Something wet ran down his cheek and Lü Meng beyond hoped it was rain that had broken through into the realm that he and the mystic shared. He wasn't sure if any of the outside world could reach them in this realm or if he was even visible in the real world. For all he knew, he could have disappeared from sight entirely, right before Zhu Ran’s very eyes and caused widespread panic among his troops. He knew nothing of magic and would have preferred to wrap his head around that than to relive what he was feeling right now. Anything, short of death, would have been a relief compared to remembering his dear sister.
Lü Meng was torn between begging, or demanding, Zuo Ci to move on, or simply enduring the pain that was to come. He had no means of making such demands from the mystic and knew all too well that he was his prisoner in this realm, so it would likely resort to begging, something Lü Meng wasn't too familiar with. But he knew how to do it if it came down to it. It was a disgusting feeling and he suspected he would be horrible at it as the times he remembered resorting to the act never panned out well for him. Would begging do him any good? Would Zuo Ci show mercy? He wouldn't hold it against him if he didn't. He seldom showed mercy in his younger years, so in truth, Lü Meng wasn't expecting any now.
So, he chose not to beg. If Zuo Ci felt this was necessary to understanding him for his mission, then he would simply have to endure, as he always did, as he always will. Endure, and hope it wouldn't be the blow to cripple or kill him.
“Your sister was very dear to you, was she not?”
Lü Meng could not stop himself from scowling and he managed to reign most of it in. Years on the battlefield and putting up with Gan Ning had helped him with that sometimes. While there still may have been some residual anger in his deep green eyes, he managed to force a more neutral expression on his face as he gave his answer. “Indeed. For my entire childhood, she was my companion, sometimes my better half. She was very, very dear to me.”
It was something he could not deny, nor would he. He wasn't sure how much or how deep this mystic planned on prying into the matter, so he figured it would be wise to enlighten him before he attempted to dig any deeper and strike nerves that he spent decades reinforcing. “She was never a healthy girl, though. I was the stronger of the two.” And somehow, he found himself smiling as he remembered something. “She’d joke that I took all of the strength and health, while she had all the brains and good looks. Heh… seems she wasn't wrong.”
Chin often made that joke, but Lü Meng could only a weak smile in response. The guilt and the memory of her spending most of her days imprisoned in a bad killed any humor she tried to instill in him. Even now, decades since he last held her hand and felt her life, as fragile as those dainty little fingers had been, slipped through his own, he couldn't do more than offer a sardonic smile, feeling nothing short of pure sorrow linger at even that. He looked at Zuo Ci, hoping that giving himself something to focus on would help combat the reawakened sorrow within him and offer him the strength he knew he had.
“Looking back at it now, do you feel it was worth the cost? Was losing your sister, you’re self proclaimed better half, worth it?”
Maybe he was being merciful and chose not to push further into the memory, or perhaps he was merely biding his time and waiting for the second that Lü Meng to drop his guard. At the moment, the Chief-Commander was still reeling to be able to judge which one it was, but he remained alert nevertheless. “Yes, because I know it was what she’d want. She knew she wouldn't live long, even if we lucked out and I found fortune earlier, but… I wanted to prove her wrong. I wanted to have hope… but…”
“If it were to soothe you, it is not your fault. Had you returned early or never left at all, death would have still came for her at the time it did.”
Somehow, it did soothe him, but he also had decades to cope with this truth. Perhaps fifteen year old Lü Meng didn't understand this, nor would he truly until a ridiculous amount of time later, but the seasoned Chief-Commander did. “It took me a good while to come to terms with it, but there were moments where I didn't understand and I lashed out.”
And then, he felt his heart sink, as he looked to the mystic that began to fade away from view. “And let me guess, you’re more than happy to remind me of such moments?”
“I must, if I am to know who you truly are.” Zuo Ci’s tone was almost apologetic, even as he disappeared into the shadows of the dimly lit hut that a young Lü Meng once called home, many, many decades ago. “You may have changed, Lü Meng, but the past shapes everyone and deserves.”
But Lü Meng didn't want to give it any attention! He didn't want to move or acknowledge anything. He didn't want to accept that outside those walls, there was life and things to do. No, he didn't want to eat, didn't want to drink, or sleep. He didn't want anything, unless it was Chin getting better!
It seemed like hours passed since the Taoist priest said his prayers and departed, but time might as well have become non-existent for Lü Meng. It had taken much effort for them to calm the teenager down and now, he simply laid at Chinmai’s beside, awake but silent, not really living but breathing, and existing, if one could even call it that. Sometime in the night, Deng Dang arrived with Yenji and they conversed with Shilimai, but he paid it no mind. Maybe they were discussing wedding arrangements, or discussing how Deng Dang was going to move their family out of Fupo, or even Chin’s funeral arrangements. They may as well been speaking another language to the teen as it was all simply noise to him. He laid at an angle that threatened to bring pins-and-needles sensation to his legs should he attempt to stand and the small of his back would creak and threaten to snap, but he truly did not care. He never considered the possibility that he would ever move from the spot again anyways. To the teenager, the world would have simply ceased to be once Chin passed away, he convinced himself…
He knew it was childish and considering he had just proved himself to be of equal standing with the rest of the soldiers, it was inexcusable, but he could no more fight that depression that gnawed in his chest than he could help but breathe. Surely, no one would blame him, he thought.
And he was horribly wrong.
Someone nudged him and called his name, and he hoped that it was Chin waking him up and teasing him for falling for her prank. He wanted to hear her laugh, her triumphant gloating, for her to say ‘haha, got you good, Meng! You silly boy!’
But it wasn't Chin. He looked into Yu Mao’s face and had not recognized him until his eyebrows twisted into a scowl, and his words, accompanied by the cuff to his cheek, finally pulled Lü Meng back into reality. “Lü Meng, pay attention!”
The interior of the worn down hut dispersed into a thousand little lights and Chin, passive and at peace, crumbled before his eyes, giving way to the harsh reality that he wasn't home, nor was he even in Fupo anymore. That Chin had died that night six months ago. That Yu Mao caught him with his guard down and that was only opening the door up to even more misery.
He must have been taking too long to respond and was immediately rewarded for it with another blow, and this was the one that caused the teenager to hit the ground, much to the delight of his fellow soldier. He didn't know what Yu Mao struck him with but he knew another one was imminent if he didn't acknowledge his presence. “I’m sorry, sir.”
He didn't know what Yu Mao wanted from him as his apology did nothing to appease the intense hatred he saw in him. Those too close to the confrontation scuffled away, not wanting to get caught in the crosshairs of the fight that was apparently about to occur. Was that what was happening? Were they in the middle of a drill and he neglected his role? He wasn't sure but he could not bring himself to ask. Any attempt to speak further would have made his voice crack and would give Yu Mao more fuel for his rage and he didn't need anymore of that. “Sorry doesn't cut it! You need to pay attention or it’s your life! Now get up and do the drill again!”
Lü Meng did as he was told, but there was no appeasing the man. That look of disgust ran deeper than any river in all of China and it continued to flow as he picked himself up, reaching for the quarterstaff that he had dropped and eager to just go make into the motions. All the while, he kept his head low and refused to meet Yu Mao’s eyes, approaching like an omega would to its angered alpha, knowing that one wrong move and those fangs would find themselves in his neck. Part of him longed to fight back and in a way, he suspected that Yu Mao welcomed the idea, but even after the strikes, Lü Meng refrained and simply endured. Once again, he stood at the ready and the drills continued, and this time, Lü Meng was careful not to let his mind wander too far. He wasn't sure if he could handle Yu Mao’s abuse and the violent jerk to reality a second time in a single day.
He stood at the ready and hoped it was enough, but Yu Mao was an impossible man to please. He slapped his quarterstaff on Lü Meng’s leg and then his shoulder, forcing the youth to shift positions, and his words cut deep, saying them loud and letting every soldier nearby hear him, much to Lü Meng’s dismay. “Your form’s incorrect! A bandit with no eyes could disarm you with a single swing, child! Do it right!”
Lü Meng didn't think, he simply reacted. No warning, no words. He lifted his quarterstaff and swung it at Yu Mao’s head, the only possible thought that could have existed in his mind was shutting him up though he felt it was more instinctual than any genuine thought process. The staff never connected and in a fluid, almost invisible movement, Yu Mao struck back. Seconds later, if even, the teenager found himself on his back, reinforced wood pressing down on his throat and a boot on his chest, and only then did he look Yu Mao in the eyes as the man stood over him, his face twisted with a murderous rage. He looked ready to kill him, and maybe he would have if Deng Dang’s shout not cracked through the air like a bolt of lightning. “Yu Mao, desist!”
Yu Mao was quick to obey, removing both the weapon and his boot from the teenager and stepping back to give him room. He stood at attention and bowed, while Lü Meng tried to gather his strength to at least pull himself into a seated position but to no avail. Only now did he feel the effect of his body hitting the earth and he was grateful for his brother-in-law’s interference, even at the cost of his own pride right now. Soldiers parted and allowed the lieutenant to pass, saying nothing and knowing better than to get in the middle of them as Deng Dang addressed Yu Mao. “Yu Mao, you’re completely out of line!”
By this time, Lü Meng had managed to get himself up to where he was sitting and he was certain that the only thing that kept Yu Mao from simply pushing him back down was Deng Dang himself. The way he held himself made it clear to not just them but to the rest that such behavior wouldn't be tolerated, but not even his presence could spare Lü Meng from the venom in Yu Mao’s words and the effect it had on his self-esteem. “He lashed out first and I merely put him in his place. He has no business being here at all and you do us all a disservice to keep this child with us. What can this nestling do? Having him in the army is no different than having a piece of meat around for a tiger!”
Something burned within Lü Meng and it had been so long since he felt anything but that deep sense of loss from Chin’s death that he almost didn't recognize it at first. It stirred within his gut and caused him to lash out once before and when it returned a second time, the teenager knew it to be hatred. The same hatred that Yu Mao apparently felt for him had been resting within him and the man’s blows and harsh words only seemed to cultivate it, and what horrible luck that Deng Dang had arrived before he could return the favor to Yu Mao! He hated that look that Deng Dang gave him but could make no action against it, and he held his tongue, knowing that if he even tried to speak that the one to suffer for it was his brother-in-law. “That’s not for you to say, Yu Mao. He’s pulled his weight and then some, so he has just as much a right to be in this army as you do. You need to lay off of him-”
“And you should not coddle him.” Yu Mao held his ground and practically spat in Lü Meng’s direction, as if daring the youth to try and retaliate. So long as Deng Dang was there, he couldn't strike out without shaming him in front of his soldiers, and so Lü Meng simply endured in silence as Yu Mao carried on. “You may as well send him home before he loses his life out there, sir! He is nothing but dead weight and dead weight should be abandoned first.”
Lü Meng wasn't sure what he was expecting from Deng Dang, but to hear him gloss over the matter was carrion comfort to him. “That will be up for me to decide and until that comes, you are to refrain from attacking or provoking your fellow soldiers. The next offense I see, either it be against Lü Meng or another soldier and you will be lashed publicly for all to see. Do you understand?”
What else could Yu Mao do? He complied, but Lü Meng knew he didn't mean it. No, he made have conceded but it was all a ruse, as he could hear the disdain in his voice as he addressed the lieutenant. “Yes, sir…”
“And as for you…” Now Deng Dang turned his gaze to Lü Meng and the youth kept his head down, refusing to look at him and see him struggling to maintain his composure. He knew he’d be trying to hide the pity in his eyes and the teen simply didn't want to see it. He didn't want pity. He didn't want to be treated differently, for better or for worse. All it had taken was a single movement and he was on his feet once more, but still he could not look Deng Dang in the eyes so he settled for his forehead. “You’ll have stable duties for the remainder of the evening since you can’t seem to get your head on straight. Making mucking out the stalls will clear your head. Go on.”
Once again, Deng Dang had favored him without anyone knowing, and not to look a gift horse in the mouth, Lü Meng obeyed without question. He bowed his head and stormed towards the stables, wishing that he could have taken a shot at Yu Mao before retreating but knowing that he had lost his chance. He should have taken comfort in Deng Dang’s willingness to threaten Yu Mao, but he knew it’d do him no good. The next time he’d simply mask it under a drill and feign ignorance, even blame Lü Meng for not paying attention. He’d find a way to torment him and skirt by the rules, until either Lü Meng left the unit or Yu Mao was put to death.
Not even the happy whickers of the horses could elevate his mood any. He grabbed the pitchfork and immediately went to work on the first stall, offering the horse a half-hearted rub on the muzzle to comfort him before getting on task. Yes, Deng Dang had favored him in giving him this duty instead of the drills but it hardly did anything to appease the maelstrom of emotions within him. His motions were quick, forceful, gripping the hilt of the tool tightly to stop his limbs from shaking, and it didn't take long for him to work up a sweat. Time passed and he had worked so vigorously that his hair slipped from its top knot and stuck to the back of his neck, and on a normal day, he wouldn't have minded the horse’s fuzzy lips nip at his loose strands, but he was simply too riled up. Far too round up and threatening to snap, and his victim would have been the horse if it kept at him.
Deng Dang’s arrival startled not only the horses but the teenager as well and no amount of effort could stop him from letting the tool slip from his sweaty palms. Thankfully it and the manure he was digging at fell harmlessly just short of the stall door and away from the horse, but it hardly stopped the sting of embarrassment from washing over him. His only comfort was that Deng Dang wouldn't have laughed at him. Fuss him for being clumsy, perhaps, but he wouldn't kick him while he was down. Once the horses settled down, the lieutenant ventured deeper into the stables and wasted no time blasting him, his voice strained from holding himself back. “Meng, explain to me what just happened there.”
“My hands were sweaty, and the pitchfork slipped.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it! Damn it, Meng,” Deng Dang said, storming towards the pitchfork and grabbing it before Lü Meng could reach it and setting it aside, making his intentions clear. “Did I not warn you to stay away from Yu Mao? Didn't I?”
“You did.” Lü Meng saw no point to deny it. Lying wasn't in his nature and honestly he was no good at it. Now that he wasn't working, he could catch his breath and think, but that wasn't what he wanted. He didn't want to think. If he thought, he’d think of Chin. “Can I have it back now?”
“No, you’ll listen and you won’t do any of that if you’re mucking the stalls. You’re barely even listening to me now.”
Now it was Lü Meng’s turn to scowl and he didn't regret it like he knew he should have. “I -am- listening, sir.”
Deng Dang didn't seem to believe him and held his tongue, and only when Lü Meng gave in and looked at his face did he speak up again. This time, there was a weight in his voice, one that Lü Meng recognized and immediately wanted to escape from. “You say you are, but I don’t believe you. Meng, I know these past six months have been rough on you… at first I thought it was commendable of you to take up your duties when you did, but now I think you’re a damn fool. You weren't ready to come back to this.”
“You said I was welcomed back in and my mother gave me permission to enlist,” Lü Meng said, his voice frigid and rejecting the sorrow that weighted Deng Dang’s words. He had enough of his own sorrow to cripple him and he didn't need anyone else’s thrown on his back right now.
“Yes, but that was before… augh, Meng, I have every right to send you back until you've recovered, but what good is that going to do me? You’d just come back again and again, wouldn't you?” Deng Dang shook his head and his lament did little to Lü Meng’s conscious. The way he held himself made it clear that he was torn between striking his brother-in-law and pulling him into a hug, or perhaps his ulcer was getting the better of him again. Lü Meng didn't know, nor did he care. Whatever discomfort or pain Deng Dang was feeling was nothing compared to his own and there was nothing that the lieutenant could do to help him, so why he even bothered was beyond Lü Meng. Something closed tight around his shoulders and he was forced to look at Deng Dang as he gave him a squeeze, and the desperation in his voice threatened to undo him from his turmoil, but he resisted with all his might. “I don’t know what to say or do with you right now, Meng. I try to comfort you and you brush it away. I try to keep you busy and your mind simply wanders and you find some way to make trouble.”
“I didn't make trouble this time. He found me, and I fought back.”
He wanted to fight back harder. He wanted to slam the quarterstaff against his cheek and knock all of those teeth out of his skull. He wanted to teach Yu Mao a lesson, but Yu Mao was too fast for him. He provoked him and then disabled him in front of the entire regiment. Only now did he feel the wound to his pride and it should have been humbling, but all it did was feed his anger.
“Meng, I know he hates you. Heavens only knows why he hates you so much, but you need to stay away from him, until we can figure out some kind of compromise.” Deng Dang never let up on his hold, even when it was clear that the youth wanted nothing more than to shy away from him.
“What’s there to compromise?” Lü Meng asked, not afraid to show his ignorance now. After all, everyone just watched Yu Mao completely wipe the floor with him and it was no lie that he wasn't the brightest in the bunch, so what did he care what Deng Dang thought of him now. “Why bother compromising? We’ll never get along. He hates me for something that’s beyond my control and it’s not like I can just… magically age up or anything. Even if I could, he’d find something else to hate me for.”
He never understood the depths of Yu Mao’s hatred and he refused to think too much about how the man saved his life that morning of the ambush. Nothing about that made any sense to him and he figured it was easier to think that perhaps he had imagined the ordeal entirely, or simply mistook the man that saved him and imposed Yu Mao’s face there in some pathetic attempt to assure himself that the man couldn't have possibly hated him. Now, he knew he did, and for such a stupid reason.
“Perhaps, but that’s not the point. Whether you like him or not, Yu Mao’s a fellow soldier and your ally, and thus you should make an effort to co-exist with him. You don’t have to like him. I know I don’t, and if he keeps treating you this way or starts acting out against the other soldiers, I’ll be more than happy to flog him until he’s singing a different tune, but until then, he’s your ally and you’re his. And we don’t attack our allies, even if they may deserve it.”
Lü Meng was taken back by Deng Dang’s words, but not for the wisdom in them. He paid little attention to that, far too young to understand why the lieutenant harped on such dribble. How could he possibly think to work or co-exist with someone that absolutely hated him? No, he was determined that he’d never co-exist with Yu Mao and that simply avoiding him would have been the more practical approach. What surprised him was Deng Dang’s confession and the conviction that was behind his threat, and he couldn't help but feel hopeful as he asked, “Why don’t you just flog him now, or ask him to leave? He’s the one that keeps provoking me, so why should I be punished?”
Deng Dang offered him a knowing smile and Lü Meng hated it. It came off smug, like he had all the answers and was merely looking for the chance to rub it in his face about it, but what could Lü Meng do but listen and try to understand, despite its uselessness? “Meng, the older you get, the more you’ll realize that there’s things in this world that you can’t change. People, places, conditions. There will always be some kind of adversity ahead of you and you can’t control them. You can try with all your might, but there will always be something you can’t control. What you can do, though, is control how you approach the situation and how you react. Control yourself, so that others can’t control you.”
Lü Meng looked at his brother-in-law, finally breaking his pact not to look directly at him and staring him in the eyes as he said that. He took in his words and he tried… he genuinely wanted to understand what he was saying. He wanted to absorb his words and let him fill him with wisdom, instead of the sorrow and hate that existed in almost perfect unity inside him, but the words didn't stick. And he couldn't help but feel himself wanting to despair that he simply didn't understand what Deng Dang had meant, but he resisted the urge and combated it with anger, resentment, emotions he was more akin with. And Deng Dang, knowing his words did nothing, let out a sigh and released Lü Meng with enough force to make the teenager back away a step. “Why do I even… you’ll understand when you’re older. For now, simply avoid Yu Mao. I’ll make sure to punish him for provoking you though I’m sure that’s only going to make matters worse. What am I going to do with the two of you?”
The teenager thought long and hard about what he was going to say, but never did it not cross his mind to refrain from saying it in the first place. “You could just execute him for attacking me and be done with it.”
Something about the comment or the way he said it in a completely serious tone made Deng Dang crack and the man laughed, the sound strained and fragile as a shaky leaf clinging to the branch during a storm. And how tragic was it that Lü Meng couldn't even bring himself to smile at the sound? “But then wouldn't I have to execute you for doing the same? You’re not too good with hindsight, but I admire your honesty and how straightforward your solution is. I just wish it was that simple. Now, get back to cleaning. You can sleep in here if you want to, but I’m certain that Yu Mao won’t be pestering you again for at least a little while. Be well, Meng.”
“And to you, Dang,” Lü Meng said, trying to give him a smile but certain that he’d see right through it. His attempt was at least appreciated, as Deng Dang returned the smile and left him with the horses. What Lü Meng should have done was take in everything that Deng Dang had said, absorb it, contemplate on it until he figured it out, but he didn't. He couldn't. He simply didn't understand how he was expected to not react, as simply reacting had done him well up until now. He would simply have to train harder, work harder, to best Yu Mao the next time they’d meet, because he may have been stupid, but he wasn't a fool. He knew they’d encounter one another again, and he knew that Yu Mao would never let go of his hatred for him, not unless Lü Meng beat it out of him. Until then, he’d simply have to avoid him and work hard, and once again he dove into the task of mucking the stables, welcoming the chore and hoping it’d drive him into exhaustion so that when he curled up in the nearest hay stack that he’d go straight into a dreamless sleep. He missed Chin dearly, but he could do with a few nights where her smiling face didn't cause him to wake up with tears soaking his face and bedding…
The days dragged on and there were few things that the grieving Lü Meng couldn't recall. On those days, the easiest thing to do was shut his mind off and simply react, or do, despite Deng Dang’s suggestion. He simply did as he was told and simply chose to exist, at least until the pain would pass. If he worked, he couldn't focus on his loss or invoking Yu Mao’s wrath, and by the end of the day, he would be too exhausted to think and would sleep through the night so heavily that a raid would have occurred around him and he wouldn't be any the wiser. Most of his days were uneventful, which was perfectly fine, and Lü Meng didn't want to admit to anyone that there were some good days thrown in. Small things, little things that reminded the teenager that life wasn't so bad and that life could continue without Chin, and it was on one of those days that Yu Mao caught him off guard entirely.
He didn't mean to drop his guard, but Yu Mao was simply an opportunist and closed in on him without warning. Perhaps he had noticed Lü Meng’s smile, or perhaps he had made an incorrect motion and was wanting to jump at the chance to correct him again, but whatever opening Lü Meng left, Yu Mao exploited it.
“Nestling!” Yu Mao had become attached to that nickname for him, according to the soldiers that talked with Lü Meng. The word was flung about as though it were his name and everyone in their unit knew whom he was referring to when he muttered the words. Others had taken a liking to the name as well and mumbled it beneath their breaths as Lü Meng would pass, but he did his best to ignore them. Deng Dang also gave him some advice on this and used some flattering words, but the youth couldn't be bothered to remember any of it outside of it boiling down to ‘just ignore it’. Ignoring other soldiers when they taunted him was easy, but for Yu Mao? Impossible. “Where do you think you’re going?”
When Yu Mao caught him, his hands were full and in them were a heavy saddle, some armor and a sheathed sword, all belonging to Deng Dang. He fought down the urge to sneer and gave the man a prompt answer, never once looking around to see if they were alone. With the way no one intervened, barring Deng Dang or Fa Shi, they may as well have been alone, and for the short-tempered youth, this wasn't a good thing. “I’m going to polish this armor and saddle.”
Keep his answers short, give him only what he needed, and hope he’d lose interest and move on. That’s what Lü Meng was hoping for with this encounter with Yu Mao, but of course, his tormentor wasn't willing to let him go that easy. Couldn't just look away or be quiet. “Ah, so he’s finally put you in your proper place, Nestling? A child like you has no business raising a sword, much less polishing one for your elders.”
Those words hurt and if it was meant to be a trap, then Lü Meng fell for the bait perfectly. “I’m doing this for the lieutenant, not because I was ordered to.”
“Polishing armor and mucking stalls is all you’re good for until your feathers grow in.” Yu Mao drew closer to him and Lü Meng felt his back stiffen in lieu of the mocking tone of his voice. He should have walked away but he knew Yu Mao wouldn't let him, but he couldn't take the sound of his voice anymore, especially since he had given him more fuel to sling his insulting words at him. “Trying to get into the lieutenant’s good graces won’t do you any good, either. We all know the only reason he allowed you into our unit in the first place was for you to obtain the money you needed for the dowries and simply hasn't figured out how to get rid of you yet. It’s only out of pity that he keeps you now even though he knows you’ll be picked off the moment we see battle again. Perhaps that’s what he’s hoping for! If I thought I was doing him a favor, I would have let you die that first battle and be done with it- what’s another useless death in the Lü family?”
Something in him snapped and all Lü Meng could do was respond. He didn’t think, he didn't speak, and he was certain that he wasn't breathing either. Yu Mao had kept on talking and talking and talking but Lü Meng had long since stopped listening. His hands were full but not for long, as the armor and saddle fell from his hands, but not the sword. It wasn't an unfamiliar weapon to him now as it once was and before the drills he never thought he could wield anything shorter than a spear, and if he wasn’t consumed with rage, he would have been surprised with just how easily the blade slipped from the sheath and how easy it was to thrust it forward. How easily it tore through clothing, flesh and muscle, but he’d never forgot how easily it silenced Yu Mao, but only for a little while, as even when there was a sword plunged deep into his chest, he managed to croak out a few words, his hatred finally giving away to shock. “You… killed… me?”
Lü Meng wasn’t sure what made him let go of the hilt, whether it was the blood that now soaked his hands and arms or the horror in his eyes, but when he released the grip on the sword, Yu Mao fell to his knees. One hand wrapped around the hilt and tried in vain to remove that sword, and the other grasped for any part of his murderer be it clothing or an appendage, but his efforts were as futile as removing the blade from his lungs as Lü Meng practically scrambled out of his reach. He didn't know enough about combat or injuries, but he knew it was grave. He should have called for a medic or tried to help the man, but he couldn't bring himself to move. Had he tended to the man, maybe he’d live, but Lü Meng kept his distance and watched as he collapsed to the ground, the life that fled from his body manifesting in the form of blood pooling onto the earth. Lü Meng would have continued to stare at the dying man, too, had someone not stepped in the puddle and forced his gaze upwards. Shock and horror were clearly visible on Fa Shi’s face and the more he took it in, the more it began to dawn on him as to what he had just done.
He killed a man. There was no doubt about it as the evidence was clear as the moon in the night sky. He wasn't sure what kept him standing, but at least he knew what it was that got him running, as Fa Shi was suddenly upon him, pulling his attention away from Yu Mao’s lifeless body and the soldiers that were beginning to gather around them. He was expecting to be berated and accused and the threat of punishment upon him, but no such words came out of him. His voice was strained and if he listened carefully he could hear the tremble in them, but Fa Shi’s panicked response and his pushing made it hard for him to focus his mind on anything for too long. “Lü Meng, you need to leave. Now.”
He knew that much. He killed a man. He killed a fellow soldier and it didn’t matter if it was justified or not. What would become of him when Deng Dang found out? He was destined not to know, as Fa Shi just kept pushing and pushing, refusing to let him linger long enough to find out. “Go! Now! I’ll talk with Deng Dang about this, but you need to go before they send for the marshals. Go, for heavens’ sake, go!”
What else could Lü Meng do? He wasn't sure why Fa Shi didn't turn him in nor why he was helping him, but he had no time to question him. Fa Shi told him to leave, and he’d do so running. Where would he go? How long could he possibly run for? What would happen if he got caught? What would become of Fa Shi for helping him? He had no idea and he didn't want to think about it. All he could do was run, run, run!