Lian Zhidiao blinked sleepily, still processing the situation he was in. When he went to sleep, there had been enough space on the hard wooden floor between him and Yue Fengjian that even if he’d tossed in his sleep or turned over, there was at least an arm’s length between them. Now there wasn’t even a finger’s length between them. He’d gone to sleep thinking about how things might be different in the future, but this was not what he’d had in mind.
Without moving, he took stock of where his limbs were and more importantly, where Yue Fengjian’s limbs were. He made some surprising discoveries.
The first was that the warmth against his body really was just from Yue Fengjian. He radiated warmth, even under his blanket. The old woman’s house with its large hole in the roof and less-than-satisfactory construction wasn’t exactly warm and cozy to begin with. So Lian Zhidiao decided that at some point in the night, while cold, he must have instinctively sought out the closest source of warmth. It was a perfectly logical explanation for how he’d ended up like this.
The second discovery was that Yue Fengjian’s body was fit closely against his. Very closely. One of his knees was nestled between Yue Fengjian’s thighs. Not completely—they were still fully clothed, with blankets over them that prevented any kind of skin contact. But the pressure of one of Yue Fengjian’s legs over his knee was unmistakable. If he’d been able to step back and look at the two of them from an outsider’s perspective, he might have made some comment about whether a harem protagonist like Yue Fengjian should really be the one to open his legs.
But Lian Zhidiao couldn’t even have that thought peacefully, because Yue Fengjian’s arm was draped over his body. There was no way that this posture could be interpreted as anything but an unconscious action on the part of a sleeping Yue Fengjian. Lian Zhidiao was completely under Yue Fengjian’s power while at his most vulnerable.
The worst part? He wasn’t even upset at waking up like this. Lian Zhidiao stared at the fine weave of Yue Fengjian’s robes, clear to him even in the low light of early morning. It was true that they’d gone to sleep without speaking to each other, so he should have just remembered that they’d had a disagreement and pulled away with an icy expression. But Lian Zhidiao didn’t, and he didn’t want to. It was warm, and…he breathed in gently. The whiff of incense on Yue Fengjian’s robes was still present. He smelled of sweet benzoin and spicy cedar and clove. It was a delightful fragrance that invited another deep sniff of appreciation.
If it had been just the incense, Lian Zhidiao could have perhaps said he enjoyed the scent on its own. But the incense was at least a day old: the natural scent of Yue Fengjian himself was far stronger now than it would be if he was fresh out of the bath wearing just-perfumed robes. Before he realized it, Lian Zhidiao had spent several minutes just teasing apart the differences between the incense and the man.
But… it’s not bad. Lian Zhidiao closed his eyes, shifting a little closer, until his forehead was resting against Yue Fengjian. He basked in his warmth. It’s actually kind of nice.
Then, suddenly, Yue Fengjian took a deep breath as he awakened. In a split second, Lian Zhidiao had to decide what to do: feign sleep or be caught taking advantage of their circumstances. There was really only one option. He kept his eyes closed and made his breathing as deep and even as possible.
He felt Yue Fengjian’s body stiffen next to him. He’s probably having the same thoughts I did, Lian Zhidiao realized. He felt strangely pleased to think that Yue Fengjian was struggling with what to do now. Any minute now he’ll extract himself from this embarrassing situation.
As he’d expected, the next thing he felt was Yue Fengjian’s leg slowly lifting off of him, easing them apart. Then he felt the weight over his body disappear as Yue Fengjian moved his arm. Next, Yue Fengjian will scoot away. Lian Zhidiao was a little sad that the warmth would disappear soon as well, but he might as well enjoy it while he could.
But then, Lian Zhidiao felt Yue Fengjian’s fingers sliding along his hairline, tenderly tucking one lock of hair back behind his ear. The effort it took to maintain his ‘sleeping’ expression was immense, not only because of the touch near his face, but because he was dying of curiosity. Weren’t they supposed to be giving each other the cold shoulder after their disagreement? This touch was so gentle…why did he do it? What did Yue Fengjian’s expression look like while doing something like this?
Too confused and inquisitive to stand it any longer, Lian Zhidiao took a deep breath, as if he was ‘waking up’. Yue Fengjian’s warmth disappeared before he could even open his eyes. Lian Zhidiao let out a yawn and rubbed his eyes before sitting up.
Yue Fengjian rubbed the back of his neck before looking at Lian Zhidiao. “Good morning,” he muttered in a sleep-roughened voice.
“Good morning,” Lian Zhidiao replied.
Yue Fengjian looked at him in silence for some time. Lian Zhidiao would have been willing to ascribe the quiet to just needing time to wake up, but they’d both been awake and aware for some time now. He did take the time to look around and see if the old woman was still asleep on her mat, but she wasn’t. She had probably gone off to get firewood or draw water.
“Has your body recovered?” Yue Fengjian asked.
“My body?” Do you have to phrase it like that?
“The gray spot over your dantian.” Yue Fengjian’s eyes dropped to Lian Zhidiao’s lap. “Show me.”
A tingle raced over Lian Zhidiao’s skin as he threw back his blanket. Obediently, he unknotted his belt and opened his robes, pushing down the top of his inner clothes. The dawning light revealed that the gray circle over his dantian had become smaller—but not by much. Yue Fengjian leaned over and peered more closely at it, seeming as if he might reach out to touch and trace the boundary between deviate gray and normal skin. Lian Zhidiao cleared his throat.
“It looks better than it did yesterday,” Yue Fengjian said, pulling back.
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao said, hurriedly tugging his clothes back into place.
The air grew heavy between them. Lian Zhidiao tied his belt tightly and looked up at Yue Fengjian. Why do I feel like a teenager that’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t?
Yue Fengjian didn’t seem any more content with the situation than he was. “We can talk to Uncle about this when we get back,” he said at last. “He may be able to help.”
Yue Danquan would probably be able to help, but then he would have to reveal that he’d used the jade lotus in something that probably didn’t strictly qualify as an ‘emergency’. But Yue Fengjian was right: it was the best prospect they had. He nodded.
“Until we can figure out something else, you can stay with me.”
“…Even though your father said that you couldn’t keep animals?” Lian Zhidiao couldn’t keep the resentment out of his words. “No one wants to keep a tiger in their house.”
Yue Fengjian got to his feet, folding up his blanket. “He doesn’t know about your other core, nor does he need to. He’d have rejected you no matter what.”
“…I see.” Lian Zhidiao folded his own blanket while staying seated. It was expected that Yue Kuangxiang had his own preconceptions about the Wa sect. Hearing that his opinion was already formed was both a relief and an insult.
“You can stay at the Quanyuan for a time until I can talk to him.” Yue Fengjian set his blanket aside and took the folded-up blanket from Lian Zhidiao, stacking them. “…I’ll figure something out.”
Well, it wasn’t a dismissal. And didn’t this seem like Yue Fengjian would prefer that Lian Zhidiao stay in the castle with him? Like him staying at the sect’s academy just up the slope of the mountain was too far? “I suppose I ought to be grateful.”
“No,” Yue Fengjian said shortly. “I’m the one who should feel grateful. But I meant what I said yesterday. Don’t do something like that for me again.” He paused. “Value your own life more.”
Lian Zhidiao stared at the wooden floor in front of him. It wasn’t exactly an apology—far from it. As usual, Yue Fengjian said something and stuck to it. So why did it feel like the heavy air between them lifted a little? Maybe his words landed a little differently after Lian Zhidiao had awakened in his arms, or after he’d tucked his hair back behind his ear. Whatever the reason, Lian Zhidiao just gave a small nod of acceptance.
“Young Master.” Grandmother Song had appeared at the back of the house, carrying a yoke with two buckets suspended on either end. “Please wait just a moment and I will have something made for your breakfast.”
“Thank you for your kindness, Grandmother, but we have to be on our way,” Yue Fengjian said, bowing.
Grandmother Song didn’t have many facial expressions, but she showed mild shock. Even Lian Zhidiao couldn’t keep from showing his surprise. Leaving without breakfast? Perish the thought!
But Yue Fengjian seemed to have made up his mind, which left Lian Zhidiao scrambling to follow after him. They bowed to Grandmother Song and were in the air while the crests of the mountains were still washed in pink light, and the valleys still cold and blue.
They arrived back in the first village just before midday, to see a flurry of disciples in red robes flitting through the air like hummingbirds while columns of black smoke rose from the village below. Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao landed and two outer disciples, a boy and a girl, immediately ran up to them.
Yue Fengjian looked between the two of them, a frown on his face. “What’s happened?”
“There’s been a demon attack on one of the villages to the south, last night, while they slept.” The boy seemed barely capable of stringing his words together.
The girl gave her disorganized partner a look before speaking. “Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu killed the band’s leader and repelled the attack, but several smaller demons scattered into the forest. They’re being hunted down now.”
“Then you’d better help,” Yue Fengjian said. “If you see Yaosa-shimei, please tell her we’ve returned.”
The boy piped up again. “Did you find the qilin?”
“The qilin has been dealt with,” Yue Fengjian said shortly. “But the others need your help.”
“We were worried when you didn’t return.” Yue Shipei appeared out of the tumult, his sword in his hand, followed by a few other inner disciples. “But you say you’ve already dealt with it?”
“It was a challenge, but we handled it,” Yue Fengjian said, putting his hand on Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder.
Yue Shipei glanced between them. “It must have been, with only one of you with a spiritual weapon.”
“I’m not unarmed,” Lian Zhidiao protested. “I still have magic.”
Yue Shipei’s eyebrows rose slightly. “Magic against a qilin?” Yue Shipei’s eyes slipped back to Yue Fengjian, looking for confirmation. The eyes of the other disciples followed, each of them waiting to hear what he would say.
Mindful of the eyes on him, Yue Fengjian drew himself up. “The qilin won’t threaten any villages any more. That’s all you need to know. Shidi, I need a word with you in private.”
The disciples chattered as they dispersed in all directions. Funny how people automatically know what they’re supposed to be doing when someone tells them to get back to work. Lian Zhidiao was ready to go help as well when Yue Fengjian’s hand tightened on his shoulder. Except for me, I guess?
Yue Shipei stepped closer, looking around them. “We should talk here. Hu Baitian is resting. He had already been healing villagers for a day without stopping when the demon hunting party arrived.” His brow was lined with concern. “He was healing through the night as well.”
Yue Shipei nodded slowly. “A group of outer disciples was killed in the surprise attack, and one inner disciple lost his sword arm.”
Lian Zhidiao closely examined the toes of his boots. It was impossible not to feel at least some measure of responsibility just by virtue of what his presence had done. This was the demon hunting party that Yue Fengjian and Yue Yaosa were supposed to defeat. Instead, their fighting power was divided.
Yue Fengjian let out a deep sigh. When he spoke, his voice was strained. “It can’t be helped now.”
“What about the qilin?” Yue Shipei asked in a hushed voice. He could barely be heard over the din of sect members rushing to and fro.
“What?” Yue Shipei’s concerned face changed to shock, his eyes wide. “A qilin can’t deviate.”
“I saw it with my own eyes. As black-and-white as ink and paper.”
Yue Shipei’s expression resolved into a deep frown. With that expression, he strongly resembled Yue Fengjian, stern and sharp. “So, the curse? Unless it was you that killed it,” he said, looking at Lian Zhidiao.
“He healed it.” Yue Fengjian bit out. “Like some kind of daredevil idiot.”
Yue Shipei blinked. “You have to limit impossible things to one per conversation or no one will believe you, shixiong.”
“It’s true.” Lian Zhidiao looked around reaching into his robes. The three of them huddled closer instinctually as he brought out the red silk bundle and unwrapped it. Inside, the lotus bud lay unopened, shining and black.
“…Father gave this to you.” Yue Shipei’s voice was wooden.
“He said I could use it ‘for an emergency’.”
“And this is what you thought was an emergency?” Yue Shipei’s voice shook. “Do you even know how much deviate qi this jade tool can hold?”
“He didn’t know,” Yue Fengjian interjected.
Yue Shipei scowled at him, bitterness written on his face. “Of course not, Father never instructs anyone clearly.” He took a steadying breath, covering the lower half of his face with his hand for a moment. “Did it work?”
“Yes,” Yue Fengjian answered.
Yue Shipei clicked his tongue. “Well, that’s something. So neither one of you has been cursed?”
“No,” Lian Zhidiao said quickly. He didn’t think that Yue Fengjian would reveal his other core out here. “The qilin got better and flew away.”
“Thank the heavens for small favors,” Yue Shipei murmured, finally looking back at Yue Fengjian. “If you’d been cursed, we’d be in a very tight spot.”
“Have the disciples’ bodies been collected?” Yue Fengjian seemed eager to move on from the topic of the qilin, but the topic of his dead martial brothers honestly seemed worse.
Yue Shipei nodded. “As soon as Yaosa and Kuaiyu finished off the leader, the other disciples rushed in. Several were orphans, but the others will have to have families contacted. They left this morning, as soon as it was light.”
“What about the villagers?” Lian Zhidiao looked around. Nearly everyone he saw was wearing red.
“Many of them scattered into the woods and haven’t returned, but others…” Yue Shipei trailed off.
Lian Zhidiao’s face fell. Being hit with two great calamities so close together might bring this village to the brink as well. He looked up at Yue Fengjian, his stony face seeming more and more resolute. These raids are the reason he decided to unite the humans against the demons. They were important to his progression as a character, and yet… terribly painful to watch.
“What else needs to be done here?”
Yue Shipei let out a sigh. “Honestly, not much. As soon as those other demons have been found and killed, it’ll just be cleanup.” His eyes flashed over Lian Zhidiao. “You should place that tool with Danxiong as soon as you get back. Hu Baitian is always complaining about how long it takes to clear his jade tools of deviate qi, and they’re nowhere near as refined as that one. Who knows how long it will take to return to normal.”
Danxiong… could that be the Yue sect’s Great Jade Beast?
In the distance there was a whoop, and they all lifted their heads to see a spray of fire fading over the treetops.
“That’ll be Liao Kuaiyu,” Yue Fengjian said wryly. “They must have found the last of them.”
“He needs to go back into seclusion,” Yue Shipei groused. “He uses too much of his core for magic.”
As if to underline this statement, Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu zipped into sight on Yue Yaosa’s sword. Liao Kuaiyu was all but hanging off the sword, with two gray severed heads hanging from his fingers by their hair. They circled a bonfire—a funeral pyre for the demons, Lian Zhidiao realized—and then came in for a quick landing, the heads deposited in the fire.
“Shixiong!” Liao Kuaiyu hollered, waving. He hopped off before Yue Yaosa had even come to a stop, a big grin on his face.
Yue Yaosa’s brow was glistening with sweat, and her smile was dazzling. She leaned forward as her huge saber sheathed itself on her back, and gave Yue Fengjian a smug look. “Dage, I bet you haven’t killed nearly as many demons today as I have.”
Yue Fengjian gave her a fond smile. “How many? I’ll tell Father.”
“Four!” She rolled the shoulder of her dominant sword arm. “Mostly small ones, not like that big boy in Sancha Town, but it’s a lot of action in one day.”
“Did you get the rest of them?” Yue Shipei didn’t waste time with pleasantries.
“Yeah. There were only seven of them.”
“Did you get their names?”
“Only the biggest one had a name, but…” Yue Yaosa shook her head.
At this news, Yue Fengjian and Yue Shipei exchanged glances. Even though Lian Zhidiao looked at the two of them imploringly, they didn’t offer anything more.