“Teacher, why would you choose to age?”
The moon blew dust off of itself as the chilly night stirred itself like a pot of cold soup. Those two sat side by side with a tray of tea between them, chessboard long abandoned. The younger was never too good at the game anyways, never too good at thinking dishonestly.
The boy finally asked the question after a few years of being under his tutelage. By now, his chest was curved and firm, his arms filling the sleeves of his shirt. He no longer struggled to gain muscle, though his figure was slim enough to obscure that fact. He was very different from the child he had met before, though he was still a boy.
“It’s the natural order of things. People are supposed to age,” he replied, taking a long sip from the cup. The boy’s tea was untouched, as he had never favored bitter things.
“But cultivators aren’t,” the boy retorted, “Aren’t you a cultivator, Teacher?”
″You are a cultivator,” Teacher said pointedly, “I am just an old man with nothing else to do.”
“But—” the boy bit his lip. He had to stop himself from being indelicate with his words. “But you teach me to cultivate. I see you practicing cultivation on your own when you do not need to teach me. And I—I do not even know how old you are.”
Teacher barked out a laugh that sounded like a dog’s cry. He held his stomach and laughed alone, not because it was particularly funny but just, the nerve of this boy!
“For once, you’re right. I have been cultivating since before you were even conceived!”
The disciple nodded; he had already expected that to be true, though he pouted a little at the first comment. Teacher slowly calmed down, stifling his guffaws with curve of his stomach.
“So, you ask me why your elders, why I, and why all other cultivators would choose to grow old when we could die while looking youthful as you? That is partially untrue, as aging comes naturally even to us, but why we would speed up the process?”
“Is it to gain more respect, Teacher? Are older people afforded more benevolence?” The boy cut in with his own hypothesis. Teacher wondered how long he had been pondering this question, useless as it was.
“That is partially true, sure. Though if you’re guessing that from your own experience, let’s just say that not all youths are as respectful to the elderly as you try to be,” Teacher drawled, though he soon cleared his breath with another swallow of the fine tea.
“Then—?” The boy pushed.
“Humans age naturally. Cultivators can go a century without growing a single white hair. But it’s not like we’re that different. That much should be obvious. Even to regular people, it doesn’t occur to them about how cultivators might be dissimilar to their expectations. Yet, as you one day reach a point in your training, you’ll realize it—”
That little by little, you are losing your humanity.
There is living and dying. There is death and rebirth. There is smiling with red lips blooming in both directions, and there is collecting your lover’s grey hair as they can only weakly lay in bed. There is forging your own sword with metal fallen from the sky, and there is splitting a body into two with your own two hands as the crowd can only tremble in fear. There is bearing a child and raising her to be just and brave and true, and there is draping white over your own shoulders as she closes her eyes for the final time.
There is being worshiped as a hero, and there is being shunned as the villain. There is the trust that surrounds and coats like armor, and there is hatred that sinks in and weakens. There is having enough power to save a city and enough power to destroy it.
“Normalcy... Is something is far gone,” Teacher murmured. “In this path that I’ve chosen to go down, I’ve already walked too far, haven’t I? The only thing I can do now is play chess and drink tea with someone as good as a son...”
“Teacher? I can’t hear you. What did you say?” the boy said confusedly. Teacher suddenly turned to him, shimmering eyes hidden by the wrinkles that he had dug into his own face.
“It’s good if you can’t understand me yet,” he said. “It’s good if you are still young, no different than other boys your age other than the sword you hold.”
“Then there mustn’t be anything different from you and an ordinary old man either!” The boy argued. Teacher laughed.
“Then I’m glad you think of me that way.” He leaned forward and ruffled the boy’s straight black hair with his fingers, only stopping when the boy squeaked and batted his hands away.
How naive, He thought inside, though he kept it to himself as to not inflame his disciple’s temper. He reached over to pour himself another cup of the cold tea before the other hurriedly did it for him, always trying to prove himself.
You could say that the old Teacher was already dead. You could say that he was supposed to be dead already. You could say that he should have stayed young forever instead of choosing to decay like this.
Still, on a night like this, where he could at least prick the edges of someone else’s warmth and massage the valley of folds on the back of his hand and roll the fallen strands of white hair in between his fingers, he could pretend like he was just another simple old man.
Just another person, caught in the unrelenting breeze of time.