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the very first words of a lifelong love letter

Chapter Text

The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand.

 

Xiao Shu is rushed back to the Lin residence in a flurry of anxious subordinates and panicked shouting. Jingyan has no memory of carrying Xiao Shu out into the courtyard and making the arrangements, although he knows he must have – all he remembers is Xiao Shu’s face, chalk-white under the blood and bruises, and Xiao Shu’s hand, clutching weakly at Jingyan’s collar.

Refusing to leave Xiao Shu even for a moment, Jingyan stays glued to his side for the entire journey; helping him out of the carriage upon arrival at the Lin residence, before half-carrying him across the courtyard to his bedroom, where preparations have already been made to receive them. There, he remains at Xiao Shu’s bedside, clutching his hand tightly while they wait for a physician to arrive.

“How did it go with Princess Xuanji?” Xiao Shu asks weakly, lying against the pillow and smiling up at Auntie Jinyang, who is sitting by his head, gently stroking his hair back from his face.

“We caught her,” Uncle Lin says from the doorway. “She and her Red Sleeve Recruits fought until the end. No match for us, obviously, but it makes you think – heading an army, never mind a country, she could have been a truly formidable leader. It’s a bit of a pity that it came to this, really.”

“So they’ve all been delivered to the Ministry of Justice?” Xiao Shu asks, trying to rise to face his father, and being gently but firmly pushed back down by his mother.

“We have all the remaining Red Sleeve Recruits,” Uncle Lin says. “And the Empress and Empress Dowager will have moved by now, and rounded up all of the spies she had in the Palace. Qin Banruo tried to escape, but Lin Chen managed to retrieve her; we’re holding her with the rest.”

“And Princess Xuanji?”

Uncle Lin shakes his head. “Princess Xuanji took her own life, rather than allow herself to be taken captive.”

Xiao Shu nods, but his next question is cut off by Lin Chen and an older man bursting into the room in a whirlwind of white robes and fluttering sleeves. With a parting squeeze, Jingyan reluctantly lets go of Xiao Shu’s hand and moves aside to give the physicians room to work.

Changsu,” Lin Chen hisses, making straight for the position Auntie Jinyang vacates by Xiao Shu’s head, his face twisted in fury. “Changsu, can you not be like this?!

“Son,” the older man – who is presumably the master of Langya Hall, then – chides mildly, placing a pacifying hand on Lin Chen’s arm. When he looks down at the bed, however, his expression makes Xiao Shu’s face pale even further.

“I was careful to not let any bones get broken?” Xiao Shu offers, with a conciliatory smile, as the Master sits down and lifts his wrist to take his pulse.

“STOP SPEAKING,” Lin Chen orders, pointing an imperious finger at Xiao Shu’s face. “You do not deserve to speak!”

“Don’t abuse the patient,” the Master says admonishingly, and promptly sticks a needle into Xiao Shu’s chest with a firmness that makes Xiao Shu cry out in protest. “And you,” he says severely. “Don’t make stupid decisions about your health.”

“Don’t worry, Auntie, Uncle,” Lin Chen says to Auntie Jinyang and Uncle Lin, who are standing together at the door, watching anxiously as their son is tended to. “Father has everything he needs; all the preparations were completed weeks ago. Xiao Shu will be fine.”

He turns and sees Jingyan.

YOU,” he declares, voice rising once again. “I heard what happened from Li Gang and Zhen Ping, don’t even get me started on you!”

He spends a moment silently glaring at Jingyan, as if he simply can’t find words to convey what he wants to say.

Jingyan knows the feeling; no one can blame him more in this moment than he blames himself.

“Get out!” Lin Chen orders finally. “Out! Out! Out! We can’t work with you hovering around like this and getting in the way!”

Allowing himself to be verbally abused and physically pushed out the door (he would willingly allow himself to be subjected to a great deal more, if it meant that Xiao Shu would get better), Jingyan throws one last uncertain glance over his shoulder at the bed and meets Xiao Shu’s eyes.

“Go on,” Xiao Shu murmurs, smiling reassuringly even as he’s forced to grit his teeth against another wave of pain. “It’ll be all right, Jingyan. Don’t be afraid.”

Jingyan closes his eyes against the tightening of his chest and the feeling of his throat closing up at the sight of Xiao Shu trying to comfort him, even while wracked with pain and being slowly killed from the inside. But, unwilling to argue and furthermore unable to bring himself to speak, Jingyan just nods weakly and leaves.


He spends the next few days alternately consumed with guilt and worry. He practically lives at the Lin residence; only going home to bathe and sleep, and always returning first thing the next morning. He spends every moment he’s allowed at Xiao Shu’s bedside, and when Lin Chen insists that he leave, only goes as far as he’s made to.

It’s during one of these periods of exile that Jingyan finds himself sitting in the outer chamber with Nihuang and Marquis Yan, as well as Yujin and Jingrui, who are sitting beside him, unnaturally quiet with worry for their Shu-gege.

“Ah, Nihuang,” Marquis Yan says, to break the heavy silence. “I’ve been meaning to ask: how did your visit to Xia Jiang with Commander Meng go?”

Nihuang clenches one of her hands in the skirt of her gown, face taking on a murderous expression at the mention of Xia Jiang. Confused, Jingyan looks at her in a silent request for explanation.

“We heard that the antidote used to be held at the Xuanjing Bureau,” Nihuang says, raising her eyes to look at him, voice clipped with anger. “So we went to look for it. But Xia Jiang must have removed it before he was arrested, because it wasn’t there. He obviously didn’t have it on his person when he was arrested, but none of the Bureau’s officers could – or, more likely, would,” she adds darkly, under her breath, “tell us where he may have hidden it.”

“And did you have any success asking the person himself?” Marquis Yan inquires politely.

“He wouldn’t tell us when we asked. And wouldn’t consider any bargains short of his own freedom. So,” Nihuang says, looking up at Marquis Yan with a defiant tilt to her chin, “we tried to beat the information out of him.”

“We didn’t really expect them to succeed,” Marquis Yan says, giving Jingyan a small, humourless smile. “But we thought it might be worth it to let them try. At the very least they might be able to vent their anger, a little.”

“I’ve plenty more,” Nihuang says darkly. “If you need us to go again.”

Jingyan straightens, with more than half a mind to offer his own services.

Marquis Yan laughs softly.

“We’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” he says, quietly amused. “But I have a feeling that we won’t be relying on him for the answer. Xiao Shu anticipated this outcome; apparently he asked Langya Hall to look into an alternative cure months ago.”

“Will it work, though, Uncle Yan?” Jingrui asks worriedly. “If it’s not the original one?”

“The Langya Master is a very accomplished physician,” Marquis Yan tells Jingrui and Yujin both. “He’s been making preparations ever since he first received Xiao Shu’s request. I’m sure Xiao Shu will be fine.”

“Of course he’ll be fine,” Lin Chen says, flinging the doors open and flicking his hair over one shoulder before crossing his arms and raising his eyebrow at the five sets of anxious eyes that immediately fix themselves upon his face. “My father just tested his blood – there’s no longer any poison left in his body.”

Jingyan lurches unsteadily to his feet, feeling lightheaded now that the weight on his chest disappears and he can finally breathe.

“In fact,” Lin Chen continues,” you can all go in and see him for yourselves now. Quietly,” he adds sternly, when Yujin and Jingrui leap up in a whirl of limbs and stampede across the room.

“The poison may be out of his body, but he still needs a month of rest to give his body sufficient time to recover,” the Master is saying to Uncle Lin and Auntie Jinyang when Jingyan and Nihuang enter the room. “No duties and no taxing activity – either physical or mental. He can undertake some light, light,” he says, glaring pointedly at Xiao Shu, who immediately assumes his most innocent expression, “martial arts training after two weeks.”

“See, everyone?” Xiao Shu says, looking towards the doorway and smiling at the group of new arrivals. “I’m fine! I’ll be completely better in no time.”

Nihuang elbows her way into the room and smacks his shoulder.

“That would be thanks to all our hard work,” Lin Chen comments acerbically from the door, over Xiao Shu’s cry of “ouch!” and injured rubbing. “After you decided to take reckless gambles with your body. You do know that you only get one of those, don’t you, Changsu?”

Meanwhile, Yujin and Jingrui have also ducked their way inside, and are clamouring to talk to their Shu-gege and ask him questions about his confrontation with Xia Jiang. Their chattering is interspersed with Xiao Shu’s laughter and Nihuang’s scolding, which interrupts their barrage of words whenever they grow overexcited or too loud.

Jingyan just sinks down beside the bed and rests his forehead against the covers in relief.

When Marquis Yan has ushered Yujin and Jingrui from the room (“Because the Langya Master said that Shu-gege needs to rest, Yujin, and how can he do that with you bothering him?”), Nihuang turns to Xiao Shu and Jingyan, and gives them each a sharp smack on the arm.

“You idiots!” she snaps, over their cries of protest. “You said you were going to be careful! Do you call this being careful? Neither of you get to make decisions anymore! When I come of age, I will be the one who makes all the decisions; the two of you clearly cannot be trusted with more than what to eat for dinner!”

“What?” Xiao Shu yelps, sounding injured. “Jingyan I understand, but,” Jingyan makes an offended noise, “me too? Why can’t I make decisions anymore?”

Especially you!”Nihuang says sharply, whirling on him. “You went and chose to eat poison.”

Xiao Shu shrugs helplessly, but concedes to her point.

Wei Zheng, who has returned to Jinling after serving as the Langya Master’s escort, chooses that moment to come in and make his report.

“Field Marshal, Princess,” he says bowing to Uncle Lin and Auntie Jinyang, before turning and bowing in the direction of the bed as well. “Prince Jing, Duchess. Young Marshal. The men are very glad to hear that you’ll make a full recovery.”

“Good work, Wei Zheng,” Uncle Lin says approvingly. “The Langya Master was very happy with you, and has requested that you be his return escort when the time comes.”

“Yes, sir,” Wei Zheng says. “Thank you, sir. I also have a letter for you from the Master of the Yaowang Valley, Su Tianshu.”

“Tianshu?” Uncle Lin asks, sounding surprised.

“We stopped on the way back to collect some herbs from him, sir,” Wei Zheng says. “He was very insistent about his letter being passed to you.”

“How quaint,” Uncle Lin says, holding up the letter to show Auntie Jinyang, who shrugs. “I wonder what it could be about? Maybe I’ll just read it now.”

“I’d rather you didn’t, sir,” Wei Zheng says.

“Oh? And why is that?” Uncle Lin asks absently, ignoring him and unfolding the thin piece of paper, eyes beginning to scan quickly over the lines of characters. “It was good to see my adorable boy again – haha, he still calls you that, does he, Wei Zheng? – He arrived at the same time as the Yun familyfamous clan of physicians – oh, are they, Jinyang? I didn’t know that – made a good impression, yes, yes … send him to see us more often? … I suppose he’d miss you quite a bit, doesn’t he, Wei – their little girl wants to see him again?” He suddenly chokes, eyes widening. “SHE WROTE HIM THIS LOVE POEM–”

Uncle Lin bursts into a fit of booming laughter.

Jingyan quickly looks away and muffles his snort in Xiao Shu’s bedcovers. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Nihuang quickly cover her face with her mouth, whereas Xiao Shu’s face suddenly goes suspiciously blank.

“You bastards,” Wei Zheng mutters at them out of the corner of his mouth, red-faced.

“That’s amazing,” Uncle Lin says, wiping away a tear and still chuckling. “Good work, Wei Zheng. You’re dismissed.”

“It’s time we went, too,” Nihuang says, grabbing Jingyan by the arm and pulling him to his feet. “Shu-gege’s had enough excitement for today. We’ll be back tomorrow, though,” she promises, sounding like she’s making a threat, “to make sure you’re following the Langya Master’s instructions – don’t think I don’t know what you’re like!”

“You’re going to return him to me when it’s time for me to get married,” she mutters to Jingyan as they leave the room. “Or find me an upgrade. You owe me.”

Jingyan nods. He can’t really argue with that.


“Very well done, Jingyan,” the Emperor says, putting the report down and looking up at Jingyan with an approving smile. “I am very satisfied with the work you’ve done here. The ministers also speak highly of your work and dedication.”

He turns his head. “Gaozhan.”

Gao-gonggong steps forward and bows.

“Arrange for the silver, jade and silks we discussed to be sent to Prince Jing’s official residence,” his brother says, and Gao-gonggong bows his acquiescence.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Jingyan says, bowing as well.

“Jingyan,” the Emperor says, turning back to him. “Together with your performance in Donghai, I think this has shown that you truly deserve the promotion in rank you’ve received. I will certainly be assigning you even greater responsibility, going forward, now that you’ve more than shown that you can be trusted with it.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Jingyan says again, heart swelling. “It will be an honour to serve you.”

“Your Majesty,” one of the ministers speaks up, bowing and stepping forward. “With the promotion in rank, might it be time to consider a marriage for the Prince? Prince Jing is yet unmarried – does not even keep a concubine, if I’m not mistaken – and will come of age this year. Should we begin to compile a list of candidates …?”

Jingyan freezes, but the Emperor just laughs.

“We can probably leave that for a while,” he says, casting Jingyan a knowing glance and chuckling. “After all, Jingting is also unmarried – we should worry about him, first. And as you said, Jingyan’s only just coming of age this year – you’re not in any rush, are you, Jingyan?”

Jingyan gives his brother a vigorous headshake.

“No, Your Majesty,” he says, trying to speak as clearly as possible without shouting.

The Emperor smirks at him.

“Well, then, I think we can adjourn the court. Jingyan, you can go and see your friend – as I know you’ve been waiting to do for the entirety of this audience. I’ve heard that he’s mostly recovered now – give him my regards; we’ll be looking forward to a visit as soon as he’s well enough.”

Jingyan bows himself out of the audience room and rushes straight for the Lin residence.

He finds Xiao Shu in the garden, wrapped up in a warm, fur-lined cloak, hair worn loose over his shoulders.

“Should you be outside right now?” Jingyan asks worriedly. The morning breeze feels a little chilly.

“Jingyan,” Xiao Shu says exasperatedly, rolling his eyes in longsuffering. “It’s the beginning of summer. I am wearing the thickest cloak we own. I’m not almost dying; I’m fine!”

Pursing his lips in dissatisfaction, Jingyan bends down and tucks Xiao Shu’s cloak more firmly around him.

“Argh, stop it!” Xiao Shu yells, batting his hands away. “I’m overheating!”

Jingyan responds by sitting down behind him, stretching his legs out on either side of Xiao Shu’s waist, and pulling his friend back into a bear hug.

“ARGH!” Xiao Shu shouts.

He starts a light tussle in his bid to escape, which Jingyan mostly lets him win, still extremely mindful of his friend’s health. When the struggle is over, Xiao Shu ends up leaning against Jingyan’s chest, the cloak hanging down over both of them.

Resting his chin on Xiao Shu’s shoulder and looking out contentedly at the garden, Jingyan feels a light touch on the side of his jaw, and turns just in time for Xiao Shu to meet his lips with his own.

Xiao Shu was right, Jingyan thinks, closing his eyes. It is kind of warm.

When they break apart, Xiao Shu looks at Jingyan for a moment, his expression turning sly, before thoughtfully grinding back against him and making Jingyan gasp.

“Can you please not go around starting things you can’t finish?” Jingyan asks, giving Xiao Shu’s thigh an admonishing pinch.

“Who said I wasn’t going to finish?” Xiao Shu asks challengingly, before promptly grinding back again.

“You’re still recovering!” Jingyan protests, trying to wriggle back out of reach.

“It’s been two weeks,” Xiao Shu points out. “I’m supposed to start on light exercise now. So I was thinking, if we go to my room, and you do most of the work–”

Well. Jingyan knows when it's prudent to concede defeat.

 

He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.