Ren Liufang’s parents die when she is young. For awhile, that explains everything.
It rains during the procession. Her parents’ photograph sits heavy in her hands as she marches silently down the damp concrete road, almost slipping on the slick surface. The edges of the picture frame dig into her palms.
Ren Liufang worries needlessly that her bandages will get wet during the funeral. She stands through anyways, and they get soaked. After she staggers home, she peels the cloth off and does not weep, whether it be from the pain or from the grief. It would have been better had she never thought about it in the first place.
The custody battle is fiercer than execution of her parents’ will. Ren Mingshou wins her and the house, which he ends up selling anyways. The other relatives protest, but a decision is a decision, and Ren Liufang goes with him. It is natural; he had taken care of her the most when she was young anyways.
Ren Liufang goes to school. She skips a few grades and shows interest in nothing. Soon enough, she is out of her family owned private school and into university. Ren Mingshou says she will return in less than a decade. Ren Liufang doesn’t say it’s a promise she can keep. She goes to college. She thinks it’ll remain the same.
She is wrong.
When Ren Liufang’s parents are still alive, they bring in a little girl and tell her to take care of her. Then, they go away and leave them with Ren Mingshou.
The girl is small, frail. Her name is Xiu Lihua, and she skips dinner sometimes but likes to jump out of her window. She can’t read very well, and Ren Mingshou looks at her weirdly for some reason. For the first time in Ren Liufang’s life, she is charmed.
“Why do you keep doing that?” She yells one afternoon—as loud as her dainty vocal cords can handle anyway—at Xiu Lihua, who was six inches out the window, bare feet dug into the metal windowsill.
The girl blinks at her.
“Uh, because it’s fun. Wanna try?”
That day, Ren Liufang jumps out of a window. She hits her head on a tree branch and falls face first onto the dirt. It hurts a lot.
From above, a strange sound rains down. Ren Liufang stifles her sniffles and looks upwards, right at the laughing girl overhead, who holds her waist and positively shakes with glee.
“You—you just—I—” Xiu Lihua wheezes, practically choking on her amusement. She’s guffawing so loudly that Ren Liufang is sure the entire neighborhood can hear them.
And for some reason, she finds that she doesn’t mind that at all.
Ren Liufang starts minding when she gets older. Like when Xiu Lihua giggles at something another person said or nudges her other friends teasingly or falls into their arms while laughing in that bombastic way.
It doesn’t feel good at all.
Around the school, they’re known for being joined at the hip. Get Xiu Ying, get Ren Ju. Package deal. Buy one get the other free.
They walk home together, live together, even go to the bathroom together!
I swear, it’s like those two are long lost sisters or something!
Ren Ju and Xiu Ying sitting in a tree! K-I-S-S-I-N-G—
It’s one of those rumors that aren’t necessarily malicious, but they’re good enough for teasing that they don’t fade after a month. Ren Ju doesn’t hate it though, in fact she quite likes it. She would like to be with Xiu Ying forever. And she would like to never leave her side. And maybe marriage wouldn’t be too bad either—
Nevermind. Out of the question.
Nonetheless, it probably didn’t bother Ren Ju as much as it should’ve.
Unfortunately, it was not the same for Xiu Ying.
“Hey Ren Ju, I have long practice tonight. Don’t wait for me and go home first, please.”
“Uh Ren Ju, I mean I sit with you every day at lunch so can’t you let me sit with someone else for once?”
“Haha Ren Liufang? She’s just a friend. We aren’t that close actually. Let’s not talk about her anymore. She’s unimportant.”
And the worst one:
“Ren Ju? Oh, so you heard about that? It’s only because I’m so clingy. We’re not like that.”
Despite what Xiu Ying says, they do talk. They talk just loud enough for the other girl to not hear but for Ren Ju’s sensitive ears to pick up every word. The only thing that really changes is that they stop asking her invasive things directly and they start whispering behind her back words that Ren Ju will google later and falter at.
She isn’t. She isn’t, right?
But she is. Xiu Ying is the normal one. Ren Ju is the strange one. The clingy one. The
One day, Ren Ju is walking home. Alone. She coughs into the back of her hand and glances in the direction of the right hallway before she crosses into it. At that moment, Xiu Ying comes barrelling out of the gym doors, arms around the shoulders of two other jocks. Her laugh bounces out of her lips, and Ren Ju inhales a sharp breath, turning in her direction as if begging to be noticed.
Xiu Ying’s eyes meet hers. They falter. Her giggles splinter out and melt into the wood.
The air feels heavy.
Ren Ju’s heart stabs itself. She tears her gaze away and stalks off. She can feel eyes on her back, but nothing is more painful than the indecipherable emotion current drawing lines in her chest with a knife.
Later, she waits by the dining table for Xiu Ying to come home. During that time, Ren Mingshou comes home from work as principal and thanks her briefly for making dinner before cursing at Xiu Ying under his breath. Ren Ju doesn’t pay attention to it. She lets the food get cold.
Later, when Xiu Ying climbs in through the window—just to avoid Ren Mingshou, like always—Ren Ju jumps out of her chair and meets her there.
Xiu Ying looks ruffled, her cheeks flushed. There’s a new stain on her shirt—one that Ren Ju will scrub out before Ren Mingshou sees—and her hair is all over the place. Ren Ju swallows dryly. The dopey smile on her face fades when she sees her.
“Dinner is ready,” Ren Ju breathes out. Xiu Ying looks vaguely guilty.
“I already ate,” she replies. Ren Ju purses her lips.
“Are you still hungry?” she offers, voice pleading. Xiu Ying’s eyes flick over her face before redirecting away.
“No,” she says, lips pursed and face forced closed. Ren Ju just watches as Xiu Ying shoves past her and back into her own room.
Xiu Ying must hate me, Ren Ju thinks, and she believes.
When Xiu Ying is fifteen, Ren Mingshou finds her climbing through the window close to midnight. He takes one looks at the heat on her face and screams at her through the night. It ends with a padlock on the window and tears on Xiu Ying’s end.
“Shushu, her cheeks get flushed easily when it’s above eight degrees!” Ren Ju says desperately in Chinese when they’re alone, “She wasn’t doing anything illegal; it’s just the after game get-togethers!”
“Then it’s probably best that she doesn’t go to another one,” Ren Mingshou spits. “In fact, I already knew that this was going on for awhile, but I can’t overlook it any further.”
“Quiet child! Your parents don’t have the good health to deal with a child that acts like this every night! I’m just taking temporary measures for them. Once Xiu Lihua has proved she can take care of herself, I’ll stop it.”
And it ends there. Ren Mingshou already has a license, so all he needs to do is pile a few terrible textbooks by Xiu Ying’s door and yell at her every hour to keep reading and reading. Ren Ju keeps going to school.
Since last year, all the kids—now gangly teenagers—kept away from her. She blames it on Xiu Ying, with all of her clever avoidance strategies and “Haha, it’s Ren Ju that’s weird! Don’t bother her.“s. Still, a few of Xiu Ying’s soccer friends do come up to her and ask her about where the other girl is, even if they look halfway between weirded out and scared.
Ren Ju tells them that Xiu Ying is fine. That she’s being homeschooled now and that she quit soccer. The jocks look at little sad at that, and they pad away quietly without another word.
Nonetheless, Xiu Ying is forgotten quickly. Her name disappears within a week and completely dissapates in a month. She’s replaced by another good player, another someone to drag to the soda fountain after dark. Ren Ju pretends it doesn’t make her want to turn heel and scream at them: “Wasn’t she your friend?!”
But worst of all, it gets better for Ren Ju. Because people start talking to her again. She gets invited to book club meetings, student council outings. She is the headmaster’s niece after all. It only helped to be on good terms with her.
The rumors are shoved to the side. Beyond everything, it’s about the time they actually start caring about teacher’s opinions and public relations which means now that everyone’s bending over backwards for Ren Ju. It’s fine. She numbs herself to it. It is fine.
At home, it is not fine. Xiu Ying is not fine.
Most of the time, she’s holed up in her room, doing who knows what. Ren Mingshou forbids them from talking, and guilt makes Ren Ju obey him, because her parents are still the hospital and hey maybe Xiu Ying really was drinking that night and maybe if she tries hard enough she can go outside again and maybe her parents wouldn’t have to worry so much and tire themselves more and maybe Ren Mingshou wouldn’t have to tire himself out either because the hospital bill is piling up and—
But Ren Ju is also selfish. So one day, when Ren Mingshou is out of town and won’t be back until the next morning, she steals the keys to Xiu Ying’s door and breaks in.
Xiu Ying looks startled. She also looks like she hasn’t slept in weeks. Ren Ju sucks in a breath, suddenly forgetting why she was there.
“What do you want?” Xiu Ying says first. Her voice is hoarse but her eyes dig into Ren Ju’s chest like a dagger. Ren Ju swallows.
“Why—why did you avoid me, back then?” She asks, suddenly feeling very stupid. Xiu Ying looks surprised. Her fingers flex, and Ren Ju finds her eyes unexplainedly attracted to her knuckles.
“You—we—it was for the best, wasn’t it?” This, Xiu Ying says with much hesitance, “It was what you wanted.”
Ren Ju steps back. Her shoulders tense, and she suddenly wants to hit something. A wall. A table.
“What did I want?” she asks, voice icy. “You avoided me first. You said all of those—things. So, what did I want?!” Her voice pitches at the last part. Xiu Ying flinches, but she coils like a rattlesnake ready to strike.
“You don’t understand,” she starts, but Ren Ju doesn’t want to hear it.
“You’re the one that doesn’t understand. For fuck’s sake, you don’t have to be vague. Just tell me—just tell me why you hate me!” she spits with all the venom she can muster, slamming her fist into the nearby bookshelf. Then, she sees the look on Xiu Ying’s face. That look.
No no no, Ren Ju never wanted the conversation to turn out this way. She shouldn’t have pried. She shouldn’t have asked, but now Xiu Ying really hates her and—
“Hate you?” Xiu Ying says, looking like she’s heard the world is about to end. Ren Ju clenches her teeth.
“Don’t... don’t run away,” she says softly. Xiu Ying sucks in a breath, and she starts pulling on the skin of her arms, eyes flying everywhere.
“No I—I never wanted—no I, I never hated you!” she protests, looking so grief-stricken that Ren Ju suddenly wants to hug her and never let her go. She doesn’t, but her heart hurts in place of that warmth.
“Then why?” Ren Ju asks, almost angrily. Xiu Ying inhales a shuddering thing.
“You’re—you’re a Ren,” she whispers, “And I’m just... a random orphan that makes too much trouble. A disappointment that hasn’t stayed in one home for more than a month until now.”
Ren Ju opens her mouth to protest, but Xiu Ying cuts her off, “All those rumors were terrible. I can’t—I knew you didn’t want any of that. And the bigger problem was me, right? Because I was so clingy and so needy and so stupid that you had to hang around me all the time and that I practically forced my way into your house and forced you to spend time with me and now that these rumors had started, I was going to be even more of a burden. So I—So I—if I just removed myself from the equation then you would go back to normal and no one would say bad things about you anymore,” she finishes quietly, bottom lip trembling.
Ren Ju suddenly can’t breathe. “You—but you—all your friends—”
Xiu Ying looks like she wants to abstain from speaking—she’s spilled too much already—but Ren Ju can tell from her expression. The eyes that Xiu Ying hides and the energy thrumming around them.
“They were never really your friends, were they?” Ren Ju says it aloud so that Xiu Ying doesn’t have to. The girl nods, ashamed for all the wrong reasons, almost curled in on herself completely.
Ren Ju thinks this is all going too fast. She feels indignant and shocked and sad and like she’s about to throw up all at the same time. Because Xiu Ying had been thinking about her. She had been thinking too much. She’d made all the decisions for Ren Ju and desperately tried to keep the both of them safe but at the same time—
“How could you?” Ren Ju murmurs. Again, Xiu Ying looks up like the sky is falling, but instead, it’s only Ren Ju’s wobbling voice and pained expression. “How could you?”
“How could I what—”
“How could you decide all that for yourself?!” Ren Ju bursts out. Xiu Ying tenses as Ren Ju steps forward, across the floor strewn with textbook pages. “How could you decide what I wanted without asking me first? How could you just—” she wrings her hands, trying to find the right words to say— “How could you be so selfish?”
It becomes so silent that you could hear a pin drop.
Xiu Ying stands up, eyes blazing as she stalks up to Ren Ju and shoves her until her back hits the door. Ren Ju gasps as the wind is knocked out of her. Xiu Ying opens her mouth but nothing comes out. Instead, she grabs Ren Ju’s shoulders and bashes them weakly into the wall, eyes shining with angry tears and teeth drawing blood from her lip.
Ren Ju wants to brush those tears away. She wants to go back in time and retract everything she had said, say everything she should’ve said, and tell Xiu Ying that it’s going to be okay. That out of everything in Ren Ju’s life, Xiu Ying is her world and the only reason she hasn’t resigned herself to early grieving. Not yet.
But she doesn’t. Instead, she lets Xiu Ying slam her into the wall again and again and cry. Because Ren Ju isn’t ready to admit that everything she just said to Xiu Ying also applies to herself.
“I’m sorry,” Ren Ju says hoarsely, when Xiu Ying looks almost done with abusing her shoulder.
“What are you sorry for? You’re right, aren’t you? I was selfish. It was me. I was wrong,” Xiu Ying replies bitterly, voice scratchy. Her fingertips dig into Ren Ju’s arm. Ren Ju places her hand on top of them.
“You were thinking about me,” she manages firmly. She reaches forward and pulls Xiu Ying’s stupid head to her chest and hugs her as hard as she can. Because Xiu Ying has been trapped in this room for so long for something she didn’t do and because Ren Ju is a coward.
The other girl’s breath hitches, and she struggles for a few seconds before eventually relaxing into Ren Ju’s unrelenting grip. Her frame trembles.
“I’m sorry,” Xiu Ying sobs, even though Ren Ju knows she’s not sorry at all. That she truly believes all those things about herself and that she would do everything again.
Ren Ju hates it.
“The rumors, I didn’t care,” she admits, not quite the truth but most definitely better than what Xiu Ying had in her head, “But it bothered you.”
“It didn’t!” Xiu Ying says quickly, “It really didn’t! But…” she trails off. Ren Ju sighs.
“Next time, don’t go through it alone. Don’t leave me alone. Tell me. Don’t decide how I should feel about things. You are—” Ren Ju struggles—”You are more important to me than my reputation.”
Xiu Ying sniffles and mumbles indecipherably. Ren Ju holds her, and they sit there for a long time until the sun goes down.
Maybe it’ll be fine now.
It is not fine. It is not fine.
Xiu Lihua runs away at sixteen. Ren Mingshou lets her, in fact, he spurs it on. It is Ren Liufang’s fault.
Ren Liufang’s parents die a few days after that. The doctors sit her down for a talk, but the only word she remembers is hereditary.
Ren Mingshou finally moves back to his own house and Ren Liufang with him. She does not speak to him.
Ren Liufang does practice tests. She attends the mandatory meetings for her clubs, and she gets in contact with a professor from a nearby college and publishes a research paper with her name stamped in the front of it.
Later, Ren Mingshou asks Ren Liufang to inherit the position of headmaster from him. Ren Liufang agrees. She goes to university that fall.
She drinks a little. She parties a little more. She tries to regain control. She is interested in nothing.
Ren Liufang’s parents die when she is young. For a while, that explains everything.
Until it doesn’t.
Through highschool to college, no one catches Ren Liufang’s eye. It’s okay because she knows Ren Mingshou won’t ask about it, but also it isn’t because her slightly more invasive aunts and distant relatives will.
“Meet a nice boy yet?” they ask every family dinner.
“Too busy,” she replies, and that’s good enough because her grades are good enough.
Conveniently, that weekend, Ren Liufang ends up going to an off-campus party.
She’s the youngest person there. She isn’t allowed to drink, but she finds herself with a red solo cup in her hand anyways, filled to the brim with cheap beer. The disco ball casts fragments of colored light all over the pulsing walls, vibrating with the nauseating beat of the music. There are people grinding on the dance floor, and Ren Liufang cringes away from it, dumping the contents of her cup down the drain.
When she turns back around, there’s a guy waiting for her. Smoothly, he leans over the sink towards Ren Liufang, Adam’s apple bobbing. Ren Liufang quirks an eyebrow.
“Can I help you?” She asks, confused. He coughs.
“You’re beautiful,” the guy says, smiling with dimples blown, “You wanna have a good time?” he tilts his head towards one of the bedrooms in the loud apartment complex.
“Uh–” Ren Liufang’s eyes dart away, eventually landing on some random young woman in the middle of some kind of drinking ring—”I don’t—”
The guy’s eyes follow hers, and he comes to some kind of conclusion, “Oh, I get it. Don’t swing that way?”
“What?” Ren Liufang blinks, but he’s already heading away from her, waving an arm behind his head.
“I gotcha!” he yells and disappears into the living room, leaving Ren Liufang alone in the kitchen, bewildered.
Then, from that drinking circle from before, she hears a horrible sound. Ren Liufang looks away as the woman in the middle suddenly throws up on the carpet, drawing a couple of disgusted groans from the others in the ring. The woman coughs and curls up into a little ball in the center, and Ren Liufang wonders if she has any friends to escort her back home.
The symbol on her hoodie suddenly catches Ren Liufang’s eye, and she realizes that it belongs to a different university than where this party is being hosted. She turns her head worriedly, knowing that somebody must’ve let her in if she didn’t go to this uni, right?
A couple of minutes pass that feel like hours, and it’s then that Ren Liufang takes matters up to herself. Sighing, she pads into the fray, dodging several couples making out and a couple of wet ping pong balls. Briefly, she can feel some lacquered nails drag their way up her waist, but Ren Liufang simply shoots a vaguely apologetic look at the person before making her way towards the inebriated woman in the center.
Ren Liufang grunts as she throws her arm over her shoulder and stands up, muttering: “She’s with me, sorry.” to anyone that might catch it. The body shifts in her grip but only snuggles closer, not doing much for Ren Liufang’s already wobbly walk towards the exit. She throws the door open, and upon meeting with the fresh air, the woman sneezes on Ren Liufang, eyelashes fluttering. Ren Liufang takes that moment to go through her pockets, mentally reminding herself that she’s looking for an ID, not pickpocketing.
And of course, since Ren Liufang’s a lucky bastard, there is no ID.
The woman shifts in her grip, and Ren Liufang stumbles, almost face planting into the wet concrete. Her eyes flicker in the direction of her apartment.
The university only required undergrads to stay in dorms for one year, so as soon as possible, Ren Liufang got out of there. As much as she preferred not spending too much money, no way was she staying one more year in that hellhole.
She thanks herself as she limps towards her complex, deadweight in hand. The woman’s hot breath ghosts over her neck, and Ren Liufang cringes, hustling along faster. She can’t get to her floor fast enough, jingling out the keys and practically shoving the door open along with the intoxicated woman.
Ren Liufang briefly questions her sanity before sighing and closing the door behind her.
Ren Mingshou would never know.
Ren Liufang almost forgets that she brought a random female—who literally could’ve been a serial killer—into her house last evening. She drinks her hot chocolate, and she leans back into her chair, sucking on the straw lazing as she types quickly into her laptop. She almost forgets because it’s a beautiful morning, and the sun is streaming beautifully through the translucent curtains and the hot chocolate was made just right and it’s quiet.
It’s shattered when a woman bursts through her bedroom door and yells:
“OHMYGODIMSORRYDIDWESLEEPTOGETHERLASTNIGHT?!” at the top of her lungs.
Ren Liufang’s morning is ruined. Along with her reputation, if the neighbors have been awakened.
“Good morning,” she says lightly, silver eyes still fixed on her chromebook screen. The woman’s chest heaves, and she takes a moment to look around the practically empty—sterile—apartment. Her eyes narrow.
“Wait a second, how old are you?” She asks slowly.
“Eighteen,” Ren Liufang replies nonchalantly. The woman lets out another inhuman shriek.
“Oh my God, I just slept with someone who can’t even drink yet fuck fuck fuck. I didn’t take your virginity, did I? Oh God, I’m so sorry your first time was with someone like me—”
“Please stop talking,” Ren Liufang interrupts, unwilling to hear any more. “We didn’t copulate. You were inebriated, so I brought you to my home.”
The woman’s mouth hangs open, “This is the first time I’ve heard a kid say stuff like “copulate”.”
For no reason at all, Ren Liufang flushes. “The range in my vernacular is just… slightly larger than the regular person. And I’m not a child, I can vote.”
“Just because you can vote doesn’t mean you’re not a child,” the other woman dismisses, “Okay, so we didn’t fuck?”
Ren Liufang’s ears color at the vulgarity, “No,” she says. The woman exhales a large breath in relief.
“What’s—what’s your name?” she asks shakily, as if trying to grapple with reality.
“Ren Liufang,” she answers politely, “And you?”
“Wang Huiyin,” the woman replies quickly. “Now, uh, can I buy you breakfast?”
Unfortunately for Wang Huyin, she does not end up buying Ren Liufang breakfast. They do in fact, however, eat lunch together at a quaint little cafe a few blocks down from the other’s college that Wang Huiyin apparently frequented often.
“I have to make up for being such a burden last night, don’t I?” Wang Huiyin says over an iced americano and several sandwiches. Ren Liufang shakes her head hastily.
“It gave me quite a convenient excuse to leave,” she admits. Wang Huiyin quirks an eyebrow.
“Speaking of which, why were you there anyways? You’re underage,” she points out. Ren Liufang turns her head away and stares out the window. She doesn’t catch Wang Huiyin tracking the movement of her eyelashes.
“I don’t know,” Ren Liufang says distantly. Wang Huiyin stares for a few more seconds before averting her eyes.
“You shouldn’t go to these things,” she scolds, “It isn’t a good environment.”
Now, it’s Ren Liufang’s turn to snort, “If I recall, it was me that dragged you out of that party last night.”
Wang Huiyin flushes, and she splutters, almost spilling her coffee. Ren Liufang watches her and can’t help but to feel a deep pang in her chest.
“My sister, it was all my sister’s fault!” Wang Huiyin declares loudly. As if on cue, the phone in her pocket buzzes. Ren Liufang tilts her head in a silent question as the woman fumbles the device out and presses it to her ear.
“WHERE ARE YOU?!”
The both of them jerk as a loud high pitched voice screams from the phone, screechy and staticky. Hurriedly, Wang Huiyin turns off the speaker and turns down the volume, turning her back to Ren Liufang and speaking in hushed tones to the person on the other side. Ren Liufang watches with an unexplained curiosity as Wang Huiyin gestures animatedly as she talks.
Finally, after about five minutes of rapid fire whispering, Wang Huiyin whirls back around and slams her phone onto the table, mood visibly dampened.
“Is everything alright?” Ren Liufang asks gently. Wang Huiyin sighs.
“It’s my sister,” she explains tiredly. “Seriously Wang Qingshan I swear… yesterday that girl decided to ditch me at the last second but screams at me when I’m not back on time. Like gosh, I know I’m supposed to be the elder sister and all that but aiyah that girl is really…” Wang Huiyin takes an exhausted gulp from her americano. Without meaning to, the corners of Ren Liufang’s lips curl up a little bit.
“What’s so funny?” The other woman huffs when she sees her. Ren Liufang’s smile only widens.
“You just reminded me of someone I used to know,” she says.
That night, Ren Liufang dreams of Xiu Lihua again, of her shiny hair and her crooked smile and grinning voice. When she wakes up, her chest hurts. She feels like she has betrayed something.
For some reason, Wang Huiyin and Ren Liufang keep running into each other after that, despite not even going to the same universities. They get coffee together most times, though sometimes Wang Huiyin comes and goes too quickly for her to catch. Sometimes the other woman is mild mannered and sweet while other times, she seems cranky and tired. Ren Liufang boils both down to college mood swings, having experienced some herself. Nonetheless, she learns to enjoy both versions of Wang Huiyin.
(Ren Liufang wonders if Xiu Lihua is out of high school yet. If she ever went back to school. If she ever found a home that loved her like she deserved. Sometimes, she entertains morbid visions of Xiu Lihua dying on the streets, no one to hold a proper funeral for her. No one to remember her.
Before, she used to go to parties to erase her mind. Wish she could drink all while nursing a glass of water. But now, she calls Wang Huiyin, and they talk for hours even though Ren Liufang knows she’ll only feel worse afterwards.)
A year passes since Ren Liufang meets Wang Huiyin. They meet at Ren Liufang’s house with glasses of sweet tea and limeade. The older woman sheepishly sneaks in a bottle of wine, but she promises to not open it. Ren Liufang has a fruit knife in her hand and she really does not want to see Ren Mingshou’s face if he hears that she’s been drinking, so Wang Huiyin’d better keep that promise.
They talk. Wang Huiyin seems to be in a mood again, but it’s strange in the way that Ren Liufang can tell she’s happy too. She doesn’t think much of it.
Before midnight, Ren Liufang starts to forget why she never let Wang Huiyin stay at her home past the next day, despite their first meeting. She doesn’t notice how wine gets opened and poured. She doesn’t notice until she swallows it, and Wang Huiyin’s face is inches from hers.
Ren Liufang sees Wang Huiyin’s nose hovering above hers, and she feels the wine rush down her throat. She’s not drunk, but she finds that she wants to get drunk. And she’s not drunk, but she finds that she wants Wang Huiyin to come closer.
Her hands come up to grip the other woman’s biceps, and Ren Liufang breathes out a glassy exhale, eyes half lidded. Wang Huiyin sucks in a breath, and she seems hesitant. Ren Liufang’s hands tighten on the arm of her sleeve, consenting.
She isn’t drunk yet. She can still smell Wang Huiyin and her perfume, the one she uses every time they meet. She can still see the constellations of freckles dappled across Wang Huiyin’s nose, the mole under her ear.
(Xiu Lihua appears again. This time, Ren Liufang shoves her image away. She’s done hurting like this.)
Wang Huiyin’s eyes close. They’re so close that their lips are nearly touching, not quite brushing. Ren Liufang steels herself. Unconsciously, she apologizes, but she doesn’t know who she’s apologizing to. She closes her eyes too and leans in.
Wait, something’s wrong.
Ren Liufang’s eyes snap open, and she shoves Wang Huiyin—no, not Wang Huiyin—away as hard as she can. The woman stumbles, and she grunts as her back hits the living room wall.
“Who are you?!” Ren Liufang yells, teeth clenched. She can’t see straight.
The person at least has the decency to look guilty. She stands up, unable to meet Ren Liufang’s eyes.
“Wang Qingshan,” she answers.
Ren Liufang suddenly flashes back to all those times Wang Huiyin seemed to appear from nowhere, looking more sullen than normal. It had taken a while for her to get used to, but they were able to converse fine. More than fine actually.
“Get out,” Ren Liufang purses her lips, “Please get out.”
Wang Qingshan looks like she’s about to protest before she looks at the wine on the table and the look on Ren Liufang’s face. Her eyes dart away, and she leaves in a flash. The door clicks behind her.
Alone, Ren Liufang breathes shallowly. She lays down and holds her knees to her chest.
Once again, Xiu Lihua appears in her head. She is laughing.
Ren Liufang squeezes her eyes shut and begs it all to go away.
The next months, Ren Liufang spends trying to forget. She has no boyfriend, but she now mentions a man in passing every family dinner. Maybe a barista at the cafe. Maybe a business student.
She stops meeting with Wang Huiyin. She starts going to parties again. The number is blocked and deleted. She moves on.
Ren Liufang graduates. She moves to a grad school that is good enough for Ren Mingshou to allow her to live across the country for. She studies.
When Ren Liufang is twenty-two, she’s introduced to a man. Surprisingly, it’s non-romantic, considering how frustrated the aunties are getting at her. It’s a younger boy who visits his fathers’ grave every other day and has a mother who spent ten years in prison.
“Please take care of him,” an older woman makes her promise. Ren Liufang agrees, all while eyeing the timid Cheng Bowen, who shies away from her.
At first, their relationship is strained. It’s mostly Ren Liufang’s fault, but after a few guilty visits to her parents’ graves and even Cheng Bowen’s father’s grave, she decides to try a little harder.
(“Ren Liufang,” the boy says to her, eyes fixed on his fathers’ grave. A bouquet of white chrysanthemums trembles against the stone, and he brushes some of the dust away.
“What?” she stands behind him, hands folded over her stomach.
“How did you stop grieving?” he asks quietly. Ren Liufang takes a second to respond, before she says:
“I never did.”)
Which brings them to now.
There are hands everywhere. Ren Liufang shoves Cheng Bowen into her apartment’s cold bed. He pulls her down with him, and his fingers ghost over her waist, her stomach. She yanks his topknot out, and his long hair falls down his shoulders. Their mouths never meet, but there’s tension hung in the air like a power cord waiting to snap.
Everything’s rushed. Ren Liufang isn’t even thinking straight. The both of them are sober, but they pretend for the moment that they’re drunk and young. Ren Liufang’s hands wander again and Cheng Bowen makes a noise. She keeps going because she doesn’t know, she doesn’t know and Cheng Bowen pushes her in that direction and she goes further and further down—
“Wait,” he croaks. “Please, wait.”
Ren Liufang pulls away, and she waits as Cheng Bowen exhales deeply, eyes flicking rapidly from her body to the bed and to the window.
“I don’t—I don’t—” he whispers, fists curling— “I’m sorry, I don’t—
“I don’t like women.”
And it’s like Ren Liufang has been splashed with cold water. Her eyes widen, and Cheng Bowen looks like he’s about to run.
“I do,” she blurts out, and suddenly, it feels like Ren Liufang can breathe again. It’s been eight years since she could breathe, she realizes. The rumors were true. Xiu Lihua was right. They were all right.
“You—what?” Cheng Bowen blinks stupidly. He sits up, criss crossing his legs over one another, back straight like some sort of puppy waiting for instruction.
“I like women,” Ren Liufang repeats, except it’s more trancelike than anything. “I like women.”
“Oh,” Cheng Bowen says, “You like women.”
Ren Liufang nods. He stares between her and her unbuttoned blouse and the rumpled bed sheets.
“We were about to do something very stupid, weren’t we?” he says. She sighs.
“For once, you’re right.”
(Ren Liufang will try to have a phone conversation with Ren Mingshou a few months later.
“How are you doing? I hope you’re keeping up with your studies. I didn’t let you go that far away for masters for no reason.”
“I’m doing fine, Uncle. Busy.”
“That’s a good thing. You’ll be even easier when you get older.”
“Speak up, child.”
“Uncle, I—I don’t—”
“I don’t like men. I like women.”
“... That doesn’t matter. You’re too busy to have… a girlfriend anyways.”
“... Thank you, Uncle.”
After that fiasco—which Ren Liufang and Cheng Bowen agreed to never speak of again—everything seems to go back to normal.
That is, until Cheng Bowen barrels into Ren Liufang’s apartment one night excitedly exclaiming that he had a boyfriend.
“What’s his name?” she asks, pouring him a cup of orange juice. He gulps the entire cup down at once, slamming the glass onto the table.
“I don’t know! We only met last night!” he says brightly. Ren Liufang wants to slam her—or his—head into the table.
“Then how are you two dating?” She raises an eyebrow.
“We had sex, didn’t we?” Cheng Bowen says, as if it’s obvious. “The elders at the temple always said that sexual intercourse should come after marriage, but since I’ve broken that rule and you told me they were too old fashioned, doesn’t this mean we’re dating?”
Ren Liufang pinches the bridge of her nose.
“I am sitting!”
“I mean—just listen okay—”
The next evening, Cheng Bowen bursts into her house again, except he has a face full of tears. Ren Liufang has half the mind to murder someone, but he looks far too distraught for her to break the law.
“We weren’t dating!” he wails, blowing his nose loudly into the tissue. Ren Liufang hums sympathetically and pats his back awkwardly.
“At least you aren’t a virgin anymore?” she says, trying to be comforting. Unfortunately, this only makes Cheng Bowen cry louder.
“Then who am I going to marry?!” he bawls. Ren Liufang sighs. That night, they order Cheng Bowen’s favorite takeout and then some. She mentally mourns for her wallet, but she supposes she’s missing the money less than Cheng Bowen currently misses this random guy he hooked up with yesterday.
“You’ll marry someone you… love,” she responds, cringing at herself. Cheng Bowen sniffles.
“My heart is broken,” he says.
“That’s rough buddy,” Ren Liufang thinks. She does not say it out loud. Instead, she says: “It isn’t that bad if you get used to it.” which is decidedly worse.
Cheng Bowen stops, slowly turning to look at her.
“Xiong Jinli, have you been in love before?” he asks.
“No comment. And don’t call me that, please,” Ren Liufang says quickly, already regretting her birth and that stupid nickname. Cheng Bowen leans towards her, eyes staring into hers.
“You have!” he concludes quickly, shoving a piece of orange chicken into his mouth. Ren Liufang averts her eyes.
“Let’s not talk about it,” she stands up and starts gathering up the empty boxes thrown everywhere. Cheng Bowen’s gaze tracks her until he eventually looks away, not for lack of resisting.
“I want to get drunk tonight,” he declares. Ren Liufang is already halfway to the wine cabinet.
Later that night, when Cheng Bowen is drawing stars on her couch and Ren Liufang is on the floor somewhere, he rolls over and looks at her again, strangely forlorn.
“What was she like?” he half asks, half mumbles. Ren Liufang covers her mouth as she hiccups, eyes glazed over.
“She was—she was—such an idiot,” she sniffed, “So stupid. Always so stupid and selfish.”
“Then why did you like her?” Cheng Bowen says. Ren Liufang would’ve wondered if he was sober had she been. Instead, she coughs.
“I don’t—I don’t like her,” she croaks stubbornly.
“You just said you did though,” he points out. Ren Liufang slaps the ground in response.
“No I didn’t!” she insists, “I never said I liked her! Just that I—I really—”
For some reason, Ren Liufang’s chest has started hurting again. She coughs, body heaving as she presses her palms into her watering eyes. Her knees press into her chest.
“I really loved her,” she rasps, “But I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t tell her before she left. It was all—all my fault.”
She inhales, but it comes out more as a sob, and before she knows it, there are tears coming out her eyes. She can hear Cheng Bowen crawl over and start rubbing her shoulders, infinitely better at being affectionate than her, and she cries even harder.
“I almost—I almost kissed that woman—” she blubbers, “But then I’d be betraying her—it was all my fault—I can’t allow myself to ever love another person—ever again.”
“That’s so sad,” Cheng Bowen murmurs.
Ren Liufang doesn’t respond. She’s already too loose-lipped under the influence of alcohol. The worst thing she can do next is spill all of her deepest darkest secrets to a guy who’s already got enough issues on his plate.
“Cheng Bowen.” She turns over to face him and grabs his cheeks roughly, squeezing them beneath her wet hands. “Make sure, if you find someone you love, to tell them, okay? If you really love them, don’t sacrifice them for your other problems. Make sure you care for them properly and don’t be selfish. Don’t—” Ren Liufang sucks in a breath— “Don’t make the same mistake I did.”
Cheng Bowen looks startled, but he nods nonetheless.
“You still have a chance. At love,” he says. Ren Liufang lets go of his face and scoffs.
“Then I wouldn’t deserve it,” she replies. “The person that I fall in love with next? It’d be better if we never met.”
Cheng Bowen pauses before saying softly: “That isn’t right.”
“No one wants someone who can’t move on. And I won’t. I won’t allow myself to.” Slowly, Ren Liufang picks herself up from the floor, wincing as a knife of pain shoots through her head.
“You should get home,” she wobbles a little as she walks, hand supporting the wall as she hobbles down the hallway, “Or stay over. The couch is open. So is the bedroom, if you want. Just wash the sheets afterwards while I take the couch—” Ren Liufang’s knees buckle, and she falls. Cheng Bowen rushes over, but she’s already standing by the time he gets there.
“I want to sleep,” she croaks. Cheng Bowen nods, supporting her around the shoulders. Ren Liufang’s eyes blink blearily before heaviness forces them closed.
The last thought she has is that she doesn’t want to see Xiu Lihua in her dreams, but she supposes she’s doomed herself to it.
For as long as Ren Liufang can remember, Xiu Lihua has haunted her life. From the open windows of their early lives to the rain of their sixteenth year. Like a shadow, wherever Ren Liufang went, Xiu Lihua followed, though in reality, it was the other way around.
After all this time, Ren Liufang was still chasing the same girl from her past.
When Ren Liufang wakes up, her cheeks are wet. She looks to her side to see the naked shoulder of a stranger staring back at her. The clock is ten minutes from nine.
At five minutes from nine, Ren Liufang flips a pancake with one hand and scrawls a messy note for the woman in the other.
At nine, she’s out the door.
That night, she goes to another party.
Nobody could’ve predicted how much Ren Liufang would go to parties in college. Maybe it was her strict upbringing. Maybe it was the childhood she half lost in her parents’ hospital room.
She doesn’t tell them that it’s Xiu Lihua.
So anyways, it’s a party. Ren Liufang is wearing white again, even though she knows it’s an acutely stupid idea considering that this is a college frat party where off-the-body shots are the main attraction.
She has a solo cup in her hand again. She keeps her eyes off the center of the mess, where people are vomiting and probably drinking away their lives.
Well, they have one thing in common at least.
Ren Liufang’s eyes are everywhere and nowhere at one. She swirls the liquid with her wrist, leaning against the table. A couple of times, someone comes up and propositions her, but she refuses each time. She came with Cheng Bowen but he’s already frolicked off somewhere, trying to find true love in hook-up culture.
The music is too loud. It’s just the way Ren Liufang likes it. She drains her cup and heads to the table to pick up another one.
Then, from the corner of her eye, she catches something that she never thought she’d see again.
Ren Liufang isn’t a particularly short woman, but evidently, she isn’t tall either. Quickly, she shoves her way through a couple of sweaty bodies, heart beating in her ear. Her eyes stay glued to that one part of the room.
But when she finally ducks out of that crowd of bodies, she can’t see her anymore.
No, she’s here. She’s heading out of the party, cheeks red. There’s a man next to her.
Ren Liufang can’t breathe. In the first second, accusations flash in her head, but after that, all that’s left is a bitter yearning that she thought she drank away earlier. She thinks about the intimate way Xiu Lihua holds onto the man’s arm and how they talk so familiarly.
“It’s okay if they’re dating. It’s okay if Xiu Lihua is straight. Just…”
Cheng Bowen suddenly appears at her side, blundering through the crowd with his annoying height and slim muscle.
“Hey, Ren Liufang! I’m not going to be coming home with you tonight!” he chirps. Ren Liufang doesn’t respond, eyes still glued to the two people halfway out the door. Cheng Bowen follows her gaze.
“Hey, I know the guy! I have his number!”
“What?” Ren Liufang whirls around, eyes wide. Cheng Bowen nods.
“I’ll send it to you!” he says knowingly. Ren Liufang hates how perceptive he is.
“Did you?” She says, the half-question hanging in the air. Cheng Bowen shakes his head.
“He said I wasn’t his type,” he pouts, “Oh well, that’s okay because I found someone after that too!”
“Go hook-up,” she pushes him away, even though her stick arms can’t do much against gym rat Cheng Bowen. He pulls a face.
“It’s going to go somewhere this time!” he proclaims. Ren Liufang just pushes him harder until he goes away.
That night, she is messaged a number from Cheng Bowen, a man by the name of Zhang Yuting. Along with the text are a bunch of well meaning but eyesoring emojis. Against her will, she smiles, but her chest internally collapses a little. She sits on it for an entire night and a few more hours before finally gathering up the courage to type up a small text.
From Unknown Number: Hello, this is Ren Liufang from university. I noticed that you are good acquaintances with someone I used to know and would like to get back in contact with.
From Unknown Number: May I please get Xiu Lihua’s phone number?
first chapter here: https://theprose.com/post/383820/chapter-one-on-rogue-cultivators-and-old-blood