Fanfiction: Ink in Water - Chapter 18 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 18. Your suffering is the pain that makes you alive

written by Bunny
consulting/editing: Le, LalaLoop, LigayaCroft, kakashi
 
Incense smoke snakes out from the burner onto the still air. Hovering in shifting shapes, flexing rings, pulsing domes, billowy bubbles. One tendril moves forward as though questing. And when a faint breeze passes by, its tip lifts like a snake’s head.

Sitting, I stare at it.

Me, in one chair, while the maids and their shadows pass like darts all around. I have never felt more alone—more invisible, sitting in that large hall. In front of me, the set of doors leading into my father’s bedchamber loom. I’ve memorized their shape, the carvings on them, every crevice like the back of my hand, because I have stared at them so many times before. Kneeling here, in front of them, until my knees dripped blood, fear and exhaustion becoming a part of me. How many times exactly?

Today is different. Today, the man behind those doors, I have not come to receive punishment from, but to bid goodbye.

Slowly, they creep open. Releasing my father’s voice from the gap between them.

“Moyuan,” he calls, in a voice that no longer carries like it used to. “Come here.”

I enter to find him lying in his bed. A withered frame bundled in sheets. Has he always looked so small? He has not opened his eyes to acknowledge me. I take a moment to observe him. His face and lips, pale as blank paper, alerts me once more to the reality that he is dying. Today, he looks much worse than he did just a few days ago. When he first delivered the news to me, it didn’t seem possible at the time that he would cease to exist anytime soon. But I cannot doubt it now.

For a man who created Heaven and Earth, how strange it is that he looks no better than any creature of his own making on the verge of death.

When I reach the bedside, I drop to my knees ready to give my greetings, but before I get the chance, his hands have grasped for mine. Not in a sentimental manner, but with a kind of brute force that I remember well from my childhood. This person, whom I have once lived in fear of, even though it is clear to me now that he is nothing more than a body milking its last drops of energy, I still feel it in my bones—the kind of dread that only he can bestow onto me.

“Your brother.” His eyes finally open, piercing mine. “Where is he?”

For a moment, I do not follow. I stare blankly at him. Is he referring to the Golden Lotus? Has he forgotten that he has transferred it to my care not long ago?

“Fu-Shen, I have taken him to Kunlun Mountain as you have asked.”

The answer does nothing to loosen his grip on me.

“Kunlun Mountain?” He repeats it to himself a few times, as though it were his first time hearing the term. “That’s right… You are the Master of Kunlun Mountain now…” His mouth mutters something more, but I fail to comprehend the rest. It does not take long for me to ascertain—he is no longer of sound mind. And as his gaze continues to search mine, I can only think of the possibility that we are likely spending our last moments together.

“You must take good care of him. Do you hear me?” He goes on to say, “He is your kin. You are equals—you are brothers.” Pulling me closer, he presses this statement. I stare at his face, watching the wrinkles on his skin set in deeper with each word, wondering why he is doubting that I would do what he has asked of me. “Never forget… that his misfortune is what you have prospered from, Moyuan.”

The words are like nails, hammered to the back of my skull.

“For you to be born… he… your mother…” My father goes back to mumbling incoherently. His head turns away from me. I can no longer tell whether he is talking to me, or to himself. I have never seen him so hysterical. “Your mother... must have hated me… I have wronged her… I have wronged you… I have wronged my own brother… But you…” His fingers dig into my wrist. “You must not. You cannot wrong him… cannot…”

I try to get a grip on him to pull him out of his fit of madness. But that soon proves to be an impossible task. I look down to find his skin translucent. My fingers passing through him.

“Moyuan, you must remember my words.” Facing me again, he shows me in a moment of seeming clarity, the saddest look I have ever seen on that face. “Even if in your heart, there is nothing but resentment for me...”

I want to deny this statement. But I would be lying. I cannot say the feeling never existed. However, in this very moment, I feel nothing of the sort. Only sadness. A kind of grief that I was once unsure, would ever come.

“You are this world’s protector. A title that I have given you. It belongs only to you. You cannot abandon it… If ever there is desire in your heart to veer off of this path, rid yourself of it. You must not be selfish. Never try to take what does not belong to you. For that is the biggest sin. Don’t ever...”

I watch as his eyelids drift downward. His voice barely delivers his last words to me. My father, the first man, a god, a creator—in the end, all he seems to have is regret.

“...don’t be like me.”


***

“Not arcane, not demonic, not divine…”

The moment that faint voice flitted into his mind, Moyuan’s eyes snapped open. The room spun in his view. He brought his hands to his chest, gasping, feeling his lungs claw for air. The pain in his core was so intense, it took everything he had just to keep from dropping down onto that platform, writhing. He could feel the palms that had been pressed to his back slowly detach. Their scorching heat lingering on the surface of his skin. The new influx of cultivation that had just been given to him was coursing inward. Gradually, setting in like an anesthetic.

“Is it… primeval? Impossible... How could there be any primeval energy sources still in existence?”

Hearing the mumbling continue, Moyuan glanced back to find his friend sitting cross-legged, face covered in pills of sweat, staring down at his hands. “Just, what is it then?” Zheyan was clearly perturbed. “Whatever it may be, it doesn’t seem to like me probing at it. You must be in discomfort.”

“I’m fine,” Moyuan replied. Even if it was hardly the truth. The torment that had been dispensed to his body was nothing compared to what his mind was capable of lately. That dream he kept having of his father was on a cycle of recurrence. Each time, leaving him more disturbed than the last.

“If you can still lie, then I suppose you’re doing well enough.” Zheyan shook his head. He stood up, and reached for the robe that was hanging on the nearby rack and handed it over to the person still clutching his bare chest. “Here.”

“Thank you…” Moyuan grasped the folds of fabric, setting it down on his lap. “Thank you for…”

“No need to give anymore thanks.” Zheyan waved his hand. “I’ve replenished you enough to stabilize your qi for the time being, but we’ll likely need to keep doing this on a regular basis. Just think of it as my life’s blessing that we’re such good friends.” He turned away to gaze out the window, his profile silent and thoughtful. Finally he sighed, and turned back. “I’m sure you’re aware that this is no permanent solution.”

Moyuan nodded. He finished tying the ties to his robe, letting his eyes scan over the mark on his chest. Unflaggingly, more of it had spread. “Regarding this matter… I hope that you’ll keep it between us. My disciples… no one else needs to know of it.”

“Of all things, is that your biggest concern?”

“It is the only concern I can exercise some control over right now.”

Looking up, he saw that the other’s mouth had tightened in anger. Moyuan was used to it by now. Most of what he’d said lately had managed to conjure this reaction.

“Up.”

“Pardon me?”

“Get up—” Zheyan urged. “—up, up! We’re going for a walk. You need some fresh air. You’ve been cooped up indoors so much, it’s very likely you’ve grown mold inside that head of yours!” With that, he had shook his sleeves and turned to walk away.

Outside, the late afternoon air was colder than usual for the mid summer months. But as soon he stepped out into it, breathing in its cool snap perfumed by the heavy aroma of the flowers and plants that never ceased to thrive on the mountain, Moyuan couldn’t deny that he felt revived.

“What Haode [1] came to inform us of… Are you wondering if there’s some correlation to it all?” Walking beside him, Zheyan was staring out into the horizon, where dark clouds were drifting ever closer. “The timing of events certainly seem to fit, don’t they? Your awakening, a tear in the fabric of the realms, war looming on the horizon… What else do you suppose will happen next in this ripple effect?”

A strong wind whipped through the trees, bringing the leaves up to dance in lazy patterns in the air.

“You must think I’m putting the blame on you.”

In the midst of conversation, they had reached the Lotus Pond at the back of the school.

“We had talked about the consequences of your return, but it’s truly hard to say at this point if this is an instance of cause and effect… or the perfect storm.”

Zheyan took a seat on the stone embankment, but Moyuan remained standing. His eyes gravitated toward the chain of blooming lotus that engirdled the water surface. Realizing then, that since he had been back, he had yet to find the courage to bring himself out here. Even though, in the past, he had never let a day go by without paying a visit to this very spot.

“In any case… Perhaps now, more than ever, we need you here, Moyuan.”

By some strange inclination, his eyes had started to look for the thing he had always come to look for. But of course, it was no longer there. Nothing but a mass of pink and white.

“So I am urging you again...” Zheyan’s voice grew more vehement. “Those vacuous, self-destructive ideas you have formed in your head, you must put them away, because it isn’t going to make a difference whether—”

“It doesn’t.” Moyuan cut in firmly, pulling his gaze back to the person whose speech had yet to cease. “My plans… do not involve any form of self-destruction.”

“You...” Zheyan’s eyes gaped in bewilderment. As though he had been gearing up for a battle that had just ended short.

“You’re right.”

“I’m... what?”

“Since what has been done, cannot be undone, I can only hope to make myself useful in maintaining the status quo. It may be my only way to take responsibility.” The words sounded so righteous leaving his mouth, it sickened him. “To do so… I need to be here. I need to mend my—”

“—Rest assured, we have already begun the search,” Zheyan interjected in high spirits. He stood up, explaining, “After our discussion this morning, Donghua has headed back to Taichen Palace to regroup the Star Lords.”

“What for?”

“A complete examination of all the mortal records that have existed since the end of the Ghost War.”

“You’re suggesting… that my…”

“Correct. You see, we’ve already tried probing the higher realm’s energy matrix, Donghua and me.” Zheyan’s words flooded out of him as his feet began pacing in a circle. “If that missing fragment of your soul was still adrift in our realms—being that it’s a large enough part of your Hun—it should be detectable by the same standard I had used to detect your presence in Die Yong’s body, but of course, nothing has come up. This morning, Donghua pointed out that only in the mortal realm would your aura be completely hidden.” Zheyan let out a sigh to accompany the wry smile that had just appeared on his face. “Perhaps, while we all assumed that you had been reduced to nothing more than a mere shell lying lifeless in that cave… you had been living...”

“LEAVE—ME—BE!” A scream erupted from the vicinity. The sound of which completely muted out the rest of Zheyan’s sentence.

“Come back, Furball!” And yet, another voice followed. “How can you be so cold? We were so close back then… Did you forget about all those days and nights we spent traveling together?”

“I’ve tried to forget!”

“Is this the kind of attitude you should be giving me when all I do is care about you?! It wouldn’t hurt to listen to me, you know… I am full of good wisdom!”

“YOU! I already said—this is none of your business!”

“How can it not be my business?! Everything is my business, ah~”

“What now?” Zheyan sighed, rubbing his temples.

It didn’t take long for the two people whose voices had been carried in like a squall to make their appearance. Moyuan turned his head to the mouth of the stone wall on the other side of the garden, catching sight of his Seventeenth disciple storming her way through. She had her eyes glued to her feet, unaware of her surroundings, the way she so often did when in a fit of rage.

“Yuan-Yuan! I’m so glad you’re here!”

Bai Qian’s head immediately snapped up at the mention. Moyuan kept his eyes on her as she tossed her gaze around the garden searching for him.

“You’re the only one who can talk some sense into this silly girl!”

Reluctantly, he took his eyes over to the boisterous white-clad figure that had appeared shortly after her. Having abandoned his previous target, Xiao Yu was taking a detour over to the two people standing by the Lotus Pond. And when Bai Qian finally took notice, she made her way over as well. Although, her steps were evidently far more tentative.

“Shifu.” Standing before him, she dipped her head and gave her greetings, before quickly aiming her glare over at Xiao Yu.

“What? Don’t look at me like that. Let’s ask your Shifu what he thinks you should do…” Xiao Yu taunted, his arm hooking onto Moyuan’s. “You see, Yuan-Yuan… we were just discussing your brother’s situation in the Mortal Realm. Seems he’s been taking a lot longer on that mortal trial of his than expected. So… I suggested to your disciple here that she should take a trip down there to visit him. After all, he is her beloved... You would think she’d be more concerned!”

Bai Qian’s face flushed red. Mouth opened then shut. She looked like she wanted to charge at Xiao Yu, but hesitated. Her eyes darted around, seemingly meeting everything but the eyes of the person standing in front of her. Watching her squirm, he found the reaction a bit unusual at first, until Moyuan realized he was simply looking at the natural tendency of any woman, who was being forced to talk about her affections for a man… before his likeness.

“Aiya, Furball… If you don’t care about the Crown Prince as your betrothed, you should at least care about him as your Shifu’s own flesh and blood! How can you be so heartless?”

She loves him.

“What?! I… I do care! Of course I care about Yehua! Very much!” She proclaimed, aiming her eyes straight at Moyuan, as though trying to set his mind at ease.

That’s fine. In fact, it’s great.

“Oh?” Xiao Yu continued to sneer. “Then… you should be the one to go make sure he’s alright!”

“Go… G-Go to the Mortal Realm?” she stammered.

“What is it? Why do you look so nervous? Don’t think I haven’t heard stories about you! All your seniors have told me that you used to skip Yuan-Yuan’s lectures every other day to go down there… So why are you putting on this innocent act now?”

The claims had turned Bai Qian’s expression from anxious to guilty. As she bit down on her lower lip and stared up at him sheepishly, Moyuan felt his insides clench.

“Oiii! Focus here!” Xiao Yu snapped his fingers in front of her. “We’re talking about the other twin right now, so stop ogling this one!”

“Listen, I can’t just go spying on the Crown Prince, alright?!” She snapped irritably. “It’s his mortal trial! What does it have to do with me?!”

“Oh… I get it…” Xiao Yu made a face. “You’re just afraid to catch him with some mortal woman, or maybe even fathering a couple of kids by now… See, I didn’t think you were the jealous type, but maybe I should have known…”

“YOU—” As her temper flared to its peak, Bai Qian’s hand had flung forward aiming for Xiao Yu’s collar. But without much forethought, Moyuan had taken his own hand out to catch it in mid-air. Stopped in her tracks, her eyes flew to him. He could feel them burning into the side of his face. Her immediate response was to pull back, which he should have allowed, but instead, Moyuan persisted to hold her hand in place.

“Shifu...” Her fingers wriggled in his hold. Confusion printed on her face that had taken on a deeper shade of red.

“Seventeenth,” he spoke slowly. His eyes could not fully meet hers. They lingered atop her brows. “Perhaps, it is a good idea.”

“What…?” Her hand stopped moving. “What is a good idea?”

“Come on, Furball! What have we been talking about? Why do you have to so dense sometimes?”

Paying Xiao Yu no mind at this point, Bai Qian continued to lock her attention on the person whose hand was still grasping hers. As she moved closer to stand directly in front of him, she asked, “Shifu, do you mean that you wish for me to visit the Mortal Realm?”

Bit by bit, Moyuan’s grip slackened. Setting her hand free. “You should do what you think is best. At this point, I am confident you no longer need my guidance for something so trivial.”

Why did he pick those words? Why did they have to sound so biting rolling off of his tongue? He didn’t mean for them to. Not at all. Bai Qian’s expression changed. Her face froze in a look of incredulous surprise, eyes wide with incomprehension. No sooner had his words slammed into her than she was moving away.

“I see.” Her eyes casted down to her feet. “I suppose you’re right…” A few silent seconds passed before she lifted them again. This time, wearing a smile so perfect it was disconcerting. “It wouldn’t hurt for me to go. I’m sure you’re worried about him too, Shifu. In fact, I should take my leave now.”

Moyuan had barely managed to return her smile, when Bai Qian quickly dipped her head in a bow and turned to walk away. Her swiftness was jarring. She seemed annoyed for some reason. Because of the tone he had taken with her? It doesn’t matter. So he was a little harsh. She would forget about it in no time. Without a doubt. There were a million other things she could be thinking about. None of which should be him… nor his words.

***

“After everything I’ve taught you… How come you’re still ever the fool?”

Sitting down beside him on the pond’s embankment, Xiao Yu handed over a jug of wine, which Moyuan accepted easily. Having lingered in the same spot for the past two hours, what had he been doing exactly? Staring at the sky, the blackened clouds hovering above, the sun sinking behind them, the mountains, the rivers, the streams—and yet, all the while, not being able to afford one thought about any of those things.

The party of four that had previously occupied this space, had been reduced to two.

“I have to give it to you. I really did not expect that you would send her off like that…” Pausing to wipe the wine off of his lips, Xiao Yu continued, “Don’t tell me you’re regretting it now.”

“What right do I have… to indulge in such a thing?”

“None.” He smiled a tight smile. “Tragic. But it’s good that you’re aware.”

Untying the wrapper on his own jug of wine, Moyuan finally took a sip. If he was going to sit through a conversation with this person jabbing at his open wounds, he needed it.

One sip turned into two. Then three.

“Tell me… How long do you plan to keep them all in the dark? Does that Old Phoenix know yet?”

The question froze him. Although Moyuan could not quite tell what it alluded to. He could hardly swallow the wine in his mouth.

“I wonder, when he finds out, would he still feel the same about his efforts? Helping you search for something that you, yourself, knowingly discarded?”

Moyuan was speechless with shock. This matter, how could Xiao Yu have insight into it? Even if the many things this person was capable of rarely shocked him anymore… this one thing… was unintelligible.

“Don’t look at me like that, Yuan-Yuan, you know my heart is weak to your impenetrable gaze…” Xiao Yu’s eyes danced with mirth. “Are you truly surprised? Did you forget who I am?”

A warm rain began to pelt down from a sky that was still suspended between daylight and starless dusk. Ushering in a sick feeling that pooled in Moyuan’s gut. Of course, he could not forget who this person was. Even if it was easy to on most days. That frivolous personality was an impeccable cover.

“If it’s any assurance, I can hardly blame you for what you did… after all, you are the one responsible for her death.” Leaning closer, Xiao Yu spoke the words with a smile that cut. “Love is sweet isn’t it? Especially when your hands are stained with the blood of your beloved.” He gave a shrug. “If it were me, I would not hesitate to send a part of my soul after her either. But look at the bind you’ve managed to get yourself into… Have you any idea if you’ve succeeded? Have you found her yet? Or are you just… incomplete?”

Xiao Yu chuckled at his own wit. Moyuan remained silent.

Water beat the ground like drums. Beating the tops of their heads. Warm as blood. Relentless as lashes for the guilty. Fat drops running down both their faces.

“The taste of wine mixed with rain… terrible really, but there’s something perversely pleasurable about it, wouldn’t you say?” Lifting the wine jug to his mouth, Xiao Yu turned its bottom to the sky and drained it in one gulp. “After you live as long as I have, there are far and few things unusual enough to find thrilling.” When he finished, he shook the rain from his hair and laughed.

Watching him, the memories flooded Moyuan. This person had appeared in his life at some point in his childhood. When exactly, it was hard to say. His recollection was always fuzzy when it came to Xiao Yu. Almost as though there was some film covering that part of his memory. But in every image he could conjure from the past, the man had always appeared this way. Unchanging. Ageless. Laughing like a child, to hide the part of him that was as old as time itself. What was he not capable of?

“You know… don’t you?” Moyuan was soaked to the bone. His soul had grown cold. “You know where it is.”

“Precisely.” Xiao Yu’s cloying tones were gone, revealing a voice as thin and sharp as a whip. “I cannot tell you, of course. That would not bode well for me. But don’t worry… I won’t let you die just yet. As long as I am here, you do not have to worry.” His hand reached out to touch Moyuan’s collar, resting it upon the drenched folds of fabric that directly covered the dark stain on his chest. And where it touched, Moyuan felt a horrible, clutching feeling. A deep chill sank into him, as his body began to hum with an inexplicable sense of recognition.

Impossible.
“This…” He stared into those green eyes glinting bright like razors. Anger and disbelief seething in him. “This is your doing? Inside of me...”

Xiao Yu’s hand pressed in further. Only a slight pressure, and yet it had dealt Moyuan a moment of blinding pain. He grit his teeth in agony, longing to cry out.

“Are you suffering? Does it hurt?” Xiao Yu said with a twist of his mouth. “Which more—your body, or your mind? Or is it your heart?”

Rain was falling harder now, stinging his eyes, Moyuan could not open them. The figure before him, but a blur of white.

“But isn’t it a good kind of hurt? Don’t you know, your suffering is the pain that makes you alive? If one day, you find yourself incapable of wounds, when you cannot shed tears—cannot remember the things that used to make you feel pain, that is a state worse than death, you see… I would know.”

Freeing the other from his grasp, Xiao Yu stood up. Tiny streams of rainwater dripping, twisting down the back of his robe as he took his steps away from the person left sitting on that embankment, gasping for air. Moyuan wanted to stop him from leaving. He wanted to get to the bottom of things, but his head was pounding. Louder than the sound of thunder rolling in above, was the beat of his pulse rattling in his skull.

The rain kept on, coming down and down and down.

“Moyuan, don’t forget the promise you once made to me.” Xiao Yu turned back to say, before disappearing in a ring of smoke. “You may need to act on it soon.”

_______________

End Notes:

[1] Haode - Skylord’s given name.