Wu Xi kicks him out after four days and nights of continuously moping by an unconscious Zhou Zishu’s side with a stern instruction to rest, so Wen Kexing finds himself lounging listlessly in one of Jing Beiyuan’s gorgeous gardens, cradling a wine jar. He’s frustrated at his own inability to help A-Xu. Which is not a new thing, but there was always something he could do about it — protect him from enemies, cook him his favourite dishes, even quarrel with the old monster to urge him to find a faster cure. But now that the cure is here in the form of the Great Shaman of Nanjiang, who tells him that everything has been done and the rest is up to A-Xu’s own constitution and his will to live, he feels helpless as he never has before — not even on the day he looked up at the former Ghost Valley Master from where he was crouched over his dead mother’s body.
It takes a lot more than two jugs of wine to get Wen Kexing drunk enough to forget his surroundings, so he only has his moody thoughts to blame for not detecting Han Ying’s proximity before the former Tian Chuang operative steps delicately on a dry twig to announce his presence. Wen Kexing scoffs inwardly at this proffered courtesy and languidly straightens himself.
“Wen daren,” Han Ying bows low.
“Xiao daren,” He nods and flashes an empty smile at him.
Neither of them speaks for a while, until Han Ying looks uncomfortably close to fidgeting. Wen Kexing suddenly feels strangely guilty. A-Xu’s situation wasn’t ever Han Ying’s fault, and A-Xu would surely be disappointed in how he’s treating Han Ying now.
Just as Han Ying seems to decide to leave, Wen Kexing calls out, “Han xiongdi!”
Han Ying turns back, looking visibly relieved.
“Can I help you?” Wen Kexing asks. “Aiya, where are my manners? Here, sit and have a cup of wine.”
Han Ying sits, but doesn’t make any motion towards the wine. “I came to report to my lord, but….”
Ah, yes, Han Ying had been deep into some secret mission for A-Xu for the past few weeks. He hadn’t known A-Xu was undergoing the cure. Wen Kexing was rather surprised that A-Xu hadn’t found a way to inform him. The odds that Wu Xi had given them were favourable, but not absolute by any means, and Han Ying was one of the few people left, apart from their family, that A-Xu was genuinely fond of.
Han Ying seems to have made up his mind after thinking silently for a while. “Wen daren, my lord told me to report to you if I came back to find him… indisposed.”
Wen Kexing swallows hard. A-Xu, ever so practical. He says, “I’d be honoured.”
Han Ying passes over a bound and sealed scroll. Wen Kexing turns it over in his hand curiously.
“Those are the names and last known locations of the Tian Chuang operatives loyal to Duan Pengju,” says Han Ying quietly.
Wen Kexing's fingers tighten over the scroll, then loosen before he can crumple it too badly. Han Ying wisely doesn’t comment.
“What does he want done?” Wen Kexing asks, opening and perusing the scroll. Names, numbers, locations, descriptions, none of which means a thing to him. At the top of the list is the only name that matters to him.
“Keep them under surveillance.” As if anticipating an objection from Wen Kexing, the younger man says, “I have arranged it. We have enough contacts in all these locations. There will be no need to involve the disciples.”
“Good,” says Wen Kexing. He means it to sound biting, but it doesn’t sound like anything. He feels hollow in a way he hasn’t since that awful day he woke up in the secret room of the manor with A-Xu gone, Han Ying unconscious, and Chengling clutching him and crying like a child.
He realises they are both thinking of the same thing when, after a brief silence, Han Ying says, “It was my fault. I led them there.”
Wen Kexing should probably scoff and tell him not to be silly. He doesn’t. Han Ying is right. He had literally left a trail of blood to their door. Trying to comfort him now would be an insult. A-Xu can manage that somehow, to offer comfort without sounding condescending. Wen Kexing has never learnt, never found a reason to learn.
Not that Wen Kexing has the right to cast blame on anyone else. His mouth twists into an ugly line as he asks without shifting his eyes from the cup he’s idly twirling in his hand, “Did A-Xu tell you he pulled out the nails?”
He feels Han Ying’s gaze as the other man turns around with a jolt which answers his question. “My lord… pulled them out? When?”
When Wen Kexing turns to look at him, his gaze holds a sliver of the cold menace of the Ghost Valley Master. “Before the second heroes’ conference.”
He sees insight dawning in Han Ying’s eyes a second before he looks away. Han Ying had still been in a coma during A-Xu’s capture and rescue, and Wen Kexing’s “death” and return, but no doubt he’d been filled in upon his revival. They continue to sit quietly, not looking at each other. There is no comfort, no absolution, they can offer each other.
Just as Wen Kexing thinks he can take it no longer, Han Ying stands and bows. “Thank you, Wen daren. I will take my leave now.”
“Wait.” Wen Kexing calls out, then curses himself inwardly. Was he so lonely that he would force his presence on this boy who looks like he just wants to escape? He exhales and asks instead, “Don’t you want to see him?”
Something flickers, raw and open, in Han Ying’s eyes for a fraction of a second before he’s the calm and collected Tian Chuang officer again. Wen Kexing, who collects reactions like others collect precious jewels or rare scrolls, files it away in his mind to consider later.
“Since Wen daren is here,” says Han Ying slowly after an almost imperceptible delay, “I assume my lord is not being allowed visitors.”
Wen Kexing bristles at the word “visitors” that seems to put him on par with this wide-eyed but tight-lipped boy and everyone else in the jianghu. But they are guests in Jing Beiyuan’s temporary residence, and Wuxi presides over the infirmary.
He gives a sharp, mirthless laugh and pours himself another cup of wine, then proceeds to knock it back. “He’s unconscious. What’s the point of visitors when he’s not there? It’s just his body lying there.”
“Wen daren…” Han Ying looks disturbed.
Wen Kexing swigs another cup of wine and stands. He feels pleasantly buzzed. The smile he turns on Han Ying is but a shadow of the old, bone-chilling smile that had earned him the moniker of “lunatic Wen” in the Valley, but he wears it like a warm shawl nevertheless, wrapping himself in the comfort it provides.
“Xiao daren,” He croons, widening his smile and tilting his head at Han Ying, “How long do you need to prepare for another mission?”
Han Ying’s eyes sharpen and he draws himself up with hardly a movement. “I am ready. What do you need me to do?”
Wen Kexing shakes his head. “Ah no, no. You just came back from a mission. You need food and rest. I can’t have you collapsing halfway through and slowing us down.”
“Us?” Han Ying asks. Wen Kexing can’t quite read his expression, but he’s sure that in a less rigorously trained man it would be consternation. He’d pout at the slight, except A-Xu isn’t around to roll his eyes. So he throws his arm around the younger man’s shoulders and proclaims heartily, “Us! You and me, Han xiongdi! We are going on a mission!”
It is a testament to A-Xu’s training, thinks Wen Kexing, that Han Ying’s eyes only widen comically for a moment before he wrests back control of his face and nods.
[to be continued]