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It didn’t take long for a maid to bring in the freshly-made medicine. Yan Xiaohan took it and brought it over to Fu Shen, giving only one, unquestionable order. “Drink.”
Fu Shen stared dejectedly at the medicinal soup with steam roiling off it, silently cursing his luck.
Yan Xiaohan didn’t know how to react to that look. “If you weren’t lame, Marquis, would you currently be in this room?” he couldn’t hold back his malicious ridicule.
“Can you leave?!” Fu Shen glowered at him. “Quit chattering and get out of here, are you an old mother hen? Just put it down and I’ll take it on my own!”
Yan Xiaohan hadn’t thought that it would be so challenging to get him to take his medicine. Fu Shen had always been a man of considerable self-discipline in his eyes, after all, and he was almost never unruly, absolutely not being one to cow away from doing something.
“There isn’t much in this bowl.” He slowed down his voice in an attempt to cajole him. “Shut your eyes, steel your heart, and you’ll see the bottom of it in a few gulps, I swear.”
Fu Shen painfully inclined his head away.
“Do you not like the bitterness? Is it too hard to drink?” Yan Xiaohan held the bowl and had a taste of it, frowning. He thought it was a bit bitter, but not to the point that it was unbearable. Why was Fu Shen so resistant to it?
“That shouldn’t be it.” He saw Fu Shen’s pallid lips and scrunched brows. Presuming that the smell of the medicine was sickening him, he set the bowl to the side, pulled out both of the other’s hands, and gently kneaded the neiguan acupoints on his wrists. “Ordinary people wouldn’t have such a big reaction, let alone you. Do you have some sort of hidden issue that you find hard to talk about? Can you tell me?”
Fu Shen’s hands gripped him softly, like a small critter spreading its two paws. He didn’t avoid the issue, merely looking a little forlorn, as he wasn’t too fond of bringing up the past. “It’s nothing, I… was in poor health when I was a kid, and had to take medicine a lot. My mother died early on and my wet nurse didn’t care much for me, so when she saw that I wasn’t willing to drink it, she’d pinch my nose and force-feed it to me, and I’d cough it out every time it was poured down. It later gradually turned into a condition where I spit up any medicine I take.”
The light in Yan Xiaohan’s eyes went cold upon hearing this. “Did… no one in your home find out?” he asked softly.
Fu Shen frowned slightly. “My father was at the border then and wouldn’t be home for years, and no one else cared. Later on, my second uncle sensed that something was wrong and sent someone to secretly keep a close eye on that wet nurse. Only then was I saved from her hands.
It’s not that I’m incapable of drinking it,” he confessed, letting out a puff of air. “It’s that it bothers me, and I don’t want to.”
Warm sensations permeated his wrists. Yan Xiaohan had practiced martial arts and his fingers weren’t any kind of soft, but the moderate strength he used to massage with could implicitly provide comfort. With this warmth, Fu Shen was now ready, mentally telling himself that hiding was not the way to go and soon after leaning over to reach for the bowl.
To his surprise, Yan Xiaohan went against the grain and pushed him back into place.
He raised his eyes to give him a suspicious look. Yan Xiaohan, who had been previously seated on that round-backed chair facing the bed, was now grabbing the medicine that had been put to the side, getting up, sitting on the edge of the bed so that he was still facing Fu Shen, and then reclining on its railing. “Today will be the last bowl,” he said. “Tomorrow I’ll have Shen Yi’ce switch you over to pills.”
Fu Shen said back, only in his head: pills are just pills. What are you sitting so close to me for.
Yan Xiaohan smiled, his tone carrying a not very palpable embarrassment. “You probably don’t remember… but when you were delirious a few days before, you could drink this down fine.”
“I fed it to you myself.”
Was that really delirium? Why did it seem more like amnesia?
“What are you thinking of doing?” Fu Shen was on the alert. “Forcing me? Do you not want to keep this room intact?”
Yan Xiaohan couldn’t help but smile. “Relax, I’m not going to strong-arm you. Come, come here.”
Fu Shen scooted a few cun over, half-trusting and half-doubtful. “Turn around, put your back to me,” Yan Xiaohan said.
Fu Shen complied with his words and turned, now sitting up straight on the bed. Yan Xiaohan reached out and placed his hand on his shoulder, then gave it a good shove backwards, having Fu Shen fall into his embrace with his face turned towards the sky.
As he’d been preparing to go to bed, he had since removed the outer layer of his robes and wore only a very thin, white silk inner one. His hair was loose, and he was entirely off-guard. Through that layer of fabric, he could immediately feel the warm, sturdy body pressed against his back. He heard the other’s breathing clear as day, and the nose-stinging smell of the medicine was unable to get through the scattered fragrance of agarwood lingering on his neckline.
Fu Shen struggled like his tail had been stepped on. “Yan Xiaohan! Are you sick of being alive?!” he growled.
“Behave. Don’t move around so much.” Yan Xiaohan leaned his back against the headboard, his left shoulder and chest propping him up into a semi-laying position. With his left hand on the bowl and right on the spoon, he had Fu Shen securely encircled within his arms using very little effort. He bowed his his head, chin meeting the other’s temple. “You see, now? This was how I fed you then. I’m not taking advantage of you. Who’s taking advantage of who is hard to say, actually.”
Fu Shen remembered it all.
Within the dim consciousness of his high, unwavering fever, there was indeed someone who had held him again and again, personally blowing the medicinal soup cool, and feeding him sip by sip. He had also struggled then, but they had been extraordinarily gentle and patient, not a bit like the rough-handed wet nurse from his memory. They would coax him in a soft voice, then place the porcelain spoon against his lips just as softly, and after the medicine was gone, they would give him a spoonful of lightly honeyed water.
Three bowls of medicine a day didn’t seem to be so hard to swallow, then.
Yan Xiaohan had gotten better with practice, so he adjusted into a more apt position. “Trying it again may or may not work, but it’ll be for just this once. Here, open up.”
Fu Shen wanted to find a place to go hide in for the very first time in his life, but he was trapped within the square cun of space between the crooks of the other’s arms. A spoonful of medicine presently came up to the edge of his mouth, the movement light and unhurried yet irrefutably waiting for him to part his lips. All of a sudden, it seemed like another consciousness had become king, as, without waiting for reason to kick in, his body responded and went in accordance with its old memories.
When the first sip of the concoction flowed down his throat, he heard Yan Xiaohan chuckling over his head, as if he were quite helpless to do anything other than indulge him. “You say this and that, yet you still need someone to wait upon you… Eldest Young Master.”
Fu Shen elbowed him like he was agitated, but there was very little force to it, not unlike some sort of empty rejection. The jab overflowed with ambiguity.
What’s going on with this Young Master?
He’s not yet fallen into your hands.
He was willing to cooperate, and the bottom of the medicine bowl was soon visible. Fu Shen was being an absolute prince, asking for a drink in a low voice without lifting his eyelids. Yan Xiaohan held him with his left arm, taking the tea cup in the other and raising it to his mouth. Fu Shen took a sip out of his hand, then curled his lip. “It’s not sweet.”
“You’re so picky.” Yan Xiaohan took his hand back and put the cup where it had been before, grumbling only half-genuinely. “You just finished drinking medicine. Anything else you drink should obviously taste sweet.”
Fu Shen seemed like he was laughing, but because he was stuffed into his arms, it ended up sounding like a huff.
Yan Xiaohan was about to put Fu Shen back onto the bed when the man he held unexpectedly turned sideways, his long arms reaching out to hug him by the waist and head pillowing on the hollow of his shoulder. In this left-field position of huddling up into his arms, his eyes were closed in sleep.
Yan Xiaohan went quiet for an instant.
The red candlelight flickered, illuminating the pair of jades that they were.
What this moment signified was something they were both well aware of, and needed not explain.
—He’d been tempted.
One month later.
A carriage was parked outside the corner gate of the Yan Estate. Fu Shen had no desire to attract attention on this trip, so he didn’t even go through the main gate, dressing in simple garments with only a few tens of guards accompanying him. Xiao Xun placed Fu Shen on his back and then into the carriage, putting the wheelchair away. “General, is Sir Yan not coming to see you off?” he asked with fake casualness.
The load on Fu Shen’s mind was stirred to life, an uncertain glint in his eyes, but he simply closed them afterwards and gave an uncaring response. “No need for him to. Are we packed up? Let’s set off.”
Xiao Xun was the meticulously attentive type and got the overall feeling that his state of being had gone askew – that wasn’t to say it was bad, just a little odd. It suddenly seemed like he had drifted apart from that Sir Yan, yet he hadn’t seen the two act very distant with each other.
However, these were words he only dared think in his mind, and he did not dare get to the bottom of the matter by asking Fu Shen about it. Xiao Xun mounted his horse to take the lead in kicking their journey off, and the carriage slowly started to move soon after. The Yan Estate’s servants watched them go until they were too far to be seen, then went back inside and closed up the corner gate once more.
Upon leaving the city gates, their group hadn’t gotten far when there was the sudden swift echo of horseshoes coming from behind them, the rider and steed coming up as quick as a wink. Xiao Xun reined his horse to a halt, recognizing the official robes of the Flying Dragon Guard from very far away. He felt his head inflate with annoyance, mumbling to himself about what these two were even doing. Didn’t he say it was fine for him not to send him off?
Fu Shen’s eyes were shut in rest aboard the carriage, and he was about to fall asleep when he sensed it gradually come to a stop. “Zhongshan?” he asked languidly, not opening his eyes.
Immediately afterwards, the curtain of the carriage lifted open, and a figure sprung into it along with a thread of daylight. Fu Shen got a minor start upon opening his eyes. “Why are you here?”
“I still have to come see you before you leave,” Yan Xiaohan said warmly. “I won’t be at ease if I don’t.”
They genuinely did have a bit of awkwardness between them at this juncture, originating precisely from that one night. Both of their mindsets had changed, and both needed time to think things over. This type of distance could cause discomfiture, but it was not at all a type of torment.
This was because they knew what the conclusion waiting ahead of them was, but reality simply didn’t match up with the nomenclature. The worst outcome wouldn’t be any worse than the present. When one was already standing at the bottom of a valley, where else could they go but up?
Even further was, provided that their daydreams got even a smidgen bigger, they might have wanted to express gratitude towards the Yuantai Emperor for his unique insight in granting them such divine threads of good karma.
Fu Shen’s heart had already loosened up upon seeing him, but he schooled his features. The secret reason for that was that there were ears all around, and though they were within the carriage, how they acted and carried themselves couldn’t go too far over the line. “The number of times this Marquis has traveled the distance between Northern Xinjiang and the capital is anywhere between eighty to a hundred,” he said indifferently. “What’s there for you to not be at ease about? Go back, now. You work as a bureaucrat, you can’t dawdle about for too long.”
“Today we part, and next year we’ll meet again,” Yan Xiaohan replied. “I hope you’ll adhere to the rules of the wedding contract, Marquis, and not turn your back on what was promised prior.”
Xiao Xun felt a chill up his spine as he listened in from outside the edge of the carriage. This Sir Yan is no dolt, he thought. He knows fully well that the Marquis isn’t content with the marriage sanction, so why does he insist upon hitting against that exposed nerve?
Back inside, Yan Xiaohan suddenly pulled at Fu Shen to gather him up into a heavy hug, lowering his head until it was right next to his ear. “You have to be very careful going out there,” he whispered. “It’s cold in the North, so look after yourself well. Don’t worry about me.”
Fu Shen gave a rare, soft hm, half-jokingly putting a hand on his back, right where his heart was. “You’ve got the heart of a gentleman.”
Their hug warmed, heads rubbed together, and heartbeats steadily came into sync. Fu Shen lightly pressed the side of his face against the other’s with the utmost of tenderness, seeming to understand for the first time in his life what they called “with the gentle affection like a stream, the day of the wedding is like a dream”.
After holding each other for quite some time, he finally pushed Yan Xiaohan away, casually straightened out his wrinkled collar for him, and hinted for him to disembark, simultaneously voicing out a send-off in an extremely arrogant, aggressive manner. “Do not hesitate to feel at ease, Mister Yan. In the coming Flower Festival, this Marquis will personally come to your door and escort you to the ceremony with your ten-li long dowry procession. I will not turn my back on being a gentleman!”
Yan Xiaohan: “……”
Everyone else present: “……”
Xiao Xun secretly felt for the saber hanging at his waist, ready to draw it and rush in at the first sign of a possible fight. He absolutely could not let the Marquis be killed because of his flapping trap.
Two days later, the carriage entered the boundaries of Yan Prefecture.
The surrounding scenery was getting more and more familiar. Apart from the withered trees and blanket of snow, everything was the exact same as the autumn day they had left. Fu Shen was born in the capital, but he grew up in the North, and the Prefecture was analogous to a second hometown for him. The familiar view made him involuntarily relax, even giving him interest in looking out the carriage’s small window at the pedestrians passing by.
They went down the merchant’s roads, passing through towns, villages, and cities of all sizes on their path. At nighttime, the group stopped at Vast Lotus Town for lodging. When passing by an alley, Fu Shen got a whiff of the sweet, tangy scent of alcohol, enticing him to lose his propriety. He ordered Xiao Xun to turn around in preparation to go in and check it out.
Xiao Xun was desperate to stop him, wearing an expression of suffering. “My Lord, you can’t drink alcohol! We’re going to be meeting with Medic Du as soon as we get back!”
Fu Shen couldn’t care less. “Relax. He won’t see anything once it’s all been digested the night before.”
“S-Sir Yan also wouldn’t let you drink it!”
Fu Shen’s anticipating smile stiffened.
He pointed at Xiao Xun in a way that portrayed his utter disappointment in him. “Whose side are you on? You have no distinction between the two! Northern Yan is this Marquis’s domain. Is Yan Xiaohan’s influence going to grow until it comes all the way over here? Hm? Each and every one of you better keep your mouths shut tight. If even half a word of this gets leaked, I’ll be interrogating all of you about it!”
Xiao Xun couldn’t stop himself from talking back. “The Flying Dragon Guard’s eyes and ears are very acute, so it’s quite possible he could find out?”
The flames of Fu Shen’s anger went to half-height in a flash.
“Zhongshan. You’re still young, and don’t understand the evil in people’s hearts,” Fu Shen spoke from the bottom of his own. “Between this Marquis and Yan Xiaohan, it’s not just the two of us that have to compete for a better outcome here; it’s a even more so a contest between the Northern Yan Army and the Flying Dragon Guard. If I’m still under his control in an area outside the capital, then I don’t even need to cross the threshold, since I’m already henpecked! Tell me, how would our brothers of the Army then be able to hold their heads high and stand tall before the Flying Dragon Guard?”
Xiao Xun stared and stared as he listened, believing there was some real logic to that after a fine think-through. “You are wise, Marquis,” he mumbled.
The indomitable, ‘not henpecked’ Marquis of Jing Ning had finished his duping of this fool boy, cranking his wheelchair into the small alley with a completely clean conscience.
The liquor store was deep in, and it wasn’t very large, only having four seated tables and one sales counter. The one selling the alcohol was a proprietress who was currently preoccupied with something. Fu Shen chose a table that was a bit more spacious, gently knocking on its surface. “Hey, boss, what sort of wine do you have?” he asked with a raised voice.
The woman behind the counter looked up from her work and was just about to speak when she got a good look at his appearance. It was like she’d just been struck with lightning, which suddenly rooted her to the spot.
Not hearing a response, he turned his head to look, bumping right into her gaze.
For a moment, an unspeakable sense of familiarity welled up in his heart. “You…”
They had spoken at the same time. Fu Shen paused, so she then trembled out a question. “Young Master, is… your surname Fu?”
Tears in her smile and joy within her shock, the look she had was clearly of someone who was beside herself and didn’t know what to do, and it was by no means a malevolent one. His identity had been seen through, but he didn’t cover it up, nodding along.
The next second, the woman hurriedly stumbled out from behind the counter to give him a grand gesture of prostration. “This slave had suffered long ago and was rescued by you, barely managing to escape from mortal danger. The Heavens above must have granted me pity to now have the fortune to meet my savior again today. Your Grace, please accept this slave’s reverence!”
“Wait.” Fu Shen still couldn’t remember who she was. “Miss… may I ask your surname?”
Her tears were already coming out. “Huanren County, Gemstone Mountain, Hidden Orchid Village,” she said between sobs, “seven years have passed since the Duke of Jin’s miscarriage of justice, and it still has yet to be cleared.”
Fu Shen’s pupils quickly shrank like he’d been hit hard on the crown of his head, his face draining of all color. Rarely had there ever been a time as such where he lost his self-control. “You’re… Cai Yue?” he asked, incredulous.
That name was a hurricane that instantly tore apart his many years of stubbornness and obsession. Memories surged skywards, submerging him in no time flat – life and death and grief and joy all floated lightly or sunk hard, pushing him into a section of his old past he didn’t dare recall and was unwilling to even bring up.
It was the first time in his excessively brief period of adolescence that someone had truly crushed him underfoot.
—It was also the tight knot between Yan Xiaohan and him that hadn’t been untied to this day.
 内关 – “inner opening”, roughly. Putting pressure on this is said to relieve nausea in TCM.
 大爷 – “Grand Lord”, either a respectful term for an older man or a disrespectful term for a younger man who’s a pampered rich brat.
 柔情似水，佳期如梦 – lit. soft feelings like water [metaphor for deep attachment], (the) wedding day resembles (a) dream’.
 Quick reminder that dowries are female-only, and only the groom escorts the bride. Hehe.
[-] 桓仁县, 宝岩山, 幽兰山庄 – Huanren County is a real place, Baoyun (precious rock) Mountain and Youlan (…hidden orchid) Village are not.