A Jianghu Fairytale
AN: This was written for yuletide, which is a fantastic fandom tradition that I fully support and adore! Go check it out!
The first time she met Li Mu Bai, he was dying. He was white and pale and shaking so hard it was as if his body was trying to untangle itself, trying to reduce the muscles and parts of him into a more simpler form. He was dying and when she pressed a hand to his forehead, it scalded her.
"He is dying," she had said, for it was true, but the man she was engaged to marry merely clutched at her arm and said:
"No. You will save him, Shu Lien-- he cannot die."
"He is dying," she had said. "And it isn't a matter of can or cannot, because he is sick."
Then the man she was engaged to threw the herbs that had been burning by his sick bed against the wall and spoke over its loud clatter. "No! Shu Lien, please, please--" a deep breath, like he was clutching at air "--try."
So she tried and she tried and she sent a man she trusted on the assignment for Sun Security instead of going herself, even though his wife was newly pregnant and needed her husband, because her own future husband asked her to try to help the man who soaked bed-clothes through with sweat and coughed so hard every breath must hurt and was so thin that she could see every rib when she cleaned him and changed him.
"Who is this man?" she had asked.
"He is my brother."
That is the only answer that he ever gave. That, and, occasionally: "He is my brother and if anyone can survive this, he can."
And Shu Lien would sigh and shake her head and return to nursing a man who she never knew until he was dying. She would talk to him, while he was lying there, tell him stories her father had told her before he died, tell him nonsense things about her day. Occasionally she'd insult him, mention that she heard he was supposed to be a fighter of Wudan and it would probably be better for such a person to, you know, live up to the idea that they were supposed be worth more than overcooked rice.
And Shu Lien would sigh and continue nursing him and one day, after two weeks of days, he spoke to her.
She had just been telling him about how her mother probably could beat him in a fight and her mother was ten years in the grave, when he opened his eyes and gave her an amused little glare. She felt her breath catch – his eyes were so dark and deep, like river-smoothed pebbles, when they weren't glazed with fever.
"I'm sure your mother was a formidable creature," he said, ponderously, each word taking longer than the last to squeeze out past the disease. His piece said, he shut his eyes and slept, leaving her heart beating and her breath coming too quickly for a woman who was supposed to be something of a formidable creature herself.
After that day he got better with alarming rapidity, like all it had taken for him was to push through the blocks against his voice and everything else could be ripped from his path as easily as paper. He was sitting up in no time and talking to her again, and Shu Lien always felt strange and slightly unbalanced, like he'd parried one of her blows and her footing hadn't been right, so her center of gravity shifted –shifted to the point where she wasn't only thinking of Li Mu Bai as her future husband's bondbrother, but also, her own friend.
When he was still recovering, but well enough to think that he was whole, he started to get antsy. He'd try to hide it under a facade of zen and acceptance, but he would meditate more and more every day, spending hours on the floor, cross-legged and trying to find the place within him that was peaceful. The man who would be her husband was worried about this; said that Li Mu Bai had once been so calm, so controlled. This man who must search himself constantly wasn't the man he knew.
Shu Lien would laugh and say that he was a sick man who was becoming healthy. He was an athletic man forced to stillness; he would find calm when he was able to move again. And because she thought she was right (her father had been the same way, before his need to move had killed him), as soon as she though he was ready she asked him to go on assignment with her.
"For Sun Security," she had said. "I'm taking a load of medicinal herbs to the capital. Would you like to accompany me?"
"For Sun Security?" he had replied. "I would be honored."
Now, this was before Li Mu Bai was known throughout the land and long before Shu Lien gained any fame; Mu Bai was still a student – a talented student, with much promise, but a student all the same. His master was still alive and his sword had no name or fame. When they met a group of bandits on the way, they did not retreat until they were beaten, they were not intimidated by the name of Sun Security.
But Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien won that battle and they won the next one. They survived the hard ground and insufficient food and Shu Lien's fierce desire to use the medicinal herbs to flavor their bread, just so they wouldn't have to taste the sourness of rot. They didn't grow a name together, in that early time, but they did grow companionable.
Shu Lien liked to think of that later, much later, when Li Mu Bai was famous and the man who would be her husband was dead. Sometimes she mentioned it, when they were together. She'd say, "Remember when we met? Remember when you were dying?"
And he would say, "I remember you."
And she'd want to touch him, but knew she couldn't, and he'd think about what he was saying and sit further way, pull further into himself until he'd walk away, gravid with his own sense of honor. She'd watch him go. She'd always watch him go and even if they were working together, he'd be gone the next morning. Usually he'd leave a note, but sometimes if they stood too close when she mentioned it or when his eyes softened too much and his face got too kind – those times, he didn't leave a note. He just left.
Once, she asked him if warriors usually ran away from things that frightened them (once, when she was tired and there was a puckered healing wound down her back and he had closed his eyes as he touched her to change the bandage) and he had looked at her for a long moment and said, "The key to honor is self knowledge."
That time he didn't even wait for her to ask the questions.. She knew his version of their meeting, she knew it involved things he was not ready to admit to. That time, when he left, she prayed to the spirit of the man who would have been her husband and asked him to forgive her, because she was going to wait, but she was not going to give up.
Li Mu Bai, she resolved, would learn the patience of a woman.
And her patience was great. She was so patient, though, so steady with him that she had to watch him die. She had to watch him die in front of her, though she was surprised to hear that he didn't die at all. He was Li Mu Bai, the great warrior. She was Yu Shu Lien, the lady warrior and love of his life; their story became public and the world's story.
One time, when she was having a meal at a tavern, just having delivered something safely for her firm, she heard a man lean over to his companion and say, "Do you see her?"
And the other man said, "Is that Yu Shu Lien?"
And the first man said, "Yes. Remember how she met Li Mu Bai?"
And the other man said, "I'm lucky I remembered her at all."
And the first man settled into tell the story of their meeting.
The first time she met Li Mu Bai, she was dying. Or, at least, people were trying to get her to die – Sun Security's caravan was surrounded by fierce bandits and they were very outnumbered, but she rallied the troops. She shouted instructions and fought on in the face of infinite bandits.
Eventually, the largest bandit shouted for the rest to stop and he walked in front of her, sneer on his ugly face. He said that he would let them live if they left; he wouldn't slaughter them if they abandoned their cargo. But Shu Lien raised her head and she refused; her job was to protect that cargo and she'd die before she left it in their hands.
The bandits raised their weapons to continue attacking the dwindling warriors surrounding the caravan, but suddenly one of them fell, run through with a magnificent sword. Li Mu Bai had come. He whirled, his white robe swirling and the swish of the bamboo trees was the loudest noise he made. Not a sound, not a single sound, and all the bandits were dead.
Shu Lin bowed, but Li Mu Bai stopped her. He said a warrior like that has no need to bow. She smiled at him and bowed again. She said that sometimes the greatest warriors knew when they ought to be thankful.
He looked at her for a long moment and told her he knew the man who would have been her husband. He said that he was his brother and he was sorry for her loss.
She looked at him and said that she was sorry too. She was so very sorry that the man she loved had to die.
He said yes. Yes. It is a terrible thing. But to die knowing that you were loved, that is something. And to live knowing that you have loved and were loved in return, that is something. And to ignore those things is to deny their memory, deny their validity.
And Shu Lien – the real one, the one that was listening to the story she didn't remember at all, in fact, knew for a fact was just not true – lowered her head. She looked into her tea and smiled, just a little, hoping that the two men would continue to tell her story.