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Stay Up ‘Til Sunrise

Chapter Text

When the tree branches had torn through his heart, tearing his spirit realm apart from the inside out, Feng Xi was certain that he would never wake again. He had made peace with the thought. His last act was to put down roots in the once fertile land that had been his home, to reclaim just a piece of what had once been his—not nearly enough, but it would have to do.

 

Such had been his conviction that the first few times he regained consciousness, he did not remember much of them. Elfins had no souls, and so when they died, they did not go to the Underworld to seek reincarnation as humans would. They were born of nature and to nature they would return, all flesh and blood dissolved, their spirits dispersing to the four corners of the earth, and Feng Xi was okay with this end. Not quite content, but he could and did accept it.

 

It was better not to have a second chance anyways, he thought. Given how his life had ended, watching his dream of returning home dissolve along with Xiao Hei’s Domain, he did not know if he quite wanted to run from this ending to live out another one. He was so tired of running all the time. Yes…better to sleep forever, in a verdant grave of his own making, and never worry about a thing again. And that’s what he did.

 

Except now, he was awake again. Undeniably so.

 

He came to in a sudden moment of clarity, consciousness striking him almost like a physical blow. It was brighter than he expected, wherever he was, so he kept his eyes closed, eyelids fluttering as he struggled to adjust, though all the while, the confusion that burned within him seemed to gnaw at his very sanity. The end of the battle at Long You, the Domain popping like a bubble before his eyes, his last words for Xiao Hei—it was all coming back to him now.

 

How…?

 

Am I…alive again?

 

Feng Xi forced his eyes open at last. He found himself standing inside a simple, traditional-looking house, all papered windows and painted wood. The view outside the window reveals a thin slice of land, then tranquil water, and further beyond that…nothing. Just white emptiness stretched out as far as he could see, and his heart sank in his chest. He knows this place, or more precisely, he knows its owner. No matter how long it has been, he could still instantly recognize the spiritual energy signature that reverberated throughout this space.

 

What am I doing inside Wu Xian’s spirit realm? he thought, and for the first time in a long time, panic welled up in Feng Xi throat, threatening to strangle him. He had been so sure that he had died, that he would sleep forever on the land that had once been his home, and yet here he was. How did this happen? Why am I even here?

 

The entrance to the house was just across the room he had awoken in. Feng Xi tried to run toward it, but he only made it a few steps before realizing that he could go no further. It was as if there was an invisible rope tied to him, keeping him tethered within a certain range. What even…?! He whipped his head around once more to scan the room, and this time his eye snagged on what appears to be a potted bonsai sitting on a small table near the window.

 

The pot itself was not particularly noteworthy, just a shallow ceramic urn, but the tiny plant growing within it drew him in somehow. He felt…calmer when he was looking at it. Heavy and warm. More grounded. It was almost like he was back in his tree in Longyou again, and the feeling increased in strength as he came nearer. He blinked, then reached out to try and touch the plant, only to bite back a cry of alarm when he actually saw his arm—it was nearly transparent, with only the faintest outline of light to mark the location of his hand and the rest of the limb. A frantic examination revealed that the rest of his body was in a similar state.

 

“Oh,” he said out loud for the time, and his voice came out thin and cracked from disuse, barely louder than a whisper. He winced at the sound before he turned to look at the bonsai again. The plant was familiar, he realized now, and he even was starting to understand just where he had interacted with it before. He recognized its verdant leaves and its core of spiritual energy—it made him feel like he was back in Long You because it had been a part of his tree all along. A cutting, if he was not mistaken.

 

Feng Xi stared wide-eyed at the cutting, feeling a little crazed. In that moment he wished with all his might that he would cease to exist upon his next breath, that he would return back home to his blissful, unknowing sleep. Because slumbering under the earth once more is much more preferable to thinking about the innumerable, inscrutable reasons why Wu Xian has done this—why he has taken a piece of Feng Xi’s living grave marker and planted it into his own spirit realm, sheltered within the house that appears to be the last remainder of Wu Xian’s days as a normal human.

 

His wish went ungranted.

 

This makes no sense, he thought numbly. None of this made any sense—he was alive again, and inside Wu Xian’s spirit realm of all places, and the man had taken a cutting from his tree for what purpose? To remember him by? The very thought made Feng Xi scoff.

 

He pressed his fingers against his forehead, forcibly quelling his emotions. Okay, one thing at a time, he told himself, taking a deep breath. He tried moving around the room once more, testing his boundaries, and it is soon apparent that the bonsai plant was the source of his limited motion. He could not walk more than a few steps away from it before his motions were halted. From what little he could deduce, it seemed possible that the bonsai’s presence had something to do with his return to consciousness as well. A true miracle indeed, he thought bitterly, and he almost thought that Wu Xian had intended for this to happen before he dismissed the thought. He was the antithesis of everything Wu Xian had stood for in four hundred years. The executor had no reason to wish him alive again.

 

Still, now Feng Xi was alive and conscious again, whether he liked it or not. That meant he needed a plan for what to do. The enormity of the problem before him almost made him want to pull his hair out—Wu Xian was sure to notice Feng Xi’s presence as soon as he returned, and although the executor was not the type to kill him in cold blood, he was still bound to notify the Guild. Every executor in the world would know that Feng Xi was alive again, and the rest of the elfin world would eventually find out by extension—Xu Huai, Luo Zhu, Tian Hu. Even Xiao Hei. They would all know.

 

Feng Xi fought back a wave of terror at the thought. Within Wu Xian’s spirit realm, he had no way of knowing how much time has passed since the events of Long You. Were Xu Huai and the others alright? Were they still being imprisoned by the guild? He could only hope that they had the sense to pin the majority of blame on him and make off with lighter sentences, but deep in his heart, he knew they were too loyal for that, had loved him too much for that. If they knew he was alive again, he knew they would fight tooth and nail to return to his side, and that was the last thing he wanted.

 

His friends deserved better. They had always been meant to live a carefree life that was not weighed down by his choices. He was the one who had stolen Xiao Hei’s Domain, who had selfishly gone off and died and left them all behind with his mistakes. No, Feng Xi, how can we blame you for any of that? he could almost picture them saying, but he did not want their understanding or their forgiveness. He didn’t deserve it. He just wanted them to be free and happy, and that would come to pass only if he managed to stay out of the picture.

 

And what of Xiao Hei? He wonders what became of the little elfin, if the child had recovered from his trauma, if he was even still a child anymore.

 

He had not meant to hurt Xiao Hei at the beginning. It was true that he had manipulated him into coming to Li island with him, had hoped to manipulate him to hate humans, but he had truly not planned ahead to use his Siege on the child, not until that moment on the rooftop. Not that it changed anything. All intentions aside, he had chosen to do what he did, nearly killing the child in the process. He had accepted responsibility for his actions long ago.

 

I’m so tired, he thought, subconsciously stepping closer and closer to the bonsai plant on the table. All this time, the tree cutting had been maintaining a gentle tug on his effervescent form, its pull soft and mesmerizing, like a lullaby. I just wanted it all to be over. Why do I even have to deal with all this again?

 

He was only an arm’s length away from the plant now. Waves of calm, soothing energy washed over him, and he reached out almost helplessly to lay a translucent hand on the bonsai’s tiny trunk. The effect is immediate—an indescribably warm and comforting sensation sweeps through his mind, concluding with a pleasant weight of drowsiness, and he could have almost wept with relief. Maybe this was my punishment of some sort…a taste of what coming back to life would entail, he thought as consciousness slipped away for what was hopefully the last time.

 

He prayed that he would not wake again.

Chapter Text

For a while, Feng Xi found himself wandering in and out of true, oblivious sleep. There was no way of telling how long he spent in that state, with his waking moments interspersed with half-concocted dreams that slipped away as soon as he tried to grasp them. It was still preferable to awareness though, so he clung to it for as long as he could, until at some point he woke again and his mind simply refused to drift off anymore.

 

Once again, he was blinded by light upon awakening. He instinctively held up a hand to shield his eyes, but the effort proved futile since his body was still near-transparent. Wu Xian’s spirit realm was still the same vast emptiness beyond the house’s immediate premise, and the whiteness of the space gleamed through the ghostly flesh of his palm. It made for an eerie image and Feng Xi put his hand down quickly. That was not a sight he wanted to dwell on.

 

He glanced around his surroundings with a frown, wearily noting that nothing seemed to have changed since the last time he was fully conscious. Despite having just slept for another indeterminate length of time, he still felt worn to the bone, and he would likely have attempted to go right back to sleep had he not picked up on a series of soft, steady ‘thumps.’

 

Feng Xi was instantly on the alert. The sound was coming from outside the house, and they came at a measured, almost rhythmic pace. Feng Xi’s heart seemed to seize as the sounds draw closer, and his tongue suddenly felt heavy and leaden in his mouth. In his days on the run, he had listened for the sound of footsteps far too often to be mistaken, and here in this spirit realm there was only one person they could belong to.

 

He must know I’m here already, Feng Xi thought. He felt like he was running short of air, the panic threatening to drown him like a wave. He could run, but what was the point of running? His range of motion was limited anyway, and he had nowhere to hide. This was Wu Xian’s spirit realm after all, and as much as he hated the thought, he was powerless here, utterly at the mercy of the Guild’s most powerful executor. Here, Wu Xian could do anything he wanted to Feng Xi without even lifting a finger.

 

So, all Feng Xi could do was wait. Judging by the sound of his footsteps, Wu Xian had already arrived at the threshold of the house. Feng Xi could hear the door latch rattle. He watched helplessly as the latch slid out of place and the door swung open, almost in slow motion, to reveal the owner of the spirit realm. He was almost exactly as Feng Xi remembers him from Long You—the same blue and white hanfu and metal armbands, the same long, loose tail of hair, the same placid expression as if nothing in the mortal world could touch him. It was only when the human locks eyes with Feng Xi that his impeccable demeanor seemed to crack, as if he were genuinely surprised, but the expression was gone again before Feng Xi could be certain of anything.

 

Wu Xian’s eyes are dark green and bottomless, and his stare seemed to pin Feng Xi in place just like the executor’s scrap metal cuffs. After a pause, Wu Xian took one step towards Feng Xi, then another, never once breaking eye contact until he was so close that the elfin could hear every one of his careful, measured breaths.

 

“Tell me the truth. Are you really Feng Xi?” When Wu Xian finally spoke up, his voice was uncharacteristically clipped. His eyes were unreadable, and that made Feng Xi instinctively uncomfortable. Feng Xi’s ability to read people had been one of his greatest skills, and though they had not interacted much before Long You, Wu Xian had always been fairly easy to interpret. It was the first time Feng Xi had found himself unable to follow what the human was thinking.

 

“I really am Feng Xi,” he says slowly, all the while monitoring Wu Xian’s expression for the slightest changes. The human had narrowed his eyes slightly upon Feng Xi’s answer, as if he had expected the response but was not satisfied by it.

 

“And you are alive?” Wu Xian insisted after a moment.

 

“Well, I’m conscious and can move, so I guess I am.”

 

How?

 

“I feel like I should be the one asking you this question,” Feng Xi snapped, folding his arms across his chest. Wu Xian’s sudden unpredictability was unnerving, and Feng Xi could feel the nervous energy welling up within him, rising to the surface disguised as anger. “Isn’t this your own spirit realm? You should know better than me whether I’m really alive or not, and how.”

 

Wu Xian just blinked. His expression did not change at all. “I can barely sense your presence even though you’re in my spirit realm,” he said at last. “I thought…I couldn’t rule out the possibility of you being a figment of my imagination.”

 

“Heh, would’ve been less trouble for you if I was,” Feng Xi said with a humorless chuckle. “Unfortunately for both you and me though, I am well and truly alive, or conscious at the very least.”

 

Wu Xian blinked slowly, as if taking in the information, then finally inclined his head in what Feng Xi interprets to be acceptance. “I see.”

 

Feng Xi stared at him. Wu Xian stared back. The man’s calm demeanor made Feng Xi all the more aware of his own anxiety, and after a few more moments of unbearable silence, he simply had to say something. “Well, what are you going to do about this now?” he asked, making a vague gesture toward himself. “Since you didn’t manage to finish the job last time.”

 

“…I’m not going to hurt you, if that’s your concern. You’re not in any condition to attack me right now,” Wu Xian answered. Yet despite his claim, his unusually bright green eyes are fixed upon Feng Xi, taking in his every movement. His gaze is downright searing now, intense and strangely intimate in a way Feng Xi could not recall even from the battle in Long You, and he had to fight the urge to look away.

 

“That wasn’t my question,” he managed to say, his hands clenched at his side. He held Wu Xian’s gaze defiantly despite his instinctive discomfort. “I’m asking you what you’re planning on doing with me.” Even trapped within Wu Xian’s spirit realm and weakened to the point of being only half-corporeal, Feng Xi still had his pride, and he would ensure Wu Xian remembered that.

 

To his surprise, Wu Xian seemed to hesitate before answering. “I do not know yet,” he said carefully. “I’ve never heard of an elfin surviving the destruction of their spirit realm before, but you are certainly alive. I thought I sensed a foreign presence in my realm when I returned, I just was not expecting it to be you.”

 

 “…I would’ve thought your first response would be to tell someone at the Guild.”

 

 “No. Not until I figure out what exactly happened,” Wu Xian replied, holding Feng Xi’s gaze as he answered. “Until I know more about your condition, there is still a possibility that it is not a permanent state. If I am really to report this to the Guild, I want to make sure that you will not disappear again, whether by choice or otherwise.”

 

Ah, of course. Feng Xi pulled his lips into a thin smile. “I see, so you need to make sure I’m actually going to stick around long enough to be a problem before reporting it, don’t you? Seems that I left quite the impression.” He knew he was being needlessly antagonistic—logically, provoking Wu Xian was the last thing he should be doing, but he could not make himself stop—all his instincts are screaming at him to strike before he can be struck, like a panther with its back to the wall.

 

For a moment after, Wu Xian looked almost pained, though he regained his composure so quickly that Feng Xi was not sure if he had imagined it. “Feng Xi, it’s been nearly twenty years since Long You. Everyone who was there for the incident was sure that you were dead. I am not going to announce that you are alive until I’m sure that you will stay that way.”

 

“You mean you’re scared I’m going to go turn myself into a tree again,” Feng Xi snapped. “Whether I go or stay isn’t up to you, oh great executor.” Except that was not true and he knows it. His voice was shaking slightly despite his best efforts, and he has trouble meeting Wu Xian’s eyes.

 

This was Wu Xian’s spirit realm, where the owner’s will could overcome even the laws of reality. Death was even preferable to some of the things Wu Xian could do to him here—as the owner of the realm, Wu Xian could read Feng Xi’s thoughts and change them, take away his very sense of self if he wished it. He could replace all of Feng Xi’s memories with new ones and Feng Xi would never even know. Such was the power one had in one’s spirit realm, and deep in Feng Xi’s heart, he was afraid of the sheer, limitless potential of the power that Wu Xian had over him. In those moments as he waited for Wu Xian’s response, he silently wished again that he had never woken from his long sleep, that he would have slumbered forever within his tree in Long You, in the darkness and greenery and oblivion.

 

“…Feng Xi.” When Wu Xian finally does speak, his tone took Feng Xi aback. It was somehow different from his usual mannerism, softer, almost. Maybe even gentle. He listened with wide eyes as Wu Xian went on, “Twenty years might not seem like much to you and me, but it was still long enough for me to contemplate many things. I will say it again. I will not threaten or harm you in any way while you are here in my realm, and that includes anything I can do to you mentally. I don’t know why you are the way you are now, Feng Xi, but I’ve learned that if nothing else that you have your own mind.

 

“I will not try to take that away from you anymore.”

 

Feng Xi’s eyes were wide as Wu Xian spoke his piece. When he finally dared to look up at Wu Xian’s face again, he saw a whirlpool in the depths of the human’s green irises, drawing Feng Xi in. He felt trapped at the center of that gaze, unable to move lest he be ripped apart.

 

This was far from the Wu Xian he was used to dealing with—in the relatively short time they’ve known each other, it had been fairly easy to predict where the executor would go and what he would do. It was why Feng Xi and his friends had managed to avoid capture for as long as they had, as well as why they were able to successfully retrieve Xiao Hei even after Wu Xian overpowered them on the island.

 

The only time Feng Xi had miscalculated was that moment in Long You when Wu Xian, in both desperation and fury, had thrown all caution and reason aside to chase after him into the Domain. And now here he was again, staring at the human’s calm face and intense eyes without the slightest idea of what the man was thinking.  

 

Yet Wu Xian, without any noticeable effort, seemed to understand exactly what he needed. “…I’ll give you some time,” he said after a moment, turning away, leaving Feng Xi staring at his back, unable to move. The elfin watched with a growing sense of bewilderment as the human calmly walked to the entrance and let himself out, the door gently opening and slipping shut behind him.

 

Even then Feng Xi still does not relax. It was only until the human failed to reappear for several moments that he finally began to accept that Wu Xian was not just hiding around somewhere, observing Feng Xi—he really did leave.

 

Feng Xi released a breath he had not even realized he was holding. He could not believe that Wu Xian, the Guild’s foremost executor famed for his implacable pursuit and uncompromising power, was letting the issue go just like this, and yet he could not deny the apparent truth.

 

In all those years he had been on the run, he had predicted the actions of Wu Xian the executor with nary a fault, but he was utterly at a loss now. That…unnerved Feng Xi in a way few things ever did. Aside from the powers granted by his spiritual abilities, Feng Xi’s greatest strengths were his calculating mind and his ability to perceive what others were thinking and feeling—and Wu Xian had just rendered both these strengths virtually ineffective. He remained on edge long after the man had left, feeling strangely bare and vulnerable, as if all his defenses had been stripped away.

 

It seems that he knew Wu Xian quite well as the Guild’s most powerful executor, but he does not know Wu Xian, the person, at all.

Chapter Text

The gap between his first and second interaction with Wu Xian was a long one, or at least seemed like one. Feng Xi knew this because after that first visit, he did not go back into his tree cutting immediately to sleep—he was too agitated to do so. While he did eventually return to his bonsai, he woke several times, each time seemingly for longer, and he passed the time gazing out the window of Wu Xian’s little house, thinking about everything and nothing at all.

 

Twenty years. That was how long Wu Xian said it had been since the events at Long You. For an elfin, whose lifespan typically ranged in the many hundreds of years, twenty years was a blink of an eye, a mere beat in a long melody, yet he also knew it was more than enough time for things to change. It had only taken around twenty years for the humans around Long You to industrialize, after all.

 

Maybe Xu Huai and the others have been released by now, he thought. Twenty years would have been a long sentence, and as much as he disliked the Guild, he could still acknowledge that it was not a punishment-centered organization at heart. His friends were most likely free at this point. What did their world look like now? Had his friends adjusted? Were they happy?

 

“Feng Xi.” Wu Xian’s voice jolted him out of his thoughts. He had not even noticed the human's entrance this time. The executor had already closed the entrance door and was walking towards him when he suddenly paused in his stride, casting a contemplative look at Feng Xi. “You…seem better,” he said at last, seeming puzzled.

 

Feng Xi narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean by that?”

 

“Your body, it’s not as transparent as it was since I last saw you,” Wu Xian clarified. “I’m not certain if this is a good way to describe it, but your presence also feels more solid. When I first sensed you in my spirit realm last time, your presence was so faint that I did not know if I was imagining it or not, but this time I can tell for sure. You really are here.”

 

Startled, Feng Xi glanced down at his arm. Wu Xian was right, he realized: the changes were slight, but his arm did seem more solid than when he had first awoken in Wu Xian’s spirit realm, as did the rest of his body. He felt…stronger too, more energetic somehow.

 

He leaped off the windowsill and began walking towards the house’s exit. “What are you doing?” he heard Wu Xian call out, but he did not bother with an answer just then. He walked until he was less than a dozen paces from the door, nearly close enough to see the scenery beyond when his steps finally come to a halt.

 

“…Heh.” As he suspected, his range of movement had also increased from when he had first woken up. At his current rate of recovery, he estimated that he will be able to leave the confines of Wu Xian’s little house when he becomes fully corporeal, whatever good that will do him.

 

Wu Xian was calling him again, and this time Feng Xi turned toward the sound of his name. The man’s deep green eyes are fixed upon him, the concern in their depths clear despite his otherwise lack of expression. “Feng Xi, Is something wrong?”

 

“…No, just trying something out.” He was somewhat taken off guard by the sincerity he detected from the man. Should I really say more? He wondered, but it’s not like the human would not find out eventually, and Wu Xian was clearly waiting for him to elaborate, so he sighed and explained everything as briefly as he could.

 

“You say your movements are limited to within a certain range of that bonsai plant?” Wu Xian mused after Feng Xi had finished speaking. “I’ve heard of something like that in newborn elfins. An elfin with a physical form can only be born when a congregation of living spirits fuses into a fairy, and that fairy then binds with compatible material spirits, so the fairy cannot move far from the material spirits that it intends to fuse with. But the fairy at this stage does not even have a tangible form, much less a human one like you do.”

 

“Yes, yes, that’s theoretically impossible, but I’m not even supposed to be alive right now,” Feng Xi muttered. “It’s common knowledge that elfins die when their spirit realms are destroyed. Not even Immortals or Gods can escape this, but here I am, aren’t I?” He was not quite successful at hiding the bitterness in his voice, and he knew that had not gone unnoticed.

 

Wu Xian was silent for a moment. “That is also something I will have to look into,” he said at last. “The most I can sense now is that you are somehow maintaining a connection with that plant, which makes sense I suppose, since that plant was originally a cutting from your tree. I can ask around to try to see if anyone at the Guild has heard of anything similar to your situation.”

 

Feng Xi looked up in alarm. “You’re going to ask around at the Guild?”

 

“I’ll keep my inquiries very general,” Wu Xian said quickly. “I already told you when we last spoke that I’m not going to inform the Guild about you. That still holds true.”

 

The elfin narrowed his eyes. On one hand, he was incredibly reluctant to place any trust in Wu Xian, but on the other hand, he also could not see what the man stood to gain by lying to him. It was not as if the human needed the Guild’s covert assistance to defeat him—he had just found out that Feng Xi could not even step outside of the room they were both standing in, much less be able to carry out any of his plans the way he once could. “…Fine.”

 

Besides, he thought with sudden vitriol, it’s not as if his trusting Wu Xian or not would have any impact on the man’s actions. Wu Xian would do whatever he chose to do, and all Feng Xi could do in his current position was to accept the outcomes. Even from a purely pragmatic perspective, it would be better if he appeared cooperative to Wu Xian now, if only to prevent the man from taking measures against him in the future.

 

He shot the executor a dark look, which the man met with calm eyes. That rendered Feng Xi’s glare all the more unsatisfying, and he turned away with a huff. “Well, I suppose we’re done here,” he said, walking back towards his tree cutting. “I’m going to go back to sleep. You can likely just wake me again if you find out anything new.”

 

“’Sleep’?” Wu Xian repeated, looking puzzled.

 

Feng Xi sighed. “Yes. That cutting seems to put me to sleep whenever I come into contact with it, unless I’ve only recently woke up. I can’t seem to exhaust myself to the point of sleep yet otherwise, so that’s my only way of getting some peace and quiet for now.”

 

Wu Xian’s eyebrows slanted downward into the lightest equivalent of a frown. “I’m afraid I still do not follow. Will I be able to wake you if you are in such a state?”

 

“Went to sleep a few times between now and the last time you saw me, but as you can see, I obviously still wake up after a while,” Feng Xi replied flatly. “This is your spirit realm though, so I’m sure if you need to wake me for something you can still make it happen.”

 

But Wu Xian already seemed to have moved on. “But if you’ve been awake for a few times now, what do you do here?” He glanced around almost helplessly. “My spirit realm is not the most…lively of places. Do you not get bored?”

 

What? Feng Xi stared at the man as if he had lost his mind. “What does that have to do with anything? I’ve managed up until now, haven’t I?”

 

“I suppose,” Wu Xian said, though he still does not seem anywhere near satisfied. “But is there not anything you want to know or do while you’re awake? You cannot leave my spirit realm for now, and you likely will not be able to for quite some time, at least not until you are completely corporeal if my guess is correct. I don’t think you can pass all that time just by sleeping.”

 

Feng Xi smiled with no trace of humor. “Not for lack of trying,” he said, though he internally balked at Wu Xian’s question. Once again, he found himself struggling to reconcile the Wu Xian he had known with this new Wu Xian he was only now starting to glimpse. The Guild’s most powerful executor was almost always calm and cold, unyielding like the iron that was his element, but the Wu Xian he saw now seemed to hold an almost awkward gentleness. Why was the human acting so considerate all of a sudden? Was he normally like this at the Guild with the elfins who were not his enemies?

 

Feng Xi did not know what to make of that at all.

 

 “…You could just tell me if you’re bored,” the human said after a while. “You may be surprised by what has changed in twenty years. I can tell you anything you want to know about the outside world, and if there is anything you want to occupy your time with, I could bring in those things or simply conjure them for you.”

 

“What makes you think I would want such things?” Feng Xi shot the human a long, wary look. This Wu Xian was surprisingly lenient and understanding, and he kept trying to offer Feng Xi things and choices. Feng Xi just wanted it all to stop.

 

“I’ll have you know this miraculous revival of mine was hardly planned,” he continued, and he was too tired and confused by Wu Xian’s behavior to really think about what he was saying before it just came spilling forth. “In case you haven’t caught on by now, I never wanted to be here and awake in the first place. All I wanted was to go home in a way so that no one could ever force me to leave again. I wanted to sleep in my tree forever. Why would I want any more interaction with a world I had intentionally left behind? Why couldn’t you just leave me alone?!”

 

It was not until the last words left his mouth that he realized he was shouting. Feng Xi’s jaw tightened, and his heart was pounding. Well then. He's just revealed more than he had ever planned to, but at least for a moment, it seemed to do the trick. Wu Xian stopped spouting all of his offers and inquiries and just stood still there for a while, as if stunned by Feng Xi’s outburst. Yet just when the elfin was about to sigh in relief, the human said, quietly, “I don’t want to force you to do anything anymore, Feng Xi. I meant what I said. It was just an option, should you ever want it.”

 

’Just an option’ indeed.” Feng Xi's gaze darkened, and he parroted the words bitterly. “As if anything can ever be that simple. Now that I’m somehow breathing again, how can I know that you’re not trying to indoctrinate me into human society with your so-called ‘offer’? Isn’t this the way you always do things? Give some poor little elfin a choice where there’s only ever one possible option, until they either willingly accept human society and join the Guild or are forced into it. I’ll bet that you did this same thing with Xiao Hei too, when you took him to the Guild!”

 

Wu Xian fell silent again for a while, but this time there was an ominous quality to it, like storm clouds gathering over a stirring sea. For the first time since Feng Xi has seen him again, his features appeared slightly twisted, and it’s an expression that Feng Xi knows well—Wu Xian only looked like that when he was on the edge of becoming truly angry.

 

“…I won’t deny that I forced Xiao Hei to stay with me while I was still tracking you down,” Wu Xian finally said, his voice low and dangerous, “but that was because otherwise he would have sought you out, and you would have given him far less of a choice than I had. You would have only taught him to hate, and his mind would have never been free. I wanted to show him the world of humans in addition to that of elfins so he could make his own decision, but he still could have chosen to leave after I brought him to the Guild. I did not force him to join at all.”

 

“And then where would he be without the Guild’s assistance?” Feng Xi laughed coldly. Some part of him could not help being comforted by the familiar antagonism. He knows how to deal with this Wu Xian—the dangerous, uncompromising executor of the Guild who stood for everything that he had rebelled against. “Just another little elfin, back out on the streets, with not a penny of human money to his name, forced to dig through the garbage outside the grocery store again until another elfin like me picks him up?”

 

“No.” Wu Xian bit down hard on the syllable. “Now that they knew of him, the Guild would not have abandoned Xiao Hei on the streets even if he chose not to join. They would have only asked him to register his information so they could keep track of him and help him with anything he might need to live, such as money and food. And I will tell you now that Xiao Hei chose not to stay at the Long You branch of the Guild out of his own will.”

 

“What are you talking about?” Feng Xi narrowed his eyes.

 

“I said, Xiao Hei chose not to stay in the Guild,” Wu Xian said without missing a beat. He seemed to have largely calmed himself again, though when he spoke, there was still a touch of emotion in his voice that Feng Xi could not place. It was almost like…satisfaction? “When I dropped off Xiao Hei at the Guild’s entrance after Long You, I had meant to leave him to his own devices from then on. He had every freedom to choose what he wanted to do from there, whether that was staying at the Guild or leaving it. But then Xiao Hei said he wanted to go with me.”

 

“...What?”

 

“Xiao Hei did not want to stay at the Guild. He wanted to stay with me,” Wu Xian continued. The normally cold, immovable executor was even smiling a little at the memory, as if Feng Xi’s entire worldview was not upended enough already. “He called me Shifu for the first time, right before he said he wanted to go with me. This was after I already offered to part ways with him.”

 

“So Xiao Hei…is with you now? As your disciple?” Feng Xi asked after a long beat of silence. His head was spinning. Xiao Hei was Wu Xian’s disciple now, and he apparently had been for twenty years. The concept was near-unfathomable to him. He already knew that Xiao Hei and Wu Xian had developed some sort of bond—he had seen it during the battle in Long You, after all—but this was the definitive crack in the picture he had painted for himself.

 

Things really have changed, he thought, and the thought left an acrid taste in the back of his throat. His stomach roiled, and he thought he could vomit. What else is different? He thought involuntarily, and the very possibility of finding out makes him quail. He did not want to know what else had changed. He wasn’t ready, and had he not made his decision at the end just so that things would never change for him again? Feng Xi had never wished that he was asleep and gone again as much as he does now.

 

Worse still, by the time he had managed to collect his thoughts again, Wu Xian had reverted back to his confusing, almost kind persona. He looked at Feng Xi almost like he could sympathize with his bewilderment, and even his voice held a hint of gentleness when he said, “It may not seem like it to an elfin, but twenty years is a long time to be gone, Feng Xi. If you need time to think some more then you will have it, but my offer still stands. If there is anything you want to do or want to know about, you can let me know.”

 

“I…” Feng Xi’s mind churned like a boat in a stormy sea. He had always thought of himself as decisive, methodological about what he wanted, but now he felt like an autumn leaf torn from its branch and sent spinning into the cold wind. Now that he knew about Xiao Hei, there was a world of other things he could not help but wonder about—what Long You looked like now, if Xu Huai and the others are alright, if they’re happy—but he was also terrified by the very thought of knowing. The further need to rely upon Wu Xian made him cringe.

 

“You don’t have to decide now,” Wu Xian said eventually, still with that strange undertone of kindness that threatened to break Feng Xi’s guard into pieces. “I’m just letting you know that it’s an option if you ever want to take it. Since you are in my spirit realm, I am technically never far away, so you can simply call for me if you ever decide one way or the other.”

 

He turned to leave. Feng Xi stared at his retreating back and felt strangely torn. He knew, logically, that he should just let Wu Xian leave and never bring this up again, but something deep within his heart was also beginning to stir. Stop it, I don’t want to be here, he reminded himself, I don’t want to be awake, living and feeling like this.

 

And that was still true—but there was also more to it now. Some deeply rooted fears and desires that he was only just now starting to recognize. They pulled and tugged at his mind, refusing to stop.

 

“Wait!” the word burst out of him before he could even think twice. He balked upon realizing what he had done, but Wu Xian was already pausing in his steps to turn around.  

 

“What is it?”

 

Feng Xi bit his lip. On one hand, it was not too late—he could still say “never mind,” tell Wu Xian that he had thought the better of it, or any number of things, but for some reason the words would not fall from his tongue. It was almost as if he wanted to trust this human, to give him a chance to show Feng Xi that not everything was hopeless, that he could find some way to live without compromising who he was or breaking the hearts of those he loved.

 

Wu Xian was still looking at him, patiently not saying a word, and Feng Xi had to make a choice. “...I guess I do have a request then,” he said, steeling himself, and he was proud that there was only the slightest trace of discomfort in his voice. “If you really insist on doing something, maybe you can bring me some books next time.”

 

“Of course.” Thankfully, Wu Xian made no comment. He only nodded once in acknowledgment. “I’m assuming you mean the physical version of books, since I recall that you are not very fond of technology.”

 

“Yes, physical ones please,” Feng Xi replied quickly before making a disgruntled face. “So humans even have digital books now? Whatever for?”

 

“Perhaps to save space and increase access.” Wu Xian answered, and right then Feng Xi was almost certain he saw the corners of the human’s mouth tug upwards. “Digital books already existed twenty years ago, you know. It’s just that they were not as popular then.”

 

“Whatever. I don’t care as long as I can actually flip the pages and read,” Feng Xi grumbled, turning away. “Will you leave me alone for a while now? I can’t hear myself think with you around.”

 

“Alright,” he heard Wu Xian say with the faintest hint of a chuckle, but at last everything falls silent after the human leaves, and the house was empty again save for him.

 

Feng Xi walked over slowly to the windowsill and almost collapses on it. He could not seem to think. Twenty years ago, he had been certain that Wu Xian despised him and everything he stood for, and the feeling was mutual, but now the human was being strangely understanding and kind to him for reasons that he could not even fathom. And Feng Xi was letting him.

 

The sliver of trust that he had allowed himself to place in the human—that was what perturbed him most of all. He prayed he would not come to regret it.  

Chapter Text

True to his word, the next time he returned, Wu Xian brought Feng Xi several physical, tangible books with real paper pages. The books themselves were not always in the best condition, and Feng Xi was not surprised to learn that Wu Xian had purchased them from a small second-hand shop just a few blocks away from the Guild’s main headquarters in Beijing. He did raise his eyebrows when Wu Xian attempted to hand him a sturdy-looking dictionary though.

 

“…I was not sure how well you can read,” Wu Xian had said upon his questioning look. He seemed more than a little sheepish. Feng Xi had just sighed before taking the dictionary without further comment—he actually knew how to read quite well, but a dictionary was still never a bad thing to have on hand. He would leave Wu Xian to flounder over whatever assumptions he had made about Feng Xi’s reading skill.

 

The first few times Wu Xian brought him books, Feng Xi had scrutinized each one from cover to cover, wary of any content that seemed to even hint at the merits of humanity. He was determined not to be caught off guard, just in case Wu Xian was planning to indoctrinate him after all, but he found out quickly that Wu Xian was rather…indiscriminate when it came to the content that he brought Feng Xi. The human gave him everything from scholarship to classic literary works to children’s comics, and some of the books even had conflicting main points, almost like they were arguing amongst themselves. Once, he even brought Feng Xi a copy of some poor student’s workbook, filled to the margins with scratchwork and doodles and the occasional scathing insults about who Feng Xi assumed was fellow classmates.

 

Feng Xi had tossed the workbook back at Wu Xian, a little amusement slipping into his voice despite his best efforts: “Do you even look at the things you buy?”

 

“Not really,” Wu Xian had answered. “I would not want to appear biased in what I was bringing you,” he said, and somehow, Feng Xi could tell that he was sincere. He stopped worrying about indoctrination after that.

 

 

Wu Xian brought only a few books at a time, but they added up quickly. They formed little piles and stacks on Wu Xian’s small table, then the windowsill, and finally the floor. After nearly tripping over a copy of Silent Spring one too many times, Feng Xi finally caved and asked Wu Xian to put up some bookshelves as well. He had promised himself that he would keep his favors from Wu Xian to a minimum, but even he had limits.

 

He did not actually know how much time had gone by since he had awoken in Wu Xian’s spirit realm. The vast space beyond Wu Xian’s house never grew any darker or brighter, nor were there any seasons. It was a timeless place, and for a long while the only way Feng Xi could tell that time was actually passing was by his growing book collection. It was disorientating at first, but by now it was almost comforting to him, this lack of change. At times, he would spend long moments just running his fingers along the spines, thinking.

 

He was an elfin born of the forests that had once flourished in Long You. He had chosen to die rather than accept human society, and yet here he was—alive again, devouring the words of humans and fully assimilated elfins written on bound sheaves of paper. While he knew from his reading that papermaking was not as exploitative on the forests as people thought it was, the irony is not lost on him.

 

And yet, he still could not deny that he was actually enjoying the reading that Wu Xian brings him.

 

Elfins had no written language system, so the Guild always used the language most commonly spoken by the surrounding humans to communicate. All of Feng Xi’s plans had required extensive amounts of information, so reading had become a survival skill, but he had never read purely for the sake of reading alone like he was now. His bitterness toward human society remained largely unchanged, but he did find reading to be a nice way to learn about the world, a way of experiencing the twenty years he had missed without having to directly interact with any changes.

 

As he read, he thought of many things. About elfins, about humans, about home. I’ve thought about it for long enough, he had once said, but only the dead are blessed with the cessation of thought, while the living must go on. He read about human politics and society, technology and environmental science, and art and history and philosophy, and he marveled at both humanity‘s penchant for destruction and its sheer creative potential. This love of learning and exploration encapsulated in scholarship…it was the one positive aspect of humanity that he would willingly acknowledge, Feng Xi decided.

 

All the reading served its purpose of distracting him, and he’s even reluctantly fascinated by the works of human environmentalists. He still wished that he could just go back to sleep at times, just go back to his tree in Long You and never wake to the blinding light again, but those thoughts were somewhat less frequent now. His mind would drift in that direction occasionally, and he would not really make an effort to stop it, but at least there were more things to think about now, more than just his years-worth of regrets to keep him occupied.

 

(And if some of what he’s read was maybe giving him hope, he does not have to acknowledge it.)

 

And so time went on.

 

Eventually, Feng Xi fell into a sort of routine. He still returned to the bonsai plant to sleep whenever he tired of reading, or he would simply stare out the window for hours, either contemplating what he had read or thinking about nothing at all. Sometimes Wu Xian would drop by while Feng Xi was awake, but most times he would wake up to find a new stack of books on the table and a note from Wu Xian, usually something like the following: 

 

[Nothing new on your condition yet. Found some more titles that you might like though.]

 

[Apologies for not having come by in a while. Mission from the Guild took an unexpectedly long time. I brought you some extra reading in case you ran out.]

 

[You seem to have been sleeping fairly frequently lately. I have not seen you the last three times I came by. If you are feeling unwell, let me know.]

 

Feng Xi saw the notes a lot more than he actually saw Wu Xian, a fact which was actually reassuring to him. The relationship they had…well, even he was not quite sure what their interactions could be categorized as. Wu Xian had retained his strange considerateness from his first interaction with Feng Xi, but to Feng Xi himself, the idea that Wu Xian cared for him and his wellbeing was unfamiliar, even worrisome. He had not forgotten about Wu Xian’s actions in the past. But sometimes, and with increasing frequency, Wu Xian’s notes would contain an extra hint of that muted kindness, and Feng Xi would doubt himself just a little more.

 

And so time went on.

 

Wu Xian’s in-person appearances were usually brief. Leads about Feng Xi’s strange state of existence were few and far between, and while Feng Xi did not quite think of him as an enemy anymore, it was not like they had that much to talk about aside from Feng Xi’s predicament.

 

Eventually though, sometime after Feng Xi had asked him for the bookshelves, Wu Xian started to bring in the occasional human appliance when he visited—a touch-screen phone, a small wok, a flat, box-shaped metal contraption that emits a flame. Feng Xi would see him handling these devices sometimes. He had a good idea of what they all do after observing Wu Xian, but the elfin does not touch them, even when Wu Xian occasionally leaves them behind. He will not risk becoming reliant on them the way he knew many other elfins were.

 

The one time he had been forced to break this resolve was when Wu Xian had attempted to cook in the near vicinity. Feng Xi had just returned to his book after watching the human slice vegetables mid-air and direct them into the wok, but somehow a couple of minutes later there was a charred smell filling the entire house, which he had not even known was possible in a spirit realm.

 

“Wu Xian! What are you doing?” he had exclaimed, hastily throwing one of Wu Xian’s old notes into his book to mark his progress. He had run over to next room where Wu Xian was, only to find the man standing with wok in hand, an utterly blank expression on his face. He was staring at a charred mass at the bottom of the wok that Feng Xi presumed had been the vegetables.

 

He had snatched the wok out of Wu Xian’s hands without a second thought, throwing the whole mess into a nearby paper bin before shooting the man a look. Fortunately, Wu Xian seemed to understand his implicit demand for explanation, because he said somewhat sheepishly, “I was just trying to make lunch, since I had missed it earlier. I thought this might not happen if I tried it here instead of outside.”

 

“You mean you’ve done this in the real world before too?” Feng Xi glanced at the disposed wok and suppressed a wince. “This must mean even your subconscious acknowledges your lack of capability to cook. I didn’t even know it was possible to fail at something in your own spirit realm.”

 

Wu Xian just shrugged. He did not even look offended at Feng Xi’s comment, which was somehow infuriating. “Perhaps. Did I disturb you?”

 

“What do you think?” Feng Xi huffed internally marveling at how calm Wu Xian was despite the chaos he had caused. “Whatever. I’m going back to read then.”

 

“Fine. I brought extras anyways, just in case this happened,” Wu Xian said, materializing another wok and another bag of groceries out of thin air.

 

“You what?!

 

And so, for the sake of self-preservation, Feng Xi ended up making a meal of sorts for Wu Xian using his human contraptions. The pot felt heavy in his hands, but not all too foreign, and the fire was easy enough to operate once he figured out that the knob adjusted the flames’ output. He was not a master chef by any means, though judging by how Wu Xian had literally cried upon eating, Feng Xi guessed that he was not half bad. But as entertaining and outlandish as that experience had been, he was loath to repeat it too often, for fear of losing his grip on who he is. Fortunately, Wu Xian had only ever brought instant meals into his spirit realm from that point onward.

 

(Feng Xi has to convince himself that he’s not a little disappointed.)

 

I’ve gotten used to being here, he realized one day. He was unsure how to feel about that thought. Nowadays, more than a potentially indefinite stay inside Wu Xian’s spirit realm, it was the idea of setting foot in the outside world that made truly his insides twist with fear. He wasn’t ready. The strange restriction on his range of movement had diminished to the point where he could almost reach the house’s exit, and even his body was significantly more corporeal now—the changes were more noticeable every time he woke.

 

“You recover faster when you are asleep. Your tree cutting also seems to have shrunk, like you’re absorbing it somehow,” Wu Xian observed one day. “At your current rate of healing, I estimate that it will be less than a month in real time until your body returns to normal.”

 

Feng Xi had not known what to say to that, so he had simply kept quiet until Wu Xian had left. He wasn’t ready. Less than a month, he thought with a hint of dread, he had less than a month before his body returned to normal, at his current pace. Once he had fully recovered and was likely to stay that way, he knew he would have to leave Wu Xian’s spirit realm to return to the real world once more. It would mean coming face to face with…well, with everything—past and future, old friends and new faces, the world—there was no way he was ready. He did not know if he ever will be.

 

His only comfort was that he and Wu Xian still had no idea as to how he had become this way in the first place. He had learned enough about Wu Xian now to understand that the man would not let Feng Xi die if he could help it, so until they could know for sure whether or not his existence was tied to being located in Wu Xian’s spirit realm, Wu Xian would most likely keep him here and not inform the outside world of his existence. It was all he could hope for.

 

And so time went on, until one day.

Chapter Text

“I just spoke with Lao Jun earlier,” Wu Xian said one day. He was sitting on the lone chair by the bonsai table, which now frequently doubled as a tea table.

 

“Okay.” Feng Xi did not look up from his book, but internally his heart gave a lurch.  “And what did he say? You would not bring it up unless there was something significant about it.”

 

“Feng Xi, you may have pretended not to notice, but your body is nearly completely corporeal now. You are very close to fully absorbing your tree cutting.” He gestured toward the pot that used to hold a full bonsai plant, where only a stub of a tiny trunk remains. “I’ve suspected for a while now that you are somehow using your tree cutting as the material spirit component that all elfins need to retain a physical form. You will likely be a normal elfin again once you have fully incorporated it, and you should be able to move freely too.”

 

“We’ve discussed this already, Wu Xian,” Feng Xi said, turning a page. He hoped his voice came across as nonchalant. “Normal elfins are truly born only when a spiritual fairy binds with a compatible material spirit. They’re not even conscious beings before the binding.”

 

If Wu Xian notices anything, he does not comment on it. “Yes. That is also why I sought out Lao Jun’s advice. Your condition is not normal by any means, and if anyone would know anything about it, that would be Lao Jun.”

 

“So what did Lao Jun say? He’s a god, is he not?” Feng Xi hummed and turned another page, even though his actual attention has long since shifted to Wu Xian. He does not really even remember what he was reading about.

 

 “When I met with Lao Jun today, I told him about your case as a pure hypothetical and asked him what he thought of it.” Wu Xian hesitated here for just a moment, and Feng Xi would have missed it had he not been paying close attention. “Lao Jun suggested that your condition might be the result of some kind of spiritual ability.”

 

This time Feng Xi did look up. “’A spiritual ability’?” he repeated, “What kind of ability could possibly do this? And one that I don’t even know about even though I’m the user?”

 

“I have not thought through all the details myself, but it is possible,” Wu Xian said carefully. “In that moment when you…died…it’s possible that you didn’t implode your spirit realm like you thought you did, but you had actually projected it outward like any spatial-type power, just like my Devour and Xiao Hei’s Domain. Your spirit realm could have changed its shape and branched out with your tree instead of being destroyed, but I imagine that in your weakened state, this transformation would have taken all your remaining energy, so you needed to reaccumulate living spirits again, like a newborn elfin. But your material spirit was still preserved in your tree, which is why you kept your human form after regaining consciousness.”

 

Feng Xi scoffed. “And Lao Jun told you all of this?”

 

“No. He told me some of it. I won’t deny that much of what I said is based on what he has told me, but I have also been thinking about it since that conversation.”

 

“…How specific were you in describing my situation to Lao Jun?”

 

Wu Xian swirled the tea in his teacup, studying the ripples. “I only asked him for ways an elfin could survive what appeared to be the self-destruction of their spirit realm, along with what could cause an elfin to appear in human form without a corporeal body. I did not give him any further details. Nothing much escapes Lao Jun’s notice, so I think he still suspects something, but I see no way for him to confirm his suspicions or connect them to you.”

 

“Huh.” And with that, Feng Xi had to be content. The idea of someone other than Wu Xian uncovering his current existence was aggravating, but he was also a pragmatist—there was nothing he could do even if Lao Jun ended up making the connections. “…So what exactly did he say that gave you these ideas?”

 

“No elfin can survive the destruction of their spirit realm. Lao Jun was clear about that, but he also says that is pretty much the only rule when it comes to spiritual powers. Theoretically, a spiritual ability can exist that would make it seem like your spirit realm has been destroyed while actually preserving it in an unnoticed form, though such an ability would likely be quite energy-intensive, therefore leaving the user drained and unable to maintain the bond between their spiritual energy and their material core.”

 

Feng Xi grimaces. “And what kind of an ability would that be?”

 

“This ability likely activated just as you ‘died,’ and since it was so new, you likely were not even aware that you were using it, just like how Xiao Hei was unaware of his Domain,” Wu Xian says quietly. He sets his still-full cup of tea down on the table and turns to look directly at Feng Xi. “My guess would be that it somehow compartmentalized your spirit realm into fragments instead of destroying it, and those fragments then latched onto your tree, since that was your material core.”

 

“You’re still not explaining anything.”

 

“Well, your consciousness would have disappeared since you no longer had a complete spirit realm to reside in, so it would explain why you were unaware of the last twenty years. But given the right conditions, I think each fragment of your spirit realm likely holds the potential to develop into a complete version of the original. This way, when I took a cutting of your tree into my spirit realm, I had also taken one of your spirit realm fragments with me, and because my spirit realm was a good environment for your fragment to start accumulating spiritual energy again, your complete spirit realm reformed, and you woke up here.”

 

“So you’re saying I’m re-growing my spirit realm within yours?” Feng Xi laughed with an edge of panic. “Is that why my range of motion was so limited? Because I could only move within the area of my own spirit realm?”

 

“Yes. That would seem in line with the rest of my theory.”

 

Feng Xi stared at Wu Xian for a long moment. His mind was whirling from all he had heard. When he finally managed to speak again, his voice was quiet, almost bordering on a whisper. “So what does this all mean then? This new spirit realm of mine, is it bound to yours for survival?” Does this mean I can never leave? is the implicit question he did not dare ask aloud. Either way, he did not know what he would do with the answer.

 

But Wu Xian was shaking his head. “All spatial type abilities can be withdrawn, so you should be able to retract your spirit realm once you are strong enough again. Then you can leave my spirit realm without losing connection to your own.”

 

“…you’re sure of this?” He hated the hollow echo he heard within his voice, hated his own vulnerability even more, but Wu Xian simply accepted it without comment, as he had done with most of Feng Xi’s moments of weakness.

 

“Yes.”

 

And somehow, that one word was enough. Feng Xi released a breath he had not even realized he was holding.

 

For all this time he had spent inside Wu Xian’s spirit realm, the man had kept true to his word.  By now, Feng Xi had stopped worrying that the Guild or his friends would learn of his existence and come bursting in following Wu Xian’s lead, and he had also stopped fearing for his free will. Throughout their interactions, Feng Xi had learned that for all his power and skill in fighting, Wu Xian had remarkably little capacity for verbal subterfuge—he would either say what he meant or nothing at all.

 

“This means I am likely to make a complete recovery then,” Feng Xi murmured out loud, more for his own benefit than Wu Xian’s. He still did not quite know how to process the thought. “I’ll have the same powers and abilities that I had just before Long You, save for what I had taken from Hua Hu, Mr. Min, and Xiao Hei. And I will have this…new ability.” He looks up at Wu Xian. “Does that not worry you?”

 

“I will have to report this to the Guild,” Wu Xian admitted, “but when I do so would depend on you.”

 

 Feng Xi narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”

 

Wu Xian hesitated for only a moment before he answered. “Until you make a decision, I will not tell the Guild that you are alive. That is your secret to keep or to tell. Should you fully recover and choose not to reveal yourself though, I will not remove you from my spirit realm by force.”

 

“Meaning I have to go through the Guild should I wish to rejoin the world, isn’t that right? Though I must say these are far more generous terms from you than I would have expected.” Feng Xi sighed. “Tell me. What can I expect to happen once the Guild learns of my presence? I haven’t changed that much, Wu Xian. I would rather die again than be forcibly integrated into human society.” His tone is utterly calm as he makes his statement, as if he were merely commenting on the weather.

 

 “…I know.” Wu Xian’s voice was quiet when he answered. He continued, “I cannot speak for certain what the Guild will do, Feng Xi, but the Guild has never forced any elfins to adapt to life among humans. You know this.”

 

“I do know that. But there is not much of a life beyond human society now, Wu Xian. After we were driven from our homes, it had taken me and my friends nearly forty years to find a place like that island where you found us. It’s not much of a choice.” Feng Xi smiled without much real mirth.

 

A shadow flitted across Wu Xian’s expression. “What the Guild decides is also dependent on your actions, Feng Xi. The Guild’s three rules still take priority.”

 

“Settling and colonizing, taking over what is not theirs to own…humans do this even to their own kind,” Feng Xi continued as if he had not heard Wu Xian. “Some of the reading you’ve brought me has enlightened me in more ways than one about the matters of the human world. When it comes to survival and protecting a way of life, even humans will turn to violence, and sometimes much more easily than us elfins.”

 

“Even so, that does not mean I will tolerate violence from you,” Wu Xian said. His eyes have taken on a dangerous slant.

 

Feng Xi closed his eyes. “Of course you won’t, and I didn’t expect you to either. Ultimately, what both elfins and the human settlers want is the land. I have not forgotten what happened in Long You.”

 

“And neither have I,” Wu Xian replied but it was not with the animosity that Feng Xi had expected. Instead, the human’s anger seemed to have subsided—if he had not known better, Feng Xi would have almost sworn that he heard regret in Wu Xian’s voice. “Long You….did not end the way anyone wanted it to end, Feng Xi. No one truly won that battle.”

 

Feng Xi shot him a mildly incredulous look. “No, you won. You and the Guild got everything that you wanted, did you not? The city was saved, and no humans or the elfins living in the city were hurt. Xiao Hei even survived, and he even liked you enough to choose to become your disciple. What more could you have asked for?”

 

For a moment, Wu Xian did not speak. When he finally did answer, he was already turning to leave, and he did not meet Feng Xi’s eyes. His tone was so quiet that Feng Xi nearly did not hear him.

 

“You, Feng Xi. I would have asked for you to live. No one wanted you to die.”

Chapter Text

Around the time of the Long You incident, Wu Xian had been alive for so long that he had come to regard his own age with a general sense of detachment. He likely would have forgotten the exact number had his acquaintances at the guild not insisted on keeping track, and it’s only after the battle in the Domain that he starts to count the years again with renewed fervor. Xiao Hei’s arrival was a blessing in more ways than one—while the joys and tribulations of raising a child had doubtlessly breathed color back into his days, it also proved effective at keeping his mind occupied.

 

Those first few years, Xiao Hei had been so full of energy and enthusiasm that Wu Xian had found himself hard-pressed to keep up. All the time he did not need for missions went straight to caring for the child—anything to prevent situations where he was alone and unoccupied. Eventually though, he had to get better at managing his time, so those moments begin to arise with increasing frequency. It would start with a gnawing ache in his chest, and then the memories would well up thick and sour at the back of his throat. He was never truly free of them—they were always there, lingering just beneath the surface.

 

A resigned smile. An apology. A last act of defiance with an explosive, vibrant end.

 

In the years following the Long You incident, Wu Xian had done his best to bury those memories. He had too many responsibilities as it was, and now with Xiao Hei relying on him, he could not afford any regrets for the past (I was there, I could have done something—). Everything would have been so much easier if he could just wholeheartedly hate Feng Xi. He attempts it for a while too, trying to convince himself that the elfin deserved his end for what he had done to Xiao Hei, but even then he never quite manages to believe it. And so the guilt remains.

 

—I could have saved him.

 

One did not live as long as Wu Xian has though, without learning a few coping mechanisms along the way. Keeping himself preoccupied on the daily was one of his favored tactics. Of course, he knew that his distraction was not conducive to a true, long-term recovery, but time had also dulled his pain before, and that was all he really wanted. Had guild-master Pan Jing not asked for his help to oversee Luo Zhu and Tian Hu’s release, everything might have gone exactly according to expectations.

 

Wu Xian had arrived at Bing Yun city’s detention facility without much fanfare. He does not have to wait long, and when the two elfins emerge from the facility’s only exit, both freeze upon catching sight of him. “Wu Xian….” Luo Zhu murmured, a conflicted look in his brown eyes. Tian Hu, on the other hand, does not look at him at all.

 

They were hardly the first elfins to be visibly uncomfortable in his presence—but maybe because they were Feng Xi’s friends, the cold ache in Wu Xian’s heart resurged with a vengeance. In that moment he could not help wondering—did Luo Zhu and Tian Hu know about the exact details of Feng Xi’s passing? If so, did they…hate him for it? The now-familiar guilt coiled in his stomach at the thought.

 

“Come with me,” he said, though he was extra careful to keep any trace of emotion out of his voice. Since Tian Hu was being fully released, Pan Jing had asked him to only escort Luo Zhu to his parole location post-release, and he releases a quiet breath at the thought. The combined force of the two elfins’ discomfort was overwhelming, and he was suddenly quite grateful that he did not have to interact with them both for an extended time.

 

Luo Zhu took a step in Wu Xian’s direction. Tian Hu made as if to follow, but the older elfin stopped him before Wu Xian was forced to intervene—another small blessing. “You can’t come with me, Tian Hu,” Luo Zhu said, firmly but not unkindly.

 

Tian Hu blinked his huge eyes once, twice. He tipped his head slightly to one side in a questioning gesture.

 

“…You’re being fully released,” the older elfin explained softly. He was smiling, but even Wu Xian could tell that it was not quite steady. “That means as long as you follow the three rules that the Guild elfins talked about, you can go anywhere you want to.”

 

“No,” Tian Hu rumbled softly. He shook his huge head twice, as if to emphasize the word.

 

“I know, I know you don’t want to leave me and Xu Huai. I feel the same thing. I didn’t want us to be split up like this,” Luo Zhu said, and for a moment his face crumples. The quiet devastation in his expression would stay with Wu Xian for a long time. Yet the elfin somehow found the strength to keep his voice steady as he continued, “but this is what we have to do now. We have to keep living with our circumstances and try to be happy. It’s…it’s what he would have wanted.”

 

It’s what Feng Xi would have wanted.

 

The name that Wu Xian had been trying so hard to forget rose unbidden to his lips, and he nearly spoke it aloud. That elfin’s last moments—his resignation, his apology, the way he traded death for life before vanishing in a sea of brilliant green—the memories burst through the dam, sweeping back into the forefront of his mind like the monsoon rain (I was there, I could have done something—). It was then he realized how futile his efforts had been, and how foolish he was to imagine that he could ever forget this.

 

Tian Hu had also visibly stilled upon the implicit mention of Feng Xi. For a moment, the large elfin makes no movement at all, but then he almost appears to curl into himself, like a lost cat in a cold alleyway. It’s only then that Wu Xian remembers that despite his size and his ability to control fire, Tian Hu was still quite young for an elfin, still too new to loss.

 

“Hey, it’s okay, it’s okay,” Luo Zhu was saying as he pulls the much larger Tian Hu into a hug. His own voice was shaking a little, the smile on his face wobbling, but he persisted. “Maybe you can come visit me while I’m at my new job, you know? Working in a flower shop doesn’t sound too bad, and at least there’s other elfins also working there right? This might be a good change for all of us. And once Xu Huai comes out too, we can all be together again, alright?”

 

Tian Hu nodded his huge head furiously. His large, stubby arms wrapped tightly around Luo Zhu, clinging to the older elfin as if he would disappear the moment he let go. A heavy weight settled in Wu Xian’s chest alongside the ever-present ache of guilt, and he averted his eyes, unable to shake the feeling that he was intruding. It was a bitter irony for him of all people to witness this, with the role he had played in causing their grief.

 

“Luo Zhu,” he finally managed to prompt when the hug ends. Thankfully, this time the older elfin followed him without comment, and Tian Hu did not attempt to follow. He could feel the large elfin’s gaze as he was leading Luo Zhu away though, and it’s the silent promise in that gaze that burned him more than any hostility. It was a promise to Luo Zhu and to the still-imprisoned Xu Huai—to meet again in better times, to take care until then. And maybe somehow, somewhere out there, what remained of Feng Xi’s spirit was looking on in silent approval.

 

Of course, he knew that was a logical impossibility. But still, for just a moment—Wu Xian let himself believe it was true. 

 

Luo Zhu’s parole was arranged to take place in Long You, and Wu Xian had asked for one of the Long You Guild’s flying transporters to take them to the city, where they would check in and switch to human means of transport. He and Luo Zhu still had yet to speak to one another since they had left the Bing Yun facility. That was within his expectations—he was a poor conversationalist at best, and the elfin also had every reason to dislike him, so he was almost startled when Luo Zhu breaks the silence once they were fully airborne.

 

“Hey, Wu Xian.” What surprised him more is the utter lack of enmity in Luo Zhu’s tone. “You were there when Feng Xi…left us, weren’t you?”

 

The elfin had avoided using “death” to describe his friend in his inquiry, but Wu Xian understood anyway. They were going to Long You after all—he had little else on his mind. He answered honestly. “Yes, I was.”

 

“Will you tell me how it happened? The executors in the Bing Yun holding facility didn’t tell us the details, only that he was gone. I don’t think they exactly knew either.” Luo Zhu’s hands fidgeted a little as he spoke, but his eyes remain firmly fixed on Wu Xian. His expression held a resolve that Wu Xian seems to know from memory, and just for a moment, he thought he saw a flash of beautiful, razor-edged purple within Luo Zhu’s brown eyes.

 

Well, he had not been planning to withhold the truth in the first place, so he told Luo Zhu all that he remembered, about the battle and what happened after. About Feng Xi’s resignation and his apology to Xiao Hei. About his final act. Wu Xian did his best to relay events as neutrally as possible though, so if he did not mention how in his last moments, Feng Xi had closed his eyes and refused to look at him, he thinks he can be forgiven for the omission.

 

Luo Zhu was quiet for a long moment after Wu Xian stops speaking. “So that’s how he chose to do it,” he murmured at last, looking down at his lap. “It’s just as Xu Huai said. I guess we all should have seen it coming.”

 

“You knew he would do this?” The question came out sharper than Wu Xian had intended.

 

“No, we didn’t.” Luo Zhu shook his head. “When we started our plan to get Xiao Hei back, none of us knew that things would end like this. I…I will say that I’m not entirely surprised though? We all kind of sensed it after we found out that Feng Xi was gone, I guess. Xu Huai had been with Feng Xi the longest, and he’d already guessed that it probably happened like this, but I didn’t want to just guess at things. I asked you because I wanted to know for sure, so…thank you for being honest with me.”

 

“Oh.” Wu Xian nodded a little awkwardly. Then, after a beat of silence, “Luo Zhu, about you and Xu Huai and Tian Hu, do you…” Do you blame me? he wanted to ask, but the words refused to come. He almost bit through his lip in frustration. Perhaps deep down, he was still afraid to know the answer.

 

Luo Zhu glanced toward him with curious eyes. “’Do you’ what?”

 

“…It’s nothing,” Wu Xian answered. He saw Luo Zhu’s gaze turn thoughtful, and he turned away quickly before the elfin could follow up on his curiosity.

 

Thankfully, with the city of Long You drawing near, Wu Xian did not exactly have to feign distraction. Even from this distance, he could see Feng Xi’s tree clearly against the skyline—an oasis in a desert of steel and stone, arching above even the tallest skyscrapers. His heart constricted at the sight even now. “Oh, Feng Xi….” He heard Luo Zhu say in a hushed whisper from somewhere beside him, and he swallowed hard, familiar guilt souring the back of his throat.

 

I was there, I could have done something.

 

They entered the bounds of the city, and by then, the quiet, ever-present ache in his chest had festered into a pulsating pain. Elfins had no souls—they were born of nature and to nature they would return, all flesh and blood dissolved, their spirits dispersing to the four corners of the earth. Or perhaps, to the place they had loved most, and this was Long You after all. Maybe Feng Xi had already become one with the very wind and water of this land—he was everywhere that Wu Xian could see.

 

The irony was not lost on Wu Xian that in a way, through death, Feng Xi had achieved his life’s dream to reclaim his home. For Wu Xian, Long You would forever be associated with Feng Xi. He would never manage to visit the city or even picture it without Feng Xi also coming to mind.

 

Almost on autopilot, he checked in with the Guild before he takes Luo Zhu to his parole site. The Guild had assigned Luo Zhu to work with supervision in Zi Luolan’s flower shop. As long as he could maintain good behavior for a year or two, he would be free to live his own life afterward.

 

“Do you know how to get there?” Luo Zhu asked with a hint of worry.

 

Wu Xian took note the elfin’s anxiety with slight confusion. Surely his sense of direction was not that bad? “Yes, we will take the metro,” he said in an attempt to reassure Luo Zhu.

 

“Do you have a metro map?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Can I have a copy too? And a map of where the shop is, if you have it.”

 

There was no reason to deny his request, so Wu Xian grabbed another train map from the nearest stand and gave it to Luo Zhu, along with a map of the city. Even then, the elfin did not relax until Wu Xian had told him the name of their station and where exactly Zi Luolan’s shop was. “Just in case,” Luo Zhu had said by way of explanation, throwing an unconvincing smile in Wu Xian’s direction.

 

They board with little hassle after passing through security, taking the last two empty seats just as the train begins to speed along. Wu Xian gazed out the window as the scenery flew by, and he could not help but recall how he had taken this very train route with Xiao Hei, years ago. That journey had been far more eventful. The memory burned so vivid that Wu Xian could almost see him just then—Feng Xi’s eyes smoldering with determination, his purple hair flying in the wind—but then the metro emerged from the tunnel and the image was gone with the daylight. A mechanical voice overhead announces the next stop as “Feng Xi Park East Entrance,” and Wu Xian’s breath caught for just a moment.

 

“Wu Xian? Are you alright?”

 

The sudden question threw him off-guard, and it was only with centuries-worth of self-discipline that he maintained a neutral expression. “I’m fine,” he said, drawing a breath as he turned his head slowly to look at Luo Zhu. “Why do you ask?”

 

“Well…” Luo Zhu ducked his head a little, as if in embarrassment. “Um, I know it’s not my place really, but you’ve seemed bothered by something since we came into the city, you know. I started paying attention when you didn’t finish your question back there on the flying transport. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to though!” he says hastily.

 

Wu Xian blinked twice. Had he really been that obvious? “How could you tell?” he asked, keeping his voice as level as he could.

 

“I can’t really explain it, but I guess I just looked and felt like something was wrong. I’ve always been pretty good at figuring out how people are feeling, especially after Feng Xi taught me how to work on it. But I swear I didn’t mean anything bad by it! I just want to help, if you’re okay with it, I mean.”

 

He stared at Luo Zhu with his wide, sincere brown eyes, and then he looked around the train car. City-dwelling humans are notoriously self-centered. No one seemed to have paid them any heed. The stop for Feng Xi Park’s East Entrance came and went, and the mechanical announcer spoke up once more when the train starts—their stop is next. His heart pounded in his chest.

 

“I…I suppose I do have a question then,” he said at last, when the train had reached full speed again. The churning of the wheels on the tracks calmed him just enough to gather his courage, but he still turned his head away as he spoke, just enough so that he could not see Luo Zhu’s expression. The guilt threatened to well up in his throat faster than words could. “About what happened to Feng Xi, what he did in the end…”

 

—I could have saved him.

 

“…Do you all blame me for it?”

 

Overhead, the mechanical announcer spoke once more, and the train was slowing down now, pulling into the station. The whole process takes less than a minute, yet to Wu Xian it feels like hours.  He still did not dare turn to look at Luo Zhu.

 

 “Hey Wu Xian. Will you look at me for a moment?”

 

He turned to meet the elfin’s gaze with great reluctance, but he found no anger or even judgment in those eyes. Luo Zhu’s answer came just as the metro churned to a full stop, in those quiet, surreal moments right before the doors opened. 

 

“Wu Xian…I’ve been with Feng Xi and Xu Huai almost since I was born, and one of the best and worst things about him was how he’d always love too much to just let things go. You can’t blame yourself for his choice.”

 

“But—” Wu Xian was interrupted by the sound of the sliding doors. People began to stream in and out, and even Luo Zhu stood to exit the train, but he refused to move for just a moment longer. “But he was right there. I was there. If I could have just done something—maybe I could have saved him.” The words spill out of him in a rush, like a confession long-overdue.

 

But Luo Zhu only shook his head once. “No. You couldn’t have expected it, and once Feng Xi has made up his mind, it would take something next to a miracle to make him change it. Xu Huai and Tian Hu and I could never blame you for that.” He gave Wu Xian a sad smile before turning and walking out onto the platform.

 

Wu Xian was numb as he followed Luo Zhu off the train. The clamor in his mind drowned out all the nameless faces around them, and he barely registered the fact that Luo Zhu was the one leading them out of the metro station instead of him. Throughout his life, he had fought and defeated countless humans and elfins, and they have all cursed his name in return. He had not forgotten that he was, in a way, directly responsible for the situation that led to that Feng Xi’s final choice. Could they…really not hate me for this at all?

 

His mind continued to wander even after they emerge from the underground station and into the sunlight. He took the lead in front of Luo Zhu again, letting his feet guide him automatically as he walked toward Zi Luolan’s flower shop, though the elfin did correct his turns every once in a while. In hindsight, it was fortunate that the shop was only a few streets down from the metro station, and that Luo Zhu had the foresight to ask him for maps.

 

“We’re here,” he said somewhat automatically to Luo Zhu once they arrived at the storefront. He has done this enough for other elfins by now that he knew his lines by memory. “This will be your parole check-in location for the duration of your sentence. Other Guild members will be waiting for you inside. They will explain the details of your requirements to you.”

 

“Okay,” Luo Zhu said, but there was a notable hesitation in his voice. He made a move as if to turn toward the store entrance before he looked back at Wu Xian again. His expression was strangely reluctant, almost as if he does not want to leave Wu Xian behind—as if he’s worried.

 

“Hey, Wu Xian. Before I go, I just wanted you to know that I meant everything I said earlier,” the elfin said at last. His voice was quiet but sincere. “I know it’s hard, but I mean it when I say you really shouldn’t blame yourself for what happened. Xu Huai might be the eldest, but Feng Xi had been fighting the longest out of all of us, and I…I think he might have even been a little happy in the end. I think it was the only way he could have really gone home.”

 

Wu Xian listened and wanted to believe him. He truly did, only to have that lingering ache in his chest intervene one final time, warning him to stay on his guard until he could be truly sure. “I don’t understand…why are you going so far to tell me all of this?”

 

To his surprise, Luo Zhu only smiled somewhat sheepishly. He did not even try to defend himself against Wu Xian’s suspicion. “Heh, you’re right, I guess it does look really weird to you, doesn’t it? Since you were trying to beat us up just a few years ago.” He sighed and continued, “To be honest, I don’t even really know why I’m telling you this, and I’m still not sure I even like you very much given everything that’s happened. But…I do know the last thing Feng Xi would have wanted was for his death to be a burden to us. He would have wanted us to move on and be happy again. So if Xu Huai and Tian Hu and I have to do that, even though we all loved him so much and it’s so hard….

 

 “Then you have to as well. You and Xiao Hei both, if he is also guilting himself like you are. It’s only fair that way.”

 

Luo Zhu’s voice quivered slightly when he finished his statement, but there was something about the way he meets Wu Xian’s gaze—his eyes burning with determination, hair flying in the wind—that seems just a little familiar to him. It was the same look that Feng Xi had given him in their fight on the train rooftop. In that moment, he almost believed that elfin’s dispersed spirit had reformed and was berating him through the words of his friend.

 

So when Wu Xian finally does respond to Luo Zhu, he did so in a near whisper. Even he was not quite sure why. Perhaps he felt that if he spoke too loudly, he would scare away what remains of Feng Xi’s spirit before it could witness his answer. “Okay, I understand,” he said quietly, “I will try.” And he meant it.

 

“Then that’s all I can really ask of you,” Luo Zhu said, smiling once more. He gave Wu Xian a small wave in farewell before he turned and walked toward the flower shop’s entrance, opening the door. A bell chimed from somewhere inside before the door fell shut once more, and that is the last Wu Xian sees of Luo Zhu for a while. Feng Xi’s ethereal presence seemed to disappear right along with Luo Zhu, but then again, perhaps it had only been part of his imagination in the first place.

 

Or perhaps not. This was Long You after all, and elfins had no souls—they were born of nature and to nature they would return, or to the place they had loved most. Maybe Feng Xi was already everywhere that Wu Xian could see.

 

Wu Xian swallowed hard. The ache in his chest builds and builds until he was burning with it from the inside out. Of course, he had not expected it to depart immediately after his promise, but it also felt somehow…different this time. The pain was still real—his heart was shirking from the searing heat, and yet the guilt also seemed to burn away with it, just a little. Like sealing a wound with fire, he thought. It hurt more than several years’ worth of his old scars…but it was a start.

 

He still could not bring himself to accept Luo Zhu’s reassurances quite yet, but he’s starting to believe that he would be able to someday. Maybe even someday soon.

Chapter Text

Not too long after Wu Xian’s admission, the human returned to his spirit realm with his usual air of elegant indifference. He opened the front door and stepped inside, his soft shoes treading against the wooded floors as he headed over to the kitchen area. Moments later, Feng Xi heard the telling whir of the small microwave (another one of the human appliances that Wu Xian had brought in). He watched out of the corner of his eye as Wu Xian emerged from the kitchen with his takeout of the day, and his gaze continued to follow the human until he had sat down at the table beside all the bookshelves.

 

I would have asked for you to live. Wu Xian’s voice from not too long ago echoed inside Feng Xi’s head, and he stared.

 

The telltale smell of fried chicken wafted through the air as Wu Xian put his lunch on the table, and although the human had noticed Feng Xi’s stare, he apparently seemed to have completely misinterpret the intent behind it. “Would you like some?” he asked, opening the takeout box and offering a crisp, golden drumstick to Feng Xi. Feng Xi gritted his teeth.

 

He and Wu Xian had been content to dance around each other for a while now, threading around each other’s boundaries and comfort zones, never straying too close or too far—until now. What Wu Xian had let slip when they last saw one another was more than enough to wipe out any vestige of distance that Feng Xi had been trying to keep between them.

 

Even now, the human voice continued to whisper to him through his memories, refusing to be suppressed or forgotten. I would have asked for you to live.

 

Feng Xi set down the book he had been pretending to read and met Wu Xian’s eyes. He made an honest effort not to glare, but that was difficult with Wu Xian staring back at him unperturbed, still proffering that ridiculous drumstick, another piece of chicken already halfway to his own mouth. He seemed utterly uncaring of the heaviness in the air. Sometimes Feng Xi hated himself for caring too much—this would have been easy back when he still thought of Wu Xian as only the Guild’s instrument of destruction. He could have brushed off all the human’s words then, dispersed them like dandelion seeds in the wind. Now though, it was too late.

 

Wu Xian was still Wu Xian, the Guild’s most powerful executor, but now he was also Wu Xian, a soul brimming with awkward sincerity beneath his elegant exterior; he was Wu Xian, the bane of all culinary existence; and he was Wu Xian, a human capable of performing muted, yet innumerable acts of kindness. All of that was more than enough to give weight to his words.

 

I would have asked for you to live.

 

There was a soft thunk as Wu Xian at last got the hint from Feng Xi’s baleful gaze and put the drumstick back into the takeout container. He shrugged at Feng Xi’s loss and began stuffing the drumstick into his mouth, all somehow without losing his elegant bearing. Feng Xi’s stare turned incredulous as the human continued mowing down his lunch, chewing and swallowed without an apparent care in the world. He seemed ever determined to continue as if nothing had ever happened.

 

So this was how it was going to be, huh? Feng Xi looked back down to the book in his hands—a full-color guide to caring for a variety of household flowering plants. Was he the only one who felt the crushing atmosphere in the room? The very air around him was laden with secrets, tingling with the power of everything left unsaid. He wanted to rip away all the protective layers around those secrets so he would know exactly how they could hurt him.

 

And yet, just as he knew that just as one could not uproot a seedling to speed up its growth, so he also knew that there was no sense in beleaguering a reluctant man to give up his thoughts before the time was right. If Wu Xian was clearly not going to talk about the elephant in the room right now, then Feng Xi would not be the one to bring it up. At least, not for now.

 

What he and Wu Xian had shared before the human said those words was a state of equilibrium, of predictability. It was safe waters, but Feng Xi knew at the bottom of his heart that his patience would slowly but inexorably run thin. A time will come when all the secrets and questions around them would inevitably force either Wu Xian or himself to break this façade—he will be patient for a little longer until then.

 

“Hey, who said I didn’t want any?” he said, scowling at Wu Xian even as he snatched the last chicken wing out of Wu Xian’s hands before the human could bring it to his mouth. This was not the first time Wu Xian had brought human takeout into the spirit realm, and while Feng Xi still felt a twinge of that instinctive repulsion when it came to accepting man-made items, by now that urge had drastically lessened when it came to food. He bit into the wing, raising his eyebrows at the delightful crunch of the breading and the tenderness of the meat—as distasteful as they were in many other areas, even he had to admit that humans knew how to eat well.

 

Preoccupied with his plunder, Feng Xi did not notice how Wu Xian had froze when their hands touched briefly during his theft. Now the human simply sat still, with his eyes slightly wider than usual, watching the white light from the spirit realm outside as it streamed through the window. He saw how that light shone stark against Feng Xi’s face—a spotlight that enhanced every little detail, from the slant of his eyes and cheekbones down to the glint of his canines as he chewed intently on his prize. All bold lines and stark shadows, like a candid of some wild, beautiful creature from the deep woods.

 

Wu Xian’s lips twitched as if he were about to smile, even say something, but then he blinked, and the light in his eyes seemed to fade. His gaze reverted down to the now-empty takeout container. If he looked carefully at just the right angle, he could almost see the elfin’s vivid face reflected in the surface of the black plastic. He dug his nails into his palm.

 

I would have asked for you to live, he had said to the elfin, and like a prayer answered, here Feng Xi now was. Scowling and snapping at him. Snatching his lunch out of his hands. Living. That had to be enough.

 

He had no right to ask for more.

 

 

**

 

Their normal routine appeared to resurface with remarkable speed. Wu Xian had resumed bringing in new books for Feng Xi, along with the occasional news from the world outside. He still brought his lunch with him every now and then, of which Feng Xi would often snatch a portion. There was, however, one significant change.

 

Wu Xian had taken to staring at him lately when he did not think Feng Xi was looking. He was doing it now too, and the elfin could feel his eyes on him from where he was seated a few paces away. It took an immense effort for Feng Xi to keep his eyes trained on his book. While he did not sense any ill intent from Wu Xian’s gaze, it was strangely intense all the same, as if he was a puzzle and Wu Xian was trying to memorize every piece and edge.

 

Suddenly restless, Feng Xi closed his book with an audible thump. He turned his gaze out the window, taking in the stretch of white landscape that lay just beyond the edge of Wu Xian’s garden. The unknown reasoning behind Wu Xian’s change in behavior wore away at him in the back of his mind, and he pressed his palm to his forehead in a vain attempt to suppress the thought.

 

The difficulty of evaluating change in the human’s spirit realm only compounded his frustrations. Wu Xian’s small, traditional house and its surrounding landscape were the only spots of color in this vast, empty world. There was no day or night, nor were there any seasons—the skies were white, the spaces beyond the house were white, and the endless, blinding expanse that stretched ever into the beyond was also white.

 

None of this was exactly new to Feng Xi. He had accepted such as his circumstances when he had been revived, but amid such unchanging surroundings, the one difference in Wu Xian’s behavior stood stark in contrast. Now it pained and gnawed at him like an old wound.

 

And so, the next time Wu Xian returned to his spirit realm, he was met with some unexpected additions to his old house. The human’s eyes slowly swept over the various new plants that now lined the walls and various bookshelves of the room, until his gaze finally landed on Feng Xi. “What are these for?” he asked after a moment.

 

“Just wanted to see how much my powers have recovered,” Feng Xi replied. While that was not the whole truth of his motives, it was also not a complete lie—he had indeed taken some time off from reading to experiment with his spiritual abilities as his powers slowly returned to him. He had yet to possess a fully corporeal form, but even so, conjuring these plants hardly proved to be a strain.

 

He had been sure that Wu Xian knew this as well, so he was taken aback by the genuine concern that streaked through the human’s voice when he next spoke, “How are you feeling?”

 

“Hmm? I’m fine. This wasn’t anything notable with my current state.”

 

Wu Xian’s shoulders relaxed just a fraction, though his eyes still lingered over Feng Xi for a moment longer, as if to reassure himself.  “How much have you recovered?”

 

“My range of movement has increased again, so I suppose that makes our original theory about me regrowing my spirit realm here more believable. I can reach the front door now and go outside for a few steps, if I wanted to,” Feng Xi answered, recovering quickly from the initial surprise. “I still prefer to stay in here though.”

 

Wu Xian’s confusion was audible. “…You like staying inside?”

 

“No. I just mean it doesn’t make much of a difference. At least there are things for me to do when I’m in here,” Feng Xi clarified, gesturing at the bookshelves and the various plants scattered around the room. “Far easier to tell how that time’s actually passing when I’ve got these around. Nothing ever changes in here, and I can’t always rely on you to tell me what day it is.”

 

“Oh.” Wu Xian’s tone was a touch softer than usual when he responded. He looked out of his window at the white expanse as if it was his first time seeing it, then back at Feng Xi, then finally at the greenery that now flourished quietly in his once empty house. “You should have told me if you were feeling restless,” he said quietly.

 

“I’ve managed this just fine,” Feng Xi scowled, though his eyes still softened momentarily when he glanced over at the fragile new lives he had wrought. A thin green vine had grown out over the edge of the wooden shelf, and he carefully tucked it back in its place. “I wouldn’t say I’m exactly restless either,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “It’s not like I’m eager to go anywhere at the moment, considering my circumstances. I’m not sure if I would go anywhere even after I’ve fully recovered my body.”

 

“…I see,” was all Wu Xian said in response. His reply was oddly pinched, as if he was biting back more words and emotions than he let on, but Feng Xi was now far too preoccupied with his new companions to notice. In that moment, for once, his mind was not brooding over Wu Xian’s strange change in behavior anymore—he was brooding over how poorly his plants would fare in this place without either rain or sun.

 

“These won’t survive very long here,” he said out loud, frowning as he inspected the delicate green shoot in his palm. Without his spiritual energy to sustain it, the tips of the small plant were already beginning to turn yellow.

 

“That does seem abnormal for a plant,” Wu Xian observed after a moment. He seemed to have recollected himself from his prior state, and his tone was once again calm and smooth as he spoke.

 

Feng Xi gently stroked the surface of the leaves with a fingertip. “I knew when I first summoned them that it would be difficult for them to grow here, since there is no weather like there would normally be, but I can’t say I was expecting this. It would take a constant supply of my spiritual energy to keep them alive at this rate.”

 

Wu Xian glanced over at one of the shriveling vines curled around the leg of his tea table. “What kind of plant is this?”

 

“The one by your table? That’s honeysuckle.” Feng Xi answers without looking away from the small, dying plant by the windowsill that he was already examining. “I figured it was worth a try anyways. I thought these would at least help me tell the seasons apart, but it’s not worth it if I have to constantly expend energy to care for them. I can’t force a plant to grow in a place it is unsuited for.” And yet, even as he spoke those words of defeat, his amethyst eyes were still sharp, his mouth still pressed into a thin, stubborn line—as if he were still unwilling to give in. Feng Xi himself did not even realize that he was making such expressions. But Wu Xian did.

 

“What do you mean by ‘telling the seasons apart’?” he asked.

 

“Oh, these plants are all flowering vines. They will bloom at different times of year or even at different times of day,” Feng Xi answered. The familiar knowledge put him almost on auto-pilot as he spoke. “Hydrangeas on the bookshelves for summer, clematis over the doorway for fall, and this on the windowsill here is wisteria, for spring.”

 

“So honeysuckle only blooms in winter then,” Wu Xian mused, eyeing the vines at his tea table.

 

 “Yes, but only a rare variety will do that nowadays. They used to be quite common in the older forests around Long You.” Feng Xi’s smile faded slightly as the name passed over his tongue. It seemed that time had yet to dull his pain, even now.

 

Wu Xian’s hand paused at where he had been reaching over to touch the vines. “…Oh.” Then, a few moments later, “I am sure they were beautiful, or you would not miss them enough to bring them back here.” His voice was low, almost pensive, and he glanced over at Feng Xi as he spoke, almost as if he were afraid the elfin’s reactions.

 

“They were beautiful,” Feng Xi agreed, taking pity on Wu Xian’s moment of awkwardness. “But they were also winter blooms only, and I prefer the spring. That’s the wisteria’s job.” He felt mildly amused by the human’s reaction despite himself. In a way, he was relieved to know that despite all the changes in their relationship, Wu Xian was still very aware that he had never once forgotten about Long You. What he did not know though, was that Feng Xi had only learned about the other three types of flowers from a human gardening book that Wu Xian had brought him a while back. Not that he would ever tell Wu Xian that.

 

“—You say they will bloom if the season is right, correct?” Wu Xian interjected. An outside observer would have noticed the odd finality in the way he spoke, as if he had already made some decision and was only asking for a last clarification.

 

“They should, with plenty of sun and the right weather conditions of course.” Feng Xi shrugged once. He was only just now setting down the wisteria shoots he had been examining. “That’s why I grew them anyways. It’s too bad though.”

 

“Would you like to see them bloom then?”

 

“What?” Feng Xi glanced up upon the unexpected question, only to find Wu Xian gazing right back at him. His dark green eyes had taken on that particular, steely quality, as they would whenever Wu Xian had made up his mind to do something—Feng Xi recognized it from when Wu Xian had hurled himself into the domain, determined to stop him. He could not possibly fathom why Wu Xian would be wearing such a look now, so when Wu Xian stood up from his usual seat at the tea table and began to walk toward him, he took a step back on instinct. It was only a few paces’ distance, and yet the human’s every step seemed to elongate the seconds, slowing time to a languid crawl.

 

Wu Xian did not stop until he had brushed past Feng Xi, until he was standing right up in front of the planter on the windowsill. For a moment, he does not move, but then he dropped a hand to gently touch his fingers to the dying wisteria shoot that Feng Xi had just held. Then, he closed his eyes.

 

Many days later, Feng Xi would recall being surprised by the utter lack of turbulence he had felt while Wu Xian was transforming the very foundations of his spirit realm. But in that moment, all he could see was how the sterile, white light from the window had softened and warmed, until it no longer felt so glaring, and how the air no longer felt so still. A subtle breeze blew in from the window and stirred the ends of Feng Xi’s hair.

 

The most remarkable change of all though, originated from the wisteria vine that now rested heavily in Wu Xian’s palm. Bunches of lavender and magenta blossoms burst forth until the vine had matured to its full potential, wreathing the entire window in brilliant purple blossoms. Feng Xi’s spiritual energy was what had created the shoots in the first place, so he knew it as if it were a part of his own body—but this transformation had nothing to do with him. He could only stare in awe as the days and seasons sprung forth from where there was nothingness, all so that the flowers he had grown on a whim would bloom.

 

“There, now it is Spring.” Wu Xian’s declaration was quiet, but Feng Xi still heard it as clearly as if it was spoken right next to his ear. When he turned to look, the man’s gaze was still trained on the flourishing vine in his hands. The blossoms seemed to glow as they caught the sunlight streaming through the window, showering the human in prism-colored light.

 

Wu Xian still did not smile, nor did he say anything more. But when he did look up at last, his green eyes were bright—so bright, and they burned into Feng Xi without reservation.

 

Feng Xi was frozen in place by that gaze. He could not look away. He could not even speak. Yet somehow, even within his still semi-corporeal body, he could hear his heart thumping against his ribcage, as if it were trying to break free.

Chapter Text

Now that Feng Xi had a way to keep track of the days, his sleep schedule had grown more and more regular. Similarly, as he grew stronger, the size of his tree cutting shrank and shrank until it was nearly an invisible stub. As much as he had tried not to dwell on it, the end of his recovery was close at hand. Who knows? Maybe the very next morning, he could wake to find himself fully corporeal again. Alive.

 

And what then? 

 

The terror of that question kept him awake at night nowadays. He would sit on the windowsill, gazing at the quiet pond just beyond, watching with doubt in his heart as the water’s reflection filled with stars. Wu Xian had done this for you, his mind would whisper, and he would once again hear his heartbeat echoing in his chest. Ba-thump, ba-thump, ba-thump.

 

The end of his time here was rapidly approaching, he thought. Now that his recovery was nearly complete, Wu Xian was likely to present him with a decision soon. Undoubtedly, as much freedom as the human had allowed him, he had a “correct” choice for Feng Xi in mind—for the elfin to return to the outside world, likely under close supervision of the Guild for the rest of his foreseeable future.

 

To leave this place or to go on prolonging his tenuous existence here, what should he choose then? In truth, Feng Xi was not eager to confront the Guild again by any means, as he surely would have to do if he chose to leave, but even Wu Xian’s patience for accommodating him must have a limit. The human had already shown him so much kindness—the starlight just beyond his window, the flowers that bloomed quietly along bookshelf ledges, it was all too much—they made his heart swoop even as his stomach churned. What had he ever done for the human to justify him going to such lengths?

 

Feng Xi lets out a long breath and buried his face in both hands. Back when he had been the leader of his little group, his friends had all turned to him for the final choice. He had not the luxury back then to go back and forth with himself like this. He had to make the decision quickly with the good of his companions in mind. And yet, now that the good at stake was solely his own, he was lost.

 

Perhaps, the key was that he had yet to understand the source of Wu Xian’s kindness, he realized with a jolt one night. The human had changed the working of his entire spirit realm—the physical representation of his soul—for Feng Xi, and he certainly had not done anything to deserve this level of care from Wu Xian.

 

So what’s changed? His pondering that night yielded no answers. All he could discern was that despite all their bitterness in the past, something had happened between the time of his “death” and the present that had fundamentally reshaped Wu Xian’s attitude toward him, only Feng Xi could not begin to fathom what it was. The very thought of it made him feel ill.

 

He stayed up for a long time after that revelation, sitting on the windowsill, drenched in moonlight even as the shadows of his mind grew deeper with all his answerless questions. I’ll have to find out somehow, confront him for myself if that’s necessary, was his last thought before drifting off to an uneasy sleep. His decision may well end up hinging on such information.

 

And so, when Feng Xi woke the next morning, it was with a jolt and a racing heart. Disorientated, he found himself stumbling out beyond the walls of Wu Xian’s house for the first time. The borders of his spirit realm that typically limited his movement failed to manifest, and he arrived at the pond without hindrance.

 

His reflection stared back at him with dark circles under its eyes. He dipped his hand into the water to dispel the image, only to withdraw it in shock at the defined sensation as he contacted the surface. The water trickled down his fingertips instead of seeping through his outline as he would expect, and Feng Xi’s eyes widened at the implications.  

 

He was truly in full physical form now. The once-formless pond water now felt cold and slippery on his skin. He stared blankly at the ripples for a moment, his mind trying to process the enormity of this development, until he finally splashed the water on his face a few times to clear his thoughts. It worked somewhat, but it does nothing to alleviate the weight that was now settling in his heart.

 

How ironic that this was the most exhausted he had even been on the first day of his complete “recovery.” His reflection in the water gazed back at him with its weary eyes and bleak expression, and Feng Xi shook his head. This won’t do, he thought viciously, and he was semi-relieved that he could still muster up anger. Anger induced action—it was better than sorrow or panic in that way, and whenever Wu Xian next returned to his spirit realm, Feng Xi had to be ready to act.

 

It was best to assume the worst when planning for such confrontations, he thought grimly. Experience had taught him as much when it came to dealing with humans, even the supposedly good ones. Ultimately, this was still Wu Xian’s spirit realm, which meant that Wu Xian was still the one holding all the cards. He could afford to show Feng Xi the occasional weakness. Feng Xi, on the other hand, could not. No, until he could pinpoint Wu Xian’s ulterior motives, the wisest decision would be to keep all his thoughts and emotions to himself.

 

I have to be ready, he thought as he walked along the narrow stone path back to Wu Xian’s little house. He was a master of emotions if nothing else though—for the sake of his goals, he would bury his own vulnerabilities so deep that not even he could find them again easily. He would have all his defenses at the ready, and his tongue would be his sharpest weapon, even beyond his spiritual abilities. When Wu Xian returned with all his secrets and burdens and promises, Feng Xi would be waiting for him.

 

**

 

It was a gently overcast day in the spirit realm that day, and the sunlight was wan even when it did show through. Though the weather held little correlation with Wu Xian’s mood (“I don’t want to have to be upset every time your flowers need rain”), it was still enough to put Feng Xi on edge. Some hours later, the now-familiar shift in the spirit realm heralded Wu Xian’s arrival. He appeared through the spirit doorway that had opened onto the porch, right outside the main door of the house. Feng Xi listened to the creak of the door as it opened and closed, and his shoulders tense involuntarily before he forced them to slacken. No use in alerting the human prematurely.

 

The footsteps came to a stop at the entryway to the living area, now fully stuffed by Feng Xi’s bookshelves and plants. It was the most vibrant, clamorous room in Wu Xian’s stark little house. Feng Xi could imagine the human looking inside with his normal placid expression—surely, he would have noticed Feng Xi’s change by now. Still, the elfin forced his eyes to stay trained on the book in his hand. This was proven to be the correct reaction, as after a beat of silence, he heard the Wu Xian walk into the room.

 

“…You are fully corporeal again,” the human said after a moment. It was not a questioning tone.

 

“Yes,” Feng Xi replied, flipping a page. He forced himself to remain perfectly relaxed, even as his heartbeat picked up in his throat, drumming out an anxious rhythm.

 

“When did you complete your recovery?” Wu Xian asked. Overall, his tone was neutral, though there was a hint of muted wonder at its core.

 

Feng Xi blinked twice upon recognizing the conspicuous lack of wariness in Wu Xian’s voice. “Just when I woke this morning. I was surprised too,” he answered, risking a sideways glance towards the human to gauge his reaction.

 

“Oh.” Wu Xian blinked once. “I did not expect it to be so soon.”

 

“Well neither did I.” Feng Xi shrugged and turned back to his book. He did not dare look back at the human after his response.

 

“Do you feel anything different now that you have a fully material body again?”  He heard Wu Xian ask after a moment, and he gritted his teeth. At times like these, he wished Wu Xian would just skip the pleasantries and cut right to the question he really wanted to ask.

 

 “I have been on the verge of attaining this state for some time now, so it does not feel all that different to me,” he replied, a tad curtly. “Though to be fair, I have not tried to do that much in my recovered form anyhow. I do not know if any of my spiritual capabilities are actually that different.”

 

“Oh.” Wu Xian made another quiet sound of acknowledgment.

 

Feng Xi held his breath as he waited for him to say more, but the silence stretched on and he eventually realized there was nothing forthcoming. “Well?” he finally snapped, looking up at Wu Xian and snapping the book closed, giving up any pretense of reading altogether. “Are you not going to ask what I’m going to do now? I am fully corporeal, which means that there’s no way that my body will disappear on its own any time soon. That’s what prevented you from reporting me to the Guild in the first place, wasn’t it?”

 

“…It was,” Wu Xian agreed after a moment. His tone was steady, and yet his eyes never left Feng Xi as he spoke, as if he was carefully gauging the elfin’s every reaction.

 

“So what do you plan on doing with me?” Feng Xi asked bluntly. “Back then, you said that you would not report my presence to the Guild because you were unsure about my condition and how I got to be this way—but now the both of us are quite clear on that, no? The conditions of your promise no longer hold true, so if you are planning to tell your superiors about me, you might as well come clean about it now.”

 

This time, Wu Xian’s response was almost immediate. “I was not planning to,” he said, blinking once with wide eyes. “It’s true that I did not know the details of your circumstance back then, but my promise to you is not contingent on that. I will not reveal your secrets unless you want me to.”

 

At this, he suddenly paused and stared at Feng Xi. “Unless…you do want me to?”

 

“No!” The word burst forth from Feng Xi’s very being, and he had to force himself to take a deep breath. “I just…don’t understand,” he finally managed to say after he got his breathing back under control, “I don’t understand why you would promise me anything, why you would do all of this for me.”

 

He waved his hand as he spoke, trying to encompass the enormity of what he meant—the living room’s cluttered bookshelves, the plants all around them, the last of the dusk streaming through the window. All of this—for him. “I just find it all kind of hard to believe, that’s all. So what’s the catch?”

 

Upon these words, Wu Xian fell quiet. To any outside observer, his expression remained neutral, but Feng Xi was familiar enough with him now to see the slight tension in his jaw, the crease at the corner of his eye. “…I promised that I would not make any more choices for you,” he said, though there was a notable undercurrent to his voice this time. “I meant that. Is my wanting to keep my word not a sufficient explanation for you?”  

 

“I don’t believe in promises,” Feng Xi said.

 

As soon as he spoke, he knew that he had crossed a line. Wu Xian quite visibly tensed this time. The temperature around them seemed to plummet, the air freezing over like ice over a deep lake. For a moment, Feng Xi does not even breathe for fear of shattering that ice and sending them both plunging into unknown depths, but he still refused to take back his words. It was the truth, he thought. Whether it was his vow to bring back the Long You he knew or to give Xiao Hei a home, he knew first-hand just how easily promises could be broken, regardless of intent.

 

Wu Xian had yet to move. His dark green eyes were wide open, all pretenses of calm abandoned. A litany of conflicting emotions flashed through his irises like displays in a kaleidoscope.

 

At last, he let out a long sigh.

 

“Maybe you’re right,” he said, so softly that Feng Xi almost had to strain to hear him. “Maybe I do have more in mind beyond just your simple wellbeing. I thought I had laid my regrets on this matter to rest a while ago, but now…I am no longer so sure.”

 

Feng Xi stared at him with blank incomprehension. Wu Xian’s mouth was moving, forming all the individual words, but their combined meaning was somehow lost in the transmission. It was as if Wu Xian was dumping puzzle pieces into his lap without giving him the reference image with which to assemble them.

 

His frustration must have shown on his face, for Wu Xian took one glance at him and then fell quiet. The human’s shoulders almost seemed to slump for a moment, but Feng Xi convinced himself that he had to be imagining it. “Of course you would not know of this,” the human said dully, “but what happened in Long You…affected me significantly. Much more than I can describe to you now. I do not even know how I would begin. Maybe it is guilt, or maybe something else too. But what I do know is this.“ He took a deep breath, and his green eyes hardened like jade chips.

 

“I do not want it to happen again. I would do almost everything within my power to prevent that.”

 

“Wu Xian,” Feng Xi said, cutting the human off before he could say more. There was a strange tightness in his chest that constricted his voice, gradually cutting off his air supply. “What do you mean that you felt guilty? About what almost happened in Long You? Or do you mean…” he swallowed once, hard, “…about what happened to me?”

 

Wu Xian did not meet his eyes. His silence told Feng Xi all he needed to know.

 

“...I see.” It was the only response Feng Xi could give. Bit by bit, Wu Xian’s silence sinks through his skin and into his flesh, melding into his bloodstream, freezing him from the inside out. The first winds of a storm began to stir within him, the numbness making his head spin even as something twisted and terrible roared to life in his chest. “Is that why you’re guilty?” he heard himself saying, “because you saw me die in front of you once, so you felt…bad?”

 

Still, the human does not respond. His mouth was compressed in a thin, white line, and a palpable tension hummed all around him like electricity. When he finally did look back up at Feng Xi, his normally lucid gaze was turbulent and strained, a flood of emotions that were just barely held at bay. His gaze was almost pleading, as if he were willing for Feng Xi to understand.

 

But Feng Xi was lost in his own world now. “So that’s why you tolerated me so much,” he murmured out loud, mostly to himself. The revelation was bitter on his tongue. “That’s why you let me live here, and brought me books, and did all of these things for me. Why you promised to keep my secret from the Guild.”

 

He was looking down at the wooden floor now. He was not looking at Wu Xian; he was looking at anywhere but Wu Xian, because now the storm in his mind was brewing full force. He would have laughed out loud had it not hurt enough just to keep himself breathing properly. All the care that Wu Xian had shown him, all of his clumsy attempts to make Feng Xi more comfortable—were genuine. And yet they were also entirely selfish. It was all done with a single goal in mind, and that was to keep Feng Xi alive so that the human could make peace with his own guilt. What a joke.

 

“…You humans are all the same way after all, putting yourselves and how you feel before everything else.” He scarcely recognized his own voice when he spoke. His hands had curled into trembling fists by his sides, and he felt cold all over. If…if he had not died, would Wu Xian have cared about him at all? Did the human even truly care about any of the things that Feng Xi had been willing to die for? “I should have known better than to expect otherwise,” he concluded quietly, his voice catching on the last word.

 

Damn it all, had he not already mentally prepared himself for the worst? So why did it hurt so much? It felt like something inside him was breaking.

 

Wu Xian, too, seemed to sense the shift in the atmosphere. “What are you talking about, Feng Xi?” he asked, his voice rising.

 

A small, humorless smile crossed Feng Xi’s face. “I was thinking maybe you’d changed,” he said drily. “I thought that, maybe you did all this because you actually cared about my concerns, about the problems with the Guild. All those things that I died for.” I thought you actually cared about me, were the words he did not say. He shook his head furiously before those words could emerge.

 

“You’re not making any sense.” Wu Xian’s look of confusion was fading now, replaced by a pair of narrowed green eyes. His brows were drawn together, sharpening the lines of his expression.

 

But Feng Xi read the signs clear as day and still chose not to pay them any heed. He was on a roll now. “I understand now though,” he continued, his voice soaring gradually in volume, “this was why you didn’t want me to die either, isn’t it? You thought you had the moral high ground during the entirely of Long You, but my dying robbed you of that. The one flaw in your perfect victory. But now I’ve miraculously returned, and within your spirit realm no less.”

 

Feng Xi,” the human tried again to interject, but once again Feng Xi refused to hear him.

 

“This really was the perfect opportunity for you, huh.” The elfin’s laugh was bitter and sharp. “The set-up was ideal. You could keep an eye on me as I regained my physical form, make sure that I didn’t go off the rails again, and there’s no way I could have gone off on my own. This whole environment is perfectly controlled to ensure I can never die on you again. No more guilt for the great executor Wu Xian! So all that pretty talk of choice you had at the beginning, all your promises, it was all one big, beautiful lie so that you could feel better about yourself—!”

 

“—FENG XI!”

 

Wu Xian’s voice slammed into him like a physical force, cutting him off completely, and for a moment it’s all he could do to stare in awe. He had only ever heard Wu Xian raise his voice like this once before—way back during their fight within the domain, with their blades at each other’s throats. The human’s tail of hair and the loose fabric of his hanfu were floating now, propelled into the air as the power latent within Wu Xian’s spirit realm responded to its master’s agitation. The aura of pure spiritual force was so potent and overwhelming that for a moment that Feng Xi just froze, unable to move. Wu Xian used that moment to take a breath.

 

“That’s not what I meant to do,” he said, quietly, fiercely. He drew another breath as if about to say more, but the words did not seem to come, and he set his jaw instead. His bangs fell before his face, obscuring the rest of his expression from Feng Xi, but the elfin could still see the way the human had squared his shoulders, metaphorically digging his heels in.

 

But the shock of the moment had already worn off, and Feng Xi had heard enough. If anything, the human’s resistance only further bolstered his conviction that he had come to the right conclusions, yet he felt no triumph or vindication at the thought. All he felt was a dry, grainy sensation in the back of his throat, like the aftertaste of some bitter herbal medicine. 

 

“Save your words,” he told the human instead, turning around so that he could no longer see Wu Xian’s face. He clenched his fists at his side, his fingers whitening from the loss of circulation. It was all he could do to keep his voice from splintering apart, and he hopes fervently that Wu Xian would pick up on his blatant social cues for once and leave. “I don’t want to hear you talk anymore.”

 

Of course, things would never be that easy when it came to Wu Xian. If there was one area where Feng Xi could admit that they were alike, it was that they were both stalwarts in their respective ways. “Feng Xi,” the human still said, but Feng Xi had proven that he was the more unyielding of the two of them before, and he would prove it again. As many times as necessary.

 

Before Wu Xian could open his mouth again, he was cut off when one of the woody vines near his tea table simply exploded. All the splinters flying in the executor’s direction were cut down before they even came within an arm’s length, but that was fine. Feng Xi had not been trying to hit him anyway.

 

A single, almost muffled crash ripped through the spirit realm, and Wu Xian turned instinctively to look. His eyes grew wide at the sight. It was the small pot that had once held Feng Xi’s tree cutting—his very life source—but now the splinters from the explosion had knocked it clean off the tea table and onto the floor. The delicate ceramic had cracked apart at the impact, and the soil had spilled out all over the once-pristine floor in dark, scattered clumps. Like a tiny corpse, deliberately and artfully desecrated.

 

There was a long silence.

 

“…What do you mean by this, Feng Xi?” Wu Xian murmured at last. His tone remained cool and level, but there was an edge to it this time, a familiar one. A sign that all the worldly emotions the human kept so carefully under wraps were finally beginning to stir—they ran through the executor’s voice like an undercurrent, just like they had when the human had confronted Feng Xi right before he had fully activated the domain.

 

Feng Xi answered without turning back. “Nothing,” he said quietly. “I don’t mean anything by that. Breaking that won’t do anything to me now, unfortunately. Who knows? If you had been a little more forthright about your motives for all this, maybe I could have ended this farce right then. Destroy the material essence, and surely even my spiritual energy will fade. But I suppose there’s no way to know now.”

 

Had he not been anticipating the human’s reaction, he would surely have missed the tiny hitch in Wu Xian’s breathing. If this had been a true fight, blow for blow and skin to skin, Feng Xi’s teeth would be bright now with the executor’s blood. He managed a humorless smile. Good, he thought viciously, good. He hoped that the guilt in Wu Xian’s heart was eating him alive.

 

“You’re always like this,” the human said after a long moment. A stream of almost-helplessness ran through his voice, as if for the first time in centuries, he was at a loss for what to do. He was looking at Feng Xi as he spoke, yet his words seemed to address himself just as much as they addressed the elfin. “What do I have to do to make you listen to me?”

 

A flash of anger stabbed through Feng Xi like a molten blade—it burned deep in his gut, painful and poisonous. “The only one who hasn’t been listening is you,” he snapped, whipping around to face Wu Xian. “Can you deny everything that I’ve said and still have a pure conscience? If you can say right now—with full confidence—that what I’ve said of your behavior is all entirely unfounded, then we can talk—but can you?” 

 

Wu Xian opened his mouth, then closeed it. “This isn’t a dichotomy,” he tried to say, but that moment of hesitation was all that the elfin needed.

 

Feng Xi turned away again. His heart was beating far too quickly as the fire torrented through him. It burned at the back of his eyes and in his throat, and it’s all he could do to keep breathing as the knife in his gut twisted deeper. He was so tired that he could not even maintain his anger anymore; he just wanted it all to stop. “Enough,” he finally choked out, “I’ve had it. I’m done. Wu Xian, haven’t you done enough already?”

 

Perhaps it was his tone more than his words that finally made Wu Xian pause. He had done his best to keep his voice as steady, but there had still been a tremor that even he could not camouflage completely. Had he more presence of mind, he would have hated himself for breaking down. For showing his weaknesses like this, and to Wu Xian of all people. But right then he could not bring himself to care. “Just leave already,” he said through gritted teeth, in a tone that came just short of begging.

 

Please.

 

An eternity seems to pass, during which he only heard the human’s soft breaths and his own heart, every beat painful in his chest. Ba-thum, ba-thump ba-thump.

 

“…Alright,” the human finally acquiesced. His voice was soft, so soft that Feng Xi almost did not hear him. Unbeknownst to the elfin, in the moment that Wu Xian had answered, his eyes were tender as well as he took in the elfin’s stiff, hunched posture, the way he held himself like a branch about to snap. He let his gaze linger until he had traced that troubled silhouette into his memory. Only then did he turn and leave, with a rustle of his hanfu.

 

Feng Xi heard that rustle, but he remained rigid until the human’s footsteps had reached the front door. There was a creak of the hinges, then silence. 

 

Now, he was left truly alone.

Chapter Text

A few days after Feng Xi had turned his back to Wu Xian leaving, he woke up shaking from where he had been slouched over, asleep on the windowsill. Had he been asleep this whole time? Or merely awake, indifferent to the world around him? He had no way to tell. After the owner of the spirit realm had gone, all he could recall was slowly sinking to the floor of the now-empty house, his mind swirling with a thousand thoughts that spun and jumbled together into nothing.

It made no sense. He should have felt vindicated, but he felt no joy from being seemingly proven right after all. Feng Xi was no stranger to the righteous conceit and selfishness of humanity. Truly, he should have known all along that Wu Xian had only been using him. What other reason could the human have for keeping a barely living version of him around? And yet, if he had truly been prepared to accept that Wu Xian cared for him only out of utility, then why did it feel like his world was crumbling apart?

Wu Xian had to be doing this out of self-interest—he had to be. The only other explanation (that the human might actually care for him) was far too terrifying to consider. He fled from it just as he had fled from his initial reawakening. Much more comforting to cling to what was familiar, or to simply not think at all. Just let himself sink into oblivion, staring down at the watery reflection of the willow and the skies in the pond, his mind white and blank the way that man’s spirit realm used to be.

For a few days, it had helped. The thousand thoughts swirling within him had found some possibility of settling down.

And yet, as his mind calmed, he discovered that some curious changes had taken place. Like a forest after a great storm, he found that while the overall topography of his thoughts remained intact, some core beliefs he had thought unshakable had been uprooted and flung away. Even when he tried to replant them, he found that they refused to take root in the way they once had.

Twenty years ago, the name Wu Xian had meant little more than an obstacle to him. It was two simple syllables that spoke of cold steel and tempered eyes and a ruthless, implacable force that delivered swift judgment. The Wu Xian from before Long You would have spoken to him with his nose turned up, his eyes staring down at Feng Xi from the lofty heights that human superiority and Guild morality afforded him. His voice would have been as tempered and cold as his steel, leaving no room for argument.

Feng Xi believed that all humans were arrogant and selfish at heart, and after Wu Xian’s betrayal he should have believed this even more so. Yet now he found himself…hesitating.

Because this Wu Xian was no longer the Wu Xian of twenty years before. Whereas the Wu Xian from before Long You had not bothered to even listen to him, this Wu Xian had honored almost Feng Xi’s every request. This Wu Xian spoke to Feng Xi with kindness and empathy and treated him as if they stood on the same footing, as if Feng Xi’s thoughts were just as, if not more important than his own. Feng Xi glanced around once at the blooming plants on the sill, the shelves stuffed with books, the sunlight streaming in from the window, and with everything he saw he felt one more sliver of doubt creep in.

The wisteria on the windowsill was still in brilliant bloom. It was the afternoon, and the sunlight gleamed on the petals. The light blinked in Feng Xi’s eyes, and for a moment he remembered Wu Xian standing there in the fragrance-soaked sun, flowers wreathed around him like a halo, his voice quiet yet earnest as he asked if this was what Feng Xi had wanted. They had been so close then, only a few paces away from each other, and the human’s deep green gaze had burned so steadily into Feng Xi that the elfin felt the tips of his ears grow warm. Then he blinked and the memory was gone.

He did this all for you, the voice in the back of his mind said, and his heart skipped even as his mind sank.

The human who had once cut him apart and chained him down was now the same human who had reconfigured the shape of his soul just to bring Feng Xi the rain and sun. Wu Xian had changed, just as everything else in the world had changed in these 20 years, all except for Feng Xi, who all the way up to this moment, had still been clinging to the past.

Feng Xi shut his eyes and laughed once. It was a bitter, gritty sound, like dead branches cracking in the wind, but even so his traitorous heart continued to flutter in his chest, buoyed by the image of that day. It all made sense now, he realized, why he felt so raw, so betrayed. Why the very idea that Wu Xian might have stayed with him for any reason other than him being himself felt like a thousand cuts to the skin.

Stupid,” he said out loud to himself, his shoulders trembling. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He had seen it all happen before in the human villages, the young people walking hand in hand, resting their heads on each other’s shoulders, even touching lips when they thought no one was looking. He knew what it was called, this feeling that made hearts swoop and minds plunge like birds caught up in a tempest.

He knew.

Love was what had driven Feng Xi to that disastrous attempt to reclaim his home, what had indirectly resulted in his friends’ imprisonment and the near-death of an innocent child. Now, it has brought him to this, sitting in the middle of a spirit realm devoid of its owner, whose kindness he had just spat in the face of. He had not watched as Wu Xian turn and walk out of the door, but he could still see it all clearly—the human’s tall figure framed against the doorway, his tail of hair sweeping behind him as his image dissolved, his body transported to the external world beyond Feng Xi’s reach.

Wu Xian had not returned to his spirit realm since he had left that other day. Was he thinking about what had happened as much as Feng Xi was, or had he even thought about it at all? When he eventually did return to his spirit realm, either out of willingness or out of necessity, would he even acknowledge Feng Xi’s presence?

In that moment, Feng Xi thought of many things. All those little moments with Wu Xian that he missed—listening for the whine of steam from Wu Xian’s hot water boiler, the soft clink of his teacup as he set it down after a sip, the occasional rustle of his clothes as he adjusted his seating position. A hollow ache gnawed away at his insides with every day of the human’s absence. As if all along, he had been expecting something more out of his interactions with Wu Xian than what he got.

Irony was cruel and sweet, to slam shut the door of possibilities just as it showed him there might have been one to open.

I don’t hate him anymore, he thought in despair. I….

Feng Xi leaned back slowly on the windowsill until the back of his head touched the wooden top frame. His view changed from the reflection of watery willows to the pinwheeling stars, spinning high above in Wu Xian’s fabricated night sky. He had been sitting here for a long time now, he realized. It was already night. And yet he still could not bring himself to move.

Even if Wu Xian’s motives had not been purely altruistic, even if he had cared for Feng Xi only for the sake of some peace of mind, suddenly none of that mattered to him anymore. He had no right to be judging Wu Xian, not when his love had only ever brought sorrow and pain to those around him in the end. Wu Xian would have to come back to his spirit realm at one point or another, and when he did, Feng Xi would not think about whether Wu Xian would speak to him again. He would not think about whether things could go back to the way they were before either (he already knew the answer to that, the lessons from Long You still stung deep).

He would apologize to the human for his outburst and thank him for everything he had done. And once he was assured that Wu Xian had gotten over his guilt, then he would leave. Hopefully for good this time.

 

***

 

A few days after he had first left his own spirit realm, Wu Xian woke with the sun in his eyes. The light streamed through the thin curtains of his cheap little motel room, forming blocks and rivulets on his bedsheets. A solid streak fell across Wu Xian’s face—the light was blinding out here in a way that he could never hope to replicate in his spirit realm, and he is left with blinking white circles from his vision. Inevitably, his thoughts went to Feng Xi, and for a moment those thoughts were almost enough to beckon him to return.

And yet…he most likely would not want to see me back so soon, Wu Xian thought. So he roused himself and set out to start his day. Now that Xiao Hei was old enough to strike out on his own, Wu Xian had returned to his old habits of wandering about the world’s towns and cities, almost purposeless save for the occasional mission assignment. He always kept a low profile, and he never stayed in one place for too long.

Now, he was walking along the rocky shores of this sleepy seaside town, not straying too far or near the residents. Fishermen and dock hands alike had turned curious eyes on Wu Xian when he had first showed up, but by now they seemed accustomed to his presence, because they no longer paid him any mind. Wu Xian was free to linger in their midst, so long as he remained an observer. Silent. Detached.

He was a keeper of the fragile balance between the humans and the elfins but no longer a part of either’s world. As one of the arbiters of the scales, he could not, perhaps dared not disturb it one way or the other. In a way, that was something even Xiao Hei’s arrival in his life had not managed to fully displace, that old habit of his to keep everything at a safe distance. Perhaps, that was why he had let that elfin push him away, even when he had wanted more than anything to reach out, to walk forth until he could put his arms around him, to bring some measure of comfort to that elfin’s tense, brittle silhouette.

Yet he had not done so. Now here he was.

The dockworkers wore bright yellow vests as they heaved away at the various boxes, and the fishermen, while less colorfully dressed, made up for it with the vivid blue hues of their fishing boats. Many of the boats were chipped, and their captains were roughened and weathered, but they were all present and partaking in the world in ways that Wu Xian was not. All their colors here shone brighter than they ever could within his spirit realm.

As hard as he had tried to replicate the brilliance of this world, he could never quite achieve such vivid, lively hues—he had distanced himself from everything for too long to be able to manage that. The best he could do for the sole occupant of his realm was a pale imitation, and he now knew that it was not enough. An imitation would never be bright enough to pierce through the miasma of gloom and bitterness that Feng Xi insisted on hiding behind, to remind him of the world and of the people that were missing him.

Wu Xian turned and walked further down the shoreline. The sounds of the busy docks faded into the distance. He walked until he could no longer see even a hint of the workers’ bright yellow vests. Now, it was just him and the sky and sea, both stretched out endlessly before him. He felt the stiff breeze against his sleeves and hair, listened the waves crashing against the sand, and his mind drifted back to that day on Li island, when Feng Xi had evaded him yet again and left behind only a small black cat and a vast ream of endless, directionless blue.

He had been lost back then as well, but one could only be so lost in the realm of the physical. Set a straight course, and eventually he would have sailed to land. But Wu Xian was no expert when it came to the arts of pathfinding, not even in the material world. How was he supposed to find the way into someone’s heart?

Wu Xian had already cut Feng Xi down once before. He had cut the elfin’s body to pieces and still his soul had sprouted and grown again, up and up, grasping at some sunlight that only the elfin could see. He wondered if Feng Xi could still see that sunlight now, trapped as he was inside Wu Xian’s spirit realm. He wondered if Feng Xi even remembered what the sun looked like. And even if he did, would Feng Xi still want to see it?

Wu Xian turned his gaze out towards the sea. The sunlight glinted upon every wave yet offered him no answers. He stayed there looking out over the sea until the sinking sun had dyed the waters orange-red. He had stood longer than this before during his training—all he had wanted to know back then was the secrets of cultivation, and the spirits had gave those up to him willingly, flocking to him like fireflies to a lantern. Now though, even as the sun was slowly swallowed by the ocean waves, he was no closer to any answers. Feng Xi was still lost in the dark—he had no secrets known to the sun.

 

***

 

When Wu Xian arrived at the doorstep of Lao Jun’s mountain pagoda the next day, he was surprised when the master of the spirit realm opened the door in person. “It’s been a long time since you’ve decided to visit, Wu Xian,” Lao Jun commented as he showed him inside. Di Ting had retreated to the outer perimeters of Lao Jun’s spirit realm immediately upon seeing who their guest was, keeping a respectful distance. Wu Xian had no doubt that he could easily hear every word of their conversation if he wanted to, but Di Ting’s body language had made it clear that he would not be interfering.

Lao Jun, still in his energy-saving child form, floated to a stop in the middle of his pagoda. Shelves filled with books and merch spiraled up to the ceiling. They bore a striking resemblance to the setup in his own spirit realm, and Wu Xian felt a pang in his heart. The emotional turbulence did not escape Lao Jun. “So, what’s troubling you?” his friend smiled.

Wu Xian blinked. “I forget that you can always sense these things,” he said after a moment.

“You also never come see me unless you are troubled or need a favor.” Lao Jun’s smile did not waver. His voice, languid as the smoke that wisped from his pipe, rose and fell in the lofts of his pagoda.

“…I do have a few things on my mind, but that’s all.” Wu Xian shook his head. Even though Lao Jun’s spiritual abilities would always correctly inform him about any living soul’s emotional state, including Wu Xian’s, that still did not mean Wu Xian would entrust him with secrets that were not his to share.

Lao Jun hummed. Even in his compressed, child-like form, he remained as serene and cryptic as ever. He was one of those beings whose smile revealed both everything and nothing at once. “A few things on your mind, huh?” he repeated. “That’s not an everyday occasion for someone like you.”

Wu Xian picked up his teacup and took a sip. The view beyond Lao Jun’s window was breathtaking—an endless expanse of night sky brimming with stars, all reflected on the surface of a vast, still lake. And yet, now that Wu Xian had attempted to replicate such scenes in his own spirit realm, he could now see all the imperfections of such a view. The stars were not as bright, the night air not as crisp. Wu Xian looked out across the tranquil waters and knew that the sun would never rise in such a world, not unless Lao Jun willed it, and even then, it would be but a pale imitation.

“Do you ever get tired of living in seclusion?” he heard himself ask. Deep down, he knew it was an unfair question to pose, particularly after the losses his friend had experienced, but he had to know.

Lao Jun, on the other hand, did not seem taken aback by Wu Xian’s inquiry. “What else is there to do?” he said in an even tone. “It is an acceptable weariness that I experience here. I have lived quite a long time—the world beyond now holds very little of value to me, as I am sure you know.”

Wu Xian set down his teacup with a soft clink. “Do you ever miss it?” he asked, leaning forward on the low table.

“There is little, if any new experiences out there left for me.” Lao Jun raised an eyebrow at Wu Xian. “Some things, once lost, can never be regained. I am sure that you understand that better than most people.” He picked up his own teacup and took a sip.

Wu Xian watched his unharried movements and let out a slow breath. Lao Jun’s intuition had rarely led him astray, and Wu Xian knew that even though Lao Jun had not left his state of isolation for several decades now, his friend was still more than well-informed about the major happenings in the world beyond, especially when the Guild was concerned. Moreover, Lao Jun’s attendant was Di Ting, the elfin who could hear even the wind whisper from a thousand li away. He had no doubt that his old friend and mentor knew about what had happened in Long You. Perhaps he had guessed how much it had affected Wu Xian too. How much it still affected him.

“I can’t do anything more about it.” His words spilled forth in a quiet rush—Wu Xian breathed it all out, like a sigh or a confession. “I made a choice back then, and now it haunts me. It’s come back to haunt me, and I can’t do anything more about it, but I don’t want to be left in peace.” And the more he thought about it, the more he knew that he was speaking the truth. Wu Xian had already done all that he could—to mourn, to move on, and when that elfin had unexpectedly returned, to give him all the space and support that Wu Xian had been able to manage. And yet, even if his all was not enough, he still did not want Feng Xi to go.

Lao Jun took a long draw out of his pipe. “It’s only natural to not want those we love to stop haunting us,” he said, blowing ghostly blue smoke rings into the air. They shimmered and disappeared among the books and shadows.

“But I can’t do anything more either. I…I wish so much that it was, but it’s not up to me whether the ghosts stay or choose to leave.” Wu Xian’s fingers curled into fists under the table. He had to stop and took a long breath.

I’ve learned that if nothing else that you have your own mind. He had said that to Feng Xi on the day he first saw him again. Should he not have learned enough by now to humble himself? With his power, perhaps he could force Feng Xi to stay alive, but he could not force him to live. That choice was now—had always been—entirely in Feng Xi’s hands. “All I can do is accept it, whatever happens from now,” he said slowly. Every word that passed through his mouth tasted like defeat.

“Knowing and doing are two very different things,” Lao Jun pointed out, not unkindly.

“I know.” Wu Xian peered down at his own reflection in the teacup. He forced himself to count the ripples on the surface. One, two, three. He counted his heartbeats. Ba-thump, ba-thump, ba-thump. He counted his breaths. In, out. In, out. In…out.

“I have not been so emotionally involved in a Guild case for a long time,” he finally admitted, his voice soft in the muted blues of Lao Jun’s pagoda. His breath skimmed across the tea’s amber surface like a flutter of wings.

“I know. I figured as much when you had come to ask me a while ago about if an elfin could come back to life after the destruction of their spirit realm.” Lao Jun hummed and tapped his pipe once in his hand. He, of all people, understood and respected others’ privacy. The words Long You lay unspoken, and Lao Jun asked no questions, both of which Wu Xian was immensely grateful for. He did not know what emotions Lao Jun was reading off him right now, but at least he knew that Lao Jun would keep all of his knowledge and speculation to himself. Perhaps that was why Wu Xian had even come to see him at all.

“It’s been truly a long time since I have seen you in turmoil like this,” Lao Jun said after a long moment. “You just acknowledged yourself that there is nothing more you can realistically do to change anything. Yet here you are, still troubled, even after so long.”

“Yes.” Wu Xian looked down at his hands. He had weathered many changes though the centuries, up to a point when it felt like they have all ceased to affect him—he still wore clothes in the style of his youth, and he still kept the house that he used to live in. The past would not change for him, so he had carried it around until now, until he was so burdened by it all that he did not know if he could take another step. And here too was Lao Jun, who had been alive for even longer than Wu Xian. Without meeting his friend’s eyes, he asked, “Lao Jun, do you think beings like us can still change?”

“Hmm. An interesting inquiry. The answer is yes, I think we still can. But most likely, it would only be for the sake of something truly worthwhile. For example, I do not expect that I will be changing anytime soon.”

“Then,” Wu Xian raised his head so he was meeting his friend’s eyes, “would you change yourself if it was in preparation for something to come?”

This time, Lao Jun did not answer immediately. “…There will always be something to come,” he finally said, his tone contemplative. Perhaps even a hint melancholic. “Change is the way of the world, and even supposed gods like us do not know in what ways change will come to pass. Or how it will affect us.” He tapped his pipe against his hand, the ash dissipating into nothingness as soon as it hit his palm. “Only here in a spirit realm will everything remain the same.”

And sometimes not even then, Wu Xian added soundlessly. A certain elfin’s violet hair and heartbreaking eyes flashed through his mind. “I am anticipating a change, one that results from a decision that is not mine to make,” he heard himself say. “I cannot control the outcome, yet I still find myself hoping for one choice over the other. It’s exactly what you warned me not to do when I first came to you for help on cultivation.”

Lao Jun looked back at him, and for the first time since Wu Xian had stepped through his door that day, his smile seemed to dim. “Well, I wish I could impart you with some wisdom that says otherwise,” he sighed, “but even as gods, we are quite powerless. I suppose one of the only benefits to living long though is that when change does occur, you and I have more time than most to adjust to their effects and accept them, whether they have brought joy or sorrow.”

“I know,” Wu Xian answered quietly. It was so painful—it wrung his heart out, to think of Feng Xi closing his eyes, turning his back on the world as he had done before and dispersing once more into a sea of green. And it would hurt even worse this time because Wu Xian had not known him back then. He had not known how Feng Xi would tuck loose strands of hair behind his ears before a meal, how he would lay gentle hands on his plants as he checked their growth, how the corners of his mouth would turn up when he was reading and when he thought Wu Xian was not looking.

There was still so much more of him that Wu Xian wanted to know. The very real possibility that Feng Xi could harden his heart and make that same choice again had settled within him like an icy pick, the cold chipping away at him from the inside out. Luo Zhu had been right all along, and he knew it—that Feng Xi was his own elfin, and the choice to leave or to stay would always be his own.

But that too, Wu Xian now realized, was just another part of what made Feng Xi who he was. He was an elfin who truly lived up to the meaning of his name—he was the breath of the wind, beautiful, relentless, and unapologetically free.

“’Accept and adjust,’ huh,” he said, repeating his friend’s words to himself. Then, in a slightly louder tone, he said, “I think I understand.”

The choice would always be Feng Xi’s in the end, but before he made that decision, Wu Xian would do everything in his power to talk to him once more, to try and tell him just how much Wu Xian and everything around him had truly changed over all these years, because of Feng Xi. It was the same message that he had been trying to convey all along—but he had forgotten that Feng Xi already had his own set way of understanding both humans and the Guild. Although his actions up to this point may have been enough to sow a seed of doubt in the elfin’s heart, he still needed to explain himself clearly to Feng Xi, to let the elfin know that what he thought he knew was not the complete version of the story.

Because even if Feng Xi chose to leave then, even if it would hurt beyond imagining…Wu Xian would still be able to accept that eventually. He would have truly done all he could then, and he would find some way to continue living without that elfin, as he had done for the past twenty years. Whether Feng Xi brought joy or sorrow, Wu Xian would embrace it all. It would just be another part of loving him.

But before that, Wu Xian was determined to explain himself one more time. And this time he would make sure Feng Xi heard every word.

Chapter Text

Wu Xian returned to his spirit realm on a foggy morning. The entirety of his house was shrouded in cloudy white, and as he stepped onto the wooden porch, he almost did not recognize the landscape of his own soul. The door creaked softly as he stepped inside, the fog muffling his footsteps, as if he were stepping into the house of an elusive ghost. He crossed over the expanse between the entrance and living room, increasingly cautious with every step, as if with every sound he made, the ghost that he sought would shy further away and perhaps even never appear.

“…Feng Xi?” His voice wavered amidst the rows of bookshelves as he emerged into the living room, which now more resembled an overgrown jungle greenhouse. Deep green plants and thick, wood-stemmed vines, more than he remembered, threaded between the volumes of books and faded away into the mist. The plant life seemed to swallow his call, and for a moment, he almost feared he would never get an answer—but then he heard it.

“…You’re back.”

The voice that responded was flat and dull, and yet Wu Xian felt his shoulders drop with relief. In the depths of his heart, he had been afraid that when he returned to his spirit realm, he would return to an empty husk of a dwelling, its sole occupant having long since gone. But for now, Feng Xi was still here. That had to be enough.

As Wu Xian rounded the last of the shelves, the elfin he had been searching for seemed to melt out of the fog. His lovely violet hair and sharp-edged eyes were dulled in the mist, the color leaching out into the surrounding air. His shoulders were loose, his lips twisted into an unhappy curve, and when he finally turned toward Wu Xian, he radiated weariness like a puppet on worn strings. The need to reach out to him, to tuck him into his arms and comfort him was almost too much for Wu Xian to bear. He did not do so.

“Feng Xi,” he said softly instead, “I think we should talk.”

“…I think we should too.”

Feng Xi’s response was surprisingly mellow. Far more so than Wu Xian had been expecting, and he wondered if he could risk pushing his luck a little further. “Then…perhaps you could let me start?”

Instead of replying, Feng Xi laughed once. The stilted sound faded quickly into their silent surroundings.

Wu Xian held his breath.

When Feng Xi spoke again at last, Wu Xian had to strain to hear him. “I think I owe you an apology,” the elfin said, his voice almost smothered by the fog. His bangs were swept before his eyes, and Wu Xian could not read his expression.

“If you owe me an apology, then I think I owe you one as well,” Wu Xian replied, holding up a hand to stop whatever response Feng Xi had prepared. He was here for a purpose, and Feng Xi’s strangely pensive mood sent icy chills down Wu Xian’s spine. Perhaps it would be better for him to say his piece first, Wu Xian decided, and he said, “I haven’t been entirely honest with you.”

Feng Xi, who had already opened his mouth to speak, stilled upon Wu Xian’s declaration. His eyes narrowed, and Wu Xian hurried on before he could lose his resolve. “When we last talked, you said that you couldn’t understand why I would go to this length for you,” he said. “You asked me if it was because I felt guilty about seeing you die. That’s true, but it’s also not the entire truth. I…didn’t tell you everything the last time we spoke because I was afraid.”

The elfin stared at him, his amethyst gaze narrow and sharp like a gem cutter’s blade, yet he held his silence. Wu Xian took that as permission to continue.

“After you died, it’s true that I blamed myself for a long time,” he murmured, allowing his mind to wander back in time, to those first desolate years he had lived after Long You. “Xiao Hei decided to stay with me, and that helped immeasurably, but I still felt like I could have done something back then. Like maybe if I had said something more, or been a little faster, then you would have still been alive.”

Feng Xi huffed softly. “I didn’t want to be saved.”

“I know. And yet I still wanted you to be alive. Isn’t that strange?” Wu Xian countered. “I thought it was so strange for myself—after you just tried to destroy everything that I had been protecting for centuries and after what you did to Xiao Hei, I still wanted to see you alive. I couldn’t figure out why for the longest time, but then I spoke with Luo Zhu.”

“You spoke to my family after Long You?” Feng Xi’s eyes widened.

“Mostly only Luo Zhu,” Wu Xian admitted, “but all of them are free now. I was only assigned to escort Luo Zhu back to Long You for parole. On the way though, we…had a talk of sorts. You were not wrong—I was guilty for a very long time, about you dying. But Luo Zhu told me that it didn’t matter because I couldn’t have stopped you one way or another. He said that if you wanted to go, no one could stop you.”

“…Well, Luo Zhu would be right about that,” Feng Xi remarked. The corners of his mouth tugged upward into a wry smile. “Xu Huai knew me best, but Luo Zhu was also my brother.”

Is,” Wu Xian corrected immediately. Feng Xi’s gaze snapped up, but Wu Xian did not flinch. “Luo Zhu is still your brother,” he repeated in a low voice, laying emphasis on every word. “He may have hated what you did, but you were never truly gone to him. The same can be said of many other elfins, even Xiao Hei.” He did not miss how Feng Xi visibly tensed upon Xiao Hei’s name.

“After Long You, there were more elfins like you who turned up on the executors’ lists,” he continued, pressing his advantage while he still held Feng Xi’s attention. “None of them got nearly as far as you did, but they all resented the Guild, like you. They felt that the Guild accommodated humans at the expense of elfins, just like you thought. They refused to cooperate when they were apprehended, and many of them idolized you. They said they would die before giving up on what they felt was right just like you had in Long You. I’ve never paid much attention to such cases before, but I noticed now. Because of you.”

Feng Xi inhaled once here, soft and swift. When Wu Xian glanced over toward him, he saw that the elfin’s eyes were unreadable through the mist. His lips were pressed into a thin line. He must have sensed that Wu Xian’s words were leading up to some finale and was warily assessing what the end goal could be, yet Wu Xian had no choice but to press on.

“The Guild as an organization has never really brought these elfins’ complaints into the fold, and even now we still don’t. I had only started to take their complaints seriously in the past years because of you,” he confessed to a wide-eyed Feng Xi. “All this time, we’ve only known how to fold deviating elfins into line with our pre-existing policies, whether that’s by force or by persuasion, but now I see clearly that those policies are not enough anymore. You knew all of this long before I did.”

The unveiled acknowledgment seemed to knock the air out of Feng Xi’s lungs. The elfin was openly staring at him now, gaping, as if Wu Xian was some alien life form that he was seeing for the first time. His gaze warred between bewilderment and plain disbelief, and through it all, Wu Xian continued to talk, years’ worth of words now pouring out of him in a steady stream. He could not have stopped then even if he had wanted to.

“I would never have thought of these problems before you. It took me years after you were already gone—perhaps it was still out of guilt, but I wanted to do something for all those elfins had your look in their eyes. They are still elfins, and if the Guild is truly an organization meant for elfins, then their opinions should be respected too.”

“You’re serious about all of this,” Feng Xi muttered out loud, almost half to himself.

“I am. I’ve been talking with Pan Jing and the other Guild faction leaders as well. It’s taken a long time, but I think there’s things we can do. I don’t want some elfins to always remain outcasts to the Guild anymore,” Wu Xian explained, finding Feng Xi’s lovely amethyst eyes with his own.

“Every living being—elfin or human—should feel like they have a place to go home to. I don’t want another elfin to feel like they have to make the same choice as you did in Long You again. That’s what I wanted to tell you last time,” he finished quietly.

His voice dissolved into the mist. Emptied of all words now, Wu Xian fell into an uneasy silence. Eons seemed to pass while Feng Xi stood frozen before him, his expression unreadable as he internalized all Wu Xian had told him. “…I still don’t understand,” the elfin began at last, pausing on every second word as if he were wondering if he should even continue. “If...if this is all part of your attempt to make me stay, then you may as well give up. Even if everything you said is true, I’m not going to re-enter this world as part of your feel-good story. The Guild will never be my home. The only things I regret about Long You are hurting Xiao Hei and getting my family involved in the first place, and I’m long gone for as far as they know. My return won’t do them any good. I don’t understand why you went to such lengths.”

Wu Xian did not miss how Feng Xi’s shoulders had begun to tremble ever so slightly as he spoke. The elfin held himself like a willow bent to the verge of snapping, and Wu Xian felt a pang deep in his heart. “You won’t be part of any story, Feng Xi,” he said, trying to reassure the shivering elfin, “you don’t have to do anything with what I’ve told you, whether it’s going back to the world or otherwise. I can’t return Long You to you in the way you once knew it, but if you’ve ever even thought of returning, your family and Xiao Hei are all free and alive. It’s not too late for everything.”

No.” Feng Xi’s shoulders hunched, and he seemed to retreat into himself before Wu Xian’s eyes. “What could I possibly do to atone for what I’ve already done? You know that it's especially taboo among elfins to harm one of our own—I can’t get my family associated with that kind of bad name. It’s better that they’re free and alive without me.”

“Feng Xi….” The sheer despair in the elfin’s voice swept over him like the winter frost, and Wu Xian tried not to panic. His speech was all he had prepared beforehand, and now his mind raced as he grasped at reassurances. “Going back to the world doesn’t mean that you have to spend the rest of your life in atonement or living in shame, it just means you’ll have to find another place for yourself. Xiao Hei is a good kid, and I know he still thinks of you. I’m sure he would want to see you if he knew there was a way, and I believe the same for your family. It doesn’t mean you have to carry everything by yourself.”

The elfin stared at him for a moment, then he let out a humorless laugh. “I don’t understand you,” he repeated, still smiling bitterly. “All this time I’ve done nothing but hurt everyone around me, but still here you are, telling me all this….

“In all honesty, Wu Xian, won’t it be much easier for everyone involved if you just let me go?”

Wu Xian’s heart dropped like a stone. For all his efforts, here he was now, being presented with the ultimatum he had most wanted to avoid. A wave of despair nearly overwhelmed him before he swallowed hard and forced it all back down—from the sudden sting in his eyes to the burn in the back of his throat. Accept and adapt, he reminded himself firmly, and he found himself repeating those words like a mantra. It seemed like forever ago that he had made that declaration to Lao Jun in his isolated pagoda. Knowing and doing are two very different things, Lao Jun had said, his voice laden with a kind of sympathy that Wu Xian was only now beginning to understand.

He breathed in deeply once, twice, then let it all out, just the way his meditation practices had once taught him. The choice to stay or to leave had always been Feng Xi’s—he had known this all along. Now it was simply his turn to truly acknowledge that out loud. Even if that was the last thing he wanted.

“Feng Xi…do you remember the promise I made to you when I first found you here in my spirit realm?” he asked, turning over every word on his tongue before he spoke. “I told you then that if I have learned nothing else from Long You, I’ve learned that you have your own mind—all your choices are your own. If you want to go, then no one can stop you. Not…not even me. I promised myself that when I came to see you this time, I would tell you everything because you deserve to know. Now that you’ve heard everything, if you still decide to leave, then….

“…then I will let you go.”

 

***

 

At the last word of Wu Xian’s declaration, Feng Xi bowed his head and began to laugh—quietly at first, then increasing in volume. It was a harsh, ugly sound. How could this one human, who had once been the target of all his hatred, spend so much dedication and kindness on someone like him? “Why would you say things like this?” he choked out at last, his voice thickening as he spoke. “I break everything that I ever touch. You’ve shown me nothing but kindness and all I’ve done in return is to hurt you. Why would you still go through with this? I—I just don’t understand….”

A drop of wetness splattered on his clenched fist, then another. It was only a matter of time until the tears came in a steady stream, and try as he might, he could not stop them. Humiliated, he covered his face with his hands, digging his palms into his eyes to try and stop the tears. He turned away from Wu Xian and hugged his knees to his chest, not wanting the human to see his face. How he hated this, this utter loss of control over himself, breaking down in front of the one person he could not acknowledge that he loved.

He did not know how long he sat there, curled in on himself like an infant elfin, trembling. The occasional sob that wracked through his entire body muffled the outside world, and he could not see Wu Xian’s reaction. Maybe the human had finally made the reasonable choice and left now that he saw just what an absolute pathetic wreck Feng Xi was. Yet, even as he recoiled at the thought, he felt a tentative presence approach him. The human’s aura hovered next to Feng Xi for a moment, hesitant yet determined, and suddenly the elfin was engulfed by a solid warmth.

Feng Xi’s heart stopped, then restarted in a frantic rhythm. His entire form tensed like a taut bowstring as he tried to process what was happening. Wu Xian had knelt beside him and wrapped his arms around the elfin’s shoulders, pulling Feng Xi close to his chest. The steel plates on his wrists dug slightly into Feng Xi’s sides, but Feng Xi could not even think of pulling away. Wu Xian’s hold was warm and firm, like an anchor in the midst of a great storm, and as wretched and hypocritical as he was, Feng Xi could not resist burying himself further into that embrace. Just a few moments, he thought, just enough to hide his tears. And yet, just when he forced himself to lean back, to pull away, Wu Xian unexpectedly tightened his hold.

“Feng Xi,” the human said quietly. “I know my words mean little, but regardless of what you’re looking for—penance, a purpose, a home, I want to believe they’re out there in the world for you. I’ve been trying to restructure the Guild so it can account for the elfins who disagree with its policies, and other elfins who agree with me have been trying too. There have been changes, and those changes were made because of you. This isn’t the same world that you left behind twenty years ago.

“…What can I do to prove that to you?”

Feng Xi could not move. He felt lightheaded, as if he could not draw in enough air. With the human holding him so tightly, Wu Xian’s every word brushed by his ear, the touches feather-light. The overwhelming closeness of it all was almost enough to make him tear up again—it was too intimate, too soon. All of it more than he deserved. He forced down another sob and took several deep, shaky breaths, trying not to think about how all throughout his tears, Wu Xian had not let go of him.

“I don’t know,” he finally said, his waterlogged voice partly muffled by Wu Xian’s shoulder. “All I know is that…I’m tired. And afraid. The world’s already proven that it doesn’t care about me or elfins like me when I was alive, and I’m tired and afraid of being disappointed again. You’re fighting an uphill battle, Wu Xian.”

“Maybe,” Wu Xian acknowledged. His voice was calm and gentle, and against his will Feng Xi found himself leaning into that voice, listening. “An uphill battle, but not a hopeless one. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you to feel this way, weary of everyone and everything, but you don’t need to rush anything. Stay here, grow your plants, read books—whatever it is you’ve been doing these past months, keep doing it if you wish. I don’t want you to feel like you owe me anything. If you still have even a shred of hope for living, then that’s enough for me.”

Feng Xi’s grip tightened on Wu Xian’s sleeves, and he buried his face deeper into the human’s shoulder. The solid, tangible warm battled with the despair lodged deep within him, and the struggle felt like his chest was convulsing into itself. I have no faith in the world, not in the Guild nor in the beings who serve it, he reminded himself, and that would have been the deciding blow if not for a minute voice speaking from his heart.

You have no faith in the world, perhaps rightfully so, it acknowledged. But do you have faith in him?

“I don’t,” is what he should have answered right away. And yet even in the privacy of his own mind he found that he could not say those words. Wu Xian was quiet and awkward, preferring to communicate with actions rather than words, but here he was, selflessly offering Feng Xi refuge in both his words and his arms, and Feng Xi was far too bewildered and weary to resist him. And it was here that the realization was seeping into him just like the warmth of Wu Xian’s embrace.

Because he did have faith in this human, he realized. He had faith in this quiet, awkward human who often fumbled with his words, who made up for eloquence with sincerity. He had faith in this Wu Xian who had changed from a haughty warrior who only passed judgment to a man who acknowledged Feng Xi as an equal. And even now, here in the human’s spirit realm where Wu Xian could stop his any action with a flick of his pinky, Feng Xi had faith that if he truly wanted to end things for good, to return to that ever-verdant green…then Wu Xian would uphold his promise and let him go.

And it was that faith that even allowed him to consider staying behind.

“I wouldn’t even think of setting foot outside your spirit realm right now, much less let my family and Xiao Hei know that I’m alive,” he began slowly. “I might not decide to leave right this moment, but I can’t exactly guarantee that I’ll stay either, or that anything will really change.” His tone softened as he admitted, “there’s a chance that I’ll never collect myself enough to make a choice either way. Maybe I’ll just stay in here until the end of your days.”

“Then you have until the end of my days,” the human declared quietly. He finally released Feng Xi and took a step back, but his solemn eyes never left the elfin once. “If my time is all it takes for you to gather your thoughts and make your choice, then you can have it all. The world may have shown before that it does not care for you, but there are many out there who do. Your family still does. Xiao Hei too, and...as do I.”

Wu Xian’s deep green gaze was penetrating even through the mist, and when he spoke, the very air stilled to listen. Feng Xi listened as well, and while he was not quite comforted, the parts of him that had been adrift since he had been forced out of Long You seemed to slowly settle, like leaves after a storm. “You make a lot of promises,” he said, careful to keep the hope from bleeding into his voice.

“None that I can’t keep.” Wu Xian replied with the air of someone who was used to backing up his kindness with strength, and if Feng Xi had borne any lingering doubts, now the last of them slowly drained away. For the first time in several days, he felt himself the corners of his mouth twitching upward. The gesture was too minuscule to call a smile, but it was the beginning of a genuine and true expression of relief, and bit by bit, the fog over his heart seemed to lift.

“...I guess I don’t mind sticking around a little longer then,” he said, and found that he meant it.

Chapter Text

“Feng Xi?”

A few days after he had agreed to continue staying in the human’s spirit realm, Wu Xian returned with his eyebrows just a touch more furrowed than usual. He fidgeted with his phone in one hand even as he deposited his offering of takeout on the table. Despite having been the first to speak up, he blinked twice as he sat down, as if unsure how to continue the conversation he had started.

“Not every day that something makes you nervous,” Feng Xi observed with no small amount of amusement.

“…It’s nothing.” Wu Xian shook his head once. He seemed to recover his composure with that gesture. “It’s Guild news. I don’t know if that would interest you.”

“It’s not like I have anything else to do right now,” Feng Xi shrugged, though inwardly he raised an eyebrow. All this time, Wu Xian had always given him updates of the world outside. It was the first time he had seen the human shy away from discussing news like this.

“If you really want to know, some changes in the Guild were just recently put into practice,” Wu Xian finally said. “They installed new positions in every Guild faction to represent the elfins who are not Guild members, and they’ve began to dispatch more outreach teams for wandering elfins like Xiao Hei.”

“Those are…surprising changes.” Feng Xi narrowed his eyes. “The search teams I understand, but why would the Guild want to incorporate non-members?”

“They are afraid,” Wu Xian answered simply. “A fair number of Guild members supported the changes after what happened in Long You.”

Feng Xi allowed himself a quiet huff. So these were some of the changes that Wu Xian had mentioned to him earlier, huh. “So they want to placate their dissenters. What do these new positions even do then? Toothless symbolism won’t be enough to satisfy others like me,” he said as he smiled, showing more teeth than warmth.

“It will not,” Wu Xian agreed, “and the Guild knows that. The new positions will be able to bring up new proposals and to object to any existing or future policies. That policy cannot continue to function until after revisions are agreed to by both parties. Anything related to the three main rules of the Guild are more complicated though. That’s still being worked out.”

Feng Xi blinked twice upon the explanation. “…How did this change even come about? Even if the Guild is afraid, this still gives too much power to the elfins currently labeled outsiders. The Guild would look like a very different place if someone like me was in that position,” he quipped.

“Yes, the Guild could potentially face the most change it has seen since it was founded, but that change will be part of its purpose to mediate between all elfins and humans,” Wu Xian said, a hint of steel slipping into his voice. “It took some time to see it, but Long You is proof that the Guild is failing to fulfill its mission. We’re out of touch. If doing things differently is what it takes to change that, then that is what we should do.”

Feng Xi was now openly staring. “You really think those things?” he heard himself say in a voice that did not quite sound like his own. There was some tremor to his tone that he could not place—maybe anxiety, maybe disbelief. Certainly, it could not be hope.

But then Wu Xian turned to look right at him when he spoke. His eyes were the same shade as the forests that grew thick and lush in the depths of Feng Xi’s memories, and Feng Xi found himself lost in that sea of green, unable to disengage.

“You wanted proof of how the world has changed,” he heard Wu Xian say. “You wanted to know that this isn’t the same world as the one you left. I can’t assume this alone will be enough to convince you, but things are changing. We are trying. I am trying. Because of you.”

And Feng Xi felt his breath catch in his throat.

“…My earlier words still stand though. You don’t have to do anything about it,” Wu Xian added after a moment, his tone softening considerably. “This information isn’t supposed to force you into any decisions. You should still do whatever you want to do.”

Feng Xi had yet to break away from Wu Xian’s calm gaze, the sparkle in their depths reminding him of spirit fish in the old woods. The sight seemed to magnify that tremor that Feng Xi had previously identified in his voice. Only now did he dare to recognize that feeling—so it was hope after all.

Now that he knew, what did he want to do about it?

He took a deep breath, and that tremor of hope flared even brighter in his chest as he came to a decision. It burned just warm enough to keep the waves of doubt and bitterness at bay.

“Wu Xian,” he said slowly, testing the words out as he spoke, “I think…maybe one day, I’d like to see for myself this changing world you speak of.”

 

**

 

And so, several weeks after that last conversation, Feng Xi stood on the threshold of Wu Xian’s front door toward the end of a sweltering summer day. The setting sun threw his shadow onto the floor of Wu Xian’s living room, as if trying to keep him tethered to this place that he had spent the last several months. He had stood transfixed on this threshold for several minutes now, unable to take that last step out of this little house and onto the wooden porch and beyond.

Yet he had to take that step. In any moment, Wu Xian would return to his spirit realm to tell Feng Xi about the agreement he had brokered with the Guild, and then…he would open the way to the outside world. He had seen Wu Xian’s spirit realm portal numerous times by now—the metal pieces that always accompanied Wu Xian would fly from his arms to form a ringed portal of light. Wu Xian would step through that portal and be transported back into a world full of light and noise, where everything was moving and time stood still for no one.

Except this time, Feng Xi would be going with him.

 

 

“Wu Xian, I think I’d like to go outside soon,” he said one night before he could change his mind. He spoke in a smaller voice than usual, but in the tranquil night of Wu Xian’s spirit realm, it might as well have been a shout.

Wu Xian froze from where he had just been about to leave the house. “Are you sure?” he asked, turning back around.

Feng Xi swallowed. “Yes.”

The human stared at him. He blinked a few times, his throat bobbing as he seemed to try and put the right words together. “I don’t mean to imply that I’m not happy with your decision,” he finally said, still looking at Feng Xi as if he was not sure he was real, “but why now?”

“I’ve been thinking about it for some time now, actually. Since we talked that last time,” Feng Xi explained, putting out one phrase at a time. “I think...well, maybe the world really is different now, and I’m still sitting here when I can maybe make a difference outside. And I’ve been thinking about what you said, about my family waiting for me.”

He took a deep breath. “I’ve done my family a great wrong by roping them into my plans,” he sighed. “I still think it’s true that I should not get them tangled further with my bad name. But they deserve to hear from me in person. Hiding here is just as cowardly. I want to have a long talk with them and hear what they want to say, just like you did with me. And if they want to judge me then, I will accept it. Same with Xiao Hei,” he added in a quieter voice.

“I see.” Wu Xian nodded. His expression remained neutral, but in the depths of his voice, Feng Xi heard him smile. “I will go make arrangements with the Guild once I leave then,” he said, becoming serious once more. “It’s likely that they will want to restrict your movements and place a watch over you once you leave, but I will do my best to prevent those things.”

Feng Xi shook his head. “You don’t have to do that,” he said, slightly surprised by Wu Xian’s declaration.

“But I want to,” Wu Xian said, tone adamant. “You just said you want to meet your family and properly apologize to my disciple. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but they all think you’re dead right now. You’ll have more than enough to deal with once you leave here. The Guild doesn’t need to add more to that.”

“...Alright, if you say so,” Feng Xi relented. As far as he knew, the Guild releasing an elfin of his notoriety without any restrictions was about as likely as the humans suddenly demolishing Long You to replant the trees. But this was Wu Xian’s intention, and Feng Xi had now grown used to Wu Xian’s words bringing about one or two miracles.

Perhaps it would not hurt to trust him one more time. Once Wu Xian had gone out the door and departed through his spirit realm portal, Feng Xi settled back onto the windowsill to await his return.

 

 

“Feng Xi?”

The elfin jerked his head up upon hearing his name. Wu Xian now stood before him on the formerly empty front porch. The human stood with his hands folded behind his back, his hair tailing behind him in an elegant sweeping line. To most observers, he would have appeared as nonchalant and untouchable as always, but Feng Xi was familiar enough with him now to tell otherwise. He could pick out the slight tension in the human’s shoulders, read the glimmer of concern in his eyes.

“I’m alright,” he managed to answer, pulling himself together enough to grimace in Wu Xian’s direction. “You can’t exactly blame me for being nervous.”

Wu Xian locked eyes with him for a moment longer. What he saw did not quite seem to reassure him. “You know you don’t have to do this immediately,” he said in a low voice that clearly belayed his worry. “I told the Guild that you would be returning, but I did not tell them exactly when, and the day is almost over. You don’t have to leave here today.”

“What, are you trying to keep me longer?” Feng Xi quipped. It was a weak attempt at humor, but it was all he could do to keep himself from flying apart.

“I’m not,” Wu Xian rebuffed immediately before he froze. “You were joking,” he said after a moment, with an audible note of sheepishness.

“Yes?” Feng Xi raised an eyebrow, his anxiety momentarily forgotten as he turned towards Wu Xian. He scrutinized the human for a moment before the realization struck. “Heh, I didn’t expect that you would be nervous too,” he chuckled, and the grimace on his face loosened into something that more resembled a smile. “It’s fine. I’m fine.” He shot Wu Xian a look that meant end of discussion.

Wu Xian still seemed concerned, but in the end, he went along with Feng Xi’s wordless demand and inquired no further. His metal bands flew off his wrists and arranged themselves into a neat ovular ring of white light, an exit just wide enough for one. The portal pulsed with energy, and through it, Feng Xi could faintly sense everything that he had not sensed for decades, everything that he had nearly forgotten about—from the movement of the air to the sheer, overwhelming presence of change and life.

“Well. Are you ready?” Wu Xian asked him. The way he was looking at Feng XI reminded the elfin of that day when Wu Xian had hugged him, forever yet not so long ago, and so he took a deep breath and allowed his hands to fall from where they had been clutching at the doorframe. He had faith in this man then, so he would put his faith in him again now. His heartbeat filled his ears as he stepped over the house’s threshold, but he walked on without wavering toward that swirling white void of terrible, wonderful possibilities until he stood right before it.

Even now, he could picture in its entirety the small world he was leaving behind. His plants and vines had long since overgrown the space within Wu Xian’s living room, spilling out of the windowsill, and the last book he had read would still be lying on top of the small table. Yet he could also still feel Wu Xian’s eyes upon him, his presence steadfast and familiar. That was enough to coax the last doubt from Feng Xi’s heart.

“Yes, I’m ready,” he murmured to himself. Then he was stepping over the circular threshold formed by the metal bands and into the almost-liquid light, back into the world he had once abandoned.

Warmth. Light. A breeze that stirred through the ends of his hair. These were the first sensations that greeted Feng Xi when he stepped out of Wu Xian’s spirit realm, part of the world again for the first time in nearly twenty-one years. For a long moment, he could only stand there, squinting into the setting sun as his eyes adjusted. Even with Wu Xian’s imitation of sunlight the spirit realm, the real sun’s rays, though they were the last of the day, were still near overwhelming.

“Welcome back,” Wu Xian said simply. He had been standing a few paces aside from the circular entrance, and the entryway closed a moment after Feng Xi has stepped through. From the corner of his eye, the elfin saw the steel slats that had formed the entrance flutter back to their master.

“You would have come after me if I had taken too long,” Feng Xi retorted without any heat. He rubbed his still-sore eyes and looked around. “Where are we?”

“The mountains near Long You. I could not let you out near anywhere there might have been people around, and I thought you might prefer this.”

“I would,” Feng Xi agreed, continuing to observe his surroundings. His eyes could not seem to take in enough of the greenery. There were trees, around as far as the eye could see, of the likes that he had not seen for quite some time. They were not like his Long You of the old days, but they did come close, with their lush green canopy accompanied by the first stirrings of the evening breeze.

“That’s good.” Wu Xian’s shoulders relaxed just slightly. The motion did not escape Feng Xi’s notice, but he chose not to comment.

“I’m amazed that you’ve actually managed to do it though, convincing the Guild to let me out here with no strings attached,” he said instead after a moment. “I can’t say that I would have been surprised if a bunch of executors came out of from these trees right now and carted me off to Bing Yun. I don’t know what exactly it was that you had to do or say, but…thank you. For this.”

Wu Xian’s eyes widened just a fraction, and Feng Xi realized with a jolt that this was the first time he had ever thanked Wu Xian for anything out loud. “You’re welcome,” the human finally answered with a shallow nod. His irises seemed to smolder a touch more than warranted for such a reply, and Feng Xi paused for a moment before looking away.

“So, what next?” he asked.

“All of your family currently resides within the bounds of Long You city. Xu Huai and Tian Hu live near the central town square, and Luo Zhu lives in the east block, close to the market district. They are all accessible via metro. It will depend on who you wish to see first.”

“Oh? They don’t all live together?” Feng Xi raised his head, eyebrows knitting together. “Why?”

Something almost like a smile flickered over Wu Xian’s normally stoic face. “I imagine they will tell you. I can assure you though that it is not the Guild’s work. Luo Zhu has been released from parole since fifteen years ago, and Tian Hu has never been monitored after Bing Yun.”

“I wonder….” Feng Xi trailed off, his mind skimming about for possibilities even as his mood darkened. He had not forgotten how Luo Zhu had stormed away from him after what he had done to Xiao Hei. However, it was not long before he gave up the task. He would see them soon enough anyways, and he did not want to crowd his mind with the worst possibilities before he even had a chance to see them for himself. “Never mind. Let’s just go.”

“Where do you want to go first?” Wu Xian asked.

Feng Xi shook the last lingering images of Luo Zhu away. “Xu Huai,” he said simply, raising calm eyes toward Wu Xian. “Take me to see Xu Huai first.”

“Okay.” Wu Xian turned and folded his arms behind his back as he walked off. “Come with me then.”

As he followed Wu Xian through the forests, outskirts, then the proper streets of Long You, it occurred to Feng Xi that he did not quite know what to make of his newfound “freedom.” On one hand, Long You has not changed that much in the twenty-or-so years of his absence. The outskirts of the city were still filled with the same architecture that he knew from the old days—small, tiled houses with rough walls, too-narrow alleyways crammed with rough shanties, old wooden doors with peeling red paper banners from past new years still pasted around their sides.

As he walked by though, he could see the blue light squares of television units pouring through the windows, plastic brooms leaning in the corners instead of ones bound with straw and twine, a water boiler in the kitchen just like the one in Wu Xian’s spirit realm. Signs of modernity. Of progress. And of ruin.

Twenty years earlier, these same sights would have made his blood roar behind his ears. Unforgivable, he would think, and contemplate with vicious eyes how much of his home had to be torn down or destroyed to give rise to such petty conveniences. Now, such sights still stirred him, but he no longer felt that same boiling fury. What was lost was already lost. He could not get it back with more destruction. He finally understood that now.

As they drew closer to the inner city, the houses and alleys were replaced by soaring constructions of concrete and steel. The streets were bustling with humans, some of whom cast curious glances their way, but city dwellers are also notoriously self-centered. They were largely left alone as they made their way to the nearest metro station.

Xu Huai and Tian Hu’s residence was twelve metro stops away, a forty-minute train ride according to map that glowed on Wu Xian’s phone. Feng Xi, preferring the old-fashioned maps, grabbed his own copy from the brochure stands before following the human through the turnstiles and into the station.

Only a handful of people lingered on the evening metro platform, and there were enough seats left open once the train came for them both to find a quiet, undisturbed corner to themselves. Feng Xi was grateful for the overall lack of commotion. Metro stations, with their usual crush of crowds, confined corridors, and stifling underground air had always made him uneasy at best, and the last time he had ridden a metro had been during his rooftop fight with the man who now sat quietly beside him. The irony almost made him smile.

Wu Xian was evidently thinking along the same lines. “Have you ever ridden a train normally before?” he asked, obviously thinking about Feng Xi’s habit to ride the trains from not within the cabin. He was taking care to keep his voice to a volume where only the two of them could hear, even though there seemed to be no one within earshot.

This time Feng Xi did smile. “I have before, out of necessity. I still prefer riding trains from the rooftop though, if I must take them.”

“Oh.”

They fell silent once more. Feng Xi observed as the cityscape raced by through sealed windows. Every now and then they went through a tunnel, and he would see himself and Wu Xian’s reflections staring back at them on the darkened glass. Four stops came and went like that, and all the while, he found himself recalling the details of that fight, memories of himself sweeping onto the roof of a train not unlike this one, with his family by his side and a grim determination in his heart.

“Why do you not hate me for what happened?” he heard himself ask, just as the train rounded a wide bend. The tracks rattled as he spoke, nearly covering over his voice. And yet he knew that the human heard him.

“…For a time, I thought I did. I took in Xiao Hei almost immediately after Long You. It was impossible not to be reminded of what you did when I saw him in front of me every day,” Wu Xian answered. “But it took some time after that to realize that I actually hated myself just as much as I thought I hated you.”

Feng Xi blinked once. Well, that was not the answer he had expected. “Why?”

“I was too proud. In all my years as an executor, I had never quite stopped to think about the perspective of the elfins I was charged with capturing, much less talk to them, even though I work for the organization that purports to keep peace between elfins and humans. It was the same with you. Had I been less haughty from the start, perhaps you would not have felt desperate enough to do what you did.”

“It had nothing to do with you at that point.” Feng Xi frowned. “Besides, my decisions were all my own. I owe none of them to you.”

“The last time I had ridden a train like this into Long You, I was with Luo Zhu. That’s where he told me that once you had made up your mind, no one would be able to stop you.”

“And he was right.” Feng Xi smiled wryly.

“Yes, he was,” Wu Xian agreed, almost smiling back. “But ever since then, I have also thought more about what Luo Zhu said. He’s right that once you’ve made up your mind, you are unstoppable. But what he didn’t talk about was how other people and circumstances could also influence the choices you ended up making. Had I not showed up with the intent to fight, if I had not told you that I was only there to fight and not give any explanations, perhaps you would not have gone so far so soon. In that way, perhaps what happened to Xiao Hei is also partially my fault.”

“Well, you’re wrong,” Feng Xi snapped back immediately, the ferocity in his tone surprising even himself. “What I did to Xiao Hei is my responsibility. I won’t let anyone shoulder that burden from me, especially not you. Not after you took him in after what I did.”

“I don’t plan on taking that guilt from you,” Wu Xian amended, “I only meant to explain why I don’t hate you anymore. I don’t think I have for a long time now.”

“…Oh.”

Neither of them spoke up again for quite some time after that. Feng Xi looked out of the window, watching as the cityscape blurred by, but now his mind was drifting back to those blurred days when he had first awoken in Wu Xian’s spirit realm. Back then, had the human said he did not hate Feng Xi for what he did in Long You, he would not have taken it as calmly. There was safety in being hated – it made it easier to hate back. That hate and a grim determination were all he had room for in his heart back in those days, when he had been so sure that both Wu Xian and the world he represented were his inexorable enemies.

His determination still remained, but now that some of his despair and hatred had waned, perhaps he could now make room for more.

“Hey, Wu Xian,” he sighed at last, “tell me more about how Long You has changed these days.”

Wu Xian glanced over. “What would you like to know about?”

“How are the elfins here doing?”

“They are doing well, I would say. There are more regulations against pollution here now, so the available spiritual energy is of better quality. The Guild has registered more than one thousand elfins in the city now.”

“So many?” Feng Xi raised an eyebrow. “They must have mostly immigrated from other places. There’s no way a stone city like this could birth so many elfins in twenty years.”

“Yes. The city has cut back on its expansion into the surrounding forests, but it’s still ongoing unfortunately. Many elfins actually came here because of your tree. It’s been turned into a park in the city center. That’s where we’re going now.”

What?” Feng Xi was struck silent. When he finally made a sound again, it was to laugh in disbelief. “They turned my tree into a park? For humans? The kind that charges tickets?” In that moment, the old grudge that he had set aside but never forgot roared to the surface once more. For the humans and the guild to profit from his tree, his last act of defiance that he had burned up his life to bring forth, the irony was truly too great.

Wu Xian’s brows furrowed slightly, the equivalent of a wince for him. He had sensed the shift in Feng Xi’s tone too. “It was the only way to prevent it from being cut down and removed from the city center,” he explained, raising his voice just a notch. “The human government was determined to rebuild after all the destruction from back then, but your tree was one of a kind, so that made some of the officials hesitate. The guild could only convince them by suggesting a park. Some elfins had been against it as well. They thought it was an affront to your memory and what you did.”

“…Hm.” At these words, Feng Xi relented slightly. “And my family? What did they think of this?”

“I do not know,” Wu Xian answered truthfully. “None of them had been released yet then. Right now, Xu Huai and Tian Hu currently live inside the park with a cover as park groundskeepers. You can ask them yourself if you’d like.”

Feng Xi blinked once. “They live there?” He heard himself say. Somehow, he would never have imagined that his two brothers who were the most averse to disguising themselves in human form would be found living in the middle of park, in the heart of the city. Why on earth would they…oh.

His heart gave a sharp lurch as he grasped the reason, and he nearly gasped out loud.

Elfins, being elfins, did not usually keep gravesites. They simply scattered into the four winds when they passed, their spiritual essence dissolving as they returned to become part of the places they loved. His tree would be the only thing that his family had to remember him by. Come to think of it, he really was the first to leave in their little family of four, wasn’t he?

At that thought, the storm in his heart ceased as if it had never began.

Never mind the people or the tickets. Perhaps, if it had brought his family some comfort in his absence, then that made it worthwhile for his tree to stay, even if it was only a park attraction to everyone else.

After months of time spent together, even though Feng Xi had not said a word, Wu Xian seemed to have guessed his thoughts. “You are not a park attraction, Feng Xi,” he said, his tone quiet but firm. “Your presence in Long You has brought many living beings some comfort. You will see once we arrive.”

“…Alright.”

They sat in silence for the rest of the ride, though perhaps owing to Wu Xian’s final intervention, the silence was not an awkward one. When the train finally cut through to the heart of the city and Feng Xi saw what could only be his tree, even he could not hold back a small gasp. Even in the dusk, he could still see how the great life form loomed over the city, a verdant pillar that rose above the sea of metal and gray.

(Ironic as it was, this was his first time seeing his own tree. It’s not like he was quite paying attention to what the tree looked like as he was imploding his spirit realm to make it.)

“I really did that, didn’t I?” He heard himself say once they had gotten off the train. There was more than a hint of pride his voice, but he had no intention to suppress it. Painful as it had been, that was the end he had chosen, and while that was a path he would no longer walk, the tree was still a symbol of his resolve, a reminder that he had once fought and given his all for his home. That even if his methods from now on would be different, his original resolve still rang true.

They stepped out of the underground station, and the human followed the direction of Feng Xi’s gaze for a long moment, standing shoulder to shoulder with him amid the streaming crowd. He stood close enough that Feng Xi could see his solemn gaze from out of the corner of his vision, solemn as if the human was not seeing the greenery against the city skyline but seeing years into the past.

“Yes,” the human murmured after a moment, “you really did that.” His tone was soft, and Feng Xi detected a trace of sentiment that made his breath quicken and his heart give a traitorous stutter. But before could he quite stifle his reaction, Wu Xian was already walking on ahead. “Let’s go,” he called back towards the elfin, and the spell was broken. Feng Xi had to break into a light jog just to catch up as the human led the way through the park entrance.

“Wait, don’t we have to pay the entrance fee?” Feng Xi questioned once he had run up next to Wu Xian.

Yet the human shook his head. He flashed his guild badge at Feng Xi, which he then promptly pocketed. “There is no fee for Guild members or for members of the city government. The Guild and the human government of Long You have taken joint responsibility over the maintenance and upkeep of the park, so there is no need for their workers to pay.”

Feng Xi’s expression changed a few times. Confusion, incredulity, and a begrudging hint of gratitude warred in turn before his features finally returned to normal. Ultimately, he did not know what to make of the information that the Guild and the present human government were now in charge of maintaining what he had intended to be his gravesite, so he kept silent as he followed Wu Xian deeper into the park.

“This way,” Wu Xian said as he turned from the main path onto a barely noticeable trail that led into a secluded bamboo grove. Several twists and turns later, just when Feng Xi was sure they must have reached the very periphery of the park, Wu Xian came to a stop before a small, faded hut.

“We’re here,” he announced.* 

“…This is it?” Feng Xi stared at the small hut before him. The wall paint was faded and chipped, and bits of old newspaper stuck through from where they had been pasted onto the walls as substitute paint primer. The wooden door was made from rough-hewn planks instead of the smooth, painted surfaces that Feng Xi was accustomed to seeing in city buildings, and there were no curtains or blinds seen through the windows. The interior was dim.

“This is it? Xu Huai and Tian Hu live here?” Feng Xi repeated, hearing more than a little disbelief in his voice. He could remember hiding out in run-down human dwellings in the cities right after he and his family had first been evicted from their forest, but he still could not quite picture his brothers choosing to live in a place like this indefinitely. “For how long?”

“This is their listed residency location,” Wu Xian answered. “From what I know, both of them have been here almost since he was released from Bing Yun, though Tian Hu has been here much longer than Xu Huai.”

Feng Xi stared, then stared some more. The crickets and the night breeze filled his silence with their song. “Do you think they’re inside right now?” He asked after a long moment.

“I don’t know.”

“Heh.” Feng Xi tried for a smile that emerged more as a wince. “Guess I should knock then?” His hand shook slightly as he lifted it to the door, only to turn around upon Wu Xian’s sudden exclamation.

“Wait! do you—” the human cut himself off midsentence as if his voice had suddenly dried up. He seemed uncharacteristically torn when Feng Xi turned back to stare at him.

“…Do I what?” Feng Xi asked after a moment. The tension in his voice was palpable, and he cringed on reflex at his display of nerves, only to remember that he had now spent nearly a year with only this person beside him. Wu Xian had already seen him in far more vulnerable emotional states than this, he reminded himself.

“…Do you want me to stay for this?” Wu Xian finally said after a terse pause. He spoke as if he was not quite sure he wanted to hear Feng Xi’s answer.

Feng Xi had not ever heard Wu Xian sound like this. For another moment, he did not understand why, until the sudden force of the realization nearly knocked him over.

Of course, he should have realized sooner—in all those times in the spirit realm, he had never said goodbye to Wu Xian when the human had left. Why would he, when they both knew that he would soon return? It was occuring to him only now that this…this was goodbye. For the first time in nearly a year—for the first time since he had been reborn, he would have to part ways with this person beside him. Now that the time for parting was upon them at last, Feng Xi suddenly found himself at a loss.

Wu Xian’s gaze fell upon him like a crushing weight, and Feng Xi suddenly felt like he was speaking through a mouthful of lead. “I…uh, suppose you shouldn’t? Stay for this, I mean,” he added hastily. “This would certainly be hard to explain to my family, and besides, you’ll have plenty of other things to do once you finish escorting me, right? You won’t be here for that much longer anyway.”

“…That’s true. As long as you don’t break the three rules of the Guild, you can stay here or go anywhere you may wish to,” Wu Xian replied. Feng Xi barely heard him—his mind was racing with various scenarios. Now that Wu Xian had fulfilled his responsibility of escorting him to his family, he would likely leave to reenter the Guild’s stream of missions for executors, and Feng Xi would have no way of knowing his whereabouts.

Would he return? Would he ever see him again?

“I’ll wish you well,” he heard Wu Xian say, and all Feng Xi’s thoughts descended into panic.

“Um, okay, I guess this really is goodbye then?” The finality in Wu Xian’s words was too much, too overt. Feng Xi had not felt this mix of panic anxiety bewilderment since he had first awoken inside the human’s spirit realm. He tried to smile, to feign nonchalance, but the front slipped away almost as soon as he had managed to put it up. His lungs and heart were squeezing themselves together into a crumpled ball.

“I suppose it is,” Wu Xian said after a moment. Feng Xi held his breath, waiting for him to say more, but the human was looking down. He seemed to be lost in thought.

The silence stretched on. The moon had risen by now, and pale streaks of silver light streamed through the bamboo all around them, the light wavering like water as the plants swayed in the wind. Gleaming light refracted off the metal pieces on Wu Xian’s arms, scattering into the grove like stardust. Neither of them moved.

“Will you come visit sometime?” The words slipped out of Feng Xi’s mouth before he could stop them. He saw Wu Xian’s eyes widen, and he hurried on before the human could get a word in. “I mean, not immediately of course, I still need some time to adjust to living out here, and to seeing everyone again. And to explain everything to my family. I don’t know how long all of that will take. Besides, I think it might be good for me to spend some time alone,” he added, his voice softening. “But, if after all that…”

“I’ll come.” Wu Xian’s voice cut through the rest of Feng Xi’s thoughts. It took him a moment to dare to meet the human’s eyes, but there was no need for him to be afraid—for once, Wu Xian’s eyes were bright and clear, as if all the years within them had suddenly fallen away. The corner of his lips were quirked up just a tad, and for someone like Wu Xian, that was the equivalent of grinning from ear to ear.

“You’re correct,” the human continued, but the quiet intensity in his voice did not fade. “You’ve just returned to this world, so it would be good for you to readjust on your own. Take as long as you need. But if someday down the road, you still think you want me to come visit…I will certainly come. I don’t care how long from now that is.”

The moonlight caught Wu Xian at a perfect angle, and for a moment his whole person was dyed in gleaming silver. In that moment, Feng Xi remembered many things. He remembered Wu Xian with wide eyes from the first time they had talked in Wu Xian’s spirit realm; Wu Xian wreathed in the sun and wisteria blossoms, asking him if this was what he wanted; Wu Xian with his arms around him, promising him all his time in this world. He remembered all these things, and his heart suddenly felt so light.

He smiled. “It’s a promise then.”

Chapter Text

When even Feng Xi’s night vision could no longer see Wu Xian’s silhouette through the bamboo grove, he took a deep breath and slowly, slowly released it. His heartbeat quickened as he turned back toward the wooden door, rapping on it three times with his knuckles. The three hollow knocks seemed to echo through his heart, and his mouth pressed together in a thin line as he waited.

Now that the human was gone, taking the last of his distractions with him, Feng Xi was alone before the doorway, left to his own thoughts once more. This was the longest he had ever been separated from his family. What would they think once they saw him on the threshold? Their last parting had been so abrupt—he had been so intent on activating the domain he just stolen from Xiao Hei, he had not even had time to say goodbye…

At last, just when he was about to give up, the door creaked open. A bemused Xu Huai appeared in the half-opened doorway. “Who—”

His voice cut off when he saw who was standing outside. For several moments, he simply stood there, unblinking, gaping at Feng Xi like he had ceased to function. He still sported his characteristic hair and horns, and his outfit was the same as it was in Feng Xi’s memory, only white now instead of blue. Feng Xi’s heart squeezed in on itself—long ago in the old mountains of Long You, his younger self was telling Xu Huai all about the customs of the humans he had just learned: “they wear all white when in mourning…”

“Hello brother,” he whispered, using a title he had not addressed Xu Huai by in over a century.

Xu Huai’s grip on the door frame tightened. He maintained a fragile silence, yet his other hand reached out slowly toward Feng Xi, closing the distance, until his fingertips finally grasped the solid fabric of Feng Xi’s sleeve, and then his arm. The tears in his eyes spilled over.

“…You’re alive,” Xu Huai finally spoke, his normally placid voice rough. His normally ice blue eyes had melted, shimmering with disbelief and a building, unbridled joy. “You’re alive,” he repeated even as he threw open the door, grabbing onto Feng Xi’s arm with his other hand, his grip tight to the point where it was almost painful.

Feng Xi did not mind at all. “Yes, I’m here,” he whispered, his own eyes burning and a wobbling grin on his face as he stooped down to hug the older elfin. “I’m here, I’m alive,” he murmured fiercely into his brother’s shoulder, hugging him tighter with every word he spoke. “I’m here for good. You won’t ever have to wear white for me again, brother. I swear it.”

Xu Huai was hugging him back with one arm. His other hand was still firmly gripping Feng Xi’s arm, unwilling to let go. He smile-sobbed once into Feng Xi’s shirt, then after a long moment, finally stepped back and released him.

“Tian Hu,” he called back into the small wooden hut, “come see who’s here.”

Rustling noises emerged from the back of the hut, and Feng Xi’s heart lurched as he waited. Out of all his brothers, perhaps Tian Hu was the hardest to for him to meet again. He still remembered carrying the tiny fluff ball that was Tian Hu on his shoulders to the human festivals where people sang and danced, both of them laughing as they filled their bellies with fried sticky rice cakes, spiced meat skewers, candied plums, and nuts. Even after they were forced to wander the lands and Tian Hu grew larger and more silent, Feng Xi still remembered all of this.

The scraping sound of furniture being moved aside reached his ears, and when Xu Huai opened the door wide at last, Feng Xi finally saw the entirety of his youngest brother. He had not changed much from when he last saw him—twenty years was not that long for an elfin after all, but Feng Xi did not miss how his brother now held himself a little more stiffly, and his every movement and even his gaze were a little heavier.

Tian Hu did not move when he saw who was standing behind the door, but his eyes grew large and round, just like they did when Feng Xi had given him a particularly tasty festival treat. Yet he still did not speak. His eyes took on a watery sheen.

Feng Xi was first to break the silence. He drank in the sight of his youngest brother, and when he smiled, he was sincere. “You’ve grown,” he said with nothing but fondess.

He had barely spoken before the large tiger elfin was tackling him into a full-bodied embrace, and Feng Xi found himself with his arms full of his brother’s warm, orange striped fur. Tian Hu did not cry—not audibly at least, but Feng Xi wordlessly tightened his hold as his brother shuddered in his arms. A small vine blossomed to life at his feet and picked up Tian Hu’s wide, pointed purple hat that had been knocked off when he rushed to hug Feng Xi. It placed the hat back on Tian Hu’s head with a gentle pat.

“Sorry, sorry,” he murmured into his brother’s soft fur. He whispered the words over and over. “I’m sorry. It’s my fault, all of it. I won’t ever leave without a word like that again.”

All this time, Tian Hu had not made a sound. But he did nod once with his head still buried in Feng Xi’s shirt. And when Feng Xi began to pat his back gently like he had done when they were both a lot younger, the large tiger elfin no longer seemed to shake so hard.

**

“…So, it was Wu Xian who brought you back,” Xu Huai summed up after Feng Xi had finished his explanation. The three elfins were huddled around a low round table in the tiny sitting room of the wooden hut--Tian Hu alone took up nearly one third of the table. Xu Huai and Feng Xi shared the remaining space between them, nibbling at fresh oranges that Xu Huai had produced from a bag tucked into a truly miniature kitchen cabinet.

Feng Xi had summarized the events of the past few months as succinctly as he could. He told Xu Huai and Tian Hu about how he had somehow returned to life, about needing to wait until he was fully recovered, and about the surprising lack of Guild restrictions he had upon being set loose. Some things though, he instinctively or even unintentionally left out, mostly things about Wu Xian himself, and his own feelings towards the human. He was not quite ready to share his revelation with anyone beside himself just yet, not even his family.

The silence lingered in the tiny living room after his explanation. Feng Xi was afraid for a moment that Xu Huai would attempt to probe more, but much to his relief, the elder elfin dropped the subject. Rather, he asked, “So what do you want to do now? How can we help?”

Feng Xi’s eyes widened. “You both don’t have to help,” he began, but Tian Hu’s voice rumbled through the small space, cutting him off.

“We want to,” his youngest brother said. He did not elaborate, still apparently retaining his habit of being one of few words, but the look in his eyes told Feng Xi more than words ever could. There would be no dissuading him or Xu Huai on this matter.

“Alright,” Feng Xi sighed. He looked down at the cup of tea still steaming between his hands, examining the minute cracks on the ceramic surface as he attempted to collect his thoughts. “In all honesty, I don’t quite know myself,” he confessed quietly, blowing a gentle breath across the surface of his tea. “I came back to this world with the intent to learn who I am again, and what I wish to do. I don’t think I can ever give up my original goal of wanting to return home, and the promise I made to you to return us all—I will always believe that to be right. That I already know. But now I need to find a different way to work towards it. I don’t want to hurt any of you anymore than I already have.”

Tian Hu shook his head. He still did not speak, though the sympathy in his eyes was clear. Xu Huai was who ultimately spoke up, but his words were quiet as well, tempered with a sorrow that has been steeped over the years. “…I will be honest, I won’t tell you that you didn’t hurt us, Feng Xi,” he said, looking down at his own teacup. “But don’t be mistaken. To me, it wasn’t your dream itself that was hurtful, but more the way that you left us behind for it. And I think we all knew you did not plan that in advance. Not when you haven’t even told me about it.”

“No, I hadn’t planned to leave,” Feng Xi agreed. “That was all me in the moment. I made my choice then and even now I can’t say that I quite regret it. But…I am sorry that I hurt you all. And I’m glad to be sitting here with you both again,” he said, his tone softening.

Xu Huai swirled the teacup in his hand gently. “I know. I just want there to be some way for you to be happy in this world. So you can live without giving up who you are. You don’t have to put up a front so much in front of us to shelter us. I want you to feel like you can rely on us too.”

“I always have, haven’t I?” Feng Xi smiled again, but this time it felt more genuine. “Even though I haven’t ever told you everything, I’ve always relied on you all. That won’t change this time.”

“Stay then,” Tian Hu spoke up, turning his head so he was looking directly at Feng Xi. Upon the elder’s startled expression, the tiger elfin simply repeated his statement. “Stay here with us. We’ll figure out whatever you want to do.”

“I….” Feng Xi’s voice trailed off. He had been planning to stay with his family for a short while, at least until he could figure out how to get by in the world again, but some part of him deep down had still not quite allowed himself to consider staying indefinitely. Regardless of his revival, he was still a relic of times past, with his family having been forced to move on in his twenty years of absence. He knew how time flowed faster in a post-industrialized world, and he should not overstay his welcome and disrupt the flow of their current lives. “I….” I shouldn’t stay too long, is what he should have said, and yet the words could not quite escape from his mouth.

“It’s alright, Feng Xi.” Of course, Xu Huai had not known him all these years though for nothing. His elder brother’s calm eyes seemed to strip all of Feng Xi’s thoughts bare. “You said you wanted to rediscover who you are. How you want to live. So stay with us and do that. You would never be disrupting our lives—you would be a welcome change.” He smiled as he said this, his eyes glancing down at his freshly changed outfit. Gone was the white of the mourning colors, replaced with the fresh, pristine blue that he had always favored. “Not all changes are bad things,” he finished, still smiling.

“Yes,” Tian Hu nodded once in agreement, the movement so exaggerated that it seemed to move half of his whole body. His eyes sparkled under the rim of his broad purple hat.

“You two….” Feng Xi looked from one expectant brother to the other, then back again. The rims of his eyes grew warm. A sudden, inexorable force surged up from the depths of his heart, making him truly grin for the first time than he could remember in many years. It may have been the will to live. It may have been hope. “Well now that you’ve both asked me like that, how can I say no?”

**

And so Feng Xi ended up staying with Xu Huai and Tian Hu in their tiny wooden hut in a hidden corner of his namesake park. He found out soon enough that his brothers did not actually live inside the structure – rather, they spent the nights outside in various locations of the park, sleeping amongst the trees and water just like they had done back in the old days. Xu Huai later told Feng Xi that the Guild had kept Feng Xi’s revival under the wraps, so that even his family only knew that the Guild’s top executor would be escorting a new elfin to live in Long You City. While there had been much speculation as to who that elfin was, no one had suspected it would be him.

“We’d hoped a little when we first head the news,” Xu Huai had told him one night, as they both sat next to one of the many large ponds within the park, “but you’ve been gone so long. We didn’t feel any signs here either, and this was the last place you’d been with your…with your whole spirit realm intact. I’ve never heard of an elfin resurrecting completely after what you’ve done before. So we kept our hopes low.”

“I wouldn’t have expected it either,” Feng Xi replied. Then, after a long silence, “…you’re not curious about how it happened?”

“How could I not?” the ice elfin answered, “but I think it great enough of a miracle already that you have returned to us. I won’t press you to tell me how it all came about.”

Feng Xi fell quiet. For several moments, all that could be heard was the sound of crickets chirping in the surrounding plant life. “…Thank you,” he finally said.

And that had been that.

Feng Xi was truly grateful that Xu Huai had not pressed him for more details. If he had, Feng Xi did not know how he would answer. How was he supposed to explain the tangled thread that now connected him with Wu Xian, their former most feared and hated enemy? What was he supposed to do to untangle the relationship between them that has gotten snared and knotted so many times that now it would never unwind? Sometimes he swore he could feel the human’s presence even now, with the human gone off to who knew what corner of the earth, and that was only to be expected given that they had spent so much time around one another. In times like those, he was glad that he had asked for a space to exist without Wu Xian in it, and yet he also missed his presence in the most contradictory way.

It made him glad that he was on his own for now, surrounded by the familiar and comforting presence of his family. At night, he would sleep among the tress with his brothers, and in the daytime, he followed them around the park. Xu Huai and Tian Hu taught him how to do their cover jobs of taking care of the daily maintenance of the park and running the facilities, and soon he could perform as a park groundskeeper with ease. They never spoke much—both his brothers were elfins of few words, after all, but he saw the sights they meant to show him all the same.

Although his hatred for humans still had yet to completely wane away, even he could not suppress the quiet satisfaction he felt upon seeing scores upon scores of average city dwellers coming into the park grounds, living their lives. Children chased after ducks and butterflies while their parents hovered close; joggers and bikers ran amidst the flower bushes; elderly couples with goodie bags were surrounded by pigeons and sparrows. Even animals found sanctuary here—stray cats napped in the sun on empty benches, and squirrels and birds chittered in the treetops.

Feng Xi also could not begrudge his kinsmen the use of the space. His park was the only stronghold of spiritual energy for many leagues around. As they made their rounds through the park, his brothers would quietly point out many of the regular elfin visitors who came for a reprieve from the city atmosphere. He never approached them, but he was certain that more than a few of them had glimpsed him here and there, and they would always around to try and catch a better look. This was Long You after all—even after twenty years, he was sure the locals will not have forgotten him.

His presence might not remain secret for that much longer, which brought him to one of his most pressing worries since he had returned: Luo Zhu.

The last time they saw each other, Luo Zhu had walked away from him in utter disappointment and fury after what he had done to Xiao Hei. He could not blame him – perhaps if he had been a couple of decades younger, he would have done the same. While time did heal wounds to an extent, he knew that it did not make them disappear, and while Xu Huai and Tian Hu would have most assuredly told Luo Zhu that he was alive again, he wondered if enough time had passed for his most sensitive brother to consider seeing him again.

“How has Luo Zhu been these days?” He asked Tian Hu one day while the two were out and about the park, cleaning off the various outdoor benches and tables. It had been nearly two weeks since he had come to his brothers’ doorstep. Although Tian hu rarely spoke, he would always give Feng Xi the answers he sought.

“He’s good,” Tian Hu answered, sweeping some trash into the dustpan with his broom. “He lives downtown now. With his girlfriend.”

“Luo Zhu has a girlfriend?” Feng Xi looked up at the news. The pleasant surprise lifted his heart just for a moment. “Who is it? How long have they been together now?”

Tian Hu shook his head once to indicate that Feng Xi might not know who it was, then added, “Ten years, maybe fifteen.”

“…Wow.” Feng Xi leaned back on his broom. He smiled. Luo Zhu had always been the warmest and most nurturing of their group. He deserved someone just as warm and open and caring as he was. While ten or fifteen years was not that long in the scope of an elfin’s lifespan, Feng Xi liked to think that he knew his brother well. He would not stay that long with someone if he were not devoted to them and felt that affection returned. He was truly happy for him.

Still smiling slightly, he thumped his dustpan once and hefted it toward the nearest trash bin. “Well, have you and Xu Huai been introduced already?” he asked, dusting off his gloves.

Tian Hu nodded once. “They sell flowers together. Downtown.”

“I see.” Feng Xi picked up his dustpan and broom, sweeping an eye over the now cleaned park area. His smile faded. Of course, he knew deep down that someone as radiant and good as his brother could not have stayed alone for long. Even before everything happened in Long You, he had been hoping that this day would come. And yet now that it was actually here, he felt somewhat forlorn. Luo Zhu had truly grown up now, and he was growing beyond what their little family of four could offer. It was both a joyous and somewhat sorrowful feeling.

Additionally, if Luo Zhu frequently had company now, it seemed that his desire to see his brother again would have to wait. He did not know who Luo Zhu’s chosen partner was. The last thing he wanted would be for his renewed presence in Luo Zhu’s life to disrupt the rhythm that he must have cultivated with his partner by now.

“…Let’s go back.” he gestured toward Tian Hu and turned around to leave.

**

“Something is bothering you.” Xu Huai said that evening. His calm blue eyes caught Feng Xi’s gaze and pinned him in place, leaving him no room for disagreement.

He tried anyways. “Nothing is bothering me,” he said, his voice steady enough that even he himself was almost convinced.

But Xu Huai had not watched him grow up all those years for nothing. “I know you’ve been thinking on many things,” he refuted gently, heedless of further protests from Feng Xi. “Tian Hu told me today that you’d asked him about Luo Zhu. I had already thought it was only a matter of time until the topic came up.”

Feng Xi shot a betrayed look in Tian Hu’s direction. The large tiger elfin did a remarkable job of feigning ignorance as he washed the dinner dishes in their tiny sink. “…I only wanted to know how he was doing,” he said, turning back to Xu Huai. “I’ve seen you all now, and I even feel almost settled in, but I should go to see him too. If he wants to, that is.”

“He does,” Tian Hu paused in his wiping of the dishes to intercede, casting a significant look at Xu Huai. Feng Xi’s eyes followed the direction of his look.

“Yes, he does.” Xu huai confirmed with a sigh. He suddenly looked quite weary. “I just told him around a day ago. He says he will take a day off this weekend to come here and see you. Is that alright with you? He made it clear that it’s your choice.”

“Luo Zhu is coming here?” Feng Xi raised his head. The news both surprised and alarmed him. “but what about his girlfriend? Shouldn’t I go see him instead since he has a partner now?”

“She will be fine.” Xu huai shook his head. “Both Tian Hu and I have met her several times by now. She has our full approval. Luo Zhu said he wanted to meet you alone first.”

“…Alright.” Feng Xi nodded. He swallowed down the lump of panic in his throat and tried not to think about the implications of Luo Zhu being willing to let Tian Hu and Xu Huai meet his chosen partner but not Feng Xi. It was difficult not to let his mind stray about how Luo Zhu was coming here instead of asking Feng Xi to go to the place where he now called home. Was it because…he didn’t trust Feng Xi anymore?

Feng Xi shook his head once, hard. He did not dare to dwell on such thoughts. For a moment, he almost considered asking Xu Huai what he knew of Luo Zhu’s attitude toward him now, but his fingers curled around the dinner table edge, and he refrained. One way or another, Luo Zhu had made the arrangements for them to meet again, on Luo Zhu’s terms, and Feng Xi would respect that to the best of his ability. Whatever his brother had to say to him, he would do his best to be ready for it.

Whether Luo Zhu wanted to scream at him, condemn him for his past actions, even tell him he would never call Feng Xi “brother” again, he would sit there silently and acknowledge it. He only hoped that he had enough courage through it all.

**

When Luo Zhu knocked on the small wooden door of the shack, Feng Xi was the one who opened the door. Even though Luo Zhu already knew that he was alive, he still paused for a long moment at the door, looking at Feng Xi, taking in his every detail. His eyes took on a sheen, but this Luo Zhu was no longer the Luo Zhu he had looked after as a child, and ultimately the tears did not fall. He simply swallowed once and gave a weak smile. “Feng Xi,” he greeted, his voice catching but refusing to break.

Feng Xi felt his heart swell. Luo Zhu had matured so much, and he was so proud. He swallowed his anxiety for now and welcomed his younger brother. “Well, come inside, it seems like we have a lot to catch up on.”

They started with the expected topics at first. Both Xu Huai and Tian Hu had gone out to handle their tasks for the day, so the two elfins were alone in the wooden hut. Feng Xi told Luo Zhu what he had told Xu Huai and Tian hu about his return to life, and Luo Zhu had listened with wide eyes. “Wu Xian was the one who brought you back?” he exclaimed when Feng Xi had finally finished his retelling. “The same Wu Xian we fought in Long You twenty years ago?”

“Unless you know of any other Wu Xians out there,” Feng Xi answered, brows furrowed slightly in confusion. There was an excitement in Luo Zhu’s demeanor that Feng Xi could not quite comprehend the origins for.

“No, I just think that fate has a funny way of unraveling itself sometimes,” Luo Zhu explained, still wearing his smile that outshone even sunflowers. “He was the one who brought you to that situation, and now he was also the one to bring you out of it. He was beating himself up about it for a long time, you know,” he added, his expression turning serious as he fixed his gaze on Feng Xi. “We actually had a talk about it a couple years ago. I still remember that now.”

“Oh, so that’s what it was.” Feng Xi blinked, comprehending. “He mentioned before that he had talked to you.”

“He did?” Luo Zhu raised his eyebrows. His smile returned full-force. “That’s wonderful! I would have never expected him to bring it up with his attitude back then. I think he would have taken it to the grave if I hadn’t asked him about it. As powerful as he is, he doesn’t seem to be very good at talking about things that are bothering him.”

“And you still haven’t changed that much.” Feng Xi smiled gently as he looked at his brother. Even though it had been twenty years, Luo Zhu still had the same soft heart that he had held since Feng Xi had first met him, caring about everything and everyone. “I’ve heard that you’ve been doing well for yourself though, even found yourself a partner! What are they like?”

“Oh! Well she…” Luo Zhu’s ears flushed red, but then he went on to talk about his partner with all the tender enthusiasm and joy that only those in love were capable of mustering. Feng Xi learned that Luo Zhu’s partner was a flower elfin named Zi Luolan, and that she ran a flower shop near the central part of Long You City. Luo Zhu had met her while he was finishing the terms of his parole, and he had spent many afternoons volunteering at her shop. “I was a parolee, but she never treated me any differently because of that,” Luo Zhu recalled, his voice soft as he sank into memories. “You had been gone for years at that point, and I was all alone in the city without Xu Huai and Tian Hu. She accepted me for who I was and made me feel like I had a home again.”

“I’m glad.” Feng Xi swallowed down a lump of emotions upon hearing Luo Zhu’s reminiscence. His younger brother had been the warmest and brightest of them all, and his heart ached imagining him alone and adrift in the middle of an uncaring city. “I’m really happy for you, little brother. I truly am,” he said.

Luo Zhu smiled. “You don’t have to say anything, Feng Xi. I know you would have wanted us to be happy. And I really am, despite everything. I still had Xu Huai and Tian Hu these years, and I have a wonderful partner, and Xiao Hei comes by to visit all the time. I really am happy.”

Xiao Hei. Feng Xi’s eyes widened upon the mention of the child’s name, and he lowered his gaze to stare at the table top instead of at Luo Zhu’s smiling face. A torrent of emotions blitzed through him, guilt and shame and even a hint of resentment, which was abruptly overwhelmed by more shame. Luo Zhu, being Luo Zhu, noticed his change immediately, and his voice faded. The conversation fell to an awkward silence.

Luo Zhu was the one who ended up breaking the silence after a long moment. He gave a small, almost helpless sigh. “I should’ve known that would still haunt you,” he said quietly. “That’s good. I would have been ashamed if you’ve forgotten.”

“I wouldn’t forget that,” Feng Xi said, clenching his jaw. He stared holes into the table before him, tracing every crack and blemish in the wood.

Another pause, then Luo Zhu sighed again. “Well, I’m glad you’re alive, Feng Xi, I really am, but some things can’t be forgotten once they’re done. I can’t pretend to not know what you’re capable of doing like I was before.”

“That’s as much as I expected.” Feng Xi closed his eyes, keeping his voice carefully neutral. “I didn’t expect any forgiveness from you.”

But Luo Zhu shook his head. “No, that’s not what I meant. My feelings on the subject hardly matter now. Only one person has the right to decide whether to forgive you for that or not for what you did, and that child has already chosen to forgive you.”

Feng Xi finally looked up at that. “What?” he asked blankly.

“I think you two need to talk,” Luo Zhu said simply. “That was one of the reasons I wanted to come see you as well. When I heard you were alive, my first thought was to be so, so happy that you were still here. My second thought right after that though was that you should talk with Xiao Hei. It’s been twenty years now, and I know that’s a blink of an eye for us elfins, but he’s not a child anymore. You’ll see what I mean.”

“I can’t—” Feng Xi recoiled at the thought. Twenty years—he did not even know what to picture in his head anymore when he thought of Xiao Hei. Of course the little elfin who had so trustingly fallen into his plans was not a little elfin anymore. Feng Xi would have no idea what to expect at such a meeting. Words failed him, and he settled for biting his lip, maintaining a stubborn silence.

Luo Zhu was the most perceptive to others’ emotions out of all of them. He sensed the unease that shrouded Feng Xi like a grim fog and relented. “You don’t have to do it immediately,” he said, his tone softening, “I just meant that its something you should do, now that you’re here and actually can. Your return was really a well-kept secret—I suppose you have Wu Xian to thank for that, but it’s not going to be kept secret for long now that you’re back. The rest of the elfin world will hear about it soon enough. Imagine what Xiao Hei will think once he knows that you’re back and you haven’t even tried to reach out to him. I don’t want you to hurt him anymore.”

Feng Xi’s heart twisted. How Xiao Hei might feel should Luo Zhu’s words come to pass…he did not even want to imagine it. “I’ll think about it,” he promised Luo Zhu. “I’ll definitely have a talk with him soon. Just…give me a little time.”

“Okay! I can do that.” Luo Zhu’s face lit up immediately. He knew that his brother’s word was never given lightly. Suddenly, his eyes sparkled as an even better idea seemed to occurr to him. “Hey Feng Xi, since you’re going to try to talk to Xiao Hei sometime, why don’t you come back with me to Zi Luolan’s flower shop today? Xiao Hei comes by to see us a lot, and we can find a time for you both to meet there. It might be nice if both of you are in a familiar environment when you first see each other again.”

“You…want me to come meet your girlfriend? Right now?” Feng Xi just could not seem to keep pace of his brother’s thinking today. “Isn’t that a bit sudden? And besides, I’m—"

“—That’s alright, Zi Luolan is wonderful! She wouldn’t mind, and I think you’ll like her. Besides,” Luo Zhu gave Feng Xi a reassuring smile. His beaming expression lit up the whole room. “Of course I want you to meet my partner as soon as possible. You’re still my big brother despite everything.”

Feng Xi’s heart, which had been suspended in his throat since Luo Zhu had reopened the subject on Xiao Hei, suddenly seemed to drop back where it belonged, where it settled down gratefully. He turned away from his younger brother so he could surreptitiously swipe a hand at his eyes. “It’s my greatest honor to be your brother,” he said swallowing hard. “I won’t do anything to shame that title ever again.”

“Oh, Feng Xi….” A warm hand fell on his shoulder, and Luo Zhu’s voice was suddenly coming from beside him instead of from across the table. His younger brother must have already gotten up while Feng Xi was turning away. “I can’t forget what you did, but I also am so, so glad that you are back here now. You really hurt someone, and he really should have died, but he did not. And now you are alive again too.”

Feng Xi took a deep, shuddering breath. He said nothing, but the slight tension in his shoulder told Luo Zhu that he was still listening.

“Not everyone gets a second chance at things,” Luo Zhu’s voice, measured yet still gentle, drifted into his ears. “You always seemed to carry so much on your own back then. You never told me but I could sense it, and even though Xu Huai knew all your plans, you never told him how deeply you felt about everything, didn’t you? But we’re always here for you. Let us help you more this time, alright?”

“I…” Feng Xi hesitated. For a terrifying moment, his old habits threatened to resurface. He wanted to clam up, to reject his brother’s extended olive branch and keep all his fears and weaknesses hidden deep inside, just as he used to do, even with his family. But for some reason, a certain human’s calm, yet earnest expression surfaced in his mind.

"All of us will help you if you’ll let us. The world may have shown before that it does not care for you, but you family still does. Xiao Hei too, and...as do I.”

He sighed deeply, and the walls around his heart crumbled away. “…Alright.” He placed his own hand over his brother’s, letting the warmth melt away that last of his cold, indifferent front. He felt Luo Zhu’s smile without even having to turn to see it, and his own mouth seemed to quirk upwards without any prompting.

It did not quite feel like being reborn again, but it did feel…nice.

**

Zi Luolan’s flower shop was a five-minute train ride from the park. The shop was tucked into a street side front in what seemed to be a residential building, and hidden bells jingled whenever the front doors were opened. Zi Luolan was just as Luo Zhu had described her, and once again, Feng Xi could not help but feel sincerely happy that his brother had been able to find such a good match in her. She had greeted Feng Xi with genuine warmth and cheer in her voice, and even though she had been a Long You resident already when everything happened twenty years ago, she had never once asked Feng Xi about his role in the whole incident, nor did she give him any questioning or judging stares when she thought he was not looking. It was a part of her character that Feng Xi was immensely grateful for.

The flower shop was small but busy. Even with two wood-natured elfins working there full-time, there was still a steady stream of work. Feng Xi and Zi Luolan were only able to talk in brief snatches that day before she would be called away to assist her customers, who contacted her in person, by phone, and even by computer.

“How did you end up in Long You City?” he asked Zi Luolan once when she had just finished wrapping up an order. Feng Xi felt a tad sheepish asking her questions while she was still at work, but Zi Luolan did not seem the least bit annoyed.

“Oh! That was just a few decades ago, I actually have not been in the city for that long.” The flower elfin smiled and set the wrapped bouquet on the table for pick up orders. “Master Wu Xian from the Guild had saved me!”

“Wu Xian saved you?” Feng Xi echoed. His heart stumbled at the name.

“Yes! He found me after my home had been destroyed and asked the Long You Guild to take care of me. So I’ve been here ever since,” Zi Luolan replied, her expression softening as she continued. “Master Wu Xian is very kind. He was the one who escorted Luo Zhu here to my shop for his parole community service hours, and he would still say hi whenever he was in the area, even though he didn’t need to. That’s how I got to know Xiao Hei too.”

Twenty years ago, Feng Xi would have scoffed upon hearing such testimonies of Wu Xian or of any Guild executor. He would have dismissed it as a tainted kindness, saving lost elfins only to force them to hide away in human society, forever dependent on the Guild’s assistance and bound by its rules. But this was not twenty years ago—both he and the world around him had changed. Now he simply replied, “Yes, that sounds like something he’d do,” and hid a smile.

At the end of that day, Zi Luolan asked him if he would like to visit more often to talk, and perhaps even help around the shop should he wish to. “Luo Zhu told me already that you would like to see Xiao Hei, and we can definitely make that happen. But if you want to spend more time in the city and see what the world is like, we certainly won’t mind!”

Feng Xi shot Luo Zhu a look. He had already gotten the impression from today that Zi Luolan was earnest and kind, but such an invitation had his brother’s name written all over it. Luo Zhu caught his eye and smiled innocently. “We’d love for you to get out the house more and see us,” he added cheekily, and Feng Xi felt himself deflate.

This was a battle he would not win. “Fine,” he said, and when Luo Zhu and Zi Luolan shot matching beaming expressions his way, he could not even find it within himself to feel mad.

And so, Feng Xi went to Zi Luolan and Luo Zhu’s flower shop once every few days to help out. The work was simple enough to learn, and his brother and Zi Luolan were good company. From them, he learned that the elfin population that lived in Long You had more than doubled in these two short decades, and that many of them, especially the newer ones, came to Zi Luolan to help them get settled in. While many elfins had come due to their natural homes being destroyed, there were others who had come willingly as well. He also learned that in the recent years after Long You, the Guild had been increasing its support for reforestation efforts and campaigns against urban sprawl.*

So it seemed that the changes Wu Xian had described to him were true, but what happened in Long You had also taught him an unforgettable lesson in patience. While sweeping changes could come through, those changes most often necessitated a steady build-up. A build-up that he would be there for this time.

“When is Xiao Hei going to be in town?” he asked Luo Zhu one day a few weeks after he had first started helping at the shop.

Luo Zhu shrugged. “He has his own missions now, but he usually comes by every month or two, so it should be soon. I’ve been sending him letters through the Guild, so he should be able to get those as soon as he comes back from wherever he’s working. Don’t worry though, once he comes I will let you know!”

It was all Feng Xi could do to continue waiting, until one day, when he was about to leave the shop to board the train back to the park, Luo Zhu sheepishly popped his head into the back workshop where he usually worked.

“Hey Feng Xi, I just got a reply from Xiao Hei! He’ll be back in Long You tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

The day of Xiao Hei’s return to Long You, Feng Xi found himself awkwardly sequestered in the back room of Luo Zhu and Zi Luolan’s flower shop. Both elfins had insisted that was where they usually talked with Xiao Hei. Feng Xi himself was much less sure. It was a fine enough place to do spare work around the shop—he stayed there most of the time when he was helping out, but the space was separated from the main body of the shop with only a thin floral-patterned curtain. It felt too…exposed.

 

The morning was surprisingly not busy for once, a small blessing as he waited with increasing anxiety for Luo Zhu or Zi Luolan to return with news. Only some uncut flowers, half-wrapped orders, and the lone worktable and two chairs kept him company. He could hear the rhythmic whirring of the mechanical fan in the front of the shop, and he counted each whirl in an attempt to distract himself: one, two, three… fifty-six….

 

Feng Xi stood up with a clatter and swept out of the back room. He had to get outside beyond the curtain—not being able to see or anticipate anything was near driving him mad, and he ended up leaning against the wall right by the room entrance, with his arms crossed and shoes tapping an anxious rhythm on the ground.

 

That was how Luo Zhu found him some minutes later. “Feng Xi!” he exclaimed, surprised to see his elder brother outside the room. Thankfully, Luo Zhu’s natural tact prevented him from asking any questions. “Xiao Hei’s right outside the shop,” he said instead.

 

“Right.” Feng Xi nodded. He forced his arms to unwind as he walked through the aisles of flowers that led to the front entrance of the shop, carefully measuring his breaths as he did so. The door appeared before him and he mechanically pushed it open. The door chimes rang even as the sunlight outside forced him to squint, if only just for a moment.

 

“…Hi.” A still young, yet notably clear and firm voice greeted him. He blinked the sun out of his eyes and turned, and his throat closed up at the sight.

 

In some ways, Xiao Hei was still the same little elfin that he had picked up off the streets all those years ago. He could see it in the scruffiness of his hair, in the perpetual inquisitive glint that lit up his big green eyes, but he could also tell that the child had clearly matured from the one he had known. He had grown up the way any well-nourished little sapling would—tall and proud and brimming with life and energy, and he sported bell-bottomed loose pants and metal armbands just like his shifu. His dark top though, very much resembled the shirt that Feng Xi was currently wearing, and his heart lurched at the similarity.

 

What stood out most of all though, was still Xiao Hei’s shock of snowy white hair. Feng Xi bit down, hard, on his lip, and a dull pain blossomed immediately. He had already seen Xiao Hei’s hair before—he was the one responsible, after all—but his heart still squeezed in on itself, and he had to turn his eyes away. He had no right to start feeling guilty about it now.

 

His voice felt trapped in his chest. Much to his alarm, when he finally managed to speak, it came out sounding like a croak. “Xiao Hei, I….”

 

He didn’t know where to even begin, so he was relieved when Xiao Hei spoke up instead. “…Are you alright?” the child who was now a bright youth asked. The hesitation in his voice was plain. It reminded Feng Xi of when Xiao Hei’s defiant, yet brittle little tone when he had just met him, a tone from being on edge and distrustful for too long, snatching at the offer dangling before him with equal parts desperation and anxiety.

 

It was enough to remind him what he was here for. “I’m alright,” he said, straightening and managing to meet Xiao Hei’s gaze for the first time. He saw only clear and unmasked concern for him in those eyes, and the guilt cut deep even as he felt ludicrously proud. He carried so much guilt that it felt like there was nothing but guilt sometimes, and yet that pride also sat heavy in his chest, to know that Xiao Hei had refused to be defined by the pain he had caused him, had still managed to retain a core of his pure spirit. Perhaps this was how a deeply estranged father would feel, meeting his child after a long separation. “Do you want to come inside to talk?” he asked the other elfin.

 

But Xiao Hei shook his head. “No, I was actually going to ask if you’d be okay talking in Feng Xi park—er, I mean, at your park instead. I love Luo Zhu and Zi Luolan, but the inside of their shop is a bit crowded sometimes, and I know they’re both busy.”

 

“Oh.” Feng Xi glanced back inside the shop. He had never been able to quite imagine the two of them having a quiet heartfelt conversation in the back room either, with his brother and his partner still busy running affairs. “That’s fine, I’ll let them know then.”

 

“It’s okay, I already told Luo Zhu that I might want to do this somewhere else,” Xiao Hei said, stopping Feng Xi just as he was about to turn and head back inside the shop. “He’ll know if we just don’t go back inside for a while. Unless, erm…you want to say bye?” he glanced at Feng Xi as he said this, leaving the final decision to him.

 

Feng Xi’s heart warmed at the youngster’s consideration for him. “No, it’s fine. We can go now.” He turned and began walking in the direction he knew to be the train station, glancing back once to be sure that Xiao Hei was following him.

 

“Hey, wait for me!” the young elfin exclaimed, running a few steps to catch up. The ends of Feng Xi’s mouth quirked up into a smile at the sight. It was a small smile, but it was one that had been reserved for his brothers. His nerves about the upcoming conversation did not fade, but they did ease, if only slightly. It was just enough for him to continue walking forward.

 

 

**

 

 

“Shifu wanted to come when I told him about it, but I told him not to.” Xiao Hei shrugged. He plopped himself down on one of the empty park bench in a cross-legged position, patting the space next to him in wordless invitation. “I think he was a little worried, but I really wanted to have a proper talk with you, and I can’t do that when he’s hovering around.”

 

Feng Xi sat down. Now that they were here, his anxiety was beginning to kick in again. “Of course he would be worried about you coming to see me,” he managed to reply, swallowing once. Wu Xian was a responsible caretaker—and any responsible caretaker would be seriously concerned about his child coming to talk with someone who had injured him so grievously before. His stomach sank at the implications of that thought, and he turned to Xiao Hei instead. “Well, we’re here now. What would you like to talk about?”

 

“Well, I would ask why you did what you did, but I don’t think it helps me or you to talk about that now,” Xiao Hei began carefully. “If you really want to know what I want out of this, I guess uh…I guess I just want to tell you some things.” He ducked his head and laughed, a little sheepish. “Sorry, that’s not a great answer.”

 

“No, you never have to apologize to me.” Feng Xi shook his head. “Go on then,” he said, to show Xiao Hei that he was listening.

 

“Hmm…” Xiao Hei sank into contemplative silence, chewing his lip as he obviously contemplated how he should start. He began swinging his legs from the park bench as if he was a child again, not the handsome youth he had grown to become. “I guess I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, about why you did what you did,” he finally said, “and in the end I just couldn’t really figure it out. I lost my home too, so I could kinda understand you, but I felt like you also hated a bunch of things back then. And a lot of people.”

 

“I did,” Feng Xi acknowledged. He propped his chin on his palms and stared at the ground as he spoke. There was little point in denial.

 

“I don’t think I’ll ever get why you hated so strongly,” Xiao Hei said after a moment. The young elfin was careful to avoid looking at Feng Xi as he continued, giving the elder space should he need it, and Feng Xi was ridiculously grateful for it. “I think I’m lucky that I didn’t learn to hate that way, because I met Shifu and then my friends. They taught me that people could be very good too. But I also couldn’t make myself hate you either, for feeling like that.”

 

“You would have been well within your rights to,” Feng Xi said quietly. He was still staring at the ground.

 

“I guess. But I couldn’t make myself think of you as someone totally bad either. You’re not like the villains in the movies.” Beside him, he heard Xiao Hei take a small breath. “You…you were doing what you thought was right too, just like I was when I followed Shifu into the domain. I guess it just, hurt though, back then, because I realized that even though you cared about me, getting back home would always be the biggest and most important thing to you. And I knew you’d always choose that, even if it meant giving me up forever.”

 

Feng Xi‘s shoulders tensed. Words died in his throat. His actions twenty years ago had already drawn his lines in the sand, so he made no attempts to try to defend himself now, or to persuade Xiao Hei otherwise. He only sat in silent acceptance of the youth’s words. On the edge of his vision, he saw that Xiao Hei had turned his head away as well. They both sat in the quiet like that for a while, gazing toward the heart of the park where Feng Xi’s tree grew.

 

The tree was unaware of its significance to the two elfins seated at a park bench not too far away. It merely stood silent in the early afternoon sun, quietly, magnificently flourishing. The time of day was popular with park visitors, and the tree was already surrounded by enough activity, from families with children to students studying under the shade. Even in their human forms though, Feng Xi’s long purple hair combined with Xiao Hei’s sharp green eyes and fluffy black ears still made them stand out like cranes in a chicken coop. Several park visitors shot them curious looks as they passed by, with some looks more piercing than others.

 

“Master Xiao Hei,” a young woman in a cardigan acknowledged in an undertone as she passed by their bench. She shot Feng Xi a complex look, hesitated, and ultimately walked away without a word. Some other elfin residents who came through the park chose not to even approach, simply nodding at Xiao Hei and casting doubtful, at times hostile looks toward Feng Xi from afar.

 

Xiao Hei’s ears visibly drooped on his head, and his green eyes dimmed. “Sorry,” he said in a small voice, “I was hoping that kind of stuff wouldn’t happen today.”

 

“It’s alright. You have nothing to do with this.” Feng Xi shrugged. His expression had not changed at all. “I’d expected that more than some of the elfins here would remember and hate me for what happened here. Your shifu already told me that the Guild put heavy emphasis on the events of Long You, so the news was bound to have spread. Those elfins have every right to despise me for what I did to you.”

 

“Still, that doesn’t mean it makes me happy to see them acting like that to you,” Xiao Hei muttered, his ears flicking on his head.

 

“You’re a one-of-a-kind child, Xiao Hei. Not everyone can be as forgiving as you.” Feng Xi replied gently. “Don’t worry about it too much. Besides, it’s my first time being truly out and about in public since I’ve come back. Of course that’s bound to attract some attention.”

 

“Wait, you’ve never been outside since Shifu brought you back?” Xiao Hei turned toward him, his green eyes wide. Unlike Wu Xian’s deep green gaze which made Feng Xi’s heart dance, Xiao Hei’s eyes were clear and bright, the emotions in them pure and easy to read. Even in his twenties, he was still quite young for an elfin after all.

 

“Oh, I’ve been outside plenty,” Feng Xi reassured quickly, “but usually I was dressed as a park groundskeeper like Xu Huai and Tian Hu, or I was helping out in the back of Luo Zhu’s flower shop. So there wasn’t really an occasion for other elfins in the city to see me.”

 

“Oh. Phew.” Xiao Hei relaxed back onto the bench.

 

“I’m honestly surprised I’m not getting much worse than just a few looks and whispers,” Feng Xi remarked, leaning back on the bench. He smiled faintly. “I have you to thank for that. Wu Xian told me very early on that you had become his disciple, but now I can see just how much you’ve accomplished. The elfins around here all know you and trust your judgment—I’m sure that you being here is why they’re treating me even half this well.”

 

“Oh no,” Xiao Hei ducked his head. “I really haven’t done that much. I just went to the Guild building a lot because of missions and got to know a lot of the elfins in the city that way. A lot of them go over to Luo Zhu and Zi Luolan’s shop actually, and those two have helped me a lot with things. Besides….”

 

Xiao Hei stilled, as if contemplating whether he should say something. After a moment, his face turned resolute. “A lot of these elfins aren’t bad,” he said in a smaller voice, “I know they don’t seem the friendliest right now, but a lot of them actually fought with the Guild about keeping your tree. Shifu told me the human government here wanted to remove it at first so they could rebuild the finance district, but these elfins refused to let the Guild give up on it, even though they really didn’t like what you tried to do. No one thought you deserved to have the last thing that was yours to be taken away too.”

 

Feng Xi hummed in surprise. “That’s more care from them than I thought I would get, considering what happened.”

 

“A lot of elfins here were born in the original Long You forest. I was lucky because I found a new home with Shifu, but I know a lot of these elfins had hard times too. So I think they know how you felt, like how I kind of did.” Xiao Hei met Feng Xi’s eyes as he said this, his expression earnest and serious. In that moment, Feng Xi was struck by just how much he really resembled Wu Xian in his mannerisms. As if he really was that man’s child.

 

“…You’ve grown so much now,” he remarked at last, the corners of his eyes prickling slightly. He blamed it on the beautiful afternoon sun that was spilling down all around them, blinding him. “I’m…really glad. You’ll never be tricked or hurt by the likes of me anymore.”

 

Xiao Hei seemed taken aback, but he recovered swiftly and smiled brilliantly at Feng Xi. “No I won’t be! But that’s because you’re not going to hurt me anymore.”

 

Feng Xi blinked several times, hard. “How can you be sure of that?” he managed.

 

“Because I’m strong now, just like you said. And that means I’m strong enough to trust in others and believe in them.” Xiao Hei’s eyes seemed to glow as he spoke. Confidence and trust that Feng Xi knew he did not deserve shimmered in the young elfin’s pupils like stars. “Shifu always told me to think for myself, and more and more I’m thinking that there’s no one in the world who’s truly completely bad. There’s a lot of people who are very angry and hurt, and they’ll try to make other people angry and hurt because of that. Or,” he looked at Feng Xi significantly, “they try to do what they think is right but everything goes wrong.”

 

The older elfin could not look away as Xiao Hei continued. “Maybe some people won’t ever find their way out,” the young elfin said, voice firm, “but I believe that with enough patience and love, a lot more people would be willing to try.”

 

Feng Xi stared at the young elfin before him in hushed wonder. His heart was warm and full to bursting, as if awash in the lovely afternoon sun. Truly, if nothing else had made him feel that the years had passed and things have changed, listening to this former child speak had awoken him like nothing else. There were changes over these twenty years, Wu Xian was different, and now him, and now Xiao Hei, but truly—not all changes were bad. Some could be wonderful, even miraculous.

 

“Xiao Hei…” he murmured, his eyes fixed upon the young elfin before him, “I know I have no right to say this, but you should know that I am so proud of you.” Even though he had only raised this child for a little less than a day. Even though they have made completely different choices from each other. He did not say those things out loud, but he felt them deeply, pressing on his heart like an invisible weight, leaving marks. He was proud of him like he would be of his own son, he realized with a jolt.

 

Xiao Hei though, seemed to have understood everything, even the parts he had not said out loud. “All thanks to Shifu showing me the way, and my friends for keeping me on the right path. But you helped me too, Feng Xi. If you hadn’t picked me up off the street that day…even if it was all part of your plan, I’m still grateful to you. If you just wanted to use my powers, you didn’t need to have gone to nearly such lengths to take care of me. I could tell that the care you showed me was real. I’ve always thought of Shifu as my dad, since he basically is, I mean, but…I’ve always thought of you that way too.” He ducked his head away from Feng Xi after he said this, and his hands curled tight over his knees.

 

Feng Xi’s world came to a pause. Sunbeams hovered all around him, suspended midair, and all the colors seemed to oversaturate, brilliant hues spilling over like paint poured on a canvas. His heart thundered in his ears. “Really?” He swallowed hard. “Even after everything…after everything I’ve done, you mean that?”

 

“Uh huh.” Xiao Hei looked up earnestly, heart in his eyes. “Yeah, I really mean it. I promise.”

 

I promise. Feng Xi had been so deeply mistrustful of promises, having made and broken more than his share—but now, his heart was thrumming like it might burst. In that moment, all his worries and fears had simply melted away. From leaving Wu Xian’s spirit realm until now, he had never felt as firmly rooted in this world as he had then. “I’m…beyond honored,” he finally choked out, smiling so hard that he thought he might have pulled a muscle.

 

He would never feel worthy of Xiao Hei’s full confidence and trust—yet here Xiao Hei was, telling him that he had those things anyways. That this wonderful, amazing youth thought of Feng Xi, of all elfins, as one of his fathers. I will never let him down again, he swore to himself silently, putting his hand over his heart.

 

And if he surreptitiously swiped his sleeve across his eyes a few times after that, and if Xiao Hei had discreetly turned away so he could pretend not to see, well. No one had to know.

 

**

 

Xiao Hei and Feng Xi stayed in the park for nearly another hour after that, with Xiao Hei eagerly updating the elder elfin on the things he had seen and learned over the last twenty years. That amount of time was not nearly enough for Feng Xi to hear everything that Xiao Hei wanted to tell him, but Xiao Hei was still a young elfin after all, and he burned energy quickly.

 

“We should go eat Feng Xi!” The young elfin’s eyes fairly sparkled at the mention of food. “We should go to this fried chicken restaurant! Shifu and I used to go a lot before I started taking missions by myself and it’s really really good. You’ll like it!”

 

“I’m afraid I don’t have any money, Xiao Hei,” Feng Xi said with the slightest hint of sheepishness. “Luo Zhu and Xu Huai had offered many times for the work I help them with, but I’ve never accepted. They’re my family, and besides,” he added, his voice dropping, “I don’t really know how much longer I’m going to stay here amid human society.”

 

“You’re not gonna stay in Long You?” Xiao Hei’s expression drooped immediately. It was an unfairly effective look combined with his big, sad green cat eyes.

 

“Oh, I’m still going to stay in the Long You area,” he clarified quickly, “it’s just that….” He paused here, biting his lip as he wondered how to best put his feelings into words. “It’s just that, I’ve spent most of my time in the years before Long You on Li Island, far away from large human populations,” he began slowly. “All the human presence around in this city…I can’t say I’m too fond of it. I look at it all and think about what it should have been and it reminds me too much. And even though I know it won’t solve anything, I get angry. I don’t want to hurt anymore, but at least for now, I don’t know if I can stay here in the city indefinitely and be at peace with myself,” he admitted quietly.

 

“You need to get away for a while,” Xiao Hei summarized. He looked down, his eyebrows furrowing as if he were thinking hard about what to say. “You should do what’s best for you, I mean,” he said at last, “I don’t want you to stay in the city and feel angry all over again, but…um, I’ll be sad that you’re going.” The young elfin would not meet Feng Xi’s eyes as he said this. “I just, um…was kinda hoping you’d stay around and that I’d see you more. Eheheh.”

 

Feng Xi’s heart gave a pang. “I never said I wasn’t coming back,” he said, turning around to look at Xiao Hei. “I do think I need some time to figure myself out now that I’m back in the real world, but I don’t want to throw everyone important to me to the wayside again. You…you called me your dad, Xiao Hei, I’m not going to forget that anytime soon.” He swallowed once, hard, before forging ahead with his promise. “I’ll come back to this city to see you whenever you’re here, the rest of my family too.”

 

“…I’d like that a lot,” Xiao Hei said after a moment. “I’ll still miss being able to see you around here, but I think I kind of get it. I didn’t get used to being with Shifu immediately either after he brought me to the human world. It was still kind of a lot to take in.”

 

Now it was Feng Xi’s turn to look down. He knew he didn’t deserve all of the youngster’s empathy and understanding. “You’re too kind, Xiao Hei,” he said quietly.

 

“It makes the world better,” Xiao Hei replied, his voice bright. Feng Xi looked up to see that the young elfin’s original smile had returned, along with the excited gleam in his eyes. “Besides, I’m in town for a while, so now I’m gonna guilt you to hang out with me! Which means now you have to go to the fried chicken place I was talking about earlier, I have enough pocket money saved up from Guild stuff so we can get food, and it’ll still be great.”

 

“Alright, alright, I’ll go.” Xiao Hei’s exuberance was infectious, and Feng Xi could not help smiling back. He would just have to make himself worthy of the Xiao Hei’s kindness, he thought as he fell into step with the young elfin, who was leading the way out of the park. Besides, he thought, remembering the little plastic take-out containers that Wu Xian often brought into the spirit realm, he did like fried chicken.

 

 

The fried chicken shop turned out to be a sleek, modern building with the face of a bearded man wearing glasses. “I’d like to go to ‘Kentucky’ someday to see what the original is like,” Xiao Hei commented cheerfully as they walked through the door. “But the ones here are already really good, so I can’t really say anything!”*

 

Feng Xi smiled at Xiao Hei’s enthusiasm. “Well, what do you usually get?”

 

“That combo!” Xiao Hei pointed at the menu item that displayed a collection of fried chicken drumettes next to the name. “That was what I got when I first came here too, did you know that way back I couldn’t even read this menu? I used to always get that one because it had the big picture and I didn’t know how to read, so now it’s funny to think about!”

 

Feng Xi did not think that piece of news was nearly as funny as Xiao Hei had put it. “You didn’t know how to read? For how long?” he demanded.

 

“Oh, a few years after I stayed with Shifu.”

 

“….” Feng Xi made a mental note to have words with Wu Xian the next time he saw him. “Who finally taught you?”

 

“I started going to school with my friends a couple of years ago,” Xiao Hei explained, smiling as he got in line. He gestured for Feng Xi to join him, and so he did.

 

“Who are your friends?” This was not the first time Xiao Hei had brought up his friends, and now Feng Xi was genuinely curious.

 

“Agen, Grandpa, Shan Xin, and Xiao Bai! Agen is Xiao Bai’s older brother, but he’s an elfin too. Grandpa is a human, he’s really healthy and living up in the mountains, but he’s very old now so we go visit a lot. Shan Xin is a good friend from school and she’s really good at video games. And Xiao Bai—she’s the greatest. She’s an ecology graduate student right now and she wants to do conservation work. It's convenient for her to go help Grandpa too because she can do fieldwork too while she’s there. She’s really close with this little critter called Bidiu, even though he’s kinda huge now, and she loves fire-y things. She sets off the fireworks every year for New Years and loves it.”

 

“You’re really close with this Xiao Bai, aren’t you?” Feng Xi noted. He did not miss how Xiao Hei’s entire expression had lit up upon mentioning Xiao Bai’s name. He obviously loved all of the friends that he was currently telling Feng Xi about, but when he spoke of Xiao Bai, his green eyes were even brighter, shining with all of his unreserved joy and admiration. The sight made Feng Xi smile.

 

“Er uh, yeah haha. We’re close. You’ll meet her someday,” Xiao Hei answered. Feng Xi did not miss the bashfulness that slipped through the young elfin’s tone though, and if he was interested before, now he was intrigued.

 

“Oh? Well tell me more,” he prompted, ginning even as he lowered his voice conspiratorially, “Her name sounds quite a bit similar to yours doesn’t it? Just how close are you two?”

 

“We’re uh, we’re close,” Xiao Hei stammered slightly, turning away from Feng Xi’s suddenly all-too-knowing gaze. Luckily for him, at that moment, they came to the front of the food line. “Er, just a sec.”

 

Feng Xi stood aside and watched as Xiao Hei placed both of their orders. He had the courtesy to wait until Xiao Hei had come around to the side of the counter to wait for their food before prompting, “Well?”

 

“Ehe.” Xiao Hei refused to meet his eyes. He scuffed at the tile floor with one shoe as he answered, slowly, “Uh, she found me one day when I got separated from Shifu on a mission and took me in. We’ve been friends ever since.”

 

“Oh? Just friends?” Feng Xi smiled blatantly at Xiao Hei, who had noticeably colored upon the all-too-innocent question. His big eyes darted every which way, as if looking for an escape route when he knew there was none to be found. He looked exactly like a cat trapped in a large cardboard box.

 

“Yeah, we’re just friends,” he answered with little confidence.

 

“Alright then,” Feng Xi accepted, taking pity on the flustered Xiao Hei. But he could not quite resist one last teasing comment. “Maybe you should let me meet her someday,” he chuckled, amused as Xiao Hei squeaked out a “yeah sure!” before practically fleeing to retrieve their prepared orders.

 

There was still some sunlight left in the day, and Xiao Hei had ordered to-go versions of their fried chicken so they could eat on their way back to the park.

 

“Well, now you should tell me what happened!” Xiao Hei said, munching on a wing as he walked, his eyes searching for an empty park table. Upon locating one, he skipped over and propped himself down on the seat. “I can’t believe Shifu didn’t even tell me that you’re alive at first. When he finally told me what happened I was actually really mad at him for a while.”

 

“It wasn’t his fault,” Feng Xi said automatically. He walked over and say down on the empty seat next to Xiao Hei. “I was the one who asked him not to, and he agreed.”

 

“Why not?” Xiao Hei’s curious gaze fell upon him full force, and Feng Xi’s mind raced as he wondered how much detail he should tell the young elfin.

 

“It was a difficult time,” he finally settled on saying. “I was stuck in his spirit realm and neither of us were sure how exactly it happened or what exactly should be done. That and…I was not feeling well for quite a long time. I still feel not quite well even now.”

 

“You’re sick?” Xiao Hei gasped, putting down his drumstick. “Do you feel ok right now? Oh my gosh, why didn’t Shifu tell me—do you need a doctor?”

 

Feng Xi smiled despite himself. “It’s not that kind of ‘unwell,’ Xiao Hei. Don’t worry. I meant…more like I was not thinking quite right. Sad, I suppose. I didn’t quite know why I had come back, or what I was supposed to do.”

 

“Oh….” Xiao Hei looked down at his near-devoured meal, then glanced over at Feng Xi, who had yet to open his takeout box. His expression turned morose. “Like you were lost,” he said quietly, his fingers curling around the edge of the table.

 

“Yeah.” Feng Xi nodded. ‘Lost’ was an adequate word to encompass it all. All the pain and fury that he was sure still smoldered somewhere within him, all the caustic bitterness that he had poured out onto Wu Xian while he was still pacing within his spirit realm. Even though Xiao Hei had already matured significantly over these years, he still wanted to spare the child those kinds of details. “I needed some time to myself to figure things out,” he finished simply.

 

Xiao Hei seemed to accept this answer. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, his big green eyes full of empathy. He knew what it was like to feel lost and alone, even if his understanding was not quite aligned with what Feng Xi was thinking of.

 

“It’s alright. This is probably another reason why I was thinking of leaving the city and exploring around Long You instead, even though I certainly feel better than I did when I first woke up anyhow.” Feng Xi smiled gently at Xiao Hei in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. He cracked open the takeout box, more to have something to do with his hands than out of actual hunger. “You know, your shifu used to bring this kind of fast food into the spirit realm all the time. I had more than my fair share of fried chicken wings while I was in there,” he remarked, taking out a crisp wing.

 

Fortunately, Xiao Hei was successfully drawn away from the previous topic by Feng Xi’s diversion. Unfortunately, the topic that they had diverted to was Wu Xian. “When do you think you’re going to see Shifu again?” the young elfin asked, green eyes bright.

 

Feng Xi’s heart swooped at the prospect. Having been reunited with his brothers just a few weeks ago, he had not really stopped to think about Wu Xian for some time now. But those thoughts and memories of the human had never been far away, and now they flooded through his mind, waves of images that made his heart dance. The real question was—was he ready to embrace his own tumultuous, fragmented self and meet Wu Xian again in the real world?

 

He forced his heartbeat to level before replying to Xiao Hei. “Eventually I think I will, but I’m not quite sure when,” he said slowly, deliberating over each word as he answered. “Your Shifu told me things have changed, but I would still like to see that for myself and make my own decisions now that I’m assured that you and the rest of my family are doing well. So it may not be for a long time.”

 

 

“Oh.” Xiao Hei blinked once. Even though he did not quite pick up on the reasoning behind it, he was still able to sense Feng Xi’s hesitation. “If you think you might want help, Shifu will definitely help,” he said thoughtfully. “He helped me find a home when I was lost, and he was with me the whole way. I think it really helps to have someone with you when you feel like that.”

 

“No, He’s already helped me a lot.” Feng Xi shook his head. “When I was in his spirit realm, I took up a lot of his time. He must have a lot of other things he needs to do too. I would hate to make him do more.”

 

But Xiao Hei was ready with a counter. “I think Shifu would want to do it. You’re not making him do anything. He probably won’t want me to tell you this,” he added, lowering his voice, “but I think Shifu was sad for a long time after Long You. He never said anything to me, but I could kind of tell. So when you feel more ready…I think it’d be good for you and him to really have a good talk. No rush I mean! But, I think it would be good for both of you.” He pinned his large, earnest green eyes on Feng Xi as he finished his sentence. 

 

Feng Xi stared down at the uneaten box of fried chicken in his hands. He remembered how Wu Xian had come into his spirit realm that time, after he had just revealed to Feng Xi what he truly thought about the events of Long You. I would have asked for you to live. He remembered the man’s tentative, careful silence as he entered the realm, offering up the box of chicken to him as a peace offering. Remembered how some days after he had told the human to leave for good, he had come back again anyways, armed with nothing but patience and kindness in the full face of Feng Xi’s rage and pain.

 

“I do want to talk with him again at some point,” he heard himself admit. Then, in an even smaller voice, “Do you…think he actually would come? If I asked to talk?”

 

Xiao Hei’s answer was immediate. “I’m sure of it.”

 

“…Alright. I’ll think about it.” He tried to smile at Xiao Hei and was surprised by how genuine the expression was, as if some long-held weight in his heart had finally dropped to the ground. “Thanks, Xiao Hei. I don’t think I’m ready for that yet, but I will be sure to tell him when I am.”

 

He still could not bring himself to accept Xiao Hei’s reassurances—not quite yet. But he’s starting to believe that he could someday. Maybe even someday soon.

Chapter Text

Around a month after his initial talk with Xiao Hei, Feng Xi set out for the outer bounds of the Long You City zone, stopping to wish Luo Zhu and Xiao Hei well before he left. He tried to do the same with Xu Huai and Tian Hu, but Xu Huai rebuffed him before he had gotten a single word out. “We’re coming with you,” he said in a tone that brokered no argument. “The only reason we stayed at that park was for you anyways.” With Tian Hu by Xu Huai’s side as he stared holes into Feng Xi with his eyes, Feng Xi hid both tears and smiles and allowed himself to agree. And so, Xu Huai had said as he locked down the hut they had spent more than a decade in, giving the remainder of their meager belongings to Tian Hu. They had never needed much anyway.

 

They took no human transportation, with Feng Xi preferring to feel the wind against his face as he ran through the forest in leaps and bounds, sometimes reverting to his true form of a black panther, other times remaining in his human skin. By night, they would count the stars next to the fire provided by Tian Hu, and come dawn, they would see the sun glimmer on Xu Huai’s school of spirit fish. As mature elfins, they had no need for material sustenance if there was abundant spiritual energy, and here, far away from the smog and clutter of the city, the spirits lit up the nights like the old days. With every day that passed, he was more grateful that some of his family had chosen to come with him, their presence familiar and dear.

 

Of course, not everything was the same as Feng Xi had remembered. Every now and then, a new human-constructed interstate cut across his intended path. There were way fewer animals than he could remember even from twenty years ago, and all throughout his travels, he met no elfins. Even in the pockets of space where the spirits were rich enough to form schools of spirit fish, Feng Xi did not see any signs of new elfins being born. Thoughts of how he had found Luo Zhu then Tian Hu’s tiny forms in the deep woods were frequent these days.

 

Such was how Feng Xi and his family traveled to the outermost bounds of the Long You City zone until they came across the town of Luo Quan. The settlement was located near the top of a mountain, and Feng Xi had counted less than a hundred buildings in the establishment total.

 

Luo Quan seemed almost untouched by time. Most of the people here still lived in the same way the people he had met over a hundred years ago did, making most of their living on their small farms and supplemented by the occasional visit to the city. Even their dress still resembled the old days – many people wore the same loose clothes and cloth shoes as Feng Xi. What caught Feng Xi’s attention most of all though, was how this tiny collective of a town had a public library. It was very small, a traditional wood building situated slightly further away from the rest of the town on the mountain slope. From a distance, it looked just like Wu Xian’s house in his spirit realm.

 

Perhaps compelled by familiarity, Feng Xi and his family more or less settled in the surrounding forest of the small human settlement, observing the people as they came and went. He would return to Long You City to see Luo Zhu and Xiao Hei, whenever the young elfin was in the area, and he also explored many other areas in the land the humans called Zhejiang, but he would always return to Luo Quan at the end of his most recent bout of travels. Almost as if it were home, though he could never quite bring himself to call it that. Xu Huai and Tian hu were by his side patiently all the while. To Feng Xi’s relief and endless gratitude, they never once asked him what they were doing now, or what his purpose for staying here was. He had not stopped thinking about those questions for one moment since he had parted ways with Wu Xian, and now, he felt that he was almost ready to give them an answer.

 

“I still want to restore our homeland,” he said to Xu Huai and Tian Hu one night by the fire. And before his brothers could interrupt, he added quickly, “I’m not going to try anything like last time ever again. Hurting one Xiao Hei was enough.”

 

Neither of his brothers seemed surprised, for which Feng Xi was infinitely grateful. Tian Hu simply blinked at him and nodded from the log he was settled upon, and Xu Huai said,

“We trusted that you wouldn’t want to go the same way.” Then, in a slightly louder voice, he asked, “I assume that you know what you want to do now?”

 

Feng Xi smiled a touch ruefully. “I know this world has changed. I can’t turn back the clock and I won’t ask you to join me again for that, but you both have seen what I’ve seen. There’s a few pieces of our land left, but that’s disappearing by the day too.”

 

He took a deep breath and his family’s eyes calmly as he continued, “I want someone to protect that land—it doesn’t matter if it’s the Guild or myself, but someone needs to make sure the last of it doesn’t disappear. And while what remains of our land is protected, I want the humans to make their lands more habitable for us as well. They took all that was ours to begin with—it’s only right they repay us somehow. Just because we can’t have our original home back doesn’t mean we can’t make what we have left of it better.”

 

“You know we’ll always support you,” Xu Huai said in the silence that followed his declaration. “No matter how long it takes. We’ll be with you.”

 

“Mm.” Tian Hu rumbled in assent. He looked toward Feng Xi with large, steadfast eyes. 

 

Feng Xi’s heart swelled upon hearing their immediate and unflinching declarations of support. “Thank you,” he murmured, “I know that what I want isn’t going to happen instantly, but after what happened in Long You…well. Let’s say I’m willing to wait longer for things to happen now. I’ll endure things a little more. But I won’t let you down again,” he finished, amethyst eyes ablaze with some new flame.

 

Yet, much to his surprise, his family replied almost immediately with a gentle rebuke. “Never mind us, Feng Xi,” his eldest brother said quietly. “What happened in Long You made us understand many things too. We love our homeland, yes, but we love you that much more. Whatever we support, we do so in the hope that it will bring you the most joy. So as long as you are doing what you truly want to do, you never have to worry about letting us down.”

 

“We want brother to be happy,” Tian Hu agreed, giving Feng Xi a meaningful look from under the brim of his wide hat.

 

All of his pre-prepared words caught in Feng Xi’s throat. For a moment, his heart felt like it was about to burst through his chest, splatter all of his emotions bright red onto the floor. “I do want to work for the things I just told you about,” he said at last, swallowing down the intensity of his feelings. “Restoring our home, demanding acknowledgment for what we lost, that had always been my motivation. I think I won’t be able to give that up for as long as I live as an elfin. But I’ve also changed,” he added, his voice softening as he thought of the long days and nights with Wu Xian in the human’s spirit realm. “I like to think that…I learned how to be a little kinder to myself too. So you both don’t have to worry.”

 

He looked up at his brothers and smiled, and something within his expression must have convinced them because both Xu Huai and Tian Hu seemed to visibly relax.

 

“I’m glad then,” Xu Huai said, his tone soft. “If you have things you want to do in the future, no need to ask us as well,” he added after a moment. “If it brings you happiness, then you have our full support.”

 

Tian Hu did not reply, but he smiled back at Feng Xi, which was enough of a response itself.

 

There’s nothing else I want, Feng Xi was about to tell them, but he stopped short when he remembered what he had just said out loud moments ago. I learned how to be a little kinder to myself too, he recalled, and inevitably, the person who had imparted him with that kindness came to mind as well.

 

He gazed at his brothers through the flickering firelight. His brothers gazed back. Their love and trust warmed him more than the flames, and in that moment, with all their support at his heel, he came to a decision. “Well then. Maybe there is one more thing I’d like to do,” he smiled, and his heart swooped softly in his chest, like a kite that had just been set free in the wind.

 

 

 

Five days later, Feng Xi found himself back in the heart of Long You city, but this time Xiao Hei was out of town, and he was not here to visit Luo Zhu either. This time, he strode past the familiar street of his brother’s flower shop, past even the park that took after his name, and he walked into the 6th floor of one of the city’s central skyscrapers, one of those man-made fortresses of steel and concrete that he had never deigned to enter before.

 

The location itself was bustling with activity—it was disguised as the office of a nonprofit that monitored the city’s housing affairs, but Feng Xi knew what it truly was. He opened the door with a confident hand, and all the activity in the place stopped at the sight of him. He ignored them all, parting the sea of stunned elfins in various forms of business casual dress as he marched up to the front desk, setting a singular white envelope before the gaping receptionist. “Please send this to the Guild’s headquarters in Long You,” he said politely.

 

When the receptionist finally took the envelope with a shaken nod, he thanked them just as nonchalantly then left the Long You Guild’s outpost at a measured pace, ignoring the flurry of stares and whispers that broke out in his wake.

 

 

**

 

 

Long You Guild, Communications Division

[street address redacted]

Long You City, Zhejiang Province

324400

 

To Wu Xian.

 

Hello.

 

I know it must be quite sudden to get a letter from me. It’s been a few months since we’ve last seen each other after all. When you dropped me off at my brothers’ doorstep, it was spring, and now the summer leaves are thick and green in the forest. I sent this letter to the Guild in the Long You branch and asked that they get it to you somehow. I still don’t trust the Guild much by any means, even though that may be ironic since I’ve trusted them with this letter to you. If you’re reading this, then I assume that they’ve succeeded in getting a hold of you.

 

After we went our separate ways, Xu Huai and Tian Hu had no problems with me going back to live with them for a while. I must admit that the humans did a decent job with that park that they named after me, and I found out from Xiao Hei that many of the elfins in Long You had pushed the Guild to preserve my tree in the first place. I do not know if you had anything to do with that, but if you did, thank you. If not, I still heard from Xiao Hei that you went to that place quite often. I suppose I should thank you for that as well.

 

Luo Zhu and Zi Luolan are doing well. I met them too not long after I first came back to Long You City. They were the ones who helped me reconnect with Xiao Hei as well. I know I have little right to comment on this, but you’ve raised him well, even though I want words with you about him being illiterate until after age 10. I am not fond of him having been in human schools all those years, but he’s told me about his human friends. I’ve even met his human girlfriend once, that girl who gave him his last name. I still cannot say I like people much overall, but she is perhaps one of the good ones. I can see why Xiao Hei wants to be with her, and he seems happy. That is all I can ask for, I suppose.

 

As for me…I have been doing a lot of thinking on my own. I left Long You City after around two months or so and went back to the mountains surrounding the city. There’s not that much left of them, and there’s much more human presence scattered throughout, but I still wanted to see them. I’ve been doing some traveling too, to see the homes of other elfins and find out what their states are like compared to mine.

 

I saw a lot of things on those travels. Some things I had already seen long before, and many things I thought I knew, but am now looking at with new eyes. When I had last come to Long You to take over this place and bring it back to what I thought it should be, I thought nothing in my heart could ever be changed again. I would die for what I believed in and I was okay with that.

 

But now I’m alive again. Only the living can change, and I’ve started to realize that being alive means that I will change, except it is my choice how and when that change happens. I still believe in the same things, the same goal, but…maybe the way I approach that goal can change. That’s what I have been thinking about all through my travels. I’m still tired and angry often, and I still want my home back—but I also don’t want to hurt anyone like I have hurt Xiao Hei anymore. I have been thinking about that quite a lot.

 

I’ve been around my family for a while now, and it’s the first time in many decades that I’ve actually sat down and listened to them when they talked to me. Even though we had been on the run together all those years, I had never actually spoken from the heart that much anymore, except a little with Xu Huai, but even he did not know everything. About my last promise to bring them all home…they told me what they really wanted was not have to be Long You exactly as it had been before, but to have us all be happy, and to have a place for that happiness to manifest. We don’t have the old Long You forest anymore, but we do still have a place among each other to call home.

 

That does not mean I’ve given up on bringing the forest back—I don’t think I will ever give up on that. It won’t be the same forest, I know that now, but I cannot rest knowing that something so vital was taken from us. I won’t ever give in on trying to restore our land. But talking to my family has made me think more about how I would go about making it happen. In other words, I think there’s something in this world now that I still have to—no, that I’d still like to try and do.

 

But I’m also certain now that there are still changes in this world that I still want to make. I don’t quite know how to start now, or how to go about making it happen, but I’ve been talking a lot with Xiao Hei after Luo Zhu and Zi Luolan helped us meet that first time, and he suggested that I ask you.

 

I know it has been months now since we last spoke, and I have no right to ask you to do anything more for me, not after everything you’ve already done. To be honest, I’m not sure even now as I’m writing this letter, but I figured it’s worth trying to ask, at least.

 

Perhaps I should have written to you sooner. I admit that even after talking to Xiao Hei about this, I was still reluctant to reach out to you. Perhaps I feared that what was said right before we parted was untrue somehow, or mere wishful imagination from me. That said, if you’re still reading this far in, I suppose that’s something to thank you for (there seems to be an increasing number of those things).

 

You should not feel any obligation to fulfill my selfish request, but should you want to…you can come to the library at the mountain top. I’ve included the address and a map in this letter, along with the name of the mountain. If you decide to come, I will be there. Please try not to find the wrong mountain.  

 

Sincerely,

Feng Xi

 

 

**

 

 

The Long You Guild grand hall had changed little since Wu Xian had last stepped into the premises a year ago. The last time he was here, it had been just after dropping off Feng Xi at the park, and he was the one who broke the news of his return to the Long You branch. The Guild headquarters had been put through quite a shock when he had mentioned the news the first time, and Wu Xian’s explanations had remained unwaveringly blunt and forward, as was his custom. Guild Hall Master Pan Jing had to step out of the room and come back inside before fully digesting the news.

 

“Master Wu Xian!” Various other Guild executors stopped to greet him with shining eyes, and some of the older elfins of Long You nodded at him as he passed by the halls. Other elfins saw him and immediately ducked away, their fervent whispers and mutterings only half reaching his ears, though there were fewer of those now than there were some years ago. He supposed he had Xiao Hei to thank for that. 

 

The small deer elfin at the reception desk took his request with quiet detachment. “There’s some letters for you in the system, Master Wu Xian,” they said, adjusting their glasses. “If you would wait just a moment, I will go retrieve them for you.”

 

When the deer elfin had returned, they handed Wu Xian a veritable stack of envelopes of various sizes. Wu Xian sorted through them as he walked through the Guild, making his way by heart over to the bulletin board of free executor missions (it was one of the only routes he knew reliably from memory). He tossed the various advertising junk mails aside, throwing out credit card applications, elfin targeted vehicular insurance ads, and a variety of district mall coupons. There were a few business letters from headquarters, which he tucked away, some spirited letters from Xiao Hei, which he put into his spirit realm for safekeeping, and…a plain white envelope, one of the cheap kinds that one would see for sale in boxes at any office store.

 

He flipped it over to view the sender and his heart stopped. His vision tunneled into a single line of neatly handwritten ink—From Feng Xi. Even after he had stared at them for several moments, the words did not fade or change. He drew a soft breath as he traced over the pen strokes of the characters with a fingertip, inscribing a growing sense of wonder within himself with every line.

 

Back when they had parted, Feng Xi had asked him if he would come visit, and he had agreed but not quite dared to believe the day would ever come. And now, after months of time, after t spring had already given way to deep, lush summer, his summons had finally arrived.

 

“Master Wu Xian? Are you alright?”

 

Wu Xian looked up sharply toward the direction of the voice, straight into the eyes of a concerned-looking elfin with actual circulating strands of water for hair. It was only then he realized that he had stopped right in the middle of the entryway to the Guild’s main hall, staring at the letter in his hands, and that several curious elfins were looking as they walked around him.

 

“I’m alright. Apologies,” he said to the kind elfin who had checked in on him. His fingers tightened briefly on the corner of the white envelope as he slipped it into a fold of his spirit realm, ready to be resummoned in an instant. It was good that he had snapped out of his reverie—now that he had his letter, this vast, open space in the Guild’s main business hall hardly seemed the ideal place to read it. He hurried out of the building and into the Guild’s garden labyrinth, its layers upon layers of greenery providing privacy to all and any.

 

He had hardly made his way into a sheltered grove before he had taken the letter out and freed it from its packaging, tucking the envelope away with care before he began to read, and time and space melted away between the lines of Feng Xi’s neat, intentional characters.

 

I’ll be waiting, Feng Xi had written, and Wu Xian turned over the sheaves of paper to find a map with a star and an address scrawled upon it in red pen. The town was in the mountains on the far eastern edge of Long You, in one of the many small villages that still existed in limbo on the urban city’s peripheries. Wu Xian wondered if it was one of the kinds of places Feng Xi might have loved when he was still young. Perhaps he had met a traveling troupe, went to his first festival, and met with his first humans there, long before they had met each other, way back when.

 

Wu Xian looked up at the flawless blue sky above. A single white cloud, white as the envelope that Feng Xi had addressed to him, drifted by on a lazy wind. He watched the cloud intently for several moments, lost in thought before he shook his head and turned to head back inside the Guild. He had no idea if that cloud was drifting eastward or not, and he got lost so often that it no longer hurt his pride to have to ask around for directions, especially not if it was for something like this.

 

He did not want to keep Feng Xi waiting too long, after all.

 

 

**

 

 

Feng Xi’s book sat idle in his lap in the tiny Luo Quan library. The small library did not lack for windows, and the warm breeze from the summer morning whistled through, rustling the pages. Other than bookshelves and a simple round clock on the wall, the space was scantly furnished. It all reminded him of the time he had spent in Wu Xian’s spirit realm in more ways than one.

 

While Xu Huai and Tian Hu busied themselves with exploring around the town, he would sit on the windowsill just as he had way back then, with one knee tucked up to his chin. These days, he found himself recalling those moments more often than not, and his gaze would wander from his books to drift out the window, toward the path that led to the entrance door.

 

It had been two weeks since he had marched into the Guild’s outpost in the city to deliver his invitation to Wu Xian. Had the human received his letter? And if he had read it…would he come?

 

He was caught up in the whirl of his thoughts that he nearly missed the moment when the human he had been anticipating came into his field of view. Wu Xian’s elegant figure of blue and white seemed to melt into being against the jade backdrop of the woods, like he had stepped right out of a painting from the old human dynasties. He still walked with his hands folded behind his back, his steps so smooth that he seemed to glide down the path toward the library.

 

“…Wu Xian,” the name slipped from Feng Xi’s tongue before he could think to stop himself, but it was his undoing. The mountain path was silent in these early morning hours, and the human had clearly heard his name. He looked over toward Feng Xi and the elfin could see the moment when the world seemed to pause, when Wu Xian’s eyes widen and his whole form stilled.

 

Feng Xi could never forget those eyes, green like the old forests of his home. The same eyes that made Feng Xi forget his breath even as his heart danced.

Wu Xian ended the standstill by veering off the path toward Feng Xi’s windowsill. He was not outright running, but his long tail of hair was trailing out behind him, a few strands flying loose from his hair tie as he hurried over, all elegant exteriors abandoned. Within those moments, he again became the Wu Xian that Feng Xi had grown to know over those long, eventful months, back when he had still been so angrydesperatelost, when he mistook kindness for denigration and viewed every outstretched hand as a threat. The warmth in his chest burned steady like an ember at the thought. Look how far things have come, he mused.

 

“Feng Xi…!” Wu Xian had not stopped until he was standing right before the windowsill where Feng Xi was, separated from the elfin by only a low wall and months of uncertain hope. Now that they were finally seeing one another in the flesh, Wu Xian now seemed almost at a loss for words. While they were essentially of the same height, the elevated floor of the library gave Feng Xi a boost, making him seem almost a head taller than the human, something that the elfin found more than amusing.

 

“You’ve grown shorter in just a couple of months,” Feng Xi said, the corners of his mouth flying upward.

 

Wu Xian blinked twice, clearly taken aback by Feng Xi’s chosen greeting. “No, it’s just the floor you’re standing on,” he replied when he finally recovered. His expression was utterly blank, and Feng Xi chuckled at his expense.

 

Of course Wu Xian would have a hard time responding, he thought to himself. After all, back while he was still inside Wu Xian’s spirit realm, he could not remember having ever joked so easily. Most of his good humor had been buried under layers of bitterness, and it was not until now that he felt that the last layer had been cleared away. Perhaps only now could he call himself truly reborn.

 

“Thanks for reading my letter and for coming all this way,” he sincerely, forgetting that Wu Xian was not even inside the building and that they were both talking through an open window. Even if he had remembered, he likely would not have cared. The one he wanted to see was here, and in that moment, that was all Feng Xi needed. “I asked you to come because, well. I told you when I left your realm that I needed some time for myself, and it’s been some time since then. I’ve had a lot of time to see more of this world and to speak to the ones I wished to see. I suppose a lot has happened. I…want to tell you about some of those things.”

 

And when Wu Xian nodded to show that he was listening, Feng Xi told Wu Xian in detail about the events he had written in his letter. About his reunion with Xu Huai and Tian Hu, then Luo Zhu; his conversations with Xiao Hei; his wanderings after they had left the city. About his goals, all the dreams that he still refused to let go of, about the decision he’s come to.

 

“You told me that this world has changed. Now that I’ve been out and about within it, I can see how you are right. But it’s still not enough for me,” he said, noting how Wu Xian visibly tensed upon those words. “I’ve seen some of the improvements that the Guild has attempted to make, and the efforts of some individual humans to address the crisis of mine and others’ homelands. But that’s not going to be enough. For what remains of my home to survive, I need much more to change with both the Guild and with the world. And I intend to make that happen.” At this, he paused and took a deep breath. His heart was in his throat with the words on the tip of his tongue.

 

“I need your help,” he said. His words fell like drops of water into a still pool.

 

The ripples were immediate. Wu Xian’s eyes widened. “How can I help?” His deep green eyes seemed to shed sparks as he spoke, and Feng Xi could not look away.

 

He swallowed his rapid heartbeats and said, “I need your influence in the Guild to help me guide their policies towards certain directions, and I need access to their networks so I can reach more elfins who are unsatisfied with the current state of the world. You told me of the new positions that the Guild has created, and I’ve done some asking about those myself. I…I’m still not quite sure I want to be directly involved in Guild affairs to that extent, but you have my word that I won’t do anything that could bring about a second Long You. I’m done hurting my own kind, and while I want the humans to repay us for what we’ve lost…I don’t wish injury upon them anymore, either.”

 

“Done,” Wu Xian said without hesitation. He squared his shoulders as he spoke, and all the words Feng Xi had prepared beforehand to further convince him died in his throat, leaving him floundering for a moment. Wu Xian had nothing to gain and everything to lose from agreeing to help him, and yet he had agreed without even a pause. Feng Xi had already known that he had fallen before, but now he was well and truly ruined. How could he ever look away from this man after this?

 

“…Thank you, for listening to me,” he said softly when he had finally gathered himself enough to speak again. “For this, and for everything else you’ve done for me,” he added, bowing his head. “I won’t forget this.”

 

“You’re not in my debt, Feng Xi,” Wu Xian replied, his expression serious. “I chose to do these things myself. You don’t owe me anything. I’m just…I’m just glad you stayed here. I knew it was your choice all along, and I’ve seen how much pain it caused you, but…I’m just glad you chose to stay. Even if that’s selfish of me.” The words and emotions seemed to pour out of him in a rush now, like the monsoon rains after the clouds had gathered for months, and Feng Xi felt almost inundated by the deluge. Wu Xian’s eyes were soft in a way that Feng Xi had never seen up close before, and a sudden burst of foolish, half-formed hope propelled his next words.

 

“Wu Xian, I…have a question for you. Why did you bring my tree cutting into your spirit realm in the first place? If you hadn’t done that, none of this would have happened.” Feng Xi’s heart was pounding against his ribcage as he spoke. He could scarcely draw enough breath to shape the words, and he had bit down hard on his lip to stop himself from doing more impulsive, stupid things. It was all he could do to keep from trembling as he waited for his answer.

 

Wu Xian seemed taken aback again, but then his expression turned thoughtful. The seconds drifted by as he appeared to ruminate on what to say. “It was not too long after Long You,” he finally said, his gaze far and away. “I had just taken on Xiao Hei as my apprentice, and by some unspoken agreement, we both came back to where the battle had happened. The Guild had already been working with the human government to try and preserve the place, so your tree was untouched. I cut a piece then and brought it back to the apartment Xiao Hei and I were staying at.”

 

“You bought an apartment in the city?” Feng Xi gaped at him, his anxiety momentarily forgotten. In his memory, Wu Xian had always been a wanderer, moving from place to place without a permanent place to call his own. That Wu Xian had settled down so quickly after picking up Xiao Hei was beyond news to him.

 

“No, it was a temporary stay in a location the Guild had already purchased a while back,” Wu Xian explained, dispelling the misunderstanding. “Xiao Hei and I were not there long, and when we left, I put it into my spirit realm on a whim.”

 

“So that’s how it was.” Feng Xi nodded once, hoping desperately that his motions still seemed natural. “Why didn’t you just leave it behind?” he asked, pushing his luck a little further. “It couldn’t have been worth that much to you then. You barely even knew me.”

 

“Ah, about that. I wasn’t quite sure back then either,” Wu Xian mused. There was a nostalgic sort of tenderness to his tone now, and Feng Xi could not help following after his every inflection, savoring the cadence. He had never imagined Wu Xian would use such a tone before. “I didn’t figure that out until much later, after I’d spoken with Luo Zhu. He told me that I shouldn’t feel guilty over your choices. He was right, but I still wondered. After I started to break free from that guilt, I…thought about many things. Some of those things were about the changes the Guild needed, things that you’d shown me that were broken, but I also just…thought. A lot. About you.”

 

Wu Xian paused. Feng Xi’s heart felt like it was beating in his throat—he could see the storm of emotions in Wu Xian’s eyes as he pondered how to continue, and Feng Xi had never known more agonizing a wait. “I thought a lot about you,” Wu Xian continued at last, “about your dreams, your determination, the way you lived your life like a burning match. You had all the long years of an elfin ahead of you, but you burned it all that day to become a part of the place you loved. You did terrible and beautiful things, sometimes both, and even after all those years had passed I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I suppose….” He drew a deep breath.

 

“…I suppose I didn’t want to forget,” he finally said, turning so that he was no longer quite meeting Feng Xi’s eyes. His voice, however, continued to sink into Feng Xi like rain into good soil. “I didn’t want to forget what this world was like when you were still in it. Or to forget you. And I still never do. Make of that what you will.”

 

Could he really mean it? Feng Xi thought, wide-eyed in the silence that followed after Wu Xian’s declaration. That half-formed hope that had first induced him to speak had now turned into a flame rushing through his whole bloodstream. Could he really mean what I think he means?

 

Before he could stop himself, he was already leaning forward out the open window, his fingers weaving into Wu Xian’s hair as he brought the human close—closer until their foreheads were touching and he could feel Wu Xian’s every startled breath. By that point it was too late to pull back and feign nonchalance—that flame of hope filled his heart with fire and his ears with static and he almost feared that he would cease to function. He had to speak up before this sudden emotional burst left him.

 

“Are you implying what I think you’re trying to say?” He could barely hear himself as he spoke. The words cottoned on his tongue like he was choking on them. He was an utter fool for making himself so vulnerable, his whole heart in his eyes for Wu Xian to see, yet all he cared about then was the human’s response, one that would decide if it was all worthwhile.

 

He heard Wu Xian’s answer as if it were coming from underwater. “…I am no scholar or great poet, but I’ve told you before that all the time I have in this world is yours, if you want it,” the human said, his voice soft as his breath that brushed past Feng Xi’s ear. “What else do you think I could mean?”

 

Feng Xi’s heart stopped for a few beats as he soaked in the words. When it finally resumed, the corner of his eyes were tingling, even as his face began to hurt from his smile. This must be what it felt like, to see the sun rise after a long, long night. “It’s—you're really okay with this?” he finally choked out, his voice almost breaking from the joy and the tears he was fighting to suppress. “All the time in your life…you won’t regret it? Is that a promise?”

 

“It is.”

 

“Then…then let me promise you the same.” Feng Xi took a deep breath. “I’ve been an oath-breaker in the past, and I know that my time and my life are not worth nearly as much as yours, but…it’s all yours, if you’ll have it,” he murmured.

 

“Your life is worth every bit as much as mine,” Wu Xian rebuked immediately. “Please never devalue yourself like this. I haven’t forgotten that a few years ago, you weren’t even here.” He was more earnest than Feng Xi had ever heard him. Up this close, Feng Xi could see every speck of color in Wu Xian’s irises—from the dark emeralds of grown oaks to the almost gold-green of spring leaves. He could see his whole reflection in Wu Xian’s eyes. He wanted this moment to end. He wanted it to last forever.

 

“You know what I meant though,” he breathed, “a life for a life, yours for mine. Will you…will you accept my offer?”

 

This time, Wu Xian did not keep him waiting. “Of course I accept,” he said simply, reaching up to tuck a long strand behind Feng Xi’s ear. “I’ll spend the rest of your life with you if you’ll do the same for mine. I promise.”

 

And Feng Xi knew that he believed him.