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the very first words of a lifelong love letter

Chapter Text

To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.

 

Jingyan falls in love with Xiao Shu in the spring.

No, that's not strictly true.

Jingyan has absolutely no prior experience with this feeling that steals his breath and makes it seem as if his heart is turning somersaults in his chest, but even he knows that it’s rooted too deeply to have developed that recently.

But it’s in the spring that Jingyan races back into Jinling from Donghai, chest tight and breath shallow, clutching the missive that had been waiting for him at the army’s first stopping point on the way home; the missive that simply says that his father is dead and his eldest brother, who had been Prince Qi when Jingyan left the capital, is now the new Emperor.

Eyes burning both from the cold wind tearing at his clothes, and the tremendous sense of loss that is weighing down on his heart, Jingyan rushes to the city gate and impatiently waits to be cleared for entrance.

Once through, he resumes his frantic pace through the streets, urging his horse on to the Palace, and upon arrival is promptly ushered into the court room, where his brother is waiting for him.

“You’ve done very well, Jingyan,” his brother the Emperor says, after taking Jingyan’s report from Gaozhan-gonggong and giving it a brief read-over. He raises his eyes from the page to meet Jingyan’s and nods once, gravely.

“I’ll have some of the eunuchs send a reward to your residence – I think, Gaozhan, perhaps the jade–”

“You know I don’t care about that!” Jingyan cries, goaded beyond endurance. He comes back to himself after a cough and reproving look from Gao-gongggong, and hastily adds, “Your Majesty.”

His brother’s gaze softens and he gives Jingyan a sad smile.

“We knew we wouldn’t be able to get word to you in time for you to return for the mourning period,” he explains gently. “And we didn’t want you to have to fight while bearing such a heavy grief. I’m sorry, Jingyan.”

“What happened?” Jingyan asks raggedly, voice choked from the effort of holding back the tears that are suddenly welling up in his eyes. Because even if they’d never spent much time together, even if he was (had been) the least-favoured son, the Emperor – the late Emperor – had still been his father. And as a son, he should still have been there for the funeral rites, to mourn – to do something more than find out months later and come back to find that everyone else in the capital had long moved on.

“This is not a good place for you to hear the story,” his brother says, shaking his head and glancing briefly at the five ministers waiting just outside the door for their turn at an audience. “Go see your mother – she’s still in Zhiluo Palace, we haven’t gotten around to moving her yet – and speak to her. Then go home, and take some time to rest. I’m sorry for only being able to give you a few days – there’s still a great deal to do, and I’ll need your help.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Jingyan mumbles, bowing. “I’ll take my leave.”


Jingyan leaves his mother’s palace with his head reeling and staggers to his horse, blankly allowing his body to go through the motions of mounting and directing it homewards. With all the new information swimming around in his mind, there’s no room even for grief anymore. He just feels numb.

“Your Highness!”

Startled out of his reverie, Jingyan turns his horse to find Lie Zhanying, as well as a handful of other officers who’d followed him back from Donghai, running towards him from just outside the Palace gate.

“Your Highness, what’s happened?” Zhanying asks, when they reach him. “We tried to ask one of the eunuchs as he was leaving on an errand, but he was in a rush and kept mumbling, so we couldn’t make head or tail of what he said.”

The last thing Jingyan wants to do is stop to talk to them about what he’s just heard, but his men are in the same position he’d been in not long before, with the added frustration of being denied answers for an hour, so Jingyan nods and suggests that they return to his residence, to speak there.

“So it’s true about Marquis Xie, then?” Zhanying asks, when they’re all seated in Jingyan’s sitting room.

Jingyan nods.

“My mother wasn’t especially clear about the details either – it seems that the inner Palace received a version of events that was watered down – I think she was hinting at something, but I wasn’t quite thinking straight, so–”

“We’re military men ourselves, Your Highness, so subtleties are pretty much beyond us, anyway,” Qi Meng rushes to assure him, earning himself a cough and a sideways glance from an exasperated Zhanying.

Jingyan nods, for want of a better response to give, and continues.

“It seems that Marquis Xie – no, just Xie Yu now – in league with the director of the Xuanjing Bureau, Xia Jiang, went to the late Emperor with a letter they claimed was from Commander Nie Feng, requesting aid to counter a Chiyan army rebellion. Xie Yu then set out with his own force and waited above a narrow pass just before the Meiling battleground, planning to attack the Chiyan army when they were weak with exhaustion after successfully defeating Da Yu in battle.”

“Fuck, Marquis Xie – I mean, Xie Yu!” Chen Hao mutters under his breath from the back of the group. “To think he was capable of this level of treache – Ah! Sorry, Your Highness,” he adds hastily, cutting himself off. “I know he was married to your Aunt, but–”

That’s right, Jingyan thinks, now that the fog of shock has lifted and his mind is beginning to work properly. Xie Yu was his uncle by marriage.

Shit.

“In any case,” Jingyan says, choosing to continue rather than to dwell on the fact, “somehow the plan went awry – possibly something to do with a sudden snow storm.”

He frowns for a moment, looking around at his audience, who are, unlike his royal consort mother, all military men.

“My mother says she heard about this from Princess Jinyang, who heard it from Field Marshal Lin and Xiao Shu, who in turn heard it from Commander Nie, since they only got there afterwards,” he says apologetically, by way of disclaimer, acutely aware of how strained the relationship between his account and the truth has probably become at this point.

“But it seems that the snow caused irregularities in the movements of the troops, so the force that Xie Yu ended up attacking was only a very small, incomplete vanguard, leading the horses and supplies that hadn’t been bogged down. Their cries were heard by the bulk of the force, who were lagging behind, and Xie Yu was discovered, overpowered and killed.”

A few of the men heave sighs of relief at this news, and begin nodding and smiling at each other, now that a happy ending to the story has been assured.

“Later,” Jingyan continues, “Nie Feng himself came back to court, swore up and down that he had never seen such a letter. The Xuanjing Bureau was abolished, and its head Xia Jiang arrested.”

“And the Hua princess, Xuanji ?” Zhanying asks, eyes wide. “Was she really in the Palace?”

“And found to be in league with Xia Jiang,” Jingyan confirms. “Plotting revenge on the Chiyan army for the destruction of her people. But she escaped.”

Amazed murmuring breaks out, mostly too low for Jingyan to hear, aside from one, “So that is why his wife left him. Who knew?”

“After her mainstay in court influence was eliminated, Princess Xuanji then bombed the Palace courtyard during the New Year celebrations,” Jingyan says, when the commentary subsides.

“Gunpowder in the incense holder,” Zhanying whispers, nodding. “We got that much from the eunuch.”

Jingyan nods in agreement.

“Yes,” he says. “The Emperor–”

He takes a deep breath and forces himself to say the words.

“The Emperor was killed. The Empress and Consort Yue, who were standing nearest to him, also died. It seems Princess Xuanji was intending for Prince Qi to die, too, which would leave Prince Yu as the heir apparent.”

“What?” Qi Meng blurts out, frowning. “But he’s only the 5th Prince, isn’t he?”

“He was the former Empress’s son,” Zhanying reminds him. “And the 3rd Prince suffers from ill health. The 4th Prince …” he trails off, glancing at Jingyan, and then clears his throat, evidently deciding that the most prudent course of action would be to refrain from discussing any of the 4th Prince’s relative merits.

Or lack thereof, Jingyan can’t help himself from thinking, which was most likely the direction Zhanying had been going in.

“What I don’t understand,” Jingyan says aloud, frowning as the question suddenly occurs to him, “is why Prince Yu? I don’t think my mother mentioned a reason.”

“Oh, the eunuch did,” Zhanying answers unexpectedly. “Qin Banruo, that advisor of his – she’s Hua, too. Apparently they’ve been grooming him for a while. He’s always been their choice.”

Jingyan hums . That makes some sense, but he still feels like something is missing.

Perhaps Xiao Shu will have some answers.


At the Lin residence, Jingyan is greeted by Auntie Jinyang, who fusses over him, ushering him into her elegant sitting room, and plying him with food and drink, which inadvertently makes him feel guilty for entering her house while still in his dusty, travel-worn clothes.

“Jingyan, my boy!” Uncle Lin exclaims, poking his head in the doorway on his way past and beaming with pleasant surprise.

“Uncle Lin,” Jingyan says, half-rising from his cushion.

“No, no, sit down, sit down,” Uncle Lin says, waving him back down. “No sense in bothering, I’m not staying – just stopped in for lunch, you see. I’m sorry I can’t chat, but this Hua business waits for no one.”

He turns and calls down the corridor for someone to bring his cloak.

“Heard you did very well in Donghai, though. I see you’ve done us all proud, eh?”

“I had very good teachers, sir,” Jingyan replies, and Uncle Lin’s cheeks pinken with pleasure.

“Well, now,” he says modestly, accepting his coat from a maid and then looking towards his wife. “Jinyang, I’m leaving. Jingyan, I’m sure I don’t need to ask you to come over for dinner sometime, when you’re free. We’ll catch up then, eh?”

Uncle Lin gone, Jingyan turns back to Auntie Jinyang.

“Auntie, is Xiao Shu–?”

“I’m sorry, Jingyan,” Auntie Jinyang replies, shaking her head. “He’s out helping with the Hua investigation as well, working with – you remember Uncle Thirteen, of course. Prince Ji and Marquis Yan are also involved – I expect the Emperor will have you doing the same, in a few more days.”

She reaches over and pats his hand.

“You should go and rest, for now,” she tells him. “I have to go and see Consort Che – no, sorry, the Empress Dowager, I keep forgetting. With all the disorder caused by the Hua work, we’re still moving consorts around the palaces in accordance with the new order.”

She sighs heavily and rolls her eyes.

“And with the death rites and the coronation having to be organised in the middle of the New Year celebrations, the old men at the Ministry of Ceremonies have had more work than they can cope with – waiting on advice from them has been a joke. Well,” she concedes magnanimously, “I shouldn’t say that. They’re doing their best – their hearts probably couldn’t cope with working any harder.”

Xiao Shu can be pretty harsh, and Jingyan supposes he had to have gotten it from somewhere. Even so, he allows himself a small wince on behalf of the poor, maligned men and their old, maligned hearts.

“In any case, it’s an unbelievable mess,” Auntie Jinyang says, shaking her head. “And there’s the Emperor’s new baby as well, so it’s not as if the Empress Dowager doesn’t have enough to worry about already–”

“WHAT?” Jingyan exclaims, eyes wide.

“Oh, no one’s told you yet?” Auntie Jinyang laughs. “It’s a boy, they named him Tingsheng. You really picked a good time to be away, didn’t you?”

Head reeling again after being struck by this new and unexpected blow, Jingyan does not feel like it is really the time to be laughing.

“Now be off with you,” she says, still smiling as she ushers him up onto his feet and towards the door. “Go home, get some rest – you look exhausted. You haven’t even washed up yet!”

Jingyan nods dumbly and allows himself to be herded out, but has absolutely no intention of following the rest of her instructions.

How can he possibly be expected to go home and rest, when he’s still got so many unanswered questions to think about, and she’s just gone and casually added ten more?


Unable to find anyone else, Jingyan ends up speaking to Yan Yujin, who’s alone because his best friend Jingrui hasn’t been wanting to come out to play with him lately.

“Well, that’s understandable,” Jingyan says reasonably, glancing sideways at the morose little figure hunched over next to him. “One of his fathers is both dead and a criminal, after all.”

Yujin heaves an explosive sigh and uncurls, tilting his face up to the sky.

“And the other one’s a criminal, too,” he says, swinging his legs gently over the side of the wooden platform they’re sitting on. “Yeah, I know, I know.”

“What,” Jingyan demands flatly, more statement than question, because this he definitely did not know.

Yujin brings his chin back down and squints at him suspiciously.

“You seriously haven’t heard?” he asks incredulously.

Jingyan just looks at him.

“Oh yeah, that’s right, you’ve been away,” Yujin says, answering his own question and nodding to himself. “Sorry, I forgot. Yeah, Master Zhuo was the one who assassinated the guy who forged the letter from Feng-ge, you know, for Uncle – I mean, Xie Yu.”

He pauses for a moment and then shakes his head.

“That guy, though – I can’t believe I’ve been calling him ‘uncle’ all these years!”

You’re not the only one, Jingyan thinks wryly, although outwardly, he contents himself with humming in response.

“And then they found out that he was doing all this other assassinating, too,” Yujin continues. “Of Marquis Xie’s political opponents and stuff.”

Well, Jingyan thinks. Shit.

Suddenly, going home and sleeping for a week sounds like a wonderful idea.

Even so, Jingyan chooses to press on.

“What else can you tell me?” he asks Yujin.

“What else do you want to know?” Yujin asks archly in return.

“Let’s start with why the court version of the story is so abbreviated,” Jingyan suggests.

“Oh that,” Yujin says knowingly, before launching into an explanation in a more authoritative manner than Jingyan thinks a 12-year-old really has any business having.

“Well, firstly, there’s Auntie Liyang, Jingrui, Qi and Bi. Prince Qi asked the Emperor for mercy on their behalf, to not extent any of Marquis Xie’s punishment to them. The Emperor agreed, because they’re family – so they’re not living at the Xie residence anymore, they’ve moved into a place that Auntie Liyang owns. But obviously, everyone still knows they’re Marquis Xie’s family, so the Emperor ordered the officials overseeing the investigation to suppress whatever information possible, aside from the core details of the case, to make it easier for them.”

Jingyan nods slowly. That makes sense.

And,” Yujin continues, with relish. “Turns out the Palace is full of Hua spies, but Auntie Yueyao hasn’t finished identifying them and doesn’t want to do anything until she can evict all of them at once, so everyone’s probably being pretty careful of what they say, at the moment.”

But that, Jingyan thinks. That makes much more sense.

“Right,” Jingyan says, only now thinking to look around the Yan compound to see if anyone might be listening in. He looks back at Yujin to find himself the recipient of a pitying look.

“So what really happened at Meiling?” he asks, because yes, he deserved that one.

“Well, what I heard,” Yujin says confidingly, shifting closer with an excited gleam in his eye, “is that there was a humongous snowstorm at the end of the Da Yu battle – after we’d won, obviously,” he adds.

“Obviously,” Jingyan murmurs.

“Everyone on both sides was forced to hole up and wait out the worst of it,” Yujin says, either not noticing Jingyan’s tone or choosing to ignore it. “And when Xie Yu arrived at the pass, he obviously couldn’t do anything, because there was no one there, but when they finally did appear, there were more storms and he couldn’t see properly, so the attack failed.”

Jingyan blinks and then frowns into Yujin’s expectant face.

“… I don’t know how likely all of that is,” he ventures after a moment. “I feel like Xie Yu would have just not attacked if he couldn’t see.”

“Yeah, but the army behind him really believed they had to subdue the traitors, didn’t they?” Yujin answers, shrugging. “Anyway, that’s what I heard! And clearly, he did attack, because now he’s dead.”

Jingyan’s not sure if the exceedingly casual tone Yujin’s using to talk about the death of his best friend’s father (traitor or not) should make him laugh or cry.

“BUT!” Yujin cries suddenly, sparing Jingyan from having to decide, “I also heard that Xie Yu himself fired an arrow at Feng-ge, but because of the wind and snow, Feng-ge’s horse stumbled and he fell off into the snow, so it missed him, saving his life! Nature itself safeguarding justice–”

“Yeah, that’s definitely not true,” Jingyan says flatly. “Xie Yu would not have been the one firing arrows – that’s what archers are for.”

“But that’s what I heard!” Yujin insists, and Jingyan has theories about impressionable, wide-eyed young boys and the kinds of stories they get told by other people, but settles with saying,

“Right.”

“But yes, all right,” Yujin says irrepressibly, “it might not be true. The other story I heard, though, is that Xie Yu didn’t realise that Feng-ge and his troops were well-rested because of the first storm, and he needed them to be exhausted, because his plan was to slaughter the entire Chiyan army, not bring them back for trial, and–”

He continues explaining, but Jingyan can’t hear the words over the rushing in his own ears – can hardly force himself to breathe through the thought that Xiao Shu might have died out there at Meiling, betrayed and then himself branded a traitor–

“Are you all right, Jingyan-gege?” Yujin asked, peering up into Jingyan’s face apprehensively. “You look kind of pale, suddenly.”

Firmly telling himself that Xiao Shu is fine and forcing himself to shake off the moment of panic, Jingyan waves off Yujin’s concern and asks him hoarsely to continue.

“So they sent the vanguard through,” Yujin resumes, although he’s still eyeing Jingyan uncertainly, “and the first couple of lines looked okay, but in the row behind that, some of the supplies fell off the cart – or the cart fell off the horse? – because someone’s fingers were too cold to tie them on properly, which shocked some other guy into letting go of his cloak or something, and that blew into someone else’s face – anyway,” he says, gesturing expansively with his arms. “People were tripping over each other, horses were falling over and it was a disaster. So when Xie Yu attacked, he thought he was taking Feng-ge’s full company by surprise, but everyone who got held up was far enough back that they warned by the screams up ahead and sent for help.”

“Well,” Jingyan says after a moment. “That could have happened, I suppose.”

In an, “it sounds so stupid that it must be true” kind of way.

“I also heard,” Yujin says (and where is he hearing all of these things? Jingyan wonders wildly), “that because of the snow, the top of the cliff overlooking the pass was slippery, and then Xie Yu’s horse lost its footing, and they fell off the cliff, and he was crushed and died.”

“His horse slipped off a cliff and he was crushed and died,” Jingyan repeats sceptically.

“Yup,” Yujin agrees, nodding cheerfully.

“… yeah, that definitely did not happen,” Jingyan says bluntly, shaking his head.

“–And then he ALMOST CRUSHED FENG-GE, BUT THEN FENG-GE’S HORSE TRIPPED TOO–”

“NO!” Jingyan shouts.

“Yeah, it’s probably not true,” Yujin agrees easily, settling back down onto the platform. “But maybe there’s an underlying thread of–”

“No,” Jingyan insists, and Yujin responds with an easygoing shrug.

“The other one I heard,” he says, sounding like he’s enjoying himself tremendously, “is that after being warned by Feng-ge, the Chiyan army built piles of snow to hide behind, and made decoy shapes of themselves to fool the enemy, so that when Xie Yu’s men got to the battlefield and it was snowing again, they couldn’t tell what was an actual Chiyan soldier and what was a snowman. And Feng-ge was going to be shot, but he stepped into a snowhole and the arrow missed him.”

Jingyan is speechless.

“Yeah,” Yujin sighs, after shooting him a sideways glance. “Dong-jie said it was stupid, too. And not to talk about any of it in front of Jingrui. And then she hit me.”

He rubs his shoulder and grimaces in remembered pain.

Jingyan snorts and affectionately musses Yujin’s hair.

But that reminds him–

“Hey, Yujin,” he says, “is Dong-jie still suspended from duty?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Yujin answers, frowning thoughtfully. “She said that, after the Xuanjing Bureau was dissolved, its people were going to be transferred into the Ministry of Justice, but I don’t think they’ve done it yet.”

“I might pay her a visit,” Jingyan muses. “Thanks, Yujin.”

“You’re going, now?” Yujin asks plaintively, grasping at a corner of Jingyan’s sleeve, suddenly looking forlorn.

“Yeah,” Jingyan says regretfully, although he’s reluctant to break Yujin’s hold on him. “I also need to go home and have a wash. I know about Jingrui, but is there no one else for you to play with? Aren’t Nihuang and Qing-er around?”

“Nihuang’s helping Auntie Yueyao with the Hua stuff too, but they said I was too young,” Yujin says, lips pursing into a moue of discontent.

“And Qing-er?” Jingyan prompts gently.

“I guess I could,” Yujin muses. “But Father’s not here, and I’m not allowed to leave the house alone.”

“Tell you what,” Jingyan says indulgently, “you go run inside and tell someone where you’re going, and then I’ll drop you off at the Mu residence on my way to see Dong-jie.”


Happily for once, when Jingyan arrives at Nie Feng and Xia Dong’s house, he manages to catch them both at home, and at leisure to entertain.

“Prince Jing, Your Highness!” Feng-ge says cheerfully, both he and Dong-jie standing to greet Jingyan as he’s shown into the sitting room. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“You’re not helping with the Hua work?” Jingyan asks, somewhat surprised to see him.

“Oh, I am,” Feng-ge assures him, gesturing at Jingyan to take a seat before lowering himself back down onto his own cushion. “Met up with Uncle Thirteen this morning, but there’s nothing else I can do today, so here I am, spending time with my wife.”

“To be honest, I’m getting kind of sick of his face,” Dong-jie says wryly, pouring Jingyan a cup of tea and pushing it across the low table. “So it’s good that you’re here.”

“Hey!” Feng-ge exclaims, clutching his chest in feigned injury.

Dong-jie ignores him and takes in Jingyan’s appearance more carefully, her gaze sharpening as it runs over his light armour and dust-covered robes.

“You arrived today?” she asks shrewdly. “And you’ve spent every moment since trying to squeeze the happenings of the last few months out of people, I expect. That must be a lot to digest at once.”

“Yes,” Jingyan answers honestly, nodding. “But I only really managed to get a detailed account from Yujin; everyone else was busy, and the Palace–”

Dong-jie laughs.

“He’s quite thorough, isn’t he?” she comments amusedly. “Manages to scrape together a lot more information than you’d expect of a 12 year-old, although he’s not so good with separating fact from fiction, yet. Give him a few years, though, and I think he’ll be quite the authority.”

“He told me some story about you at Meiling, Feng-ge,” Jingyan says, turning to face the commander. “Something about tripping in the snow, dodging an arrow and saving your own life?”

“HONESTLY,” Feng-ge cries explosively, over the top of Dong-jie’s loud cackling. “I fell on the way home, it wasn’t anywhere near the battlefield! There was a loose rock, completely hidden by the snow, and my horse and I were tired!”

He raises his hands to the heavens in exasperated anguish.

“You fall once, and you never hear the end of it!”

“I heard from Wei Zheng that it was a pretty spectacular fall, though – a real shock to the soldiers around him,” Dong-jie says to Jingyan, eyes dancing with mirth. “He slipped from his horse and then just SHOOM, disappeared completely into the snow.”

She glances at her husband and sighs wistfully.

“Wish I could’ve seen it, it sounds wonderful.”

“It was not wonderful!” Feng-ge bleats shrilly. “You’re all horrible people!”

After more teasing from Dong-jie and plaintive protests from Feng-ge, Jingyan asks, “So what is this Hua investigation actually about? Besides the spies in the Palace, now that Xia Jiang’s been arrested, is there really anything else to look into?”

“Oh, Yujin didn’t tell you?” Dong-jie asks, looking surprised. “During the confusion caused by the explosion at the Palace, Princess Xuanji broke Master – Xia–”

She stutters to a stop, mouth a tight, hard line, her hand clenching into a fist on the tabletop. Beside her, Feng-ge leans over to give her a companionable nudge, and Jingyan notices for the first time that she’s sitting much closer to Feng-ge than she usually would.

“–Xia Jiang out of prison,” she says, enunciating the syllables of his name with determined care. “We know she has people everywhere, and she undoubtedly has outstanding plans. Now that she’s been exposed and has so much less to lose, we need to find out what she’s plotting, and quickly.”


After thanking Dong-jie and Feng-ge for their time, Jingyan finally heads home to bathe and rest. Exhausted both emotionally and physically, he asks to be woken up for dinner before settling down for a much-needed nap.

He’s pulled out of sleep, an indeterminate period of time later, by the feeling of something warm pressing down on both his waist and chest. Groggily, he opens his eyes to find Xiao Shu grinning down at him from his position astride Jingyan’s waist, his hands braced against Jingyan’s chest for balance.

“So you’re finally back!” Xiao Shu remarks cheerfully. “You really need to work on your defensive instincts, you know. I’ve been sitting up here for ages and you’ve slept right through it. Jingyan, what kind of soldier are you?”

A warm feeling that has nothing to do with the hot fingers splayed against the thin material of his sleeping robe spreads through Jingyan’s chest at the sight of Xiao Shu smirking down at him, close and healthy and alive.

Instead of giving voice to any of this, Jingyan rasps out, through a throat rough from sleep, “One who sped home from Donghai while barely sleeping, after receiving news that his father is dead and his brother the new Emperor? And then ran around for half the day trying to find someone to explain just exactly what had taken place while he was gone?”

“Ah,” Xiao Shu says, flashing him a small, sympathetic grimace. “That’s a good excuse. Are you feeling all right now?”

He leans forward and peers into Jingyan’s face, forehead creasing into a concerned frown. He doesn’t, however, move from his position atop Jingyan’s torso. Jingyan doesn’t do anything about it either – the feel of his friend, solid against him, is a comforting weight after all the shocks of the day.

“Yes,” he sighs in response, nodding as best he can with his head still flopped back against the pillow. “I’d mostly worked through the grief on the way back from Donghai, anyway. Instead of sleeping.”

He lies there, just enjoying the quiet companionship of the moment, before he remembers the other reason he wanted to see Xiao Shu.

“Right, get off me,” he says, and starts to shove at his friend so that he can push himself up. “I have something for you.”

Xiao Shu goes easily enough, perching on the edge of the bed while Jingyan swings his legs off it and moves across the room, stretching his shoulders and scratching his head absently.

He shuffles over to the cabinet, picks up the little box he’d placed on it earlier and turns, holding it out to Xiao Shu with one hand.

“Here.”

“What is it?” Xiao Shu asks curiously, taking it from Jingyan with a questioning tilt of his head.

“I hope you appreciate how difficult it was for me to find one that big,” Jingyan says, as Xiao Shu lifts the lid and cries, “Ah! My pearl!”

“I had to look all over Donghai for it – I used up almost every spare moment I had.”

He’d also had to endure a lot of sly looks and queries after “the lucky lady” from his subordinates, who’d responded to all his protests about it being for a friend with a lot of airy hand-waving and comments to each other in overly-earnest tones.

(“Yes, didn’t you know, Lieutenant, that His Highness wants one for a friend.”

“Well, it must be a very, very good friend, then, Captain!”

“Naturally. No one would go to all this trouble just for any common friend.”)

But he’s not going to mention that.

Xiao Shu looks up from the box with a brilliant grin, eyes creasing at the corners in sheer delight.

“You’re the best,” he says roundly, looking back down at the pearl and laughing. “This humble young marshal is very fortunate to have a friend as good as you.”

He laughs again, pure and joyful, and Jingyan’s traitorous heart skips a beat.

Occupied with crowing over his new treasure, it takes Xiao Shu a moment to notice Jingyan’s sudden silence, but when he does, he tucks the box into his robe, cocks an eyebrow and asks what the matter is.

“Nothing,” Jingyan says quickly, shaking his head and hoping that Xiao Shu doesn’t notice the heat rising in his cheeks.

If Xiao Shu does, though, he doesn’t comment on it.

“Hm,” he says instead, stepping towards Jingyan.

“You know,” he says, tucking his arms behind his back and pointedly leaning into Jingyan’s space, chin tilted upwards and a familiar challenging light in his eyes.

Jingyan swallows reflexively.

“There’s an interesting rumour going around the barracks,” Xiao Shu continues conversationally. “Something about you having a sweetheart, whom you spent all your time trying to find a token for? All your subordinates know about it – so, why haven’t I, your best friend, heard anything about this?”

Jingyan finds himself pinned by Xiao Shu’s questioning gaze, completely at a loss for what to say.

Then Xiao Shu’s mouth twitches.

“You bastard,” Jingyan exclaims, shoving Xiao Shu’s shoulder as his friend dissolves into laughter, although he’s unable to keep from smiling himself. “You knew that all those rumours started because of you and your stupid pearl!”

“Shall I give it back, so you can win her over, Jingyan?” Xiao Shu asks teasingly, dancing out of reach of Jingyan’s answering swipe. “You can owe me forever, and then name your firstborn son after me as thanks!”

Jingyan surges forward and tackles Xiao Shu to the floor, pinching at Xiao Shu’s ticklish belly and sides as punishment, and making his friend shout with laughter. Hooking one of his legs around one of Jingyan’s while distracting him with a few well-placed nips of his own, Xiao Shu gains enough leverage to flip them over so that he’s perched on Jingyan’s waist and grinning down at him once more, though this time he’s pinned both of Jingyan’s wrists back above his head.

“Gotcha,” he says, sounding supremely self-satisfied.

Looking up into Xiao Shu’s lightly flushed face, Jingyan feels his heart turn a double-flop in his chest. A heavy feeling of realisation creeps up his spine.

Motherfucker, he thinks numbly.

He's completely and utterly fucked.