He felt a bit overwhelmed at the sudden nursery, but the children were all cute and well behaved. It was… acceptable.
Still, both cultivators decided in an instant that they would not ask Xiao Zai anything yet. It was clear she was barely holding herself together, her eyes still red from probably crying again recently.
A child wasn’t like an adult. If they pressured her into talking, this fragile little human might just break. They needed her more stable and ideally talk by herself.
But it was clear that right now, even talking at all was still an issue.
“This here is Su Liang. You can think of him as your little brother. He’s very young right now, but he will grow up to be able to take on a humanoid form and able to talk. You can play with him, if you like.”
Su Liang’s ears twitched, his attention on Xie Yi. He looked like someone learning a new language - going through everything word by word and trying to figure out the meaning of what was said. Xie Yi scratched him behind his ears and Su Liang whistled.
“You three come along. You can play around my house and I’ll make you some snacks”, Shi Yue suggested.
Like a little tail, all three trailed behind the adults. Xiao Zai had her hand wrapped around an edge of Xie Yi’s robe and Qiang Ren followed her closely, his gaze alternating between forward to her and backward to Su Liang, who was likewise biting his playmate’s robes and walking in line.
A rare smile appeared on Xue Hua’s face at the sight. He settled himself on his usual tree, eyes turned to the ground to make sure that the children were alright. Qiang Ren mostly watched at the side, uncertain how to play, while Xiao Zai soon was dragged into all kinds of playful behaviour by Su Liang.
Shi Yue stood at the side for a moment before looking at Xue Hua, who waved them away. Only then did the couple start walking to the room where the sect leader was lying.
Master Chen was not surprised to see them. “Come closer. You can see his eyes move.”
Xie Yi curiously came closer, leaning over the old man. His skin colour looked better and his forehead creased once in a while in a twitch. His eyes were visibly moving under the lids and his arm sometimes shook slightly.
“Thank you for watching over him”, Shi Yue whispered, his face looking relieved. His heart felt lighter, knowing that his master was better.
Xie Yi saw the look on his face and went over to lean against him. Master Chen raised an eyebrow but did not ask - nothing weird was happening, this was within her expectations.
“Do you remember the hot spring that had been overgrown by redvine?”, she asked in a conversational tone. “We managed to clear it up. You both should take a dip, it will be healthy for you.”
The black-haired youth tilted his head and Shi Yue supplied an instant explanation. “There’s a hot spring near the sect. The temperature and energy within it are too much for people below Master-stage to bear, but it’s very comfortable for Masters and above. It had been overgrown by redvine one winter and we were unable to clear it up these past years.”
Xie Yi made a sound of understanding. Redvine was a plague for any pool of water and beyond annoying to get rid of. Since it was poisonous on contact, you’d need several people of higher level to constantly work on them, otherwise they’d simply regrow.
He had a feeling that the only reason why it was cleaned up at all was that many cultivators of the sect had returned, warily staying instead of going on missions and having nothing much to do.
“Hot spring sounds good”, Xie Yi chirped. “I’ll definitely go!”
Shi Yue nodded but turned to Master Chen. The woman gave no sign of going to react to the underhanded confirmation that Xie Yi's cultivation was indeed at a much higher stage than it should be. “Any comments on Xiao Zai’s health?”
Master Chen’s expression fell immediately. Her pursed lips matched her creased forehead. “She hasn’t started cultivating yet, so we can still cleanse the demonic energy in her body. I found remnants of various poisons in her body, likely to create a resistance, and her health should get better once those are gone.”
“But the largest issue is that I found signs of people operating on her in two places. We will have to cut it open again and see what was done. She will not like that - so we have postponed it for now and hope it’s not a bad decision.”
Silence reigned for a couple of minutes until Master Chen spoke up again.
“As for Yao Ming, he’s closely watched over. He’s talking nonsense and is not of a clear mind. He has started a type of demonic cultivation, as well, but for now we are trying to help him regain his sanity.”
“Can it be done?” It was Xie Yi who spoke, not Shi Yue. He calmly looked at the gorgeous woman who twirled a strand of her hair.
“I’m not sure how to describe it. He stops himself from talking, often by biting his lips or tongue. It’s like he doesn’t want to say the nonsense he is saying. Like fighting with himself. I think there’s a good chance we can get him back.”
Xie Yi remembered the topic of mind control and sighed. It would be good if Yao Ming could be talked to again.
“Enough of this.” Master Chen clapped her hands. “I demand that both of you take a dip into the hot spring first and rest for the whole day. No training, either. There’s nothing that can be done about Yao Ming or Xiao Zai yet, so regain your strength!”
“Yeeees…” Xie Yi obediently ducked his head between his shoulders and Shi Yue chuckled, agreeing quietly.
After some small talk, Shi Yue led Xie Yi to one corner of the sect. He pointed to the side. “The hot springs are right over there. You can’t miss it if you go that way - there’s a fence around it to avoid people watching you, as well as a sign you can hang up so that people know there’s someone inside.”
No need to mention that peeking was illegal. The last young man who thought he wouldn’t get into trouble for peeking on the girls was immediately thrown out of the sect, which was why people generally did not try it.
“Okay.” Xie Yi smiled. “Are we going then?”
Shi Yue paused and pulled a face. “You can go first, I’ll go later.”
“Ah?” Xie Yi blinked. “Not together?”
“No.” Shi Yue shook his head.
“Why can’t I go with you to take a bath?”, Xie Yi complained. It wasn’t much different from the baths in the sect, where every guy was bathing together. It wasn’t even different from the time they were in the bathhouse. He just wanted to spend time together.
“It’s problematic”, Shi Yue rejected him again, taking a step to the side.
Xie Yi followed him, continuing to stand in his way with a pout. He reached forward and hugged Shi Yue’s arm to keep him in place.
“Aren’t you my… boyfriend now?”, Shi Yue said, stumbling over the word. It still felt incredibly weird on his tongue. A word fine to think, but weird to speak out loud.
“Yes, so? Can’t boyfriends take a bath together?” Xie Yi confusedly blinked his red eyes.
Shi Yue gave a long sigh. “Xie Yi… You are… informed about what... couples do together?”
It took a moment for the black-haired man to understand what his master was getting at but then he gave a nod. “Yeah, and?”
“Do you not think that it would be a bit of a problem for a couple to be in a bath together? Where neither of them is wearing clothes?”
“No”, Xie Yi responded, shaking his head with wide eyes. What problem?
Shi Yue locked eyes with him for a moment before exhaling. “Maybe I’m being too dirty… Alright, come along, but wear a towel.”
“Okay!” They did that in the baths, too.
Delighted that they would be in the hot springs together and that he didn’t have to do it alone, Xie Yi followed along. Shi Yue entered the small room before the hot springs first, refusing to share with Xie Yi. Only once he was done was Xie Yi allowed to enter to undress.
The simple towel hung down from his waist to a bit above his knees, tied together at the side.
He went right out like that, not even tying his hair up. It hung as usual, with its long braid and the wrapped-in part below.
When he stepped outside, he found Shi Yue right away. His master was sitting with his legs in the hot, steaming water right at the stony edge of the pool filled with clear, sparkling water.
Shi Yue had put his hair up messily; some strands were falling loosely over his back and shoulder but most of it was twisted into an uneven bundle on the back of his head.
Drops of condensed water were sliding down his long neck, over the visible collar bone and down the prominent muscles of his stomach to the low towel.