The world of Jiang-Hu is a dangerous and wild one, full of fights, of endless self-improvement, and enemy swords pointed at oneself – called a lonely path by most. However, Lian Chengbi is unsure of whether it is such, even after battling bandits in the mountains only two hours ago – but the hot springs at this inn warm and relax his muscles, orange leaves flutter down around him, and the sky is beautiful. And…
His travelling companion is someone who Lian Chengbi could definitely say he admires. Since they had met, it has only been three weeks, but it feels as if they know each other so much better than that. They had met in a teahouse, where the man had been set upon by members of the Yao Sect that he had been instructed personally by the emperor to hunt down – and the Yao Sect had sent some of their best assassins after him as a preventative measure.
Seeing the man standing alone against so many sneaky opponents, Lian Chengbi’s honor could not let him stand by, doing nothing, and he had drawn his own sword alongside the man. And since their destination was the same, they decided to link their paths from that day until they reached the capital city.
That man’s name is Pei Wende, and the more he thinks of him, Lian Chengbi is entirely sure by now that he is in love.
The exchanging of rare smiles and the beats that Lian Chengbi’s heart skips as they ride neck-for-neck down the dusty mountain roads, the glances Lian Chengbi sneaks at him over the rim of his teacup when they stop for a rest at an inn, the way their fighting styles meld seamlessly together when they stand back-to-back facing their enemies – all these things they share and Lian Chengbi feels, these things and so much more are why Lian Chengbi loves him.
And yet, he cannot say anything.
Pei Wende is untouchable and aloof, he smiles rarely, and his composure is even more rarely displaced. His rank is high within the court, his martial skill is beyond reproach, and he acts with honor in any situation. Lian Chengbi admires him for this, and yet fears to approach him more closely for fear of being rejected – and being unable to spend any more time by the man’s side. Are we even friends? Or would such a thing be too presumptuous of me?
The inn they have stopped at is in the mountains, with hot springs and beautiful scenery. As always, they share a room for cost-effectiveness – and Lian Chengbi both fears and eagerly awaits laying on his back in silence, an aching distance away from the object of his affection, listening to his even breaths and feeling his own cheeks heat up with indecent thoughts even this late in the night.
Lian Chengbi has opted to eat first and then bathe, the warm water is bliss to his muscles, sore from riding and fighting. Pei Wende had expressed some doubts about bathing, and now he is probably meditating in their rented room…
Still wearing his white silken under-robe, Lian Chengbi ties his hair up entirely and leans back against the stony lip of the bathing pool. The sun is setting, its fiery glow barely visible above the tips of the autumnal trees.
Sighing, Lian Chengbi reaches for the jar of wine he has taken with him to the hot springs. The capital is within a day’s ride now – after tomorrow the paths and fates of Lian Chengbi and Pei Wende may never intertwine again. Lian Chengbi doesn’t want that to happen at all. But what is he supposed to do?
He drinks and makes a face. The wine isn’t very good, so he sets it aside and sighs again. Maybe the world of Jiang-Hu really is a lonely one, after all. Everyone is on the same way, but different paths – and while those paths can intersect and a person’s heart can change, those paths will diverge soon. Lian Chengbi’s handsome face becomes unhappy, eyebrows drawing together.
He has gotten used to this sight that he sees reflected in the puddles on the side of the road; a youth in white and a man with a long sword over his back riding endlessly forward. That image is a beautiful one, an image Lian Chengbi will always keep in his heart. But this road has an end. And we are nearing that end. I… I don’t want to.
Lian Chengbi is so deep in thought that he does not notice someone joining him in the bathing pool, until that person clears his throat.
“I decided to come here after all,” says Pei Wende, leaning more comfortably back.
“Oh!” says Lian Chengbi, feeling foolish at not having anything better to say. He looks over at the source of Pei Wende’s voice and then almost chokes, flushing from the roots of his hair to his chest.
Divested of his hat and many layers of leather armor and robes, his spine no longer ramrod-straight – Pei Wende’s general appearance makes Lian Chengbi curse himself internally for any impure thoughts, for he has many. He is still somewhat dressed, after all, the same as Lian Chengbi. But the front of his tunic is open and Lian Chengbi cannot help himself thinking, His waist is so narrow!
Lian Chengbi quickly looks away. “How was your meditation, Lord Pei?” he asks, desperately searching for a topic of conversation as the steam rises around them. He hopes Pei Wende doesn’t see his reddened face.
“I could not concentrate well,” sighs Pei Wende.
“What is troubling you?” Lian Chengbi asks, concerned. He has forgotten his flustered-ness quickly – wanting to be of help in any way he can. "If there is anything I can-"
Pei Wende and looks over to meet Lian Chengbi’s eyes. “I could ask you the same question.”
“I- What do you mean?”
“Normally, not even an insect can sneak up on you. And you did not even notice me entering the pool with you. You seem troubled,” Pei Wende says. His face’s expression, as always, is a little cold, but he speaks with a very slight gentleness that warms Lian Chengbi more than the water of the pool ever could.
Lian Chengbi looks away, sinking a little more into the water. “It is nothing.”
“If you are allowed to be concerned for me, then I am allowed to be for you,” Pei Wende says authoritatively, moving closer to be able to fix Lian Chengbi with a dark glare.
“Truly, it is of no consequence,” Lian Chengbi insists, gulping and refusing to look anywhere but at Pei Wende; the stones, the steaming top of the water, and the fiery-leaved trees past Pei Wende’s left shoulder (a muscular shoulder with many water droplets rolling down it, with a sharp collarbone that sweeps like a bird’s wing, and there are several flyaway hairs on the back of his neck that stick there with water- Lian Chengbi squeezes his eyes shut. I must not think of such things!)
"You cannot even look me in the eye," Pei Wende says dryly. "I do not believe you."
Lian Chengbi ducks his head, strands of hair falling forward and obscuring some of his face. "…We will be parting ways soon," he finally confesses. "This troubles me. The thought of not seeing Lord Pei again."
There is a silence, and Lian Chengbi begins to curse himself for being so forward, but he sneaks a glance at Pei Wende. To his surprise, the other man looks neither uptight and withdrawn, nor disgusted. He is nodding slowly, an enigmatic expression on his face, brows furrowed and eyes downcast. When he finally looks up, Lian Chengbi looks quickly away to avoid meeting his eyes.
“…Our paths do not have to diverge forever,” says Pei Wende finally. “Outside of my duties, if you are willing, we could be able to meet.”
That is not the response that Lian Chengbi expects but he is not opposed to this turn of events, his heart hammering within his chest with a strange mix of apprehension and joy. “I…” he begins, and his throat becomes dry with an odd feeling that is half fierce emotion and half something else. “I am willing,” he says.
“Good,” says Pei Wende, and then there is silence.
Lian Chengbi cannot resist, he looks up again, only ready to cast a quick, sideways glance at Pei Wende to see his expression and gauge his mood – but he finds that Pei Wende has already fixed his gaze upon Lian Chengbi – and their eyes meet.
Mouth becoming dry with an odd feeling, Lian Chengbi searches for words that have never been so difficult to find before now. “I- There was-” His cheeks flush with color.
Pei Wende raises an eyebrow. “Yes?”
Lian Chengbi gathers himself. “I want to join your order, Lord Pei. To fight by your side for the years to come.” The words already sound to close to a confession, but Lian Chengbi forges on with great earnestness. “It is all I wish. I am willing to undergo whatever I must in order to enter.”
Pei Wende says nothing. His eyes are a little bit wide and his mouth is half-open, as if he wishes to speak but cannot. This is the first time Lian Chengbi sees him lost for words, and when Pei Wende looks down with a small smile, Lian Chengbi’s heart soars.
“We’ll see,” Pei Wende says, clearing his throat and folding his arms over his chest, sitting up straighter. The corners of his mouth are still twitching a little – and Lian Chengbi knows it means ‘yes’.
Smiling unabashedly at Pei Wende, Lian Chengbi can safely say that the world of Jiang-Hu is a bright and hopeful one, full of danger and bitterness, yes – but of his greatest joys, also. “Thank you, Lord Pei,” he says. Lian Chengbi dips his head to hide the widening of his smile at Pei Wende’s forcedly calm expression, and his bangs flop down to cover his eyes.
The mountains grow bitterly cold after sunset, and Lian Chengbi is glad of the warmed room of the inn, though there is a terrible draft through the floorboards. During his travels with Pei Wende, their arrangement has always been economical – one room usually had one bed, and they would take turns sleeping on the floor.
Lian Chengbi does not expect this to change tonight either, and he immediately volunteers to take the floor, as he does not want his companion to suffer the cold. He makes no complaint or mention of the strong, icy draft, for he knows that Pei Wende is nothing if not honorable, and would refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer.
Therefore, he is surprised when Pei Wende turns back to him. “The floor is cold. Take the bed. You took the floor last time.”
“It is indeed cold,” Lian Chengbi agrees, knowing there is no point in untruth, “But my cloak is warm. I will feel nothing.”
Pei Wende takes the edge of Lian Chengbi’s white cloak between his fingers. “It is thin. Go to the bed.”
“Lord Pei, I must refuse. As I am to be your subordinate, how can I let you suffer discomfort?” Lian Chengbi argues, surprised at his own boldness.
“You dare refuse your future leader?” asks Pei Wende, but he is not angry, more likely to be amused, a brow quirking.
Lian Chengbi sighs. “Lord Pei, you have a meeting with the emperor tomorrow – you must be well-rested for the ride to the capital.”
“…” A gust of cold mountain wind blows against the closed window, making it rattle, and the walls creak a little. Pei Wende looks at Lian Chengbi with an expression that says clearly without words, ‘My point is proven.’
But Lian Chengbi will not back down. Besides being an honorable thing to do for one’s superior, or senior, or friend – as the person Lian Chengbi is in love with, Pei Wende should not be exposed to any unnecessary discomforts.
Pei Wende rolls his eyes. “Fine,” he says. “If you are going to be stubborn – we will both take the bed.”
Lian Chengbi’s soul almost leaves his body at those words. His face flushes brightly and his eyes widen; he looks to the side, mouth opening as if to say something, but no words coming to his mind. Sleeping. Together. Both take the bed. Sleeping together. …I can’t think anything improper, I cannot, I cannot! I can’t- Sleeping together. …It’s so difficult not to think such things! Lord Pei would never say anything shameless – he only means to be kind! I’m the shameless one, thinking such things!
Pei Wende doesn’t seem to notice. He has already turned his back and is taking off his armor’s shoulder-plate.
Lian Chengbi stares at him, not moving, one hand convulsively opening and closing.
“Why are you staring at me?” asks Pei Wende, sounding a little annoyed, this time in the process of opening the front of his outer robe. He looks over at Lian Chengbi.
“It was not my intention,” chokes out Lian Chengbi, turning quickly away. He inconspicuously clears his throat and straightens his back.
There is rustling behind him as Pei Wende removes even more clothes, and Lian Chengbi suppresses every shameless thought and every bit of anguish, instead forcing hmself to remember every single sword form, from the beginner's level, to that of an adept. Every step, every movement of the arms and back, the way the sword is held – distracting himself with such thoughts, his back becomes less stuff and his glare at the wall more relaxed.
All that disappears, however when Pei Wende says, "Well? It's an early start tomorrow if we want to reach the capital before nightfall."
Lian Chengbi tries not to choke again. "I- Yes." Hands shaking a little, he takes off his cloak, folding it neatly, then his outer robe, also folding it neatly to buy time. He looks at the bed. One blanket! Sharing a blanket? He offers a prayer to any deities that may be listening, and then, trying to calm his panicking thoughts, he smooths out the furrow between his brows and offers Pei Wende a nod.
The supreme awkwardness of the situation is not lost on either of them. Laying stiffly on their backs, side-by-side, a hand’s width between them, barely feeling each other’s warmth, the blanket over them – Lian Chengbi’s eyes are open and staring intently at the ceiling, and Pei Wende is deeply frowning. Their breaths are even, but neither is asleep, that much is obvious.
Lian Chengbi is about to rise and beg Pei Wende to allow him to sleep on the floor, but there is a sigh, and his ‘bedfellow’ shifts. “Are you even trying to sleep?” he asks, annoyed. “Your eyes are wide open.”
“I-” Lian Chengbi searches for an excuse. “I did not wish to disturb you.”
“It takes a lot to disturb me,” Pei Wende says. “You could never.” He turns to his side and taps Lian Chengbi’s forehead with one finger, making Lian Chengbi start and sit up, wide-eyed at the oddly intimate gesture, hand going to his forehead. Pei Wende rolls his eyes. “You’re a man, not a stone,” he says. “Sleep well.”
Lian Chengbi gulps, cheeks warming for no discernible reason, and he is glad for the dimness of the room. He looks down. “Lord Pei, please sleep well, also.”
“…Don’t have to tell me,” grumbles Pei Wende, pulling the blanket a bit higher over himself. He closes his eyes.
Lian Chengbi slowly eases back into a laying position, then, just as slowly, closes his eyes. The warmth beside him ad the even breath of his companion lull him to sleep, a small smile on his lips.
“What are you doing?”
Lian Chengbi awakes with a start at the sound of Pei Wende’s voice. He groggily blinks, yawning slightly as he tries to get his bearings. The room is still dark, so it must still be night, yet Lian Chengbi feels very warm-
With a stifled yelp of surprise, Lian Chengbi jerks back. Somehow, in his sleep, he had moved closer to Pei Wende, turned to face him, and to add even more embarrassment, thrown an arm around his waist, pressing his forehead against the other man’s chest.
“My deepest apologies, Lord Pei,” he chokes out, trying to bow respectfully with his hands folded in front of him from a half-sitting position.
It’s no longer even that cold within the room. In fact, it seems as if the wind has stopped entirely. Besides, with his cheeks burning bright from embarrassment, Lian Chengbi is sure that he will be fine on the floor. But why is Lord Pei so insistent on not letting me do that?
“It was a question.” In the dark, Lian Chengbi can’t tell what kind of expression Pei Wende has.
“I- In my sleep, I must have-” Lian Chengbi cuts himself off with an embarrassed cough.
“Is that why you’re so adamant about sleeping on the floor – because you get… Cuddly?” Pei Wende’s voice is full of badly-hidden amusement, and Lian Chengbi cannot decide whether it bodes well or ill for him.
He begins to answer honestly, “In truth, I have never before-” and then cuts himself off, cheeks still burning hotly. Saying, ‘I have never before shared a bed with someone,’ sounds much too provocative! I am not a blushing maiden on her wedding night! After tonight, will Lord Pei revise his opinion of me and not wish to see me again?
“…” Pei Wende scoffs.
Lian Chengbi begins to slide sideways out of bed, holding his breath, but Pei Wende catches the front of his robe. His heart begins to beat wildly and he stops moving.
“…It is cold.”
The cold is not felt by Lian Chengbi at all. “O-oh,” he says.
Lian Chengbi is entirely unsure how he had managed to fall asleep, but he had, and slept exceptionally well. But when he wakes again, this time a few hours before dawn, he is filled with fear, embarrassment, and warmth – heart beating wildly.
Again, he had migrated close to Pei Wende and curled an arm around his waist, but this time, their foreheads are pressed against each other, Pei Wende had a hand on Lian Chengbi’s hip. Their legs, also, are tangled easily and if his, or the other man’s thigh moved just a little higher- It would be a disaster. This whole situation is a disaster.
Now that he is awake, Lian Chengbi is entirely unsure what to do. He doesn’t move at all, for that may wake Pei Wende, but how is he to explain this? How are both of them to explain this? He closes his own eyes and decides to pretend to be asleep. After all, if Pei Wende thinks he is asleep, then there will be no need for explanations.
He cracks an eye open again, just to make sure Pei Wende is still asleep, and then suppresses an undignified shrike of surprises when he realizes Pei Wende’s eyes are open, meeting his gaze. Forget about Pei Wende asking to share the bed – now Lian Chengbi’s soul will surely leave his body!
Hiding his feelings had been easy, but now, how is he supposed to, when his body betrays him during his sleep?
Lian Chengbi squeezes his eyes tightly shut, biting his lips, expecting the righteous might of Heaven, or the back of Pei Wende’s hand to smite him down. But neither thing happens.
What happens instead is truly much more strange.
A light breath of what could have been a laugh or a sigh passes between Pei Wende’s lips. “You look like you might cry, so I won’t ask.”
Truer words have never been spoken, thinks Lian Chengbi miserably, trying to ignore how pleasant it feels to be somewhat embraced in such a way. He tries to think of a way to say something, but no words come to him. “Lord Pei, I-”
“I’m not bothered.”
Lian Chengbi’s eyes snap open, and his breath catches in his chest. Could it mean…? Dare he hope…?
“If you want to be close to me, it is something I would reciprocate.”
“You… Lord Pei, you knew?”
“You weren’t hiding it.”
“No, I wanted to be honest but… I thought that if I said nothing, you would not mind,” he confesses.
“I mind. You said nothing,” grumbles Pei Wende. Unsure who is pulling who closer, they both embrace each other more tightly, ready to softly enjoy the time they have left before the sun rises and they must ride for the better part of the day to the capital.
Heart swelling with a feeling of full warmth, Lian Chengbi can do nothing but smile, his eyelids lowering as he looks down. And when he looks up, he sees a faint answering smile on Pei Wende’s lips.