll check on him once we’re recovered, if we can.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
“By the way, are you gonna be keeping up this Mushy-Shu thing for long? You’re creeping me out.”
“Can you shut the hell up?” Shu clenches his teeth. “Divine Qhelios! I soften up for seven minutes and this is the kind of shit you give me?”
“That’s more like it! With some of that religious crap too.”
Song explodes in laughter, and Shu can’t help but chuckle as well. The pair go on to talk about many things－ from their childhood hunts, to gossiping about other Purgers, to even what kinds of Seekers they’d keep as a pet. Song feels as if they’re back in their childhood days when they’re like this. It’s odd but although life is much slower now than it was when they were Apprentices, Song feels as if he never did have the time to settle down and take it slow with his partner.
When the food is finished, Song proceeds to tidy up the plates and cutlery. As he’s about to leave, Shu takes him by the wrist.
“Hold on,” Shu murmurs, bashfully averting his gaze from Song.
Shu gets off his bed. Before Song can react, he steps forward and pecks him lightly on the lips. Song’s eyes widen, a sudden burst of shock rippling in his chest, as if Shu just took his heart out with that curt kiss. Shu notices his reaction and blushes harder. With a frown, he grumbles, “Geez… get out of here already!”
A smile cracks from both sides of Song’s lips. With a giggle, he turns around and trots out of the room. Dishonest as always. Guess some things never change.
“Looks like you’ve been having fun.”
Song glances in Mei’s direction. As the pink-haired boy makes his way towards him, Song can tell there’s a different tune to his usual bubbly disposition.
“You know what I’m about to tell you,” Song says.
“I do.” Mei’s smile fades. “And you know I won’t agree with your decision.”
Mei bites his lip, a mask of restrained sorrow shrouding over his features. “You know you can’t win! Kiin is the one who gave us our powers! Why are you so intent on throwing your life away like this? Why?”
Everything Mei is saying are things that Song has been in denial of for as long as he can remember. And the reality is, he doesn’t want to admit the truth to himself. He knows he’s afraid of it, that if he embraces the futility of his goals, he’ll never have the strength to fight for them. A life free from the cycle of killing, a normal life－ it’s such a simple wish and yet, why can’t he have it?
“You’ll never understand me,” Song whispers. “None of you will.”
“You’re right; I don’t,” Mei says, tears rolling down his cheeks. “That doesn’t mean I can just sit by and do nothing. What about Shu? What do you think will happen to him if you…”
At the mention of his partner’s name, Song can feel his conviction waver once more. “I won’t back down. That’s the end of this talk.” Song steps past his friend, not once looking at him in the eye. He won’t. He can’t. He knows that if he looks at Mei’s compassionate eyes for even a moment longer, his will might just crumble. No matter what, he cannot let that happen. If he falters now, there’s no telling when he’ll have the chance to rise up to Kiin again. He’ll forever be tormented by his hatred. “I have one last favour to ask of you.”
“What?” Mei’s voice is shaky.
“On the day of my duel with Kiin, I want you to lead him away from the Palace. I’ll tell you which day it’ll be later,” he says. “And another thing: don’t tell Shu about all this. We both know… he won’t agree with my decision.”
Song can hear a sniffle. He takes it as an affirmative. Tightening his fists, he storms away from his friend. Remorse, fear, uncertainty－ he’s always had these emotions bickering from the back of his mind, and all this time he’s been relying on his anger to quell them.
Freedom－ he’ll have the freedom he so desires soon enough, one way or another.