"Surprise, surprise!" Li Yundong said, finding a great deal of amusement in Chan'er's gobsmacked expression, in particular, the adorable O-shape of her mouth. His heart still ached from witnessing Chan'er's meltdown earlier, so it was refreshing to see an emotion other than sorrow and guilt on her face. He had noticed, ever since their reunion under the bridge, that Chan'er had lost some her carefree and cheery disposition. They weren't gone, just buried under layers of guilt and apprehension. And he also knew that until they could successfully rescue Wushuang-qiánbèi from Yan Fang's clutches, those parts of Chan'er would remain buried.
"Princess?" Li Yundong prompted when Chan'er didn't react for about a minute or so.
"A- Are you serious?" Chan'er's round eyes settled on his face. "Y- You're not just pulling my leg are you, beloved?"
"I'm serious, Chan'er," Li Yundong spoke with sobriety. He wouldn't joke about this, not when an old man had all but entrusted his entire legacy to him, had beseeched him with his dying eyes to take care of a school that he himself was no longer capable of protecting.
"But… But how?" Chan'er's face scrunched up in confusion. "How did that even happen?"
Beats the hell out of me too, princess…
"Grandmaster Liu Ye was already dying when I arrived," Li Yundong explained. "My job was to hold off the Great Six's army while Cao Yi"—Chan'er's eyes darted to his face at the mention of her shībó's name—"tried to save the grandmaster's life." Li Yundong sighed, remembering the tough battle. There were multiples times when he really thought he was screwed. The lull ended when Li Yundong shook his head and picked up where he had left off. "The grandmaster didn't make it. Before he died, I begged him to tell me where you were." He met Chan'er's eyes briefly and found that she was listening to him with rapt attention. "Zi Yuan said he has the power to find you." He exhaled slowly through his nose. "In the end, he agreed to tell me where you are. But in return, I have to fulfill his dying request."
Understanding shone in Chan'er's eyes. "By becoming the new head of the Fox Zen School."
Li Yundong nodded. Grandmaster Liu's declaration had come out of nowhere, but the other fox spirits were quick to acknowledge him as the new leader, no doubt out of necessity.
"The grandmaster… he… well…" Li Yundong cleared his throat and shot Chan'er a wary glance. "He told me you'd be happy if I take over the Fox Zen School."
Chan'er was still staring at him in awe, seemingly unaware of his insecurities.
"Are you?" Li Yundong prompted when Chan'er didn't react for quite a while.
Chan'er's eyes cleared a little. "Hmm?"
"Are you okay with this? With me leading the Fox Zen School, I mean." Truth be told, he thought Ao Wushuang was better suited to lead the school. Powerful. Strong. Knew a lot of spells. And most importantly, she was a fox spirit, someone who actually knew about the ways of fox spirits.
Maybe he should resign and give the position to Wushuang-qiánbèi after they got her back. He was the head, right? He had to power to name the next head of the Fox Zen School. He could take a page out of Grandmaster Liu's book and do that same thing the old man did.
Soft arms wrapped around his neck, and Li Yundong resisted the urge to bury his face in that familiar warmth.
"Are you kidding?" Chan'er squealed lightly. "Of course I'm okay with it! More than okay, actually! I'm happy!"
Li Yundong looped his arms around Chan'er's waist and sighed in relief. "I'm glad to hear that."
Chan'er ended the hug and stared down at him with a puzzled expression, the sight of which eased the tight knot inside Li Yundong's chest. He was glad to see that some of Chan'er's inquisitiveness had returned. He missed Chan'er's silly questions and her seemingly boundless capacity for curiosity. He missed her carefree attitude and her capacity to find joy in pretty much everything. He missed her funny terminologies for daily objects. He wondered if she still called TVs talking boxes, if she missed her favorite soap shows.
"Does that mean I have to call you Li zhǎngmén from now on?" Chan'er's nose wrinkled adorably.
A laugh tore past Li Yundong's lips. "Of course not." Chan'er squealed when he suddenly pinched her backside. "Just call me like usual."
Chan'er's eyes went round, and they stared at each other for a few seconds until Chan'er frowned. Li Yundong felt a sudden urge to smooth out the creases on her brows.
"But that's so disrespectful," Chan'er argued. "You're the head of a sect now."
"Exactly. I'm the head of your sect. Which means you have to listen to my orders." Li Yundong smirked. "And let this be my first order to you. Don't use any strange honorifics when you're addressing me."
Chan'er gaped at him.
Li Yundong chuckled. "How about it? That's a direct order from the Head of the Fox Zen School." Li Yundong raised a brow challengingly. "Will you obey it?"
Chan'er's cheeks puffed out as a huge pout formed on her lips. "Fine," she mumbled.
Chan'er sputtered when her cheeks deflated after he poked them with his finger. "Good girl."
Chan'er slid forward in his lap, which she had been straddling for the past ten minutes, much to his delight (or agony, depending on how you look at it).
"So the late Grandmaster Liu told you to look for me at the bridge?" Chan'er mumbled against his chest.
Li Yundong reached up to stroke her hair. "Not exactly."
Li Yundong chuckled wryly. "If only his instructions were that specific."
Neither of them spoke while Li Yundong's chuckles petered out. Li Yundong let out a weary sigh. "I actually made a mess of things while I was looking for you."
Chan'er tensed up.
For a moment, Li Yundong was unable to speak, remembering how hopeless he felt when was facing those invincible arhats.
Their gazes met again.
"I thought you were dead, Chan'er."
Chan'er's mouth curved into that adorable O-shape again. He would've kissed it right off her pretty lips if he wasn't still so shaken by the thought of Chan'er being the one lying half-dead inside that pagoda.
Li Yundong lowered his head until his chin touched his clavicle. "It was a misunderstanding." He shook his head a few times. "But at that moment, you have no idea how scared I was."
His head was lifted again by the soft touch of Chan'er's fingers on his jawline.
"But I'm fine, Yundong! See!" Chan'er beamed. "Hehehe…"
Chan'er's attempt at reassurance drew a chuckle out of him, but his laugh fell flat as soon as it left his lips. "Grandmaster Liu Ye told me I'd find you near some pond in Mount Qili. I took a cab here as soon as I arrived in Dongwu City, but the place is huge. I tried calling your phone, but you didn't pick up. So I ended up looking all over the place for you. At one point I thought you were captured by a bunch of lamas so I barged into a temple to rescue you."
"Temple?" Chan'er's eyes went round. "Oh, you mean Xiyuan Temple."
Li Yundong nodded. "Yes."
Chan'er looked adorably confused. "What gave you the idea that I was captured?"
Li Yundong thought she sounded a little offended at the idea, but he decided not to comment on it.
"I was…" Li Yundong sighed. "I was looking for you at a place with all these food establishments."
"Ooh! The famous noodle shop?" Chan'er piped in.
At least the mention of food could get Chan'er excited now. She didn't seem excited at all during supper.
Li Yundong nodded. "Yeah." He chuckled. "I thought I'd be able to find you there." He gave her a sly glance, then pinched her butt. "Coz you're always hungry."
"I thought you'd be out for supper or something." Li Yundong rubbed the side of her arms a few times, then let his hands drop. "Anyway. I entered the noodle shop and overheard a bunch of lamas talking about burning a"—He did air quotes—"demon witch alive. I listened to them for a while until they began to describe the physical appearance of this girl that they had captured." Li Yundong stared deep into Chan'er's eyes. "The description matched yours."
Li Yundong nodded. "I knew there was a chance that they weren't talking about you at all, but I didn't want to risk it." He sighed. "So I decided to check it out. I followed the lamas to Xiyuan Temple. And then at the temple, I learned that they were actually conducting a ritual to exterminate two animal spirits."
Li Yundong held Chan'er's gaze for a second or two. His princess seemed rather taken aback as well.
"So you can imagine how scared I was." Li Yundong paused to look at Chan'er. "I mean, an animal spirit with physical descriptions that fit yours to a tee? What are the chances, right?" He sighed. "I tried to get more information out of the lamas, but they told me they had no idea what kind of animal spirit they were dealing with. I even tried to show your photo to a lama, but the guy wouldn't even look at it. The whole thing didn't sit right with me." He shook his head. "I couldn't let it go. I wanted to confirm for myself that you weren't there, so I crashed the ritual." Li Yundong gave Chan'er a wry smile. "There was a fight."
Li Yundong waved his hand a few times. "There were these arhats flying around."
Chan'er gasped. "A- Arhats?"
Li Yundong nodded. "Those things were goddamned tough. And they were indestructible."
"Oh my God, Yundong!" Chan'er gaped at him. "That's the infamous Great Arhat Formation!"
Li Yundong chuckled. "So I've been told."
"And you got past it!" Chan'er's voice sounded high-pitched. He wasn't sure if it was due to fear or excitement.
"Barely." Li Yundong smiled wryly. "Well, obviously neither of those animal spirits were you. The ritual must have already taken effect by the time I barged into the place. Coz those two transformed into a pair of giant snakes and escaped."
"Golden snakes," Chan'er whispered to herself.
"Yeah." He sighed. "I made a mess."
"I'm sorry," Chan'er said after a moment.
Li Yundong patted her head gently. "It's not your fault."
"How did you know I was under that bridge?"
Li Yundong smiled. "The head lama of Xiyuan Temple gave me a riddle when we parted ways."
"A riddle?" Chan'er looked so puzzled right now that she might as well have been told a riddle herself.
Li Yundong's smile widened into a grin. "He told me to go back where I came from."
The look puzzlement remained on Chan'er's face.
Li Yundong laughed. "Still vague, I know." He stopped laughing and held Chan'er's gaze. "Anyway. I retraced my steps and found you under the bridge."
"Mm." Chan'er smiled. "I missed you, beloved."
Li Yundong pulled her forward until her face was buried in his chest. "I'm so glad I found you, Chan'er," he whispered into her hair. "So glad."
They stayed like that for a while until Chan'er pulled back.
"So. What's the plan now, Li"—Chan'er poked at his cheek repeatedly—"zhǎngmén?"
Li Yundong narrowed his eyes at her.
Chan'er kept poking his cheek. "Li zhǎngmén… Li zhǎngmén," she said in a singsong voice.
"Why you little…"
Li Yundong tickled her sides.
"Kya!!! Hahaha…" Chan'er's voice turned into a series of wheezes. "Stop! Stop! Please! Please!"
Li Yundong kept tickling her. "What did I say about disobeying my orders, hmm?" he growled into her ear playfully.
"Alright! Alright! Beloved! Beloved! Beloved!"
Li Yundong took mercy on her and stopped tickling her.
Then, he waited until Chan'er's giggles had subsided before he began speaking again. "We need to find Yan Fang." Li Yundong glanced at Chan'er, who was drying her tears with her sleeves.
"We'll regroup with Zi Yuan and the others in Tiannan City." He paused in thought. "After that we'll come up with a plan together to look for Yan Fang."
Chan'er raised her palm in a salute. "Yes! Li zhang…" She gave him a sly look.
Li Yundong wiggled his hands playfully.
"Beloved! Beloved!" Chan'er grinned. "Hehehe…"
Li Yundong chuckled and kissed her forehead. "It's going to okay, Chan'er. It's going to be okay."