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He had left at 1:35 in the morning. Late enough that he would have normally gone to bed but early enough to be woken up had someone come to check on him. Lining his departure up with the change in patrol had been easy. 

Leaving without saying goodbye had not.

It hurt knowing the last time he might ever see his family was during an argument, but the knowledge of what he had to do quelled his thoughts. No matter what any of them wanted, it doesn’t change the fact that Wei Wuxian going to Gusu is the best option for their country right now.

 

Yunmeng and Gusu have been at war since before Wei Wuxian had even been taken in by Jiang Fengmian. Cultural differences, moral debates, and minor skirmishes had all built up into a powder keg that finally exploded with a battle where no one knows for sure who shot the first arrow but where both sides were intent to shoot the last one. Yunmeng was in a superior position at first with their fluid and responsive tactics overwhelming the traditional restrictive Gusu style. A perfect example of the new outshining the old. Gusu had even lost an emperor.

However, that saying goes both ways.

Shocking the world with his careful strategy and ruthless efficiency, the new teenage emperor of Gusu, Lan Wangji, created an upset in the war that tipped the balance in Gusu’s favor. While Yunmeng quickly adjusted to the change in combat, what they could not account for was the hearts of the people. Lan Wangji was a rare example of an honest man to lived by his principles rather than his objectives. A stark contrast to previous generations, he made his own decisions rather than relying on the word of his council. If he said they would not confiscate the crops of the peasantry for the war effort, you can be sure it was forbidden from that moment with a sure punishment for any violators. With his silent charisma and endless talent added on top, morale among Gusu skyrocketed along with support for the war effort. It doesn’t need to be said how much it can benefit a war effort when your people actually want to fight.

Wei Wuxian can understand. The first time he saw Lan Wangji across the battlefield it was like looking at the incarnation of the Dragon Emperor. One glance was enough to know one can never defeat him.

So Wei Wuxian took on the challenge.

The day Wei Wuxian joined the war was another turning point. His sister had always hearkened the emperor and Wei Wuxian to two sides of the same coin. Despite seeming to be complete opposites, Wei Wuxian had earned the same respect and admiration for many of the same reasons.

 

Originally appointed the commander of a royal unit, Wei Wuxian quickly earned the role of General for their army. Every town he passed adored him and every unit he led swore absolute loyalty to him. Along with his genius Wei Wuxian even had an advantage with his inventive and observative nature, the few years he spent in the army producing more technology and innovation than the last hundred years of Gusu’s history. Some would say he should be winning, yet it took everything he had just to maintain a stalemate.

One of the benefits of the strict hierarchical Gusu is how unified they are under the ruling authority and more importantly the emperor, though much can be credited to Lan Wangji’s own charisma. When the emperor makes a decision, it is followed. When he sustains a victory his entire court celebrates. When he suffers a defeat the entire court joins to find a solution. 

And where Gusu is united, Yunmeng is divided. Stretching all the way back to Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan’s very engagement, the Yunmeng court can never agree almost on principle. Jiang Fengmian has a faction, Yu Ziyuan has a faction, their son Jiang Cheng has a faction, there’s even a surrender faction. And now Wei Wuxian has a faction.

Wei Wuxian’s faction has the support of the people and it drives Madam Yu up the wall. And it shows. Unlike Lan Wangji, when Wei Wuxian sustains a victory it cannot be celebrated too enthusiastically for fear of madam Yu’s wrath. When Wei Wuxian suffers a defeat he every action is thoroughly scrutinized and cricisized. When they need to be supporting each other, instead they fight for control.

Wei Wuxian is only one man. While he can set his rules and manage his territories, he does not rule the kingdom. His men may not rape or pillage Gusu bordertowns, but that does not mean all Yunmeng troops do not. His men might not burn villages to the ground to flush out the enemy, but other troops might.

The people might support Wei Wuxian but that does not mean they support Yunmeng.

Maintaining their morale in such a delicate balance of power requires absolute confidence. Wei Wuxian cannot show any weakness, not to his troops, not to their people… and not even to his family. Preventing the stress and fatigue from showing had been difficult, but every victory picked him up, every villager’s cheer bolstered him forward.

He may not be a Jiang, but these are his people and he’s going to protect them.

 

It took Wei Wuxian’s full genius and determination to match Lan Wangji in the war effort. And if he were honest it was exhilarating, tapping into his full potential after having finally met his match, using his every resource, stretching the very limits of his creativity. This rivalry pushed Wei Wuxian to limits he never thought possible. It even overpowered Madam Yu’s scolding him for smiling so brightly in the midst of a wartorn battleground. 

Wei Wuxian would like to think the emperor felt the same. Despite never seeing the face behind the Gusu Lan imperial headdress, Wei Wuxian could read it in the intensity of Lan Wangji’s movements, in the hours of planning necessary to combat Wei Wuxian’s tactics. In the strange pattern of movement that would guarantee they would meet on the battlefield soon. Lan Wangji is no general, he is a ruler who lives in the capital and tends to his people, and as such has few opportunities or even reasons to join the battlefield. Yet when the opportunity arises, instead of sending a trusted commander Lan Wangji will meet Wei Wuxian in battle personally. 

Jiang Cheng calls his theory ridiculous, but why else would such an important man do such an unnecessary thing unless he felt that same sense of rivalry?

So although it felt like the war would never end, a small part of Wei Wuxian didn’t mind. That was, until the Venerated Triad appeared.

Lan Wangji had an older brother with peerless talent and charisma as well, who also had a skill in maneuvering politics. Having managed many of the late emperor’s responsibilities as well as being entrusted with the throne whenever Lan Wangji is out, it confused the world in more than one way to see him hand the throne to his brother instead. Clearly a wise decision, but confusing all the same.

And this prince, Lan Xichen, is very personable. He shares many of Lan Wangji’s positive traits while also having a special social competence, leading to having many friends. Two such friends are as close as brothers and the three share a loyalty rarely seen in the world. And no one knows how, but Lan Xichen somehow got their territories, the previously neutral Qinghe and Lanling Kingdoms, to ally with Gusu. Although they didn’t throw even half of their resources into the war, both Jin Guanyao and Nie Mingjue had talents and abilities beyond the norm, and their tactics filled the gaps the Gusu army left. With both Lans able to manage the army from different directions and the Nie and Jin compensating any weakness, what was once a one-on-one battle of equals became a four-on-one dogpile. You could even compound their effectiveness as 8x The strain Yunmeng was facing before.

Wei Wuxian is only one man.

But he will not give up. No matter the odds, no matter the struggle, he will not abandon his people.

The impossible is only something that hasn’t happened yet .

With all his genius and creativity seemingly exhausted just to match Lan Wangji, all Wei Wuxian had left was pure effort and his bottom line. What was he willing to sacrifice?

 

There were a lot of services Wei Wuxian’s army was providing that needed to either be cut or entrusted to another division. Neither of these was ideal, but he hoped leaving it in Jiang Cheng’s hands would be the next best option. He can’t blame Jiang Cheng for being upset about it. He’s been building achievements in battle, but with Madam Yu’s inability to give a compliment, nothing he did ever seemed to be enough because Wei Wuxian would always be left with the bigger responsibilities. Although the reports of those programs not being given the proper attention and resources had been a blow, what can Wei Wuxian say when he himself recalled those very same resources?

Morale was decreasing while casualties were growing. The decisions he was making became harder and faith in him began to waver. It was fine to be so lenient on the Gusu people before when Lan Wangji was lenient on the Yunmeng people, but why continue that kindness when the Jin and Nie follow a different set of rules? Why spare the Gusu villages that could give us necessary resources when the Jin have no qualms about pillaging ours? Why waste time giving the Nie soldiers proper burials when they tear our soldiers apart and leave them to rot?

What was once heralded as heroic acts now became a hero complex. Such a quick turn it gave Wei Wuxian whiplash. 

There was not one moment Wei Wuxian let the confident smile leave his face.

It’s not as if he’s lost the support of the people yet. Most of the grumbling comes from the other factions and some soldiers. Even then, many of them simply think him naive or idealistic rather than being genuinely upset with him. He’s young and innocent, and he’ll realize the other side isn’t worth it soon. As if he hasn’t been fighting a war for years.

So Wei Wuxian smiles and shoulders the weight of his country’s expectations, his people’s needs, and his own principles, no matter how close he is to being crushed.

He manages, somehow. With extensive planning, nights without rest, and risky maneuvers that rely on the blind trust of his loyal subordinates, Wei Wuxian manages to resist the barrage of the Triad’s assault. Often making it through by the skin of his teeth, and sometimes having to swallow his pride and retreat without a fight, but surviving regardless.

The other factions were doing less good. Some were winning by bleeding troops, while others were straight up losing. Jiang Cheng was doing well as a support for Wei Wuxian’s forces, but he couldn’t stand having to be on ‘standby’ when they were already lacking numbers. He would take any chance he could get to dash in and join the battle, not seeming to understand the vital importance his forces play in Wei Wuxian’s very delicate plans should even the slightest thing go wrong. Sometimes it helps them win. Other times it makes them lose. Wei Wuxian’s plans are either to win or abandon the position and retreat. Jiang Cheng thinks there’s no difference if they’re going to lose the area anyway, and he just can’t seem to understand the difference between losing and not winning. 

As Wei Wuxian is their most effective war force, more and more of the responsibilities and troops are placed under his command. However, just because he can tell them what to do doesn’t mean they’ll listen. These aren’t the people he trained and gained a camaraderie with, they’re other factions. And as their commander, anything they do becomes his problem to deal with. 

So when one important noble’s son with relations to the Jiang clan gets himself and his troops captured by the enemy after not following orders, Wei Wuxian is the one who must endure the beratement of the council and lower his head to negotiate for their release.

 

It made him nauseous, to enter the enemy camp unarmed and ready to give away resources they did not have because some jackass thought he was more capable than anyone else just because his daddy made everyone clap at his school play. Wei Wuxian didn’t know what the Lan would demand in exchange, but he was prepared for anything. Money, supplies, cultural heirlooms… people. People worth more than that piece of shit ever could be.

Wei Wuxian was more surprised than he probably should have been to see the emperor of Gusu at the far end of the negotiation tent. They stared at each other in silence for a few moments, Wei Wuxian struggling to maintain a neutral facade. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore,

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet your highness formally. I just wish it were under more... joyous circumstances.” He grinned.

The emperor only stared at him, “Mn.”

Wei Wuxian took a steadying breath, “So, let’s just get this over with. What do you want in exchange for Yunmeng’s troops?”

The emperor did not respond, only gesturing slightly toward the tea cup in front of Wei Wuxian. Picking up his own, the emperor took a slow, elegant sip of the fine tea, clearly in no rush at all. Wei Wuxian clenched his fists tight in his lap. In another time, he too would have wanted to take his time after finally meeting his archrival, but that time is long gone.

Now he just feels powerless and humiliated.

It takes everything he has to keep his hands from shaking as he picks up the tea cup. To drink something poured by the enemy is reckless at best and goes against every logical decision he should be making. Wei Wuxian doesn’t fight it. Lan Wangji has never been anything less than honest and straightforward. He wouldn’t poison Wei Wuxian’s tea, nor would he let someone else poison his tea. He’s not worried about drinking it. Wei Wuxian just hates that he has no choice but to drink it.

He takes the smallest sip he can, more touching the liquid to his lips than actually ingesting any. A small, petty show of resistance but it’s the best he can manage.

They sit in silence for a few more minutes, silent aside from the gentle tap of the cup whenever Lan Wanji sets it back on the table. Wei Wuxian glances back to check on Wen Ning. His closest ally and best friend, despite being gentle he becomes more bullheaded than anyone when it comes to Wei Wuxian. Even out of all of Wei Wuxian’s stupidly loyal retainers, Wen Ning is many times more stupid and loyal, having been the only one to follow Wei Wuxian to the Lan camp no matter how Wei Wuxian tried to lose him. He was Wei Wuxian’s right hand, and the one person he could not afford to take to the Lan camp.

Wen Ning was not good in these kinds of socially nerve-wracking situations. And true to form, he was tense, though he was holding on well compared to usual. Wen Ning caught his eye and gave a small nod of reassurance. Wei Wuxian huffed a bit.

A slightly louder tap snapped Wei Wuxian’s attention back to the emperor, kicking himself for getting distracted, even if it was literally for only a second.

“Does General dislike the tea?”

Wei Wuxian blinked, unsure of how to answer. He gave a wry grin, “Sorry, I always saw tea as for the study and wine as for the lounge. Social occasions need social drinks!” he laughed.

“Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”

Wei Wuxian’s smile froze before settling into something a little less genuine, “I see. Forgive me, I did not realize the Cloud recesses moved to Yiling. My mistake.”

The emperor tilted his head slightly and Wei Wuxian kicked himself for losing his temper.

What were once small cultural differences intensified with the bitter fires of war into a vital part of a kingdom’s identity. Just a few years ago something like drinking alcohol didn’t matter, but as the two sides became increasingly more antagonistic towards each other, their views polarized against each other.

What a stupid thing to get upset about. Knowing Lan Wangji he was probably just giving an explanation, no deeper meaning to it. It’s not even a Gusu thing, just a Royal Court rule. Hell, Gusu’s Caiyi town makes the best alcohol in the entire known world, clearly heir emperor doesn’t mind other people drinking it.

Wei Wuxian looks down at his tea cup, “Then again, I’m just a guest in your majesty’s territory. It might as well be the Cloud recesses, who am I to complain?”

“Is it important in Yunmeng?”

“Hm?” Wei Wuxian perks up.

The emperor somehow seemed to straighten up a bit in attention despite already having a perfect posture, “Drinking wine with guests.”

Wei Wuxian blinked and tapped his finger against the rim of his cup. Does it matter?

“Well, I wouldn’t say important , it’s just something we do.” They didn’t have any rules or etiquette about such things, it’s not the Yunmeng way, “We just like to eat and drink and have a good time. You can’t make friends if you don't have fun!” Wei Wuxian grinned at the end, remembering many a banquet turned drunken karaoke night. His smile softened thinking of those good times.

Looking up, it faded into a polite but neutral expression. Those times are not now.

Wei Wuxian noticed the emperor’s hand clench slightly and hoped he didn’t offend him further. He gestured to the emperor’s cup, “Your cup is empty, do you need another one?”

The emperor doesn’t respond for a moment before raising his chin purposefully, “No need.”

So we’re finally getting to it, huh. Wei Wuxian stops fiddling with his full cup and sets it aside with a light thunk. Let’s get this over with. He looks up with half-lidded eyes, “Name your price, then we can negotiate.”

“Do you have a choice?”

Wei Wuxian froze, anger twitching a challenging smile onto his face, “I’ll try anyway.”

The emperor just hummed in response, but Wei Wuxian got the impression that he was pleased. At the very least, he’s not upset by the insolence if Wei Wuxian’s danger sense says anything about it.

The emperor tapped on the table two times before turning his head to face Wen Ning. Wei Wuxian tensed. He has one unmovable bottom line and that is his loved ones. Screw the consequences, if he damnads Wen Ning in exchange for those fools then Wei Wuxian will just say fuck it and leave.

“A Wen remnant?” the emperor tilts his head in interest.

Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes, “A citizen of Yunmeng.”

The emperor hums, “Indeed.”

Turning to face Wei Wuxian as if examining him one more time, the emperor eases back into a more relaxed though no less formal position, “Give me this city.”

Remembering the army camp surrounding them right outside the gates, haven’t they basically captured it already? Wei Wuxian scrunches his brows in confusion. Even if they didn’t, why Yiling? A ragged wartorn area, Yiling is more ruin than city, never having had the chance to recover. There’s no real resources of interest to Gusu, and it’s not a particularly helpful position to hold against Yunmeng anymore. 

Is there something hidden in Yiling that he doesn’t know about? Past experience proves it’s possible.

Wei Wuxian raised his eyebrow dramatically, “Pardon my lack of manners, but why would his Highness be asking Yunmeng for a dump Gusu already caught?”

The emperor quickly replied “Not asking Yunmeng,” As Wei Wuxian’s face began to scowl, the emperor continued with purpose, “asking General.”

Wei Wuxian blinked at him. There’s no difference?

The emperor seemed to realize his confusion, “The Yiling Patriarch.”

Wei Wuxian huffed out a bemused laugh, “That’s just a name some random people gave me. Just because I spent some time here doesn’t make me own the place.”

“The locals say otherwise.”

Wei Wuxian looked down. Yiling was one of the many projects he had to abandon when the war ramped up, “Well what can I say, the royal court all looks the same to them. The dress code doesn’t help!” He inclined his head, “And you never answered my question. Yiling is more trouble than it’s worth on a good day. What’s so good about this place that has his majesty the Emperor negotiating hostages for it personally?”

The emperor looks at him, “...Yiling has value to me.”

Wei Wuxian sighs under his breath and slumps into his seat, “If you want it then fine, not like I can take it back anyway.”

“I want to hear it.”

Wei Wuxian looks up. Though he can’t see through the fine veil, Wei Wuxian can almost feel the intensity of his gaze. He hears Wen Ning take a small step forward just in case, but it’s as if the emperor no longer noticed his presence, so focused was he on Wei Wuxian, “...I want to receive it properly.”

Wei Wuxian was silent, hesitating for a moment before straightening up, “Your Majesty-”

“My name.”

Wei Wuxian paused at the uncharacteristic interruption. The emperor inclined his head meaningfully, “Not from general to emperor. From Wei Wuxian to Lan Wangji.”

Wei Wuxian tilted his head with a confused smile. This guy is surprisingly whimsical, how interesting, “Well then, how about I just drop the formalities then?” 

He didn’t expect the emperor to actually nod, “...In that case,” Wei Wuxian threw his head back and held his hand out toward the emperor, “Lan Wangji. Yiling is a giant pain, but it is this Laozu’s giant pain. Return Yunmeng’s troops, and I will give it to you.”

Whatever you plan to do, treat her well.

The emperor looked at his hand for so long Wei Wuxian began to wonder if that’s not what he meant after all. Then, hesitantly, he stretched his hand over and lightly clasped Wei Wuxian’s own in a painfully gentle grip before instantly letting go and whipping his arm back down by his side.

Wei Wuxian was sure the trembling he felt was his own, even now feeling the urge to close his hand and savor the feeling. Somehow his hands were soft and calloused at the same time. A little cold, but not unpleasantly so. Despite looking so refined, it was noticeably larger than Wei Wuxian’s own.

Snapped out of his reverie by Wen Ning’s awkward fidgeting, Wei Wuxian hid his hands in his lap, “Then, is that all?”

The emperor replied with calm, “No.”

As expected. No way something that ridiculous would be enough. The emperor was quiet for a moment almost as if deliberating whether or not to speak, then seemed to reach a conclusion, “A token.”

Of what? Of Yunmeng Royalty’s? Of the General’s? Something representing their defeat? It’s not uncommon for one side to display a sign of the other’s loss to humiliate them and showcase their superiority.

Wei Wuxian gripped his Clarity Bell tight. Every member belonging to or serving the Jiang Royal family receives one, with the appropriate ornamentation befitting their status. Each person only gets one, with each promotion adding carvings to the surface. An absolute expression of ability, the clarity bells are the source of pride for anyone who has one. Few things are as humiliating as losing your bell to the enemy. Of course, you get another one made for you but it doesn’t erase that mark of shame.

The emperor’s voice stopped him, “Something personal.”

Wei Wuxian gave him a look, “You’re going to need to be more specific.”

The emperor tilted his head up, “Yiling is valuable to me. Now, something valuable to you.” he added after a moment, “Sentimental.”

Does that mean Yiling is sentimental to Lan Wangji? And what kind of a demand is that coming from an emperor at a hostage negotiation?! Wei Wuxian brought gold and valuable resources, not his childhood toys!

“Haha, this may surprise you but this one did not come prepared for such a request. Not many personal items on me.” The way Lan Wangji clarified his meaning when Wei Wuxian grabbed his bell must mean that’s not what he was looking for. Wei Wuxian’s relief is quickly replaced with confusion. So what does he want?

The emperor observed him in silence before motioning to Wei Wuxian’s head, “That ribbon.”

Wei Wuxian froze for only a second before tugging the ribbon off, his hair cascading across his shoulders. This guy sure knows how to pick them.

Wei Wuxian’s mother came from a reclusive mountain community under the leadership of a rumored immortal. Cut off from the outside world, they have their own unique culture preserved from hundreds of years before. They are a strange but respected people.

Not much is known about their rituals aside from their red ribbons. Signifying love and family, a strip of both the groom and the bride’s wedding robes are embroidered together with good luck charms and bestowed onto their child at birth.

Wei Wuxian keeps his face carefully neutral as the ribbon disappears into the emperor’s sleeve.

It was the only thing he had left of his parents.

No longer able to look at the man, Wei Wuxian jerked his head to the entrance, “Can Yunmeng have its troops back now?”

The emperor inclined his head, “You may.”

Ignoring the noble’s indignant screams to report this to his father on their way back, never had throwing someone out of the army felt so good.

Although things were extremely tense afterwards, especially amongst the Jiangs who understood the ribbon’s meaning, Wei Wuxian acted the same as ever. As if nothing happened and there was nothing to worry about.

In such a delicate situation, how could he afford to show weakness? 

At least it would be a while before he saw the emperor again.

 

Never did Wei Wuxian expect that just a week later the emperor would ride up to the border of their camp with only a few guards, demanding to see him.

Gently handing Wei Wuxian a beautifully crafted box after they entered the tent, the emperor inclined his head, “Apologies. We did not understand its value.”

Wei Wuxian’s eye widened at the ribbon carefully arranged like a jewel on a pillow within the box. Not a crease in sight and without even a change in scent, the ribbon must have been treated with the utmost respect and consideration, even more than Wei Wuxian himself bothers.

Taking a shaky breath, Wei Wuxian faced the emperor with warmth bubbling in his chest. Ah, of course he would be this way, “Your Highness… You have my gratitude, but I cannot accept this back. A deal is a deal and leaving loose ends would not do any of us good.”

The emperor shook his head, “No.” 

Then seeing Wei Wuxian prepare to retort, “A substitute.”

Wei Wuxian turned to the entrance. Something personal, huh, “Wen Ning, bring my stuff here!”

Flinching at being caught eavesdropping, Wen Ning scurried off and quickly came back holding a trunk. As he walked past Wei Wuxian to return to his post, Wen Ning whispered, “Don’t worry Young Master, I didn’t take anything important.”

The emperor tensed as he looked inside, asking tersely, “Everything is yours alone?”

Wei Wuxian waved it off, busy tying his ribbon up and ignoring the emperor’s gaze, “Yup! All mine, had it for years. Are they too exotic for His Majesty’s refined tastes?”

The emperor turned his attention back to the trunk, seemingly satisfied.

Taking a glance, Wei Wuxian was surprised to find it really was just some random possessions he carried around. A thought struck him as the emperor excused himself after taking something while Wei Wuxian was distracted. If the emperor originally thought his ribbon was just some scrap of fabric, then why did he want it?

Well, all royalty have their quirks.

With his ribbon back, it’s as if Wei Wuxian regained a lost chunk of strength that carried him through the next few debilitating assaults from the Venerated Triad Alliance. Now truly understanding the gravity of the splintered situation, Wei Wuxian rallied as much of the army under his banner as he could. After advising the Council that anyone not under his command was no longer his burden, Wei Wuxian spent the next few months running through as many plans as he could. 

The negotiation incident seems to have left a deep impact on Jiang Cheng. No longer did he look for opportunities to gain achievements, becoming much more cooperative to Wei Wuxian’s plans. As proud as Wei Wuxian was to see his growth in maturity, despite their 5 day age difference, it was just another reminder of the desperate situation they found themselves in.

 

As the days grew, so did the Triad’s strength. And so did the tension among the Wei Wuxian’s personal advisors. Arguing about which directions to take, Wen Ning had to hold Wen Qing down from needling Jiang Cheng into a coma when he suggested using the Demonic Text.

A product of desperation mixed with unrestrained creativity, the Demonic Text is a secret book of ideas Wei Wuxian had been cataloguing since his first experience with war. Containing everything from torture methods to biological warfare, it is a cold bundle of pages with no respect for any form of life. After denouncing it with his inner circle, Wei Wuxian used it as a sort of grave to dump all his dark ideas so he could put them out of mind and focus.

Never did Wei Wuxian think he would consider using it again.

And in actuality, he wasn’t considering it. He refused to consider it. This war against Gusu is different and for all the bitterness and animosity between the two, Gusu has done nothing to deserve such extreme methods. The problem is that Gusu was not their only enemy now. Even Qinghe, despite their brutal thirst for victory, didn’t warrant the Demonic Text especially with their prior friendly relations.

Lanling is different. Much of the ruling Jin family was greedy and self-serving. Despite being as fractured as Yunmeng, their desires for a common interest unify them just enough. Although Jin Guangyao has so far left a good impression on Wei Wuxian, Koi Tower is poison to the soul and he’ll keep his guard up against any Jin until the day he dies. If anyone was likely to employ the kind of cruel actions that would warrant the Demonic Text, it would be Jin Guangshan. 

Shaking his head to erase the thoughts, Wei Wuxian helped pull his favorite wet cats apart so they could finish this strategy meeting and get a drink.

 

The next few battles tempted Wei Wuxian to reconsider. The Jin had gone all out to seize a vital position from Yunmeng, cutting down anyone in their way. Cruelty is the nature of war, but that doesn’t stop Wei Wuxian’s fists trembling from anger as he directed survivors from a nearby razed village to the medical tent. Wei Wuxian caught Wen Qing’s eye as he passed and knew from the tick in her jaw that she was thinking the same. But in the end there’s no way that text could ever be used. Having no regard for life goes both ways after all.

In the following days thoughts of the Demonic Text plagued his mind, traitorous voices in his head pointing out how page 83 could have won that battle or torture method #42 could have saved those people. The repercussions of losing that position to the Jin were taking their toll. 

Every day Wei Wuxian grew more exhausted.

He thought he was hiding it well, but either it shows more than he thought or the emperor is inhumanly perceptive. Jiang Cheng thinks it’s all in his head, but Wei Wuxian can feel how the emperor’s gaze lingers on him longer each time they clash. He seems more restless recently, as if he wants to say something but stops just short. Especially when Wei Wuxian suffers a loss, he can feel the emperor’s gaze on his back even long after they’re out of sight.

 

And then the day comes. They finally get desperate enough to open the Demonic Text.

Word from their spies said that Lan Xichen, the absolute worldly genius that he is, had discussed giving Lanling a piece of Yunmeng territory and leaving the care of any remaining Yunmeng soldiers under Jin Guangyao’s authority. How could he be so naive as to think that’s in any way a good idea?!

Wei Wuxian looked over at Wen Ning and Wen Qing. 

As if he’d let that happen.

Wei Wuxian lets the others pour over the text on their own while he stands off to the side. He may suck at remembering people, but his memory in all other areas is top-notch. He wrote that book, and he knows every word written by heart.

He decides on a plan just as the argument heats up, breaking it apart when MianMian gets ready to choke a bitch. They have work to do.

 

It was an utter failure. Nothing else could justify the nauseating agony numbing Wei Wuxian to his core as Jiang Cheng leads their forces in a cheer at retaking the Jin’s position. He lets Jiang Cheng take over shouting out orders as Wei Wuxian kneels to close his Sixth Shidi’s eyes.

He lost 22 of his most loyal men that day, 14 of whom had followed him from the very beginning.

That’s not counting the other casualties.

And for what? To get back to their previously still desperate position? All this sacrifice for so little in return?

Wei Wuxian is not so foolish that he went this far without a long-term plan. These situations are his specialty. They can win.

He let his bangs cover his face as he gripped Sixth Shidi’s hand, heaving breaths through clenched teeth.

But at what cost?

Feeling a gaze on his back, Wei Wuxian turned to see the emperor looking at him from across the field. Unable to meet his eyes, for the first time, Wei Wuxian looks away.

 

The following weeks were quiet as both sides gathered to discuss next steps. While the position was good for Yunmeng, it didn’t necessarily affect the Alliance. They had enough time to learn the terrain and create alternate routes that they had already recovered by the time Wei Wuxian returned to Lotus Pier for their strategy meeting. What it did do was prove to Yunmeng that we’re not over yet.

Dinner was a more lively affair than it had been in recent months. The Jiangs were clearly encouraged by the results of the battle despite it’s bitter nature. Wei Wuxian can’t blame them. At this point they’ll do anything to get out of their desperate situation.

Just then, a letter arrives from the Cloud Recesses.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian tapped his fingers against his elbows, afraid any more visible movements would break the delicate atmosphere in the room. He had never thought silence could be so loud and sharp, unsettling like nails on glass.

He can practically feel his sister’s rapid heartbeat as she tries to maintain her serene smile in the tension. Jiang Cheng just looked down, afraid to meet his mother’s eyes lest he can’t give her a satisfying response. Wei Wuxian had never seen him so still and tight, not missing the delicate tremble of his fists clenched in his lap. Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu had gone from dumbfounded blustering to outright glaring at each other.

Without raising his head, Wei Wuxian cast a glance at the crumpled letter lying pitifully on the floor between them all.

It never ceased to amaze him how much damage a single sheet of paper could cause. 

The last thing anyone expected was for the Gusu emperor’s personal guard to come all the way into the enemy capital just to deliver a letter. They couldn’t imagine what contents the letter might contain to go to such extremes. Judging by the specially bred royal courier falcon they left before returning to Gusu, whatever it was required a response. 

It was addressed to Wei Wuxian.

After checking it over for any traps, the royal family stared at the letter for a few minutes, debating whether or not to open it. Finally, Wei Wuxian snatched the letter and cut it open before he could talk himself out of it.

Wei Wuxian is a genius, but no matter how many times he read the letter he couldn’t make sense of it. As Wei Wuxian’s face got more and more confused, eventually Jiang Cheng couldn’t take it anymore and grabbed the letter for himself. A moment later he made this choking sound like a dying cat, face growing red from outrage.

Jiang Yanli looked worriedly at the two, holding her hand out hesitantly, “A-Cheng, could I see it?” When he doesn’t react, she gently slips the paper out of his stiff hand.

Jiang Fengmian and Madam Yu move to stand beside her as all three glanced down at the paper with interest. Through his confusion, Wei Wuxian found their changing expressions kind of funny. Jiang Fengmian had this indignant scowl as if watching some pig eat his prized cabbage. Shijie’s smile kept getting wider as her jaw clenched. Madam Yu was like a living lightshow with how many different colors she was going through. I mean, it’s shocking and all but isn’t this a bit much?

It’s just a marriage proposal.

And really, it was a godsend. Within that letter was an offer to end the war in exchange for Wei Wuxian’s entry into the imperial harem. 16 years of war, over just like that. Remembering the Yiling incident Wei Wuxian had to shake his head. This emperor sure was an interesting guy.

Wei Wuxian downed his cup of wine before setting it down firmly with an audible thunk, shattering the silence and whipping everyone’s eyes in his direction, “Well, I can definitely say I did not see that coming.”

Madam Yu bristled, “Speaking with such a tone!”

“Wei Wuxian, this isn’t the time to make jokes!” Jiang Cheng shot an exasperated glare at him.

Wei Wuxian lazily swirled the drop of wine left in his cup, “Why not?” Without moving he lifted his eyes up, “Aren’t jokes common in a celebration?”

Jiang Cheng choked, “Cele—!”

Jiang Yanli took a nervous step forward, “A-Xian, I understand where you’re coming from, but I wouldn’t classify this as a celebration exactly…”

Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow at her, “Why not? All we have to do is send me to Gusu for one night to lie down and look pretty and the war will be over!” Before even Uncle Jiang could process the words Jiang Cheng whipped his head around,

“Absolutely not! Forbidden! You must stay a virgin till you’re thirty!” Wei Wuxian choked and raised a bemused eyebrow at Jiang Cheng, who was flushing red at his slip. Refusing to look in Wei Wuxian’s direction, he glared at a corner of the wall and bit out, “Anyway, you’re not going. Rejected!”

“Okay, look, it’s not like I want to get married either!” Wei Wuxian huffed, “But think about it, we can’t pass this opportunity. 

Madam Yu scoffed, “Of course we can’t, so send Yanli instead!”

Wei Wuxian jerked up, “Madam Yu, the letter is addressed to me.”

Jiang Cheng follows, “And what about A-Jie’s engagement with that Crown Prince Jin that you were trying to restore?”

She glared at Wei Wuxian out of the corner of her eye, “Well clearly that’s out of the question now that the Jin are on the other side!”

Jiang Yanli looked down, “Mother…”

Seeing his sister’s distress Wei Wuxian defended, albeit reluctantly, “Now I really really hate to give the peacock any credit, but he did nope himself out of the war from the very beginning.”

The Jin did not throw even have of their war resources into the Triad Alliance, mainly because the other half belonged to Madam Jin’s faction. Having been lifelong friends with Yu Ziyuan growing up in the Meishan Duchies, Madam Jin would never harm the Jiang Kingdom that she had married into. No one knows exactly why the arrogant crown prince Jin Zixuan would pass up such an opportunity to best his longtime annoyances Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng, and end his engagement with a woman he proclaimed unworthy of him. Rumors say he even directly refused to participate to his father’s face.

Wei Wuxian looked at his sister’s crestfallen expression at hearing the news. At least he got that last one.

Madam Yu turned to fully glare at him, “It doesn’t matter. We can no longer rely on a marriage with the Jin, so Yanli should go to Gusu. We’ll have that Wen girl prepare fertility medicine. Whatever the Lan are planning, once she gets pregnant her place in the imperial family will be secure.”

We Wuxian stood up and faced her, “Shijie is not just some bargaining chip! Besides, the letter clearly asked for me. Chances are it’s just a concubine position, too low for Shijie!”

Yu Ziyuan grit her teeth. No one ends a war for a concubine. She seethed, “Even concubine is too high for a servant like you!” Regardless of the number of wives, the first wife always has an advantage.

The doors slammed open as Wen Qing stormed into the room with a pissed off scowl, “Who are you to speak to him like that? Wei Wuxian is the only thing keeping this country afloat!” Once she reached them Wen Qing put her hands on her hips, Wen Ning quietly closing the doors behind her, “And don’t speak about my medical skills as if they’re some kind of commodity.”

Yu Ziyuan bristled, “And who are you to speak to me like that?! Insolent, have you forgotten the debt you owe Yunmeng for saving your lives?!”

In response to her angry shout, Wen Qing just shot her a cool glare, “I know my debts, unlike you. Yunmeng did nothing, it was Wei Wuxian who saved us.” She narrowed her eyes, “If anything, I distinctly remember you protesting his decision.”

Yu Ziyuan eye twitched as she sputtered, too angry at the audacity to form words. Wei Wuxian whistled lowly in his mind. You really have to admire Wen Qing. There are few people in the world willing to speak in such a way to Madam Yu, especially with the difference in power. MianMian is pretty feisty too, having grown confident in the face of authority since defecting from the Jin Kingdom. Suibian hasn’t listened to Madam Yu a day in his life, and A-Qing is a fearless little devil. Actually, even Wen Ning has defended Wei Wuxian to her face before. Then there’s...

Wei Wuxian blinked. Huh. now that he thinks about it, aside from his siblings his entire inner circle stands up to Yu Ziyuan. Ah, those crazy bastards. Wei Wuxian can’t imagine where he would be now without their support. Probably in an even worse place.

Maybe he wouldn’t have made it this far at all.

Jiang Cheng tried to bite back at her but was quickly shut down, never quite able to handle such a strong-willed personality. Instead he trained his glare at Wen Ning, who trembled behind a pillar with the confused eyes of a bullied hamster. 

Wen Qing sent him a warning look before schooling her face into its usual professional expression, “And I don’t think the question should be who will go, but if we accept.”

Jiang Fengmian nodded with a pensive expression, “I find it odd that Gusu is requesting A-Xian, the commanding General of Yunmeng’s army, for the marriage. They must know how outrageous that is?”

Wen Qing nodded, “Could be a power play. It’s not Gusu’s style, but the Jin wouldn’t hesitate to push their luck to take advantage of a situation.”

Wei Wuxian retorted, “Maybe if it was from Lan Xichen, but this letter is from the emperor himself. Lan Wangji doesn’t participate in these kinds of mind games.”

Jiang Cheng crossed his arms with an annoyed grumble, “You sure seem to trust that Lan Wangji quite a bit.”

Wei Wuxian shrugged his shoulders, “He’s never given me a reason not to.”

“Yeah, and he’s never given a reason to believe he might want a truce either.”

Wei Wuxian put his hands on his hips, “Well he’s given one now. And we should accept while we still have the chance.”

Jiang Cheng clenched his jaw, “And why would he even offer a ceasefire when they’re at such an advantage?”

Wei Wuxian grit his teeth, “Does it matter? Look, if this were the Jin or the Nie then I would be just as skeptical, but even now the Lan are sticking to their strict war etiquette. Scheming is not their forte.”

Jiang Cheng snapped, “Well it’s not like they’ve been so strict with their allies, have they? Gusu has gone along with the Jin and Nie’s actions before. Maybe they didn’t make this scheme themselves, but what’s to say they’re not just going along with it again?!”

Wei Wuxian tried to calm him down with an easy-going grin, “Say whatever you want about the other Lans, but Lan Wangji is a super stiff, rule-abiding fuddy-duddy. If he wanted to attack me to break through Yunmeng’s defenses, that guy would just charge me from the front in a one-on-one duel.” His smile settled slightly, “He’s never been the kind of guy to want a war. Maybe he wants it all to be over as much as we do.”

Yu Ziyuan scoffed at his naivety, Jiang Cheng following with a rebuke that had Wen Qing bristling with fury. Jiang Fengmian tried to pacify the two, only for Yu Ziyuan to quip about his pacifism. Soon the entire room had gone out of control, with everyone yelling over each other.

Wei Wuxian began to feel nauseous. They don’t have time for this! Can’t they see this is a golden opportunity? Why are they acting this way?!

Wei Wuxian took a shaky breath and grinned, ignoring Wen Qing’s concerned gaze, “Guys guys, haven’t we had enough already? This kind of chance doesn’t come by often. A marriage goes both ways, it’s not like we get nothing out of this. Besides,” his smile faltered for a split second, “what will happen if we don’t accept it?”

Jiang Cheng scoffed, “That makes us sound desperate.”

Wei Wuxian’s grin fell as he clenched his fist, “We are desperate.”

Jiang Cheng looked like he got slapped. Giving the other’s a quick glance, he leaned in to whisper, “If you just use that book, we’ll win in no time!”

“If I had known a treaty was coming I wouldn’t have used it at all!” Wei Wuxian whispered back with a glare.

Jiang Cheng got fed up, “Well you did!”.

Wei Wuxian froze.

Jiang Cheng glared at him, “All those years, all that sacrifice, just to give up like that! What did everyone die for then?!”

Wei Wuxian snapped, snatching the letter off the floor and shoving it in Jiang Chengs face, “THIS! This is what they died for: a way out of this damn war!”

Jiang Cheng knocked Wei Wuxian’s hand away, “And we can do that while winning! Just unleash hell on that damn Triad and this war will be over soon!”

Wei Wuxian glared, "Or it can be over now !”

He looked around the room, at his family getting ready to argue back, at Wen Qing’s complicated expression, at his other friends hiding behind the pillars with worried faces, “This war can end right now , no more bloodshed, no more sacrifice. This is our best option right now and you all know it! This isn’t the time to let pride or hatred cloud our judgement.”

Jiang Cheng bit back bitterly, “Yeah, and it’ll end with our loss!”

Wei Wuxian sighed is disbelief, “Oh my god Jiang Cheng, how is it after all this time you still can’t see the difference between them winning and us losing!” He looked back at Jiang Fengmian, “We’re not signing the country away, it’s basically a truce. The Jiang family will still rule Yunmeng. At the very worst we’ll become a vassal state and pay taxes or let them in our ports for free or something. No matter how low the Lan might choose to go, it’s better than where we are now, and it’s much better than where we’ll be if we continue.”

Jinag Fengmian furrowed his brow in worry, “A-Xian, you don’t know that. It is dangerous to assume another’s intentions. What if this is a trap to get you alone and surrounded once you reach the capital? Even if you don’t believe Gusu would do such a thing, how about Lanling?” His voice took on a stern tone of finality, “A-Xian is too trusting, do not be so naive.”

Wei Wuxian couldn’t take it anymore, “And you all should stop fighting!”

The room froze.

“Every day, every damn day of the Yunmeng court’s infighting has led to this situation. How many times have we heard we could’ve won had we just cooperated with each other? How many times did court members make bad decisions just because a person they didn’t like agreed with the right option? Even now, in such a desperate situation, with such an obvious decision, we still can’t agree!”

Jiang Yanli tried to pacify him, “A-Xian, this kind of important decision, how can it be simple?”

Wei Wuxian bit his lip to stop from lashing out at her. Jiang Yanli has been the most understanding so far, her only reservations were with him being asked for specifically. Taking a calming breath, Wei Wuxian looked in her eyes, “Shijie, this war can only end two ways. When we accept this truce… or when one side is wiped out.” his eyes flicked to Wen Ning and Wen Qing for a moment before returning to gaze out at the Jiang royal family, “There is no decision to make.”

Seeing Jiang Fengmian’s complicated expression, Wei Wuxian shoulders slumped with the weight of his sigh. His fingers tightened around the letter in his hand, “Besides, I’ve seen the emperor’s signature and know a forgery when I see one. He signed this. And even if this is some grand plan of the Jin’s, the Lan are infamous for their rules. This is a binding agreement. As long as I reach the Cloud Recesses, they must honor it.”

Jiang Yanli looked down with a small frown, “...But does it have to be you?” Biting her lip she turned pleading eyes on Wei Wuxian, “A-Xian is a General! A leader, an inventor, a free spirit… A-Xian has so much ahead of him, while I can’t do anything. As a princess I have been prepared for this my whole life, so why does A-Xian have to be the one to give up everything?”

Wei Wuxian gave one slow blink, “Lan Wangji is a man of few words.” He met the Jiangs’ confused faces, “He would not have bothered to specify otherwise.”

And with that he turned to leave, only to be stopped by a whip striking the spot in front of him, “Who dismissed you?”

He turned his head sideways to look Madame Yu straight in the eye, “Did I ask to be dismissed?”

Then he took the time Madame Yu stood in shocked outrage to storm out the doors, his friends running after him.

The walk back to his room was quiet, no one knowing quite what to say. The marriage proposal, the arguing, Wei Wuxian’s slip… where do they start? Should they even start... or just let it go?

Meanwhile, Wei Wuxian was berating himself for losing control. Of all the times he needed their full trust in his decisions, and he had to be so emotional. He can’t have anyone doubt him at such a critical point. Wei Wuxian grips the door handle to his room tightly.

It feels as if his life has been nothing but critical points lately.

His room suddenly feels so nostalgic, knowing he’ll never come back here. He wonders if his family will preserve it, or if Madam Yu would repurpose it for something.

He sat on his bed softly.

Feeling himself sink into the mattress, he looked down to notice the bulge of a second futon over his mattress. He stroked the bulge with trembling fingers. Shijie must have set it up for him to rest after sleeping on rough cots for so long. Knowing Jiang Yanli, she must have gone through many kinds to find just the right one.

He wished he had the chance to try it.

Savoring one last moment of comfort, Wei Wuxian hopped off to go pack. He ignored the concerned eyes that followed, maintaining his nonchalant facade. He rolled up his clothes silently for a few moments, taking solace in maximizing his bag’s available space for another journey to a far-off land he doesn’t want to go to. The routine is more numbing than comforting, but anything that calms his pounding heart is welcome.

He turns to look for his shoes, only to see Wen Ning having silently crouched next to him, holding them out to him. He huffs in thanks, only for MianMian to sit on the other side with his writing materials, pointedly not looking at him. Wei Wuxian responds with a wry grin. Soon everyone is helping him pack, the room settling into a comfortable, if melancholic, silence.

Wei Wuxian is opening his travel trunk when Wen Qing asks almost in a murmur, “Are we going with you?”

He doesn’t pause his work, eyes trained on the various knick-knacks inside as he replies equally somber, “No…”

Wen Ning turned pleading eyes on him, “But Young Master…”

Wei Wuxian just continued to pick through for things he could fit in his travel bag, “No, Wen Ning. I need you guys here to take over for me. Anything could happen in the few days until the wedding, and then I’ll be a concubine in the inner palace. I don’t know how much freedom the emperor will grant me, so I need to make sure things don’t collapse while I’m gone.”

MianMian bit her lip, “How are you so sure you’ll be a concubine?”

Wei Wuxian paused his packing and looked up at them, “Because I’m a man.”

It took only a moment for them to understand.

With Gusu’s solidarity at the foundation of their advantages over Yunmeng, Wei Wuxian’s group had collected extensive intel on the inner workings of the Cloud Recesses. One of the ways the Lan prevent infighting is by setting strict rules for the inner court.

The emperor can only marry once, and the heirs must come from the official wife. Any concubine’s children are taken away to be raised as members of the clan in a communal setting to avoid any negative influences from the ambitious women.

By marrying Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji would essentially be cutting off his own royal line.

Wei Wuxian mused as he continued packing, “At best he’ll make me an Honored Concubine so we can have the wedding. A marriage ending a decade-plus long war needs to display some credibility after all. Official Lan ceremonies have to go through certain traditions to be counted, so it’s not technically breaking any rule.” he huffed a humorless laugh and muttered, “But Lan Wangji has always been a straightforward stickler for the rules. If it says one wedding, then he’ll have only one wedding, Lan traditions or not.”

Looking through his trunk one last time, Wei Wuxian gave up on finding his medicine bag and turned to slump against the bed frame, “Besides, I’m the enemy’s commander. I’m the last person they want seeing the Lan’s inner workings, so this is the only way they can ban me from engaging any politics without breaking their rules against discrimination.”

Wen Qing furrowed her brows, “And you’re still going to go?”

Wei Wuxian looked up at the ceiling with a sardonic smile, “Do I have a choice?”

No one spoke after that.

 

Lan Wangji clenched the sachet in his sleeve as the dignitaries from the Triad Alliance sputtered in disbelief at his decision. The slightly worn fabric and almost fraying embroidery bringing him comfort in the face of this foolishness.

He made the right decision.

16 years is too long for a war, especially for such a pointless one. These people have the audacity to argue there have been much longer wars before, as if that justifies anything.

He almost regretted informing them of the marriage proposal, if only he wasn’t absolutely sure it was necessary. Although Gusu is the leader, Lan Wangji recognizes the respect that is owed to the Jin and Nie due to their alliance. Even if they are getting on his nerves.

The Jin are sitting with their jaws on the floor, eyes running through the bounties they were after and how this will affect their rewards. Nie Mingjue is holding back his outrage, confused why they would quit when they’re so close to the finish line. Nie Huaisang, who is always brought to these meetings for some reason, keeps opening and closing his fan nervously with a hidden glint of excitement.

His brother is the picture of grace and serenity as always despite dropping such a bombshell. His eyes quickly flicked to Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao, before facing forward again.

The tension was mounting among the audience in the room, but Lan Wangji himself was calm. Soon everything would be over and a new era would begin. His ears burned a bit red as he stroked the sachet. An era he hoped to lead with Wei Ying by his side.

“Are you out of your damn mind?”

Lan Wangji paused his ministrations to face Nie Mingjue. He stood strong in the face of the emperor’s attention, but Lan Wangji could see the rigid posture indicative of nervousness. Nie Hauisang went pale and looked like he was about to faint as Lan Xichen turned around to ask for leniency. Lan Wangji would not hold such an outburst against someone in a situation like this, he had always detested that in other rulers. Instead he just raised his hand in pardon and motioned for the king to continue. 

Nie Mingjue uncrossed his arms and argued his case, “Why call for a truce now? We’re this close to winning. I would think Gusu more than anyone would be pleased to finally conquer Yunmeng.”

Lan Wangji blinked, “16 years is enough.”

Nie Mingjue narrowed his eyes, “And with 16 years of work, why give up when victory is just on the horizon?”

“Is it?”

The room froze. Of... course it is? Just one look at Yunmeng’s state is enough for anyone to know. Jin Guangyao took the lead to speak, “Your Majesty, with all due respect, it is impossible for Yunmeng to win this war.”

Lan Wangji closed his eyes, “ ‘Do the impossible.’ ” The audience blinked at him as Lan Wangji opened his eyes, “Yunmeng’s most treasured belief.”

Nie Mingjue bit back, “What Yunmeng believes and what they can do are completely separate.”

Lan Wangji thought of a sunshine smile in pitch black armor, “Our opponent is not Yunmeng.” He spoke purposefully to the room, “Wei Wuxian.”

Nie Mingjue but back his retort and clenched his fist. What could he say? They’ve been fighting this war for years and yet the enemy is still holding on no matter what they do, all because of one man. A near impregnable defense and a terrifying offense, Wei Wuxian is a one man army with a genius rarely seen in history.

How many times have they heard the only reason Yunmeng has not won is because their court is a train wreck? How many times have they feared the smallest rumors of Wei Wuxian overthrowing the crown and taking charge?

Uniting a divided army, executing insane strategies perfectly, managing social programs, and still somehow having the bandwidth to pop out ground-breaking inventions left and right. Fucking monster. Had Nie Mingjue known about him earlier, he would have adopted the bastard as a Nie prince.

“...Tch!” the Nie King downed his cup of alcohol.

Instead he’s an enemy, somehow the worst enemy the battle-worn Nie Mingjue had fought to date. He should have looked more deeply into the rumors of him and the Yiling Patriarch being the same person. Especially with this last battle.

He lifted his eyes sharply.

But Wei Wuxian is not a monolith, and it shows the state of Yunmeng that they have not rallied under his banner yet. No matter how powerful he is, he’s just one man. A man not even given the honor of his adopted family’s name, no less. Despite holding back three nations by himself, there is only so much Wei Wuxian can do alone. And he told the emperor as such.

Lan Wangji was silent for a moment, stroking the fabric once more as he reminisced, “... The Elephant Formation.”

The Nie delegation flinched. Their country was famous for its use of beasts, and the army was no exception. One of Nie Mingjue’s favorite tactics was to have elephants stampede through the enemy ranks. Either they get crushed or they break formation and enter a panic, unable to group together after having lost their place. That is, until Wei Wuxian noticed how the elephants seemed to only charge in a straight line. So he created a strange new formation where the soldiers step into the spaces between the elephants when they charge. No matter how narrow they made the spaces, even to the point of endangering their own elephant riders, there was always just enough room for the Wei soldiers to slip through. Eventually they had to discontinue the elephant charge method against the Wei army. It was a huge blow to Nie Mingjue.

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes at Jin Guangshan’s mocking smirk, “The Spring Book incident.”

The entire Jin delegation turned red in shame and embarrassment as Jin Guangyao’s smile faltered. What a humiliating memory…

The Jin relied on numbers to win oftentimes, always a looming presence on Yunmeng who had fewer soldiers than even one of the Triad. And so, Wei Wuxian, with the enthusiastic spirit of a lunatic prankster, devised a scheme to lower that threat. 

As most of the soldiers were drafted, they didn’t really want to participate in the war. So Wei Wuxian had a collection of porn books spread throughout the Jin encampments with instructions on how to fake an illness to get sent home written into the dirty talk in the speech bubbles. He even made sure they contained some high quality content so people would keep them hidden. No man would be willing to give up his porn in a barrack. 

Droves of people were able to leave the army with those instructions until the Jin finally had to ban the sickness policy. Unfortunately, that kept the truly ill soldiers with the rest of the army and disease spread rampant. It was an absolute disaster…

Nie Huaisang choked back his laugh behind his fan. Wei-xiong always knows how to make things interesting. He was lucky to have saved a copy of the full collection. For historical purposes , of course. And if Nie Mingjue noticed his slip up, well, he was too busy grinning at the Jin to say anything.

Lan Wangji huffed. Only Wei Ying could be so bold and brilliant, yet in such a way you don’t wish to praise him.

The emperor reveled in the memory of Wei Wuxian’s cheeky grin when Jin Zixun confronted him about it. Shameless.

His ears burned.

Then the emperor grew somber as he realized how long ago that had been. How long since he’s seen that youthful energy in his beloved. He looked down, “... The Mountain Pass…”

The room sobered up instantly. That maneuver was a crowning example of Wei Wuxian’s ability to do the impossible.

With a good portion of its territory consisting of mountain ranges, the Gusu armies are masters of navigating those peaks. And being so dangerous, only a fool would challenge Gusu in a mountain battle. Wei Wuxian was one such fool who got himself trapped in a dead end with only a narrow entrance that was quickly being overrun my Gusu’s forces. Lan Wangji himself had joined against the wishes of his brother and uncle.

He knew it would be dangerous, but Lan Wangji had to ensure Wei Wuxian’s safe return to Gusu, albeit as a prisoner of war. He was filled with complicated feelings as he rode through the mountain pass, glad their battles were over yet mourning the loss. So confident were they, that when the Gusu forces could only look around in confusion at the empty clearing. Lan Wangji instantly put up his guard, surveying every suspicious pebble when he heard his name being called. Whipping his head around, he caught the small silhouette of Wei Wuxian waving emphatically at him just before the small tunnel collapsed with a rumble, followed by the mountain pass they entered through. It didn’t take long for the emperor to quell everyone’s panic, but the impact of having been bested in their own territory hit the morale of the Gusu forces more than any number of casualties could.

As it turned out, Wei Wuxian had planned the entire battle. Making use of the Gusu Empire’s pride in their mountain tactics, he had led them into a trap. In a show of pure grit and will, Wei Wuxian’s loyal soldiers spent weeks secretly tunneling through the mountain with a new drill that had Jin Guangshan salivating at the impact it would have on the mining industry. Choosing a location hidden behind a spike jutting out of the ground, it would be impossible to notice without prior knowledge. While the others were preparing for an ambush from above, Lan Wangji realized their goal was a delay tactic to turn back around and recapture the border towns left unprotected and without command.

Animal combat, scheming, mountain ranges, in each case Wei Wuxian had bested them in their own specialties. And these were just a few of the stories of the General’s many feats. No matter how dour, how unlikely, or even how many losses he suffers in between, eventually Wei Wuxian finds a way.

And with that latest battle, why would the future be any different.

Jin Guangshan tutted, “A cornered rat has the sharpest bite.”

Lan Wangji clenched his hands.

Jin Guangyao noticed Lan Xichen’s frown and smiled up at Lan Wangji, “Your Majesty is correct.”

Lan Wangji turned to face him, suspicious eyes hidden by his headdress. Jin Guangyao pretended not to notice the pressure, “General Wei Wuxian is a wildcard that cannot be underestimated. Removing him as an obstacle using a treaty would be the best decision.”

Nie Mingjue clucked his tongue at the Jin’s cowardice. Leave it to them to change stances with the readiness of a fickle woman. Jin Guangyao just continued smiling, “However, there are many ways to go about this, including a regular treaty. And Wei Wuxian is loyal to a fault towards the Yunmeng royal family. He would go along with whatever they decide, so why a marriage with the General specifically, when he’s not even a true member of the family?”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, “Lianfang-zun’s meaning?”

Jin Guangyao narrowed his eyes as he smiled, “I mean no offense, Your Majesty. I simply noticed how Your Majesty’s decisions regarding the General have been rather… unusual.” 

The hurt and confused look Lan Xichen sent his way had Jin Guangyao stepping back, “Forgive this one, Your Majesty. This most recent battle has me fearing the return of,” he looked up,”the Yiling Patriarch.”

The room broke out in whispers as Lan Wangji slumped imperceptibly in his seat. Nie Mingjue rested his head on his clasped hands, “...That green fire hasn’t been seen since the Sunshot Campaign.”

Lan Wangji felt nauseous. Green Fire, a powerful volatile substance that could even burn on water. When lit inside a shell, it forms a destructive bomb that leaves a devastating impact… on both sides. Rumors say it was discontinued for being too unstable to mitigate the risk for its users.

How desperate did Wei Ying have to be to resort to something so dangerous?

Lan Wangji clenched his eyes tightly, hoping to block out the arguing court. 

When did their competition of skill become a desperate bid for survival? At what point did Wei Ying begin to dread their meetings?

When did Lan Wangji lose sight of his purpose for all this?

He remembers his first meeting with Wei Ying as Emperor and General. He looked so tired. No matter how well Wei Wuxian may have hidden it, Lan Wangji could see it in the dimness of his smile, in the absence of mischief in his words. He looked thin. Not enough to affect his prowess in battle, but too much for Lan Wangji’s liking. He wished to offer him a meal, had Wei Wuxian not been so wary of the tea. Wei Ying didn’t even seem to notice it was the favorite blend of the Yunmeng royal family.

He cannot imagine the pain Wei Ying must have felt to hand over his precious family ribbon for a fault not his own. Lan Wangji berated himself for ignoring the clear distress Wei Ying showed for the split second before handing it over. Had his uncle not known of Canse Sanren, would Lan Wangji have ever learned its meaning? How many other times had he hurt Wei Ying without realizing?

Jin Guangshan’s voice snapped him out of his reverie, “That is why that research should be handled by Lanling, which has the most resources to accommodate its dangers.”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, his radiating fury quieting the room, “A person’s property is not for others to claim.”

He directed his attention at Jin Guangshan, “What is made by the General, belongs to the General.”

Entrusting a group as arrogant and opportunistic as the Jin with such dangerous research was irresponsible at best. They don’t care who has access to it as long it profits them, as evidenced by their new research technician who had been busy making a nuisance of himself in the corner by harassing their youngest attendant. Lan Wangji pretended not to see her smacking his shins with her pole.

Despite being a king Jin Guangshan backs down, intimidated, “Your Majesty, we were only discussing the dangers of such inventions. Given His Highness, Prince Lan Xichen’s agreement that the remainders of the Yunmeng army were best left to Lanling’s supervision, it follows that Lanling would be the most suitable for such a serious matter.”

Lan Wangji tilted his chin up, “A discussion between friends equals an imperial decree?”

The Jin King faltered, but Lan Wangji did not give him the chance to recover, “There have been no discussions concerning Lanling. Lord Jin made his neutral stance clear to retain access to Yunmeng’s ports. It is Lianfang-zun who belongs to the Triad.” Jin Guangshan flinched.

Aware of his brother’s growing irritation, Lan Xichen stepped it, “No worries, everyone. The details of the treaty will be discussed in length with the Jiang delegations once the matter of the marriage has been settled.”

Nie Mingjue turns toward him, “What makes you think that Wei Wuxian would even agree to this ridiculous offer?” A wild troublemaker like him, managing the inner court as Empress? He’s more likely to view it as a prison than the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity most would see it as.

Lan Xichen smiled at him, “The General is a smart man who has shown courtesy in even the most dire of situations. With things as they are, he must want an end to this war as much as we do.”

With a final huff from the Nie king, Lan Wangji dismissed the court session and retired to his pavilion, leaving the hosting to Lan Xichen.

When he returned to his rooms, Lan Wanji immediately took out the blueprints drafted of the Red Lotus Pavilion. Already on their seventh iteration, the emperor wanted to ensure his Empress would feel welcome and happy in his new home. 

The layout of the complex is different from the rest of the Cloud Recesses, and strange for a noble in general. Wei Ying is known for his inventive nature, always tinkering with some idea. Sometimes things explode. Although his uncle would balk at something so uncouth, Wei Ying would surely appreciate a workshop or three. Lan Wangji has no intentions of stripping his Empress of his hobbies. 

A lotus pond is without question. However, the Empress must not be seen without proper dress, many of the changes have been made with the pond’s swimmability in mind. The question now is which breeds of Lotus to insert: the lavender of Lotus Pier, or a red to complement Wei Ying’s style? Or maybe a random selection of many exotic varieties to entertain him?

A puff of laughter made Lan Wangji whirl around to meet Lan Xichen’s teasing smile, “Oh my, will there be an eighth iteration? At this point General Wei may not have a place to live by the time he arrives!” his eyes formed crescents, “Ah, or is that Wangji’s plan?”

Lan Wangji’s ears burned hot, “Brother.”

Lan Xichen leaned over to look at the scroll, “Ah, how accommodating. Uncle will surely be furious once he sees this. Best to build the foundation quick before he can protest!”

Lan Wangji hid the scroll against his chest and turned away, “Brother.”

The prince just chuckled and relented, satisfied for the moment. His smile settled after a few moments, “...That arrangement with A-Yao, I am sorry for not notifying you first. The three of us were debating the best ways to manage Yunmeng to have a plan ready to present when and if the time came. We hoped to avoid any unnecessary conflict so we could begin the recovery process quickly. I did not expect King Jin to take it as a promise.”

Lan Wangji didn’t turn around, “Brother meant no harm.”

Lan Xichen smiled sadly. But you’re upset about it regardless, aren’t you?

His little brother had never felt threatened by Lan Xichen, nor did Lan Xichen plan to threaten Lan Wangji’s power. He trusts his brother, and will always support him. So the only thing that could be upsetting him is…

He walked to stand next to the emperor, “We had that discussion not long before General Wei revived the Green Fire. Does Wangji believe it might be related?”

Lan Wangji was silent for a moment, “Wei Ying has history with the Jin.”

Lan Xichen looked down, “I see.”

The emperor turned to him and reiterated, “Brother meant no harm.”

Lan Xichen sent him a grateful smile, before turning to look out at the scenery with a thoughtful expression. The two stood in comfortable silence, listening to the sound of the rustling leaves in the gentle wind. After some time, they began to quietly discuss the decor of the Red Lotus Pavilion. 

An attendant came while they were debating whether or not to include a napping bed in one of the workshops.

The courier falcon had arrived.

Chapter Text

It took some time for Wei Wuxian’s group to settle on their roles and responsibilities henceforth.

The time was too short.

He looked around at his friends, all staring back with reluctant expressions knowing it’s time for him to go. Biting his lip, Wei Wuxian suggested they check their compasses to ensure they’re properly aligned with each other. 

Honestly, it was pointless to check their compasses. They all knew that.

A token of honor denoting one’s place within Wei Wuxian’s inner circle, the Red Thread Compass is differentiated from other Wei army compasses by the red hanging off the top. As a sign of camaraderie between members, a person receives a compass for every bond they form with the others.

That’s the public description anyway.

In reality, the compass comes as a pair that react to one another. Once calibrated, the two compasses will point the red half of their needles towards one another, the attraction so strong that they remain accurate regardless of distance or weather. As long as you follow the compass, you will always find the other half.

This function is one of the main reasons Wei Wuxian’s inner circle could coordinate so well and quickly even when across the territories or in hiding. This secret is so vital that the only people who know about it are those that receive one. The downside is that each compass can only be calibrated to one other compass, so they always have to carry around a set. It took some playing around to figure out an excuse for that one. 

The materials needed to make them are rare and difficult to make, so one would think the one-time usage would be a problem, but it becomes an asset in Wei Wuxian’s case. Since they can be used to find the other side’s location, if someone were to learn the true meaning of the Red Thread Compass and somehow acquire it, it would be deadly. When uncalibrated, the compass needle spins wildly without end, unable to orient itself. If one of the pair gets critically damaged the calibration breaks and the compass becomes useless, unable to be fixed. What a useful defect!

Taking out his ‘angry’ compass, Wei Wuxian laughed.

Since they carry around so many, they need to keep track of them somehow. And just in case, they can’t use names so everyone marked their compasses in different ways to recognize its partner. It went about as well as you’d expect.

Instead of names, Wei Wuxian drew icons to represent each person. Wen Qing’s had an angry face drawn on it, while Wen Ning’s was a crying face. Of course, his Shijie’s was a detailed engraving of Guanyin. 

The others had a lot of fun with theirs. MianMian was all sass, calling him Yuan Dao and labeling Jiang Cheng’s as “Single and Ready to Mingle”. On the other hand, Wen Qing just drew a middle finger. Though, Wei Wuxian doesn’t know if that was before or after Jiang Cheng nicknamed her’s “Quack”.

He’s sure that anyone who gets ahold of them would be very confused.

His smile warped into a grimace as he took out Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng’s compasses. He’s never gone five feet without them since the day they were made, but with his siblings being so against this marriage Wei Wuxian can’t risk them finding him before reaching the Cloud Recesses.

He gripped the compasses tightly and raised his head to look at the others. They silently nodded at him. Wei Wuxian took a deep breath and steeled himself, “You all know what to do. I’ll release the courier falcon once I’m outside of Lotus Pier’s gates, just in case.”

Wen Qing looked out at the moon, “Are you leaving now? There is still some time left before the patrol shifts.”

Wei Wuxian crossed his arms, “I need to make a show of walking around Lotus Pier to lower everyone’s guard. Plus, I need to make a stop before I go.”

Wen Qing relaxed in somber understanding, nodding to him.

He should probably be grateful to not have run into any of his family while making his rounds, but instead felt like a rock was weighing down his chest. Even though he was purposefully avoiding the halls they frequented, a small part of him hoped he could see them with even just a neutral expression before he left.

He made his final stop at the medical wing. The heavy scent of medicine had always reminded him of the safety and protection of Wen Qing’s hands, but lately it just brings back memories of bloody sheets and Clarity Bells.

Wei Wuxian walked across to the door at the other end. Originally an office of sorts, they converted it to a private room since Wen Qing was always too busy to have time for an office. Reaching the door, Wei Wuxian hesitated. No matter how many times he visits, it just somehow never gets easier.

“Master?”

Wei Wuxian jumped, cracking open the door and sticking his head inside to see Suibian sitting up in bed with a smile on his face. Wei Wuxian threw himself into the room, “What are you doing, you need to lie down!”

Suibian pouted at him, “Aw come on, it’s not that bad. Doc even said my rehab is almost complete!”

Wei Wuxian bit his lip as he looked for any sign of strain, relaxing when he found nothing. Suibian had recovered well. Wen Qing has been taking care of him since he first sustained his injuries, so if she said anything about his condition it should be believed.

Wei Wuxian realized Suibian had a lap desk set up on the bed with some ink and a half-written letter. He pursed his lips dramatically with his chin up, “Hmm, how incredible. I wonder how you got Qing-Jie to let you stay up so late. Hasn’t she always been violently strict with patient rest?”

If the situation had been any different, Wen Qing would have knocked him out if he tried to work as soon as he got home.

Suibian crossed his fingers in front of his face like a mastermind revealing his tricks to the worthy, “Well you see! There is one method that always works on people like her.” His eyes scanned left and right quickly before he leaned forward slightly, “What you do is! Wait until she leaves for half an hour and stop pretending you’re asleep.”

Wei Wuxian huffed. So that’s why Suibian’s gotten a few bumps on the head before. Wei Wuxian sent him a cheeky grin, “You remembered to rotate the times right? Like 30 minutes for 2 weeks, then 1 hour for a week to see if she’s catching on?”

Suibian kept his pose, “...I never said that I didn’t .”

“Mhm.” Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows bobbed.

Suibian threw his hands up in a whatever pose, “What, I never said that did either.”

Wei Wuxian chuckled as he slid into the chair by the bed, “For the love of god, please tell me you at least took a bath?”

Suibian propped his head up on his palm, “Yes yes, I took my supervised cold medicinal bath.”

Wei Wuxian copied him, “And I’m sure Qing-Jie told you every single day how your bandages need to stay completely clean.”

Suibian pouted at him, “Well maybe she forgot today! Us Sentinels take after our masters, so any poor memory isn’t my fault!”

Wei Wuxian waved at him to take his shirt off as he moved the desk, glancing at the letter, “Who are you even writing to? You don’t have any friends outside of this palace.”

Suibian gasped in shock, “Rude!” Then he gave a mock sigh, “Master is so cruel… Bringing the truth when I clearly don’t want it.”

Seeing Wei Wuxian’s face lighten from its grim expression, Suibian cheered at his victory before glancing at the letter with a bemused tone, “Honestly, I don’t know. Wen Ning came by earlier with a letter from the Captain of the royal guard of Gusu addressed to me. It was really weird. He gave condolences for my injuries and wished me well in my recovery. He also thanked me for helping him in the Camp. He went through all this trouble, so I might as well respond.”

Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow at him, “You know the Captain of Gusu’s royal guard?”

Suibian threw his hands out in a shrug, “No idea. There were lots of Sentinels, and I didn’t see the guy personally so I can't be sure.”

Wei Wuxian matched his bemusement, “A Sentinel? Given such a prestigious position in the tight-as-a-virgin Cloud Recesses?” Suibian just shook his head in bafflement.

Sentinels were specially trained lifelong servants assigned only to nobility. Raised from birth with the understanding of their future role, Sentinels are trained in many skills including combat, endurance, and caretaking. Often a few years older than their masters to better serve them, Sentinels do not have names until they are assigned a master, after which that master will name them personally. As a lifelong servant, they are neither expected nor permitted to marry or have children. Sentinels are such an integral part of their masters’ lives that the only time they are not attached at the hip is for a mission ordered directly by that master.

Of course, they are still human so problems can arise. Arguments can break out, loyalties can shift, and personal desires can arise.

Wei Wuxian thought of Suibian as a perfect mix.

He definitely had his own agency with a strong personality unbefitting one of his station. No matter how he got scolded or punished, if Wei Wuxian wasn’t the one upse then he simply wouldn’t care. Suibian knew what he wanted and carried himself like an equal to anyone around him regardless of rank. He treated Wei Wuxian like a friend instead of a boss, and wasn’t afraid to test the limits of Wei Wuxian’s patience in all the most fun ways.

At the same time, he was a marvelous Sentinel. The most loyal man Wei Wuxian had ever met. He treated his role as his meaning for life instead of the neutral acceptance many relegate themselves to. Incredibly powerful from endless hours training far beyond what was expected of him, when Suibian stood by his side it felt like nothing could touch him. He also took any opportunity Wei Wuxian offered to him to learn new things, even demanding to be useful when bedridden by helping with paperwork.

Beyond his skillset, Suibian also knew how to regulate himself when necessary. He was respectful towards Jiang Fengmian and knew when to hold his tongue around Jiang Cheng. He was never—. 

—He was rarely rude to Madam Yu, and understood boundaries expected of interactions with Jiang Yanli in public. Suibian always tried hard to be who Wei Wuxian needed him to be, and that alone was more than Wei Wuxian could ever ask.

Wei Wuxian stopped him from unwrapping the bandages, Suibian giving up with a huff. Almost recovered or not, Wei Wuxian doesn’t want him straining anything more than necessary. Fingers running across the gauze, his mirth faded into melancholy.

Wei Wuxian’s breath hitched as he unwound the bandages, never quite able to get used to the sight. Heat, chemical, and radiation burns ravaged the expanse of Suibian’s back, stretching even to his elbows and below the backs of his knees. Raw pink skin glistened where the charred patches of skin had to be removed.

Suibian sat still with a calm smile on his face as Wei Wuxian grabbed the medicine Wen Qing knew to leave for him, the man not even flinching as Wei Wuxian applied the cream directly to the sensitive skin. 

He should have recovered a long time ago, especially with Wen Qing’s special recipes, but she only dug her nails into her palms before telling him his options. Suibian’s injuries were so extensive that if they were to heal quickly the scar tissue along his spine would render him crippled for life. With rehab, he may be able to walk but he would never wield a sword again. The other option was to intentionally delay the healing process with a rare medicine so Wen Qing could slowly heal him bit by bit to prevent the scar tissue from forming. All that would be left is the discoloration of the skin. Wei Wuxian could never put Suibian through such a thing, and was shocked when Suibian chose the latter option without hesitation. He was so adamant that Wei Wuxian could only cry like a child with nonstop apologies as he held Suibian’s hand through his first treatment.

It must have hurt to even breath.

He would accept Suibian’s hatred, give him anything he wanted. Any rank, freedoms, anything! It doesn’t matter what happens to Wei Wuxian, he deserved it! He deserved all of it! He wanted it, needed it!

But from the very start until now, Suibian had only asked to continue serving as his Sentinel. Always looked forward to Wei Wuxian’s visits and showed him nothing but the friendliness and respect he had always awarded his master.

Wei Wuxian paused for a moment and leaned so his head bumped against Suibian’s hair, “...Do you resent me, Suibian?”

Suibian just raised a head over his head to rest on Wei Wuxian’s hair, “I only resent these injuries for keeping me from master’s side when you needed me most.”

Wei Wuxian gripped the fabric of his robes as Suibian gently pat his head, the comfort spreading from the motion leaving an equally bitter taste in his mouth. Suibian deserved better than this. He’s one of the strongest Sentinels in the world, he deserves better than some reckless servant’s son. Taking a trembling beath, Wei Wuxian returned to his work with pinpoint focus to block out any thoughts. This would be the last time, so he’d better make it count.

Suibian relaxed as they fell into a comfortable silence, smiling at the gentleness of Wei Wuxian’s touch. 

His master was truly the best.

Suibian remembered his first day assigned to Wei Wuxian with almost as much confusion as he felt that day. Like whiplash, Wei Wuxian had overturned every notion Suibian had ever thought of what to expect from a master. Little YingYing had somehow come to the conclusion that Jiang Fengmian’s description of Sentinels being someone who always protects you, fights for you, and listens to your whims until death meant “best friend for life”. The then shy newly adopted Wei Ying had looked at Suibian with stars in his eyes and the sun in smile as he bounced on his feet, silently begging the King to let them go play.

Although Wei Ying now had a home and a family, Lotus Pier was still a harsh environment. Wei Wuxian was constantly made to feel like an outsider, a rat given salvation that pests don’t deserve. No matter how much he smiled on the outside, Suibian knew he felt lonely.

Wei Ying had led them to a more private pier and began to ask a bunch of questions about him. Suibian didn’t want to disappoint his master, but he had no answers that wouldn’t get him a punishment. How could he tell his master that his only hobbies were being a troublemaker? Training sucked, work sucked, people sucked, and Suibian often wanted nothing to do with any of them.

In the two weeks leading up to his naming ceremony, Little YingYing did his utmost to ensure Suibian felt welcome and enjoyed his new home. The rest of the palace found it as ridiculous as Suibian himself did, and looking at the way the crown prince handled his own Sentinel, Wei Ying made for a rather unusual child. Suibian adored him. He knew, from the moment Wei Ying took his hand and pulled him to the ceremony room asking Suibian what he’d like to be called with those large shining eyes, that he would protect this boy forever.

Wei Ying wanted Suibian to choose his own name since it’s so important to a person’s identity. The way he looked down as he said that made Suibian wonder how long it had been since anyone called Wei Ying’s name before King Jiang found him.

Suibian didn’t know what he wanted to be called. Sentinels are not given names at birth, nor are they taught to give any importance to their individuality. A Sentinel is an extension of their master, which is why any personal decisions are relegated to the master’s discretion. Wei Ying tried to help him, listing off twenty different names while asking if he liked any of them. Some were genuinely good, others were so laughably silly that Suibian almost picked them. In the end he ended up rejecting each of them, much to the indignance of the others in the room.

He told Wei Ying he didn’t know how to pick a name. He wanted his master to give him one. Wei Ying just fumbled around for a while trying to explain before giving up and trying to lighten the supposed stress of deciding, “It doesn’t have to be super special or anything. Just pick whatever!”

So Suibian did, writing it down on his official papers as per ceremony. When Wei Ying begged to see it, excited to know what Suibian picked, he just froze and stared dully at the paper. The Jiangs that looked afterwards held the same expression. Suibian couldn’t help but laugh.

The confused look that Little YingYing sent him had Suibian ruffling his hair. Of course, everyone asked him why the hell he would ever choose such a name, so he told them point blank it was the name his master chose for him. Wei Ying startled and began knocking his little fists lightly against Suibian’s chest crying, “That’s not what I meant, I swear!”

It was a great day.

Wei Ying tried to fix his “mistake”, but Jiang Fengmian could only give him this wry smile and explain that since it was marked on official documents it would be a pain and a half to get it changed. So how about they just go ahead and call him “Suibian”?

Wei Ying soon began to love the name as they went on more and more adventures, two swashbuckling troublemakers making the most of life. There was one time when Wei Wuxian gained some power that he offered to go through the pain and a half if Suibian wanted a new name, but he adamantly refused. It was the name his master gave him with such, albeit indirect, enthusiasm.

Suibian loved his name.

Plus, it made for a great prank that had tsunderes the world over blushing at being tricked.

With each passing year they grew closer and Suibian’s conviction grew. He would suffer a thousand full-body burns before watching his master die. 

Wei Wuxian was there for every step of Suibian’s recovery, always taking care of him. It should have been the other way around. A Sentinel should not be a dead weight. Suibian could only hope to finish his rehab and return to his master’s side.

For now, all he can do is ease his mind.

Suibian lifted his arms as Wei Wuxian began wrapping the gauze around his torso, “Master is unusually quiet today. Did Doc knock you out again? Or did Lady Shijie find your porn and tease you about it again?” Wei Wuxian paused and Suibian grinned as his tone turned mischievous, “Oh my, master, there’s nothing to get upset over~. Lady Shijie already complimented you on your taste! Besides, she always makes sure to expose Grumpy Grape’s porn to everyone as well!”

Wei Wuxian cut off Suibian’s laughter, “I’m getting married.”

Suibian froze, wide smile slipping slowly into a slack-jawed expression. If Wei Wuxian had liked someone, Suibian would know. While he was still wrapping his head around the words, Wei Wuxian continued, “Well, married might not be the right word exactly…”

Suibian stared ahead dully as Wei Wuxian explained the situation. He didn’t even register when his master finished and sat back in the chair by his bedside. This… This can’t be happening.

Suibian understands. He understands more than anyone how much Wei Wuxian wants to end this war, how desperate the situation is, the damage that could result should the war continue on. He doesn’t even disagree with his master’s decision.

But why Wei Wuxian?

Why his master, who has given everything of himself and more already? He deserves something better than this, something real.

At the very least he deserves more than a concubine position!

He turned sharply to face Wei Wuxian, “I’m coming with you.”

“No you’re not.” 

Suibian felt as if the air got knocked out of his lungs. He stared at Wei Wuxian as if unable to comprehend the words. Wei Wuxian knew it would be a huge blow, but what was he supposed to do?

He looked at Suibian as if memorizing his face, before taking his hand and pressing two compasses in his palm, “I need you to stay and protect everyone.”

Suibian blinked dazedly, “They won’t just let you go without a fight.”

Wei Wuxian released a breath, “Shijie can’t leave the castle without a preplanned destination and a huge escort. Jiang Cheng has the stealth of a rampaging bull. It won’t be hard to slip away, if they even find me.”

Suibian stayed quiet for a moment. Then, with the smallest voice awei Wuxian had ever heard from him, “Will I...get to join you?”

Wei Wuxian squeezed his eyes tightly and took a deep breath, “...I don’t know.”

He really didn’t want to leave it off like this. Suibian hadn’t even been this pale when he was literally dying from his injuries. His wide eyes had this haunted light as he looked at Wei Wuxian, as if he was vanishing before Suibian’s very eyes. He quickly grabbed Suibian’s hand, unsure of what to say or what to do, when Suibian gripped his hand tightly back.

It was like the birth of a raging fire as Suibian’s eyes glared with a fierce conviction, “I will.”

He pulled Wei Wuxian into a hug so tight it was hard to breath, but Wei Wuxian could only hug tighter at his unyielding tone, “I will come to you. Whether through tricks or lies or false identities, I will find my way back to your side. 

Wei Wuxian didn’t respond.

Closing the door as Suibian stared at his back was the hardest thing Wei Wuxian had done that night.

Heart heavy and spirit low, Wei Wuxian could no longer bear to look at the fog-dusted lotus flowers that had charmed him most of his life. He immediately grabbed his bag and the bird,and left without a glance back.

He was glad royal courier birds from Gusu were trained to be silent. It was already difficult to carry around a large cage without making any noise, let alone worrying about its contents. Wei Wuxian had already attached his acceptance of the proposal to the bird’s leg, planning to release it outside of Lotus Pier’s walls in case someone tried to shoot it down.

Years of troublemaking came in very handy when Wei Wuxian knew every secret entrance and hidden passage that even the elders weren’t aware of. 

Reaching the horse stables was pitifully easy. With his best horse at full speed, only taking breaks when his horse needed it, Wei Wuxian could reach the Cloud Recesses in a week. Had the Jiangs gone beyond etiquette and touched his horses, then a normal horse could get him there in 10, maybe 12 days. Looking over, Wei Wuxian gawked at the empty stables.

They did it. They actually did it.

They had all his war horses put in the winter stables.

As a General, Wei Wuxian was to have unrestricted access to his horses at all times. Even a second could mean the outcome of a battle, so even Madam Yu respected that boundary even when he would ride around in the middle of the night with his friends. The only time anyone was allowed to touch Wei Wuxian’s horses without his permission is to move them into the winter stables to protect them from the cold. With all their horses in one place, the stables are heavily guarded. Of course, Wei Wuxian never minded especially since he could take out his horses as he pleased, but he couldn’t do that now without alerting everyone.

Wei Wuxian clicked his tongue. Now he’d have to buy a horse in town. Never expecting they would stoop so low, Wei Wuxian only brought enough for a month’s worth of expenses. Not only would a new horse and gear cost the majority of Wei Wuxian’s coin, but a horse not bred for the Jiang’s preference for speed would take even longer than before. These next two weeks were going to test Wei Wuxian’s frugality.

His mouth dropped even further once he made it past the gates.

Lotus Pier had officially declared Winter despite it still being a month away this far south. Wei Wuxian couldn’t even steal a horse because they were all locked up somewhere snow couldn’t reach them. Yunmeng’s famous night market would be the only place to buy a horse at this hour, and given the increased guards it was a no-go.

Wei Wuxian felt like breaking something.

This meant he would have to walk. At least until he finds a horse in another town, but who knows how long that might take if the news reached beyond the capital already.

Taking a deep breath, Wei Wuxian steels himself as he watches the falcon speed off in the direction of Gusu.

If he has to walk, then he’ll walk.

 

Lan Xichen couldn’t help but chuckle as he watched his brother slip the letter out of his sleeve and read it again while supervising the construction of the Red Lotus Pavilion. Despite having received the acceptance letter only a day ago, it was already as worn as ancient text with how often Lan Wangji took the paper out to read it. 

Despite their confidence in Wei Wuxian’s agreement to the proposal, Lan Wangji had read the acceptance letter with a face of awe as if he couldn’t believe it was real. Lan Xichen had never seen his brother so stunned and happy at the same time.

As soon as the emperor snapped out of his daze, he sprung into action. He finalized, with a bit of reluctance, the structural plans for the pavilion and immediately ordered for the construction to begin the very next day. His brother hired the best, and a lot of them. Already they had done so much work despite the short time frame. Although it won’t be ready in time for Wei Wuxian’s arrival, the pavilion would be ready in time for the wedding.

Yunmeng’s acceptance letter was rather strange. It was addressed directly from the General instead of the Yunmeng royal family. 

The General stated that due to their current states it would be best to make the engagement official as soon as possible, so he would be journeying ahead to reach the Cloud Recesses quickly. He added that the Jiang retinue and all proper procedures would be handled afterwards. There were other things as well that found puzzling, but he hoped it was just some cultural differences. The emperor didn’t seem to notice the rest as he kept rereading the opening line where Wei Wuxian personally accepts the proposal.

Lan Xichen smiled softly as he watched Lan Wangji trace the characters gently with his fingers. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but for now he’ll let his little brother enjoy the moment.

Out of the corner of his eye, Lan Xichen noticed Lan Qiren approaching and panicked. He would never approve such an unorthodox design and even if it’s not his decision in the end he doesn’t wish to sour Lan Wangji’s mood.

The emperor was too lost in his daze to notice the fluttering of his brother’s robes as he bolted at maximum allowed speed.

When he first held the sealed letter, Lan Wangji could feel the world fade away as his heartbeat increased. His brother was saying something but his voice felt far away as if he was on a boat while Lan Wangji sunk further into the depths of his thoughts. His heartbeat seems to thunder through his chest as such an intensity he wondered if Wei Ying could feel it from across the land. 

Only his brother’s hand gently tugging on the paper snapped Lan Wangji out of his daze as he slapped the letter to his chest protectively. Lan Xichen just gave a knowing smile, “Wangji, if it’s too much I can open it for you.”

Lan Wangji froze as his ears went hot. To have lost his composure at such a small thing…

With a light cough the emperor straightened, ignoring his brother’s raised eyebrows, and broke the seal to open the response. Lan Xichen stood beside him as they read and and could practically feel the slight tremble in Lan Wangji’s hands as his eyes widened in pure awe. With the face of a lost child in disbelief of receiving their greatest wish, he turned to Lan Xichen as if to confirm that what he read was real.

He and Wei Ying are getting married.

At Lan Xichen’s warm nod, Lan Wangji felt a sudden lightness hit him with such an intensity that he had to sit down. They’re getting married.

He will finally, finally get to be with Wei Ying.

Lan Wangji could not sleep the entire night. It was the first time he had ever broken curfew. The bubbly feeling of fairies dancing across his heart had him taking out the letter over and over to read under the moonlight. Some part of Lan Wangji feared that if he fell asleep he would wake to find it was all a cruel, albeit beautiful, dream.

Justifying it as truly important political work, the emperor gave up on sleep and spent the rest of the night finalizing the design and writing a list of tasks to delegate in preparation for Wei Ying’s arrival. He ignored his brother’s amused look the following morning.

The official announcement was a short affair, Lan Wangji not wanting to waste time listening to pointless drivel when there are so many things to do. It was for the best anyway, as hiz daze had caused Lan Wangji to make several mistakes, walking into door frames and pouring his tea until the entire table was soaked. 

Lan Wangji could only relegate himself to those tasks which he knew could hold his focus, and therefore put his full attention into the wedding preparations. He didn’t wish to pressure the workers with his authority, but he cannot deny his appreciation at the speed and quality that resulted from it. With winter having begun, the foundation must be finished before the first snowfall.

He had already sent people to buy the various textiles, decorations, and other such materials, even giving the order to journey to other cities should the capital not have enough.

Lan Wangji was dismayed to learn the pavilion would not be ready in time for Wei Ying’s arrival and wanted to decorate the guest courtyard to properly welcome his bride, but Lan Xichen had informed him that with the season ramping up, removing any workers from the pavilion could cause drastic delays. The emperor could only hope to make up for the housing with hospitality.

Lan Wangji stared at the construction silently before his ears turned red.

Of course, should Wei Ying accept, Lan Wangji would gladly host him in his own pavilion. The emperor shook his head of such thoughts. He looked down, remembering their meeting in Yiling. No matter his intentions, he doesn’t wish to put pressure on his empress to do anything he doesn’t wish to. And if it takes time for Wei Ying to feel comfortable in his presence, then Lan Wangji will wait.

As Lan Wangji ran through a list of activities to host for Wei Ying’s arrival, he saw a flash of gold approach from the side. The emperor turned his head just enough to acknowledge Jin Guangyao’s presence before returning to gaze forward. With his gentle smile, Jin Guangyao gave a salute before standing a respectful distance away. They were silent for a few minutes as Jin Guangyao seemed to fidget, unsure of what to say.

In the end he took a breath and turned to bow to the emperor, “Your Majesty, I would like to offer my sincere apologies.”

Lan Wangji turned his head, flicking his fingers in pardon which Jin Guangyao shook his head to refuse. He looked down with a scrunched up expression, “Er-Ge spoke to me about our discussion over Yunmeng.” His voice lowered with a slight irritation Lan Wangji had not seen on him before, “As you know, my status in Koi Tower is… rocky. As the king, Father demands I report to him on my activities in case my actions somehow affect Lanling. I had always kept our discussions as a Triad private. This case was the only exception because the resources would need to be prepared in advance for the recovery efforts to work, and such things are outside of my influence.” He grit his teeth, “The one time I tell him…”

Lan Wangji stared at him for a moment before lifting his hand, “Rise. It has already finished.”

Jin Guangyao gave one more salute in gratitude before rising with a smile to admire the enormous construction taking place. The scale of it was truly astounding, more fit for a goddess than an empress. If he had to guess, Jin Guangyao would wager it matches the size of the emperor’s own pavilion at the very least. He struggled not to show the astonishment on his face as his mind tallied up the costs involved.

Even Lanling with its abundant wealth does not have such a glorious construction for such a relatively minor purpose.

This is an area to tread lightly, especially given the current tension.

Jin Guangyao spoke his praises of the pavilion, marveling at the planned man-made lotus pond they planned to build all the way up here in the mountains. Lan Wangji just nodded with a subdued air of excitement as he gave some small information, though nothing of importance.

Jin Guanyao turned to him with his own excitement, “Your Majesty, such a marvelous palace must surely be expensive. And given the purpose of the marriage is to end the war we are all involved in, I am sure that both Lanling and Qinghe would like to gift resources and treasures to the Red Lotus Pavilion to ease the tensions between our countries and welcome a new era for the coming future. While I am sure Gusu is brimming with more than adequate quality, there are some things that can only be found in other countries. Lanling especially has some of the finest hardwood in the world. And I have personally felt the quality finish of Qinghe silk. With your permission, we could have these gifts prepared for the Red Lotus Pavilion before the wedding.”

Lan Wangji stayed quiet for a moment before responding, “tradition dictates that the husband provide all resources for the wife’s living.”

Jin Guangyao just smiled, “I see.”

They stood silently for a few more minutes until Jin Guangyao excused himself to return to his diplomatic paperwork. It reminded Lan Wangji of his own desk overflowing with documents about the treaty and wedding. Releasing a small breath, Lan Wangji turned to leave, but his daze had yet to life as he had bumped into an attendant after a few steps. The girl had immediately kowtowed and begged forgiveness. Lan Wangji could not blame her for his own carelessness, especially after noticing her pole, “No matter, rise.”

The girl kowtowed one more time in gratitude before getting up and dusting off her robes to be more presentable. With a salute she greeted the emperor and asked if he needed anything. Lan Wangji was about to refuse when he noticed the bounciness in her stance as they listened to the construction. He motioned for her to speak, remembering after a moment that she can’t see it, “Speak.”

The girl jumped and blushed as she lowered her head, “I heard we will be getting a new empress. This servant has not yet been assigned a proper master, so this one wishes for some work to help prepare for the empress’s arrival.” Her pale eyes widened as she waved her hands, “Of course, this one does not expect to have such a prestigious assignment especially with my… inadequacy. I only wish to help…”

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened behind his headdress. He was sure Wei Ying would never have a problem with a blind attendant, especially one who shared parts of his own history.

Ever since learning of the tragic tale of Wei Ying’s childhood, Lan Wangji could no longer look past the struggling children on the streets of the capital. He had set up programs to aid them, but it never felt enough. Sometimes he would see their thin wrists and hollow cheeks and wondered if Wei Ying had once suffered the same state.

This young attendant was one such orphan living on the streets. He had always seen her near the entrance of the city leading up to the Cloud Recesses. It was a good spot for sure, with a lot of traffic to offer food. She had always been more quiet, content to sit in her spot and not draw attention to herself. When he realized the girl was blind and the cacophony of noise must make things even more difficult, Lan Wangji had since made sure an attendant would give her some food. 

She reminded him of the stories of an orphan Wei Ying, shy and quiet, but looking forward with a smile. Although it was a year ago, Lan Wangji could still remember his worry when the seasons began to change. Going into the capital dusted with snow and finding the girl sleeping under a ratty square of fabric, Lan Wangji’s mind would always superimpose a young Wei Ying over her face.

He couldn’t just leave her out there.

The most he could do was offer her a position as an attendant. 

When she first heard his offer she stared at him absolutely dumbfounded, quickly becoming suspicious. Of course, someone in her position must face unsavory liars hoping to take advantage of her every day. Lan Wangji could only hand her a jade token to the Cloud Recesses and hope it was enough to convey his sincerity. He could almost see the thousands of thoughts running through her head as she looked side to side in slack-jawed disbelief before accepting his offer with an enthusiasm that left him heartbroken.

She was a nice girl with a strong work ethic. Regardless of the job, she would do it with full effort, going to every corner of the Cloud Recesses on an almost daily basis. She even refused assistance to not bother anyone else, her supervisors only accepting because of the quality of her work despite her disability.

Even now she wishes to help with the marriage preparations, willing to give up what little free time she has to work within the Red Lotus Pavilion.

Watching her be so grateful to be worked hard as a servant just to have a roof over her head, Lan Wangji wonders if that is why Wei Ying was so loyal to Yunmeng.

He narrowed his eyes.

Lan Wangji would make sure to treat her with the kindness he wished Wei Ying had been given in Lotus Pier.

Wei Ying would be a good master for her, and she’s shown a dedication to her work that Lan Wangji would approve within the Red Lotus Pavilion. Lan Wangji stroked the sachet in his sleeves, “This emperor accepts your request.”

The girl lights up.

Lan Wangji nods as he gives her an assignment, “Clean the tiles and other embellishments for the pavilion. 139 each. Wash thrice.”

The girl froze and sent him a closed-eyed smile, “...Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Lan Wangji nodded to himself before dismissing her and returning to his study.

Lan Wangji spent the rest of the day finishing paperwork, and yet it felt like he barely got anything done. Thoughts of the wedding would hit him as soon as he got bored and left him distracted throughout the day. 

He wanted to see Wei Ying.

He had never understood the impatience of wanting something so close within your grasp. Never before had he wanted to see Wei Ying as strongly as he did then. To hold him, to listen to his chatter, to spend time idling over nonsense together. 

He wanted to spend some time as fiancees instead of rivals.

His thoughts haunted him that night, the phantom warmth of another body pressed against his side torturing him with yearning. Lan Wangji got up to look out at the moon, its silver glow reminding him of bright mischievous eyes. 

He wondered if Wei Ying was looking out at the same moon.

Based on the letter, Wei Ying should already be on his way. Lan Wangji had not expected him to come separately from the Jiang retinue. Did he go alone with no protection? Lan Wangji found it ridiculous, but stranger things have happened when Wei Wuxian was involved.

A small gust of wind blew a chill into the room. Was Wei Ying prepared for the Gusu winter so far north?

Wei Ying...

The emperor could only gaze out at the moon as he made up his mind.

The following morning was a subdued flurry of activity as Lan Wangji’s attendants prepared him for his journey. 

His brother stood to the side with an indulgent smile, “Ah, I should have seen this coming. Wangji is a proper gentleman, how could he marry without even a date?”

Lan Wangji’s ears burned as he chose which betrothal gifts to bring, “Brother.”

Lan Xichen dabbed his eyes with his sleeve, “Gallivanting off to woo your bride, leaving this old Xichen behind. Brother feels lonely.”

Lan Wangji curled away from him, ears a blazing crimson, “Brother.”

Lan Xichen just gave an exaggerated sigh, “Yes yes, this brother understands.” His hazel eyes softened at the emperor in his travel attire, “Wangji, be safe. Our decision has not been met with enthusiasm on most sides. It could be dangerous.”

Lan Wangji looked back at him before fastening his sword, “All the more reason I should go.”

Lan Xichen huffed a laugh, “With you and General Wei together, I have no worries.” Then with a suggestive wink, “Good luck.”

Lan Wangji stood stiffly for a moment before quietly turning around, ears red, “Mn.”

He left at dawn.

Chapter Text

The night was quiet, filled with only the gentle rustling of the trees and soothing sound of running water as he walked along a river in a mockery of a relaxing stroll.

3 hours.

It took 3 fucking hours to get out of Yunmeng’s capital. With a horse and properly cleared street it should have only taken him what, 20 minutes at full speed? He should’ve reached the next large town by now!

Instead, here he is, walking along a river next to the road hoping to catch a glimpse of even a small village in the distance.

It was common knowledge not to travel alone at night in the wilderness, but he has literally no other option. It won’t take long for his family to learn of his escape and they’ll send their fastest riders after him as soon as they realize. Running so close to the main road is not the best way to avoid notice, but no matter what, his highest priority was to put as much distance between himself and Lotus Pier as possible.

The fastest way to Gusu is using the main road built in the past for easy trade between their nations. The road had been built for speed with a smooth road to protect delicate cargo on along the journey, and being so profitable both nations had gone out of their way to construct through natural obstacles. Yunmeng is known for its many rivers and lakes, and as a pretty much straight line the road has many bridges built to avoid unnecessary detours. One of the lakes is so huge that it would require a boat or add days to a journey to get around. He’ll have to cross that bridge.

For ease of travel, the road was built along a major river running through Yunmeng, only breaking off to keep its straight trajectory when faced with a bend in the river. The river bank was fairly hidden and free of obstacles that stumble one’s footing, especially for a Lotus Pier child, so it was a good way for Wei Wuxian to avoid a lot of eyes.

Thankfully, with his speed and endurance Wei Wuxian was able to reach quite a distance by the time dawn broke. His body could keep going if it really had to, but after running all night it wouldn’t do him any good to strain himself now and leave him vulnerable later on. Although he’d finally passed a couple of villages along the way, they were either small and difficult to hide in or were trading posts littered with guards. It was best to just get as far as he could and find some hidden alcove to rest.

God, it’s like he’s a fugitive in his own country.

It wasn’t that difficult to find a spot to sleep in. The thing about using unconventional tactics when you are vastly outnumbered is you gain a very deep understanding of terrain. He’s had to hide entire battalions within shouting distance while close enough to see the enemy camp. This was a cake walk.

Wei Wuxian had a very fitful sleep. Despite his confidence in his camouflage skill, the best riders Yunmeng has to offer were all trained by him, so he knew their ability to hunt. Every snapping twig, gust of wind, footstep on the road snapped him to attention. He couldn’t count the time he actually spent asleep, and he didn’t want to. At least Wei Wuxian got to rest his body after that little marathon last night. 

He continued to rest until evening when most sentries would begin returning to their posts with the dimming light. He would’ve gone earlier but with the declaration of winter coming so early many unaware people were still rushing to complete their business before the weather would no longer permit it, leaving the road packed with possible witnesses.

Wei Wuxian hadn’t seen any royal troops yet, likely thanks to his circle’s stalling. He doesn’t know how long they can keep it up, but he’s grateful for whatever buffer they can buy him. In a way, the Jiangs’ total lockdown of the city actually bought him time since Wen Qing has a pretty good justification for why there’s no way he left the palace. The compasses he left with Suibian must also be throwing his siblings off. One of the ways they would always check if he snuck out to goof off is by walking around the outer edge of Lotud Pier. If the red tip kept pointing at Lotus Pier, then he was home since he never went anywhere without his compass set. He suspected that Madam Yu would be the one to figure it out, and it’s not like his siblings would defend that he must be on Lotus Pier considering their reactions to his decision.

Wei Wuxian checked that the compasses faced the proper directions before setting off on another marathon run.

The marathon run was a bad idea.

While yes, he did need to make that distance, and yes, he is trained to get the most out of his legs, it doesn’t negate the fact that running for 8 hours straight two nights in a row without proper sleep would lead to a bone-deep exhaustion that had Wei Wuxian’s eyes slipping closed. He’ll have to take it easy from now on.

Finding a good hiding spot, Wei Wuxian flopped down with a stifled groan. God his legs were really starting to feel that burn. Wei Wuxian ruffled through his pack for his medicine bag, before remembering he didn’t pack one. There was no way Wen Qing would let him go anywhere without one, but Wei Wuxian also didn’t remember seeing anyone else place it in. He kept rummaging, his curiosity overpowering the searing pain running through his thighs. When he finally found it with a small cheer, Wei Wuxian froze before slumping against the tree trunk with a wobbly smile.

Wen Qing takes her medicine seriously. Very, very, very seriously. Although she was a special breed of hardass, her family took no less pride in their work. Each member of Wen Qing’s branch clan would receive a special embroidered sachet to carry their medicine within. It was unique to their family and each person only got one. Wei Wuxian held the bag against his heart.

This one had his name on it.

Wei Wuxian looked up at the rising sun. It’s golden radiance shined brilliantly over the forest, revealing the canopy of trees as if laying a blanket of light. The pouch seemed to radiate heat as it warmed his heart where they touched. Wei Wuxian took a deep breath as his shoulders relaxing, willing himself to stay awake through his newfound comfort.

A raindrop hit his nose.

Wei Wuxian looked up again and saw clouds quickly overrunning the sun, the once bright morning overcast beneath heavy clouds. He looked dully where the sun used to shine for a few more moments before calmly crawling inside the tree trunk.

He had medicine to put on.

 

Lan Wangji looked outside his window as a harsh gust of wind rocked the shutters of his hotel room. The white skies of a Gusu autumn have begun growing dark with the promise of a coming storm. 

The emperor hoped the pavilion’s foundation would be finished in time.

It had been a new feeling, speeding through the nation with his face on full display with no one recognizing him. Although still dressed with the regal travel robes of the Cloud Recesses, his presence did not bring the populace to their knees in silent awe as his headdress would have. It felt strange to be somewhat invisible, like he was seeing a new side of the world that would normally be on its best behavior before him. 

In some ways it was… liberating.

The emperor hoped he could lower Wei Ying’s guard the same way.

Lan Wangji had ridden almost nonstop from the moment he left the Cloud Recesses until it grew too dark to continue safely. He had reached quite a distance, though not far enough to be satisfied. Having calculated the quickest path to Gusu on horseback before he left, Lan Wangji’s fingers drummed a tune on the table as he drank his tea. Although Wei Ying must be a day ahead already, the main bridge connecting Gusu and Yunmeng across the natural river barrier was closer to the Cloud Recesses than it was Lotus Pier. At full speed, he should reach the bridge the same time as Wei Ying.

Lan Wangji wanted nothing more than to hold Wei Ying’s hand as he guided him to his new home.

Knowing his empress was still days away left the emperor restless, fidgeting with his luggage and checking on his horse frequently. In the end he could only practice a few songs on his guqin to calm down. With his hands over the sachet causing a warmth to grow in his chest, Lan Wangji finally got some rest.

He woke to the sound of droplets thundering against his window like a barrage of arrows. Lan Wangji cracked open the shutters only for a burst of hail to rain through into his bedroom, the wind attempting to force the shutters all the way open. He checked with the nightstaff only to learn the storm had started only recently and does not seem to be stopping anytime soon.

It would be foolish to travel in this weather.

Lan Wangji grit his teeth as he ignored the breakfast before him. Given the circumstances, Wei Ying would have to take the river bridge to cross over into Gusu. No matter how wide it was made to accommodate the trading caravans, it is still a narrow straight line with no blind spots. It is the only point at which he is guaranteed to meet Wei Ying without missing each other. But that is only if he gets there before Wei Ying does.

Lan Wangji rubbed the sachet in his sleeve in silence for several minutes. Biting his lip, Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes. 

Wei Ying would keep riding.

Lan Wangji grabbed his bags.

 

The only thing worse than riding in the rain was running in the rain. 

At least when Wei Wuxian rode his horse through the rain it wasn’t his legs that kept sinking into the mud. He could look past the splotches staining his robes and the dirty water seeping into his shoes, but to lose his already poor footing is asking too much. 

Wei Wuxian had only rested for a few hours before setting off again. Although it was only the afternoon, no reasonable sentry would be out in this downpour and even the unreasonable ones wouldn’t be able to see anything. It’s a good chance to make some headway.

Qing-jie’s medicine worked wonders as always, Wei Wuxian toasted his water-logged bag to the doc. His legs had gone from a searing pain to an aching throb that is no less uncomfortable but much more manageable. Of course, she would kill him for straining his still-healing body, but in Wei Wuxian’s defense she would beat him up much harder if she saw his current state should he get caught. 

When he thought about it that way, running through the mud in the middle of a storm didn’t seem so bad anymore. Well, his clothes are ruined but he can always say he was locked in a vicious battle with mud-slinging cobras. It’s technically true, though the bureaucrats of Lotus Pier might take offence.

Wei Wuxian just hoped the emperor wouldn’t be too put off should he not reach an inn in time to clean up.

Wei Wuxian slowed to a walk to catch his breath. It was pointless to keep running. With his footing so unstable and the rain weighing his clothes down, no matter how much Wei Wuxian pushed forward he wouldn’t make that much of a difference running than walking. It was fine in the beginning, but with the rain growing into one of the infamous pre-winter storms of Yunmeng it became a pointless endeavor.

Yunmeng’s storms can easily last over a week, so there’s no chance Wei Ying would try to wait it out even without the warrant that is surely out for his capture. He’ll just have to get used to it.

At least the tree canopy helped block some of the downpour.

 

The Nie were truly exceptional when it came to animals.

Lan Wangji gave his horse some carrots as he dried off its mane. Despite the uncomfortable and difficult weather conditions his steed had faithfully ran the full day at top speed without complaint.

A gift from the Nie king, this horse was specially bred to match Wei Wuxian’s infamous steed, but lacking the difficult temperament of that manic beast. It was the only horse able to match Wei Wuxian’s wild stallion on the battlefield. Although large and dressed with the most regal gear, without its armor it looks like any other Gusu white stallion.

Patting the horse’s side, Lan Wangji’s ears turned red.

In one of the famous love stories of the Gusu Empire, the first emperor Lan An had broken courtesy to ride his horse into the wedding hall with his bride in his arms. Despite the disapproval against their union, Lan An refused to wait even a second longer and rammed past all the defenses to do the three bows with his beloved. 

Although his uncle had told the story as an example of the Lan clan’s susceptibility to irrational emotions, it had always been one of Lan Wangji’s favorite stories.

The horse shook its head, bumping into Lan Wangji. Blinking at it, the horse looked at his ears and snorted at him.

Ah, right, brother helped train this horse.

Lan Wangji quickly refilled the carrots and speed-walked back to his room, the horse’s whinny following after him.

Although Lan Wangji was soaked through, he put off changing his clothes until after he could assess any possible damage to his luggage. The emperor had carefully packed all of his betrothal gifts to account for different weather, even choosing fabric coated with wax to wrap the articles. Carefully laying each one on the ground, Lan Wangji was relieved to find no issues. Even the scroll he had packed was safe within its bamboo tube.

Lan Wangji gently stroked a platinum hair crown. With the phoenix's nine tail feathers forming a lotus in full bloom and studded with brilliant red and blue gemstones, the small headpiece was the picture of refined elegance that would inspire awe in the wearer’s status from whoever glanced at them. It had been difficult to make it worthy of Wei Ying while keeping it practical for his empress’s daily antics, but there would be no point in giving him something he can’t wear. Lan Wangji’s finger lingered on a red gem.

He hoped Wei Ying would like it.

 

You see, there’s a reason you shouldn’t walk in the rain for hours on end.

Sometimes you feel like shit afterwards.

Wei Wuxian blinked through the blurriness in his vision. The cold had seeped into his very bones, every step growing heavier as he makes his way to the closest village. There’s no point in hiding out in the forest if he’s just going to die and the engagement falls through.

With his legs numb, the throbbing ache had moved to pound behind his eyes as Wei Wuxian clutched his head. He could feel his throat growing itchy as his nose stuffed up. If he doesn’t get somewhere warm soon then he might get sick for real. Not the most attractive thing to sneeze into the bride and groom’s shared wine cup.

After what felt like ages Wei Wuxian finally reached the village entrance. Though small, it thankfully served as a pit stop for travelers and therefore had some inns available. Wei Wuxian picked a small but cozy building, not so cheap as to be shady but also below what the guards would assume he would stay in. It was a family-run establishment with the husband handling the business while the wife catered to the guests. They were kind people who didn’t judge Wei Wuxian’s ability to pay by his frankly homeless appearance. The husband had laughed that they had seen many of their competitors lose business by kicking ragged men and women out of their rooms to make space for high-end clients, only to learn they were actually some rich or important person who got caught up in the war or got attacked by bandits. 

Wei Wuxian laughed as well, shaking his head at those people who would never learn. When the wife left to fetch some bathwater, Wei Wuxian’s smile dropped. If that many ‘important’ people got caught on the road, how many regular people’s suffering went unnoticed?

He thanked the wife for the hot water and prepared to finally get a hot soak, his cloak dropping with a chime.

Wei Wuxian paused.

He rubbed his forehead as if trying to remember something as he walked to his bag. Stopping down to rummage through it, Wei Wuxian grabbed the bag and lept out the window, the sound of shocked gasps behind him as a number of footsteps scrambled to follow after him.

Wei Wuxian never kept his Carity bell on his cloak.

Shouts of ‘General!’ sounded out behind him as the royal guard begged him to stop and return to Lotus Pier. Wei Wuxian drowned them out as he assessed his situation. There were only five of them even after all this shouting. Wei Wuxian flinched when they sent out the signal flare, but even minutes later no one came. They must have divided amongst the villages along the main road in hopes of catching sight of him. The villages might be quite the distance by foot, but that distance is nothing by horse.

They’ll be here sooner than later.

Wei Wuxian cursed as he ran through his options before a smirk crawled onto his face. Whipping out Suibian’s compass, Wei Wuxian calculated the direction of Lotus Pier and ran the guards around in circles, dodging any ambush when he noticed less than five people chasing after him. With their attention locked on him, they never realized Wei Wuxian kept inching closer to the horses tied near the end of the village.

With a burst of speed once he grew near, Wei Wuxian slashed at the ropes tying the horse to the post, smirking as the guards’ eyes widened and faces paled as they realized what they had unintentionally done. Laughing, Wei Wuxian sped past before they could recover and disappeared down the road.

One of the most unintuitive vices in combat is the idea of being overcautious. Everyone in Yunmeng knows not to underestimate Wei Wuxian. Every time someone has, they have lost if not died, so it is no surprise that the guards would take every precaution to ensure Wei Wuxian doesn’t notice them surrounding him. But when people get so caught up in one aspect of a plan they forget about other details, such as where to leave their horses. In this case, they were afraid he would get spooked by the sound of horses and therefore left them where they entered the village to search for him on foot. While good in theory, this also leaves those horses in a predictable position. That is, in the direction of Lotus Pier.

This also proves they’re not one of his men, who know better not only through Wei Wuxian’s rigorous training but also his habits. And judging by the lack of hoofs behind him, they’re not as well-trained for the weather either.

Wei Wuxian laughed as he patted the horse through his throbbing headache. 

Fucking finally.

 

The wind stabbed a chill deep into his bones yet he felt hot.

Lan Wangji tried to convince himself the pounding of his heart was due to his intense journey and not the distance slowly closing between him and Wei Ying. 

One day.

He was just one day’s journey from the bridge. 

A few more hours and he would make it in time to catch Wei Ying before he journeyed across alone.

Lan Wangji bit his lip as he shook his head, eyes focusing on the road ahead. It was dangerous to get distracted in such weather. Although the hail had reverted to rain this far south, the weather was no less terrible. The canopy of tree tops covering the path couldn’t prevent all the rain from passing through and the wind was not helping.

The last thing he wanted was to lose it all when he was so close.

The road was easy to navigate. No matter how far he went the road remained empty, the more sensible people having opted to stay inside. No caravans or adventurers, not even a patrol. Nothing but the sounds of the hoofs beneath him, the rain around him, and the thumping within him. 

It was a bit lonely. As if he was the only one in the world.

It never felt like this when he was alone with Wei Ying. Silent but for their quiet breaths, still but for the slight glance or small fidget. Even their stake-outs against one another had felt more intimate than empty.

He wondered if Wei Ying was just as lonely on his own journey right now.

Lan Wangji rode silently for the rest of the journey.

Sliding off his horse, Lan Wangji could almost feel his legs trembling as the guard confirmed that General Wei Wuxian had not been sighted on the bridge yet. He made it in time.

As the adrenaline faded, Lan Wangji could feel the slosh of his boots, the weight of his cloak, the drops sliding down his face. The emperor tensed imperceptibly, fishing out a small mirror to be faced with a frankly unacceptable appearance. Hair clinging to his face from where it escaped his topknot, robes clinging to his skin, specks of mud splattered across the bottom hem of his robes, face both flushed and pale.

The emperor had never looked less than pristine even in the throes of battle. He can’t let Wei Ying see him in such a state.

Giving orders to the guard to contact him at any sighting, Lan Wangji sped off to a hotel to clean up, ignoring his horse’s mocking whinny.

It was already evening by the time Lan Wangji arrived at the bridge, yet he could not help but stand under the roof of the entrance to be the first to see Wei Ying. He smoothed his robes for the fourth time within the hour. In a new set of clothes and with his previous ones washed, dried, and packed within his luggage, Lan Wangji looked as if he had just stepped out of the Cloud Recesses.

He wondered what Wei Ying looked like.

Wei Ying had always dressed casually when he could, but this was a special occasion that he took very seriously. And with his flair for dramatics, Wei Ying might have even travelled in wedding robes the entire time. 

Lan Wangji’s ears burned as he imagined it.

Well, Wei Ying always dressed in black and red with a gold-ornamented sword, so technically… Though Lan Wangji would never make him settle for wedding robes of that caliber. Not that Wei Ying’s clothes are low quality, of course. Wei Ying always looks nice. His clothes have a certain wordly charm to them. Not that they are not charming over all of course—.

He might need to practice speaking before they meet.

A call from the guard has the emperor’s head snapping up to the bridge, only to slump in disappointment.

White and blue. The Gusu royal guard.

When the leader caught sight of him, he shouted out orders behind him before charging ahead to reach Lan Wangji. Jumping off his horse, the captain bowed in salute, “Master.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened as he waved his hand to rise, “Bichen.”

Bichen got up from his bow to tilt his head at Lan Wangji, confusion clear on his face before morphing into worry. Lan Wangji never leaves the palace alone, especially without the proper dress of his status. Something must have happened.

Lan Wangji’s ears burned as he gave a small but rigid shake of his head. As Bichen’s confusion grew, Lan Wangji’s ears only burned more red. With no one else around, Lan Wangji looked down, “I came to escort Wei Ying.”

Bichen’s face exploded with a blush. For the emperor to come personally…

Then he blinked, coughing to cover his slip-up, “He accepted then?”

Lan Wangji gave a small sharp nod.

Bichen kept a composed face as he congratulated his master, but he could feel happiness bubbling in his chest. His master wanted this for so long…

“Did you speak to him?”

Bichen snapped to attention, “I delivered the letter, but nothing more.”

Lan Wangji looked at him for a moment, “Not Wei Ying.”

Bichen’s eyes widened in realization as he fidgeted with his fingers inside his clasped sleeves, “...No. He was not in the room with General Wei so I handed the letter over to Wen Qionglin before leaving. Though he and Doctor Wen ran in the direction of the meeting room, so I do not know if they forgot about it.”

Lan Wangji looked at him, “Wei Ying’s people are never negligent. The letter reached him.”

Bichen blinked and smiled.

“Why not speak to him?”

Bichen’s smile froze. He fidgeted in place, looking this way and that, “We’re still enemies at war, I did not wish to overstay my welcome. And I did not know what he was doing, so there’s no reason to interrupt him, especially if he’s still injured. What if I woke him up?” Bichen’s cheeks puffed out as he muttered, “Hmph, he would probably be sleeping even if he wasn’t injured.”

Lan Wangji looked on with raised eyebrows, understanding his brother a bit more, “I can make a formal appointment.”

Bichen choked as he began frantically denying it, horrified that his small little wish could blow up into an international incident. Lan Wangji looked on amused as Bichen gave every excuse he could come up with about why he shouldn’t speak with Suibian after all. Finally Bichen huffed as he crossed his arms and looked away, “And who needs to talk to a guy like that? Only nonsense would come out of his mouth anyway!”

Lan Wangji just nodded in acquiescence as the light flush across Bichen’s cheeks darkened. Deciding to let Bichen save some face, Lan Wangji had him explain the rest of his journey.

As Bichen gave his report, Lan Wangji felt something was off.

Although Bichen did leave earlier than Wei Ying, the General’s horse was faster even at a jogging pace. There would be no reason for Wei Ying to hide from the royal guard either, so if they didn’t come together it could only mean Wei Ying passed them and went ahead. 

So why has no one seen him yet?

On top of that, Yunmeng had suddenly declared Winter. Even Gusu had just barely declared Winter all the way up north. It was even more strange that Lotus Pier went as far as to spread the news with the royal courier falcons instead of riders. Yunmeng had always taken full advantage of their southern position to extend the travel seasons, so why the sudden rush?

The butterflies in his stomach seemed to drop as a cold heaviness settled in his chest. Bichen seemed to notice, stopping his report to await the emperor’s orders. 

Lan Wangji took a deep breath. Wei Ying’s strange letter suddenly made sense. It was not the Jiang family who accepted the letter, it was Wei Ying himself against their wishes . They must be trying to stop him for some reason.

Bichen was shocked as Lan Wangji explained. The Gusu royal guard had not faced any trouble along their journey in either direction despite their gear being fairly obvious about where they are from. They were riding through some of Wei Wuxian’s ‘territory’ but surely such a serious reaction would have affected them.

Lan Wangji placed his hands in his sleeves, shoulders back in the regal pose of the emperor bestowing orders, “Return to the Cloud Recesses. Brother must know the situation. Tell no one else. I will go ahead.”

Bichen’s jaw dropped dumbfounded. The emperor, charging into hostile territory and leaving his Sentinel behind? It was Bichen’s job to go with him, always!

Lan Wangji wouldn’t budge and gave his orders a second time, making Bichen salute in shocked acceptance. The emperor makes a point not to repeat orders. He’s serious.

Lan Wangji was going to explain, but stopped as he squinted his eyes into the distance. He felt his fingers numb.

It was a purple lotus signal flare.

Whatever it was, Lan Wangji had to hurry.

 

In any other situation, reaching the eye of the storm so quickly would be a blessing.

Wei Wuxian cursed as he willed his horse to stay quiet when the rush of hooves flew past. Of all the times he could have used the natural camouflage of rain, it had to let up when he was surrounded. Any way he tries to break through now, he’ll inevitably be seen and chased. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but his vision had already been blurring with exhaustion the day before and he had ridden through the night without any sleep. Wei Wuxian even had to leave his cloak behind, so he had spent the coldest hours of night with barely any protection from the storm.

He can already feel a fever forming.

Wei Wuxian shook his head to stop the forest from spinning and placed all his focus into his surroundings. They had been in this stalemate for a few hours now, knowing Wei Wuxian is here but the general maneuvering just so to stay hidden. Each side waiting for the other to leave an opening.

If only he could see who the riders were, he could exploit their weaknesses.

Wei Wuxian flinched as the riders suddenly doubled, his heart rate skyrocketing before he took some deep breaths and pinched himself. His blurred vision slowly returned to focus. His horse gave a small whinny at the movement and it was as if the world froze as everything went silent.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened as he sprung into action, charging through the closest gap he could find. He could distantly hear a flare being sent up. 

Shit.

That black stallion of his may be a giant pain in the ass sometimes, but at least he knew when to handle himself. 

Wei Wuxian never thought he’d feel so helpless because of a fucking horse.

Arrows flew past his arms as the group of Yunmeng troops charged after him.

Arrows, really?! And they keep missing too, do these bastards want to triple their regimen to show him such a disgrace?!

Wei Wuxian bit his tongue from shouting out advice as he wove through the barrage on his horse. This is not a time where he should want their archery to improve.

A stray arrow finally nicked his arm and an instant numbing sensation followed. Wei Wuxian cursed. Paralyzing arrows?! He knew Wen Qing would not make them a new batch of paralyzer to coat them so where did these bastards get them?!

Wei Wuxian narrowed his eyes. Don’t tell me… Did some fucker secretly keep a batch of arrows and claim they ran out. Wei Wuxian barked a sardonic laugh. With all the factions he wouldn’t doubt it.

Well, at least their aim makes a tiny bit more sense now. They don’t want to actually hit him, just nick him enough times to catch him. Though falling off a horse at full speed isn’t exactly the safest option.

With one arm quickly losing function, Wei Wuxian had to think fast. He took a sudden dive into the forest. Wen Qing packed him all sorts of medicine, so if Wei Wuxian could just lose them for an hour he should be able to get his arm back.

 

Lan Wangji followed the direction of the signal flare, gritting his teeth at their slow advance despite going faster than they had through the entire journey.

Nothing good can come out of a Lotus Flare in this situation. Most flares across the continent were mainly used to either signal a location or call for help. Either way, they must have found Wei Ying.

Lan Wangji’s hands tightened around the reins until his knuckles had turned completely white. He saw that first signal flare hours ago. They could be in a completely different direction by now but all the emperor could do was charge blindly forward like a buffoon.

Why didn’t he think more carefully about the proposal and the acceptance letter? Why did he wait an entire day to set off, and another day at the bridge?

Lan Wangji was so caught up in his childish euphoria that he forgot how Lotus Pier tends to disagree with Wei Ying almost on principle.

He was such a coward.

Had he not feared being rejected and scheduled a formal meeting with the royal family, they could have resolved all of this directly. Instead he just sent a letter, a small part of himself resembling a young Lan Wangji fearing the truth and ready to wave the rejection off as coming from the Jiangs instead of Wei Ying.

Lan Wangji bit his lip as he glared forward.

He was so close.

A boom off in the distance made him flinch as Lan Wangji looked up to see a much closer Lotus Flare. Memorizing the location, Lan Wangji charged forward.

 

They were persistent.

Wei Wuxian had been weaving through the forest and back onto the main road repeatedly, trying to lose the guards in the prison of the forest. But no matter which direction he went or how dark it got, they dogged after him. It was incredibly difficult to navigate a forest on horseback, the wide array of possible obstacles ready to shred the horse and its rider without the most careful maneuvering. A couple of the guards were lost on the way, but the majority were frustratingly competent. 

The entire time they had been calling for him to stop and return home. That more than anything was wearing him down.

Didn’t they understand that he wanted to go home?!

Wei Wuxian grit his teeth as he reached a clearing with a hill. If he could break their eye contact on his back for just a second, he could disappear. Gritting his teeth, Wei Wuxian tightened his grip on the reins as he heard his horse whinny.

Suddenly he felt himself falling.

Wei Wuxian’s horse tumbled forward in a heap with Wei Wuxian being thrown forward out of the harness. By reflex he angled his body in such a way to roughly roll forward without breaking anything, the final smack of his back against the hard ground gouging the air from his lungs. Wei Wuxian coughed as black spots entered his vision. Head lolling, he could barely make out through his fluctuating vision the glare of an arrow sticking out of his horse’s chest.

Wei Wuxian struggled to get up before he even registered what he was doing.

The Yunmeng troops were all behind him and none of them would shoot the horse during friendly fire. Someone else was here.

Pain shot through Wei Wuxian’s leg as he tried to get up, his forgotten numb arm slipping and sending Wei Wuxian’s face into the mud.

He can barely move.

He’s been in worse situations before.

With the desperate burst of energy that is found only in the face of death, Wei Wuxian crawled to the nearest tree trunk for cover. His body screamed with every movement, Wei Wuxian biting the fabric of his numb hand to keep from screaming out. No matter how good their night vision is, with Wei Wuxian’s dirt-crusted black clothes he’s practically invisible in the night. His horse, not so much.

Wei Wuxian closed his eyes as it let out a final whimper before going silent.

In the sudden quiet, Wei Wuxian realized the Yunmeng troops should have caught up to him by now.

In the eye of the storm, the moonlight peaked through the clouds to illuminate the clearing. Wei Wuxian felt his eyes dull.

The arrow had purple feathers.

They wouldn’t.

Wei Wuxian didn’t even realize he, too, had been revealed by the light. His dull gaze struggled to raise with the sound of light footsteps coming closer. Seeing the purple uniform, Wei Wuxian felt himself go numb.

The masked assailant leapt forward, sword stretched out towards Wei Wuxian’s chest as he threw his body to the side. The sword impaled itself into the tree trunk, buying Wei Ying a precious few seconds to jam his searing arm into his bag to grab a bomb, a knife, a shoe, ANYTHING!

The shadow of a blade over him had Wei Wuxian turning around with the bag held out ready to catch the blow, only to hear a grunt as two bodies hit the ground. Looking over, Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened as another Yunmeng guard had pinned the first and with a slice at his neck with an arrow knocked the guy out.

Wei Wuxian panted as the new Yunmeng troop took off his mask and Wei Wuxian felt his lips tremble into a smile, “...Third Shidi…!”

The guard sent him a V for victory with his hand as he finished tying the assailant up and ran over, “General!”

Wei Wuxian struggled to sit up on his elbow, “How did you—” Wei Wuxian noticed the quiver of Paralyzing arrows and his jaw dropped indignantly, “That was you?!”

Third Shidi scratched the back of his head sheepishly. Wei Wuxian felt his blood boil a bit, “To think you’d shoot your own commander! And you couldn’t even shoot properly, what was that crap?! You want a triple training regimen? Quadruple?!”

The color quickly draining from Third Shidi’s face satisfied his bloodlust a little. The stockier man held his hands up in surrender, “Yes, our training has fallen completely off the rails since General’s disappearance! Our aim has become downright horrible!” He sent Wei Wuxian a wink.

Wei Wuxian huffed a breath in understanding. So his loyals had snuck into the sentries to let him escape should they catch him. But then…

Wei Wuxian’s face fell as he looked at the tied up Yunmeng troop. Third Shidi followed and his once warm and friendly gaze hardened into ice, “Don’t know what the fuck was up with that. Motherfuckers had the nerve…!”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes narrowed sharply, “There were more?”

Third Shidi nodded, “They ambushed us with a gas bomb when General ran for the clearing. The normal troops were knocked out but the enemy didn’t factor the Wei faction’s training into the strength of it. The others stayed behind to fight off the rest of the group while I ran ahead since I was the only one not locked in a battle.”

Wei Wuxian sighed in relief. His men could handle the best of them on the worst of days. They’ll be fine. Wei Wuxian grunted as Third Shidi helped him stand up, “How likely that they’re imposters?”

Third Shidi steadied him against the tree trunk, “Most of the factions aren’t this stupid. Some are. It’s hard to say, but I checked and that’s a genuine Yunmeng uniform so if they are imposters then that raises a lot of questions.”

Wei Wuxian groaned, freezing at the echo. His eyes darted left and right. Third Shidi tensed imperceptibly as he noticed. Holding his hands out as if continuing to steady Wei Wuxian he raised his eyebrow in question. Wei Wuxian pursed his lips and drummed his fingers on Third Shidi’s arm in code.

It’s too quiet.

Third Shidi’s eyes widened as he noticed the unsettling silence. The fight had ended and there was no hostility between them, yet the forest was as silent as the dead.

Third Shidi inched his hand toward his sword as Wei Wuxian clutched his bag.

Wei Wuxian swept Third Shidi’s feet with a kick that sent them both down as an arrow thumped into the trunk where their heads had been. With a fluid turn, Third Shidi smoothly unsheathed his sword in time to deflect another arrow as Wei Wuxian crashed to the ground. Third Shidi spun to check on him, leaving his back open for the split second necessary for the enemy to jump out of the shadows and lunge forward as one. 

Wei Wuxian grabbed the first thing in his bag and yelled, “Flash!”

They both closed their eyes as Wei Wuxian threw out the flash bomb, blinding the enemy into crashing into one another. Third Shidi used those few seconds to knock three of them unconscious with a shocked horror on his face. Wei Wuxian must have looked the same. There’s no way it would be taking this long for his men to beat a group that small, and if anything there's even more enemies than before.

Wei Wuxian quickly glared as he barked at Third Shidi, “You can’t get information if you’re dead, at this point their lives are forfeit!”

Third Shidi lunged with a roar, “YES SIR!”

Wei Wuxian noticed some attackers sneaking up behind Third Shidi and threw a chili bomb at their heads, the screams of agony as they scratched at their eyes making Third Shidi spin around to quickly end the group in three fatal strikes before returning to his previous opponents. Wei Wuxian wobbled onto his feet through pure adrenaline as he barked out locations and orders. 

The numbers just seemed to keep growing until some finally made it past Third Shidi and charged at Wei Wuxian. He ducked under the first blow, striking his palm upwards in a sudden smack that cracked the bastard’s neck and threw him back onto his little buddy, Wei Wuxian biting back a scream as lightning shot up his injured arm. He sent out a kick to send the two bodies crashing backwards, knocking their heads together with a crack.

Wei Wuxian crashed to the side at a flash of moonlight, the sword shaving off a few strands of his hair as the enemy continued in a relentless assault that had Wei Wuxian dodging and kicking on the ground with no break to scramble up. He swiped a bomb out of his bag and the enemy shut his eyes in preparation, Wei Wuxian smirking as he dropped the bomb to cover his ears with one hand and his shoulder, “BANSHEE!!!”

Third Shidi smacked his hands against his ears without even dropping his sword just as a horrifyingly piercing screech thundered through the forest, sending whatever birds were left scrambling to escape. Wei Wuxian laughed as the bastards around him dropped unconscious with blood dripping out of their ears, his own still ringing from being at ground zero.

Without a second to waste, Wei Wuxian pulled himself up with the tree trunk and reached for his sword as one of the recovered assailants charged at him blindly, cutting through his chest like paper then using his momentum to turn and drive his sword into another guy and using his body for leverage as he roundhouse kicked a third behind him. Wei Wuxian pulled out his sword swiftly and jumped to back up Third Shidi, slicing clean through one guy at his back and two at his side when he felt himself flying through the air, a stabbing pain shooting through his good arm.

Wei Wuxian crashed to the ground, arrow sticking out just below his shoulder joint glinting purple and red light in a mockery of Wei Wuxian’s own troop colors. He willed his numb arm to move, kicking another bastard’s knees as he tried stabbing down and then kicking his face for good measure. A shadow behind him had Wei Wuxian flipping around in time to block, cursing as his legs were angled in the wrong direction and twisting his neck to dodge the blow when as arrow struck the bastard right in the fucking head.

More thumps sounded behind him as Wei Wuxian twisted around to find four bodies hitting the floor at the same time, bullseye on each one. 

A whinny roared through the battlefield as a horse charged through people like roadkill, a silver flash of moonlight severing head from bodies with the swiftness of a war god.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened as he saw the man haloed by the moon flicking blood off his sword as if he were too pure for such filthy things. He lashed out his sword with the ruthlessness of a demon, eyes glowing the molten starlight of divine fury as he swept Wei Wuxian’s limp body into his hold.

The arrows were white.

Chapter Text

The silence was too loud.

The pounding of Lan Wangji’s heart matched the frantic hooves of his horse as they neared upon the area of the flare. Golden eyes darted around in a frenzy for any sign of movement, any sound of conflict, yet it was as if all life along the road had suddenly died. The intense silence made hairs on the back of his neck rise as his body tensed for battle. 

With barely a second’s thought, Lan Wangji charged into the forest. Wei Wuxian may have the fastest horse, but he would never rely on speed and dragout the chase. He’d rather take the risk of maneuvering through trees to quickly lose the enemy and find an alternate route. 

Lan Wangji stretched his senses to the very limit, sensing for any disturbance in the deathly still forest. A distant clang of metal had Lan Wangji pulling the reins of his horse to pivot off a tree towards the sound. Lan Wangji could make out a large group of figures clashing against one another like a pair beehives smashed together. He whipped the bow off his back, free hand gripping the reins by just his fingertips as he passed by a flash of white in the forest. Even the brilliance of the full moon that had always entranced him with visions of their first battle was aggressively ignored as golden eyes squinted to make sense of the violent mass of people.

The risk was too high.

Lan Wangji lowered his bow to grab his sword instead, nearly dropping both at the inhuman screech that blared from deeper in the forest. He froze in realization before barreling through the treeline in the direction of that white light from before. The moon was high in the sky, so that light could only be artificial.

There’s only one person who carries around such intense flash bombs.

Lan Wangji felt his heart stop and then pound fervently as he heard a clash of swords in the distance. He rode around onto the ledge he was certain Wei Ying was planning to disappear behind, leaning forward to scan for his iconic ribbon. Lan Wangji’s eyes, as if drawn, found Wei Ying amid the mass of people. Illuminated by the piercing moonlight, even the shock of his horrid state could not overcome the rush of nervous warmth quickening Lan Wangji’s heart rate in a way that no battle ever could. 

Dirty and disheveled, Wei Ying was still one of the most beautiful things left in this world.

Then his eyes froze as he watched Wei Ying go down.

In the bitter moonlight, the purple arrow seemed to glow as if mocking the very sanctity of life. The world seemed to slow as Lan Wangji dropped the reins to reach behind into his quill, grabbing four arrows despite the roaring blankness of his mind as he watched Wei Ying’s hollow expression hide away to kick an assailant’s knees as it had early in his career when his achievements were given to someone else.

As he released the bowstring, for the first time Lan Wangji felt no remorse.

 

The sudden thrust as he was snatched into the air sent a bout of dizziness that left the world teetering on its side.

Wei Wuxian choked down a groan as his head lolled, blinking away double vision as the clash of metal briefly muffled as if underwater. Wei Wuxian tried to grab his head to steady himself but the arm wrapped firmly around him tightened at the movement. Wei Wuxian winced as the arrow in his arm jostled from the grip.

The man froze, loosening his grip slightly as his thumb gently rubbed Wei Wuxian’s elbow with a small tap before locking him in place to dodge a feral sword swing. 

Wei Wuxian squinted his eyes to put the man’s face in focus, but the constant pivots to dodge and attack whipped Wei Wuxian back and forth as white flashes interspersed the black spots dancing in his vision. The constant glare of swords flashing in the moonlight stabbed into Wei Wuxian’s eyes, throbbing headache blurring the world into flashes of color. 

Wei Wuxian took some deep breaths to steady himself, gritting his teeth when they came out shaking and quicker than he intended. Flashes of heat interspersed bouts of trembling cold, warning him of a fever.

Wei Wuxian tried to focus on the battle but found himself curling deeper into the man’s hold, his cold robes cooling Wei Wuxian’s forehead despite the warmth of his body heat melting into the general’s side. The sudden impact as they jumped over a boulder rocking his body as Wei Wuxian clenched his eyes shut and gripped the man’s robes as if tearing them.

He felt nauseous.

Wei Wuxian felt his body shifted into a more comfortable position, releasing a breath at the relief on his injuries. He cracked his eyes open, raising his head to get a look on the man’s face, only for a hand to gently press his face back into the man’s chest as if to hide him. Grunts of pain and thumps as bodies hit the forest floor in waves assaulted his ears. Wei Wuxian struggled against the hand to see the situation, but the man’s grip was strong and firm.

Wei Wuxian cursed. He could recognize an ally, but he couldn’t leave the situation to someone who had no idea of the circumstances. What if he got Third Shidi?

Wei Wuxian grit his teeth as he struggled out of the embrace. The pain shooting through his arm shocked a pulse of clarity that wiped most of the daze from his mind. White clothes, white horse, white arrow? Even the glide of his sword as he chopped off enemy heads embodied the style of Gusu. Wei Wuxian didn’t get a good look at the guy’s clothes, but given the timing he’s likely part of the royal guard. 

Wei Wuxian narrowed his eyes as he broke free and kicked an assailant in the face while the Gusu man was distracted. The royal guard should be much farther ahead by now, so something must have happened. The courier falcon was trained to return directly to the Cloud Recesses watchtower, so unless this guy left his purse at Lotus Pier he likely got additional orders from the emperor. 

A sudden buck from the horse as he kicked some guys behind them knocked Wei Wuxian off balance struggling to stay on. He heard a sharp inhale as an arm wrapped around his waist to steady him.

“Are you okay?”

Wei Wuxian felt a deep baritone rumble through the man’s chest at his back, the tone of apologetic worry and touch of panic so subtle yet glaringly clear with the slight tremble of his hand as he pressed Wei Wuxian against his chest. It was so familiar yet foreign, the stifled palace accent dripping with subtle emotion.

Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows furrowed even as he stabbed his sword through some guy’s throat in passing. The royal guard is painfully strict, second in discipline only to the royal family themselves, yet this guy is showing emotion on a battlefield? They’d never let that pass unless a family member died or something!

Wei Wuxian groaned as he was pulled and shoved around again, world spinning as a stabbing pain shot behind his eyes. Blinking away the sparks in his sight, he turned to shove the guy away when his numb arm slipped and Wei Wuxian lost his balance as a sword slashed at his neck. Wei Wuxian whipped out his sword to at least divert the slash down his numb arm when a white sleeve covered his vision as an arm snatched him back up with a twitch. Wei Wuxian bit his lip at the embarrassing display he put himself in as he glanced at the arm that saved him, eye widening at the patch of red crawling from the slit fabric, “Your arm!”

A calm monotone voice sounded above him, “No matter.”

Now you choose to be monotone!? Wei Wuxian narrowed his eyes, “Yes matter!”

He grabbed the arm, ignoring the flinch and tremble of the man’s fingers as he pushed up his sleeve to look at the injury. The bright red dripping down contrasted even more heavily against the jade-like paleness of his skin.

Wei Wuxian bit his lip as he looked down.

The arm tightened around him as gently as the quiet murmur in his ear, “For General, it is no matter.”

Wei Wuxian’s hand tightened. He tried to turn around but the firm grip prevented him from moving too much as the Gusu warrior continued to dodge and stab with his free arm. The pounding of his head magnified as his vision blurred into abstract watercolor, body slumping without his notice. Wei Wuxian’s head lolled to the side, the Gusu warrior’s snow-white robes spattered with the blood of who knows how many. The texture was rougher than Wei Wuxian remembered of the uniform, squinting his eyes to put it even a bit in focus only to see little tears running up and down the length of the fabric. 

Wei Wuxian clenched his eyes shut and fell back against the man’s chest, teeth gritting as he gave up his struggle. Remembering all that thrashing about earlier, Wei Wuxian glanced down at the blood-soaked sleeve holding him steady.

The best he can do is stay out of the way.

 

There was no feeling as terrifying as the weight of a body slumping against his chest.

Lan Wangji took a sharp intake of breath, absently dodging another arrow as his eyes whipped down. What he could see of Wei Ying’s face was visibly pale even through the mud plastered across it. His normally piercing eyes that shined vibrantly even through the dimmest light had dulled into a muddy gray, half-lidded as he fought to stay awake. Every so often he would clench his jaw as if suppressing a groan, head lolling while his reactions gradually dulled even as his hand clenched tightly around his sword.

Lan Wangji clenched his teeth as he slashed at an arrow with more force than necessary, the split halves shooting the final men at his back. 

His eyes seemed to glow with the wrath of his fury as he glanced at the swathes of Yunmeng corpses littering the forest floor. After everything Wei Ying did for this farce of a country, they dare attempt such a disgrace…

Lan Wangji gently tightened his hold on Wei Ying, breath trembling as he received no response. He brushed his hand lightly against Wei Ying’s forehead, tensing at the searing heat. It wasn’t this bad earlier when he hid Wei Ying’s sight from the slaughter of his supposed people. Lan Wangji wondered whether he had even been conscious enough to notice at all. 

He surveyed the battlefield one last time, finding only that one Yunmeng soldier that fought against the others tying up his final opponent.

Finally halting to a stop, Lan Wangji repositioned Wei Ying to lie more comfortably in his arms. The emperor’s fingers trembled as they lightly stroked his empress’s matted hair. He was almost unrecognizable, rich black robes torn and caked with mud. Lan Wangji broke off half the arrow to prevent it from jostling around as much, gently peeking into the slit on the other arm to check the cut. 

Lan Wangji blinked as a drop fell on his hand. The slow but steady increase of droplets warned of the coming downpour. The emperor looked down, hands tightening as he realized Wei Ying was missing any weather gear. His eyes narrowed. Wei Ying may be reckless, but he is not careless. The sudden shiver racking through Wei Ying’s body snapped Lan Wangji to attention as he tried to take off his cloak without losing his grip on the other.

A sloshing sound drew the emperor’s attention as the Yunmeng guard walked forward holding out his own cloak. It was dirty from the battle, but relatively dry. It would do for now. Lan Wangji held his hand out for the cloak as he silently analyzed the man. His eyes turned cold at the sight of the specially marked arrows, remembering the strange limpness of Wei Ying’s arm.

Paralyzer.

Lan Wangji whipped out his sword, mildly surprised at the man’s quick reflex jumping backwards. His horse chased after the man, whose own face switched to a glare as he charged, eyes flicking to Wei Ying in his arms. Slashing to meet Lan Wangji’s sword, the man suddenly pivoted downwards to slash at the horse’s legs with a flexibility belonging only to General Wei’s personally trained troops. Lan Wangji glared at the audacity of this traitor as he quickly leaned down to parry the strike with a force that sent the Yunmeng troop flying before he regained his footing and prepared a charge.

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, quickly checking the area for other presences as he laid Wei Ying onto the horse’s neck, leaping off the saddle to strike the man first. The clash of their swords rang out through the clearing, the metallic clang grating the ears. Lan Wangji threw all his weight into his strikes while he had the advantage, refusing to give the nimble Yunmeng style room to escape. As fast as the man was, he could barely match the relentless blows. Sweat dripped down his temples as his arms trembled from the force shooting through his bones. 

The rain increased, weighing down their robes as every slash sent droplets flying. Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed as he suddenly deflected a blow to the side, the Yunmeng guard’s eye widening as he lost his footing in the wet mud. Crashing into a rough roll, he opened his eyes to the glare of a sword swinging straight for his neck.

A thump sounded through the clearing, the Yunmeng guard’s body falling to the side as Lan Wangji froze his sword an inch away from Wei Ying’s muddy bangs.

Lan Wangji blinked, snapping his head to see the hole next to his horse where Wei Ying had slumped off to barrel over. His legs shook as he struggled to stand, lone hand up in surrender as he shielded the shoved down guard. The man’s eyes widened as he looked at Wei Ying, flitting between him and Lan Wangji as he pushed himself up only to freeze as the emperor’s sword pointed at him.

Lan Wangji flinched back as Wei Ying slid over to cover him, slipping slightly in the mud. The emperor bit his lip as dazed grey eyes struggled to focus on him, “Wait a sec, would you...? He’s with me…”

Lan Wangji furrowed his brows as he stared back, “He’s an enemy.”

Wei Ying gave a shaky laugh, “What, no he’s not.”

Lan Wangji grit his teeth, “He shot you!”

“With arrows of love!”

“With arrows of paralyzer.”

Wei Ying’s smile dropped before twitching back upwards in a bright grin, “Exactly! It could have been poison!”

Lan Wangji stared at him, hands tightening as he took in the panting breaths Wei Ying tried to suppress. He swayed in place, barely keeping balance as his raised hand began to shake. Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes slightly at the fresh mud washing off Wei Ying’s numb arm where he must have landed off the horse.

Lan Wangji’s fist trembled as he glared at the guard who had the audacity to glare back as he struggled to get up, “He’ll stab you in the back.”

Wei Wuxian flopped his limp arm behind him, “He’s at my back right now!”

“He should not be.”

Wei Ying waved his hand with a poorly concealed wince from the arrow, “Anyway, just put your sword down so we can talk this out.”

The emperor clenched his teeth, refusing to back down while someone who shot Wei Ying is holding a weapon behind him. If Lan Wangji lowers his sword, he might not be able to respond in time to block Wei Ying’s back, “Come here first.”

Lan Wangji thrust out his hand to Wei Wuxian, stepping forward when the general didn’t move. Catching a flash, Lan Wangji ducked as the Yunmeng soldier swung gruffly at him, spinning to place Wei Ying behind his back, “Stay away from the General!”

Lan Wangji pointed his sword with narrowed eyes as Wei Wuxian groaned, “Oh for the love of god.”

The Yunmeng soldier trained his eyes on Lan Wangji as he called out behind him, “General, you need to escape.”

Wei Wuxian squinted at the back of his head, “I have like half an arm and can crawl a good ten feet right now. Stand down and let’s talk!”

The soldier’s sword faltered at the order but his hand remained tight around the hilt as he scoffed at Lan Wangji, “This guy doesn’t seem too willing to talk. He’ll kill you if we let our guard down!”

Wei Ying released a hollow laugh, “If he wanted me dead, he wouldn’t have interfered.” murky grey eyes blinking against the rain looked toward the emperor’s red-stained sleeve, “If anything, he seems pretty determined to keep me alive.”

The Yunmeng soldier growled, “Lots of bastards have tried to catch you alive for one reason or another, and I’m not about to risk learning his.”

The soldier’s jaw dropped as Wei Ying flicked the back of his head, “Well he was wearing white with cloud embroidery when I was more lucid earlier, so unless there’s been a sudden design change in these last few days he must be from Gusu. And don’t go telling me you doubt the emperor too!”

Lan Wangji’s fingers trembled at the indignant anger in his voice.

The Yunmeng soldier’s eyes flicked back before facing forward with a hushed voice, “I will always believe in the General’s judgement, but we can’t be sure this guy is really from Gusu. We don’t even know if these fuckers are from Yunmeng!” He kicked a nearby corpse.

Wei Wuxian stayed quiet, squinting to put the blurry white figure in focus but only sending a shooting spike through his head at the effort. He really couldn’t confirm if that was a legitimate Gusu uniform, and even if it was, the corpses littering the floor all had official Yunmeng robes on too. He can’t even discount the possibility of multiple parties aiming for his head. 

Wei Wuxian clenched his able hand, the pain shooting through the arrow wound bringing him some clarity.

All he knows is that this guy went out of his way to keep Wei Wuxian safe.

He took a deep breath before straightening his posture as much as he could, “If my life was enough, he wouldn’t have let himself get injured to protect me. And the only hostility I felt was towards everyone else, not me.” Wei Wuxian jabbed a finger into his back, ignoring his yelp, “Maybe he’d stop being hostile to you if you put your sword down .”

The soldier grimaced as he rubbed the spot with his free hand, “Look, normally I would follow your orders in a heartbeat, but this guy tried to kill me as soon as I got close!”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, “The only enemies were wearing purple.”

The soldier glared at him with a clenched jaw, “...He’s dangerous.”

Wei Wuxian tried to shuffle around him, releasing a sigh as the soldier moved along with him, “Oh come on, he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

The soldier's eyes flicked to the bloodstains on the emperor's robes, “He just killed 36 people.”

“I never said anything about people.”

The soldier’s cheek twitched, “...I can’t risk your life.”

Wei Ying’s shoulders sagged, “Third Shidi…”

Lan Wangji froze with a blink, staring intently at the soldier’s face.

The Shidi were infamous for their loyalty. Second in the Wei faction only to the inner circle, the Shidi are a group of Jiang clan members who gave up their formal names to pledge loyalty to Wei Wuxian. Even the rules of the Cloud Recesses could not stop the chatter whenever a new Shidi was born. Numbered in order by their pledge dates, to be Third meant he must have followed Wei Ying from the very start of the war, if not earlier.

The soldier’s eye twitched with a wry grin as he seemed to ease into a more relaxed posture, but Lan Wangji knew the Wei faction too well. Some of his most difficult battles with Wei Ying started from a casual stance. Eyes flicking to Wei Ying’s slightly furrowed brows as he looked between them, Lan Wangji huffed and withdrew his sword. The Yunmeng soldier blinked at him, eyes following as the emperor straightened from his stance. Hesitantly, the soldier slowly followed suit, eyes remaining alert as he sheathed his sword and stepped back to Wei Wuxian’s side.

Lan Wangji carefully stepped forward, ignoring the way Third Shidi tensed, “Come here.”

Wei Wuxian tensed as he watched Lan Wangji reach for his sash, reflex urging him to grab his own sword and looking down in panic as he was reminded of his numb arm. 

Wei Wuxian froze as a heavy cloak was gently draped across his shoulders, fingers careful not to jostle any injuries. A pale hand secured the hood snugly over his head, the residual body heat sending a shiver down Wei Wuxian’s spine at the sudden warmth. The general looked down at the white cloak blankly. Spattered with mud and patches of red, the outside was soaked through but the inside was dry. 

He looked up to meet Lan Wangji’s eyes, brow furrowed as he opened and closed his mouth. Wei Wuxian settled on a half-smile, “Haha, isn’t it a bit late for that?” He tried to remove the cloak but Lan Wangji’s hands were firm. Wei Wuxian huffed, “I’m already wet, while you’re still dry. Come on, take the cloak back before the rain soaks all the way through.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened lightly, “General is ill.”

Wei Wuxian scoffed, “What, me? I’m fine!” He blinked away his double vision, “And even if I was ill, better just me than both of us. I doubt you went through all this just to be a good samaritan.”

Wei Wuxian’s head tingled where Lan Wangji’s hand seemed to linger when he let go of the cloak with a soft oath, “General is most important.”

Third Shidi’s flicked between the two, opening his mouth before snapping it shut with an awkward shuffle.

Lan Wangji reluctantly took a half-step back to look at them, “I am General’s escort.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, “To the Cloud Recesses?”

Third Shidi grumbled, “That guy works fast…”

Lan Wangji ignored him as he called the horse over, holding out his hand to Wei Wuxian, “We must find an inn.”

Wei Wuxian hesitated before placing his hand in Lan Wangji’s. The general blinked as a gentle tug pulled him into the emperor’s embrace. Third Shidi jaw dropped as Lan Wangji took the chance to pick him up in the emperor’s arms, gliding onto the saddle with no effort. He pointed an accusing finger at the emperor as Lan Wangji sent him a passing look from the corner of his eye, “Call your horse.”

Third Shidi’s eye twitched as he blew on his Wei faction horse whistle, “I can take him for you, we’ve been in plenty of battles together so I know how to handle him.”

Lan Wangji looked ahead, “I am his escort.”

Third Shidi’s cheek twitched, “You know, you don’t have to carry him like that.”

“I am his escort.”

Third Shidi’s eyes half-lidded as he smiled tightly.

Wei Wuxian’s head raised from where it lolled on Lan Wangji’s chest, “Which code did you use?”

Third Shidi broke his glare to stand properly at attention, “The standard ‘All Clear—”

He froze, hand sliding to grab the hilt of his sword. Lan Wangji tensed as Wei Ying went rigid, stretching his senses throughout the clearing. The patter of rain seemed to become deafening as he searched for any other sound, but found none.

His eyes suddenly narrowed.

There were no hooves.

He carefully shifted Wei Ying to grab his sword.

In the past, Wei Ying had worked together with the Nie to breed and train a special set of horses to his specifications. Although no exact data remained as Wei Ying handled much of the training, they are known to respond to a special frequency. With some analysis, it was discovered that Wei faction horses are taught a number of codes, though no one knows much about them.

But the name Third Shidi gave told Lan Wangji enough.

The emperor looked around, eyes scanning the treeline as his arm tightened around his empress.

Wei Wuxian coughed, pulling himself up to murmur in his ear, “Pace around so archers can’t lock on us.”

Lan Wangji’s ear burned at the hot puffs of air, eyes cataloging escape routes as Wei Ying looked down to his loyal, “No point standing around like a free target. Let’s bust out of here.”

Third Shidi nodded as he subtly took out his whistle and sent a battle tune. Within moments the frantic beat of hooves sounded as a horse barreled through the clearing, Third Shidi jumping onto its saddle as a burst of arrows shot from every direction. 

Lan Wangji slashed at any aimed his way, already charging towards the main road to regain his full speed without branches threatening to shred them apart. He heard a click as Wei Wuxian snatched the reins with a hard pivot that almost toppled the horse over as a fire bomb went off where they had just stood, quickly smothered by the downpour. He heard mumbling under his chin, “It’s raining, fucking amateurs…”

He huffed a breath, patting Wei Ying’s head in thanks as a rustle from behind had Lan Wangji striking a black-clad figure jumping out of a bush, turning with the slash to run back to the clearing where Third Shidi was trapped, deflecting arrows from all sides unable to push forward. Lan Wangji glanced down at a wide-eyed Wei Ying pawing at his sword, clenching teeth as he charged into the fray, curling Wei Ying more tightly into the shield of his chest.

Third Shidi twitched, grateful and pissed off as Lan Wangji helped him push through the onslaught, “Why are you back? Get out of here!”

Lan Wangji stared ahead as he deflected an arrow into an assassin’s knee, “Fire bomb.”

Third Shidi did a double take, “Fire bo-Fire bomb?! What kinda—It’s raining !”

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxian gave a weak cheer, “Congratulations... we’re dealing with morons…!”

Lan Wangji’s eyes whipped down at the sluggish speech. With much of the dirt washing away from the rain, Lan Wangji finally saw the fierce red flush across the bone-white paleness of Wei Ying’s sallow skin. The emperor grit his teeth as they pivoted again at an ambush from above.

Wei Ying’s body can’t take any more of this.

Lan Wangji felt a light pull at his robes, glancing down as Wei Ying pulled at his bag, “Any more bombs?”

When Wei Ying nodded, Lan Wangji turned to Third Shidi as he whipped out his bow and shot three archers out of the trees, “You can use the General’s bombs?”

Third Shidi clicked his tongue, reluctantly drawing his precious paralyzer arrows, “As long as they’re not experimental!”

Lan Wangji shot off three more arrows as Wei Wuxian rifled through, producing a flash bomb, “Wait… there’re others…”

Lan Wangji gently snatched the bomb into his sleeve as his eyes flashed around for a plan, “This will do.”

He dove to the side as an arrow whizzed by his cheek, charging forward if only to not stay still as Third Shidi shot the archer in the neck. He charged at a shallow point in the river, almost crushing Wei Wuxian with his weight as he curled protectively over him.

Jumping into the water, they were almost flung off as his horse sunk into the soft mud. Lan Wangji quickly switched out for his sword to deflect the arrows when a roaring cry barreled into the clearing, flashing purple as the cavalry rammed into anyone they could see. Lan Wangji heard several thumps as black-clad bodies crashed from the trees, necks slit. Third Shidi cheered with a glare, “Goddamn, how long does it take to stab a few guys in the chest?!”

Swords clashed in a cacophony of noise as all semblance of stealth was lost with both sides shouted, one Yunmeng troop barking, “Define a few ya bastard!”

Third Shidi jumped off his horse to engage the ground troops, “Less than what I had to deal with!” he whistled loudly, waving his hand toward Lan Wangji, “LISTEN UP! General is going with this guy to Gusu, so help them get out of here!”

The Yunmeng troops roared as they began to change position, the closest cavalry flanking Lan Wangji’s sides as a living barrier while his horse pushed its way through the muck onto the opposite riverbed. 

Lan Wangji whipped around as Third Shidi slammed an assassin onto a rock, catching his eyes with a wry grin, “I need to take care of things here!” He waved his sword at the troops on Lan Wangji’s sides, “I know those two, they’re some of our best riders!”

He hesitated for a second as he smashed his armored fist into some guy’s face, whipping around to bow towards them, “Take care of him!”

Lan Wangji’s solemn voice carried over the river, “I will.”

Snapping away from each other, they charged. 

Lan Wangji kept his head down, almost pressing Wei Ying against his horse as they ran through the treeline, zipping past enemies and weaving through archer fire. The cavalry seemed to fly through the forest as they glided around the many obstacles in their way, easily keeping pace with Lan Wangji’s careful dodging. Lan Wangji heard another thump as they shot archers out of the trees, horses loaded with quivers like a one-man archery line. They shot every trace of a presence around, making sure Lan Wangji could focus on running forward.

Lan Wangji grit his teeth, glancing over to see the cavalry glaring forward with clenched jaws. No matter how far they went there just seemed to be more.

Lan Wangji looked down as Wei Wuxian clenched his arm, “We… We have to… go… rogue…”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, “You need a doctor.”

Wei Wuxian hacked a cough as he panted, “We’re all... gonna... need doctors… soon…”

The troop on his left turned at attention, “General’s orders?”

Lan Wangji’s grip on the reins tightened, “...We go rogue.”

The emperor blinked as they all just nodded at the extreme order, “Understood.”

One horse neared him as the rider pointed down a river, “Follow upstream for about 30 miles and you’ll start seeing major splits in the river. Pick one and keep going, you’ll reach the shallow end of the local mountain range.” He winked at them, “I’m sure a Gusu guy knows what to do from there.”

Lan Wangji nodded as they pushed forward.

He tensed as they pivoted to run along the river, the treeline opening to leave them exposed. The cavalry charged forward without hesitation, the rivers of Yunmeng often more comforting than even dry land. 

Lan Wangji glanced down to check on Wei Ying, face paling as he found him limp. The emperor quickly felt his neck, releasing a trembling breath when he found a pulse. Hugging Wei Ying tightly Lan Wangji heard whispering, whipping around to find the cavalry staring down the river with furrowed brows. He looked forward, searching for figures, “An enemy?”

The cavalry notched their bows, the guy on his left analyzing the riverbed, “Can’t be sure, but be prepared. The rain’s been pretty rough today but the mud is this choppy when it should be smooth.”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes as they neared a bend in the river, “Hoof tracks.”

Horses burst out of the treeline ahead of them, archers firing as the riders charged Lan Wangji’s group with their swords. Pressing Wei Ying close, Lan Wangji dove into his sleeve as he threw himself over his horses eyes, “Flash!”

Reflexively shutting their eyes as they pulled the blinders on their steeds, the two heard the click of the flash bomb as Lan Wangji flooded the riverbed with searing white light, screams ringing out as the riders crashed off their blinded horses. Quickly shooting up when the light faded, Lan Wangji’s horse narrowly avoided slipping into the river as they righted up to charge past the screaming barricade.

The cavalry cheered the steeliness of his balls as they neared the split. Lan Wangji’s ears burned, disappointed Wei Ying could not see his display yet glad he missed the rowdy comments.

The cavalry moved to group on one side as they laughed, “Not bad, not bad! Guess you Gusu guys can be exciting. Too bad we won’t get to see more.” He pointed forward, “We’ll be your decoys, continuing down this river to knock them off course. You’ll reach firmer groundcover about halfway through that will cover your tracks, so you can go any which way seems best.”

Lan Wangji blinked at them. Is every mission this… self-directed?

He looked forward, “General Wei has capable men.”

The cavalry grinned at each other, “If we weren’t capable by now, General would’ve put us on the Suicide Regimen.”

Lan Wangji chose not to ask as they parted ways with a wave, each party speeding forward.

Chapter Text

The rain refused to ease as thunder roared in the distance.

Lan Wangji’s circadian rhythm informed him of the rising dawn, yet the land remained encased in darkness, heavy clouds stubbornly blocking all light as they neared upon the foot of a mountain. He carefully trotted around the perimeter, searching for any sign of an ambush. 

Lan Wangji finally released a breath as he finished his patrol, shoulders loosening as he analyzed the mountain. Relatively small, Lan Wangji was surprised to find it rockier than he expected. A single glance with a trained eye revealed many small caves hidden within the foliage. He stared ahead, spreading his senses this time for any sign of life.

If it’s a good shelter for them, it’s a good shelter for many others.

Lan Wangji treaded carefully as he glanced into the caves, unfamiliar with the region and its wildlife. Wei Ying would know in a heartbeat, but one glance down at his pinched brow and panting breaths erased any thought of waking him up.

Wei Ying’s fever had yet to go down and if anything only got worse. The journey had been rough, the constant jostling of his horse’s charge only compounded by the rain that pounded on them without ease.

Lan Wangji shivered as he clutched the bundle in his arms, the rain having soaked completely through his robes to chill him to the core. He shook his head of thoughts of how warm Wei Ying’s forehead was against his neck, wishing he had a reflection to glare at for finding comfort from Wei Ying’s critical condition.

Lan Wangji dismounted his horse at the entrance of another promising cave, the others unsuitable upon further examination. Securing Wei Ying against the horse’s neck with some rope, Lan Wangji toed quietly to check the depth of  the cave. Heart pounding, he couldn’t help but flick his eyes back to the entrance every few seconds to make sure they were there.

The cave was not too deep, Lan Wangji clearly able to see the rain from the very back. There were some slabs of stone jutting from the walls that blended together to form a natural camouflage that could hide even his horse, but Lan Wangji could only look around the ground with distaste. Although cleaner than the rest the place was damp and filthy, completely unsuitable to stay in.

Lan Wangji whipped away to his horse to continue the search, pausing as he heard a whimper when he moved Wei Ying. The general’s face had completely pinched, mouth tight as his eyelids twitched rapidly. His breath came out as pants so rapid he was almost hyperventilating. Lan Wangji grit his teeth at the searing heat of his forehead, the fever progressing to dangerous territory. He tightened his hold on Wei Ying for a moment before looking back into the cave. Cradling Wei Ying in his arms, Lan Wangji slid off the saddle with a gentle tap, gripping the rein to lead them into the cave.

He quickly settled the horse behind a jut in the wall, choosing a spot on the opposite end to rest himself. Lan Wangji kneeled down, gently placing Wei Ying against the rock as his hand felt around the surface. Cold and gritty, the emperor turned over his palm to find black coating his gloves.

Lan Wangji paused quietly.

Then with a deep breath he went to dig through his luggage, grabbing his medicine bag and a spare set of robes. Lan Wangji looked around for anything warm, fingers pausing on a wrapped parcel. Sealed with the fine jade of a cloud token, inside laid a fox fur blanket of the highest quality. Pure white with colorful embroidery lining the leather interior, only a member of the royal family could afford such a valuable item. Not even the emperor would wear his fox fur cloak to battle even in a blizzard to save himself the shame of dirtying such a treasure. 

Lan Wangji hoped to present it to Wei Ying during their first snowfall together in Gusu. Alone in a luxury hotel suite after a filling meal, Wei Ying would lean drowsily on the chaise before the fireplace wrapped snugly but loosely with the blanket as an arm hung languidly over the edge. Lan Wangji told himself Wei Ying was definitely wearing his sleeping robes underneath, ears burning as the blanket slipped to reveal a nape. Lan Wangji shook his head as his fingers trembled on the parcel.

A small part of wished to share the blanket together, no matter their dress.

Lan Wangji bit his lip as he put the parcel back, grabbing his fox fur cloak instead. He had planned to wear it for their formal meeting to impress upon Wei Ying, but they are far past such things. Shifting everything to one arm, Lan Wangji grabbed his spare leather gloves and wool socks. 

Lan Wangji paused for a second, eyes looking back to check Wei Ying was still asleep before sliding a trembling hand to take out a small mirror. Angling it to catch the light of the cave entrance, Lan Wangji knocked his head against the saddle.

A small, irritating part of him was glad Wei Ying was not lucid enough to see such a disgrace.

The horse snorting at him had Lan Wangji burying further into the saddle.

Quickly shuffling away from the horse, Lan Wangji placed his spares on a nearby rock before bending down to remove Wei Ying’s cloak. Although the weather proof lining should have kept him warm, Wei Ying’s robes had already been soaked through and the rain had found its way down the neckline no matter how Lan Wangji tried to hide him.

The emperor flinched as his finger brushed against Wei Ying’s cheek, the freezing temperature making his heart pound as he quickly touched Wei Ying’s hands and ran a trembling finger down his chest.

He was completely frozen through.

Lan Wangji grit his teeth at his foolishness as he felt the damp interior of the cloak. Of course it would soak up and retain the water from Wei Ying’s clothes, the fine material not enough to prevent the onslaught of the storm. Wrapped up in a wet cocoon, the cold clung to his pallid skin for the entire night.

Wei Ying shivered as Lan Wangji removed the cloak, laying it on the rocks to dry even just a bit. He was not so naive as to think they were completely safe, the light of a fire too risky in the dark gloom of this rainstorm. 

Laying his spare outer robe along a sloping wall draping to the floor, the emperor quickly removed his wet robes. Kneeling down to remove Wei Ying’s, he kept his eyes on Wei Ying’s ribbon, for once grateful for the darkness as he ears burned removing the final layer with trembling fingers. Without a fire, they had to find another way to stay warm. Lan Wangji put his arms around Wei Ying’s damp shoulders, pulling him onto his lap as the emperor laid the remaining layers of his spare robes across the general’s back before pulling the fox fur cloak over the both of them. The sting of the cold rocks bit into his back as the rough texture poked through the fabric.

Lan Wangji hesitantly peeked down, releasing a breath of relief when the shadow of their makeshift blankets obscured everything as he carefully brought up Wei Ying’s hands. Stiff as a corpse, Lan Wangji cupped the pale fingers in his palms as he blew hot air to melt some of the chill. He took out a glove, massaging each finger as he carefully slid them into the leather. Placing the hand on his chest, Lan Wangji followed with the second glove. He placed a hand on Wei Ying’s back to pull him up, pausing when the general flinched away from the cold touch, the slight movement letting Lan Wangji feel… everything

The emperor quickly slipped his hand into the layer of cloth above Wei Ying’s back, other hand snatching his trousers from the pile. Reaching down to the general’s legs, Lan Wangji paused as he felt the dampness of Wei Ying’s skin. 

It was best not to risk it.

Carefully paying Wei Ying on his side, Lan Wangji quickly donned the trousers in one fluid motion. The chill of the cave floor instantly muted from the extra layer of cloth as Lan Wangji pulled Wei Ying over him again. 

Reaching down to grab the general’s leg, the emperor’s flinched as his hand slid across a soft, firm mound. Lan Wangji’s eyes widened with burning ears as he hid his face into his shoulder, whipping down to tuck under Wei Ying’s knees as he brought his feet up. Grabbing the socks, Lan Wangji frowned at the stiff chill of his toes. Lan Wangji slipped on the socks, pausing before grabbing the second set and slipping them on as well. The emperor grabbed the second spare of gloves he was about to put on, slipping them over the set on Wei Ying’s hands. Sliding his hands into the layer of fabric above Wei Ying’s back, Lan Wangji held him tightly as he waited for them to warm up.

Feeling the shivers of his empress slowly die down, Lan Wangji looked out of the corner of his eye to his medicine bag. Reaching over, Lan Wangji carefully parsed through to check his stock. Finding some gauze, Lan Wangji held Wei Ying’s arm with one hand as his fingers tightly gripped the broken arrow. Cheek bracing Wei Ying’s head against his shoulder, Lan Wangji plucked out the arrow in one sharp motion. Tightening his hand to stop the blood flow, Lan Wangji set aside the arrow and pinched some medicine that he sprinkled into the wound. Tying the gauze so it wouldn’t unravel, the emperor then tried to look at the paralyzer cut but quickly gave up once he realized he had no way to neutralize it. Wary of side effects from his medicine, Lan Wangji opted to just wrap it lightly with some gauze. 

Wei Ying’s body was covered in scrapes and bruises, his shoulders painting a picture of the rest of his body. Lan Wangji felt no broken bones when he was moving his around, but some must undoubtedly be bruised. The emperor frowned as he looked at his stock. He wished to lather every hint of wounds with herbs and wrap his empress in a cocoon of gauze until he was all healed up, but with no knowledge of how long they might stay rogue he could not risk running out of medicine.

Lan Wangji looked down at the cuts lining his leg and arm. He dabbed a pinprick of medicine on the large cut on his arm, tying it sparingly with some gauze before putting the wound treatments away.

With their body temperatures returning to a normal state, Lan Wangji furrowed his brows as he finally understood the severity of Wei Ying’s fever burning against his neck. He looked through his medicine bag twice, but frowned as he found nothing to directly treat a fever. While some might help with fever as one of many symptoms, the effect would be too diluted to help right now. Lan Wangji took a deep breath. Drips echoed sharply through the cave as he looked at the bag that had been clenched tightly in the general’s arms for the duration of their escape.

The emperor hesitated, reaching for the bag before taking his hand back several times until a groan sounded under his chin. Lan Wangji clenched his hand, whispering an apology into Wei Ying’s ear for the invasion of privacy before dragging the bag over. He looked at the worn fabric for a moment, tapping the latch nervously with his finger. 

He clenched his hand before snapping the latch open, sliding his hand inside to parse through the contents. It was dry inside, the bag lined with weathertight material disguised by the soaked outer layer. There was a soft parcel wrapped in a cloth bag, too big and uniform to be for medicine. Other than some shoes, there were many smaller items that were difficult to name by touch alone. Lan Wangji hesitated before taking them out one by one.

There were still a few bombs left, though with Wei Ying’s adjustments he could not tell their functions. Lan Wangji set aside a compass, raising his eyebrow as he kept finding more stuffed within a pocket of the bag. He turned one over in his hand confused by the strange engraving of a laughing devil with no eyes on its cover. Berating himself, Lan Wangji shook his head as he pushed the compasses away and focused on the bag. There were many items that Lan Wangji could not even name. He furrowed his brows at the palm-sized wax blocks that pushed inwards when he squeezed before bouncing back into place. There was a little leather tab sticking out on one side as if to tear the wax open, but considering it’s creator Lan Wangji quickly set them down a little ways away. 

Biting his lip as he couldn’t find the medicine bag, Lan Wangji brushed something hard and cold. Raising an eyebrow, the emperor carefully brought it out to find a worn book wrapped in some strange cage. Locked on every entry point Lan Wangji could not even flick through the corners, though he never would have regardless. With the cave so dark, Lan Wangji brought the book closer to make out the stains across the cover and edges. The stench of blood and grime assaulted his senses, Lan Wangji dropping the book in shock as his eyes flicked to Wei Ying. 

He looked at the book before sliding it back into the depths of the bag.

What he does not understand is not for him to judge.

After rummaging through stationary sets and some rigid cases, Lan Wangji took out a soft but firm bag with Wei Ying’s name embroidered within a sun motif. The unique material reminded Lan Wangji of the Wen medical bags he saw before the Sunshot Campaign. Staring at it for a moment, Lan Wangji quickly peeked inside and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the many pockets lined with envelopes. 

Flicking through the packets, Lan Wangji marveled at the fine organization and variety of what he assumes is Wen Qing’s medicine. Each envelope is labeled with its function, a slip of paper denoting the instructions of use for every treatment. The emperor blinked as he found every pocket contained several packets of the same medicine, realizing the packets were pre-portioned into perfect doses for Wei Ying’s body. He was no doctor, but Lan Wangji knew enough about medicine to understand that some of the treatments within that bag could be dangerous if dosed incorrectly.

Lan Wangji pulled out the fever packet, squinting his eyes to read the instructions in the dark cave. Thankfully the directions were short, just mix with water and swallow at once. He grabbed the cup inside the medicine bag and the flask he found earlier, pausing before he poured to sniff the contents. Lan Wangji huffed, grateful that there was no smell of alcohol.

Staring at the flask quietly, Lan Wangji set the cup down to pat Wei Ying’s head. For a man who would cheekily challenge him after an entire jar of wine to not even bring a sip of alcohol with him…

Was Wei Ying really this worried?

Lan Wangji frowned as he mixed the medicine, bringing it to Wei Ying’s lips as he cupped the general's head. Wei Ying panted heavily, shivering as the shift in position blew in some cold air. The sudden movement caught Lan Wangji by surprise, the cup in his hand sloshing medicine from where it was knocked away. Holding the general more tightly Lan Wangji brought the cup back to Wei Ying’s lips, frowning as the liquid dribbled down the corners of his mouth. 

Setting the cup down, Lan Wangji looked through the medicine bag where he found a syringe to squeeze the liquid directly down Wei Ying’s throat. Blinking at the slip of paper in the pocket, Lan Wangji clenched his fist as the instructions strictly read to sterilize the syringe in boiling water before and after every use. The emperor tapped his fingers impatiently along the metal as he went through his options, ears twitching at every sharp pant echoing softly through the cave.

Taking a deep breath, Lan Wangji grabbed the cup with trembling fingers. Cupping Wei Ying’s head gently, Lan Wangji murmured softly against his brow, “Please excuse me…” His eyes softened, “... Wei Ying.”

Pouring the medicine into his mouth, Lan Wangji tilted Wei Ying’s chin up to meet his lips. Breath quivering as he melded into Wei Ying’s mouth, Lan Wangji felt a tingle throb in his stomach at the rough texture of those plump lips. Fingers trembling in damp obsidian hair, Lan Wangji’s eyes lidded as he slipped his tongue past Wei Ying's lips. Prodding them open, Lan Wangji dribbled the liquid into Wei Ying’s mouth, locking their lips deeper together to seal any opening. 

He could barely hear his empress’s soft swallows as even the drips of the cave disappeared as he melted them together, arms softly running down Wei Ying’s back as he melded them into a more comfortable embrace. Lan Wangji broke for just a moment, lips still touching Wei Ying’s as he angled his head for an even deeper embrace, the emperor taking a sharp breath at the new sensations. He pushed deeper, tongue sliding along Wei Ying’s as he tangled them together, breathing in Wei Ying’s scent as he clutched the general’s waist to pull him closer when Wei Ying shivered at the freezing touch of his fingers.

Snapping out of his daze, Lan Wangji broke away with wide eyes. Wei Ying took some deep pants of air as he gradually returned to his previous rhythm. Lan Wangji touched his trembling lips as he looked down, feeling a deep throbbing pulsing down below. The emperor knocked his head back against the cave wall, gripping his hair tightly as he began reciting the palace rules. 

Shoulders stiff as he looked off to the side, Lan Wangji paused before smacking his head roughly as he pulled hopelessly at his hair. He wanted to scream. If they were not in hiding he would scream. Well, he wouldn’t because Wei Ying needed to rest, but he would definitely hit something, preferably himself.

Lan Wangji carefully tucked the robes tightly around Wei Ying as he shivered, carding trembling fingers through his hair as he murmured endless apologies. Lan Wangji whipped his head around at their luggage. Wei Ying should not have to suffer his presence after such an indiscretion, and Lan Wangji has no right to be close to him. The emperor ran a hand down his face as he was reminded of their lack of alternatives, deciding instead to minimize contact as he reluctantly removed his hand from Wei Ying’s hair. Grabbing the layers of robes to cocoon the general in, he heard a groan as Wei Ying pushed his head against Lan Wangji’s chest, brow furrowing as he pursed his lips.

Swallowing thickly, Lan Wangji stiffly brought his hand back. Carding gently through Wei Ying’s hair, Lan Wangji bit his lip as the general let out a soft sigh as his brow relaxed. Looking down at Wei Ying’s oftneing expression as the medicine ran its course, Lan Wangji quietly wrapped him in the robes with his free hand, ignoring the biting chill at the loss of layers as he sufficed with the fox fur cloak covering them both.

He watched as Wei Ying fell into a deep sleep, pressing his forehead against Wei Ying’s hair, “I will accept punishment. Any punishment.”

Eyes drawing up as he straightened, Lan Wangji caught his horse’s eyes, freezing at the half-lidded pointed look. The horse blinked at him with a huff of air.

Lan Wangji buried his face in his hands, Wei Ying blissfully dozing away.

 

A sneeze rang out in the tent covering the Red Lotus Pavilion as a young attendant dutifully polished a stained-glass lantern to a shine for the third time. 

The snow had finally come in a couple days after the emperor left on some “business” down south. Although he was no longer a looming presence for the workers, somehow seeing him gone with the simple order to get it done drove the crew to work through the night under the light of a hundred torches to lay the foundation. Finally able to relax, the crew were just about to pack up when the attendant shyly asked if the succeeding construction crews were going to wait until spring, since the snow would prevent anyone from working. They all froze, faces paling as the whole lot dropped everything and began setting up tents to cover the entire pavilion before they left, giving the attendant plenty of snacks for saving them from the emperor’s fury once he returned from his trip.

She quirked her lips as one of the few people who knew what that “business” was.

Lan Xichen had praised her thoughtfulness and attention to detail, rewarding her with some earrings and a free request. She had blinked as she responded that she just wanted to prepare the pavilion from beginning to end for the new empress, unaware it was truly such a critical matter. The prince was impressed with her humbleness, granting her free range to the construction site as long as she did not interfere with the process.

She didn’t even bother to contain her cheer at the news.

Setting the lantern aside with a final rub, the attendant sighed.

That was two days ago.

Eyes flicking to the meticulously stacked boxes that had just arrived that morning, she felt her eye twitch as she cursed the emperor.

Looking at the line of polished lanterns before her and then at the box to store them just four feet away, the attendant grumbled as she picked up her bamboo pole and tapped her way to find it anyway.

She swore, if that fucking emperor wasn’t so nice she’d have poisoned his tea for this shit, Wei Wuxian be damned.

A-Qing grabbed a couple of lanterns, carefully placing them into the box so they wouldn’t break. Of course, this is not a job for the blind girl, but the jack-off who was supposed to do it last time waited too long and the dirt from construction had ruined her painstaking work. It took A-Qing everything she had to keep up her smile as she assured Lan Xichen it was really no trouble, she could just do it again!

A-Qing groaned as she stretched, finally free from her kneeling position crouched over the fine glass. Taking a moment to enjoy the silence, she sighed as she tapped over to the broom set against one of the boxes for a change of pace. A-Qing twirled around with the broom, marveling at the size of the palace Wei Wuxian would be living in.

This might even be more grand than the gaudy Koi Tower. She thought back to the decorations, nodding to herself with raised eyebrows. It will definitely be more tasteful.

Who’d have thought Wei Wuxian of all people would become an empress, and what looks to be a damn powerful one too? She grinned.

Yu Ziyuan must be pissed.

As soon as A-Qing heard the news she knew she had to lock her place in the pavilion quickly. Luckily, despite her short career in the Cloud Recesses, being the emperor’s charity case made her more memorable in his eyes. She didn’t care if she got hazed by some of the more pathetic servants for receiving the emperor’s favor, anything they did only benefited her anyway.

A-Qing just wished she didn’t feel bad for tricking the emperor, his kindness reminding her brutally of Wei Wuxian’s even without the teasing.

Back when she was gathering intel on the streets, he would always have someone bring her some food. He would also send her a blanket when the snow came and have a local guard help her to the shelters during storms as a blind girl could not find the way herself. Of course, he did this for many orphans, but A-Qing could feel that he saw her differently.

At first she thought he was a weirdo with a blind orphan kink, but seeing how smart he is she began to wonder if he saw some skills in her like Wei Wuxian did when she picked his pocket years ago. 

No matter what he saw, A-Qing never saw his offer coming.

She was perfectly fine at her current location. Sure, she had to go a little hungry and sit next to trash, but she had done that most of her life so it was nothing special. She could have moved deeper into the alleys and increased her standard of living with the luxury of being hidden, but the intel she got sitting right outside the Cloud Recesses gates was invaluable. Wei Wuxian had often sent her messages about how her alerts of certain members’ departures let the Wei faction get the drop on them in battle.

It was nothing exciting, but it’s these little things that are the most valuable.

And then the emperor offered to bring her into the Cloud Recesses.

A-Qing felt her brain freeze as the words slowed to a crawl in her head, eyes widening once she finally registered what she said. Her eyes flew side to side as her pulse quickened. Was this a trap? Did she get caught?

A-Qing tensed up, waiting for the emperor to finish his sentence with her arrest, preparing to make a futile effort to escape the guards despite one of the most capable men standing right in front of her. She was even prepared for Wei Wuxian to peel off a creepily realistic mask as the inner circle punked her in the enemy capital after a drunken night where they got into Wen Qing’s psychedelics cabinet. 

But nothing happened.

Then the emperor bent down and placed a cloud token in her palm. A-Qing felt the fine carving, jaw slacking as she realized it was real. She froze, mind picking up as her thoughts went a mile a minute.

Holy shit.

Holy fucking shit.

No way.

A-Qing felt her lips twitching as she struggled to contain hysterical laughter.

This is really happening.

Oh dear emperor, you dear beautiful golden egg.

They had been trying to get a spy into the Cloud Recesses since the war started 15 years before, without a single hint of success even from Wei Wuxian, as he could not risk one of the other factions fucking up and letting the spy’s identity slip. 

And yet, after all this time, who would have thought the emperor would escort the spy in himself?

A-Qing’s only regret was that she never got to see the looks on the others’ faces when they got the news.

The dumbfounded euphoria of her luck carried A-Qing through the dramatic shift in lifestyle, following 4,000 rules when she barely even followed one before. It didn’t matter. She now had high level access to the best information. 

The hazing of some weaklings to run her around the Cloud Recesses? Thank you for the excuse to patrol the perimeter for weak spots on a daily basis. The late night work she was not supposed to deal with? What a fantastic way to learn the guards’ shifts. People acting like she's not there just because she can’t see them?

Thank you, you absolute fucking morons for spreading your classified documents out on the tables. It doesn’t matter that she can only glance at them as she pours tea or delivers a package, a glance is plenty enough!

The only one she felt some guilt towards was the emperor.

A-Qing began to understand Wei Wuxian’s adamant stance on the emperor’s honor. Lan Wangji was a legitimately kind man with good intentions. Despite his absurdly busy schedule, he still made time when she passed by to ask about her settling in and handling some small cases of hazing that he noticed. 

Jiang Yanli was not wrong when she called them two sides of the same coin.

But no matter her opinions on the emperor, A-Qing had her loyalties.

Lan Xichen was nice too, and he also gave the same considerations as the emperor, but A-Qing could not reconcile his deep friendship with a Jin. She tried to look past it, but the stories she heard and things she’s seen caused by the Jin out of pure selfishness clung tightly like a cancer to the very idea of the clan. 

At least, A-Qing was torn until she served tea during the Triad’s discussion. She had only entered the room for a short time, but she could hear the three of them parceling out pieces of Yunmeng like candy to children and instantly felt her heart go cold.

She almost regretted sending that message when news of the Green Fire reached the Cloud Recesses, but she was too close to the source and knew that battle directly influenced the emperor’s decision.

It was with no small breath of relief that she cheered the treaty. 

Everything just fell into place. The war will end, Wei Wuxian will get the power and authority he deserves, Yu Ziyuan will eat shit, and the Jin will get nothing!

A-Qing narrowed her eyes.

At least, she will make sure they get nothing.

As soon as she saw a Jin sidle up next to the emperor as they discussed the pavilion, she knew she had to get there first. And as much as she wanted to sock the emperor in the face for giving her such a painstaking task, it also let her keep an eye out for any unwelcome surprises. And with Lan Xichen’s decree, she could even show up at three in the morning claiming she got nervous about the winds knocking down the tents or some shit. What are they going to say when the tents are clearly upright? She’s blind, she can’t possibly know that.

Honestly, A-Qing was glad to learn that Lan Xichen wasn’t cruel, just naive enough to believe in a Jin’s honor.

But she still couldn’t trust him as much as she wanted to, if only for what that naivety could lead to.

Huffing a sigh, A-Qing slipped out a compass to check on Wei Wuxian. He should have met up with the emperor by now, but no messenger bird has come in. it’s difficult to have that kind of quick response so deep in enemy territory, so if anything happened she would be the last to know.

A-Qing blinked, brows furrowing as she took in Wei Wuxian’s position. He’s way off course, closer to the old Qishan border than the river bridge by the looks of it. What the hell happened?

“Whatcha got there, Little Blind?”

A-Qing smoothly stuffed the compass back into her brassiere as she whipped around to glare at the Lanling tech. She saw Jin Guangyao standing silently out of the corner of her eyes staring at her intensely without a sound.

Arms locked at her sides as the tech glanced down to inspect her chest, A-Qing kept her face carefully polite, “I have nothing, sir? I was just readjusting my robes.”

The tech laughed as he pointed a finger at her chest, “Yeah, I can see you got nothing there.”

A-Qing bit her cheek until it bled as she tilted her head in confusion.

The tech snapped his fingers in epiphany, “Oh, I see. Those are what you have in there! Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I’m sure they’ll grow in eventually!” He laughed as she clenched her fist, “And if they don’t, nothing wrong with a little assistance.” Grinning, he yelped as she whipped his shin with her bamboo pole.

Glaring at her as his grin twitched, the tech turned towards the other man in the room, “Oi, Jin Guangyao, you just gonna let her do that to me? I was just giving a poor young maiden some heartfelt advice yet she was so rude to me!”

Jin Guangyao’s eyes flicked to him for a moment.

A-Qing quickly straightened in shock at having “realized” another person was in the room, bending into a bow as she faced the tech’s general direction, “This attendant greets Lianfang-zun! Apologies for this one’s insolence!”

Eyes observing her, Jin Guangyao quickly gave a gentle smile as he broke his silence when he heard footsteps as Lan Xichen walked into the room., “There is no insolence, it was my error in staying silent despite your disability.” his eyes flicked to the tech, “No matter what this attendant was fidgeting with, it is none of our business.”

A-Qing’s finger twitched in her sleeves, “This attendant thanks Lianfang-zun’s courtesy, but I was just adjusting my robes.”

“Relax, what are you so worried about?” The tech tapped his chin in mock thought as he grinned, “Unless inserts are against the rules here too?”

This flea…! She grit her teeth.

Jin Guangyao let out a sigh, “Xue Yang, did you come all the way to Gusu just to break the rules?”

“What rules, it’s not like I’m not saying anything about her being blind.” He smirked, “Unless being flat-chested counts as a disability now!”

Vein popping out, A-Qing whacked his shin again. Yelping, Xue Yang pointed an accusing finger at her, “Why do you always aim for the same spot?!”

“Keep talking and I’ll aim a bit higher !”

Xue Yang whipped his head to Lan Xichen, “ Your Highness , is this how you train your staff?!”

A-Qing froze as she pretended to realize another presence in the room. She whipped around, trying to locate the first prince’s direction before giving up and just falling into a bow to the side. 

Lan Xichen called for her to rise as he looked pointedly at Xue Yang with a calm smile, “This attendant is but a child, not yet able to control her emotions professionally,” he narrowed his eyes slightly, “especially when it is justified.”

Xue Yang sent him a dull look as he smiled, “Oh? What rule did I break to justify such horrid violence? Is teasing so vile?”

Jin Guangyao replied with his own dull look, “How about harassment?” He smiled apologetically at Lan Xichen, “Apologies Er-Ge, he’s useful in some ways and an utter fool in everything else. I will keep a better eye on him.”

Lan Xichen nodded in thanks before turning to Xue Yang who began to protest the accusation, “Young Master Xue, I do believe this constitutes harassment in many ways, least of all with how young Attendant Qing is.”

Xue Yang raised an eyebrow at him, “Young? She’s already an adult by many people’s standards, don’t coddle her. If she can’t even handle this level of teasing she’ll never make it outside this gilded cage you call a palace.”

Lan Xichen looked at him, “Even as an adult, she has just barely come of age while Young Master Xue is already eighteen. Teasing or not, please be mindful of the age difference.”

Xue Yang froze, “Age difference? Where did that come from? We’re not even that far apart, not that it matters since orphans grow up way quicker than the rest of you.” he narrowed his eyes at Lan Xichen, “I would know personally, Mr. Silver Spoon .”

Jin Guangyao stepped forward with stony eyes, “That’s enough Xue Yang. Apologize to Er-Ge this instant.”

Xue Yang rolled his head over to him, “But I don’t want to.”

Jin Guangyao sent him a cold smile, “You will, or your clearances get suspended until you do.”

Xue Yang froze for a split second before jumping back on his heels chest out, “Oh really? Super scary, whatever will I do?” his eyes widened with his grin, “I might just have to ask the King to give them back!”

Jin Guangyao’s eyes frosted over as a smack snapped his attention. Xue Yang was jumping on one foot, clutching his other leg as he glared slack-jawed at the attendant puffed up like an angry kitten with her bamboo pole held ready for another swing, “WOULD YOU STOP IT ALREADY?!”

Jin Guangyao blinked as his expression relaxed, tapping his finger against his elbow once before turning a gentle smile on the research technician, “This young miss has the right idea. Since we are guests in the Cloud Recesses, then you can either follow my rules or theirs.” He turned his head to face Lan Xichen who watched quietly, “How about it, Er-Ge? Feel free to give him whatever punishment you find suitable. 100 strokes? 200? Maybe even a lashing or two will put him in line.”

Lan Xichen looked at him for a moment before smiling calmly, “Would that not put A-Yao in a difficult position since Lord Jin recruited this man?”

Jin Guangyao closed his eyes as his smile widened, “I am sure Father would be much more concerned about an international incident that might affect our beneficial alliance.”

Lan Xichen nodded with a smile that dropped into a neutral expression as he stared thoughtfully at Xue Yang. He turned his eyes towards A-Qing with a gentle voice, “Attendant Qing, as you have suffered most from this matter I believe your feelings should be deeply considered.”

A-Qing flinched at the sudden attention, shuffling her feet like a proper shy maiden before she whipped her pole up, “For something so petty, this attendant can get her own revenge!” She bowed in Lan Xichen’s general direction, angling herself just slightly to the side, “No worries about me, this attendant will defer to Your Highness’s judgement.”

Lan Xichen eyes softened at her as he called her to rise, turning to smile at Jin Guangyao, “Attendant Qing is very kind and generous, is she not? While punishment is warranted, I do not take much offense from Young Master Xue’s words. If Attendant Qing does not either, then a simple apology will do. Otherwise, 100 strokes should suffice.”

Jin Guangyao nodded with a smile before turning towards Xue Yang with a deadly promise hidden behind that soft quirk of his lips.

Xue Yang stared at them quietly with manic eyes, “I won’t apologize for saying the truth.”

Jin Guangyao called for some guards with a sigh, “A hundred strokes it is.” He glanced at Xue Yang as he barely even struggled against the guards, “And your projects will be handed off to someone else until you recover. We have deadlines to keep.”

Xue Yang snapped toward him, growling low in his throat as he was held back by the guards.

A-Qing bit her lip as she watched Xue Yang get dragged away to the punishment hall. That guy, how many times does he need to get hit before he learns? He won’t have any shins left if he keeps pulling this shit.

Lan Xichen came over, inclining his head toward her, “Attendant Qing, I am sorry you had to experience that. A young lady such as yourself must have found it difficult to handle such a person.”

A-Qing paused, looking up to where his face would be, “He was difficult, but nothing more than an annoyance. I can handle a man child three years older than me.”

Lan Xichen smiled as he dismissed himself to leave with Jin Guanyao, pausing as A-Qing hesitantly reached toward him before stopping, “Attendant Qing?”

A-Qing was quiet for a moment, clenching her robes as she turned her head away, “Some of those things Xue Yang said… he was right you know?”

Lan Xichen blinked quietly as he nodded, “I see.”

A-Qing watched them leave before picking up her broom to start sweeping.

Chapter Text

The quiet drips of the damp cave softened into ethereal echoes bouncing off the walls like the tapping of fairies. 

The soft breaths wisping against his collar bones evened to a steady rhythm, the tranquil atmosphere lulling Lan Wangji to sleep as his heavy eyes fought to stay up. His fingers ran through Wei Ying’s hair in the steady circuit they’d fallen into hours ago. The occasional nuzzle into his neck woke Lan Wangji right up with the rapid frenzy of his heartbeat, mind sprinting through the thousands of rules of the Cloud Recesses to keep him steady. 

The long and eventful journey had finally caught up to him, but Lan Wangji was not about to fall to the temptations of this facade of peace. They were still in danger, and might stay that way until they reach Gusu. He can’t let his guard down for a moment.

Though, Wei Ying’s subtle movements have been making that difficult.

Sometimes he would give in and tuck Wei Ying under his chin for a moment before snapping himself back to reality and reluctantly moving him back. The slight grind of their bodies when Wei Ying shuffled into a more comfortable position shot Lan Wangji’s eyes in desperation toward the robes on the rocks. He could only close his eyes with a deep sobering breath as they clung to the stone, the cold damp air slowing their drying to a crawl.

Lan Wangji focused on the tingle of his toes as the cold floor crawled up his naked feet to chill him to the core. Even with the warmth on top of him the cave was stubbornly cold, seemingly warming up for just a moment before freezing with a vengeance. 

He could at least thank the cold for keeping him awake through the cozy warmth of his beloved’s embrace, as unaware as Wei Ying is.

Lan Wangji could feel the toll of this escapade on his circadian rhythm, stomach rumbling quietly as lunchtime went by without a meal. The emperor stared at his luggage on the other side of the cave for a long moment, eyes narrowing as he calculated the time to grab the food and wipe his feet before returning. Wei Ying was known to sleep like a rock when not in danger, even smacking him with a wet glove wouldn’t wake him up right now. 

Wei Ying’s arms on his chest fell slightly to curl haphazardly at his sides. Lan Wangji looked down at the limp arms caging him in, then turned his head towards the ceiling as Wei Ying nuzzled a sigh against his neck.

The emperor closed his eyes as his stomach rumbled once more, curling his arms around his empress as he both begged for this to stop now yet never end. 

Both might happen if they get caught by the enemy.

With a deep breath, Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes as he forced his attention to the problems ahead. 

They’re on their right now. 

The Wei faction may have helped them get here, but he can’t expect their assistance beyond this point. They’ve gone rogue and the chances of meeting up with them would be slim if they’re wasting manpower looking for them anyway. 

There definitely won’t be any help from Gusu. It will take days for Bichen to reach the Cloud Recesses and even longer for any troops to cross the Yunmeng border. Even if Bichen sent a courier falcon despite the emperor’s orders to keep it secret they’ll be on their own for quite a while, and that’s if the Gusu troops can even find them, wherever they are.

Lan Wangji grit his teeth.

And even if they do arrive, how can he be sure they’re his men? There are too many to remember and there could still be traitors. If Wei Ying cannot trust Lotus Pier, how could Lan Wangji be naive enough to think his nation would be exempt.

There’s no point thinking about who the assassins are right now. Just don’t trust anyone.

However, there’s little doubt that the Jiang royal family disapprove—

Wei Ying nuzzled against his neck, lips brushing Lan Wangji’s collar bone as he frantically repeated the rules of the Cloud Recesses to calm his wangji. 

—...are less than pleased with the marriage. He has faith in Wei Ying’s decision-making, but how could this not cause problems? If the marriage is not desirable for a treaty, he could just make another one. As long as the war ends and Wei Ying can finally rest, nothing else matters.

Lan Wangji gazed down, hand pausing its ministrations to gently cradle Wei Ying’s head. The emperor bit his lip as his eyes tightened. From the very beginning, nothing else mattered.

But he really wanted this wedding.

Lan Wangji pressed Wei Ying closer as he clenched his eyes, burying his face deep into his neck. Wei Ying’s face pushed against his nape, nose buried so tightly to his skin as if to suffocate him.

Wei Ying began to stir from the lack of air. Lan Wangji flinched, quickly moving him into a much more comfortable position, but Wei Ying continued to shift around. Lan Wangji felt his heart rate spike as Wei Ying’s eyelids began to twitch, freezing for a moment before whipping his hands up as he frantically looked for a place to put them. Fingers trembling as he clawed at the air, Lan Wangji froze as he heard a snort across the cave. Lan Wangji’s ears burned red as his horse blinked at him slowly, burying his face in his hands as the horse stared. 

Lan Wangji peeked down from his palms at Wei Ying, eyes catching damp curls draping down his shoulders. Lan Wangi’s eyes widened, hand whipping around for the mirror he placed next to Wei Ying’s bag. Lan Wangji snapped the lid open with a tight grip, face paling even further as he made out the image.

What a mess.

He looked even worse than the night before, hair completely disheveled from when he pulled at it after the medicine incident. Lan Wangji’s ears burned as he turned his face around in dismay at what he saw in the mirror. Eyes flicking to the floor, Lan Wangji searched for his hair crown to put up his topknot, biting his lip when he couldn’t find it. A groan snapped Lan Wangji’s attention down to Wei Ying as his eyes struggled to open, the emperor freezing in horror as he felt the soft grid of their skin.

Wei Ying is naked.

Lan Wangji quickly grabbed for the robes they were using as blankets, but the sudden movement finally cracked open Wei Ying’s eyes. The emperor froze as his gold eyes met a piercing silver, the color refreshing in the wake of the muddy gray from last night. He felt locked in the orbit of those moonlit irises, the world fading away as Wei Ying focused through his tired haze. 

 

The ache that ran through Wei Wuxian’s body throbbed with every pulse as his heart rate quickened, the lack of air dragging him out of sleep. Despite the pain shooting through his limbs his head felt cozy, reminiscent of when Shijie would nurse him through a sickness back home.

He felt so warm, the contrast from the past few nights stabbing through his heart as he nuzzled closer in, groaning as the movement jostled his aching bones. Wei Wuxian cracked his eyes open with a hiss as something moved below him, blinking his eyes into focus at the sight before him.

The emperor felt his heart skip as their eyes finally, truly met, drinking in the shrink of Wei Ying’s pupils as he registered what he saw. Every twitch, every trembling eyelash, even in the dark of this cave he could see every minute detail on Wei Ying’s face. Just a couple inches away, the emperor never dreamed they could be so close.

Wei Ying pushed himself up, eyes flitting around Lan Wangji’s face as he drank him in. Lan Wangji wanted to hide, his first impression drowned in such a disgraceful appearance.

Wei Wuxian never got a proper look at the man who helped them, but the white robes and cloud pattern from last night matched the doll-like features of Gusu before him. Fine aristocratic features lined his smooth jade-like skin visible even in the dim light of the storm clouds. A sharp jawline lead Wei Ying’s eyes down to delicate lips pursed from his teasing, the finely shaped nose drawing Wei Ying’s eye back up to hypnotic eyes of molten gold so vibrant they seemed to glow. 

He had never seen such a brilliant gold yet he felt drawn to it, the stunning color sending a jolt through his spine as Wei Ying’s heart thundered in his eardrums. 

Inky locks of tousled hair framed his face with the wildness of a fun night, damp locks curling lightly at the edges as they draped down his shoulders like the water nymphs of Yunmeng legend.

He was unlike any Gusu man Wei Ying had ever seen. 

The blankets slipped down a bit, Lan Wangji too gone to notice when Wei Ying suddenly shivered. The moment shattered like glass as Wei Ying looked down and froze.

Wei Wuxian had barely registered the blanket slipping when a gust of cold jolted up his spine, shocking his eyes downward where he froze at the sight of his own nipples. With the sudden chill he grew aware of a warm pair of hands along his back, the light grazing of nails as the hands snapped away sending a jolt of electricity up his spine as Wei Wuxian bit back some sort of noise. 

A moment passed before Lan Wangji suddenly sprung awake, hands snapping up as he kept his arms raised high. 

Blinking away glossy eyes Wei Wuxian looked up to find the guard pale white yet beet red as he held his hands as far away from Wei Ying as possible, his well-sculpted arms catching the light and leading Wei Ying’s eyes down to his bare chest. He paused blankly as his gazed slipped down further to the smooth firm ridges underneath his belly, rising slightly to find finely sculpted muscles seemingly lacking any fat as they ground against him where their midriffs met.

Wei Wuxian felt his jaw drop as heat pooled in his pelvis and red dyed his cheeks when he felt himself twitch down below.

The emperor froze as he felt his wangji twitch from the general’s gaze. Wei Ying blinked.

Lan Wangji grabbed the ends of the fox fur cloak and snapped them around Wei Ying’s body before he could react. 

Wei Wuxian’s mind froze from his body’s betrayal when a cocoon of blankets snapped around him as the guard wrapped Wei Ying so tightly nothing but his face was visible. Wei Wuxian could see the tremble of his hands as goosebumps raised along the man's arms from the biting cold. His eyes flickered down almost unconsciously to check that place, blinking at the sight of the trousers.

How come he got trousers?!

Wei Wuxian looked to the side to find his bag for a set of trousers, tensing as he found it open. He felt his pulse pick up. If this guy found the book…

Gusu would never let that pass!

Lan Wangji ignored the blast of cold that hit his bare chest as he secured the cloak without meeting Wei Ying’s eyes, feeling Wei Ying’s gaze slowly shift to the side where his pack laid. Lan Wangji felt him tense, eyes flicking to the bag whose contents he had carefully placed back yet kept the sack open with the Wen medicine bag placed just inside to quickly grab if needed, “Doctor Wen is exceptional. The effects were quick and strong, General slept with no issues.”

Wei Wuxian blinked as he registered the medicine bag placed just inside the opening, remembering the subtle taste in his mouth as fever medicine. But what does a fever have to do with leaving him naked? Does a man not deserve a pair of trousers in this cold cruel world?

Wei Wuxian’s eyes twinkled before masking over with a blank expression as he turned to the guard, “...A medicine that put me to sleep quickly and deeply…”

Lan Wangji nodded before he froze, eyes widening as he shook his head stiffly, “General Wei had a fever.”

Wei Wuxian struggled to keep his grin from showing as the man began to nod before freaking out in denial once he realized what Wei Wuxian said. He never thought seeing such a big man stiffly shake his head from side to side with wide eyes and a blank face would be so cute. 

Oh he could have fun with this.

Alas, Wei Wuxian is but a weak man in the face of beauty and even he could not bear to tease this gorgeous man to distress.

Wei Ying stared at him blankly before huffing a laugh, ignoring the stabbing pain shooting up his arms as he propped himself up with his hands on either side of Lan Wangji’s hips, “Oh god, that was too good.”

Lan Wangji paused.

Wei Ying tilted his head with a little grin, “How could I forget my prince charming who so valiantly saved this frail maiden?”

Lan Wangji grew dizzy as his ears burned to steaming, stubbornly holding his eyes above Wei Ying’s jawline as the fabric slipped further, “General Wei has a poor memory.”

Wei Ying pursed his lips as he shuffled closer, “I have a selective memory. How could I ever forget such a handsome face?” 

Well, you can’t forget what you never saw.

Lan Wangji bit his lip as he looked away, “Nonsense.”

Wei Ying crawled forward with a pout when he caught the scent of mint before him. Wei Ying blinked, smirk splitting his face as it matched the taste in his mouth, “Medicine, huh?”

Lan Wangji looked at him from the corner of his eye.

Wei Ying smacked his lips with twinkling eyes, “Oh dear savior, how did you manage to feed me when I was asleep. I certainly don’t remember taking any medicine~.”

Wei Wuxian grinned as Lan Wangji’s eyes widened as he backed up into the wall with a smack. Wei Wuxian covered his mouth in mock horror, “My first kiss! How will I ever marry now?!”

Lan Wangji felt a flash of dizziness as a tingling bubbled in his belly at the news he was the first, before snapping himself back to reality with the memory of his indiscretion. Lan Wangji shuffled his legs up from under Wei Ying, folding his knees as the emperor held his hands up in a salute to bow.

Wei Wuxian’s grin froze, shooting forward with a wince as he stopped this crazy guy from kowtowing when he meant well. Aw man, he wanted to rile him up but can no one in Gusu take a joke?

Lan Wangji remained stubbornly rooted in a bow, drawing a sigh from Wei Wuxian. This was the most fun he’s had in weeks, just let him have this! Wei Wuxian looked at the cascade of luscious hair draping to the floor with slumping shoulders, “I get it, I get it. I’m sorry for teasing you! It was just medicine. Just medicine alright? It doesn’t count!”

Lan Wangji flinched, biting his lip, “...A kiss is a kiss. I have taken liberties with General’s body.”

Wei Wuxian’s mouth twitched, “Oh my god, you’re impossible.”

Lan Wangji remained silent as he stared at the floor.

Wei Wuxian propped himself up on trembling thighs screaming from the strain as he ran a hand through his hair in thought. His eyes followed the subtle curls pooling on the fabric lining the floor, the inky black locks stark against the snow white color. With raised eyebrows Wei Wuxian stretched a hand out to glide through the waterfall of ink, smirking as the man flinched but quickly recomposed himself.

Wei Wuxian tilted his head as he played with the strands, finger curling around a lock with a teasing tug that had the man’s fingers trembling.

Lan Wangji struggled to keep his breathing even as his empress had his fun. He ran through the rules of the Cloud Recesses at triple the speed as searing heat pooled in his loins, the strain to keep himself together clawing him in torture. It took everything he had not to nip the finger sending jolts down his spine with its little tugs.

This must be his punishment.

Lan Wangji’s lips trembled as Wei Ying slid locks of hair between his fingers, running them up until they grazed along Lan Wangji’s ear. The emperor jolted up and smacked a hand against the tingling appendage, smacking his back against the wall again as Wei Ying sent him a charmingly impish chuckle as he fluttered his fingers, “Be careful, you might bruise your back if you keep doing that~.”

Lan Wangji bit his lip as his ears burned. Wei Ying, you foul temptress!

“Shameless.”

Wei Wuxian grinned as he waved his hand lightly, “Yep yep, that’s me!”

The cocoon parted slightly from the tousle, the shadows thankfully sparing Lan Wangji’s sanity as he curled protectively over his ear to look at the damp robes on the rocks, “Does General have spare robes?”

Wei Wuxian pursed his lips in a petulant pout at the lack of reaction. He gave his thighs a break to curl up in his blankets, “I’m rather cozy as is.” His eyes flickered to the guard’s bare back as his breath huffed white steam in the cold cave, “Rather, where are your robes? Don’t Gusu guys always carry two spares?”

Lan Wangji gave up one spare to pack the fur cloak, much to his brother’s amusement.

The emperor looked back at the healthy warm flush of Wei Ying’s cheeks as he stayed quiet for a moment, “...Preoccupied.”

Wei Ying raised an eyebrow, looking away for a moment before grinning as he moved to peel the cocoon open, “Well, no problemo, we can just share!” He sent a wink at the guard, “Body heat is the best solution right now, after all.”

Lan Wangji froze, fingers tingling at the invitation before he shook his head lightly, “I will not take liberties.”

Wei Wuxian pouted with a grin, “What? We’re both men.”

Lan Wangji flinched, turning quietly to look at Wei Ying, “...General is engaged to a man.”

Wei Ying’s smile slipped for just a moment, but Lan Wangji caught it. The emperor steadied his expression as a pang throbbed through his heart. He understood that their feelings were different. Lan Wangji was prepared to be rejected by Wei Ying for their entire lives.

All he wished was that Wei Ying would not grow upset at the thought of him.

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes slightly. This whole engagement so far has been a disaster, leaving alone that Wei Ying is marrying into enemy territory. It’s understandable that he would have a bad impression. Formally introducing himself might be the best option to ease Wei Ying’s thoughts after all.

Lan Wangji turned to face Wei Ying

Wei Wuxian frowned at his stubbornness, huffing as he tried to shimmy out a blanket without showing skin, “At least take one of these so you don’t freeze to death.”

Wei Wuxian paused as he felt the embroidery on the fabric he grabbed. He looked down, squinting his eyes in the dark cave to make out the fine texture of the fur wrapped around him, the jostling slipping down some fabric to reveal intricate embroidery on the inside of the leather.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened as his heart dropped.

Is that… royal fox fur?

Wei Wuxian rubbed the blankets between his fingers, the fine silk beyond even what a royal guard is allowed to wear. 

He whipped his eyes up to meet the man’s striking gold as he stared at Wei Wuxian silently with slightly narrowed eyes.

Wei Wuxian felt his face pale as he recalled his behavior. The teasing, the flirting, the complete shamelessness despite his fiance status. Wei Wuxian’s fingers trembled as he looked at the man he showed no decorum to, “Are you… a royal family member?”

Lan Wangji paused at the question, eyes widening slightly at the hesitant tone of the rambunctiously confident general.

Wei Wuxian grit his teeth. The royal family is forbidden from lying, so staying silent could only mean one thing. He straightened up, adrenaline numbing the scream of his ribs as he ran through his options with this colossal fuck-up. 

How could he not have seen this coming?!

The Cloud Recesses is anal on the best of days, the pinnacle of exclusivity, and a fair half of them must think he’s the living embodiment of everythign wrong with the world. Treaty or not, how could they let such a disgrace taint their precious emperor.

And looking at the man’s tense expression, Wei Wuxian might have just failed every test.

He grabbed his hair, lip trembling as he bit his lip. You idiot! You knew more than everyone how important this treaty is and you just couldn’t help yourself, you couldn’t act like an adult for ten minutes!

All he had to do was look down. Mr. Genius detail-oriented inventor with eyes like a hawk couldn’t just look down and realize hey, that looks pretty fucking expensive you dumbass.

Wei Wuxian took a deep breath as his eyes sharpened. It’s not over yet. The emperor was the one who wanted the treaty and that hasn’t changed. He doesn’t need to like his partner to end a war, let alone a simple concubine.

Wei Wuxian bit his lip at the thought of his longtime rival’s disappointed resentment, but the only thing that should be affected is their relationship. As long as Wei Wuxian behaves himself and stays tucked away in his little residence without disturbing anyone, there  should be no major problems.

Wei Wuxian held his hands out in salute as he bowed, “This one apologizes for his behavior.”

Lan Wangji winced, face scrunching with wide eyes as he froze in horror. The emperor had vowed to himself when he wrote the proposal that the only time his empress would ever bow to him would be at their wedding.

Wei Wuxian grit his teeth as he glared at the floor, “This one was being foolish, playing immature games in the face of your kindness.”

Lan Wangji held his hands out as he breathed a whisper, “Stop…”

Wei Wuxian eyes clenched as tightly as his hands, “I will accept any punishment!”

The emperor fell forward onto his hands, “Please stop…”

Wei Wuxian’s breath trembled, “I hope my offense will not affect the emperor's gracious offer—”

Trembling hands gently held his elbows as a quiet voice pleaded above him, “General, please stop. Do not bow to me.”

Wei Wuxian froze with a furrowed brow, raising his eyes slightly to catch the quivering lips as the man looked at him, “General should never bow to me.”

Lan Wangji took a deep breath as Wei Ying looked at him blankly, gently gripping his elbows with a light tug upwards as he held Wei Ying’s gaze, “I am on your side.”

Lan Wangji paused, breath caught in his throat as he bit his lip, “...I will always be on your side.”

Wei Wuxian blinked dully at him before huffing an empty laugh, “I thought a man of Gusu would be on the emperor's side.”

Lan Wangji froze, lips parting then snapping shut. He looked at Wei ying, his beautiful vibrant Wei Ying, kneeling submissively with no trace of the irreverent mischief from before to be seen. He gulped at the line of sweat dripping down the side of the general’s head as he watched Lan Wangji’s expression with the tense muscles of a man walking on a tightrope above a gaping abyss. 

All because of a suspicion Lan Wangji has not even confirmed.

He gently rubbed Wei Ying’s elbows as his eyes softened, “I am General’s escort.”

Wei Wuxian barked a laugh, “An escort that can afford royal treasures?”

“I have betrothal gifts.”

Wei Wuxian raised a sardonic eyebrow at him, “This cloak is too big for me.”

Let alone the fact that it’s a royal fur. Royal .

Lan Wangji pursed his lips silently for a moment, “...It does not matter.”

Wei Wuxian shot up with an incredulous glare, “It matters to me!”

Lan Wangji flinched back, hands clenched at his sides. He watched as Wei Ying froze in realization, deflating at another breach of proper conduct. Lan Wangji flicked his eyes around the cave for a solution, pausing as he grabbed his hair.

Wei Wuxian heard a shuffle, dragging his tired eyes to see the imperial royal bent over in a stiff ninety degree angle. Wei Wuxian blinked, the silence stretching between them for a few seconds before Lan Wangji peeked up, grabbing the long curtains of hair before letting them fall back down.

Wei Wuxian furrowed his brows, the man once again holding his hair out to him before letting it drop, peeking through the gap for a quick moment before hiding his face with his arms in a salute. 

Wei Wuxian felt a throb in his chest as he hesitantly reached a hand out. There was no way.

Trembling fingers touched damp inky locks, a finger lightly sliding along the length when Lan Wangji didn’t move. Wei Wuxian bit his lip as bubbles rose in his chest, lightly twirling a lock around his finger with a gentle tug.

This guy…

Wei Wuxian bit his lip as a hand gently covered his, the lock of hair slipping away as Lan Wangji rose with softened eyes. He looked at the hand in his palm, placing his other hand on top with a gentle squeeze as he turned his eyes up to meet Wei Ying’s.

Wei Wuxian stared quietly back, eyes sliding down to their hands. His mouth parted at the bare  stiff hands covering his warm gloved ones, brow furrowing as he saw the double layers. Wei Wuxian’s eyes flickered over to Lan Wangji’s naked feet on the damp rocks and down to his own, the warmth of his socks so comfortable he never took notice of why. Mind turning rapidly, Wei Wuxian flinched as he looked down at his “blankets”. If one was a cloak…

Fine embroidery of different articles of clothing bunched in crooked layers underneath the leather of fox fur, Wei Wuxian whipping back to Lan Wangji’s bare body covered with nothing but a pair of trousers. Wei Wuxian’s mouth dropped, teeth clenching then biting his lip as both too many yet not enough words ran through his head.

Lan Wangji gently looked into Wei Ying’s incredulous eyes, thumb rubbing Wei Ying’s tense hand, “...I will always be on General’s side.”

Wei Wuxian opened his mouth before closing it, fingers trembling in the man’s tender hold, “Isn’t this a bit much?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes didn’t waver, “No.”

Wei Wuxian pursed his lips, “You should have taken a pair for yourself.”

“General was cold.”

Wei Wuxian choked with a raised eyebrow, “What kind of reason is that?”

“Enough.” Lan Wangji paused, tracing the lines of his beloved’s tired face with tender eyes, “It is reason enough.”

Wei Ying bit his lip, “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“That is fine.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, looking down at their joined hands as he dragged his gaze back up to Lan Wangji’s eyes, “Why?”

Lan Wangji paused, taking a quiet breath as he stared into his empress’s eyes, “I have admired General for a long time.”

Wei Wuxian stared back, “More than your own emperor?”

“Yes.”

“And he’s okay with that?”

Lan Wangji stopped his caress to grip Wei Ying’s hand, stalwart eyes locked on Wei Wuxian’s, “The emperor trusts no one else to escort General back.”

Lan Wangji carefully took Wei Ying’s other hand and tucked them gently back into the cocoon of robes, securing the fox fur cloak firmly around him, “The emperor understands General’s nature. There is no need to be formal with me.” He smoothed the cloak, resting his hands on Wei Wuxian’s shoulders as he looked at him.

“General will have responsibilities at the Cloud Recesses. For now, be free.”

Wei Wuxian blinked as his shoulders relaxed with every pat. A lightness began to fill his chest as he looked at Lan Wangji from the corner of his eye, “...And your report to the Council?”

The Council was the second highest authority in the Cloud Recesses, mostly made up of old fuddy duddies who think the old way that doesn’t work anymore will work forever. And even if the emperor has them on lock now, that doesn’t stop them from hating Wei Wuxian.

Lan Wangji’s eyes twinkled, “I report directly to the emperor.”

Wei Wuxian pursed his lips in a petulant pout, “And if those prunes insist on being included?”

The emperor lidded his eyes, “General was recovering from fever.”

Wei Wuxain’s eyes twinkled with a snicker, “Oh dear, oh dear! What a convenient tale.”

Lan Wangji pointedly looked away, “There is no lie.”

Wei Wuxian draped an arm across his forehead, “I don’t know, my temperature seems fine?”

Lan Wangji glanced at him, “I am not a doctor.”

Wei Wuxian shot him a tiny grin as he took off one set of gloves, grabbing Lan Wangji’s hands before he could protest, “Well, to tell your totally true report you’ll need to get to Gusu first. Can’t have you losing fingers due to frostbite.”

Lan Wangji felt a shiver run down his spine at the sudden warmth left from Wei Ying’s body heat, “I am fine.”

Wei Wuxian wagged a finger at him, “Hush, you.”

“General…”

Wei Wuxian dug around in his cocoon to take off the top layer of socks too, “And no more ‘General’. We’re on the run and probably close to my territory. Even if we hide from eyes, you can never tell whose ears are listening as we pass a shop. If anything, you should use my birth name!”

Lan Wangji’s ears burst in red. He can say it in public?!

Wei Wuxian shot him a wry grin as he handed the socks over, “I know birth names are special in Gusu, but not so much here. Although the spelling is unique, ‘Wei Ying’ is not such an uncommon name. The second someone hears ‘Wei Wuxian’ though, it’ll be over.”

Birth names in the Cloud Recesses are reserved only for the most intimate connections. The birth names of many emperors are missing even from the extensive scholarship of the Cloud Recesses, they were so rarely spoken. The emperor’s family don’t even call him by his birth name despite having the right, just as Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao refuse to call the first prince by his birth name it is so intimate.

Hell, some people wonder if the empresses even got the honor.

Lan Wangji swallowed with a shaky breath as their eyes met, “Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian grinned with a tease, “Hey, that sounds pretty nice in your voice. Say it again!”

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian choked. He didn’t think the guy would actually say it again.

Lan Wangji bit his lip as he closed his eyes, clenching and unclenching his hands as he looked at Wei Ying with the molten starlight from his rescue the night before.

“Lan Zhan.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, tasting the name on his tongue, “That’s rather strange for a courtesy name.”

Lan Wangji hid his trembling fingers, “...Mn.”

Wei Ying shot him a brilliant smile as his eyes sparkled with dazzling moonlight, “Lan Zhan!”