Chapter 54

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written by Panda
edited by kakashi

Ye Hua woke up drenched in sweat, pain radiating from his chest in a steady vicious wave. Gritting his teeth, he remained rigid and quiet to prevent Bai Qian from waking up. She lay as usual draped on his side with her left leg flung over his lower body, her head fitting perfectly in the curve of his shoulder. Holding himself in check, he regulated his breathing, inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply, focusing on his qi. Gradually, the pain faded away. After what seemed to be the last painful throb, he gave a tiny sigh of relief and relaxed his body.

I think it is getting better, he thought.

***

Three Immortal Days Ago

Ye Hua was surveying some documents when the pain hit out of the blue like a lightning bolt, sudden and devastating. The scroll he was studying dropped to the floor from his hands and he half fell to his knees, his hands clutching his chest in agony. It took him a couple of minutes to compose himself as the pain dulled into a steady throb. He knew instantly something quite catastrophic must have happened.

Only one thing could hurt like that.

Fearing the absolute worst, he cloud jumped to Kunlun. That he had been wrong about his assumption became quickly obvious however, since there were no signs of carnage or warfare on the mountain and the Disciples rushed forward to greet him as usual.

"Crown Prince," they bowed and his brother's second disciple stepped forward.

"Crown Prince, be welcome, but I am afraid our Shifu has given us very clear instructions not to let anybody disturb him."

"I must insist on seeing him!" Ye Hua said and without further delay, he walked with firm strides towards the hall. Second disciple hastily ran after and then walked beside him, murmuring softly that he was going in the wrong direction, steering him towards the caves. It almost seemed like he was glad that someone had come to challenge his Shifu's reason.

When they got to the sealed Meditation Cave, the disciple bowed and called out: "Shifu, you have a guest!"

When he got no reply, he called out again: "Shifu, the Crown Prince, your brother is here."

Still there was nothing but silence from within.

Looking chagrined, the disciple was about to call out for the third time when Ye Hua stilled him by raising his palm. "Mo Yuan Da-Ge, I have come to pay a visit," he announced his own presence.

Even though there still was no reply, Ye Hua had no intention of leaving before seeing his brother. He was prepared to break the barrier and storm into the cave if need be. He was about to call out once again when the air shimmered in front of them and the seal disappeared. The disciple bowed and left in a hurry, relief mixed with worry etched on his face. Ye Hua entered the meagerly lit cave.

He is unhurt, was his initial thought when he saw Mo Yuan sitting on his meditation platform in lotus position. He felt a great sense of relief at the sight. But why had his brother gone into seclusion at this time?

"Da-Ge", he bowed in greeting.

"Ye Hua," his brother nodded, his expression grim. "What brings you here?"

Ye Hua opened his mouth to ask his brother about the pain he had experienced when a glimpse of Mo Yuan's shadowy face made him stop. His brother's eyes were stormy like the sky before a lightning trial and his face was so pale, it shone in the dim light like a ghost's countenance.

"I just wanted to ... see you," Ye Hua answered hesitantly. "Are you... are you alright?"

Like a distant echo of the pain he had felt earlier, the left side of his chest throbbed. His heart. It was the heart. Could it be...?

"Da-Ge. Where is the Demon High Goddess?" Ye Hua asked carefully.

"She has left," his brother replied. His voice was flat and emotionless, but Ye Hua wasn't fooled. If he was feeling this much pain, his brother must be suffering even more.

Looking at Mo Yuan's silent agony, he now knew with certainty that what he had felt was connected to whatever had transpired between his brother and the Demon Goddess. He wanted to talk and proffer some sympathies but he realized he found it too difficult to address his brother about this matter. Though he himself was no stranger to this kind of heartache - he had thought he could not continue living after his Su Su had died and again when he had believed he had lost her a second time - he feared he would embarrass his brother or make things worse if he mentioned the Demon Queen.

Uncomfortable now, he searched his thoughts, trying to come up with another valid excuse for his hurried visit to Kunlun instead.

"I thank you for your visit," his brother cut into his thoughts. "I assume you have seen my new plans that I sent to the Celestial Heavens earlier? I fear I have no time to discuss them with you now though."

Ye Hua gladly latched onto the topic though he hadn't heard anything about new plans and was, frankly, quite surprised there needed to be any. Had their old ones not been good enough? They had certainly spent enough time with them.

"Ah, yes, the new plans," he said slowly.

Mo Yuan nodded. "I will discuss the details with you once I come out of meditation. Also, I need you to talk to the Heavenly Lord about the Xì mǎ yú-tribes."

"The horse tribes?"

"I know we have the support of the Water Kingdoms, also thanks to your hard work. However, it will not be enough. We will need troops and the support from all the tribes. I need Tianjun to send envoys to even those whom he is not on the best terms with. I need them to find out what these tribes want. And if we can, we need to give it to them to ensure their loyalty."

Ye Hua nodded grimly. He was shouldering all the day to day responsibilities already but his grandfather was still the Heavenly Emperor. It was him who needed to make this effort if they wanted to succeed.

"I will pass on your message to the Heavenly Lord, brother," Ye Hua bowed. "And I will come to see you again soon."

Thinking frantically about what else to say, he looked at his elder brother with great tenderness. Mo Yuan had closed his eyes again. Even for Ye Hua, it was sometimes hard to see the man behind the God. Through a lifetime of asceticism, Mo Yuan had acquired the ability to turn himself so still he resembled a mirror. Whatever people wanted to see in him, they saw. His face never showed what he truly felt, it only reflected the onlookers projections. But Ye Hua knew exactly what went on underneath the polished surface, maybe because Mo Yuan had nurtured his spirit for millennia, maybe because they had shared the same womb, before Ye Hua's bodily vessel had died. No crack was visible, but inside, the heart had been shattered.

I am so sorry, Da-Ge, he thought. How I wish you were happy like me.

"Ye Hua," Mo Yuan said, opening his eyes again, "thank you for coming."

"Da-Ge, I am glad I came. I take my leave."

Ye Hua went back to the Celestial heavens with a plan. He would try to find out what had happened between his brother and the Demon Queen and if he could help, he would. He would monitor the pain to see whether his brother got better. At the same time, he would be on his guard so the pain wouldn't take him unawares again, because if not, it would alert others. Others like Bai Qian.

In the time that followed, he had felt nothing during the days. It was the nights that were brutal.

***

A steely-eyed, determined Bai Qian methodically tied her robe. Four days had passed since Ye Hua had come back from his trip to Kunlun. Because of the hasty nature of his departure, she had been worried and asked if her Shifu was fine. Ye Hua had assured her that everything was like it had always been at Kunlun but had mentioned, almost in passing, that the Demon High Goddess had left. Contrary to her expectations, she had not felt happy about hearing the news but had instead felt sad and worried for her Shifu. She had however been reassured so insistently by Ye Hua that all was fine that she had soon let herself get distracted by other things. But now she was no longer fooled.

One Immortal Day Ago

After a rousing time at the field teaching A-Li and Gun Gun, Bai Qian relaxed at her quarters. Her thoughts kept straying to this and that as she made circular motions on her still flat belly. Truly, teaching A-Li and now Gun Gun had turned out to be one of the best ideas she had had in a while.

Although she liked to spend her time drinking wine and reading her plays, she had discovered that teaching was something she found immensely enjoyable too. The boys were thirsty to learn and the lessons didn't last too long - hence both parties took great pleasure in them. Indeed, she also greatly enjoyed dressing as Si Yin again. It seemed that once she slipped on the white robes, her identity as Crown Princess slipped off her and she could be almost as carefree as she had been back at Kunlun. She did not readily admit it to herself but the truth was, she often got rather bored up in the Nine Heavens. While certainly enjoying the leisurely and comfortable life of a Crown Princess, she missed her time as the venerated GuGu at Qing Qu quite often.

"I cannot wait to meet you," she whispered to the new life growing inside of her, thinking how this brother or sister to A-Li would drive away all boredom from her life for sure.

She then turned to a play she had been quite excited to start reading – it promised to be full of petty heartbreak and sappy romance - and was soon engrossed in it. But she was barely able to finish the first act when her maids came in and announced that she had a guest. It turned out to be Zhe Yan.

"Xiaowu," he said in greeting when he strolled into the room in his usual casual way, "You look in the flush of health!" He sat down next to her and started to take liquid gifts from his sleeve pocket.

She joyously grabbed one of the wine gourds before remembering that she couldn't drink it. With a heartfelt sigh and a longing look she put it down.

Zhe Yan laughed. "I brought the wine for your illustrious husband. I am glad you remembered in time that you are not meant to partake of such fare for another... two and a half years.

So like him to make a dramatic pause before driving home the length of time she still had to forgo certain pleasures. Pouting, she poured out tea that had been laid out in front of her.

"To what do I owe this visit, Old Phoenix? Have you missed your drinking partner?" she asked sighing. "I miss the Peach Blossoms grove. I just always get so tempted to drink when I am there and that's why I much prefer to stay absent."

Zhe Yan waved away her excuses. "I fully understand. I don't mind you being absent for a while, it gives my wines time to age and mature properly without you digging them up impatiently."

"My drinking your fresh wines prematurely is a compliment to your skills," she replied, her good mood restored. She raised her teacup in tandem with his wine and they drank in companionable silence.

Afterwards, he had cleared his throat. "I may not have come to drink with you or check up on your always excellent health, at least not primarily."

"Oh?" Bai Qian said, suddenly feeling nervous.

The Old Phoenix looked at her with an unreadable expression. "Have you seen your Shifu recently, Xiaowu?"

"Shifu?" she asked. "I have not, but I know Ye Hua went to see him a few days ago."

"And?"

Bai Qian started to feel worried then. "Nothing."

"I see."

"He said he was fine."

"Hmmm."

"Is there something wrong with my Shifu?" she yelled, jumping up and almost knocking over her tray in the process.

"Hmmph, I expected motherhood and marriage would have calmed you down, Xiaowu. Please, sit. There is nothing life-threatening. I simply said you should pay your Shifu a visit."

He brought out two elixirs from his sleeve then. "Come, let's talk of other matters. I brought you these supplements to take – as the baby grows inside of you, you will be glad to have abundant energies to draw from. Also, your 4th brother misses you: He told me to urge you to visit soon. I will hide all wines, don't worry."

The day continued with lots of conversations, laughter and board games and it was in the evening hours that Bai Qian bid Zhe Yan goodbye. When he had left, the worry that had been niggling at her came back with full force. It was pretty clear that something was going on at Kunlun that people were trying to keep from her.

It might be because she was much more alert after her realization, but that night, she woke up because of a sudden movement Ye Hua made. From the way he held himself and how he tried to control his breathing, she immediately gathered that he was experiencing pain. Quite obviously, he didn't want her to know about it. Oh, she knew him well, this husband of hers! She was instantly worried, but he relaxed again soon after and was completely fine the next morning.

What are you trying to keep from me? She asked him in her head.

She was just getting ready to teach the boys when everything clicked into place in her head. People like Zhe Yan said she was dense, but that only applied to certain times and issues.

She finished putting on her garb, told her maids to inform the Crown Prince where she had gone and cloud jumped to Kunlun.

A stern looking Chang Shan appeared.

"Si Yin!" he exclaimed in surprise, his face breaking into a wide smile as he recognized her.

"Second Senior, where is everybody? Where is Shifu?"

"Si Yin, First Disciple and Zi Lan have gone to different places. Shifu is in meditation. He has asked very strictly not to be disturbed - several times. I got into quite a bit of trouble a couple of days ago after I let the Crown Prince see him."

"Shifu was angry with you?" Bai Qian asked with a frown.

"Very much so," Chang Shan nodded morosely. "Maybe you should come see him another time, Si Yin."

Bai Qian shook her head determined. "I fully intend to see him today, Senior. You know your Si Yin likes getting her way." She started walking towards the cave.

"So... his wife is no longer here?" she asked casually.

His expression getting even more abject, Chang Shan told her what he knew, which wasn't a lot, but enough to express his confusion and hurt about the High Goddess' rather sudden departure, and express outrage over how much the Demon Queen had hurt their Shifu. Bai Qian frowned at that information. So Mo Yuan had not defended himself? Granted, she was not surprised they had fought. The Demon Goddess had not struck her as particularly docile and if the two had had a lover's spat, it was not unexpected that woman had become violent. But her Shifu's behavior...she would probably never understand it.

When they got to the cave, she told second senior to turn back and not to announce her, so as not to get into further trouble. As soon as Chang Shan had scurried away, she cleared her throat and called out to Mo Yuan.

"Shifu, Shifu, Si Yin has come, I would like an audience with you."

Since Chang Shan had warned her about Shifu's rather bad mood, she wasn't surprised when she got no immediate response.

"Shifu, Shifu, I am prepared to sleep outside in the wind and rain and wait for you as I did when I was at Kunlun. You know your Seventeenth is very stubborn. I won't leave until I see you, Shifu. Shif..."

She had barely finished her speech when Mo Yuan strode out, his face dark and thunderous, no welcoming smile in sight.

Bai Qian hastily dropped into a bow, "Shifu."

When she raised her head, she saw him looking at her, a peculiar intense, confused expression on his face.

"Seventeenth?"

"Shifu, I..."

Without letting her say anything more, Mo Yuan closed the distance between them and hugged her close, effectively making her speechless.

"My little Seventeenth," he whispered against her hair, "you have come."

Bai Qian's breath stopped. The sudden, desperate gesture and the force of the embrace was so intimate and unexpected, her head was plunged into a state of great turmoil.

"Shifu," she whispered, "I...."

He let her go immediately when she spoke and stepped back and away from her, putting quite a distance between them.

"My apologies, Crown Princess," he said and shook his head a little as if to clear his mind, "I was lost in time for a moment. I thought...my apologies."

Self-consciously she touched her bun. "I am doing some teaching myself, Shifu, and I find it more convenient - more natural in my Si Yin attire."

He nodded and looked at her, his face now calm and unreadable as usual.

"What can I do for you? I keep repeating I don't want to be disturbed, yet the whole word keeps knocking."

"Shifu, I am sorry if I disturbed you. I was...worried about you."

His eyebrows went up a little and he pressed his lips together, as if amused by her concern.

"I do wonder what has come over you all. I am fine as you can see," Mo Yuan said. "I plan to do some training now."

"But Shifu!"

His eyes narrowed at her outburst and quite reflexively, she ducked and bowed. What had she come here for? She thought of Shifu's face the last time she had been here, when he had looked at the Demon Queen next to him with eyes full of admiration and love, a similar set of eyes like those she knew so well, eyes that often showed the same when they looked at her. No, today, she would not be deterred by his usual ways to shut people up.

"You can't be feeling fine, Shifu. I have seen that Ye Hua feels it too!" Bai Qian exclaimed and lifted her chin defiantly.

His face changed very subtly – it became even more stony. He seemed to fight an impulse to snap at her, but then said, calmly: "What a failing on my part. I apologize."

"Oh Shifu," she whispered, feeling her heart overflow, "why do you always hide your feelings from the world?"

To her surprise, her Shifu laughed bitterly at that statement. "You don't know what you are asking, Si Yin. I will make sure Ye Hua will not have to feel anything from now on. I have promised him that before, and I am sorry I have failed again. It must be occurring at night when..." his voice trailed off.

Bai Qian was very distraught by how her Shifu was refusing to share any of his burdens. And yet, a part of her understood. It was who he was, the God without mercy, also towards himself.

Over the many years by his side and all their adventures together, Bai Qian had come to deeply revere her Shifu. To her, he was nothing like the other elders she had known. She had never seen him distraught or emotional, except when it came to the safety of his students - and even then he had remained mostly calm. That calmness coupled with his infinite wisdom, amazing intelligence and incredible fighting skills had made her place him at the most elevated level.

But tonight, when she looked at him, she did not see a venerated teacher: she saw a man – a man who tried very hard to appear like he was not struggling with feelings that overwhelmed him. It disturbed her, this sudden change in perspective. But it disturbed her even more that this man who was fiercely hurting did not let her provide any solace for him, no measure of comfort to repay all he had done for her. He had always been infinitely kind, despite her many failings. He had comforted her, played music for her to make her smile, had always lent her his shoulder or his lap to cry in.

And then, she realized with a sudden sinking feeling in her stomach that he had always been a man. She felt herself blush deeply, but Mo Yuan did not seem to notice. He was waiting for her to leave.

"Shifu," she whispered, "the Demon Goddess did wrong. But I did some reading and it is the case that Demons are extremely independent and competitive. Maybe she just had to go back and sort things out with her people?"

Her Shifu continued to look at her with his unreadable expression. "Do not concern yourself with this, Si Yin. It is not your place."

"But Shifu..."

"Forget everything you think you know about her," Mo Yuan interrupted her. "If you see her, you are to be on your guard. She is extremely dangerous and she is only this: our enemy. I hope you will listen to me."

Yes, Bai Qian listened - in dismay, her heart sinking with each word. Are you just giving up like this, Shifu? This is not who you are!

"No, Shifu," she said defiantly, "when I see her on the battlefield, I will spare her no mercy."

"On the Battlefield?"

"Yes Shifu, on the battlefield. By your and by Ye Hua's side."

"Si Yin, you cannot..."

Resolutely, Bai Qian shook her head. "Just as you make your choices without considering what others say, so will I."

"Si Yin-"

"Shifu," she said in farewell with a deep bow. "I bid you farewell, please be safe."

Seething, she cloud-jumped home. She was very angry with the two men in her life that meant the most to her: With the one for not telling her when his brother was suffering. With the other for suffering without admitting it to anyone, not even to himself.

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