XXXV. Broken

He came home to a world that was in pieces. Er Tai tries to take his mind off his brother's death by fixing his best friend's marriage, with questionable results.

Er Tai came home to a broken world. The world he left just a few short years ago was bubbling with happiness, fulfillment and anticipation. Now, it seemed as though someone had ripped it apart, and Er Tai felt like just by returning, he was somehow expected to patch it all together again.

He didn't arrive back in Beijing on an appropriately dark and stormy night. He arrived home with the sun shining brightly on a background of clear blue sky dusted with soft white clouds. It was a day worth smiling for, worth celebrating, but smiling and celebrating were the last things on his to do list.

He could, instead, list the things that were wrong with the home he came back to, but that was much too depressing. It all came down to two basic facts: his brother was dead and his best friend was miserable.

It was a day much like this, too, when he received the letter from his parents breaking the news of his brother's death, and asking him to come home. For Er Tai, the entire journey back to Beijing was shrouded in grief, in regret that he never got to see Er Kang one last time, that in fact, the last time they saw each other was so long ago. It wasn't until he crossed the threshold of his childhood home again that the weight of responsibility his brother left behind dropped on his shoulders.

It was never supposed to be like this. He was the second son. He was never supposed to be the one people looked to when they spoke of his family. He was never supposed to be the one to bear the enormous task of upholding the family name and honour, or inherit anything for the pains of those tasks. That was always Er Kang's job. His job had only been not to do anything that would embarrass his name. It was always like that – Er Kang to do, and he to not.

But that was when he was the second son. He was the only son now.

Coming back home, he faced not only his parents' grief, but also his sister-in-law's. It was with such regret that he remembered he wasn't even there for his brother's wedding and that his children had never met their uncle. They had planned to return for the wedding, but Sai Ya was expecting a child then – his eldest son – and then they kept making plans to come back, but there was another child…and then things just seemed to flow together after that. They never managed to make it back to Beijing until now. But still, back then, there was some strange satisfaction in the knowledge that his family was well and happy enough that visits could be delayed until it was convenient. He was at least content with the fact that they never needed him to rush back for anything…until now.

It was strange to have Zi Wei living here again, though he supposed after all these years, it was he who should feel like he did not belong. Certainly he shouldn't be in this position of the only one providing comfort to his parents. He didn't even know how he could begin to approach Zi Wei in her grief. Then he looked at his nephew and saw all the could-have-beens for his brother that now never could be. The child was too young, and when he grew, he would hardly remember his father at all.

They had all been so happy when he left, and now, Er Tai had no idea how to fix it all again without Er Kang.

He shouldn't have time to worry about anything else. He shouldn't even have the heart to worry about anything else. But somehow, the state of his best friend's marriage managed to plague him more than his family's pains. Despite the grief they were in, he somehow instinctively knew his family would be all right with time. It was the colossal mess between Yong Qi and Xiao Yan Zi that he wasn't sure could be fixed.

It didn't help that everything he knew, he knew from very brief accounts in letters. Even before he came home, he felt like everyone was in a conspiracy to keep him as little informed as possible. Even if Yong Qi didn't want to tell him things that apparenly his friend thought might worry him unnecessarily, he would have expected his brother to be more thorough in his accounts. Now, he supposed everyone was being secretive not because they didn't want to tell him, but because some of the information would have caused a lot of trouble if their letters were ever read by anyone other than themselves. He shouldn't even be surprised that, even now, they were still hiding secrets that could result in death.

Now, home again, he had to hear about all the things they left out of letters from sources that were decidedly not-Yong-Qi. Even then, he would have liked to get his brother's views. Er Kang would share with him opinions that he felt he needed to keep from Yong Qi, and they could bounce ideas off each other. Instead, Er Tai had to make do with getting information from Qing Ge Ge. Qing Ge Ge? Really? He didn't even know her that well, and somehow, the state of Yong Qi's marriage was not a topic of conversation he ever anticipated having with her.

It wasn't even that he didn't try to talk to Yong Qi first. Try was the key word. The conversation went something like this:

"So, what has really been going on? You're miserable."

There was too deliberate a pause from Yong Qi that made it clear what he was about to say wasn't entirely true.

"Your brother just died, of course I'm miserable. Over the last few years, we grew to be very close." If it was any other conversation, Er Tai would have teased Yong Qi about replacing him as a best friend, but this was hardly the time. But Yong Qi must have been thinking along the same line, too, because he added, "Not that he replaced you or anything."

"I know. But that wasn't what I meant. This isn't just about my brother. In fact, I could guess what's on your mind, but it would be better if you actually told me yourself."

Er Tai had learnt, over the years, to read his friend's body language and could predict fairly accurately the turns of their conversation. By the way he briefly closed his eyes, Er Tai knew he was about to refuse to Go There at all.

"Don't worry about it. This isn't an appropriate time."

Sigh. Breathe. Try not to be blunt. Think. Deliberate over your words. Then speak.

It was times like this that Er Tai realised sometimes mutual affection with someone who held power over you didn't enable you to be more free in speech around them at all. Sometimes – times this these –it brought you full circle and made you communicate the same way you might with someone you cared nothing about.

"Yong Qi."

Er Tai addressed him by his name so seldomly that this successfully made his friend turn finally to face him. It wasn't that there was any barrier between them before, it was just that despite their friendship, they had both been brought up still with a sense of decorum and propriety. Though, spend time around Xiao Yan Zi enough and decorum and propriety fall apart, as apparently, over the years, Er Kang had got into the habbit of addressing and refering to Yong Qi by his name. His letters, more often than not, spoke of "Yong Qi this" and "Yong Qi that". To Er Tai, sometimes it still seemed quite bizarre.

"I would hope that the concept of 'appropriate time' doesn't exist between us," Er Tai said. Yong Qi started to speak, but Er Tai cut him off. "Don't. Don't tell me that because my brother's just died and we're both in mourning that we can't talk about you. Because quite frankly, the fact that my brother just died is enough reason for both of us to be miserable, we don't have to add to it. And you can't tell me not to worry about you. What else am I supposed to be worry about? I can hardly worry about my brother now, can I?"

The words were simple, but Er Tai was sure they both understood all the emotions that they carried. For all the time they've been apart, they both implicitly knew that their friendship over the years still held. For a moment, the determination in Yong Qi's eyes wavered, and Er Tai was sure he would tell him everything. But then, just as swiftly, disappointingly, the shield was up again.

"I know you're worried about me, and I know telling you not to worry will not do any good. But this isn't something that could be fixed, Er Tai, and even if it could be, it won't be when everyone is in such raw pain over a loss. I can't even think about it with a clear head now, and going into this under the shadows of other things isn't a good idea."

Er Tai didn't waste time being hurt at the barrier that Yong Qi had put up between them, keeping the conversation at bay. He knew it wasn't because Yong Qi didn't trust him, or because he felt that he couldn't talk to Er Tai anymore. He knew, if Yong Qi allowed himself to say just one word, everything else would follow, and they would be having a far more personal talk than they have ever had in their lives. It was reveal all or nothing. But likely he had been keeping so much under wraps – for fear of hurting Xiao Yan Zi, for fear of revealing things to Huang Shang – that he couldn't allow himself to confide even in Er Tai just yet.

If he could be blunt, Er Tai would have to say that the existence of a Zhi Hua in Yong Qi's life was not, in any way, a shock, but should just be a matter of time. Before Xiao Yan Zi came into the picture, Yong Qi wouldn't even be in such angst about it – at least, not to this extent. But there was no denying that Xiao Yan Zi did sweep into their once-orderly lives and changed everything. Er Tai could even admit that those changes she brought were mostly good, and that he would not wish that they never met her for anything. At times like this, however, he found he had very little patience for her. Perhaps it was just as well that he never pursued her seriously, because he was not made out to cope with this side of Xiao Yan Zi.

It wasn't that he blamed Xiao Yan Zi for anything, really. It wasn't a matter of blame. If blame could be assigned, the situation wouldn't be so complicated and would have been solved long ago. He understood, to some extent, the reasons for her hurt, but he still couldn't help but think, between them, Yong Qi was in the more difficult situation, having to keep everything in balance when it was clearly impossible.

It could be said that a couple of days later, when Xiao Yan Zi more or less stormed out of the palace and hid herself in Zi Wei's rooms, Er Tai wasn't in the mood to see things from her point of view.

Of course, Xiao Yan Zi didn't exactly come crying to him, but that didn't mean he wasn't aware of her presence in his house. He had thought, after one night, after she had cooled her head a bit, Xiao Yan Zi would return to the palace. But when it appeared that this was not the case, he couldn't stop himself from seeking her out.

"You don't deserve him, you know."

In fairness, this probably wasn't a good way to begin a conversation, let alone a conversation as emotional as this was bound to be, and with Xiao Yan Zi.

"What?" she said, her eyes narrowed, and jumping to her feet.

"Yong Qi. You don't deserve him."

He thought he just managed to not grit his teeth. Just.

She stared at him for a long while, a myriad of emotions flickered in her eyes, then she turned away and said in a monotone, "Go away, Er Tai. I'm not here to listen to your lecture."

"And I didn't come home to see you break my best friend's heart. I came home to mourn my brother."

"I'm not stopping you from doing that, am I?" she said petulantly.

He counted to ten to compose himself, then, for good measure, continued up to fifteen before speaking again. "You know what? You are."

"Then go away. This is a big estate, you don't have to have me in sight."

"Just because I don't see you doesn't mean I don't know you're still here, where you shouldn't be. You should be in the palace, where your husband is."

She didn't speak and just turned her back to him. From the shaking of her shoulders, he wondered whether she was struggling not to cry or not to lash out at him.

"I mean it, Xiao Yan Zi. You don't deserve him."

"Who asked your opinion, exactly?" It was she who had to refrain from gritting teeth this time.

"He didn't have to invest his heart in you, you know. It's not as if he couldn't have any other girl he might want. But he wants you, he loves you, he is ready to give up everything and sacrifice everything – even things that cannot and should not be sacrificed – for you. And you don't appreciate it at all."

His voice was rising, and he knew, if anyone was around, they would be hearing every word, but he couldn't care. Neither of them deserved to be this unhappy. No matter how bad Xiao Yan Zi thought the situation was, running away wasn't going to make anything better and he had to make her understand that, regardless of what painful words it required.

"How would you know what I feel?" she demanded.

"You are here, throwing this ridiculous tantrum and refusing to see him. If you understand the battle he is waging with himself, if you understood his heart just a little, if you knew how much pain you're causing him now, and if you love him as much as you claim, then you wouldn't be here, Xiao Yan Zi."

"Don't you dare presume to know what I feel!" she cried, her voice breaking. "You weren't there! You didn't hear the things he said to her, the way he worried about her, the way he looked at her – "

So it still came down to this. At least Xiao Yan Zi was predictable. Running away, stubborn silences – it all just came down to jealousy. Long ago, the whole situation with Cai Lian was so pointlessly stupid and it wasn't any better now.

"Xiao Yan Zi, the woman was carrying his child! All he knew was that both she and the child were in danger. You can't take everything he says in that moment so damn literally. He can't be completely heartless for you, regardless of whatever else he might have done for you before!"

"Well, bully for that, because whatever he did supposedly for me, he's rewarded for it now, isn't he? He's got his son, he won't need me –"

"Supposedly? Supposedly? Xiao Yan Zi, I might not have been there, but by all reliable accounts, he married Zhi Hua for you, to save your brother! Men have been forced to marry women they don't like before, but scarcely for that reason and in that way! What more proof do you want?"

"That was then, but now – "

"What do you want him to do now, Xiao Yan Zi? Do you need him to foresake both the child and his mother to prove that he loves you? If that is the case, it really is rather hypocritical of you, Xiao Yan Zi, considering you were the only desperate enough for a father that you would 'borrow' Zi Wei's for a few days."

"I never said – "

"If he didn't care so much, he would never have bothered protecting you in the first place, Xiao Yan Zi. He is a good man, but he can't be selectively good for your sake. You can't expect him to care just exclusively for you."

"Of course I don't – "

"Then stop acting like it! Just because he got worried for Zhi Hua doesn't mean he loves her more than you, or even just a little. Zhi Hua isn't the worst you can get, Xiao Yan Zi. I can't believe you can't deal with competition from a silly girl who you should know will never come close to having a fraction of the place you have in Yong Qi's heart."

Er Tai took a deep breath, and only then, seeing Xiao Yan Zi staring at him, did he realise he just shot down her every attempt to get a word edgewise. It wasn't something easily done with Xiao Yan Zi, that was for sure.

He could see the hurt in her eyes, as if she somehow expected him to be on her side too. Side? There were sides now? If there were sides, he was on the side of knocking some sense into both of them and making them realise how much they both love each other and that was all that mattered. He couldn't understand how Xiao Yan Zi failed to see this: did she learn nothing from the war Yong Qi had just been through? Didn't she see how much Zi Wei suffered herself now that she'd lost Er Kang? Pushing Yong Qi away or running away from him should be the last thing Xiao Yan Zi would want to do right now, so why couldn't she see that? How could she not realise just how easily she could have lost Yong Qi in that war? It still terrified Er Tai now if he allowed himself to think about it, which he didn't, because it would bring on more pain how who actually was lost instead. But it could have so easily been both of them. And yet Xiao Yan Zi insisted on wasting her time with Zhi Hua.

Granted, Zhi Hua was probably not just a silly girl. More like a delusional girl who nonetheless still had a very powerful ally. If Xiao Yan Zi didn't realise that the only way to protect herself against such rival was to actually trust Yong Qi, then Er Tai was very worried for both of them come the future, when, Heaven forbid, it wouldn't just be Zhi Hua. Yong Qi's love could be a very powerful weapon and means of protection for Xiao Yan Zi, but she had to know she had it for it to do any good.

Er Tai wasn't sure whether anything he said actually managed to make any impression on Xiao Yan Zi, but it appeared that he, at least, managed to stop her arguments for now. After several seconds intense staring at each other, as if daring each other to speak again, Xiao Yan Zi actually stomped her foot and stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Left alone, Er Tai closed his eyes and let go of the breath he wasn't even aware he was holding. He was reminded again of how bothersome a love like Yong Qi and Xiao Yan Zi's would be. They had fallen in love so violently, like the oncoming storm, that their fallouts were always just as tumultuous.

It wasn't that he didn't love Sai Ya just as deeply, it was more that they never really had that starry-eyed, "everything is perfect, you are perfect and nothing could ruin it" stage that they never managed to form lofty expectations of how each other should be that would just end up crashing to the ground into a million pieces.

One would think, after being married for so long, that Xiao Yan Zi would have stop holding Yong Qi up to unattainable standards. Er Tai wasn't even quite sure whether those standards were bad because they were so unattainable, or were good because it at least proved that Xiao Yan Zi somehow thought Yong Qi was capable of achieving them.

Lost in his thoughts, Er Tai didn't even notice Zi Wei coming into the room behind him until she spoke. "That was a bit harsh."

He turned around to face her with a weary sigh. "You heard?"

"I was in the next room. I'm in mourning, not catatonic."

Er Tai wasn't sure whether she was blaming him for what he said, but then decided it didn't matter. He wasn't about to apologise for his words. "She needed to hear it. Someone needs to call her out on how ridiculous she's being."

"Perhaps, but you didn't have to express it quite so harshly."

"On the contrary. I think only hearing the brutal truth would get her to come to her senses."

Zi Wei gave something that resembled a smile. "You would think that. But you've been away for too long."

"What do you mean?"

"You can't deal with an upset, emotionally vulnerable Xiao Yan Zi by screaming logic at her. That's kind of the point. She's irrational because she's upset. I don't know what you wanted to achieve with that, but I can tell you she won't go running back to Yong Qi because you shouted at her."

Truth be told, Er Tai could have worked that out for himself. He wasn't sure what he wanted to achieve either. He only knew that whatever Xiao Yan Zi thought was wrong with her life, it was hardly Yong Qi's fault, and while taking her anger out on him would certainly maker her feel better, it wasn't going to do any good in the long run.

"I'm not sure Yong Qi would thank you, either, for saying that to her," Zi Wei continued.

"I didn't say it for him to thank me. I said it because someone should tell his side of the story, even if he would not. So little of it is in his control, yet somehow he has to suffer alone for it. Because, admit it, even you and Qing Ge Ge sympathise with her more than with him. I'm not saying you're wrong for that, but it's just unfair."

Zi Wei genuinely smiled now, and said, "For his sake, at least, I am glad that you are back, even under these circumstances. Because you are right, Qing Er and I have this instinct to comfort her. But then we all have our biases."

"I shan't remind you that he is your brother."

"And the very best, I assure you. But as you said, you have an obligation to see through his eyes, and I will see things through hers. But let's not go into the technicalities. I will say, though, despite it all, some of the things you said are some of the things I would like to say to her. More gently, of course. I think even if it doesn't make any impact on her now, it might do later when the storm calms a bit."

"Assuming she lets it calm."

"Yong Qi won't let her walk away so easily."

Of that much, Er Tai was sure of, and for now, it was only that faith that somewhat assured him that the mess his friends found themselves in might eventually be resolved with something resembling happiness.

"Did you mean it though?" Zi Wei asked. "When you said she doesn't deserve him?"

"Yes, but then I also think Huang Shang doesn't deserve the devotion of some of his wives, and that my brother didn't deserve you, not just because you're a princess, and that's all a topic for another day. But love isn't about what one deserves, is it? It's about choices. Yong Qi chose to love Xiao Yan Zi, to spend his life with her. I do not wish that his feelings were any different, and in many ways, she had made him a better person. I just hate to see him so unhappy, even though it would be ludicrous to think anyone could avoid being unhappy at some point in their lives."

"It's hard to think of anyone being happy right now, actually," she answered. "And I suppose that just fuels this entire thing between Yong Qi and Xiao Yan Zi. But precisely because of all we've just lost, I don't think, when it comes down to it, that Xiao Yan Zi could bear walking away from Yong Qi now, either."

"Of course we know she could not, but does she know that? Because sometimes I think Xiao Yan Zi really doesn't know what she wants."

"If she didn't before, I think she would have to at least consider it now."

Er Tai looked at her, confused.

Zi Wei leaned in and whispered, "After she stormed off, she would have gone to find me, and realising I was next door, she would have come back. I am sure she had been outside, listening to at least some of what we've been saying."

Pulling away, she smiled, and said, "Good day, Brother."

Er Tai resisted the urge to smirk. "Good day, Sister."

A/N: I have to say, my biggest WHAT?! moment of the whole "Er Kang dies but doesn't really die" situation in HZGGIII is "WHERE IS ER TAI?" And then I thought, if Er Tai did come back, what would he make of the mess that's become of everyone's lives?

Re: Slow updates. I've been…distracted? My life got taken over by Lizzie Bennet Diaries (which led me to writing fics at midnight…not that that is anything new) and Doctor Who (which miraculously I have not written any fic about yet.). Never let yourself be talked into watching Doctor Who if you haven't watched it before. It consumes your life, it will break your heart and put you into zombie state.

PS: I wrote an answer to a review of this chapter, and it got a bit long: huanzhuyulu dot tumblr dot com slash post slash 36198518307