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The smell of ink and medicine (Closed, Zeig)


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Sup?

 

Been a while, huh? I gotta say, you're really dragon your hooves with these letters to your dear baby sis. Letting me know you haven't died a Long the way, and all that. But bro, I'm glad to hear you're doing ok. Heard about that Empressive run-in with that feral all the way out here, must've been pretty scary. Too bad I can't visit that often to see you face-to-face. Sure would be great if there was just some shortcut laying around I could use. You know, pop into the palace, whenever I wanted. Heh. Too bad.

 

I'm doing good, bro, before you ask. Weather's been pretty muggy outside. Whole lotta tourists. Business has never been better. Got some new shipments that'll be distributed sometime this month, let us coast a Long the Kong groups. Probably...gunna be pretty busy here soon, bro. If you were thinking of coming out to see me sometime soon, whelp...let's take a rain check, alright? In fact, just stay outta Long Kong for a while. Just a couple of months. It's tourist season you know, the city always gets pretty explosive this time of year, not a good time to just wing it for a sudden visit. Gotta keep off those wings anyways, bro. Ok?

 

Get better soon. Feel free to write more often. Not hearing from you for a long period of time really brothers me.

 

Feng chuckled, settling back on the coconut matting as he finished re-reading the letter from his sister.  He'd been tired when it first arrived, so tired in fact that he missed over half the puns on the first go-through.  It wasn't so much that they were brilliant in themselves, but bright beacons to happy memories, and a loved one far away.  

 

Of course, he could read between the lines of Yin's 'business' talk.  He knew what business she was in.  And it was tough, because the disciplined guard in him abhorred crime that had been allowed to grow to that level, and that feeling was allied to the brotherly concern of one who's little sibling was mixed up in undoubted bad business.  But... there were other parts to him; the troublemaker was never far beneath the surface, and it understood too well a willingness to go against the limits of social acceptability.  Deeper still, though, was that darkest part, that told him that if the whole attempt to be a Watcher ended in disaster, it would be no bad thing, from a practical point of view, to have a relative holding open the door to a new life on the other side...

 

Feng shuddered, shaking off his bedsheet to expose himself to the infirmary air.  He was getting restless, the shadows in his thoughts were catching up.  He needed to get up, do something at least.  His still-healing body was not quite cooperating yet, but he could at least write his sister back.  As soon as he got some writing materials.

 

Beside his bed was a cord connected to a set of chimes, to be pulled when he needed assistance.  He pulled it, having a good idea about who would come to answer it...

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Another quiet day in the infirmary, which, as any healer knew, was a good thing.

 

It was the busy days that were filled with heart-stopping dread and sometimes somber silences, weeping loved ones and bitter patients. Hustle and bustle in the infirmary meant woe and ill tidings, so, really, it was any wonder that the Qilin preferred the days that rang peaceful and quiet. They meant that her hooves had to find other work to keep from being idle, but in all honesty, Xiu hardly minded the tidying up and straightening out these quiet days offered her. Perhaps some of the more modern mares would scoff at the idea of her genuinely enjoying housework, but to Xiu, the sense of putting things in order set her mind at ease. The ache in her hooves and her back after bending up off the floor, to be met with pure cleanliness, provided a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

 

Ponies could not always recover from their wounds...but a floor could always be cleaned to perfection.

 

'Good,' Xiu thought as she returned the cleaning cloth to its bowl, watching in satisfaction as the floor of her office seemed to literally sparkle back at her. She's finished reorganizing her medical books beforehoof, and with the floor having been cleaned just yesterday, Xiu was confident a pony could safely eat off of it. Not that she would serve her patients food on the floor...but the point remained. Xiu said contently as she wiped a hoof over her brow, still staring down at the floor. It was almost as if she could both see and hear the sparkles, like little tiny bells chiming in the -

 

...Oh, wait a second.

 

Those bell chimes were not in her head, and instead a patient requesting assistance. And with the quiet of the infirmary, it only took one guess to figure out exactly which patient was requesting help. 

 

And, probably attempting to roll out of bed so he could go fight a dragon.

 

Xiu nearly upset her cleaning bowl at the speed she steamrolled out of the room, fully intent on forcing the young Longma back down on his pallet. Fēng was, in truth, at the stage in his recovery where he should start moving around - just a little bit - to regain some of his strength, but knowing the passions of the Longma tended to overreach little inconveniences like his physical limitations, Xiu was all too ready to pull Imperial Wood Synergist on the recovering male. It was somewhat surprising, therefor, to enter the infirmary proper and see Fēng still laying in his pallet...although, true to form, his blanket had been pulled back, and it didn't take a physician to understand the Longma's intentions. 

 

"Fēng, you shouldn't be moving yourself too much just yet," the Qilin mare chided as she made her way over to the other's pallet, immediately fussing over the state of his bandages and wings. She'd changed them just an hour ago, so they should still be holding fine. Still, it never hurt to double check...until she caught sight of the piece of paper held in the Longma's grasp. "What's that?" 

 

 

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Watching Xiu rush into the dormitory, Feng shot her one of his trademark smiles.  "What, did you think I was about to ask for my uniform?"  He spoke in jest, though the medic would have to keep in mind that he had actually tried to get up and walk on his own only yesterday, hence why he had been so tired when the letter arrived.  Hadn't gotten very far, of course, but still, the staff had to be on it's tippy-hooves, for better or for worse.

 

Upon her request, the longma pulled the paper up away from his chest to show Xiu.  "A letter from my sister.  She moved out to Long Kong some time ago; this is the reply I got from the obligatory form letter sent out to all surviving relatives.  You know, just in case they were worried sick about me.  I was actually going to ask if I could have writing materials to write back.  I should be healthy enough for that, right?"  Feng's eyes twinkled as he teased his friend.

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Yesterday, she had walked into the infirmary to find the Longma near dragging himself across the floorboards in his attempts to support himself. Xiu did her very best to convey this memory with a deadpanned look at her friend.

 

It was difficult to remain reprimanding, however, when Fēng revealed the contents of the paper he was holding. Or rather, its origin. Xiu had known the Longma had a younger sister, but that had been the extent of her knowledge until this very moment. She was living in Long Kong? The city couldn't have been more opposing to traditional Huangjing if they'd been built on opposite sides of the entire world, and Xiu honestly wondered how so many Qilin and Longma had managed to call that hustling metropolis home. She'd only been there once, but it had been enough of a trip to last her a lifetime, thank you very much.

 

"Oh," the pale Qilin huffed, unable to stop the light flush at the sight of her friend's familiar, mischievous smile lighting up his features, "you - yes, you are. Just barely," she emphasized, as if to remind Fēng exactly how injured he was. The healer didn't offer any more protests however, sans a quick demand for the Longma to remain where he was as she made her way over to a nearby cabinet, rummaging around for some writing supplies. Some parchment, an ink bottle, and a quill were also easily located and procured in the space of a few moments, before Xiu made her way back, depositing them near Fēng. 

 

...Ah! Needed a surface to write upon, as well. 

 

It took a little bit longer to find, but soon enough Xiu had returned to Fēng's side with a small table, one that was low to the ground and could be placed across one's lap in order to write upon. Much better than the Longma needing to stand up and find a desk...although it might strain his back to sit up on his pallet long enough to write her return letter. "Is that comfortable?" the Qilin asked, and began puttering back and forth again without waiting for an answer, claiming several of the spare pillows laying around the infirmary. A veritable fort of pillows ended up next to the Longma as Xiu moved to help Fēng sit up, intent on cushioning his back as much as possible. "Has it been very long?" she questioned idly as she worked, absentmindedly fluffing out each pillow before setting it down, "since you've heard from your sister, I mean?"

 

 

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Contrary to his usual pattern of behavior, Feng actually remained relatively still while Xiu fetched the necessary materials.  This was mostly due to his brain being busy composing the letter he was going to write back.  What to tell little sis about what was going on in the Palace... he had his own reasons to be as circumspect as she, considering the somewhat secretive nature of his work.  Not to mention that he knew perfectly well that the Watchers did not hold mail to be sacrosanct from their eyes, if it was thought relevant.  This one didn't seem to have been tampered with, but you never knew...

 

Bleah, the shadowy thoughts were coming back again.  Time to banish them with light bantering with the healer.  "Quite comfortable, thank you.  And to the geese for their donation of feathers, too."  He chuckled as she piled up the pillows behind him.  "How long... hard to say, time flies so much.  I know we exchanged a few letters after my posting; told her about you, actually, the day I escorted you back to the palace."  That was how he thought of it, not 'the day I saved your life.'  It was just a day doing his work to him.  There might be something admirable in that humility, but also a little insensitive.  Feng did rather have a tendency to miss the effect he had on other people.

 

"You ever been to Long Kong?"  He asked, holding the quill loosely in his hoof, clearly in no hurry to start writing.  After all, he didn't want to exhaust the one productive thing anypony in this place would let him do today too quickly.  "My training included a quick visit, but I didn't really have time to see the place properly.  At least, not the proper parts of the place."  He grinned, even though the pun was hardly even at Yin-level.  Well, he had to keep practicing somehow.  "I suppose you would have seen a better side to it, if so."

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Ah yes, that humble day of completely innocuous proportions. Just the day she was saved by a heroic Watcher and subsequently fell harder than an Equestrian dragon onto a pile of unclaimed gems.

 

Just the usual, of course.

 

If she hadn't been raised to an exacting standard of behaviors and mannerisms, Xiu might have snorted in that moment. As it was she merely bit her lip, but couldn't stop the fond shake of her head as she moved back around to Fēng's side, having artfully arranged the pillows behind him for maximum comfort...or so she hoped. Was it high enough for the Longma to sit straight up to write a letter, or would he be straining his muscles to fight the pull of gravity the entire time? Oh, she should double check and perhaps grab all the pillows from the next room -

 

The Qilin didn't have a chance to, however, when Fēng spoke up again, this time with a question of his own - and a pun that was enough to startle a surprised laugh out of her. "Once," Xiu answered truthfully, sinking back down from where she had half-risen to collect more pillows, "when I was apprenticed to a master healer in Huangjing. We actually had to traverse quite a bit of Downtown in search of some rare supplies we were after." The pale pink Qilin frowned slightly, struggling to remember details that didn't include loud and crowded and messy and scary"It was..." - an experience would most likely appreciate never experiencing ever again - "illuminating." 

 

...Unless...she traveled there with Fēng. On a visit to see his sister, perhaps...to be introduced to his sister, and then a roundabout to see his hometown and be introduced to his parents as well -

 

"S-she must miss you," the Qilin blurt out, reflexively jumping away from those dangerous, rose-tinted thoughts, "your sister. If you've only been in the city once, and a short while at that." After a moment, Xiu - with a bit of hesitation - gingerly settled herself into a more comfortable position sitting on the floor next to Fēng's pallet. She had been all prepared to leave and give the Longma some privacy to compose his return letter, but he seemed more than amiable for some company.

 

And it was always nice to spend some time with him that didn't include her Breathing her lungs out.

 

 

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Feng did have to raise an eyebrow at Xiu's answer.  Having been at the Empress' side during her many, many, audience sessions with indirectly-articulating bureaucrats, reporting officials, and court hangers-on, he knew the value of 'Interesting' as an answer that avoided being an answer.  Taking what he knew of her temperament, however, he was able to make a few guesses.  "Uh-huh... found it a bit overwhelming, did you?  It's OK, I can definitely see how it might not be for everyone."  He chuckled, bringing the materials up and readying himself to write.  "I think Yin gravitated to the place because if she was anywhere sleepier, she'd just... sleep.  She derives her motive power from those around her; I had to put myself through the paces to get her to play, sometimes!"

 

He sighed, the tinted images of nostalgic memory running projected across the back of his eyelids.  It was kind of sad, really, what the legacy of familial failure and shame could do to a young foal, growing up in a small mountain village.  You could either be pushed to troublemaking, like Feng, or spiral into a kind of depression, like he remembered seeing in Yin.  What was worth doing, if chances were that you would fail, and be slotted by everyone you knew into 'just another inevitable wreck'?

 

No, it was for the best that they were both in cities far away, though it was a bit of a shame that they had to be cities so different and far away.  "Well, yeah, obviously.  We were close when we were young, but neither of us can really visit each other.  Schedules, duties, and other matters now.  She was just telling right now,"  He held up a letter, "That this wouldn't be a good time to drop by.  It's a shame, because I have some leave I'm being strongly encouraged to take."  He snorted, dipping the quill in the ink.  He paused before he started writing, looking up at the healer.  "I'm tempted to just show up anyway, when I'm healed enough.  I mean, what else am I going to do with my time?  I just cause trouble if I don't have anything to do, and, well, better there than here, right?"  There was that grin again, indicating that in some respect the guard had already made up his mind.  Still, he wanted feedback from someone slightly more conscientious in character than himself.

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Why did she even bother anymore? Of course, he saw straight through her. 

 

...She wasn't nearly upset enough at this self-awareness. 

 

The pink Qilin intently studied the paper in Fēng's grip to avoid looking into the Longma's eyes as he spoke, mind wandering as she tried to imagine what his sister might be like. From the sound of it, she was lazy slug-a-bug who couldn't even be motivated to play with her brother. It was mind-boggling. A good work ethic was one of the cornerstones of Long Guoan culture, as much as respecting one's elders was. The idea that any young foal might simply sleep away the days was...bizarre. 

 

Not to mention her brother was Fēng. Fēngthe most active and hard-working Long pony she'd ever had the pleasure - misfortune? - of knowing. How he might have existed in the same household as one who, by all accounts, couldn't even be bothered to have some fun was a conundrum all of its own.

 

Xiu kept all these thoughts to herself, however. Even if she had been inclined to share them in the first place - which she wasn't - it wasn't a good idea to just assume the characteristics of Fēng's sister based solely on a couple of descriptive sentences. She could have completely misinterpreted everything, after all. As such, the healer kept the disapproval off her face as she nodded along with the Longma's words, instinctively agreeing with what he was saying.

 

- until she, quite suddenly, realized that she didn't agree in the slightest.

 

"What - no," Xiu blurt out, pale blue eyes round in their sockets before she even realized she had spoken - yelped - out loud, prompting a shameful flush to creep over her snout. "I mean," she continued fervently, casting her gaze this way and that and not looking suspicious in the slightest, she was sure, "y-you don't always get into trouble...I can look after you." 

 

...

 

"Not that you need someone to look after you," the Qilin amended hastily, hooves held up defensively as if he might rebuke her for the assumption. "that's not what I...I just meant I wouldn't mind keeping you company while you have leave - a-and any other time!" Oh ancestors, strike her down where she sat. "I enjoy spending - you can spend your free time with me!" 

 

Yes...she was such a gifted conversationalist, after all, what Qilin or Longma wouldn't appreciate being subjected to her blubberings on a constant basis.

 

Xiu's face burned, but not solely from the humiliation of her poorly voiced and hastily recited reasonings. While some part of her felt almost deceitful at attempting to persuade Fēng out of visiting his sister, a much, much larger part of her caviled and balked at the idea of the Longma wandering around Long Kong. Alone. He said he would perhaps go once he was fully healed, but knowing the stallion, Xiu wouldn't be surprised if he was out of the infirmary the minute he could stand upright for more than three seconds. And with this mindset of his, that he caused trouble no matter where he was, well...

 

Everyone knew exactly what sort of trouble one could find in Long Kong. Throw a weakened yet entirely too eager Longma into the mix, and what might she be left with?

 

It didn't bear any thinking about.

 

"I would...I would welcome it," Xiu said softly, and with enough bravery to peek at Fēng from the corner of her eyes as her hooves repeatedly flattened out the bedding next to her. "You...you're not trouble, to me." 

 

 

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Xiu's outburst momentarily put the letter out of Feng's immediate attention.  He couldn't deny that her sputterings were cute in their way, especially with that flush, though they're full meaning seemed to escape him still.  That's what she would have to conclude, at any rate, based on his innocently amused response, "Well, for someone who's no trouble, I seem to be causing an awful lot of work for you.  How many times has it been that I've been the only patient keeping you in the infirmary?"

 

He mentally reviewed the situations himself... by the long, there were a lot of them, now that he came to think of it.  And it was odd, now, that every time he ended up here, it was Xiu who was on duty to tend him.  She was hardly the only nurse in the Palace infirmary, just the one reserved for the treatment and well-being of the Empress.  And yet, in terms of actual time spent in work, Feng saw her more often with him than with Yue.

 

He blinked, his eyes focusing again from the past back onto the present.  He was looking at Xiu, perhaps for the first time, with the eyes that the Empress commanded from him on-duty; those that could pierce through fogs of obfuscation and see what was really there.  It wasn't hard to figure out now, objectively speaking.  Heck, now that he was looking at it, he had to wonder why his superior officer hadn't given him a 'friendly' warning about not violating the 'take no lover' clause of his oath.  But even now that he was beginning to see what lay behind Xiu's actions, he had a hard time believing what his eyes, ears, and experience were telling him.

 

"Don't you... have anything, or anyone else that could possibly lay claim to your time?"  He began to probe, already suspecting the answer.

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There was...a shift.

 

Gone was the light-hearted, easy-going familiarity that normally adorned Fēng's words and expressions, youthful laughter marked by the creases in his face. No hint of that troublemaker's smile, the one that usually boded ill for her sense of propriety but set her inner fire spiraling higher because of it. Instead, the Longma looked like...well, like a Watcher, suddenly alert as if he'd sensed an impending threat against the Empress. 

 

Okay, well, not quite that attentive. In that case, Fēng would no doubt have been on his hooves and flying down the hallway towards the Empress' resting quarters, injured wings or no.

 

"That's not the same..." Xiu protested inelegantly, voice trailing off at the look in Fēng's eyes. There was definitely something that suddenly seemed out of place, causing Xiu to momentarily freeze where she sat, eyes quickly falling on the bedding she had been smoothing out continuously for the past couple of minutes. Was he...upset at her assumption, of requesting his time spent with her rather than with his own flesh and blood? Had she been too forward? She thought she had phrased it carefully, an invitation rather than a command, but...sometimes, a stallion or mare could take any hint of a suggestion as an attempt to exert authority. But Fēng wasn't like that, so why?...

 

Was he...was he disgusted by her needling? Her neediness? He -

 

"Don't you... have anything, or anyone else that could possibly lay claim to your time?"

 

...Oh.

 

...Oh.

 

Yet again, the pale pink Qilin's face burned with humiliation as she ducked her snout lower to the ground, as if attempting her hardest to slip through the polished floorboards and escape from the awkwardness. 

 

Oh...that...explained it. Fēng was feeling pity for her. 

 

In all honesty, as Xiu frantically reviewed the words she had spewed at the Watcher, she could truthfully see where Fēng might get the idea that she was clinging to him out of loneliness and a lack of close friendships within the Imperial Palace. And well...she was clinging to him, in truth. And in even more truth, she couldn't exactly answer his question in the negative. While not nearly a veteran to the service of Her Imperial Majesty, Xiu had been working in the Imperial Palace long enough to have reasonably formed some close friendships with the other inhabitants that she co-existed with on a daily basis. By now, she should have had plenty of other friends to call upon for companionship aside from Fēng.

 

She did not.

 

And that isolation within the Imperial Palace was entirely her fault, Xiu knew. She had never made any attempt to get to know anyone else, anymore than she had been approached by anyone with anything other than pleasantries. She had been raised, after all, to be the perfect housewife - sit quietly in the background, don't bother others with pointless things unless they approached first, don't waste their time...the list went on. She had been taught to remain in the background until she was needed, and despite all her progress, the sudden shift from quiet hometown to bustling Imperial Palace had caused her to fall back on what she knew and what she was familiar with.

 

It was easier, to return to the old than discover the new.

 

"I..." Xiu started, biting on her lower lip to briefly as she struggled to come up with a way to provide an explanation that wasn't entirely pathetic. "I have my former Master in the city proper," the healer tried, thinking of that old Qilin with his kind smile and kinder wisdom. He was the only reason she had risen to her current position. "Although his clinic is usually so busy, visits cannot happen very often...ah, as is the infirmary, here!" The lack of any other soul in the vicinity lent no credibility to her statement, but Xiu plunged bravely onwards anyways. "It can get very...very, busy in here, sometimes. And my, cooking and gardening, I suppose..." And other such housework that she genuinely enjoyed, some more than others, that basically amounted to her hobbies. 

 

...Was that it? That couldn't be it. Her life couldn't be summed up in so few sentences...could it?

 

It could.

 

How utterly disenchanting she would seem to the Longma now. He, a valiant Watcher who saw more exiting things each day than she had in her entire lifetime. Xiu wondered, a bit bitterly, if a slightly altered Wood Breath could warp the flooring beneath her hooves enough to let her fall through.

 

If Fēng already thought her clingy and needy, Xiu couldn't very well continue on that same vein of convincing of asking him to spend more time with her, now could she. She had to...she needed to change the subject. 

 

"But I'll always make time for you."  

 

That...wasn't what she had meant to say. Her brain and mouth, working in utter betrayal. 

 

Xiu hastily coughed into one hoof, vainly wishing there was a fan laying around she could use to hide behind under the pretense of cooling herself off, and cast her gaze to and fro under lowered lashes...but abruptly alighting back onto the letter that had been the start of this whole thing. "Do you need me to...should I?..." the Qilin asked hopelessly, with a feeble gesture towards the doorway. "Am I, distracting you from your sister's letter?..." 

 

 

 

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After witnessing the effect his gaze had upon Xiu, Feng softened the intensity of it a bit.  He didn't want to scare the poor mare back into her shell, just figure out what was going on in her head.  He had to keep in mind that there was an inverse relation between the effectiveness of his investigation, and the awareness of the subject of they're being investigated.  Noted for next time.

 

In any case, hearing the very short list of friends, acquaintances, and hobbies seemed to explain quite a lot of her attitudes.  Poor Xiu; not everyone was as extroverted as him, Feng knew.  Usually the way they made friends was by tagging along with a more outgoing friend, and sort of joining in their circle.  Not that Feng himself had built a particularly large one himself; too focused on his work.  But, no reason he couldn't bring the few friends he had here together!  "Oh, I see."  His expression fully relaxed, and he smiled again.  "I really should introduce you to my other friends; I'm afraid I'm not quite so available for you as you are for me.  Oh, I know!  I'm friends with the Imperial Chef; do you know Yanhua?  I can send a note down to the kitchen, and she can bring up some snacks for all three of us!"

 

Aaannnnd that sentence alone was sufficient to indicate the young Watcher's own social obliviousness.  The possibility that Xiu and Yanhua might be A: rivals to his affection, and B: aware of each other in that capacity completely failed to occur to him!  Plowing on his merry way, he nodded and returned to his writing.  "Don't worry, I shouldn't take too long; I'll use one of the sheets for that kitchen note, OK?"

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Yes...she wasn't so skilled with Fire, but surely she could manage just enough to help warp the wood beneath her, sending her sinking downwards to hide away from the embarrassment coating her features.

 

Was Fēng subtly attempting to tell her she was being too much of a bother? That's what it sounded like...but then again, the Watcher, usually wasn't exactly...subtle, in his approaches. Then again again, perhaps he was making an effort to be so in order to spare her feelings? He'd seemed on extra alert just a moment before, having figured out the sad reality of her existence...perhaps this was just a continuation of that keen Watcher instinct and observational skills? Had she just ruined everything?

 

Her thoughts were running chaotic circles, so rampant that Xiu almost failed to comprehend the Longma's proposed solution to her...problem. 

 

Almost.

 

Xiu was vaguely aware of the quiet sound of distress that inadvertently slipped past her lips, a sort of aggrieved sounding squeak. Of, course he would suggest her spending time with the Palace Chef, of all possible friends, why wouldn't he? Of course he would suggest ordering some food from her, food that Xiu could never hope to match no matter how good her own cooking was. Of course he would send for that food right now, using one of the sheets of paper to invite the chef up to invade the scant few times she had alone with Fēng and  - 

 

"No!" Xiu cried out, startling even herself on a vague, subconscious level that was completely overshadowed by the sheer mortification of her thoughts. This was wrong, all wrong, Fēng wasn't suppose to think that she appreciated him solely because she had no one else to appreciate! Fēng wasn't a mere afterthought, a last resort to save her from complete loneliness and isolation within the Palace, and she would be...she was...

 

She was going to get this oblivion-cursed stallion to see that!

 

"It's not," the Qilin burst, and for the first time in a long time, frustration crept into her voice without any hint of embarrassment, as if the shy, insecure healer was quailing in the face of the passionate young filly that had first defied her parents' wishes. "I don't like spending time with you because I'm lonely - " not completely, but the truth was so much more than that, too complicated to easily explain with her fumbling words - "I like spending time with you because I like you!" No Fire talent to speak of, but that still didn't stop wisps of pale green, smoke-like breaths from escaping the corner of her mouth as Xiu's inner fire roared with life and feeling and intent.

 

"I don't want to eat snacks from Yanhua, or anyone else," Xiu exclaimed forcibly, and even went so far as to stamp one hoof onto the floorboards as she stared straight into the Longma's eyes, "and if you don't have much time for me, then that's okay - but what time you do have, I cherish and treasure, because it's time I get to spend with you!" Somewhere in the back of her mind, a proper and well-behaved Qilin was pleading with her to stop before she disgraced herself any further - a flash of her parents' disappointment across the recesses of her mind - and the Xiu in the forefront faltered, rhythm thrown. "Because I love - " 

 

"You...h-how, dare you!..."

 

"B-Because, I...love..." 

 

...

 

"I, love the time we spend together," the pale pink Qilin finished softly, voice having fully trailed off to a pathetic whisper, a mockery of the strong and vibrant tone she had been using just moments before. That same, dreaded feeling - like being awash in a bath of ice - flooded her system, shock and dismay draining away any blush that might have been thinking of adorning her cheeks. 

 

Oh, ancestors...the urge to lock herself in her chambers like she had done as a small filly ran rampant. Unfortunately - fortunately? - for her, she was a full grown Qilin, and the Imperial Wood Synergist, to boot.

 

"I'll," Xiu started, blanched and had to suck in a deep breath of air that probably sounded like she was gasping for breath - "if you're hungry I'll, run down to the kitchens and get something," the Qilin mumbled, and it was as good as excuse as any to give herself enough time to breathe, calm down...and then freak out over the veritable tantrum she had just thrown in front of the Longma. Xiu was already ungracefully scrambling onto her hooves without even fully realizing it, so great was her idea. "I'll just go - be right back - I, just - yup." 

 

 

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For perhaps the third time that evening, Feng's face was to undergo a fundamental transformation.  This time, it was the expression of a longma who, after pouring himself a drink, had it blow up in his face.  It was a combined bewilderment at the explosion itself, alongside a dawning realization that there was more, much more, involved in that which he had previously thought he'd understood.  In his mental world, the watcher had tended to classify Xiu as, "Nice, but not one in whom the fires burned hot."

 

Well... well, now he was seeing her fires, all right.  The flickers of flame and the wisps of smoke spat out alongside what were probably the most sincere words he'd ever heard from her.  The outburst didn't last, but it was enough to communicate one thing to Feng at least: this was not just a neutral, shy, pleasant healer;something lurked beneath the surface, something worth paying more attention to, perhaps.  Almost of its own accord, his left eyebrow rose up in inquiry, pulling up that corner of his mouth back into a smile.  "Well... alright then, go ahead.  I'll be waiting for you.  You've given me a lot to think about..."  Such as where that fire had come from, and just how he might poke her to see it again.

 

Once she left, though, he was reminded of the original task which he'd set himself.  Write to his sister, yes.  Propping himself up on the cushions, he carefully arranged the paper on the writing board, taking the quill with as delicate a grip as his bandaged body could manage.  "Let's see..."  He murmured, dipping the feather's end in ink.  "Puns, or no puns?"  He'd never get on Yin's level, but exchanging jokes until one of them cracked was one of their favorite games as young foals.  But... he just didn't feel up to the effort of the exchange today.  Too many other things preying on his mind right now.  He'd have to get them all down before he could return to normal; healing was internal as well as external.

 



Yo.

 

Has been a while, yeah.  A lot's been going on, as you heard.  Funny thing, I joined the Watch to get away from the Mountain, but the Empress brought me back.  Spent so much time running away from who I used to be, but I had to become the troublemaker running around the mountain wilderness again to do my duty.  I thought that I had to push down all the parts of myself that didn't fit to be able to make something better of myself, but in the end, you can't just leave that behind.  Do you still think of home like that, or is Long Kong just one bridge too far over troubled waters?

 

Heh, that was a poor attempt, can't afford quality humor, I get scared out of the boo-tique.  These thoughts keep me grounded, and that's a real pun-ishment to my ability to make and take a joke.  Are things cheaper down there?  I have some, a lot, of leave time coming up.  I've never been a tourist before, might be fun!  Maybe I'll turn it in to a game of hide and seek; can you find big brother before he causes too much trouble?  Ah, remember those days?  Good times!

 

I'll be seeing you as soon as I can fly down, with any luck.

 

There.  He set the quill down and reviewed his work with a smile.  He did manage some puns, after all!  And that was probably an important point in that last paragraph, something more profound than he knew quite how to articulate.  All he could say for certain was, for all his injuries, he felt a more whole and healthy longma than he had for a long time.  And that was part of what had weirded him out, at the beginning.  Now, the world was opening up to him again, and new things were revealing themselves about what he thought he knew.

 

Well, that could be explored later, when Xiu came back.  For now, he set the letter aside, and sighed, relaxing.

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All things considered, Xiu considered it a personal success that she managed to make it all the way down the hallway before abruptly sagging against the wall, and banging her forehead against it a few times for good measure.

 

Which was all the Qilin really had time to do before another mare came rounding the corner holding into some fresh towels, stopping in her tracks to stare at the strange spectacle. Xiu couldn't even find it in herself to blush, as if her entire body had just been drained of any ability other than the necessary bodily functions of breathing and moving about...although that still didn't stave off the embarrassment at her compromising position. Somehow, the healer managed to find the effort to slowly peel herself away from the wall and - with an entirely casual and cursory pass of one hoof over her mane - nodded very politely and solemnly at the mare, before continuing on her way.

 

Cue second desire to mash her face into a wall once she was out of sight, but this time, Xiu managed to stave off long enough to make it all the way to the kitchens. 

 

Where, of course, an unfortunately familiar face was moving about like an Empress of her own kingdom. It didn't take long to get spotted, and Xiu very politely made her request for a few snacks to be made for a recovering patient, using as few words as possible. It almost hurt to think how close things had come to the Qilin barging her way up to the infirmary to laugh and joke and share space with Fēng, while Xiu would have undoubtedly not been able to get a single wording and been left to silently stew on the sidelines. Luckily, she had put a stop to that - even if it had been in the most outrageous way possible.

 

The kitchen may have been Yanhua's kingdom, but the infirmary was hers.

 

In short order, a plate consisting of a large variety of dumplings had been hoofed over to her, and once again, Xiu very politely gave her thanks before exiting from the kitchens as quick as Qilinly possible. Not only did she feel somewhat out of place in the grand and opulent workings of the Imperial kitchens - her own modest, homely setup was much more comfortable, in her own humble opinion - but it didn't exactly help her insecurities either, watching Yanhua order around a bustling kitchen full of life and laughter and intent. The infirmary had a few other healers working full time, but unless some large accident occurred within the Palace, it mostly remained quiet and solemn. 

 

Not to mention that the scant times the infirmary was busy were hardly times for laughter and comfort. 

 

Speaking of...it seemed her bodily functions had once again started to work correctly, as Xiu felt her face heating up the nearer she got to the infirmary entrance. Fēng had said she'd given him something to think about...hopefully the right something and not the wrong something that had triggered her outburst in the first place, because if it was the wrong something she was liable to start screaming at him all over again. 

 

Or curl up in her office and just lay there, for a while. Whichever worked. With a mental sigh, Xiu waited for her face to cool off, before nudging open the doorway with a hip, tray balanced carefully in her hooves.

 

Fēng...was the picture of relaxed and peaceful, which Xiu could only take as a good sign. At the very least, he seemed to have composed some, if not all, of his return letter to his sister, considering the darkened quill tip. "Yanhua made you some dumplings," the healer said unnecessarily, as the smell surely would have alerted the Longma long before the actual visual did. Sullenly attempting not to think how she could have made much better dumplings herself - despite said smell - Xiu set the tray down next to the writing table, before moving off to grab some napkins, glasses, and a pitcher of water. 

 

It was when she was coming back with all this that Xiu finally noticed the second letter laying peacefully on the writing table, presumably the return letter. "Were you able to finish it?" the pale pink Qilin questioned politely as she settled herself next to Fēng's mat, opposite of where the tray of dumplings had been placed. If he'd finish his letter, he might be starting to get bored. 

 

And a bored recovering Fēng was just about the worst recovering Fēng imaginable. 

 

 

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For the past half hour, Feng hand been... not quite asleep, exactly, but something akin to dreaming.  It was a state of mind he'd last found himself in when Discord had taken it upon himself to stir up the Imperial Court.  The Spirit of Chaos' insinuating words had so riled up the Watcher's own doubts and emotions so as to plunge him into the depths of his own unconscious.  And yet, within that mental underworld, he had actually found something useful, a guide to action, diamonds left in the dustbin of repressed thoughts and memories.

 

In fact, it was becoming increasingly apparent to Feng that much of the things that troubled him were due to his previous refusal to engage with his past, and integrate it into his present self.  The benefits for doing so, as well as the severe costs of refusing to do so, had been recently demonstrated in the incident on the Mountain, which he had just related to Yin in his letter.

 

And so, he drifted, deliberately going back into the dragon's den within, to find some golden nugget of wisdom.  *Xiu... why do I not understand?  What have I missed, and why?  What is it that I have refused to engage with sufficient attention?*  He didn't know what it was that he was asking.  Perhaps it was the Watcher within, or some over-arching body of wisdom without, imperfectly internalized.  The only thing he had right now was an inner assurance that, if he deliberately and sincerely sought answers to those questions, they would come.

 

He was awoken from this state by the twitching of his nose and the grumblings of his stomach.  The mind is not always the master of the body.  In but a few seconds, he was up, alert, and hungry.  "Ah, excellent!"  Impulsively as ever, he quickly took a bite out of a juicy, savory dumpling, only to quickly put it back down and grab at his water glass to cool his burned mouth.  "Ooh, hot, fresh, nice."

 

Aware that he was not being his most articulate right now, he cleared his throat, making sure to blow on the remains of the dumpling to cool it before taking a more cautious bite.  "I'm more or less finished, yes."  There was more he could say, perhaps, but he had to take into account the fact that Yin might not be the only reader of that letter. 

 

Feng continued to eat, his eyes still on Xiu.  Subconscious thoughts were bubbling up, but he held the flood at bay for now, deciding to take an indirect approach.  "Xiu, tell me... have you ever aimed directly to misbehave?"  It was obviously a bit of a leading question, so he clarified.  "It's a different matter altogether than suddenly finding yourself on the wrong side of the rules.  That happened to me a lot; I only deliberately broke rules a few times.  I mean, actually planning out beforehand to do so.  It's a matter of choice then, not an exuberant accident."  From what he could tell, the healer had very little of 'exuberant accident' in her life, seeming by temperament to be a mare who was content to live by rules and routines even when none were imposed on her.  And that was just a matter of temperamental difference, he knew.  What he was fishing for was something else, a capacity to evaluate and test the rules, such as all Watchers ultimately had to have, in order to stay both useful and loyal in the dark.

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It was with a mixture of fondness and exasperation that Xiu watched the Longma next to her tear into his first dumpling, of course taking a figurative dive head-first and burning his tongue in the process. Still, the Qilin subtly leaned back where she sat, stubbornly attempting to avoid the enticing smell that was bound to make her stomach rumble if she inspected it too closely. 

 

At the very least, Fēng's clear enthusiasm for the food was a very positive indicator of the state of his recoveries, and Xiu watched him closely as he ate. No hint of pain in his features as he ate and drank, and he seemed to be sitting up more on his own than relying on the mountain of pillows behind him. She'd had to monitor his eating closely, though - his stomach would undoubtedly not be unable to handle much of the rich food from the kitchens without twisting itself in knots, and it wouldn't help his recovery any to start throwing up what solids he was now eating.

 

Which wasn't a very flattering image to think about, causing Xiu to realize she had been staring rather absently at Fēng's mouth, subsequently watching the dumpling disappear - the same mouth that was attempting to ask her a question, too.

 

"Hm?" she hummed, distractedly, tearing her eyes away towards a more suitable location - only to find the Longma's deep red eyes already upon her. Xiu flushed lightly, but mentally chided herself as she paid closer attention to Fēng's words, especially considering the rather sudden, and seemingly random, line of questioning. The Longma seemed to be implying that he - contrary to popular opinion - didn't necessarily choose to be a troublemaker...at least not voluntarily. More that he only actively chose to break rules on a few special occasions, and the rest of the time simply...found himself standing on the wrong side of the line. 

 

Like he might simply step outside for a stroll and run straight into a dragon for a wrestling match. The image was enough to illicit a quiet chuckle from her.

 

Still, her imagination wasn't enough to stop Xiu from seriously considering the Longma's question...which in turn was enough to cause a slight droop to her ears. Perhaps her first, initial outbursts as a young filly to her disgruntled parents might have been spur of the moment, passion-inspired accidents of the most exuberant nature...but there was no denying that the final confrontation had been a clear and concise reckoning of her own choosing. She'd been old and mature enough to understand the rules of her household, to know what she was doing was wrong - and that hadn't stopped her. And Xiu was glad for it, truly she was. 

 

But even as she thought it, the pale pink Qilin's thoughts drifted to the image of a stern Watcher standing tall and proud against a mountainous backdrop, powerful and commanding over a legion of Watchers at his disposal. In truth, her pursuit - interest, desire? - of Fēng was a violation of the Watchers' sworn oaths, a conscious and direct action that sought to fight against the strict regiment of their vows. Those rules might have been an enforcement for the Watchers themselves, but even knowing those rules hadn't been made specifically for her didn't change the fact that she knew those rules existed, and chose to move against them anyways.

 

"Twice," Xiu finally answered in a soft tone - and after a few silent moments of thought, as well. "I can think of two instances in my life, where I'm choosing - w-where I, chose to disobey the rules. Both, I believe, to my betterment." That...sounded rather presumptuous, the Qilin thought shamefully, and was thankful Fēng hadn't asked for specifics. As if she could even tell him after this. Oh yes, my love for you is for my own betterment, never mind what troubles it might cause you in the Imperial Watch.

 

The healer only cleared her throat slightly, occupying her hooves with pouring herself a glass of water as she let out a somewhat self-deprecating huff of laughter. "I suppose those sorts of moments cling on in memory, moreso than others. I'm sure you can attest to that," she commented, though her tone trailed off into more of a question than a statement. She was curious as to what might have brought on this sudden change in subject, yes...but Xiu didn't want to unintentionally pressure him into sharing secrets and experiences that he would rather keep to himself. 

 

...Or, she thought with a sudden blooming suspicion as she glanced down at Fēng's freshly written letter, maybe it would be best to make sure whatever rules the Longma was thinking of deliberately breaking wouldn't end up breaking him.

 

 

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Feng had always felt that Xiu underestimated the robustness of a stallion's digestive system.  Sure, his ravenous feasting upon dumplings might earn him a sleepless night of weird and terrible dreams, but that sure beat hunger!  One thing he appreciated about Yanhua's dumplings was the way in which they didn't require any dipping sauce.  All the flavor was packed inside, which tended to make eating them a messy affair if one wasn't careful.  Did he care though?  Not a bit!

 

After two dumplings, his hunger was sated to the point where he could concentrate fully on the conversation, and Xiu's answer.  "For the better, eh?  Hm... wasn't always the case for me, and I've been trying to figure out what I could've done to tell the difference beforehand."  Another sip of water as he organized his thoughts.  "I guess the closest come to is this: If I was planning on how I could get away with whatever I wanted to do, avoiding the consequences, it always turned out badly.  If instead, I looked at the worst possible consequence, and decided that it was still better than not acting, then it did turn out for the best.  I... haven't worked through all the consequences of some of my plans yet, as you might guess."  He nodded towards the letter.  "Don't take that to the post yet, actually.  I still need to do some thinking."

 

With a little shake, he sought to cast off his reverie as he bit into his third dumpling, savory juice dribbling down his chin.  "But enough about me!  I'm kind of curious what led a mare like you to break the rules.  Must be a pretty good story!  If you don't mind telling it to me, that is."

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Luckily, her senses were beginning to become accustom to the otherwise enticing smell, and Xiu felt it safe enough to lean forward slightly to pick up a napkin, moving on instinct as she dabbed at the overflowing juices around Fēng's mouth and snout. Even her hoof seemed to move more out of muscle memory than any real thought process, as her mind was focused more on his words at the moment.

 

She supposed it made sense, in a way. If the goal was to avoid punishment for a broken rule, then said goal was more than likely clouded and stilted. If, however, a rule was broken solely because no other recourse remained, then all avenues had probably been looked at thoroughly, with purpose and intent, rather than rash decision. It seemed rather...fitting. 

 

And, in all honesty, not something she would have expected a Longma like Fēng to be self-aware of. Another layer to the Watcher that she was slowly becoming more and more privileged to see. 

 

With the reverse perhaps happening at the same time, and Xiu leaned back where she sat, taken off-guard. She had...just come to the conclusion, not too long ago, that Fēng would not judge her actions back in Spring Blossom Town, yet already the Qilin could almost feel her lips curling in on themselves, the instinctive reaction to pretend her disobedience had never, ever happened. That she was the picture perfect model of a housewife, of a mare. A healer, a Qilin, an upstanding follower of tradition and Long Guoan values. 

 

But...Fēng was asking. It was Fēng, and that, more than anything, gave her courage.

 

And hope.

 

"...After I received my cutie mark," Xiu said quietly, after another long pause in which she'd carefully considered her words. "When I knew I wished to become a healer. Not immediately after, but...it started there." Absently, the Qilin folded the used napkin in her hooves to present the unmarked insides, beginning to clean the writing table where bits of juice and dumplings had fallen. It kept her hooves busy, kept them in a routine, and that simple fact provided more comfort against the bitter memories she was evoking.

 

"My parents had a desired match for me," the Qilin explained a moment later, the statement matter-o-fact and lacking any sort of judgement. Arranged marriages were rarer nowadays, but not so uncommon to be unheard of, after all. "To the son of a shimmersilk merchant. It was a good match." Xiu had to concede that much, at the very least - it hadn't been some random farmer's son, or the first good looking colt to pass through the town. Marrying into the Xilan family would have set her up for life. "They were not the only parents with eyes on him, though, and potential matches of their own. I had to work hard, to ensure I would grow to be the most desirable mare in turn."

 

Once, that had been all she'd wanted in life. 

 

"But after I got my mark," she went on, still methodically wiping down the table, "I...the idea grew and festered, and would not leave me." Long nights in bed, staring up at the ceiling, or spacing out in the middle of her gardening work, and even now her voice grew a bit distant, as if the Qilin were talking more to herself than anyone else. "It wasn't immediate. Simply talking, at first. Pleading, then bargaining. Compromising." A long distance marriage...that had gone over well with her parents. "And every single time I backed down, acquiesced to their wishes, their...rules that they were so certain would bring me happiness." By this point the napkin had become frayed and torn - useless - and Xiu carefully set it to the side as she picked up a clean, unsoiled one.

 

"Until I finally...I made a choice. I said no." 

 

Twin looks of disbelief, disappointment, despair as they wondered, 'where did we go wrong.'

 

"I packed up what I had, and...left," Xiu finished, pale blue eyes finally moving away from where they had been fastened on the table to seek out Fēng's face. She blinked once, twice, eyes seeming to clear the distant glaze they'd held during her ramblings, and Xiu flushed lightly as she remembered her surroundings and present company. That didn't change the almost sense of...relief that was washing over her however, as if she'd finally confessed to some long-kept secret that had been weighing her down. If she hadn't been brought up so well she might have shrugged - as it was, she simply grinned up at the Longma, features once again present and in the moment. "And, well...you know the rest." 

 

Yes...the day he'd simply done his duty, like any other day. The same day that had overthrown her entire life. 

 

"And...and you?" Xiu questioned abruptly, tearing her eyes away from the Longma to focus on pouring herself another glass of water. She almost felt...giddy with the relief, like some spoiled foal who bragged his mischievous exploits to all his friends and received equal parts shock and awe at his daring. "What sort of instances have you found yourself...ah, deliberately breaking the rules? That is, if, um...if you care to share them?...." 

 

 

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The sensation of being fussed over was something that Feng had found the need to get used to, every time he ended up in the infirmary.  Xiu had a tendency to try and do for him what he would often feel perfectly capable of doing himself.  Of course, he would usually wipe sauce from his mouth using his feathers, and given that they were currently bandaged... he didn't mind Xiu's current dabbing too much.

 

All that was a minor distraction, however.  Feng's ears remained perked forward as his friend related her tale.  This, as far as he was concerned, was going to be their most important conversation to date  He'd even paused in his consumption of the the dumplings, just so he wouldn't be distracted by the sound of his own chewing as Xiu unfolded her past.  And it took very little effort on his part as well, as he was genuinely rapt in her autobiographical tale, to the point where once she had finished, he burst out in spontaneous applause.  "That's the spirit!"  He cheered with a gleeful grin.  "Let me tell you something, you made the right decision.  I'd often listen in on the village gossip, even when it wasn't about me!  If there's one thing the neighbors have contempt for, it's for people who rise in a business in ways that aren't actually that business.  It'd be like... like if I tried to get my sister into the Palace infirmary by marrying you!  We have a name for that, it's called corruption!  I arrest people who pull those kinds of shenanigans!"  That all may be true, but it didn't take much to read beneath the surface of his talk; Feng had a deep seated antipathy towards the idea of arranged marriage, possibly borne out from the fact that it was the one social more which looked to separate him from his heart's desire...

 

Settling down after his initial outburst, he returned once again to the dumplings.  "I can't say I have any stories quite that dramatic.  I mean, a bad example of deliberately breaking the rules left out alone on a mountain after dark, just because I wanted to explore a cave, so I lied about visiting a friend overnight.  Well, I got lost and no one went looking for me.  That was fun.  As for a good example... well, talking to people I'd been warned not to talk to.  They always looked lonely, you know, and I knew what it was like to be lonely.  I could never leave well enough alone; that's why I'm here."  He looked down at his infirmary mat.  "In every sense of the word too, I guess."

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If she had been giddy beforehoof, Xiu was positively reeling now, and couldn't help the bubbling and breathless laughter that spilled from her lips as Fēng praised her efforts. And with applause, to boot.

 

Though that laughter was quick to taper off into surprised choking as the Longma continued to speak, seemingly caught up in the passion of his words. Words that, in all honesty, left the Qilin confused and feeling almost...forlorn. The Imperial Watch had the authority to...arrest ponies for arranging marriages? What sort of nonsense was that? Arranged marriages were not so common nowadays, sure, but many outlying towns and villages still practiced the custom. Not to mention the Imperial Dynasty itself, though those matches were less arranged by someone of higher authority than the reigning monarch, and more agreed upon as being mutually beneficial to both parties involved.

 

The Dynasty could hardly arrest its subjects for a practice that its own Emperor or Empress basically followed...could it?

 

Whatever early jubilation she'd been feeling was quick to fall to the wayside as Xiu kept quiet under Fēng's continued impassioned speech, a faint flush spreading over her face as if the Longma was chastising her instead of the practice at large. Corruption, he called it. She...she didn't see it as corrupt - quite the contrary. Arranged marriages were a way to raise one's standing, and being a good housewife was a merit all of its own. It wasn't...even if she would have entered into the shimmersilk business without laboring in the business itself, she had labored to become a part of it all the same. The role of a housewife wasn't some lazy, thoughtless, corrupt role that held no merit. So long as both parties wished it, how could anyone think it corrupt?

 

She'd been all for the match herself, after all, had been eager for it. Up until she'd discovered a wish for something else. 

 

For the first time since Xiu could remember, she was...upset, with him. 

 

Not even upset, but angry, angry at FēngHow could the Longma think her family was corrupt when they had simply wished the best for her, and themselves, and their future grandchildren? When she had worked tirelessly in order to achieve that goal, a goal he deemed unworthy simply because it wasn't achieved a certain way? It wasn't as if her parents would have suddenly been included in the family business without learning the trade at all, not the way the Watcher was detailing in his example. They would have benefitted immediately in name and prestige, but been slowly brought to rise in the business like any other. 

 

Her parents weren't corrupt, and neither was she.

 

It was at this moment that a soft tearing sound alerted the Qilin, and she looked downwards to realize she had unconsciously torn the napkin in grip in two. Wordlessly, Xiu disposed of it in the trash, but if there was a newfound tenseness to her movements and expression, she didn't make note of it. Instead, the healer preoccupied herself with grabbing a new roll of bandages and settling down on the Longma's right side to begin changing the bandaging on his wing with sharp and impersonal hooves. It didn't really need to be changed now, but it gave her something to do as she struggled to release the upset frown on her features as Fēng continued to speak.

 

And, despite the uncharacteristic anger clouding her thoughts, Xiu - curse her heart - couldn't help but soften as the Longma's words trailed off, deep red eyes gazing down at the mat he lay upon. Just through his words alone, there seemed to be some specific incident he was recalling, that had landed him in this time and place. An incident with someone he should not have spoken with? Someone like -

 

...Surely not. Fēng was courageous and bold, but he couldn't have been so foolish as to confront the Empress of Long Guo.

 

...Could he have?

 

"At least you know for certain," is what Xiu finally hazarded, tone still a bit clipped but nonetheless soft, as if she might be speaking to a spooked animal. "Better to know and be at peace to leave whatever it is well alone, then to wonder." Advice that she, herself, would probably have to take up against the Longma one day...a day far removed into the future, when there was more room in his heart.

 

Half of her was apprehensive and unwilling - the other half was nurturing and observant, and Xiu carefully placed a gentle hoof on Fēng's shoulder, head tilting slightly to get a better look at him. "Do you want to talk about it?" 

 

 

 

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It was far from an unusual occurrence for Feng's tongue to run away with him.  His hooves and wings would often do so, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worst.  And the worst really could be the worst, in some of his less integrated moments.  His outburst, though sincere, had probably oversimplified the issue, and crossed the bounds with Xiu.  He could see from her expression that something hadn't gone right; she wasn't responding positively to his statements, which he had truly meant in support of her decision.  Feng saw, but that wasn't to say he understood, yet.

 

His eyes followed her as she disposed of the handkerchief, watchful, curious, puzzled.  Was this his fault, or residual guilt on her part?  Where had they gone wrong?  It was all a mystery, and there was only one way he knew how to solve mysteries: Pay attention, and soon things will tell you all that they have to say about what is going on.  That could probably be the motto of the Watchers, right there.

 

He endured the business-like bandaging, suddenly a lot more careful about what he was saying, pausing after, and even between sentences, to judge the healer's reaction.  "It is one thing to know the facts.  It is another thing altogether to understand the truth.  Sometimes, all I know is that what I have heard isn't right, but I cannot say what is.  As I said, I know for certain it isn't good to be lonely, and that its very possible to be lonely even if you're surrounded by other long sun.  It's possible to be lonely, even when you're with someone you've been married to for twenty or more years.  That isn't good; it can destroy you.  Physically, even, if you're on your own when someone or something attacks you."  The advantage to speaking carefully is that it allows your brain to think as you are speaking, and finally he was able to put together what his varied thoughts had been.  "Empress Yue is lonely, and in some ways I think she deliberately makes herself so, because... duty brings with it suffering, but there's a difference between necessary and unnecessary suffering.  If the Empress suffers unnecessarily... that's not good for anyone."

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Well, she'd been half anticipating it, so she couldn't be too upset to have the conversation inevitably find its way back onto the Empress of Long Guo, now could she.

 

And it revealed yet another difference in their philosophies, one that caused a surprised twitch in her tail as she continued working on the Longma's wing. 

 

"Maybe it simply comes down to pride, then," the Qilin stated slowly, carefully measured words balancing out the lingering anger. "I may not know much, but I do know I would never presume to understand the necessary sacrifices of an Empress better than the Empress herself." Perhaps it was just a matter of Fēng feeling the Empress caught in a lie to herself thanks to his Watcher instincts - perhaps it was a matter of the Longma's presumptuousness, deciding for himself what was necessary and unnecessary against the Empress' own decisions. She was no Watcher, trained to pick up on subtle nuances. She didn't know.

 

And in utter honesty, she didn't really care. She was a simple healer, and she would eat her own antlers before attempting to claim she knew better than a sovereign who'd been raised from birth to see and discern things with a critical eye. 

 

Her own decisions of necessary and unnecessary sacrifices came down to an infirmary mat, and the time and energy spent on what healing breaths where. The Empress' sacrifices came down to an entire country, and unless one had received that sort of training and thinking from an early age - the welfare of an entire nation constantly running in the back of one's mind - Xiu honestly didn't believe someone like Fēng could, with full perspective and sincerity, claim to know better. 

 

Because despite whatever personal feelings Xiu might hold for Her Imperial Majesty, it was entirely easy to see that the Empress had a good heart, unburdened by greed and lust for power. At this time into her reign, Xiu would bet all her cards that whatever sacrifices the Empress chose to make, they were for the good of the country. Later on, as she grew older and more powerful in her sovereignty, that might change...but for now? Xiu had confidence.

 

And trust.

 

"I've never been an Empress," Xiu stated, wryly, because of course she'd never been an Empress, "so I cannot say for certain. But maybe loneliness is a necessary sacrifice for a Sovereign of Ten Thousand Years. Maybe Long Guo suffers when a sovereign finds true companionship." She didn't really think of the world so black and white as that, even she was not so naive - there were a million and one things that affected a nation, the state of its leader being only one of them. But it was the only way she knew how to convey her thoughts without sounding accusatory or - ancestors curse her - bitter.

 

"...I've never been a Watcher either," the Qilin conceded a moment later, again unnecessarily, and rose from her position to dispose of the old bandages and rinse her hooves in a nearby basin. "So perhaps you're right. Perhaps what one claims and what is actually true differ, and a necessary sacrifice is actually unnecessary, but is believed to be necessary." The urge to follow up the statement, to concur with If the Empress says so, so it must be was strong, but Xiu clamped down on the response as she methodically washed her hooves, carefully rinsing all the way to her upper forelegs. 

 

Confrontation simply wasn't in her nature, after all. She'd said her piece, but acknowledged Fēng's own way of thinking. Agreeing to disagree. That was always the safest route, wasn't it?

 

 

 

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There were many things one could say about Feng, but not that he favored the 'safe path.'  Partly by temperament, but partly also by the hard lesson that the safe route wasn't really the safe route.  Trouble was going to find you either way, it was just that you would now have to face trouble on it's terms rather than yours.  So... he wasn't one to let a debate die in conversation, nope!  He'd pursue it like a terrier to its lair, and tear from it the heart of the matter.  His partner in the conversation may or may not appreciate being dragged along for the ride, but hey!  What else were he and Xiu going to do?  At least this way he wasn't attempting his umpteenth escape from the infirmary.

 

"Pride, huh?  I'll tell you what pride is; pride is believing your own burdens are so unique and profound that nopony else could possibly understand them.  And I should know!  I was that proud myself."  His words were without any lingering bitterness or anger, more a kind of sorrowful laughter at himself.  "I looked back on my ancestry, one long series of bad decisions, and that's how I came about!  If I stayed still for long enough... I'd start to think that if everyone was a bit wiser, then they and everyone around them would be happier, I would never have been born, and the world would have thought itself the better for it."  That was the second time he made that confession.  It was easier this time, having already been brought into the light of conscious articulation.  Not that it didn't still weigh on him, but it somehow felt more manageable.  "Heh, now you know why I always try to get up out of here earlier than I'm supposed to.  And I never told you, because... well, I didn't think you could possibly understand."

 

"But you want to know the weird thing?  The Empress feels the exact same burden!  We were talking... in Stalliongrad, when it all came out.  See, she's the daughter of the old Emperor's second wife, the one he put the other consort away to marry for love.  Wasn't a happy time at court, and eventually her mother had to leave.  She views romance as the biggest mistake of her father... and she's the result of that 'mistake.'"  His muzzle wrinkled as he recalled that evening of teary eyes and shouted words.  "That wasn't a pleasant conversation.  It hurt, really hurt, to let out the secrets I'd been keeping.  I'd meant just to confess what I felt for her, but I ended up burrowing down to the deepest, darkest places of myself.  Heh, this-"  He wagged a bandaged wing to indicate his injuries, "This was nothing, in terms of pain.  But you know?  I'm not sorry.  I broke the pride that kept me lonely.  At least for me.  Maybe for her, too."

 

He sighed, after that long explanation.  He probably wouldn't have made so full a report to any less of a friend.  Although... it was just possible that talking of the Empress as one to whom one confessed affection might well be a painful conversation for her, too.  Too late now, though.  After rubbing his eyes, Feng concluded his thoughts.  "So I guess you're right.  It is a matter of pride.  Pride keeps you lonely, and loneliness prevents you from finding wisdom.  And Emperors and Empresses aren't immune from that; that's why we've had six dynasties, rather than one.  That's why I don't want Yue to be lonely.  Even if..."  He sighed again, looking away.  "Even if it's not me."

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The conversation had gone from anger-inducing back to awkwardness in two seconds flat.

 

There were still tints of anger clouding the corner of her mind, but now it was coupled with no small amount of uncertainty. Which, considering the high levels of disagreement that two of them were having over a single subject, wasn't that surprising...but it wasn't even their wildly differing opinions that were causing her distress. 

 

It was the topic of said disagreement.

 

It almost made Xiu want to do something stupid and foolish, like slap hooves over her ears or stick her head in the basin she was standing in front of. Because really, one didn't just casually listen to the intimate burdens and feelings of the Empress of Long Guo like she was any other pony! To know what Her Imperial Majesty felt about her mother's situation, and the previous Emperor's decision to marry her...it was simply too difficult to fully comprehend. Like she shouldn't even be standing here listening to Fēng talk about it.

 

Fēng shouldn't have been talking about the Empress' private thoughts in the first place! This was the Empress of Long Guo, and despite how similarly he viewed her problems to his, they weren't similar because she was the Empress of Long Guo. It almost felt obscene, to hear about them.

 

Still, even the panic at hearing details she had no right to hear didn't stop Xiu from hearing everything else, and it...stunned her, to say the least. That Fēng seemed to believe - or had used to believe - that he was a mistake, the product of a bad decision, was as foreign a concept as the Longma suddenly deciding to take it easy for a day. Fēng was always so full of confidence, so sure in his path, that the idea of him ever having doubted his very existence was...disturbing, made her silent and dull as she stared over one shoulder at the Watcher. It was also clear how deeply these feelings had, and still, affected the Watcher, to the point that Xiu couldn't even summon the reflexive bitterness at the mentioning of his feelings for the Empress.

 

...Even if a part of her still internally screamed at the Longma for approaching the bucking Empress of bucking Long Guo so forthright and casually. 

 

"Pride does prevent one from finding wisdom, that is true." That they could both agree on, and it didn't take an Elder Long to dispense that piece of warning. "But not always from loneliness. Pride prevents one from accepting different ideas, that one's way of thinking may not be the only way...or even the best way." A subtle and somewhat bitter commentary at the Longma's obsessive focus on a mare that he viewed as the only possible future towards his happiness, but it was easily lost in favor of the conversation. "Pride made you feel that you were a... a 'bad decision', that that was the only explanation for your existence...when any pony with half a brain can look at you and see a thousand and one more explanations." Xiu shook her head slightly, turning back to face the basin where she had been scrubbing her hooves this entire time. "A gift, a treasure, a surprise...pride would ignore all those in favor of deciding on one, and only one, explanation. And the poorest one, at that." 

 

She might have sympathized with Fēng's previously horrible opinion of his circumstances, but that didn't mean she was any more convinced at the Watchers equalizing of his burdens with those of Her Imperial Majesty. It wasn't a matter of an Empress' problems being so grand that none other could understand, not in Xiu's humble opinion...but the idea that they could ever be fully equal to another's problems was absurd. No one else was an Empress, no matter how similar a situation they might have been in beforehoof - no one else could comprehend the magnitude of factors bearing down on an Empress that coated her every decision. Fēng might have empathize with Her Imperial Majesties feelings, but that didn't mean his own solution to the problem was the best solution for the Empress in turn. He couldn't know, for he had never been an Emperor, either.

 

Briefly, wildly, Xiu wondered if this was all going over her head. This issue of loneliness...maybe all Fēng wished was for the Empress to have someone to vent to? To talk of her problems with? Whether or not whatever decisions she made agreed with his own, better to have a friend to experience them with? 

 

...Except no, he very obviously had more in mind for the Empress than simple friendship. 

 

'Do you really mean that?' the Qilin wanted to ask...but didn't, coward as she was. For what if he didn't? What if he felt he could only find true happiness in the Empress' embrace, and deep down in his heart, wished only for his company and none others to break the Empress' loneliness? Xiu didn't want to know the answer to that. 

 

"Have you? Have you really?" 

 

...

 

The question came out, unbidden, and Xiu suppressed the urge to stifle her traitorous mouth with one hoof. But it was too late to rescind the question, because she had heard that little sigh, and all but felt it in her bones, and she valiantly trudged onwards as she stared down at the murky water in the basin, still fastidiously cleaning her hooves all the while. "Have you broken the pride that keeps you lonely? If - " the motion was calming, the skin beneath her fur raw and sore " - if the Empress cures her loneliness with another, will your pride prevent you from doing the same? Will it...will it keep you from recognizing that your own loneliness might be cured by someone other than h-her?" 

 

Will you ever be able to find happiness in another?

 

 

 

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Ah, Xiu... of course she wouldn't take Feng's existential doubts with any degree of seriousness.  Well, no, that was an unfair way of putting it; she would never believe that they were in any way valid reflections of reality.  It was comforting, in a way, to see that one's impact on the world was positive enough for others to desire to justify it.  All the more reason, Feng felt, that everypony, including and especially Empress Yu Yue, should have someone around to remind them of that.  It was one of those many essentials that a purely political scheme of matchmaking would overlook, to the whole Empire's detriment.  

 

Needless to say, he hardly shared the healer's reticence in dealing with the Empress' problems as with any other qilin, and even mustering the temerity to suggest that he might have solutions for her.  After all, long sun were so individually complicated that it was always a bit presumptuous to say that any one could truly understand the burdens of any other.  But that was necessary for friendship, just as being willing to play the fool could be a necessary first step towards wisdom.  Or so the Watcher thought, anyway, as he smiled up towards the healer.

 

Her outbursted question, however, caused him to blink, and eventually his gaze fell away, studying a knot in the floorboards.  "Well, Pride's one thing, but..."  He sighed.  "One of the reasons I allowed myself my dreams of affection was that the Empress was the only mare I wasn't technically forbidden to pursue by my own Watcher's oath.  A lawyer's loophole, perhaps, but I could argue that protecting my official charge and my love would in that case be easier, and not harder, if the two were united.  But now..."  Another pause of silence, as he slowly craned his head back up to look Xiu in the eye.  "I have broken rules before, but never my promises."

 

A full confrontation with his new reality could no longer be postponed, it seemed.  He'd always squirreled away any questions about how his future decades would look behind the queue of his past regrets.  But now that those had been confronted, future doubts now took the front of the line for the thoughts that would haunt him if he stayed still too long.

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