Xu Wenwu/Ying Li ficlet
When an immortal falls in love with a mortal, heaven rebels. Practically speaking.
This was the story of Niulang and Zhinü, the lowly cowherd and the Jade Emperor’s daughter. She loved her mortal husband too much to return to heaven, and the celestials would have none of that.
Come home, Princess, they urged her, dressing threats in saccharine concern. Come back to where you belong.
Zhinü, the immortal princess, the weaver of sunsets and storms, looked up to the expanse of heaven overhead in its golds and greens. She looked to the earth, her husband’s cottage with the thatched roof that he bound together to keep the rain from falling on her head, and the family of cows that they milked and named together.
No, she said to her father and her people. This is my home. I have made it with him, with my hands upon his, and it is mine.
The celestials snatched her from earth, and Niulang raced to heaven to reach her. With her comb, the Queen of the West created a river of stars to separate them for eternity, borning the Milky Way. Not even light could reach the other side.
The lovers were left heartbroken and shipwrecked on distant stars, except for the seventh day of the seventh month when magpies formed a bridge with their wings across the unreachable universe for Niulang and Zhinü to reunite. When it came to the plight of star-crossed lovers, it was only ever the mortal world that showed compassion.
Xu Wenwu has seen the rise of nations and the death of legends, but never the birth of stars.
For all his thousands of years, the Milky Way faithfully arched overhead in silver and purple streaks. Of course, over the modern years, the metropolis lights dimmed the expanse, but Xu Wenwu was older than many of those cities standing. He knew that at the end of the day, the stars always outlasted everything,
He said this once in passing to Ying Li, who laughed at his soft-spoken melodrama. You don’t have to worry about that here, she said, stretching herself out underneath the bamboo thicket. You never run out of stars in Ta Lo.
Anyone could mistake her for a fairy, a goddess, an incarnate star. But to Xu Wenwu, she was simply and incredibly Ying Li, who hogged the sweetest Saturn peaches to herself, who missed her grandmother every day, and who guided his hand to pet a kirin for the first time. When she spoke to him, he stripped himself of every iron-plated moniker and title that kings would envy, and in return he was simply Xu Wenwu, the boy from a village whose name never made it into the history books, and he dared to not mind.
“I know just the place we can build our home here,” she said to him, eyes bright with excitement. “The lake is so clear that you can see the fallen trees like a window. And there are jackfruit trees that we can eat from in the summers. You’ll never want to leave.” Her lips curled into something more devious. “And I didn’t even have to steal your clothes to make you stay.”
“I was still soaked through,” Xu Wenwu pointed out, and she grinned with unbridled pride for herself and delight for him.
But when they knelt side by side before Guang Bo, her sister Ying Nan chaperoning them in quiet support, the dream of jackfruit trees in the summer was swiftly strangled.
“This killer has no place among our people,” he said. “He should have no place in your heart either.”
Ying Li’s fists tightened on her knees. Xu Wenwu did not move, nor did he lower his gaze from Guang Bo’s. Guang Bi looked upon Xu Wenwu in such a way that reminded him of his father, of which thousands of years did not dull the memory.
“And yet, it is his,” Ying Li said. The shake in her voice was almost imperceptible. She had never asked for anything of her own until today. “And I don’t want it back.”
“You were brought up to protect the world from dangerous threats and now you’ve grown soft on one,” Guang Bo retorted. “You know what he is capable of, what he has done with the Ten Rings.”
“I know he has sworn them off for me,” Ying Li said.
“The word of a killer,” Guang Bo said gravely.
“Of a man,” Ying Li retorted. “With skin and soul just like anyone else, Guang Xian Sheng. Just like you. Do you think you can never change either?”
“Even if a tiger changes its stripes, the village will hunt it for killing their children,” Guang Bo said. “The bloodthirst will come for him. And there is too much at stake here in Ta Lo to let it come.” His face hardened, but for Ying Li there was almost pity. “He shall not make a home here.”
Xu Wenwu knew, the moment he knelt before another man, that they would not accept him. He lived a thousand years and seen more than any of them knew, and still he waited for the ghostly ache of a childhood scar upon rejection, the father-shaped bruises that faded only visibly. But it did not come, because Ying Li saw the lowly man beneath the gilded glory and still thought him worth defending.
Ying Li was speechless, lips stiff and eyes shining with hope deferred. He risked reaching a hand to brush hers, should it be the last chance he could. Before the impenetrable bamboo thicket rushes between them, the chasm deepened by his insurmountable sin. There were calluses on her warm fingertips. He wanted to squeeze them and keep them warm at night.
“Forgive me,” she whispered.
Xu Wenwu leaned in close, silent acceptance upon his breath, until he realized that she did not look at him when she said it.
Guang Bo rose from his seat, realization dawning on him. Ying Li locked eyes with Ying Nan with grief and resolution. Her sister paled with understanding, looking upon Ying Li and Xu Wenwu with understanding and betrayal and sadness all at once.
“Li Mei,” Ying Nan said, her voice cracking.
Ying Li held Xu Wenwu’s hand, her fingers interlacing with his until they knitted together like rope, only meaningful when twisted together to be a bond, or an execution, or both. […]
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I absolutely love this bit of characterization they gave Tom on multiple occasions of showing his hesitation to dive into the Barneston dream relationship head first without actually bluntly stating that he's a bit anxious, but subtly he:
is slow and careful to react to Becky's advances in Take Me Back, looking into her eyes to check she truly wants this and waiting for her cues to progress the intimacy
asks Becky to talk about it just after they made love to process it all (they get interrupted but he wanted to have that talk)
is hesitant to call Becky his girlfriend in front of Tim because he doesn't want to rush him into it, tells Tim she's going home
tells Becky she can go home after their date if she wants because he doesn't want to rush her into a maternal role for Tim if she's not ready
It really paints a full and nuanced picture of him, I think that it helps establishing super important personality traits of his:
he's CAUTIOUS. he's not that reckless of a man, he weighs things out, he waits and hopes for outer validation because he doesn't trust himself to make the right decisions. this deepens the depiction of his trauma and mental illness that have rendered him anxious about actually doing things that are good for him because he thinks he doesn't deserve them and he'll spoil them.
he's RESPECTFUL. he wants his son's approval before bringing another woman home, he wants Becky's consent being intimate again and building a new relationship together. he wants everyone to be on the same page and to set the pace for him so they're comfortable.
I just think these short moments are so crucial in establishing what kind of man he is. consent and anxiety king Thomas Houston.
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