Fanfiction: Moyuan and Bai Qian, Book 2 - Chapter 6, Part 5 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 6 - The Realm of Trials

Part 5

written by Lala Loop
Consulting by Bunny
editing by kakashi

How she had made it back to the safehouse, how she still had the heart to go back, Bai Qian was not sure. But she was standing in front of the kitchen stove once again, soaked from a brief and sudden downpour that had happened when she was about a few yards away from the protective shield. Perhaps she could have made an effort to avoid being drenched, but she was not at all interested in her own comfort or safety at the moment.

Bai Qian dropped to the ground the sack that contained the things she had gotten from town. How had she remembered to get those things? This too was a mystery to her. She had a vague memory of meeting Xiaocheng, taking some tea from him, and then a conversation. The next thing she knew, she was walking back to the safehouse with her head both overflowing with thoughts and completely empty.

“Why…” Bai Qian’s hand flew to her mouth as her back hit the kitchen wall. She pushed herself against the solid surface. “Shifu… why…”

No, a voice argued like it had many times on her way back, it is not possible.

But a part of her knew that it was very possible. She had seen it in his eyes everytime the woman’s name was mentioned. She had heard it in his voice, obscure and indefinite, but it was always there - that which made this whole thing possible. A feeling, a kind of emotion she could not explain, something Moyuan only associated with her. The inability to let go like he did everything else. But why?

Someone with the knowledge and wisdom such as his should know better than to disturb the Balance by piecing back a soul with magic. Someone else’s soul, the soul of a High Goddess whose body had shattered in fire.

Assuming that bits and pieces of her soul were out there waiting to be gathered, then it must be her who gathered them without aid. It must be her to undergo millenia of trials to achieve it without interference. What awaited someone in those trials, Bai Qian did not know. If a trial for ascension such as hers had been that difficult, trials to regain one’s body and soul, given that Fate allowed it, must no doubt be endless misery and torture in all senses. No one ever knew of this kind of trial because it was beyond the Books of Fate, just as the gathering of a soul was. And that was the point - returning from the Dead was impossible even for them, immortals, hence all the effort to avoid dying in the first place.

Once a soul had been destroyed and was scattered, its fragments belonged to the universe and only the universe could decide what to do thereafter. This fact was what the Demon Tribe did not accept. But Moyuan, someone who studied the Balance, one of a few who had been charged to protect that balance, a keeper of peace, should know this. She too had once been unable to accept Fate, she had once wanted to do more than just using her heartblood to keep Moyuan’s body intact. There had been instances where, possessed by too fierce a desire to see him walk the realms again, she had thought about crossing that line. But it had not happened. Despite that strong desire, Moyuan’s last words before his sacrifice and her sense had been stronger. They had pulled her back before any violation could be committed. She had waited; and Bai Qian had thanked the heavens that she had, that Zheyan had been there to remind her that the Soul-Gathering Lamp was not to be lit one instant sooner than the completion of Moyuan’s soul. Else, they would have done him and themselves more harm than good.

Guiding his soul back to the right body was what they had done with the Lamp. Here… there was no body. The Demon Queen had burnt to ashes, both body and soul. Bringing her back meant wrenching her from the hands of Fate. The pieces of her soul might be out there wandering in different realms. But they might also have become part of the universe, part of the earth, the sky, the Energies that existed to protect this world, given how long ago her death had been. And if that was the case, the risk Moyuan took was beyond imagination.

Bai Qian shook her head in bewilderment. Standing in one place yet her heart was pounding as if she had been running all this time.

She knew there were ways to ‘cheat’, of course, to slither around the rules, but they were magical practices that neither she nor anyone with a shred of decency would think of.

Unless Moyuan intended to take all the consequences upon himself to bring his friend back, unless he planned to direct all the punishment and wrath of the universe to himself, Bai Qian could not think of any other way this could be done. But this was not something he could control. Who could command the forces of nature and tell them whom to punish? Who could ever negotiate with the magic that kept the eight realms in harmony? Once that harmony was disturbed, it would react to restore it without a care about whom or what would be caught in that consequential whirlwind.

Life, Death, the two pans of a perfectly balanced scale, if one weight was lifted from one side and moved to the other, one would have to travel in the opposite direction. This was something every single disciple of Taoism knew. How many souls would it take for the soul of a High Goddess to materialize again? What magic, what sacrifice would have to be made to recover the body and essence of an immortal of that immense cultivation?

The more Bai Qian thought about it, the more muddled she became. What was Moyuan wanting to do? Was this person so important to him that he was prepared to risk everything for her?

Had Donghua not paid a great price just for allowing interference into his mortal trial? Was he not still paying a price, both he and Fengjiu, for his attempt to fool the Stone of Fate? Yehua too had silently admitted the regret he’d felt in taking advantage of the Soul-Gathering Lamp once, even if it was only to create an image of someone. What the three of them had done was nothing close to what Moyuan was wanting to do if it was true.

Bai Qian’s heart fought to cling on to the argument that this was not true at all, that Moyuan was not betraying his principles, his beliefs, to engage in something that had the potential to destroy him… destroy more than just him. But so far, this had been a battle her heart was not winning.

“Seventeenth?”

It was as if she had been hit in the back with a brick. Bai Qian jolted at the sound of that voice, the echo of which bounced against the walls and seized her airways for an instant. She took a stride away from the wall and straightened her back.

A series of very loud twittering noises issued from the bedroom.

“It’s all right,” said his voice again, weary but determined.

Right, she swallowed and reminded herself, he was still sick. In fact, if Bai Qian had not remembered how sick and helpless Moyuan had looked before she’d left, she would not have been able to find her way back, she would have rooted herself to the very ground where she’d last met Master Gejing until now, until she could figure out what was going on.

More twittering from the little sprite stirred her befuddled mind awake completely; Bai Qian brushed away the droplets of water on her face and hair and gathered herself together.

“Seventeenth…”

Bai Qian gasped. She turned around, taking a deep breath. As she did so the little sprite zoomed past her and disappeared behind the window bars, still twittering angrily.

She looked back to see Moyuan near the entrance to the kitchen, one hand on the wall for support. He looked… tired. He looked to be in no condition to stand for too long. Her first instinct was to run over and make him go back to bed. But her feet were not acting on instinct. Instead, she stood still and stared at him as though he was a stranger.

A relieved smile appeared on his pale lips, though it faded just as quickly and Bai Qian understood why - her face was showing everything, the doubt and shock and confusion. And Moyuan had never not been able to figure out her thoughts by just looking.

Breathing in, she blinked several times to break their gaze. No question came out of Bai Qian, no coherent statement for that matter; there was only an incomprehensible jumble of words in her head.

“What are you…” she stuttered after several seconds. “You should be resting… Shifu.”

“What happened, Seventeenth?” his voice was frail. “Are you not well?”

Bai Qian forced a chuckle, brushing the wet hair from her face. “Do I… not look well?”

He walked closer and took her shoulders in his hands.

Unexpected even to her, Bai Qian flinched. Something was rising in her like water entering a ship through a small leak, slow yet unstoppable, something she had never felt in his presence before - fear. How many other secrets of this kind was he keeping from her? What else had he been hiding?

“What happened?” he asked again.

“I… er…” Bai Qian looked down for a moment. “I went to town.”

“I know,” Moyuan nodded. He picked up a dry cloth from the pile that had been arranged neatly on the bamboo table, gently dabbing her face with it.

Not possible, she looked into his eyes. Dark and withheld they might be, but she had learned to read them, extract from them his true emotions. Affection and devotion were what she saw at this moment. No, he was not capable of betraying her trust, betraying everything they all believed in this way, Bai Qian’s head slightly shook.

“Why are your clothes all wet?” he asked.

“It was raining on the way back.”

His eyes demanded more explanation. Bai Qian became aware that it was not merely the state of her clothes he was asking about, but her startled expression as well.

“I got lost a little…” she said quickly, forcing her shoulders to relax as much as she could. “I promised the sprite I would only be gone for an hour or so. I was worried I wouldn’t… wouldn’t be able to come back on time. And you were in such a terrible state last night… so...”

“I am fine now,” he assured her in an even gentler voice.

“Right…” Bai Qian did not know what else to say; his fever was the last thing she was concerned about now. If what she’d heard was the truth, he was going to get more than just one fatal fever at the very least. “Right,” she repeated. “Are you... sure?”

“I’m sure,” he pulled her close and with both arms encased her in an embrace. An embrace so pleasant and tender it nearly caused her to stop thinking, nearly turned all her doubts away. But it did not. Try as she might, Bai Qian could not will her arms to embrace him back. The gentleness that would usually ease her heart now felt foreign and more baffling than anything.

As though unaware of her lack of response, he held her in place for a long while. He was still very warm, she noticed. The fever was obviously still inhabiting him and it felt as though if she was not here, he would not have gotten out of bed.

Out of a genuine concern that was temporarily drowning the issue at hand, she pushed against his shoulders and drew away.

“You really should be resting.”

Taking a deep breath, he shook his head and smiled at her. “Perhaps you’re right.”

Slightly pushing down with her hands, she prompted him to sit down on the bamboo stool right next to the table. Her drenched robes had left watermarks on his white garments. Hands still placed on his shoulders, she gazed upon him as he lifted his head, not blinking nor allowing her face any movement that could give away her current state of perplexity. A wrinkle of the eyebrows and he would be able to figure it out, and Bai Qian did not want to be interrogated. She wanted to be the one asking the questions.

“Is something on your mind?” still, he asked.

“What makes you say that?”

“The last time you looked at me like that, you were about to tell me I was a fool for keeping secrets.”

Her arms tensed at his touch, but she did not retreat. Forcing a smile, she replied, “I’m thinking about… your fever.”

“It will pass shortly,” he said.

“I’m afraid this won’t be the last time. You tend to -- throw yourself in dangerous situations.”

“Not without --”

“Having a plan.”

“Precisely,” he chuckled. “So don’t worry.”

It’s Shifu
, her internal voice kept repeating, it’s Moyuan, no matter how powerful he was, no matter how much remorse he felt about the Demon Queen’s death, he would not… he could not...

A part of Bai Qian was furious at herself for even doubting him. If 70,000 years ago someone had told her that Moyuan was capable of something this outrageous, she would have laughed at them, chastised them for insulting him. But Bai Qian realized now that that part of her, the part that would prompt her to act like Zilan or any of her other Seniors regarding Moyuan was fading from her.


***


The rice soup Bai Qian had made must not taste as bad as she’d feared because Moyuan had finished his bowl without showing a single reaction on his face. If he had, she would have noticed - she had kept her eyes on him for almost the entire dinner. He had given the rice the same look he usually gave a tea brew he liked. But Bai Qian wished she had the heart and mind to appreciate the fact that she had not failed in the kitchen.

“You’ll have to excuse me from chess today,” said Moyuan with a chuckle when dinner was finished. “I’m a little too tired for it.”

“Oh…” she nodded. “Of course. I wasn’t expecting you to.”

“Furthermore, you would defeat me in five moves anyway given my current state. It seems Donghua has been a brilliant teacher in this particular field.”

“Well -- he is,” she repeated impulsively. It was only several seconds later that Bai Qian realized she had confused him with her curt response. “In this -- particular field,” she said and rose from the dinner table just when she noticed he was reaching for the loose hair strand hanging on the side of her face. “You’re right, Shifu -- erm -- I think you should rest early too. I’ll make you some tea.”

Moyuan remained still at the table for a long minute after she had begun boiling some water. Bai Qian kept her head down - she knew she could not play the oblivion game for long. And truth be told she did not care to play it for longer. The fact that he was still recovering from the fever was the only thing keeping her from exploding from the pressure this knowledge had put upon her. Only when, from the corner of her eyes, she saw him quietly stand and leave the kitchen, did Bai Qian look up.

How could she bring up this matter? She could not openly accuse him of this act nor ask questions bluntly. There was still a chance that this was all a misunderstanding; and if that was the truth, then she took the risk of insulting him by verbalizing her doubts.

She struggled to keep a straight face as she brought a tray of tea to his bed and sat down at the side, opposite of him. Moyuan’s silence was no longer oblivious, Bai Qian knew it. He was giving her the time she needed to decide whether to share her trouble with him as always. She handed him a full cup and took one for herself. Her dilemma only became worse with every smile he gave her, every hint of trust, comfort, and bliss that appeared in his eyes despite his knowing something was wrong. Bai Qian had a certain feeling that her presence had brought about those things.

But how true were the things she felt about him when she was having to question the one thing she had been surest of his character?

“Shifu,” she said when Moyuan set down his cup. “Do you remember the short trip I took not too long ago?”

“I remember,” he replied. “What about it?”

“We met Zhongyin that day, the Demon Steward. He was with the Spinner.”

Bemusement flashed through his eyes, and concern followed.

“We didn’t run into trouble with them, of course,” she said. “But we overheard them from our shield.”

“We?”

“Pojing and I. He came along with me on the trip. I told you he took care of my injuries.”

“Ahh,” he nodded. “You did say that. What is it that you heard them say?”

“They were talking about their queen,” she took a few-second pause, waiting for a change in his expression. But it did not come just yet. “They said in clear terms that they believe she could come back.”

“I see.”

“Yes, returning from the Nothingness. It turns out they’ve been looking for a device to do this, some kind of magic that’s able to track the pieces of her soul and shattered body and bring them together. And they don’t care if it breaks the rules.”

Still he listened to her with unbroken attention.

“Zhongyin mentioned that he came to Kunlun once to talk to you about it, about how he thinks it’s probable because you’d just returned yourself at the time. But you refused to discuss these methods.”

“True, I did.”

“Right. Because there’s no use talking about something that everyone knows is impossible,” she looked straight into the black depths of his eyes. “And wrong.”

Again, he nodded quietly.

“Zhongyin was bitter about that,” she continued. “He thinks you weren’t telling the truth, he thinks you haven't given up hope but just can’t admit it.”

A chuckled escaped from Moyuan this time - he seemed rather amused by this news yet somewhat saddened.

“I’ve been wondering though,” Bai Qian drew a bit closer, giving him no doubt that she was studying him. “Do you believe it, Shifu? Do you believe that the Demon Queen could come back now that it’s been done by you?”

“It is not the same.”

“Have you ever thought about amending what happened to her, ever considered crossing the boundary of right and wrong to try and bring her back? No one knows what would happen if we interfere with the flow of Fate or try to -- to reverse it. Have you considered using that as an advantage?”

“Using what?”

“The fact that we don’t know for sure what the consequences are. Like the Stone of Reincarnation. Most of us would leave it alone and never question its power or try to change what’s been written. But some people,” Bai Qian stopped to catch her breath. Even though she was talking in a low voice, slowly and carefully, she felt as if each word took all the air in her lungs and that the room would soon run out of air. “Some people would say ‘what’s the worst that can happen’, and act on this belief. Because no matter what the consequences are, they believe what they want is worth it.”

“What’s bringing about all these questions, Seventeenth?” said Moyuan.

“I was just wondering.”

Silent it was for a few seconds. A flicker of some strange emotion swept across his face, causing those eyes to narrow. Though whatever that emotion was, it looked like an invitation for her to continue, the reaction of someone who was the opposite of clueless. Naturally, Bai Qian nodded to herself. It would be a mistake to assume he had not figured out her meaning by now.

“Would you take that risk for the Demon Queen like her brother would?” she went on. “If you ever found a way to give her another chance at life, would you take it regardless of the harm it might cause, despite how you might have to condone sinister magic in the process, despite having to betray everything you have chosen to stand for?”

“Seventeenth --”

“Of course, I know you wouldn’t do anything like that, Shifu, not for anyone. But then -- we all have exceptions, don’t we. How far would you go for someone you consider an exception?”

Moyuan did not reply but instead reached for his tea cup on the side table. Quietly, gracefully.

“I met Master Gejing in the city today.”

Half an inch from the cup, his hand ceased.

Gradually his face lifted, eyes wandering to the distance before retracting his arm. Bai Qian thought she heard a sigh. Then, with very little effort to conceal how her last statement had claimed his attention, he met her gaze again. And she saw it on his face, something she had wished to the gods would not appear - awareness. He knew what she had meant. He understood. But for once, she’d rather he did not understand anything at all.

“He left a little late, I see,” replied the still calm voice.

“Yes,” Bai Qian nodded. “We had the chance to talk a bit before he left.”

“Did he say anything?”

“A lot of things, actually. Some things about you and your work he thought I wouldn’t mind knowing. He thought I was someone you -- trusted above others.”

“You are.”

“Am I?”

Moyuan said nothing else. Bai Qian waited - if she had wrongly accused him, he would let her know. Unfounded doubt was something he could not stand from her, and neither could she from him. They had been many things to each other before but never untruthful. Honesty was what they were never afraid to give one another even if it bore more hurt than joy; and honesty was what she believed would remain even if everything else they shared ever faded. Why, then, was he not defending himself?

Bai Qian stood up. Her feet felt as heavy as lead but she was determined to leave this room. His silence had given her the answer.

“If there’s nothing left to do here then I think we should go back as soon as possible,” she said. “I’d feel better if Zheyan was around in case your fever returns.”

But as she turned around, his hand caught hers and held it tightly. She twisted back, hope rising in her chest.

Please deny it. Please say Master Gejing was wrong.

“Thank you for what you did yesterday,” he said. “And I am sorry for worrying you.”

Disappointment hit her like a lightning bolt on the top of her head. Of all things, these were his priorities at this moment - expressing gratitude and an apology.

“It doesn’t matter. I would have done the same for anyone,” she said, and turned to the exit again. But his hand was firm around hers.

“Please let me finish,” he sighed a deep sigh that went through her like the piercing of an ice arrow. “Seventeenth, I told you once before that I admire and respect how you depend on reason for judgement; I will say again that under no circumstances do I wish you to lose this ability. But keep in mind that a lot of things can be seen differently -- if you allow them time.”

“No, Shifu,” she said. “There are some things that I will never see differently, not if I have to tell myself that South is North.”

Again she waited for a denial. But it did not come. His fingers slackened and her hand was soon free of his grasp. And even though she was the one who walked away from him, the one who was certain she was not wrong, it somehow felt as though she was more lost than he was at the moment. She was lost in a sea of questions, lost in thought about what kind of person this Demon Woman was and just how important she was to him. But whatever the explanation, for her it would not be enough. Not for anyone.

Chapter 7, Part 1