Zhuzhi-lang is not a possessive person… he thinks. He's never had something to call his, his life's been built out of stealing and lending and sharing, but never owning, so there's no way he's a possessive person.
And yet, having Shen Jiu miss someone else… it should, maybe, worry him, or sadden him, but instead it just bothers him.
He decides it's because of the person he's missing. Because, really, what reason does he have to like that woman? He understands she's important to him somehow, his sister, he's said, but can't see the motive, Shen Jiu isn't one to open easily to others, he's sure of that assessment, and yet in the matter of weeks they went from murder attempts to A-Tang and A-Jiu, how long did they know each other before that reunion anyways? Three years from what he understands? Three years of knowing each other, three years of not knowing where the other was, and a month-long trip and he starts writing to her and saying she's very important. He's been traveling with Shen Jiu for five years now and he doesn't feel like they're actually close.
Not that he would dare to want to become closer! Being nearby has always been enough to him and still is. Having his presence tolerated, letting him be there, he knows those are things he can't take for granted, he knows it should be enough.
Surely it's just that that sister made such a horrible first impression, there's no way he can be convinced she somehow became worthy of that loyalty so very quickly and without paying for any of the past offences… Not that Zhuzhi-lang's opinions matter in regards to this topic.
Later that week, he finds Shen Jiu resting his back against a fallen log, using a bamboo hat to keep the snow off his face as he writes something, his face and posture relaxed for once, and Zhuzhi-lang is glad he's gotten over that stupid comunication break, but when he peeks over his shoulder —He can't help but to exploit the fact that, after so long of traveling with Junshang, Shen Jiu's finally resigned himself to let people spy at his writings… sometimes, depending on the thing he'll still kick a fuss. But usually he's ok with it now— he finds he's writing a letter.
"Didn't you say you wouldn't exchange letters for some months?" The words taste like vinegar as they leave his mouth.
Shen Jiu pauses and turns towards him, "That's right," he says, a small smile climbing into his face that normally would make Zhuzhi-lang feel warm but right now is like a block of ice inside his stomach, "but I thought about it and since it's hard to break the habit I'll just keep writing the usual letters and send A-Tang the whole package later on."
"Ah, I- I see," He doesn't know why it always bothers him anytime he says 'A-Tang' , but it bothers him, it really, really does.
It's surely because he's seeing someone he cares about being taken advantage of for so long. Which makes no sense since Shen Jiu's doing this to himself, but then again that's even more infuriating isn't it? That he's wasting his time like that?
"You really don't have to, you know," he tries to point out, "I don't think she'll extend the same courtesy to you."
"Well, no, she's busy," he raises an eyebrow, "of course I'm not expecting A-Tang to also write letters to send later."
"Then?" Zhuzhi-lang feels his eyebrows twitch.
"I just do it because I want to," Shen Jiu scoffs, "what? You're honestly going to judge how I spend my free time?"
"N-not really," he looks down, "It just seems like a bit of a waste…"
Shen Jiu glares at this, "She's my sister, I can write her as many letters as I damn well please. I like to do it, anyway."
He really doesn't understand this person. It's like he doesn't even remember he almost died before, in a very painful manner too.
Zhuzhi-lang still remembers, he remembers perfectly, the panic that took hold of him watching this person bleed from his ears and nose, white foam coming from his mouth, unresponsive to his name, the desperation when he cut his own skin, knowing he would be mad when he knew what he did, but also knowing that would be better than...
'A-Tang', 'A-Jiu', what an odd way to repay such an unpleasant experience. Zhuzhi-lang's always tried to ignore their relationship, it's not like she's traveling with them, so it usually isn't so hard to look away when Shen Jiu receives and sends new letters, but somehow, seeing him miss her is harder to ignore than before.
"I should have killed her when I could."
Shen Jiu now turns fully towards him, face red with anger and a murderous look in his eyes, "What did you just say?"
He said that outloud!
"I-I d-d-did't zzzay a-anything!" he tries to backpedal. How could he let himself say—?! Ahhh he's swallowed most of his mean words for years now and he finally said something really bad without meaning to! "I- I wouldn't, I zzwear I w-wouldn't—!" And he would never, even though he doesn't understand that relationship and as much as it bothers him and even if he dislikes her he knows how much Shen Jiu cares and he would never take something as important as family from— "I-I'm zzzorry, I d-d-didn't mean to—!" But no matter if he meant it or not he still said it. And judging by how Shen Jiu reaches for his sword that's enough. Ah, Shen Jiu wouldn't kill him for some empty words no matter how mean, would he? Would he? Judging by the look on his face, maybe he would!
"Something is coming," Junshang's voice interrupts the very likely murder attempt. He's looking at something to the west, and it only takes a couple of seconds after he speaks before a whisper of energy crosses the air and Zhuzhi-lang feels it too.
Judging by the way Shen Jiu moves to gather the tent he's also felt it. The three of them —Really only Zhuzhi-lang and Shen Jiu— work quickly on disassembling the camp and moving their things away, just in time for something to fall from the sky against the spot they just vacated, leaving a crater of dirt and snow around the impact zone.
Junshang whistles, "Eight points for speed, but I have to discount half of those for the landing."
"At least three extra points for aim…" Shen Jiu absently mutters before quickly realizing what he just said and moving to hit Junshang on the head, presumably because 'I can't believe you're managing to rot my brain!' as Shen Jiu sometimes says when he occasionally finds himself enjoying a book or play that carry the demon lord's recommendation.
From the white and brown mound left at the center of the crater a child, of around fifteen or so, wearing yellow robes, crawls out, "Help!" he exclaims. Absolutely no one moves to help him.
Even without the help, the young cultivator still manages to extract himself from the snow. He looks around until his eyes find them, and then rushes towards them while tripping all the way.
"We need your help!" he exclaims, falling on his knees in front of them.
"Oh?" Junshang takes a step forward, a smirk on his face as he tips his head to a side, preparing for a game "And whoever would it be that needs this lord's services?"
Shen Jiu grimaces, preparing for a hassle.
Zhuzhi-lang tries not to look at anything nor anyone in specific, no expectations for anything.
All three of their expressions are replaced by sharp surprise once the kid pulls out a certain object from his sleeve.
The smell of mold and decay persists no matter how many steps she takes, how many stairs she climbs, it's stuck to her clothes, to her hair, to the skin under her nails, and no matter how many times she tries to shake it off, how many talisman she wastes, how much energy she, that scent, like slime dragging itself over her body, won't be purified.
Something is wrong with the number of steps echoing behind her. She turns around, recounts the heads, one, two, four, seven, ten, twelve people, only twelve, they were fifteen! Where? Where did— No, when did— She calls for the group to form a circle around her, to huddle together and remain where she can keep them safe, didn't she tell them to hold hands?! Didn't she tell the disciples to keep watch?!
"The three girls that were with you!" she demands, her hands grabbing that young boy's shoulders, "Where are them?!"
The kid's eyes turn inside his skull, hollow and unseeing, she gives him two more shakes and they finally snap forward, focusing on her face. He opens and closes his mouth, but before any sound can come out his face twists on such a sorrowful expression.
She breathes. Closing her eyes, letting the air circulate through her nose and mouth, she puts the child down.
"Everyone!" she calls, turning towards the shivering mix of disciples and civilians, "I want you all to stay as close to me as possible! Grab my clothes, my hair! Anything you can get your hands on! And make sure to hold onto at least two other people!"
Walking like this, evading the heavy steps of the guards, hunting the stairs, pushing heavy doors and sinking her swords into the opening walls… it is hard, with so many hands grabbing her, using her to stay afloat. She walks slowly, makes sure none of them trip, makes sure to keep count of each and every single breath around her.
But. Inevitably, finger by finger, hand by hand, the number dwindles down.
She tries to fight it, she tries to catch them, she tries to pull them back towards her, but they're just gone. Swallowed by the darkness, like sand, like blood, slipping through the cracks of a broken vase. Slipping through the cracks between her fingers.
Twelve. Ten. Eight. Five. Three.
And eventually she finds her group reduced to two.
Two shaking children, one under each arm, that she grabs onto like a mother tries to keep safe her own flesh.
A heavy door opens to the light of the sun, the fresh air washing away that grime that nothing could clean off, and there's only one person with her.
One little, tiny junior, grabbing onto her clothes with the same ferocity she's grabbing onto his.
She pushes the kid outside the structure— outside the thing. Before he can be whisked away— ripped away from her. The child trips and stumbles, but when he falls to the floor, he's at the other side of the door.
She remains with one foot in, one foot out.
Fifty three people.
She came here to rescue fifty three people.
She found forty three.
She got one out.
Her hand sneaks inside her clothes, towards the inside of her left thigh. Her nails scratch the skin there, until she can feel the head of the nail, and then two fingers pull it out.
She told that person she threw it away. In truth she just decided to hide it where no one would find it.
She bends forward, takes the hands of the shidi between her own, and closes them around the bloody nail.
The junior's eyes are huge and dazed, a question on the tip of his tongue.
"This will lead you to that person," she says, "tell him I sent you, tell him where I am, and tell him that, just this once, I need his help."
The words taste bitter, like failure. She never wanted to ask this, she never wanted to use this, not because of necessity at least. That was not the reason why she kept it.
There are at least fifty two people still in there.
"Shijie?!" The kid grabs her clothes as she turns around, not too different from how they all did, when she still had an entire group to protect.
She holds the child between her arms. She isn't good at giving hugs, she's been told this time and time again, doesn't really like them herself if she's honest about it, it's not in her nature to seek or give affection.
This seems to be the right time for a hug though.
"It's going to be alright, he will help," after a final squeeze, she lets go, and the kid falls on his knees, body curling around the nail. "In the meanwhile, I have fifty two people in need of me."
Staring at that deep, deep darkness she could so easily leave, Su Xiyan steps forward.
"Since you're always talking about heroes saving fair maidens, I hope you're happy for the chance, Tianlang-jun."