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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!”

Chapter Text

The cave was silent but for the whistling wind outside, small gusts reaching inside to send a tremor of cold through Lan Wangji’s body.

Wei Wuxian snapped back to attention, tearing his eyes away from those glowing gold gems to peel away the articles of clothing wrapped around him. Lan Wangji’s hands tightened on his shoulders but Wei Wuxian just waved him off, “Growing up in the mountains doesn’t make you immune to cold, now put these on.” He wagged his eyebrows at Lan Wangji as he slowly looked him up and down, “And doesn't the Cloud Recesses have rules about modesty?”

Lan Wangji’s ears burned as he averted his eyes but tightened the fur cloak even further, “General—” He stopped and bit his lip, ears burning brighter, “...Wei Ying is cold.”

Wei Wuxian bit his lip as he held back a chuckle, seeing this big, broad Lan Clan royal turn so shy because of a name. How cute, this guy is so fun to bully. Wei Wuxian held the cloak up over his mouth as he sent Lan Wangji a side glance, “Some people would think to give a person clothes when they’re cold, not take them off…”

Lan Wangji’s hands tensed as he froze, head dipping down to hide his face, “Apologies. I will accept punishment.”

Wei Wuxian twisted over to peek at his face but Lan Wangji kept moving away from him until Wei Wuxian finally caught the glow of red in his ears with a devilish little grin, removing his glove and grazing the ear lobe teasingly with his fingertip. The emperor’s head shot up as he snatched his hands back to slap over his ear as he stared wide-eyed at the general with trembling lips. Wei Ying’s eyes glittered with sparkling mischief as he slowly brought the offending finger to his face, meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes as he gave a small peck to the tip.

The emperor whipped his head to face the wall with the rules of the Cloud Recesses looping in his head as Wei Ying burst out in hushed laughter behind him. Lan Wangji threaded his hands tightly together as they tingled with the desire to teach Wei Ying the consequences of his actions, taking deep breaths in a vain attempt to regain his composure.

Wei Ying you little devil, this emperor is famous for his composure!

He blinked as cloth draped around his shoulders, turning to see Wei Wuxian returning every article of clothing under the fur cloak, “There we go! It was pretty hard to take these off with those vice grips you call hands.”

Lan Wangji paused, sending a half-lidded glance at Wei Ying despite the redness of his ears as he grabbed the clothes, “There were other ways.”

Wei Ying grinned, “Yes, there were.”

Wei Ying you—!

Wei Wuxian sent him a wink, “Now put those on! I made sure to keep them nice and toasty for you, like a hug but all over.”

Lan Wangji bit his lip as he glared at that radiant chuckling expression, skin tingling from the residual body heat left on the clothes. It’s a good thing he didn’t send another guard or he might be known as the emperor who died from drowning in vinegar!

Wei Wuxian tried to stop laughing but a new chuckle would always burst out as tears glistened in his eyes. This guy was too cute, way too much fun. What was the emperor thinking sending him such a goldmine? He took in a breath to calm himself, restraining a laugh when Lan Zhan peeked back with a sullen glare, “Oh Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, what’s wrong? It was just a little joke, a tiny one!”

Lan Wangji whipped away, “Shameless.”

Wei Wuxian tempered his laughter as he shimmied over to see Lan Wangji’s face, “Okay okay, I’m sorry. Lan Zhan? Lan Zhaaan. Lan Zhan, look at me.” Wei Wuxian pouted when Lan Wangji kept turning away, “Oh Lan Zhan, why won’t you look at me?”

Wei Wuxian blinked when Lan Wangji froze, flinching as he suddenly turned back with wide eyes. Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow as he steadied himself with a breath but kept facing him, “Lan Zhan?”

“Mn.”

“Are you… okay?”

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxian was quiet for a moment, furrowing his brow as Lan Wangji stayed stubbornly still, “Then, what are you doing?”

“Looking.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened as Wei Ying blinked with a furrowed brow, “Looking at Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian froze, hand covering his trembling lips as he held back a laugh, “Lan Zhan, it’s as if you want me to bully you. Getting so serious over such a little thing.”

Lan Wangji frowned, “it is important.”

Wei Wuxian huffed a laugh, “What about my whining is important?”

“Everything about Wei Ying is important.”

Wei Wuxian froze mid laugh, eyes widening as he stared off to the side unable to move. His jaw slowly closed with a click, smile in place as his eyes darted around with his thoughts. Lan Wangji felt a pang in his heart as Wei Ying prepared to laugh his words off, “I was given this opportunity. I will treasure it.”

Wei Wuxian blinked as he looked at Lan Zhan with wide eyes, biting his lip as he shot the royal a wry grin, “Aren’t the Lan all about being aloof from such worldly matters? I heard there’s even a rule about it.”

Lan Wangji clenched his hands slightly, “Not all rules are worth following.” Lan Wangji looked down when Wei Wuxian’s jaw dropped, “...under certain circumstances.”

Wei Wuxian gave a long blink as something bubbled up in his chest, whispering through trembling lips, “Haha, how can two people from the same family be so different?”

Wei Wuxian cracked a grin at Lan Wangji’s raised eyebrow, “That fuddy-duddy emperor might just have you executed for such blasphemy!”

Lan Wangji pursed his lips with narrowed eyes, “He would not.”

Wei Wuxian tapped his chin, “But I heard he hates rule-breakers with a passion!”

Lan Wangji hates when people who should follow the rules break them, but Wei Ying was never one of those people, “The emperor proposed to a known rule-breaker.”

The reminder of the emperor sobered the tingling in his chest, Wei Wuxian’s laughter dying down as he steadied himself. That’s right, he’s engaged to the emperor. He needs to remember that. Pasting a smile on his face Wei Wuxian jabbed a finger at the robes in Lan Zhan’s arms, “And that rule-breaker went to great lengths to warm those robes up for you, only to be cruelly ignored. All my efforts in vain!”

Lan Wangji clenched the cold robes, kicking a part of him that longed for that lingering warmth as he held the robes out to the general, “Wei Ying needs warmth until his robes dry.”

Wei Wuxian sent him a cheeky smile, “Then why not just give me my spare robes?”

Lan Wangji froze.

Wei Wuxian stayed smiling as the seconds stretched on, “...Lan Zhan did check if I brought spare robes right? When you were looking for the medicine. They were in one of the parcels.”

Lan Wangji was silent for a moment as he stuck his eyes to the floor with red ears, “I did not open any parcels.”

Wei Wuxian furrowed his brows as another small gust sent a shiver down Lan Wangji’s back, “It’s one thing to be polite, but look at how cold you are! I would’ve been okay with it considering the circumstances.”

Lan Wangji shook his head, “Those are not my belongings to touch. What is Wei Ying’s is Wei Ying’s.”

Wei Wuxian opened his mouth to rebut him but couldn’t find any words, instead dropping his face into his hands. This man… Why must he make this so difficult?

Wei Wuxian blushed, burying deeper to hide it.

He’s really making all of this so difficult.

Lan Wangji felt like kicking himself as Wei Ying buried his head in his hands. Why must he embarrass himself like this. Wei Ying can’t even bear to look at his foolishness. Lan Wangji gave his thigh a punishment pinch as he stiffly placed the bag in front of Wei Ying.

Wei Wuxian quickly grabbed the large parcel and unraveled it to reveal a fresh set of travel robes. Lan Wangji avoided his gaze as he quietly dressed himself. He glanced to the side absently to find his horse staring at them with bated breath through the gap in his hooves as he covered his eyes. Lan Wangji stared silently before whipping his head away and praying his brother doesn’t speak horse.

Wei Wuxian hissed as he pulled the final robe over his head, the searing burn of his muscles reminding him of his injuries with a vengeance. Now that the adrenaline of the moment has worn off, everything has begun to hurt again. He really doesn’t need this while their situation is still unclear. At least Lan Zhan is capable.

Wei Wuxian glanced up as Lan Wangji finished tying his robes and sat down with a proper stiff posture. Wei Wuxian gave him a once-over with a raised eyebrow, “Where’s your outer robe?”

Lan Wangji stared at him, “Preoccupied.”

Wei Wuxian looked at himself but the only thing left was the fox fur cloak and he was sure Lan Zhan wasn’t wearing it last night or Third Shidi would’ve said something. Then his eyes caught another flash of white as Wei Wuxian realized his knees have remained rather clean despite the grimy cave.

Oh don’t tell me…

Then Wei Wuxian remembered that he woke up on top of Lan Zhan who sat on the supposed floor, heaving a relieved sigh, “Oh thank god, at least that wasn’t wasted on me.”

Lan Wangji didn’t get the chance to rebut him before Wei Wuxian stood up to check the state of their drying robes. They were still very damp despite having been here for many hours. They’ll need a fire.

Wei Wuxian blinked as he saw the tears running up along one side of Lan Wangji’s robes, remembering the injuries he sustained last night with a wince. He didn’t think to check on Lan Zhan’s limbs, he was too busy staring at his extremely toned chest and abs. And with how much he teased Lan Zhan, he might not be able to convince the royal to take his clothes off again.

He remembered one bandage of Lan Zhan’s arm, so he should have treated his injuries as he saw necessary. But still, even a small wound could lead to infection and they’re not in the most hygenic location. With Wei Wuxian’s own injuries limiting his movement they’re already at a disadvantage. 

Wei Wuxian grit his teeth. Of all the times to be a burden.

Wei Wuxian turned to Lan Wangji with a raised eyebrow, “You forgot to mention you were injured.”

Lan Wangji cooly blinked back, “I am not injured.”

Wei Wuxian held up the torn robes.

The emperor’s expression did not waver, “A scratch is not an injury.”

Wei Wuxian folded his arms with a concealed wince, “It literally is, by definition. I thought lying was against the rules of the Cloud Recesses?”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes stubbornly, “I do not consider it an injury.”

Wei Wuxian sighed with a huffed laugh, “Oh, Qing-Jie would hate you.” Then he narrowed his eyes, straightening up as he stretched out his hand, “And with good reason. Scratches can get infected, you know?”

 Lan Wangji glanced at Wei Wuxian’s trembling knees, “Wei Ying’s injuries?”

Wei Wuxian forced his legs to steady, “Nothing that can’t wait, we have more important things to do first.”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, standing up to lead Wei Wuxian gently by the elbow to sit back down, “If Wei Ying can wait, then so can I.”

Wei Wuxian sighed, “Oh Lan Zhan, what am I going to do with you? Our injuries are completely different, look at all those open wounds!”

Lan Wangji blinked, “Wei Ying got shot twice.”

Wei Wuxian ignored him, “And my injuries won’t heal fast enough in case Lan Zhan’s get worse.”

Lan Zhan stared at him quietly.

Wei Wuxian stubbornly stared back.

It was silent for a few seconds before Wei Wuxian huffed a sigh, “Fine, let’s get the other things done first.” Wei Wuxian jabbed a finger at Lan Zhan’s face, “But! I will look at those wounds immediately after, got it?”

Lan Wangji had the sudden urge to nip that finger, but just continued to stare, “Wei Ying is most important.”

Wei Wuxian wanted to bury his face in his hands again. This man! Instead he bit his lip as he averted his eyes from that intense gaze, “Lan Zhan is so stubborn. If you end up needing medicine, I’ll make it extra bitter!”

“Mn.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened as Wei Ying huffed a laugh at him, then hardened as Wei Ying turned serious. Right now their injuries aren’t their biggest problems.

Wei Wuxian tapped his finger against his elbow as he considered their situation, “This storm’s not going to let up for a few days at least, and there could be another one right on its heels. We’re probably being followed but even my troops would have a hell of a time tracking someone with these conditions, so it’s not as much of an issue.”

Lan Wangji shook his head, “They favor numbers. Likely to send many small groups to scan the general region.”

Wei Wuxian thought about the night before and nodded, “You’re right, though if we’re using last night as a precedent those search parties are probably filled with incompetent weaklings that will be pretty easy to take care of if they can even make it this far.” His eyes flicked up to Lan Zhan’s, “But they are well-organized.”

Lan Wangji frowned as he remembered the way each wave of enemies seemed to slide into place with ease. Even as he mowed entire groups down with a single swing, the others did not panic. This was no thrown-together group, “A private army?”

Wei Wuxian grit his teeth, “Or just an army…” Then he shook his head, “Or just an assassin’s guild that’s had some time to prepare. It was weird, how could such a well-organized group use fire bombs in the notorious pre-winter storms of Yunmeng? We can’t rule out any options right now.”

Lan Wangji glanced at his luggage, “Our supplies won’t last long. We need to ride to Gusu.”

Wei Wuxian waved a hand, “Wait wait, it might be best to go slow. Those guys aren’t looking to get noticed by the public.”

Lan Wangji furrowed his brows at him.

Wei Wuxian tapped his finger as he remembered, “They went out of their way to wear Yunmeng robes but attacked me in a forest instead of in the village I was at. The group I met back then were very clearly Yunmeng troops who just tried to capture me despite locking the village down. Civil war could have broken out if word spread about Yunmeng troops attempting to assassinate General Wei on his mission to end the war through a marriage. There’s no doubt this happened because of the treaty, so why not take the opportunity to make things even worse on the Yunmeng front?”

Lan Wangji thought about his many meetings as emperor, “Some industries profit off war. Treaty or defeat, the war ends along with the profit.”

Wei Wxuain scoffed, “I know a few bastards like that.” Then his eyes narrowed, “But they went out of their way to show me, maybe trying to sow discord in the family? In my loyalty to Yunmeng?”

Lan Wangji watched him tap his elbow with furrowed brows, “They planned to kill you.”

Wei Wuxian glanced at him, “Yeah, but they only tranquilized Third Shidi’s group. Though I don’t know if they planned to leave them alive or just wanted to get the drop on them.” Wei Wuxian thought for a moment, “...Either way, it looks like they didn’t want to risk capture.”

Lan Wangji watched Wei Wuxian’s angry expression as he thought about those possible imposters, fingers itching with the urge to smooth out the furrow of his brow and tenseness in his jaw. He clenched his hands in his lap, “Wei Ying, that is enough for now. We know we have a few days.”

Wei Wuxian snapped out of his thoughts, running a hand through his damp hair with a wry grin when his fingers got stuck in the knots, “You’re right, we have other things to worry about first, like heat.”

Wei Wuxian settled back on his hands as he rested his head on his shoulder in thought, “We need to get heat, get dry, and get food.”

Lan Wangji gestured to his luggage, “I have food for now. We will need to restock at a village.”

Wei Wuxian hummed, “It might be best to just hop from village to village everyday and just eat at the inns. If we are in my territory, then it will actually be safer since I have lots of safe houses and no one will rat on me. For better or worse, people in my territory tend to be pretty suspicious if anyone not part of the Wei faction specifically asks about me, and they all know the local troops.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened slightly, “Wei Ying is well-loved.”

Wei Wuxian ducked his head with a small grin, “Well, then food is taken care of.”

He grabbed his bag to rummage through it, “And honestly I have heat and fire taken care of, just not for too long.”

Lan Wangji’s ears perked at that, eyebrow raising as Wei Ying produced a small parcel and the wax lozenges he found earlier. Wei Wuxian’s eyes glittered as he presented them to him, “These are a Wei faction secret. Lan Zhan is the only other person to know!”

Lan Wangji’s ears burned. The only person…

Wei Wuxian hummed happily as he held up the wax lozenge, “This is a Porta Heater, a small packet that heats up when you break the wax seal and stays at a certain temperature for several hours.” His eyes sparkled as he spoke, gesturing with his hands, “The packet is made with a certain combination of substances that start a chemical reaction when exposed to air, so we have to make them airtight. Honestly they were a total pain to get right since they would keep reacting before I could seal them, and then we had some trouble opening them so I added this little string to help open them evenly without ripping the inside!” He wiggled the little bit sticking out in the center of a lozenge with a grin, “It’s also a wick, so you can use the wax as a small candle afterwards, tada!”

Lan Wangji marveled as Wei Wuxian talked. It was incredible, having a portable heat source that can fit in your hand would overturn stealth combat and even travel. He gingerly glided a finger across the wax surface, “Why was Wei Ying cold then?”

Wei Wuxian scratched his head, “Well, because they’re so small they can only reach up one limb. You can heat both arms by folding them together with the Porta Heater in between them, but otherwise you’ll need one for each limb. They’re still in development and I don’t have a lot of them, so I was saving them for a Gusu blizzard. Between us, I should have enough for 3 days if we really ration them.”

Lan Wangji folded Wei Ying’s fingers over the lozenge, “Wei Ying can use them all.”

Wei Wuxian bit his lip at the tingling in his chest, “Lan Zhan!”

He quickly brought up the parcel to hide his face, “Wait a second, there’s also this!”

Lan Wangji took back his hand as Wei Wuxian put the Porta Heaters down to open the parcel, gesturing for Lan Wangji to look at the powder inside, “And this will let us have some fire! You see, I was watching some fireworks one day and realized that if you can change the fire’s color, you can choose a hard-to-see color. This is a special blend of impurities that change the flames to be red and green.”

Lan Wangji blinked, “Both red and green?”

Wei Wuxian eyes sparkled at his question ,”Yes! You see, red is the hardest color to see at night. Some shades might as well black! And green and red lightwaves actually cancel each other out and can’t be recognized by the human eye. So I found a way to make that color that is both red and green at the same time.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes widened, “Invisible fire…”

Wei Wuxian smirked, “Oh yes, invisible fire. But that’s also dangerous, so I tend to put a little more red so it’s just a hard-to-see glow. This far into the cave, they’ll never see it.” Then he sighed, “But the catch is that it burns up quickly and unevenly so you have to constantly be ready to sprinkle some on before the regular glow returns.”

Wei Wuxian set it down as he gestured to both items, “So our best bet is to use the Invisible Flames during the day and the Porta Heaters at night.” Then he wiggled his eyebrows at Lan Wangji, “Or we could save the Porta Heaters and just cuddle again.”

Lan Wangji’s ears burned as he stayed quiet.

“What do you say, Lan Zhan?”

Wei Wuxian waited for the outburst with a grin.

Amd waited.

And waited.

Wei Wuxian stared at the bright glow of Lan Zhan’s ears as he looked at Wei Ying. No way…

Lan Wangji hid his trembling fingers as he looked away, “We must ration.”

Wei Wuxian heard Lan Wangji’s horse snort but ignored it as he slowly folded his arms with a smirk, “Ration…”

Lan Wangji stubbornly looked away, “The future is uncertain.”

Wei Wuxian tilted his head as he smiled like an imp, “No no, I agree. Just a bit surprised one of the infamously reserved Lan clan royalty would be so willing to do something so improper. Even the personable Lan Xichen would offer far more resistance!”

Lan Zhan grumbled with a weak glare, “I am not Lan Xichen.”

Wei Ying narrowed his eyes as he kept his smile plastered on his face, “And who exactly are you?”

Lan Wangji paused, cold seeping into his heart as Wei Ying analyzed him through those sharp silver eyes, “As you can imagine, it was pretty important for my faction to keep tabs on the Cloud Recesses and never once did the name Lan Zhan appear. If nothing else, I would’ve remembered such a strange courtesy name.”

Lan Wangji tensed, mind running for any explanation that could ease his guard.

Wei Wuxian’s sharp eyes caught the subtle tense of his impeccable jawline, forcing his muscles to relax as a show of trust, “I believe you have good intentions, you went through so much when you could have done whatever you wanted with me. I can also believe that you have ties with the emperor, judging by this fur cloak. The level of detail and the specific motifs can only be associated with the emperor. I just want to know why I never heard of you.”

Lan Wangji bit his lip, “You don’t trust me.”

Wei Ying tightened his folded arms as he sent Lan Wangji a crooked smile, “I want to trust you, but I’m alone in a cave with a stranger who can fight off an entire army of assassins while I can barely walk straight. You can see why I’m a bit... cautious .”

Lan Wangji was quiet before he nodded. He glared at his folded hands. Why didn’t he look at things from Wei Ying’s perspective? For all their pondering earlier, they still don’t know who the assassins were or who sent them. They could actually be Yunmeng troops. Wei Ying can’t trust anyone right now, least of all some random man who made it very clear he could kill anyone he wants to.

Wei Ying analyzed his features, “Well, you certainly look like the first prince, no doubt about that. I’ve heard of cousins that look alike, but this is a bit much.”

Wei Wuxian played with his lip in thought for a few seconds. Lan Wangji sighed. He only wanted Wei Ying to feel comfortable around him for this short time they have alone, but if it will only make him nervous in a different way then there’s no point.

Lan Wangji reached for the sachet in his sleeve as Wei Ying’s head shot up, “Oh, so that’s it! You’re a concubine’s son!”

Lan Wangji froze, stiffly looking to meet Wei Ying’s shining eyes.

Most emperors of Gusu are known for being reserved, but the late emperor QinghengJun took it to extremes. No one ever saw him or his empress. Hell, no one even knew who the empress was , just that she produced two sons. The Cloud Recesses were so private that no one was even aware the Empress had died until the new emperor Lan Wangji called for a temporary ceasefire to honor her death anniversary. 

There were equal parts shock and outrage, both for the news and the audacity of the emperor to request a ceasefire when he was the one to attack Wei Wuxian’s forces that time. Wei Wuxian remembers the strategy meeting that followed with no small amount of annoyance as everyone argued about what to do. They were in a very difficult battle, and Wei Wuxian had just lost a good chunk of his new army to some fuckwit whose uncle was on the council. Not even a blood relative, his fucking uncle via marriage!

The situation in Yunmeng was already precarious because of that little stunt and now this? There’s no way Lan Wangji didn’t realize the position he was putting Wei Wuxian in. He really wished it didn’t come to this but he had no choice.

He accepted the ceasefire.

Wei Wuxian’s circle all got super pissed at him, but what was he supposed to do? Lan Wangji didn’t choose for his mom to die and if even the Gusu troops were surprised then that meant she never got a proper mourning befitting a woman of her rank. 

Wei Wuxian understood the want to honor your parents properly. He’s still fighting for his own to get proper memorial tablets, and that’s with Uncle Jiang and Shijie on his side.

He didn’t have much time, so he painted a portrait of a proper Gusu empress with her imperial headdress surrounded by well-wishing nature motifs to hand over to the Gusu camp as a condolence gift. 

He didn’t see the emperor personally that day, but he could feel a set of eyes following him long after he disappeared from view.

They still fought the next day, obviously. And he lost.

It was one of the most crushing losses of his career.

His circle kept cursing the emperor out the entire trip back to Yunmeng, but Wei Wuxian only sighed at them. What did they expect? This was a war and each side is desperate to win. They each have their responsibilities and that’s not going to change because of one picture.

Lotus Pier was pissed at him, as expected.

It impacted his career, without question.

Even Uncle Jiang sat him aside later that night after several hours of Madam Yu’s scolding and gently laid a hand on his shoulder as he asked why Wei Wuxian wasn’t mad given his circumstances. Despite his calm demeanor, Wei Wuxian could tell he was furious with the emperor for his slight against Wei Wuxian.

Well, what was there to be mad about? You don’t deserve a reward for showing common decency.

That was at the beginning of his career in this war. Maybe this treaty is the emperor’s gratitude everyone was looking for, all these years later.

Realizing that was such a relief. A Gusu concubine’s son ties up every loose end. No wonder he can have royal garb despite not being known publicly. Concubine children may not be allowed to inherit the throne, but that doesn’t prevent them from being involved with the emperor. And there’s no way Lan Wangji would snub his siblings, no matter their rank. With Lan Zhan as capable and loyal as he is, it’s not surprising that the emperor would treat him like a proper royal even if only in private.

Lan Wangji kept quiet as he looked down at his hands. He shouldn’t have worried. Wei Ying would always find his own answer, especially if the intent was to make himself feel better. 

He does not want to deceive his empress. But just for a little, just a few days, he wants to be Lan Zhan and Wei Ying. Just two people, together.

He will accept any reaction once Wei Ying finds out, any punishment he wants to bestow. But until then, and even afterwards, he will be the best Lan Zhan he can be.

He will be the Lan Zhan Wei Ying deserves.

 

The empty pavilion was filled with the quiet sounds of sweeping as A-Qing finished up her work for the night.

Some wild animals took refuge inside the tent covering the foundation to hide from the snow last night. It was a total pain to get rid of them without giving herself away, and then she had to worry about the damn cleanup. It took her three trips around the Cloud Recesses to get enough bug repellant to kill all the fleas before they could settle in the tapestries.

Two hands grabbed her shoulders, making A-Qing scream as a mocking voice laughed in her ear, “Hey, Little Blind!”

A-Qing deep deep breath to calm her pounding heart as she faced upwards and glared.

Speaking of fleas…

“Xue Yang you pest, have you come to be a nuisance again?”

The bastard’s smug smirk filled her vision as a hand left her shoulder before some plant was shoved in her face. A-Qing flailed her arms as she tried to get the damn thing out of her face if not for for Xue Yang’s stupid arm stubbornly holding it in place as he rested his chin on top of her head, “Jin Guangyao and that prince said I should apologize so I got you some flowers.” he grinned with narrowed eyes, “I even got them in your favorite color.”

A-Qing growled, “I don’t even know what a color is!”

Finally smacking his hand away, A-Qing shoved the bouquet out of her face with a glare upwards. Shoving the flowers back up into Xue Yang’s own face, A-Qing’s eyes widened as she caught a stray bloom.

They were her favorite color.

They were even her favorite flower.

A-Qing shoved the bouquet harder into Xue Yang’s face as a drop of sweat ran down her temple. How did he know that? How did anyone know that? When, how, did she slip up?

Xue Yang tugged on her side buns as a vein popped on his jaw as his smile twitched, “I bring you gifts and this is how you repay me?”

“You gave me a bribe to get your boss off your case. And weren’t you supposed to get a caning?”

Xue Yang shoved the flowers out of his face as he poked at A-Qing’s cheeks, “You think I can’t take a little caning?”

A-Qing’s eyes narrowed, “I can smack your shins again to see how well they hold up.”

Xue Yang squished her cheeks further as his eye twitched, “You’ll never get a man with that violent personality.”

A-Qing pinched his hands until he let go with a flinch, “Said like a true virgin.”

Xue Yang rubbed his hands with a huff, “I’m saving myself for marriage.”

A-Qing fixed her hair with a glare, “Who would want to marry you?”

Xue Yang folded his hands as his manic smirk twitched, “Ha! As if Little Blind has any marriage prospects.”

Xue Yang’s eyes widened as he smacked his palm with a fist in eureka, “Then, how about we get married if we’re both single by twenty?”

A-Qing flushed red as she grit her teeth, turning away from him with a huff, “What marriage? I’m going to serve the Empress, I’m not getting married.”

She growled as Xue Yang plopped himself on top of her head again, “Then I’ll serve the Empress too! I’m a big fan of his work!”

A-Qing’s eye twitched, “You think anyone can just switch over and serve the Empress?”

Xue Yang laughed, “If Little Blind can do it, anyone can!”

A-qing’s cheek twitched as she turned around and began chasing him with her pole, “I’ll kill you!”

Xue Yang tutted her, “Isn’t that against one of the stupid rules here?”

A-Qing grinned through grit teeth, “I think they’ll make an exception. And don’t you work for the Jins?”

Xue Yang clicked his tongue as he dodged her swipes with hand behind his head, “Who gives a fuck about the Jins, they’re as disposable to me as I am to them.”

A_qing huffed, “Just the sort of stalwart loyalty the Empress deserves.”

Xue Yang tilted his head as he stared at her as if looking through her skin into her brain, “You seem pretty attached to this Empress you never met. You weren’t even surprised that it’s a man.”

Shit, that information isn’t public yet.

A-Qing forced her eye to remain steady as she crossed her arms to hide her trembling fingers, “The Emperor told me before he left since I’m going to be assigned here. Is it so wrong to be loyal to your master?”

Xue Yang pursed his lips with dull eyes at her, “I thought a little spitfire like you would hate to have a master. How boring.”

A-Qing glared at him with a pinched face, “Not everyone wants to be an antisocial sociopath.”

Xue Yang rested his fists on his hips as he leaned down to her eye level, “I bring you pets, I bring you gifts, and I bring you company, but I’m the antisocial one?”

A-Qing raised an eyebrow, “What pet—”

She froze.

Xue Yang watched her slowly tense up with manic glee as her fists trembled with the force of her rage.

Those wild animals in the tent. All those flees.

All that extra work—

“YOU FLEA!!!”

A-Qing panted sharply, dropping her face in her hands at the punishment she will no doubt face for breaking so many rules. That bastard and his petty revenge.

At least she got him in the shins a few times.

A-Qing composed herself, sighing as she began to check the pavilion through the guise of sweeping. That guy really is Wei Wuxian’s stalker fan so she wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to sneak a peephole while he was here.

A-Qing paused in her sweeping as her eyes sharpened, a drop of sweat running down her temple.

How the hell did he even get in here, and with animals no less. The pavilion is guarded and you need a special token just to get inside. Xue Yang’s idea of stealth is to kill everyone so he doesn’t have to be stealthy, so how the hell did no one catch him especially after the prince had him personally punished?

If Xue Yang could get in and cause this much havoc, what could someone more devious do?

Looks like she’ll be sweeping a lot more attentively from now on.

Chapter Text

Silence echoed through the hollow cave as the storm rumbled outside.

Tension raged in the silence, neither party willing to break it as the emperor and general sat around a hollow ring of stones. Wei Wuxian had his face buried in his hands and Lan Wangji sat up straight with closed eyes and tired shoulders. They had the situation all figured out. It was a beautiful plan.

If only they had some firewood.

Lan Wangji glanced outside to check the rain. A clap of thunder roared through the sky, the spatter of raindrops so fervent as if the two were hiding behind a waterfall.

He closed his eyes with a sigh.

Wei Wuxian chuckled humorlessly. All the things he invented, every preparation he made, and it still doesn’t matter in the face of harsh reality. The one thing no one ever packs is kindling, fuel for the fire so abundant all over it would be of utmost stupidity to weigh down your pack with it. And even if he did bring some, it would’ve gotten soaked in this weather anyway.

He doubts there’s a piece of dry wood in this entire forest.

Wei Wuxian rubbed his hands down his face with a deep breath before knocking his shoulder back with a crooked grin, “Okay, slight change of plans, no big deal. Let’s eat first, mope later!”

Lan Wangji looked at him, “Will the rain cease soon?”

Wei Wuxian laughed as he rummaged in his bag, “Not a snowball’s chance in hell! Eat up!”

Lan Wangji looked at the bun shoved in his face for a moment before gingerly taking it, fingers lightly brushing Wei Ying’s own.

Wei Wuxian hid his shiver at the touch by biting into his own bun with a moan. Oh god, it tastes so good. It probably doesn’t, but it’s the first thing he’s had to eat in days and his stomach is so happy.

Lan Wangji’s lips trembled at the sound. Wei Ying, why must you be like this?! Shaking his head, Lan Wangji took a large bite of the bun to distract himself and froze.

Wei Wuxian glanced over at Lan Zhan’s suddenly tense form, raising an eyebrow as he noticed Lan Zhan had paused mid-chew, “Look, I know it’s stale but we can’t be picky right now. I’ll buy you something fancy later, promise!”

Lan Wangji stayed silent for a moment before taking a long slow chew. Wei Wuxian lightly shook his head as he returned to his meal. It’s not that bad! Besides, the spice helps make up for the textur—

Wei Wuxian blinked.

“Oh shit, you’re from Gusu.”

He threw himself across to grab Lan Wangji’s cheeks, “Spit it out! Spit it out right now!”

Lan Wangji flinched at the sudden contact, a shiver running down his spine as he gulped.

They both froze.

Wei Wuxian stared at him with a slack jaw before burying his face in his hands with a small muffled scream.

How could he forget Gusu’s piss-poor tolerance for spiciness?

If anyone should understand, it would be General Wei considering he’s actually used it against them.

One time the Wei faction needed to buy time to get a formation set up, but were sorely lacking resources, again. After some brainstorming, the Inner Circle came to a grave decision. Chilli-bomb their meals with the General’s personal stash of dried peppers.

Since the Lan troops ate bland colorless meals, Wei Wuxian specifically only took out the white seeds. 

The hottest part of the pepper, concentrated further by the lack of water.

Add a special medicine that delays the tongue’s receptors to flavor and boom.

It was surprisingly easy to slip into the kitchens and dump a bump of powder into the bubbling pots, all things considered. Wei Wuxian even remembered being worried, having heard about the assassination attempts against the emperor.

Either way, his job was done and the Wei faction moved at lightning speed to make use of this brief time.

Wei Wuxian estimated it would buy them a day, maybe two for extra sensitive stomachs. Then Wen Qing looked at how much powder was left and paled.

They ended up completely incapacitated for almost a week, and were visibly limping in their retreat. Apparently the poison checkers saved the emperor from the vulgar horrors that were suffered by the rest of his men.

Seeing the Chili-Bomb’s success, as morally dubious as it might seem, they tried it again during another dire situation, but found the kitchen guarded by a heavily cautious platoon. While the rest of the Wei faction nodded in understanding, Wei Wuxian found it ridiculous.

The emperor can get poisoned seven times and they won’t do anything, but add a bit of spiciness and suddenly there’s a 24/7 armed guard. Those Gusu troops and their weak taste buds, I swear.

Wei Wuxian paused at the quiet sound of chewing, whipping his head up to see Lan Zhan serenely eating the bun at a normal pace. Wei Wuxian snapped his hand out to hold his arm in place, “Lan Zhan, don’t eat that! It’s bad!”

Lan Wangji looked at the hand holding his wrist and closed his eyes to hide the tears welling up from the searing burn in his mouth as he swallowed, “I am fine.”

Wei Wuxian snatched the bun out of his hand, “You can’t fool the master of chili-bombs, Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji felt his lips tremble as Wei Wuxian bit down where he ate the bun, finishing it in three bites while pointing his finger in warning at him. 

Wei Wuxian paused, paling as he realized he got to eat two buns while Lan Zhan has nothing. Grabbing his bag, Wei Wuxian dug through his food pouch grabbing anything non-spicy he could find and setting it on the parcel cloth between them.

Lan Wangji looked at the assortment of mostly smoked meats with a few dried fruits quietly, picking up a few dried peach slices to nibble on.

Wei Wuxian blinked, shoulders sagging as he buried his face in his hands and flopped over to lie curled up on his side. 

The Lan are vegetarians.

The emperor watched him tremble in a fetal position, hand hanging in the air as his mind ran in circles wondering what he did to cause this.

“Wei Ying… I can eat my own food.”

Wei Wuxian was silent.

Ah, right.

Lan Zhan had his own food.

Lan Wangji felt his heart tremble at Wei Ying’s stiff mumble, “Please go ahead…”

The emperor watched the general groan into his hands, a drop of sweat at his temple as golden eyes narrowed worriedly. Lan Wangji grabbed his food bag and quickly sat back down, eyes never leaving Wei Ying as the man turned away from him to face the cave wall.

Lan Wangji heard a quiet rumble from Wei Ying’s stomach.

Wei Wuxian groaned and knocked his head against the floor, curling up deeper. He clucked his tongue quietly with a mutter, “Can’t something go right for once?”

Lan Wangji blinked, the words so silent he might have missed them had he not been attentive. He creased his brows, “Wei Ying?”

Wei Wuxian turned his head back just enough so Lan Wangji could not see his face, “Hey Lan Zhan, do you ever feel like the world keeps kicking you in the dick repeatedly?”

Wei Ying?!

The emperor shuffled closer, “Wei Ying, what’s wrong?”

Wei Wuxian ignored him.

Lan Wangji’s brow creased, “Wei Ying…”

Wei Wuxian rocked himself as he sang, “Don’t mind me. I am but a small, albeit sexy, mushroom hiding in my dank little corner.”

Lan Wangji paused, furrowing his brow with lidded eyes, “A mushroom.”

Wei Wuxian whipped his head back with a pout, “A sexy mushroom, the sexiest mushroom this cave has ever seen.”

Lan Wangji sat back and huffed, “Shameless.”

Wei Ying whipped back to face the wall.

Lan Wangji released a breath as he leaned forward to gently place his hand on the general’s shoulder, “Wei Ying, your injuries…”

Wei Wuxian pursed his lips, “Mushrooms don’t feel pain.”

“Wei Ying feels pain.”

Wei Wuxian paused for an almost imperceptible moment before peeking up at him, “Do I look like I’m in pain?” He turned over to prop himself on his elbows as he looked Lan Zhan up and down with a grin, “Aiya, if I was in pain I wouldn’t hesitate to get some comfort from such a beauty.” He fluttered his eyes with a smirk as he touched his lips, “I would definitely need some medicine.”

Lan Wangji looked at him quietly, eyes taking in the slight tremble of Wei Ying’s arms as they held up his weight. He reached out a hand to Wei Ying’s face, gently taking his hand and grasping it between his own with a small clench, “I am here.”

Wei Wuxian’s smile froze on his face as he blinked at him, lightly tugging his arm back in vain, “Lan Zhan, what are you even talking about? Is the spiciness finally kicking in?”

Lan Wangji watched Wei Ying’s hand tense in his own, thumb gently stroking the stiff muscles with his thumb before raising his eyes, “I am not much, but I am here for Wei Ying.”

The emperor swallowed as his eyes flicked down, eyelashes trembling as he took a silent deep breath to drag his face back up to meet Wei Ying’s, “Wei Ying is not alone. Let me share your burdens. I want to share your burdens.”

Wei Ying’s eyes flicked away from that intense gaze to stare up at the ceiling with a wry grin, “We were enemies a week ago.”

Lan Wangji’s hands tightened around Wei Ying’s as his brows furrowed, “Opponents, not enemies.” Lan Wangji clenched his teeth with a lowered voice, “I never wanted to be Wei Ying’s enemy.”

Wei Wuxian stared at him silently, eyes wide and brows creased as his heart picked up speed. He quickly looked away to the cave entrance, “Okay, I’m done goofing around. It’s getting dark and we need to figure out the fire situation before night hits.”

He slid his hand out of Lan Zhan’s stiff hold and hoisted himself up, turning away from Lan Zhan as he stretched, “Best to get it all done in one trip to avoid the risk. Ah, what a pain!”

Lan Wangji looked at the gap where Wei Ying’s hand should be, biting his lips as he slowly clenched his hands. Releasing a deep breath, his eyes sharpened as he straightened his back, “Wei Ying said there was no firewood.”

Wei Wuxian put his hands behind his head as he twirled around to half face Lan Wangji with his face hidden behind his arm, “Well, there isn’t. So we’ll have to make our own. It’s loud and hard to hide though, so I didn’t want to take this route.”

Lan Wangji looked at him for a moment, “...We need fire.”

Wei Wuxian sighed, “Yeah, we really do.”

He glanced at Lan Wangji, “How sturdy is your sword?”

The emperor blinked, “You want to chop wood?”

Wei Wuxian paused with a raised eyebrow, mouth twitching into a chuckle, “Oh no no, you never want to use fresh wood. It’ll smoke and smell like crazy, if you can get it to light at all. I meant to split the bark off any logs we find on the floor.”

Piercing silver met molten gold as Wei Ying crossed his arms and began pacing, “It’s actually pretty easy to get firewood in a rainstorm, all you have to do is get rid of the wet parts. Since the bark acts as a protective layer, the water doesn’t penetrate that deep.”

Wei Wuxian slowed to a halt as he turned to face Lan Wangji, hands falling to rest on his hips, “We can’t just pick up sticks like normal, they’ll have to be thick enough to slice up. We’ll have to be careful not to leave traces of ourselves by lugging around such sizable branches.”

Lan Wangji looked at him, “How many?”

Wei Wuxian huffed, “More than I’d like. I’ll have to make several trips.”

I?

The emperor narrowed his eyes, “Wei Ying is not going.”

Wei Wuxian paused and raised an eyebrow at him, “If I don’t go, who will?”

Lan Wangji tilted his chin up as he stared the general down.

Wei Wuxian tilted his head with a smirk, “You? Forgive me your royal highness but have you ever gathered your own firewood?”

Lan Wangji tensed.

Wei Wuxian released a breath, “Didn’t think so.”

The emperor grit his teeth stubbornly, “It is wood.”

Wei Wuxian huffed at him, “Not all wood. Some burn poorly, some burn way too quickly, and some can even have toxic fumes. We’re not in a luxurious situation right now, so we have to be efficient.” He glanced out at the downpour, “Plus, it’s wet and slippery. I’m pretty much an expert with shitty situations.”

Lan Wangji was silent for a moment. Why must his Wei Ying always make infuriatingly good points? The emperor could always bring back several sample logs and have Wei Ying point out which ones are worth searching for, but every trip outside this cave is a risk of getting found. 

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes.

But the same could be said for Wei Ying, who can barely walk and is still recovering from fever.

He looked steadily at the general, “Can Wei Ying lift a log?”

Wei Wuxian flinched, his throbbing arms screaming at him for even considering it.

Lan Wangji sighed, “It is dangerous. Wei Ying is tired.”

Wei Wuxian pursed his lips, “I’m tired? You look like you haven’t slept in days!”

He hadn’t slept in days. Lan Wangji remembered the awful picture reflected in his mirror. Then did Wei Ying lie to him before?!

He grumbled, “Wei Ying called me handsome.”

Wei Wuxian wagged a finger at him, “You can be handsome and tired!”

So he was handsome?

Satisfied, Lan Wangji gently grabbed Wei Wuxian’s arm and rolled his sleeve up to reveal multitudes of bandages, “Wei Ying is injured and needed strong medicine a few hours ago.”

Wei Wuxian bit his lip, clenching his hands in frustration, “Look, I’m not at 100, but even at a 7 I’m still better off than most people. I can handle this!”

Lan Wangji was quiet for a moment, “...Together.”

Wei Wuxian blinked at him, rolling his sleeve back down.

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened, “Wei Ying is not wrong, but I am worried.”

Wei Wuxian’s shoulders sagged, not knowing how to respond.

“Wei Ying does not have to do this alone.”

Wei Wuxian whipped his head up, lump in his throat as he gestured around the cave with a laugh, “And who’s gonna watch out stuff? The horse?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes flicked to the other side of the cave, “The horse is trained.” he glared at his horse watching them with rapt attention, hooves folded before its snout, “...Mostly.”

Seeing Wei Ying’s hesitation, Lan Wangji held his hand gently, “We are well-hidden. There are hundreds of caves. We will be fine.”

Wei Wuxian bit his lip before he sighed, “You’re right, together we’d be best. And then if we get ambushed we can get away easier.”

Lan Wangji released a breath of relief until a robe smacked into his face as Wei Ying snickered at him, “Now put that on!”

Lan Wangji grabbed the cloth to find Wei Ying’s outer robe in his hands. Looking up in confusion, Lan Wangji’s eyes widened as he took in the sight of Wei Ying stripping, “What are you—”

Wei Wuxian sent him a cheeky smile, “If you’re going to come, then you have to blend into the background. Wearing white in a dark forest is just asking for trouble!”

Lan Wangji opened his mouth, another robe thrown on his face before he could speak.

Wei Wuxian grabbed the wet robes still hung on the rocks, “I’ll wear these. My robes are tighter than what you’re used to, so they’ll be easier to put on dry rather than wet.”

Lan Wangji shoved off the fabric with narrowed eyes, “Wei Ying will get another fever.”

Wei Wuxian waved him off, “We’re both going to be soaked anyway, have you seen that rain? This is just more convenient for the moment. Besides, in Lotus Pier we jump into the water with our clothes on all the time. Soggy, sticky fabric doesn’t bother me.”

But it bothers me!

Lan Wangji's ears burned at the sight of the supple curve of his empress’s butt as the normally loose fabric clung to him like a second skin. At least the fabric wasn’t white.

He tensed at the image that popped into his head, hands scratching at the air as the images grew progressively more erotic. Oh no, Wei Ying bent over to pick up his sword...!

Lan Wangji smacked his head against the cave wall.

The emperor heard a snort thrown in his direction, looking over to the horse who shook his main and jabbed a hoof pointedly at Wei Ying as he turned around, ready to go

Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow at the calm composure of his companion, sitting primly in his Lan robes, “Oh Lan Zhan, how can you be so vehement about coming yet be so slow to leave?” 

Lan Wangji twitched, looking at the cave wall, “Privacy.”

Wei Wuxian raised both eyebrows with a grin, “You didn’t care much for privacy last night.” He furrowed his brows, “Wait, is your forehead okay?”

Lan Wangji froze, turning his head away.

Wei Wuxian waved his hand, beckoning him back, “Aw come on, I was just joking Lan Zhan, just joking! I get it, a young Lan royal like you must be used to dressing rooms and privacy screens.” Wei Wuxian sent him an okay sign, “I need to go check the perimeter anyway so I’ll be at the mouth of the cave.”

Lan Wangji watched Wei Ying creep around the rocks hiding them, plastering against the dark walls as he edged to the edge of the cave. Only when he was sure Wei Ying was preoccupied with his scouting did Lan Wangji hunch over and bury his face in his hands with a silent scream. 

Why must his eyes adjust so well to the dark?

Why must Wei Ying have curves? 

Please have some mercy…

The horse watched him with lidded eyes, huffing through its nostrils.

Lan Wangji took several deep breaths, quickly peeling off his robes once he remembered Wei Ying waiting for him at the front. Despite being of comparable heights, there was a distinct tightness when Lan Wangji pulled the sleeves over his arms that constantly reminded him that he’s wearing Wei Ying’s clothes

Lan Wangji bit his lip as he smoothed the robes out gently.

Grabbing his own sword wrapped in black fabric, the emperor shot one last pointed look at his unimpressed horse before edging around the rock to where his empress was waiting.

Hearing the quiet shuffle of fabric behind him, Wei Wuxian turned around to take in the rare sight of a Lan in black. Now illuminated better, Wei Wuxian felt his face heat up at the ethereal beauty wearing his clothes. Normally loose robes stretched taut over rippling muscles as porcelain skin shined like white jade against the ink black fabric.

Wei Wuxian swallowed.

Realizing he’d been quiet too long, Wei Wuxian plastered a grin on his face, “So, how do you like my clothes?”

Lan Wangji was silent for a moment, “...Tight.”

Oh god, yes they are. Wei Wuxian’s eyes fluttered down rebelliously.

Wei Wuxian shook his head, throwing his hands out palms up to cover up his slip, “Who could guess that royal lad would be so big? How embarrassing that I’m the war general yet I’m thinner than a vegetarian palace boy?” He leaned in with a hand cupping his mouth, eyes flicking left and right conspiratorially, “What’s your secret?”

Rules about being humble ran through Lan Wangji’s head as he subtly flexed his muscles with a blank expression, “Devotion. Diligence.”

Wei Wuxian stared at him blankly, attention locked on his arms.

“...Handstands.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, cheeks puffing out in hushed laughter, “Handstands, really? Just handstands? We do handstands too but I wouldn’t say they’re that special.”

Lan Wangji raised his chin up, “Eight hours.”

Wei Ying’s smile froze.

The emperor’s chest bubbled in pride, “While copying rules.”

Wei Wuxian raised an incredulous eyebrow, “What about when you need to train your writing hand.”

Lan Wangji tilted his head, “Write with your other hand.”

Uwah, the Lan are crazy…

Wei Wuxian savored one last glance at those biceps. But they sure do get results.

He turned his eyes out to the darkening forest, “While this is all very interesting, we’ll have to save it for another time. We only have a couple hours before we’ll be running blind at the mercy of nature, so we need to get a move on.”

Lan Wangji deflated imperceptibly as he nodded, taking one last survey of the area with Wei Ying before they set off into the forest.

They were completely soaked by freezing rain within seconds. Even under the canopy of trees, droplets and harsh winds found their way through to chill the pair to the bones. Lan Wangji had never felt such cold even in the blizzards of Gusu, always wrapped up in furs and placed by heaters even during travel. The emperor’s eyebrows furrowed as he watched Wei Ying’s back, frowning slightly at the memory of his horrid fever.

Wei Ying went through this weather on foot for days?

Lan Wangji followed behind Wei Wuxian, footsteps quiet as they weaved their way through the trees. They can’t go so far that the sun will set before they return, but it’s best to throw the enemy off should they leave any traces behind.

Lan Wangji’s hair caught on a branch, the rustling leaves shouting through the rainstorm.

The two froze, eyes darting around as their hands hovered over their swords. After several long moments of nothing but silence, the two relaxed and Lan Wangji carefully untangled the branch from his hair with a glare.

Looking up, he found Wei Ying smiling understandingly at him as he flicked his head to move forward. Lan Wangji ducked his head and followed, eyes sharp on their surroundings. 

It wasn’t long before they found some fallen logs. Well, more accurately, it wasn’t long before Wei Ying found some logs. Lan Wangji stood under a tree, watching as his empress expertly assessed the different types of wood. Seeing Wei Ying smile at his find, Lan Wangji went over to help pick up the log.

Lan Wangji felt himself slip, leg falling into a hole as mud and rotting leaves coated his borrowed trousers. Wei Wuxian whipped over to help hoist him out, eyes scanning for any movement from the noise

 Lan Wangji was quiet, ears burning as his hands clenched into fists.

Wei Wuxian smiled at him with a whisper, “Yeah, the worst part about these forests is the hidden burrows. You’d be surprised what a bunch of leaves can hide! C’mon, let’s get you out of there before something takes a bite.”

The emperor sighed under his breath, unable to enjoy the way his empress held his arm as he guided them over to the logs. They had no issues.

Lan Wangji looked down at his trousers as Wei Ying crouched to point at the log. He bit his lip, teeth clenched before his shoulders sagged, “Wei Ying…”

Wei Wuxian blinked and looked up at him.

Lan Wangji looked at him, hesitating for a moment, “Your clothes… I’m sorry.”

Wei Wuxian huffed a laugh as he pat Lan Wangji’s calf, “We’re in a rainstorm in a forest hauling wet logs, it’s not a big deal!”

Lan Wangji looked down, “All of Wei Ying’s clothes are ruined.”

Wei Wuxian waved it off, patting Lan Wangji’s calf with an extra little squeeze. Oof, that’s hard as rock, “What? They’re just clothes, it’s not a doomsday scenario.”

The emperor stayed silent.

Wei Wuxian frowned, eyes flicking to the log as he grinned, “Anyway, that’s not important. Come help me lift this, it looks pretty heavy!”

Lan Wangji shook his head, grabbing the log in one swift motion before Wei Ying could touch it.

Wei Wuxian’s smile froze, staring incredulously as Lan Zhan nonchalantly stood holding an 80 pound log under one arm with downcast eyes.

He might have to rethink those handstands.

Wei Wuxian huffed a laugh as he sidled up to his companion, bumping his uninjured shoulder against Lan Zhan’s, “Aiya, that’s amazing Lan Zhan! It’s a good thing you came, I wouldn’t have been able to pick that up myself!”

Lan Wangji blinked, eyes twinkling as Wei Ying grinned at him, “How about this? I’ll find the logs in the area and bring you to them so you can focus on carrying the cargo. Divide and conquer!” Wei Wuxian snickered to himself, “If Lan Zhan is so strong, we might only need to make one trip!”

Lan Wangji’s lips trembled, “Mn.”

The emperor stood with deadpan eyes glittering as his empress made quick work of the area, picking up every log no matter the size with complete ease. He could feel Wei Ying’s astonishment with every load, holding his chin up proudly as he barely felt the weight.

Wei Wuxian was for once stunned into silence. How many pounds is that…?

After finding another route with more stable footing, the two continued to stock up on thick branches, carefully covering any indents with rotting leaves and twigs. Wei Wuxian pouted when Lan Zhan refused to let him hold anything, smiling as he watched the royal pick up wet branches with humble focus. Not every day you meet a noble with humility. 

Wei Wuxian grinned to himself. This Lan Zhan is very good.

The general did one more sweep of the forest floor. They were almost done, with enough wood to run continuously for days. Just a couple more and they can head back.

Wei Wuxian blinked, sight catching of some leaves crawling along the ground in the dimming light. He grinned, eyes twinkling as he inched over to start digging at the ground. 

Lan Wangji looked over as he heard the gentle rustle of leaves, tilting his head at Wei Ying. He walked over, leaning to see what his empress was doing in the mud.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes flicked to him, beaming as he dug harder, “Do you know what’s the most fun thing to do when it’s cold and wet?” Wei Wuxian’s eyes sparkled as he presented some muddy tubers, “Roasting sweet potatoes!”

Lan Wangji tilted his head as Wei Ying hummed happily at finding some thick juicy ones.

Wei Wuxian stood up, holding the sweet potatoes under the downpour to wash the mud off before slipping them in his robes, “There are few things as cozy as sharing fire-roasted sweet potatoes hot off the coals with your friends and family. This year was so hectic, I thought I’d miss out!”

Lan Wangji’s ears perked, sticking close to Wei Ying as he was directed to the final chunks of wood, “A tradition?”

Wei Wuxian chuckled, “An informal one, I guess.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes lidded. All of Yunmeng’s traditions seem to be informal.

Wei Wuxian bounced in place, eyes soft as waves of nostalgia hit him, “We would do this every autumn before the storms hit, digging up as many tubers in the private forests surrounding Lotus Pier as we could. We weren’t allowed to, it being too ‘crude’ for nobility, but that’s part of the fun!” Wei Wuxian chuckled as he remembered the vehement lectures of Madam Yu, Uncle Jiang just sighing fondly as he had the servants prepare their baths, “Even Shijie would get in trouble!”

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened, wishing they didn’t have to whisper so he could hear the true extent of his empress’s excitement.

Wei Wuxian wiggled his eyebrows, “Now the fun part is putting the hot potato straight into your mouth without waiting for it to cool down and yelling hasafashafsas ,” Wei Wuxian stopped to flail in place, “because it’s just so hot! Like burning lava!—”

Lan Wangji furrowed his brows, what a strange tradition. 

“—It was almost a test of manliness. Shijie would always be one of the top winners.” Wei Wuxian nodded his head approvingly.

Lan Wangji huffed an amused breath as he ducked under a branch.

Wei Wuxian surveyed the clearing, grinning as they continued forward, “Even Nie Huaisang couldn’t wait to eat it, even though he cried every time! That guy has a surprisingly stubborn side.”

Lan Wangji blinked, “You know the second prince?”

Wei Wuxian paused, beaming smile falling to a nostalgic gentle one, “Yeah, we used to hang out at each other’s palaces before, you know…”

Lan Wangji fingers clenched, “...Mn.”

The Nie were completely neutral until the Triad Alliance, it would make sense that they would be friendly with Yunmeng. Yet now, they won’t even accept a treaty easily. Nothing but complete domination. Looking back, though no one seemed to notice, Nie Hauisang always did seem extra nervous about the more brutal attack plans against the Wei faction.

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes. Although Nie Mingjue is so harsh on his brother, it’s clear he loves Nie Huaisang more than anyone. Perhaps he could change the King’s mind. Lan Wangji will have to speak with him.

The emperor tensed as Wei Ying suddenly ducked, tilting his head as he watched the general pluck tall blades of grass.

Wei Wuxian caught his curious gaze and laughed, “The horse needs to eat too!”

Ah, he forgot about his horse. Or rather, he was trying not to think about that horse.

Lan Wangji relaxed his stance, turning around to keep an eye on their surroundings as Wei Ying plucked away.

Wei Wuxian paused for a moment, a devious glint in his eye. Quickly stuffing the grass into his robes, he turned around with a grin, “Lan Zhan, let’s go!”

Lan Wangji’s eyes flicked down and he stilled, “...Wei Ying, what is…?”

Wei Wuxian made a show of supporting his very round belly, “What do you mean? You don’t think the emperor would really offer a marriage out of nowhere for no reason?”

Lan Wangji’s mind blanked, scenes of their life raising a child together flashing through his mind.

Wei Wuxian snickered at his shell-shocked expression with a wink, “But this is top secret, no one can know the enemy general is preganante! You must protect the emperor’s virtue!” 

When he got no response Wei Wuxian pouted, waddling over with a whine, “Lan Zhaaan. My feet huuurt. I’m huuungry.” 

Lan Wangji snapped back to attention, setting down one armful of logs, “Mn.”

Wei Wuxian pufffed his cheeks out, “How can you ignore the sufferings of a pregononant maiden?”

Lan Wangji placed his hand on the round ‘belly’, rubbing lightly, “Mn.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, “Lan Zhan?”

“Mn.” he continued to rub it lovingly, “Can carry Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian flailed lightly, “L-Lan Zhan? Come on, pick the logs back up.”

Lan Wangji rubbed the belly, “Must hurry back to the cave, cold is bad for the baby.”

Wei Wuxian whined, “Lan Zhaaan! Being pomegranate doesn’t make me helpless, I can walk on my own!”

“Stubborn.”

Wei Wuxian jabbed a finger at him, “Lan Zhan is even more stubborn. If the baby gets the stubborn gene, he’s getting it from you!”

Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow at him with twinkling eyes, “What about the emperor?”

Wei Wuxian slapped his hands to his cheeks, dabbing his eyes with an invisible handkerchief, “I woke up this morning naked, and the baby grew so fast! How can I know Lan Zhan did nothing untoward last night?” Ha, that should get him!

Lan Wangji held his hand, “I will take responsibility.”

Oi oi oi, just this morning you were blushing like a schoolgirl at the thought and now you’re being so suave?! 

Wei Wuxian whined as Lan Wangji picked the logs back up and they continued forward with spright steps.

When they finally reached the edge of the clearing to their cave, Wei Wuxian surveyed the area. Finding nothing, he blinked as the mountain range off to the side caught his eye. Squinting, Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened as he turned to Lan Wangji, “Those mountains, is this the old Qishan border?! How did we get all the way out here?”

Lan Wangji tilted his chin up, “I hurried.”

Wei Wuxian held his chin in thought, “No wonder we haven’t seen a single hint of activity in the area. Most mercenaries are wary of uninhabited places near Qishan. The legends of the Yiling Patriarch’s hidden army stand strong, huh.”

Hope flooded his chest, Wei Wuxian missing the complex look Lan Wangji sent his way. If they’re so close, then maybe… Then he shook his head. No, it would take too long. Best to stick to the current plan.

He bounded over to the cave, “Anyway, let’s get back inside, It’s freezing!”

The horse perked up at their footsteps, head shooting up as its jaw dropped at Wei Wuxian’s bulging belly.

How could this happen, they were gone two hours!

Then it narrowed its eyes, shooting a glare at the emperor.

And outside in the rain?!

The horse clopped a hoof against the dirt angrily as Lan Wangji stood tall with the proud air of an expecting father.

Wei Wuxian tiptoed over to the horse while beaming, “We have a surprise for you~.”

The horse huffed, yeah I can see that!

Wei Wuxian dug into his robes to pull out the bundle of grass, “Tada! A grass baby, eat up!” he turned back to a downcast Lan Wangji, “Sorry Lan Zhan, I had to put the baby up for adoption. I can’t risk the treaty!”

Lan Wangji shuffled over to rub his flat belly, “I will ask the emperor to try again.”

Wei Wuxian slapped his hands to his face, “Lan Zhan, how shameless!”

The horse watched them with lidded eyes.

The two settled down behind their rock, Lan Wangji carefully setting down the logs with his back to them as Wei Wuxian peeled off everything but his innermost layer.

Wei Wuxian rubbed his arms, blowing hot air into his hands as he shivered, “Let’s get this over with quick and just chop enough for the night. We can always finish the rest in the morning.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed as he remembered the paleness of Wei Ying’s face, nodding as he grabbed a log. He paused, staring at the block of wood blankly.

Wei Wuxian crawled over, pointing at Lan Wangji’s sword, “Alrighty, now comes the annoying and loud part. We’ll need to stand the log up and embed one of our swords in the top, then hammer the sword down like a wedge until the log splits.”

Lan Wangji blinked at the… unorthodox method, “Then?”

Wei Wuxian sent him a wry grin, “Then we do it a bunch more times. The point is that we just need to split it into a bunch of thin pieces and just use the drier inner parts. Simple, easy, functional.” Then his cheek twitched, “But with how much we need to do, that sword will get dull real quick. I only brought basic maintenance supplies with me.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes flicked to his luggage, “I have a sharpening stone.” Then he looked at Wei Ying’s sword and remembered his light agile style, “My sword is enough.”

Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow at him, “Lan Zhan, there are like 20 logs, and each will have to be split several times.”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, “My sword is built sturdy.”

Wei Wuxian sighed, “It’ll still take forever.”

Lan Wangji grabbed his sword, “Only enough for tonight.” He paused, glancing at Wei Wuxian’s arms, “Wei Ying is still injured. You need rest.”

Wei Wuxian sighed, flinging his arms out as he flopped into his seat, “Why is everyone around me so stubborn? Especially about some scratches!”

Lan Wangji sent a sideways glance as he propped the log up with rocks, “Wei Ying almost died.”

Wei Wuxian squeezed the water out of his hair, “Bah, you get shot once and suddenly you’re on your deathbed.”

“Wei Ying was shot twice.”

Wei Wuxian pouted, “I was grazed one of those times, thank you very much.”

Both Lan Wangji and the horse sent him blank looks.

Wei Wuxian waved them off and began directing Lan Wangji on what to do. Initially the emperor felt his stomach twist as he bludgeoned his sword with a stick to drive it down the log, but with every little shiver as the wind hit Wei Ying’s back the twisting morphed into urgency.

Wei Wuxian clapped as the first log split, “Wow, Lan Zhan did that so quickly! And you barely damaged the hammering log, most people would put too much force and get it stuck on the blade.”

Lan Wangji’s ears reddened as his eyes flicked over, “Wei Ying seems expert in such things. Have you done this before?”

Wei Wuxian chuckled wryly, “When you’re underfunded, everyone becomes a laborer.” Then he laughs, “But Wen Ning usually does these things for me anyway.”

Lan Wangji remembered Wen Ning from the negotiation tent, and how protective Wei Wuxian was of him. They seemed very close, even more than the rumors of the Inner Circle would have you believe. He thwacked the next log extra hard, “...Does what things?”

Wei Wuxian laughed, waving his hand, “All kinds of things, especially things I don’t want to do! We’re practically attached at the hip most days out in the field, so I rely on him a lot.”

Lan Wangji’s grip on his sword tightened, “...Rely on him…”

Wei Wuxian nodded emphatically, “Yep yep, don’t let his shy maiden exterior fool you, Wen Ning is super diligent. And because he’s medically trained, he’s the first to treat my injuries. The others have even joked that Wen Ning must have memorized my body by now with how many injuries he treats!”

Memorized Wei Ying’s body…

Lan Wangji unembed his sword and grabbed the log, splitting it in two with his hands.

Memorize Wei Ying’s body? Who can memorize Wei Ying’s body but his husband?!

The horse sneezed at the sudden smell of vinegar.

Lan Wangji kept splitting the log until Wei Ying stopped him with wide eyes, “Woah woah, Lan Zhan that’s good enough. They’re just the right size!”

Lan Wangji blinked as Wei Ying took his hands with a frown as he looked at the delicate fingers, “I know you’re strong, but you need to treat your hands better.”

Lan Wangji’s lips trembled as Wei Ying traced the emperor’s hands with his fingers, “Lan Zhan has such nice hands. I can tell there no scars, only sword and instrument callouses. Take better care of yourself, we can wait a few more minutes.”

Lan Wangji felt Wei Ying’s freezing hands, “I am sturdy, Wei Ying needs fire.”

Wei Wuxian groaned as he jumped up with his hands flung out, “Oh my god, you’re just like Wen Ning!”

Lan Wangji’s eye twitched. He is like Wen Qionglin? Wen Qiongling is like him !

He grabbed the next log and split it just like the first, shredding it in under a minute and showing his pristine hands to Wei Ying with a glint in his eye before moving onto the next one. 

Wei Wuxian watched him tear apart the pile of logs with barely an effort, stunned into silence at his display of strength. Remembering how he carried the logs sent a tingling straight down his naval. No wonder this guy could carry him so easily. He could probably pick Wei Wuxian up and do anything he wants without any effort no matter how much Wei Wuxian would struggle. He swallowed, mouth suddenly dry as he ducked his head down with weak knees.

Lan Wangji felt a swell of satisfaction at Wei Ying’s clear amazement, dropping dead as Wei Ying looked away and fidgeted. What did he do wrong?!

Lan Wangji wanted to hit himself. 

 This method was already loud and his showing off made the echo worse. Wei Ying must think him delicate from the forest incident and doesn’t want to hurt his ego. Lan Wangji took extra care to split the remaining logs as quietly as possible. 

Wei Wuxian kneeled down, gingerly reaching for some extra shredded pieces of wood as he grabbed the flint from his bag to distract himself from the rolling waves of heat in his groin. Arranging a few larger logs properly, Wei Wuxian then sprinkled some of the invisible fire dust onto the wood before lighting the shredded kindling at the top.

Lan Wangji’s eyes widened at the blood red glow of the flames, dark even just a few feet away. At a distance it really does disappear despite being so warm. Golden eyes moved up, dazed at the hauntingly beautiful picture before him.

Wei Ying always did look good in red, ever since the day they first met.

Glowing darkly like a forbidden dream, Wei Ying was the picture of temptation. Long wild hair dripping onto an exposed collar, thin garments lining every crevice, he was like a river god gracing the land with his ethereal presence. 

Lan Wangji swallowed, handing over the fox fur cloak as he grabbed his dry clothes.

Wei Wuxian smiled in relief as he peeled off the rest of his wet clothes, hugging the cloak around himself as he draped them on the rocks closest to the fire. Then he grinned, grabbing some more shredded kindling to make a second fire out of small pieces.

Lan Wangji turned around at the sudden light, raising his eyebrow as Wei Ying hummed, “I can’t wait for these huge logs to make some nice hot ashes, I want sweet potatoes now!”

The emperor huffed, draping his borrowed clothes along the rocks to dry as he focused on tending to the fire.

The light was morbid and the ground was cold, but somehow the cave suddenly felt so cozy. Lan Wangji turned toward his empress, giddy as he stuck his sweet potatoes into the ashes and bouncing in his seat as he waited for them to cook. Lan Wangji’s eyes softened, grabbing some more powder to sprinkle on the fire with a bubbling warmth in his chest.

A few minutes later Wei Wuxian presented Lan Wangji with his freshly roasted sweet potato, quickly setting it on the cloth in Lan Wangji’s hands before grabbing his own share with barely concealed glee. 

Lan Wangji watched as Wei Ying peeled off the skin at just the top to reveal the steaming golden flesh, taking a small bite and fanning his mouth with a muffled cry but shining eyes. He turned those dazzling eyes on Lan Wangji, smiling expectantly as he gestured for him to go on, try it!

Lan Wangji looked down at the humble vegetable, carefully peeling the skin off with his nails. He brought it to his mouth and hesitated. 

He really doesn’t understand this custom of burning one’s mouth. 

He glanced up at his empress before flicking his eyes back down. 

But if it is important to Wei Ying… 

He steeled himself and took a bite, quietly sucking in air at the burning heat and ignoring the clan rule about talking at the table as he looked back at Wei Ying, “Has fasha fhas.” 

Wei Wuxian’s smile froze as he stared wide-eyed at him. 

Lan Wangji wondered if he offended the custom somehow, when Wei Ying’s lips began to twitch before he burst out in hushed baffled laughter, “Um, Lan Zhan, you know it’s just a random sound of pain you make to cool the potato down, right? It’s not a real word or anything…” 

Lan Wangji froze for a long moment before his ears ran red hot as he avoided Wei Ying’s eyes, shuffling to turn his back to him as he wished to hide in a hole. 

Wei Wuxian tried to muffle his laughter with a hand as he sidled up behind Lan Zhan, leaning against his head and back as he pokes his cheek, “Lan Zhan, don’t be upset, it’s an honest mistake! Come on, acting so cute makes me want to bully you more.” 

Lan Wangji ducked his head, skin tingling under his clothes wherever he felt Wei Ying’s warm weight. After a moment he glanced back only to see wei Ying’s cheeks puffed out in repressed laughter, whipping away again and curling even deeper in on himself.

Ah, why must he go out of his way to embarrass himself?

Wei Wuxian snickered behind a hand, the other patting Lan Zhan’s shoulder comfortingly as he tried to calm down. Oh my lord, how can this man be so cute?! 

His wide grin slowly softened into a fond chuckle, “Oh Lan Zhan, you’re so much fun. If I met you during the war I would’ve lost all my stress in just a few minutes!”

Lan Wangji peeked from behind his bangs. He paused at the gentle melancholic look on Wei Ying’s face, “I’m really going to miss you. I hope we get to see each other again in the Cloud Recesses.”

Lan Wangji startled, whipping up his red ears, “We can. Every day, whenever Wei Ying wants.”

Wei Wuxian’s grin turned wry, “You mean whenever the emperor allows. The harem is basically locked in their courtyards for the rest of their lives.”

Lan Wangji’s lips tightened, “The emperor will never cage Wei Ying. Never.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, releasing a breath with a gentle smile, “Okay okay, I'll believe you. Just don’t look so down, alright?”

Lan Wangji furrowed his brows until a sweet potato was shoved in his face.

Wei Wuxian grinned brightly, “Now enough talk about boring things, finish it before it cools! Whatever happens later, right now it’s just you and me, and the horse I guess. Let’s enjoy it while we have the chance!”

Lan Wangji bit his lip. That’s right, at this moment there is nothing outside of this cave and Wei Ying’s presence. He can prove his words when they reach the Cloud Recesses.

Words are useless.

Instead he will show Wei Ying every day, for all his days.

For all their days.

Chapter Text

The soft crackle of the fire enveloped their small camp within the dark recesses of the cave.

Lan Wangji took a bite from his sweet potato as his free hand absently poked at the fire, throwing some Invisible powder whenever it seemed to brighten. Wei Ying’s eyes glanced at him, knees shuffling in place under the fur cloak as he leaned over to watch him expectantly. 

Lan Wangji glanced at him before focusing on the fire, “It is good.”

Watching Wei Ying’s face light up from the corner of his eye sent bubbles tickling through his chest as he chewed on the potato with vigor. Wei Ying hummed to himself as he followed by digging into his own treat, puffed cheeks glowing with delight by the fire. 

Such a… rudimentary preparation was drier than the emperor was used to, but gave it a rustic charm that had Lan Wangji finishing it quickly while the image of his future wife preparing him dinner was still fresh in his mind. 

Wei Ying finished his own just as quickly, licking his lips and smacking his tongue in his mouth as he reached for the flask in his bag. Taking a large swig, he saw Lan Wangji watching him from the corner of his eyes and offered the flask with a grin. The emperor’s fingers shook as he took the flask, looking at the mouthpiece for a long moment. 

Wei Wuxian pounced into his view with wiggling eyebrows, “What, it’s just an indirect kiss. Lan Zhan was much more bold before!”

Wei Ying!

Lan Wangji whipped away and paused as he held the flask to his lips before taking a sip. The freezing cold water sobered him with a flinch as he handed the flask back, watching with furrowed brows as Wei Ying took another drink.

He was almost hypothermic just last night.

The emperor stood up, startling Wei Ying as he walked over to his luggage. Wei Ying tilted his head as Lan Wanji took out a box, blinking as Lan Wangji brought it over and took off the lid. Wei Ying snickered.

A tea set, really?

Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow at him as Wei Wuxian tried to hide his snickers, “Glad to know Gusu’s got their priorities straight.” 

Lan Wangji pursed his lips as he sat back down, “Tea is important in the cold.”

Wei Wuxian crossed his arms and nodded along, “Yes yes, and that tea pot also adds another few pounds to your load. I’m guessing Lan Zhan isn’t very used to the concept of light travel.”

Lan Wangji stayed silent. Even when his own horse was sparsely packed, he could always expect others to bring him anything he needed. But it wasn’t strange to prioritize cookware especially in freezing temperatures where exposure could mean a death sentence.

He blinked at the general, “Doctor Wen allows Wei Ying to drink cold water in winter?”

Wei Wuxian tilted his head, “Hm? We drink hot tea all winter.”

Lan Wangji lidded his eyes, “Without teapots.”

Wei Wuxian nodded, “Yeah, all you need is bamboo.”

Lan Wangji paused and raised an eyebrow at him.

Wei Wuxian blinked back, “You know, since bamboo is hollow and doesn’t burn so well. It may look a little charred on the outside, but the water will be boiling before it becomes an issue. No need to pack anything. The peasantry have been doing it for ages.”

Lan Wangji blinked, looking away with a quiet sigh as his fingers tightened around the teapot.

Now that he thinks about it, it makes sense. But he never questioned it before.

Wei Wuxian watched him hold his teapot tightly with a helpless smile as he reached over and snatched it, “If Lan Zhan wants tea so bad, this Wei Ying is only too happy to oblige!”

He poured his flask into the teapot and handed it back to Lan Wangji, who had set it on some stones over the fire. Wei Wuxian hummed as he leaned back, marveling at the elegance of Lan Zhan’s tea preparation even in such a crude place. Wei Wuxian bit his lip and swallowed. Such grace is truly from a higher plane.

Wei Wuxian snapped out of his daze as a cup was presented to him. He blinked at the steaming tea, looking up into gentle golden eyes as Lan Wangji looked at him, “Wei Ying is sick. Cold water will make it worse.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened, carefully taking the cup as he bit his lip, “Ah. Thank you.”

So the tea was for him. This man…

Wei Wuxian took a sip, eyes lighting up at the familiar aroma, “Is this the Lotus Blend?!” 

The favorite of the Yunmeng royal family, the Lotus Blend is hard to recreate outside of Yunmeng’s borders to the same quality. He must have paid quite the import taxes…

Wei Wuxian sighed in content, “I haven’t tasted this in so long.”

Lan Wangji blinked. It’s only been a few days.

He furrowed his brows, “Does Wei Ying not drink this tea in Lotus Pier?” 

Was he not allowed since he’s not an official member?

Wei Wuxian stared at the tea, “No, we have it at almost every meal. But it hasn’t tasted this good in months.” He paused, muttering quietly, “It hasn’t tasted like anything for a long time.”

Lan Wangji clenched a hand inside his robes.

Wei Wuxian glanced at him for a moment as his eyes softened into a smile, “But Lan Zhan’s tastes so good. You made it just right.”

Lan Wangji looked up, ears reddening, “Just right…”

Wei Wuxian beamed, “Yup, such skill is to be envied. I wish Lan Zhan made my tea every time!”

“I will.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, Lan Wangji muttering as he grabbed the teapot, “I will, whenever Wei Ying wants.”

Wei Wuxian’s cheeks flushed, hidden by the red glow of the fire. Oi oi oi, a royal serving tea, isn’t that a bit too much? He startled, grabbing the teapot before lan Wangji could pour another cup and served it himself. Lan Wangji’s ears trembled at the image.

Wei Wuxian glanced at him before looking away with a small smile on his face as he enjoyed his tea.

Lan Wangji watched him in a daze, the two finally able to share some tea normally after all these years.

Wei Wuxian noticed and teased him, “Like what you see?” 

Mn. 

Wei Wuxian blinked at him with wide eyes and scratched his cheek shyly, while Lan Wangji’s horse looked at him with raised eyebrows. 

The emperor’s eyes slowly widened, realizing with horrified embarrassment that he said it out loud. He cleared his throat gently, “Glad that Wei Ying enjoys the tea.” 

Wei Wuxian blinked, cheeks flushing as he rubbed his neck, “Oh. Yeah, haha.” 

They were quiet for a moment before looking away and sipping at their tea. Lan Wangji wanted to drown in his cup. He swallowed, looking intently at his lap for a few seconds before chancing a glance at his empress. Gold met silver as Wei Ying flinched and whipped his head away, loudly slurping his tea with flushed cheeks. 

The horse watched them for several agonizing minutes with blank eyes.

Wei Wuxian finished his tea with a content sigh as he ran a hand through his hair and smiled at Lan Wangji, “That tea really hit the spot! My throat does feel better now.”

Lan Wangji nodded quietly, blinking as Wei Ying’s fingers tangled in his hair. 

Wei Wuxian tugged his hand out, turning up his lip at his fingers. Ah, how long has it been since he groomed himself? He must look like hell. Wei Wuxian grumbled, “Dammit, not even a comb…”

Lan Wangji tapped his fingers as he watched Wei Wuxian try to comb his hair with his fingers. Wei Wuxian blinked when Lan Wangji stood up and grabbed a parcel out of his luggage and presented it to him.

“A gift, for Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian took the parcel with a wry grin, “You have gifts just lying around for me?”

Lan Wangji looked down with red ears, “Betrothal gift.”

Wei Wuxian froze as Lan Wangji unwrapped the intricately embroidered fabric in his hands to reveal a comb carved with such fine craftsmanship that he could not make out all the details in the dim lighting. Even in the red glow he could see it was made of Cloud Jade, a rare white jade found exclusively within the mountains of Gusu. Seeming to glow from within, it had always given the royalty of Gusu an ethereal appearance like immortals descended from the heavens. When he first met the emperor, the moonlight made the stones on his headdress shine like a halo around him. Really poor for stealth, but utterly mesmerizing.

To give him such a precious stone carved so beautifully, the emperor must be taking this marriage very seriously.

Wei Wuxian traced the comb with his fingertip, lighting up as he counted the nine segments. It must be the Jiang clan’s nine petal lotus. He doesn’t have many items with the family crest for… various reasons. 

Lan Wangji’s heart fluttered as Wei Ying stared at the nine-feathered phoenix comb with such a gentle expression. He hesitated, not wanting to ruin the moment, “...Does Wei Ying like it?”

Wei Wuxian looked up at him, “It’s beautiful. Whoever designed this put in a lot of effort.”

Lan Wangji opened his mouth, biting his lip and looking down as his ears reddened, “...I designed it.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, eyes lighting up as he grinned, “You did?! Lan Zhan has good taste!”

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened. An empress deserves a phoenix, nothing less.

Wei Wuxian looked at the comb again as his smile turned wry, “But I can’t exactly use this. My hair is so dirty…”

Lan Wangji whipped his head up, “Wei Ying is not dirty.”

Wei Wuxian huffed a laugh, “I’m sure the dirt stains on this pure white comb will beg to differ if I use it.”

Lan Wangji was silent for a moment, “...It was made to be used. It can be cleaned.”

Wei Wuxian puffed out his cheeks, “What about Lan Zhan’s comb?”

“It is unhygenic to share.”

Wei Wuxian groaned. How is he being lectured on hygiene in a dank cave on a dirty floor?

He sighed, “Okay, fine, but I’m putting it back when I’m done! Can’t risk it getting damaged, for both our sakes.”

Lan Wangji hums, eyes bright as he watched his empress comb through his long hair with glowing jade, wrapped in embroidered fox fur. As he should be.

In the dim light, Lan Wangji caught sight of Wei Ying’s exposed wounds, the wet bandages having been removed earlier, “Wei Ying, your wounds…”

Wei Wuxian blinked, rummaging through his bag and throwing the medicine bag to Lan Zhan, “You go first, I’ll patch myself up when I’m done.” His eyes narrowed as Lan Wangji’s mouth opened, “Oh nonono, you are taking care of your ‘scratches’ too! What if you get an infection?”

Lan Wangji sighed as he rolled up his sleeve and began applying the medicine.

The fire was close to dying by the time they finished, Wei Wuxian inspecting the black robes while Lan Wangji cleaned up the area for bed. Wei Wuxian hummed in satisfaction, the robes having dried nicely with just a light dampness left. Then he peeked over at Lan Zhan, a glint in his eyes, “Oh noes, the robes are still wet! Looks like I'm sleeping naked again.”

Lan Wangji froze, considering it for a moment before shaking his head and grabbing his spare inner robes, almost throwing them in Wei Ying’s face as his ears burned. Wei Wuxian just laughed as he slipped the robes on, the broad fabric slipping down his narrower shoulders to expose his collarbone. Lan Wangji valiantly kept his eyes staring forward. 

Holding the fur cloak, Wei Wuxian sighed, “Ah, something so nice has become so dirty. Was there really nothing else we could have used?”

Lan Wangji glanced at the large parcel in his betrothal package before sitting down on the outer robe warmed by the fire, “I do not mind.”

Wei Wuxian sighed as he sat next to him, laying the cloak over both of them. He paused when he felt a tug on his sleeve, turning his head to find Lan Zhan staring at him expectantly. Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow, cheeks flushing when Lan Zhan patted his chest with a glint in his eye, “The ground is cold, not good for Wei Ying’s injured back.”

Wei Wuxian scratched his neck as he thought back to when he was thrown off the horse, “It’s not that bad.”

Lan Wangji stared at him.

Wei Wuxian pursed his lips with a grumble as he crawled over, “Stubborn.”

As soon as he felt the hot breaths puffing against his neck, Lan Wangji froze. Wei Ying is fully conscious now. If anything twitches…

A drop of sweat ran down his temple as a snort sounded from the other side of the cave.

As the sweet embrace of sleep quickly overcame him, Lan Wangji had never been more thankful for the curfew engraved in his body’s clock.

Feeling him suddenly go limp, Wei Wuxian startled, “Lan Zhan?”

A sleepy groan sighed against his hair, “Curfew.”

Wei Wuxian blinked. The infamous 9pm bedtime, something strictly kept even in the throes of war. He marveled at how quickly Lan Zhan went down. So diligent.

Wei Wuxian was not so lucky. With the events of the day and the soft puff of breath against his hair, Wei Wuxian found his eyes wide open even as his muscles screamed for sweet rest. Pressed down against the warm expanse of Lan Zhan’s body, Wei Wuxian flushes at how well he fits within that broad embrace.

Eyes flicking down, he traced the fine chiseled lines of Lan Wangji’s abdominal muscles with a trembling fingertip, shivering at the rock hard firmness as he pressed down. His legs began to shift around nervously, the scent of sandalwood enveloping Wei Wuxian’s senses as he burrowed into Lan Zhan’s chest.

Feeling himself twitch, Wei Wuxian froze. He tried to shuffle onto the side, not minding the freezing cold floor as long as it cooled the heat building inside him. Wei Wuxian felt his jaw drop as he realized Lan Zhan’s arms had locked tight around him, his struggle unable to move him even a bit. Wei Wuxian tried flailing around but was stuck and could only let a muffled whimper.

This was going to be a long night…

 

Wei Wuxian softly groaned as he cracked open groggy eyes to the sound of a soft crackling fire and the gentle rustle of fabric. Blinking blearily, Wei Wuxian looked around to find himself cocooned within the cloak, the thick fur so warm and soft he couldn’t feel the cave floor. Snuggling into the warmth, Wei Wuxian buried his face into a soft parcel, cracking open his eyes to find the intricate embroidery of a Lan betrothal gift.

The soft rustle of fabric paused as he let out a cozy breath, shuffling sounding beside him as a gentle clack attracted Wei Wuxian’s attention. Looking over, Wei Wuxian found a pair of white gloves placing a clean flat stone on the ground next to him with a cup of steaming tea and a freshly roasted sweet potato sitting on it.

Wei Wuxian tilted his head, following the line of robes up to Lan Zhan’s elegant face framed with lightly curling hair in the red glow of the fire. Blinking, Wei Wuxian flopped his head back onto the makeshift pillow with a soft smile, “Hey…”

Lan Wangji froze, fingers trembling as he touched the edges of the stone plate, “Mn.”

Wei Wuxian breathed in the scent of sandalwood on the parcel before he lit up, head whipping back to the plate, “Are those sweet potatoes?!”

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxian grinned as he shimmied to a sitting position in his cocoon, “I thought we ate them all last night.”

Hearing a drip Wei Wuxian looked at the rocks, blinking at the soaking wet black robes drying by the fire. Eyes widening, Wei Wuxian whipped back to Lan Wangji’s lightly curled hair.

It only curls when it’s wet.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes softened, reaching out to gently grab Lan Wangji’s hand from the plate. He felt the fingers lightly tremble as he removed the white glove to find dirt caked under those fine fingernails. Lan Wangji tried to tug his hand away with red ears, but Wei Wuxian only traced the fingertips lightly with a gentle smile on his face, “Oh Lan Zhan, what are you doing… Look at your hands, that dirt won’t come out for a while.”

Lan Wangji’s shoulders slumped as he looked away. How unkempt.

He flinched when a pair of soft lips touched his finger tip, whipping back to Wei Ying gently pecking each digit.

Eyes wide, Lan Wangji felt his mind run rampant as his skin tingled at every touch, “We-Wei Ying…”

Wei Wuxian hummed against his ring finger, “Kiss it to make it better, you know?” He looked up with a little smirk, “Consider it payback for the medicine.”

Medicine is wonderful.

His smirk softened, “How long did it take?”

It must have been so difficult and tedious. The leaves are hard to make out in this weather and the tubers themselves are rare this late in the season after the wild animals ate their fill.

Lan Wangji looked away, “...Not long.”

The horse snorted at him. Liar.

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes. It’s not a lie, it’s a difference of opinion.

Wei Wuxian chuckled at the sight.

Lan Wangji slipped out his hands to grab Wei Wuxian’s and lead him to lie back down, “Wei Ying should eat and rest.”

Wei Wuxian puffed his cheeks, “I’m not eating alone!”

Lan Wangji’s ears burned as he relented, Wei Ying flopping on his side watching the emperor expectantly until he finished his own portion. Only then did he bounce back up with a grin, shedding his cloak to eat.

Lan Wangji placed a hand gently on his shoulder, Wei Wuxian blinking up at him as the emperor  adjusted the pillow to support Wei Wuxian’s back as he settled him against the wall. Covering the cloak loose but snug around his shoulders, Lan Wangji brought the stone plate closer as he sat next to Wei Ying with his own meal.

Wei Wuxian blinked, burrowing into the cloak with bright eyes, “Hihihi, breakfast in bed. I could get used to this.”

Lan Wangji’s ears trembled, “Mn.”

Lan Wangji bit into his sweet potato, freezing at the dry texture.

Wei Wuxian glowed as he ate, smiling and humming happily to himself. 

He turned to Lan Zhan with a wide smile, “Hihi, it tastes better than mine.” 

“It’s burned.” 

Wei Wuxian held a finger up, “It adds a smoky aroma.” Then he grinned, “Lan Zhan made it for me so it’s definitely delicious!”

Lan Wangji’s eyes widened, lips trembling as he sipped his tea, “...I will cook it properly next time.”

“There’s a next time?! Hehe!”

As soon as he finished, Wei Wuxian tightened his cocoon to flop on the ground with a happy grin.

Lan Wangji looked over and furrowed his brows, “I can move Wei Ying’s seat closer to the fire.”

Wei Wuxian snuggled in his cloak, “But I want to lie back down.” He patted the pillow with fluttering eyelashes, “Come join me, it’s very cozy in here!”

Lan Wangji’s ears burned as he whipped back to the red glow, “Must work the fire.”

Wei Wuxian chuckled softly as Lan Wangji prodded the embers relentlessly. Curling up against the pillow, he looked back at the wet robes on the rocks with a snicker, blinking as he noticed a second set of black trousers drying on the rocks.

Lan Wangji froze as Wei Yign grabbed the fabric, reaching a hand out but too late to stop Wei Ying from looking at the tear down the seam of the trousers. Large as a fist, Wei Wuxian could only blink at the fabric hastily sewn shut with all the skill of a nimble cabbage.

Lan Wangji hides his face in his hands, “...My apologies.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened as he looked at the patchy mud poorly scrubbed off the fabric. These were the trousers Lan Zhan wore yesterday! His chest bubbled as he realized Lan Wangji had tried to wash the dirt off them but put too much strength and tore them instead. Then Lan Zhan tried to sew it up for him even though he didn’t know how.

Wei Wuxian bit his lip.

This man...

Wei Wuxian chuckled, “Lan Zhan is so responsible.”

Lan Wangji shook his head and looked down, “Foolish.”

Wei Wuxian puffed his cheeks, “They’re my pants, so i’m right! Name another royal who would wash someone else’s clothes!”

Lan Wangji peeked at his… amateur craftsmanship, “Wei Ying’s only other clothes…”

Wei Wuxian waved him off, “It’s just a tear, nothing I can’t fix!”

Of course Wei Ying can fix it. Lan Wangji sighed, “I only cause Wei Ying problems.”

Wei Wuxian wagged a finger at him, “Oh non non, Lan Zhan, that’s where you’re wrong!” He smiled at the stitching, “Lan Zhan always tries. That alone is more amazing than any years of skill.”

He looked at Lan Wangji with flushed cheeks as he lit up with a dazzling smile, “Thank you.”

The emperor's eyes softened as warmth flooded his chest, “...Mn.”

Lan Wangji brought over the sewing set as Wei Wuxian dried the fabric closer to the fire. As he threaded the needle, Wei Wuxian asked what they were going to do for the time being, “I mean, we have enough food, fire, and plenty of water from the rain. We can’t really make too much noise so instruments are out of the question. And it’s kind of dark to draw or read. What’s left to do?”

Lan Wangji blinked. He was content to just sit in this cave next to Wei Ying for as long as he could. He looked over at his humming empress, restless even while he sews. 

Wei Ying has never liked to be cooped up against his will.

Lan Wangji turned to him, “What does Wei Ying do during stakeouts?”

Wei Wuxian whipped his head up, not expecting an answer. He tilted his head in thought, “We usually just tell stories. Most of them are total BS, but that’s part of the fun!”

Lan Wangji’s ears perked, fingers fidgeting as he glanced at his empress, “I want to hear them… stories about Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian’s cheeks flushed as he rubbed his neck with a little grin and began his magnificent tales with fervor.

How he once dyed Jiang Cheng’s hair green so with his parted bangs and bun he looked like an eggplant.

How Jiang Cheng tried to retaliate by dying his hair pink. Unfortunately, Jiang Cheng had forgotten how shameless Wei Wuxian could be and was left choking on his porridge in laughter when Wei Wuxian burst through the doors decked out in all pink robes with pink makeup on his face.

Wei Wuxian laughed as he told Lan Zhan his justification to a wry Jiang Fengmian,  “I was simply exploring my personal expression!”

Madam Yu then had the guards and who would later become the shidi chase him to stop him from leaving the pier so the townspeople wouldn’t see him but he was just too slippery. The townspeople loved it and helped him hide, and little did she know the Shidi were also throwing the guards off the trail. It took them a whole day to catch him.

Wei Wuxian groaned, “I had to wash all the floors in Lotus Pier, all of them! Jiang Cheng just had to sit in the ancestral hall for an hour.”

Wei Wuxian smiled at the memory, “But that angry eggplant still came to split the work with me, and Shijie helped too. I thought she was just being the lovely sister she is, but I found out years later that she was the one supplying us with the dye and clothes this whole time! She never got caught in a prank, not even once!”

Seeing Lan Zhan’s twinkling eyes, Wei Wuxian shuffled over to him with a grin, “Isn’t Shijie cool? What does Lan Zhan think?”

Lan Wangji nodded, “A good sister. Would get along well with Brother.”

Wei Wuxian perked up, “You have a brother?”

Lan Wangji wanted to smack himself, “...Yes.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes lit up, “What’s he like?”

Lan Wangji thought for a moment, “Kind and gentle,” then narrowed his eyes, “but secretly a menace.”

Seeing him pout, Wei Wuxian had to know what kind of gremlin this brother is, “A menace?”

 “Teases me. Loves to pry.” Lan Wangji looks down and grumbles, “Prying is against the rules of the Cloud Recesses.”

A Lan who breaks the stuffy rules? Wei Wuxian has to meet this man.

Then Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes at the other side of the cave, “...Trained that horse.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, following his gaze to see the horse watching them with lidded eyes, “I mean, he’s a well-trained horse. What’s wrong with him?”

Lan Wangji stayed quiet and continued to glower.

Wei Wuxian tilted his head, “You always call him ‘the horse’ or ‘my horse’. Does he not have a name?”

“...It is a bad name. Foolish. I don’t like it anymore.”

Wei Wuxian felt a smirk curl up his cheeks, “Oh? Tell me, I must know!”

Lan Wangji stayed quiet and turned away from him.

Wei Wuxian followed him and whined, “Oh come one Lan Zhan. Just tell me. Please? It can’t be that bad, I named my Sentinel ‘whatever’ after all!”

Lan Wangji sighed and turned around, eyes narrowed at the horse.

“Judgement.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, “That’s not a bad name at all! What’s wrong with it?”

The horse wiggled its eyebrows with a small whinny.

“...A regretful name.”

“Oh come on, I can see you riding into battle like an immortal descending from the heavens by the weight of Judgement . Very cool, super swoon worthy!”

Lan Wangji glanced at him before looking down with burning ears, “That was the intention…”

Wei Wuxian chuckled, shuffling closer until they were touching shoulders. Lan Wangji looked at him softly as they began trading stories.

Soft whispers echoed through the cave well into the night.

 

The silence of the elegant study was punctuated only by the stroke of a brush.

Lan Xichen sighed as he completed the final refusal letter of that day’s batch of harem proposals for the emperor. He looked at the stack, shoulder slumping as he sighed again. That stack only seemed to grow larger each day.

Hearing the quiet but fast footsteps approaching the door he could only rub his temples as he sat up to greet Lan Qiren as he politely burst through the door. Lan Xichen bowed with a tired smile, “Hello Uncle.”

Lan Qiren returned the bow curtly as he walked to stand before the desk, “Xichen, what is the meaning of this. The delegates of each court have been complaining about their proposals being rejected without being seen by the emperor! All of them!”

Lan Xichen felt his head throb as he poured them both a cup of tea, “Yes, the emperor has given me the authority to make decisions in his name. I have given the proposals the same consideration as the emperor himself.”

Lan Qiren accepted his cup with a huff, “Wangji has never given those proposals even a moment of consideration, even publicly!”

Lan Xichen sipped his tea, “I am aware.”

Lan Qiren narrowed his eyes, “Xichen, this has gone on long enough. It is time that Wangji rows up and takes on the proper responsibilities of his station!”

Lan Xichen looked up at him, “Uncle…”

Lan Qiren huffed, “Don’t coddle him this time, Xichen. I have been patient with Wangji, understanding of his young age and his aspirations. Now that he has finally seen fit to marry, there is no reason to hold back anymore. It is about time that Wangji grew his harem.”

Lan Xichen sighed, shoulders slumping from the weight of the situation, “Uncle, Wangji has always believed in the first emperor’s principles of monotony and love. He does not believe in a harem.”

Lan Qiren grit his teeth, “Xichen, whatever he may believe Wangji is the emperor. The world is no idyllic haven and people can’t have everything they want, especially after Wangji wasted that single marriage slot on an unnecessary treaty.”

Lan Xichen sipped his tea quietly.

Lan Qiren stroked his beard as he grumbled, “Making a man Empress, what was he thinking? And that Wei Wuxian on top of it!”

Lan Xichen raised his eyes from his cup, “By all accounts General Wei should make a fine ruler. He’s handled Lotus Pier so well and has a close relationship with the Crown Prince. He comes with many benefits.”

Lan Qiren furrowed his brows as he tugged at his beard, “He’s an uncouth menace that isn’t good enough for Wangji.”

Lan Xichen felt his head throb again. Wangji won’t be happy if his wife is not given proper respect…

Lan Qiren heaved a sigh, “And leaving that aside he’s a man. Wangji must continue the royal bloodline so he’ll need at least one concubine, and then try explaining why only one delegate’s daughter was brought into the harem but everyone else was rejected. This marriage can only play out one way.”

Lan Xichen hummed, “Those delegates seem to forget that they are guests in the emperor’s home. Doesn’t Uncle find their actions a bit disrespectful to try to sneak marriages in behind the emperor’s back while his wife is in transit?”

Lan Qiren paused, furrowing his brows as he grumbled, “...Indeed. They should have waited until the emperor returned from his trip. What a breach of propriety.”

Lan Xichen’s eyes glinted as he snatched that thread, “There is little difference between guests and family in this matter. No matter how we discuss it amongst ourselves, it is improper to make decisions about the emperor without his presence, no matter the familial connection. If Uncle still wants to discuss the harem, then we can take this opportunity to prepare a well-thought argument for when Wangji returns.”

Lan Qiren tugged on his beard for a few moments before heaving a sigh, “I suppose that is only proper.” He stood up, giving a small bow as he turned to leave, “I will handle those delegates for the time being. Xichen, you’ve been working hard. Take a rest.”

Lan Xichen bowed with a grateful smile, knocking his head tiredly on the table once the footsteps faded. Ah, how difficult. Taking a deep breath, Lan Xichen raised his head and glanced at all the paperwork on his desk in despair.

How can he take a break now?

Lan Xichen let his forehead drop back onto the table with a mournful groan.

Wangji, when will you come back?

 

A clamor rose in the throne room as Third Shidi burst through the doors to where the Jiang Royal family sat eating dinner, the Inner circle filing in after him. Jiang Fengmian creased his brow at the late request at his stony expression, Jiang Yanli staring worriedly at the tears and bloodstains lining his uniform.

Kneeling with a formal bow, Third Shidi gave his report.

With each word, the temperature in the room dropped. Third Shidi kept a carefully neutral face as he watched everyone’s expressions for any cracks.

Madam Yu lashed her whip with a glare as he finished, “To attack Yunmeng soldiers just like that and trust a Lan…! And you call yourself a Jiang?!”

Third Shidi sent her deadpan look from the side, “Um, actually I don’t. That’s kind of the point.”

While she froze from outrage, Jiang Fengmian stepped forward with his face pinched in quiet distress, “If that was just a day ago, how did you get back so fast?”

Third Shidi’s eye glinted, “We took the rapids.”

Jiang Cheng choked in disbelief, “The rapids?! You mean those rocky dangerous whitewater rapids that kill people?!”

Third Shidi narrowed his eyes and held up his chin, “And how many of those people were trained by the General?”

A vein popped on Jiang Cheng’s forehead, “That’s missing the point!”

Jiang Yanli stepped in before an argument started, hands twisting nervously with wide eyes, “How was A-Xian? Is he okay?”

That’s a long distance to travel on foot in just a few days, nevermind the ambush.

Third Shidi stayed quiet for a moment, “...He was in pretty bad shape. Barely standing and last I saw he’d passed out on that Gusu guard’s horse.”

The room went silent, even Jiang Cheng’s scowl twisting into worry. 

Wei Wuxian wouldn’t go down even if he died.

Wen Qing stepped forward with a furrowed brow, “Tell me about his condition.”

Third Shidi took a deep breath as he recounted everything with as much detail as he could, down to the context clues he gleaned from the battlefield. By the time he finished Jiang Yanli had her hands slapped over her mouth in horror as both Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing cursed.

Third Shidi heaved a sigh, “He could have kept going, but it’s for the best that he didn’t and got some rest. Say what you want, but that Gusu guy really went out of his way to tell all the assassins to fuck off. Got himself injured to protect the General too. And if anything, General has keen instincts. If he trusts the bastard, then so do I.”

Jiang Cheng glared, “Trust him? He cut down dozens of Yunmeng troops as soon as he saw them!”

MianMian Jabbed a finger at him, “Well, why were they trying to kill Wei Wuxian?”

Jiang Cheng choked, glaring at the ground. Those bastards…

Jiang Fengmian’s eyes frosted over, “If they are in fact from Lotus Pier, we have a special room to… host traitors. Are there any left?”

Third Shidi nodded, “They’re already being interrogated by the other Shidi. I can take you there, if the King wishes.”

Jiang Fengmian nodded, dismissing the others in the room to follow the man out.

“Wait!” Jiang Yanli ran up to Third Shidi, stumbling in her haste as she clasped her hands tightly, “...What does A-Xian think? Does he believe he was betrayed?”

Third Shidi pursed his lips with a deep breath, “I don’t know. But, it wouldn’t be the first time.”

Jiang Yanli bit her lip as she looked down, Third Shidi giving her shoulder a comforting squeeze before he left.

The others slowly filed out of the room, Jiang Yanli standing frozen with hands clasped so tightly they were trembling. Jiang Cheng stood awkwardly next to her, trying for confidence through his own worried expression, “A-Jie, this is Wei Wuxian we’re talking about. He’s been through worse. He’ll be fine.”

She didn’t look up, “Will his heart be fine?”

Jiang Cheng flinched, clicking his tongue as he wished to follow his father to kick the crap out of whatever bastard survived. He looked at her and glared at the ground, “No matter what, I won’t let this slide.”

Then he dismissed himself when Wen Qing angrily called him over to discuss the plans moving forward.

Jiang Yanli stood biting her lip. No matter how she thinks about it, in some way at one point, someone had to betray them. And now her XianXian is suffering in some forest thinking he’d been abandoned after everything he did for them. And that might be the last he ever sees of a Yunmeng uniform before he gets locked up in the harem.

A quiet pair of boots shuffled into her view, Jiang Yanli raising her eyes to meet the soft understanding teal of Wen Ning’s and he smiled sadly at her, “Princess… has had a long day. How about some tea?”

Jiang Yanli blinked, letting Wen Ning lead her into another room. She sat quietly staring at her lap as he set a cup on the table. Jiang Yanli absently took a sip, coughing at the spice coating her mouth as she whipped around to see Wen Ning’s apologetic smile, “It’s a blend my grandmother made. Young Master would always drink it when he needed a change of pace.”

Jiang Yanli looked down at the spilled liquid sadly. A-Xian mentioned this blend. He didn’t have much left and she wasted it…

“Young Master Wei is not upset.”

Jiang Yanli whipped her head up. Wen Ning smiled wryly, “For all its faults, Young Master Wei loves Lotus Pier. And of all people, he would never blame everyone for one group’s actions.” He took out a cloth to clean the spill, “Please cheer up, Princess. Young Master Wei is the strongest person I know. Have faith in him.”

Jiang Yanli was quiet for a moment before releasing a soft breath, “Thank you, Young Master Wen.”

No matter how hurt or how beaten down, her A-Xian always found a way to bounce back stronger than before. She could always count on him.

Jiang Yanli stood up with a tired smile, “If you don’t mind, could Young Master Wen show me how to brew your grandmother’s tea?”

Wen Ning nodded swiftly, taking her over to the cupboard. Jiang Yanli stood close to him as Wen Ning focused on showing the proper technique for this spiced blend. Jiang Yanli smiled softly as she hovered over his shoulder.

But that’s not fair to A-Xian. 

She slid her hand into his sash and smoothly switched their compasses.

After sharing the tea with Wen Ning, Jiang Yanli thanked him and retired for the night. After her servants left to give her some peace, Jiang Yanli’s face fell as she took out the compass. 

It didn’t take long after word of A-Xian’s disappearance got around for her and A-Cheng to realize they’d been duped. Suibian could only offer her a tired smile when they followed the compass to his room, the bags under his eyes too dark to be upset with. 

Jiang Yanli’s bit her lip, eyebrows furrowed in worry as she read the compass. A-Xian was way off course…

She walked over to her closet, grabbing the travel robes she wore when riding horses with her brothers. Finding her boots, Jiang Yanli opened the secret compartment to take out her emergency evacuation bag, folding everything neatly inside.

Tying her sword to her back under her thickest cloak, Jiang Yanli blew out the candles in her room and quietly opened her window, shutting it softly behind her as she walked into a secret tunnel to the side. After the Sunshot Campaign, A-Xian made sure everyone knew the escape routes from their rooms just in case something were to happen.

A-Xian was always protecting them.

Jiang Yanli bit her lip as she smiled at the winter stable guards, explaining that she wanted to groom her horses’ manes and dress them up a bit to relieve some stress. The guards laughed as they took in her large bag, “Just a bit, huh?”

Jiang Yanli giggled with a light bow, the friction exposing her royal robes. She shivered in the wind as the guards hurried her inside.

Jiang Yanli walked calmly to her fastest horse, glancing over her shoulder to make sure she wasn’t being watched. Shutting the stable door behind her Jiang Yanli stripped off her flowing robes, throwing on her rider’s dress without hesitation. With her boots taken out, Jiang Yanli could compress the bag on her back, the thick fur hiding the remaining bulge as she walked her horse over to the front gates with a small smile, “I think a light ride might be better after all.”

The guards looked at the downpour outside, turning back with worry, “Princess, perhaps this isn’t the best weather with how you’re dressed…”

Jiang Yanli smiled as she held the reins, “No need to worry, I fastened my cloak properly this time. I’d rather not be in the rain either so I won’t be long.”

The guards looked at each other with a helpless smile as they acquiesced.

Jiang Yanli walked her horse out gently until she was out of sight, then quickly lept onto its back and charged forward down the secret path they used as children.

Jiang Yanli pursed her lips as the rain whipped against her face.

It’s not fair to always put the burden on A-Xian’s shoulders. 

This time, Shijie will protect you.

Chapter Text

The splash of hooves echoed softly through the muddy trail as Jiang Yanli slowed to a halt under a ledge for cover. Sliding off her horse, she struggled to maintain her balance as she panted softly.

She had never ridden that far by herself before.

She patted her horse’s head in thanks as she grabbed her pack and found a relatively clean rock to crash onto. Grabbing her flask, Jiang Yanli took a large swig that left her coughing as she leaned against the stone. She never thought she could get so thirsty in the rain.

But at least she made good progress.

Jiang Yanli took out her compass with furrowed brows. No matter how far she travels or which way she turns, the compass stays stubbornly pointed to one spot. It’s not like A-Xian to sit still at a time like this, especially if that Lan person’s horse is as fast as Third Shidi said it was. 

Something must be wrong.

Jiang Yanli bit her lip as she looked at the dimming light. It was already so dark because of the storm, but now it’s getting even worse. While she can still see fine, if she skips the coming town it’ll be pitch black before she finds another one. She’ll have to find a place to stay the night.

Jiang Yanli sighed as she took out her polished bronze mirror from the travel bag. Staring back was the delicate face of a young lady wearing Lotus Pier’s special water-proof makeup. 

She didn’t have her brothers’ skills with the sword or knowledge of survival. She was just a sheltered princess raised in a palace, who only heard of the horrors of war from the safety of a guarded camp.

Jiang Yanli pursed her lips as she took out her hair pins, black locks spilling onto her shoulders

But that didn’t mean she was helpless.

Jiang Yanli set her mirror on a small jut in the rock wall as she grabbed a small vial of oil from her bag. Rubbing the oil all over her face, Jiang Yanli grabbed the shawl from her palace robes and scrubbed the makeup away. Tearing a strip off the clean half with her teeth, Jiang Yanli tied her hair up into a man’s bun.

Looking at the ruined fabric, she folded what was left of the shawl to hide the stain and swallowed. Jiang Yanli looked around for a moment at the open forest, shuffling her feet as she took a deep breath and undressed her top. Quickly wrapping the shawl around her chest tightly, Jiang Yanli threw her clothes back on, ruffling the over robes to seem even looser.

With a harsh ruffle of her bangs, the person staring back at her in the mirror now resembled a common, albeit delicate, boy. Not a peasant, but no one worth notice. 

She nodded approvingly.

While A-Xian and A-Cheng always sing praises about her beauty, Jiang Yanli had never much cared for a bombastic appearance. She’s seen how hard it could be for a divine beauty like A-Xian to avoid unwanted attention. To gain recognition without rumor. To be left alone.

Sometimes, especially during her engagement, she did want that kind of head-turning allure. But she’s quickly reminded how little freedom she would have left when everyone knows who you are no matter what you do. With her skill, she would never make it to A-Xian if she was as pretty as him.

She would choose freedom over beauty any day.

Packing everything into her bag, Jiang Yanli set off to the nearest town.

It didn’t take more than an hour for her to enter the village gates, dismounting her horse to lead them to the nearest inn. She doesn’t have the skill to maneuver through the forest, so Jiang Yanli has to follow the common roads. Luckily, that’s where most travel stops are located.

She fastened her horse’s reins to a pole with a final pat on its neck as she made her way to the front desk. She glanced around worriedly at the swathes of people. It’s so crowded…

Jiang Yanli flinched when the receptionist smiled and assured her that they had a room available. Maintaining her smile, she quietly thanked her and went upstairs to collapse onto her bed. She threw an arm over her eyes with a deep sigh as she rested. She felt tired enough to fall asleep right now. Jiang Yanli felt her eyes slowly shut as darkness blotted her field of vision when her stomach growled. She froze, cheeks flushing as she looked around the room even though no one was there. Ah. She forgot to ask if they offered meals.

With a deep sigh, Jiang Yanli enjoyed one last moment of rest before forcing herself up to go down to the receptionist.

Blinking at the empty desk, Jiang Yanli’s ears perked at the sound of bickering. Biting her lip for a moment, she followed into the back, sticking her head in to see the receptionist sigh in frustration down at a child shuffling his feet with a guilty expression as what looked to be the cook held a broken pan.

The receptionist perked as she noticed her, quickly stepping in front of the child as she bowed apologetically, “This customer, did we disturb your rest? Our apologies.”

Jiang Yanli bowed lightly with a smile as she deepened her voice, “No need, I just forgot to ask if you offered dinner.”

“Of course, we offer a full service!” The receptionist’s lip twitched as she glanced back at the child, “In fact, we would normally have dinner ready to be served by now, wouldn’t we A-Chin?”

The child bowed to Jiang Yanli deeply, “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry!”

The receptionist sighed as she gestured to the two others, “This is my husband, the chef, and this brat is my spawn. Despite my husband’s talent in the kitchen, this brat can’t even boil water properly.”

The child pouted, “I got it from you!”

A vein popped on her forehead, “Why you little—!” She ground her knuckles into his forehead before flinching as she realized Jiang Yanli was still there and composign herself with a cough, “I am simply more suited to customer service.”

Jiang Yanli giggled for a moment before catching herself and chuckling instead, “You have a lovely family ma’am. By your words, are we still having dinner tonight?”

The chef stepped up with a wry grin, “Of course, sir. As soon as I get this pan replaced at the shop I’ll whip up something tasty in a flash!”

Jiang Yanli paused. There’s a store open this late that sells pans? She thought of her collection back home and how she had to leave it all behind. Her luggage is pretty sparse. It doesn’t feel right to not have a pan within reach.

...

A-Xian must not have had a decent meal in days.

Jiang Yanli smiled at the chef, “Do you mind if I come with you?”

The trip to the store was short but no less uncomfortable under the pouring rain. Jiang Yanli marveled at the general store bustling with people even in this late hour, a sense of pride bubbling in her chest that Lotus Pier’s night market culture extends even to these little corners of life. 

As the chef made his purchase, Jiang Yanli caught sight of a banner behind the counter. Eyes widening, she blinked at the proud painting of the Wei faction’s mark on full display. 

“Something wrong with that banner, Young Master?”

Jiang Yanli flinched, turning to face the old man eying her defensively from behind the counter. She smiled, “Ah, I was just wondering if these banners are for sale?”

A-Xian is so popular! To have this much support so close to Lotus Pier, he won’t believe her without proof. 

The old man relaxed with a proud huff, “Not yet, but it’s only a matter of time. I got this made by a local artist, you can commision him if you want one.”

Jiang Yanli chuckled, “I’m in a rush, so unfortunately I’ll have to settle for just a pan.”

Perhaps she shouldn’t be so happy to see her bloodline’s direct competitor. Mother would be furious. But Jiang Yanli can’t help the pride and relief in her heart at knowing her brother is getting the recognition he deserves, even if it’s not in the court.

With a hum, Jiang Yanli picked out a nice cast iron pan.

The old man raised an eyebrow at her, namely at her thin wrists and delicate face, “You’re travelling pretty light there Young Master. You sure you need something like this to add to your load?”

Jiang Yanli smiled, “It’s a hobby.”

As they walked back to the inn, the chef turned to her with a wry smile, “Sorry about the old man. Sometimes we get travellers from the Pier who get it a tizzy over that banner. Honestly, it’s pretty annoying for everyone.”

Jiang Yanli blinked at him, “Are there many Wei faction supporters in this town?”

The chef rubbed his neck with a sigh, “Well, most of us were kids when trouble in the court began. The old folks have lived a lot longer in this kingdom than we have, so they know a thing or two about what it’s like here. If they trust the General, there’s bound to be a reason.”

Jinag Yanli looked down with a smile, “He always tried his best.”

The chef hummed to himself, “If the stories are true, then he tries way harder than his best.”

Jiang Yanli didn’t respond.

After a restless night staring at the ceiling, she set off at dawn.

 

Jiang Yanli stared blankly at the dirty robe behind the inn counter. 

A black cloak laid bunched up in a corner, its once vibrant red trim dulled with patches of mud. The innkeeper looked behind and hid the cloak with an embarrassed bow, “Sorry about that sir, a customer left it behind without notice. ”

Jiang Yanli whipped to face her, “Was it a tall man with black and red clothes, handsome but weathered by the storm?”

The innkeeper blinked and nodded with a smile on her face, “That customer paid in advance yet suddenly disappeared before dinner! All that was left was the cloak. We kept his room for the night in case he came back, but he never did.”

Jiang Yanli bit her lip as she pointed to the fabric, “Can I have it? That cloak belongs to someone I know.”

The innkeeper twisted her hands with a complicated expression.

Jiang Yanli grabbed her money pouch, “I can pay for it. Please.”

The innkeeper hurriedly stopped her and handed over the cloak, “Sorry it’s so dirty. We didn’t recognize the material, so didn’t dare wash it in case it got ruined. It looks expensive…”

After retiring to her room Jiang Yanli looked at the cloak in her hands quietly, fingers slowly clenching around the fabric.

 

Jinag Yanli grit her teeth as she charged down the road.

She understood now why A-Xian insisted on patrolling personally when he could. In just a few days she had learned so much about Yunmeng’s situation that she never expected from living in the court. In the most recent town, she had even seen a local lord arguing with a merchant over the markup of his goods for the Wei Faction Guarantee. 

At first she thought someone was taking advantage of A-Xian’s name for profit, but as they argued she learned how complicated the situation really was.

A-Xian’s territory was the safest and had a secure route straight to the ports. But it was a long route with several tolls to fund the security costs. While they could take any other route, as many do, that cargo was liable to getting caught in the crossfires of war.

Pay more and wait longer for a guaranteed product, or risk paying but not receiving a product at all.

It didn’t make sense to her. Why was the Wei faction supposed to fund their own security? There should be a budget, especially if it’s so valuable! And if A-Xian’s security methods are more effective, why aren’t they being implemented everywhere?

It’s a mess.

And it’s in this mess that she finally understood what it meant to have the “support of the people.”

She had met many people. Pro-Jiang, pro-Wei, Pro-other, and even neutrals. But what the vast majority had in common was their trust in A-Xian’s ability and dedication. If he told the merchant’s guild not to use an important road for 3 weeks, they wouldn’t question it anymore.

Jiang Yanli bit her lip.

She came to understand A-Xian’s decision that night. Her only value is being her parents’ daughter. No one has any faith in her, and she can’t convince anyone to trust her. But if A-Xian says he’s ending the war with this treaty and they can finally have peace with the people of Gusu, Yunmeng’s citizens will believe him.

However, if the royal family keeps fighting him then the people will think they married A-Xian off to get rid of the competition. It would fracture the country further.

She closed her eyes and shook her head as she slowed her horse to enter the canopy of trees to rest.

Jiang Yanli slid off her horse and paced back and forth with clenched hands. She clenched her eyes so tight it hurt, wishing she had just stayed home so she wouldn’t know.

A-Xian was right. He needs to go to Gusu. 

It has to be him. It can only be him.

She stopped after a moment, slapping her cheeks. 

This was A-Xian she was talking about. He must have a plan. He just kept quiet because he couldn’t risk it getting leaked out.

Jiang Yanli grabbed the freshly washed cloak, thumbing the hem gently.

And clearly he was right, if the enemy could gather an army against him as soon as they learned of his disappearance.

In fact, if the emperor was as honorable as A-Xian said, then Gusu may be the better option. She doesn’t want to cage him, but with the situation at Lotus Pier the Cloud Recesses may be the only safe place left for now.

And it’s not like she’ll let them isolate him either. The Cloud Recesses are not an impenetrable fortress. They may think no one is stupid enough to try to scale a mountain for a visit but they vastly overestimate the common sense of a Lotus Pier child.

Whatever A-Xian’s plan is, Jiang Yanli must let him know she’s here to help. If any complications arise or the court stalls, then Jiang Yanli can use her royal status to act as a representative of the kingdom to accept the proposal on their behalf.

She looked at Wen Ning’s compass with a frown.

But she must find him quickly, before A-Xian moves again.

He has to know he’s not alone in this.

Jiang Yanli held her breath as she heard hooves pass by from the road. After a few moments of silence, she reached into her bag and pulled out a finely painted map riddled with Wei Wuxian’s notes from his travels. Each of them had one, and he made sure they were kept up to date.

She can’t keep taking the main roads, they’re too slow and risky. There must be some footpaths or local trails that connect somehow!

Finding a route that branched off in just a few miles, Jiang Yanli quickly hopped back on her horse and charged onto the main road. She flinched when another traveller passed by, unable to hear them over the splashing of the others on the road. Her heart pounded as she carefully kept the hood of her cloak over her face. At least once she gets on the smaller roads she can relax. It’s surprisingly stressful to stay so on guard with all these people around her.

Jiang Yanli paused.

She carefully looked behind to see a couple riders farther down the road and whipped back to look forward as a chill kret up her spine.

When did they get there?

The roads have been rather empty aside from carriages these past few days. Why were there two open riders behind her? She swallowed.

The guys who passed her earlier were also open riders.

Heart pounding loudly in her ears, Jiang Yanli was now keenly aware of how the two were slowly inching closer. She looked down the road for any sign of an exit when she sucked in a sharp breath.

There were two dots in the distance. The guys from earlier.

They had passed her a long time ago, there’s no way they should be visible let alone growing bigger.

They were slowing down.

Jiang Yanli quietly moved to grip her sword as the men from behind her came up to ride next to her. Taking a deep breath, Jinag Yanli offered a prayer. 

I’m so sorry!

Whipping out her sword, she stabbed the horse of the guy on her right and sent him crashing into the ground.

Biting her lip, she quickly darted her horse to the side as the other guy swiped at her. She glared as she heard the pained shouting of the man on the ground.

But I’m not sorry to you! This is payback for A-Xian!

The guys from up ahead heard the commotion and gave up any pretense as they turned to run right at her. She didn’t have long before they arrived.

Jiang Yanli yelped as an arrow whizzed by her leg when the man behind her tried to shoot at her horse. Her vision rocked as she was thrown from side to side struggling to avoid the arrows.

Hearing a commotion up ahead she looked forward to find the world spinning as she tumbled off her horse, whipping her head back to see a weighted net wrapped around her horse’s legs as it struggled to get up. She quickly crawled up as another net was launched her way. Clenching her sword in a white-knuckled grip, Jiang Yanli screamed as she ran towards the archer and leapt to the side, blade tearing through the horse’s leg as it tumbled down.

Her heart pounded in her ears as she panted, breaths growing harsher as the man grabbed his sword and swung at her. Jiang Yanli threw herself to the side, desperately remembering her sword training with growing hysterics as she looked for any opening.

A-Xian always said the best time to attack was after the enemy’s strike.

Watch out for the strike.

Watch out for the strike.

Watch out for the strike, watchoutforthestrike, watchoutforthestrike , WATCHOUTFORTHESTRIKE!!!

As she ducked under the sword Jiang Yanli screamed, lunging forward with clenched eyes as she felt a sickening squelch. Cracking open her eyes, Jiang Yanli found her sword lodged in the man’s chest. Her shoulders slumped with a shaky breath, head whipping back when she heard splashing to find a dark looming figure with his sword raised. Grabbing her sword on instinct, Jiang Yanli whimpered when she found it stuck firmly in that man’s flesh. Her eyes widened as the sword came down.

This was a mistake. She should have just stuck to what she’s good at.

“MAIDEN JIANG!!!”

Grabbing the handle in her bag, Jiang Yanli drew out her pan and smashed it into the man’s skull with a loud crack. The forest was silent for a moment as he slumped down, a man in gold standing behind him with his sword raised to strike.

Jin Zixuan blinked as the assassin’s limp body crashed to the floor.

Jiang Yanli looked at the pan with a smile, “Cast iron is a girl’s best friend.” 

Glancing up, her eyes widened, “Crown Prince Jin?!”

Seeing his sword raised, Jiang Yanli realized there were supposed to be two men up front. She looked around, squinting her eyes to find two horses and another body off in the distance.

Then that commotion from earlier was…!

Jiang Yanli scrunched her eyebrows, “But why is Your Highness here?”

Jin Zixuan snapped out of his daze and quickly crossed his arms in a haughty pose as he cleared his throat, “My mother made me come find you.”

Find her? She hasn’t been gone long enough for Lanling to know.

Jin Zixuan huffed, “As soon as she got Madam Yu’s letter about sending you to marry the emperor before Wei Wuxian reached Gusu, she went ballistic and threw me out.”

Jiang Yanli frowned. Mother...

She bowed respectfully, “Thank you for your assistance, Your Highness, but that won’t be necessary. It’s alright, you can return home.”

“She’ll kill me. I will die.”

Jiang Yanli gave a small awkward laugh, “I’m sure she didn’t mean it, you are the crown prince.” she looked around confused, “And where is Your Highness’s guard?”

Jin Zixuan’s eye twitched, “She said how can I protect a country if I can’t even protect one girl.”

Jiang Yanli blinked with a strangled smile. To send your own crown prince alone into enemy territory because of a failed engagement…

Jin Zixuan raised his chin with narrowed eyes as he looked her up and down, “Rather, where is your guard? Aren’t you supposed to be a bride? Where’s your carriage and why are you dressed like some peasant man?”

These are not peasant clothes, thank you very much.

Jiang Yanli looked away to help untie her horse’s legs, “It’s complicated.”

Jin Zixuan huffed, “And I’m not stupid, I can understand these things.”

Jiang Yanli sent him a side glance, “It’s not a matter of intelligence, it’s a matter of not being your business.”

Jin Zixuan sputtered as Jiang Yanli freed her horse with a smile, turning to face her embedded sword. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed the handle and placed a hesitant foot on the man’s chest. She flinched as a hand grabbed her wrist and Jin Zixuan frowned at her, “Stop, this is no job for a lady.”

Moving her hand away, Jin Zixuan tugged the sword out with a squelch. Jiang Yanli flinched.

Jin Zixuan flicked the blood off in the rain and turned to give back her sword with his chin raised. Jiang Yanli’s eyes flicked down to her wrist in his grasp and Jin Zixuan flinched as he whipped his hand back and turned away while holding her sword out. Jiang Yanli accepted it with a quiet thanks.

They stood silently in the rain for a moment.

Jiang Yanli turned around, “Then I will be on my way, Your Highness.”

Jin Zixuan clenched his hand as he narrowed his eyes at her, “Give it up.”

Jiang Yanli paused.

“That guy doesn’t like to mince words. If he demands Wei Wuxian, then he expects Wei Wuxian.” Jin Zixuan huffed as he threw his hand out, “That Lan Wangji has droves of beauties throwing themselves at his feet, yet he’d never spared them a glance. When I heard he proposed a marriage, I thought I was having a fever dream from a poisoned drink. You think your status holds any value in his eyes?”

He shooed his hand at her, “Now go on back to Lotus Pier where you belong.”

Jiang Yanli stood still for a moment before calmly turning around to face him, “Your Highness, I am very well aware that there is nothing about me to be satisfied with.”

Jin Zixuan flinched.

Jiang Yanli spoke calmly, “I hold no fantasy about matching A-Xian’s value in the emperor’s eyes. I know my place and I know my worth, and neither are very high despite my blood.”

Jinag Yanli closed her eyes with a long breath, “That is not the issue here.”

Opening her eyes, Jiang Yanli looked at her hands, “I made a mistake. A-Xian always said my greatest strength was my ability to listen and understand, but I didn’t listen at all. Now he’s out there injured with a stranger, believing he’s all alone and will never see his family again.” She clenched her hands, “I understand now and plan to help him go to Gusu.”

She whipped her head up, narrowed eyes glinting with steel, “I will find my brother.”

Without another word, Jiang Yanli swiftly turned around and mounted her horse. 

Jin Zixuan blinked wide-eyed for a moment before biting his lip looking away, “...You’re still a princess. Have some pride in your status.”

Jiang Yanli didn’t look back as she heard him walk away. She secured her bag and grabbed the reins, trotting carefully around the bodies as she reoriented herself. At the sound of hooves she grabbed her sword and blinked at the sight of gold as she saw Jin Zixuan scowl from atop his horse.

Jin Zixuan looked away, “You need someone to prote—” He looked at the men on the floor and cleared his throat, “—escort you on your journey.”

Jiang Yanli furrowed her brows. For all his help Young Master Jin was still technically their enemy, and she didn’t know who attacked A-Xian. Jiang Yanli looked at him, “Why is Your Highness concerned with my journey?”

Jin Zixuan crossed his arms, “I would also rather get Wei Wuxian to Gusu.”

Jiang Yanli blinked, “You want the treaty to go through.”

Jin Zixuan narrowed his eyes and clicked his tongue, “I don’t want to inherit a war or a trade crisis.”

Jin Yanli’s expression smoothed, “...Your Highness wishes to end the war so Yunmeng will reopen its ports to Lanling.”

Jin Zixuan was quiet for a moment as he rode his horse up to hers, “...So are we going or will we just stay in the rain all day?"

Jiang Yanli pursed her lips. Young Master Jin has never participated in the war, and from what she’s heard has even actively refused to join. As important as those ports were for Lanling, Yunmeng is not much better off. This could help their post-war relations, especially once Young Master Jin succeeds the throne. 

Jiang Yanli bit her lip and looked down. Their engagement fell through, but maybe they could marry another noble Jiang woman to him.

Besides, if he tries to hurt A-Xian, she will just…

Jiang Yanli’s hands trembled as she held her sword.

She will…

“Do you swear you will not hurt my brother?”

Jin Zixuan scoffed, “Why would I risk war with Yunmeng and Gusu?”

Jiang Yanli clenched her eyes with a sharp breath and turned to face forward, “It’s getting late. We should cover as much ground as possible before we need to find an inn. Knowing A-Xian, there’s not much time until he moves.”

Jin Zixuan rode next to her, scowling at the road for a few minutes before peeking over, “Are you injured?”

Jiang Yanli’s cheeks flushed before she shook her head with a sigh and smiled, “Just a few bruises.”

Jin Zixuan clicked his tongue, “A lady’s skin is as delicate as a flower petal. You need to get that treated before it affects your appearance.”

Jiang Yanli chuckled as she rode ahead, “My appearance was never my strong suit.”

Jin Zixuan flinched and followed behind quietly as they turned down the smaller path toward Qishan.

 

Wind rustled the canopy of trees, the emperor’s eyes cracking open as he stared at the cave ceiling with a sigh. He cradled his sleeping empress tightly as his shoulder slumped.

Today was the day.

The raging storm had finally lightened to a simple rain. With Wen Qing’s medicine healing their most pressing injuries there was no longer a reason to stay in this cave.

It was time to go to Gusu.

They had spent a blissful week in this cave in rustic serenity. The simplicity of their rudimentary lifestyle had been more calming than his cleanly highborn nature had expected. He had grown used to their routine. Their simple, lovely routine.

Cooking meals for one another.

Sharing stories.

Preparing for bed together.

The emperor had imagined wild adventures and crazy shenanigans to burst into his life with Wei Ying’s presence. He had spent so many nights wondering how to please such a lively and creative person.

He had never expected their happiest moments would be the quiet ones.

Stepping out of this cave brings them one step closer to marriage, to a proper home with good food and everything Wei Ying deserves.

Lan Wangji stares at the ceiling quietly.

To spend a week living in squalor, Uncle would be horrified if he ever learned of it. This was no way for an emperor to live, it’s downright scandalous.

Lan Wangji glanced around in the dark of pre-dawn. At their sparse pile of firewood. At their makeshift cooking pit. Their little camp with scraps of fabric lining the dirty floor like rugs. 

At the little traces of them.

Lan Zhan and Wei Ying.

Lan Wangji closed his eyes and curled tightly around his empress.

 

It was quiet as they packed the last of their belongings.

Wei Wuxian glanced at Lan Zhan out of the corner of his eye before focusing on folding their dirty fabrics in one bundle. He had woken up in the royal’s arms for the first time since the medicine incident, Lan Zhan having woken up before him every day since. Wei Wuxian could only blink at him, cheeks flushing in the darkness at the closeness of their breath. Somehow, Lan Zhan did not get embarrassed. He just looked at him quietly. 

Giving one last look around the area, Wei Wuxian tied the bundle with the rest of Judgement’s cargo and followed Lan Zhan out to the cave entrance. Fastening the fox fur cloak around his shoulders, Wei Wuxian gripped the saddle to hop on when a hand closed around his wrist. Wei Wuxian blinked and turned to find Lan Zhan staring at him. 

Wei Wuxian startled and let go, “Ah, sorry, it’s your horse after all.”

Then Wei Wuxian paused. How were they supposed to ride together on one horse when they’re both conscious this time?! 

Wei Wuxian smiled at him, “Lan Zhan, it’s best if I sit up front so we can both see the road, since you’re taller than me.”

Lan Wangji looked away, “...Need my arms free to manage the reins.”

He had already endured sleeping pressed together. To have his empress sliding and bouncing and grinding against his lap for the duration of their journey would be too much. Even a god of abstinence does not have that much patience!

A drop of sweat ran down Wei Wuxian’s temple, “You had no problems holding me before, and I was completely unconscious!”

Pressing up against his broad muscular back in a tight embrace as his face is buried in that intoxicating sandalwood scent… Lan Zhan, I haven’t had the chance to jack off in almost two weeks, please have some mercy on me!

Judgement watched on with lidded eyes as the two tried to figure out how to sit together on the saddle without causing an incident. 

Oi, what do you plan on doing on my back?

In the end, Lan Wangji surrendered at the reminder of Wei Wuxian’s remaining injuries. He could never risk Wei Ying’s safety for his own comfort. He’ll just think of it as an exercise in restraint.

He quickly realized his mistake when Wei Ying wriggled around and leaned against him to get comfortable.

Ah, this was so much easier when you were unconscious.

Judgement snorted.

Taking a deep breath, Lan Wangji gave one last look at the cave they called home, now once again devoid of any life. He heard a sigh from below, looking down to find Wei Ying smiling sadly in the same direction, “You know, it was dirty and dark, but I’m going to miss our cave.”

Lan Wangji buried his face in one hand. Our cave!!! Wei Ying!!!

“Mn.”

With a final quiet moment they went on their way.

They kept their eyes peeled for any enemies but the forest was calm with only the sound of gentle rain. 

Lan Wangji blinked as he noticed Wei Ying glancing at the mountains more than usual, leaning down to whisper, “Is something there?”

Wei Wuxian startled at the hot puff of air against his ear and lightly shook his head, “No, just thinking about something.”

Lan Wangji glanced down, “Must be important, to distract Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian softly laughed and waved him off, “It’s nothing, nothing. Let’s just focus on getting to Gusu.”

Lan Wangji pursed his lips for a moment before settling his chin on Wei Wuxian’s head as he leaned his full body weight forward. Wei Wuxian grunted, flailing a bit as he was pushed down, “Lan Zhan, what are you doing?!”

Lan Wangji huffed, “Nothing. Wei Ying should focus on Gusu.” as he leaned even more forward.

Wei Wuxian grunted as he found himself powerless to push back, “Okay, fine fine! I was just thinking about my people in Old Qishan!”

Lan Wangji took off some force as he blinked, “Wei Ying’s people?”

Wei Wuxian huffed, “Part of Yunmeng’s share of Qishan land belongs to me in all but writing. Even the officials there follow my word over Uncle Jiang’s or Madam Yu’s, and it’s defended solely by my faction. When I could, I would split my time between there and Yiling, but when I knew I was going to lose Yiling I moved as many as I could to the Nightless City. It’s… been some time since I last visited.” Wei Wuxian looked ahead quietly, “And now I might never get to see them again.”

Lan Wangji clenched his grip on the reins, “...Wei Ying has many important people.”

Wei Wuxian chuckled softly, “I guess.” Then his eyes hardened, “So it’s all the more important that this marriage goes through. Just because it’s my territory doesn’t exempt it from the war. My people have just done a good job keeping it relatively safe. If there was any more merit to taking that land than just pissing me off, it would’ve been a prime warzone like during the Sunshot Campaign.”

Lan Wangji was silent as he glanced at the mountains before looking forward with steel in his eyes. No matter what he will take Wei Ying around to all of his stations after he settles into the Cloud Recesses. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, the emperor will find some excuse to make the time. Maybe a diplomatic pilgrimage around Yunmeng to mend relations and verify the marriage, any flowery language that would work. Brother would know what to say.

And then he’ll make sure that Wei Ying never feels distant from his people again.

It took a few hours to exit the mountain range back onto a road.

Wei Wuxian yawned and buried his back further into Lan Zhan’s chest, “Ah ah, so nice, so comfy. Lan Zhan’s muscles are so hard but so warm. Lan Zhan is really missing out, hihi!”

Lan Wangji kept carefully still, eyes widening as something else began to get hard.

Wei Ying!

Lan Wangji ran through the rules at lightspeed, regulating his breathing to keep himself composed as he internally panicked.

It wasn’t working.

Oh nonono, any more and it will reach Wei Ying!

Lan Wangji thrashed his head around as he thought of anything, anything at all!

Training, paperwork, diplomatic meetings!

Nonono, it’s almost there!

He thought on Uncle in the cold springs.

Lan Wangji breathed a sigh of relief. Ah, there we go…

Then he looked down with narrowed eyes as he bit his lip and pinched Wei Ying’s side. 

Wei Wuxian squeaked.

They both froze. 

Wei Wuxian slowly turned around with a trembling smile as his face flushed, “Um, Your Highness, what was that for?”

Lan Wangji looked at him intently as his hand hovered over that spot, “Settle down.”

Wei Wuxian quickly covered that spot with his hand. Lan Wangji quickly reached for his other side and Wei Wuxian squeaked again, covering that spot with his other hand, “No, Lan Zhan, I’m sensitive!”

Lan Wangji lowered his hands quietly as Wei Wuxian breathed a sigh of relief, before taking the chance to pinch his sides again as Wei Wuxian knocked his head back against his chest, “Lan Zhan, you bully!”

Wei Ying did not care about my sensitive spot!

He kept pinching no matter how much Wei Wuxian squirmed. With a pout Wei Wuxian turned and widened his eyes. Lan Wangji felt his heart stutter at their closeness when Wei Ying pushed him as a sharp sting ran along his shoulder.

Lan Wangji whipped his head down to see a tear in his robes as they slowly colored red and steeled his eyes as he grabbed his sword. 

Wei Wuxian cursed as he turned back around and unsheathed his own sword. 

Idiot!

How could he be so careless? Just a few days in that cave and he forgets the situation?! They’ve been talking for hours, who knows when the assassins found them!

Wei Wuxian took stock of all the bows he could see as the enemy cavalry appeared when Judgement suddenly lunged forward, sending him crashing into Lan Zhan’s chest as he called for full speed.

Wei Wuxian rubbed his head, “What—”

Lan Wangji leaned down to his ear, “We will only exhaust ourselves, better to escape.”

Wei Wuxian grimaced, “They were a neverending onslaught, but now they’ll be on our ass for the rest of the journey!”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, “We can outrun them.”

Wei Wuxian frowned, “We have to rest sometime. You think we can lose them in a city on the way if we disguise ourselves in a caravan?” he grabbed one of his compasses and quickly glanced before shoving it back in his sleeves, “There should be a decent sized one a few hours away.”

Lan Wangji thought for a moment with a furrowed brow, “...We can make it.”

Wei Wuxian watched as the enemy’s horses faded into the distance with a whistle, “Judgement is pretty fast!”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes as the horse whinnied. Please don’t say that name.

Wei Wuxian blinked and leaned forward, squinting his eyes as he tugged on Lan Wangji’s sleeve, “Lan Zhan, the mud looks softer up ahead.”

Lan Wangji furrowed his brows, tightening his expression as he grabbed his sword, “The road has been used.”

Wei Wuxian narrowed his eyes with a half-grin, “And in that one area only?”

They began deflecting arrows as men jumped out of the bushes. Wei Wuxian growled as he kicked a guy in the face, “I wish I had my bow!”

Lan Wangji grit his teeth as the cavalry emerged and slashed an assassin’s face as Judgement kicked two men in the ribs. Lan Wangji reoriented them down the road and took off, growling when an archer on horseback managed to block their path and knocked his bow. Judgement narrowed its eyes with whinny as it charged forward and smashed its head into the rider’s chest, the man flying backwards with a grunt.

Wei Wuxian cried out and grabbed the man’s robes, “Woah woah!”

He snatched the bow and arrows with a pat on the man’s chest, “You won’t need these anymore!” and let go with a grin, the man crashing off his horse as they rode past.

Lan Wangji glanced down as Wei Wuxian counted his arrows, “We need a detour.”

Wei Wuxian pointed to the right, “There’s a large river down that way. Don’t know how long it’ll take to reach it though.”

Lan Wangji furrowed his brow, “We could get trapped in the forest again.”

Wei Wuxian clicked his tongue, “I think it’s worth the risk, there’s definitely more ambushes up ahead.”

Lan Wangji stared forward, “...We know they are coming. We can escape again.”

Wei Wuxian frowned and sighed, “There are a bunch of smaller travel routes, just take one on the right.”

Lan Wangji nodded, eyes peeled as they sped down the road for a few minutes before turning on the first branching path. He watched the road as Wei Wuxian looked around for the glare of any arrows. Wei Wuxian narrowed his eyes as a wall of mist rose up ahead, freezing as he thought back to the other ambushes, “Wait, I know this tactic.”

Lan Wangji glanced at him, “Previous enemy?”

Wei Wuxian’s jaw clenched so tightly it trembled, “No…”

“...I made it.”

Wei Wuxian glared, “Turn around.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes widened as he pulled the reins and ran in the opposite direction as a barrage of arrows shot behind them, “If Wei Ying did it, I would know.”

Wei Wuxian clicked his tongue, “If it’s done right then no one should know. It’s designed to not look planned at all.”

Wei Wuxian narrowed his eyes, “It’s like a spider building its web around its prey’s flight patterns. The prey doesn’t notice because it rarely catches the web and never in the same place, but the spider is always one step ahead ready to strike.” Wei Wuxian grit his teeth, “And you don’t have to worry about finishing at once, you can just slowly chip away at them.”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, “How can Wei Ying be sure?”

Wei Wuxian scoffed, “It’s a complete rip-off! The weapons, order of attack, they didn’t even change the mist part even though no one from Yunmeng would believe there would be natural mist there! I bet you the next attack was going to have darts as well.”

Wei Wuxian threw his hands out, “But these idiots have the ambushes spaced too close together! They don’t let you fall into a false sense of security, which is the whole point!”

Lan Wangji pursed his lips, “A poor copy.”

Someone who had the information, but not the understanding.

Lan Wangji looked down when Wei Ying went quiet, eyes widening when he saw him bite his lip hard with creased brows as he muttered, “Motherfuckers…”

A Wei Ying tactic that he didn’t know about...

Lan Wangji clenched the reins, “A Wei faction secret?”

Wei Wuxian took a deep breath, “...It requires a lot of people. I couldn’t just put all my forces into this one strategy, so I had to borrow some of Jiang Cheng’s men. We never told them the plan, just where to be and what to do. They were all told this was a confidential mission that was not to be shared to anyone, even each other.”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, “Talking would equate to treason. Who else knew?”

Wei Wuxian paused, “...A select few members of the Jiang clan.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes widened, “The men from that night…”

Wei Wuxian was quiet for a moment, turning to smile, “...Let’s not get too hasty. The walls have ears on Lotus Pier.”

Lan Wangji furrowed his brows, “Wei Ying…”

Wei Wuxian looked forward at the sound of hooves and unsheathed his sword, “Up ahead.”

Lan Wangji bit his lip and swung his sword as they crashed into the battle. He furrowed his brow at Wei Ying’s bright smile as he ducked from a slash, “...Where would the ambushes end?”

Wei Wuxian laughed as he smacked a guy’s face with his bow and smoothly notched an arrow towards another man’s eye, “Gusu, probably.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed, “They knew we would come here?”

Wei Wuxian shot the archers in the trees, “Well, they waited until we got back onto a wide path leading straight to the lake bridge, so they must not have known where we were in the mountains. Given how impatient they are, these guys wouldn’t have laid out all these traps if they could just bomb our cave.”

Lan Wangji deflected a few arrows, “Or their leader. These men are well-trained.”

Wei Wuxian smirked with a vein popping on his head as he kicked the assassin in front of him, “Well sucks to be them, hope they had a good last meal!”

Wei Wuxian shot his final arrow into the last archer, “Now, go into the forest! We have to abandon this route!”

Lan Wangji grit his teeth as they charged past the remaining men into the treeline.

Wei Wuxian kept his eyes on their surroundings, “We have to pick a completely different route from what we would normally do. I know a lot about Old Qishan, and since I have men stationed there I say we go around and take a boat across the border river. The weather’s calmed down enough to row through.”

Wei Ying’s men in Old Qishan…

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes and charged forward.

Chapter Text

The clop of two pairs of hooves slowed to a halt as the riders slipped off their horses to enter a crowded inn. 

Jiang Yanli looked around with a frown. Based on her experience so far, this place may not have any rooms left.

Jin Zixuan strode past her straight to the front desk, glaring at anyone who did not make way. Jiang Yanli sighed and caught up to him.

“Give me the top floor.”

“Um…” She offered a strangled smile, “Thank you for your interest, however most of our rooms are taken.”

Jin Zixuan tilted his chin up, “Then kick those people out.”

Jiang Yanli sighed and looked away. How nostalgic. He truly hasn’t changed since he was 15.

She looked down. However, a part of her was glad he got to keep most of himself after these wars, unlike her brothers who had to change so much.

The receptionist smiled quietly for a few moments, “...I...really must apologize sir, however those customers have already paid for their rooms…”

Jin Zixuan threw a bag of coins onto the desk, “Just refund them, I can pay double.”

Jiang Yanli frowned as the girl eyes the money and gold on Jin Zixuan’s hands warily. He was clearly someone of high rank who should not be offended. A drop of sweat ran down the girl’s temple, “We are always happy to accommodate our customers’ requests, however…”

Jiang Yanli couldn’t stand around any longer and smiled at the girl, “Please don’t worry.” Jin Zixuan raised an eyebrow at her deepened voice, “I would like to apologize for the young master. He is on a journey to gain life experience.” Jiang Yanli glanced at him before looking forward, “As you can see, we have only started.”

The receptionist looked warily at Jin Zixuan’s gaping expression. As he huffed and whipped his head away, the girl released a breath of relief and looked back at Jiang Yanli who smiled at her, “We would like two rooms.”

The other receptionist bowed apologetically, “I am sorry, we just booked the other rooms. However, the Grand suite is still available, it even has a small side room for servants.”

Judging by the difference in clothing it was clear she was talking about Jiang Yanli.

Jin Zixuan whipped his head back with an incredulous glare, “Who are you calling a servant?!”

Jiang Yanli paid it no mind. It was actually convenient to hide her identity this way.

She looked at the girl bowing repeatedly at her in apology.

Well, it would have been convenient that is

Jinag Yanli smiled, “I don’t mind, the Grand Suite would be fine.”

Jin Zixuan glared with a flush, “No it would not!” He turned to the receptionist, “What about ‘two rooms’ do you not understand?”

Jiang Yanli frowned at him, “There is no need to be like this, the rooms are separated anyway.”

Jin Zixuan pinched his brow and leaned in to whisper furiously in her face, “You are an unmarried woman! Think about your reputation!”

Jiang Yanli furrowed her brows as she whispered back, “No one even knows who I am. They even think I’m a man.”

Jin Zixuan grit his teeth with a flush as he looked away, “...Don’t think your disguise is so skilled.”

Jiang Yanli thought back with a frown. The people of Yunmeng are not known for being subtle, so she would have noticed if they were suspicious.

“Excuse me…” The waitress interrupted their whispering, “There is an alternative.”

They both looked at her.

The receptionist smiled carefully, “To accommodate the large number of guests, we considered repurposing some of the store rooms as temporary rooms. At a discount of course.”

Jiang Yanli nodded before Jin Zixuan could speak, “That would be perfect, thank you.”

Jin Zixuan scratched his head and huffed as they followed after the attendant.

Jiang Yanli marvelled at the sheer size of the Grand Suite. Taking up almost half a floor all by itself, she could believe it was meant to hold an entire royal retinue. Though, she couldn’t be sure. Whenever the Jiang royal family travelled, they usually spent the night at some local lord’s home. Even when they stayed at an inn, it always felt rather tacky to be so ostentatious with their wealth and annoying to catch that much attention. Plus, she preferred to stay with her brothers, away from their parents’ fighting which could definitely be heard by the other guests.

Jiang Yanli frowned. Looking back, it’s no wonder people are so concerned with the court when they can’t even pretend to be civil in public.

Jin Zixuan mirrored her frown, “Is it not good enough?”

Jiang Yanli startled and quickly shook her head, “No, the room is lovely. It is a bit big for one person though.”

Jin Zixuan looked around the room with a raised eyebrow, “You call this big?” He puffed out his chest as he glanced at her, “In Lanling this is merely a middle-tier room. I would never stay in a place like this.”

Jiang Yanli smiled as she sighed through her nose, “Well we are in a middle-class town, not a luxury resort. I’m afraid Your Highness will have to endure the meager best they can offer tonight.”

Jin Zixuan froze and clenched his jaw, walking back to the attendant at the door.

They were then led to the other room, Jin Zixuan’s face growing more sour as they entered the basement. It didn’t take long until they reached a weathered door, the attendant creaking it open to reveal a musty space no larger than a pantry. The only furnishing was a cot which looked more like a servant’s bed than a guest’s and a small window overlooking the street floor at the very top.

Jin Zixuan paled, “What the hell is this?”

The attendant cleared her throat nervously, “Excuse us, dear customer, but these are the only spaces we were able to make available…”

Jin Zixuan looked around muttering, “Even the Camp had better accommodations than this.”

Jiang Yanli nodded at the room, “There is a roof and a bed. This will do.”

Jin Zixuan glared at the window, “You can barely breathe in here!”

Jiang Yanli thanked the attendant as she left and glanced at Jin Zixuan, “I spent years playing with my brothers in every nook and cranny of Lotus Pier, I can breathe just fine.”

Jin Zixuan furrowed his brows before widening his eyes, “You can’t be saying you’ll actually stay here?”

Jiang Yanli just walked in and threw her bag onto the cot, “I don’t mind.”

Jin Zixuan sped in and shoved her bag in her arms, lightly holding her arm as he pushed her to the door, “Enough nonsense, go back to the Grand Suite!”

Jiang Yanli blinked dumbfounded, “I thought Your Highness didn’t want to share a room.”

Jin Zixuan growled, “I don’t!”

Jiang Yanli’s eyes widened as she whipped around to face him, “Your Highness wants to stay here?” Can you even survive a night without silk sheets?

Jin Zixuan clucked his tongue, “Want is an extreme word.”

Jiang Yanli tried to get back in the room but Jin Zixuan blocked it with his body. She furrowed her brow, “Your Highness, I really do not mind. Don’t worry, I will not tell your mother.”

“That’s not—!” Jin Zixuan bit his lip before crossing his arms and looking away with a flush, “...I can’t let a lady sleep in a place like this.”

Jiang Yanli blinked. He had no problem throwing her and her brothers out on the street all those years ago. Jiang Yanli’s face slowly morphed into a soft smile. Perhaps he has changed a bit.

She fastened her bag around her shoulder and looked at Jin Zixuan, who was avoiding her eyes, “If You Highness is so insistent, then at least come up to the Grand Suite for dinner.”

Jin Zixuan glared at the ground with a flush, “Fine, now go before you get tuberculosis or something.”

Jiang Yanli smiled, bowing before turning to leave. As she walked away she heard a muttered, “I’m paying to stay in a prison cell…” as the door shut. 

She giggled before making a detour to the kitchen. For all his tough talk, Jin Zixuan might just not survive eating from a peasant palate.

Placing the lid on the final plate, Jiang Yanli handed a few coins to the staff, “Thank you for allowing me in the kitchen. Could you send these up to the Grand Suite in a few minutes while I get the Young Master from his room.”

The attendant furrowed her brows for a second, “I thought he was in…” before widening her eyes, “Wait, you’re the one staying in the Grand Suite?” She quickly slapped a hand over her mouth and cautiously glanced at Jiang Yanli.

Jiang Yanli huffed a laugh into her hand, “For some reason, the Young Master chose to be difficult.”

Knocking on Jin Zixuan’s door, Jiang Yanli had to hold back a laugh at how weathered he looked as he shuffled out. It’s only been a couple of hours, has the crown prince always been this dramatic?

“It is not too late to switch rooms.”

“I’m fine!”

After settling into the suite, the door was gently knocked as the attendant brought them two trays for dinner, “Dear customer, we have a special dinner for you courtesy of—” Jiang Yanli’s eyes widened with a slight shake of her head, “—the chef.”

Jin Zixuan huffed. Finally some proper service.

Jiang Yanli took up her chopsticks as the attendant left, subtly glancing at Jin Zixuan’s expression as he looked at the food. She did not have a lot of time and the kitchen did not keep stock of ornamental garnishes, but Jiang Yanli at least made sure he had some pastries and extra dishes flavoured with her stash of expensive spices. It was nothing compared to court meals, but it was much better than the soup and steamed bun every other guest received.

Seeing Jin Zixuan take a bite, Jiang Yanli couldn’t help asking, “How is it, Your Highness?”

Jin Zixuan furrowed his brows as he ate, face freezing as he looked at the meal. He widened his eyes and quickly glanced up at Jiang Yanli before looking away with a flush as he mumbled, “...It’s better than I expected.” He was quiet for a moment as he glanced at Jiang Yanli before focusing back on his meal, “...At least this hovel has a good chef.”

Jiang Yanli felt her chest bubble with giddiness as she flushed a little, “Ah, is that so.” She busied her hands with a pastry, “It’s too bad all this food will go to waste.”

Jin Zixuan stayed quiet.

Royal Jin meals were designed with excess in mind. Each sitting was more like a feast to show off the abundance of food, chefs, and ingredients of their wealthy family. Hosting the Jin was always a test of patience since they expected half the food to be thrown away at the end of each meal, as worrying about waste was for the poor. The only time they couldn’t get away with it was in the Cloud Recesses, as their temple ancestry would not tolerate such behavior and the emperor did not care for the Jin clan’s vanity.

Ever since A-Xian first came into her life, ribs jutting and unable to hold down food no matter how desperately he wished to eat, Jiang Yanli had always taken meals seriously so that put one point in the emperor’s favor.

By the time she was full, there was still plenty of food left on her plates. She sighed and looked up to find Jin Zixuan still eating. She furrowed her brows worriedly, “Your Highness? Maybe you should slow down before you get a stomach ache.”

Jin Zixuan paused before glaring off to the side as he grabbed another pastry with a huff, “I haven’t eaten all day, can’t a man have a decent meal?”

Jiang Yanli sat back and grew increasingly worried as he began noticeably forcing himself. She raised her hands absently before putting them down. With a final spoonful of soup, Jin Zixuan collapsed onto the table with a groan. Jiang Yanli walked around the table and hesitated before gently patting his head, “...Your Highness did well… you really finished all of it.”

Jin Zixuan cracked his eyes open with a flush, “...It was tasty.”

Jiang Yanli blushed and smiled, “I’m sure the chef will appreciate it.”

She kept patting his hair until he could stand up again.

 

A knock at the door made him flinch, Lan Xichen quickly calling the other party inside as he tried in vain to tidy his desk.

When Nie Mingjue strides inside with a raised eyebrow, Lan Xichen whipped his head to look out at the sun.

They had a spar today at noon.

Lan Xichen deflated onto his paperwork with a thunk, “Da-Ge, I’m so sorry.”

Nie Mingjue waved him off with a sigh, “Try saying that when you look less pitiful. Come on, get up. It’s time you took a break.”

Lan Xichen sighed into the trade proposals, “I would like that very much.”

Pushing himself to his feet, Lan Xichen perks as he catches some progress reports, “Ah, we might as well go check the progress on the Red Lotus Pavilion.”

Nie Mingjue grumbles, “Xichen, I’m not dragging you away from work so you can do more work.”

Lan Xichen smiled at him as they left the study, “It’s as much Wangji’s project as it is mine. I’ve had a lot of fun with it.”

Nie Mingjue remembered the hours spent discussing different flowers with a grimace. They’re just lotus flowers, have Yunmeng give them as a dowry! And then when Huaisang mentioned tapestries…

Sometimes even being brothers is not enough to protect that cheeky brat.

As they turned the corner Lan Xichen smiled when he saw Jin Guanyao in the corridor, “A-Yao.”

Jin Guanyao nodded at both of them with a smile, “Er-Ge, Da-Ge.”

Lan Xichen nodded back, “We were just on our way to the Red Lotus Pavilion, would A-Yao like to join us?”

Jin Guanyao looked at him thoughtfully as he gently shook his head, “Actually, I wanted to invite Da-Ge for some tea. I bought a new special blend that Huaisang might like as a reward for being proactive in the wedding preparations. I figured Da-Ge would know his tastes best.”

Lan Xichen chuckled, “That was a surprise, wasn’t it? A-Yao is always on top of these things. How about I help?”

Jin Guangyao shakes his head with a smile, “I can tell when Er-Ge has something on his mind. I’m sure decor and architecture are not Da-Ge’s idea of entertainment, so we won’t bog Er-ge down.”

Nie Mingjue narrows his eyes, but the thought of discussing the placement of painting by the centimeter on a building without even its walls completed made him shiver.

Lan Xichen chuckled as he watched them leave. 

As he entered the tent, Lan Xichen blinked at the sound of grumbling. He entered what would be the private chambers to find A-Qing stomping around with a glare on her face, one of her buns undone.

His eyes widened, “Attendant Qing, what happened?”

A-Qing froze, quickly composing herself as she bowed properly in his direction, “Your Highness.”

Lan Xichen smiled at her, “There’s no need for that right now, are you alright?”

A-Qing grit her teeth as she stood, “That flea—”

She stopped herself, clearing her throat, “I mean, Sir…” she grit her teeth, “Sir Xu—”

Ugh, even the thought of calling him that makes her nauseous.

Lan Xichen chuckled as he leaned to whisper with a wink, “When we’re alone, feel free to call him as you wish, otherwise just Xue Yang is enough.”

A-Qing gave a tiny grin with a bow, “That flea took my ribbon to bandage the ‘horrid wounds’ I allegedly left on his shins, and was about to grab my second ribbon for his other leg when I shooed him off with my pole.”

Lan Xichen sighed. He’ll have to talk with A-Yao about this again, though it seems he is fine with any punishment they choose to give that Xue Yang. He will firmly be not invited the next time.

Lan Xichen blinked as he saw the pole up against a wall, glancing at A-Qing with a smile, “Attendant Qing has been using her pole less these days.”

A-Qing tensed imperceptibly, sweat dripping down her temple as she hid her trembling fingers by sheepishly rubbing her neck, “It must be because I spend so much time in here, I’ve  practically memorized every inch of the palace by now.”

Lan Xichen nods with a hum. He’d noticed her dedication these past few weeks. She’s been working nonstop without a work of complaint or seeking acknowledgement. He sighed as he looked at her messy hair. Though her efforts have not been rewarded. He looked around the room, eyes lighting up as he had an idea, “Attendant Qing was wronged under my care, let me compensate your ribbon with something high quality. Silk.”

A-Qing bowed politely, “His Highness is not to blame for the actions of a petty pest. And it was just a scrap of fabric, there is nothing to compensate.”

Are you trying to make the entire staff envious of me? It’s already a pain having the Emperor’s favor without any allies!

Lan Xichen hummed as he smiled, “It’s not just any silk, but the rare silk used for the royal family’s headdresses. It will have the red lotus embroidery of the empress’s personal attendants, a sign designating your official position in the pavilion.”

A-Qing froze, head whipping up to him with glittering eyes. While she received the jade token and emperor’s consideration before, she still had to be prepared for bureaucracy to ruin everything. This official token solidified her placement and unless she was caught committing some egregious crime then only the emperor or empress could dismiss her. It also came with other privileges, as being the first attendant also made her the most senior attendant and gave her access she previously did not have.

Pausing, A-Qing bowed humbly, “Your Highness, this honor has many more benefits than my station deserves. Is that really alright?”

Lan Xichen’s eyes glinted in satisfaction, “Of course. Attendant Qing has been diligent with an honest and humble approach to her work, never trying to sabotage others or vying for favor. Such a person is best suited for this honor, regardless of rank.”

A-Qing thanked him profusely. Bowing even as he left to check on the construction. Her eyes glinted as she looked at the floor.

Fake humility always wins!

Just a couple hours later she found herself in Lan Xichen’s study with the ribbon presented by one of Lan Xichen’s attendants. He glared at her with Lan Xichen behind him, thinking she was blind. A-Qing laughed in her head. Good, your jealousy feeds me now!

Tying the ribbon in her hair, A-Qing jumped when the door was slammed open behind her as Bichen quickly but politely barreled into the room, firmly shutting the door behind him with a quiet thunk as if he was summoned properly.

A-Qing stared at him with a twitching eye. Either be rude or be proper, it’s creepy to see both.

Lan Xichen blinked as he called Bichen to stand from his bow. He wasn’t supposed to be back yet, especially without his usual composure, “Bichen! Why are you here?”

Bichen glances at the other two attendants. Lan Xichen expression firms as he motions for them to leave, “Please get us some tea.”

A-Qing followed the other attendant out but paused at the door after he left, moving so she stood behind a screen that just barely covered her.

Her eyebrows furrowed as she heard Bichen’s report.

Those idiots in Lotus Pier... How dare they!?

Her pole scraped the ground as she fumed, A-Qing freezing as the room grew quiet.

She kept her eyes carefully unfocused as Bichen stood up and walked over to grab her when she didn’t step forward. Lan Xichen called for him to stop, “Bichen, there’s no offense. Attendant Qing is simply blind, let her explain herself.”

Sweat dripped down her temple as A-Qing made herself shiver as she bowed, “I am so sorry! I was never dismissed, but it sounded important so I didn’t know what to do and stood by the door…”

Lan Xichen furrowed his eyebrows, pinching the bridge of his nose as he understood, “No, I should apologize for frightening you. When I motioned for some tea, I meant both of you but in my haste I forgot Attendant Qing could not see my hands. I should have addressed you directly.”

Seeing Bichen’s confused look, Lan Xichen sent him a reassuring smile, “Attendant Qing is the Empress's new attendant by Wangji’s orders. She was officially promoted just a few minutes ago.”

Bichen blinked. Oh, that little blind girl. He gave her a nod, flushing when she didn’t react. Hearing Lan Xichen’s chuckle, Bichen cleared his throat, “Ah, congratulations.”

“Um, thank you.”

Bichen turned back to Lan Xichen with a questioning look, who waved his hand. She already heard everything, no point kicking her out now. He looks at the slowly setting sun with a complicated expression, “Bichen, I know you just returned but there is little time. While I trust Wangji’s judgement, we do not know the full situation and haven’t heard from him once. I’ll need you to set off again as soon as you’ve rested to find them.”

Bichen bowed, “Of course, I am ready to head out immediately.”

A-Qing sent him a sidelong glance. He just hopped off his horse like 20 minutes ago. Are all Sentinels crazy or just the two she’s met?

Bichen pointed at the map in the room, “I will retrace my steps and check with all the guards along the road. As soon as I hear something I will send a report.”

A-Qing cursed. Her compass said Wei Wuxian is in Qishan. If they’re really in trouble, Bichen won’t find them. She cleared her throat, “Um, what if the Emperor isn’t on the main road?”

The two turned to her with raised eyebrows.

A-Qing carefully considered her words as she waited for the silence to be long enough to continue, “If the Emperor returned to the main road he would have sent notice, and even if he didn’t he should have caught up with the captain because his horse is faster. The Emperor is strong, so doesn’t that mean he had to take a different route?”

Lan Xichen held his chin, “That does seem likely. Wangji would not have taken so otherwise.”

A-Qing glanced at the map out of the corner of her eye. She doesn’t need to do any more. If they can’t go straight, they can only go left or right. And one of those directions leads to the Jiang territory of Yunmeng.

Bichen steeled his eyes as he looked at the map, bowing to Lan Xichen who nodded.

He was going to Qishan.

 

Dim light filtered through the overcast sky as they neared an intersection.

Lan Wangji glanced down when Wei Ying tugged on his sleeve. He’d been strangely quiet since they escaped.

Wei Wuxian turned his head slightly, “We’ll need to change clothes so people won’t pay much attention to us.”

Lan Wangji blinked, “I was not given trouble in Yunmeng.”

Wei Wuxian gave a wry grin, “Well it’s not like they’ll harass us, but white is not the most common color around these parts. Especially white with blue clouds on it.” He looked ahead and frowned, “We may have bought some time, but those bastards will come after us and we’re not the most inconspicuous of people. All it takes is one person in a village remembering two people in white and they’ll track us down.”

Lan Wangji nodded, “Mn.” 

He turned to ride off the road until they found a thick cluster of bushes. 

Lan Zhan hopping off, Wei Wuxian turned to follow to be met with Lan Zhan’s outstretched hand. Wei Wuxian blinked at it for a moment, Lan Wangji gently moving to hold his hand as he waited for Wei Wuxian to jump. 

Wei Wuxian chuckled quietly to himself as he let Lan Zhan help him, “Oh my, how chivalrous!”

Lan Wangji looked to the side as his ears flushed.

After changing into the spare set of black robes, Lan Wangji found his cloak being folded up in Wei Ying’s hands. Being his outermost layer, it would be the most visible. His eyes widened when Wei Ying took off the fox fur cloak and Lan Wangji grabbed his hand with furrowed brows, “It is winter.”

Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow at him, “It’s been winter, that doesn’t make the cloak any less noticeable.” Seeing Lan Zhan’s expression persist, Wei Wuxian sighed, “It’s not like I want to freeze into a block of ice either. This butt is firm enough!” Lan Zhan’s eyes drifted down where Wei Wuxian patted his hip, “It’s just until the next town where we can buy some nice dull, brown, and unassuming peasant wear.”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, “Too lowly.”

As if his empress would wear anything but the best under this emperor’s watch.

Wei Wuxian huffed an exasperated sigh, “You royals are so high-maintenance. Fine, we’ll get you something nice and pull a master and servant stunt.”

Lan Wangji growled, “No. We get the same.”

He swore there would be no higher or lower between them and he refuses to let Wei Ying continue to give himself less than he deserves.

Wei Wuxian puffed his cheeks out, “I don’t have that much money. This General is very poor!”

“I will pay.”

Wei Wuxian blinked for a moment then grinned, “Well I can’t say no to that. No take-backsies!”

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened, “Never.”

Wei Wuxian flushed as he walked back to an unimpressed Judgement.

It wasn’t long after they reached the intersection that they began to pass caravans travelling along the road. Wei Wuxian counted the ones they passed and looked at the ones ahead with a frown, “Damn. Since the storm died down, everyone is making a break for their next location before things start closing down. It’s bound to be packed in the next town.”

A cold gust of wind made Wei Wuxian curse as he shivered, “There’s a small village past this town where the village chief recognizes me and can guarantee us a room in his house. We’ll be cutting it close, but Judgement should get us there before it’s pitch black out.”

Lan Wangji frowned at him, “Too far, Wei Ying will fall ill again.”

Wei Wuxian grumbled, “I’m not that frail.” Then another gust of wind made him sneeze. Oh god dammit!

A warm weight settled around him as Lan Wangji shifted to cover Wei Wuxian’s body. He looked down to find Lan Zhan’s arms tight around him, pressing him back into Lan Zhan’s chest as he blocked Wei Wuxian from the wind.

Wei Wuxian flushed lightly and leaned back into Lan Zhan’s warmth, “I changed my mind. I’m very frail, more pitiful than a sickly maiden! The honorable Lan Zhan won’t allow this delicate bride to freeze, will he?”

“Mm.” Lan Wangji wrapped more firmly around him.

Wei Wuxian huffed a small laugh and closed his eyes.

“Ah, so warm, so warm.”

After merging onto the main road with the other travellers, they were able to reach the city without further incident. It was rather busy, with crowds bustling about the streets even as the sun dipped over the horizon.

Walking into the third inn that day, they were relieved when the receptionist smiled, “Yes, we have a few rooms remaining. Though, they are all single rooms.”

Lan Wangji pursed his lips. While it would be unwise to separate, that is not enough reason to continue this scandalous sleeping arrangement. In the cave their only other option was to freeze, otherwise he would have waited properly!

Lan Wangji pursed his lips. And while he may have enjoyed the close contact, he cannot keep taking advantage of Wei Ying like that.

Wei Ying hummed as he turned to Lan Wangji, “I wouldn’t mind. Honestly, it’s pretty cozy having another person in the room.”

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, “We cannot.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, sighing after a moment with a pout, “Is it because I’m engaged?”

Lan Wangji froze. 

That’s right, Wei Ying and I are engaged. There is nothing scandalous about sharing a room with my own empress.

If Wei Ying has no issues with it, what problem could there be?

Lan Wangji turned to the receptionist, “One room.”

Wei Wuxian threw his hands out with a sigh. So now it’s okay?

Lan Wangji looked at the available room keys hanging behind the reception desk, “Room 139.”

The receptionist hesitated, “Um, that is the smallest one out of our available rooms. Surely the others would be more suitable…”

“Room 139.”

Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow, thinking for a moment before nodding. The first floor is definitely the way to go. It would be the easiest to slip out of should anything happen.

Wei Wuxian grinned as Lan Wangji placed some coins on the counter, “We have some errands to run, just hold that room for us.”

As they left the lobby, Wei Wuxian blinked. Wait, weren’t there two available rooms on the first floor?

After settling their room, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji immediately went to the market to buy some cloaks. Their cargo would be safer with Judgement than in their room and lanterns were already being lit along the streets.

Lan Wangji pursed his lips as they pushed their way through the crowd. How is it so difficult to move when everyone is moving in the same direction?

His ears burned when Wei Ying grabbed his hand so they wouldn’t get seperated.

Maybe crowds are not so terrible.

They entered a nice little shop specializing in travel gear, Lan Wangji looking around curiously as Wei Wuxian began rifling through the cloaks. After a few minutes Wei Wuxian huffed, turning to find Lan Wangji gone. Wei Wuxian pouted. To abandon me so cruelly!

He looked back at the cloaks with a sigh. They’re good quality, but way too eye-catching. 

Wei Wuxian glanced around until he found an employee, smiling as he sidled up to the counter, “You wouldn’t happen to know where a fair maiden could find some assistance?”

The girl giggled, “I’m sure I could find some time, what is this Miss looking for?”

Wei Wuxian leaned over, “I’d like a couple of cloaks, warm and long but good for horseback.”

Her eyes widened as she took in Wei Wuxian’s weathered appearance, “Were you out in the rain like that ?! What happened?” 

Wei Wuxian’s smile froze. He looked around for a second, eyes lighting up a glint when Lan Wangji walked through the door. Smirking slightly, Wei Wuxian quickly turned embarrassed as he scratched his cheek, “Well, we left in a hurry.” The receptionist furrowed her brow and leaned in. Wei Wuxian sent a mischievous look at Lan Zhan, quickly turning bashful before the girl noticed, “We’re, um, kind of getting married.” 

She tilted her head. 

“...But, uh, our parents don’t know? And we would like to keep it that way.”

“Oh.” The girl’s eyes glittered. How romantic!

Lan Wangji walked up to them, “Wei Ying.” 

The girl’s eyes widened as Wei Wuxian lit up with such a soft look at the other man. She looked back and forth between them as she froze.

“Oh!”

The girl slapped her hands over her mouth with shining eyes. An eloping cutsleeve couple?! She glanced at their clothes. And that quality… nobility?! How scandalous! She whispered back excitedly, “Leave it to me, dear customer! I will look through all of our stock, just sit tight!”

Wei Wuxian snickered as she pranced off.

Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow at him.

Wei Wuxian grinned, “Girls like her aren’t all that rare in Yunmeng. Something about seeing a bunch of sweaty men locked in combat and hearing stories of rivalries and sworn brotherhood lit a fire in certain art and literature communities. I guess sexual tension is a more appealing alternative to grim reality.”

Lan Wangji glanced at him, “Cutsleeve works are popular in Yunmeng?”

Wei Wuxian hummed, “Well, I wouldn’t say popular , but since Yunmeng tends to be more loose about these things it’s more normalized. I guess it’s more like a ‘do whatever you want, I don’t fucking care’ kind of thing? Though my territory tends to be a bit more radical than the rest of the kingdom, so all kinds of ‘unsavory’ themes and genres are growing in popularity.”

Lan Wangji looked down in thought, harsh whispers dragging their attention to the shop girl arguing with a similar-looking young man helping her carry the cloaks, “What are you doing, for all you know they could be criminals escaping the law!”

Just let me have this.

The young man scoffed, “This is why you’ll get scammed one day.”

The girl flicked her hair with a pout, “Ugh, Big Bro why do you have to be so single all the time? No fun!”

Can you not use single as an insult, please thank you!

She ignored him and jogged up to the counter with a beaming smile, “Dear customers, you are in luck. I think I found the perfect thing!”

She laid down two thick weather-proofed cloaks of a gorgeous but unassuming deep walnut color. Wei Wuxian picked them up, appreciating the softness and warm weight. They were very well crafted. Though, from Wei Wuxian’s experience, they were also very expensive. He turned to ask Lan Zhan’s opinion to find him already holding his money pouch.

Wei Wuxian grabbed his elbow, “Waitwaitwait, we don’t even know how much it costs.”

Lan Wangji raised his chin, “No matter.”

Wei Wuxian puffed out his cheeks, “Yes matter! We have to consider these things in our situation.”

Lan Wangji glanced at him before focusing on taking out some money, “If Wei Ying likes it, then it is no matter.”

The young man eyed the gold coins suspiciously, “That’s an oddly large amount of money for a couple of travelling—” 

A hand shoved his face away as the girl popped up with a smile, “Ignore him, he’s single. What you have in your hand is more than enough.”

Two hands came up from behind and squished her face as the young man’s cheek twitched, “That’s quite the attitude coming from someone who’s never been on a single date.”

The girl froze, grabbing the hands on her face with flushed cheeks, “Unlike you, I am young and full of spirit.”

“You’re only three years younger than me. So when you hit my age and stay single, do I get to call you an old hag?”

Wei Wuxian chuckled as they bickered, glancing to his side to see Lan Zhan furrowing his brow at them, “Should we stop them?”

Wei Wuxian laughed, “What do you mean, they’re getting along great!”

Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow as the girl started stomping her feet as the brother held her away with one hand on her face.

Wei Wuxian’s grin softened into a gentle smile, “When you’re close with someone, you don’t worry about offending them. You can go all out and be as annoying as you like because you’re confident in your relationship. How close can you really be to someone if you’re afraid of stepping on their toes?”

It was the same look he had whenever he told stories of his friends and siblings. Lan Wangji’s eyes softened, “Mn.”

He left the coins on the counter and took a cloak in his hands, Wei Wuxian reaching for his own. Before he could touch it, he felt a gentle weight settle on his shoulders. Looking up, he found Lan Zhan carefully securing the cloak around his neck, hands smoothing the fabric to make sure it was comfortable. Although the cloak was so thick, Wei Wuxian could feel a searing heat trailing wherever Lan Zhan touched.

He woke out of his daze when Lan Zhan went for his own cloak and immediately grabbed it before he could, “Oh no no, that’s not fair. It’s my turn!”

Lan Wangji froze as Wei Wuxian hopped over to spread the cloak over him, ears flushing when Wei Wuxian smiled easily despite his trembling fingers as he fumbled with the knot. Wei Wuxian checked it with a tug, hand dropping to rest on Lan Wangji’s chest as he admired his work. Lan Wangji’s breath hitched, struggling to stay steady as the warmth of Wei Wuxian’s hand stroked over his heart.

“See, I told you!”

They both froze at the loud whisper, turning their heads to the pair watching them from behind the counter. The girl slapped a hand over her mouth, “Oops.”

Flinching, they both whipped away from each other with pounding heartbeats. Lan Wangji sped to the door when the girl called out to him, “Wait, sir, your money bag!”

Lan Wangji froze, quickly walking back to the counter and grabbing the bag. Shoving it in his robes without his usual grace, Wei Wuxian blinked as he caught a flash of color that was quickly hidden as Lan Wangji spun to the exit. 

As soon as they reached the inn, Lan Wangji excused himself to unload the luggage while Wei Wuxian crashed onto the floor. Ah, today was so exhausting. He would have crashed onto the bed if he weren’t filthy. Wei Wuxian pauses, debating whether it was worth the effort before deciding to push himself to his feet.

He needs a bath.

Pouring the last bucket into the tub, Wei Wuxian glanced at the door worriedly. The inn was packed and everyone was looking for a hot bath, so the line was grueling. It took him two hours, but in that time he hasn’t seen Lan Wangji once. Their luggage did appear in their room, but what else could Lan Zhan be doing?

Wei Wuxian whipped his head over at the sound of the door creaking open, eyes lighting up at the familiar white boots, “Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji carried a tray of food with two servings on it. Wei Wuxian’s stomach lit up as well, “And dinner!”

Lan Wangji blinked at the darkness of the room as Wei Wuxian dragged over the table, “There is only one lamp?”

Wei Wuxian sighed, “Shortage on candles. Too many guests who absolutely needed full light and not enough stock for it to be sustainable. It’s still brighter than what we had in our cave.”

Lan Wangji’s ears flushed as they sat down.

Our cave…

Wei Wuxian took a bite, pausing as he furrowed his brow at the plate before shrugging and gulping everything down. He glanced at Lan Zhan daintily holding his steamed bun as he quietly chewed, eyes widening as the candlelight shined on some small wounds Wei Wuxian didn’t notice before.

Wei Wuxian grabbed Lan Wangji’s fingers with a groan, “Lan Zhan, what happened?”

Lan Wangji froze, shiver racing down his spine as Wei Ying’s warmth slid gently along his fingers.

Wei Wuxian bit his lip as he saw the little burns, “This is why I should have tended the fire in the cave. Lan Zhan, why didn’t you tell me before?”

Wei Wuxian didn’t remember Lan Zhan having these little wounds in the cloak shop. How could he be so distracted all this time he never noticed?

Lan Wangji’s ears flushed as he took his hand back and looked away, “No talking during meals.”

Wei Wuxian pouted.

Lan Wangji glanced back at him, “...I will treat it after dinner.”

Satisfied, Wei Wuxian sent him another warning pout as he focused back on his meal.

As soon as they finished, Wei Wuxian flopped on his back with a sigh, “The food’s not great, but man is it filling!”

Lan Wangji stared at the bowl with pursed lips.

Wei Wuxian turned to look up at him from the floor, “But then again I like meat, a vegetarian like Lan Zhan would probably like it more.”

Lan Wangji looked at his hand before turning away, “Not good is not good.”

Wei Wuxian stretched as he pushed himself up, “Don’t worry, Your Highness, I’m sure the next inn will be better.”

Lan Wangji was quiet as he nodded, “...Mn.”

Grabbing the inn’s complementary sleeping robes, Wei Wuxian paused as he turned his head, “Ah, does Lan Zhan want to go first. I know the Cloud Recesses are pretty neurotic about cleanliness.”

Lan Wangji could feel the filth seeping into him even as his body remained clear from the rain. He glanced at Wei Ying, remembering his condition when they met and the poor standard of the cave Lan Wangji made him stay in, “...Wei Ying goes first.”

Wei Wuxian grinned in thanks as he grabbed the candle and ran behind the privacy screen, “I’m going to need all the light I can get to make sure I get everything.”

Wei Wuxian slid into the bath with a sigh as the both water enveloped his sore muscles. Oh god this feels great, he hasn’t had a bath in two weeks.

Wei Wuxian moaned as he leaned back against the tub.

Lan Wangji froze.

The splashing of the water rang clear through the room, echoing against his ears with every movement Wei Wuxian made. Lan Wangji glared at the privacy screen only to freeze as a jolt shot down his naval.

The bright candlelight lit up the privacy screen, outlining the lithe silhouette of his empress. 

Hair tied up in a loose bun, his long slender neck sloped into a gentle curve along his nape. Fingers stroked firmly along a toned arm as Wei Ying sighed hushly. 

Lan Wangji tried to look away, find anything else to focus on but found his sight drifting back to the screen, the darkness of the room intensifying the only source of light as Lan Wangji fell enchanted.

The slender line of Wei Ying’s back curled over the curve of his hips, plump mounds accentuated as Wei Ying bent over to stand up. Sliding up to his full height, Wei Ying dropped his head back as he ran his hands down his chest, palms stroking down the lengths of his naval as fingers caressed his thin waist. Wei Wuxian moaned as he rubbed down his aching thighs, Lan Wangji shooting up to comb through his luggage.

Settling back into place with his guqin, Lan Wangji’s fingers quickly found their place even in the dark as he began to play a gentle melody. 

Wei Wuxian froze as the first strums reached his ears, movements halting as he turned his head to face the music.

The melody rippled through the room, dancing along his skin like a caress as Wei Wuxian closed his eyes to enjoy the sound.

Lan Wangji’s fingers grazed the strings as his thoughts drowned out through the notes, tense muscles relaxing into a steady rhythm. The world seemed to fade as his breath softened, a gentle sigh escaping his lips with the final echoing sound.

“Lan Zhan, that was amazing.”

Lan Wangji froze. He looked up to find Wei Ying’s silhouette standing loosely with his head turned.

“What is it called?”

Lan Wangji’s ears flushed as he looked to the side, “...Clarity.”

Wei Wuxian chuckled, “As expected of the Lan, very creative.”

Lan Wangji muttered, “It is named after its purpose.”

Wei Wuxian snickered lightly, sliding down to lie in the bath, “So I suppose it’s true that everyone can play the guqin in the Cloud Recesses?”

Lan Wangji nodded, “Everyone in court.”

Wei Wuxian’s fingers strummed along the tub, “...Could you play me another one?”

Lan Wangji’s heart jumped, taking a deep breath as he strummed a different note, “...Calming.”

Wei Wuxian listened to the music quietly, hand swinging lightly over the edge of the tub as a deep relaxation set into his bones. He closed his eyes as the music enveloped him, only cracking them open as the song finished.

He whispered a praise, as if afraid of breaking the delicate atmosphere.

They were quiet for a moment as Wei Wuxian stared into the water, “...You know, I really like the guqin. Sometimes I would spy on a Gusu camp myself just so I could hear it.”

A general endangering himself as a lowly scout just to listen to music? Lan Wangji furrowed his eyebrows, “They let their General risk himself?”

Wei Wuxian chuckled, “Who do you think you’re talking to? How risky could it be?”

Lan Wangji was quiet for a moment, “Very. Even for Wei Ying.” After a moment of silence, Lan Wangji glazed at the silhouette, “...Why?”

Wei Wuxian hummed, watching the ripples as his fingers splashed gently along the water, “Do I need a special reason? I just like it.”

Lan Wangji furrowed his brows and stayed silent. 

Moments passed with only the splash of the water piercing the room.

“I don’t have many memories of my parents.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes snapped to him.

Wei Wuxian closed his eyes as he leaned his head back against the tub, “But I remember one time when we were travelling along the edge of Yunmeng before the war began. We stopped by a border town. I don’t know which one, but it felt so huge…”

Lan Wangji shuffled to face him.

Wei Wuxian spread his arms up, hands splayed open as he stared into the air, “There was this grand festival my mom found during her travels that she wanted my dad to see. She wanted to take my dad to all the places he was never allowed to go, enjoy all the things he never got the chance to experience. See the world outside of Lotus Pier.”

Lan Wangji blinked. Wei Ying’s mother sounds much more considerate than the Cangse Sanren his uncle huffed about.

“It was full of colors. Bright colors. Reds and pinks and greens. And blues and purples of all kinds.”

Lan Wangji’s ears perked.

“Everything was decorated. Clouds and lotuses as far as the eyes could see. Even the snacks!” Wei Wuxian laughed, “Lotus pastries and pulled sugar shaped like clouds. My mom wanted both, but my dad said she wouldn’t finish it. She could only get one, so I helped her out and asked dad if I could have the other one. Then I gave half to mom.” Wei Wuxian chuckled, “And while she was taking it, I stole half of hers. She was so dramatic about it, but I could tell she was just trying to make us laugh. And when she asked dad what he was going to do about such a dastardly act, he just turned to her and said, ‘You’re the adult, why should I punish him for outsmarting you?’”

Lan Wangji’s eyes shined as he pictured it. A quiet stoic man throwing a deadpan comeback to his eccentric wife while a little Wei Ying snickered in between. They were a fun family indeed.

“He said if anything, he should reward me so I’d stay clever. By then my mom could keep up the act and laughed, taking my hand as they led me around the festival to pick what I wanted. As the night grew we eventually reached the climax of the evening, this huge concert in the middle of the festival with all kinds of instruments. There were solos, duets, and orchestras. It was like the world disappeared for a moment as everything became one with the music.”

Wei Wuxian swayed his head as he hummed a folk tune.

Lan Wangji closed his eyes and listened. He absently strummed a few notes to the melody.

Wei Wuxian smiled as he finished, looking up at the ceiling, “It was like magic. I decided then, I wanted an instrument. I went up to every musician afterwards, asking everything under the sun about their craft. You should’ve seen just how many there were. That’s where I first saw a guqin. But instruments are expensive and my parents didn’t make much extra.”

Lan Wangji blinked. From what he heard of Wei Ying’s pseudo-adoption his parents were rather close with the Jiang king, who was known for spoiling his loved ones.

Though, despite his close relationship with such a public figure, not much is known about Wei Changze aside from his status as a servant for the royal family.

Lan Wangji turned to Wei Ying’s silhouette, “Why not… ask the king?”

Wei Wuxian was quiet for a moment, “...Dad didn’t want to cause any more trouble for Uncle Jiang.”

Several moments passed in silence before Lan Wangji spoke softly, “Wei Ying did not get his instrument?”

Wei Wuxian blinked and grinned, “My parents keep their promises. I don’t remember much about my dad, but he was a man of action. The next day he took me out into the forest and showed me how to find a good piece of bamboo. He sat me in his lap as he carved each hole, having me test his progress. It blew my little mind how it went from making no sound, to some sound, to beautiful music. It just... never occurred to me that things could be made.” Wei Wuxian huffed a smile, “Honestly, I almost regretted it. My dad subscribed to the ‘teach a man to fish’ philosophy and had me carving flutes until I got it right. It took weeks. But when baby me finally got to hold my little flute it all felt worth it.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened, “Wei Ying learned to play from him?”

Wei Wuxian laughed, “No way, my dad couldn’t play the flute at all!”

Lan Wangji blinked.

Wei Wuxian’s laugh softened to a small chuckle, “But my mom could. Growing up in an isolated mountain community, bamboo flutes were such an accessible instrument it became a point of pride. When she told my dad, he spent the next year going around to different masters in his limited free time learning to carve a flute, just so he could give her a memory of home on her birthday. Uncle Jiang said it’s things like that which made her fall so hard for him.”

A man like that… Lan Wangji wonders if his father-in-law would have approved of him.

“Mom refused to teach me any songs though.”

Lan Wangji blinked, “She did not teach Wei Ying the right way to play?”

Lan Wangji watched the silhouette jab a finger in his direction, “There is no right way to make music.”

Lan Wangji hooded his eyes, “Melody, theory, notes, rhythm.”

Wei Wuxian waved his hand, “Bah, you Lans are always stuck within the lines. This is why you never make anything new!”

Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow at him.

Wei Wuxian tutted, “If I learned the ‘right’ way, then I would never try the ‘wrong’ way. Mon wanted me to figure it out for myself. What I like, what I didn’t like. What worked, what didn’t. Because if someone just tells you something won’t work, how do you know for sure? It’s not like you’ve ever tried it. As long as I knew how to play the flute, the correct form and proper breath, then I could find my own way to play. And it’s not like I wanted to be a musician anyway, I just thought it was fun.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes lightened. “Teach a man to fish.”

Wei Wuxian chuckled, quieting down for a moment as he spoke softly, “I learned to play properly in Lotus Pier. I wanted to see that festival again to contribute to that music, but it had completely changed. Any Gusu imagery was completely removed and left a pure lotus festival. Being so closely tied with the Lan imperial family, guqins might as well have been outlawed for how scarce they became in Yunmeng.”

Wei Wuxian tsked, “Even something as benign as music became an issue. It’s so stupid.”

Lan Wangji nodded quietly, “Mn.”

Wei Wuxian sighed, “I rarely get to hear the guqin, so I tend to take every opportunity I have.” 

Looking quietly at the water, Wei Wuxian stood up, “Anyway, I have become a disgusting prune. If Lan Zhan could shield his lovely eyes while I hide this wretched monstrosity under my sleeping robes, the heavens would be most grateful.”

Lan Wangji was silent for a moment, hands stroking the delicate string as he looked up, “I will play for you.”

Wei Wuxian paused, turning to him.

Lan Wangji vowed softly, “Whenever Wei Ying wants, I will play for you.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, soft smile on his face as he nodded with a chuckle.

 

Wen Qing looked on stiffly as the stable guards cowered before the queen, the room bustling with nervous energy as everyone scrambled to gather the search parties.

“I WANT HER BACK NOW!!!”

Jiang Fengmian had long given up trying to calm her down in favor of coordinating the troops. While Wen Qing wouldn’t mind sacrificing him to Yu Ziyuan’s ire, it’s true that there are more important things to do than coddle a petulant noblewoman. 

Yu Ziyuan whipped the floor and Wen Ning flinched, trembling next to her as he looked down. Wen Qing narrowed her eyes with a growl as she whipped her head over, “Enough! You’re a queen, not a concubine, so get ahold of yourself and act like a leader!”

Yu Ziyuan glared at her, “You Wen-dog, that’s a lot of nerve from someone who couldn’t even keep track of one girl.”

Wen Qing glared back, “Not my daughter and not my palace.”

Yu Ziyuan balled her fists and barked out a laugh, “Ha! Going on and on about loyalty and friendship , but as soon as trouble hits you show your true colors.”

Wen Qing raised her chin with narrowed eyes, “You don’t think we feel anything about this? If you bothered to remember, Jiang Yanli was one of us . One of Wei Wuxian’s inner circle!” Wen Qing raised her eyebrows as Yu Ziyuan clenched her teeth, “None of us have received the self control training that you royals have, yet you don’t see us losing our shit and throwing a tantrum. Hell, your own son, who is just as emotional and volatile as you, is being more mature about the situation. And he’s still a brat!”

“Oi!”

Yu Ziyuan whipped her head to him, “And why are you so quiet? Are you not worried about your sister at all?! She could be dead right now!”

Jiang Cheng flinched, holding his hands out placatingly, “Mother, A-Jie was impulsive, but she’s not stupid. And it’s only been a few hours, we can catch up to her before anything happens.”

Only a few hours?” Yu Ziyuan growled, “A-Li is no adventurer. Do you have any idea what can happen to a princess in a few hours? They’re as delicate as flower petals, and A-Li the most fragile of them all. She is not capable of surviving out in the wilderness for a few hours . And what about bandits or those people trying to kill Wei Wuxian?! A-Li can’t fight, she has never done well in training, if she had any at all!”

Yu Ziyuan clenched her fists so hard her nails bit into her palms. That milk toast, soft daughter of hers could never survive out in the real world. She needs to be protected!

Jiang Cheng bit his lip and looked up, “Mother, A-Jie has some basic skills—”

“Basic skills don’t stand up to trained assassins!”

Wen Qing narrowed her eyes, “You want your daughter dead that much?”

Yu Ziyuan whipped around to her in outrage but Wen Qing cut her off with a glare, “Why else would you keep screaming to the heavens and the earth how the princess, a valuable hostage, is missing with no way to protect herself. Especially when there’s a traitor somewhere in the palace!”

Yu Ziyuan growled and spun around to stomp out of the room, “If anything happens to her, I’ll have all of your heads.”

Wen Qing snorted, “Wouldn’t be the first time you’ve tried.”

Yu Ziyuan whipped the floor one more time in warning before having her Sentinels slam the door behind her.

Wen Qing huffed with hooded eyes as they all dispersed, muttering to herself as she stomped back to her office. She furrowed her brow as Wen Ning caught up to her with a nervous look at the door.

They had to tell Suibian.

While they feel disappointed in letting Jiang Yanli put herself in danger, Wen Qing was well aware that if Wei Wuxian trusted anyone with her safely, it would be Suibian.

She reached for the door handle and paused, dropping it down to her side as her hand clenched into a fist. 

Suibian doesn’t need this right now. Wei Wuxian’s forced marriage, ambush, and subsequent disappearance have taken their toll on Suibian’s mental state and are starting to affect his treatment. To tack Jiang Yanli on top of that…

Wen Qing grit her teeth, narrowing her eyes with glints of steel as she grabbed the handle.

But they can’t hide it forever and he would only feel worse if they didn’t trust him with such important information. 

Watching his expression dim into emptiness as they explained the situation was almost as painful as telling him Wei Wuxian would have to go to war without him. He just stared at the two of them as he processed what they said, eyes slowly glazing over until he was staring through them. It took several achingly long moments before he looked down so his bags hid his face, “...Can I be alone for a while?”

Wen Qing and Wen Ning shared a look, nodding as they quietly left the room to give him some space.

Closing the door behind them, Wen Qing sighed and began busying herself with brewing a calming medicine. No doubt, Suibian will have nightmares tonight, and the last thing he needs is difficulty sleeping. 

Wen Ning kept fidgeting next to her, pacing back and forth until he swung around and ran down the hall. Wen Qing raised an eyebrow after him, shaking her head as she focused on her medicine. He must have gone to the greenhouse to pick some glowberries. Suibian would always cheer up when Wei Wuxian brought him some.

Hosting colonies of bioluminescent organisms, the berry juice can be used as a temporary low-light marker at night. Wen Ning proposed this project to Wei Wuxian after witnessing the Divine Tide of the annual Lotus Festival for the first time. Apparently there’s a special chemical makeup in the lakes or plants of Lotus Pier that attracts these organisms in the first lotus bloom of the season, and the otherworldly glow was why the Jiang founder originally settled here. A kind of divine claim to the kingdom.

An experimental project between Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning, these glowberries can almost be considered a failure as they can’t can’t survive long once they’ve been picked and finding a way to make them work would waste a lot of resources. While they have their purpose, the glowberries were more silly than anything and Wen Ning has worked on much better agricultural projects since.

While they are basically useless they are also non-toxic, so Wei Wuxian has made it a habit to eat them and paint stupid patterns on his face to cheer people up after a rough day. Somehow they find it genuinely amusing to see Wei Wuxian’s mouth glowing like a ghost, and Suibian in particular would always light up and even paint his face like an idiot too. Wen Qing didn’t really see the humor, but when Wei Wuxian tried to cheer her up after a particularly painful triage, hitting him for his stupidity did make her feel better.

Wen Qing whipped her head up as the door slammed, eyes narrowing at Wen Ning’s pale face.

His hands were clenched and empty of glowberries. Wen Qing growled low in her throat. Those berries may be stupid, but this was the first project A-Ning proposed on his own and she will murder anyone who touches them.

“They’re going the wrong way.”

Wen Qing blinked, furrowing her brows, “What?”

Wen Ning took a deep breath and ran his hands down his face, “I can’t find my compass for Young Master Wei.” Wen Qing’s eyes widened as Wen Ning clenched his hands, “The Princess knew where I kept Young Master Wei’s compass and switched it out. I double checked, but I can’t find it. She must be going straight to Qishan, but the search parties are headed for Gusu.”

Wen Qing rubbed her temples. Jiang Yanli had left all her compasses in her room so no one could find her. They had all assumed she would be heading to Gusu to take Wei Wuxian’s place in the marriage and finding her along that straight road wouldn’t be difficult. Wen Qing never thought Jiang Yanli would actually try to track Wei Wuxian down personally.

If she took Wen Ning’s compass to locate Wei Wuxian, then only the one in Wei Wuxian’s hand could find her. They can’t track her.

Wen Qing narrowed her eyes. But they can track her destination.

She paused for a moment and cursed, “We know where she’s going, but we can’t tell them why.”

The Red Compasses are a secret known to only the Inner Circle. Even the king and queen are kept in the dark to avoid any possibility of a leak. And it needs to stay that way, especially with a traitor strutting about. But how do they explain why the search parties should in a completely different direction?

Wen Qing grit her teeth. No, they can’t even say the direction is wrong. Any half-decent spy would figure out they must have some way to communicate or locate one another and could use the search party’s movements to locate her first.

Wen Ning paced around, face growing increasingly pale as he thought about all the different ways Jiang Yanli could get hurt. 

Wen Qing began to pace with him. 

They’ll need to search for her themselves. Even then there are so many roads and she has a strong head start. And this is assuming they don’t pass the village she’s staying at or walk past her in the streets. There’s just too many variables!

“I’ll go.”

Wen Qing and Wen Ning whipped over to the patient's room, Suibian standing firmly in the doorway. Wen Qing cursed. Shit, they forgot about the Sentinels’ heightened hearing!

Wen Qing narrowed her eyes, “Absolutely not, you’re still recovering!”

Suibian rolled his shoulders, “With all due respect, Doc, I have one master and he gave me a mission.”

Wen Ning furrowed his brow, “Young Master Wei gave you two missions, and the first was to get better.”

Suibian paused and turned his face away, “I am feeling better, good as new and eager to get some fresh air!”

Wen Qing crossed her arms, “Don’t try to fool the person who knows your injuries the most. You may be mostly healed, but this is also a delicate time. Any strain on your body could push back the healing process months, let alone an injury.”

“That’s fine.”

Wen Qing and Wen Ning froze.

Suibian looked at them with a tired smile, the bags under his eyes stark against his sun-starved skin, “This may be the last mission Master ever gives me, so I will see it through.”

Wen Qing stared hard at him with grit teeth for a few moments, shoulders drooping as she slumped in a chair with her face in her hands. Wen Ning put a hesitant hand gently on her shoulder, quiet as he bowed deeply to Suibian.

It doesn’t take long for word to circulate throughout the Inner Circle, everyone rushing to the medical office in disbelief. Suibian hadn’t left Lotus Pier in years.

Jiang Cheng barrelled down the hall as soon as he heard. 

What the hell was that idiot thinking?! Does he have a death wish like his master?!

Jiang Cheng heard his mother yelling at him as he passed the throne room, but he ignored her. There’s not enough time to stride regally! 

As he turned to grab the door handle Jiang Cheng crashed his shoulder against the wall with a grunt, flinging the door open as he stumbled inside pointing a finger at the packing Suibian as he glared at the ground, “You can’t go, I forbid it!”

“Have I gotten so ugly you’d mistake me for Sandu?”

Jiang Cheng choked as Sandu barreled in after him, “Master just give the word and I’ll kick his ass right back into bed!”

Suibian laughed, “Sandu, you couldn’t beat me if I had no arms and two broken legs.”

Sandu’s jaw ticked as he stepped forward, only to be shoved aside as Mian Mian stepped into the room, “Glad to see the testosterone is as high as ever. I was starting to think you’d gone soft.”

Suibian wagged his finger at her, “Tut tut tut, judging a man on his musculature. Is that the Jin vanity seeping out of you?”

“I reserve that for people who annoy me.”

Suibian grinned, “I thought I was one of those people.”

Mian Mian pursed her lips to hold back a smile, “Give it a week. Right now I’m too glad seeing you back on your feet.”

Wen Qing crossed her arms with a glare as Wen Ning stumbled under the weight of the luggage he was carrying, “Well he won’t be on his feet for long. This is a terrible idea that I am only supporting because he’ll just sneak out and harm himself further. If there was quite literally any other option, this idiot would be tied to the bed in a heartbeat.”

As Third Shidi closed the door behind him with a nod at her, Wen Qing explained the situation. The atmosphere slowly turned serious as she spoke.

Jiang Cheng’s stomach churned as he heard the effects on Suibian’s recovery, face pale as the horrifying image of Suibian’s freshly burned back played vividly in his mind. He whipped his head up, “Why should Suibian even be the one to go? Clearly I’m more suited to finding my own sister.”

Wen Ning looked down with furrowed brows, “Are you sure about that?”

Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Third Shidi tapped his head, “Cut it out, we all know what he meant.”

Even in his current condition, Suibian was still the most capable for such a mission without a doubt. His tracking ability was just as famous as it was infamous, going to the ends of the earth without hesitation.

It was quite the impressive feat for someone who was never formally trained in tracking.

Jiang Cheng clenched his fist, “But this time there’s a moving target with a moving destination. It needs endurance, and that’s not something a bedridden hospital patient has!”

Suibian raised his hand half-heartedly, “To be fair, I’m not bedridden. Just highly advised.”

Mian Mian knocked her hands on her hips as she raised an eyebrow at Jiang Cheng, “So you’re saying both the princess and the crown prince should go missing? Because there’s no way your parents would let you go alone, and they can’t know where you’re going.”

Jiang Cheng was quiet.

Suibian sighed, “You won’t look me in the eye even now? This might be the last time you ever see me.”

Jiang Cheng whipped up with a glare, “Don’t even joke about that!”

He feels his head get shoved down as Suibian ruffles his hair with a grin, “It’s because I know it’s not true that I can joke about it.”

“How can you be so sure?”

Suibian looked out the window at the forest in the distance with a quiet smile, “Simple. As long as he lives, I will be there for him.”

Jiang Cheng frowned as that familiar and destested feeling bubbled in his chest.

He felt hands dropping to rest on his shoulders, looking up to find Suibian’s proud smile, “You’re our eyes on Lotus Pier. The Doc may not take any shit, but she’s limited in what she can do. We need you to cut through the bullshit and figure out what the hell is going on. We’re counting on you.”

Jiang Cheng froze as he looked down with clenched fists, “...At least take Sandu with you.”

Suibian scoffed, “I don’t need that toxic viper dragging me down!”

Sandu narrowed his eyes with a twitching smirk, “You wanna fucking die?”

Grabbing his cloak, Suibian sent them a wave, “Alright, everyone remember the mission and stay safe.”

“Oi, don’t fucking ignore me!”

Jiang Cheng jogged after him, “How do you even plan to catch up to her? She has a head start on a fast horse.”

Suibian eyes’s glittered.

Walking through the winter stables, the group slowly pale as they neared the General’s horses. Suibian grinned as he strode through, the group freezing as he neared one particular stable.

Wen Qing choked, “That hell beast?!”

Wen Ning trembled slightly, “Young Master Wei’s horse…”

Jiang Cheng whipped around to him with wide eyes,  “Are you out of your fucking mind? You’ll die!”

Suibian ignored them as he grabbed the handles, swinging the doors open to a large black beast with eyes like the devil as it glared him down.

Suibian smirked, “Hey there, Lil’ Apple.”

 

Snowflakes drifted gently against the window as the sound of tea pouring echoed through the room.

Jin Guangyao quietly held his cup as Nie Mingjue played with his cup for a second before downing the hot liquid and slamming the cup back on the table, “What do you want?”

Jin Guanyao sighed, “Am I not allowed to seek some company?”

Nie Mingjue narrowed his eyes, “You never want my company unless Xichen comes along.”

Jin Guanyao took a sip of his tea, “Why is Da-Ge already angry with me when I haven’t done anything yet?”

Nie Mingjue snorted, “But you will, won’t you?”

Jin Guangyao set his cup down and looked at him.

Nie Mingjue crossed his arms, “Out with it.”

Jin Guangyao bit his lip, “I’m worried about this marriage treaty.”

Nie Mingjue huffed. Of course he would be, “Xichen will make sure you get a fair deal in the negotiations.”

Jin Guangyao furrowed his eyebrows, “It’s not that!” he took a calming breath, “...Haven’t you noticed the Emperor’s rather… eccentric behavior in regards to the General?”

At the very least Nie Mingjue could agree that some of the Emperor’s decisions regarding the General are questionable at best. Going out of his way to meet him in battle is understandable, what man wouldn’t get excited from such an intense rivalry? Even the marriage proposal made sense once Huaisang spoke about it a certain way, and Nie Mingjue was well aware that the Emperor was not a man of war. But the whole ribbon fiasco…

However, Huaisang wasn’t wrong when he pointed out these events didn’t cause any harm. And Lan Wangji definitely earned their respect.

Nie Mingjue narrowed his eyes, “Are you insinuating something about the emperor?”

Jin Guangyao sent him a side glance, “I’m sure you know what the Emperor’s ‘ business trip’ really is.”

Nie Mingjue tsked.

Running off on an escort mission and dumping all the real work on Xichen. It makes Nie Mingjue growl just thinking about it.

Jin Guanyao watched his expression from behind his cup, taking a small sip before setting it firmly on the table, “I am worried the Emperor may have been tempted by the Yiling Patriarch. He was known to possess strange powers that could even control the dead. What’s to stop him from controlling the living?”

Nie Mingjue crossed his arms with a huff, “Few people outside of Yunmeng have even seen the Yiling Patriarch’s infamous armies up close. I’m not going to believe some rumors spread by a bunch of poor peasants who still think animals with rabies are just possessed by demons.”

Jin Guanyao hummed, “While the Yiling Patriarch did mostly stay within the borders of Yunmeng, there was another party that saw him rather frequently. I would know, given my involvement.”

Nie Mingjue narrowed his eyes. Always so careful with his fucking words, trying to phrase it just right. Just spit it out and say you were a spy. 

Jin Gunagyao looked at him, “I saw it.”

“That’s even less credible.”

Jin Guanyao sighed, “Da-Ge, why don’t you trust me?”

“You want a list or a general explanation?”

Jin Guangyao’s eyebrow twitched. He took a deep breath, “Whether Da-Ge believes me or not, how many other strange inventions has General Wei made that no one can replicate? Whose blueprints are completely unheard of?”

Nie Mingjue slammed a fist on the table, “We’ve both experienced first-hand what the General can do and how far he’s willing to push himself. He’s a smart bastard, and I’m not about to attribute his hard work and talent to some magic bullshit!”

Jin Guanyao flinched, clearing his throat as he raised his hands placatingly, “I never said anything about magic or witchcraft. I simply wished to point out how wide the scope of his abilities reaches, and how little we understand them.” Jin Guanyao straightened his posture as his eyebrows furrowed, “Everytime we think we’ve found his limit, General Wei comes out in a brand new field of expertise. Psychology, chemical engineering, horse breeding, even fabric technology. Who knows what else he can do, or rather, why should we assume he can’t do something?”

Nie Mingjue crossed his arms, “And this thing he supposedly could do affected the Emperor?”

Jin Guangyao was quiet for a moment, “There are many ways to control a person’s behavior. That is something we have also experienced first-hand during the Sunshot Campaign. And one of the people involved back then is on the General’s side now.”

Nie Minjue grit his teeth. Wen Qing was an infamous figure among the now-four nations. With a medical genius surpassing that of even the most highly-acclaimed imperial physicians, Wen Qing was a common sight by Wen Rohan’s side. Whenever his ambitions turned towards the human body she was the first person he called.

And for some fucking reason, Wei Wuxian broke her out of Jin containment and gave her his protection.

His soft idiot brother thinks Wei Wuxian was just desperate to heal his injured Sentinel, his side empty ever since she appeared in his ranks. As ridiculous as the thought was, the General was a rather eccentric man who openly didn’t give a shit about status. Even then, Nie Mingjue didn’t remember if that Sentinel disappeared before or after Wen Qing’s prison break. 

Nie Mingjue pinched the bridge of his nose. He hates talking about the Wen Remnant situation with his idiot brother. When he inevitably loses his temper and rages about what she’s doing now not rectifying what she did in the past, Huaisang would just look disappointed and ask for proof. 

He doesn’t need paperwork with her signature on it. Huaisang saw her in the Camp, that should be proof enough!

And then Huaisang wouldn’t talk to him and dinner would be tense.

It’s not like he hasn’t tried to find evidence to end this argument once and for all, but everything was burned in the war and the Nightless City is located in Wei Wuxian’s domain!

The lack of movement on the other end of the table tripped his senses, Nie Mingjue glancing out of the corner of his eye to find Jin Guanyao staring at him silently. Nie Mingjue’s fingers tightened.

Sneaky bastard. They weren’t talking about Wen Qing.

Whatever ambitions or desires his inner circle has are all subordinate to the General’s command. They don’t decide his actions, Wei Wuxian decides theirs.

Nie Mingjue tilted his chin up with narrowed eyes, “You think the General, who hates confinement and makes a point of disengaging from politics, would hypnotize the Emperor into marrying him?”

“If it would end the war? Yes.” Jin Guangyao narrowed his eyes, “He was willing to use the Green Fire. How can we discount anything else?”

Nie Mingjue paused. 

No matter how stubbornly Wei Wuxian kept to his principles, that last battle was more than questionable. He’d even lost his own people in the crossfire.

There’s no question the General won’t let this war end in a loss. As much as he is annoyed by the court, he’s sacrificed much more important things already.

And if he could manipulate the aloof emperor into a fervent suitor, then what’s stopping him from lining things one-sidedly in Yunmeng’s favor?

His fingers tapped his cup as Jin Guangyao poured more tea.

But it’s not like the Cloud Recesses are full fo blind fools, especially with Lan Qiren’s clear opinion of Wei Wuxian. He’d be the first to notice any slight change. And if Nie Mingjue knows that, then Jin Guangyao definitely understands.

Nie Mingjue narrowed his eyes in a sidelong glance, “You’re worried for the empire?”

Jin Guanyao bit his lip and crossed his hands on the table, “I’m worried for Er-Ge! You know he can be slightly irrational when it comes to his little brother.”

Nie Mingjue paused.

Xichen?

Jin Guanyao furrowed his brows as his hands clenched, “I have no worries that the Gusu empire will be fine. However, Er-Ge will be the one to suffer if General Wei becomes the Empress.”

Nie Mingjue straightened. 

For once, he watched Jin Guanyao lose his composure as he tapped nervous fingers along the tab;e, “How could Er-Ge not suffer, when he would never be able to claim his own child after giving it to the Empress to raise as General Wei’s own?” Jin Guangyao whipped his head over to Nie Mingjue, “It’s not fair to Er-Ge, doesn’t Da-Ge agree?!”

Nie Mingjue tightens his grip on his cup, “A child of the Empress, huh…”

Jin Guangyao pursed his lips, “It’s not like Er-Ge to use loopholes like this.”

Nie Minjue took a swig, “You’d be surprised. Xichen is not the graceful saint you think him to be, just like you’re not the pitiful angel you pretend you are.”

Jin Guanyao was quiet for a moment, “...Da-Ge does not see an issue with this arrangement?”

Nie Mingjue glared, “It’s not my preferred option, but it’s the only one we have. The proposal has already been accepted and the General is already on his way. Canceling the marriage now would only throw us all back into war but with the moral outrage firmly in Yunmeng’s favor. This may be a wild concept, but you don’t offer peace just to stab someone in the back.”

Jin Guangyao held his hands up placatingly, “I am simply saying it can be handled differently. The bride doesn’t have to be General Wei. I am sure there is another, more suitable, candidate in Yunmeng.”

Nie Mingjue swirled his cup around as he glanced at his sworn brother. 

More suitable for who?

Nie Mingjue crossed his arms, “Someone who is acceptable as a peace offering, but can also give birth?”

Jin Guanyao smiled, “The Yunmeng kingdom does have a princess.”

Nie Mingjue furrowed his brows, “I thought the Queens were still working out an engagement?”

Jin Guangyao’s smile widened, “Those plans have unfortunately been canceled.”

Nie Mingjue tapped his fingers against the table. Xichen was adamant about Lan Wangji’s decision, but a blood-bound marriage between the royal families should be more stable anyway. But it’s not like either of the brothers to make an important decision without thinking it through.

Jin Guanyao glanced at him, “Da-Ge,  we both know Er-Ge is wise as a leader, but even more loving as a brother. How often has he confided in us about his worries about His Majesty? If the Emperor believes this is the right decision, there are all too many reasons that can be used to justify his choice in Er-Ge’s mind.”

Nie Mingjue’s tapping stopped, “‘If the Emperor believes’, huh?”

Jin Gunayao inclined his head, “I am simply considering all possibilities. In the end, as we’ve discussed, all the General wants is for the war to end. If he was affecting the Emperor, he started a long time ago, while the Jin-Jiang engagement was still a possibility. Now that it is not…”

Nie Mingjue clenched his teeth as he sat quietly for a few minutes, huffing as he got to his feet, “I’m not agreeing with you, but a talk does seem to be necessary. I’m sure you have it all planned out, so just send for me when the time comes.”

Stalking across the room, Nie Mingjue paused with his hand on the doorway as he sent Jin Guangyao a sidelong glance. He was quiet for a moment as he analyzed the other’s expression, “...And what do you really want?”

Jin Gunayao sighed, “Why does Da-Ge always assume I’m lying?”

Nie Mingjue looked at him for a moment before scoffing as he left.

Chapter Text

A lone bird flew through the forest sky as the pair made their way down the dirt path. 

Jiang Yanli peeked nervously behind her as Jin Zixuan looked confidently ahead down the road, a complete change from how she found him in bed that morning. 

It was a good thing she always packed some stomach medicine.

Turning her eyes back toward the road, Jiang Yanli could feel the weight of the compass in her robes. When she checked her compass that morning, the situation had changed.

A-Xian moved.

Their moderate trot seemed to stretch into an agonizing pace as Jiang Yanli tapped the reins impatiently. It’s almost noon and they’ve barely exited the town. They’re already behind, they should be running at full speed. Jiang Yanli bit her lip as she looked down. But given Jin Zixuan’s condition, he may not be able to handle the rough speed.

Jin Zixuan glanced at her tapping fingers, turning his head away as he rubbed the back of his neck.

Jiang Yanli heard some clopping behind her, blinking as Jin Zixuan caught up to ride beside her. He glanced at her, raising his chin as he cleared his throat with a light flush, “Well? Winter will end by the time we reach them at this rate.”

Jiang Yanli carefully kept her eyebrows from raising as she glanced at him, “Is Your Highness well enough for such a speed?”

Jin Zixuan whipped his head away with a flush, “Your Wen doctor packs decent medicine.”

Jiang Yanli giggled, “Be glad she’s not here to hear that or Your Highness may have learned the true power of acupuncture.”

Jin Zixuan shivered as a memory of Wen Qing taking down a 200 hundred pound mass of muscle with a flick of her wrist ran unbidden through his mind. Jin Zixuan looked rigidly forward, voice cracking, “Enough dawdling, let’s go!”

Jiang Yanli hid her smile as he cleared his throat to its normal tone, filing that bit of information away for the next time he caused trouble.

Nudging her horse to speed up, Jiang Yanli carefully searched for the sign pointing them to the right road as the traffic on the road dwindled. 

An hour later the road began deteriorating into a rugged trail, Jiang Yanli’s eyebrows furrowing as Jin Zixuan looked around the towering canopy. Slowing to a stop, Jiang Yanli looked at her map as her eyes narrowed with increasing worry.

Where was the signpost?

Jiang Yanli bit her lip. It couldn’t be… Did she misread the map?

A-Xian was painfully careful about map accuracy as he knew better than anyone else how dangerous a few feet disparity could be on a mission. And his map says the intersection to Qishan should have been close to the town.

Jin Zixuan peeked at her pinched face, straightening his back as he looked around the area with narrowed eyes. Riding up closer to her, Jin Zixuan furrowed his brows, “I assumed it was a difference in road culture, but in Lanling there are signposts at every proper crossroad. Were those intersections supposed to have signs?”

Jiang Yanli flinched, “I… don’t travel often and never by myself. I have never paid attention to such things.”

She hung her head quietly, shoulder hunching slightly as she waited.

“Of course not, there is no need for someone of your status to deal with such lowly things.”

Jiang Yanli blinked, peeking back to find Jin Zixuan facing her. He raised an eyebrow, “What? I’m not going to chide a princess for lacking a peasant’s knowledge.”

Jiang Yanli’s hands clenched, “But I chose to leave alone.”

Jiang Yanli huffed a self-deprecating laugh as she buried her face in her hands, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Jin Zixuan reached out, hand freezing as he took it back to rub his neck, “At least you can admit it.” Jin Zixuan dropped his hand, turning to firmly face her, “I’ve met many people in my own family who can’t even do that much.”

Jiang Yanli froze, face lifting out of her hands as Jin Zixuan shifted nervously, “Besides, Maiden Jiang is...Maiden Jiang is rather capable.” Jin Zixuan whipped his head away with a flush as he cleared his throat, “Compared to the other ladies I’ve met.”

Jiang Yanli blushed as she looked down. Shaking her head, she straightened her back with a small smile, “Your Highness is… too kind.” She raised her eyes to look at Jin Zixuan, “Thank you.”

Jin Zixuan froze, rubbing the back of his neck as he gave a stiff nod without meeting her eyes.

Jiang Yanli smiled as he raised his chin while fidgeting with his reins, “Let’s go back and find a landmark.”

Jiang Yanli rode up behind him with a giggle, “That is a wonderful idea, Your Highness.”

After a while, Jin Zixuan peeked out the corner of his eye at Jiang Yanli’s slowly pinching face as she kept glancing at the sun. She kept fidgeting with something in her sleeve, the same way she would before looking at her map.

Likely… it’s some kind of locator device.

Jin Zixuan sighed through his nose. A-Yao was right about his suspicions, but then again it’s not surprising. No thought is too crazy concerning Wei Wuxian.

Already the bits of innovation they were able to gather from the scraps left behind on the battlefield tell of great possibilities for the future of industry. Specks of genius stolen from corpses. Jin Zixuan frowned. He never liked that crazy brat their clan found, but he can’t deny that Xue Yang's ability.

The prince huffed.

Not that any of it matters.

With the war coming to a close these things won’t be necessary soon, and frankly Jin Zixuan doesn’t want to deal with them. Their nation is strong and rich enough as it is, no need to stir the hornet’s nest for no reason.

There’s no point sacrificing your humanity just for greed.

But, he has seen his father’s ambitions these past few years. Felt them when his father tried every means to get him to join a war he doesn’t believe against people he doesn’t wish to fight for reasons he doesn’t agree with.

And if he or anyone in the Jin court asks about what information he’s gathered…

He was just an escort. What, did they expect him to rifle through an unmarried maiden’s clothes?

And if they point out her fidgeting somehow…

Well. He’s not clairvoyant, it’s probably just a nervous tick.

But maybe… he should try to take a peek. Just at the map, at least!

If he just knew how she was tracking Wei Wuxian or where exactly they were going, he could help. He has experience in these things!

Hearing Jiang Yanli sigh dejectedly, Jin Zixuan straightened up and began looking around them with a grimace, searching for any landmarks. Maybe there’s a village close by so they won’t have to journey all the way back. If only he knew these roads!

Whipping his head in all directions, his eyes caught sight of a speck of black up above. A lone bird circled overhead. 

Jin Zixuan brightened and gestured at it, “That bird, isn’t it the same one we saw near the town?”

“Yes!” Jiang Yanli stopped her horse, eyes squinting as her eyebrows furrowed, “Wait, that breed should have migrated away by now.”

Jin Zixuan narrowed his eyes, “And we haven’t been riding long enough to reach the town yet. Has it been following us?”

Hearing a rustle, Jin Zixuan unsheathed his sword quickly, clenching it tightly as he moved to cover Jiang Yanli. He narrowed his eyes as footsteps sounded around them, sharp swords glinting in the light as several rough dirty faces smirked menacingly at the pair.

Jiang Yanli pursed her lips and unsheathed her sword in one smooth motion. This situation feels distinctly different than before.

Jin Zixuan jerked his chin at them, “What do you want, can’t you see we’re busy?”

One of the men barked a laugh, “A haughty little bitch, just like the boss said.”

Jin Zixuan bristled in outrage, “The audacity! Do you know who I am?!”

Jiang Yanli took in their mismatched armor and leering expressions as she moved to cover his back, “Your Highness, these are bandits. The higher your station, the more ransom you are worth.” 

Jin Zixuan pointed his sword at a particularly bold bandit, “We just came in yesterday and no one knows who we are, why did they single us out?”

The leader of the group spit in disdain, “Oi princess, you really think you can just throw a bag of gold around on our turf and we won’t hear about it?”

Jiang Yanli narrowed her eyes. This is Wei faction territory, there shouldn’t be any bandit territories around here. She grit her teeth. Unless A-Xian’s budget cuts have affected them more than she thought. The bandits’ dialect is different from the locals back in town, so they must have migrated from another place.

Jiang Yanli snapped out of her daze with a hurried raise of her sword to block a bandit’s sudden slash.

Jin Zixuan cursed as the group charged all at once, quickly surrounding them with wild swings. Jin Zixuan blocked a slash, kicking the bandit back as he stabbed another in the throat. He cursed as he heard Jiang Yanli grunt, glancing to see her struggling to push back a heavyset bandit.

Pulling the reins, his horse kicked one of the bandits as he twisted to stab into the bandit’s arm, Jiang Yanli narrowing her eyes to kick him square in the face as the man hollered on the ground, “Thank you, Your Highness.”

Jin Zixuan gripped his sword tightly as more bandits crawled out of the forest, “It’s a bit early for that.”

He narrowed his eyes as the group all lunged at them at once, barely landing a hit before a blade flashed inches from his face. He glanced behind him where Jiang Yanli focused on blocking, sweat dripping down her temple as she was clearly out of her element.

Looking around at the feral group, Jin Zixuan cursed.

He was hoping it wouldn’t come to this.

Whistling so his horse would kick one of the bandits through the swarm to make an opening. Slicing through another man’s neck, he yelled out to Jiang Yanli, “Go ahead, I’ll take care of things here and follow!”

Jiang Yanli rounded her horse to face the opening with heaving breaths, “But what about—”

He growled grabbing her arm gently to lean in close, “Just trust me. Go. I will protect you.”

Jiang Yanli hesitated for a moment, steeling her eyes with a nod as she barreled through the opening. One of the bandits scrambled for his bow, crying out as Jin Zixuan slashed down to cut off his arm, “Oh no, you bastards are mine!”

Jiang Yanli panted, eyebrows furrowing as she glanced to the empty road behind her. 

She froze at a rustle in the trees, pulling the reins to stop as a barrage of arrows flew just in front of her.

Jiang Yanli’s eyes widened as another group of bandits charged at her. Gripping her sword tightly, Jiang Yanli met one of their swords with a grunt as she kicked him off, yelping as she felt a grip on her arm.

Jiang Yanli grit her teeth as she struggled against the hold, lashing out blindly with her sword until she hit something. The bandit grunted but held on firm, Jiang Yanli paling at the hungry look in his eyes, “Look boys, we’ve got us a girlie here!”

Jiang Yanli clenched her eyes shut at the round of hollers as she tightened her fists, pulling roughly on her arm when she heard a thump. Jiang Yanli blinked as the bandit fell over, a gold-feathered arrow sticking out of his throat.

But, His Highness didn’t have a bow with him.

The bandits cursed, looking around wildly as one tried to grab her only to end up the next body on the floor. 

Jiang Yanli’s eyes widened as several flashes of gold charged over the hill to engage with the bandits, a few others surrounding her in a protective circle. She furrowed her brows as the bandits fought back wildly instead of running away, a few cursing that this wasn’t part of the deal.

She blinked at the clop of hooves as a guard in the unique robes of the Jin squad captain rode up to her with a confident grin, “Hello Princess, the cavalry's here.”

Jiang Yanli blinked as he slashed a path through for her with ease, “Come on, let’s go!”

Gripping her sword, Jiang Yanli nodded as she followed the squad captain out. Glancing back at the dimming sounds of battle, Jiang Yanli called out, “I thought His Highness came alone.”

The guard chuckled as they neared a clearing, “Technically we’re not here for him.”

Jiang Yanli tilted her head, eyes widening as she saw the luxurious carriage sitting regally in the center of the clearing surrounded by stone-faced guards. Jiang Yanli’s jaw dropped as they bowed to her in unison, even going through the formality to unroll the carpet leading to the stairs.

The squad captain raised an eyebrow to her through his grin, “horseback is no way for a lady to travel.”

Jiang Yanli numbly slid off her horse as she took in the almost glittering gold carriage with intricate motifs covering every inch of space. Her shoulders slumped dully, bag plopping on the ground as she noticed the fitted stained glass windows.

Stained glass windows, something you can rarely find even on buildings. The glass is so delicate it can only be used on leisure tours.

Jiang Yanli sweatdropped with a stiff smile. How outrageously expensive…

She turned numbly to the squad captain while pointing a trembling finger, “You mean, His Highness prepared that for me?”

He rubbed his neck sheepishly with a chuckle, “Well, you know how he is.”

Jiang Yanli flushed, smiling softly to herself, “...I think I’m starting to.”

Picking up her bag, Jiang Yanli blinked as she held it close to her chest, “But all this time…?”

The squad guard huffed, “ When the time is right he said, when the time is right .”

So this large group was following behind them the entire time? The town would have been in an uproar of gossip at such a blatant display of wealth.

Unless…

Jiang Yanli’s smile twitched, “Were you… sleeping outside of the town?”

The squad captain cleared his throat, “It’s part of the job.”

Jiang Yanli smiled blankly, “Ah yes, of course.” She’ll need to speak with Jin Zixuan about the treatment of his guards.

The squad captain bowed as he led her to the carpet, Jiang Yanli nervously glancing at the stone-faced guards as she walked past them.

Not the slightest twitch, how well-trained!

Jiang Yanli clutched her bag close as she looked at the steps. Somehow she feels woefully underdressed for this…

Taking a hesitant step onto the stairs, she placed her hand on the door frame as she heard the rapid clopping of hooves. Eyes lighting up as she caught that familiar cloaked visage, Jiang Yanli waved at him.

The squad captain bowed deeply, “Your Highness.”

Jin Zixuan’s horse sped up and Jiang Yanli’s eyes widened at the arc of blood as the guard’s head went flying. Jin Zixuan ran as fast as he could, “MAIDEN JIANG!!!”

Wait, how could a leisure carriage like this keep up with a speed like theirs?

She whipped around to the guards, pushing off the door when large hands gripped her arms in an iron hold. Jiang Yanli braced herself against the door frame with a yell as the guards pushed against her back, crying out when one clawed at her hand to pry her sword from her grip.

Jin Zixuan snarled as he slashed at the group that surrounded him, ignoring the ones behind him to break through as he watched Jiang Yanli struggle until she was finally shoved into the carriage with a painful thud.

Eyes narrowed into slits, Jin Zixuan whipped his head around wildly as he slashed until he caught sight of a bow. He thrust out his sword while the guard reached for an arrow, snatching the bow and quiver off his slumping body when he heard the whinny of horses.

Jiang Yanli groaned, biting back a wince from where her knee hit her pan as she scrambled up to the door. A cold click sounded out sharply against the muffled clangs of battle, Jiang Yanli choking back her panic as she pulled on the door handle roughly. Gritting her teeth, Jiang Yanli stepped as far back as she could and braced her arm as she smashed her shoulder against the door. Jiang Yanli bit back a whimper as her arm trembled, clenching her fist tightly as she braced her shoulder again. Jiang Yanli took a step back, yelping as a sudden tremor sent her tumbling to the ground clutching her throbbing knee. 

Eyes wide as the carriage began to move, Jin Zixuan quickly sheathed his sword to notch the bow as a group of guards surrounded him. Nimbly dodging their strikes, Jin Zixuan pulled the string back as he narrowed his eyes with vicious aim at the driver’s head. Locking into position, Jin Zixuan cried out as a sharp blade slashed down his right arm, his horse kicking out with a whinny at the guard who cut him as Jin Zixuan bit back a wince as he tried to move his arm.

The sound of the rolling carriage cut through his haze, Jin Zixuan’s eyes widening in panic as he heard Jiang Yanli’s scream. He charged his horse forward with a snarl, ignoring the guards closing in on him as his attention zeroed in on the carriage. Raising his bow Jin Zixuan bit back a scream as the pull back of the string split his wound open further, grinding his teeth as he aimed the arrow through heaving breaths. With one cold look as the swords neared him, he let the arrow fly.

Jiang Yanli’s eyes widened as the carriage began moving, breathing sharply as she ignored her burning shoulder to crash fervently against the door with a sharp cry. She slipped as the carriage abruptly stopped, forehead slamming against the door with a yelp. Jiang Yanli curled up with a muffled sob as she tenderly cradled her head, pulling back trembling hands to see blood staining her fingers. She inhaled sharply, shoulders trembling as she clenched her hands tightly. 

Her head thrummed in pain at every sharp clang from outside, the clash of swords drawing closer to the unmoving carriage. Jiang Yanli clutched her bloody hands closer to her chest as she flinched at a thud hitting the wall, feeling a hard coldness jabbing at her ribs. Raking through her sleeves, Jiang Yanli blinked at the compass. Glinting off the colorful window light, Wen Ning’s compass was littered with an untold number of scratches too deep to buff out.

Wen Ning is one of the most sentimental people Jiang Yanli knows, even pressing the flowers from their shabby shotgun welcome party to cherish them properly. He would never handle a gift directly from A-Xian carelessly.

Jiang Yanli grit her teeth as she grabbed the door handle to drag herself up, scrubbing at her eyes to glare out the window stubbornly.

Her brothers were seen more often with bandages than without. 

Maiden Wen often remarked how A-Xian can’t be human to walk off this or that.

One of the strongest men she’d ever met had practically half of his body melted off and still tried to train.

Jiang Yanli clapped her trembling hands sharply, the stinging pain steadying them as she grabbed her bag. This war had her surrounded by sacrifice all of her life, this little scratch was nothing.

Skimming the clearing, Jiang Yanli spotted an opening as she dived into her bag and pulled out her make-up stained shawl. She wound the silk around her hand, rough movements tightly covering her palm as Jiang Yanli’s eyes kept darting back outside. 

A sudden jolt from the carriage knocked her back against a wall, Jiang Yanli’s eyes widening as she hurriedly held the window frame. Swinging the pan with her other hand, Jiang Yanli buried her face in her bound arm as she smashed through the glass. As the carriage moved, she quickly braced her bound hand against the flattest part of the window pane as she hauled herself up. Hearing a carriage guard shout she flinched, eyes wide as she swung her pan out to smash against his head. 

Balancing on the window ledge, Jiang Yanli cried out as a sudden jolt shoved her into the broken glass. She distantly heard Jin Zixuan’s voice as she grit her teeth and threw herself out of the window, crashing onto the ground as the carriage took off.

Jiang Yanli quickly scrambled for her pan, lashing out at the ankle of the guard she landed next to. As he yelped and lost his balance she hit the other ankle to bring him down, shuffling over to bash him in the head with a wince. 

The breeze on her back sent a shiver down Jiang Yanli’s spine as she staggered to her feet, blinking the blood out of her eye as she whipped her head around wildly. Her eyes widened as she saw Jin Zixuan get dragged off his horse, whistling commands as her horse barreled into the battle to kick the guard off of Jin Zixuan, crushing two of the guards under its hooves as it passed before crashing down with a sharp whinny as a long cut appeared on its side.

Widening his eyes at her Jin Zixuan scrambled to his feet as a shadow enveloped her, cursing as he was tackled by the remaining guard. Jiang Yanli paled as she looked behind, sweat dripping down her temple as the guard grabbed her arm roughly so she dropped her pan

The carriage driver!

Jiang Yanli yelped as the guard twisted her arm behind her, reaching for her pan and shrieking as she was dragged back by her twisted arm. Crying at every sharp jostle as she was dragged back, Jiang Yanli bit her lip with a glare and smacked the guards leg with her balled up fist until she heard a thump as the guard froze. Blinking, she looked up as the guard slumped down, the light glinting off the arrow as he fell.

She whipped her head over to see Jin Zixuan breathing heavily with a bow tumbling out of his trembling grip as he struggled forward. Jiang Yanli’s eyes widened as she caught the flood of red staining his golden sleeve, pushing herself up with a wince to wobble over to him, “Your Highness!”

Jiang Yanli’s heart raced when he didn’t respond as she got closer, “Your Highness—”

Her heart froze as his weight toppled her, eyes widening as she felt strong arms wounding tightly around her back as they both slid to the floor. She blinked as Jin Zixuan gripped her tightly, head buried in her neck, “Thank god.”

“Thank god you’re okay…!”

Jiang Yanli froze as his voice hitched, tears welling in her eyes as she gripped him back tightly, “...I was so scared…!”

She heard a sharp wet inhale as he held her closer, hand burying into her hair as Jiang Yanli gripped his robes tightly in her fists. Jiang Yanli buried her face into his shoulder, trembling hands calming with the steady rhythm of their heartbeats.

 

Jiang Cheng growled as he stormed out of the interrogation chamber while Sandu and his father’s men moved the prisoner to another room.

That bastard refused to talk, so it’s time to try the more creative methods.

Lotus Pier was known for its skill with water.

Glaring as his foot tapped impatiently, Jiang Cheng’s eyes shot up with a huff as footsteps sounded behind him, “About time you got here, the interrogation is waiting on you.”

Third Shidi stopped beside him with a clap on Jiang Cheng’s shoulders, “Eh, let him squirm. The wait might scare him even more.”

Leveraging the movement, he leaned in to whisper in Jiang Cheng’s ear, “A courier falcon came from a secret channel. We were able to intercept it but had to let it go to avoid suspicion.”

Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrowed as he glanced at Third Shidi from the side, “You let it go?”

Third Shidi was quiet for a moment as he looked directly into Jiang Cheng’s eyes, “It was for Yu Ziyuan.”

Jiang Cheng’s eyes widened, face paling as Third Shidi leveled him with a look, “What should we do?”

Jiang Cheng shook his head, steadying himself with a glare, “Why are you waiting for me? Don’t you normally take care of these things yourself?

Third Shidi raised an eyebrow with a huff as he clapped Jiang Cheng’s shoulder before heading off with a wave, “As Suibian said, we’re counting on you.”

The strong scent of his mother’s incense permeated the room as Jiang Cheng bit back a cough.

It had been easier to sneak into his mother’s chambers than Jiang Cheng would have thought, but he does have the benefit of knowing her habits intimately. Plus, no one would question the Queen’s son entering her room.

Of course, the hard part was causing an incident to make her rush out of the room early.

As soon as he was secure Jiang Cheng ran to the fireplace, cursing as he found it empty. His mother was a thorough woman, if she couldn’t destroy the evidence before leaving then it would be on her person. 

But that itself was as risky as just leaving it in her chambers.

Jaing Cheng narrowed his eyes, looking around the room for any other way to destroy the message. He grumbled as he squinted through the incense smoke, eyes widening as his head whipped to the incense burner.

His mother never used this much incense!

Darting to the table, Jiang Cheng knocked the incense burner over to spill out its contents. Eyes widening as he saw the crumpled up paper covered in embers, Jiang Cheng snatched it with a wince as he put out the flames with his hands. 

Carefully unraveling the delicate paper, Jiang Cheng furrowed his brows as he read the message.

It was a letter from Queen Jin.

That idiot child!

 Jiang Cheng raised his eyebrows. Was it a gossip letter after all?

Ziyuan, I know this may be difficult right now, but if you see my brat could you send him back safely?

Her brat? Is that bastard peacock in Yunmeng?!

I thought I took care of it, but somehow that brat got a hold of your letter. I don’t know why that idiot is like this after everything that happened, but as soon as he read about her planned betrothal to the Emperor he ran off in a panic! He barely took a travel bag, let alone a proper entourage.

He didn’t even take Suihua!

What kind of idiot leaves their Sentinel behind to do their paperwork?!

I’ll be frank, I have no idea where he is or what he’s doing but if you find him please bring him back to me.

I can’t kill him if he’s dead!

Jiang Cheng blinked as he reread the letter several times.

That spoiled peacock who won’t even enter a carriage without a trailing carpet to keep his shoes clean ran off alone?

What the hell?

 

The room echoed with the light drips of water, Lan Wangji’s pounding heart steadily drowning out the sound as Wei Ying stepped from behind the privacy screen.

He was a vision in the candlelight, the soft warm glow accentuating the warm flush of his supple peach skin. Lan Wangji’s eyes widened as Wei Ying turned to stretch, the candle lighting the delicate pink bud behind the wet fabric.

Lan Wangji shot up and quickly grabbed his sleeping robes and a parcel as he sped to the tub.

Wei Wuxian held out a hand to stop him, “Ah, Lan Zhan, maybe we should get some more water. It’s cooled down quite a bit, and this late there shouldn’t be too long of a line.”

Wei Ying going out like that ?

Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, ears reddening as he plopped his clothes down next to the bath, “No.”

Hearing the sudden slosh of the bath water, Wei Wuxian blinked as a grin grew on his face, “Oh my, Your Highness is rather eager to try my used bath water.”

Lan Wangji froze.

The water suddenly felt too heavy, images of the silky streams of water running over that smooth skin as Wei Ying rubbed all over himself sending a rush of heat down Lan Wangji’s navel.

Lan Wangji glared down at himself. You stay down!

Wei Wuxian hummed as he dried himself off, eyes guided to the silhouette behind the screen. Tall sculpted torso with strong toned arms. Long silky hair cascading down his back like a gentle river. That sharp chin and elegant nose.

Wei Wuxian laid his head down in his crossed arms, sighing as his eyes trailed down that graceful figure, “Lan Zhan has such broad shoulders,” Wei Wuxian’s eyes traced his frame as his cheeks flushed lightly, “and such a small waist. So perfect…”

Lan Wangji ducked his head with a furious flush as his hands clenched tight to keep him steady. 

Wei Ying!!!

Wei Wuxian smiled lightly as he propped his head up with one hand, the other lightly tracing his lips, “Can I paint you sometime?”

Is Wei Ying trying to make his face so warm it heats up the bathwater?!

Lan Wangji splashed his face with the lukewarm water to calm down and quickly cleaned up and washed his hair.

Wei Wuxian snickered, “Oh, you even washed your face? Lan Zhan really made the most of it!”

Wei Ying’s bath water… on his face…

Lan Wangji smashed his head against the tub.

Wei Ying!

Wei Wuxian grinned, “Okay, okay. I won’t gross you out anymore, so please protect that big beautiful brain of yours.”

Shooting up with a splash, Lan Wangji realized the room was too small to move away from the candlelight. Ears flushing, Lan Wangji grabbed a cloth to cover himself as he shot out of the bath to dry off. 

Wei Wuxian pouted as his view was ruined and flopped onto his back.

Lan Wangji carefully dressed himself, smoothing his sleeping robes carefully so not a centimeter was out of place. He refused to show Wei Ying such an embarrassing display again. 

Thinking for a second, Lan Wangji tied his underwear almost uncomfortably tight, not wanting to risk his wangji making a stubborn appearance again.

Leaning down, Lan Wangji reached into his parcel to pull out a mirror and a small long box. Frowning at his ruffled appearance in the mirror, Lan Wangji grabbed his comb but paused as he remembered their time in the cave. He stood silently for a moment before firmly putting the comb away and running his fingers through his hair, putting every strand into place. 

He was silent as he looked at his neat appearance.

After a moment, one hesitant hand carefully took a lock of hair and moved it out of place. Ruffling his hair a bit, Lan Wangji arranged the strands until the face in the mirror had the sultry tousled look of the morning after. 

Narrowing his eyes as he himself a once over, Lan Wangji nodded and grabbed his things.

Wei Wuxian groaned at the wait, “Why take so long to put on clothes you’re going to wrinkle anyway?”

“...One must always be presentable.”

Wei Wuxian looked over to roll his eyes and froze, eyes widening as his face flushed at the sight. 

He had never seen someone so beautiful.

Sharp eyes melted in the warm candlelight in his hand, his porcelain pale skin as soft as the fairies of heaven. Cold aristocratic features were softened by lightly curling locks of rich black hair, wavy rivulets curling lightly over the perfectly pressed robes down to those long legs.

Wei Wuxian swallowed.

He was a picture of divinity, an immortal descending from heaven to grace his lover with his bed.

Wei Wuxian whipped his eyes away as he tried to calm his breathing, cheeks still burning as his heart thumped rapidly.

Lan Wanji’s eyes narrowed slightly as he tilted his chin up.

Success!

Lan Wangji calmly walked over to sit next to Wei Ying, eyes twinkling when Wei Ying tensed with trembling lips.

It’s alright Wei Ying, you can say I’m handsome. The Emperor won’t mind.

Lan Wangji ran his finger through his hair, thin strands brushing Wei Ying’s hand as he flinched. Lan Wangji’s lips twitched. I thought Wei Ying liked to tease? Go on, I can take it.

We Wuxian shot up when a wet lock brushed his finger teasingly, “Oh that’s right, I got distracted and didn’t wash my hair! Silly me.” 

Looking back for a moment, Wei Wuxian grinned at him, “How lucky, looks like I’m going to use your bathwater too Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji froze, ears burning as he hid his face in his hands.

One should not challenge a master and expect to win!

Bouncing behind the dark privacy screen, Wei Wuxian’s smile stumbled as his cheeks flushed a furious red. Who gave him the right to look like that?! How dare you show such beauty to a taken man!

Wei Wuxian pulled his hair, biting back a groan as he dunked his head in the cooling water.

After drowning himself four times, Wei Wuxian finally felt calm enough to leave the privacy screen. 

Taking a peek to the side, Wei Wuxian pouted as he saw Lan Zhan preparing for bed, “What, no card games or stories?”

Lan Wangji fluffed the pillow, “It is nine.”

Wei Wuxian dragged himself over with a huff, “Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji sent him a sidelong glance, “We must leave early tomorrow.”

He froze.

Oh, this must be why Wei Ying likes damp hair so much.

While Wei Ying’s hair is normally wild, it is still usually straight. Nothing like the gentle seductive curls hugging his shoulders. Lan Wangji followed a long arching curve as the water turned the white fabric transparent, a long black lock curling teasingly around a blushing nipple.

Lan Wangji swallowed and whipped his head away to rummage through his sleeves. Setting something on the edge of the bed, he quickly slid under the covers into the proper posture.

Wei Wuxian blinked as he bounced over to look at it, eyes lighting up as he picked up the elegantly carved comb, “Oh, you remembered! So that’s where you disappeared to in the market. You should have told me, it’s best to stick together!”

Lan Wangji turned to him, “No time.”

Admiring the simple carving, Wei Wuxian hummed as he ran it gently through his hair.

Lan Wangji froze as he hummed, eyes following as Wei Ying softly sat on the bed to finish his work. Back in the cave it was too dark to see, but in the warm candlelight and wearing proper sleeping robes his Empress truly was the picture of beauty.

Combing his hair as they prepared for bed… Such a simple domestic scene, if Lan Wangji could witness it each night he would die a happy man.

Wei Wuxian glanced at him, eyelashes fluttering as he chuckled, “Hello there, am I loud or just pretty?”

Lan Wangji snapped his eyes shut with a huff, “Shameless.”

Wei Wuxian snickered, “You didn’t answer my question.”

Lan Wangji pretended not to hear him.

Packing the comb in his bags, Wei Wuxian slid under the covers as he blew out the candle.

They lied next to each other quietly, Wei Wuxian fidgeting after a few moments as he looked at the ceiling. Huffing, he turned on his side to watch Lan Zhan. Somehow sleeping next to each other is more awkward than sleeping on top of each other.

He looked to the side where Lan Wangji laid flat on his back with his arms folded primly over his chest. Wei Wuxian tapped his finger against the sheets, “Lan Zhan, are you having trouble sleeping? You look kind of tense…”

Lan Wangji sighed with his eyes closed, “This is the proper Lan sleeping posture.”

Wei Wuxian recoiled, “You even have to sleep a certain way?! I’ll never survive…”

Lan Wangji bit his lip, cracking one eye open at him before closing it, “...Only clan members are expected to comply.”

Wei Wuxian relaxed, glancing over at him with a tilt of his head, “Does the Emperor sleep this way too?”

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxian clenched the bed sheets as he laughed, “I guess he’s not one to cuddle, that’s good to know.”

The room fell silent as they lied there, Lan Wangji peeking after a moment to see Wei Wuxian staring at the ceiling with downcast eyes. His shoulders tensed, “...Does Wei Ying like to...cuddle?”

Wei Wuxian winced, sending him a smile as he laughed, “Well if I’m going to be married… Well, you know…”

Lan Wangji looked at him out of the corner of his eyes as Wei Ying shut his eyes tightly. He was quiet for a moment, “...Is Wei Ying having trouble sleeping?”

Wei Wuxian sighed, “Sorry, am I bothering you?”

“Wei Ying is never a bother.”

Wei Wuxian flushed lightly as he grumbled, “You can’t just say something like that out of the blue.”

He shuffled to lie on his side as he faced Lan Zhan, eyes adjusting to the darkness as he made out the elegant lines of his face. Against that porcelain white skin, a small stubborn lock curled gently against his forehead. Wei Wuxian felt the soft skin on his fingers before he realized he had moved, his sword calluses grazing lightly along that smooth forehead as he slid that lock back behind a strangely warm ear.

He felt more than saw Lan Zhan turn his head to look at him, eyes staring back just as intently as Wei Wuxian’s own.

Wei Wuxian buried his cheek in his pillow with a sigh, “Lan Zhan really does have pretty hair. It suits your Lan features so well, who knew I’d be honored with such a rare sight!”

Lan Wangji blinked at him, “Wei Ying’s hair curls.”

Wei Wuxian chuckled, “Yeah, but I’m from Yunmeng! It’s common over there but I’ve never seen anything like it in Gusu! Every Cloud Recesses member I’ve met has pin-straight no matter how wet they are. Is Lan Zhan the only one?”

Lan Wangji looked down as his ears flushed, “...The Emperor has this hair.”

Wei Wuxian tried to picture it, “So even that fuddy duddy Emperor has an unkempt side…”

Lan Wangji bit his lip, “Unkempt…”

Wei Wuxian snickered “Yeah, but in a good way. I like to see guys like that lose their composure.”

Lan Wangji huffed, “I am aware.”

Wei Wuxian laughed softly, a flush crawling onto his cheeks as he felt that molten gaze on his face. His fingers pinched the fabric where his hand had yet to move from Lan Zhan’s pillow, “What about those eyes? Are golden eyes common in the Lan Clan? I know Zewu-Jun’s are a golden hazel color.”

Lan Wangji thought for a moment, “Different shades, but yes. In the imperial family."

He hesitated for a moment before adding through trembling lips, “The Emperor’s eyes are the brightest.”

“So he has that hair and those eyes? How handsome!” Wei Wuxian chuckled.

After a moment, he clenched the pillow lightly, “Maybe it won’t be too bad…”

Lan Wangji swallowed quietly, “Wei Ying will like the Emperor if he’s handsome?”

Wei Wuxian pouted, “When you say it like that it makes me sound shallow!”

Before a panicked Lan Wangji could clarify, Wei Wuxian grumbled, “It’s not like I have much else to go by.”

Lan Wangji blinked, “Wei Ying understands the Emperor so well.”

Wei Wuxian bit his lip, “I understand him but… I don’t really know him.” He sighed quietly, “We’ve only talked twice and neither time could really be called chit chat… A man that otherworldly, I don’t even know what to expect from him.”

Lan Wangji looked at him quietly, “The Emperor will treat you well.”

Wei Wuxian turned to give Lan Zhan a small smile, “What does that mean?”

Lan Wangji furrowed his brows as Wei Wuxian smiled quietly down at himself, “Something like that, isn’t it rather relative?”

Lan Wangji froze. 

Hesitating for a moment, he brought a clammy hand to cover Wei Ying’s firmly, “Then we will go by Wei Ying’s definition.”

Wei Wuxian huffed a chuckle, “The Emperor will?”

“I will.”

Wei Wuxian’s smile froze, blinking as he looked up to meet those glowing golden eyes.

Lan Wangji’s eyes softened, “Whatever Wei Ying wants, I just want you to be happy.”

Wei Wuxian’s cheeks flushed with glistening eyes, smiling as he buried himself in the covers with a gentle nod.

Neither let go of their hands.

 

The sharp sounds of construction rang in the background as A-Qing struggled to maintain a neutral face at the chaos before her. She ignored Xue Yang’s wave as he got up from his masterpiece.

There, sitting smack in the middle of the Empress’s chambers surrounded by dozens of open boxes of cargo, was a giant pile of sawdust.

Sawdust.

A-Qing carefully regulated her breathing as she took a few staggering steps forward until she could poke the pile with her pole. She was quiet for a moment, Xue Yang’s smile widening as the air around her grew darker, “Flea.”

“Yes, Little Blind?”

A-Qing slowly turned her trembling neck to face him, “ Explain .”

Xue Yang threw his hands out with a shrug as he came over to wrap his arm around her trembling shoulders, “What is there to explain, I was merely trying to help! All that sawdust from the construction was getting in the way, so the manager wanted it moved somewhere. How could I let any attention be taken off the Empress’s construction for something so small, so I took it upon myself to lend a hand. But with every corner of the pavilion being worked on, what better place than the one room nobody works in?”

A-Qing’s eye twitched as she was pressed down by his weight, “I work in here.”

Xue Yang laughed, “Little Blind’s a nobody, so it all works out!”

A-Qing clenched her fists as she ground out, “Oh really?”

Lifting her head up, A-Qing yelled, “Guards! An intruder!”

Xue Yang huffed a mocking laugh as he heard the rush of footsteps. He smirked as the guards faltered when they saw him, raising an eyebrow down at her. 

Aw, having the First Prince here gave her an illusion of power. Did she forget that he’s an esteemed member of the Jin delegation? His rank is higher than most of the people in the Cloud Recesses.

He smiled widely as the guards looked at each other hesitantly, patting her head with a few thumps, “You’re playing a dangerous game Little Blind, but don’t worry. I’ll let you off this time! We all need to be put in our place sometime!” He snickered.

A-Qing’s glower twitched into a smile as she shifted her head, “Oh, I forgot. Flea, you have a sweet tooth, right?”

Xue Yang brightened. Ah, he knew she’d come around. When you can’t threaten, just bribe!

A-Qing turned to the guards and pointed at her hair.

Xue Yang blinked as he was suddenly yanked off her shoulders, room spinning as he was thrown to the ground with two guards holding him down while the other went to report the incident.

Xue Yang blustered in outrage as he struggled against them, freezing when he heard soft footsteps approach them. Craning his neck, he look up to see A-Qing’s demented smile as she twirled her hair ribbon around her finger.

One of the guards looked up to her, “What should we do with him, Chief Attendant?”

Xue Yang sputtered, “Chief—?!”

“As ordained by his Imperial Highness!” A-Qing’s smiled at the guards, “There’s no need to hold him down like that. On his knees is good enough.”

Growling as he was hauled up, Xue Yang balked when he saw the red lotus embroidery along her ribbon.

A-Qing’s smile widened, “You know, being the chief attendant comes with many responsibilities. Housekeeping, management, security…” she narrowed her eyes slightly, “...and administering punishment.”

Xue Yang smiled through gritted teeth, “Well, look at you! Just yesterday Little Blind was a lowly servant, but you’ve risen through the ranks so quickly! Must be a perk of being the only attendant in an empty palace.”

A-Qing huffed as she planted her hands on her hips, “Even if it’s empty it still belongs to the Empress.”

Xue Yang narrowed his eyes, “Don’t get cocky now, Little Blind. As soon as that Emperor returns this place will be filled with attendants and you’ll lose all your power.”

A-Qing smirked, “And until then I have it.”

And if he thinks she’d hesitate to abuse this power for all it’s worth for even a second, then this flea is sorely mistaken.

And in the Cloud Recesses, mistakes need to be corrected.

A-Qing froze at the sound of a sigh from the doorway, dropping to a bow as Lan Xichen entered the room with the reporting guard trailing behind him. A drop of sweat ran down A-Qing’s temple as Lan Xicen called for her to rise, the prince looking over the scene without his usual smile.

Lan Xichen had a certain false perception of her. Did she go overboard and disappoint him?

Walking up to the group Lan Xichen sighed again as he looked at her, “Attendant Qing, I see you have suffered another incident. Truly it reflects poorly on the Cloud Recesses that this keeps happening.”

Xue Yang growled, “Are you really going to let a little attendant treat an ally delegate like this?”

Lan Xichen sent him a sidelong glance, “Young Master Xue, do you really believe I would miss the large pile of sawdust in the Empress’s chambers?”

A-Qing grumbled, “And it got into the boxes too.”

Xue Yang rolled his eyes, “And that little thing deserves all this hassle?”

Lan Xichen smiled, “It is not up to me what this incident deserves. Attendant Qing is the one deciding punishment.”

A-Qing straightened up with a proud grin as he looked her way. At this point, the only one who could override her sentence would be the Imperial family, and Lan Xichen looks comfortable as a spectator.

Xue Yang narrowed his eyes with a smirk at her, “Oh, are you going to hit me with your pole again?” A little caning in nothing!

A-Qing narrowed her eyes. 

For a damn man-child like this…

Tilting her chin up, she grinned, “Have him eat the soup of reflection.”

Lan Xichen blinked at her, “Hm? That’s all?”

Behind him, Xue Yang’s smile froze.

The soup of reflection, a high-quality soup full of medicinal ingredients known to increase cognitive thought among other mental stimulations. Usually considered a tool for meditation, it has been used a few times as a gentle punishment for high-status clan members.

Xue Yang felt horror dawning as he watched A-Qing’s lips curl dementedly. This little fucking monster! For Xue Yang nothing could be worse than something so disgustingly bitter. He’d throw up before he finished one bite!

A-Qing’s lips trembled as she struggled to contain her glee.

Suck it, you damn flea!

Meanwhile, Lan Xichen was humbled by her generosity in giving such a gentle punishment to someone who has caused her so much trouble, “Although I said I would leave the decision to Attendant Qing, surely this is rather lenient. There is no reason to hold back while I am here.”

A-Qing huffed, “How can this be lenient when that soup is so bitter your taste buds will shrivel up!”

Lan Xichen smiled at her childlike innocence, “No matter how bitter it is, what is a bowl of soup compared to a caning?”

A-Qing smiled with a side glance at a pale Xue Yang with his jaw on the floor, “I insist.”

“I don’t want him to hurt.” She narrowed her eyes, “I want him to learn .”

Lan Xichen gave a small nod in approval. Truly, the purpose of punishment is to educate, not seek retribution. How wise for someone so young. 

He smiled as they watched Xue Yang get dragged off crying threats of retribution with unimpressed eyes. 

It was only hours later that Xue Yang could crawl out of his bed to stagger down the halls.

That soup should be considered a war crime! How could these damn Lans stomach something so gross?!

And that heartless midget really had it forced down his throat! 

Xue Yang cursed Jin Guanyao in his mind, blinking as his eyes caught a high-ranking attendant carrying a tray in the direction of the Red Lotus Pavilion. Xue Yang’s eyes narrowed at the attendant’s face, a hollow smile spreading on his face as he bounded over.

The attendant continued walking forward, studiously ignoring the man walking an even pace behind him. Realizing this was going to continue, Xue Yang frowned and leapt in front of him, the attendant stumbling to a stop with a glare as he fixed his expression. Xue Yang rolled his eyes. Can’t even keep his composure despite his job.

Xue Yang glanced at the tray with a grin, “Oh, what’s this? Something for me?”

The attendant scoffed, “A special meal for that blind attendant, from His Highness.”

Xue Yang whistled, “Wow, such a blatant show of favor to send a personal attendant for such a lowly task! That prince must think really highly of Little Blind to do something like this. Maybe her power won’t be temporary after all.”

The attendant’s eyes chilled.

Xue Yang snickered, “Aw, are you still mad that you were told to get tea while Little Blind got to stay in the Prince’s room?” Xue Yang danced around him, “Or are you just annoyed you had to watch a mutt-blood nobody get promoted faster than you?”

Xue Yang knocked a fist against his palm with shining eyes, “Oh, even better, you had to be the one to give the promotion ribbon to someone you hate.”

The attendant’s grip on the tray tightened, before relaxing as he gazed confidently forward.

Xue Yang narrowed his eyes at the reaction, eyes dragging down to look closely at the soup on the tray. Xue Yang’s expression relaxed with a huff as he looked at the attendant, “What a coincidence, I just had some soup too! All kinds of herbs in it. They even made me sit on the kitchen floor and watch them make it,” Xue Yang glanced at the bowl with a hollow smile, “but I don’t remember any herbs like that in the room.”

The attendant clenched the tray with narrowed eyes, “Then get a better memory. Has your obsession with that Wei Wuxian fried your brain to be as poor as his?”

Xue Yang raised an eyebrow, “Aw, don’t tell me you’re upset that my target is higher ranked than yours.” Xue Yang burst out laughing as he gave the attendant a once-over, “Seriously? Do you really think someone like you would be assigned the Empress ?”

Xue Yang stopped laughing, “I watch Wei Wuxian, and you get to handle the first prince. So why don’t you stay out of the Red Lotus Pavilion?”

The attendant scoffed as he moved past, “Ridiculous.”

Xue Yang narrowed his eyes with a blank smile as he placed his hand on the tray and pulled down, sending the entire tray crashing onto the floor, “Oh wow, look what you did! How clumsy!”

The attendant whipped around to glare at him, “You—!”

Xue Yang leaned in with dark eyes as his smile curled, “Those were some expensive ingredients! I’m sure even His Great Imperial Highness will be upset to learn about this.”

The attendant narrowed his eyes, “I’ll just tell him it was your fault. Anyone would believe me.”

Xue Yang hummed as his lips curled, “Oh? And I can have them test the soup.”

The attendant froze, shoulders tensing, “You would be outed too.”

Xue Yang laughed with manic eyes, “So?”

The attendant gritted his teeth as he turned around, “I have to replace that meal before I return to my duties. Unlike you, I actually have work to do.”

Xue Yang narrowed his eyes as he glanced down, “Those ants don’t look very happy with the soup.”

The attendant’s fist tightened.

Xue Yang leaned in to put his hand on the attendant’s shoulder, “You tell him it was delivered, and so will I.”

The attendant grit his teeth but Xue Yang cut him off with a dark expression, “Remember, the Red Lotus Pavilion is my territory, and so Little Blind is my toy to play with. There must be hundreds, thousands, of people you don’t like. Pick someone else.

Xue Yang gave him a little pat on the shoulder as he turned away with a wave, “Stay in your lane, Attendant Su.”

The attendant glared at his back with trembling shoulders before he cursed and stormed away.

Xue Yang whistled with his hands propped up behind his head as he entered the kitchens. He paused as he looked at the bamboo baskets.

Xue Yang tsked. That Little Blind should starve today for the torture she inflicted on his poor stomach!

He huffed and turned around to walk back down the hall.

Standing in the doorway of the Empress’s chambers, Xue Yang smiled devilishly as he watched Little Blind sweeping up the sawdust diligently. She wiped away a drop of sweat despite the cold weather.

Good, suffer! Suffer for what you did to me!

Xue Yang snickered for a moment, grinning blankly as he calmed down.

He crossed his arms, finger tapping his elbow.

A-Qing huffed as she picked up her broom, putting the items back in the box now that she cleaned out the sawdust. Rolling her joints, A-Qing shrieked as an arm wrapped tightly around her shoulder, “Hey Little Blind!”

A-Qing’s face flushed in anger as she growled at him, “Flea, I swear to god—!”

She blinked as a bamboo basket was shoved in her face. Following the gloved hand back up to that punchable grin, A-Qing glanced back and forth from the basket as she gingerly took it with her hands. Narrowing her eyes suspiciously, she cracked open the lid to see some perfectly normal steamed buns.

She blinked, “What this?”

Xue Yang huffed as he rolled his eyes, “A task from his Royal Highness, something about learning hospitality or some other garbage.”

A-Qing raised an eyebrow, freezing as her stomach growled.

Xue Yang’s smile widened as he laughed, “Wow Little Blind, I never took you for a singer!”

A-Qing flushed as she ducked out from under his arm to scurry a few feet away. Pointing a finger threateningly at him, she stuffed a bun in her mouth without hesitation.

Xue Yang raised an eyebrow at her, “Oh? You’re not worried that I poisoned it? Maybe there’s a laxative in there, it would be rather embarrassing!”

A-Qing sent him an unimpressed look from around her bun, “You’re not that subtle, if you wanted to poison me you’d shove a dart frog down my throat.”

Settling down to eat, A-Qing dutifully ignored Xue Yang plopping onto one of the closed boxes with a dramatic sigh as he threw his arms out. Leaning back to rest on his elbows, Xue Yang swung his legs boredly as he looked around the room before settling back on her.

With her cheeks stuffed like that she looked like a hamster.

A blind hamster.

No, a lemming! Is that why they run off cliffs?

A-Qing felt her eyes twitched as she heard him snicker. Whatever it is, she was sure it’s an insult.

A-Qing slowed down her chewing, narrowing her eyes at him suspiciously as she swallowed, “Anyway, what do you want?”

He’s caused a lot of trouble in the Red Lotus pavilion, but nothing all that damaging. More annoying than anything. And certainly not worth the punishments he gets for it. So what’s his deal?

Xue Yang grinned as he opened his mouth, blinking as he froze. He tilted his head as his smile faltered, “...I don’t know.”

A-Qing raised an eyebrow at him over her bun, “What?”

Xue Yang propped his head onto his fist, eyes dropping to the ground as his brows furrowed in confusion, “...I don’t know what I want.”

A-Qing blinked at the unusually sober tone, pausing for a moment before focusing back on her meal to leave Xue Yang to his thoughts.

 

The still night was punctuated by hooves clopping so rapidly they gave the illusion of a stampede as a demonic whinny shrieked in the cold air.

Suibian panted heaving breaths as he squinted through his spotty vision.

He grit his teeth against the burn so at odds with the freezing weather, feeling his back throb with every jolt as they ran at full speed through the forest path.

Lil’ Apple shook his head with a disgruntled whinny that sounded more like a growl as they sprinted without stopping.

Suibian laughed, “Ha, you say that but you’re running faster than a war charge.”

Lil’ Apple narrowed his eyes with a snort of stubborn denial.

Suibian chuckled, the pulsing in his back sending a wave of vertigo as he shook his head to focus.

Lil’ Apple glanced back with a small snort.

Suibian grit his teeth, “I’m fine, we don’t have time to stop yet.”

Lil’ Apple narrowed his eyes, slowing down to a more normal pace anyway with a whinny.

Suibian huffed a sigh, “Alright fine, but just for a few minutes until I can catch my breath and then back to full speed!”

Lil’ Apple grumbled.

Sending him a little wave, Suibian released a quiet trembling breath as soon as the horse stopped looking. 

According to the doc, he’ll have to reapply his medicine in two hours. 

They don’t have time for extra stops.

Suibian grit his teeth, clenching the reins tightly in his hands as he glared into the night.

He’ll have to hold out until then.