Fanfiction: Ink in Water - Chapter 15 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)


Chapter 15. No more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean

written by Bunny and LalaLoop
consulting/editing: Le, LalaLoop, LigayaCroft, kakashi


“Shifu—PUT ME DOWN!” Bai Qian screamed, her body squirming like a fish out of water.

The pair of eyes stationed right above her head were staring down with inscrutable steeliness. Unwilling to back down, she glared back, feeling more and more emboldened by the liquid courage sloshing around in the empty walls of her stomach.

“I am perfectly capable of walking on my own!”

Moyuan’s arms readjusted to rein her in tighter as she continued to fight him. Carrying her as though she weighed nothing as he walked along that dirt corridor, retracing the steps she had taken just now when she ran through the back gardens. The rain was starting to fall in rods all around them. And the fireworks overhead showed no sign of dying down. Water and fire spilling from the sky.


“Capable, indeed,” he said. “It’s not any wonder I found you lying in a puddle of your own blood.”



The rain dotting his face reflected the fleeting sparks, glistening on his skin, as he tilted down to face her. The last thing she wanted to focus on at the moment was the way he looked.

“I’m FINE!” She shook her head to try and shake the thought.

The mixture of rainwater and blood trailing down from her forehead had broken the barrier of her lashes, stinging her eyes. Aside from the gaping hole in her scalp, Bai Qian had yet to inventory the number of other scrapes and bruises she’d earned. Her lips were swollen. She couldn’t move her ankle; it was either twisted or broken. And the splitting headache between her brows was making her head spin.

Hard to say how it had all spiralled to this point.

Bai Qian couldn’t remember how she had even made it out of that dining hall. She had recklessly dashed out like a frightened animal, and everything beyond that point was simply a blur. Where Moyuan found her, was at the bottom of a flight of stairs by the front gate. Perhaps, it was the worst part of it all—to be found by the very person she was running away from. For this reason, despite knowing full well she couldn’t walk two steps on her own, she had been spuriously fighting his act of kindness.

“Let--go--of--me!” She thrashed around some more in a last ditch effort to disengage.

“Be still!” The scathing look he shot down at her had made all the other words she had planned on shouting out drain down the back of her throat. He had stopped walking and simply stared at her. The exasperation in his eyes evident, but also the sign of some other contradicting emotion she couldn’t pinpoint. “Have you forgotten who I am to you?”

Her face blanched at the reminder that had just left his mouth, spearing straight through her. Bai Qian swallowed hard as the mixture of pride and remorse strangled in her throat.

It was true.

She had allowed herself to forget. For quite some time now. Just who they were to each other.

“Shifu…”

“That’s enough.” Before Bai Qian could utter another word, Moyuan had averted his eyes. “If you wish to still be able to walk tomorrow, then behave yourself and allow me to take you inside.”

His feet picked up, darting briskly through the pathway that led them out of the garden. As did the rainfall, picking up speed, falling harder and harder, splattering like ice against the fire that had lit up on both her cheeks. Even with his body sheltering her, the water had soaked through both layers of her clothing. But it did nothing to cool her down.

Shelter was still a few yards away. Bai Qian turned her head to where the lights were pouring out from the inner halls and saw that two more bodies had emerged beneath the awning.

“AIYO! Furball, what happened?!” Xiao Yu shouted out as he rushed over with Princess Ying Yue following quietly behind. “Did you get beaten up or something?”

Bai Qian didn’t acknowledge them. She didn’t want to acknowledge anything at the moment, and thankfully Moyuan didn’t stop either. He spared no glances as he took her through the entrance and continued steadfast down the hallway.

“Tch… That’s gonna leave a scar you know…” Xiao Yu had caught up with them within seconds, his eyes wandering over the bloody mess on her face. When his finger prodded her forehead, she turned over to glare at him and found her eyes caught on a pair of serpentine eyes. The grating look directed at Bai Qian made her feel as though she’d been slapped. And for whatever reason, it felt completely warranted.

“Yue’er, what was in the wine your father served us tonight?” Xiao Yu turned to ask.

“The wine?” Like a switch had been flipped, the Princess’ expression softened instantly. “Tonight was Father’s Thousand Year Osmanthus wine, spiked with a hint of snake venom. Why do you ask?”

Half listening, Bai Qian felt her attention pulled by the arms that had stiffened around her.

“Well, no wonder!” Xiao Yu exclaimed.

“What? Is there something wrong?” Princess Ying Yue darted her eyes back and forth between the two men. “Father only serves the very best wine to his guests.”

“Fox blood and snake venom… certainly don’t agree with each other. No wonder Furball’s in such a state. I figured he would be able handle his alcohol better than this...”

“But the venom’s only in trace amounts… It shouldn’t be enough to harm anyone!”

“Don’t worry, he won’t die from it. He will just be… a handful.” Xiao Yu chortled. “It’s a good thing he has his Shifu here to take care of him!”

Bai Qian couldn’t make out the rest of their chatter; their voices had melted into a slur of noise. As soon as the wine was mentioned, it was as though it had been stirred in her veins. Her headache intensified and gradually, the walls and ceiling began to spin in her view.

Moyuan glanced down at her, and as she looked up, she saw three of him—his face multiplied and sliding around. Despite her obstinate determination just a moment ago, she couldn’t stop herself from smiling at him foolishly, as her eyelids began to droop from drowsiness. The feeling was strangely euphoric. Coaxing her until she progressively eased into it. Until all resistance fled from her body, leaving it to fall limp against the one supporting her; head dropping against his chest. The aching familiarity of which scattered her wits like debris in high wind.

The sound of her heart thumping in her eardrums was so loud, Bai Qian was certain that everyone else could hear it too.

It didn’t take long before Moyuan’s steps came to a halt. When Bai Qian peeled her eyes open again, they were standing before the doors to her chamber. She heard him exchange a few words with the other people behind them, but couldn’t piece together the sentence. Her ears were buzzing precariously. All she wanted to do was lay down in bed. As her brain continued to play hopscotch with her, her hand had taken the liberty to move up and grab hold of the side of his face, guiding it down to look at her.

“Shifu…” The words slid from her mouth, slurred even to her own ears. “Let’s go… to bed…”

She blinked a few times. The wooden expression on the face still clasped in her hand continued to distort in and out. But where her fingers met his jaw, she could feel it clenching up just now. She could also hear Xiao Yu in the background, sputtering uncontrollably. What was so funny?

Moyuan took his face out of her hands a moment later and firmly pushed the door in front of them open.

“Hold on! Don’t you think we should have the imperial physician take a look at him?!” Princess Ying Yue shouted out. “I can go call for him now!”

The nerve of her… Bai Qian muffled a grunt as she shook her head, dragging it across her Master’s robe, rubbing blood all over it.

“No need.” Moyuan turned to carry her in. “Leave us.”

“But don’t you think it’s necessary to—”

“Leave us,” he repeated, his voice thundering with an authority Bai Qian had only heard a handful of times. She could tell his patience was hanging by a thread.

The door slammed shut. The latch sounded sharply in its socket as it locked into place, drowning out the remainder of the protests lingering behind it. One by one, the candles in the room lit up their wicks as he passed them by. With her head still planted against his chest, Bai Qian stared up at the underside of his face, watching the glimmering residues of the rain still clinging to his skin.

Maybe it was the wine affecting her. Maybe it wasn’t. This close, she couldn’t avoid his scent suffusing her senses. Luring her into a comfortable state of happiness that she was much too acquainted with. Like slipping into an old favorite shirt she had worn a million times—this feeling—she knew she shouldn’t have it, and yet, it was rising like a tidal wave in her chest.

When they finally reached the bed, Moyuan slowly lowered her down and started to untangle his arms from her.

“NO! Don’t leave!” Her hands quickly caught a piece of his robe and refused to let go as she whined drunkenly. “Shifu… Don’t leave me...”

He let out a long sigh, the sound of which whirled in her mind. A swell of disappointment was filling her as he began to pry her hands open.

“Seventeenth…”

Seeing as it was no use, she released his robe promptly, only to snake her arms around his waist to pull him even closer—face muffled into his abdomen. The air grew thick with sullen defiance as she sat on the edge of that bed, gluing herself to him.

His hand came up to pat the top of her head. “Seventeenth, look at me.”

Bai Qian didn’t want to face him at all. She shook her head. Some part of her knew she was being shameful. Despicable even. But she couldn’t talk herself out of it. The unbearable yearning to attach herself to this person had overridden all the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ in her mind at the moment.

Without warning, both of his hands cupped her cheeks, cradling them within his fingers as he tilted her face upward. “Look at me.”

“I’m not leaving,” he said, his voice heartening to a low whisper. “I still need to tend to your injuries, but I can’t do that, if you keep acting like this.”

Her face melted into a deep frown at his last words.

“I know it’s not your fault… You’re far too impaired.” He released her face and reached around his back to undo her arms. They seemed to have lost all their strength at this point. He brought them forward easily, pressing them down firmly onto her lap. “Be good, and sit still while I gather some things.”

Bai Qian shakily bobbed her head. Her body started to quiver. Water was still dripping from her rain-soaked clothes. Now that they were no longer attached, the chill became more apparent. She closed her eyes and tried to grit her teeth to keep them from chattering. When Moyuan returned, he immediately pulled the blanket from the bed and wrapped it around her. She felt his drying spell as it hit her, drawing out all the moisture from her layers.

When he finished, he sat down directly in front of her and conjured a bowl of warm water, along with a clean towel which he placed down beside her on the bed. Her chin was lifted up by the edge of his index finger as he leaned in to scan over the injuries on her face. Bai Qian stared candidly back. Unable to look at anything other than those eyes that studied her so carefully it sent a shiver of awareness down her spine. And the concerned way his eyebrows drew together. She felt that if he looked at her any longer, she might very well be about to do another foolish thing or two.

Freeing her chin, Moyuan reached down to dip the towel in warm water. She watched him wring it out with both hands, producing ribbons of water that softly trickled back into the bowl. The sound became the only thing ricocheting off the walls in the hollow silence that ensued.

The towel was brought to her eyes first, where he cautiously wiped away the blood crusted on her lids and around her eyebrows. She blinked a few times, adjusting to the warm moisture against her sensitive skin, relishing in the way he took his time cleaning her. The cloth was moved to her temple, dabbing away the dried blood that had piled up on the edge of her hairline, until it finally made its way to her cut.

Examining it, inches from her, Moyuan was so close that Bai Qian could feel his breath warming her face. A sharp pain hit when he pressed down on her wound. She winced, letting out a small cry.

“Does it hurt?” he asked, his hand pulling back slightly.

She bit her lip and shook her head, not wanting him to stop.

“It’s alright to tell me if you’re in pain. How will I know I’m hurting you, if you don’t tell me?”

His words replayed in her ears.

Tell you? She lifted her eyes to his. How do I tell you?

The black strands of hair hanging loose over his face were sticking out noticeably, distracting her. His hair was still damp, secured in its usual knot but slightly in disarray. The same way it had looked for however many days they had existed in that imaginary world. Unkempt, imperfect. The memory filled every corner of her mind, possessing her.

“What is it?” His voice drew her back.

“Were you with me?” The question nearly leapt from her throat.

A flash of some inexplicable, stormy emotion showed itself on his face one moment, and was gone the next.

“Shifu, you were there... weren’t you?” Without realizing it, her hands had grabbed onto his shoulders, shaking visibly. His gaze moved down to them. Not wanting to give him any chance to react, she propelled her body forward. Hands looping around his neck as she pressed herself to him.

“Please tell me…” Her head dropped onto his shoulder, dizzy with embarrassment. “It wasn’t just an illusion, was it?”

He gave no answer. The only sound Bai Qian heard was the sound of his breath tensing and deepening. His body was completely rigid in her hold.

“All that time we spent together—I didn’t imagine it, did I?”

When she felt his grip clamping down on her upper arms, getting ready to pull her back, she immediately resisted. Her fists clenched tighter, pressing wrinkles into his robe.

“Seventeenth—”

“Please, just let me stay like this,” she pleaded, her voice muffled against his shoulder. “I’m sorry… I know I’m not supposed to behave this way… I know it isn’t proper… but I...”

The hot tears building behind her eyelids had bursted out, unstoppable, soaking into his robe. Flooded with shame, Bai Qian pressed her face deeper into his shoulder.

“I just want to stay… together... a little longer.”

She must have sounded very pitiful because he remained perfectly still after that, allowing her to embrace him. A few moments passed before his hand landed softly on the middle of her back. Its reluctance evident in the way it trembled at first, before slowly rubbing back and forth to sooth her.

For a long time, that was how they stayed. Until her tears seemingly ran out. Until the fog in her mind became too dense to clear.

At some point, Bai Qian thought she could feel a hand moving up to the back of her head, caressing her hair. And his voice, murmuring a thing or two in her ear, but she was doubtful she had heard anything at all.

“Does it matter? Whether or not I was there with you? Does it change anything?”

***

The steady downpour continued to the next day, like a child who goes on crying, simply too tired to stop. She awoke, lying static in bed, listening to the sound of it tirelessly beating on the roof tiles just outside the window.

Bai Qian didn’t want to move. Didn’t want to get up.

It had taken her a few seconds just to figure out where she was. The lack of sunlight had left the bedchamber shrouded in a dull haze. She couldn’t remember ever lying down to go to sleep.

Tucked beneath two layers of blankets and sheets, her muscles were aching wildly. There was a pulsing sensation at the top of her forehead, accompanied by a blunt pain. And when her hand came up to inspect it, it was met with a thick layer of bandages.

Frantically, she searched her memory of the night before.

Like torn paper, jagged, with feathered ends. There was no clear recollection, nor was it complete oblivion. The more she tried to pin it down, the more strewn about it seemed.

The banquet, her running out of it, falling down, injuring herself, being carried back to her room by him

She could vaguely recall sitting on the edge of the bed. Moyuan tending to her. How she had behaved like a child, needy of his attention, with no control over her actions—or her words. She could hear herself slurring them drunkenly, but for the life of her she couldn’t recall what any of them were. There was a feeling creeping in the back of her mind that she had done something incredibly foolish.

How could she have gotten so intoxicated that her memories were this spotty?

She brought her hands up to rub her eyes. They felt swollen. Had she been crying?

A knock sounded on the door.

Her stomach churned.

“J-Just… Just a minute!” she shouted.

After taking a few deep breaths, Bai Qian finally shook off the bedcovers and drew her limbs up. There was a strip of silk meticulously wrapped tight around her ankle. Her fingers traced over the smooth layers, knowing full well who must have painstakingly taken their time to wrap it. The pain was still there, but she could at least carry some weight on it today.
After pulling an outer robe over herself, she hobbled over to the door and drew it open.

Princess Ying Yue stood at the doorway. Her exquisite face beaming an all-too-perfect smile, while her hands held onto a tray containing a bowl of steaming liquid.

Too stunned to react, Bai Qian stared through the half-open door unblinking.

“Little Brother, how are you feeling?” The Princess asked, stepping forward to let herself in. “I thought I would come by to check on you... We were all very concerned last night. I’ve brought you some medicine prepared by our palace physician.”

Concerned? Bai Qian was forced to move out of her way, albeit unwilling. And deeply confused as to why this person was being so cordial all of a sudden. Even with her scattered memory, she could still recall the loathing looks that she had received the night before. Her eyes did a quick glance around the hallway. No one was around to witness their interaction. Why did this little white lotus [1] still need to put on an act?

After forcing her way inside, Princess Ying Yue walked to the table in the middle of the room and placed the tray of medicine down. Following warily behind her, Bai Qian wondered if it would have been wiser to just stay by the door instead. Since she was in male disguise, it didn’t seem appropriate in the least that they were alone together in her bedchamber.

The Princess had turned around abruptly while Bai Qian was still busy staring at the back of her head. In her eyes was a beckoning look.

“Come, sit with me.”

With both her hands captured, Bai Qian was dragged down into one of the chairs by the table. The Princess also took a seat, and scooted so close that their thighs were pressed up against one another.

“Little Brother, I realize, I’ve yet to say a proper thanks to you... You’re our kingdom’s savior after all.” She reached over to pick up the bowl of medicine and a spoon from the tray, stirring it as she brought it to her lips to blow. “For you to get hurt like this after everything you’ve already endured with the Shen Demon… pains me to see. Why don’t you let me tend to you?”

The spoon was brought to Bai Qian’s lips. The strong herbal scent igniting a response. Bai Qian shot up from her seat and took a few steps back, heading in the direction of the door.

“P-Princess! This… I… I don’t think you should be here right now!”

Princess Ying Yue was quick in pursuit. Her body slinking gracefully and with a kind of determination that had Bai Qian’s back pressed up against the door frame within seconds.

“What is it…? Do you not like the attention?” The tight space between their bodies had gone from little to none. “Perhaps... I’m not your type?”

Bai Qian’s jaw felt loose from shock. What kind of joke was this person playing? Unsure of how to respond, she nervously pressed her lips together and shook her head.

“Why is it that a young man like yourself can so easily turn away a woman’s charms? I don’t believe that all of the Kunlun disciples have taken a vow of celibacy alongside their master, have they?” The back of that beautiful ivory hand was lifted to Bai Qian’s cheek. “Or is it because you already... have someone in your heart?”

The turn of the conversation left her throat dry. Bai Qian tried to take a gulp, the sound of which came out thick with guilt.

“Have I guessed correctly? How about another guess? The person you have in your heart… Isn’t he your—”

The door rattled with a knock so loud against her back that Bai Qian’s body jumped straight into the one in front of her.

“My lord,” called a small voice from the other side. “Nú bì has been sent by the God of War to inform you that he wishes to meet with you. Shall I let him know you are coming?”

Shifu? The mention of him had turned Bai Qian’s insides into a quivering mess.

“Y-Yes, tell him I’ll be there shortly!” she shouted back.

Princess Ying Yue’s eyes were burning with a crazed look. Not wanting to stay in her company for a second longer, Bai Qian feigned her most courteous smile and began to turn the door handle behind her. “Princess, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and see—”

“Don’t you dare!” Princess Ying Yue leapt forward, her hand slamming the barely open door shut so hard Bai Qian’s fingers were nearly caught in the crack.

“You make me sick… Don’t think I can’t see it… How can you have those feelings for him?!” she spat. “It will never happen! Do I need to remind you who he is to you?!”

Bai Qian felt the rage flash in her own eyes. In an instant, all her anger had risen to its peak, tensing the muscles in her neck. No matter what truth those words held, the accusation coming from an outsider had hit her so raw, her only reaction was to fight.

“I would be more careful with my words if I were you, Princess.” Pressed out between the cracks of her teeth, her own voice didn’t sound like it belonged to her. And whatever face she was making, it had turned Princess Ying Yue’s face green. “The things you want to say about me, say them all you want. But if you ever come close to tarnishing his reputation… I will never forgive you.”

“Let go...” Bai Qian turned her eyes over to the hand still pressed to the door, her voice dropping to a low growl. “I said… let go.”

As soon as that trembling hand released, she swung the door open.

“You should also consider taking your own advice.” A few steps out into the empty hallway, Bai Qian threw the words over her shoulder, not bothering to look back. “He doesn’t love you.”

She started walking, flying, like her feet had grown wings. The pain in her ankle, barely noticeable. Funny how the words she had said in spite to another had ended up leaving the most bitter taste in her own mouth. It wouldn’t go away. It only got worse.

Her thoughts had splintered into a million different directions when she neared the end of that hallway. And as bad as her nerves were humming when she turned down the path that led to Moyuan’s chamber, Bai Qian tried to gather herself. Whatever had happened last night, however much of a fool she had made of herself in front of her Master, she couldn’t undo any of it. But she could at least keep her composure today, even if it meant putting on an act.

Standing outside his door, her hand shook uncontrollably as she brought it up to knock. In the midst of cursing herself trying to calm it, she suddenly spotted a maid approaching in her direction.

“Is that for the God of War?” Bai Qian asked, eyeing the tray of tea in her hands.

“Yes, my lord.”

“I’ll take it in for him.” She quickly snatched it up, needing something to carry in her own hands. Something to offer him. Something of a semblance to how a disciple should treat their master.

When she finally turned her attention back to the door, it had slowly crept open without her even knocking.

“Come in, Seventeenth.” Moyuan’s deep voice reached out from the widening gap, enclosing her like little vines. Bai Qian stood staring through the opened door at his figure seated on the dais, his eyes slowly lifting her way.

Her feet started to move. At a pace so slow it seemed to lengthen the distance between them. One tentative step after another. Until she stood barely a meter away from him, the door closing softly behind her. He needed to clear his throat before she finally blinked and dropped down on her knees, the tray of tea placed beside her on the low table.

“Shifu…” she mumbled in her mouth as her back bent over to bow to him. “I heard… you wanted to see me?”

“How are you feeling today, Seventeenth? Are you in any pain?”

Bai Qian lifted her head to look into those eyes, staring down at her gently. “No... I feel much better, Shifu.”

When his eyes shifted to her forehead, her fingers automatically reached up to touch the bandages. “Shifu, did you place these on me last night?”

“Yes. Do you not remember how adamantly you tried to prevent me from doing it?”

“N-No… I… I don’t remember… very much...” A deep blush swarmed both her cheeks as she shook her head, hands digging into her knees. “Shifu... last night… if I’ve done or said something disrespectful to you… I…”

“It’s quite alright.” Moyuan looked away, his gaze directed at the window beside them where a layer of rain had spilled in, dampening the bottom pane. The wind was still sending more droplets in, simply refusing to suspend. “I won’t fault you for it.”

A long silence settled in between them. When she glanced over and saw the kettle of hot water growing cold at her side, Bai Qian quickly picked up her hands and started to prepare the tea. Clumsily, she knocked the utensils around. The clinks and clanks rang loudly as her fingers fought to grip them.

“Seventeenth, I think this is a good time for us to talk about what has happened.”

The tea kettle that had just been lifted up off of the tray almost slipped out of her hands.

“The events of this mission…” Moyuan continued. “I’m afraid you have made it clear to not only myself last night that they have left you rather disturbed.”

Titling the kettle, Bai Qian quickly filled one of the cups with tea. The stream of liquid leaving the spout wavered fitfully in her shaking hands.

“Perhaps, talking about it will offer you some peace and clarity.”

The tea was poured into both cups, one of which was offered to him. When he took it from her, she quickly moved her fingers out of the way so they would not touch.

“I’m fine… really… I’m just tired is all...” She trailed off there, certain that he knew she was lying by the look on his face.

“Seventeenth, it would not be wise for us to avoid the subject any longer.”

She watched him wet his lips with a sip of the tea she just handed to him. His eyes never strayed from her. He had her cornered. She needed to say something.

“Shifu… it’s about... the Shen Demon…”

“Of course. What about it?”

Bai Qian’s eyes danced around the room, wanting to look anywhere but at the face of the person she was speaking to. “Its illusion... made me realize something about myself. And I…”

“That was precisely the Shen Demon’s purpose.”

“But Shifu… the thing it made me realize… this… this is…”

“Seventeenth, the Shen Demon was the embodiment of dark magic. Such a creature meddles with your mind, intensifies what is supposed to be only a small amount in you. You must understand that none of us are protected against temptations.” The placidness in his voice echoed through her. “Whatever you saw was nothing more than an illusion of what could have been had we succumbed to a particular temptation. It was bound to happen to anyone. There is nothing to worry about.”

“But… what if it is something that should not exist even in the smallest amount?”

Moyuan’s eyes shifted, the calm look on his face faltering ever so briefly before returning. “You mean something that is generally considered wrong.”

The bulging lump in her throat grew as Bai Qian nodded.

“I do not know what you have seen; but seeing that it has affected you this negatively, I can only advise that you let yourself forget about it.”

Forget? The word was like a sharp pebble rattling in her skull.

“Shifu… how do I forget when I can’t stop thinking—I can’t stop myself from wanting to know why… how it could have existed… how it still…”

“Seventeenth, seeing it in the Demon’s illusion, whatever it might have been, was not wrong. But holding on to those images and allowing them to sway your confidence is, I’m afraid, inadvisable. It only proves that you have been defeated by a mere illusion.”

“But… I don’t know if it’s the Demon’s magic that’s caused me to feel this way, or if these... feelings... belong to me... I want to know desperately. I can’t rest until I find the answer.”

“I understand that the things you’ve experienced in the Demon’s illusion may have seemed incredibly real to you. However, they were not.” Moyuan’s eyes flitted downward to his tea cup as he continued to speak. “No matter how paramount it feels now, I am certain you will look back on this one day and appreciate the insignificance of it all… because the feelings you speak of, are no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean.”

He cleared his throat sharply, moving his gaze back up to meet hers. “Take it as it is — an illusion. Because that’s all it was.”

The last of his words seemed to have been grounded out. Drowning the argument that had been replaying in her mind for far too long. The knowledge was delivered so deftly, it left her scrambling to hang onto whatever scrap of composure she still had.

“Seventeenth, you will soon see that some things can resolve themselves and vanish for good if we let them run their course.”

The way he spoke about things. The way he dismissed the aching feeling in her chest. It was paralyzing.

“Is it really... that easy?” she asked.

“I never said it would be easy. But it might prove a more effective solution than the one you have chosen.”

Bai Qian’s eyes stung unbearably with tears that she refused to allow to fall.

“Shifu... were you... also caught in an illusion?”

“Yes.”

“What you saw… did it show you… what you...”

“It did.” His brow furrowed, the brief discomfort in his eyes unmistakable. That was all it took for the assumption of what he may have seen—whom he had seen—to solidify in her mind. It sank deep into her bones, unsettling every inch of her.

“Even I am not insusceptible to dark magic. It is simply that I have acquired more experience to manage how it affects me. You cannot ask that of yourself at this time, but you must learn to let it go.”

Bai Qian looked down at the tea leaves rising and falling in the cup untouched before her. His words blurring with every bit of pain ebbing and flowing in her heart.

“Furthermore, it is what you choose to do in the face of temptation that truly matters. Be proud of yourself, as I am proud of you, for being able to overcome what has been dealt to you. You have destroyed the Shen Demon. You have already chosen right. It makes no sense to fret about it now.”

“No—Shifu…” Her head shook in a frenzy. “I don’t deserve it… you being proud of me. You don’t understand… I’m not… worthy of being your disciple… not with these—”

Moyuan set his tea cup down emphatically, breaking off her words. “Seventeenth, there is no such thing as worthy or unworthy. You and I have taken sacred vows. If you ever do any wrong, I will be at fault with you. For as long as I exist, I will be your master, and you will be my disciple. This fact will never change. I hope you will not forget this.”

Bai Qian watched him speak. Watched his jaw move, his lips part, collecting every last word that fell from them. And when she looked at those consoling eyes, honing in on her, trying their best to put her at ease, all she wanted to do was scream. To tell him just how she truly felt about him. To confess that not only did she feel undeserving, but that she no longer wanted to be his disciple. She had long wished for him to be something other than her Master. The words were like cotton filling her mouth, sticking to all surfaces, refusing to leave, while her head nodded in submission.

“I think it’s time for us return to Kunlun Mountain. You should gather your things. We will leave shortly. I will wait here for you.” A reassuring smile gathered on his lips.

Bai Qian could hardly stand, the dazzle of the sun parted the rain clouds, her tired legs wobbled as she straightened them. How long they had been there, she didn’t know. If this was reality, why did it feel less real than the long dream she had just woken from?

Reaching the edge of the doorway, her head impulsively turned back. Perhaps if she hadn’t, she would have missed the look on his face. The smile that dropped like a mask.

“Shifu, what you saw in the illusion... it really doesn’t matter to you now? Not one bit?”

“No.” He turned away from her as he stood up from his seat. “It is essential that you understand: none of it was real.”

Could he have been lying?

The idea never once occurred to me.

How could I have doubted him then?

When in my mind, even the permanence of the most immutable objects known to man could not compare to the permanence of this person’s words. I committed them to my heart. Carved them to the back of my skull. Believed in them like religion.

There was never any question.

That they were the truth, more true to me than my very own thoughts.

_________________

End Notes:

[1] White Lotus (白莲花) - Slang term used to describe women who seem pure/innocent in appearance, but the opposite inside.


END OF ARC 1