Qi Heng has always had a generally favorable opinion of General Hua, so he is glad to hear that the battle at the northern border had been won and is relieved to be able to report another victory back to the emperor. Of course, now that he is at the northern border, he is not quite as happy – he had not instructed enough warm cloaks to be packed, as he had mistakenly thought that not only would he be there for a short time, but also that the coming of spring at the capital would mean warmth further north. He is no longer so young that he can afford to be cold easily.
The sun is already setting when they arrive, but by its light, the plains glow like a sea of blood and gold. The battlefield is still smoking as they pass it, having to circumvent the desolation in order to reach the camp. This leads Qi Heng to believe that the decisive victory General Hua had reported may not have been the full story. After all, if there had been another battle, this recently, there must've been some unforeseen problem. The camp, also, looks rather the worse for wear, Qi Heng notes as he passes through it with his entourage.
General Hua receives him in his tent.
"His Majesty is pleased with your progress," Qi Heng informs him after they have performed their respective bows.
General Hua, is, of course, happy to hear this, and they exchange some perfunctory information before Qi Heng mildly mentions, waving toward the outside, "I see you have had some trouble."
"The remainder of the army we had defeated hid out in the grasslands and performed a surprise attack on the camp. We managed to defend ourselves, but we suffered a serious blow."
"Has the problem been resolved?"
"We are on constant alert now, and as far as we know, most of the attackers had died in the attack on the camp. We pushed them back, but among the chaos… We neither captured nor killed their leader."
“I thought that the Chanyu was too old to lead his army personally.”
“Our intelligence reports tell us that the Chanyu has chosen a successor,” General Hua says. “Prince Bo Li.”
Qi Heng’s expression changes slightly. “Is that so?” He nods slowly. Qi Heng nods again. He hands over General Hua's orders from the emperor, and then is escorted to his tent. As he examines it critically, he hopes that he will be able to return to the capital soon – the nights will be cold.
Inside, he is proven right. The brazier burns well, and there are warm blankets and furs on the bed. Water is brought in for him to wash up, and Qi Heng dismisses his servants. He rubs his forehead, getting a headache, and undoes his belt, ready to shuck his outer robe.
He hears a rustle behind him and turns around, yawning-
A wounded Xiongnu warrior holds the tip of his sword to Qi Heng's throat. His face is in shadow, but there is blood in his beard, and his left arm hangs limply at his side.
Qi Heng yelps in surprise.
The man moves forward, until the tip of his weapon is coldly pressing against the skin of Qi Heng's throat. "Don't alert the guard, or I'll kill you."
Qi Heng swallows and decides that nodding would be hazardous to his health, so he only says, "Very well," very quietly.
No more instructions seem to be forthcoming, and the sword at Qi Heng's throat wavers. This man is obviously weakened, barely standing.
"Is there something I can do for you?" Qi Heng prompts.
"I need a horse," the man says, voice rough. He steps into the light, and Qi Heng bites the inside of his cheek to keep from gasping. He could be wrong, of course – it's been more than ten years, and with a beard covering his face, and blood smeared over his forehead, this man could be anyone. But the more he looks at him, this young man… Looks very much like someone he used to know.
Qi Heng sighs. "…Do I look like I'm in charge of horses?"
The man smiles crookedly. "No. But you look easiest to threaten."
"I resent that," Qi Heng says mildly. "…You are wounded. Can you ride very far in this state?"
"Not your business."
Qi Heng taps the blade at his throat with two fingers. "You are going to all this trouble. I'm curious, will you succeed?"
"Succeed or don't, what choice do I have?" The blade lowers only slightly, enough that Qi Heng doesn't feel that even the action of his throat moving while speaking could injure him.
"As I see it, there are several, most favorable among them being you hiding in my tent for the time being and having your wounds tended to. I can see to the rest."
The man begins to laugh, shaking his head, as if Qi Heng had told a great joke.
Qi Heng placidly waits for him to finish amusing himself, then frowns in concern when the laughs turn to coughs. "Sit down at least," he says. "Come. You can threaten me from the cot as well."
The cold blade tilts his chin up, and Qi Heng freezes.
"What are you trying to do?" the man growls.
"Keep you from dying."
Qi Heng sighs. "If I say it's because I feel like it, is that enough?"
"Heal me so you can torture me later?"
"Da-wangzi, I'm a court official, not a torturer. Neither am I much of a warrior. Nobody knows you're here and you have a blade to my throat, how can I do anything to you? Xiao-Li, be reasonable. You really don’t recognize me?"
There is a long pause.
Then, Bo Li smirks and puts away his sword. "Qi Yuanruo. I didn't think you remembered me."
“I wasn’t sure either.” Qi Heng sighs and rubs his throat. "Was all this really necessary?" he complains. “You were much sweeter to me as a child.”
"I didn't know it would be you." Bo Li sits heavily down on the cot, teeth gritted against a groan. "…It all looks worse than it is. I'm just exhausted."
"You've really grown up," Qi Heng sighs.
Bo Li looks at him. “I didn’t think this is how we would meet again.”
Qi Heng adjusts the front of his robes and redoes his belt, taking a deep breath. “Neither did I.”
They are silent for a moment, until Bo Li sighs deeply. “Can I trust you?”
“…For the sake of our old acquaintanceship, I would prefer not to see you hurt,” Qi Heng says cautiously. “Come, let me see.” He smiles a little shakily. “What happened to your arm?”
Bo Li wordlessly undoes the front of his outer tunic. He had shed his armor earlier to move more quietly through the camp. He gingerly pulls his arms out of the sleeves and lets it fall around to his middle, revealing a long, shallow cut on his arm and heavy bruising on his chest.
Qi Heng sucks in a breath through his teeth. He brings the basin of water and the washcloth to the bed. Bo Li remains still, jaw clenched, muscles tight as he cleans off the blood and grime from his arm.
The wound is no longer bleeding, and does not seem to be infected, thankfully, and so Qi Heng takes another cloth to wipe the blood from Bo Li’s face. Bo Li silently accepts this, looking at Qi Heng with inscrutable dark eyes just as he used to when he was a child learning in the capital – getting into scrapes and going to his ‘Yuanruo-ge-ge.’
Suddenly, there is a commotion outside, and they both stiffen. Bo Li grits his teeth and reaches for his sword, but Qi Heng stays his arm. “They must’ve found the watchman’s body,” Bo Li says. “They’ll start looking for me immediately-”
“Be still,” Qi Heng says quietly, a plan forming in his head. He then gets up and starts stripping.
Bo Li stares at him. “What are you-”
Qi Heng tears off his outer robe, throws it on the ground, throws his blanket to cover Bo Li, and opens the front of his inner robe slightly, sitting on the bed. “Whatever happens, don’t move,” he instructs. “Understand, Xiao-Li?”
The commotion gets closer, and when the flap of his tent is drawn back, Qi Heng startles and acts as if he were caught at something, quickly wrapping his robe back around himself crookedly, and adjusting the blanket around Bo Li’s tense, still form. Some of his long, unbound hair is still visible, spread across the pillow.
There is an officer in the entryway of the tent, several soldiers behind him. Qi Heng recognizes him as General Hua’s second-in-command, but cannot remember the unfortunate man’s name.
“What does this mean?” Qi Heng blusters.
General Hua’s second-in-command also startles upon seeing him. “Lord Qi? My apologies.”
“On what orders are you barging into my tent at an hour like this?!” Qi Heng demands.
The lieutenant’s eyes travel to the body covered by a blanket on the bed. Qi Heng follows his gaze, and his lips thin in disapproval. “We discovered the corpse of one of our watchmen nearby,” the lieutenant says stiffly. “There is an intruder in the camp. It could very well be that Xiongnu prince.”
Qi Heng’s jaw tightens, and his eyes become sharp. “What does this have to do with me?”
“It is likely the intruder has hidden nearby.”
“Then continue looking, by all means!” Qi Heng bursts out. “No need to disturb my rest!”
The second-in-command looks meaningfully at the bed. Qi Heng advances on him.
“I have been especially sent by the emperor to investigate and report on yours and your superiors’ progress at the border,” he says in a low voice. “On the emperor’s orders, I left my manor in the capital and have come to a place like this, where the nights are cold. Every soldiers’ camp has a few camp followers – is this not known? If you embarrass me, I will make sure that you are never promoted, do you understand?”
The man stiffens. “Lord-”
Qi Heng lets out a slow breath and goes to the bed, sitting back down. “I believe I have made myself clear,” he says, with less intensity. “There is no need to speak more.” He reaches under the blanket and finds Bo Li’s uninjured hand, briefly bringing it out and raising it to his lips. From the distance, and in the low light, it is not immediately obvious that it is a man’s hand.
The lieutenant backs out and the tent flap drops. The sound of the soldiers retreating fades slowly away, and Qi Heng lets out a slow breath, rubbing his forehead.
“…Xiao-Li,” he says quietly, “I believe that I have gained a few more gray hairs tonight.”
Bo Li sits up, the blanket falling off of him. He stares at Qi Heng for a long while, before shaking his head. “You… Have a talent for deception.” He looks down at his uninjured hand, then over at Qi Heng again, appraisingly.
Qi Heng’s eyes curve in amusement. “It was the first thing I could think of.”
“You… Even after this long, you were willing to risk for me? I am no longer the child you knew.”
“Xiao-Li…” Qi Heng gently flicks at Bo Li's forehead with a faint smile. "Have you been getting into trouble again?"
Bo Li's eyes widen, and he stares at Qi Heng. "…A little more than trouble. Qi Yuanruo, I don’t understand you."
Still a little loopy from his previous anxiety, Qi Heng can’t help laughing a little. "…Why don't you call me Yuanruo-ge-ge?"
"What's wrong with you…"
"You used to call me that all the time," Qi Heng says fondly.
"You wouldn't be embarrassed?"
Qi Heng blinks innocently at him. "Not at all."
Bo Li gives him another long, curious look, and then leans in close, until their foreheads are touching. “Yuanruo-ge-ge,” he says in a low voice, “Can you hide me away for a while?”
Qi Heng swallows. “…I suppose. Are your people not looking for you?”
Bo Li is silent. His eyes’ focus drops from Qi Heng’s eyes to his lips, and Qi Heng doesn’t stop him when he closes the distance between them. They are playing a dangerous game.
Bo Li deepens the kiss and Qi Heng cannot help but return it, gently laying the young man down before himself upon the bed. He shuts his eyes, and then slowly draws back. “You are still injured,” he says softly. “Don’t cause trouble.”
Bo Li blinks once, then nods, and pulls the blankets up around himself. Qi Heng sighs and douses the brazier, sliding into bed beside him. Bo Li lays on his uninjured side, and Qi Heng moves to embrace him from behind.
Qi Heng’s breath evens out and his body is loose and relaxed, but his eyes are open and there is a deep line between his brows as he thinks. Bo Li leans back into his warmth and snores softly, seemingly asleep. But his eyes also glint into the darkness, the corner of his mouth slowly drawing up.
There are plans forming in each man’s mind.
When Qi Heng falls asleep for real, he sees a memory in his dream. An early autumn in the capital, when Qi Heng was sixteen, and Bo Li only eight, the boy had come across the youth sitting in the gardens and come to sit next to him. Ever since his arrival in the capital, Bo Li had begun to follow around the Qi Family’s little lord – and it had become a point of amusement for many, that wherever the beautiful young man should go, he would have a little shadow.
“What are you thinking about?” Bo Li asks.
Qi Heng blinks, coming out of a daze. “Ah?”
Qi Heng’s expression gentles. “Well, there’s a girl I’m thinking about. One I wish to marry.”
"Why do you want to marry her?" Bo Li demands, suddenly angry.
Qi Heng thinks. "Well, she's unlike anyone I've met before. Besides, she is very intelligent and beautiful. Such a person is one who I should like to spend my life with."
The boy derisively snorts. "Are those kinds of reasons why people want to marry people?"
"I suppose so."
Bo Li shrugs. "Then, Yuanruo-ge-ge, I want to marry you," he says nonchalantly. "You're the most intelligent and beautiful in the capital. There's no-one else like you in the world."
Qi Heng chokes. "Ah, I don't think…" He clears his throat. "There are other factors. You'll understand when you're older."
Bo Li shrugs again. "Alright."
There is a long pause.
“Then, when I’m older, I’ll marry you. Just wait.”