"A-Luo," she asks, pulling one more time from her brother's hair, "are you awake?"
"...I am now." A-Luo grumbles, sitting up and scrubbing his eyes, "It's late, A-Tang."
"Sorry," she mutters, looking away.
A-Luo, slipping out of the covers, places a hand on the top of her head, "What is it? Did you have a bad dream?"
"So, do you want me to tell you a story?"
"Can I sleep here?"
"Do you really have to ask?" A-Luo scotts to a side, patting the space next to him, "come on,"
Qiu Haitang wordlessly hops onto the bed and A-Luo sets the covers on top of both of them.
Even though she's tired, the bed is warm and nice, and her brother is besides her, somehow Qiu Haitang still finds it hard to go back to sleep. She doesn't even remember what her dream was about, something about wild animals and teeth?
A-Luo must notice it, because even though she thought he was already back asleep, she hears him say, "Was it really such an ugly dream?"
"I dunno," she mumbles, "kinda?"
"Hm," She feels A-Luo move, getting out of the bed, and soon he's standing next to her side, "give me your hand?"
"Why?" she asks, even as she extends her arm towards him.
A-Luo grabs her hand and pulls her up, "Come on," he says, pulling her towards the hallway.
"Where are we going?" she yawns, "A-Luo, shouldn't we be sleeping?"
"Didn't you just say you can't sleep?" he chuckles, "shhh, come on, come on."
A-Luo guides her through some parts of the manor she doesn't know very well, ignoring the few servants that are still working this late in the night, answering with "just follow me, A-Tang," anytime she asks where they're going.
Eventually they reach their goal, and Qiu Haitang doesn't realize they're in the kitchen until A-Luo lights on a couple of candles.
"What are you doing?" she asks, as A-Luo searches through some drawers and boxes, eventually holding up a small bag with a triumphal smile.
"This tea is for smoothing out your nerves," he says, twirling the bag between his fingers, "come here, I'll teach you how to make it,"
A-Luo guides her through the steps to make tea, boiling the water way higher than she thought one should and mixing in some brown powder. Then he lets her pour two cups, his hands on top of hers to make sure it doesn't spill.
"Drink it in one go," he instructs, as Qiu Haitang brings one of the cups to her mouth.
It's horribly bitter, and she has to fight not to spit it.
"Ah, I told you to drink it all in one go," A-Luo says, seeing Qiu Haitang was barely able to take a small sip.
"It tastes bad!" she complains.
"I know," he sighs, "I hate it."
"Do you really drink this?!"
"I mean, I should take it, but of course I don't actually drink it, it tastes bad," he sticks his tongue out.
"You're using me to finish it for you!" she accuses, and gets a light flick on the forehead as payment, "A-Luo!"
"It's calming, it's good for you," he insists, "come on, I'll drink mine too."
He brings the other cup near to his mouth and raises an eyebrow at Qiu Haitang, waiting for her to do the same.
"Fineeee," she sighs, raising her own cup.
Both of them throw their heads back and swallow the horrible mix as best as they can, sighing heavily once it's past their throats.
"Ahhh, it tastes worse than I remember," A-Luo whines.
"It tastes like medicine that went bad,"
"It tastes like the soil that gets stuck under your boots on a rainy day,"
"It tastes like congee that's been reheated twenty times,"
"It tastes like the inside of a pig's mouth,"
"It tastes like that one time my brother tried to cook,"
"A-Tang!" he gasps, "You wound me!"
There's a pause that lasts about half a second, and then both of them start to laugh.
"Very well, let's go back to bed," A-Luo says, pushing Qiu Haitang towards the exit.
"Can I wash my mouth first? It tastes bad,"
"No time! it'll take some minutes to act up and then you'll fall asleep, hurry up, we need to get you on a bed,"
"You can just carry me if I fall asleep," she counters, nonetheless walking forward.
"And you think I'm not tired?" he yawns, "I'm about to fall too, come on, let's go back to bed, if the servants find us passed out on the hallway someone will have a heart attack."
As they move, she can feel some tension inside her body uncoil, her eyes begin dropping, and she has to put some effort into keeping her head upright. The sleepiness is so that she doesn't even notice they aren't going back to A-Luo's room until her body is opening the door.
"Father," he calls, slipping inside the bedroom "Are you awake?"
"I am now," their father answers, only raising his head from where he lies on the bed.
"I had a terrible nightmare, you see," A-Luo says, grabbing Qiu Haitang's shoulders and guiding her to come forward, "I asked A-Tang to sleep with me, but after all I think I would feel better if I could be with you as well, may we sleep here tonight?"
Their father doesn't say anything, just gestures with one arm for them to come in, resting his head back on the pillow and immediately starting to snore.
She climbs onto the bed first, followed by her brother, so Qiu Haitang's comfortably squished between A-Luo and Dad. They've barely reached their place on the bed when both of them promptly fall asleep too, their own snores about as loud as their father's.
A kick to the stomach has Qiu Haitang doubling over, followed by a hit on the back that sends her sprawling on the floor.
"Who do you think you are?!" A-Luo exclaims, his foot landing on her waist, "What 'A-Luo'?! Have I been so soft with you lately you think you can start disrespecting me like that, you little piece of shit?!"
A hand grabs her hair and forces her first to raise her head and then to stand up completely, another hand grabs her jaw, digging painfully into the skin of her face and forcing her to look at her brother.
"Listen here, you brainless dog," he spits, face twisted on a terrible smile not at all like the ones she's used to see, "I'm master Qiu. Master Qiu, you hear me?!" He keeps pulling her hair until she has to tiptoe, "And in front of A-Tang I'm Jianluo. And in front of my father I'm young master Qiu, but never. Never. A-anything."
He lets go of her hair and Qiu Haitang falls to her knees, just in time to receive a harsh shove that has her falling backwards, "Do you know how disgusting it is to hear something like that come out of your stinky mouth? Ah, I feel dirty just from hearing it! I'll need a bath after this!"
A foot is on her face, not hurting, not yet, but pressing her head against the floor, "Do I need to be harsher with your training? Is that it?"
"Who told you you could speak?!" The foot moves to rest on top of her throat, "Do you think we can't replace you at any time? Don't think you're so fucking special!"
With a last hit to the stomach that knocks the breath out of her, A-Luo storms out of his study, leaving Qiu Haitang lying on the floor fighting to regain her breath.
What is this? Really. She was at the site of the fire, there was a brief, but strong pain, and then she woke up back in her old home, but everything is wrong.
The building is fine, the weather, the animals, the trees. Everything seems so, so right, but the people.
Her brother is completely different. Her father too, she hasn't seen him as much, but the way he looks at her the few times they have met, like a piece of furniture, that's not like him at all.
She doesn't even care if she was thrusted into the wrong body, that's the least important mistake in this whole situation. If anything it's better for Shen Jiu not to be here, where he can repeat his crimes once more. She was so, so happy to see the building still standing, her family looking so alive, even a few years younger than the last time she saw them, she didn't even care if her appearance wasn't quite right.
But everyone is acting like complete strangers.
With unsteady arms and legs, Qiu Haitang manages to push herself up. She learned early on just how useless it is to try and explain who she really is, but it's still hard not to say something during these… sessions.
The servant's quarters are, in all honesty, not too dissimilar from the dorms in Kangfu. The building is better heated, the bedding way tougher, but the rooms are still too small for the number of people they house. Qiu Haitang drags herself to her room, which is luckily unoccupied at the moment, and lets herself fall on a very uncomfortable mattress.
How long has it been now? She's pretty sure it can't have been more than a week, two weeks top, but it feels like she woke up here an eternity ago. No matter how long, she still can't get used to it.
Qiu Haitang reaches under the mattress and pulls out a small package of vendanges and a tiny bottle of medicine. When she pulls off the cork, it's empty, she stares at it.
"Are you mocking me? If you're going to steal the ointment at least take the bottle as well, you bastard!" She curses.
Qiu Haitang falls back onto the bed.
Maybe she should have seen it coming... She's been crying most nights, both from physical and emotional pain because nothing here has been kind to her so far, why should she expect this to be different?
Fine, she wasn't as careful as she should have, she applied ointment on her bruises in front of other people, and didn't care to hide where she was putting it afterwards, that's on her, even if her house is a noble household, while acting as a slave she should have realized street rules applied.
She got food and money stolen this exact same way plenty of times during those months she spent homeless, come to think of it, and even though Shifu is very strict when it comes to stealing she still lost plenty of things to her roommates' 'borrowing'. She really should be less trusting, Qiu Haitang thinks not for the first time, there's a point in which optimism becomes naivety... Now if she could just get that lesson past her thick skull!
"Ah… Really, why am I so…"
At least the rest of her things are still there— Qiu Haitang's eyes fly open and she hurries to look inside the wooden trunk where the servant's spare clothes and blankets are kept. Tapped to the bottom of it with a piece of paper and a bit of clay, she retrieves a set of six needles she's managed to amass during her time here.
"Oh, thanks heavens!" She hugs her little package. If she had lost all her work so far, she would have… well, she would have cried, she would have cried for sure.
She should find a better place to hide them, properly hide them this time around. If she looks at it that way, it's a good thing she lost the medicine, it'll be a warning not to let the same happen to the needles.
Qiu Haitang puts the needles under her clothes, scrapes the bottle for what little ointment remains stuck to the walls of the jar, and bandages her wrist where it's starting to swell.
All in all, the last beatings have been less painful than the ones she received at first, her brother has been limiting himself to kicking and punching, and hasn't used the whip nor the paddle again. It's probably because A-Luo is waiting for the wounds on her back to heal a little before replying that treatment, but Qiu Haitang wants to hope the trend will continue, A-Luo will keep hitting her less and less until eventually it stops, whatever is wrong will fix itself and he'll go back to being her usual good older brother who will then apologize for it all, then her father will go back to normal as well, they'll recognize her, Shen Jiu's body will magically turn into her own, and they'll share a group hug and live happily ever after for sure.
"Heh, as if..."
She ends hiding the needles under a loose tile on the path to a small storehouse. It's not the best place to put them, and she might move them again later on, but for now it will do.
The day continues calmly... for this place. She washes some clothes, cleans some floors, and tries to ignore the pains that plague her body. In the evening, one of the old women that works in the kitchen gifts her a small bag with food, the head of servants finds out about it and assumes Qiu Haitang stole it, so she receives a long and boring lecture about knowing her place… but she's still allowed to keep the food.
At night she lies on a thought bed surrounded by people she doesn't really know. Qiu Haitang rubs the ugly bruise blossoming on her hip, and stares at the ceiling.
Originally she wanted to wait until she had amassed at least twenty needles, but thinking about it, she probably can manage fine enough with just ten, right?
"I think A-Luo is asleep," Qiu Haitang says, once her dad finishes reading the current poem.
"Oh?" Her dad closes the book and turns towards A-Luo, who had brought a small desk to the garden so he could be around his family while she played, and at the same time keep up with his calligraphy studies. Now his face is resting on said desk, a sheet of paper plastered to his cheek with saliva, "your brother has been working hard on his studies since we got him a new tutor. I'll scold him later for neglecting his sleep, but for now let him rest."
"O-kay," she intones, her attention going back to the colorful flowers and beautiful blues sky while her father continues with a poem about a cat.
Dad is in the middle of the third poem about animals, when Qiu Haitang stands up and walks towards the desk. She slides the brush out of her brother's hand, and before anyone can stop her draws a set of whiskers on his face.
"A-Tang," her father admonishes, and she freezes.
"Sorry, dad, that was silly of me," she mutters, lowering her head.
Her father takes the brush from between her fingers and—
And draws a pair of fake eyes on top of A-Luo's eyelids.
"Yes? What is it, A-Tang?" her father replies, no change in his expression, even as he moves to join A-Luo's eyebrows with a thick line of ink between them.
Qiu Haitang gapes at this, and then a huge grin grows on her face. She moves behind A-Luo and unties his hair, beginning to put it into three brands. As usual, her brother is quite the heavy sleeper.
Her father is just finishing the last character of the poem he's writing on A-Luo's forehead when her brother raises his head and both of them freeze.
"Father?" he mumbles, his voice still heavy with sleep, "what are you doing?"
Their father places the brush on the desk, straightens his back and says, "Let this be a lesson on the importance of proper sleep,"
A-Luo blinks three times, then rushes to touch his face and gasps when his fingertips return black, "Father?!" he exclaims.
"Lessons are better learnt with incentives, let this help you remember it, Jianluo,"
A-Luo continues staring, turns towards Qiu Haitang, turns back towards his father, and stares a little more.
He lowers his head, "I understand,"
Their father nods, "I'm glad you've learned the lesson,"
"But, father," A-Luo says, one of his hands raises slowly, it is holding the ink brush, "don't you believe I deserve some compensation?"
Their father blinks, "...I don't understand."
"When we inconvenience others we must pay compensation, right?" A-Luo continues, his face finally rising, his eyes shining with something ominous, "That is what you've teached us, isn't it right?"
Their father blinks again, "It's different when it's a deserved punishment,"
"Father, please think of the example you're setting for A-Tang, even if it's as a punishment, she might misunderstand" that hand moves, very, very slowly, getting closer to their father, "please show her how we must give compensation,"
"I just remembered, I have something else I must attend to," their father says, standing up, "right now,"
"Father!" A-Luo exclaims, standing from his seat and following his father as he leaves the gardens, "it will take a second, one second, please!"
"And there they went…" she mutters once both of them are gone.
She goes back to the poetry book, but when she reopens the page where they left she sees she can't understand more than three characters, "Now what do I do with this?"
She's about to go ask a maid to read it, when A-Luo returns. He kneels in front of her, dips the brush on the plate of still fresh ink, and draws something around her mouth.
Qiu Haitang blinks, "A-Luo?!"
A-Luo grins. "You think I wouldn't know you had something to do with it?" he pats her head, "let this be a lesson, A-Tang, like dad likes to say, a lesson," then he stands up again, and resumes moving in the direction their father went.
Qiu Haitang stands up and goes to the nearby fountain. On the clear water, she can see her reflection now sports a mustache and a beard.
"A-Luo!" she yells, rushing to take one of the calligraphy brushes left on the desk, she then dips it in ink and runs after her brother and father, "You'll pay for this!"
The door slides open and the wooden rod falls to the floor next to where Qiu Haitang is curling into a tiny ball.
"Father!" she hears A-Luo say, the tone painfully familiar, actually familiar, followed by someone stepping inside the room, "Oh no, did I miss the meeting with the suppliers?! I'm so sorry, I wasn't aware of the time—"
"It's alright, there's still two hours left before that," she hears her father say, "and it's not like you need to attend in the first place, it's just a boring meeting with some minor merchants, it's alright if you miss it,"
"I want to go! I have to start getting the hang of these things if I'll become the head of the house someday, right?"
He left the door open, Qiu Haitang notices. She risks looking at her family, they don't seem to be paying any attention to her.
"Hm, that's certainly a good attitude to have."
"But, father, why have you come here then? Not that I don't appreciate seeing you."
Helping herself with her elbows she begins crawling towards the exit. She is shaking, and her vision is starting to get blurry with exhaustion, but if she makes it to the door she might be able to stand up and walk away.
"She didn't eat again… I was thinking of taking some time off, so I can be there for her properly once she leaves her room."
"I'm sure she would appreciate it,"
She accidentally hits her side against a table while trying to make her way there. The sharp corner digs painfully on the small wound near her ribs, she thinks it opens, because soom there's a path of warmth on her side. She bites her lips not to let any sound out, and continues moving towards the open door.
"But we're in the second half of the year, and you know that's the time when we're the busiest. So, I'm handing some things to you. Can you manage?"
Their voices sound distant under the sound of her own pulse, and the bothersome whistle that's nestled itself inside her ears, so she ignores them and focuses on crawling forward.
"Don't worry, father. I'll show you I'm capable of it,"
"I'll send you some of the documents you'll have to look over after the meeting, then,"
She finally manages to reach the door, her fingers touch the wooden floor of the hallway and she tries to push herself past the threshold.
"Your pet is trying to escape, by the way."
"Oh, it's fine. It's fun to grab him just as he reaches the door. Want to try it?"
"No, you have your fun,"
Just as she's trying to rise from the floor, something grabs her leg and pulls her back inside, her arms give up, her head hits the floor, and she passes out.
It takes a couple of days for her to be able to move properly, since a good part of that beating ended landing on her legs, but it seems like a day of a great beating is followed by lighter ones, so soon enough she can run unimpeded, if with a little bit of discomfort. On the fifth day of light beating she starts to fear the streak is going to run out, so Qiu Haitang rushes to retrieve the needles from their hiding place.
She only has eight so far. They're of different lengths and meant for different uses, stolen from different places on different days, she tried to add a pair of scissors, once, and it ended with her being punished by someone who wasn't her brother for once. The servants don't seem like they pay attention but they do, it's hard to collect what she needs.
She wishes she had better tools, but if anything she should be grateful she managed to get so far. It'll do. It'll have to do.
Just as the sun is starting to hide, she makes her move. She's carrying baskets with supplies for the chicken pens alongside another two servants, and no one else is nearby, so she walks a bit slower than her companions, reaches for two needles, and sticks them on an acupuncture point on their backs. Both servants promptly fall unconscious and Qiu Haitang retrieves the needles before rushing towards the exterior wall.
The wall is made of smooth bricks with very few imperfections to hold onto. Shen Jiu always was kind of sickly, getting tired easily and having problems running, and the additional injuries are of little help, so she doesn't want to try climbing the wall. Instead, she sticks to it and walks along the perimeter in search for a tree.
She tries to make herself small and make little to no sounds, but she still finds three people on the way that see her. She throws a needle each time before they can alarm others, but people quickly rush to see why they fell down so she can't retrieve the needles.
Five needles still under her power, the sun having just finished hiding, she finds the tree she was looking for. It's not a very tall one, but it's enough to reach the top of the wall, and has enough spots to grab onto that she was able to climb it when she was really small.
She grunts and struggles, her bruises and cuts protesting at the strain, but still manages to get to the top of the wall.
Now the problem is the drop at the other side. It's not tall enough jumping will kill her, but more than enough for her kid body to break a bone. The wall is thick enough for her to crawl on her knees, but only by virtue of her body being small and being careful of keeping her legs very close together.
She knows there's a tree she can use to climb down some five hundred steps away or so from here, she's seen the top branches rising over the wall while doing other chores. She should be able to descend safely once she reaches it.
Qiu Haitang crawls, trying to lower herself as much as she can, and hopes no one will see her. Because the heavens are against her, she ends being seen by the worst person possible.
"What do you think you're doing?!" she hears A-Luo exclaim, and sure enough, back inside the estate her brother is looking directly at her, gesturing for guards and servants to see her too.
The tree is still nowhere close, and people is starting to gather to catch her, so Qiu Haitang takes out one of her needless and aims at her brother,
"Sorry, A-Luo. I hope you don't hit your head," she mutters before hitting her brother with it, who promptly falls to the floor.
That should give her some precious minutes while the servants panic around their young master. Qiu Haitang turns towards the other side of the wall. The drop hasn't become any shorter than before.
Two of the four needles she has left are very long and sturdy, she feels the other side of the wall with one hand, looking for cracks and fissures between the bricks, then once she finds one nails one of the needles to it, as low on the wall as she can get, hitting it with her feet until it's well and truly stuck.
Qiu Haitang grabs the needle, and jumps. It makes a terrible cracking sound, but it doesn't break, and she's left suspended on the outside of the compound. She takes the second needle, and tries to repeat the process again.
Once she takes hold of the second needle, she tries to unpin the first one, but there's another sound of something cracking, and this time it does yield, breaking cleanly into two halves.
Qiu Haitang falls on her side and rolls. It hurts, it really, really hurts, but not as much as some of the punches and kicks she's endured these past few days, these past few weeks, and so she's able to force herself to stand up.
The noise at the other side of the wall is becoming louder, there's no doubt the guards will be on their way. Her feet are unsteady, but that doesn't stop her from running towards the city as fast as she can.
There are few things Qiu Haitang enjoys more than going to the market.
The colorful stands, the smell of food, the sound of people going about their day, it all just fills her with content.
And of course, there's also buying things!
She doesn't need new things, but oh, isn't it so much fun to get them anyway? All those sparkling, gorgeous things, clothes, toys, books! All new, new, new! What could be better than to add new things to her life? New experiences enrich us, says her father. New people fulfills us, says her brother. So then, new things entertain us, would say Qiu haitang. She can't help but to flutter around the stalls like a moth attracted to light, picking this and that thing that catches her eyes: Some are gifts for others, most are for herself.
"A-Tang, please slow down," She hears A-Jiu call.
"Ah, sorry," she says, waiting for A-Jiu to catch up to her, carrying a box with stuff alongside the rest of the servants she's brought with her.
She knows she shouldn't run too much, if not for fear of getting lost, at least out of consideration with her companions. It's just... New stuff! Shiny, beautiful new stuff! How could she be expected to control herself when she's surrounded by such wonderful piles of treasures? She grabs a beautiful necklace with jade and silver, and puts it inside the box A-Jiu has with him before moving to the next stall.
A nice smell catches her attention, and she finds herself moving towards it. An old man is selling different kinds of candy: Caramelized plums, haw flakes, etc. She buys a bag worth of candied ginger, and continues with her purchases while throwing small pieces inside her mouth.
"What is that?" A-Jiu asks at some point.
"Candy," she simply replies, adding a beautiful wooden figurine of a rabbit to the box he carries.
"...Can I have one?"
Qiu haitang pouts and puts her arms on her hips, "No, I bought them, they're mine!" she replies, throwing back her head and looking mean.
"I didn't want any anyway, sweets are bad for you—" A-Jiu starts to grumble, and then his eyes go wide open when Qiu Haitang interrupts him by pushing a piece of sweet ginger inside his mouth.
"I'm obviously joking!" she grins at him. A-Jiu's cheeks get dusted with light pink and then he looks away.
Qiu Haitang runs during the night and sleeps when it dawns, hiding in the space between two walls.
She isn't sure if she broke a rib with the fall, but after the adrenaline fades she notices a sharp kind of pain when she breathes. Qiu Haitang uses her teeth and the remaining two needles —She lost another one during the race through the city— to cut strips of cloth from her robe to wrap her chest with.
By now the city guards have joined the private staff on the search for the escaped slave. She's almost managed to reach the point in which the rich parts of town begin to give way to the poorer areas, it should be easier to avoid her pursuers once she is in the slumps.
"Isn't this a little overboard?" she mutters to herself after another two guards run past her hiding place, "what with that talk about being replaceable, huh?"
And it's really too much for just one slave, isn't it? She didn't steal anything of importance, and even though Shen Jiu used to help A-Luo with work, here she's been made to help sorting writing supplies once or twice at most, she is in no way essential for the workings of the house. Even after attacking A-Luo, she expected her family to solve the matter more privately, maybe, maybe, to inform the local magistrate, send a couple of people to look around town, but not much more, so what's up with this city-wide search party?!
Another set of guards go past her and Qiu Haitang burrows further into her hiding place.
It ends taking two more days of moving during the night and hiding during the day before she reaches the slumps. The city is still swarming with people looking for her, if anything more than the first day of running, but at least in the poor areas her escape is a little more relaxed.
Or so she thinks
After days of only seeing the light of day as it seeps through cracks into the holes she inhabits, after running for a hiding place as soon as the sky begins to clear and only moving again when it darkens, she can't help put to slip into the streets when she finally reaches a place without guards. She takes five nice, sweet steps into the lapidated road, warm light showering her skin, and then someone grabs her wrist.
"You're the escaped slave from the Qiu!" an old man exclaims, an old man that's clearly a civilian and who shouldn't know nor care about who she is.
"I'm not," she replies, even as the man starts dragging her in the direction of the house, "I don't know what you're talking about,"
"I've found Shen Jiu!" the old man exclaims, and then a young woman, with old clothes and dirty hair who's clearly a beggar goes to grab her other arm.
"You should have thought twice before running away!" she tells her.
Qiu Haitang blinks.
She tries to struggle against their hold, and finds she can't release herself. They really are capturing her, for real, dragging her back.
She manages to pull one of her hands down, still held by the woman, but now it's down. The needle inside her sleeve falls from it and into her hand, and she manages to stick it into a point in the woman's arm, then once her grasp goes slack she reaches for the other one, stuck inside her clothes by piercing a part of the collar, and strucks the old man as well.
Both people fall to the floor, one at each side of her. She takes two breaths, turns back to the direction she was originally heading towards and… notices… every single person, men, women, and children are looking… directly… at her… She stares back, not knowing what is happening.
A kid, so young he shouldn't be able to say more than ‘mama' and ‘baba' is somehow the one who breaks the silence.
"IT'S THE ESCAPED SLAVE!!!" he yells, with a surprisingly clear, loud voice, and in an instant the entirety of the street is rushing towards her.
"What is wrong with you, people?!" she exclaims and she turns to run.
"Don't let him escape!"
"Shen Jiu! It's Shen Jiu! Catch him, quickly!"
"He can't go! Go! Go get him!"
"The slave from the Qiu estate!"
"Shen Jiu, you won't get away!"
"Why do you care?!" Qiu Haitang yells as the mob chases her, "How do you even know all that?! Who are you?!" it's surprisingly ineffective.
"Come back here! You can't escape!"
"Go! Go! Go!"
"Shen Jiu! We're coming for you!"
"He can't run forever! Keep going!"
"More people, we need more people, go call for the rest of the neighboring houses!"
"Come back here you slave!"
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!! GET AWAY FROM ME YOU BUNCH OF MANIACS!!!!"
The chase ends when she's cornered in a blind alley, the swarm of people closing around her, her heart beats like a caged animal and her feet feel weak. With really no place to run or hide, she closes her eyes and wishes it will all just go away.
"Xiao Jiu, this way!" Qiu Haitang hears someone call, her eyes fly open looking for the source of that voice, and she finds a hand extending from upwards. She grasps it, there's no other thing to do so she grasps it and the hand grips hers back.
She finds herself being pulled up, escaping to the roof of a small house, and then dragged by that arm, running through the rooftops, the mob that's started to climb the buildings close behind her.
They disappear through a small hole on one of the roofs, into a pottery store, and then continue moving through the backdoor, over a fence, through the space between two houses, under a fence, until finally coming to a stop inside a big ditch, her rescuer lying on top of her as the multitude runs past them.
"Are you ok?" the stranger asks as he sits up, once they can't hear the rushed steps of the mob anymore.
"I'm fine, thank you…" she bows, and then properly looks at this person for the first time.It's a kid, a couple of years older than she's right now, wearing cheap clothes and a warm smile, "Really, thank you so much," she bows again.
"Ah, it's fine, it's fine," the kid quickly grabs her shoulders and pulls her upwards, "Xiao Jiu, there's no need to be so formal."
Qiu Haitang blinks.
‘Xiao Jiu' he says. He called her that earlier too, didn't he?
Another person deceived by Shen Jiu's charming act, then? The fact he knows the owner of this body should put her on edge, but, somehow it makes her relax. It's not the kid's fault not knowing what kind of person Shen Jiu is, and he just risked himself to help his friend.
This person is someone she can trust, she decides that very second.
"It's good to see you!" she smiles, and the kid gapes at her. Too friendly? Right, Shen Jiu wasn't one for huge smiles on his act, but more subdued expressions. She bites back that grin, "Everyone started chasing me out of the blue! I really wouldn't have escaped without your help."
The kid shakes his head, "I didn't expect you to escape the Qiu by yourself," he says, "were they that horrible? Are you alright?"
"They were perfectly kind and nice to me thank you very much" she does not say.
Instead she says, "I need to get to Kangfu. Please help me!"
He tips his head to a side, "Kangfu?"
Qiu Haitang nods, "It's a cultivation sect, two weeks walking from here! If I can get there Sh— the sect leader will be able to get rid of whatever is possessing everyone."
She nods again, "Something is controlling the people here. I thought it was only the Qiu, but," she gestures to the direction in which the mob disappeared, "Now I realize it's the entire city that has been affected."
"I don't really understand it," the kid admits, lowering his head, "...But, if Xiao Jiu needs my help I'll do my best!"
"Thank you, really," She can't help but to pet the kid's head. He reminds her so much of her cute little shidis and shimeis it makes her chest hurt. The kid opens his mouth to say something, then closes it again, looking like he can't believe what is happening, and then suddenly she's being pulled into a hug.
"I missed you," he whispers into her shoulder, burying his head in the crook of her neck.
"I… missed you too," she lies, because she would feel like such a jerk if she didn't.
She will apologize after Shifu fixes everything, she tells herself. And explain that it's for the best that he didn't reunite with Shen Jiu again. It'll hurt but... she thinks she will be able to help him handle it, having gone through the same thing.
"Let's get going," the kid says, helping her to stand up, and they get on their way.
With the help of the stranger, they manage to navigate the slumps without anyone noticing them. He's clearly familiar with the place, which is good because Qiu Haitang can't horiantate herself to save her life, even though she spent a good three weeks roaming through the area after her house burnt down and no one came to take her in, before she was pointed in the vague direction Shen Jiu took off and took that road, and later had to roam other slumps in other cities until finally ending in Kangfu.
It took her more than a day to get out of the rich neighbourhoods. The slumps are even bigger than the central area, and it seems like now everyone is going after her, but with the kid's help they somehow reach the outskirts of town in less than a day.
"What is this?"
Qiu Haitang stands at the edge of the city, and it's…
There's no road that leads out of the town, there's nothing at the sides of said non-existent road, there's… nothing. There's the edge, and then where it should turn into the area outside the city it's just… white space.
"Let's go, Xiao Jiu," the kid says, stepping onto the wait before Qiu Haitang can stop him, and then… walks on it. Walks on the white as if there was anything to step onto.
Qiu Haitang swallows and attempts to take a step on the white, but her foot is met with nothing but air and has to take a step back.
"I can't do it," she says. The kid, who had already taken several steps into the nothingless turns towards her.
"What can't you do?"
"I can't walk in there like you're doing,"
The kid frowns, looks down, seems to mull something over, then looks back at her, "I'll come back for you!" he says.
Qiu Haitang blinks, "No," she shakes her head, "Just… carry me on your back and get me out, please."
The kid shakes his head, "I can't do that," he says, "I would fall alongside you,"
"Then let's find another way, there— There has to be something we can do!"
"I'll learn to cultivate and come back for you, you just wait for me,"
"Eh? What are you talking about?!" she exclaims, "Do you know how long that would take?! How are you even going to— No! Just— Help me, like you've done so far!"
"Don't worry Xiao Jiu, I promise I'll come back!" the kid insists, starting to walk away
"Aren't you listening—?! W-Whatever the case, if I can't leave at least come back here, everyone else is against me! Don't leave me alone!"
"Just wait for me!"
"Stop walking away!" she yells, "Stop, come back! Come back! What am I supposed to—?!"
The kid becomes smaller and smaller, disappearing into the distance.
Qiu Haitang falls to her knees.
What was that? What— What is this?! It has to be some kind of joke, right?! Even though she got so far!
The ground starts to shake, and then tilt. She rolls some distance back before she's able to catch onto the edge of a building. The movement of the ground keeps going and going, until it's a 90 degree slope. Qiu Haitang holds for as long as she can, as long as her arms will let her, but eventually she just can't resist the pull downwards.
She falls. She falls through the street, trying and failing to catch onto anything, but the ground is starting to drift away and the rearrangement of the ground hasn't stopped, it keeps tilting, until it replaces the sky and Qiu Haitang is left suspended on a nothingless white.
She looks down, and realizes the city has wrapped onto itself, like the inside of an egg. And in the center, getting close and closer, the thing she's falling towards, is her home.
No spirit nor demon should be able to affect reality in this manner, unless—
"None of this is real" she realizes, two seconds before hitting the main courtyard like a landing meteor.
"You can do it, A-Tang!" Gege cheers, his eyes very open as she moves her feet.
She really wants to use her hands to move forward, but if she does Baba will grab her and place her back at the beginning. It's so frustrating she could cry.
She puts another foot in front of the other, and the next step comes naturally, and then she's stumbling forward into Gege's arms. They're warm, it feels nice.
"You did it!" Gege grins, leaving kisses on her cheeks and hair, "baba, did you see?! A-Tang walked!
"I saw," baba snorts, then sighs, "Even though she wouldn't do it when I was the one calling her,"
"You can be a little intimidating, baba," Gege says, one arm leaving from where it was around her, so she takes a deep breath, redying herself to scream, but then it's quickly set back on her back and her face is squished against his chest. It's warm and dark, and that makes her sleepy.
"No, she just really likes you," baba says, and she can feel a new weight of arms settling around her, "You really will make a good older brother."
"Hehe, you think so?" Gege laughs, "I hope you're right."
"You've really done it this time,"
Qiu Haitang is kneeling in A-Luo's study as her brother walks back and forth while holding a whip.
Or, well… No, not her brother. The image of him. He feels real but—
"I haven't even touched you and you're already crying?" he mocks, grabbing Qiu Haitang's chin and forcing her to look up, "Say, why don't you tell me what's so horrible you've started to sob? I promise you, I'll give you a real reason to cry!"
"Because…" Qiu haitang swallows, "Because, you see, A-Luo…"
Even his hand feels real. The harshness with which he's touching her is unfamiliar, yes, the voice he's using is irreconocible, yes, that face shouldn't take such cruel expressions, yes… but it feels real.
"Speak up, you stupid dog! Why are you crying now?!"
It feels real but it isn't
"...I'm crying because you're still dead," she confesses.
Everything has been so awful, and yet, she was a little happy. She was back. She was back. There were unspeakable mistakes, there was pain, but she was back. They were back.
Returning the dead to life is outside of what she can do, and that was solved. As long as that part was sorted out, if she just found how to fix whatever was wrong, then—
But they were never back.
Through her tears, Qiu Haitang can barely see the person who isn't her brother twist that beloved face in a really terrible way. She closes her eyes before the whip hits her.
After A-Luo leaves, Qiu Haitang lies there longer than she has, longer than she should.
Eventually she stands up.
There's a place she's been avoiding, a person she didn't want to see. Everything was so odd already, she didn't need the added weirdness of it all, but right now…
She wants to go to her room.
So she does.
"I said I don't want to see anyone," s familiar voice replies when she knocks at the door.
"Can I please come in?"
The door opens, and a child with a good family greets her at the other side.
She really was this small once, wasn't she? This little girl will have to grow up someday, alone.
This kid reminds her of her shidis and shimeis too.
She wants to hug her.
Qiu Haitang takes her hands and guides her to the bed. They sit together, close to each other, and Qiu Haitang can't keep herself from burying her face into her own shoulder, such a warm presence, and starting to cry.
"A-Tang, you like Shen Jiu, don't you?" A-Luo asks her one day.
"I like him!" she nods, "He always plays with me whenever I ask him to!"
A-Luo nods, "That's good."
There's a pause as her brother visibly looks for the words he wants to say.
"Shen Jiu is very talented," he settles on, "He will be of great help on running the house someday,"
"Oh, I'm glad!" she says, because that's indeed a good thing.
"He's also a good man," A-Luo continues her, not looking at her, "the best one I've ever met, I'm glad we rescued him from the streets,"
"Is he that amazing?" she knew Shen Jiu was nice, but for her brother to praise him like that… he must be such an amazing person.
A-Luo nods, very quickly, "You know, there isn't any man good enough to be your husband, A-Tang," he finally looks at her, "But I think he could be as close as we will find, so that's why…"
Life goes on. Qiu Haitang raises a barrier around her heart, the same one that helped her in the aftermath of the fire, the one that got chipped away little by little by Shifu and her fellow disciples. It's hard to go back to that mindset, the fact the family that isn't her family keeps looking alive and feeling real doesn't help.
At the start she waver, and so she goes back to her room. This world's Qiu Haitang stays there, she doesn't walk freely through the grounds, and doesn't look for Shen Jiu to play. She's gland, it would hurt otherwise. This world has been nothing but cruel, but maybe even it knows not to push too hard.
Qiu Haitang, the one that isn't her, is warm and solid, and her presence means her brother won't come looking to make her hurt. It's safe, the way nothing else here is, but it's a safety she can't afford. The same as the sweet memories she would sometimes dream with, it hurts more than it helps, so, eventually she stops visiting.
It becomes routine, this thing that one shouldn't be able to get used to. People are really great, they can get used to anything.
One day, she's sent to the town to buy something, whatever.
And that's odd, she hasn't been allowed outside since she ran away… hadn't been allowed even before that, really, but now they're basically pushing her to the door, only another three servants to watch her.
She takes a step outside the manor and it's…
Faker than usual. There's a single, long street, with flat buildings that seem made out of paper surrounding it. She takes three steps forward, and when she looks back the door to the manor has disappeared, and the servants that were with her have turned into cutouts too.
The instructions couldn't be clearer, she's meant to walk forward. She doesn't like the idea of playing along with this world, but what other choice does she have?
So she walks, and at the end of the hallway-like street, she finds a man.
"Hello, young man," the man greets, "I can see you have great talent for cultivation,"
"Not really," she replies. She's been meditating daily, not wanting to break the habit. She's noticed Shen Jiu has some of his meridians open, yes, but not much else, even with practice this body hasn't progressed on its cultivation at all as long as she's been here.
"Wouldn't you be interested in joining me as an apprentice?" the man ignores her answer.
"Are you a rogue cultivator?" she asks, eyeing the man's appearance again. The dark hues of his travel worm robes, and most importantly the old, rusted sword strapped to his hip. If a disciple from Kangfu took such poor care of their weapon Shifu would make them run three hundred laps as punishment.
"Indeed," the man confirms, "I'm just passing by the zone, wouldn't you be interested in joining me?"
"Even if I wanted to," and she doesn't, "I can't leave this city."
"Isn't it obvious?" she shrugs, "I can't walk through the white, I would just fall off. I can't be your disciple so please just go away."
"What if I told you I know how to help you walk on the white?"
"I would tell you I'm tired of people promising to help only to leave me once we reach the edge," she shakes her head.
"Are you just going to throw the chance then?" he laughs, "you must really enjoy staying here,"
Qiu Haitang purses her lips.
Well, what does she have to lose?
"Do you really know how to help me escape? Really escape?"
"I swear it on my life."
Against her better judgement, Qiu Haitang finds a weak hope growing inside her.
Maybe this is what she's been waiting for, a way to escape this dream, a real way to do so. Who's heard of a dream that lasts forever, after all.
The day she's set to try to escape again, this time maybe for real, she finds herself in A-Luo's study, not getting hurt for once, instead writing something on a blank scroll.
She finds herself turning to look at him now and then. It probably won't work, but if it does…
She will miss him. Not that she ever stopped missing him.
Gods. She wants to leave, but she doesn't want to.
Her mouth opens and closes, knowing she wants to say something, but knowing she doesn't know what. This isn't A-Luo, not really, she knows that, she should know that, but…
It likely won't work anyway. This Wu Yanzi doesn't seem trustworthy in the slightless, if the other kid couldn't get her out, why would this man who exudes a dark aura?
And if it doesn't work, there's no need for farewell words.
She wants to leave.
She doesn't want to leave.
She wishes she could take her family with her when she leaves.
She wishes her family were acting like themselves.
Her heart's made a mess.
Qiu Haitang finishes writing, and is about to leave when A-Luo stands from his desk.
"Do you think you can leave?" he says. Qiu Haitang freezes.
"No… of course not," she answers. A-Luo takes a step closer, she doesn't move from where she's kneeling.
"You're really shameless, wanting to leave this place again! Haven't I been educating you properly?!"
She swallows. She doesn't know where this is coming from, not that the beat ups need to come up from anywhere, but maybe she can still descalate this. If she gets her legs broken today, it'll be hard to follow Wu Yanzi.
"Master Qiu," she says, "of course I wouldn't dare to leave my home."
Judging by A-Luo's face, that doesn't work at all.
"You really are an ungrateful dog, going to whoever will feed it scraps," he spats out, "I can see it in your eyes! You are planning on leaving!"
"So what if I do?!" the words tumble out of her lips without her permission, "What else am I supposed to do?! I can't just stay in a place where I'm mistreated!"
As if to prove her point, A-Luo slaps her. Qiu Haitang takes a deep breath, and then stands up. She's almost as tall as A-Luo now, but the other still has a great skill at looming. She isn't intimidated by it, not really. It's sad, but not scary. It was never scary.
"Why must you be like this?!" she exclaims, taking her own step forward, "I was so glad to see you, I didn't want to leave! Of course I didn't! But what other option do I have with you in this state?!"
"And what state would that be?"
"Wha— Isn't that obvious?! You— You're acting like a monster!" she pushes at his chest, "Why? Why?! Even though you're such a good person!"
"Me? A good person? After all our time together that's your conclusion?"
"I know you are," she takes a deep breath, "I have heard you speaking to m— to Qiu Haitang through the door. You care about your sister, you care so much even here. Of course you care, not even this world can change it... then why?! How can you still— Pick a face and stick to it!"
The next punch to the face is no surprise at all, but she doesn't let that deter her.
"Don't you fucking dare bring A-Tang into this!" he yells, this stupid—
"I'll bring Qiu Haitang into this as much as I want to!" she replies, "What would she think if she saw you now?! What happened to being kind to others?! Whatever happened to we're here to be with other people?! You taught me all that!"
"Don't tell me you believed all the trash I've been telling A-Tang," he scoffs, "It's all lies, I don't follow any of those, isn't that obvious?"
This time it's her the one who slaps him. She expects Qiu Jianluo to hit back, but he just looks away.
"They're not trash," she declares, "They're not lies. Be kind to others! Fill your life with people you care about! Accept whatever comes with a smile! Everything can be a lesson for the future! Tell someone when something is bothering you! Help others whenever you can! Accept other people's help! Everything has a good side! You'll find a solution if you look hard enough! Be happy and make others happy! None of that is a lie!"
"No, they aren't," Qiu Jianluo mutters, still not looking at her, "they just don't apply to me."
"You taught me that," she begs, clinging to the front of Qiu Jianluo's robes, "how can it not apply to you?"
He shrugs, "You don't need to know something to teach it."
"But— But you always— Then what is the truth? How should I remember you? I don't understand any of this!"
"I love my family," he says, "that's not a lie. Everything else… maybe a little."
"You say you love your family,"
"You're good to them,"
"I try to be,"
"Then why are you being so cruel to me?!"
Qiu Jianluo closes his eyes, just a moment, and when he opens them again the traces of her brother she saw just now are gone.
"Isn't it obvious?" he scoffs, pushing Qiu Haitang away, "You aren't a person! You're barely an animal! What does it matter what I do to you?!"
A knee connects with her stomach, and she falls on her knees, just on time to receive a kick to the head.
"I can do whatever I want to you!" Qiu Jianluo exclaims, pouncing over her, his hands coming to surround her neck, "I can do whatever I want for whatever reason, a waste of space like you isn't even a human! So what if I hit you, so what if I hurt you?! So what if I fucking kill you?!"
She tries to claw at his face, at his eyes, but her body isn't strong enough, and the air leaving her lungs and the pressure on her throat isn't helping.
"The only reason I keep you around is for A-Tang's sake!"
What terribly ironic parting words, Qiu Haitang thinks.
Her hands fall at her sides,
her eyes roll inside her skull
She can't breathe
She tries to say something, her lips move, she doesn't even know what she's trying to say
And then everything
When the colors return, she's standing somewhere else. Holding a sword.
And that sword is buried into…….
The sword falls to the floor, alongside with her brother, who is—
There's something warm and liquid on her face, splashes from when she—
Qiu Jianluo… A-Luo twists on the floor like a half dead cockroach and—
"Haha… ha... haha…."
When he stops moving, when his body goes limp, she can see, around his wrist, a string bracelet, becoming red with the blood. His blood.
"Hahahaha…. Hahaha… hahaha!"
"As long as I'm alive I won't let anything bad happen to you!"
"That's the work of the older brother!"
"It's a promise!"
"Shen Jiu! I will never forgive you for what you've done!"
This place has to be mocking her.
It's been mocking from the very beginning.
It's been set against her for the start, why would this world stop laughing at her expenses now?
This world that at every turn mocks everything she tries to do?
So what's the takeaway she's supposed to get from this?
What is the lesson?
What is the good side?
That all the pain and sadness, the fear, the anger, the months on the streets, having to beg and steal and beg again, the shame, the knowledge her family wouldn't approve as her manners and pride starts slipping away as survival takes over, keep living, for you have a reason, for you are set to bring justice, that the nightmares, the sleepless night, the constant hunger for home, the unending marching forward, that the desperation, the tears, the sweat off her forehead, the warm memories that pain her, the unending restlessness, "Just let go of all that with a sad shrug, for you would have done the same if given this role" is that what you're saying? Is that what she should do?
You've got to be kidding me
You've got to be fucking kidding me here, this is such a tasteless joke.
Are you listening to yourself?
Are you even listening to yourself?!
THIS SITUATION HAS NO GOOD SIDES!!
Who is going to hear the claims of a place that clearly hates me? Aren't you simply making me suffer? Don't you just find it very funny to see?
What lesson?! What stupid lesson?!
Everything seems so twisted and distorted, a mockery of my previous life, and you expect me to see it, and suddenly accept this hell as the truth?
Who would be so stupid as to accept it?!
You want me to enact what happened, in this distorted twisted way this world works.
I might as well please you, don't you think?
Fine, I give up, I'll play my role at the end
This mockery might as well burn, let it be the only thing this and my home have in common.
I've seen this landscape a thousand times in her dreams already, what's one more?
Might as well let the white take over
And with a sword held in one hand
Wearing a red string around the left wrist
I should erase this place from existence
Goodbye, A-Tang, have a good trip
Why, thank you, gege, I'm going out now
Don't take too long, you know we worry about you
Of course, father, I'll be back very soon
Her father is the first to go down. It wouldn't feel appropriate to send anyone else right after A-Luo, and even as her mind is high, high, high, watching everything from afar, her body knows this, and so it follows.
"Ha! Hahaha! Ha ha! Hahahahahahaha!"
She strikes down all the servants equally. Men, women, children, they all fall under her sword. She's violated her family ties, her home is set on fire, what difference does it make?
Those who were kind to her, those who were mean to her, even the animals, she cuts every single thing that dares to cross paths with her.
"Hahahahahaha! Ha! Hahahaha! Hahaha!"
Once everything is red or black, ashes to blood, blood to ashes, once the fire starts licking the ceilings, she remembers she has a very important date to attend to.
With a good for nothing child who thinks her family's murder scene is the perfect time for a nap.
She'll do it right this time. Why keep her from her home? How cruel! At least I survived? There's no at least, that's a punishment! That is no good side! Everyone should go forward with their arms firmly linked! It's just common sense! That thin neck, too weak to hold that fat, empty head upright, she will make sure to bury her sword into it this time around.
Family blood mingled, what a beautiful concept, let's not let a single person out of the party! Surviving is cruel! At least we went all together, that's the one true at least! So she'll keep cutting! Until this red sword drinks from the entirety of the house of Qiu, let's cut people down!
Let this blade get drunk from all this filial love I have to give.
She finds Qiu Haitang in the same courtyard this happened last time, sitting there, as if to wait.
"Ah! What is happening?!"
"A-Jiu, is that you?!"
"It— It can't be,"
"It can't be!"
"What is the meaning of this?"
"What— What have you done?!"
Subpart work. Even the copy of her words is wrong. She remembers the right script.
Ah, what is happening?
A-Jiu, is that you?
Are you alright? Are you hurt?
It can't be
It can't be
What is the meaning of this?
What have you done?
Don't come any closer
Well, fine, she'll finish this once and for all as it should have ended the first time. Sword firmly held in her hand, she approaches that familiar figure and Qiu Haitang stares at her, her head held high, as she should have the first time. Her sight firmly buried on Qiu Haitang's face.
What's up with this disapproval?
Haven't I played along like you wanted, joke world?
You think I don't know this is terrible?
You think I wished for this?
What do you know?
Little brat, what would you know? Don't look at me like that!
Don't look at me
You don't know a thing
What right does a baby who knows nothing about pain have to hold her head higher than I did?
Don't look at me
I didn't want any of this, I would never do something like this because I wanted to, so don't look at me like you despise me
Can't you see I'm just trying to spend my life writing love letters? To those who left me, to those who spent theirs teaching me what it's like to be loved back, to load me with enough love to last the rest of my life now that they left
What's so wrong about that?
The past was so pretty, let me keep on holding to the memory of it. Let me comply with the obligations to my family that I ended throwing away here. Moving on? How insulting.
What right do you have to judge, stupid replica?
Don't look at me
Don't look at me
Don't look at me!
DON'T LOOK AT ME!!
I already know how ugly I look, I couldn't forget that image for as long as I live even if I wanted.
WHAT WOULD YOU EVEN KNOW?!
What's up with that child looking at her?! This is completely different from the first time around!
"This isn't how it happened! You're wrong! My family— My family was good! Kind! Dad! A-Luo! I didn't do this, this isn't how it happened! I love them, I didn't do this! I would never do this! They would never do this! They love me! He betrayed us! None of this is true! This is all nothing but a stupid farce!"
I'll kill you
I'll kill you
As you will wish he had done
Bringing her hands closer to that ugly neck, she will—
"A-Tang? Is that you?"
The white recedes, just a little.
When she first appeared here
Before she first appeared here
She felt a hand trying to reach her
She was sure it was her imagination
But if someone will finally, finally, call her by her name, then...
When Qiu Haitang opens her eyes, she's on top of Shen Jiu. Shen Jiu, with the right age and appearance, her own hands looking like her own.
Slowly. Slowly, she doesn't trust herself. She moves aside.
Shen Jiu sits up, with the same Sluggishness with which she moved. There's blood under his mouth, nose and eyes. Qiu Haitang touches her own face, and her fingertips come back red.
"All this time, you were—?" she begins to say, then shakes her head.
She knows the answer. Shen Jiu was there, and she didn't notice. What a stupid question.
"A—" Shen Jiu begins, then cuts himself off, "Qiu Haitang," he amends, "the Shen Jiu inside the dream… it was you wasn't it?" he does ask. He asks such a stupid question.
It makes her feel such a powerful, irrational fondness.
"Was it true? What I saw in there?" the words come easily. It's not like a rock got stuck inside her throat, it's the most terrifying thing she's thought of, and yet the words just… come.
Because Shen Jiu was in the same world she saw, somehow, she doesn't know why, she doesn't want to know why… but it gives the mistakes credibility.
Shen Jiu looks straight into her eyes and says, not an ounce of doubt in his voice, not a single waver "No. It was just a badly done illusion made to trick you."
Qiu Haitang lowers her head.
"Ah, I see…." So it was all true.
Shen Jiu is good at lying. He must have been always good at lying, and yet, in this moment, perhaps because the conexion hasn't been cut off, perhaps because she knows if it was the truth his voice would break a little, but she knows, Qiu Haitang knows, in her heart, in her bones, in her soul.
Shen Jiu is being kind. He's lying.
Shen Jiu closes his hands into fists and looks away, probably knowing, the same way she just did, that Qiu Haitang saw through him.
She looks at him. Truly looks, and she sees that kid who would laugh but never cry.
In truth she wasn't happy when her brother told her who she would marry. She wasn't sad either, she just accepted it… and then worked so, so hard to love him.
This stupid child.
Ah, she's a stupid child too, isn't she?
She moves closer, raises her hand, and slowly, places it on Shen Jiu's cheek.
"A-Jiu," she calls, "you're really stupid,"
"A-Tang…" he mutters, leaning into the touch, "I'm sorry,"
Shen Jiu winces, just a little, and moves his head away, there a tiny speck of blood on his cheek, "Why do you have a needle on your finger?"
Qiu Haitang blinks.
Oh, she completely forgot about the poison.
She's been trying to forget about it for weeks now and she finally forgets about it NOW?!
"Where is my bag?!" she exclaims. A-Jiu startles and then points at somewhere behind her.
Qiu Haitang rushes towards the discarded bag, turning it upside down and letting all kinds of flasks fall from it. She grabs the one she needs and rushes back towards Shen Jiu, pushing it onto his face, "Drink this!" she exclaims.
"I- What—" There's really no time for doubt, she quickly pulls the crock off and begins trying to push the bottle inside his mouth, "Stop that!" he complains.
"We don't have time for this!" she urges, "Just drink it! Or the poison—!"
"Just open your mouth!"
"A-Tang, stop that!" A-Jiu slaps her hand away, and her eyes widen as the flask leaves her hand and goes flying away, spilling all the liquid.
"YOU MORON!" she grabs A-Jiu's robes and begins to shake him, "THAT WAS THE ONLY ANTIDOTE I HAD!"
"HOW COULD YOU!" she's crying now.
"YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DIE AFTER ALL THAT!"
"Listen, it's fine—"
"YOU ABSOLUTE SCUMBAG!"
"A-Tang, it's fine! I'm immune to poison!"
Qiu Haitang stops shaking him.
"What?! No, you're not!"
"Like, two weeks ago? I—"
"I drank some blood and—"
"I- I don't know?!"
Qiu Haitang stares at him. A-Jiu stares back.
"...heh… he.. ha ha"
"...pfff, ha ha ha"
Both of them begin to laugh. And laugh, and laugh, and keep laughing while holding their stomachs.
Once they've finally laughed so hard neither of them can breathe, they cry.