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red as trouble; red as you

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There’s an uneasy tension in the room.

The walls look like a work of art, decorated in swirls of red that splatter like raindrops, contrasting with the monochrome black, white, grey tiles. Though the wooden floor is cleaner, threads of rope still litter the ground, from where he had tried to escape, straining and twisting his hands, as if it could help. It was a fruitless effort. Wen Qing had tied them ropes herself; to break free, both wrists would have to be broken, and he definitely didn’t have the mental capabilities to do anything of the sort. 

She grabs an apple— red, like her dress, like the dangerous colour of the setting sun, like the beautiful painting of blood before them— and bites into it, the loud crunch echoing through the silence of the room. She chews and chews, until it is all but mush; then she swallows, and bites again. 

It does nothing to aid the uneasy tension in the room.

Jiang Yanli stands and stares at her. Her gaze is confusing. Powerful, filled with the force of a thousand wasps, as if she is angry and Wen Qing is about to be swarmed. Strangely, she is at peace with that.

But then it softens. The wasps melt away into bees, kind and helpful, filling the atmosphere with warm buzzing. The silence still stretches, until Wen Qing stands, crossing the room in a few steps, holding out her half-eaten apple.

Jiang Yanli stares. Wen Qing waves it slightly.

“Do you want it?” It is the first time she has spoken in hours, her voice raspy from the screaming. It almost sounds as though she was sick, or had just woken up after a long night with too few hours rest. “The apple.” She clarifies.

Jiang Yanli shakes her head, but then reaches out to take the apple regardless, deciding otherwise. Wen Qing smiles.

“When was the last time you ate?”

“Yesterday,” Yanli admits carefully, avoiding eye contact. “I didn’t manage to finish my tea.” Wen Qing glares. Not at her but at the body that lies, slumped, on the hard ground.

“I hope I didn’t ruin your appetite.”

“No.” Her voice is resolute with that, a promise. “He did.”

“Will you eat now?” Wen Qing asks. Yanli does, taking yet another bite out of the browning apple. She lifts her hand to Yanli’s cheek, cupping it gently, as though it was the softest thing in the world. The lingering blood on her hands, almost dried, leaves a light mark on her beloved’s cheek, like the kiss of lipstick. A thumb strokes across Yanli’s cheekbone, causing a light flush and a gentle laugh.

“Do we have to stay in this room?” Yanli asked. Though kind and patient, there is a limit to the number of times she can look at a dead body.

Wordlessly, Wen Qing leads them from one room to the next. Now, they are in a library— an extensive one too. It is filled with books on fighting, from a few brief collections on sabres to knives and other hidden weapons, to a much larger section that covers sword fighting, cultivating to immortality, and the art of healing. The quiet scene makes Wen Qing cast her mind back to a time a few months back, where she had met Yanli in the middle of the night, having snuck away from where she was posted. If Lan Wangji knew...

Their meeting had been brief, though worthwhile. When they embraced, Wen Qing felt the calmest she had in months, her heart slowing to a natural pace. Energy seemed to leak out of her as she gripped Yanli tighter, ignoring how her sword was painfully digging into her thigh.

“A-Li.” She said, and it felt like she was taking her first breath of fresh air. “A-Li.

“A-Qing,” Yanli replied. “I missed you.”

There was nothing around them but trees, the forest silent minus the cry of owls. Distantly, Wen Qing had thought she could hear the running of a stream. The scene was tranquil; if it was lighter out, Wen Qing would have been inclined to hold a picnic. Of course, there was no such luck.

“I will have to go back soon.” Wen Qing apologised, “But I bring you a parting gift.”

Yanli’s mouth had opened, forming a shocked, little ‘o’. Then, she smiled, stepping back and holding out her hands. 

“Do you still want me to close my eyes?” She teased.

Wen Qing pretended to think about it, and then nodded. “To follow tradition.”

Yanli did so. Wen Qing placed an umbrella in her hands; it had been specially fashioned, something more traditional. Though it was plain white, a few drawings— courtesy of Nie Huaisang, she assumed— had been delicately painted on. The most notable was the drawing of a swan, a picture of perfect grace. There was also an engraving upon the wooden handle, a pattern of feathers that provided ample grip.

When Yanli opened her eyes, they widened almost immediately, confused but impressed with the design. Wen Qing assumed she was wondering why she would need an umbrella, though was too polite to say it. Adorable.

“Open it.” Wen Qing advised. When it had stretched to its full size, the drawings were even clearer, the moonlight above them enlightening them. Wen Qing had leant forward, curling her hand around Yanli’s, which was wrapped around the handle. Carefully, after moving her other hand to grip higher up, Wen Qing pulled their hands down together, smiling as Yanli gasped.

The lowest section of the handle had separated from the rest of the umbrella, revealing a thin blade, long and awfully sharp. It could easily pierce right through someone, even if it weren’t used with the greatest amount of strength. An ideal weapon for someone who didn’t want to draw much attention to themselves.

“Mind yourself.” Wen Qing said, both a warning and a worry. Yanli smiled, smooth and sweet, like candy. Something goes off in Wen Qing’s heart, as if there was an impromptu firework show.

“You be careful too.” She had said, voice sure, as if she felt nothing bad could befall either of them.

With that, they had parted, each disappearing into the shroud of night.

They’re together again now.

Jiang Yanli does not kill often. In fact, she has never killed at all; not directly, at least. She scratches, claws her way out of situations, and maims when her targets are playing hard to get. If she had to describe the worst thing she had done, it would be the time she stabbed a man just below the ribs and watched him choke up blood.

Later, she had checked on him, curious. She was told that he lived.

This time is different but, as A-Xian always says, there’s nothing wrong with new experiences. He encourages them.

Which is why she finds herself feeling strangely calm in the middle of it all, when she watches someone knock Wen Qing to the floor, seconds away from hurting her— she can’t even think of what he is planning on doing to her.

It’s as if she’s meditating. No sound can be heard, despite there, moments prior, having been the echo of bullets and the clanging of swords and shouts and yells and screams.

It’s deathly silent, as if they’re in a church, a graveyard.

Jiang Yanli sees red. She surges forwards in seconds, the power of her strong golden core pushing her too. She slashes with the knife Wen Qing had gifted her months ago, watching the gashes it forms with a morbid curiosity. Blood runs down his arms onto her skin and it clings, burning like lava, like the sun on an uncomfortably hot, sweltering day. 

Like Wen Qing’s dress when she had killed for her. 

Sweat runs down her forehead, though she barely registers it. All she knows is rage.

The blade plunges into his chest; she has him close enough that his last gasp of air can be felt on her face. Immediately, she lets go of the body, dropping the knife too. It feels wrong. She wants to wash her hands, scrub until it’s cleaned of her sins, spotless once again.

But then she sees Wen Qing, alive and breathing and smiling— not very big but slight, hesitant, but  there— and she knows she didn’t make the wrong choice. Time seems to slow as they stare at each other, Yanli making it to her side and helping her stand.

In reality, she has only sustained a few bruises. The shock of being pushed to the floor in a surprise attack had rendered her out of action for only the slightest of seconds, though it might have been enough to equal in her downfall. Might.

Yanli still does not regret it.

Instead, she runs a hand quickly over Wen Qing’s cheeks, her nose, her forehead and eyes. Makes sure she’s still there, in one piece. 

She feels Wen Qing’s mouth move, blinks her eyes until she can see it. She still can’t hear at all, not even when she stares at the words seemingly being said to her. Wen Qing’s brow furrows, and she repeats herself.

Yanli smiles; Wen Qing is alive.

She fades away.

The next time she opens her eyes, it is to the sound of gentle snoring and the soft crackling of a candle that has been burning for too long. Everything feels numb, though— as she manages to wriggle her toes, slowly spreading the movement up her body, she eventually manages to shift onto the soft blanket that covers her— she grips the hand in hers tighter.

It’s dark outside, though a streetlamp still shines its bright flare, reflecting off of the window. It looks like it has been raining but it’s quiet outside now. Still, Yanli finds herself staring at the figure next to her, squinting to try and make out who it is. Her sight is still blurry, unhelped by the dark room.

However, the movement causes the person beside her to stir. When she sits up, Yanli finally realises who it is, and wonders why she’s surprised. Of course, it would be—

“A-Qing.” Yanli smiles. She can’t help but grab her hand tighter, as if scared she will suddenly disappear. It’s soft, Yanli notes, though harder in places, calluses on her palms. Her hands are pretty, fitting perfectly into her own. “I love you.”

Wen Qing seems to startle, though smiles brightly, like the candles, like the brightest of stars.

“I’m so glad you’re awake.” She replies instead. “You passed out and— I was scared.” The confession rings out in the room, neither of them breaking the silence. Yanli runs a finger over Wen Qing’s knuckles. 

“I’m sorry,” Yanli replies after a beat, voice soft, almost inaudible, “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“No, no,” Wen Qing says, firm. “You did nothing wrong. I’m so proud of you-” Proud?- “You’re so strong… I love you.”

Another second of comfortable silence passes, though it’s interrupted before either of them could continue by a soft knock at the door. Three gentle taps, a half-second gap between them as if the person was holding something, tapping with their feet; Yanli only knows this because she is well versed in A-Xian’s presence.

Wen Qing glances at Yanli, who nods, before calling out, “Come in!”

A-Xian enters quickly, having pressed down the handle with his elbow. He looks flustered, a little rushed, as if he was sleeping moments prior.

“Shijie!” He yells excitedly, though flinches at his loud tone and Wen Qing’s responding glare. “Shijie.” He repeats quieter but no less excited.

He crosses the room quickly, by her side in seconds. He places the tray on her bedside with a soft clatter, moving items around so fast that Yanli can barely keep up with her tired, out of focus brain. A few seconds pass before Wen Qing sighs and takes over, switching places.

It is then that Yanli finds she had sustained a wound to her thigh and most likely a concussion too, though they hadn’t been able to test for that whilst she slept. Wen Qing begins to redress her wounds, as Yanli winces and pouts and struggles to hold still.

A-Xian tries to distract her.

“I missed you.” He says sincerely, then his expression seems to clear. “Did you hear what Jiang Cheng did? Lan Huan was furious—”

She lets her brother’s voice wash over her, calming like incense when she takes in a deep breath. In truth, she doesn’t care what A-Cheng did, as long as he’s safe, but she listens to A-Xian talk as a way to ground herself, ignoring the soft fingers that carefully place pressure on her wound to rewrap her thigh.

“All done.” Wen Qing declares, with a heavy look at A-Xian. He seems to get the hint.

“Ah, Wen Qing still needs to check for concussion! Then I’m sure she’s going to make you rest; she never lets me get away with it…” At Wen Qing’s insistent look, he continues, “I’m going, I’m going! Am I not allowed to care about my shijie in this household?”

Despite his complaining, he smiles as he leaves. He’s probably going to brag to Jiang Cheng that he had seen her first, which means A-Cheng will be in here soon…

Yanli shakes her head, fond, though frowns when it hurts. 

“I’m going to turn the light on.” Wen Qing warns, before the room lights up brightly. Yanli had closed her eyes but it still aches behind her eyes. “Sorry.” She murmured, by her side again in seconds. A hand cups her cheek and tilts her head upwards.

“A-Qing…” Yanli says. The moment ends sooner than she had liked, when Wen Qing pulls away to grab a small torch from the bedside. A-Xian must have brought it in. She wonders what she missed whilst everyone else was awake and busy and she was— passed out.

Why did she pass out again?

Wen Qing turns on the torch, which gives out a softer light, much unlike the bright street lamps which burn. She turns it off and on, off and on, laughing to herself as it clicks in the silence between them.

“It’s like those ASMR videos you like,” She teases. She puts on a serious voice, “Your crush, who doubles as a doctor, checks whether you have a concussion.”

Yanli laughs despite everything. Although it hurts, she feels safe, comfortable, in Wen Qing’s care. Both of them smile.

“Now, follow the light for me please.” She moves it back and forth a few times, before beginning to spell something out of it, laughing again when Yanli frowns, though it isn’t entirely serious.

“That’s not very professional.”

“Ah, my apologies.” The grave tone is back. “I just wanted to let the patient know I love her. And she probably has a concussion.”

“Oh no,” Yanli says. 

“Not to worry, though!” Wen Qing declares. “Because you’re in good hands.”

The rest of the evening seems to pass in a blur that Yanli doesn’t remember, another symptom of the concussion. She sleeps through most of it, waking up at intervals, only to feel Wen Qing pressed against her side.

Every time she stirs, Wen Qing quietly asks her whether she’s okay, reaching to the bedside to make sure she has water and food— which she’s hoping Wen Ning or Lan Huan prepared, rather than it be a result of A-Xian’s enthusiastically awful cooking— but she never manages to finish any of it. Earlier seemed to be a fluke because now she struggles to stay conscious for more than a minute.

She’s awake now, though Wen Qing seems to have fallen asleep. Yanli moves closer, clasping her hand, once again, in hers and simply holding it, slipping their fingers together in a tight embrace. She places a gentle kiss on Wen Qing’s collar bone, which makes her shuffle and make a face, almost waking.

Yanli slowly lies down again, not wanting to disturb her. She’s so comfortable and warm, and she wishes she never had to move again.

And, then—

“SHIJIE!” She hears someone call from down the corridor, their heavy steps resonating throughout the entire building. “HOW DARE WEI YING SEE YOU BEFORE ME?”

There goes my peace, Yanli thinks.

She wouldn’t have it any other way.