Jiang Cheng closes his eyes.
He must have been awake for so long, his limbs feel this heavy. Or he might have been sleeping for too long. He can't tell sometimes, not when the core in his body burns differently like this; when its smoke fills his ribcages and flows out along with his every breath.
...Alright, it was an exaggeration. This thing, he understands, is not physical. At least that's what his Healer always tells him--who knows if she's lying or not.
The burden of everything you had to go through, she explained, even if you thought you weren't feeling it, actually, you were hiding to yourself that you felt it. As a result of this long-standing process, sometimes, it makes you feel like you have to explode it all out; or it forces you down to the ground from exhaustion.
He had at first found the whole ordeal funny. One day, his vice executive, Chen Zhongda, had the nerve to call a Healer from Lanling, whose activity is on the border of Yunmeng, who married someone who works mainly in Gusu. This far-traveling Healer can supposedly help with 'mental illnesses'--those that do not originate from physical wounds, nor from bad spirits' involvement, rather from the mind of the patient itself.
Jiang Cheng almost fired Chen Zhongda the very first time the Healer shows up.
Then Chen Zhongda told him about his wife, whom he perceived as having similar characteristics to what he saw in Jiang Cheng, after an accident befell her and their family's harmony is at edge. This Healer had helped them go through their life in a better way, along with several other patients that they got to know while visiting this Healer from time to time. That's why, he thought Sect Leader Jiang might benefit from her, too.
Alright, I'm letting her heal me, Jiang Cheng had said, making sure the word 'heal' sounded as scathing as possible. But I'm taking all her expenses from your salary. How about it?
Of course, that was just a threat; one meant to make Chen Zhongda forget his dumb idea right away, and send this freaking 'Healer' back wherever the fuck he found her.
He did not expect Chen Zhongda to bow and accept his order without any fight.
In front of other attendants, his council members, and the Healer herself, who were all present in Lotus Pier's audience hall... There was no way Sandu Shengshou could go back on his words.
He had actually considered if Chen Zhongda wanted to humiliate him. Perhaps he had been harsh enough to this previously loyal right-hand, so that he wished to announce his resignation by calling Sect Leader Jiang a crazy person in front of an audience.
Then, as he begrudgingly met the Healer from time to time, he wondered if the revenge went deeper--because as the aftermath of talking with this Healer, he would almost always feel drained out. It was as if every word she said was aimed to pick on the rusting nails and decaying pillars of his existence, to finally get his recklessly patched-up life crumbling down.
Sect Leader Jiang, she asked, you have gained a reputation of being feared by the general population. Have you considered, that maybe your urges to lash out, have always had a cause after all?
Sometimes you do not have energy, and all you can do is lay down the whole day, even though you feel nothing physical is happening to you. Have you ever wondered why?
I heard about you and your brother. What are your actual thoughts about him, when no one is around to judge you? Is there anything you would've wished to tell him, that you never got the chance to?
You have helped raise a nephew who has now grown up. What do you think about his growth? Is there anything you regret you did--or you regret you never did?
Your love for your sister is not questionable. With everything that had happened, what do you think of yourself, in relation to her? Is there also anything you wished to tell her, that you never were able to?
About your parents, who you said loved you enough, but acted as if they were always looking at other directions...
Jiang Cheng retches at the memory. He can't remember how many times he was so close to beating this Healer up, if not for the fact that she was an unarmed, crimeless civilian; and most surprisingly: that the words she said always had a level of truth in them. What she asks are questions that he had found himself asking, that he was always clueless to answer.
Those are the questions that haunt him in his sleep, that leave him panting and shaking when he wakes up.
Now that there is an outside, real person's voice asking the questions to him, they're much harder to ignore.
He had fought against all odds to rebuild Yunmeng Jiang, as the last Jiang in the whole cultivation world. When he thought he was already doing all he could, why did that fucker choose to side with those who had destroyed their life? The fucker fucking killed their own sister, their own brother in law, leaving their nephew orphaned; how was Jiang Cheng supposed to react to that? Now that this fucker, that he had killed, has come back again to this world, why is he nothing like what he remembered; why is he now celebrated around the world; why has he left with the Fucking Second Jade of the Fucking Gusu Lan, without even--
"What should we do? Our Leader has locked himself for almost two days now..."
"Where is the Lady? Why is she taking so long--"
"Make way, make way! The Lady has arrived!"
The Lady. Right, his disciples outside must be talking about the freaking Healer. As if she heals anything--she gets to ask questions, gets paid, while Jiang Cheng is left bruised and battered, stumbling to find his own way through the dark. The nerve of Chen Zhongda to fetch her again; to have ever fetched her in the first place! There's nothing she could possibly do, though, for the seal he has placed on the door is one of his most developed seal; that no one of his people's level of cultivation can break, let alone of this Healer's--
The door slides open forcefully.
The Healer steps into the room in careful strides. Her eyes sweep on the thrown vases and strewn up papers, before focusing on Jiang Cheng, who is lying on his stomach on the ground in front of her.
"Sect Leader Jiang," she greets, kneeling down. "This humble Healer, Jin Junmian, is ready to execute your orders."
...Right, his orders. Jiang Cheng's gaze falls on the small amethyst amulet dangling from her hand--enchanted with the necessary power to undo this locking seal, that he made by himself, gave to Jin Junmian by himself, that he instructed her by himself to use when necessary. This isn't even the first time Jin Junmian uses it. Why does he forget about its existence every time?
"Has Sect Leader Jiang eaten in the previous six hours?"
Her question is so funny that instead of answering, Jiang Cheng watches Chen Zhongda walk in instead, kneeling beside Jin Junmian. This is also him doing Jiang Cheng's orders--while he only ever gave such an amulet to Jin Junmian, he had instructed Chen Zhongda to back Jin Junmian up whenever they meet, in case Jiang Cheng ever lose his reasons and attack her. Nothing of the sort ever happened, but Chen Zhongda sees the logic of this order, and obeys diligently.
"...Chen Zhongda, you ass," Jiang Cheng finds himself saying, though his voice sounds so weak, his throat feels so dry, and he wants to just fall asleep and never wake up.
"Sect Leader Jiang," Chen Zhongda answers calmly, "it was our pleasure to have prepared a lunch for Sect Leader Jiang and Lady Jin Junmian. It will be delivered within minutes. While waiting, does Sect Leader Jiang wish for me or the others to help him get changed? Lady Jin Junmian will wait outside."
Jiang Cheng looks at him, sees the older man who was first his personal attendant; who rebuilt Lotus Pier with him after its fall; who underwent various trainings under Jiang Cheng's reign and managed to raise himself to the title of vice executive; who still, until now, insists to oversee the attendants who take care of Jiang Cheng's needs; never forgetting his own roots; and Jiang Cheng wonders--why hasn't Chen Zhongda killed him already? It would have taken him some effort, but if he gathers the people who would love to see Sandu Shengshou dead, would he have any problem raising himself to the title of Sect Leader? It's not like Jiang Cheng was anything good other than 'feared' anyway so why, why is he still here, even though everyone else has left him?
The tears that escaped Jiang Cheng's eyes blur his vision. Through them, he sees Jin Junmian bowing, exiting the room, replaced by some attendants bringing warm water and clean clothes. The hold of Chen Zhongda's hands on his arms is steady, supportive, and Jiang Cheng leans into it a little; a mix of gratitude and shame brewing inside as he rises to tend to himself.
Jin Ling leaps down from Suihua onto Lotus Pier's dock. Sheathing it in hurry, he stomps his way to the estates where his uncle lives, with Fairy and one disciple following behind him.
Two weeks. For two weeks Jin Ling had written letters and none of them was answered, even though usually within two or three days his Jiujiu would've already had answered.
The first week Jin Ling thought his uncle must have had been simply busy, because his business letters were still answered, even if his personal ones weren't. The second week some of Jin Ling's business letters started to be left unanswered too, despite his messengers swearing by their life that the letters were correctly received by Yunmengjiang Sect members. Jin Ling's patience is wearing thin.
"Huangren, there really hasn't been any news from Lotus Pier, right?" Jin Ling asks without looking back.
"N-no, sir!" Jin Huangren answers, trying to balance the gifts he is bringing for Sect Leader Jiang. These gifts are customary--Jin Ling knows his uncle doesn't need such things in such amount. Other than to be polite, though, Jin Ling figures that Jin Huangren, the older yet more timid disciple, can use a little extra training. "But Sect Leader Jin, with all due respect, we are in Lotus Pier right now. If there was really an emergency, we should have already known it by now."
Jin Ling huffs. Jin Huangren is right. If there was an emergency, they should be able to see it; the trades on the dock should not be as bustling as they are; the guards should not be greeting them as happily as they do.
That doesn't immediately mean his uncle must be out of trouble, though, since his uncle is quite a problem-attractor. His temper certainly doesn't help, and when his mood is bad, it usually has something to do with Yiling Laozu, one way or another.
His uncle had always hated that person, after all. Almost every mention of him by his uncle would be followed by curses, by--orders, for Jin Ling to attack anyone who uses a dark cultivation technique, similar to what Yiling Laozu used.
Now that Yiling Laozu himself is actually back, Jin Ling doesn't know what to do.
Where is all the hatred, the chaos, and the disaster that they say Yiling Laozu would bring? But having found out that Yiling Laozu is actually his uncle too, that the Ghost General who killed his mother and father was also controlled by this uncle--how should Jin Ling even regard that? Having found out that in the end, his other uncle, the former Sect Leader Jin, was actually the one who killed the former Sect Leader Nie; the one who killed his grandfather; the one who almost killed Jin Ling, himself, without thinking...
Jin Ling doesn't know why grown-ups like to have all these conflicts.
Or, well, he knows, but--he doesn't think he'll ever understand and agree that the world has to work this way. All the older people seem to be fighting among themselves above him, overlooking him, overlooking the effect they bring to the younger generations, and he's just so... Fed up. He wants nothing in it; and yet, frustratingly, he also hated being left in the dark, the way all his uncles had hidden things from him.
It makes him feel like he doesn't know who to trust.
"Oh, Sect Leader Jin," a female attendant greets in surprise when Jin Ling, Fairy, and Jin Huangren finally reach the estate. "We did not expect your arrival. Should Sect Leader Jin be tired from the travel, he can rest for a while in--"
She lost words for a blink of eye. It's enough for Jin Ling to guess something's not right. "My apologies. With all due respect, Sect Leader Jiang has ordered for nobody to see him while he is in this condition."
Jin Ling bristles. "Condition? What condition?! Is he sick?!"
"However," she continues, as if Jin Ling had not said anything at all, "we believe, it is in his best interest, if Sect Leader Jin is made aware. Therefore, if Sect Leader Jin would remain calm, and watch Sect Leader Jiang from outside..."
The first thing that comes to Jin Ling's thought is how unbelievably rude this lady is. Not only she talked as if she did not listen to Jin Ling, she seemed to also have decided by herself to go against her employer's orders. But if she dared to go against Sandu Shengshou's orders in the first place--just how bad the situation really is?
"Show me the way," Jin Ling says through the poundings of his own heartbeat in his ear.
Wordlessly, the attendant walked, her footsteps silent on the wooden floorboards. Jin Ling would have mulled on it more, if he wasn't busy trying to press down his building nervousness. The familiar turns of the hallways feel foreign with this feeling of uncertainty over it. At a corner the lady hides, gesturing for Jin Ling to peek through the door from behind her, and Jin Ling does as he was told.
His Jiujiu is sitting on a mat in his private bedroom, eating lunch on a low table. The vice executive, Chen Zhongda, is also there, eating with him. Outside, some attendants and disciples are preparing this and that, while also peeking from behind the opened door.
"But... What's...?" Jin Ling quiets down. Slowly, he begins to notice the new Zidian marks on the walls, the too-dark bags under his uncle's eyes, the faint tremor of his uncle's hands as he brings his chopsticks to his mouth. A shift of position gives Jin Ling a better view, and now he can see the third person eating on the table, whom he recognizes as--
"Jin Junmian!" Jin Huangren exclaims. "But she is--she is the Healer who takes care of insane people--"
At the word, an unexplainable anger boiled inside Jin Ling, making him growl at Jin Huangren. Fairy growls along with him, to which Jin Huangren shuts his mouth immediately.
Fairy's growl, however, was loud enough to be heard by almost everyone there. In a matter of seconds, Jiang Cheng leaps out of the bedroom with Zidian crackling between his fingers; his tremors nowhere to be found; his melancholic expression turning alert. By the time the attendant lady tries to push Jin Ling behind the corner, it was already too late.
Jin Ling stops in place. His Jiujiu is looking at him as if he's seeing something crumble in front of him, and Jin Ling doesn't know, is it himself who's crumbling or is it his Jiujiu? He has to run, but the sheer fear in his Jiujiu's eyes makes him want to--need to go out there and hug his Jiujiu, ask him what the Hell's up with him, whatever it is in his Jiujiu's mind, just tell him already--
"Pei Zhuxuan!" Jiang Cheng roars, his fear already replaced by his anger. It takes Jin Ling a few moment to realize he's addressing the female attendant in front of him. "You--Didn't I order you to keep anyone out?!"
Pei Zhuxuan responds with a sure voice, as if she had made a decision which she would defend until the end. "Sect Leader Jiang, I..."
"Leave," Jiang Cheng commands, leaving no room for arguments.
Jin Ling steps forward. "But uncle, I--"
"LEAVE ME ALONE!!!"
Lan Xichen's brush stabs through the paper he's writing on.
Blinking owlishly, he withdraws his brush. Too late. Although he did not use that much power to write (as if he still has much power left these days), he had pressed his brush on the paper too long; the blot of ink wetting the already frail paper, making it easier to be stabbed through.
Silly Er-ge. You are too strong to even write a document. Does this Meng Yao have to do everything for you?
Lan Xichen doesn't hear the voice per se, but the sentences were formed in his head like a knee-jerk reaction; the sweetness of the words making him warm and nauseous at the same time; as though if he was to vomit, he would be vomiting blood and flowers.
No, he replies in his mind, pushing his nausea back. This Er-ge can do everything just fine.
That was a blatant lie. But if it can get the part of his head that insists on commenting every little action he does in that person's voice to shut up, then he's willing to lie to himself like that over and over.
After all, it's not like he hasn't been doing exactly that all this time.
Lan Xichen sighs. As much as repenting is one of the purpose of his solitude, he really isn't in the mood for any of that right now. He rises to his feet, aiming to fetch some more paper to rewrite the document, only to have himself stumbling after a wrong step on his own robes.
In reality, he yelps, barely catching himself with his own hands planted on the ground. In his mind, though, a larger, warmer hand grabs on his forearm, breaking his fall. A gruff voice complains in contrast with the hand that stays to support him as he rights himself:
What are you even doing? Aren't you Zewu-jun, one of the top ranking cultivators in the whole cultivation world? I can't possibly do this for you all the time. Be careful.
Yes, Da-ge, Lan Xichen answers, because even after all this time, he still doesn't know how to say no to Nie Mingjue. Maybe he would only know if Jin Guangyao was the one making him say it to Nie Mingjue.
A flash of thunder surprises him out of his imaginations. The lilting voices and warm hands fade out, leaving him alone on the suddenly much colder, dimmer room.
Rain? Lan Xichen thinks, gazing at the gray sky out of the opened window. How come? It was really sunny just now.
But of course, he could not be very sure. Though he believes he hasn't been spacing out for that long, how much time has actually passed since he stabbed his document with writing brush... He doesn't actually know.
Sometimes he wouldn't be able to tell, at what hour he actually woke up, when he actually last ate, when he actually fell asleep. All he knows is that in his waking hour, he does his little share of paperwork, with the larger amount being done by both his brother and his uncle. Sometimes his nephew or other younger disciples would bring him food--though he can't always remember where he puts the food, let alone to actually eat the food. At least he still usually finishes his paperworks on time, which are--
Right, his paperwork! Lan Xichen rises again, more carefully this time, then walks to the drawers where he puts his deskjob utilities in. Pulling the drawers one by one, he tries to find some spare paper of the similar quality, when another flash of lightning jolts him onto the hard surface of the drawer.
A small bundle of handkerchief falls out of his robe. The comb inside peeks out and away from the openings, as if wanting to escape from Lan Xichen.
Lan Xichen smiles bitterly. No, you're not going anywhere so easily, he thinks, gathering the handkerchief and the comb in his hands. You are entrusted to me by A-Yao, he scolds, stroking the soft fabric, and you, by Mingjue-dage, he chides, gently setting the engraved comb inside the protection of the handkerchief, so behave for once. If I lost you, I don't know what A-Yao and Mingjue-dage would say.
Placing the bundle back inside his robes, Lan Xichen's eyes are drawn to the roll of the dark clouds outside. Hurriedly, he closes the window before returning to his paperwork.
He tries to ignore the rattle of the windowpanes, the gust of wind that flows into the room through its seams. As chill seeps into the hollow of his bones, though, an unsettling realization makes its way into his mind:
A storm is coming.