From the roof of the Pavilion of Darkness and Light, Zhou watches as Mei sits all by his lonesome in the Garden of Benevolent Tranquillity. In a night like this, one with a full moon, he often becomes a little more pensive than usual. Then, he hears Long’s footsteps cutting through the song of nocturnal insects.
“Still up at this hour?” Long asks, taking a seat next to Zhou, letting his leg dangle off the roof.
“I could say the same about you.”
“The Blossom’s legendary Demon Blade has just awoken.” Long snorts a laugh. “As the Demon Fist of the Blossom, of course I’d be interested to see how this develops.”
“You’re always such a busybody.” Zhou sighs.
“You say that about me, but why are you here then?”
“Because I know you’d be here, obviously.”
As Zhou had just said, Long indeed cares too much about the affairs of others. He can’t help it, especially when it comes to Song; after all, they are both sworn eternal rivals. In contrast, Zhou only cares about him, and Long knows that. Everything he does is for Long’s sake, which makes him rather predictable at times. It even makes Long’s motives predictable as well, since the only time Zhou shows an interest in others is when Long is involved in it. Still, his blunt, clumsy, honest, unfaltering affection and devotion for him is why he loves him so.
“I was just thinking…” Zhou murmurs as he holds his melancholic gaze at the boy below. “Other Purgers seem to openly show a lot of affection for their partners, sometimes even to others.” He then peers at Long, a hint of sadness and yearning etched on his features. “You’ve always been quite reserved, haven’t you?”
Long widens his eyes, caught completely off-guard by his partner’s question. Zhou has always been inquisitive of Long’s motives and actions, yes, but to question his feelings for him is unheard of.
“I, well…” Long hesitates.
Zhou looks back at the imperial gardens below. “It’s just… you talk more about Song than you do about me. I know you’re always trying to grow stronger but…” Zhou pauses. “Sorry, forget I said anything.”
A sour emotion twists within Long, a mixture of self-loathe and regret. “I’m the one who should be sorry. You’re right about that, about my pursuit for power.” He loves Zhou deeply, of course, but somehow it’s just difficult to put it into words. Sometimes, he envies the shameless, bubbly demeanour of Mei. “I’m… it’s not as if I…” He struggles to find the right words, but eventually only comes up with a sigh. “It’s just that… I remembered you being the one between us who wanted to leave the Palace.”
Zhou looks at his partner again, this time his expression softening.
“I saw how you struggled in the Palace, and I knew how much you hated life here as well. I wanted to do everything in my power to fulfil your dreams.” Long snorts a frustrated laugh, as if to mock himself. “Ugh… I guess this doesn’t quite cut it, huh? Sorry I’m not good at this… it’s just―”
Zhou presses his lips against Long’s. At that, Long can feel his heart pounding so hard he swears Zhou can hear it too. When Zhou’s lips part from his, Long can see the bliss in his partner’s features, the way his eyes are drooping as if he’s hypnotised, his blush, and that soft, clumsy-looking smile on his face. Seeing him like this makes Long relaxed for some reason. He feels as if just for this moment, he can forget about obsessing over his desire for self-perfection. Just for tonight, he can let his guard down, all because of his beloved partner.
“Better enjoy tonight while it lasts,” Long shifts closer to Zhou, pressing his shoulder against his. “This is the last night we can stay like this.”
“You don’t need to remind me.” Zhou leans against his beloved. “I’ll follow you to the ends of the world.”
Long smiles, relishing in the ticklish feel of Zhou’s hair in his cheek. After tonight, the journey for him and Zhou will officially begin, as will Song and Shu’s. After all, this will be their last night in the Shadow Palace.
With another sigh, he watches as a silver-haired boy in the distance sprints towards the Garden…
Song races across the walkway, towards the Garden of Benevolent Tranquillity where he was told Mei would be waiting for him. Even as he’s running, he can feel his arms and legs drained of what little strength they have by the shock of what Shu just told him.
Even in his mind, he doesn’t want the words to be formed, doesn’t want to jinx the slight possibility that the terrible fate which befell upon him in the evening of the Festival of Moons might have been…
Song sprints past the gates, his boots pounding loudly against the stone path. He stops at the centre of the Garden, a stone square surrounded by lush trees that almost look like curtains hanging on the bark, lit by lanterns and a huge fire cauldron. Mei is nowhere to be found.
“Mei!” Song screams, as if his voice would dispel the paranoia that what Shu said might have been a lie. Even if there was no reason for Shu to lie, Song is still afraid. “Mei!”
After waiting for what feels like hours, which is really just several seconds in reality, Song can feel the panic bursting from his heart once more.
I know it’s my fault you got caught up in my mess, Song clenches his fist. So please, please be alive…
“Geez… even after coming from the dead, you’re still as unrefined as ever.”
Song whirls around. From the shadows, the boy with pink puffy twintails strolls towards him, a radiant beam shining from his features. Song stands rooted to the ground, both profound joy and paralysing disbelief robbing him of his will to move. His eyes begin to water.
“Oh? Did that tiny brain of yours finally burn out from seeing my glorious form?” Mei puffs out his chest and raises his chin with mock narcissism. “I guess bringing you back to life didn’t increase your brain power at all. Such a shame.”
Instinctively, Song bursts forward, almost tackling Mei down as he wraps his arms around his friend for a crushing embrace.
“W-wait!” Mei wheezes. “T-too tight! Too tight! S-stop stop stop! Stoooop!”
Song loosens his grip slightly. He smooths his hand over the fabric of Mei’s uniform top, then his waist. It’s real; Mei really is standing before him. “I-I thought you were…”
“The past is the past,” Mei whispers, returning the embrace and stroking his hair. “I’m here now, aren’t I?”
Even if he hears his voice, even if he can feel him in his arms, Song still refuses to let go, still afraid that once he does the person before him would disappear again as if he were a mirage, as if he’s only dreaming. Once you’ve lost someone dear to you, even if he comes back, the fear of losing him again will always haunt you.
“Promise me something,” Song says, feeling the fabric on Mei’s top damp from his tears. “Don’t you dare die on me again. I won’t forgive you if you do.”
“Yes, yes…” The both of them distance themselves slightly, and Mei meets Song’s desperate gaze with a warm, affectionate one. “Well, then you’ll have to promise me something in return too.”
“Don’t wanna,” Song answers. “You have to keep your promise no matter what.”
Mei giggles. “Would it kill you to stop acting like a child just for a moment?” He takes Song’s hands and raises it to chest level between them. “I want you to take better care of Shu from now on; don’t make reckless decisions that might put him in danger again because of your hatred. Love is more important than hatred. Please remember this, Song.”
The silver-haired boy ponders over what Mei said for a moment and nods. “Okay. Say that sooner, damn it. That’s easy enough for me to do.”
“W-what? What do you mean ‘say that sooner’? How was I supposed to do that?” Mei gently knocks Song on the head. “Seriously… how’re you supposed to protect Shu with that pea-sized brain after you’re kicked out of the Palace?”
Song blinks. “Kicked out of the Palace?”
Now is Mei’s turn to be confused. “Huh? Yeah. Didn’t Shu tell you about…”
It’s at this moment when they both hear footsteps approaching them from the shadows. Shu and Lin step into the light.
“I understand you’d be happy to see him again, but would you keep your hands off my partner?” Shu folds his arms, clearly annoyed and jealous.
Lin has a visible frown etched on his features as well, but he doesn’t say anything to it. He’s always been so restrained with his true feelings, and Song can’t help but pity him for that at times considering how touchy-feely Mei is around him. Well, this time, Song is the one at fault as well.
“Sorry, sorry…” Mei lets go of Song, playfully winking and sticking his tongue out. “But Song is the one who started this, y’know? He’s like a little puppy.”
Shu shifts his glare to Song, who returns him with a blank look until he realises the truth behind Mei’s words. “Huoh! You’re right, my bad.”
“I know it seems a little out-of-place to ask you about this right now, but since Mei is here too, I want to know…” Shu narrows his eyes. “When you unleashed your Yin, it was because of Mei’s death, wasn’t it, and not because of me.”
Song blinks. “Yes.”
Shu sighs, looking even more displeased now.
“You’re still the person I love most in the world though,” Song says, digging his ear with a pinky.
“Oh really? Prove it.”
“Well… you’re the only person I’ve ever had sex with.”
Shu drops his jaw to that comeback, and a strangled noise escapes his breath. Lin smacks his own face with a palm, looking away embarrassedly. Mei has his eyes wide as a Koi fish’s, with a hand over his lips that does little to hide his gasp.
Song looks at his friends perplexedly. “Huh? What?”
Shu strides over and grabs his oblivious partner by the collar, his face red as a tomato. “Listen here, you half-wit…”
“Calm down you two,” Lin says, looking just as embarrassed as Shu. “But really, Shu, you haven’t told Song about Father’s decree yet?”
When Shu doesn’t reply, the answer becomes obvious to Lin and Mei.
“A moon after you’re awake, Song, you and Shu, as well as Long and Zhou, are to be exiled from the Palace. It’s Father’s wishes for the rebels of the Blossom to be punished accordingly,” Mei explains.
“Rebels of the Blossom?” Song says. “Wait, what about you and Lin then? Didn’t the both of you join the rebellion too?”
Mei hesitates. “We don’t know. I was confused too. I don’t really know why Father exempted us from the punishment but I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Well, there are rumours that the Blossom will be hunting the four of you down after tonight,” Lin adds, his expression turning dark. “My guess is that to worsen our punishments, Father is making us fight each other.”
Song clenches his fists. Shu knows that look all too well, as do Lin and Mei.
“So in the end, nothing has changed, huh?” Song mutters. “To escape, we’ll still have to fight the Blossom. This was exactly why we didn’t run before. If this is how it’s going to be right from the start, we might as well have ran sooner.”
Although punctuated by heavy silence, the atmosphere between the four of them is a lot less depressing than Song expected from his remark. At least they’re all alive and well for the time being; he knows this, and he knows that they know this as well. Mei and Song have died once; they can at least appreciate each other’s presence for now, despite the circumstances.
“Well, I guess this is goodbye then,” Mei says, sorrow laden in his words. “Geez… and just we finally got together too…”
“Why don’t the both of you run away with us too?” Shu offers, but then he shakes his head. “No, that’s selfish of me to say. Being hunted down by the Blossom is a death sentence.”
“Death sentence? What’re you talking about?” Song snorts. “Did you not see my cool new powers? I’ll beat down anyone that gets in our way, and I’ll protect all of you.”
“You’re not the only one with new powers, y’know?” Shu says. “And for your information, we’re probably not the only ones in the Blossom that know how to unleash our Yin. And are you forgetting about Father’s powers as well?”
“Oh.” Song puffs his cheek petulantly. “I still think we should run away together.”
Lin smiles. “Even if Mei wants it―”
“I do want it!” Mei bursts out.
“I won’t let him,” Lin continues. “The reality is that while you and Shu can unleash your Yin already, Mei and I do not know how to do this. It’s too dangerous for us to take on the Blossom in our current state.”
“Much as I hate to admit it, I agree with Lin,” Mei says sulkily. “Bleh… useless ol’ me couldn’t even last for a few clashes against En and Yi, and you want me to fight the Blossom and Father with you?” He snorts a laugh. “I love the both of you, but not that much.”
Song can’t help but think there’s another reason behind their reluctance to join them. He looks at Shu, who seems dubious about their reply as well. I guess if even I can figure out they’re hiding something from us, then their shiftiness must be pretty obvious, huh? But he also knows he can’t force the both of them to tag along with him.
“I guess…” Song slumps his shoulders. “I’m going to miss the both of you.”
“Me too,” Shu adds.
“Us too,” Mei says, the pain more evident on his features now. “God… I’ll really miss your goofiness…”
“There you go again,” Lin mutters, but he nods in Song’s direction nonetheless. “But no matter what happens, we’ll always be supporting you.”
Shu returns the nod resolutely. “Even if we’re fighting on different sides, we’ll always be friends.”
“Pinky promise, pinky promise!” Song sticks out both pinky fingers to the group.
Shu grimaces. “Don’t think I haven’t forgotten that you just dug your ears with that.”
Lin and Mei let out cries of disgust together, and the group share a hearty laughter to that. Laughing, chatting, playing around like this… Song knows that such blissful moments will not last forever, and thinking too much into things won’t do him any good either. The only thing he can do now is to live in the present, and take things one at a time.
Love is more important than hatred. Mei said that. Song will remember this line for as long as he lives.
It was extremely rare for Kiin to leave the Palace walls outside of official functions or businesses with the other human rulers of the nation, but he’s willing to make this week an exception. After all, Song’s awakening is a very special occasion not just for the Palace, but for the world as well, even if few people understand the significance of it.
“No matter which dimensions I travel to, the human races are always the best at knowing how to enjoy life,” Kiin says as he leans against the edge of the hot spring and stares at the shadowy mountains in the distance.
Xin, along with several of Kiin’s most trusted Purgers, have accompanied him to the outskirts of Bai Hu for a brief vacation that he planned to last for a week. Considering how beautiful the nature is in these rural regions, he’s even considering to extend it to another week… but of course, as the leader of the Black Blossom that rules over these lands, he does not have such luxury.
“Aside from humans, how many other races have you met?” Xin asks as he begins to massage the Emperor’s well-toned back.
“Hmm… I’ve lost count. I’ve been to billions of worlds. I’ve probably forgotten what most of the races were even called. But humans… humans are special.”
“A-ahhh… right there, right there…” Kiin smiles a sudden burst of comfort spreads across his upper back muscles. “Well… first of all, up till now, you humans have been the only compatible race that are able to ascend to the status of a demigod. There’s something unique about your biology that allows you accept the powers of the Reshaks more effectively than the other races.”
“How many demigods have you managed to gather thus far?” Xin asks. “Forgive my insolence, but… do you think you have a good chance of defeating the Void Seekers?”
“With the demigods I’ve gathered so far?” Kiin snorts a laugh. “No, not in the slightest.”
A gust of wind sweeps across the hot spring, bringing in the fragrant smell of the forest and ringing the chimes hanging by the inn’s verandas. Kiin and Xin collectively sigh at the comforting combination of senses. In nights like these, Kiin doesn’t even mind if the moon is only a slender crescent shyly hiding behind thin strips of clouds.
“I’m still surprised at how well the four of them fared against you,” Xin says, moving his hands up to Kiin’s shoulders. “If they’re able to match against the powers of a Reshak at such a young age…”
“The powers of a Reshak?” Kiin laughs. “Surely you don’t believe that was the full extent of my abilities.”
“I’m… afraid I do, Father.”
“This pathetic flesh prison…” Kiin raises his arm and stares at it, a limb with skin that’s more fitting of a sheltered concubine than a seasoned fighter. “As beautiful as it is, a human vessel such as this cannot possibly exhibit even a small fraction of a Reshak’s power without breaking down. Even if you humans are more compatible with our powers than any other race, there are strict limits to what a mortal can achieve.”
“So why have you chosen to use this human vessel?”
“Think about it: would any of the Purgers have challenged me if they knew I had such power, if they saw my true form?” Kiin turns around, forcing Xin to cease his massaging. “My goal has always been to test these Purgers, to see if they’re worthy of undertaking the arduous journey of evolutionary ascension… not enslave them.”
Xin hesitates, before dipping his head for a casual bow, as if he feels that he had disrespected him. This amuses Kiin. He gently strokes the Oracle’s cheek, causing his fair skin to turn pink.
“Besides, it’s more fun this way, don’t you think?” Kiin whispers, leaning closer to him.
Xin’s blush deepens, and he can only nod bashfully at his beloved Emperor. “A-anyway, the four of them have a long journey ahead of them, don’t they?”
“That, they do.”
“Do you think…” Xin presses himself against Kiin. “Do you think this world can be saved?”
Kiin remains silent to his question. Even if his tone was kept even, Kiin can tell that the Oracle is desperate. He wishes he could do more for him, but there are some things even an Astral cannot do.
“I see.” Xin closes his eyes. “Then let us enjoy these precious moments while we still can… Your Highness.”
“Yeah...” Kiin accepts his Oracle’s embrace. “While we still can.”