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before dusk

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The first time Nie Mingjue sees her, she’s covered in so much blood, but not a speck of it is on her face. Still, the red flames lining her sleeves and chest are unmistakable.

He has to unclench his jaw before he can speak. When he does, he tastes blood; the wound in his side must be getting worse.

“You shouldn’t be here, it’s dangerous,” he says, because Wen or not, he doesn’t want to kill a woman.

But—if she still chooses to attack, he won’t hold back.

She blinks at him, gaze piercing like she’s peeling his skin back to take a look at what’s inside. Nie Mingjue can count on one hand the times he’s felt unnerved, but something about this woman immediately sets him on edge. His fingers clench reflexively around the hilt of his sabre, but that’s all he gets to do before he finds himself flat on his back, paralyzed, choking on a grunt of pain.

He tries to struggle, but he can’t even feel his limbs. Between one breath and the next, everything goes dark.

Nie Mingjue comes to like he’s been holding his breath. He gasps, heart kicking in his chest, and instinctively reaches out for his sabre—or he tries to, anyway; he can feel his limbs now, but it’s like they’re weighed down by boulders. He strains until it feels like his arms are on fire, but all he manages is a feeble twitch of his thumbs.

“It’s not going to work.” A woman’s voice, sharp like the air before a storm. “I didn’t heal you just so you could injure yourself again right away.”

Nie Mingjue can’t move his head but his eyes dart to where the voice is and find the woman from before. She’s closer now than she was earlier. As she steps up to the head of his bed, he can see the smudges beneath her eyes, the tired pinch of her mouth.

She looks annoyed and it’s kindling to the everpresent flames crackling in his chest. If anyone should be annoyed, it’s him.

He tries his voice, finds that his mouth—at least—still works.

“If you think this cheap trick is going to hold me-”

“It will,” she interrupts. Her hands are crossed, and while some might say it made her look defensive, to Nie Mingjue she’s the picture of confidence. No one, especially one of his enemies, would have their hands anywhere but outward, pointing a weapon straight at him. Then again, none of his enemies have ever survived, let alone caught him off guard, so maybe this woman has a right to be as unconcerned as she is.

Still, it grates at him. He doesn’t stop trying to move his arms.

“What the fuck did you do to me?” He says through gritted teeth.

Men. Do you ever listen?” She sneers and manages to make it look regal. “I healed you.”

“I would rather have died than be healed by a Wen Dog,” he spits.

“Good, because this won’t happen again.”

“If you think I’ll owe you for this-”

She sighs, a harsh sound, cutting him off for the second time in as many minutes. It’s twice more than anyone’s ever dared to do and it stuns him into silence.

“I don’t expect you to. Consider this a favour for killing Wen Xu.” She says lightly, before turning her back on him like she’s grown bored of this entire conversation. Like Nie Mingjue wouldn’t stick a sabre through her back given half the chance. It throws him off balance, in a way nothing ever has before. It’s why it takes awhile for her words to sink in, and when they do, he snorts.

“You expect me to believe that? That what, you’re grateful I killed your leader’s worthless son?”

“Believe what you will,” she says, not turning around from whatever she was doing at the table across the tent.

Nie Mingjue scowls. “Typical of a Wen dog, you’d betray your own sect—and for what?”

“There are things more important than one’s sect,” she replies, and the fact that he shares the same sentiment rankles.

After a beat, he says, “You said you healed me. Am I supposed to believe you’re just going to let me go?”

She turns now, leans back against the table. “I certainly don’t have any reason to keep you here.”

“I can think of a few.”

“Figures. They say you’re good at this.” She waves her hand around, the motion cutting. “At war. But I’m a healer. I’m not interested in getting people killed.”

“Like you’ve never killed anyone-”

“Not intentionally.” And it’s a more honest answer than he’s expecting. He blinks, the anger that’s always snapping at his heels like rabid dogs momentarily calmed.

They stare across at each other and in the sudden silence, Nie Mingjue realises he’d stopped trying to move his limbs.

“Come nightfall,” she says, slow like she’s speaking to a child. “I’ll let you go.”

“What’s to stop me from killing you then?”

“You’re welcome to try.”

Nie Mingjue huffs. “Do you have a death wish?”

“Do you?” She throws back without missing a beat. Her gaze needles at him.

“And when your sect finds out you helped me?”

“Who’s going to tell them? Your pride won’t let you.” She blinks mildly at his growl. “Besides, I’m under no illusions about where my sect is headed. The sun had to set eventually.”

Nie Mingjue stares at her. “Who are you?” He says, finally.

“Why?” She asks.

“You healed my wounds.”

“And you’re suddenly grateful?”

“You know who I am.”

“Everyone does.”

“Honor dictates-”

She waves him off, smiling sudden and wry. “Don’t hurt yourself,” she says.

Something catches in his throat. He thinks she’s not going to answer, but then she uncrosses her arms, propping her palms on the tabletop.

“Wen Qing,” she says and he feels his eyes grow wide.

He’s heard of her, of course. Everyone has.

Her mouth is once again tipped in an annoyed slant. “It won’t be long before sundown. You should focus on recovering your strength if you’re going to try and kill me.”

Despite everything and against his better judgement, Nie Mingjue finds himself morbidly amused.