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First Impressions

Chapter Text

Qin Jiuxiao doesn't know what to think about the last few months.

It started one morning when his da-shixiong woke up acting strange and weirdly out of character.

Before, he was very controlled, as if he was afraid that showing any emotions were a sign of weakness. Now, he laughed and cried freely, joining in the disciples' jokes and horseplay as easily as joining in their training and sparring. Gone was the stiff back, tense demeanor and perpetual frown.

He even dressed different. The formal clothes that he used to wear was replaced with layers of soft clothing that gave him an air of nonchalance and confidence. He was more relaxed, more self-assured and more eloquent, able to argue with the elders over the decisions made concerning the manor with logical and well thought-out reasons.

But the most telling difference was that he was more affectionate. Smiling fondly at him and his disciples easier these days, patting their shoulders and heads whenever they succeeded in executing a complicated maneuver.

It made the previously heavy air of the manor lighten and the residents began to adopt a more positive attitude. Jiuxiao really couldn't complain about the changes even though he was initially concerned over it. His da-shixiong looked happier and the rest of the manor followed his lead as in all things.

Jiuxiao would have thought that he was being possessed if not for the one thing that didn't change; his demeanor when it came to training.

In fact, it was safe for Jiuxiao to say that his da-shixiong was even worse than before when it came to training. Especially with his own.

He was pushing himself even more than before he woke up different. He seemed so focused on getting stronger that it worried Jiuxiao that he might overwork himself. Jiuxiao brought it up to his da-shixiong one evening while his da-shixiong was having a bottle of wine while admiring the moon. Instead of brushing off his worry, he smiled and ushered him to sit beside him. Jiuxiao sat, confused and curious.

Then his da-shixiong proceeded to teach him a new meditation method and insisted on Jiuxiao meditate at that moment since he had so much free time to be concerned about other people.

Ah, da-shixiong really is a training demon.

*****

It wasn't long before Jiuxiao caught on to a sort of melancholy coming over his da-shixiong's person after the end of a long day. His shoulders would slump and the frown line between his brows would deepen as his eyes gain a downward cast, unnoticeable to most but Jiuxiao knew his elder martial brother enough to know that his da-shixiong is sad.

Sometimes, when Jiuxiao comes out to use the latrine in the middle of the night, he would see his da-shixiong sitting out at his pavilion, looking up at the moon with a bottle of wine in his hand.

Once, he managed to take a good look at his da-shixiong's expression and was taken aback by the tears on his face. He instinctively wanted to go over to his martial brother to ask what is wrong but stopped himself when he heard the soft whisper:

"Lao Wen, please come home."

He didn't know who 'Lao Wen' was but he must be very important to his da-shixiong for him to be crying like this.

Jiuxiao didn't want to intrude during such a vulnerable moment so he left. However, in his heart he resolved to find out who 'Lao Wen' was so that he could do his best to help his da-shixiong bring 'Lao Wen' home.

**********

"Lao Wen?" Bi-shushu asked with a frown.

Jiuxiao nodded, curiousity brimming like an overflowing tea cup.

"Hm.... can't think of any Lao Wen or anyone with the surname Wen," Bi-shushu mumbled. "Are you sure you heard the right name?"

Jiuxiao scratched the back of his neck. He kept thinking about that name whenever he had free time, which is not a lot since his da-shixiong is determined to drill in training after training relentless until they could master each move. Then, more training.

Jiuxiao could only drag himself into bed after dinner everyday and collapse into sleep without even a bath. It's only during meal times that he could ponder about the person his da-shixiong wanted to bring home.

"So, no one knows who Lao Wen is?" Jiuxiao asked the elders sitting together. They looked at each other and shook their heads.

This is becoming more mysterious by the day.

***********

One day, a 'Lao Wen' appeared at their gate, after disabling the traps like it was child's play, and asks for the Manor's Lord.

Qin Jiuxiao immediately ran for his da-shixiong, excitement making him faster than he's ever been.

Finally! An answer to his questions.

***********

Jiuxiao has come to the realisation that he might forever be mystified by whatever was happening to his life.

Hi da-shixiong had ran out of his office, dignity forgotten upon hearing that Lao Wen has arrived and was now enveloping the other teen in a tight hug.

There was a contingent of disciples watching as the two continued to embrace each other, crying and laughing at the same time.

"Qin-shixiong, who is that?" one of the disciple asked.

"I don't know," answers Jiuxiao, equally confused. "I have never seen him before."

He ignored the disciples gossiping about the possible identity of the newcomers, eyes hyperfocused on the three figures at the gate.

It was a while before the three finally headed into the manor but before any of the disciples could say anything, their young leader put his arm around 'Lao Wen' almost protectively and looked at Jiuxiao.

"Jiuxiao, I'll introduce all of you in a while. Let me settle Lao Wen in first," his da-shixiong said with a big smile, tears of happiness still glistening in his eyes.

Jiuxiao nodded, utterly confused. He doesn't even know which question to ask first.

Then, the young Manor Lord lead the youth and the child into his own chambers.

Jiuxiao blinked in disbelief. He rubbed his eyes. Did he just...?

What...?

***********

Jiuxiao took the basin of warm water from his shidi, volunteering to send it personally to the Manor Lord. Shifting to adjust his grip on the basin, he lifted one hand to knock on the door. When he got a brisk permission to enter, he pushed opened the door and took a good look as he walked in.

Zhou Zishu was kneeling on the ground in front of his bed, where the newcomer in white sat before him. His da-shixiong was holding 'Lao Wen's bare foot, inspecting the blisters and cracks.

"Ah-Xu. I told you already. It's fine. I can take care of my own feet," 'Lao Wen' was saying, cheeks pink with embarrassment. The little girl he brought along was curled up on the Manor Lord's bed, napping away the evident fatigue.

They must have traveled far for the teen's feet to be so injured, Jiuxiao thought to himself as 'Lao Wen's feet was bleeding sluggishly in several places.

"Lao Wen, if these become infected, you will lose your feet," his leader said sternly. "Let me wash them and bandage them." Then he looked up to see Jiuxiao and quickly took the basin from him.

"Jiuxiao, could you go to the infirmary and get some bandages and healing balm?" his da-shixiong asked as he settled back down to gently wash 'Lao Wen's feet with a clean cloth.

"Ah, yes, da-shixiong!"

"And get another basin of water."

Jiuxiao nodded but his departure was halted by 'Lao Wen' reaching up to his sleeve.

"You are Jiuxiao," 'Lao Wen' said, a small pretty smile on his fair face. Jiuxiao nodded, slightly speechless despite the questions circling his mind. "I'm glad to finally meet you."

"Ah. I'm pleased to meet you too," Jiuxiao returned quickly in reflex, "Umm..."

"Jiuxiao," his da-shixiong said, still focused on cleaning the other teen's feet. "This is your er-shixiong, Wen Kexing."

Jiuxiao's eyes widened.

The one that disappeared after becoming his father's disciple!? He knew that his father had searched for him for a long time and not finding him was one of his biggest regrets. His da-shixiong must have continued searching for him even after the trail went cold for so long. For his er-shixiong to come back to them when so many of them thought him dead was nothing short of a miracle.

"Er-shixiong!" Jiuxiao quickly bowed in respect but his newly found er-shixiong just laughed lightly.

"It's okay, Qin-shidi," Lao-- ah, no his Wen-shixiong said, with a wave of his hand. "You don't have to be so formal with me."

"I just found out where Wen-shidi was but since the sect was constantly under attack I couldn't leave the manor so Wen-shidi decided that it would be easier for him to make the journey himself with his adopted sister," his da-shixiong said with a dark frown and a heavy sigh.

"If I knew that you'd have so much difficulty, I would have gone to find you instead," the older teen said, gently dabbing an oozing wound.

"No," Wen-shixiong said firmly, "You needed to stay to take care of the disciples and the Manor. You couldn't leave."

His da-shixiong's frown got thunderous and he threw the cloth into the basin of bloody water.

"I should have gone to you! Look at you and Ah-Xiang! You're starved and your feet is all torn up!"

Jiuxiao jumped, eyes wide in shock. He had never seen his da-shixiong this angry before.

But before his da-shixiong could say more, Wen-shixiong nodded pacifyingly and leaned down to touch his face gently.

"You are right," he said, making the manor lord even more annoyed but before the young lord could say anything, he continued. "But if the manor gets burned and everyone gets killed because you are not here, then all of it would have been for nothing."

Wen-shixiong patted his da-shixiong's face like HE was the child and not the only one among them that was considered an adult.

"For me, a pair of torn feet is worth it as long as my home is safe," he said with a contented smile.

His da-shixiong deflated with a sigh, picking up the cloth again to continue washing the younger boy's feet.

"Jiuxiao, the herbs and water."

"Ah! Yes, da-shixiong!" the youth said, quickly running off to get the items requested.

******

His da-shixiong continued to personally care for the teen and the toddler for the next few weeks in his own chambers. Jiuxiao had the impression that this was done to appease his da-shixiong's own protective instincts as he could see the child running around the courtyard in front of da-shixiong's chambers at times, with hardly any injuries or complications. She looked a little thin but Jiuxiao doesn't know how old she was, so he couldn't judge accurately if she was too small for her age.

The little girl was always supervised by his er-shixiong, who sits in a pile of blankets and pillows under the awning of the pavilion adjacent the Manor Lord's chambers. He was still looking pale and wan but much better than when he first arrived. Apparently, he was under strict instructions not to walk too much. Jiuxiao only discovered that when he finally found the time to approach his er-shixiong to greet him.

"Wen-shixiong!"

"Good morning, Qin-shidi," Wen-shixiong greeted, while braiding the little girl's hair. She was jumpy with impatience and immediately ran off without looking at Jiuxiao once his er-shixiong finished with her hair.

"This little brat, not even greeting you before running off," er-shixiong groused with a shake of his head. "I'm sorry about her lack of manners. I try my best to teach her but kids hardly listen when you are imparting knowledge to them."

"It's okay, er-shixiong!" he said quickly. Wen-shixiong gestured to the sit beside him and Jiuxiao, having no reason or excuse not to sit and entertain his sickly er-shixiong, plopped himself down.

"Ah-Xu has commanded me not to walk around because of my feet so I can't go to the dining hall and meet everyone," his er-shixiong said, picking up the white fan beside him to gently fan himself. "Tell me about the disciples here so I can get to know them."

So Jiuxiao told him. He told him about Lu Meng, who is only a few months older than Jiuxiao but acts like he is so much smarter and better in martial arts than him. About the twins, Tang Li and Tang Su, who likes to play pranks but is very good at archery. About Ming Yi, who nearly lost a hand when he accidentally triggered one of the traps outside the Manor while doing maintenance. About the elders, like kindly but stern Bi-shushu, who would as soon as stuff you full of congee when he thinks you are starving and then turn around ready to switch your bottom for trying to skip training.

Jiuxiao talked and talked until a loud gurgling sound came from his empty stomach. They both blinked before er-shixiong lifted his hand to cover his smile with his fan.

"You haven't had your breakfast yet, Qin-shidi?"

"Erm. Not yet," he answered honestly, "I'm just heading there now."

"Well then, I shouldn't keep you from your meal. You need it so you can focus on training well. Here, you can have these."

His er-shixiong was really pretty when he smiled, Jiuxiao thought as the older boy handed him a small package. Jiuxiao opened it and discovered it to be some fragrant osmanthus cake.

"Thank you, er-shixiong!"

"You're welcome, Qin-shidi."

Jiuxiao jumped onto his feet when he spied his da-shixiong making his way to them with a tray of breakfast. He left immediately so as to not to make things awkward by being a third wheel. He didn't know why he had that impression but he knew somehow that his presence would just annoy his da-shixiong.

He savoured the delicious osmanthus cake after his breakfast. They don't get a lot of sweets these days, after his mother's death, and the disciples that had taken over the kitchen were average at best when it came to cooking. Food was generally rather bland and tasteless so having these sweets were a treat.

When the other disciples found out that he had gotten them from Wen-shixiong, they grilled him for information but he really couldn't answer them since he didn't know much himself. Then the discussion turned into a brawl when the disciples started fighting over the last piece of osmanthus cake.

Jiuxiao ended the argument by stuffing it into his mouth and fleeing his disgruntled shixiongs and shidis.

*******

The only time the Manor Lord caught Wen-shixiong walking around carrying his little sister resulted in a loud explosion where his da-shixiong shouted at a contrite er-shixiong before taking the little girl and setting her down. Then he proceeded to throw the younger teen over his shoulder and after taking the toddler's hand, stomped his way back to his chamber, ignoring all the protests against his treatment.

It was very shocking and confusing for all those who witnessed it but Jiuxiao was beginning to think that they had all better get used to that feeling since it didn't seem like any of his questions were going to be answered anytime soon.

*******

It would be quite a while before Wen-shixiong is officially introduced to the rest of the disciples and it happened like this:

Jiuxiao walked into the dining hall, yawning lightly with his eyes half closed and stopped.

He was early for breakfast and didn't think that there would be anyone arriving before him but his er-shixiong and the toddler he brought along with him was sitting at one of the tables. Wen-shixiong looked up and waved him over.

Jiuxiao tentatively approached and er-shixiong gestured for him to sit.

"Good morning, er-shixiong," he greeted politely.

"Good morning, Qin-shidi. I made some sweet red bean soup. Have a bowl," the older teen said, gesturing to the bowl in front of him.

"Thank you, er-shixiong," he said, sitting down opposite the older teen. His eyes involuntarily landed on the little girl beside him.

"This is Gu Xiang," Wen-shixiong introduced. Then he turned to the little girl, "Ah-Xiang, this is Xiao-gege. Be nice and greet Xiao-gege."

The little girl looked up from her pastry with guileless eyes and chirped: "Xiao-gege."

Wen-shixiong cleared his throat and the little girl continued: "Good Morning."

Then she gave him a wide tooth-gapped smile, eyes crinkling happily.

Jiuxiao smiled reflexively. She was pretty cute.

"Good morning, Ah-Xiang," he greeted back. Ah-Xiang then lift her biscuit up to him.

"Xiao-gege, eat. Yummy biscuit," she offered.

"Ah, no. Ah-Xiang. You should eat it yourself," he said quickly, lifting his hands up to decline.

"Gege, yummy biscuit. Gege hungry, gege eat," she said firmly, waving her biscuit at him and flinging crumbs everywhere. Out of reflex, Jiuxiao lifted his hand to accept the half-eaten biscuit. The little girl grinned delightedly and Jiuxiao caught himself gushing inwardly about how cute she was.

"Ah, sorry about that," er-shixiong said, taking the abused pastry from him, "She hates seeing anyone hungry. Here, take this one."

Jiuxiao accepted the freshly baked rose-jam pastry with a thank you and took a bite to appease the siblings while he watched Wen-shixiong continue to feed the little girl some sweet soup and the half eaten pastry.

"Mm!," Jiuxiao couldn't stop himself from making the sound in surprise. "This is really good, shixiong." he looked at the pastry, still steaming from the oven. Wen-shixiong must have made it early this morning for it to be so fresh. Jiuxiao spared a moment to wonder when he had time to do so and still care for a child at the same time.

"Yummy biscuit!" agreed Ah-Xiang while trying to avoid her brother's handkerchief.

"If you like it, have some more," Wen-shixiong said, gesturing to the plate of pastry.

"Don't you dare."

Jiuxiao looked up to see his da-shixiong walking in with a smile. He circled the table to sit in his chair. Then he took the whole plate of pastries for himself.

"These are mine," the Manor Lord declared, ignoring the squawk of protest from little Ah-Xiang and Jiuxiao. He took a pastry and stuffed it whole into his mouth.

"Shu-gege! Mean!"

"Da-shixiong!"

Wen-shixiong chuckled, quickly covering his mouth with a hand.

Then there was a clatter from outside, signaling the arrival of the other disciples. They entered noisily, bickering and chatting with each other but stopped when they noticed the other occupants in the hall. Their eyes went wide in surprise. Jiuxiao didn't blame them. Their leader hasn't eaten with them for a long time, preferring to have his meals in his study or his own chamber since the new arrivals came.

Their charismatic leader currently looked like a startled hamster with his cheek puffed up full from pastry. He swallowed the mouthful quickly, nearly choking. Wen-shixiong handed him a cup of tea wordlessly, lips in a teasing smile. His leader gulped it down and cleared his throat before standing up to address all the disciples present, clearly trying to recover his tattered dignity.

"This is my shidi, Wen Kexing, the second disciple of Four Seasons Manor. And little Gu Xiang. Be polite," he said sternly.

Wen-shixiong bowed when introduced. Then he gestured to the large pot set in the middle of the room with a tray covered with a white cloth. Jiuxiao had noticed it but didn't pay any mind to it till now.

"I am pleased to meet all of you. I have made some sweet bean soup and rose jam pastries for everyone. Please help yourself," he told them with an easy smile. Then he reached over without looking and snagged the plate from the Four Seasons Manor Lord, who tried to take it back but was rebuked by his er-shixiong with a move so fast that Jiuxiao had difficulty following with his eyes. Then the plate slid right in front of him.

"Take, Qin-shidi. Or your da-shixiong will get too fat from pastries to wield Baiyi sword," Wen-shixiong said, his smile never changing even though his hands were at an impasse with da-shixiong's.

"Lao Wen, you only made enough for everyone. What about me?" his leader complained and the two exchanged another 3 strikes, still sitting in the midst of wide-eyed disciples.

"You just had one." Wen-shixiong retorted, returning another move that da-shixiong countered.

"Only one? Lao Wen! How could you do this to me!" they exchange another 3 strikes with ease while they continued to bicker.

"Stop complaining. If you eat too much sweets, you'll lose your lovely figure," his er-shixiong teased.

Jiuxiao snorted with laughter at the look of indignation on his leader face though the look was ruined by the twitching at the corner of his lips.

"You're the one who's vain. You took nearly a shichen just to groom your hair today!" his da-shixiong retorted back before kicking the table. Jiuxiao only had time to grab his bowl of red bean soup before the plate of pastries went careening through the air. But before the delicious goodies fell to the floor, his da-shixiong grabbed the plate and its precious cargo in mid-air and skipped towards the door with a triumphant laugh.

"Ah-Xu!"

"Shu-gege! Mean!"

Jiuxiao gaped as the two newest additions to the Manor shouted after his da-shixiong in indignation. The dining hall immediately burst into noise after they left, all the disciples clambering to talk about what just happened.

"Did you see that!?"

"He was so fast!"

"Er-shixiong!? I didn't know we had an er-shixiong?"

"...can rival Zhuang-zhu's speed!"

Jiuxiao continued blinking in shock, putting the pastry he was still holding into his mouth.

It really was yummy.

So was the sweet bean soup.

*********

Jiuxiao was washing his face, having just finished afternoon practice, when a hand tugged at his robes. He turned to look and was surprised to see little Gu Xiang standing behind him without his er-shixiong in sight.

"Gege, carry!" demanded the little girl, chubby cheeks puffing out as she pouted at him, lifting her arms with her fingers opening and closing in a grabbing motion.

"Erm," Jiuxiao hesitated, having never carried a baby or a toddler before.

"Carry meeeee..." the girl insisted, hopping on her tippy toes.

Afraid that the toddler would start crying, he quickly carried her as best as he knew how but he hadn't needed to worry as the little girl adjusted herself in his grip to settle in more comfortably.

"Xiao-gege find Gege," she ordered, "Gege lost."

"What-? Oh, you mean you can't find Wen-shixiong," he asked. She shook her head.

"Gege lost. Find Gege," she insisted, "Not Wen-shishi."

Jiuxiao was confused for a while before realising that she would have no idea who the name Wen-shixiong was referring to.

"Alright," he said, nodding obligingly. "Let's go look for Wen-- er... Gege, okay?"

The first place they went to was the kitchen as Wen-shixiong had taken to cooking since his recovery. Most of the bulk of the cooking still fell on the other disciples on duty but ever since Wen-shixiong became in charge of the kitchen, their food became more palatable and nutritious. According to one of the elders that he overheard, er-shixiong had training in medicine so he tends to incorporate healthy recipes into their diet.

Jiuxiao was definitely not complaining on the upgrade in their daily meals and he knew that the other disciples and elders share the same opinion.

Unfortunately for the two Gege-seekers, the kitchen was devoid of er-shixiong. There was, however, a large tray of freshly made pine pollen honey cake. The sight of it made Jiuxiao's mouth salivate but he looked away quickly to remove the temptation. Unfortunately, the little girl in his arm did not have the same self control.

"Cake!"

She squirmed and Jiuxiao held on a little too tight, afraid that he might drop her.

"Xiao-gege! I want cake!"

"Ah, Xiangxiang! We shouldn't," he said, trying to pacify her while panicking inwardly, "If we ate these without permission, Wen-shixiong might get angry."

"Xiao-gege, Xiangxiang hungry...," she whined and then to his horror, started crying pitifully, looking up at him with large eyes dripping with tears. "Hungry, gege."

He folded like wet paper.

********

He tried to clean up her face as much as he could but the pine pollen left a sticky trail of yellow that was quite telling on her face and skirt where she wiped her little fingers before Jiuxiao could clean it up. He despaired that his er-shixiong would have his head for letting her eat more than quarter of the tray of cakes.

For someone so small, she could really eat.

He had to admit though, that the cakes were very delicious. He had quite a few himself.

After eating, she insisted that they play, running out into the courtyard where the junior disciples were training. Jiuxiao thought briefly, slightly hysterically to be honest, that she seemed to have forgotten about looking for her Gege, who was probably looking for her in turn.

The disciples gathered around her, training seemingly forgotten as she demanded to play. Jiuxiao tried to stop her.

"Xiangxiang, all the disciples...er..geges need to do their training," he tried to explain but the little girl wasn't having it.

"Please Xiao-gege," she said, eyes wide with her lips trembling. "Xiangxiang want to play. Xiangxiang always play alone."

Jiuxiao heard one of the disciples make a sound of dismay and knew instantly that it was a losing battle.

"Maybe just one game," he conceded hesitantly.

*******

A shichen (1) and several games later, the little girl suddenly declared that she wanted a lantern.

"A bunny lantern!" she insisted imperiously from Jiuxiao's arms. The other disciples started to discuss where they could get one. Their visit to the nearest village market is only schedule once every moon so it would not be easy to get one at so short a notice. One of the disciples suggested making one and the suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm. Xiangxiang, as she was now dubbed by all the junior disciples, was practically wriggled in his arms with excitement.

"Ah-Xiang! Are you bothering your geges!"

Wen-shixiong appeared from the corner with a swirl of his verdant robes. He grabbed the squirming toddler from Jiuxiao, who instantly experienced a feeling of loss at the absence of the comfortable, warm weight.

"Gege!" Xiangxiang greeted happily, hugging er-shixiong.

Wen-shixiong made a face at her state, the smudges of pine pollen cake on her face, the mud on her knees when she fell while running and the general disarray of her once-neat ruqun. He took out his handkerchief with a tsk.

"Did you con your Xiao-gege into giving you cake?" his er-shixiong scolded gently, wiping her sticky mouth with his handkerchief.

"No..." she pouted cutely, shaking her head.

"Don't lie, I know your kind of behaviour. Manipulative little devil," Wen-shixiong says in a mock reprimand. Jiuxiao panicked at the tears the appears in little Xiangxiang's eyes.

"Ah, Wen-shixiong. Xiangxiang didn't ask me to give her any sweets. I gave it to her myself," he said, taking the blame on himself. Wen-shixiong gave him an unimpressed and unconvinced look.

"Let me guess. She looked at the cake, then looked at you and give you big eyes filled with tears and you gave in," he said accurately.

"Ahhh," Jiuxiao replied awkwardly, tellingly. When put that way, he really couldn't deny that he had fallen for the little girl's puppy dog eyes hook, line and sinker.

"Normally, I wouldn't stop you from spoiling Ah-Xiang but it's near dinner time. If she's too full of sweet, she won't be able to have a good meal," the older boy said, still rubbing his handkerchief on a protesting Xiangxiang's face.

"Ah sorry, er-shixiong," Jiuxiao said, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly.

"No! Don't scold Xiao-gege!" Ah Xiang smacked her sticky hands on to Wen-shixiong's face. "Don't be mean to Xiao-gege, Gege!"

"Ah-Xiang! You naughty girl! You are all sticky! You need a bath!"

"NOOOOOO," the little girl whined pitifully, squirming to get away from her brother, who miraculously managed to not drop her. "XIAO-GEGE, HELP MEEEEEE!!!"

Jiuxiao made an aborted movement to grab the girl but stopped when he realised that he couldn't just take the little girl away no matter how much he wanted to. He gave the wiggling toddler a sad look as his er-shixiong took her away for the aforementioned bath, all the while reprimanding her for snacking before dinner.

"Sorry, Xiangxiang," he said forlornly as the other disciples made disappointed sounds at the departure of their littlest playmate.

******

Later, a freshly cleaned Xiangxiang sat between his da-shixiong and er-shixiong, pouting adorably at having had to take a bath when she didn't want to. When Wen-shixiong lifted her bowl to feed her, she turned away and pointed at Jiuxiao.

"I want Xiao-gege to feed me," she said with a pout. Jiuxiao perked up, eyes wide. He was about to volunteer to do so when er-shixiong tsk-ed at her.

"Ah-Xiang, don't be naughty," er-shixiong said sternly, scooping a bite of rice and meat into her mouth when she opened her mouth to protest. "Your Xiao-gege needs to eats too. Now don't talk while you chew."

Seeing as Wen-shixiong had his hands full feeding his little sister, da-shixiong lifted his bowl to feed er-shixiong. From da-shixiong's own bowl and with his own chopsticks.
Wen-shixiong accepted it easily, eyes never straying from his little sister. Then da-shixiong took a bite himself before feeding the next bite to er-shixiong.

They looked like a young couple with a child. Except they were both too young to be married, much less have a child that age. Still, Jiuxiao was hard press to get that impression out of his head.

"Ah-Xiang ah, you must be a good girl," da-shixiong said fondly, "your Gege is always worried about you. You shouldn't be naughty or he will only be more worried. You don't want that, do you?"

"Un," the little girl muttered, shaking her head vehemently. The little shiny beads Wen-shixiong plaited into her hair tinkled against each other. Jiuxiao remembered his da-shixiong buying those little accessories at the nearby market, mere days after the two newcomers' arrival.

"You too," the little girl said back to his da-shixiong.

"Hm?" the Manor Lord raised an eyebrow.

"You be good too," Xiangxiang said imperiously." Gege loves Shu-gege too. Shu-gege be good too so Gege don't worry."

His da-shixiong's smile widen and his eyes goes so soft that Jiuxiao blinked his suddenly prickling eyes. He doesn't even know why he reacted this way but in the face of his da-shixiong's happiness, could he feel anything but touched?

"Mn. Both of us should be good for Gege," his usually strict and taciturn da-shixiong said happily, smiling widely, "So Gege won't worry about us."

"Mn," Xiangxiang nodded, "Everyone be good so Gege won't worry."

Then she turned to Jiuxiao.

"Xiao-gege too."

"Okay," Jiuxiao said, laughing softly. "Xiao-gege will be good." Then he looked over to Wen-shixiong to see the older teen looking fondly at him with a wide smile.

Jiuxiao couldn't help but return the smile equally brightly.

******

After dinner, the disciples were all given delicious pine pollen honey cakes. Jiuxiao was given only a small piece but he shared it anyway with his little Xiang-meimei, who was being punished for eating too much cake and thus, was given none. The toothy smile she gave him made the scolding he got for neglecting his training all afternoon worthwhile.

******

The next morning, Jiuxiao counted at least 12 rabbit lanterns (including the one he himself made the night before) of all sizes and shapes hanging in front of the Manor Lord's chambers, all crudely made. It was evident that they were hastily made but little Xiangxiang loved them all anyway.

End Chapter 1