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Lost and Found

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After the truth of the Chiyan Massacre is revealed, after the case is properly closed, after the Lin Family's innocence is established once and for all, the first thing Changsu does is grab a bucket, several flasks of water, and a brush before sneaking out of his house in the middle of the night.

 

It's not even hard. The tunnel between Su Manor and Jing Manor is still there, closed but not locked, no longer necessary but also not yet removed. It’s simple enough to wait for most of the household to fall asleep before slipping away through the secret door in his room.

 

Jing Manor sits empty now. The gates are locked but even Changsu can still climb a wall when there’s a few trees around to help him.

 

(He could’ve flown over it, once upon a time. A single leap and he would’ve been on the other side, easy as breathing. It’s funny how some things never seem particularly important or impressive until one loses the ability to do them.)

 

He has to pause and catch his breath once he’s on the other side. His palms sting from the scrape of bark and stone, and even though he brought his cloak along, he’s already shivering a little from the chill of the night air. Still, once his lungs ease up as much as they ever do these days, he straightens, checks that the brush and water flasks are still rattling at the bottom of his bucket, and then heads off down the street.

 

Jinling is quiet at night, especially in this area of the city. Luoshi Street is probably bright with activity at this hour, but here, there is only the rustle of the wind through the trees, the dim glow of sparse lanterns lighting the way, and the intermittent muffled clanks and footsteps of the guards on duty.

 

But Changsu knows this city like the back of his hand, so avoiding the main streets is easy too, even if it takes him a little longer to reach his destination. He’s in no real rush. He’s pretty sure he isn’t going to get back to his room before someone notices his absence, and he knows he’ll be in for one hell of a lecture when a certain doctor tracks him down, but-

 

But he needs to do this. He hasn’t been… brave enough to go back before now, hasn’t had much time for it either, but the thought of it has always lingered in a corner of his mind, and he can’t put it off forever.

 

His mother doesn’t deserve his cowardice, even if setting foot in his childhood home again is the last thing he ever wants to do.

 

Far too soon, he reaches the front gates of Lin Manor. The steps are dusty, the wood cobwebbed, the walls heavy with overgrown flora. The estate sits as empty as the day Nihuang showed it to him, a relic of the past that the Emperor was only too happy to forget. Changsu stares up at it, at the way it looms over him with all the weight of an empty graveyard full of restless ghosts, and for a moment, all he wants to do is run away.

 

But he is the last Lin. His father’s remains lie forgotten and desecrated in the mass unmarked grave of Meiling, his uncles and cousins went the same way, and even the memorial Jingyan set up won’t change that, even if their spirits will finally be able to come home. His relatives at home too, along with their household’s servants, every last one executed for a treason not a single one of them had ever committed, and their bodies tossed out like trash, burned at a pyre, forgotten. Even Changsu’s mother was never allowed a memorial plaque until now, never allowed funeral rites, never even allowed a proper resting place befitting of her station.

 

So ends the great Lin family. Except for him now, although somedays, Changsu wonders if he even still counts. But there’s no one else to do what he’s come to do today, and even if everyone else has forgotten, he has not.

 

He won’t let his mother’s spirit haunt this place for any longer than he can help it, not when the rest of his family has finally been laid to rest.

 

He takes a deep breath, and then he makes his way up the steps and slowly pushes open the gates. They’re not even locked, just heavy, and groaning with age and decay as he forces them apart. He squeezes inside as soon as the gap is big enough, takes three steps forward, and then just… tries to remember how to breathe.

 

The estate is a mess. Dead leaves and debris scattered on the ground, the once-clear pond on the right gone filthy and fetid with mud and long-dead fish, the roof of the main hall directly in front of him half caved in from a storm, the beautiful gardens gutted and brown. And that's just what he can see from a glance.

 

Changsu breathes and breathes and adamantly forces back the sting in his eyes. Instead, he stumbles forward, puts one foot in front of the other, and doesn’t stop until he’s standing only a few feet away from the front entrance of his home.

 

Mother used to stand here, when he came home from a day out with Jingyan and Nihuang, welcoming him back with a hug, scolding him for being late for dinner. She stood here too when Father - and then, later, Changsu with him - came home from a distant battlefield, her face bright with relief and joy.

 

And then.

 

And then, fourteen years ago, Changsu woke up in Langya Hall and heard the news that the Grand Princess Jinyang had taken her own life upon hearing that both her husband and her son were dead. Details came later - how she stood on these very same steps as soldiers burst into her home, weapons drawn, how she’d watched them storm into the estate, how she’d put a sword to her own throat and committed suicide rather than let the Emperor have his way.

 

She was the wife of a traitor, the mother of a traitor, the matriarch of a family of traitors, and even being the Emperor’s younger sister had afforded her no mercy.

 

Here and now, Changsu can almost see it - his mother straight-backed and grieving and proud, clutching a blade in her hands and refusing to bow even as her whole world crashed down around her, collapsing to the ground as the life left her body.

 

She wouldn’t have screamed. Even if she’d had the time, in that moment before the sword had split her throat open, she wouldn’t have screamed. Mother was always fierce, and even in the face of death, she would’ve stood tall and dignified and defiant.

 

Changsu blinks once, twice, three times down at the steps of the front entrance, and even in the dark, with only the moon to offer a sliver of light to see by, the dark stains seeped into the wood are painfully clear.

 

It isn't a shock. It's why he's here tonight. After all, who would've been left to risk the Emperor's wrath and come back to clean the blood off these steps?

 

Still, it catches Changsu by surprise, and he turns abruptly, staggering off to the side before heaving up the meagre contents of his stomach, choking on a sob he refuses to voice, breath scraping up his throat like broken glass. He doesn’t know how long he crouches there like a wounded animal, or how long it takes him to fumble open a water flask and take a few sips to steady himself. But eventually, he gathers himself again, shuffles back over to the steps, and finally gets to work.

 

He dumps the water into the bucket, and then the brush after that, and then - heedless of the cold seeping through his clothes or the bruises forming on his knees - he gets a good grip on the brush and begins scrubbing at the bloodstains.

 

His mother deserves better than remaining pooled across this patch of floor like some macabre reminder of her end. Even if her spirit has already joined Father’s, Changsu will be damned if he lets even this much of her stay here like this, a mockery of her death, as if Xie Yu and Xia Jiang’s schemes and the Emperor’s betrayal weren’t enough.

 

(He knows, logically, that he could - he should - simply have the steps removed, have the entire estate rebuilt, even. He knows Jingyan would do it for him in a heartbeat.

 

But this was Changsu’s home, Lin Shu’s home, and this was his mother’s blood. He needs to clean it up, even if the rest of the world no longer remembers.)

 

He scrubs and scrubs, hour after hour, until his fingertips bleed, until the water greys, until the first blush of dawn streaks across the sky, and still he continues to scrub. He’s barely made any progress, the blood too old and too deeply soaked into the wood. He should stop, or at least take a break. He knows that. But it won’t come out, and how could anyone even do this? How could they just drag his mother’s body out and leave her blood splattered across the floorboards and not feel utterly shameful? How could they walk past Lin Manor day after day and feel nothing, wake up in the same city day after day to the knowledge of this gruesome injustice and do nothing? How could they-

 

A hand catches his wrist, light but firm. Changsu stills, a cough shuddering thick and tar-like in his chest, his shoulders - his whole body - aching from exhaustion. He doesn’t even know he’s crying until Lin Chen tugs the brush from his hands, and then pristine white sleeves come up to swipe gently over his cheeks. For once, there's nothing humorous or light in the way Lin Chen looks at him, just tired and a little sad.

 

He wrangles Changsu up next, and Changsu lets him, lets his most steadfast, faithful companion for the past fourteen years coax him away from the steps his mother once stood on and over to a half-rotted bench so he can at least sit somewhere that isn't the ground. Lin Chen sits down beside him, producing a towel out of nowhere to dry Changsu’s hands before shrugging out of his own cloak and tossing it over Changsu's shoulders. It's startlingly warm with Lin Chen's own body heat, and it sears away some of the ice in Changsu's bones. Changsu shivers violently, but after a moment, he reaches up and pulls the cloak more securely around himself.

 

For a while after that, neither of them speaks. Lin Chen watches the sun come up. Changsu stares blindly at the bloodstained steps.

 

Eventually, Changsu stirs. The estate doesn't look as bleak in the morning light, but somehow, it does look lonelier.

 

"…No lecture?" He rasps weakly, because he definitely expected some yelling.

 

Lin Chen snorts. "When has a lecture ever worked on you? I am not poor Physician Yan. I know how to pick my battles." He pauses, surveying their dilapidated surroundings with a frown. "You realize you would've had volunteers trampling down your front door if you'd said something."

 

Changsu clenches his jaw. He knows that, knows there are a lot of people - far more than he deserves, really - who would clean up this entire manor from top to bottom for him no matter how long it takes, if it's what he wants. He knows.

 

He just… can't. Can't bear the shame of someone seeing the ruins of his ancestral home. Can't bear the thought of someone else seeing his mother's blood and judging her, or pitying him.

 

Beside him, Lin Chen sighs. "Can we at least go back for now before you spend the next three days coughing up a lung? Your entire household is in an uproar, by the way. Apparently, Li Gang stopped by your room to check on you, only to find an empty bed instead, which he decided was cause for mass panic. Who would've thought."

 

Changsu grimaces, but it isn't as if he didn't foresee that reaction either. "How did you find me?"

 

Lin Chen scoffs loftily and proclaims, like the dramatic peacock he is, "I have my ways."

 

The look he pins Changsu with next though is as sharp as the edge of a blade, threaded through with the steel of a promise. "I'll always find you, Changsu. But maybe you could do me a favour and make it a little easier for me. Next time, spare us the trouble and just wake me up and take me with you." He sighs again, sounding positively aggrieved this time. "The gods know even I can't stop you when you set your mind to something."

 

Changsu supposes he should be sorry. He is, a little, and he likes bickering with Lin Chen but he doesn't want to genuinely upset him, so maybe that's why he relents, just a bit, "I'll kick you out of bed next time then. You better not complain about losing sleep though."

 

Lin Chen gives him an arch look before springing to his feet. "I will absolutely complain as much as I want, thank you. Now come on, I'm taking you back before your overprotective minions launch a search party. You’ve even worried Fei Liu with this stunt."

 

He holds out a hand to Changsu, and Changsu looks past him at the steps, just for a moment longer, before closing his eyes. When he opens them again, he reaches for Lin Chen, who immediately helps him to his feet, taking his weight, always steady, always careful, his hand twined confidently with Changsu's own.

 

"I need to come back," Changsu wheezes out, his body already rebelling against him. "Later, I need to come back."

 

Lin Chen's arm slides around him, a reassuring weight at his back. He's a line of heat at Changsu's side, and it's both instinct and a desire for more of that warmth that makes Changsu press closer. Lin Chen only reacts by shifting his grip to better accommodate him.

 

"Then we'll come back later," Lin Chen says briskly as he helps Changsu towards the gates. "As many times as it takes. But it won't do anyone any good if you keel over because you weren't taking care of yourself." He rolls his eyes. "What am I saying, you never take care of yourself. That's fine; I'll do it for you."

 

Changsu huffs something akin to mirth, and he feels the spark of it bloom and fade in the same breath, but it's enough to ease some of the frantic desperation that had consumed him since he’d stepped foot in this place.

 

Lin Chen is a warm solid presence at his side, as he has been since the day they met. Changsu leans into him, lets him take more of his weight, and when all that happens is a tighter arm around his waist and a firmer grip around his hand, for once, it doesn't feel so much like he's just a crippled burden to those around him.

 

"Let's go," Lin Chen urges, stubborn and relentless enough to rival Changsu, and not for the first time, nor for the last time, though not nearly enough times if you ask his doctors— but because it's Lin Chen, Changsu allows himself to follow.

 

They make their way out of the old front gates of the Lin Manor.

 

The sun is rising.