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Itinerant Home

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“Do you ever regret not having a home while growing up, Xuanshuang?” Zhaonan had asked her once, back in the early days of their acquaintance when they were still in the heady grip of first love.

Xuanshuang had shaken her head no, but had struggled to explain why to Zhaonan, who for most of his life, had associated the concept of home to mean a fixed location with four walls and a roof.

How could she explain that all her first memories were not about places or events, but were all about her adoptive father instead – his strong hands supporting her as she learned to walk, his sightless eyes crinkling as he smiled at her after she learned something new, his gentle voice lulling her to sleep with stories wherever they were, whether it was in a rented room in an inn, or an abandoned hut, or even outdoors beneath the stars if the weather was favorable. How could she explain that where most people might associate the concepts of comfort and security to a building that they arbitrarily called home, she associated these concepts with her adoptive father instead.

Xuanshuang had never lived in the same place for more than a year, and hence had never felt the same level of attachment that most other people feel for the place they live in. Even from her earliest memories, she and her adoptive father had always led an itinerant lifestyle, traveling from place to place with the bare minimum of possessions, going wherever there was a need for healers but never staying for long.

Zhaonan’s teacher and martial siblings were like family to him, but they were not his home in a way Xuanshuang’s adoptive father had been, and would always be, to her.

Which was why, when Xuanshuang finally tracked down her adoptive father in an abandoned building after his bloody confrontation with his former martial sister Nie Xiaofeng, she had held his hand, felt his weak pulse and heard his rasping breaths, and made a split-second decision.

Xuanshuang had visited the area around the abandoned building before. Years ago, her adoptive father had once brought her here, and he had told her stories of his childhood here, growing up under the tutelage of his esteemed teacher. She had not questioned then why they had come here in the dead of night and stayed only for a couple of hours, or why he had made her kneel and kowtow three times to a rocky mountain, his voice choked with tears the whole time.

So it was that Xuanshuang was familiar enough with the area to half-drag, half-carry her unconscious adoptive father to a nearby secluded valley where he could convalescence in peace without any disturbance from the outside world.

They stayed in the valley for many months as her adoptive father slowly recovered from his severe injuries. Xuanshuang spent her days picking herbs around the area and brewing medicine for her adoptive father. She briefly wondered about what might be going on in the pugilistic world outside, if Zhaonan was doing well, if Nie Xiaofeng was finally defeated, but found that she didn’t really care.

Though Xuanshuang had learned martial arts from a young age under the tutelage of her adoptive father, they had always led a life far away from the pugilistic world. Xuanshuang would always consider herself and her adoptive father traveling healers first and foremost, and felt herself merely a distant spectator to the conflicts of the pugilistic world. All that mattered to her in these long months was that her adoptive father remained alive, and that his condition continued to improve day by day.

When her adoptive father finally recovered enough to stay awake for longer periods, he told her the truth of her background. He revealed that she had a fraternal twin sister that she had been separated from since young, her sister having been sold by their foster family when they were just babies. He then told her that her parents were his martial sister Nie Xiaofeng and his teacher Luo Xuan, that the pair had a forbidden relationship that quickly soured and led to Nie Xiaofeng’s descent into evil and his gravely injured teacher living in seclusion within a cave system inside a rocky mountain.

Her adoptive father apologized for keeping the truth from her, for letting her think that she was an orphan and had no living family left in the world.

“I was never an orphan,” Xuanshuang told him. “I always have you.”

They cried together for the entire night.

After her adoptive father recovered fully, they finally left the valley they had spent months in, and ventured back out into the world again.

Much had happened while they were gone. It turned out in an ironic twist that Xuanshuang’s long-lost fraternal twin sister was actually Mei Jiangxue, the third eldest disciple of Nie Xiaofeng. Jiangxue had reunited with their father Luo Xuan, and together with Zhaonan, had successfully rescued him from the cave system and defeated Nie Xiaofeng.

The dust had settled and the heroes were victorious.

It was with much joy that Zhaonan greeted Xuanshuang, having thought that she had left the pugilistic world after burying her adoptive father so many months ago. The smile was wide on his face as he gripped her shoulders tight, but he stopped just short of a hug. She didn’t find his behavior strange then, still feeling overwhelmed by everything that had happened in the past few months.

Xuanshuang had met Jiangxue before, back when they both stood on opposite sides of a pugilistic conflict. Their interaction in this second meeting was friendlier if slightly strained, both of them still getting used to the concept of having a sister, but Xuanshuang suspected their relationship would only get better with time.

The meeting between Xuanshuang and Luo Xuan was comparatively much more awkward. He was her father, and yet that position in her life had always belonged to someone else. Xuanshuang had no idea what to think about this man, and it was clear he had no idea what to think about her as well. She could tell he got along better with Jiangxue, their relationship having been forged through fire and hardship, but Xuanshuang would never have the same level of history with Luo Xuan. She watched the reunion between Luo Xuan and her adoptive father though, their hands clasped tight and emotion clearly written on both their faces, and knew that just for her adoptive father’s sake, she would try to build a relationship with Luo Xuan.

However, there was an undercurrent of unease between them and the others, more so than could be explained by the awkwardness of the two of them suddenly appearing and inserting themselves into a family unit that had been forged through fire. It wasn’t until later that night, while walking along the river, that Xuanshuang finally understood the reason why.

Zhaonan and Jiangxue were sitting on the river bank, talking to each other. Xuanshuang had wanted to go over to them, wishing to get to know her sister better, but then she heard their conversation.

“You have to marry Xuanshuang,” Jiangxue was saying to Zhaonan. “The two of you were in love first. I was just an interloper who came in after she disappeared.”

“I can’t abandon you,” Zhaonan protested. “The person I love now is you.”

There was resignation in Jiangxue’s voice when she replied, “Then your only choice is to marry both of us.”

They hugged each other desperately, and Xuanshuang knew she shouldn’t intrude on their private conversation any longer. She turned away from them, and wasn’t surprised at all to see her adoptive father standing nearby. Even though he had lost his sight long ago, he still had an uncanny ability to always know where she was and when she might be most in need of him.

She slipped her hand around her adoptive father’s arm, a familiar gesture she had done thousands of times before, and guided him away. The two of them walked together without speaking, Xuanshuang still thinking about the conversation she had just overheard, while her adoptive father provided a silent yet supportive presence.

To be honest, she had never thought about marriage to Zhaonan. Initially, they had only known each other for a short time, and later on, her mind had been consumed with taking care of her injured adoptive father. She had never considered that Zhaonan might find a new love while she was gone, and that the new love would be her own twin sister.

She thought she would be jealous, but felt a curious sort of peace instead. The truth was, Xuanshuang already had a family and a home. Xuanshuang didn’t know much about her sister and her life prior to this, but it seemed only fair that Jiangxue should get a family and home of her own. And yet, Xuanshuang suspected that as long as she was around, Jiangxue would never feel comfortable marrying Zhaonan, as she would always feel as though she was usurping Xuanshuang’s place.

And in the deepest corners of her heart, Xuanshuang also missed the simple life she used to lead with her adoptive father, where they were far from the conflicts of the pugilistic world, just traveling from place to place and healing the ill and sick.

Xuanshuang yearned to go back to that life.

She stopped walking, squeezing her adoptive father’s arm, but he spoke before she could articulate her thoughts, patting her hand gently. “When do you want to leave?” he asked.

He always did know her best.

“As soon as possible,” Xuanshuang answered. “We should leave them a note so they don’t worry about us though.”

Her adoptive father nodded his agreement, and they turned to walk back to the house they were all currently living in.

“Will you rather we stay for a longer time though?” Xuanshuang asked him. “After all, you’ve just reunited with your teacher, surely you’ll prefer to spend more time with him?”

Her adoptive father shook his head, patting her hand again while smiling at her. “I have you, that will always be enough for me.”

They left together just before dawn the next day, going wherever the road might lead them to next.