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The sound of flowing water was endlessly lingering, the area around was damp and cold, and everything hurt. Fu Shen awoke with his head spinning; opening his eyes, he didn’t manage to get a clear view of his surroundings before he threw up onto the ground.
Someone came over to support him by the shoulder, passing a leaf cupped with water to the side of his mouth. “Rinse.”
Wave after wave of darkness struck his vision, images overlapping his view of the person. His limbs felt like they’d just been dismantled, making even slight efforts to move challenging, and it was only after the other maneuvered his head to have a few sips of water did he take a slow, steady breath, recognizing which of his fellows this was.
“Sir Yan,” he said weakly, “did the two of us just defy fate, or what…”
Against expectations, Yan Xiaohan didn’t respond, and merely stared at him. Droplets adorning those radiant features, his sinister bloodthirstiness had been washed away, a bit of a powerless expression on his face for reasons unknown.
Fu Shen felt the hairs on his spine stand up from being watched by those amber-like eyes. He hastily lifted a hand and shook it front of the other’s face. “What’s with you? Are you possessed?”
Yan Xiaohan gently pushed his hand back down. “I’m sorry. I’ve involved you in my misfortune…”
The fright he got from this left-field geniality was almost enough to make Fu Shen jump up, and he began to gesture wildly. “Nonono! No need for that! I’m fine! You don’t need to blame yourself!”
“Don’t flail around.” Yan Xiaohan once again pushed his other hand back down, exasperated. “There’s a wound on your back. Be cautious.”
Fu Shen looked on in horror as this big monster who could kill without batting an eye had suddenly switched nature into a tender little white rabbit, suspecting that he was actually the one who hit his head.
The two had been arced off the cliff by the boar and were absolutely under the impression that they were going to die, but unbeknownst to them, the Heavens had other plans – there was actually a deep pond at the cliff’s base. Fu Shen had plunged head-first into it, the enormous amount of water pressure causing him to faint. Yan Xiaohan was luckier, as he had knocked against the wall of the pond and seemingly broke a rib, but thankfully didn’t lose consciousness. He dragged Fu Shen out of the water’s pull, found a dry cave nearby, and settled him there for the time being.
Taking advantage of the interim of him being passed out, Yan Xiaohan went to gather a pile of dry firewood, using an oil-paper bundle he’d taken from Fu Shen’s lapels as kindling to make a bonfire. He hazarded a guess that the two of them might not be able to leave the valley tonight and he wanted to get a bit more firewood ready, but the weather unfortunately didn’t want to cooperate. It wasn’t long after when the sky outside turned overcast and rain even started pattering down.
Fu Shen feels at his back, discovering that the boar had made a bone-deep gash on it. The wound had been treated simply and covered in cloth strips. He was wearing two layers of dry outer clothes, his inner clothes in the middle of being heated up by the fire. Yan Xiaohan only had on a drenched, unlined robe that was missing a chunk of its hemline, a wide bloodstain blotching his lower back.
“Aren’t you cold?” Fu Shen propped himself up into a seated position, tugging at Yan Xiaohan’s robes and giving him a look to settle him. “Look at what you’re wearing. There’s not enough wood, and it’s going to get really cold at night.”
Pausing, he then added something else. “It’s only a little unimportant flesh wound. No need to worry.”
Fu Shen didn’t know that he had a broken bone. Seeing no other marks on him, he believed that to be it, and leaned back against the stone wall. “I probably can’t walk right now, so I’ll have to put up with spending the night here. If you have the strength, you can head off when the rain stops. Go in a straight line along the ravine and you’ll be out by the morning.”
Yan Xiaohan didn’t lift his head, using a branch to stir up the fire. “I’ll bring you with me out of here. Don’t be scared.”
Fu Shen bust out laughing. “I’m not scared. Gemstone Mountain is the Fu family’s property, what would I be afraid of? Someone’s definitely going to come rescue me tomorrow, and me going with you would just be a burden. You’ll be able to get away faster by yourself.”
“It wouldn’t be a burden.” Yan Xiaohan shook his head, changing his words around. “I want to stay here and keep you company. Is that alright?”
“Um?” Fu Shen stared at him, sounding awkward. “Uh, that’s fine… you can…”
The other man said nothing.
Fu Shen was a boorish monkey with strong inquisitiveness, and he couldn’t stand to sit still while wounded. He restrained himself for a long time until he just couldn’t anymore, finally uttering a cautious question. “Then what, Sir Yan, are you even d… ahem, for what reason are you insisting on staying behind?”
Yan Xiaohan thought his question made no sense and shot him a puzzled glance.
“I-I-I’m saying–” Fu Shen flushed red as he stuttered, simultaneously dissing himself in his head for said feeble stuttering, “I thought you… didn’t seem to like me that much?”
Yan Xiaohan stopped moving, turned around, and looked at him. “You don’t have to call me ‘Sir’.”
“I’m only two years older than you and haven’t yet taken a courtesy name. If you don’t mind, Young Master Fu, you can call me Brother.”
Fu Shen was stunned. “You haven’t come of age yet? You’re only eighteen? Eighteen-year-olds can get into the Flying Dragon Guard?”
He couldn’t be blamed for making a big fuss about this little thing. Yan Xiaohan was honestly too wise for his age, didn’t have the slightest amount of recklessness that a youth would, and his position as an official wasn’t low at all. Not a single person would be able to guess that he was only eighteen.
His amazed expression was hilarious, those wide eyes looking particularly juvenile. Yan Xiaohan lowered his head to hide his lips setting into a smile. “I’ve indeed not yet had the ceremony. As for the Guard, is my adoptive father not enough for that?”
Fu Shen realized that he had been a bit impudent. “Don’t overthink it, Brother Yan,” he said with embarrassment, “that’s not my intention. With your skill, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Imperial or Flying Dragon Guard – there’s probably no one you’d be lesser than.”
“And I have no intention to dislike you,” Yan Xiaohan spoke leisurely as he added wood to the fire. “You saved me twice. I won’t toss you aside with no regard.”
Fu Shen almost asked the crap question of “are all you Flying Dragon Guards as gracious as this”, but stopped himself. “Thanks a lot,” he said reticently.
“I should be the one thanking you.”
The rain was getting heavier, dense fog filling up the mountain’s gaps with cold wind pouring into the cavern from time to time. Fu Shen had lost too much blood and his core temperature was low, his lips turning pale from the chill. He said nothing, yet Yan Xiaohan could see it – he shifted him to be beside the fire, then seated himself on the outer side to shield him from the breeze.
Fu Shen felt a great amount of warmth in his heart. He was the first of the Fu’s younger generation; his family teacher had taught him since childhood about how older brothers should show affection and younger ones respect, and interaction with his friends was just banter between those of the same age group, so he’d never truly experienced the feeling of having an older brother sheltering him. In this current predicament, Yan Xiaohan was a stranger, yet he fit perfectly into this position.
Tossing aside rumor and bias, he was staid, level-headed, and considerate, with his attitude towards Fu Shen being like that of a tolerant and mature big brother.
He now couldn’t envision the Court’s errand dog as fitting the term “extremely vicious”, nor as anything like how word on the street said he was a vulgar flatterer who was willing to acknowledge a eunuch as his foster father.
Fu Tingxin had always taught him that when he looked at someone, he must take into consideration the front they put on versus their inner self, and mustn’t trust anything of hearsay. Fu Sheen snuck a peek at Yan Xiaohan’s side-profile, the other’s eyes lowered and brows furrowed, and thought to himself: between the Imperial Guard who draws his blade at an insult and the young man who shields me from the wind and rain, which one is your true ‘self’?
“Brother Yan,” Fu Shen spoke up, “take off your wet clothes, I’ll give you my outer robe.”
“No need,” came the reply.
“Sit a bit closer, then.”
Yan Xiaohan looked at him, kind of wanting to pat him on the top of his head. “I’m not cold.”
“Don’t give me those empty words like you’re trying to coax a child.” As soon as he spoke, the wound on his back strained, the awful pain making him grimace. “What if you catch a cold from the wind? How am I supposed to look after you like this? We have to look out for each other here, after all.”
Despite talking until his lips wore out, the man at the cave entrance was as motionless as a hill.
“Are you waiting for me to drag you over here?” Fu Shen said feebly.
Yan Xiaohan’s figure seemed to be completely encased within the cavern’s shadows, the fire and heat set far apart from him. He was silent for a very long time, until he finally said: “You know what my status is, Fu Shen.”
“You and I are as different as clouds and mud. You don’t have to force yourself, and you don’t need to take decorum into account when it comes to me.”
Fu Shen spun those words several times around in his mind before he got a grasp on their meaning; he still feared his scorn, apparently. “With all I’ve said, I don’t look down on you – don’t put me on the same level as that asshole Xie Qianfan!” he seethed at once, not really knowing how to take this. “Would I keep saying ‘Brother Yan’ over and over if I hated you? There’s only us two left on this mountain in the middle of nowhere, who’s here to care about anything? Would I be so bored as to go looking for trouble?!”
He fell onto his back, sucking in a cold hiss between his teeth. “I give up, you’re really something… are you two years older than me or just two years old, Brother Yan?”
Yan Xiaohan gazed at him, his expression irked, yet also affected.
Fu Shen didn’t know the feeling of being talked poorly of behind his back, nor did he know that his magnanimity was foreign in the eyes of most people. Yan Xiaohan had believed that his repeated personal rescues were the absolute limit, but he hadn’t expected that the youngster’s heart was even vaster than he had assumed.
“My cut hurts,” Fu Shen said suddenly. “The stone’s pressing on it pretty hard.”
The virtually spoiled and irrational request that came out of his mouth instantly seemed to gain infinite legitimacy when it fell on Yan Xiaohan’s ears. He finally compromised and came back from the mouth of the cave to sit next to Fu Shen. “What do you want me to do?”
Fu Shen immediately leaned himself against his thigh. “Let me take advantage of you,” he said vaguely. “I don’t hate you anyways, and if you hate me, you’ll just have to deal.”
“Rascal.” Yan Xiaohan laughed, stretching out his legs so he could lie down a bit more comfortably.
Fu Shen closed his eyes and issued him commands. “Drape a robe over yourself, and cover me while you’re at it. Don’t get a chill.”
Yan Xiaohan hummed, taking the clothes that were being dried by the fire and covering him with one, then taking off his own damp clothes and placing a robe over his bare form.
“I can’t tell when the rain is going to stop,” he spoke in low tones. “Be a bit vigilant at night. If you sense anything amiss, hurry and run.”
Fu Shen’s response was a big yawn.
Seeing he was sleepy, Yan Xiaohan talked no more. With one sitting and one laying, they both shut their eyes in rest, quietly waiting for daybreak.
The fire went out in the middle of the night, and the downpour had still not left yet. Fu Shen’s back wound had blistered along with inevitable inflammation and swelling, and he had acquired a low fever during the night, teeth chattering from the shivers.
Yan Xiaohan noticed this less-than-promising turn of events and couldn’t let it get any worse. He set his hand behind Fu Shen’s head to help him up, making him lean towards him. “Come, sit on my lap… curl your legs up.”
Fu Shen was woozy, letting what was happening happen and being excessively well-behaved. Yan Xiaohan put on his half-dried inner clothes and had Fu Shen huddle up in his arms, the two robes covering him tightly as he warmed him using his own body heat.
One hand held Fu Shen by the waist and one took his shoulder, protecting his back to prevent him from falling over. Fu Shen reached out to hug him by the waist, his face pillowed on the hollow of his shoulder, and finally stopped moving when he found a comfortable position for himself.
“Are you cold?”
“No. But I am hungry.”
“Cold and hungry with no food or water. I’m putting all the blame on you for getting us into this situation.”
“Mn. Blame me.”
“Having you catch a fugitive sure went great this time! You didn’t catch them, and you got arced off by a boar… will you be punished when you go back?”
“Because of my adoptive father, no one would dare punish me.”
“You’re you, and your adoptive father is just that – why do you bring him up all the time?” Fu Shen muttered. “What about your blood father?”
Yan Xiaohan suddenly went silent.
A long time later, his only words were quietly said. “I don’t have a father.”