Goodbye

Ling inhaled the best he could and coughed out the blood that the action brought into his lungs. “Jin?”

The push he felt against the side of his face wasn’t Jin’s hand, but the side of the dragon’s face. Ling brought his hand up, placing it on the nose.

Was this it? Jin said children of the earth didn’t have anything after death. “Jin… can’t worry ‘bout me. Tell ‘im that? Please?”

He could see the look in the dragon’s eyes, despite how dark everything was. The shine, as the marks which made the pupils swirled counterclockwise. Shèn.

Ling couldn’t blink. “Shèn? ’s your name?”

The swirling slowed down. Ling tried to keep his hand there, but it fell off Shèn’s face.

“Thanks, Shèn. For everythin’. Keep th’ others… ‘kay?”

Until you return, Ling.

By the time Jin could make it to where the dragon stood guard, Ling was gone.

The last fight

He saw the danger in the distance. There was no time to get the others, to help them that way. Ling knew the only thing he could do was head straight into it himself.

“Out of the way, boy!” Jin’s assassin snarled.

Ling grit his teeth and jumped on him. He might have been a child, but roughhousing had always been his specialty. The assassin was expecting a child’s strength, not Ling’s. He bit the man on the arm, putting as much pressure through his jaw to get through the sleeve, to break the skin. He tasted blood – both his victim’s and his own as he lost a tooth in the ensuing struggle. He used a leg to block the assassin’s other arm from trying to rip him off.

He started swinging, knowing that Shui would have a few corrections to make about his form, but Ling didn’t want to think about it right now. Reaching out, he grabbed the assassin’s head and started to twist.

At some point he let go. Probably because he couldn’t hear the commotion where the others had been. Because the assassin had crawled away and Ling was fine with that. As long as he couldn’t hurt anyone else.

His chest hurt. Ling pulled the handle away from his chest, but it didn’t make it better. In fact, there was even more blood then before.

Falling to the earth, Ling watched a shadow descend upon him, as the dragon arrived.

Teaching a child

“You don’t walk under ladders.”

Jin scolding Ling was nothing new. “Why not? There’s space.”

“Because something will drop on your head and you’ll die.”

“Now, now.” As per usual, Kun stepped into the conversation a little too late. “Ling, people are usually on ladders.”

Ling watched him and waited. “…yeah?”

“What happens if you jostle a ladder while someone is on it?”

Ling put the scenario through his head. “They… fall off?”

“And on you,” Jin ended. “If you’re lucky, because otherwise I’m not stepping in for you when someone complains about what you’re doing.”

“It’s like why you don’t put your hand in the fireplace,” Kun added. “Safety measures.”

Ling nodded, then glared at Jin. “I’m gonna ask Kun things from now on. He makes sense.”

Jin rolled his eyes. “Finally. I’ll have more time in my day.”

Acceptance

The first time it happened, Jin almost kicked him off. He lit a candle beforehand though, enough to wake himself up and consider the situation.

“You’re not a dog,” he said to Ling. “Go back to bed.”

However, despite the fact Ling had just gotten there, the boy was asleep at the foot of Jin’s bed without any preamble. Jin considered shoving him off. He considered picking him up and moving him back to his own bed, then decided both took more effort than he wanted to bother with.

With a sigh, Jin extinguished the candle and went back to sleep.

The next day, they would thank the dragon for it.

“It appears that my shoes are missing.”

Shui rubbed his eyes. “Not just you, buddy. Mine aren’t here either. What the hell.” He was too tired for the absurdity to hit him yet.

Kun searched their room for any pairs of their shoes, still quiet as to not wake up Jin. Ling was nowhere to be seen.

“I bet it was the kid.”

“My, aren’t you quick to accuse,” Kun teased.

Shui rolled his eyes, rising to his feet. “Well he’s not here.”

Jin grumbled. Both of them quietened. Shui gestured that he would check for Ling. Kun nodded. Shui left his friend alone with the non-early bird and tracked down Ling. It didn’t take long to find him, he was outside with the dragon.

“Where are our shoes?” he asked Ling without any preamble. Ling glared back at him, then pointed at the dragon. “Why did you give the dragon our shoes?”

“I didn’t!” Ling scowled. “I woke up and they were gone!”

“Then why are you blaming the dragon?”

“Because I saw it eat them!”

Shui and Ling stared at each other for a few moments. Then they both looked at the dragon. Shui sighed. “You’re serious.”

Ling nodded.

“I’ll get Kun.”

To eat alive

The earth surrounded Kun, as though it were going to swallow him up. Even his great eyesight couldn’t help him when there was no light at all. Only Ling likely would be able to see. Or at least smell his way through. If he was even awake. Kun couldn’t make any assumptions.

Placing his hand against the wall of the tunnel, Kun felt his way forward. He could still hear the keening sound of the dragon from the far back entrance into these caverns. Not enough space down here for a dragon. As much as Kun would’ve felt safer with one beside him. At the same time, the surface had to be much safer right now. Better that only four of them were in danger, not five.

Or three. Kun didn’t feel like he was in much danger now. He hoped to keep it that way.

He moved forward slowly, halting occasionally and listening. There were times he could hear the shifting, the arachnids deeper in the earth. None of the sounds were Shui or Ling. They would be much more obvious.

Jin, less so.

A wave of pain rolled through his body, starting at his temple and running down his spine. Kun gripped at the earth even tighter, feeling the soil under his nails and between his fingers. No, he was not in danger.

If he found the other three though, they might be.

Kun turned in the direction of the sounds. His eyes sharpened. Even in this lightless underground, now he could see. The pain sharpened everything.

His curse, then.

He would finish off the spiders.

A tale of souls

It was said that children of the earth had no souls. They were only made of the containers which housed them. A different race of beings that could be molded into any of the other more solid creatures of the world. For most, it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between the children of the earth and those they appeared to be.

“Why’s that?” Ling asked.

Jin shook his head. “Because they look the same. Weren’t you listening?”

“Then…” Ling rolled over on his bed and looked over at him. Jin didn’t look up from his book, but from his peripheral vision he could see the boy’s curiosity. His hair, messy from another botched haircut. His fatigue, from the work Jin had had him do today.

And, as Jin was one of the few mortals who could, he saw Ling’s absence of soul.

“What’s the point?” Ling finally stopped pondering to ask his question. “The only difference is not having a soul?”

“Some people would exclude those without everlasting souls as being real.”

Ling frowned. “Why?”

“They don’t ascend to Heaven. There is nothing after for them. They simply return to the earth.”

“Is there anything wrong with that?”

Ling tried to play that off, but Jin could hear the uncertainty in his wavering tone. Jin considered Ling’s death, his complete end. It disturbed him. “The sky encompasses all. The earth doesn’t take the soul. That’s all.”

Sitting up, Ling pulled his legs to his chest. His own concerns seemed to vanish as he thought. Jin didn’t know whether to envy him or not. “Would you sing an aubade for an earth child? When you finally get the cloth?”

“What would be the point?” Jin sighed, closing his point. “I suppose. If they asked me to in life. There isn’t much of a point for the song for those who’ve ascended either.” Ling smiled at him. “Now. Go to sleep already.”

There was no point in telling Ling what he was, if he didn’t already know. If he hadn’t caught on through this. Jin opened his book once again.

He was grateful to be older than Ling. Hopefully Jin wouldn’t have to worry about Ling’s afterlife if he died first.

Shared medicine

“I hate winter,” the both of them complained at once.

Shui was almost overly startled by the echo of his sentiment. He glared over at Ling. Was he mocking him? But no, the kid looked as genuinely surprised as he was. “What?” Ling asked, as defensively as Shui had felt. “Is it ‘cause the girls have to wear actual clothes?”

Shui rubbed the back of his head. “What do you have to hate winter about? I thought you’d love to play in the snow.”

“The snow’s cold.”

Such a statement of the obvious. Shui rolled his eyes. “Duh.”

For a while, everything stayed quiet between them. When Ling spoke, it was much quieter than he had spoken before. “It’s cold. Everything’s cold. I don’t like the cold.”

“You chose the wrong person to hang out with,” Shui said, in reference to Jin. “But just stay inside. That’s easy enough.”

“Well yeah,” Ling muttered under his breath, not looking at him.

It was then that Shui considered how little he knew about Ling, before Jin had started taking care of him. There was a reason that Jin was taking care of him, after all. It’s not as if most religious student whatevers took care of any orphans. It was hard to think of Ling as an orphan. He didn’t act like Shui had when he’d been left all alone.

Some winters there was no “inside”.

“Well, you know the one good thing about it?” Shui clapped a hand down on Ling’s shoulder.

“What?”

“Best time for mapo doufu. Let’s go.”

Just like that, Ling brightened up. He followed Shui outside with no hesitation. And while Shui knew he could solve most of Ling’s problems with winter without it meaning the same thing for him… As Ling started chatting up a storm, the winter seemed a bit louder.

The whispers went away.

The day before

If there was one thing Jin had never considered himself to be, it was normal. However, he spent less and less time as he left his youth behind considering other people’s opinions to be as valid, he became normal and every other person became odd. His beliefs didn’t line up with everyone else’s, despite what he trained to become.

Jin hated Shui, but found him completely normal. Maybe it was the shared irreverent attitude, that Shui could express and Jin found ways to excuse or change. Probably why he still saw the man despite not liking him much. Shui had always seemed normal, not strange like everyone else. Probably Heaven’s way of spiting him for not being like the other students of the cloth.

Ling was not odd. As obnoxious as he was, as childish as he was, as much as everyone else around Jin would comment on the child’s oddity. Jin could not see it. Somehow Ling had fit in his life as naturally as something that Jin had actually chosen. Maybe it was because Ling seemed to think the odd things were odd and the normal things were normal. What Jin thought was odd, what Jin thought was normal. Not that either odd or normal mattered much to Ling, as long as he got what he wanted. The typically selfish child. Jin felt more accomplished in taking care of him. Probably why he did it, despite everything else.

Jin couldn’t place a finger on Kun. He should have been odd, to Jin. The man came with a dragon, for gods’ sakes. Despite sharing similar interests, the two of them were not similar at all. Kun told him once, in his usual manner of complete politeness, that if there was a heaven he wasn’t very interested in it. Those were his words, but Jin saw underneath them, to where Kun meant “and it could burn forever for all I care”. Kun was usually better at hiding his true intentions, so he must have wanted Jin to understand.

“But I admire your dedication to the faith. Your belief. It means something to you.”

Not what it meant to everyone else, but that was correct. Kun poured him more tea as they watched Shui try, once again, to teach Ling how to catch a fish from the pond. Neither were very good at it.

“Won’t your masters be upset with that?” Kun asked, referring to Shui and Kun’s actions.

“Probably.”

“Ah.”

Normalcy had struck Jin as odd, but here they were. The last day, before all of this would disappear for him, forever.

Jin would miss normal.

Two degrees of separation

“Put that back please.”

Ling did as Kun asked, because he’d asked nicely. “Can we get this?” he asked after, pointing at it.

Kun shook his head. “I’m sorry. We’re on a limited budget this time. Be patient, Ling, we’ll have dinner when we meet back up with the others.”

Ling nodded, contrite, and followed after Kun. Then a thought occurred to him. “Then we’re buying just… food?”

“And the other necessary travel supplies.”

“Beer?”

Kun stopped and looked at Ling. Ling could have sworn a very pleased looked was there, but looking closer Kun looked as he always did, simply content. “I don’t think I consider that necessary travel supplies.”

Jin and Shui were going to be livid. Kun was the only one who could get away with this. Ling smiled. “Yeah!”

More for food.