AN: One of the things I love to write is utter angst-trash. Haha, I love writing about people having emotional constipation. I love writing about characters trying to have love confessions, but don't know how to go about it. I love writing about characters thinking, "Why you no like me?" when really, they're just a bunch of babies who jump to conclusions and make silly assumptions!
His name was Jie Qiu, and he made Lan Fan smile and Ling's blood boil. Even though it was actually Ling's fault they met in the first place.
It was during one of Ling's half-sister's marriage feast. The young man was a somber figure neglected among the shadows behind her crowding family members. There were lanterns and fireworks and endless piles of food during the entire night, and Ling sat on the throne, gracing the celebration with his presence. He had never spoken a word to this particular sister, never met her until he was crowned Emperor of Xing, and even then he'd only received a fleeting glance of the small, quiet girl. But he supposed it would be quite rude if he, the king, refused an invitation to attend the ceremony of one of his royal siblings. Especially when he was in the process of proving that he would accept all the clans as if they were his own.
Jie Qiu wasn't important. Ling didn't even know him. He only saw the young man during the less formal ceremony after the wedding, where his Guan crest was removed from his uniform, and presented to Ling's new brother-in-law, who would in turn appoint a new bodyguard from his own clan to wear it. After marriage, women discarded their old servants and bodyguards, and received a new entourage from her husband's family. That was how it always worked.
And people like Jie Qiu... well, they were free from their obligations, and would need to find other sources of duty (and money) from elsewhere.
Behind Ling stood his own two guards. If he turned his head just slightly to the left, he would catch the glint of silver from Lan Fan's automail in his periphery. Her cousin, the big and tall Jung-woo who had filled the smarting hole that Fu's death had created, stood a little to Ling's right. Both wore masks, and both were probably starving.
He longed to turn around and beckon them to eat. But nobles still surrounded him, and they would take it as a personal insult if servants were to begin eating while they themselves still dined.
Instead he lifted his left hand, and motioned for Lan Fan to come closer to him. When she was by his side and leaning sufficiently so that his whisper could reach her ear, he said, "You're welcome to take an hour break if you want to grab a bite to eat." She didn't look at him. She kept her gaze modestly pasted to the floor. "After you are finished, you can tell Jung-woo to do the same."
She bowed, and silently slipped from the room.
The young man she found on the balcony where she wanted to have her dinner was as good a shadow-mimicker as she was. Standing by the corner of the platform, he melted against the dark even though his hood was not drawn and his porcelain mask dangled like a dead puppet by its strings on his waist.
She supposed, even in the dark, it would be insulting to wear the mask. Masks were given to bodyguards by their charges. They symbolized fellowship and loyalty to their master. Some rich clans poured gold into customizing and emblazoning masks for their guards. And this man's former charge was in the carriage, trotting along the paved road to her husband's nearest estate. To wear the mask she gave would be an insult to the family with whom she now associated.
Well, that was it then. Lan Fan should probably head to a different place to eat. Bodyguards did not acquaint themselves with each other. Not when they wore each others' bloods on their skin, wore the crime and hate their betters bore for each other but who were too proud and beautified to wear it themselves.
Not that the Emperor's hands were clean. And she was both relieved and aghast to think of it.
"You can stay here. I was just about to leave," he said. His voice was like the sound of the temple bell, deep and peaceful.
He didn't look like he was about to leave. As a matter of fact, his longing look at the carriage retreating through the gates of the royal grounds suggested otherwise.
It must be difficult, and she knew how it felt. Well, she could extrapolate the feeling, seeing that the young lord hadn't left her wallowing in self-pity in a balcony while he traipsed the empire of Xing in his new found status. No, the emperor was kind. He was kind enough that when protocol demanded he choose a better protector for himself, one befitting a man who owned the greatest glory of life, he allowed his impatience to get the better of him. Why waste time choosing another one, when there was Lan Fan who would simply do? No, no, he had refused, there were other things to do.
And so she was still here, and eternally grateful for the king's restlessness.
But there had been a moment when she had found herself welcoming the day she would no longer trail his footsteps, ready to to return to her family's meager estate at the border of the Yao lands. Her mind whirled, busy with emptiness, and her left shoulder ached, demanding to know what its metal arm will do now. Her grandfather's gruff voice had been an iterative echo in her head telling her, "Lan Fan, you are the young prince's bodyguard. You are the bodyguard. From the moment you were born, to the moment you die." And she didn't know what she was if she wasn't a bodyguard. Her grandfather didn't tell her. Maybe he didn't expect the young prince to become Emperor after all, or perhaps he thought she would just die before Ling would get to be one.
Lan Fan decided she felt bad for this young man.
"You don't have to feel sorry for me," came the voice again, and Lan Fan looked up from her plate of pheasant, surprised to hear that his thoughts mirrored her own. Though really, she shouldn't have been. People like them have been trained to predict each other's sentiments, their motivations.
He turned to her, his dark eyes glassy with unspent tears, but his smile was ironically jesting. "I have to go through this only once, but how about you, Lady High Guard? You'll experience it fifty times... over and over again."
Lan Fan paused, feeling thunderstruck and viciously breathless. Silence blanketed them, and a hundred things streamed through her mind, not the least of which were how she could possibly get this man executed for spewing garbage from his mouth, and how her grandfather had lied because he said that death by a thousand cuts was the worst way to go, when really it could be death by fifty marriages.
She opened her mouth to say something, to show him that she was just as vicious with words as she was with her kunai, but that wasn't true, and her desire to lie choked off her voice.
He shrugged, his eyes turned gentle, and his big smile wore off. "But who knows, maybe it'll get better after the first wedding, eh?" He went past her, patting her on the head the way Jung-woo still did sometimes, and he disappeared behind the sliding doors that led down the stairs.
She never smiled at Ling anymore.
Four years ago he had put on a crown, and all of a sudden he was no longer worthy of her smiles. He remembered when they were children, and her smile would be the first thing he would see when he woke, the last thing when he went to bed. She used to tell him everything then. She told him about the broken door by the kitchen when they were eight, and she told him that she honestly believed she was a reincarnation of a bunny when they were five. When she was three, she told him he had to be a good boy, otherwise his Mama would disappear. She said that one night she didn't eat her vegetables, and the next day her parents were gone.
Of course, the night that Lan Fan didn't eat her vegetables was the night the Yaos were attacked by their neighbouring clan, and her parents perished protecting the Yao keep. But he could understand how a three-year-old would find it preferable to believe that they would still be alive if she had been a little more obedient. It was more reasonable. It gave her a sense of control.
He just didn't understand why believing in the tenets of obedience was preferable to an almost twenty-year-old.
Smile at me, Lan Fan, he willed as he looked at her still form guarding the entrance to his chambers. Her interested stare at the opposite wall was unbreakable. Smile at me. I promise I won't disappear.
She didn't move.
He cleared his throat. Perhaps a more direct approach would work a little better. "So... that wedding three days ago. It was quite... interesting, was it not?"
She bowed her head just slightly and said, "Yes, Your Majesty." And that was that.
Yes, Your Majesty. No, Your Eminence. Of course, my lord. She was equally stingy with her words.
They said that he would have everything if he became king. Well, he could name a couple of things he didn't have precisely because he became one.
Lan Fan found the heartbroken young man from the wedding frolicking about the palace gardens one sunny afternoon.
She was on her day off, which the Emperor insisted she take once a week. There was no need to insult her cousin Jung-woo who was just as diligent as she was, after all.
"The Master of Music hired me," he explained to her, though she didn't ask. It didn't matter. She was quite curious anyway. He was eating a large steamed bun under a plum tree. "Not as grand or reputable as guarding a princess, but hey, the instruments do cost quite a bit, and the old master isn't quite as sharp as he used to be. Ran a little flat on his flute trills, if you asked me."
He smiled at her as if he just told a particularly clever joke. Lan Fan shook her head, not sure if he expected her to know what flute trills were, or what they sounded like if they were played flat. She wasn't even sure what she was doing here. Her days off were spent at the market, and paying her relatives a visit. She gave them three quarters of her pay.
She was about to turn away from the courtyard when he called after her.
"Lady High Guard! Please, allow me to apologize," he said.
"First, stop calling my Lady High Guard," she snapped. "That's High Guard for you, and it doesn't matter if I'm a lady or not!"
He nodded, and placed a fist on the palm of his other hand, before bowing elegantly. "High Guard it is then. My name is Jie Qiu. I come from a family that has guarded the nobles of the Guan clan for generations. Much like what yours is to the Yaos."
The Guan was one of the Yao's strongest allies, and they were bigger than the Yao by a hundred thousand. No wonder the Emperor allowed this bodyguard to find work here at the palace.
"Anyway, I truly am sorry," he continued. "I was a walking-talking wreck a few days ago, and you didn't deserve what I told you. It was presumptuous of me to insinuate it. Furthermore, it was highly disrespectful, and if it makes you feel any better, I have spent the last three days chewing my fingernails in fear that you would set the executors after me for my insolence."
"If I wanted you executed, I wouldn't send anyone else to do it for me," Lan Fan said, piqued.
"I'm sure. See, that night I didn't care if you would send me to my death. I was too busy being melodramatic."
Lan Fan raised an eyebrow. Once the Emperor got married, she was sure that she would be sworn to protect his wives as an extended part of him. Death for her would be an option only if it was for the sake of the king and his brides. Not melodrama. She would be given the crests of their previous bodyguards. And that was the main difference between a bodyguard assigned to a man, and one assigned to a woman. The former was life long.
He bowed one last time, and bid her farewell. She too was about to turn, when a thought struck her, and she momentarily forgot that perhaps this was a subject better left behind on that cold moonlit night.
"How did you know?" she asked.
He smiled at her a little. "It takes one to know one."
Lan Fan frowned, though she was sure he couldn't see. She had yet to get out of her uniform and mask.
The name of Ling's potential bride was written in pretty calligraphy on the parchment given by the Master of State Affairs. Her picture accompanied it, and Ling found himself wanting to wail for his mother they way he did when he was seven and Fu had been particularly merciless during training.
It wasn't that the girl was hideous. No, she was not hideous, but why the Master of State Affairs insisted on sending him pretty pictures of women, Ling could not fathom. Perhaps the Master of State Affairs had a hoard of pretty pictures in his closet, and felt inclined to share. It seemed to Ling that with civil dispute erupting in pockets across Xing, marriage should be the least of their concerns.
He took the picture and the name, and stormed to his mother's chambers.
She was on her feet, pacing the room when he came in, though he couldn't have expected to see her otherwise. Gone were the crumpled, bound feet she possessed for decades, erased by a single drop of Philosopher's Stone.
"Ma, it's a Chou this time," he said, shoving the parchment in her hands.
"I know, my son," she replied without bothering to look.
She looked at him sadly. "I tried to find dirt the first time I heard of it two weeks ago. I really tried, and you know that I did, because I did it for the last five girls."
"Not even the flu?"
His mother shrugged. "Not even the flu. The girl is perfectly healthy, perfectly behaved, perfectly admired by her own people, and the Chou and the Yao have never crossed weapons before. Not in the generations that would matter at least to the nobles of Xing. Our last quarrel with them was five centuries ago, and it was because their matcha tea was sweeter than ours. The Yao and the Chou are on opposite ends of Xing, so it's not a surprise that we haven't really been on each other's throats..."
Ling leaned against his mother's vanity, and stared at nothing. His mother was as reliable as they could come, and if she couldn't find anything...
The first girl had been easy. Hailing from the most powerful clan in Xing, all his mother had to do was plant seeds of suspicion. "Do you really want a snake slithering in the beds of the royal chambers?" she'd said demurely with her lilting voice during one court dinner. "I surely don't know much about this ridiculous politics, but even someone as airy as me can see that planting venom in the bed of a new Emperor is the fastest way to get him killed." The implied treason in her reasoning had the Master of State Affairs abandon the matchmaker's request as quickly as possible.
The second girl had a brother who was kleptomaniac. His mother had sufficient resources to back her claims, and she had sent the nobles wickedly guarding their precious jewels. The third girl had stabbed a suitor in the eye, and there was no way the new glorious Emperor of Xing would be expected to wed a barbarian. The fourth was too thin to bear sons, the fifth a dimwit.
Now they were running out of reasons and time.
His mother placed a hand on his cheek. "What is wrong, Ling?"
Ling sighed, because even he wasn't certain he knew.
The Emperor was getting engaged.
He was getting engaged, and Lan Fan somehow managed to find herself in the music room of the palace, staring as Jie Qiu organized the instruments. He looked up, surprised to see her, maybe even more surprised to find her without her uniform on, because of all the days they had to announce the engagement, it had to be on her day off once a week. Once a week, and they could not have chosen one of the six other days.
"I heard," he said, smiling softly as she lingered by the doorway, unsure of what to do, unsure of why she even decided to go there. When she didn't move, he set the instruments aside, and took a sheet of parchment and an ink pen.
"When my princess got engaged, I wrote songs," he said, and that jarred Lan Fan out of her uncertainty.
"Songs?" she repeated and tried to stifle a laugh. "But you're a guard!"
"Yes I am," he admitted. "I am a guard who loves music. Tell me, High Guard, do you not do anything else other than guarding?"
"No, I don't," she replied so simply, that it was his turn to stare at her.
"You... don't?" he asked. "You don't paint or play mahjong or read fiction? Make rice cakes or tend a small garden? Feed koi fish in the ponds?"
She shook her head. "We are guards," she emphasized.
"We are people," he said back. "Who guard other people."
He set the parchment flat down on the tabletop, and held the pen in his calloused, warrior hand. Lan Fan sat beside him, even more uncertain of why she even bothered.
"So you wrote a song about the princess's betrothed?" she asked. "I'm surprised they didn't execute you then."
"I didn't sing it out loud," he defended himself. "I didn't even write it down. Sometimes... sometimes the process is better and more fulfilling than the result, you know. There's a kind of... catharsis in creating something artistic out of what you feel."
Lan Fan smiled. "Well, that's all very well for you. A man who pines after his princess, and writes songs about his feelings for her, would surely be deemed a romantic martyr by historians. But for a woman, all they will say is that she is a fool who allowed herself to be harassed by her emotions, and that she surely had no right to dream above her station."
Jie was silent for a minute, but then he nodded. And without warning, he sung a stylized version of what she had just said in a melody so fraught with heartbreak that it reminded her of the nightingales' twitters as the night made way for dawn. His voice was clear and full, dynamic, and cool to the senses. When he finished, he looked at her expectantly, trying to gouge her reaction to his outburst.
And she laughed.
Not only out of discomfort, but also of how he made something as brash as what she said come out as a lovely song, good enough to be serenaded to high-born women. It was mind-boggling.
"It's fun, isn't it?" he said.
"It is odd," she said, still chuckling. "And don't you dare do it again."
"Don't you dare do it again," he sung back, in a snappy tune. "Come on, High Guard, you have to admit that at least it gets your mind off of... other things."
She sombered at that thought. She still couldn't figure out how singing or making songs could be good for anything other than momentary ignorance. "Is that all it is?" she asked. "A distraction then?"
He pursed his lips. "Well, it certainly didn't magically turn me into a prince who could compete for my princess's hand in marriage. If that's the kind of cure you're looking for, I don't think the best alkahestrists in Xing can do that. I don't think even your king's Philosopher's Stone can give you that. But believe me, sometimes writing songs is the only option when you find yourself in a situation where you can do nothing else. Why do you think bards write songs about people dying in a battle?"
He moved the parchment towards her, and urged her to take the pen. "Anyway humour me, okay? Write something, anything, and I will show you how to turn it into the most pleasant tune you'll ever hear."
Lan Fan burst from the music room with a young man behind her, laughing with a heartiness Ling could not remember ever seeing on her face in the last eight years. When they noticed him walking down the hallway with his entourage, they smothered their amusement, and lined up against the wall in a posture of deference. When he came closer, they bent in a low bow.
Nonplussed, Ling stopped before them. Lan Fan was out of her uniforms, as she should be now that she was not tending to her duties. Wearing a simple garment with her hair loose about her shoulders, she looked like one of those carefree market girls, not a young woman suffocated by traditions and duties. When was the last time he had seen her with her mask off? She had always left the capital on her free days.
"Lan Fan," he said.
"Your Eminence, you have to meet with the Master of Trade," his Master of Ceremony replied, urging him with a wave of the hand to continue walking.
Ling ignored him, and shifted his attention to Lan Fan's companion. He remembered now where he had felt the chi before. At his sister's wedding. He remembered the smooth cadence of energy, how it had felt like an elegy made entirely of human life force. It had made an impression, since most people's chi felt like a burning candle or a roaring bonfire, or in the case of a homunculus, an amalgamation of dying embers.
"What's your name?" he asked him.
The young man kept his head bowed, his long hair shadowing his face. "Jie Qiu, Your Majesty. I was hired by the Master of–"
"Music," Ling finished for him. "Yes, I remember now."
"Your Eminence..." the Master of Ceremony whispered, hopping impatiently from one foot to the other.
"Well, enjoy your day off, Lan Fan," Ling bid her farewell. She didn't look up, and her expression didn't change from the remote calmness it had assumed.
His walk to his study was shrouded by an inner tantrum so fierce it would have made his six-year-old self jealous. He berated himself too, because he'd been hungering for Lan Fan's smiles, and now that he'd seen it, he was as grouchy as a man with no inheritance.
But she wasn't smiling at me, he insisted to himself, and felt even worse for sounding like Greed again, even though he hadn't had a single Greed-ish thought in about seven months. And perhaps that was the problem. Maybe he wouldn't feel as conflicted and miserable as he did now if he would just stop wanting so much. Demanding something from Lan Fan, something she could not give, was not greedy. It was cruel. Yet he thought about how easy it had seemed, how effortless the laugh that had come from Lan Fan's lips. What was Jie Qiu anyway, if nothing but a young cast-off with no real prospects and no real master to guard? And here was Ling, short of groveling for the one thing an Emperor shouldn't have from his retainers.
He was angry, he knew, by the way he had opened the door, shocking the Master of Trade from the seat. He knew by the way he hadn't paid attention, and instead used the entirety of their meeting cursing his predecessors for making the role of an Emperor such a dour one. Which among them had issued the unspoken rule that the king was beyond the smiles and laughter of his people? Was he a monk? Did he take a vow of silence and transformed himself into a misanthrope?
Ling's mood did not improve the next day. Nor the next. And it definitely did not improve a few days later when he found, among the envelopes and scrolls on his desk, a small sealed letter atop a package wrapped in fancy red paper signed by Jie Qiu.
"To the Eminence's High Guard," it read in swirling ink.
Having no receiving quarters of their own, all of his guards' correspondences went through him first, before he distributed it to them.
Later, after giving it to her, he spied Lan Fan chortling softly to herself as she read the contents of the letter. Ling groaned so loudly, his mother thought he ate something bad.
I hope I can trust you not to tell anyone, but I frequently used Siqi Mountain as a nickname for the princess's consort, the letter read. It sure was a common enough compliment for him. High and mighty, they said, but for me the only similarities between the Siqi Mountain and him was their craggy faces.
Lan Fan found it strange that the first bodyguard she made friends with shared with her his composition skills, and not his fighting skills. From the conversation they had in the music room, Jie Qiu had established that she was terrible at metaphors and she could not save a baby's life with her similes. He praised her voice, admiring its soft and low tone, perfect for lullabies; he'd asked if part of the reason she was such a great warrior was because she put her enemies to sleep!
Inside the package wrapped in red paper were several sheets of music that he had composed. He said that poorly written prose would make her feel even worse for insulting a consort, and would not bring her the release from self-pity she would be looking for. His writing was terribly funny and painfully poignant all at the same time, and Lan Fan wondered how the fates could have arranged for him to be a bodyguard. She still didn't understand.
Do you think we fool ourselves? He wrote at the bottom of the letter. We are not the first nor are we going to be the last to love our masters. Why do you think we do? To be honest, High Guard, I am afraid that I might have deluded myself into believing that I am in love with my princess, because ever since I can remember, I've been told that I had to die for her. And maybe I didn't want my march to death to mean that I'm sheep, that I'm just a product of people's orders and traditions. Maybe I'm in love with her because somewhere inside, I've decided that dying for love is better than dying for honour or duty.
Well, if there was one thing Lan Fan didn't like about Jie Qiu, it was his penchant for introspection. Who thought so deeply into things like this? How could he not know why he loved his princess?
She picked up a pen, about to write back, when she halted. Even in writing, could she risk admitting what had gone unspoken for so long between her and Jie Qiu? She had never particularly admitted what he had guessed so precisely back at the balcony during the Emperor's sister's wedding.
And so with the nuance and eloquence of a dog trying to learn Xingese, she simply wrote, "You are being silly. If you think that way, then you should be grateful that you had chosen to love. It is not flattering to tell a girl you love her because you can't help it. You sound like a prisoner."
She knew what he would say. He would laugh, and tell her to improve her similes.
A month later, Ling was agitated because he just got engaged, and so when Lan Fan was being especially obedient, he cracked.
He was signing his approval for a dam-building project when he caught her staring out the window, which provided a neat view of the palace garden where sometimes the Qiu boy would meet her. Through the small slit over the mouth of her mask, he saw her lips curl into a fond beam.
"Lan Fan, close the window," he snapped, and wordlessly, she obeyed him. She returned to her spot by the wall, now staring at the opposite side of the room. She was no longer smiling, and he felt a flash of irritation, though he didn't know if it was directed at himself or at her.
"I heard from you aunt that your weekly visits have become shorter as of lately," he said, trying for a conversational tone, but he knew he sounded accusatory.
She shifted a little, and bowed her head, because that was what servants did: lower their eyes before speaking to their betters, as if pretending that the floor was more interesting than their superior was so flattering. He cursed the emperor who came up with that rule too.
"Yes, they have," was all she said. He snorted, because Lan Fan had this uncanny ability to say something without revealing anything at all. He shook his head, threw the pen aside and pivoted on his seat so he was facing her.
"You know, I just don't understand something. What is it?" he asked her, and he knew even as he spoke the words that he was being cruelly unfair. "Are you not happy? Are you bored? Are you dying in agony being stuck with me all day long, six days a week? Because if you're miserable, Lan Fan, all you have to do is tell me. Last time I checked, my ears are working fine."
She was now staring at him in horrified confusion, mouth hanging open. "I... I'm sorry–" she began, but he cut her off.
"Oh stop it!" he said, running his hands through his hair in utter frustration, and when his fingers encountered the hair tie he used to keep it in a ponytail, he angrily tore it away.
Lan Fan now left her post on the wall, approaching him with hesitation. "Your Majesty, if I had done something that insulted you–"
"Insulted me?" Ling asked, incredulous. "Lan Fan, half the time you act like you hate me. The other half you ignore me!"
"Hate you?" she said softly, her eyes two large black pools. "I've always tried my best to be respectful–"
"You don't talk to me, you don't smile at me, you don't even look at me!" he continued, fully aware of the string of 'me's coming from his mouth, but lately he's had enough of trying to hold back the flow of avarice in him.
"I don't speak with you openly, because I'm not allowed to," Lan Fan whispered, reminding him of the expectation that surely everyone else in this cursed country knew and followed.
"Says who? The man who decided that died four hundred eighty-two years ago!"
She clasped her hands together, bright metal contrasting with the matte, scarred skin of her right hand. "My Lord, you can tell me to speak with you if you want–"
"What I want," he exhaled. "Is for you to want it. For you to choose it!" He breathed deeply and stepped towards her, and it was probably a testament to his temper that she took a wary step back. "Lan Fan, you used to tell me everything. I grew up with your voice in my ears and your hands in mine, and you never gave me a reason to think you wouldn't be there when I needed you. And yet four years ago, when I was given a throne to sit on, you decided it was far more important for me to have a sharpened knife than a trusted friend. And I don't think that's fair. It's not fair."
He turned away, opening the window that he'd told her to close only minutes ago. Neither of them spoke for a long time, and though he expected it of Lan Fan, Ling for once found himself with no knowledge of what to say next.
Surprisingly, she was the one who broke the silence.
"I am not unhappy," she said. "And if I happened to be in agony, you know I would bear it if it was for you. You know that."
She didn't apologize this time, didn't call him Majesty or Eminence, and Ling knew that this was probably the closest he would get to see her express her anger towards him. And he also knew that she had a right to be angry, because between the two of them it was obvious to anyone who could see that she was the one who had made more sacrifices.
"My visits are shorter," she added softly, "because I made a friend who teaches me music, and I enjoy it."
"Music?" he whirled around. That was the last thing he had expected.
She gave a small, embarrassed shrug. "Apparently, I'm the only bodyguard in all of Xing who didn't have a hobby."
Feeling rather foolish, relieved, annoyed and suddenly brave at the same time, Ling moved away from the window and stood in front of Lan Fan once again. She looked up at him now, gaze unwavering with quiet strength, and he realized that it had been so long since he'd seen that look too.
"Lan Fan, I am engaged. If you can give me even one reason not to be, please tell me."
She became confused again, and she was quiet for quite a while. Finally, just when Ling was going to give up getting any protests from her, Lan Fan spoke.
"Because..." she said, and then shut her eyes, as if grasping for something that was just out of her reach. "Because your marriage is an appeasement, not a solution. Because you are not sheep, and neither is she. And because your are Ling and... and maybe it's time for a new day." She cringed, tapping her fingers softly against her thigh as if she was counting some measure and found herself offbeat.
But he didn't. Slowly, he moved closer to her, and reached up to remove her mask from her face. He was still sore, and nothing would make up for the lost time, but they were finally crossing a bridge that neither had approached for four years, and he wanted to at least cross it all the way.
"I miss you," he said, as he leaned down and gave her a kiss on her cheek.
AN: I modeled Jie Qiu slightly after Amiboshi from Fushigi Yuugi. Amiboshi is a gentle soul not exactly suited for battle, but he's also a fighter and a musician. One day I was wondering about what other bodyguards were like, because if Lan Fan is so fierce at protecting Ling, it's almost impossible to say that none of the other bodyguards from other clans are. And I thought, what if she made friends with someone who sorta knew how she felt about Ling?
I don't know why, but Lan Fan fans all seem to think that Lan Fan would make a good singer. I thought so from the beginning, and I was surprised to find other headcanons of it on Tumblr.
Part of me isn't fully convinced that Ling Yao reciprocates Lan Fan's feelings, so when I write bad attempts at romance like this, you can be sure that it's my own OTP-related angst fueling it.
I don't think this is as smooth as I would have liked it to be. It would have been much better if I wrote it all in a single day, but as it turned out, I wrote bits and pieces in the half-hour at the end of each of my work days.
25/04/17 EDIT: It's been brought to my attention that I made quite a few references to Megan Whalen Turner's The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia. Just making sure I put a disclaimer here to say that I'm a big fan, and I wasn't quite aware at the time of my writing this 2 years ago that so many references trickled into this story. But there ya go! And if y'all are looking for something to read this summer, now you have 2 recs. (Actually 5. Go read the entire series while you're at it, hahaha!)