It was already afternoon by the time they arrived at Tiannan City. And when they walked into their apartment, Su Chan's cheer was loud. Too loud. Loud but forced. Affected. Contrived. A cheerless cheer which made the heaviness inside Li Yundong's heart grow.
Li Yundong lingered at the doorway and observed Su Chan's behavior. At the moment, she was prancing around the living room, poking at any object within reach. The act would probably fool just about anyone, but not him. How could it fool him when he had already seen firsthand what she looked like when experiencing true joy?
"Yay! How nice to finally be home!" Su Chan dove onto the couch. She hugged a throw pillow to her chest, then rolled around a few times. "How comfortable! Home is the best!"
Li Yundong could no longer ignore the sharp tug in his chest. Facing away from the living room, he took a deep breath to keep his emotions in check. It was pointless to ask why she was doing this; he already knew why she was doing this.
His princess chipmunk didn't want him to worry.
Su Chan was no longer on the couch by the time he was facing the living room again. Frowning, he padded into the living room and glanced around the apartment. He didn't see her in the kitchen. The door of his bedroom was open, so that was probably where she went.
Li Yundong sighed and pulled out his phone from his pocket.
Zi Yuan picked up after the fifth ring. "Hello?"
"It's me," he said.
"Are you feeling better?"
"Still not hundred percent yet."
Li Yundong sighed and lowered himself onto the couch.
"Don't worry," Zi Yuan said. "I'll live."
Easy for you to say, Li Yundong thought, closing his eyes. She wasn't the one who had to wrestle with the guilt of hurting a friend.
"Can we meet?" Li Yundong spoke into the phone.
"Not right now." There was a brief pause. "I'm back at Mount Longhu."
Li Yundong opened his eyes. "Since when?"
"Since this morning," came Zi Yuan's tired reply. "Linggong Sect business."
Li Yundong frowned. "More trouble?"
Zi Yuan sighed. "I don't know." A brief pause. "Maybe?"
Li Yundong stared at his own reflection in the TV screen, letting the silence linger while he searched for something to say. Finally, he went with, "Anything I can do to help?"
Li Yundong sat up straighter. "Name it."
"By laying low and not doing anything."
Li Yundong slumped against the couch and sighed. "I wouldn't call that helping."
Zi Yuan chuckled. "Seriously. You are helping me by not doing anything."
Li Yundong decided to let it go. "Have you heard back from Hongling?"
"Not yet." Zi Yuan sounded a little worried.
"When did she leave?"
"Late last night."
Which means Ruan Hongling had been gone for the whole morning. Shit. What if Ruan Hongling ran into Yan Fang? Would Yan Fang hurt the people from her own sect?
"Can you think of any reason for her delay?"
Zi Yuan let out a humorless chuckle. "Convincing Yan Hua no doubt." There was a pause. "She couldn't just barge into the Yan family home and then demand to see the sword. What if there's someone inside the Yan family home with a loose tongue? The main sect will get suspicious." Seconds passed in silence until Zi Yuan let out a heavy sigh. "Right now, it's Hongling and I against the entire Zhengyi School."
Li Yundong clenched his jaw. He didn't like the way things had played out. These stupid squabbles. All for what? Could there be an underlying reason behind the main sect's hostility against the Linggong Sect? Should he ask?
In the end, he held his tongue. Zi Yuan would ask him if she needed any help.
"Like I said. Let me know if there's anything I can do."
Zi Yuan didn't acknowledge his statement at all. "How's Su Chan?"
"She's…" Li Yundong glanced at his bedroom. The door was still open, so Su Chan was probably still in there, doing God knows what. "She's okay. Physically, at least. She seemed depressed. Down in the dumps. And…" He sighed. "She tried to hide it from me by acting cheerful and all that. But…"
"But you can still tell."
Seconds passed in silence.
"I get it though." Zi Yuan sounded wistful.
"I mean I understand what she's going through." Zi Yuan sighed. "When I lost my master, it felt like my whole world was falling apart. And Hongling was still so young back then. Both her training and upbringing became my responsibility."
And how old were you?
She was just a teenager back then. A teen taking on a parenting role. If that wasn't admirable, he didn't know what was. Li Yundong felt ashamed to even think about what he was doing when he was still a young teen.
"Must have been tough."
"But you made it."
"Thanks, I guess."
"I'll talk to Su Chan." Li Yundong paused. "She blames herself for Wushuang-qiánbèi's capture."
Zi Yuan hummed. "Hopefully she pulls herself together. Because her account of what happened the day Wushuang-qiánbèi was capture could hold the key to finding Yan Fang."
Li Yundong's mind went blank for a second. It sounded so strange to hear Zi Yuan refer to Yan Fang by name without the use of an honorific. Then again, why bother with the honorific? Yan Fang wasn't even her shībó anymore.
"Yeah. About that." Li Yundong paused and shifted the phone to his other ear. "When do you think we can meet?"
They definitely needed to come up with a solid plan. If nothing else, Yan Fang was very good at hiding herself. After all, she had planted herself inside the Fox Zen School for nearly a decade and no one had noticed a single thing.
"I can't say at the moment. The Linggong Sect is still being watched—"
Li Yundong frowned and glanced at the screen to check whether the call was still on.
"I'm getting another call. It's from Hongling."
Li Yundong leaned forward in the couch. "Okay?"
"I'll get back to you later, okay?"
The call ended with a click. The phone floated towards the coffee table and Li Yundong lay down on the couch. He lay there for a few minutes until he heard the familiar creak of his bedroom door.
He sat up on the couch and saw Su Chan tip-toeing towards the couch.
"Chan'er?” He smiled. "What are you doing?"
Su Chan stopped her movements and beamed at him. That smile seemed genuine enough.
"Hehe… Guess what I'm holding in my hands?"
Li Yundong glanced down and noticed that her hands were hidden behind her back. He laughed. "Your Hello Keedee, what else!"
Su Chan's face fell, and she pouted. "Boo." She pulled out the piggy bank from behind her. "You're no fun at all."
Li Yundong laughed and patted the couch. "Come here."
Su Chan skipped all the way towards the couch, hugging the piggy bank to her chest like it was some kind of treasure. Then, she plopped onto the couch and leaned her head against his shoulder.
Hello Keedee rose just an inch.
"Do you think the money in here can help feed the Fox Zen School?"
Li Yundong bit the inside of his cheek to stifle his laugh. He cleared his throat. "Well… It can."
Su Chan pulled away and looked up at him with those piteous, round eyes of hers. "R- Really?"
"Maybe for a few days?"
Su Chan visibly deflated.
Li Yundong reached over and ruffled her hair. "Don't worry about it, okay? I told you I've got a few ideas."
"Oh." Hello Keedee rolled on the couch when Su Chan repositioned herself.
Seconds later, Su Chan's arms were wrapped tightly around his waist.
They sat there in silence, seeking comfort in each other's presence.
"It's gonna be alright, Chan'er," Li Yundong said minutes later. "Your master is strong. She'll survive until we figure out where she is."
Su Chan's arms tightened around him, but she stayed silent.
An insistent buzzing ended their hug. Li Yundong glanced towards the coffee table and saw his phone vibrating against the table top.
The phone floated towards his waiting hands.
It was Zi Yuan.
"Li Yundong…" Something in Zi Yuan's tone made the hair on Li Yundong's neck stand on end.
There was some background noise, like Zi Yuan was working on something.
He sat up straighter and looked towards Su Chan.
Su Chan was looking back at him with a concerned expression.
"What is it?" he spoke into the phone.
The background noise diminished. Had she moved to a quieter place?
"It's Liuhe." There was a pause. "The sword's gone."