Chapter 12

Author's Note: My, how many typos I had before. My format went wonky sometime in the last who knows how long it's been since my last update and I cringe a little at the reocurring ones. Anyway, Happy Holidays to all! Cheers with a warm and fuzzy update. ^.^v

Lu Xun quietly followed the Wu princess back to his room. She initially seemed somewhat eager to leave and something told Xun that she was trying to think of a good reason to leave him as quickly as possible. It was unfortunate, but he knew he didn't exactly provide the best of entertainment on his own, either, so if she decided she'd leave he wouldn't be able to stop her. In a way, maybe he did feel slightly envious of Gan Ning. At least the drunken pirate would be entertaining even if he never said a word to Shang Xiang at all. The thoughts weighed Xun down and he drooped a little.

When they reached the room, she turned to him, shooting him a smile that warmed his face yet again. Trying to be careful and not have her suspect his fever had returned, he glanced aside quickly. The young woman stepped back, and he thought he heard her speak.

"I'm sorry?" he tried, looking at her worriedly.

"Huh?" Sun Shang Xiang blinked a few times, taking a step back forward. "Did you say something?"

"Err, no, I was just thinking you might have...?"

The young woman laughed a bit. "Oh!" she said, "No, I didn't. But maybe you heard my thoughts."

Xun knew he looked perturbed and didn't do a good job at hiding it. Her humored expression confirmed it rather well.

"I was just wondering if you'd mind if we had a little chat before I go." she finished.

He watched her spin around, rocking back on her feet once before turning back to look at him. Lu Xun found her expression had changed from humored to more... embarrassed? He had never really seen the young woman before him be such and it confused him. Shang Xiang's face seemed abnormally flushed, and he stepped back a bit, feeling his back against his door. He reached back to steady himself a bit. Sure, he had always been smitten with the Wu princess's facial features already, but he noticed the faint rosy glow in her cheeks made her whole face illuminate much like an angelic halo. He didn't bother to hide his face this time even though he felt the usual flush careen through his own body as well.

Sun Shang Xiang seemed to suspect something from this and she shook her head suddenly, widening her eyes. When she recovered from the movement, the blush was gone, making Xun wonder if he had even truly seen it at all. "Is that a no?" she asked quietly. The amused note in her voice had vanished. Xun immediately snapped back to his senses, opening the door and gesturing for her to enter. He did not trust his vocal chords, but luckily she seemed to understand that it was an affirmative sign.

The young man entered a few seconds after her, sliding the door back in place and pulling up a chair for her to sit in. She sat, the amused expression returning to her face as she looked around. Lu Xun guilty glanced around as well, happily remembering that as he was unable to write at all for the last few days, he did not have a mess to worry about this time. He took a seat on his bed, a few paces across from her.

"So.." she was saying, and he tried to focus his mind toward her words.

"Y--yes?"

Lu Xun felt like a fool. However many times that he would be able to speak with the woman he had his eyes on for so many a month, he could never enter a conversation with her without feeling nervous and embarrassed. He hid his face again in shame. She apparently took this as a cue.

"Lu Xun," she started.

He immediately looked up. Her voice was dead serious and her expression mirrored it. No, it did not quite mirrored it. He took a closer look, and he thought he saw pain in her eyes. His nervousness gave way to worry. "Yes, Lady Sun?" he spoke, glad his voice was obeying him this time.

"I know you're worried about her, but she should be okay."

Xun hesitated, wrapping his mind around the words. Her? She? He recalled their last few conversations and realized she had wanted to talk about Xiao Qiao. A frown slipped onto his face and when he noticed it, he tried to pull it away. Shang Xiang was still speaking.

"I heard from big brother that the both her and Zhou Yu are doing well in camp. At the rate things are going, they should be back within next week. A lot better than a whole month, huh?"

When he looked at her, he saw her eyes were lowered and she was nervously gripping at the fabric on her pant leg. She seemed to notice his gaze on hers and she lifted her eyes, catching his for a moment before looking back down.

Lu Xun took a moment to think before he spoke softly, "Lady Sun, what makes you bring up Lady Xiao?"

Immediately she was sitting up straight, tilting her head in confusion. "Huh?" she asked, then pursed her lips together before adding, "Well, I know that you've had an..interest in her from a while back. I just feel a little guilty that.." she trailed off, seeming hopeful that he'd interrupt her. He couldn't think of anything to say and so she finished, "..that I'm the one here and not her. I'm sure you would have had a much better time with her here, and.."

The young woman suddenly stood up. "Oh!" she exclaimed, putting a hand on her head. "I don't know what I'm saying anymore. Just..I'm sorry, Xun."

She was turning to leave, and Lu Xun watched quietly as she reached the door. The young woman paused as though she had something more to say, but then seemed to reconsider.

Xun was tempted to brood upon the whole conversation after she had gone, but quickly realized that it was as good as a time as any to clear up her misconception. It took a bit of effort, but for the first time he could remember, he called out to her, "Wait!"

--

"--ait! Please, wait, Lady Sun!"

Sun Shang Xiang stopped in her tracks, but did not turn around. Her mind was whirling with so many different thoughts that she couldn't seem to keep her balance straight. ::You're so smart, Shang Xiang,:: she chided herself. ::Now you just sound jealous.::

The analysis wasn't too far off, she knew with a sinking feeling of defeat. But then again she knew she would never rival the Qiao sisters in their beauty. It was already a given.

Initially she had been happy that he had accepted her into the room to talk, but a little thinking reminded her that he was still in need of recuperating. She decided at least it would give her a little time to tell him what he missed, but then again she wasn't exactly knowledgeable when it came to what strategists do. With dismay, she figured she'd just content herself with idle chat with him for a bit. Time spent with the young man was, after all, one of her favorite pastimes. She frowned to herself with that thought. He was still painfully unawares. Then again, he was too busy thinking of Xiao Qiao, she had told herself. Maybe that was the main reason he was alright with her suggestion of a talk? Because Xiao was gone and she was the next best choice?

Sun Shang Xiang had felt her hopes careen down in one fell swoop. The feeling was so heavy that she finally stood up and was this close to leaving before he stopped her.

She couldn't bring herself to turn to face him. She heard him stand up and take a few steps forward in her direction. Although tempted to move further, the door was too close for her to edge forward.

"Please," she heard him try again. "Y--you have it all wrong. Lady Xiao and...I... I'm not..."

The young woman placed a hand on the wall in front of her, pushing at it gently as she tried to regain her focus. "I don't understand what you're saying, Xun." she finally said, turning to look at him. She falsely smiled, but she could tell she fooled him with it.

Lu Xun was hesitating, his face turning the shade of his hat. He was trying to start again, but he was stammering so badly that she resignedly turned back around.

"Why don't we talk about this later?" she said quietly. In truth, she did not want to talk about it at all, but she knew she would have to support anything that her friend needed help with, even if it had something to do with his love life.

Ah, she sighed. Unrequited love. Nothing she wasn't new to.

"Lady Sun."

She lifted an eyebrow. His voice was stable now, and she heard her advance a few more feet.

"Please, listen to me. Lady Xiao is nothing more than a friend to me."

This caught Sun Shang Xiang's attention rather well and she tilted her head, still facing away from him. "But--"

"It's true...that I am interested in someone from our camp. But it is not her."

The young woman couldn't tell if she felt relieved or worried once more. She was about to dismiss the whole conversation at that, but finally her curiosity gave way and she spoke lightly. "I see! Do I know the lucky girl?" she spun back around, putting her hands together. She immediately regretted asking.

Lu Xun stopped in his tracks, still a few paces away from her. He nodded this time, apparently too embarrassed to speak. Sun Shang Xiang immediately went searching in her mind for the women that she knew. The only ones who truly stood out were the Qiao sisters. Which, if it was not Xiao Qiao, would only leave the elder Da Qiao as the prime interest. She winced. Da Qiao was a little harder to correspond with, so she doubted she would be able to help him with her, plus if she did, she would hear endless lecturing from her older brother.

Oh, but wouldn't it be funny, she mused off in a corner of her mind, if it was actually you that he was talking about?

Right. Like that'd ever happen. Get a grip, Shang Xiang!

She sheepishly shook her head. "S--sorry," she said, all the while her hopes sinking lower and lower. She had never thought he was interested in someone as mature and home-wifely as Da. ::There goes any inkling of hope, Shang Xiang,:: she reminded herself.

"I don't think I can help you with Da Qiao..I know Xiao much better than her."

Lu Xun's expression went completely blank, and the young woman tilted her head. Was her calculation off? She tried to think of more of the women that she knew, but they were all so generic that she couldn't possibly think of one who could have taken the strategist's heart.

There was silence. A long silence. Shang Xiang took this as a cue to get out, and had turned back around again when he finally spoke.

"N--no."

"No?" she echoed.

"It's not Lady Da."

"Huh? It's not?"

"No..."

She heard him take a deep breath. It was shaky. She didn't want to turn around to see his expression.

"It's...you, Lady Sun."

--

Even to Zhou Yu's ears, he sounded pitiful. The whole phrase itself was pitiful, regardless of who said it or how it was said. Although he had a reputation of playing it cool and collected, he knew he was reaching his limit in front of the young woman from a while before. He felt the mask drop once before and he slowly tried to recuperate, glancing aside to avoid having to show her his expression. He hated to have people see him vulnerable. Xiao Qiao especially was not a high choice due to her ability to crush his hopes and dreams with one tantrum. Her reaction was something he wasn't expecting. Instead of a snide comment or a burst of laughter, Xiao stood up, putting both hands on the table and looking directly at him. He saw her serious expression from the corner of his eye.

"Before I answer," she said, "There's something that I want to know first."

"Yes?"

"Why do you like me?"

The question struck a chord in him. Not only because she asked it so genuinely innocently with her hidden confusion finally surfacing, but because he realized that this was the conversation that they should have had a long time ago. Maybe it would have prevented all of the misunderstandings. He chuckled inwardly how it was all due to the young woman's prank that this occurred.

Silence filled the room for a few moments and she added, "It's because I'm the only one who's never actually been interesting in you, right? It's because of your ego."

Zhou Yu was surprised again. Slowly, he began to realize that she had similarities to her older sister, yet she had care-freely tried to discard them. They were still innate, and she still had a head on her shoulders that wasn't just a pretty face. His appreciation grew by the second. Normally he would have simply smirked, brushed aside one of his wispy bangs or tossed his head, claiming that wasn't the truth and lying between his teeth. But Xiao Qiao was different from the others. Sure, she was right in analyzing how she was the only one initially able to refrain from falling head over heels for him, but she was also the only one that he truly valued her personality.

He took a moment to think about it. Yes, it was how she able to smile so sweetly toward her sister and her friends. It was how she was able to break free from the others whenever she felt like it and she wasn't bound by the restrictions of the higher ranking officers of Wu. It was how she pouted and tantrummed and was so open with her emotions. The answer was so simple, yet so complex.

"Well?" she demanded finally.

He turned to look at her. Xiao Qiao looked back, her eyes wide. He knew that he would be surprised as well, if he was in her position.

"I like everything about you." he responded with a smile, a genuine smile that poured from the bottom of his soul. At first he thought to brush it off or turn aside, but he did not. He knew he wanted her to see him as himself--the true Zhou Yu that he only showed to those closest to him and the ones he cared for most. It took great effort, but he refused his neutral facade.

--

"E-E-Everything?" Xiao repeated, her eyes still wide.

Zhou Yu was looking at her, but for some reason he didn't look the same as he used to. His normally restrained expression was gone and he was smiling. It was the same smile that she had seen once reflected off of the mirror. The same smile that she thought she wouldn't mind seeing if it was directed toward her. She felt her heart skip a beat and she tried to pull her gaze away.

::No, Xiao,:: she tried to convince herself, ::You can't fall under his spell too!::

But deep inside, she knew that the man before her now wasn't the man that the other women had fallen for. They had fallen for his cool, official manner. The Yu in front of her now was more of a sweet, endearing fellow instead. Nothing quite like how she had seen him act before.

That's right, she noted. It was all an act! He must be acting!

She tried to home in on his expression and felt her resolve falter just slightly.

He was nodding, oblivious to her thoughts. Since when did he stop looking like a hawk trying to read everyone's minds like prey?

He was speaking. "I like the way you walk. The way you talk. The way you fight in battles. The way you dance. The way that you pout with that adorable face of yours."

Xiao immediately tried to loosen her pout, feeling her face begin to burn up. "O--okay, okay, that's enough, you're embarrassing me!"

The man tilted his head a bit, entwining his fingers in front of himself. "Alright. Then it's your turn."

"My turn to...?" she paused, then remembered what he meant.

He repeated for her anyway. "Why is it that you hate me so?"

The younger Qiao stretched a bit, trying to buy herself time. "Well, that's obviously because..."

Her mind blanked on her as she watched the young man in front of her. His already handsome face was made even more so when he didn't have that cautious mask upon it. His gaze were on hers and she began to look around the room, never focusing on an object for more than a few seconds at a time.

"Um, because..."

Why was it that she hated him so? She frowned inside. It wasn't that she hated him really. She didn't like him, though, that was for sure.

Well, at least she thought that she was sure, until she finally saw the real Zhou Yu in front of her. Or perhaps, the Zhou Yu in front of her was the true act? Xiao Qiao squinted a bit. His expression marked a faint twinge of confusion; something she barely saw in it before. ::Nope,:: she confirmed to herself, ::This is really him.::

Still at a loss for a good set of words, Xiao decided to play it off. She giggled, watching his expression switch to astonishment at first and then begin to shift back to normal. ::Oh, no you don't!::

"You're just hateable, that's all!" she said cheerily, beaming in his direction.

"...h--hateable?" The man before her visibly slumped. "I--I don't know if anyone else would agree..."

"Oh! Well, you know! Um, like..." the younger Qiao took a moment to try again. "Um, yeah! You know."

It was 100% obvious that he did not know.

Xiao's pout returned. "Oh! Well! You're a big bully!"

She hadn't really seen him outwardly bully anyone, come to think of it.

"You're a goody-two-shoes!"

Nope, that wasn't quite it either.

"You think of yourself too highly!"

Okay, closer, but not dead on.

"You're just too perfect for your own good!" she finally exclaimed, crashing back down to her seat. The chair made a nice scratching sound, which she found emphasized her speech nicely. Then she realized what she had admitted. "Um, no, well, you see, that's not quite..." The pout on her face grew and she didn't bother to push it away this time. Was that true? Was he really so perfect? She debated with herself in her mind. Sure, he was smart, she'd have to hand him that. Sure, he was friendly enough to most everyone and she couldn't think of anyone who was outwardly antagonistic toward him. Sure, he was a beautiful kind of handsome, she'd give him that too. Initially she'd wrote him off as not quite her type, but she wasn't really sure anymore.

She paused, then lifted her gaze ever so slightly toward him. He was also an arrogant bastard, right? But then again he wasn't too arrogant now.

Xiao threw her hands up in the air. "Oh! Oh, oh, oh! I don't know!" she moaned finally. "I just don't like you because!"

Yu smiled then and Xiao felt an unwelcome warmth cross her face. "So it seems that I'm interested in everything about you, and you hate everything about me." he concluded as he stood up. "I would love to stay here and contemplate this matter, but I'm due for training."

Xiao watched him as he headed to the door. He turned, bowing his head courteously. "Lady Xiao Qiao?"

"Y--yeah?"

"I'll have someone put your training fans closer to the floor this time. Could you please refrain from leaving a mess next time?"

Xiao balled one of her hands and shook it at him as he exited with a soft chuckle. "Oooooh. Who does he think he is anyway?"

--

Da Qiao smiled to herself as her lord struggled to his feet. He ran a nervous hand through his hair and she saw the faint tremor of his hand as it swept through his long locks. "Well," she heard him say after a moment of silence, "It's nice being home." He began to stretch a little, shifting his weight from right to left.

Da felt her smile grow. There were quite a few things she could think of to say to him. She could say that she agreed, and that she felt better now that she was closer to him, or one of several other thoughts that briefly circled in her mind. She settled on one, her voice a bare whisper, "I have missed you greatly, my lord."

Ce's gaze shot up to meet hers and he paused mid-stretch. She met his gaze, trying not to show her sudden embarrassment. She certainly didn't wish to have said the wrong thing. The pair watched each other in another moment of silence. As if on cue, both smiled at once. "Yeah?" Sun Ce asked, the genuine smile curving to a grin, "I missed everything and everyone around here myself. Of course, I missed you the most."

He stood tall then, taking two steps forward and extending his arms. Da widened her eyes in slight confusion and then hopped off of her seat to meet him midway. Ce gathered her up in an awkward hug and she gently moved one of his arms to rest on her shoulder.

Da Qiao pressed one dainty cheek against her love's chest and inhaled deeply. She could hear his heartbeat, running loud with a speed that told her that he was just as nervous as she felt. She shut her eyes for a brief moment and then let out a childish giggle, pushing herself free from his arms. When she looked up toward Ce, he had a confused expression on his face. Da shook her head to relieve his concern. "My lord," she said, and suddenly her words failed her. She was left standing there, looking up at the young man in front of her in utter silence. It was strange for her to lose her calm, and she knew that best. Her mouth moved several times but without a sound. Da forced her lips closed and attempted to give Ce the serene smile she had perfected over the years. Warmth spread through her face as she realized she still had trouble faking emotion in front of this man. Ce's expression had shifted from confusion to neutrality. Da saw him clench one fist before he shot her a grin.

"You know," he began, his voice uncharacteristically soft. She felt her face burn again and this time turned aside, looking toward the door. He immediately stopped speaking, seeming to be taking her glance as a cue.

"Oh, please, go on." she urged when he went completely silent. He didn't speak for a while longer and she stood listening to his breathing and the sound of her dancing heartbeat.

"You know," he tried again, and this time she didn't turn away and instead nodded her head politely as she waited for him to go on. "That one day...when we were outside."

He seemed to be waiting for another cue, and she immediately recalled that time prior, when he had supposedly confessed to her. He never repeated those words, though, and she hadn't the slightest clue if her ears had been betraying her that night. To prevent any false hope, she had dismissed the night as every other, though the idea still faintly crept up in her mind at least once a day. Da sent him a timid smile, hoping it was enough of a signal for him. It was.

"You said you didn't hear me, right?" Sun Ce took a moment to stretch, then scratch his head, trying to formulate the right words to say.

The young woman kept her gaze attentively toward his, the smile still upon her lips. Inside of herself, she was trying her best not to reveal her embarrassment in the situation. It was getting quite late, and to be found in her lord's room at any later of a time would be somewhat of an offense, in her own mind. "My apologies, my lord," she inputted softly.

Ce nodded a few times, seeming to finally be able to blurt out his thoughts. "Well, you know....that time, what I really said was..."

Da Qiao tilted her head slightly, anxiously awaiting what her lord had to say. At the same time, she was braced for any bad luck which might befall the two, as in a knocking of the door or another interruption of some sort. She could tell from Ce's expression that he was anticipating the same--or even hoping for something to help him from continuing. He finally let out a sigh.

"Ahh, out with it Ce."

Da blinked a few times as the young man slumped a bit, then shrugged his shoulders.

"Da Qiao," he continued, his voice unnaturally cheery and almost forced. "What I said that day was that--"

The young woman could tell he was nervous without any cues besides the choice of his wording. With an inner sigh, she interrupted him. "If it pains you to repeat your words, my lord, I will not force it upon you."

This seemed to catch the Sun successor off-guard. For a moment he blinked, first surprised that she would interrupt him and second surprised at the words she had spoken. She immediately lowered her gaze, figuring that she had said the wrong words. She was quickly graced by his laughter though, and she felt a surge of relief rush through her small form. This time when Sun Ce spoke, his voice had returned to normal, a tone of youthful pride and humor replacing his nervousness. "Da Qiao," he started again, and she smiled as the words came out of his mouth, clearly this time, and she knew she wasn't mistaken.

--

"I love you."

Ce tried his best to hide a faint tinge of red from his face as the words echoed proudly through the room. The three words that had taken him so long to utter before came up clearer this time, and if she missed it this time, he had no idea what he would do. It wasn't like himself to feel embarrassed, but under such circumstances, it would be odd in his opinion not to feel so. All thoughts of his so called "competition" with Zhou Yu disappeared from his mind for a moment as all went silent.

He kept his eyes away from hers, not knowing what her reaction would be. Would she accept him or would she finally shun him? If the latter happened, even the little conqueror would have to feel defeated. And by a woman; which was a great offense to his pride. Or would have been, if he had kept his feelings about women intact from before he had met up with the elder Qiao sister.

Sun Ce couldn't hide his surprise when he was treated to a soft giggle which escaped from the Qiao's lips. Involuntarily, he shifted, looking toward her to see why she had found the statement humorous. "My lord," Da said quietly, unable to hide her mirth, "I would chide you for saying such a comment without looking myself in the eye."

Ce blinked twice. Da covered her mouth as she giggled again, and to surprise him once more she added, "So I did hear correctly that evening."

It took all his control not to jump back. "...you knew?" he asked, his voice betraying his awe.

"I apologize, my lord, I did not know for sure if that was what you had said, and did not want to believe it until I had a significant amount of proof."

Ce blinked again, then sat up once more, feeling rather foolish for not simply repeating his feelings to her the weeks back. It had only caused unnecessary worry. He was about to feel relieved once more, then remembered that she hadn't yet commented back to him. If he was a regular man, he probably would have waited for her to say something else, but he was Sun Ce, and waiting didn't really take top priority in his personality trait scale. He managed a grin, using words to try and brush off his former confusion, "Oh, well, now you know, eh?"

Da Qiao simply nodded, and Ce took a glance to her cheeks, which were rosier than usual. The sparkle hadn't left her eyes and it made his breath catch. She was undeniably the most beautiful woman he had ever set his eyes on.

"Uhh...so..." he started after a short pause, and she took the cue, her eyes lowering once and then raising.

"I hope you do not mind my opinion on this matter?" the Qiao asked as her gaze rose to his.

"Naah, say whatever you wanna say, Da," he said, keeping his tone as encouraging as possible. He took the silent moment to brace himself for the response.

Da Qiao pursed her lips together for a moment, then looked up attentively at her lord, managing to keep her nervousness from rising in her voice as she spoke, "....I love you too, my lord."

Her voice was so quiet that he had to strain to hear the statement, but to Ce it was the sweetest phrase he had ever heard in his entire life. His trademark grin was taking over again, and he felt an inner sigh of relief echo in his mind. "Well, that's nice to know," he said, keeping his tone friendly.

"Mm." was the simple reply.

A moment of silence was all the two needed to finish their settling thoughts, and both shifted after the pause, Da to get ready to return to her room and Ce ready to escort her. They mutually knew what was to happen from then on, and didn't bother to exchange words until they reached the door. There, Ce paused, making the pigtailed young woman turn toward him, a questioning look upon her face.

::It's now or never, Ce,:: he reminded himself, then scratched his head sheepishly. He tried to think of something to say, but all he could manage was a quiet, "Night, Da."

"Goodnight, my lord." Da Qiao responded almost automatically, and she seemed about to turn around to continue off when he moved over to take her arm.

"Not so fast," he teased, the playful grin returning to his face.

The young man leaned down a bit, glad when Da didn't pull away and instead sent him a smile; the one that encouraged him whenever he saw it. He watched her eyes shut slightly, and moved one hand to her cheek, his thumb gently stroking her skin. She leaned up--or was that his hand guiding her?--and he kept leaning down until their lips finally met.

He felt her almost melt toward him with the touch, and for the first time in a long while, his warriors defenses completely broke. A faint tinge of vulnerability shook him, but he ignored it, keeping full concentration on the dark haired angel in his arms. Ce cursed the need to breathe mentally as they moved aside, but as he regained his composure, he nodded to Da. The young woman smiled completely, her serene expression not masking her emotions from him any further.

"Now if you will let me take my leave," she said, her eyes twinkling as she exited the room.

Sun Ce shut the door after her, then wandered to the mirror, blinking a few times when he noted that he looked happier than he had from a long time back. Zhou Yu was going to be in for a nice surprise, he decided.

He waited for several seconds, then couldn't help from bursting out: "Oh, Hell yeah!"