Thank you to Somebody, Cathrina, and misai for the Ko-fis!
Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
Wen Shi stared at Xie Wen. He couldn’t tell him the truth, nor could he come up with an excuse, so his only alternative was: “I don’t know.”
He paused for a while before he spoke again. “It’s not like you’re asleep either.”
Xie Wen let out a hum.
“Why?” Wen Shi asked.
“What?” Perhaps Xie Wen hadn’t heard him clearly.
“Why aren’t you asleep,” Wen Shi said.
He evidently wasn’t making any noise—at least, not enough to wake someone up in the middle of the night.
Xie Wen didn’t answer right away. He simply looked at Wen Shi and fell silent for a moment before he chuckled and said, “That was clearly my question for you, so why is it being directed back at me?”
When he gazed downwards, his eyes contained a very faint glimmer of light, as if there was a layer of colored glass covering them. Manifold emotions were concealed behind that gleam of light, crafting an illusion of deeply-felt affection.
However, in reality, this was the same sort of gaze he used to look at flowers, trees, even a pebble.
Wen Shi knew that.
But in the dead of night with no other distractions present, he was abruptly overcome with a bit of laziness, and he let himself stand for a while under that gaze.
A cicada hiding in a tree on someone else’s property woke up early, and it let out a long, drawn-out trill that floated over from afar. Wen Shi blinked once before he averted his eyes from the second story of the house.
Condensation coated the soda can, gathering into droplets of water that slid down his fingers. He toyed with the mouth of the can and took a sip from it without tasting anything.
As he swallowed the chilly sensation, he suddenly spoke. “Because you can see through everyone extremely clearly, but the one thing you never talk about is yourself.”
This was a thought that had occurred to Wen Shi many times before in the past, though he had never voiced it.
There was no reason for him to do so, nor was there ever a suitable occasion to say it.
But today—perhaps it was because the night was too deep, or the illusion was too strong, giving rise to an easy sense of impulsiveness.
It was very quiet upstairs; Xie Wen didn’t speak.
Wen Shi didn’t look up again, so he couldn’t see his expression. However, it was likely that Xie Wen was a bit surprised by his abrupt declaration and didn’t know how to respond.
If this was Chen Budao from before, he would’ve merely brushed it aside with a smile. Maybe other people thought the same of the current Xie Wen. From the past to the present, nothing had changed at all, except for the switching of his name.
Ever since Wen Shi was young, he had grown used to seeing such a smile, and he had no hopes of receiving a response from the other person. Tonight, this was probably as far as things would get between the two of them.
He drank a few more mouthfuls of the ice-cold soda before he crushed the can flat in preparation of throwing it away and going back inside. Suddenly, at that moment, he heard the sound of footsteps come from the second floor of the house.
A beat later, the footsteps descended down the stairs, crossed through the living room, and stopped behind him.
Startled, Wen Shi turned around and saw Xie Wen standing a pace away from him. The other person stood there for a while before he finally walked down the courtyard steps and made his way over to the white plum tree.
He most likely hadn’t gone to bed at all; he hadn’t even taken off his dress shirt, though some of his hair had fallen across his forehead. Only that gave him some semblance of a more laid-back and intimate appearance.
Holding the canned drink, Wen Shi watched as Xie Wen came to a stop next to him. “Why’d you come down here?”
A breeze swept through the courtyard, causing the white plum branches to stir gently. Without looking at Wen Shi, Xie Wen reached out to briefly support the swaying branches with his fingers. Then, he finally said, “I don’t know.”
Those were clearly three very simple words, yet they were inexplicably filled with something unexplainable and indecipherable.
Wen Shi’s heart throbbed abruptly.
“How could you not know,” he said.
The courtyard went quiet for some time before Xie Wen’s voice rang out again. “It’s not like absolutely everything is extremely clear to me.”
This was still a conversation that would’ve never occurred between them in the past, and it strengthened a certain illusion even more.
“So what about you? Why are you standing here in the middle of the night, looking at a tree?” Only then did Xie Wen turn his head towards him. “And with an unhappy appearance at that.
“Missing Grandfather Shen?” He glanced at the white plum tree in front of them, pausing slightly between his words. Perhaps he wasn’t referring to just Shen Qiao and actually wanted to say “old friends” instead.
Wen Shi didn’t know how to answer him, so he simply avoided the question. “I’m not unhappy.”
“But it’s been furrowed here this entire time?” Xie Wen crooked his index finger and tapped the space between his own eyebrows with his knuckle.
Wen Shi: “Habit.”
Although he said that, he subconsciously relaxed his brow. There was still a bit of cold liquid left in the aluminum can, but rather than finishing the drink, he rotated the wet rim of the can lazily with his fingers. In his peripheral vision, he saw Xie Wen raise his head to look at the moon.
Back on Mount Songyun, the nighttime scenery was always very beautiful. When the moonlight was abundant, the entire pine forest seemed to be coated in a layer of silver frost. When the moon was a slender crescent, brilliant stars decorated the sky above the peak.
But they had never once viewed it like this—standing shoulder to shoulder, lifting their heads to gaze at the sky amidst a silence in which no one spoke.
Recalling the messages that Zhou Xu had sent over, Wen Shi suddenly asked, “What were you like as a child?”
This question came without any warning whatsoever, and Xie Wen was genuinely caught off guard.
It was also possible that it was because nobody had ever asked him that before. His direct disciples didn’t have the courage to do so, nor would they entertain such curious thoughts in the first place. After all, in their eyes, it probably seemed as if their shifu had been born like this: a being with an otherworldly presence, clad in loose robes with wide sleeves.
As for everyone else… They had never even glimpsed his face before, so when would they have a chance to ask that?
In the past, even Wen Shi hadn’t asked, because he knew that for the other person, “childhood” signified the period of time in his life before he started walking down this path. Back then, he must’ve spent his days living in a certain place; he must’ve had parents and relatives, attachments that bound him to the mundane world.
That was truly much too private of a topic, one that couldn’t be broached no matter how close a master and disciple were.
But all of a sudden, Wen Shi wanted to try asking about it today, even though it was highly likely that he wouldn’t receive an answer.
Sure enough, Xie Wen didn’t say anything.
He merely retracted his gaze from the horizon, and as he looked at Wen Shi, there was an instant where his expression was very complicated. However, that was just a fleeting glance, and by the time he redirected his gaze towards some undefined spot in the distance, his expression had already returned to its normal calm state.
Such a silence should’ve been expected, but Wen Shi was still ever so slightly disappointed.
Right as he was deciding between saying “pretend like I didn’t ask” or directly changing the subject, he heard Xie Wen speak. “It’s been too long. If you didn’t bring it up, I wouldn’t have really remembered it.”
He didn’t ask Wen Shi why he suddenly said that, almost as if he already knew the reason.
“When I was a child…” Xie Wen paused for a long moment. His voice was low, gentle, and indistinct in the nightscape. “I lived a life of luxury with very few troubles. I never took part in physical labor, and I couldn’t distinguish between the five basic crops.”
Wen Shi was momentarily stunned.
The loose strands of hair hanging across Xie Wen’s forehead swept past his eyes with the night breeze. He narrowed his eyes briefly before he turned to look at Wen Shi. “What’s with that expression, is it so surprising?”
It was indeed very surprising. However, the surprise probably stemmed more from the fact that Wen Shi wasn’t expecting Xie Wen to actually respond.
Upon hearing “a life of luxury,” an image unexpectedly materialized in his mind. A figure in flowing robes, who used to lean against white plum trees with crossed arms—if that same person shed the aura of wind, dew, and cold frost that was draped around him for hundreds of years after that, his appearance would indeed bear some resemblance to that of a noble young master.
And if he was a little younger, if he returned to his days as a teenager, he would’ve surely been an elegant and exalted youth back then as well.
Although Wen Shi’s head was filled with such images, something different came out of his mouth. “Did you not have any good points?”
It was truly extremely unfilial for a disciple to ask such a question, but Xie Wen only lifted an eyebrow in response and said, “I did. I often gave people money, and I was fairly good at studying. However—”
Wen Shi took a sip of his soda and waited for him to continue.
Xie Wen said, “I was like a pretty but useless vase.”
Wen Shi: “What’s that mean?”
“I knew everything in theory, where it all made perfect sense. But when it was taken out of that context, I immediately wouldn’t be able to recognize it anymore.” Half-truthfully and half-jokingly, Xie Wen said, “It was quite easy to harm me. All you had to do was point at yellow jessamine and tell me that it was honeysuckle1. I’d instantly come up with an herbal prescription for it, which I would then make and consume in total earnestness.”
Wen Shi: “?”
Xie Wen: “My family would have to start preparing a coffin and shroud for me after that.”
Wen Shi: “…”
Xie Wen: “They would also probably have to prepare some cinnabar.”
Wen Shi glanced at him. “Why?”
Xie Wen said serenely, “I died too wrongfully, so it would be easy for my corpse to come back to life.”
Wen Shi silently swallowed a mouthful of cold soda as he carefully contemplated that scene. Then, he wiped the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand and averted his face.
Xie Wen went quiet for a while before he asked in a low voice, “Are you laughing?”
Wen Shi finally turned his head back. “No.”
“You were,” Xie Wen said.
Wen Shi didn’t concede. “Did you see it?”
“I did.” Xie Wen retracted his gaze from Wen Shi’s face. He tapped the center of his throat with his index finger and said, “This was moving.”
Perhaps his original intention was just to expose a certain person’s tight-lipped stubbornness, but Wen Shi suddenly fell silent. He subconsciously copied Xie Wen and kneaded the middle of his throat.
Although his skin was very fair, it wasn’t the soft kind of pale. Even under the moonlight, there was still a sharp, austere sense of beauty about him. His neck was quite slender, highlighting the curve of his Adam’s apple exceptionally clearly.
After kneading it just a few times, a flush of red bloomed on his skin.
The conversation came to an abrupt stop. Neither of them spoke again, and within an instant, the atmosphere in the courtyard became extremely charged. A beat later, someone seemed to wake up in the house. The sound of clattering slippers traveled over distantly, like the plucking of a string that was stretched very taut.
Wen Shi’s eyes flicked up.
Xie Wen turned to glance towards the living room, seemingly listening to the noises coming from that direction. A moment passed before he turned back around and asked, “Still unhappy?”
“No,” Wen Shi said.
Xie Wen gave an “en” and said, “Go back in and sleep then.”
They walked past the living room, one after the other. As they neared the staircase, Xia Qiao exited the bathroom blearily. His hair was like a bird’s nest, and his fingers were scratching his belly through his T-shirt.
Upon spotting the two figures that appeared out of nowhere, his soul was almost frightened out of his body.
“Don’t collapse.” When Wen Shi saw Xia Qiao widen his legs, he knew that the other person was about to slump onto the ground.
Only then did Xia Qiao notice that one of the figures was his ge. He promptly patted his chest and sighed as if he had survived a calamity. “That scared me to death.”
After his sigh, it dawned on him that the other figure was Xie Wen.
Next, he realized that it was currently just past four in the morning. The moon was big and round, and the sky was still pitch-black. What were his ge and Boss Xie doing out here and not sleeping?
Maybe he was spending too much time on the internet, because two words subconsciously popped into his mind—a tryst. And then he went numb from fear. He didn’t know if it was because that word was relatively frightful, or if it was because these two people were even more frightful.
Student Xiao Qiao shook his head vigorously to clear away that silly, dumb idea. He asked, “Are you guys…”
He truly couldn’t think of an answer, so he left his question open-ended for the two of them to fill in. But then Xie Wen pointed to his room and said, “Go to bed.”
“Oh.” Obeying the command, Xiao Qiao swiveled around and started walking towards his room. His door was already almost shut by the time he suddenly realized something: both of the people outside had avoided filling in his open-ended question and had just left it hanging there instead.
The door to Xia Qiao’s room closed with a click. As Wen Shi entered his own bedroom, Xie Wen began making his way up the stairs.
Wen Shi listened to the sound of his footsteps before he suddenly glanced over, just in time to see Xie Wen turn the corner of the stairs. The footsteps paused briefly there; perhaps he saw Wen Shi look back.
“Are you going to send that tutor, Mr. Li, home tomorrow?” Xie Wen asked from the staircase.
Wen Shi: “Mn.”
So… are you coming too?
- Yellow jessamine is a toxic flower that is sometimes confused for honeysuckle (which is harmless). ^