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Spilled Pearls

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Lan Qiren woke up with a pounding headache and no memory of having gone to bed.

This would not have been a surprise had he been at home, as his routine was blissfully static and required no thought whatsoever – each item he needed in its proper place, each movement mapped out through years of practice, his entire body trained such that he would automatically begin to go through the necessary acts at the appropriate time and would immediately begin to feel sleepy once he started the sequence – but it was highly notable that such a thing would occur while he was out of the Cloud Recesses, where each day’s sleep would only be the same in terms of the time at which he fell asleep.

In this case in particular, he also felt sore all over – his head, as mentioned, but also his upper arms and, oddly, his right knee. Had he been exercising unwisely? The bed in the room he had been given at the Sun Palace was not that nice, too hard and unyielding, but it wasn’t enough to cause this sort of aching…

“I will see to it that the next bed lives up to your stringent standards.”

Lan Qiren’s eyes shot open and he sat upright at once: that was Wen Ruohan’s voice.

“What are you doing in my –” he started to say, then stopped.

Wen Ruohan was not in his bedroom.

He wasn’t in his bedroom.

He didn’t even recognize this bedroom.

It was massive, for one thing: a full suite, the way the hanshi was back at home, with place for a bed and a table and plenty more besides. The bed was similar in style to the one in the room he had been assigned but larger in scale – made of dark wood and covered in the red sun motif like all the other décor, but over twice as broad and an extra chi in length, and the brocade fabric used to upholster it was considerably more lush and luxurious and, admittedly, more comfortable than what he’d been sleeping on in the Sun Palace’s guest quarters. The room itself was the same, decorated in luxury extending to the point of opulence: there was a painting scroll on one wall that if genuine would be worth more than everything Lan Qiren owned put together, young master of a Great Sect or not, and on the other wall hung six swords, each more glorious than the next, and he suspected if he knew more about weaponry he would be able to recite their names.  Even the red sun that was painted on every ceiling here glittered with embedded rubies and spiritual stones, emanating pure qi – a tremendous waste, each one of them sufficient to be a cultivation sect’s precious treasure.

Amidst all this luxury, Wen Ruohan was sitting not far away from the bed, a book held loosely in his hands – it was as if he’d been waiting for Lan Qiren to awaken.

“I think you’ll find, in fact,” Wen Ruohan said, and his eyes were glittering the way they had been the day before when it had been Lao Nie he’d been looking at, full of malice and self-indulgent amusement, “that this is my bedroom.”

This was not a surprise, but rather the only logical conclusion.

Not that it explained why Lan Qiren was here.

“Did I – fall asleep?” he asked uncertainly, though surely that must be the reason. “And you – brought me here?”

“You did, and I did,” Wen Ruohan confirmed, and seemed amused for some reason. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Lan Qiren wracked his brain, which was hurting and unhelpful and slower even than its usual plodding pace. “…I was thinking that liquor tastes vile.”

Wen Ruohan’s smile broadened. “Mm. It seems that you inherited your grandfather’s head for wine.”

Lan Qiren’s grandfather was one of the elders who refused to obey the rule against alcohol. He had also, in his later years, developed a most un-Lan-like fondness for wine.

He had not at any point developed a tolerance for it.

Lan Qiren closed his eyes in a wince. He must have made a complete fool of himself!

“This foolish junior apologizes to the Sect Leader for his misbehavior,” he said. He wanted to lift his hands to salute, but the movement, when he started it, set off his stomach, and he was forced to wrap his arms around his midsection instead.

There was a rustling sound, robes moving as Wen Ruohan rose to his feet, but Lan Qiren kept his eyes stubbornly closed, fearing that any further input would cause him to bring up everything he’d consumed the night before – only to open them in shock a moment later when he felt a finger press against the acupoint between his eyes, a warm stream of spiritual energy pouring in to cleanse away the nausea and pain of his headache.

Of his hangover.

He had a hangover.

Wen Ruohan, the mighty Sect Leader Wen, was providing him with medical attention to deal with his hangover.

There weren’t going to be words for how much he was going to get punished when he got home.

“Thank you, Sect Leader Wen,” Lan Qiren croaked, feeling hot all over with unending mortification. He had truly been foolish to think that just because there was only one night left in the Nightless City there was little danger of him repeating the mistakes of the past – he had no face left to speak of.

“Oh, no need to be so formal,” Wen Ruohan said, drawing out the words in a drawl. “Not after such a memorable night.”

Lan Qiren did not want to know what he did to make the night get described as memorable. He did not.

Especially not since Wen Ruohan was so obviously enjoying himself over it.

Of course, he wasn’t an idiot: he might be slow and bad at social cues, might find it difficult to understand the unspoken or keep up with sarcasm, but even he knew what was being implied here.

An older man with a younger one, liquor shared, a bedroom…

Yes, he understood the implication.

He just wasn’t stupid enough to believe it.

Lan Qiren folded his hands together and held his head up high.

“It is good that the Sect Leader did not take insult at my foolishness,” he said stiffly. “I thank you for your care and attention, and regret the burden I placed upon you.”

If anything, Wen Ruohan looked even more amused. “Such dignity, little Lan. You’re not even going to ask what happened?”

“This junior is only sixteen,” Lan Qiren said, still stiff and icy. “There is nothing that could have taken place without Sect Leader Wen’s approval, and naturally Sect Leader Wen would not permit this junior to offend his dignity.”

There, he thought with some satisfaction. That neatly turned the situation around: even if something untoward had occurred, which honestly Lan Qiren did not believe past that first initial moment of panic – even putting aside the fact that he wasn't anywhere near sore enough for something like that to have occurred, Wen Ruohan was not known to succumb easily to lust, nor was he so eager for war that he would recklessly try to deflower the son of another Great Sect while the latter was intoxicated for the first time – the blame would fall squarely on Wen Ruohan’s head, not Lan Qiren’s.

Wen Ruohan laughed, understanding perfectly well what Lan Qiren meant.

“You would think so,” he said, sounding almost approving of Lan Qiren’s rule lawyering. “I would have thought so, too, but I find that you Lan have truly remarkable arm strength…especially when trying to keep your conversational partner from escaping while you explain the difference between what the Lan sect consider to be fundamental rules and those considered ancillary.”

Lan Qiren blanched.

That was worse than what he’d thought – because unlike the notion of him making unwanted advances (or receiving them, for that matter), it was plausible. Terribly, painfully plausible.

“Oh, yes. All five iterations of the debate.”

Oh no.

“Four sect discussions. Seventeen separate texts on the subject, not counting later commentaries. Sixty-four subsidiary rulings, all of which you were very enthusiastic in recounting - and here I was thinking that your Wall of Discipline had a surfeit of rules, when in fact it was only the beginning. Apparently, I underestimated you.”

Lan Qiren buried his face in his hands as if that would make it stop. 

“Still, I suppose I’ll have to accustom myself to hearing more about the rules in the future,” Wen Ruohan mused. “We’ll be spending far more time together, after all, on account of our sworn brotherhood.”

Lan Qiren looked up and opened his mouth, then stopped.

He had nothing to say.

His mind was absolutely blank, a state which had never before occurred.

“Forgive me,” he finally spat out. “Our – what?”

Wen Ruohan smiled at him with eyes full of poison and a mouth full of teeth.

“Sworn brotherhood,” he said casually, as if it was nothing. “You were saying that you regretted not being able to see more of the Nightless City before you left, and that you could only leave the Cloud Recesses to visit family, so we became sworn brothers.”

“We did not.”

“Oh, but we did,” Wen Ruohan said. “We drank mixed wine and swore all the appropriate oaths – I have the written version here, if you’d like to see.”

The piece of paper he put in front of Lan Qiren was recognizably in Lan Qiren’s own hand, although his normally impeccable calligraphy was rather wobbly. It was still readable, though, and the first few clauses very clearly laid out a sworn brotherhood oath.

Lan Qiren stared at it.

“We – but we can’t be sworn brothers,” he said blankly. “We’re – you’re two generations older than me. Am I supposed to call you da-ge?”

“No one has called me da-ge since my youngest brother died,” Wen Ruohan mused, and Lan Qiren was abruptly reminded of the rumors, never confirmed, that that particular death had come at Wen Ruohan’s own hands following a challenge for the seat of sect leader. “It’ll be very charming, I’m sure.”

“But…”

Wen Ruohan said nothing, but only smiled at him.

Lan Qiren looked down at the paper.

He didn’t understand what was happening.

He tried to go over it again in his mind: he had left the competition when the celebration had started, he had wandered the halls, he had tried to obey his brother’s instructions in avoiding Wen Ruohan, and when that failed, he had obeyed him in trying to be obedient. He had drunk liquor for the first time, and he had no memory thereafter until he had woken up here and now, in Wen Ruohan’s bedroom, with Wen Ruohan saying that they had –

He didn’t think Wen Ruohan was teasing him over this, though. Not the way he had so obviously been with his implications that they had used the bedroom for purposes other than sleeping.

Not with evidence, written in his own hand.

He didn’t understand.

How could this have happened?

“…did we really?” he whispered, half-hoping against hope that it was still a tease, still a joke, still – something, anything, other than what it was. That Wen Ruohan was just waiting for him to declare that he believed him, to demonstrate dismay, and then he would tell him the truth.

“Yes,” Wen Ruohan said instead, inexorable. “We did.”

Lan Qiren’s mind fell into chaos.

He didn’t understand.

He didn’t understand.

“You’re shaking,” Wen Ruohan observed. “Ah, little Lan – don’t tell me it’s now that you’re scared?”

Lan Qiren’s hands were in fact shaking, he observed, and he put them over his face.

“Why would you do that?” he asked, his whole body starting to rock back and forth in his distress. “Why would you – with me – an oath of brotherhood can’t be taken lightly –”

“It can’t be,” Wen Ruohan said, and for some reason he sounded satisfied. “Certainly not for someone like you, little Lan, who always keeps their word and does not lie.”

“But why?” Lan Qiren asked, his voice rising almost into a plaintive wail. “Our sects aren’t even allies.”

“They are now,” Wen Ruohan said, and put his hand on the back of Lan Qiren’s neck. It felt hot against his skin, like a hot stone used for massage – a little too hot to tolerate for very long. “You know the obligations of a sworn brother oath as well as I. My duty as the elder brother is to guide you and care for you, support you and yours, and in return you are to obey me and be guided by me.”

Did Wen Ruohan want a spy in the Lan sect? Lan Qiren wondered wildly. But surely there were easier ways than this – not only would he make a terrible spy, with his clumsiness and his terrible social skills and his inability not to take everything seriously, but it would be simple enough for his sect to counter such a move. All they would need to do would be to cast him out…

His rocking intensified.

Wen Ruohan brought his other arm around him and pulled him close until Lan Qiren’s forehead, with its forehead ribbon still firmly in place, was pressed against his chest.

“Don’t cry, little brother,” he crooned. “Am I to allow a priceless painting to be kept by those that see it only for its use as spare kindling? A peerless treasure sword left to prop up a door?”

“You have a half-dozen swords hanging on your wall, each more priceless than the next, and all of them rusting away for lack of use!” Lan Qiren cried out. “Even if it’s only a door, at least it’s – it’s my – my brother …”

“Do not worry about your brother, undeserving as he is of your sincerity. Qingheng-jun has been trying to get concessions out of me this entire conference,” Wen Ruohan said. His breath was warm against Lan Qiren’s hair. “I’ve been refusing, but now I’ll grant them. He won’t punish you.”

“That’s not how that works. Punishment isn’t inherently bad; it’s meant to correct and guide the individual – the failure of good conduct will always be my own, no matter the result –”

“What I have taken into my hand, no one yet lives who would dare seek to take away,” Wen Ruohan said. “Anyway, it’s too late to regret now, isn’t it? What’s done is done. Don’t you have a rule like that?”

Lan Qiren sniffed. “No. There are at least four that could potentially qualify as having similar underlying meanings, but none directly on point.”

Wen Ruohan huffed. “Little Lan, if I tore out your heart, would you have time to cite one of your sect rules before you died?”

“…maybe if it was a short one?” Lan Qiren said, blinking at the strange question; his lashes brushed against Wen Ruohan’s lapel. “I mean, there’s a difference between ‘Be loyal and filial’ and ‘Set the wise as your teacher and the moral as your example’, isn’t there? And of course you’d have to consider whether in tearing out the heart you impeded the lungs, and how much time it would take the exsanguination to take effect…”

He was calming down, he realized, and pulled back out of Wen Ruohan’s arms, blushing as he realized that the question must have been meant as a distraction, though how Wen Ruohan had realized that a distraction would be the best way to reduce his distress when even he hadn’t known, he had no idea.

“Thank you for your consideration,” he mumbled, ducking his head in embarrassment.

Wen Ruohan started laughing.  

“Truly I have found an unappreciated treasure, unlike any other,” he said amid his chuckles. “Come along, little Lan. Let’s go break the news to your brother.”