a/n: again, for the version with proper formatting, read on ao3. but in any case, thanks for reading, and reviews/thoughts always appreciated!
I can't go back now.
Such are Blue River's thoughts as she flees through the silent streets of the city, away from the location of the operation. She lingered in the area just long enough to see the policemen leading away the captured and restrained criminals, including Huang Shaotian and Bullet Rain.
It all went wrong so quickly, and of course her little warning served next to no purpose at all. And she just left them, to fend for themselves.
This is what Huang Shaotian had told her to do, and he and Bullet Rain are capable individuals who have quickly and successfully escaped from the police before. They might even manage it in less than a day. The rational part of her knows this.
But at the same time, her stomach twists with guilt and self-loathing. Some part of her always thought that the core members of Blue Rain were untouchable gods, but the one time she comes along on a mission it becomes a disaster… if only she kept better watch, if only she could fight, if only she could make a positive difference for once in her goddamn pathetic life…
Finally, her steps slow to a halt, and she leans back against the wall of the narrow alleyway, breathing heavily, the night air cooling the sweat on her skin. With the adrenaline rush finally wearing off, she slides down to sit on the ground.
She can't go back to Blue Rain like this, having failed so completely and utterly. It was a miracle they ever accepted her in the first place, and it would be a miracle if they still accepted her after this. But where can she go from here?
She wants nothing more than to collapse right now – it's out of sight and safe enough here, and she can be awake and gone before anyone knows. The morning would be a better time for her to plan…
But then a realization jolts her. Tomorrow afternoon – the funeral procession – that's when the Glory Alliance is planning to start their rebellion, their fight for a better world.
It has nothing to do with her, there's no reason for her to join this, she thinks. It's not her fight.
But – Lu Hanwen, Little Lu. He cares. He will be there at the front lines. Blue River knows this, because she's tried to talk him out of it, to no avail.
Her hand curls into a fist. She has to protect him. It doesn't matter if Blue Rain breaks ties with her, she thinks, Little Lu is Little Lu, and she refuses to see him hurt. She will keep him out of trouble, like she's always done. And then… and then she'll figure things out from there.
Just for now, she thinks as she closes her eyes, she's on her own.
The next day, the day of the funeral. By the afternoon, a thick layer of clouds has coalesced and dampened the light of the sun, fitting the somber atmosphere.
One moment, Chairman Feng's funeral procession is progressing solemnly through the streets of the city, a throng of people following along like the tail of a comet.
What happens next happens too quickly for anyone to accurately recount later. There are suddenly too many armed guardsmen everywhere, and then jostling, shouts, gunshots –
The rage of a wronged people crashes down like a breaking wave, and it sweeps through the city unchecked. They rise, they tumble, they fly, they resist. In less than an hour, insurgents have stormed the guardposts and erected barricades in the streets of the city. People are called to arms; the war begins.
Tang Rou and some of the core members of the Alliance gather and build the largest barricade at a location that Luo Ji deems optimal; smaller barricades block off other neighboring streets to form a defensible position. The Alliance members rush to gather the supplies they had prepared for this day, and keep the whole operation organized. A number of ordinary citizens assemble to help them, stacking the building materials, bringing an assortment of weapons and other useful supplies for them, evacuating the bystanders from the surrounding buildings, preparing to join the fight themselves. This is an encouraging sign, for this is what the Alliance hopes for, to spark a general uprising from all the people of the city with this act of defiance.
By the time the guardsmen arrive at the main barricade, they're faced with an unexpectedly formidable sight. They demand surrender; the insurgents refuse. Wary of directly attacking, the soldiers station themselves at the other end of the street and wait, for now.
Lu Hanwen, for his part, feels alive.
He flits around the barricades, helping with anything and everything he can. His animated presence keeps everyone in motion as they prepare. He has a knife in his belt and pockets filled with cartridges and a rifle slung across his back, and – despite the protests of the older Alliance members – he's ready and eager to fight.
When he arrives back at the main barricade after helping stabilize one of the smaller ones, he sees Tang Rou and some of the others in discussion with an older man. "I've been spying on the guardsmen," the man is saying, "and from what they're saying, they don't plan to launch a full attack until nightfall, when-"
Oh hell no. Lu Hanwen is all too familiar with this intimidating man, and he's no ally here to help them. "Don't trust a word he says!" he shouts, dashing over.
The others stare in silence, automatically parting for him as he slows and then stands confidently before the old man. The man towers over him, but his brow is creased in fear and anger. Lu Hanwen stares right back up with a defiant smirk.
"I heard what went down last night," he says conversationally. "Huang Shao was pissed and wouldn't shut up about it, but I bet he was even worse with you guys. Probably talked all your ears off, no wonder they escaped so quickly. Then again, maybe you're just incompetent.
"Anyway, whatever you're trying to do here, if you're trying to spy on us, it's not going to work. Did you really think none of us here would recognize you, Inspector Han Wenqing, hm?"
With that, recognition ripples through the students. Most of them haven't seen this man in person before, but they've certainly heard his name as one of the chief policemen of the city. They reach for their weapons.
"Little rain brat," the man growls.
"And proud," says Lu Hanwen. "Don't mess with my family, got it?" He bares his teeth, and though he's still so small, there's a frightening ferocity to it.
In short order, they have the spy securely tied to a post. Han Wenqing doesn't resist. He's surrounded, and knows there's no way out of this. But he won't do anything stupid, nor will he beg for mercy, because he's not that kind of person. He will go down with his honor and values intact.
The others cheer for Lu Hanwen, Gao Yingjie claps him on the back, even Sun Xiang expresses a short word of approval. To all of this, Lu Hanwen grins in response. But this encounter reminds him of another worrisome thing, because when Huang Shaotian and Zheng Xuan made it back to Blue Rain that morning, Blue River wasn't with them. And they, in turn, grew worried, as they had expected her to have returned long earlier.
What happened to Blue River? Lu Hanwen would have gone to look, but the revolution was upon them, and he had to be here. He can only hope that she's safe now, and that she will stay safe during this chaos.
But then –
"They caught him!" Luo Ji's frantic gasp echoes in the air as he bursts in. "Steamed Bun, he told me to run, he, he, they didn't shoot him down but he – they got him –"
Steamed Bun was supposed to just scout the area and report back any findings. He had his gun and his bricks, he should have been fine. But…
"Where is he now?" Tang Rou asks urgently, rushing to the edge of the barricade along with the others, the spy forgotten for now. "At the end of this street?" Luo Ji nods and points, and they crowd forward, and listen carefully.
A few heartbeats pass, and they suddenly hear Steamed Bun's distinctive, cheerful voice cutting through from the end of the street –
"Hey, bro, that's a really big gun, huh? What's your star sign?"
Oh, Steamed Bun. Something about his carefree spirit makes even this frightening situation just a little bit better, and more than a few of them crack smiles of fond exasperation and relief.
Qiao Yifan stands close to Tang Rou. "They have our friend, we have their agent. Are you set on the death of that spy?" he murmurs.
She understands immediately. "Less so than on the life of Steamed Bun."
"Then listen," he says, "I'll go out, offer an exchange, our man for theirs…"
He cuts off. They're all listening carefully, and so they all hear the sounds of a scuffle breaking out down the street. And then, very clearly, one shot ringing through the air.
Steamed Bun's voice goes silent for good.
"They killed him," Luo Ji breathes, burying his face in his hands. "Oh god, they just killed him, he's dead, he's dead…"
Tang Rou says nothing for a long moment. Then, she glances back at Han Wenqing and says to him, coolly, simply:
"Your friends have just shot you."
A few days prior, Ye Xiu recalls hearing some vague whispers on the wind that told of trouble to come at the chairman's funeral. Nothing concrete, but he knows to avoid the area just in case. Better safe than sorry, especially in their current circumstances.
When he finally wakes that morning, it's rather late – the sun is already high, and Su Mucheng has already left the house. He's not entirely surprised he slept for so long, given the harrowing events of the previous night. It's not unusual for Su Mucheng to be out at this hour, but he knows she'll return soon enough, and he can advise her then to stay away from the funeral in case of trouble.
But the hours drag on with no sign of Su Mucheng, and Ye Xiu begins to get a sense of foreboding. His gut instinct has a tendency of being right, more often than not, and something tells him that Su Mucheng got herself wrapped up in whatever's happening.
It's a terrifying thought. He stands abruptly from his chair, scribbles a note, pulls on a coat, and leaves his home.
This area of the city is still relatively calm, but now that he's outside, he thinks he can hear the faint sounds of commotion in the distance. Shouts. Gunfire.
When he reaches the street, a figure rushes right past him toward the source of the commotion, almost crashing into him in their hurry. "Sorry," they gasp out, briefly pausing to look back, and Ye Xiu sees that it's a girl with short dark hair, likely a street urchin.
"What's going on?" Ye Xiu asks her, because she looks like someone who knows.
"Revolution," she says shortly. "I don't know the exact streets, but I'm about to find out. Sir, you should stay here, you'll be safe." Without another word, she turns and continues sprinting away down the streets, and is out of sight again in an instant.
Ye Xiu can't help but feel impressed at her incredible speed – it definitely wouldn't have come without a lot of practice. But ultimately, he can't take the girl's advice. Because, if he's right and Su Mucheng is there, if the worst should happen…
He's still somewhat tired from last night, and he's too old to run as fast as that street urchin. But he follows in her tracks as rapidly as he can, mind already spinning with plans.
If Blue River had the mind to spare, she might have connected the dots and realized the rather significant identity of the man she almost knocked over. After all, she's always been good with locations and directions, and Su Mucheng had given her the address of where she and Lord Grim lived. But at this moment, Blue River's mind is preoccupied with far more pressing matters.
She'd never paid too much attention during the Alliance planning meetings, but she knows that they hadn't been certain where the barricades would go up, there had only been a list of likely locations. Once she gets close enough, though, she'll have a better idea of the situation, and she can check each of the barricades for Little Lu.
When she arrives at the nearest of the barricades, it's to a scene of utter chaos. The soldiers have launched their attack upon this barricade in earnest, and the insurgents are valiantly fighting back.
Her eyes dart around the battle zone, assessing the scene in an instant. She just needs to find that familiar face…
She doesn't find Lu Hanwen, but she does find someone else, and a gun turning toward his exposed chest. The sight registers in her mind before she even has a chance to consciously process it, and she's sprinting forward.
"Yo Mo Fan," Tang Hao grins, "you used to pickpocket right? If any of us die, make sure to get our stuff so the soldier bastards don't, got it?"
It's an incredibly morbid thing to say, but it earns laughter from the others regardless. The planned revolution is still several days away, still a nebulous thing in their imaginations about which they can joke.
An Wenyi, however, adopts a serious look on his face. "That's actually a good point, though. We don't have infinite supplies and it's logical to recover what we can. If Mo Fan's fine with it, it would make sense for him to be in charge of that…"
Mo Fan looks at the two of them, and then at Tang Rou, who's listening to the conversation from the side and watching him.
He nods. He's never been very good at direct fighting, but this is something he can do.
"Ready," Tang Hao mutters from beside him. "Here they come…"
This smaller barricade is led by Mo Fan, Tang Hao, and An Wenyi; their forces are filled out by other Alliance members and those that joined for the fight today. While An Wenyi stays back and helps the wounded as they come, he and Tang Hao are the ones fighting at the front when the soldiers finally storm their barricade.
"The new world succeeds the old!" Tang Hao hollers as the enemies rush them – he's truly a natural fighter. Mo Fan can never hope to match him, but he does alright holding his own and disabling his opponents with the rifle in his hand. But in his gut, he knows it's only a matter of time before he goes down – their offensive comes slightly sooner than anticipated, and the Alliance doesn't have as many people on their side here as they had hoped…
Mo Fan fires a shot, reloads, twists around, and there's a barrel of a musket pointing right at him, no time –
Mo Fan hears the shot, but feels no pain.
The soldier stumbles backwards, and another shot from someone else takes him down. But Mo Fan hardly notices, because there's a new body collapsed to the ground before him. He kneels down, seeing ragged clothes already turning crimson from the bullet that had found the wrong target.
Worse, he knows this face. He reaches for her hand and stares in quiet horror at the girl who has just taken a bullet for him.
"Dumbass," Blue River says to him, and then more quietly, "…did I make a difference… but Little Lu – I couldn't…"
She never finishes the thought. Her empty eyes reflect the gray of the clouds above.
Meanwhile, the main barricade suffers a simultaneous attack.
"We need more ammo!" calls Gao Yingjie. Instead of a gun, he's relying on tossing vials of makeshift explosives to keep the opponents at bay, but he can see the dwindling supplies of ammunition as the others fire.
At first, no one realizes who the speaker is. But a second later, they see a silhouette darting out of the barricade and into the exposed street, a makeshift basket in one hand. By the time they realize who it is, it's too late for them to shout for him to come back, and they can only watch with their hearts in their throats.
Lu Hanwen knows no fear. He is, in fact, boldly humming a little song as he dances through the battle zone, disappearing and reappearing among the clouds of smoke and dust, some instinct or higher power guiding him to avoid the flying bullets. Even as he scurries from one fallen guardsmen to the next, raiding their bodies for cartridges, his attitude is as though he's simply on a cheerful stroll on a warm summer's day.
"Whatever the difficulties, I'll never cry; whatever the dangers, I'll never panic," he sings. It's a familiar children's song, almost comically out of place on this brutal battlefield. "Even if I'm chased by a pack of wolves, I'll still just treat it like a game…"
And then a bullet finds its mark.
They can only watch in horror as his too-small form crumples to the ground. Another shot hits him, then a third for good measure, and Lu Hanwen moves no more.
Above, the gray skies finally spill over, gently. Nothing more than a little fall of blue rain.
The announcement comes as a tremendous relief to the insurgents – after an endless amount of fighting, they finally manage to drive back the guardsmen. Still, they haven't gotten off lightly, and no one feels much like celebrating as they regroup.
"Stay on guard," Tang Rou reminds everyone as she walks amidst the bustle of activity, taking stock of the situation, the resources they have left. "They'll be back for another assault, sooner or later."
She senses Qiao Yifan fall into step beside her, and she asks him in a quieter voice, "How are the other barricades?"
"They're alright, they withstood their attacks," says Qiao Yifan. "But given our current situation, we might be better off moving everyone to this one."
Tang Rou nods. "I'll leave that to you, then." She pauses and looks up at the sky. "Night's falling… They may try to attack under cover of darkness, while they think we're sleeping. Do what you can to keep everyone awake and alert." And keep their spirits up, she thinks, despite their losses.
So many moving parts, so many things to keep in mind. If this were anyone else, they would almost certainly collapse from the dizzying pressure of it all. But Tang Rou simply doesn't feel the exhaustion – her single-minded determination and sheer willpower keep herself, and everyone around her, moving forward.
She spots someone she's looking for, and comes over. "Sir," she says. "Lord Grim, it was?"
The man pauses in fixing a weapon and turns to her. "Yes?"
Tang Rou still doesn't really know what to think of this man. Anyone who didn't live under a rock had heard the name Lord Grim before at one point or another, but this is the first time she's ever seen him in the flesh. At some point in the fighting, this man had managed to slip over to their side of the barricade, without the enemy noticing, and he started fighting alongside them.
Suspicions of underhanded trickery were quickly dispelled when they saw this man battling against the soldiers. Despite his appearance of age, and despite his primary reputation as a harmless philanthropist, he had the power and ferocity to turn the tide of battle. Even Tang Rou herself wasn't sure if she could best him.
"I would like to thank you, sir," she says, "for your skill and courage today. You saved my life in the fighting earlier, and your contributions have helped us greatly with our cause."
"No thanks are necessary," the man answers. "Although, I would like to make a request."
Lord Grim looks over to the side, where the prisoner is still bound. His hand hangs down and he ignores everything around him. "That man… He tried to spy on you, correct?"
"Yes. Inspector Han Wenqing." And they'd only found out because of… But she shakes the thought aside. Focus. Keep moving.
"Let me take care of him," says Lord Grim.
An unusual request, but one within her power to grant. Perhaps he has a personal vendetta against him, but it's none of her business, nor does she particularly care what happens to this enemy of the people. "Very well," says Tang Rou. "He's yours to deal with. Do what you have to do."
Lord Grim checks the pistol he's fixing, then, nodding in satisfaction, he goes over to the prisoner and unties him from the post to which he's bound, but leaves the other ropes around his body to restrict his movements. The prisoner can only awkwardly hobble forward as Lord Grim leads him away to a side alley neighboring the barricade.
They're deep in the alleyway before Han Wenqing speaks. "I knew it was you. Lord Grim. Escaped convict 10137."
Ye Qiu says nothing.
"Go on, then. Kill me now. Take your revenge at last."
Ye Qiu's face is unreadable. He switches the pistol to his non-dominant hand and withdraws a knife from his side.
Han Wenqing sneers at that. "Slit my throat, then. It fits your dirty, sneaking ways."
"I never took you for much of a talker," mutters Ye Qiu, testing the sharpness of the blade. "Isn't it my job to be this annoying? You can't just switch our roles like this. Turn around."
"Our roles have already been reversed with this entire situation," spits Han Wenqing. "The convict leading the policeman to execution. Does it feel good to finally have me at your mercy?"
Ye Qiu meets his eyes, and Han Wenqing can finally place his expression, but it's not one he was expecting. Ye Qiu actually looks… mildly offended at that. "What kind of person do you think I am?" he says.
"Once a criminal, always a criminal."
"What's right and what's lawful isn't always the same thing-"
"That's exactly the justification of a criminal. I've seen your true nature, and that's what you'll always be."
Ye Qiu looks at him sadly. "You're wrong," he says, "and always have been wrong. People can change."
Before Han Wenqing can react, the other man is suddenly standing behind him. He's about to flinch away – he will stare death in the face, thank you very much – but a hand catches his wrist.
Ye Qiu cuts the cords on his wrists, then the ones on his feet, and then straightens and tells Han Wenqing, "There, you're free."
Han Wenqing is not easily astonished, but now he stands there with shock written all over his normally stoic face. "You-" He flexes his wrists, tries again. "You- why? Do you expect to use this as a bargaining chip? A life debt? This changes nothing between us."
"Of course not. I wasn't expecting it to."
"If you let me go here, I will continue to pursue you until your arrest." Han Wenqing's angry scowl is back.
Ye Qiu smiles humorlessly. "That's assuming I make it out of here alive. But if I do, now you know where to find me, under the name Lord Grim. I'm done running."
He lifts the pistol and fires into the air.
"Go," Ye Qiu says. Han Wenqing looks at him, and runs.
A few moments later, Ye Xiu returns to the barricade with the still-smoking gun and tells Tang Rou, "It's done."
He means what he says to Han Wenqing. At the barricade, watching these young insurgents fighting for their lives and dreams, he realizes that he has only ever been running on borrowed time.
But he now grows old, and tired; he knows all too well that he cannot keep playing this game forever. He has done his duty in raising Su Mucheng and helping the lives of those around him. Now, it is time for the chase to draw to a close.
When Mo Fan retreats to the main barricade with his fellow fighters, he sees a group of Alliance members clustered around someone. He's about to ignore it and continue on, as is his tendency with things that have nothing to do with him, but a voice calls out to him, stopping him in his tracks.
He looks back, and sees none other than Su Mucheng breaking free of the crowd and rushing toward him for a hug. "Thank god," she whispers into his shoulder, "you're still with us…"
He returns the hug without thinking, but his mind is racing. What is Su Mucheng doing here? Why isn't she home safe? She's not a full member of the Alliance, she had never made any indication of coming today…
"I came to help," she says, answering his unspoken question. "You're all my friends, I can't just stand by…"
"You…" Mo Fan wants nothing more than for her to leave this dangerous place. The greatest help she could offer was the knowledge that she, if no one else, would survive. But he doesn't say this, because he doesn't know if that argument would be enough to convince her.
He says, instead, "Tang Rou wants you to go and help the Happy café boss. She's hosting a lot of people that are worried and scared right now, and you're the best person for helping with that." Only Su Mucheng, and only this desperate situation, could draw this many words from him at once.
Mo Fan doesn't know what comes over him in that moment, but she's right there, her face so close to his own, and he leans down and presses his lips to hers.
Su Mucheng pulls him closer, tilting into the kiss, seeking more. When they break apart, she slides her hands down over his and holds them tightly. "Stay alive," she whispers. "Please, Mo Fan, come home from this." And then she's gone.
"Did the leader really give her that order?" A man has come up to him, a stranger. Mo Fan glances at him, then away, and doesn't answer.
"You said that to take her away from the barricade." It's not a question.
Mo Fan is still silent. If the stranger's guess is correct, then what is there to say?
It's not like he's never seen death before, but it was always somewhat removed from him. Yet now when he closes his eyes, all he sees is the vibrant light fading from a girl's eyes, her life bleeding out between his fingers, and those desperate, despairing last words upon his ears…
Blue River never should have been here, this was never her fight. She had only appeared to look after Lu Hanwen, because of her love for her family, and he –
Mo Fan hadn't seen it happen, but he saw the body, later, and the crimson bloom over the young boy's heart.
He feels guilt over deceiving Su Mucheng, but if the other option is seeing her sightless eyes, her blood staining the pavement… he would choose deception any day.
"Is she your lover?"
The man chuckles at his embarrassment, and Mo Fan wonders why he's even humoring the presence of this stranger. Had this been any other time, he would have completely brushed him off and walked away.
But… he has perhaps less than a day to live, here at this barricade. The imminent threat of death can change even the most steadfast of personalities.
The man continues to look at him, wearing a faint smirk as he waits patiently for a response. Mo Fan is suddenly strongly reminded of the girl he has just sent away – she does the same thing, albeit less smugly, when encouraging him to speak more.
"Anyone who stays here may die," he mutters. "I can't let that happen to her."
"Then why don't you leave here as well?" The man sounds genuinely curious.
"Because this is our fight." The full reasoning behind his arrival at the Alliance and his subsequent decision to stay could never be explained in a succinct manner, or perhaps any manner at all, not even to himself. Still, this statement, for Mo Fan, is the crux of the matter, and all that he feels like sharing with this man here.
The man hums noncommittally. "I see. Thank you, by the way."
For what, Mo Fan wonders as the man walks away, but he doesn't ask. Mo Fan doesn't make a habit of poking about other people's business, and so he leaves him, and walks over to join some of the others in the Alliance.
"Come, drink with us," Gao Yingjie calls to him, an arm casually looped around Qiao Yifan's shoulders. "There's enough for all of us to have some." There's a tavern neighboring the barricade, which explains where they acquired the drinks.
"But not too much," Qiao Yifan adds. "We still need to keep our wits."
Most of the others who've attended regular meetings are here, too. Mo Fan takes his place in the rough circle, and is handed a drink.
"Here's a toast to us," someone says. "All of us. Even… even those who are no longer here." The voice trails into quiet. The signs of their losses are evident in the gaps in their circle. Luo Ji shrinks into himself, seeming even smaller than normal. Gao Yingjie's still smiling gently, but there's a fear and exhaustion in his eyes that wasn't there before.
"Let the wine of friendship never run dry," someone else speaks up, lifting a bottle around to all of them.
"Raise a glass to freedom."
"To the future."
Even Sun Xiang has joined, which is vaguely unexpected. But he is drunk more often than not, so perhaps it shouldn't be all that surprising. "Here's to our deaths making a difference," he says. "Here's to a world that doesn't forget us as soon as we're gone."
That was the fear, wasn't it? That they would make the ultimate sacrifice for nothing? After those words, they fall quiet, each lost in their own thoughts, and drink.
Tang Rou declined to join them when asked. But she comes by at one point in the night, and speaks to a few of them.
"Mo Fan," she says to him quietly, placing a hand on his shoulder, "I know you ended up here by accident, and that you like to keep to yourself. But thank you for being here. And remember, no matter what, you're one of us."
He hesitates, then nods, a stiff jerk of his head. Tang Rou gives him a faint smile, and continues on.
When he looks up, he finds Sun Xiang staring at him, a strange expression on his face. The blond quickly turns to look in another direction, aggressively lifting another bottle to his mouth, and Mo Fan can't help but wonder why he's so worked up now, when he has never seemed to care about any of this in the first place.
The night passes by agonizingly slowly. Yet it's still all too soon when the sky begins to lighten, pink and orange streaking the clouds.
No attack came in the night, and all is quiet now. But for the insurgents, this is not a good sign, either.
"The city sleeps…" Qiao Yifan murmurs. No one has come to join their fight for freedom. And without the uprising of the general people, they at the barricade, alone, stand not a chance against the army.
The Alliance, scared, expectant, turns to their leader. Tang Rou meets each of their eyes, and takes a breath.
"Beyond the barricade," she says, "there lies a better world. This is the truth, this is what we believe in, this is a dream shared among all of us. We are here because we dare to build the future together, and nothing they do will ever take that away.
"Today, we may fall. But we will not fade away quietly. We will make them hear us, let our shouts echo across the skies. There will be those who listen. And they will rise to take our place, and they will continue our fight, until the earth is free.
"My brothers and sisters, those who die here, die in the radiance of glory. We are entering a tomb all flooded with the dawn."
Morning comes, and with it, the army's attack.
The insurgents fight valiantly, perhaps even more fiercely than they did the day before, but it's a losing battle, and they all know it. Ye Xiu sees them fall, one by one, and every young fighter he cannot save is another weight upon his soul.
Eventually, Tang Rou and the small handful of her fellows who are still standing are driven back into the tavern neighboring the barricade. But before that happens, Ye Xiu breaks away from them, and, miraculously, gets a reprieve from the fighting as the soldiers concentrate their power on the building.
Some ways off, there's a grating at the edge of the street, and Ye Xiu recognizes it as one that leads to the underground sewer system of the city. A disgusting, terrible labyrinth, but it will enable him to escape the soldiers' encirclement of the streets around this barricade.
He dashes toward it, but then he sees a familiar body on the ground, and he stops, and kneels before it.
Mo Fan was shot when trying to recover supplies from their allies and enemies, which explains why his body is all the way out here, a distance away from where much of the fighting is now taking place. He's bleeding profusely. But his chest still rises and falls – he is still alive.
Su Mucheng truly loves him. Ye Xiu knows that, she hasn't kept this a secret. And although Ye Xiu only spoke to him briefly the previous night, he can tell he's not a bad kid. He'd managed to get her to safety, when even Ye Xiu might not have been able to convince her.
If the boy dies here, the effect it would have on her…
It's selfish, perhaps, but Ye Xiu still vividly remembers delivering tragic news to a young girl all those years ago, how she'd tried to maintain the appearance of strength, despite her world falling apart. Su Mucheng is no stranger to loss, but she should never have to bear that burden again.
And he had made a promise to Su Muqiu, to take care of her. He can't break this promise now.
These thoughts rush through his mind in an instant, and he makes a decision. Ye Xiu pulls open the sewer grating, lifts the boy onto his back, and descends into the darkness. He will save Mo Fan, no matter what it takes.
Sun Xiang opens his eyes.
The absence of sound does what the fighting and shouting and gunshots could not – it rouses him from his stupor.
He pushes himself to a sitting position on the ground – it seems he had passed out on the floor of the tavern after drinking last night. No one immediately rushes toward him. He stretches his arms, rubs his eyes, yawns, blinks, and understands.
Tang Rou stands at the other end of the room, her back to the window, illuminated from behind by the morning sunlight filtering in. She's still gripping a spear, holding it up against the squadron of soldiers that has her cornered with guns pointed. She stares down death, proud and fierce as ever.
"Then shoot me," she says. "But you cannot kill me, nor any of us. For we are what you can never hope to kill, no matter how hard you try.
"We are the future."
Sun Xiang has no weapons on him, no way to change the situation before him. He was ignored while he was passed-out drunk on the ground, likely because everyone thought he was already dead, and now, the soldiers are all facing away from him. He could go back to sleep now, and survive this day, and no one would be the wiser. As he'd said over and over again, this was a hopeless, stupid endeavor from the start. He has no obligation to help with a suicide mission.
Why is Sun Xiang even here, alongside people dying for a cause in which he doesn't believe? Every member of the Alliance had wondered this about him, at one point or another. The reason, as it turns out, is simple. Pathetic. But the truth is the truth, and Sun Xiang was never in the business of self-deception.
The moth is drawn toward the flame, regardless of the heat or danger. In the end, Sun Xiang's actions – leaving Samsara, throwing his lot in with this crowd – were all for one person only.
Before he knows it, he's on his feet and pushing his way through the soldiers. They startle at his appearance, immediately turning their guns on him as well. Yet none of them stop him as he walks to stand by Tang Rou, his stride unusually steady.
This, he thinks, is it. The cynic in him wants to scoff, and say that this tragic end to their little game was inevitable. But he walks forward in silence, and faces the guards with his chin held high.
Tang Rou's gaze jumps to him, surprise written all over her expression. "Sun Xiang…?"
"Long live the future!" he declares to the soldiers, watching their eyes narrow, their fingers tightening on the triggers. "I am one of them. Today we lose, but tomorrow, that may not be the case."
And then Sun Xiang turns to his sun, and hesitantly, extends his hand. "Do… you permit it?"
Realization, acceptance. Forgiveness, perhaps. Tang Rou grasps his forearm with a smile, and the gunshots ring out.
Shortly after, the rebellion ends. No survivors remain at the barricades.
The sun has already set by the time Ye Xiu stumbles out of the sewer system, dirty and trembling and exhausted and wondering if he already died at some point earlier several hours ago, and this was just his punishment for whatever he's done during his lifetime to deserve it.
Then he sees the dark figure waiting for him at the exit, and he decides that he's still alive, because not even a divine being would be this cruel to him, probably.
"Give up," says Inspector Han Wenqing. "You have nowhere to run anymore, 10137."
Interestingly, it looks like he's shaking as he clutches that baton of his. Or maybe it's Ye Xiu himself that's shaking. At this point, he can't tell the difference.
"That's fine," Ye Xiu says dully, because he knows what he said to him earlier, "but this is incredibly bad timing. We need a doctor." Mo Fan is still draped across his back, and Ye Xiu can still feel him breathing, but it's growing ever fainter.
"That's not my problem."
"It should be! Aren't you supposed to protect the people of the country? Isn't that your job? And not chasing some random petty criminal through decades?"
"I serve justice. This boy is from the barricades, no? A traitor to the country-"
"Inspector Han, this boy is going to die." Ye Xiu is the type to hide his emotions behind jovial smiles, especially when dealing with this officer in particular, but now he lets slip into his voice some of that fear and desperation that's swallowing him whole. He's seen too many corpses today. Too many young corpses.
And… perhaps Han Wenqing has as well. He was, after all, at the barricades.
There's a long pause. They stand in the darkness, Ye Xiu breathing heavily, dripping sweat and sewer water, feeling the weight of the boy upon his back, hoping that there's still time left.
And then, almost too quietly to hear, "Very well."
"What was that?" Ye Xiu isn't sure he heard clearly. Or maybe he is, and some part of him just wants to see the inspector grit his teeth and say it again.
"I said, very well. Half an hour. Use my carriage if you want. Then I'm bringing you in."
In less dire times, Ye Xiu might have broken into a wide grin at that. As it is, his mouth twitches as he carefully lifts Mo Fan into the carriage, then climbs in himself. Han Wenqing enters as well, and Ye Xiu gives the driver directions.
They travel in a tense silence, but not for long. "By the way," Ye Xiu says, suddenly, "Ye Qiu was never my real name. It's Ye Xiu." He's not sure why he says it. Perhaps it's his way of dealing with all that's happened this past day. Escaping to the past, to simpler times, as absurd as that thought sounds – since when has his life ever been simple? Or maybe he just wants to break the awkward atmosphere of the carriage ride. But regardless, out of him spills his backstory, the full story which he has told no one, not even Su Mucheng.
The story of his younger twin, and how he took his place in prison. How he escaped. How his meeting with the man in the inn permanently changed him for good. And Su Muqiu's story, a boy forced into desperate circumstances, and the younger sister he left behind.
When he finishes, Han Wenqing says nothing. The flickering lights from the lampposts outside cast sharp shadows across his face as he sits there, indistinguishable from a stone gargoyle.
They arrive. "Hold on, Old Han, I'll be fast," Ye Xiu says.
"I await your return," is the stiff reply.
Ye Xiu smiles lightly. He carefully lifts the injured Mo Fan out of the carriage and carries him into the building. This is the home of a doctor he knows and trusts, a skilled doctor who, despite his eccentricities, will help any patient that needs it. It's late at night, almost the time the doctor normally goes to bed, so he's in a rather foul mood when he comes to the door. But he sees the injured boy, and he sighs, adjusts his glasses, and gets to work.
"Zhang Jiale," the doctor calls, as he's gathering the materials he needs, and a man with long hair in a ponytail pokes his head around the corner.
"Yeah Xinjie, what's – oh hey, isn't that-?" His gaze falls upon the injured boy.
"Yes. I remember seeing him when we were treating Sun Zheping's hand. Go fetch him, would you?"
"Man, what bad luck for that family," this Zhang Jiale mutters, but he's already halfway out the door. "Sheesh, Big Sun, I sure hope you're doing better…"
Ye Xiu doesn't plan to stay for long, as he promised, just long enough to ensure that Mo Fan will be in good hands for the time being. But when he looks outside, the carriage – and the inspector – are gone.
I await your return.
Ye Xiu has a very good idea of Han Wenqing's character, after having been chased all these years. And he knows that Han Wenqing does not simply go back on agreements.
Inspector Han Wenqing instructs the carriage to take him to the river that slices through the city. His legs carry him along the riverside path, and then onto one of the bridges that spans it.
He stands at the edge of the bridge and stares into the roiling darkness far below.
I'll be back soon – SMC
Su Mucheng scribbles this hasty message on the back of the note that Ye Xiu had left for her when he had left for the barricade.
The waiting is unbearable. She came home after the rebellion fully ended, only to find the house empty save for Ye Xiu's short note. He… he had gone to the barricade. Because of her…
She can't stay here any longer, stewing in her guilt and fearful imaginings, and so she leaves the house. There's no particular destination in mind, so she wanders, to try and find some clue to what happened to the two people she currently worries for the most. Walking around helps. It's more proactive than empty waiting, at least, and it helps settle her mind just a little.
Night has fallen, and so she tries to stick to the lighted paths. The streets are empty, which isn't terribly surprising considering the turmoil of these past two days. Her path takes her to one of the bridges that span the city river.
Unexpectedly, there's a figure standing on the bridge, the first person she's seen out tonight. Perhaps she can talk to them, ask them if they know anything. She hurries her footsteps, but as she watches, the figure climbs over the railing of the bridge, and faces the rushing water below.
Before she knows it, she's shouting.
It takes barely any effort at all for Han Wenqing to cross the railing, so that he stands on the wrong side. Far below his feet, the dark river rushes along its journey.
He closes his eyes, and –
"Sir!" The shout pierces the night air. For Han Wenqing, it might as well be a cannon shot.
He turns and sees a young woman sprinting toward him, eyes wide. But she stops several paces away. She's saying something to him, something warm, something calming, but he can't hear it over the roaring of the river and the pounding of his own heart.
He can't do it. Not with a spectator, at least.
Han Wenqing pulls himself back from the edge, back over the railing, and with all the tattered pieces of professionalism he can muster, he turns to the girl. "Come, it's not safe now," he says gruffly, as though she hasn't just seen him at his most vulnerable. "I'll walk you home."
When Ye Xiu arrives back at his home to find Su Mucheng gone, nothing can stop the raw panic and fear that swells within him. Where did she go – she must have come back at some point earlier, she left a note, but where is she now, why did she leave, what happened to her – she wouldn't have –
Despite his utter exhaustion, he's almost about to go back out and look for her himself when he suddenly hears the front door unlocking. "Mucheng!"
She gives him a relieved smile, and he's about to sweep her into a hug, when he sees the dark figure looming behind her, and his heart stutters.
In an instant, he's pushed Su Mucheng behind him, his eyes blazing. "It's me you want, Inspector Han! Leave her out of this, don't you dare-"
"It's fine," Su Mucheng rushes to reassure him. "I was wandering around the city, and because it was so late the inspector offered to walk me home." She hesitates, slipping her hand to Ye Xiu's wrist and squeezing it tightly, hoping he understands the meaning behind her next half-whispered words. "I… I found him at the bridge."
"…I see." Ye Xiu's voice is stone. He looks at Han Wenqing, who only glares back.
"Mucheng," continues Ye Xiu, not taking his eyes off of the inspector, "your friend is at Doctor Zhang's, if you want to see him right now." Zhang Xinjie would be annoyed at the interruption, probably, but Ye Xiu trusts Su Mucheng's charisma.
For her part, Su Mucheng is curious to watch this interaction play out, but respects Ye Xiu's implied request. More importantly, she's been beside herself with worry this entire day. Mo Fan, against all odds, alive… She nods quickly and departs, leaving the two men to their tense standoff.
"Well," says Ye Xiu, with a lightheartedness he doesn't quite feel, "are you just going to stand and block my doorway, or do you want to come inside and talk this out like normal people?"
It's surreal, inviting the inspector into his home for a chat, with nothing more hidden between them. But, well, here they are.
"What more do you want from me." Han Wenqing's voice is flat. He remains standing in the room, and so Ye Xiu does as well.
Ye Xiu can think of many possible answers to that question. On one hand, he's inclined not to question his good fortune if the inspector really did somehow miraculously decide to just let him off for everything. But on the other hand, such behavior contradicts Han Wenqing's earlier resolution, and is simply so radically uncharacteristic of him that Ye Xiu can't help but feel curious, and somewhat concerned.
He cuts to the chase. "Why were you at the bridge?"
"What business is it of yours," says Han Wenqing, "if I wish to die?"
A direct and forceful reply, like all other things Han Wenqing does in his life, and to some extent Ye Xiu expected this, given what Su Mucheng had – and hadn't – said. But voicing it aloud makes it that much more real, and Ye Xiu can't help but flinch at the harsh words.
"Why?" Ye Xiu asks. "Because I saved your life at the barricade? Was my being a decent person just too contradictory for your narrow worldview?" His tone is still half-jokingly exaggerated, because he's dealing with this revelation the only way he knows how. He knew Han Wenqing was stubborn and set in his ways, but to this extent…
Han Wenqing works his jaw, as though physically chewing on the words he's about to spit out. "You are an escaped convict," he finally says, "a lying, despicable piece of trash, and you have plagued my life through the years with your existence. I in turn have tried to make your life as difficult as possible to bring you to justice.
"At the barricade I was captured, and by all means, the vengeance for which you hungered was yours, all it would take was a flick of your knife! I didn't need your pity or your mockery, I would have rather you killed me, but you did not. What kind of demon are you, to let me go free? What kind of god?
"And then we met again, and you told me about your life, that you didn't even commit the original crime for which you were imprisoned. The law, the system in which I have believed was wrong. And then I let you go, and I do not know why, because you still committed crimes that you must be held responsible for, and I cannot yield at the end of a chase – but I cannot live in the debt of a criminal, either!"
"So you couldn't accept the fact that you were wrong?" snaps Ye Xiu. "That I'm not the shitty person you thought I was? So you thought the only solution was to drown yourself in the river?" Ye Xiu can't help but raise his voice, outrage lacing every syllable. "What kind of idiotic thinking is that?"
"Can't you understand?" Han Wenqing snarls, but it's more desperation than fury. "You break the law, yet you are not in the wrong! My entire life – everything that I have believed, and upheld, and worked for, striven for – I discover that it's mistaken, that- that something else determines rightness and morality! That therefore my life up to this point has been meaningless! Where do I turn now? There is no way to go on-!"
"But there's more than one way to start over."
Han Wenqing freezes. Ye Xiu takes a step closer.
"The world isn't black and white, the law isn't everything. Things aren't what you thought they were, but so what? People can change, Old Han," Ye Xiu whispers. "And that includes you."
At that, Han Wenqing takes a deep, shuddering breath, eyes squeezed shut. When he stumbles forward, Ye Xiu catches him, and holds him close.
Death. The air is thick with its scent, its suffocating presence.
Chang Xian would rather be anywhere but here.
But he's a reporter, and so he has to tell what happened. No matter how horrifying it is to stand here, and look around, and see the blood and the corpses laid out on the ground, faces of people he'd talked to, laughed with, spent days or years alongside, people that he knows – that he knew –
He tastes the bile rising in his throat, but he forces the bitterness back down, swipes at the moisture in his eyes, averts his gaze from the ground where the bodies have been laid next to each other. He looks instead at the others around him now, here to bear witness to the aftermath of this battle. Curious busybodies, or personal relations to the fallen. The sound of a wail pierces the air for a moment, then all goes still again.
Among the wanderers, one in particular catches his eye. He's not sure why, as this man has his back to him. Maybe it's the way he's dressed particularly well, unusual and incongruous attire amidst the carnage. Maybe it's his poise, or his posture, or how he's been standing there for the longest time entirely motionless, like a statue. Chang Xian drifts over to stand by the man's side, and he can't help but look down, and see the two bodies lying there, side by side. Two boys, both younger than himself.
Chang Xian knew both of them, relatively well, in fact. He had been to Café Happy a few times in the past and had spoken to the people there, asked about their goals and motivations, for what they were fighting. And these two had been particularly kind and open with their answers, so much so that he had become friendly with them outside of his reporting as well. They both possessed that same sort of unassuming but fierce passion, and it had inspired him, a shy rookie reporter who still knew nothing about the world or the lofty ideals of freedom and justice and glory.
And now, he is here, and they are gone.
Their hands, he notices, are intertwined. Whoever moved their bodies had preserved this arrangement.
"Sir…" Chang Xian finally opens his mouth to address the man beside him. "I deeply apologize for interrupting your mourning. I'm a news reporter, and I know these two were among the leaders of this rebellion… Did you know them? Do you have any words to share?"
The man turns to face him. On another day, Chang Xian might have jumped at the sight of the missing eye and the extensive scarring that mars the left side of an otherwise handsome face. But after all he's seen so far today, the young reporter just numbly waits for a reply.
"I do not mind," the man replies. "Yes, I knew these two. Too well, and yet… not at all, it seems. Not enough. And it seems now that I can never make it up to them…"
He trails off. Chang Xian doesn't think it would be appropriate to ask further, and so he lets the silence stretch between them once again. Some ways off, Chang Xian sees a young man helping another with a crippled leg and a black cane to navigate the streets and the bodies. Another duo kneels before a body, one of them making despairingly rapid hand gestures at unseeing eyes framed by blond hair.
"You said you were a reporter?"
Chang Xian blinks, pulled back to the present. "Yes?"
The man is now following his gaze, looking out at the people before them, the living among the dead. "Look at us," he murmurs, "leading such opposing lives, yet brought together by such a tragedy. Something like this makes all our daily struggles seem rather meaningless, doesn't it?
"How many lives were affected by these deaths?" he continues. "Yet, how many know or understand why this even happened? How many will remember the causes for which these children laid down their lives?
"I suppose these are the words I have to share. Remember these youths, what they loved and why they fought. Tell their story, and perhaps we can understand, and continue their fight for a better world." The man nods at him politely, and turns to leave.
Chang Xian is caught off guard by such a reply, but he still has the presence of mind to call out after him. "Wait, sir! Could – could I get your name? Who are you?"
The man, already several steps away, pauses. "Just a poor magician," he says, finally. "Wishing for a miracle that can never be fulfilled."
Time passes, as it always does. Mo Fan finds himself back in that room on the third floor of Café Happy.
It's still empty, for now. The café boss hasn't repurposed it for anything, and so everything is still as he remembers. The space left at the front for members to give reports, the tables arranged to facilitate conversations, the chairs scattered haphazardly around the room.
Empty chairs at empty tables.
Mo Fan is the type of person to keep to himself, to forget names and faces of those with whom he doesn't interact much. But as he stands here in this room, looking around, he suddenly sees the Alliance members as clear as day, gathered for just another ordinary meeting.
An Wenyi, Song Qiying, Gai Caijie in calm and quiet conversation. The Shu twins and Dai Yanqi chatting and giggling over a novel; Zhao Yuzhe tries to approach the girls, then backs away slowly and goes to talk to Qin Muyun instead. Steamed Bun declares something loud and dumb, and Luo Ji rolls his eyes and punches him in the shoulder. Tang Hao cackles and nudges the surly Sun Xiang, trying to coax a smile from him. Gao Yingjie smiles patiently and Guo Shao listens in awe as Lu Hanwen recounts the exciting things he's gotten up to as of late. "Don't listen, he's exaggerating," Blue River informs Mo Fan, sliding into a seat next to him.
And then Tang Rou sweeps in, shining as brilliantly as ever, the reliable and diligent Qiao Yifan at her shoulder, bringing visions of a world reborn. And then…
And then nothing. Mo Fan slams his fist on the table, squeezes his eyes shut. When he opens them again, the phantoms are gone.
His friends… no more.
When he comes back downstairs, Su Mucheng is waiting for him. He buries his face in her shoulder, and he cries and cries.
Time passes, as it always does. Death is ruthless and merciless, as is life, as is love.
But we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall, but our journey goes on.
Do we continue after tragedy? Of course we do. Because, after all, we are human. What do you think?
(And one day, the newspaper City P Home will find itself with this headline splashed across the front page:
"The Alliance has not fallen. Glory will never fade.")
On an ordinary sunny afternoon, as Su Mucheng teaches Mo Fan a new card game in the living room of the house and Ye Xiu tries not to make fun of him too much for how bad he is – the silent kid has a terrible poker face, as it turns out – there's a strong knock at the door.
"Yo, Old Han, you're back?" Ye Xiu calls, casually leaning back in his chair to regard the doorway upside down.
The inspector looks at his ridiculous posture and is unimpressed. "I found Ye Qiu," he announces without preamble.
"You- what?" Ye Xiu's face twists in confusion. "Didn't we already establish that I'm not…" And then his voice dies in his throat, when the person behind Han Wenqing steps into the house.
Because this person, his face – it's not entirely Ye Xiu's own, no, the years have changed the both of them, in different ways, and it has been decades since their separation – but still. He would recognize him anywhere.
"…Hi," says Ye Qiu, with a tentative little wave.
Whatever he might have said next is smothered as Ye Xiu, in a rare display of emotion, throws himself at him.
"You came home, you wayward little brother!" Ye Xiu can't hold back the silly grin that stretches across his face, even as he wraps his twin in his arms and says these teasing words.
"What do you mean, I came home?" Ye Qiu protests. "Who was the one that left in the first place?"
"Who was the one who caused that mess?"
"I-" Ye Qiu's face is stricken, and he's about to drop to his knees, but Ye Xiu stops him.
"It's okay," says Ye Xiu. "It's okay. We're here, everything worked out in the end, no?" He ruffles his twin's hair, and Ye Qiu scowls at him just like he used to, but there's no real irritation behind it.
"I… went back and looked for you, you know," Ye Xiu admits, finally dropping some of the silly act. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again, and… and I'm glad to be wrong. For once," he adds cheekily.
Ye Qiu sighs, but he's finally smiling. "I'm happy you're doing well," he says. "What have you gotten yourself into all these years, you stupid older brother?"
What a question, Ye Xiu thinks. His gaze falls upon the shelf in the living room, where stand the three golden goblets, and beneath them, the Thousand Chance Umbrella. Wu Xuefeng, Su Muqiu, two people who had changed his life for the better, for good.
I was fortunate to meet you, the most remarkable you.
"I didn't 'get myself' into anything," snorts Ye Xiu. "But…"
He looks at the people gathered around him now, who have fallen into his life through the years, and he thinks, this is home. These people here, and this love. Twenty-five years after it was stolen away from him, he has found home again.
Ye Xiu finds himself smiling, blinking away the tears that have gathered.
This is home. And for him, it's enough.