No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Chapter 6: …but bears it out even to the edge of doom
"He came here? The Emperor came here?" Xiao Jian demanded when they finally left Fu Lun and Qian Long and returned to their friends.
Xiao Yan Zi was too emotionally drained from the entire afternoon to talk, and it meant that everyone else had the lovely task of recounting the tearful meal they all just went through. But even though she wasn't looking at him, mostly because she knew she would see disappointment, she could tell that Xiao Jian was staring at her. She wondered whether he really expected her to somehow attempt his so-called revenge. If he did, then he must think her stronger than she really was. She wasn't that strong. If she was that strong, she would never have succumbed to the temptation of Huang Ah Ma's fatherly love, never would have naively thought that she could just "borrow" Zi Wei's father for a few days. They would never have been in this mess in the first place. If she was that strong, she would have understood from the first that loving Yong Qi would only open door to heartache and sacrifices that would tear at her heart to make. If she was that strong, she would have been able to resist him and never would have been swept into loving him too much before she could even stop herself.
She understood how Xiao Jian, who had held this hate against his heart for years, found it difficult to let go. But to her, she realised now that the hate was as abstract a concept as the idea of a family – a real family that was truly hers. The idea was like thin wisps of smoke that she could see but not quite grasp. A lifetime of thinking herself invincible had only been a shield. There was no longer room for blind, childish tempers. Never had she understood her own heart and what it begged for as now. She had spent enough of her life in loneliness, she only wanted now for people to love, to depend on, and there was no room for revenge in that. Revenge would only tear her away from Zi Wei and Yong Qi, and she desperately needed them, like she needed her every breath. Perhaps forgetting wasn't an option, but forgiveness was, and she wanted it desperately. She only wished that she could be sure that Xiao Jian would not look at her like she had betrayed him if she ever proposed the idea to him.
"You all would not go back, even though he's here?" Xiao Jian asked, looking highly sceptical.
"Yes," Yong Qi answered him. "The four of us all made the decision to not go back before Huang Ah Ma came here and before any secrets you revealed, so either thing never had any bearing on that decision in the first place, so I don't see why it's a surprise that we would still continue with the original plan to go to Dali now."
Xiao Jian stared at Yong Qi for a long while, conflict filled in his eyes. Xiao Yan Zi could tell that he was trying to reconcile his long-held-up assumptions of Yong Qi as a person and who Yong Qi really was. She really hoped that Xiao Jian could find it in himself to get over the conflict soon, as the truth was, nothing else convinced her of Yong Qi's love and goodness as this entire secret and the fact that he was still here after it all.
"You can't say that you were not moved by the fact that he came all the way here to bring you all back to Beijing," Xiao Jian said.
"We can't," Zi Wei said softly, "but being moved is just one thing. The truth is, it is an extraordinary thing for Huang Ah Ma to come here and lay down all his pride to ask us to come home. For us to still leave now is truly quite cruel and I would be lying if I said I didn't feel guilty, but Yong Qi is right, the reason is so much more than just this truth about your family, Xiao Jian, it's also about…"
"…there's too many dangers for us in the palace," Er Kang continued when Zi Wei trailed off, not sure how to adequantely explain the situation. "With our temperaments, we're probably not suited for the palace in the first place anyway. So it is best that we should just carry on with our intended plan."
For a moment, they all remained silent, as there was nothing else to say on the matter. Then, Zi Wei smiled and took Jin Suo's hand, pulling her towards Liu Qing.
"Liu Qing, I know you haven't asked me yet, but I won't force you to. From this day, I entrust Jin Suo to you, please take care of her for me. Jin Suo, your future is no longer with me now. Just ask Liu Qing where he wishes to go, and that will be your home."
This managed to lighten the mood in the room. Both Liu Qing and Jin Suo blushed deeply, while everyone, even Xiao Jian, tried to hold back laughter. Yong Qi, on the other hand, stared from one to the other and exclaimed, "Clearly I missed a lot! When did that happen?"
Jin Suo's blush deepened and Liu Qing gave a nervous chuckle. "I say, we should just all go to Dali then we wouldn't have to be separated from each other."
"But we can't abandon Beijing totally, either," Liu Hong said. "The plan was only to escort everyone to Dali and then we would come back. We have too many people at Da Za Yuan to worry about in Beijing, we can't leave them all."
"Liu Qing, Liu Hong, I have spoken to my father and he said that Hui Bin Lou could be given back to you when you choose to return to Beijing," Er Kang said.
"Really?" Liu Qing exclaimed. "We can have Hui Bin Lou back?" Then, turning to Jin Suo, he said, "then in that case, Jin Suo, you have to follow me back to Beijing to become Hui Bin Lou's mistress."
"What mistress?" Jin Suo asked, pouting. "You haven't even asked me yet, I still haven't even decided whether to marry you or not."
"What?" Liu Qing exclaimed in horror while everyone else laughed.
It took some prodding and teasing from everyone else, but in the end, Liu Qing did manage to ask Jin Suo to marry him, in a decidedly blunt but nonetheless heartfelt manner.
"We should get the two of you married before we leave for Dali," Zi Wei said.
"You don't really have to rush back to Beijing either," Er Kang said. "My father made sure everyone at Da Za Yuan was taken care of while we were away and from what I hear, before they came to find us, Yong Qi made sure everyone should be fine for at least a couple of years even without help from you. I should say if you just make it back within a year then you should still have some money to take care of the repairs that would be needed at Hui Bin Lou."
"Thank you," Liu Qing said to Yong Qi sincerely, while Xiao Yan Zi smiled and squeezed his hand.
"It was the least I could do, considering I wasn't able to do anything but sit around for months. Besides, considering I'm not going back, that money was put to better use there rather than sitting around in a fund waiting to pay for the frivolous needs of my family anyway."
"You would still leave now?" Xiao Jian asked.
Xiao Yan Zi sighed. "I thought we've been over this already."
"Yes, but that was before he showed up."
"What do you want me to say? That I am tempted to go back, despite of everything? That a part of me does scream for me to forget everything and follow Huang Ah Ma back to Beijing? That all that I'm doing now is trying to convince myself that leaving is really for the best?"
"Are you? Tempted?"
"Yes!" she exclaimed forcefully. "So what? The decision is made, Xiao Jian, and I'm trying to not second guess it. I would appreciate it if you would let me. You want me with you, then don't dangle the alternative in front of me like a carrot. I'm not a horse!"
Two days later, they held a small wedding for Jin Suo and Liu Qing. The evening after that, they received a most unexpected visitor.
"Er Kang, Zi Wei, Yong Qi, Xiao Yan Zi, Lao Ye came to see you," Fu Lun announced as he led the way into the room.
Xiao Yan Zi felt like her heart had leapt into her throat at the sudden sound of his voice. She had never really considered what it would be like to have Huang Ah Ma and Xiao Jian in the same room together, to put the idea of her two families, two fathers, side by side. Yes, she had been determined to forgive Huang Ah Ma, but she wasn't sure she was quite ready for this test of her forgiveness so soon. She wasn't quite sure whether the fierce beating of her heart was nervousness and fear for what she would do, or what Xiao Jian would do.
For a split moment, everyone, except Qian Long and Fu Lun, turned their eyes towards Xiao Jian warily. He seemed more tense than just a moment before but Xiao Yan Zi wondered whether that was due to the looks or due to Qian Long's presence. She wondered what was going through his head now, and what temptation he was facing. But if truth be told, right then, she wasn't as much afraid of Xiao Jian's demons as her own. She wasn't quite sure, if he actually did anything, how she would be pushed to act. She didn't think Xiao Jian would do anything, nor that he could do anything, not with Yong Qi, Er Kang, Zi Wei and Fu Lun all in the room, but didn't trust herself to do what they would, should her brother raise his sword, either. They didn't need to, now of all time, to know just how weak her resolve was either way.
Xiao Yan Zi couldn't help a little sigh of relief as Zi Wei hastily stepped into Xiao Jian's path and clumsily tugged Qian Long towards a chair as far away from Xiao Jian as possible.
"Huang Ah Ma, please sit down here."
Xiao Jian didn't show any sign of knowing that this was done mostly because of him, and thankfully Qian Long and Fu Lun's faces showed that they didn't notice anything off regarding Xiao Jian either. But even then, Zi Wei was standing close to Qian Long's chair, Xiao Yan Zi shifted her weight nervously from one foot to another and Yong Qi and Er Kang exchanged cautious looks.
"Huang Ah Ma, why did you come here tonight?" Yong Qi asked.
"Well, seeing as you all are determined to leave, I will have to return to Beijing soon as well. I have come to say goodbye. Fu Lun and I will leave tomorrow."
Xiao Yan Zi couldn't help the sudden pang of pain and regret that filled her. She knew, of course, that they would eventually have to part, but she didn't think it would be like this. When she left him last time, it was because she had to, and it was in pain and anger from both sides. Sorrow couldn't shoulder its way in between those two much stronger emotions. But now, her heart felt like it was ready to rip in two and she found herself numb, suddenly questioning everything about the decision to leave. She was hardly listening to how Huang Ah Ma was talking about how he heard that her family was originally from Hangzhou and how beautiful it was. Perhaps it was, but Xiao Yan Zi wasn't sure she would see the beauty when she arrive in Hangzhou, as Xiao Jian had expressed a wish of taking her there, now that they could afford to move more leisurely, even though it was quite out of their way to Dali. She only wondered, considering how much her emotions towards Huang Ah Ma had changed these few days, how it would change again when she came to Hangzhou, a place that should be her home, a place that Huang Ah Ma loved so, but for her held only a sense of trepidation.
She wasn't sure what she said in reply, or whether she said anything at all, but whatever it was, she couldn't have given anything away, because Huang Ah Ma now was turning to Liu Qing and Liu Hong to talk about Hui Bin Lou, giving her a moment to breathe. It was lucky that she was given that moment to collect hersel, because immediately after, Huang Ah Ma turned back to ask her about her brother.
They gave Xiao Jian cautious looks again, and Xiao Yan Zi thought the whole room would hear her heart beats, considering how loudly it was thumping in her chest, but she knew it would be even worst to not introduce Xiao Jian to Huang Ah Ma. It would definitely show that something was not right. So she came up to him and gripped his arm tightly, trying to tell him not to do anything rash, and took him to Huang Ah Ma. She only hoped that Er Kang and Yong Qi were ready should anything happen.
Huang Ah Ma asked Xiao Jian about how their family came to be separated, and Xiao Yan Zi didn't think there could be a worst topic to start with, but thankfully, Xiao Jian managed to not say anything discriminating. The only sign of his emotions was a slight tremble in his voice at the beginning. But still, Xiao Yan Zi was immensely thankful when they moved to another subjecct of conversation. She wasn't quite sure whether it was for her sake, or for the knowledge that he would have to fight Er Kang and Yong Qi if he did anything that prevented Xiao Jian from acting.
Even though her emotions were going through twists and turns that night, she still couldn't be more shocked and amazed when, before he left, Huang Ah Ma presented her and Zi Wei each with a Jin Pai Ling Jian. Before the truth about her family, she would probably be wonderfully giddy over the prospect of having a talisman against even his commands of death. Now that she knew how very real the death sentences could be, she couldn't be anything but shocked at the idea with this, she would not die, no matter what sort of crime she committed. Of course, it wasn't as if that meant that she would seek revenge for her parents now, or that she would just let Xiao Jian do so because she now could save him too. However, it suddenly occurred to her that ever since knowing who her family was, she had always wondered whether if Huang Ah Ma knew who she was, whether he would want her dead again. And the gift of this Jin Pai showed that he didn't want her dead, unconditionally and irrevocably. It was more than even Yong Qi and Er Kang had claim to (though, granted, Yong Qi wouldn't exactly ever need it). The whole crashing realisation made her rather speechless.
Her conspicuous silence apparently puzzled Huang Ah Ma, though Zi Wei tried to fill it with her own gratitude. But before he could comment on it, Yong Qi said to her, "You know, Xiao Yan Zi, Lao Ye has bestowed on you a very great and rare honour." His words were simple enough, but she knew he was urging her to say something, before Huang Ah Ma really suspected something.
She turned to Huang Ah Ma, but instead thanking him properly, she said, pouting, "Huang – I mean, Lao Ye, why couldn't you have given me this before all this happened? Then we wouldn't have to run away, and Yong Qi and I wouldn't have to be apart all this time."
But the Emperor only smiled indulgently as he understood the spark in her eyes as true thankfulness.
The conversation soon turned to other matters and Xiao Yan Zi could feel Xiao Jian's eyes on her, but she dared not look at him just yet. She wasn't sure what she would see there, after such an extraordinary statement from Qian Long. She wasn't sure she could deal with whatever he might be feeling right now with Qian Long still in the room.
Still, she was glad that Huang Ah Ma was here, that he had come to make such a statement, that at least, after everything, they would not leave each other without goodbye. It showed, at least, that as unhappy as he was with the decision, he had somehow come to accept, and perhaps even understand, it, and that she was taking away his most beloved son with some measure of his blessing. Yet at the same time, this resigned acceptance rested even more heavily on her heart, and a part of her wondered whether she wanted him to be more forceful in insisting they returned. It would have made her feel less guilty.
The evening had to draw to a close, however, and eventually he did stand up to leave. Xiao Yan Zi could not help the way her throat constricted against suppressed cries or how her heart burned with unbidden longings. Leaving in anger, in fear of her life was all well and good, but leaving like this…
She looked at him walking out the door, and suddenly saw why he was here at all. He was here because before she had so longed for a father's love that she could convince herself to borrow Zi Wei's father. He was here because even knowing that he was never her father, she wanted his love anyway and even after returning Zi Wei's proper place to her, she still could not leave him. She had once told Yong Qi that the person she could not bear to leave most was him, but it must be admitted that Huang Ah Ma took a close second hold on her, and even now, despite whatever truth she knew, that hadn't changed at all.
So even if Zi Wei had not cried out first, Xiao Yan Zi knew she would have done so herself, because she couldn't bear to lose the only father she'd ever known.
She was almost angry at Er Kang when he said, "Zi Wei" in a tone that urged her to remember why they were not coming back to Beijing in the first place.
Zi Wei turned to her and spoke through tears, "Xiao Yan Zi, I'm sorry, I know Dali is very beautiful, and that you want us to be together, but I've spent nearly twenty years finding my father, I cannot – "
But before she knew what she was doing, Xiao Yan Zi didn't let Zi Wei finish and just rushed to Qian Long's side. "Huang Ah Ma, Zi Wei wants to go home with you, I also want to go home with you."
She knew, from the bottom of her heart, as she said this, that she wasn't saying it for Zi Wei, nor for Yong Qi, but for herself. If she allowed herself time to think about it, her heart and reason would fight a stalemate with herself until she hardly knew what to do, but at that moment, reason had no place, and only her heart reigned, and it was braver without time and reason to hold it back. As he turned and drew them both into an embrace, she knew it was a decision she couldn't come to regret.
It was a long time before he let them go, looking at them with tears in his eyes. "You really wish to come back, both of you?"
"Yes, we want to come home with you."
"Yong Qi, and you?"
"Huang Ah Ma, even Xiao Yan Zi wants to come back, let alone me…"
It was only then that they turned to Er Kang and Xiao Yan Zi immediately saw Xiao Jian beside him. It was obvious that they had gone out the back and had only just come back. The carefully blank look on Xiao Jian's face was all that Xiao Yan Zi needed to know about the situation. But she couldn't say anything just yet, not with Huang Ah Ma still here. He eventually did leave, however, brimming with pleasure that they would all start the journey back to Beijing in a few days.
Immediately as Qian Long and Fu Lun were out of sight, Xiao Jian stormed out of the room.
"Xiao Jian," she called, running after him, "I know you are angry."
"Angry, yes!" he said, turning around to face her. "And disappointed too."
"I don't expect you to understand."
"I'm glad, because I certainly don't understand!"
By now, they have arrived in his room and he was throwing together his things as if to leave. Everyone else seemed to have wandered off, somehow knowing that they needed to work this out between themselves.
"You don't understand because you've never lacked for a family! But just as Zi Wei had spent twenty years to get to her father's side, I've spent that long not knowing what it was like to have a father! I won't give that up, Brother!"
"So you would give me up, instead!" he snapped, straightening to stare at her. "I should have known, for you have never shown that you prefered me over any of them."
Xiao Yan Zi blinked and spluttered, "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Before Yong Qi showed up, you pined over him, though I would never have thought you to be the type of get so hung up over a man, and when he did show up, you act as if the last four months didn't happen and would take him back in a heartbeat. And now, despite knowing who you are, who he and his father is to you, you would still go back with them! And thoughts, the consideration, the reason was always them. When did you ever think of what I must feel watching you so dependent on them? Where was your thought and consideration for me? Did you ever think to consider me with the same amount of feeling and care? No, you have always kept your distance, always, and now, your coming back to Beijing would only stretch it."
For a moment, she didn't know how to respond. Part of what he said was just and yet still there were parts that were unreasonable. "If I have kept a distance before, it's because you misled me," she said finally. "You let me think that you were in love with me, you didn't tell me that your concern was entirely platonic. What did you want me to do, throw myself at you? Forget about Yong Qi? My pining, as you put it, for Yong Qi and my treatment of you have completely different reasons, but you are determined to think of them being cause and effect."
"But now you know who I am to you, and yet you don't accept me!"
"When did I ever say that? I do, I do accept you, and I would love more than anything for you to return to Beijing with me, and then we could still be together."
"I cannot return to Beijing, Xiao Yan Zi, if you do, you will go without me."
Xiao Yan Zi turned away. "So you would place a condition on me. You would only be my brother only if I forsake everyone dear to me."
"Not everyone, just - "
"Just Huang Ah Ma, who is as important to me as any of them!"
"Then you place a condition on me too, Xiao Yan Zi – "
"No, I'm not! I'm asking you to accept me as I am, with everyone that has taken a part of making me who I am!"
She turned around when he didn't given an answer, and saw that he was standing there, looking at her, his eyes conflicted.
"I'm not asking you to forget everything over night," she said. "I'm just asking you to try to accept. It all happened so long ago. What use is it to hold onto to it? If you leave now, everyone would be upset, not just me. But if it would persuade you, I can't bear it if you would walk away from me now. You can't tell me that I can only have you or Huang Ah Ma, because I am selfish enough to want both. Please don't make me choose."
She didn't realise she was crying until her eyes blurred and tears spilled. When, for a moment, it didn't seem like he would say anything in reply, whether in comfort or otherwise, she stomped her foot and started to run out of the room. But she had barely gone three steps before he held her back.
"All right," he said, his voice sounding defeated. "I give up. I'll go to Beijing with you."
He was obviously not willing, but she knew from the sad look in his eyes that he was, at least, willing to try, for her sake. It gave her hope.
"Will you try to see Huang Ah Ma in a different light?"
"I'll try. But I can't promise I'll succeed."
"I think it'll be hard for you to not succeed in something you put your mind to."
"We are still going back?" Yong Qi asked.
"Of course. I'm not that changeable. Besides, we can't disappoint Huang Ah Ma again."
"So he's accepted?"
"I can't say he wasn't reluctant, but yes, he'll come back with us." Then she took his hands and said earnestly, "You will try to…cut him some slack, won't you?"
Yong Qi smiled wryly. "Don't worry, Xiao Yan Zi. I won't hold anything against him. I know he means much to you, even if he's being difficult. I suppose in a way he is only trying to protect you and I can sympathise with that."
"Sometimes I don't know if it is his wish to protect me or to dictate me to do his will."
"I think…" He trailed off and didn't finish.
"What?" she pressed.
"I think he's trying too hard to be a good brother to you but has no idea how to go about it, so he does what he thinks is best, which is overprotecting you and forget that you are not a child and that you are capable of protecting yourself."
"I suppose. Though you give him more credit than he deserves considering how he treats you."
Yong Qi chuckled. "It warms my heart that you would feel the need to defend against him, Xiao Yan Zi. Bu I think that with time, we'll be all right. We weren't getting along too badly before we left Beijing."
She didn't answer for a while and he simply let the silence stretch on.
"I realise that maybe I've been very selfish with you before," she said finally.
He looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"To make you choose between me and Huang Ah Ma. I know I probably won't ever have to choose between you and my brother because you'd always make the choice for me, but that was choosing between Huang Ah Ma and him."
"Do you regret it?"
"No, I don't think I could, even if Xiao Jian couldn't accept it. I still don't think he quite understands it, to be honest, but I hope he will, eventually. I hope."
"He's a good man at heart. Just give him time, he will understand. You'll see."
They did go back to Beijing, and when Xiao Yan Zi and Yong Qi's wedding date was announced, if Xiao Jian still had a problem with the idea of the two of them, he only expressed it to himself in private. Yong Qi, on the other hand, endeavoured to spend more time with Xiao Jian, for he would not wish for Xiao Jian to doubt anything about him and Xiao Yan Zi before they married. Xiao Jian, therefore, came to grudgingly admit that Yong Qi loved Xiao Yan Zi more than he supposed, and that he would be a good husband to his sister. The truth about Xiao Yan Zi and Xiao Jian's family was never revealed to Qian Long, and the Emperor continued in peaceful oblivion of Xiao Yan Zi's origins, and everyone preferred to keep it that way. Xiao Jian eventually learnt to let go of his hatred and desire for revenge against the Emperor, but how much of that effort was for the love of Qing Er, who he met at his sister's wedding, is up to the reader's speculations.
A/N: This chapter is a lot later than I expected, mainly because work happened. This entire week I didn't leave work before 8pm. But it's done J. (And in case you ask, I did intend for this ending from the beginning. There was not ever a question of them actually not coming back. The point of this fic wasn't to change the ending, but to give Xiao Yan Zi a chance for some emotional growth and to avoid the mess that would result in keeping the truth a secret from her.)