Xinxin leaned into my embrace, quietly sniffling as she tried to calm down.
I held her tight and waited. Still, seeing her act like that sent a pang of regret through my heart.
She had grown up. The beautiful young girl from back then had become a true beauty that would draw the envy and attention of anyone around. Even so, when she was with me it was like nothing had changed.
We were basically the same height now and stood eye to eye. Even her powers had grown, enough to where she was the one protecting me while I was wounded. Because of that, I thought she was fine.
The front of my robes became wet. Xinxin was quiet, but it didn't seem like she had stopped crying yet.
Was it because I took her for granted, or because I just didn't want to acknowledge it?
The young girl who put on a harsh act to protect herself.
The girl who grew up while chasing after me despite everything I did to her... who was so relieved at just a few casual words of assurance she broke out in happy tears.
Xinxin, my beloved disciple.
Like with Aria, I couldn't take back what I'd done, but at the least I could make it up going forward.
The bamboo forest rattled, accompanied by a soft breeze. As if time had turned back to that first day.
At the time, I was furious and wanted nothing more than to get back at that Goddess for what she did, but now...
Power was still a necessity.
But it wouldn't be enough to just get back at that Goddess. No, I needed to hurry and recover so that I could protect the two of them.
For Aria, the naive elf princess whose fate seemed to be bound with my own for better or worse... and for my beloved disciple who was too good for a cruel person like myself.
...Ah. And Saphira. But that was a more difficult problem to resolve, so it'd have to wait a bit longer.
Someone cleared their throat from nearby.
I blinked and glanced over to see Xinxin's... secretary, I believed? That guy called Erik.
He glanced at Xinxin and then said, "I have no intention of intruding on this precious moment... but should I leave the two of you alone, Elder Sister?"
Xinxin tensed and then immediately stepped back.
I let her go and then, seeing her expression, did my best to keep a straight face.
My lovely disciple's face had turned a deep red and her eyes were wide and panicked. She pointed at Erik and said, "Y-You! This is an order! N-Never say anything about this to anyone else! Especially those girls of yours, understood?"
After seeing that, I couldn't take it anymore and laughed.
Xinxin turned a deeper shade of red and then spun towards me. She narrowed her eyes and said, "This isn't funny, Sifu!"
"Right, right." I smiled and said, "This is a very serious situation. Heaven forbid people find out the cold beauty behind the Heaven-Seizing Dragon Sect is an ordinary girl."
"Siiifuuu! Stop teasing me!" Xinxin pouted and glared at me.
I took a step back and held up my hands. "Fine, fine."
"Ahem." Erik bowed and said, "Since this situation is settled, I will take my leave." He glanced at me and winked before saying, "Enjoy yourselves, Elder Sister, Elder Brother."
"E-Erik!" Xinxin spun towards the guy and said, "Get back here!"
The Heavenly King ran off, quickly disappearing amidst the bamboo trees.
"Argh! That kid...!" Xinxin huffed and crossed her arms.
"Let him be, Xinxin. Now come on." I grabbed my beloved disciple's right hand and said, "Let's head back. I'm sure Titania and Aria are worried about you."
"S-Sifu...? Um... your hand..."
"Let's go." Without giving her any room for doubt, I gently led her back home.
After all of that, or perhaps because of that, time seemed to pass by in a lazy fashion.
Xinxin apologized to Aria for running off and to Titania for worrying her.
The two elven sisters were still awkward around each other, but Aria's kind and forgiving nature was slowly thawing Titania's frozen and jaded heart.
And I stayed put, focusing on letting my body heal and my powers return.
The Goddess was surprisingly quiet and things were uneventful.
While a cause for concern, the lull was necessary for all of us. A bit of breathing room after all the hectic events.
And like that, a month passed by.
Early morning, with the sun just peeking over the horizon. The faint morning dew dusted the flowers and grass nearby while a gentle breeze added a pleasant atmosphere.
I poured myself a cup of fireblossom tea, setting the pot on the table in front of me, and then peered out at the surroundings.
Rather than Xinxin's home, I was seated at a table in her private pagoda.
Part of it was because I wanted to get some fresh air, and the other part...
A blonde elf swung a long sword through the air. Her clothes, a white robe, shifted as she moved in the courtyard, hugging her body. Sweat covered her body, causing her skin to glisten with the sunlight. After a few slashes, Aria panted, catching her breath and glanced to the side. "L-Like that, Tani?"
I took a sip from my tea and watched Aria struggle to practice swordsmanship.
Titania walked over to her younger sister, shaking her head. Like Aria, she was wearing a white robe and carrying a sword. With a sigh, Titania grabbed Aria's waist, forcefully shifting it.
"Stop squirming. You want to improve, do you not?"
"Then hold still."
Aria flushed and glanced over at the pagoda.
I took a sip from my tea cup and pointedly stared off into space.
Aria flinched. "Y-Yes!"
Titania stepped back and then raised her sword. "Now, remember to keep that stance and then copy me. Slowly. Do not rush like you did previously."
Titania nodded and then began to move, slowly tracing out slashes with her sword. Beside her, Aria did the same. Well, attempted to. It seemed that the younger elf princess wasn't quite as adept in swordsmanship as her older sister.
It was bad enough that I was actually surprised at how patient Titania was being.
Aria's talent was in archery and wind magic. Although she had the potential for dark magic as well, right now those were her primary abilities and traits. As for swordsmanship... well, to call her talent poor would be an understatement.
Still, I couldn't deny her efforts.
Whether it was an excuse to bridge the awkward gap that had formed between Aria and her sister, or not, Aria had gone out of her way to seek Titania out for training and was dutifully doing as her older sister said.
And, while Titania was doing her best to stay aloof, I could see how happy she was at properly interacting with her younger sister from the faint smile on her face.
Despite everything that had occurred, it seemed that those two had managed to regain at least a semblance of happiness again.
Now, I just had to find a way to ensure things stayed that way.
"Enjoying the show, Sifu?" Xinxin walked onto the pagoda. Today she was wearing a soft violet dress with detached sleeves, tied together by white silk. Smiling, she took a seat across from me.
I set my tea cup down and turned towards her. "I would be lying if I didn't find it a bit amusing." I gestured back towards Aria and said, "She... really doesn't have any talent in swordsmanship."
As I said that, Aria tried to copy another technique from Titania. It was a simple maneuver where you took a step back and slashed out with your sword to buy some space.
But somehow, in stepping back, Aria managed to stumble, letting go of her sword and almost impaling herself in the process.
Thankfully, Titania was there to stop it.
It was a lot better than her haphazard flailing at the beginning, but this was already a month's worth of progress...
Xinxin poured herself a cup of tea and then lifted it up with both hands to take a sip. Afterwards, she set it down and shook her head. "Sifu really is a sadist, aren't you? Does seeing beautiful women in distress amuse you that much?"
"I don't go around making a habit of it." I refilled my tea and said, "It just seems to turn out that way more often than not."
Xinxin, Aria, Titania, Saphira... Technically the Goddess if I factored in my intent to take her out.
Putting it that way, I did seem to have a habit of troubling beautiful women...
"Is that so?" Xinxin took another sip from her tea and said, "Then maybe it's Sifu's karma for bullying a beautiful woman too much in your past life."
I rolled my eyes. "As if something like that-"
That's not very funny, ****! If it was anyone else, I'd-
A fragment of a memory. Some half remembered words and a voice almost forgotten.
A pang of regret and sorrow, emotions without the accompanying memories.
That was... Did I forget something important?
"Sifu?" Xinxin set down her tea cup and stared at me, her brow scrunched up in worry. "Is something wrong?"
I shook my head. "It's nothing."
Xinxin frowned and slowly said, "I was joking... but could it be that in your previous life, you truly did-"
"Like I said, it's nothing."
A flash of wrongness.
I frowned and said, "...Even if it isn't, I can't remember now so there's no point in worrying about it."
Xinxin bowed her head. "Sorry, Sifu. I didn't mean to bring up painful memories."
"It's fine." I smiled and said, "Sorry for worrying you."
Xinxin smiled back and then continued drinking her tea.
I leaned back for a while and just watched her.
A picture-perfect scene. Framed beneath the pagoda with the flowers in the distance and the soft morning rays highlighting her face, Xinxin was beautiful beyond words. Gently sipping at her tea with a faint smile and half-lidded eyes, it was a sight that was better than any masterpiece an artist could have dreamed of.
Even though I was used to her by now, at times like these I still found my breath being taken away.
"Hm?" Xinxin tilted her head and looked over to me. "Did you need something, Sifu?"
"I'm just admiring the scenery."
"But there's nothing that impr-" Xinxin cut off and then turned a deep red. "Sifu!"
I smiled and said, "Did I say something wrong?"
"Hmph." Xinxin crossed her arms and said, "You were definitely a bully in your previous life as well. That's the only explanation."
I shrugged. "Who knows?"
Xinxin shook her head and refilled her tea cup.
I watched her for a bit and then a thought came to mind. "Xinxin."
She flinched, causing a bit of the tea to spill over.
I got up to help, but she quickly waved me down.
"It's fine, Sifu." She waved her hand, causing a plain cloth to appear from a ripple in space, and then started cleaning up the mess. As she did, she glanced at me and looked away, focusing on wiping up the spill. "Sorry. I'm just... not quite used to you calling me that."
"...But I've done it before?"
"I-It's just different, alright? Don't ask me why." Xinxin quickly finished cleaning up the mess and sat back down with a fresh cup of tea. "In any case... What did you want to say, Sifu?"
I thought about how to phrase my question and then said, "I know I asked this not long ago... but are you really happy like this?"
A bright smile immediately appeared on Xinxin's face. "Of course I am!"
"...Don't you miss your family though?"
Xinxin froze, the smile slowly fading from her lips. After a moment, she sighed and took a long sip from her tea.
I carefully watched her and said, "Do you regret becoming my disciple?"
Xinxin shook her head. "I don't. Even if I died and was reborn a thousand lives, I would follow you every time. But even so..." She looked down at her cup and slowly swirled her tea. "I do miss them. I mean... I never even got the chance to say goodbye."
An empty room. The lack of warmth. A bright smile that had vanished without a trace.
I winced at the barrage of memories and emotions. Thankfully, Xinxin was too lost in thought to notice.
My beloved disciple let out a deep sigh and said, "I wish that I had said more to everyone before we left. If I had known that was the last time I would see them..." She trailed off, her beautiful face marred by melancholy.
"...If it makes you feel better, your father's last words were for me to protect you."
Xinxin paused and then let out a faint smile. "That sounds just like Daddy." Her eyes started to water. Maybe since she didn't want me to see her cry, she closed her eyes, taking a moment to collect herself.
As she did, I thought back to that time and scowled. If that Goddess hadn't interfered, then Xinxin would still-
"Wait." Xinxin opened her eyes and looked at me. "Sifu... You were there, weren't you?"
I paused and slowly nodded. "I was."
"And you promised that you would explain everything to me when I was strong enough."
I hesitated. "I did, but..."
Xinxin lowered her eyes. "Am I... still not strong enough, Sifu?"
I shook my head. "No. You are. It's just..." I stared at her and said, "Do you really want to know?"
Xinxin nodded. "Tell me. Whatever it is... I promise that I won't be upset."
"Fine. Then... After I left you, I went back to your clan."