*waves* hi, I didn't forget how to write, I just got sucked into Animal Crossing to escape the impending anxiety and stresses of the world around me ^^;; but I'm back on my writing bullshit for the time being :D
Written for a twitter request, from the a softer world inspired prompt "In the caves behind my house, I found the ruins of a softer world. Kindness couldn't save them. (kindness won't save anyone)"
In fairy tales, the shiny hero defeats the dastardly villain, usually in an epic showdown that makes use of physical and mental strengths, and it ends in the downtrodden victims giving thanks and praise that the hero humbly accepts. There's always a satisfying and hopeful ending, and then everyone lives happily ever after, no questions asked.
In reality, there are no simple solutions to evil, and even evil is too broad of a term to neatly sort people in to. There's no way to defeat the dastardly villain when politics and social structure keep him protected, and there must be nothing but cruelty in a world that punishes good.
Fate is fickle and unknowable, and Xiao Xingchen dies by his own hand, drowning in the overwhelming repercussions of his own ignorance.
In another time, a young man lives alone, on the edge of society, so far removed that few know he's there, but many know his name. Or rather, they know the title that was given to him once, before anyone can remember. They know that the Cultivator of the Cliffs is always available to help those in need; he has a skill matched by few and a serene air to calm those who meet him.
The Cultivator of the Cliffs asks nothing for his services, save for his privacy in the small home he keeps, overlooking the waves crashing into the sheer cliffs of his title. No one knows how long he's been there; the few nearby towns had long since forgotten the decaying structure at the very top of the cliffs.
No one dares chase him off, though. He's helpful and polite, taking care of any problems that arise in the area without complaint. He goes into town on a regular schedule to purchase the most basic of necessities and returns to his home, no matter how many offer him better lodging or company. The Cultivator of the Cliffs prefers solitude.
Seasons change, months and years pass by, and the waves are a never ending fanfare of crashes and quiets outside his home. There is wind and rain and life, and he exists there, to keep those who need him safe from the dangers of a cruel world.
Rarely do travelers pass through the area, and even rarer do they stay more than a night. But a youthful, clever cultivator arrives on the heels of a storm and lingers even after it clears, poking around the town. He craves knowledge: local mysteries and secrets and anything different. He manages to charm and annoy those who talk to him in almost equal measure, every conversation punctuated with his cawing laughter.
He tricks anyone he can out of their sweets and cackles when he's chided, before finally agreeing to leave. He has places to be, he says, somewhere no one goes, and he wants to know why.
In his home by the sea, far above the sea, the Cultivator of the Cliffs prepares a meal and watches the sun struggle to peek through the thick storm clouds that still scar the sky. The paths around his home are still slick with late spring rain, and he hopes no one needs his council or assistance for the next few days. There is an unmeasured danger in reaching him, one he tries to lessen, knowing people will try all the same.
The strange traveler walks with an unearned confidence and spends his gazes on the sky and the scenery around him rather than the ground under his feet. He has nothing to fear - he's never felt the need to - and he has no plans to change that today.
Fate has its own whims, and a single misstep on smooth, slippery stone sends him sliding down, towards the precipice of a deadly fall. The waves crash in his ears and the sun slips behind a cloud, and time moves slowly. So, so slowly and yet so quickly, and his fingers fail to grasp his sword before he's careening over the edge.
A shocked screech pulls the Cultivator of the Cliffs from twisting his hair into practical braids in time to see a figure clad in black and gray fall towards the unforgiving waves. Without a thought, he grabs his sword and takes off, the breeze at his heels as he takes flight downwards.
The wind rushes past him, undoing all the hard work on washing and brushing his hair, but concern for something as superficial as appearance pales in comparison to rescuing the unfortunate person falling, falling,
Once upon a time, a renowned cultivator and his young ward stumbled upon a man on the brink of death. Our hero, selfless as always, took him in and saved his life.
In a perfect story, they become friends and lovers, take care of the young girl together in their home, and live happily ever after.
In a perfect world, Xiao Xingchen doesn't save Xue Yang.
In a perfect world, everyone gets a happy ending.
But no one lives in a storybook.
The Cultivator of the Cliffs takes a stranger's hand and holds tight as they crash into the jagged cliffs, their collision sending him off kilter. They tumble down, he pulls the stranger onto his sword, and they continue a descent that has become a free fall instead of anything that could end in a safe landing.
Water rises ever closer. Time slows as a painful death becomes an almost inescapable inevitability. There are no screams and no time for regrets, only the end of hope and the beginning of acceptance.
The Cultivator of the Cliffs slams them against the unforgiving wall of stone behind them sometimes, just by chance, there is a final stroke of luck. They tumble under a jagged overhang and into a cave, rolling over a few times before finally coming to rest in a bruised heap.
There is a strange silence that isn't truly silent, punctuated by haggard breathes and the distant, muffled roar of the sea. It holds the beats of their hearts, still quickened from the stress and anxiety of their almost certain doom, and in that not quite silence, they face each other.
Time and space and fate line up in unpredictable and unknowable ways. A friend isn't always a friend and an enemy isn't always an enemy, and sometimes the two are the same. Nothing has to stay the same forever; it comes down to infinite factors.
Tomorrow could bring anything.
In the cave behind his home, tucked into a sheer cliff, Xiao Xingchen looks a stranger in the eyes and finds the ruins of a softer life. Kindness couldn't save a relationship built on lies; he tried so hard to be a good person and live a good life, but his naivety only brought suffering to everyone he cared about.
In the cave above the unforgiving sea, Xiao Xingchen meets an unforgivable man. Or—
He meets a man he swore to bring to justice and a man he learned to laugh with, he has been faced with this reveal before.
In another life, he had no answers, only a desperate need to escape the crushing weight of Xue Yang's betrayal and his own mistakes. In another life, he gave up, ending it before he could fully suffer through the ruins of the life he thought he knew.
In this life—
Xue Yang meets his gaze and doesn't look away, and there is a terrifying moment of a life once lived running through him, taking over him, becoming him—
There is cocky confidence and unsure fear in Xue Yang's eyes, warring for domain evil with no compromise to be found.
He is the lowest and highest points of a life with an unhappy ending, and he is only himself. Xiao Xingchen has no answers this time either, because he is also a man incapable of compromise, and Xue Yang is countless choices and decisions without a clear path.
In the silence of the ocean, in the silence of wordless loss, in the silence of the immeasurable risks, Xiao Xingchen chooses to keep trying for, if not a happy ending, a life worth living.
Kindness won't save someone, not alone. Kindness is a risk, an opening, a failure, and—
Kindness won't save anyone. Kindness can salvage something that was lost between two people, and with that, start something new.
Kindness won't save anyone and their softer life couldn't be saved, but the ruins of both can be rebuilt into a better one.