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The world was the freezing, rigid colors of gray and white, as if he was shut up inside an iron cage. Days and nights were indistinguishable. He could not sense time elapsing, only his still feebly-operating consciousness that interrogated him non-stop: Who am I? Where am I?
The gray world gradually brightened up. He raised a hand to feel at a section of rough stone patterning. The touch thus touched certain memories, and he remembered; this was the wall of Yan Prefecture’s capital.
When he was eight, his second uncle had taken him out to the plains, coming to the Northern Yan Army’s strictly-protected garrison and climbing up onto a tower of its city’s gates.
Tiny bean that he was, he wasn’t as tall as the parapets. As he tried to use his stubby little hands to climb up via the cracks in the wall, Fu Tingxin picked him up and placed him on his shoulders.
In a split second, the world became magnificent and wide, its scenery so far away.
Outside the city were mountains and grasslands, and inside of it were neat and orderly buildings and streets. Outside the city were lookout posts and warhorses that languidly munched on grass, and inside were throngs of people coming and going, as well as a very tall bamboo steamer made for selling buns, which gave off a large puff of white steam when its lid was opened.
Fu Tingxin still looked very young. His face was a bit roughened up from the blowing wind of the borderlands and he had an unkempt beard, but that still couldn’t cover up how tall and handsome he was. There was even a small dimple on his left cheek when he smiled.
“Let’s go back, hm?” Fu Tingxin turned to get off the wall with him on his shoulders. “The sky’s overcast. It’s going to rain soon.”
He naively stretched out his hand. Sure enough, a small raindrop pattered down from the vast, blue-gray dome above.
The setting suddenly changed.
This time, he stood at the topmost spot of the Yan capital like a cold iron longsabre drawn against the wind, having since grown up tall. Outside was a dense mass of Zhe troops.
He no longer needed to sit on someone’s shoulders to be able to oversee this stretch of earth.
“General.” A young, kindly-looking assistant general in black armor stepped up to his side. “The Iron Cavalry has been assembled and is ready to go to war at any time.”
“Got it.” He reached into the air and caught a sudden drop of rain. His voice was light, as he didn’t understand why this was here. “It’s raining.”
The setting morphed again.
He knelt within a sky-filling downpour that irrigated a penetrating chill inside him, his deep red robes arranged like a waterbound maple leaf that refused to float away. At the end of the gray brick surface was a securely-shut vermilion palace entryway.
The icy rainwater continuously hit him in the face. His mind was a blank expanse, merely having the dim feeling that something was missing. He vacantly asked himself: who am I waiting for?
Countless scenarios flashed before his eyes like a carousel lantern, one by one. He saw many faces that he was either familiar with or had a vague impression of, but there was never a certain someone that he should have had a profound recollection of.
He distinctly had no memory pertaining to them whatsoever.
The scene abruptly suspended on a particular frame. The heavy rain still fell, but it was isolated to the outside of the building, only leaving its unceasing sound. He leaned against a fire iron with one leg crossed over the other, his gaze drifting about erratically until it fell upon the profile of the man next to the fire.
That man appeared to be very indifferent towards him, giving him the cold shoulder. He refused to turn his head for a look despite being stared at.
He wondered: did I provoke or anger him?
Carefully bringing things to mind, he had apparently said something just now that seemed to have not been too pleasing to the ears, and the man’s expression had promptly twisted up.
Memories rushed into his mind alongside the accompanying sound of subdued rain, and cold drops of water pelted his face. He finally realized that this… wasn’t rain at all.
“If I cast him off to be all alone in the world, I wouldn’t be able to close my eyes even if I died.”
Why aren’t you talking?
Is it because… you don’t believe me?
Once he remembered that phrase, a beam of light immediately punctured the blue sky and lit up the tumultuous world, all his disorganized and indistinct memories gradually showing their original coloration. Through his tightly-shut eyelids, he could perceive the heavenly glow of the outside world for the first time.
He faintly twitched his fingers that were curled in Yan Xiaohan’s palm. Such a slight, imperceptible movement successfully rooted a grown man to his spot.
“Med– cough,” Yan Xiaohan’s throat was hoarse when he opened his mouth, its ending tones yet shaky. “Medic Du, it seemed like he just moved…”
“Did he?” Du Leng came over, assuming that he was being overly sensitive. “I’ll take a look.”
Yan Xiaohan stood up from the edge of the bed with the intention to clear up space for him. Right as he made to let go, he suddenly felt a tightness at his fingertips as someone firmly grabbed them.
Those two tightly-shut eyes opened up.
Yan Xiaohan’s own instantly went red around the edges, his entire arm stiffening into a wooden cudgel. He nearly forced a small noise out of his throat, not daring to believe this, and his tone was softness upon softness. “Jingyuan?”
Du Leng, like a heartless and unfeeling Lady Queen Mother, brushed their linked hands aside and hurried to take Fu Shen’s pulse, talking as he did so. “You, get out of the way first… General, how are you feeling now? Do you hurt anywhere?”
Fu Shen wanted to shake his head, but he had been lying down so much that he’d gotten quite terribly woozy, so he had no choice but to lie flat on his back without moving. “I don’t, I’m just dizzy,” he said, voice weak. “I was dreaming just now. In it, I saw gold beans come down from the sky, and they pattered me awake. If you don’t believe me, feel my face… is it wet, or no?”
Yan Xiaohan: “……”
Du Leng speechlessly turned his head around, peering at Yan Xiaohan and his still-red eyes.
What kind of tears were capable of pelting a deeply unconscious person awake? Those waterworks had to be a motherfucking magic elixir.
Fu Shen’s sight never strayed from Yan Xiaohan once. Medic Du, enduring the room-filling atmosphere that was utterly inhospitable to him, gave Fu Shen a diligent inspection. “The poison has already been removed,” he eventually said. “You have internal injury, but it isn’t a huge hindrance. I’ll give you a few supplements and you’ll be ready to frolic about after a bout of recuperation.”
“Thanks a lot,” Fu Shen answered without strength. “You’ve worked hard.”
Du Leng waved his hand, not wanting to be courteous with him. He warned Yan Xiaohan about a few foods and drinks that should be abstained from, then took his leave with utmost discretion.
Waiting until his footsteps vanished outside the door, Fu Shen reached out to Yan Xiaohan, who was standing stiffly at the end of the bed. “…Come here.”
“What are you doing?” Yan Xiaohan shortly fell out of the completely unresponsive state he’d been in, then suddenly became aware of his own lack of decorum, hurrying over and bending down to ask, “What is it?”
Fu Shen grabbed his hand, pulling it down to gently rub against the edge of his lips.
“I’m not doing anything,” he explained softly, “I just wanted to kiss you. Don’t cry.”
Yan Xiaohan sucked in a long, extremely controlled breath of cool air, looking exactly as if someone had hit him on an acupoint. His whole body was rigid, and he had even entirely forgotten how to blink, a big drop of water smashing directly onto the back of Fu Shen’s hand.
“Scared you, hm?” The corner of Fu Shen’s mouth pulled up in a very light smile. “It’s fine. I woke up, didn’t I?”
Yan Xiaohan slowly leaned lower, afraid to use force yet still hugging him as tightly as he could. He buried his face into the crook of his neck, ear plastered onto his leaping pulse.
He had innumerable things he wanted to tell him, but he couldn’t say a single word of them, and could only call out to him in a shaky voice. “Jingyuan.”
“Mn. Don’t be scared. I told you before that if I left you by yourself in the world, I wouldn’t be able to close my eyes in death.”
That wasn’t just a mock pledge.
So… you need to believe in me.
“What’s this about life and death, you mouth-off?” Yan Xiaohan lifted his head up once more, all traces of his weeping now invisible. He gave Fu Shen a careful kiss on the corner of his mouth, his voice as gentle as water. “Sit up and drink some water, alright?”
Fu Shen nodded, eyes curving up as he gazed at him, a tender yearning that was difficult to describe within them.
Yan Xiaohan used the pillow and bedding to amass a thick nest for him, then got up and left to go get water.
Those previous few sentences having just exhausted all of his strength, Fu Shen tiredly hooded his eyes and leaned against the headboard. His mind was very alert, however; he recalled that a few days prior, the Court sent back a military report that approved of him discussing peace with the Southwestern rebel army, so he had people put up a simple tent between the two forces and agreed to meet with Duan Guihong there. On the day of the incident, they both had left their bodyguards outside for the sake of appearances, and each brought only one assistant general into the tent with them. The outcome was that he didn’t even get a few words out, as when he went to reach for his tea cup, the world suddenly spun. A sweet taste was in his mouth, darkness in his eyes, and he collapsed.
While his consciousness was on the brink of fading out, he heard his own general shout, “An ambush! It was a trick!”
At the time, the final thought in his head was also that it had been a trick. Duan Guihong would never poison him; this general that talked bullshit with his eyes wide open was definitely the one who did.
“Come. Rinse your mouth out first.”
Yan Xiaohan held him from behind, lifting a small teacup to his mouth. Not unused to his skills at looking after someone due to the passage of however many years, Fu Shen obediently rinsed and was given a few gulps of water. Only now did he feel himself to have thoroughly come alive.
“How’d you manage that?” Fu Shen asked as he stared at the bandage on the other’s neck. He’d thrown up blood several times and his body was weak, so he didn’t dare to use strength in his words, all of them being very gentle. “On your neck.”
Yan Xiaohan diffidently lowered his head for a look. “A little misunderstanding with the Prince. Brushing it a little doesn’t bother me. Do you want to?”
Fu Shen shook his head to indicate that he did not, leaning weakly against his shoulder. “I can’t help you with getting him back now that I’m like this. You’ll have to find him some other day and set up an appointment… he’d even fight his nephew’s wife, how outrageous.”
Duan Guihong, who heard Fu Shen had woken up and was just about to walk in the door to pay him a visit: “……”
What the hell! He got a wife, so he forgot his family?! Ingrate!
Yan Xiaohan finally couldn’t help but chuckle, gathering him towards himself and slightly reproaching him. “You’re sick, aren’t you? Why are you still chitchatting so much? The Prince took great pains to save you, yet you’re concerned about fighting him.”
Outside the room, Duan Guihong’s footsteps receded yet again, faltering in his tracks for a moment before leaving in a complicated mood.
Inside the room, Fu Shen inwardly let out a sigh of relief, thinking to himself: God, what a laugh.
He was aware that he had terrified Yan Xiaohan. Being able to dream meant that he had subconsciously regained his perception of the outside world, but simply hadn’t awoken yet; that was why, he always felt raindrops on top of his hands in those dreams, and they ought to have not been just his imagination.
A beauty’s tear-streaked face was nice to look at, naturally, but when he was as he was now, unable to hug or console him? Forget it.
“That assistant general I had…”
Right as he opened his mouth, it got blocked back up by Yan Xiaohan, who allowed for no explanation. “You don’t need to be concerned about any of these things, just leave them to me. So long as you recover from your injury, I’ll have nothing to worry about.”
Fu Shen didn’t vie with him, burying his face into his arms. “What the Madam says, goes.”
His energy was low, and it wasn’t long until he was tired. Yan Xiaohan personally fed him all of his medicine, then tidily arranged him under the covers. When he made to leave, Fu Shen suddenly opened his eyes and pulled at his sleeve. “Where are you going?”
“To find the Prince and discuss some things. I’ll be back soon,” Yan Xiaohan replied affectionately. “Go to sleep.”
“You’re not allowed to go.” Fu Shen dragged him towards the bed. “Come lay down with me for a while. Haven’t you not gotten some shut eye in a few days?”
Yan Xiaohan paused. Those words seemingly reminded him of all his exhaustion, which finally surged back up for a follow-up attack.
He didn’t reject Fu Shen’s concern, thus he took off his outer robe and got on, Fu Shen scooting in to make room for him. The two laid shoulder-to-shoulder on the not-at-all-spacious little bed, and though it was crowded, their limbs fitting snugly against each other was more effective than all other comforts.
Yan Xiaohan held Fu Shen by the waist, and – as if someone had knocked him out with a bludgeon – fell asleep at lightning speed.
One shichen later, Du Leng came inside the tent to check up on the condition of Fu Shen’s injury. All he saw was them curled up into a sleeping ball on the narrow bed, their necks crossed like a pair of mandarin ducks, and he couldn’t keep from smiling.
He understood that, in General Fu’s opinion, Yan Xiaohan was stronger than any sort of medicine.
Not desiring to disturb them, he hence let go of the curtain and went to withdraw. Fu Shen just so happened to have woken up, however, and their lines of sight intersected. The man looked down at the slumbering Yan Xiaohan, then gestured for Du Leng to remain quiet on top of motioning for him to come over.
Du Leng wasn’t sure of the reason for this. Fu Shen propped himself half-up, rescued one of his hands, gently lifted up Yan Xiaohan’s sleeve, then hinted for him to look at the bruise on his wrist as he mouthed the word “ointment”.
Having not expected that he would even notice this, Du Leng was a bit uncomprehending to start, but quickly grasped what he meant and rummaged out a bottle of anti-contusion ointment from his medicine trunk. Fu Shen took it, giving him a soundless “many thanks”.
Their gazes gently collided in midair. Fu Shen was thanking him for both this bottle of medicine, as well as for his life-saving generosity.
Du Leng heard from Duan Guihong before that Fu Shen had discovered his status a long time ago, yet had never exposed him. At this moment, his face uncontrollably heated up, and he busily waved his hands as he tiptoed out.
By the time Yan Xiaohan woke up, it was already early morning of the next day. He had slept for too long, leaving him unable to open his eyes for a little while. Within his daze, he only felt someone messing with his wrist, the slight coolness of ointment, and a warm palm, which caused him to suddenly feel the serenity of being treasured by someone.
“You awake?” The inpatient Fu Shen’s verve was a bit better than his, as he had switched to the outer side of the bed at some unknown point in time and was presently applying medicine to his hand. “Does your hand still hurt after a day of napping?”
If he hadn’t mentioned it, Yan Xiaohan wouldn’t have remembered that there was an injury there. He turned over and brainlessly wrapped Fu Shen entirely up in his embrace. “It doesn’t. If you’re okay, then swords and spears couldn’t pierce me, and a hundred poisons wouldn’t get to me.”
Fu Shen was both distressed and wanting to laugh. “So awe-inspiring. After you get up in a moment, remember to switch out the dressing on your neck. The Southwest is hot and humid, so don’t be careless and let it get infected.”
He didn’t even need to do anything; as long as he just sat there, he could make one feel at endless ease. Quelling the piercingly cold murderous will inside of Yan Xiaohan and vanishing it below the water’s surface, the man docilely nodded and “mn”ed in response. They hung around in bed for a little bit longer, and only when Fu Shen’s medicine was decocted and sent over did they get up, wash up, and have breakfast.
Fu Shen still needed to recuperate, and Yan Xiaohan didn’t want to make him worry. He stooped over to ask for a kiss, then went out to meet up with Duan Guihong and Du Leng.
Today was the eighth of July, four days since Fu Shen’s poisoning. There was chaos in the Dynasty’s army, a dust-kicking riot raised from the news of his demise. Two far-off armies stood opposite each other, their swords and arrows drawn.
Matters had been abrupt that day. Duan Guihong had jumped in fright from Fu Shen spitting up blood and collapsing all of a sudden, but before he could react, he witnessed the assistant general that had come in the tent with Fu Shen unsheathe his sabre and shout, “An ambush! It was a trick!”
That thunderous sound made the bodyguards outside the tent immediately charge in upon hearing it. The Southwestern troops didn’t understand what had just happened inside, but they couldn’t just idly watch Duan Guihong get surrounded, so they also burst into the tent. Both sides instantly brawled themselves into a wad. Duan Guihong was petrified for but a moment, then promptly realized that this was someone’s scheme; the scene and situation at the time had been truly messy, though, and he wasn’t quick enough to catch that assistant general. After ordering people to carry Fu Shen away, returning to the main encampment, and calling for a medic to examine him, he was ruled to have symptoms of being poisoned, but they couldn’t figure out what that poison was.
Thankfully, Du Leng had been willing to brave the risk of pitching himself over there in the middle of the night. He was more reliable than the medics in Duan Guihong’s camp, and had identified it as a type of scorpion venom, from a species commonly appeared deep in the mountains of the Guangnan region. Its venom was colorless and had the odor of sweet alcohol that made it smell like wine, hence why the locals called it the ‘Drunk Scorpion’. Were a live one steeped in wine, the venom would be forced out, consequently producing a type of poison known as the ‘Drunk Morrow’.
The most prominent trait of this poison was that it would not immediately flare up after being applied, but would instead only have an effect at noon the day after. Due to it being no different than wine and its onset being on a delay, the victim was often unaware of it, and treatment for it would be all the more unspoken of, as death would come swiftly once the poison flared.
The Southwest was currently humid with frequent rains, and Fu Shen’s legs ached at times, so Du Leng proposed that he drink a bit of wine each night to expel moisture. It was precisely this portion where a slip-up was made, allowing Xue Sheng’s people to have a usable opportunity.
The greatest fortune within this misfortune was that Fu Shen had been brought back to the Southwestern camp by Duan Guihong, rather than snatched back by the Dynasty’s army. Fallnight white specialized in subduing snake and scorpion venom, and Duan Guihong lacked for everything but it. This herbal remedy had once saved Fu Tingxin’s life on the grasslands of Northern Xinjiang, and now it had saved Fu Shen’s.
“You captured Jingyuan, Prince, and now you’re sitting solidly on the rumor of ‘ambush and assassination’,” Yan Xiaohan mulled, rapping on the table. “However, in regards to us, this is not the worst scenario.”
Duan Guihong’s concept of this ‘niece-in-law’ was very complex. When he was unrelentingly scolded by him that night before, he thought that he genuinely fucking was a vicious character. After listening to those scant words outside the door yesterday, though, he also felt that he had a bit more of an overall conscience compared to the disgrace that was Fu Shen.
“What are you planning on doing?”
“The Emperor both fears and respects Jingyuan. Despite Xue Sheng gripping evidence of the Duke of Ying’s secret communications with the Southwest, he was afraid to straight-up reveal it, and instead wanted to use the method of assassination as well as pin the blame on you. This shows that they also feared that once this happened, the Northern Xinjiang border would erupt in chaos, and the situation wouldn’t be easy to control once that time came.
Going with present conjecture on these circumstances, if Jingyuan really did die by your hand, the Iron Cavalry and old division would both place the entire bill on the Southwest’s head. Furthermore, without him, the solid chunk of iron panel that is Northern Xinjiang would naturally break apart, and the Court would no longer endure the coercion of ‘strong generals’. Two eagles, one arrow; their goal would be achieved. In light of the Emperor’s personality, a human’s death is like a lamp going out – he very likely wouldn’t go after the Fu family again once this is over, so Jingyuan’s good reputation could still be preserved.”
“And if he didn’t die?”
“Then his relationship with the Southwest is ambiguous. At that juncture, the Duke of Ying’s letters would then be taken out, and the eighty-percent falsehood becomes a hundred-percent fact. It’s hard to say if there would be bodily harm, but his reputation coming apart would be set in stone.”
Duan Guihong caught his implication. “So, what do you mean?” he asked, mystified. “You’re thinking to let him ‘die’, and after that, he’ll live incognito in the backcountry of his native lands? Then you’ll go look for other wives and concubines, peacefully enjoying your prestige and wealth, is that it?”
Yan Xiaohan shook his head in non-compliance. “You view this humble one too highly, Prince. There’s no need to speak of living apart from the world; even if he ascends to the sky or descends to the Yellow Springs, I would go with him.
It isn’t that he cannot be apart from me, it’s that I can’t be separated from him.”
The author says: Duan Guihong: Why did I open my big mouth.