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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

Chapter Text

"I'm planning to go to the capital next month," Zhou Zishu says as Wen Kexing brushed his hair. It's a ritual of sort now. No one else is allowed to brush his hair except his (future/past?) husband and vice versa.

"Alright," came the easy answer.

Too easy. It made Zhou Zishu extremely suspicious. Lao Wen never liked it when he talked about the capital and Jin Wang. It was clear to Zhou Zishu that Lao Wen was paranoid about the Crown Prince's attention on his (future/past?) husband.

"Really?" Zhou Zishu turned around to face his soulmate, who gave him a bemused look.

"Yes," he said airily, "Now turn back around so I can finish, Zhou-Daren."

Zhou Zishu did as he was told, still suspicious of his conniving husband.

After a moment of silence, his curiousity got the better of him.

"Alright," Zhou Zishu said, "What is it you want?"

"I want to go with you," Wen Kexing answered quickly, as if he was already expecting that question. "I want to go shopping with Ah-Xiang. So I'm going with you but you are on your own when it comes to visiting your *relatives*. "

Zhou Zishu thought about protesting but this was his (future/past) husband, who did what he liked to do even when it displeased Zhou Zishu. If he told him no, he would just find another way to follow him, just like he did when they first met in their past life. Best to just go along with it so he could keep an eye on him.

"Alright," he finally agreed, making a mental note to take more money with him so that his Wen-Laopo and Xiang-meimei would not wail about not being taken care of.

*******

So Zhou Zishu goes to the capital, and meets Jing Beiyuan at 18 years old again. For the first time once more. (1)

He leaves Jing Beiyuan with a calling card of sort and an open invitation to visit the Manor whenever he *needed*.

He doesn't do the same with Helian Yi, despite that man's obvious interest in him.

He has more pressing matters to attend to.

Zhou Zishu knows at this moment in time, Han Ying is around 13 years of age and is working in a stable near the capital gates. In a few years, Han Ying will join the army and gain skills and a little notoriety that will attract Zishu's attention as the Leader of Tian Chuang.

It took him a few tries to find him but he does by the sixth day.

Even though he is much younger than when he first met him in his past life, Zhou Zishu recognised him instantly.

*********

Han Ying was having a bowl of noodles in a stall when a man sat down beside him without warning.

Thinking it was someone he knew, he looked up and blinked.

Han Ying looked at the man carefully, taking in the rich clothes, confident demeanor and expectant manner. However, Han Ying kept quiet, waiting for the man watching him to talk. He clearly wanted to say something so Han Ying patiently waited.

"You're thinking of joining the army reserves," the young master finally said.

Han Ying's breath hitched.

"Yes, how did you know...?" he asked in shock.

"You'll be wasted there," the young master said, "Come join me at Four Seasons Manor instead."

Han Ying's eyes widen. Who hasn't heard of the Four Seasons Manor and it's infamously reclusive young master?

It was the talk of the capital when the Manor Lord repeatedly rejected any offer of a position to work within the inner court even when summoned. According to gossip, no one can travel in and out of the manor barrier except those conducting business with them like the merchants, who would come back out with exaggerated stories of charismatic lords and amazing inventions. Han Ying usually just listened to these stories with a pinch of salt but it was still great entertainment.

"Who are you?" Han Ying asked in shock.

"I am Zhou Zishu, the Lord of the Four Seasons Manor," the young man said, confirming his suspicion. Han Ying swallowed, partially from fear, partially from incredulity.

"Why?" Han Ying couldn't help the wariness that coloured his words. He was a nobody. Just an orphan boy who had no one to rely on. No talent, no education, no skills. Why is the genius Lord of a great sect such as the Four Seasons Manor recruiting him?

"You can join me and find out or you can decline and wonder for the rest of your life," the man leaned closer with a small smile. "It's your choice but I would be glad to have you as my disciple."

"A...a disciple," Han YIng repeated after him in shock. "Me?"

Lord Zhou chuckled.

"Of course," he said, "I've been watching you. You are diligent, quick and intelligent. You just need a chance to prove yourself. A chance to learn."

Han Ying was utterly struck silent, still thinking a mile a minute at the offer of a lifetime. He looked back at Lord Zhou, dressed distinguishably in formal regalia.

"So? Are you willing to take that chance?"

*******

Not for the first time, Han Ying wondered what he had gotten himself into.

He was waiting in front of the grand inn that Lord Zhou informed him that he was staying at while in the capital. He paced a little while waiting for the young lord to come out. He didn't dare go into the opulent looking inn with his scruffy appearance so he stayed waiting outside. He was a little early for the appointed time of their departure but he was afraid that he would be late so he made sure to arrive half a shichen early.

After Lord Zhou left him that day, Han Ying went asking around to see if anyone knew anything about the Lord of the Four Seasons Manor visiting the capital.

Turns out the whole of the capital was buzzing with the gossip about the Lord. There were rumours that the reclusive Lord was looking for a wife in the capital and had attended a function to meet the available court ladies that were of marriageable age. There were other contradicting rumours about how the Lord arrived accompanied by a beautiful male concubine (1) who promptly bought out the supplies of one of the most prominent cloth shops in the capital. Well, according to the gossip mill, more than one shop has been bought out.

Han Ying looked at all the carriages and carts that were waiting outside for Lord Zhou and could pretty much confirm the validity of that particular gossip. He could see at least one cart filled with tea and herbs. And three large carts packed to the brim with textiles of all coloured, primarily a navy shade of blue.

"Was it necessary to buy so much?"

Han Ying looked up when he heard the voice of Lord Zhou but the Master of the Four Seasons Manor was still lingering behind the doorway.

"Aiya, Ah-Xu. I told you that the disciples needed better textiles for their uniforms and you agreed, so I went ahead and bought all the supplies in that shade of blue that you like," another voice answered airily.

"I know that but I meant all the other purchases. Do you need 10 bolts of red embroidered cloth? Do we need that much for our wedding? " Lord Zhou's exasperated voice could be heard before the young Lord made his appearance at the front door. He was followed by a handsome youth holding the hand of a little girl.

"Ah-Xu! I told you I was going shopping and you said you were alright with it but now you want to complain about your future wife buying things for the household," the youth pouted prettily at the Manor Lord, who rolled his eyes but conceded anyway.

"Fine. Fine," Lord Zhou said, "Whatever my Wen-Laopo wants."

The youth's pout instantly transform into a victorious smile and he sidled to Lord Zhou to hold onto the Lord's arm and pecked his cheek.

Han Ying looked away with embarrassment, unused to the blatant display of affection. (3)

The movement attracted Lord Zhou's attention and the young Lord immediately made his way over with the youth, who was apparently his concubine in tow. The little girl followed too but she seem less interested in anything but the little stuffed toy in her arms.

"Zhou-Daren," Han Ying immediately bowed to the Lord but his arm was caught immediately before he could go as low as his station required.

"Han Ying! You came!"

Han Ying looked up in surprise as the one who spoke was the beautiful youth, who looked at him in fond recognition. This was all very confusing for Han Ying because he swore he had never met nor seen this youth before. He would remember a face like that.

"Han Ying," Lord Zhou greeted. "This is the Second Lord of the Four Season Manor, Wen Kexing. He is your Shishu now."

Han Ying's eyes went wide in surprise and he quickly bowed in greeting, cheeks burning. He had assumed the youth to be a mere concubine because of his flippant and flirtatious behaviour. This will teach him to assume things when he listens to gossip!

"Han-xiongdi," a gentle hand touched his arm to make him look up.

"It is good that you are joining us. Four Seasons Manor would be glad to have you with us," Wen Kexing said with a gentle smile and gleaming eyes.

**********

What Wen Kexing really means, is that both Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing is glad to have him BACK at Four Seasons Manor in this lifetime, safe and alive.

End Chapter 2

Chapter Text

Snowman

When Xiangxiang was three, her Gege packed up everything and took her away from that dark, smelly, scary place.

She didn't remember much of it. She just remembered huddling in a corner whenever Gege and Luo-yiyi was away so that no one could see her. She remembered crying frequently but after the first few times of being shouted at, getting smacked or worse, seeing her Gege get beaten because she couldn't stop crying, she learned to do it silently.

By the time she was six, she couldn't even remember what Luo-yiyi looked like anymore, except for her pretty white hair. Or what their room, where she spent most of her time, looked like anymore.

When she told Gege this one day, a few years after they've arrived at their bright, colourful, beautiful new home, Gege looked really happy.

"Good," he said, hugging her and giving her forehead a kiss. "Don't ever remember that nightmare."

Years later, when she was on the verge of becoming a woman, she wouldn't even remember that name or that place anymore. (That's all her Gege ever wanted for her.)

But she would always remember Gege building a snowman for her once in a dark and damp place. A little corner of their own where a small patch of clean snow had gathered. An oasis in the desert. Their little Eden.

Their first snowman was a small and lumpy thing with eyes of stone and spindly stick arms they'd scrounged from a dead tree nearby.

It was really ugly but she absolutely loved it.

She would always love it the best.

Xiangxiang told her Gege this during one of their annual snowman building competition and the competition had to be halted when Gege burst into tears and couldn't stop. His husband hugged him tightly and patted his back soothingly but Gege kept crying and hugging Xiangxiang, who kept apologising for making her Gege cry.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to make Gege cry."

"I'm not sad," Gege said, when he finally slowed his sobs to sniffles. "I'm just really, really happy."

But it took Gege a long time to compose himself after that. Even then, he had to sit down at the pavilion and couldn't participate in the competition because he was feeling too fragile to continue. So Shu-gege took her hands and led her back to the courtyard.

"Come on, let's make a big snowman for your Gege," said Shu- gege coaxingly.

****

Xiangxiang didn't like Shu-gege at first.

When they first arrived at their new home, Xiangxiang thought that Shu-gege took away all of Gege's attention.

Gege had always been gentle with Xiangxiang and no one else, so she didn't like it when Gege kept looking at Shu-gege and touching him. It didn't help matters that Shu-gege returned the looks and the touches just as much.

So Xiangxiang pouted and ignored Shu-gege even though it made Gege frown at her.

But he was so nice to Gege, taking care of Gege when he was sick, kissing his hurt feet and making Gege laugh. It always made Xiangxiang smile, Gege's laugh.

Shu-gege also gave Xiangxiang food and soft head pats even when Xiangxiang was being mean to Shu-gege.

Then Gege told her than Shu-gege was very important and will always be as important to Gege as Xiangxiang was but that didn't mean that Shu-gege will take Gege away. It just means that there will be one more gege to love Xiangxiang.

After that, Xiangxiang started talking to Shu-gege. Sometimes, she talked more to Shu-gege than to Gege, who was always busy cooking, studying and writing. Shu-gege was always with Xiao-gege, Ying-gege and Bi-shugong so he always had time to listen to her.

Shu-gege was really bad at telling stories though but that's okay because it always made Gege laugh at Shu-gege. And Gege's laugh is the best.

*****

In their new home, Xiangxiang had a lot of playmates. All the disciple geges were nice to her, played with her and shared their sweets with her.

Sometimes Shu-gege would scold them for spending too much time playing with her when they should be training and she should be studying but Shu-gege always gave in to her tears. He would call her a 'rascal' and a 'spoiled brat' but he would always pat her head and smile.

It is Gege that would punish her with writing (she hated it!) when he finds out that she misbehaved but Xiangxiang always get tanghulu and other desserts from him after she finished her punishment so it really wasn't so bad.

Sometimes, Bi-shugong, Cheng-shugong and the others would slip her candy if they could get away with it without Gege finding out and Shu-gege would look away if he saw them giving her the packets of candy.

Gege didn't like Xiangxiang eating too much candy because it made her sick once before so she makes sure to share with the other geges.

Xiangxiang likes her new home. No one beats her or Gege here. She doesn't have to hide in the corner and cry quietly. And she always had food to eat.

******

On the first day of snow in their first year there, she got to build a huge snowman with a long blue scarf tied around its neck with Shu-gege and her Gege in front of their rooms so that she could see it everyday for as long as she could.

Then Shu-gege announced a snowman making competition for the disciples but Xiangxiang didn't know what it meant until she was asked to judge the participants.

Xiangxiang was so excited that she jumped and clapped her hands at the sight when she arrived at the courtyard where the disciples had gathered to participate in the competition.

The entire courtyard looked like it had been invaded by an army of snowmen, big and small, tall and wide.

It was amazing.

And even though some of the snowmen would be destroyed not too long after because of a massive snowball fight, she would always remember that first sight walking into that courtyard.

Her first snowman and her first snowman army would become her most cherished memories even when she became a woman, became an adult, became a mother and have children of her own.

End of Chapter 3

Chapter Text

Bi Changfeng, or Bi-shushu as he was known to the disciples of Four Seasons Manor, was generally an easy going man. Well, in his opinion, in comparison with the other elders, he was a very easy going man.

Though sometimes, he wondered if he tolerated too much nonsense from his peers. He watched said peers with a judging look as they gossiped and bickered about their new leader as soon as their new young leader left the room. He shook his head at them, lips thinned as his colleagues whispered about how inexperienced and unsuitable their new leader was.

"What a load of bullshit," Cheng Xiu spat in annoyance once they had retreated to the privacy of Bi Changfeng's office for some tea. "If the late Zhuang-zhu has decided that Zhou brat will become the leader, what should it matter what the other elders want. Those old codgers should just shut up and sit their asses down."

Bi Changfeng thought that it was rich that Cheng Xiu was conveniently exempting himself from 'those old codgers'. His friend was a crude, blunt man who doesn't sugar coat his words. It was part of the reason why Qin Huaizhang had valued Cheng Xiu's opinion so much. It was also why they were such good friends even though they were both so vastly different personality wise.

"Haiya! Huaizhang was still so young," his friend said with a sigh. "It really should have been our funerals that he arranges, not us his."

Bi Changfeng couldn't help but agree with that. It really was such a pity. And then to lose Madam Qin so soon after was a blow to the Manor. They had such a young son too, now an orphan.

And furthermore, with the Manor at odds with so many sects in the Jianghu, their situation was precarious to say the least. With the inauguration of a new leader, the sect would usually be celebrating but given the circumstances, their young leader was met with grim, skeptical looks.

Some of the elders think that Qin Huaizhang's child, Jiuxiao, should be the one inheriting even though he was even younger still. Their argument was that he was the direct descendant and therefore more 'suitable' for the position. However, Bi Changfeng knew that this was just a bid for the elders to get more power and influence over the new Manor Lord. If the Manor's position was in any better position among the Jianghu, Bi Changfeng knew for sure that the elders would have made more effort on that front.

To be honest, Bi Changfeng doesn't know if Zhou Zishu could have done anything if they did, given his youth and inexperience, though Bi Changfeng at least knew for sure that Zishu would have him and Cheng Xiu on his side.

"He's young," Bi Changfeng said, referring to their new lord, "but he's brilliant. Just needs to experience life a little so that he knows how to make his own judgement. Then he won't have to listen to us bunch of old men trying to clamor for his attention."

"I hope to live long enough to see that and when that happens...," Cheng Xiu said with a chuckle, "Mark my words! That boy is gonna show up those old codgers and make a difference!".

*****

Lao Cheng really does have a golden tongue, Bi Changfeng thought to himself.

Just a day after their conversation, their young leader called for a meeting out of the blue. When he arrived, Bi Changfeng was thrown off guard by his informal dressing and semi-loose hair, which was borderline disrespectful to his position as a sect leader. He had been so formal, perhaps too formal, before. What had changed?

Then he spoke, handing papers listing strategies that they would use for the Manor's new defenses, improvements to be done on the pre-existing defense systems and schematics for trapping mechanisms.

Bi Changfeng only needed to take a brief glimpse to see that they were well thought-out plans that would have probably taken weeks if not months to think of and plan. However, it was the way he spoke that took most of Bi Changfeng's attention.

His words were clear, concise and eloquent with a soft voice that carried through the room and a tone that was respectful but commanding. He spoke like a true leader. Like he had no doubt that he would be heard and obeyed.

It was a change from the day before, where he would listen to the elders more than speak his mind. Bi Changfeng knew that he was constantly worried that making the wrong decision would cost the occupants of the Manor their lives. But it seemed that he had reached a decision the night before and came up with more than one plan to save them from the sharks circling their home.

Bi Changfeng approved of the decisiveness and the change in demeanor but he could already see some dissension among the elders.

"With all due respect, Zhuang-zhu," Li Ching said, almost simpering. Bi Changfeng could see Cheng Xiu's lips curl in obvious disgust. "But are you sure these designs will work?"

The young Lord tilted his head, not answering for a moment. Then he spoke, in the same tone that he had adopted since the start of the meeting.

"Are you questioning my judgement?"

Bi Changfeng wasn't the only one taken aback by the abruptness of the question, which sounded almost rude for Zishu, who had always been deferential to the elders' opinions. Now he sounded almost like he didn't care for them at all.

"Ah no," Li Ching said, trying to sound placating but Bi Changfeng could tell that he thrown off by the change in behaviour. "I just think that perhaps we should review these-"

"I was not aware that I was asking for your opinion on the plans," the young man interrupted. "Should I make it clearer that this is an order? Because I thought that I was being very specific in my instructions."

There was a bout of silence. Bi Changfeng shot a glance at Cheng Xiu, who was valiantly (but failing badly) trying not to laugh at Li Ching's gobsmacked expression.

"Yes, of course, Zhuang-zhu," to Li Ching's credit, he recovered quickly to simper again.

Bi Changfeng definitely did NOT imagine that eye-roll from his leader.

"Don't worry," Zhou Zishu said with a condescending smile, "I will personally test the mechanisms when it is completed so that you don't have to lose any limbs."

Clever, Bi Changfeng thought, this way Zishu could make sure that the instructions were followed to the letter and that there was no chances of ill-advised foul play.

*****

Cheng Xiu burst into laughter the moment they arrived at his office and Bi Changfeng was pretty sure he did that deliberately as the other elders were still shuffling outside the shared courtyard heading towards their respective rooms.

"Did you see that old fox's face! It was hilarious!"

Bi Changfeng couldn't help the smile that he had valiantly tried to keep tempered during the meeting from spreading on his lips in the privacy of his own office. When he remembered the sour expression that Li Ching adopted after that encounter, he started chuckling himself.

"That was certainly a change," he said finally, after the laughter subsided.

"Yes," Lao Cheng said, "Almost like he is a completely different person."

"Maybe he was just bidding his time while he planned," Bi Changfeng replied. It would certainly be like Zishu. That boy had always been cautious and somewhat cunning. He was just never sure of himself enough to show it or never found the need to yet.

"If he did, he certainly showed us up!' Cheng Xiu said with a laugh. "Those plans. I never would have thought them up in a hundred years! He really is a genius!"

Bi Changfeng nodded in agreement as he poured the tea.

"Whatever happens next, I'm looking forward to it!" his friend announced, lifting his tea cup in a mock salute. Bi Changfeng lifted his own to clink their cups together. He too was looking forward to see what the future brings.

*****

Surprising absolutely no one, the trapping arrays worked perfectly. The sieges on the sect lessened as more traps go up, each one designed meticulously by the Lord of the Manor.

The stragglers that make it through was then treated to hospitality from their very own sect leader and his infamous Baiyi sword. Once or twice, their leader would drag one of them into the Manor to be interrogated just so they could gather intel on the outside world. Since the death of their previous leader, the Four Seasons Manor had been in isolation.

When Zhou Zishu really took the mantle of the leader (since that fateful meeting), they actively became secluded. No one from Jianghu could bypass their parameters without receiving permission from the Manor Lord. And none had managed to do so yet.

******

Everything got better after that.

Of course, there was still comments here and there, but after the elders watched their young Lord cut out an interloper's tongue for being too rude and spitting at an elder during an interrogation, they subsided.

Bi Changfeng personally thought that the part where he force-fed it back to the would-be-attacker with nary a change in expression was what clinched the deal. That boy could be brutal if pushed. And clearly, he suffered no disrespect to his person nor to his people.

One day, two newcomers (a brother and a sister, reportedly) joined the Manor and for some reason, Li Ching and his cronies decided to make noise about their newest additions.

"It's not proper! For the Manor Lord to have another boy sleeping in his rooms!"

Bi Changfeng wondered why they conveniently forgot about the little girl that was also rooming in the same chambers.

According Jiuxiao, she was a chirpy little thing who was a delight to be around. Bi Changfeng had seen her from a far and had even spied Lao Cheng sneaking her some candy once. He had fun ribbing his old friend about it for days but Lao Cheng didn't even look embarrassed about it. In fact, he looked proud to be called Cheng-shugong.

"I like that boy," Cheng Xiu said, interrupting the tirade, "Very polite. Minds his sister very well."

"That's not the point!" Li Ching snapped, his expression showing that he was at his wits' end.

"Then what is the point?"

All of the gathered elders turned to see their illustrious leader, face stony and cold.

Bi Changfeng's lips pressed together to hold the smile that was threatening to break out as Li Ching paled.

The young leader of the Manor then rolled his eyes at them and walked pass them to sit at his table.

"I see the rumour mill has been very active these days," their leader said in annoyance. "Since you all have time to rant and bicker like fishmongers' wives at a market, I shall delegate most of my work to all of you. I'm sure you can manage without supervision."

"Zhuang-zhu," Lu Yan said when the other elders shot each other looks of confusion but remained quiet, "Are you leaving?"

"No," Zhou Zishu said, dividing his papers and scrolls in stacks. "I'll be taking leave for a while to take care of Kexing."

"Kexing?" Bi Changfeng asked, mouth moving without him realising. Zishu looked up at him and his annoyance seem to lessen.

"Yes. Wen Kexing. He used to be known as Zhen Yan, the 2nd disciple that Shifu took before he disappeared," Zishu answered. Almost offhandedly. So much so that Bi Changfeng was a little thrown by how nonchalant he was, given his answer.

"The heir of the Divine hands?" Bi Changfeng asked.

"The heir of the Healer Valley," Zhou Zishu confirmed. "His identity is a secret because the people who murdered his parents are still out there so he changed his name."

"But," Lu Yan was wide-eyed when he asked; "Where has he been all these years?"

"He was abducted by those unsavory individuals that killed his parents. He couldn't get free himself until recently with a little girl he now calls his sister," Zishu said as he continued to pile his work neatly into stacks.

"Sir, with all due respect. I'm not questioning your judgement but how do you know if he truly is who he claimed to be?" Lu Yan asked, "You have only met him once and been separated since."

"I know him. He is my soulmate. My person," their leader said, with such a serious countenance that none of them could doubt the validity of his words. "I will not have any of you questioning his place beside me."

The elders looked at each other, not sure what to think of the identity of the newest arrival. On one hand, housing the heir of the healing genius couple would surely benefit the Manor but to have their leader so outwardly lay claim on another so suddenly was shocking, especially one who is still just a boy.

"If everyone is done sticking their necks into my personal business," their leader said with an annoyed twist to his lips, "then take these papers and finish them for me. I'm behind already."

They shuffled forward in tandem to retrieve their delegated work. Bi Changfeng was slightly annoyed to see that Cheng Xiu's stack was smaller than his.

"Before anyone leaves, I have one last thing to say," their leader said at the end of the meeting, right at the moment he should be dismissing them.

"I think I don't need it to be said that what was revealed here today can NOT be mentioned outside this room," their leader said with an expression did not bode well for anyone who had loose lips. "You are all my closest advisors. I would hate to cut down any of you for breach of my trust."

Then Zishu gave them a cold smile that promised that death would be easier for anyone who was caught betraying him and the manor. He knew they were thinking about the man who gurgled as their leader sliced his tongue and force-fed it to him for merely being unable to hold his tongue from uttering profanities.

For the first time in a long while, Bi Changfeng felt a shiver of fear creep up his spine as the temperature in the room seemed to drop.

"You are all dismissed."

*****

Bi Changfeng thinned his lips in annoyance as the others clamored for him to be one of the four to test the Wen child. Understandable, since Bi Changfeng and Cheng Xiu was the two most proficient martial artists amongst the elders but it was still annoying.

Zishu had called for another meeting two weeks after that fateful meeting where he threatened to cut them down if any of them decided to blab without care for their words. He told them that Wen Kexing had agreed to a friendly spar with four elders 'to prove his worth'.

This was said in a very light tone that Bi Changfeng could tell was meant to be mocking. It was clear, to him at least, that Wen Kexing had already proven his worth to the leader a thousand times over and was, at the moment, worth more than some of the elders that were getting to his nerves with all their tongue-wagging. Their only saving grace was that no word of the boy's presence had slipped outside the Manor walls. Bi Changfeng had no doubts that Zishu would do as he promised if even a whisper had made its way to the outside.

To be fair, Bi Changfeng was sure none of the elders would even dream of doing so. Some of the elders were arseholes but they were not idiots. There was nothing advantageous letting other sects know that they were sheltering the heir of the Healer Valley. It would only serve to put the sect at risk.

"Lao Bi! You must agree with what I said," Li Ching said and Bi Changfeng returned to the present with an irritated grimace at the annoying elder.

"No, I don't have to agree with what you said," he returned automatically, without knowing or caring what that old bat had just said. Li Ching's indignant look only served to make him want to be even more contrary.

"Lao Bi," Cheng Xiu called, "Join in! I want to see how good that boy is!"

"Fine. Fine," he replied his friend. Bi Changfeng felt an unhealthy amount of satisfaction as witnessing Li Ching's annoyance tenfold at his words.

He wondered how good that boy really is.

*****

"Gathered elders, Wen Kexing greets everyone a good afternoon," the youth, maybe 15 years old, saluted in respect.

Bi Changfeng was gratified with the amount of consideration afforded to them despite the circumstances. No other disciple had been treated with such blatant discourtesy upon their admission into the sect yet this poor boy, who had already suffered from the loss of his parents and an abduction, was showing such respect for these old codgers who bickered among themselves merely because he was their Lord's chosen.

"Bi Changfeng greets Young Master Wen," he said, bowing lower than his station required as a compensation for their sheer audacity for making the teen fight for his place at the Manor when their late leader had already pre-determined it. When he looked up, he could see that the boy's smile had become a tad more authentic.

"I will be your first opponent," Bi Changfeng continued with an equally amicable smile, trying to convey that not all the elders present were arseholes.

"Ah, that," the youth said, unfurling his fan smoothly, "I think we can forego that and do a melee instead."

"What?" Lao Cheng asked in surprise before Bi Changfeng could himself, "As in all four of us against you alone?"

"Yes," the handsome youth said easily with a confident smile.

"Are you sure?" Bi Changfeng asked, thrown off guard by the request. The other elders looked at each other in disbelief.

"I've been sitting and sleeping for so long, I need to stretch myself a little now that Ah-Xu has allowed me to leave his bed," the Wen boy said audaciously, in a teasing tone.

"Shameless!" Bao Qing said, pointing his sword at the child in indignation.

Bi Changfeng swore he heard a snort from his leader but when he turned to him, Zhou Zishu had a straight face that revealed nothing.

The Wed child fanned himself, smile not wavering even when faced with the enraged looks from the elders.

"It will save time and then I can go make a nice meal for my Ah-Xu since he hasn't eaten my cooking for a while now," he said carelessly.

Since Bi Changfeng was still turned towards his leader, he had a good view of the young Lord's face changing to mirth at the taunt before he schooled it back to nod seriously.

"Yes, please make this quick," Zishu said, "Lao Wen's cooking is very good. I'd like to have a meal with my future husband tonight so please make haste."

Bi Changfeng actually stepped back in shock, now completely thrown off by the uncharacteristic behaviour his leader was displaying. Were these two trying to give the collective elders heart attacks!?

The other elders were slack jawed, mouth gaping so wide it was as if they were in a competition to see whose jaw would hit the floor first.

"Well? Don't keep me waiting," the arrogant little brat said with a cheeky smile.

After a moment of hesitation, Bi Changfeng unsheathed his sword. If the leader had confidence that the Wen kid can take all of them at the same time, then it would be at the height of discourtesy to give anything less than his best.

*****

The child disarmed Lao Bao easily with his fan and in a move so fast their eyes couldn't follow, disabled the movement of his arm via acupuncture points. Then, he rotated smoothly and performed a maneuver that brought Bao Qing down onto the ground hard.

Bi Changfeng had a glancing thought that Lao Bao was guaranteed going to complain about his aching waist tomorrow.

Having stripped Lao Bao of his sword, the boy then used it to perform the Eighteen moves of Qiuming perfectly on the rest of them. There was no question to his identity after that.

But what was truly impressive was how well he utilised it to defeat four expert martial artists who was stronger, larger and more experienced.

"Ah, the young ones are getting really scary these days," Lao Cheng said, rubbing his shoulder where the young Wen kid had struck his acupuncture points with 2 fingers, disabling the feeling and strength of his right arm.

Bi Changfeng couldn't help but agree. He had landed hard on his knee after being disarmed seven moves in and he was sure that he would have a large black bruise on his knee tomorrow.

"Cheng-qianbei. Bi-qianbei."

The two doddering elderlies turned to the Wen child.

No, Bi Changfeng told himself, this boy is Kexing. He is now part of Four Seasons Manor. Zishu's second-in-charge and future spouse. He deserves the respect.

"Young Master Wen," they both greeted back, saluting.

"You gave us a great showing," Bi Changfeng said to the smiling youth.

"Thank you, qianbei." the youth replied. "Now perhaps let me take a look at your shoulder, Cheng-qianbei?"

Lao Cheng frowned in confusion. Then, he waved his hand dismissively. "This? This is nothing!"

Wen Kexing's fair countenance adopted a reprimanding expression.

"Cheng-qianbei. It might be nothing now but it will result in more pain and aches for you further down the line."

Lao Cheng was still rubbing his shoulders so Bi Changfeng knew that Kexing was right in his assessment. Given that his predicament was caused by the youth himself, Bi Changfeng was fairly certain the boy can undo the damage so he persuaded his friend.

"Just let him take a look," he said to the stubborn man, who looked as if he wanted to protest but decided to relent when he saw their leader approaching.

"Fine," Lao Cheng grumbled. Then he sat down cross-legged on the ground. Kexing knelt behind him and in three moves, perfectly pressured on the acupuncture points, Lao Cheng's face instantly cleared of any discomfort. "Huh. That was good."

"I do my best, qianbei," Kexing said as humbly as he could given his complacent smile.

"Now if only you can do something for my knee," Bi Changfeng grumbled. Zhou Zishu, who had now joined them, gave Bi Changfeng a crooked smile that wordlessly conveyed: Feeling old?

Sometimes, Bi Changfeng missed the days where he could put this kid over his knee and switch his bottom.

"I apologise for being too rough on you, Bi-qianbei," Wen Kexing said, his face half-hidden behind his fan. Bi Changfeng had a feeling that he had caught the look Zishu had sent him and was valiantly trying not to smile.

"No, no. You did well, kid," Lao Cheng said honestly. "You really taught us old codgers not to underestimate anyone just because of their youth."

"Thank you, qianbei," Wen Kexing said with a polite bow, "But to be frank, I would not have fared so well if it was a one to one."

"Why not?" Bi Changfeng asked, curious.

"My stamina and strength are still lacking," he explained truthfully. "I can only perform the Eighteen Moves of Qiuming once at this moment. So it was best if I faced all four of you at the same time."

So their leader and his second must have decided beforehand that a short melee would be the best tactical move for a youth who was lacking the physical strength and stamina to win against four grown adults. Still, the fact that he could defeat them with just a fan was impressive.

"I am grateful for the privilege of exchanging hands with the elders of Four Seasons Manor," Wen Kexing said with a salute to the gathered elders. "This Kexing implores the elders for their kindness and guidance."

*****

In the next sect meeting, Bi Changfeng was not surprised to see the newly minted second disciple, Wen Kexing, seated beside their leader.

He had earned his place and there was nothing the elders can say to revoke it.

*****

 

Extra Scene

Bi Changfeng blinked at the little girl staring up at him in curiousity. He knelt down to be at eye-level with her. Normally his knees would crack in pain at the movement but ever since Kexing started sending him daily poultice for his knees, they were feeling better even during cold rainy nights.

"Hello. What is your name?" he asked kindly. The Four Seasons Manor had not seen a child this young for years so this girl must be the sister of Kexing.

"Hello," the girl greeted back with practiced politeness. "I'm Xiangxiang."

"Is Xiangxiang lost?" Bi Changfeng asked. The toddler shook her head.

"Find Shu-gege," she said matter-of-factly. "Gege busy. Cooking."

"Shu-gege?" he mumbled to himself. Who is Shu...oh, it must be Zishu.

"Well, I can take you to your Shu-gege," he said holding out his hand but the toddler shook her head.

"No." she said. "Gege say no follow people."

"Don't follow people?" Bi Changfeng repeated to himself in confusion.

"Don't know gonggong. So no follow," she said.

"Oh!" he exclaimed, suddenly understanding the sentiment. "You mean don't follow strangers. People you don't know."

The precocious little girl nodded, swaying on her feet lightly as if she wanted to leap away at anytime.

"Well, my name is..," he trailed off remembering the proud tilt of Lao Cheng's chin at being called Cheng-shugong. Then he said impulsively; "You can call me Bi-shugong."

The girl blinked at him. Then, she nodded.

"Okay, Bi-shugong," she greeted him with a dimpled smile. Bi Changfeng suddenly felt as if he had just won a large wager and could tell Lao Cheng to suck eggs.

"Okay," he repeated to her, "Now you know me and I can take you to your Shu-gege."

Xiangxiang thought for a while, tilting her head like a little kitten. Then she lifted her arms and he easily carried her up. Tian ah. This kid needs more food. She's way too light.

"Bi-shugong take me to Shu-gege!"

 

End Chapter 4

Chapter Text

Long Xiao, the current head of Long Yuan Pavillion, cursed aloud as his carriage jostled hard, nearly sending him tumbling within it's luxurious furnishing.

"You useless idiots!" he shouted venomously, "be careful out there!"

He stopped when he heard shouting from his men outside and was startled when the carriage came to a sudden stop with a hard jolt.

"What is going on! Someone! Come!" he demanded angrily but no reply came as the shouting and fighting continued. It didn't take long for the noises to stop but the silence was more disconcerting than the sound of battle was.

He watched the door with dread as they slammed open suddenly. Two tall figures stood against the sunlight streaming in.

"So there you are, you annoying little brat," the taller one says before slamming a fist right into his face.

****

In actuality, they didn't need Long Xiao to access the Long Yuan Pavilion but it had been years since they infiltrated the sect in their first life. Furthermore, they had only gotten to where they needed out of pure luck and a lot of explosives so the two of them decided that it would kill two birds with one stone by abducting Long Xiao to save Long-bobo.

But as expected, the little psychopath wasn't very cooperative and decided to take the long route by leading them into booby traps.

Out of annoyance, Zhou Zishu decided to let Wen Kexing drag the dwarf around to be their 'meat shield' after the third trap tried to turn them into pincushion. This had the desired effect as after the third arrow lodge itself into the foulmouthed sect leader's shoulder, Long Xiao finally stopped mocking them.

"You won't get out of here alive if I die," the annoying brat wheezed.

Wen Kexing snorted as he continued hoisting him around by his collar, blatantly ignoring the choking sounds that man was making when he tugged too hard.

"Whether you live or die, it makes no difference," Wen Kexing said arrogantly. "You never planned to let us get out of here anyway. "

Here, both Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing gave the irate dwarf identical looks that promised him equal measure of pain and death.

"And we never planned to let you leave alive either."

****

The days have long since bled together for Long Que since his own treacherous son had his men drag him down here and chained him in this god-forsaken cave. His legs are nothing but stumps now and his eyes could barely see from the constant darkness that he was in.

Still his son did not cease his persistent demands for Long Que to help him open the armoury. He even went as far as slowly killing his disciples and servants one by one.

Long Que spat out in disdain at that thought. As if he would ever help that beast! He deserved to crawl like the worm he was! He wished that he had drowned that monster the day he was born.

So when he heard voices coming from the opening of the cave, Long Que was already prepared to give his son a curse-filled, long-winded talking to (since it was the only thing he could do now, helpless as he was).

Long Que had long accepted that he would die in this miserable cave alone so when two interlopers appeared instead, dragging his son along with them, he could scarcely believe his eyes.

Long Xiao was bleeding profusely and making a lot of noise cursing the two young men, one dressed in blue, the other in green.

"Long-bobo, we're here to get you out," the young man in blue said with a gentle smile. The voice was very familiar, making Long Que squint hard trying to take in the blurry features of the young man.

"Zishu, is that you?" he asked hoarsely, throat dry from disuse and thirst.

"Sorry we're late. Your son had to be 'convinced'," the other young man said with a little grin, hoisting his horrible son by the collar and giving him a shake like he was an unruly kitten. The cursing started again so the young man unceremoniously dropped him face first onto the ground, hard.

"Zishu, Zishu, who is this young man? Your friend?" Long Que blindly lifted his withered hand out to the young man in blue, who obligingly came closer. Zishu caught his hand and patted it soothingly. Long Que held the hand as tight as his atrophied muscles allowed him. It had been such a long time since he had been touched by another person without being tortured. Zishu's grip was a like lifeline that convinced him that this wasn't merely a hallucination.

"This is Wen Kexing," Zishu introduced, "You know him from before as Zhen Yan, the son of Masters Zhen Ruyu and Gu Miaomiao."

"Yan-er...? Yan-er...?" Long Que repeated to himself as he looked towards other approaching young man. "Come here. Let me see you."

"Long-bobo," the young man greeted as he came closer to let Long Que touch his face and squint at his fine features. He could hardly recognise him as it had been years since he last saw his friend's child.

"Hoho, you've grown so big. So handsome. What a fine man you've become," Long Que said delightedly as tears flooded his eyes. He thought that he no longer had any tears to cry but he was proven wrong once again on this splendid day. Such a splendid day for great revelations! His friends' son and disciple, healthy and grown up, here to see him for a final time. What a day to die!

"Long-bobo," Zishu said, interrupting his scattered thoughts, "Let Ah-Xing take a look at your wounds before we take you back to Four Seasons Manor."

"Take me back..." Long Que parroted, turning back to the blurry image of Zishu. "Back to Four Seasons Manor?"

"Yes," Zishu said firmly, "That's why we are here."

Long Que laughed in disbelief. Leave this place? Where he thought he would die? Is this real? Is this really happening? He could scarcely believe it.

"Long-bobo," came a gentle call that broke Long Que from his quiet hysteria. "It'll just take a while."

He hardly noticed the gentle hands that touched the wounds on his shoulders (numbed from pain for a long time) and the gentle waves of qi that enveloped his back as the young healer catalogued his injuries.

"Zishu, Zishu, is this a dream?" Long Que asked, still grasping at Zhou Zishu's hands.

"No, Long-bobo, this is real," the young leader said, smiling encouragingly. Then he looked at his companion who finished diagnosing the elder's condition. Wen Kexing nodded at his soulmate with a small smile then addressed the elder.

"We will remove the chains first and then I'll put you in a healing sleep before Ah-Xu removes the hooks on your shoulders."

Long Que lifted his arms as far as he could so Zishu could break off his shackles. Then a pair of gentle hands landed on his head. Comfortable warmth enveloped him and he fell into a fugue state before his consciousness slipped away completely.

"Sleep, Long-bobo. You will be home soon."

****

When Long Que next opened his eyes, he was lying on a soft, warm bed. It took a while for his eyes to register anything but when it dawned on him what he was seeing, he stared in amazement.

He was no longer in the dark cave but a large room filled sparsely with elegant furnishing. A writing table made of dark mahogany sat at one corner with a large wooden chest made of the same material. There was an elegant screen painted with delicate bamboo stalks and a mahogany wardrobe peaking from behind it. It was a somewhat empty room but a tastefully decorated one in Long Que's opinion.

However, what really caught and held his attention was the sunlight streaming into the room from the window nearby. His eyes widened as he took in the sight of the swaying magnolia flowers peaking through from outside.

"You're awake. I'm glad," a soft voice said.

Hearing that, Long Que's watery eyes quickly landed on the figure entering the room with two small disciples, judging by their navy blue uniforms.

He couldn't see very well, his vision blurry from all those years inside that dark cave but vague recollections of what occurred in the cave placed the young man as Yan-er in his mind.

"Where am I?" the elder asked hoarsely. Am I in heaven, he wanted to ask.

To smell fresh air, to feel no pain, to lay in soft downy bed and hear the bird song.

It was like heaven to him.

"You are in the Four Seasons Manor," Yan-er, no, Xing-er told him. Long Que reminded himself that the boy probably changed his name to avoid detection from those that hunted his family years ago.

"I induced you in coma to keep you stable while we traveled here. You've been in a healing sleep for close to a month," Xing-er said. Long Que blinked slowly as he tried to come to terms with the information. Ah-Xing inspected his eyes as he took his pulse, noting something that pleased him.

"The sleep has been good for you as most of your open wounds are closed now. Food will help you gain all the weight and muscle you've lost," the young man continued. "The years of confinement took a lot of your muscle mass so it will be a while before you can sit up without assistance."

"Years," Long Que said. "How long has it been? Zishu and you are so grown up now."

"According to Ah-Xu, it's been 4 years since he and shifu last saw you. You've been imprisoned in that cave for 3 years give or take."

Long Que was speechless. He was in that cave for so long he has lost track of time quite a while ago. Xing-er turned away to address one of his apprentices.

"Jin-er, open all the panels. I'm sure Long-qianbei would appreciate the fresh air," Wen Kexing said with a small tilt to his lips.

"Yes, shifu," the young boy said before he went to a corner and pulled a lever. All the walls of the large chambers lifted upwards like horizontal blinds of a windows, leaving only pillars and supports.

Long Que pushed himself up as much as he could, eyes widening as the sight of the open pavilion revealed that it sat at the edge of a large lotus pond. He turned his head to see a garden behind the pavillion featuring the same magnolia tree he'd spied earlier in full bloom.

To the sides, he could see 4 more pavilions connected to his, surrounding the large lotus pond. Some of them were opened like his, revealing beds with occupants sitting or lying in them. He thought he recognised them but he couldn't be sure with his blurry eyesight.

"Those are.." he asked, pointing at the figures, throat tight with hope.

"Your disciples," Wen Kexing answered. "We managed to find three of them in Long Xiao's prison. They were severely injured but I managed to stabilise them for the journey home."

"Home..." Long Que muttered, overwhelmed by his emotions. His disciples have been saved. Not all of them were dead.

"Yes," Wen Kexing said, "This is the Lotus Pavillion, you are deep inside the Manor grounds. No one except the occupants of the Manor knows you are here. You are safe now."

"Long-bobo!"

Long Que brushed his tears away with his sleeve (Clean, warm, comfortable clothes, he had forgotten how they felt like). He looked up to see Zishu walking up into the pavillion with a happy smile.

"Zishu!" Long Que greeted, lifting his arms to pull the young man into a grateful hug. Zishu laughed gently as he returned the hug. "Zishu! My disciples are alive!"

"Yes, they are," Zishu said indulgently, patting his back gently. It took Long Que a long while for him to stop his tears and laughter, all the while rambling incoherent, grateful sounds.

When he finally stopped, both Zishu and Ah-Xing laid him comfortably on the bed so that Xing-Er could check his wounds under the bandages thoroughly and give him his daily treatment.

Ah-Xing gently inserted needles into his shoulders and leg stumps to numb the pain even though Long Que kept telling him that he was used to the pain.

"Just because you are used to pain doesn't mean that you have to continue tolerating it," Ah-Xing insisted. Long Que nodded obligingly with a large smile. He couldn't stop smiling at all. Zishu was still holding his hand, patting his withered hand soothingly as he told him about the Manor's residents.

"Ah. Lao Bi and Lao Cheng are still alive! Good! Good!" he said with another laugh. "And little Jiuxiao?"

"He is well," Zishu replied. "He doesn't remember you well but is excited to meet you when he heard about the friendship between you and shifu."

"When you are feeling better, they can come and visit you," Ah-Xing said, retrieving the acupuncture needles from his shoulders. The constant pain wracking through his body was gone so he sighed with relief.

"My apprentice will come with some food and a dose of medicine. Then you can have a rest," Ah-Xing said arranging his needles neatly. "Your body will need time to heal from the imprisonment but your internals are in adequate condition so that should not pose any long term problems."

"That boy wanted me to live a long, torturous life, of course he wouldn't cause any internal damage to me," Lang Que spat disdainfully.

"Well, he will not be a problem anymore," Ah-Xing said with a satisfied glint in his eyes. Long Que was tempted to ask what happened to Long Xiao but decided that he was beyond caring for that beast.

"Do you like your room?" Zishu asked suddenly, clearly trying to divert the conversation. "I thought that you would like to stay in a room that is open. The pavilions are designed so that you may always see the sun, the stars and the moon whenever you like."

"Then I fear I might never close them!" Long Que laughed in delight.

"Keep them open all you want," Xing-er said obligingly, "except for winter. The last thing I want is for you to fall sick during winter time."

"Winter," Long Que repeated in wonder. "Even seeing snow will be a sight for sore eyes. I haven't seen a snowflake for a long time."

"Once you are better, your disciples can take you to the main courtyard and you can all join in our annual snowman making competition," Zhou Zishu said with an indulgent smile.

Long Que laughed again, this time in agreement. After lingering a while longer, the two young men left.

Ah-Xing's little apprentice and 2 disciples soon came back with some soft, warm congee for Long Que. They gently helped him sit up and the apprentice slowly fed him so that he would not become sick. They called him 'Long-shushu' and was very kindly to him, treating him with great respect.

Then he took the bitter medicinal soup that left him sleepy. After the youngsters made sure that he was comfortable on the bed with an appropriate amount of blankets and fluffy support pillows, they left him to admire the scenery.

"Ah, if I was to die now, I will have no regrets," Long Que whispered to himself, enjoying the soft breeze and fragrant smell of magnolias in the air. He never thought that he would enjoy this again. The sound of the stream that trickled into the lotus pond, the cheerful chirping of the birds and the warm sunlight on his face.

When night came, he refused to let the apprentices close the walls, insisting that he wanted to see the stars and the moon. They let him have one wall open but warmed his bed with hot bricks wrapped in cloth and burning braziers to ward against the cold.

He stared at the softly glowing moon and glittering stars as long as he could, eyes streaming with grateful tears from the beautiful sight.

Freedom was so very sweet.

Everyday onwards, he would wake to the morning sunlight caressing his face with bird song greeting his ears and sleep to the sound of crickets and the gentle brook trickling.

On cold nights, Xing-er would insist on closing the panels and insulating his room so warmly that he didn't miss the moon or stars for the warmth reminded him that he was no longer in that cold, forgotten cave.

When spring comes to an end, the earth behind the pavilions, previously packed with azaleas and rhododendrons, would blossom into a rainbow of colours as lilies and poppies popped out cheerfully. Long Que would hear disciples cheerfully talking and laughing as they harvested the flowers.

His own disciples would be up on their feet by that point. And on one bright summer day, they would make their way slowly to his pavilion to fall to their knees and beg for forgiveness for not being able to save him earlier. He, in turn, would beg for their forgiveness for being a useless teacher, a useless parent who did not teach his son to be a better person but they would not hear of it.

They would spend the following months designing and constructing a wheel chair for him so he could travel to and fro as he liked. Long Que would insist that they focus on healing but they would insist in return that after being unable to invent for so long, this little project would be a healing boon to them. So he conceded to their arguments obligingly, ever indulgent of his good, filial, obedient, (alive!) disciples.

In autumn, he would enjoy the fragrant smell of lotus as purple, white and pink blooms burst into colour across the pond. The trees around their pavilions turns a myriad of red, brown and yellow, painting a gorgeous panoramic scene. Some days, Zishu's disciples would come with freshly-roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes for him. He never ever feels hunger now.

On mid-autumn, Xing-er would bring freshly-made mooncakes with lotus seed paste, pear blossom wine and osmanthus tea to serve him and his disciples under the bright moonlight and festive lanterns. They would also be joined by Zishu, Jiuxiao, Lao Bi, Lao Cheng and a delightful little girl that Xing-er had adopted as his little sister. Xiangxiang happily calls him Long-shugong and gives him the best hugs whenever she could.

By the end of the year, on the fall of the first snow, his disciples would gently carry him into the newly constructed wheel chair and push him slowly to the main courtyard where he would be greeted by a myriad of weirdly-shaped snowmen and the glorious, glorious, laughter of children.

End of Chapter 5

Chapter Text

When his Empress first fell ill, Emperor Helian Pei was honest enough to admit that he wasn't as concerned as a dedicated husband should be. His regard for her had always been merely for the fact that she played an important role in the stability of his position as emperor. 

Nevertheless, though their relationship had never been loving since she had been the choice of the Empress Dowager rather than his own, they had an amicable relationship based on understanding. Without her, the other ministers would clamor for a new empress, vying for a woman from his harem to play favor for.

Rather than going through that predictable inconvenience and also to quail any unwanted rumours about the royal couple, he made sure to send his imperial physicians to see to her. 

They returned to him reporting that the Empress seemed to be suffering from Melancholia (1) to which they gave her medication and even suggested a change in scenery. 

So Helian Pei suggested his official wife go to their summer home for a season to recover. 

However, it did not seem to work as her condition did not improve. She was fatigued constantly, ate almost nothing according to her attendants and seemed to be in a foul mood constantly. And when she became bed ridden months later after she returned, the Emperor consulted the imperial physicians again.  

"Is there truly nothing else you can do for her?" he stared down at the gathered imperial physicians who was now shooting nervous looks at each other. 

"Bixia(2), if this lowly one may make a suggestion," one of his physicians said hesitantly. "I've recently read a Monograph on Qi Equilibrium that spoke of healing techniques that maybe of use to Huanghou-niangniang(3)'s mental health." 

"And?" Helian Pei asked, dismissing the explanation. He didn't care what method that they used as long as it would alleviate this problem. 

"Bixia, the Monograph is written by one Master Wen, whom I believe is from the Four Seasons Manor."

****

During their time as immortals, Lao Wen had spent a lot of time amongst his parent's books, especially the Yin Yang scroll, memorising each word and understanding each technique. 

He rarely had the chance to practice any of them as they seldom had interaction with the outside world but in this life, Lao Wen practiced and refined those healing techniques and repurposed those from the forbidden scrolls that were less... problematic (i.e. less side effects). 

A year before their wedding, Lao Wen wrote a scroll on the Qi balancing techniques used to achieve physical and mental equilibrium to improve health. It was a much more tamer and refined version of certain techniques in the Yin Yang scroll that any healers worth their salt could practice. 

With Lao Wen's dismissive permission, Zhou Zishu made the executive decision to publish the scroll in limited editions to be made available to healers. 

On hindsight, Zhou Zishu could admit that it was an error on his part to think that a simple monograph on basic healing techniques would not impact their lives much in the Four Seasons Manor. But what he had not taken into account was that after so many years after the destruction of Healer Valley, the Jianghu (and the world) was deprived of good healers. 

Now, like sharks smelling blood in the water, the healers that were available, those average and those thirsty for knowledge of the more obscure type, were hounding the Manor for access to more knowledge in the guise of 'educational sharing'. 

Of course, since Four Seasons Manor was well known for being secular, the healers were limited to letters and missives to beg their case.  Unfortunately for them, given that Zhou Zishu was a fair healer on his own accord after years of studying with his husband, he could tell that most of them were just sob stories with overblown cases. 

When Lao Wen read one of his replies to them, he laughed outright before calling him his vicious viper. Personally, he thought he was being very nice when he told them to fuck off. 

Unfortunately, when he received a dreaded missive from the capital, he was not able to be as vindictive as he usually was. 

The missive was basically a decree from the Emperor summoning his husband to the capital. Reportedly, the Emperor had heard rumours (from some idiot) that his spouse was able to heal any sickness.

After a dreaded discussion with his now-sulking husband, he managed to convince his husband to answer the decree in order to avoid more trouble from the royal family. 

With trepidation, Zhou Zishu returned a reply saying that the rumours were widely exaggerated but Healer Wen would gladly make a trip to the capital to offer his services to the Empress.

He bundled up his still reluctant husband in warm, comfortable but fashionable clothes and they headed to the capital.

*****

Emperor Helian Pei was peripherally aware of Zhou Zishu's existence, only knowing that he was one of his consort's nephew. His deepest impression of the child was the one visit that Zhou Zishu made to the capital a few years ago and presented a proposal with a prototype of a little mechanical bird. 

He had proposed a series of messaging shops to be set around the capital to allow easier communication between the residents but most of the ministers, with their antiquated mindset, did not support the idea so Zhou Zishu simply packed up the bird and left. 

The court then received news that Zhou ZIshu had managed to successfully set up messaging services around several towns and was profiting well from it since it was the first and only in the country. 

It was then that court seem to have a change in heart and was bidding the emperor to commission for the service for the army and the capital. Even now, they continued to nag his head off about it but as other issues continued cropping up, the idea was constantly put to the backburner for later perusal.

So after many years of absence, Helian Pei did not expect the Lord of the Four Seasons Manor to make another appearance at court again. Furthermore, to come along with his husband, who was apparently the Healer Wen that his Imperial Physicians spoke highly of. 

Said physicians were also equally surprised, judging by their expressions. Likely because of the Healer's youthful countenance for Helian Pei was certain that the young man could not be any older than Zhou Zishu. 

The boy was polite and gracious with his greetings, well-spoken and diplomatic in his answers. He was be able to hold his grounds against the more experienced physicians, fielding their doubtful questions and countering their arguments until his physicians became speechless. 

By then, Helian Pei had enough of the attempted posturing from his senior physicians and gestured for his trusted eunuch to lead the healer to the Empress' palace. His head eunuch will ensure that the rules were conveyed accurately and comprehensively to the healer before he was allowed to see the Empress. 

When the healer was gone, his ministers chose to take advantage of the young Manor Lord's presence by bringing up the proposal again. The emperor relented as this was a battle that was pointless to be stubborn about. 

Zhou Zishu left the palace with an official contract for the commissioning of his messenger birds for the army and the permission to set up the messenger posts in the capital. Unbeknownst to the court, they had just given the Manor Lord access to the intelligence and inner workings of the capital. Fortunately for them, his aim was only to monitor his cousin and to save an old friend. 

When he arrived at their inn, Zhou Zishu settled down to wait for his husband. Fortunately, his husband didn't take long to diagnose the Empress' illness and return from the palace.

Wen Kexing's diagnosis confirmed that she had indeed been suffering from Melancholia for the past few years. Though the imperial physicians had diagnosed the same months ago, it was still a surprise for them to realise that it had plagued the Empress that long. 

"There are probably persistent depressive episodes where she would feel fatigue, loss of appetite, sleeping problems and excessive anger. But sometimes it may go the other way and she may overindulge or be sleeping too much," he had explained to the gather physicians. "At time, it would alleviate on its own and everyone would think nothing of her minor changes in behaviour. That is why it has gone undetected for so long."

The Emperor had then bid him to stay to treat the Empress in anyway that he could, so (even though he was reluctant to do so deep inside) Wen Kexing obliged. 

"I will try my best for Huanghou-niangniang," Wen Kexing said, bowing low to the monarch.

And so, for the first time in years, the two husbands parted. Wen Kexing to the palace while Zhou Zishu traveled home on his own. 

*****

A fortnight after Zhou Zishu returned without his husband, Jiuxiao intercepted a message for his leader and immediately went to find his dashixiong to pass him the letter.

Zhou Zishu opened the message immediately when he noticed WKX's name on it and his eyes widened as wide as saucers when he read the words.

"Jiuxiao, go get the keys for Peony Hall but before that, tell Bi-shushu to come see me."

"Dashixiong, is something wrong?" Jiuxiao asked in a worried tone.

"The Empress is coming to stay for a season," his dashixiong informed him with wide eyes. "I don't know how but your dasao convinced the Empress to come for a retreat."

Without another word, Jiuxiao immediately turned around and ran out hollering "Bi-shushu!" 

****

Peony Hall was beautiful in the spring just as Healer Wen had described to her. Outside her temporary living space, the Empress could glimpse a sea of colourful peonies waving cheerily in the wind. The scene seemed surreal but when she reached out her window, she could touch the soft petals of the pink and coral peonies planted just outside. 

The fragrance of the blooms permeated her chamber and was the first thing that greeted her that morning. Perhaps because it was such a pleasant scent, she permitted her attendants to pull her up from her bed and dress her when it had been such a difficult thing to do for the past few months. 

Breakfast was a simple meal, much simpler than the fare in the palace. The attendants had been affronted by the lack of choices in dishes but the empress simply waved them off and took a bite of the bread spread with sweet peony jam. She ate three pieces of bread before realising her personal attendant was wiping tears from her eyes.

"Why are you crying?" she asked the attendant, who had been following her since she was merely a teenager, long before she became the Empress.

"Forgive me, Huanghou-niangniang. But this is the first in a long time since you've eaten so much," her attendant replied happily. 

"Oh," she said, looking down at the bread in her hand. 

It was true that she hadn't been eating well despite the delicious fare that the palace kitchen provided her everyday. Perhaps it is the meal's simplicity or her hunger, since the travel from the palace yesterday had been tiring, but she was feeling as if she could eat more. For now at least.

"The tea is nice too," she commented to her attendant. "Please ask Healer Wen what type of tea this is so we can have it at the palace too." 

"Of course, Huanghou-niangniang," her attendant bowed agreeably. 

When the healer arrived that morning to ensure that the Imperial Mother had settled well at her temporary living quarters, the attendant took the opportunity to ask about the tea.

"The tea?" Healer Wen said. "It is peony root tea. It is good for resolving chronic fatigue, among other things. In the morning, it's best to eat something that will give you strength."

"In the afternoon, I will mix some mint, ginger and fennel tea for your appetite," he continued while her attendant seemed to be eagerly taking notes on his recommendations. 

"Your meals will be quite simple these few weeks but I hope that every meal will help you along the way to wellness," he finished as he removed his fingers from her pulse. 

Healer Wen had been circulating her Qi for the past week to counterbalance the damage that had been caused by her depressive episodes throughout the years. Though it was slow in the beginning, she could gradually feel the effects of the daily treatment as she could now walk the gardens for short excursions when just a week ago she had been bed ridden with lethargy and despondency.

"Huanghou-niangniang should visit the Cherry Court," the healer said. "The sight there is very beautiful."

The attendants expressed their worry over her over expanding her short bursts of energy and Healer Wen assured them that the exercise and fresh air would help. As added assurance, the healer sent them a wheel chair of exquisite make. The attendants marveled over it as the chair operated on its own, moving smoothly from place to place with merely a tap of a finger.  

That afternoon, her attendants reported that the Manor Lord had forbidden his disciples from stepping into the cherry blossom and plum blossom forest surrounding the south wing of the Manor. So the empress decided to make her visit as per the healer's advice. 

*****

The sight took her breath away. 

The cerulean blue sky highlighted the bright pinks and whites of the cherry blossom petals drifting with the breeze, creating a memorable contrast to the eyes. 

The sharp, cool, spring air prickled the naked skin of her face, bringing her to the present and filling her lungs with fresh, clean renewal. 

For weeks, months, years even, she had felt like she was trapped in a perpetual hazy state, as if everything had been shrouded by sadness and emptiness. Even escaping the palace on occasions brought no respite as the constant thought of returning to her golden cage hung over her ceaselessly. 

The touch of the soft petals brushing across her skin when she reached out to accept a sprig of the flowers from her attendants brought her a comfort that had her constantly rubbing the petals between her fingers, as if to remind herself the feeling of... of being alive.

"Waahh!"

Startled, the Empress and her attendants looked around the forest surrounding the courtyard.  

A little girl in purple ran out from the trees in tears. 

"Child, what are you doing here?" her attendant asked, voice hard and demanding. The Empress gestured for her to calm down as the little girl was obviously in distress and meant no harm. 

"A bee stung me," the girl sobbed, rubbing her eyes as she showed the attendant her swollen palm. "I wanted some flowers for Gege but I didn't see the bee. I didn't mean to disturb it."

"Let me see," the Empress said gently, her heart softening at the girl's heartbroken sniffling. The child obediently showed her the red, swollen patch on her palm.  

"I didn't mean for it to die," the girl sobbed. "It stung me. Now it will die."

"Oh," the Empress breathed in realisation that the child wasn't crying because of the sting. She was crying because the bee lost it's life for defending itself against her carelessness. 

"Silly child," she said, brushing the girl's tears away. "It's just a bee."

"But it's not the bee's fault. I disturbed it," the girl pouted. "It's my fault."

Oh, what a sweet child. The Empress smoothed her hand over the child's flyaway hair. The little girl had her hair in little braids decorated with pink and purple ribbons tied by deft hands but some strands had escaped their confinement, likely from the child's activities throughout the morning. 

"Now, now," she cooed, pulling the child closer, "Maybe some sweets will help sooth those tears." 

Her attendant passed her some sweet pastry which the girl took with a small, polite thank you. She took a bite obligingly, still sniffling. Then, the girl looked at the Empress and her eyes grew wide, as if just realising who she was talking to.

"Wooowwww," said the little girl in obvious awe. "You're so pretttyyy. Like a fairy from heaven."

To the surprise of her handmaidens, the Empress giggled, charmed by the girl's sincere praise.

"What's your name, little one?"

"My name is Gu Xiang! But my Gege and Shu-gege call me Ah-Xiang and everyone calls me Xiangxiang," she chirped, grinning toothily even though there were tear tracks down her cheeks and her eyes were puffy and red.

"Gege told me stories of fairies coming down to help people and fall in love. Is that what happened to you? Are you a fairy queen? Cause you are so pretty, like a fairy queen," the little girl gushed.

"I am not a fairy queen," the Empress said with an amused smile. 

"Then are you a fairy that came down to help? Cause you are so nice," little Gu Xiang said taking another bite of her pastry. "Yummy. Thank you, Yiyi."

"Huanghou-niangniang," corrected the attendant gently. The little girl looked up at her and slowly parroted her. The Empress gently patted her head for being so obliging and little Gu Xiang smiled cutely at her. 

A little while later, Healer Wen arrived, looking a little flustered. 

"Huanghou-niangniang, I apologise for my sister's audacity for coming here without permission or summons," the young man bowed low. 

"Gege!"

"Ah-Xiang! What are you doing?" the young healer whispered in admonishment and made a gesture to the girl to come to him but the little girl shook her head. To her brother's horror and the ladies-in-waiting's surprise, she actually attached herself to the Empress' waist. 

"Noooo... Gege. I want to listen to fairy queen's story," she whined, wrapping her arms around the monarch. Surprisingly, the Empress returned the hug, putting her arms gently around the little girl's shoulders.

"It's alright, Healer Wen. Little Gu Xiang was just giving me some companionship," she said, patting the grinning little girl softly on the head. "I do not mind. She's been very delightful."

"Never the less, she is imposing on Huanghou-niangniang," Healer Wen said, gesturing for his sister. He did not approach as it could be considered an offense but the little girl shook her head and the attendants didn't dare to touch the girl either.

"Let her stay for a while," the Empress said, finally breaking the impasse all of them were stuck at. Healer Wen looked as if he was at a lost of what to do. Should he leave? Or stay? 

Her attendant finally took pity on him and pulled him aside to inform him that she would send someone to tell him when to come for his sister.

In the end, when the empress finally felt too tired to continue their visit, they returned to Peony Hall to see Healer Wen waiting anxiously. 

He is a good child, the empress thought to herself, watching the young man who was barely twenty lift up his little sister to carry her away. From over his shoulder, the little girl continued to wave goodbye to the Empress and the attendants, who had played with her all day, till they were completely out of sight. 

*****
 
It really shouldn't have been a surprise that little Gu Xiang somehow managed to endear herself to the Empress. The small girl was a ball of delight, filling the silence with chatter and laughter. 

For the first time in years, the Imperial Mother found herself looking forward to the day when she woke up in the morning, eager to meet the chirpy little girl.  

Some days, the little sprite would bring her breakfast, cautiously carrying the tray into the room with the tip of her tongue poking from the corner of her lips in concentration. Whatever was brought in would be cleared from the dishes once their visit ended.  

Surprisingly, as days passed, she found herself eating more food and craving for more flavours. When she mentioned this to Healer Wen, he looked pleased and promised to see to it himself. 

And indeed, after her request, more variety of food were presented during meals and her attendants finally looked satisfied with the fare compared to what they thought was paltry offerings during the beginning of her stay. 

Her attendants also looked happier as well, watching her eat the food with relish, commenting on how they should obtain the recipes from Healer Wen since the royal kitchen doesn't make the dishes the same way. 

"As Huanghou-niangniang regains her appetite, she will also put on weight and gain more strength and stamina," Healer Wen commented during one of their treatment sessions. As it was, she was already feeling much better than she had felt in the past few years and it has only been 6 weeks since she left the palace. 

When she seemed reluctant at the prospect of returning, he proposed to extend her visit for another few weeks as the Empress was still not in the condition for long distance after arriving not too long ago. She happily agreed, though she kept her poise when she stated her agreement. 

A month later, her retinue began packing for their return journey and the Empress enjoyed her last sight of the rainbow-coloured tulips and the army of dancing orchids bobbing in the wind. 

Though she did not relish the idea of returning to the palace anymore than she did months ago, she did not dread it as much as she once did and the yawning dark hole that once made itself home in her chest did not seem as wide as it was before. And though she does fear its' return, the prospect of it was merely a shadow in her mind now.

Perhaps she would take that journey to the mountain temple in Taishan as her aunt once did and go on a sabbatical to pray for her children and royal husband. And she will dedicate personally written scriptures to the temple. That way, she will be occupied with conducive thoughts instead of steadily feeding that gaping emptiness that once tried to swallow her whole. 

******

Empreror Helian Pei was quite sceptical when he heard that his Empress wanted to leave her palace to travel to the Four Seasons Manor. 

He questioned the Empress' attendants on the sort of ideas that Healer Wen might had planted into her mind but they only conveyed that he had talked about the beauty of the Manor and the sceneries that he had seen while he traveled with his husband because the Empress had asked him about it during their daily treatments.

His trusted eunuch had spied and reported on Healer Wen's actions during the weeks of his stay in the capital and the young man seemed completely unconcerned with the politics of the court or the happenings of the city. 

Instead, he spent most of his free time accessing libraries and stores to buy things, presumably for the Four Seasons Manor. 

After 2 weeks, the Empress began showing signs of recovery, getting up from her bed and even requesting specific food from the kitchen, a far cry from her bed ridden state. It was clear that whatever treatment the healer had prescribed was effective for her. 

So, though reluctant, he gave his permission for his Empress to go to Four Seasons Manor with a healthy retinue who continually updated him on her progress. 

When she returned, smiling and looking much healthier than she had in years, he was glad that he had not made the wrong decision. And pleasantly surprised. For the first time in nearly a decade, he thought that she resembled the young maiden he had married in their childhood. 

When Healer Wen arrived to court to present himself, he was once again struck by how young this boy was, barely older than himself when he ascended the dragon throne. 

"What reward would you like for your services to the Imperial family?" Emperor Helian Pei asked the healer.

"Bixia, there is nothing I would want. I have everything that I ever need. A warm home with my husband and sister. A sect that is thriving and protected. I really have no further wish except for a long life to enjoy what I have," Wen Kexing replied. "Therefore, this humble one would not ask anything except for the grace that Huanghou-niangniang had bestowed upon him and his ilk."

What a diplomatic answer, thought Helian Pei. 

"How about a position in the Palace as an Imperial Healer?" suggested one of his minister.

"It is a privilege that this unworthy one does not deserve, Bixia," Healer Wen said quickly. 

It was obvious, at least to Helian Pei, that the young man is firmly unwilling to forgo his home for a place in the Palace even though it was a position highly coveted by many physicians. 

This child is aiming for something else, Helian Pei thought to himself suspiciously.

"Surely, there is something that you would like," he asked instead, curious despite himself. 

Healer Wen paused, thinking. 

Ah, so the infamous healer does have something he wants.

"Bixia, it might be too audacious for me to request but this humble one only has one... request," Healer Wen said.

"State your request," Helian Pei prompted. "And I will grant it if it is reasonable."

"I would like to request on behalf of my sister, Gu Xiang, the privilege of her being able to visit Huanghou-niangniang. For you see, my sister has grown very fond of Her Majesty," the young healer said, bowing low. 

Helian Pei wasn't the only one surprised by the request as the others present looked at each other with astonishment. Permission for his sister to visit his Empress? 

He turned to his Empress and was taken aback by the look of utter delight on her normally calm and collected face. 

"Xiao Ah-Xiang is a very lively little girl, who was a delightful boon to me during my visit," she said, looking so pleased that the lines of fatigue so commonly present on her face simply fell away.

"Huanghou-niangniang, my parents passed away when I was young but I still have memories of them. However, my little sister has never known any parental figure in her life though I've tried my best. Your presence was also a boon to her since she has very little female influence in her life. That is why I made such an audacious request. However, this lowly one understands if this request is too much to ask, Bixia," Wen Kexing said quickly, bowing low.

His empress looked touched by his words, eyes softening and smile widening. Then she turned to him and he immediately knew what she wanted. 

"I suppose that since you are my nephew's husband, you are also a part of the family," Helian Pei said slowly in contemplation. "An in-law, so to speak."

Then he took a deep breathe and said:

"Very well then. For his outstanding service to the imperial family, Master Wen Kexing will be rewarded a land of 50li and 50 chests of gold so that he may continue to bring achievements in medicine for the country and the world."

"And for the comfort that she has brought to my Empress, Lady Gu Xiang of Four Seasons Manor will be awarded the title Princess Xiaoxiang(1), goddaughter to the Imperial Mother," he decreed. 

"This lowly one thanks Bixia for his benevolence," Wen Kexing bowed. "Then, with Your Majesties' blessing, I will use the land and gold bestowed upon me to build a shelter and orphanage for women and children in need (4). If Huanghuo-niangniang allows it, I will name it in honour of her."

Helian Pei was once again surprised by the healer's words. What an unusual thing to do. This child truly is a rare gem. It really is a pity that he was so disinclined to join the court.

For a moment, he was tempted to force the young man to join his court but one look from his Empress was enough to convince him not to. His Empress was too fond of the boy and his sister to allow him to be embroiled in the deadly game of politics.

"I would be very honoured that you would do so, Healer Wen. And I look forward to seeing you and your sister soon." his Empress said fondly. 

"Thank you, Your Majesties, for your generosity and benevolence," in his bowed position, no one can see the satisfied smile that bloomed across Wen Kexing's lips.

*
*


End of Chapter 6