Jin Ling awakens to a terrible pain erupting at his side, causing him to gasp loudly and writhe on the surprisingly cold floor as he struggles to make sense of it. He does not remember being injured, nor does he find his dark surroundings the least bit familiar. Before this, he had been facing a rather sinister spirit that had attacked him and his entourage on the way to the Cloud Recesses, but –
He stills. Though the memory is faint, an image of white flashes somewhere in his mind. A Gusu Lan disciple, he realizes, had shown up to try and help him defend his men. Where is that person now? Jin Ling thinks that if his own capable self were so uncaringly knocked aside, that poor bookworm of a cultivator must have faced ten times such wrath. With a grunt, he begins to push himself up.
“Don’t move. You’re still hurt.”
His arms give out in surprise, and he collapses back down on the ground with a hiss of pain. But despite what his body is going through, he cannot allow himself to remain so helpless. Not when his companion and likely savior is none other than Lan Sizhui, because of course it is. Frustration wells up in the pit of his stomach for reasons he does not understand.
“You… Did you bring me here? Where are we?”
Lan Sizhui sits beside him. There is a small container of ointment in his hands. “It’s a cave. We aren’t too far from the Cloud Recesses, but I think we should wait until morning before heading back. You’re not in good condition to go out at this hour, especially if we run into trouble.”
“I’ll be the one who decides that,” Jin Ling replies angrily, face reddening. “I’m in plenty good condition. Don’t underestimate me!”
The container of ointment is opened, and a foul, pungent smell hits his nose. It almost makes him want to vomit. Jin Ling wrinkles his nose and attempts to turn away, but Lan Sizhui’s surprisingly firm hands hold him in place. How can someone with a face as gentle as his be so strong? It doesn’t feel quite right. Jin Ling does not have much time to reflect on this further, however, as his clothes are pried open. He gasps sharply and tries to twist away, only for pain to emerge at his side again.
“Don’t,” Lan Sizhui says sharply. “Don’t move. I don’t want anything to tear.”
“I’ll do it myself! I don’t want your hands all over me, you…!”
They struggle like that for a bit before Lan Sizhui finally forces his hand over the now exposed, heavily bruised skin. The ointment is cool to the touch, and Jin Ling cannot help but make a noise of discomfort. But as Lan Sizhui’s fingers softly, carefully apply the medicine, the pain from before slowly begins to fade into a mild numbness. Jin Ling’s previously tense body begins to relax.
Jin Ling quickly pulls his clothes back on after they finish, sitting up with a scowl. “...Yeah.”
Lan Sizhui sighs and gets up, going back across the cave to where he’s started a small fire. It’s pitiful, really, hardly providing enough light for them to see as far as their arms go. Jin Ling would normally boast of his own skills and attempt making another, but he feels much too exhausted to bother. He instead follows the other boy, questions on his mind.
“Were you the one you saved me?”
“What – What do you mean why?” Lan Sizhui looks at him in surprise. “You’d think I’d stand by and let you get attacked?”
“No, but…” And then there’s a pause as Jin Ling feels his face begin to heat up. “Was I… Was I really in such need of help? I thought I’d have everything under control.”
Lan Sizhui smiles a little. “You did, but then another one showed up. A pair of malevolent spirits, when you had only thought there was one. The other snuck up on you while you were defending one of your men… remember?”
“Not really. I must have passed out by then… Ugh, damn it!”
To think that he had been taken by surprise, and in front of his own men! Jin Ling feels his face continue to burn with shame. And for him to be in such dire need of help that Lan Sizhui had to come running to his rescue… He will never live this down, especially if that pesky Lan Jingyi were to find out.
“You shouldn’t be walking around. Come on, let’s rest. I promise I’ll take you back first thing in the morning.”
“You make it sound like I’d have reason to suspect you’d keep me here… You wouldn’t, right?”
The Lan boy suddenly laughs. “I don’t think a cave is fitting for you, Master Jin.”
“...So if it wasn’t a cave, you’d keep me there?”
“Come on, go lie down.”
“You aren’t answering my question!”
But inevitably, he does as he is told. Jin Ling finds the most comfortable spot he can around the meager fire and curls up on his uninjured side, trying to will himself back to sleep. A few moments pass before he suddenly feels something warm and fragrant drape over his body – Lan Sizhui’s robes. He practically bolts straight up, gripping the white fabric in disbelief.
“What are you doing?”
“Keeping… you warm?” Lan Sizhui sounds as though the answer should be obvious, but it’s not. Jin Ling scowls and has half the mind to throw the white robes right back at him, but somehow he finds himself clinging onto them even tighter. “You’re injured, and I don’t want you getting sick on top of that.”
“What about you?”
“I think I’ll be fine.”
The Lan boy smiles gently, gaze returning to the small fire between them. A warm glow is cast over his face, bringing out the developing features of his face; Jin Ling cannot help but wonder how his friend will look in the coming years as they age into their positions of leadership, even going as far as to imagine Sizhui in the same manner of dress and appearance as Zewu Jun and Hanguang Jun. Thinking of this, a strange warmth creeps up his neck.
“Jin Ling? Are you okay? You’re sta–”
“I-It’s nothing!” Flopping back down on the ground, Jin Ling pulls the Gusu Lan robes over his head and practically cocoons himself in their warmth. He’d rather die than look at Lan Sizhui right now, anyway. “I’m going to sleep now. Don’t talk to me.”
“Mmn. Good night.”
And for a while, he does manage to sleep. Despite the cold, unpleasant feeling of the cave floor, having Lan Sizhui’s own clothes draped over him somehow makes the experience a slight comfort. He feels warm, even safe. It was wise for him to cover his face before sleeping, for he would certainly die of humiliation if the other boy were to see how relaxed and at peace he looks.
At some point, however, he awakens. The wind outside is howling much too loudly for him to sleep through, and Jin Ling can only grumble in frustration. Perhaps he’ll move further back into the cave, even if it is colder back there. One cannot be expected to sleep through such noise! Yet as he begins to stand, he casts a look over at Lan Sizhui’s form curled up on the floor.
Isn’t he cold? Stupid…
Jin Ling watches him for a moment, cheeks reddening.
Stupid stupid stupid stupid…!
He isn’t sure whether his thoughts are being directed at Lan Sizhui or himself. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; he foolishly ends up walking over to him and, after a moment of hesitation, curls up right at his side. The shared robes are pulled over both their bodies, and Jin Ling swears that it’s much too hot, much too unbearable now. Of course, he does not bother to retreat. He can’t. His body already seems to have molded to the shape of Lan Sizhui’s backside, which is pressed against his own.
This boy… He really is nothing but trouble, he thinks.
As sleep again returns for him, Jin Ling can’t help but think he feels the other somehow shifting closer.
Perhaps it is just wishful thinking.
“Uh… Should I… Should I wake them?”
“If you want to, but I’m definitely not. He’s probably going to attack the first person he sees.”
Jin Ling’s eyes flutter open, and for a moment he expects to be faced with Lan Sizhui’s peacefully sleeping face. The thought is enough to make him smile drowsily.
“Oh. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh my god.”
“We should have brought Senior Wei along to capture this moment in painting.”
It is with great dismay does Jin Ling finally realize with a start that the voices do not belong to the other boy, and that he is in fact facing the bewildered stares of Lan Jingyi and another Gusu Lan disciple. For a moment, he does nothing; he simply lies there on the floor, still curled up in Lan Sizhui’s robes, and stares back at them. Both parties seem frozen to the spot.
“Mmn…” Lan Sizhui, still asleep beside him, turns over and wraps an arm around him. Jin Ling is unable to keep from making a small, undignified squeak of surprise before slapping both hands over his mouth, eyes slowly returning to the stares of the other two boys.
Lan Jingyi snorts.
Jin Ling jumps to his feet screaming and blindly waving his fists around. "I'll kill you...!"
“O-Oi! Master Jin! Young Master Jin! Don’t hit me! Don’t… Ah! Jingyi, do something!”
“I’m trying! Jeez, what is wrong with you today?! And you looked so nice and peaceful before, too!”
“SHUT UP! SHUT UP AND DROP DEAD! ” Jin Ling screeches, face scarlet.
Forgotten by the struggling three, Lan Sizhui continues to sleep with a smile on his face.