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i am guilty (of anything and everything but you)

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Endearing himself to Wen Ruohan had probably come a little too easily to him. If Nie Mingjue had seen the things he had done, the tortures he had concocted, then he would be as horrified as he would be enraged.

But the methods had come easily precisely because of everything that Nie Mingjue would never understand. He would never understand what it was to be beaten, abused, and looked down on for having a prostitute for a mother. He would never understand what it was to be written off and treated as a carrier of filth and disease just for growing up in a brothel. He would never understand that simply doing good, that being humble and polite, meant little when people wouldn’t even accept the tea he poured for them.

Because of all those things, it’s very easy to devise tortures for the cultivators that the QishanWen bring back. In a way, Meng Yao has been devising them for years. He may not recognize the faces of these cultivators in particular, but he knows that they wouldn’t be any different than the faces that he has known. The faces of any number of cultivators who have spit hate and disgust at him in his lifetime. On those rare instances when his name is used in front of them, he sees a flash in their eyes. Some of them spit blood onto his robes, hissing at him:

Son of a whore.

And even if he isn’t the one carrying out those tortures every time, he still crafts each one by careful mind and careful hand. Despite himself, he likes it a little bit. The adrenaline rush of knowing that there’s one less person in the world to speak those words to him is thrilling. Knowing that they died in agony, many of them without their golden cores, is just an added benefit to reap.

“I need you to devise something new,” Wen Ruohan says.

Meng Yao kneels before him, genuinely surprised by the request. He had already come up with so many methods that it was rare to have one that didn’t cover each need. Where a cultivator might be resistant to one, he was, inevitably, weak to another. It’s hard to imagine someone who could resist all of them.

“He’s one of the GusuLan,” Wen Ruohan continues. “Touched by a forest spirit. None of the other methods are getting him to leave his animal form. We need something that will make him human.”

Ah, so that explains it.

“May I see him?” Meng Yao asks.

Wen Ruohan waves a dismissive hand. “He’s in the Fire Palace.”

Meng Yao stands, but keeps his head lowered, even as he bows. He turns and walks down the steps, taking the familiar path to the Fire Palace.

Although he has taken some satisfaction in the deaths his torture devices have caused, he still doesn’t like the Fire Palace. He doesn’t like it for the same reason he doesn’t like Wen Ruohan: the wanton cruelty. The Fire Palace is like stepping into the most twisted parts of Wen Ruohan’s psyche, into the depravity and volatile rage that simmers under even his most lucid moments. It makes Meng Yao’s skin crawl to be there, even knowing that he had practically built the place himself.

That’s the difference between them, though. Meng Yao has the mind for it, but Wen Ruohan has the stomach. There have been plenty of times that Meng Yao has wanted people to suffer, but never before has he acted upon it. Even now, he mostly relays ideas to Wen Ruohan who has them enacted through his other servants. Other people, people who share Wen Ruohan’s sadistic mind, are the ones who carry it out.

But, more and more, Meng Yao isn’t sure if he’s steeling himself against the torture or if his feelings of vindication have lended themselves too freely. He’s done what he has to endear himself to Wen Ruohan, to send out maps and letters to those heading the Sunshot Campaign against him. He knows this. It’s the one thing he has to hold onto, otherwise no progress will be made.

The idea of finding a way to torture someone’s Forest-Touched form into a human form makes his stomach flip and knot even before he sees who, exactly, he’s dealing with. After he sees him, well, his conviction nearly drops to its knees. Two immediate thoughts claw to mind:

He’s beautiful.

He’s badly hurt.

The torture methods they used may not have succeeded in getting him to regress to a human form, but they still did what they were meant to. They inflicted unimaginable pain. Blood has dried and flaked all across his white fur; there are whole patches of skin missing, seemingly at random, but Meng Yao knows each one serves a purpose. He’d had antlers at one point, and Meng Yao can only imagine their majesty because, as he is, they’ve been inelegantly broken off.

His hooves are bloodied, nails savagely pointing through to the outside. Did they affix shoes on him? Or simply drive nails up through them? He won’t know unless he gets closer to the stag.

But the worst of his pain is in his eyes, dark and exhausted. They barely open when Meng Yao steps up to the bars of the cell. It had actually been an equipment room, but they’d hastily cleaned it out when they realized it was the only thing big enough to hold him. He is massive in size and stature. Even laying down, resigned to the pain of having some of his skinned areas touch the floor if it means keeping his weight off his feet, he is huge.

Meng Yao holds out his hand to the one standing guard, who wordlessly passes over a ring of keys.

“Leave,” he says, not taking his eyes off of the stag. “He’s of no threat to me.”

“We were told to keep guard,” one of them argues, snidely.

Meng Yao turns to look at him, smiling with all the pleasantry he affords every person he meets. “And what will His Excellency say when I’ve told him that you’ve gotten in the way of my work?”

He has no more respect in Qishan than he did in Qinghe, but he does have a little more fear to throw around. That was the problem with Nie Mingjue. He was always about the high ground and wouldn’t have settled for petty tattling, regardless of the abuse that Meng Yao endured even as his vice general. But Wen Ruohan is always interested in a reason to remind people of their place, and he doesn’t care who gives it to him. Even if it comes from the son of a whore.

As the guards shuffle out, Meng Yao’s smile grows, so long as he’s sure that no one is looking at him too keenly. If they do, they should see the smile of a sadist eager to get to work, not a man pleased to have such authority that he can get people out of the way with ease. The moment the door closes, the smile drops.

He turns back towards the cell and hurriedly unlocks it, throwing it open. The stag raises his head, moving a leg in some vague, cumbersome effort to rise. Meng Yao stops, raising his hands in a calming gesture. He meets his dark, beaten eyes.

“I won’t hurt you,” he explains. “Please, you’re already badly injured. Allow me to help.”

For a long moment, they only stare at each other, but Meng Yao can see it. He can see in the Forest-Touched’s eyes that he wants to believe him. That he desperately needs someone to believe. How long has he been here, enduring this pain?

Finally, he puts his leg back down. Meng Yao hurries forward and drops to his knees next to the stag’s head, pulling it gently onto his lap. The stag must allow it, must help, because his head weighs too much for Meng Yao to have moved it on his own.

He brushes his fingers over his cheek, noting the way that his eyes flinch. Fear? Pain? It could be either, but it’s probably both.

Meng Yao pulls his hands back, uses them to channel his golden core into a stream of healing energy, and touches two fingers to the space beside one closed eye. He only wishes his spiritual energy were greater, that it might be capable of doing more, but he doesn’t have time to linger on the self-pity.

“I’ve heard of you,” he says, quietly. “You’re one of the Twin Jades of the GusuLan, aren’t you, Zewu-jun?”

His eye opens, and they make contact again. There’s some faint recognition on his face, like it’s been so long since he’s heard his own title that he himself is trying to remember it. Meng Yao’s chest aches.

“Your name is Lan Xichen,” he continues, his brow knit. “Do you remember?”

His dark eye flicks between Meng Yao’s own as if looking for something, or perhaps trying to understand what he’s saying. Meng Yao knows a lot of stories about the Forest-Touched of the GusuLan, but he can’t remember if something would cause memory loss. Did taking his horns steal his past? Or is it simply the trauma?

Then he sees it, the flicker of understanding, and a rush of relief goes through him. He lets out a breath.

“You remember. That’s good.” He brushes his fingertips along one of his ears, thumbing at it gently while his other hand floods him with as much healing energy as he can give. “That’s very good. I’m Meng Yao, Zewu-jun.”

Lan Xichen closes his eyes again, and Meng Yao lets out a breath. This has certainly made things much, much more complicated.

Wen Ruohan is not a very secretive man, so far as Meng Yao is concerned. His vicious actions don’t come from paranoia, which would make him harder to deal with. Rather they come from much simpler roots: rage, most often, but sometimes pride. Because he is not secretive, it’s easy to figure out that the reason he wants Lan Xichen to be human again is two fold.

The first reason is that he believes that Lan Xichen may have some answers about the location of a piece of Yin Iron.

The second reason is that Lan Xichen has hidden some secret texts and scrolls that were kept in the Cloud Recesses.

This affords Meng Yao some valuable strategic options, though he still needs to play things very carefully in order to avoid suspicion. The Sunshot Campaign hasn’t progressed nearly far enough for him to make any bold moves. If he kills Wen Ruohan himself, now, alone in the middle of Qishan, then he only guarantees his own death. He needs the forces to be closer, so that he at least has allies to run to.

“Why don’t we just destroy his golden core?” Wen Chao snarls, frustrated with being called back to the palace. He wasn’t even called back for this specific reason but rather to be given new orders.

Meng Yao bows.

“Normally, that would be an advisable plan to achieve His Excellency’s aims,” he explains. “However, the Forest-Touched require their golden cores to change between forms. If we destroy it, then he will be stuck in this form forever.” A lie. “It is the same in the reverse: if it were destroyed while he was human, then he would be unable to transform into a stag.” A truth.

Information on Forest-Touched is scarce, which makes the available information easy to manipulate. He doesn’t think that anyone in the QishanWen would know about the myths and legends because they have no need to. Only the GusuLan have ever had Forest-Touched in their sects, and even then it’s considered a rare feat. The QishanWen simply use brash brutality to achieve their ends and have never expressed much interest in learning about their enemies.

This is a crucial way that Meng Yao differs from them, and one that he uses to his advantage.

“You will get him to change back,” Wen Ruohan says, and it is not a question.

Meng Yao nods, not raising from his bow to Wen Chao. “Yes, Your Excellency, but it will take time. He is a delicate case, and any misstep could cause us to lose the information you seek. I would request that you allow me to deal with him exclusively.”

Wen Chao’s face twists, and he snorts derisively. “And what are you going to do? Seduce it out of him?”

The implication is clear, and Wen Chao may as well have said something as vulgar as ‘fuck’ with the way his tongue distorts it. Everyone present knows precisely what he means, and when a few guards start snickering, Meng Yao can see Wen Chao smirk through his lashes.

He weaves the smile through his words. “Of course not. But I think that a different kind of torture may need to be applied.”

“Oh? You still have more ideas in that sick head of yours?” Wen Chao sneers.

The look is wiped from his face by a sudden, powerful burst of spiritual energy. It’s not the kind that does immediate harm, but rather the kind that oppresses the very air in the room. Wen Ruohan is standing, his face twisted in anger.

“Enough!” Wen Ruohan snaps. “You’re not here for petty sniping matches with my assistant. Go, carry out your orders!”

After that, Meng Yao doesn’t bother to raise his head to watch Wen Chao scurry out of the room with his tail between his legs. He’s far too busy keeping his smile restrained.

Wen Ruohan doesn’t sit, but turns towards him. Even though he’s already bowing, Meng Yao straightens, brings his arms out, and goes into a second one. Such shows of humility and subservience have never led him afoul with Wen Ruohan’s temperament.

“Your Excellency.”

“What other methods?”

“Psychological methods,” he explains, but doesn’t stop to let it sit. He doesn’t test Wen Ruohan’s patience, or let him fill in the blanks. “He cannot be forced out of his form. Even if he dies, he will remain a stag, which would render him useless to your search for the Yin Iron, Your Excellency. Psychological manipulation would allow me to lure him back into his human form.”

Wen Ruohan is silent, but Meng Yao can feel his gaze, hot as a branding iron, across his whole body. He tells himself to keep still, to keep prostrate, despite the heat.

Then he laughs, and Meng Yao’s stomach drops. He doesn’t let it show.

“And you would do this how? By healing him back to his full spiritual power? Right under our noses?”

He steps closer as he talks, bringing the heat with him. Meng Yao shakes his head frantically.

“No, Your Excellency.” He doesn’t take a step back, doesn’t let himself move despite the swell of fear in him. It’s fine to feel it, it is stupidity to show it. “Healing him would be necessary, but there are ways of keeping his spiritual power from recovering—”

“Sealing only works on human forms,” he says, and Meng Yao can feel his presence close enough to burn his hands.

“There are other ways. There are berries, specifically,” he explains, quickly. “They will keep his spiritual energy sealed so long as he consumes them regularly. The Forest-Touched are particularly vulnerable to their effects by the nature of their spiritual energy.”

Berries?” Wen Ruohan smirks, but it is not in amusement at the idea.

Wen Ruohan grabs his hands then, and Meng Yao has no chance to resist before he flips him, tossing him onto the floor at the bottom of the stairs. He lands on his back, shielding his head as best as he can, with a cry of pain. Wen Ruohan is on him in a minute, and he scrambles backwards. Purposefully, he only moves backwards enough to get on his knees and drop his head.

“Yes! Berries,” he speaks quickly, the words pouring from his lips like an Lanling storm. “I will collect them myself and bring them back here for you to see. They have spiritual energy sealing-properties. They will work. His body will heal, but his energy will be trapped. Once he’s human, the Core-Melting Hand can destroy his golden core. He won’t be able to change back into a stag.”

Wen Ruohan stops just in front of him. Meng Yao doesn’t dare raise his head, not even enough to look at him through his lashes.

This time when he laughs, Meng Yao feels like he’s found shade from the scorching sun. He watches Wen Ruohan’s feet as they turn away from him, heading back towards his throne.

“You are truly devious, Meng Yao,” he says, and the praise twists violently inside Meng Yao. “Who else could come up with something so cruel?”

He swallows, slowly getting to his feet to bow. “I graciously receive your praise, Your Excellency. I’m sure this one is not worthy of it.”

“Go, get your berries,” he says. “Don’t let me stand in the way of your fun.”

“Thank you, Your Excellency,” then, very carefully. “The stag—“

“I won’t let anyone touch your toy while you’re gone.”

Meng Yao nods once, slowly, with a smile. As he turns to walk through the throng of fierce corpses, though, his expression runs as cold as the blood in his veins.

The berries he told Wen Ruohan about are very real. They’re called Nurture Berries. They grow on the mountains of Gusu, where the spirits who grant the chosen ones, like Lan Xichen, their animal forms live. It’s ideal that Wen Ruohan expressed no interest in where he had to go to harvest the berries because even he may have wondered why such a counter-effective berry grew in the very place that Forest-Touched came from.

It would be a difficult lie for Meng Yao to work around without some effort. Better to be spared having to explain.

The berries exist, but they don’t do what he claimed. In fact, if his research is right, then they’re known to do quite the opposite. They vitalize Forest-Touched cultivators while suppressing the spiritual energy of any other person. A well-hidden GusuLan secret, but Meng Yao makes it a point to know all that he can about everyone who might torment him someday. He’s had no reason to believe the Lan are any different, so it’s worth it to have such information.

Normally, accessing the Cloud Recesses would be quite difficult. But Lan Xichen had fled because it was being burned to the ground, which means that it’s without most of its defenses. It still smells of death and smoke when he arrives, and he raises an arm to cover his nose and mouth as he picks his way through the debris.

It’s not hard to tell how beautiful and serene this place must have once been. Meng Yao has a hard time feeling wholly affected, considering he doesn’t know how the Lan would have treated him. Would it have just been another beautiful palace? Designed to train so many cruel men into upholding a hierarchy that had already discarded him again and again? If Lan Xichen had recognized his name, then he hadn’t shown it. Or maybe he simply knew better than to let his disgust be obvious.

He tells himself not to taint their interaction with sour thoughts brought on by other people. He needs to focus at the task on hand.

“Don’t move.”

He feels something sharp press against the back of one shoulder. If the wielder of the sword were to thrust forward then they wouldn’t land a fatal strike, but they would likely disable his arm.

He doesn’t move.

“Who are you?” The cool voice asks. “What are you doing here?”

“I have something that will explain my presence, Hanguang-jun,” he says, tipping his head towards him over his shoulder. “If you will let me reach for it?”

For a moment he doesn’t move, then Meng Yao hears the sound of footsteps, but in front of him. When he looks ahead again, there’s a young man approaching in black and red. He walks a confident sort of swagger, and crosses his arms when he gets closer.

“What is it?”

Meng Yao looks at him, then drops his eyes. Slowly, he reaches for the inside of his robes, holding out a small chunk of sheered white stag fur. The young man in front of him takes it, and Meng Yao flicks his eyes up to his face.

“Lan Zhan.”

The tip of the blade against his shoulder disappears and he hears it slide back into its scabbard. A figure of pure white moves past his shoulder quickly, keeping enough space that, even if Meng Yao did lash out, he would be able to anticipate and counter it. But Meng Yao doesn’t move, just lowers his hand after the fur has been taken.

He watches his face, noticing the slightest widening of his eyes in recognition. “Where did you get this?”

Meng Yao sweeps his arms out and forward into a bow. “Hanguang-jun, your brother is deep in Wen Sect territory.”

“Where?”

Meng Yao chews the thought before conceding. “The Nightless City. He’s been captured by Wen Ruohan.”

With his head lowered, he can see where Lan Wangji’s fingers tighten on the scabbard of his blade. He has tells, though they are small ones, and Meng Yao pays careful attention to all.

“How,” the other one says, “do you know that?”

“I have been there,” Meng Yao says, simply, because he can’t afford to tangle this particular truth in lie. “I have seen him. He is why I’m here now.”

“What do you mean?” The one in black asks, because Lan Wangji seems beyond words.

He takes in a breath, letting some urgency seep into his voice. “Zewu-jun is badly hurt. I heard that there were berries with healing properties for Forest-Touched on the mountain. I came to retrieve some.”

“You’re the spy,” he says, in recognition but also, perhaps, in a little bit of awe. “Lan Zhan, he’s the one who’s been sending maps and plans to the Red Blade Master—“

Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji scolds, though his voice is only stern rather than harsh.

Meng Yao straightens out of his bow, looking between the two of them. This does help his case. It makes things easier that they’ve heard of him, at least.

“Wei-gongzi is right,” he says. “If you would like some proof: I know that none of the letters have been sent to the Red Blade Master directly. They always come to his younger brother, Nie Huaisang, hidden inside gifts.”

The two of them exchange a brief look before nodding. Though it seems simple, there is a novel in the way their eyes connect, one that Meng Yao can’t read more than the abstract of. That alone tells him most of what he needs to know about them, and he makes a show of letting out a breath when he seems to have their approval. He looks between the two of them, his expression shifting to something more dire.

“The berries? I don’t have much time. I was escorted here, and they’ll come look for me if I take too long.”

Lan Wangji nods and turns, hurrying through the debris.

“Is there any way to get Zewu-jun out?” Wei Wuxian asks.

Meng Yao shakes his head. “No, not in his state. Even if he heals, it would be hard without allies closer to the Nightless City. He would only risk getting recaptured.”

A shadow passes over Wei Wuxian’s face, but he nods in understanding. They continue on in silence, making their way between destroyed pavilions and scorched earth. Meng Yao finds his mind wandering, despite himself, to what this place must have once looked like. In every way, he can only think that Lan Xichen’s stag form must have been even more ethereal against the backdrop of such a perfect place. Certainly anywhere outside cut him as a more impressive figure than he looked against the cold walls of the Fire Palace.

Finally they reach the patch of berries and Lan Wangji stops, turning to give him a nod. Meng Yao returns it, taking a pouch from inside his robes to hurry forward and gather as much as he can. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian help, plucking them carefully so they don’t burst and dropping handfuls into the bag at a time. It doesn’t take long at all to fill it.

Meng Yao tells them what he can as they work, walking with them back through the remains of the Cloud Recesses. Before they part ways he turns, bowing to both of them.

“Thank you for your help.”

“When the time is right,” Lan Wangji says. “We’ll move on the Nightless City.”

Meng Yao straightens, his expression straight as he nods. “I will keep your brother safe until then, Hanguang-jun.”

He pries each crude nail out of his hooves. He washes every speck of dried blood from his white fur. He applies healing balm and bandages to every skinned patch.

“I’m not an animal doctor,” Wen Qing had told him, handing over the balm.

“He is a man underneath it,” Meng Yao had replied, taking it with a bow. “Thank you.”

He gently files down the sharp, broken edges of where his antlers once were. He helps him to drink. He helps him to eat. He keeps his prison clean.

With every day that passes, the rebellion snuffs out another candle of QishanWen forces, but the fights are hard won. Even if Meng Yao supplies strategic information, that doesn’t change the fact that they must wage war against fierce corpses. It doesn’t change the fact that Wen Ruohan’s army can be endless, can grow with each battle, while the rebellion is worn down.

But there is nothing Meng Yao can do about that, so he focuses on what he can control: the recovery of Lan Xichen.

With time and the berries, his wounds begin to heal. His fur starts to grow back in the scarred patches. The holes in his hooves gradually mend. At some point, his broken antlers fall off completely, sending Meng Yao into a small panic. But Lan Xichen didn’t seem in any pain for it and, after some research, he learns that this is normal.

Finally—finally—more than a week after he shed his broken antlers, they begin to grow in again. The elation that rose in Meng Yao’s chest threatened to give everything away.

After replenishing Lan Xichen’s water, he sits with his back against one of the cell walls, where he can see the door to the Fire Palace, and cradles Lan Xichen’s head in his lap. This has become so common place that he doesn’t think anything of it anymore. He runs his fingers softly over the fur on the flat of his face, along his eyes and cheeks. A smile, one not of deceit or platitude, finds his lips when his ears twitch in response to a tickle. He strokes his fingers gently along his ear, imagining how good it might feel.

“It is exceedingly hard,” he confesses. “To believe that you are really a man in there.”

Lan Xichen raises his head, moving his powerful form with much more ease and grace than he had the first time they met. Meng Yao closes his eyes as Lan Xichen bumps their foreheads together, careful of his growing antlers. Meng Yao chuckles.

“You are a very convincing stag, Zewu-jun.” He offers some berries, which are quickly devoured, and leans his head back against the wall as Lan Xichen’s head settles back in his lap once more. When he speaks again, it’s softly. “I keep having to remind myself that Hanguang-jun recognized your fur, which means he is certainly your brother. You couldn’t have a human brother if you weren’t human.”

At the mention of his brother, Lan Xichen’s head sinks a little more onto his lap. Meng Yao tips his head down to look at him, rubbing the space between his regrowing antlers.

“You’ll see him again soon.”

He is recovering, but the berries can only do much. Most of his spiritual energy is going towards healing, and he has a lot to heal. Each day Wen Ruohan asks for a status report, and each day Meng Yao can only assure him that he’s making progress. He can only remind him and his temper that there is meant to be a gain for this.

It’s fortunate that Wen Ruohan is as prideful as he is, because it means that he doesn’t feel that the encroaching forces are a threat. He doesn’t feel rushed to get information from Lan Xichen, which means he doesn’t pressure Meng Yao. But every time he passes by Wen Zhuliu, during those rare instances when Wen Chao is back in the Nightless City, he feels the encroaching walls of reality. They cannot keep this up forever.

When all the wounds have healed, Meng Yao keeps a closer eye on him. He cannot suggest that they move other tortures to different pavilions without sparking Wen Ruohan’s temper. Neither can he suggest moving Lan Xichen to a different place: none is more secure than the Fire Palace. That means that he needs to be near him and needs to keep other people from being near him. When he’s questioned, he gives the truth: He thinks that Lan Xichen will change back soon.

There’s simply no way to pretend that it’s anything else. He could try to say that he’s worried for the state of him, but any guard would be able to tell Wen Ruohan that he looks fully recovered. That would lead to doubt being raised against Meng Yao, and that is not something he can afford to have happen.

So he tells him the truth and he keeps up his observation. He ensures that no other guards will be around on the insistence that having them around would influence how safe Lan Xichen feels. If he doesn’t feel safe, then he won’t change his form. He could suggest that, even if Wen Zhuliu misses the first chance to melt Lan Xichen’s golden core, they would have more opportunities. He doesn’t. Wen Ruohan will not appreciate the idea that they won’t get this right the first time.

But because of admitting that truth, he has drastically increased the pressure on himself. He has to hope that the last set of plans he sent to the Sunshot Campaign will reap the results he and Lan Xichen desperately need.

Between keeping an eye on Lan Xichen and copying maps in the past few nights, he’s exhausted when he arrives tonight. He’s careful not to show it as he sees the guards out, certain that they would use any perceived weakness in him to run to Wen Ruohan with cries of conspiracy. But the moment they’re gone, his shoulders drop and he unlocks the cell to set about cleaning up and replenishing the water.

He’s not expecting Lan Xichen to bump against his back gently. He turns to look at him, smiling a little. “That wasn’t very polite.”

Lan Xichen bumps against him until he turns, and then he presses part of his face against his chest. His antlers have already grown back considerably with his returned strength, but he seems to know how to tilt his head so they don’t do any damage. Meng Yao wraps one arm around his massive head, the other moving up to stroke down his neck. Meng Yao yawns.

“Am I so obvious? Or is this some animal sense?” He hums, tipping his head. “Hm?”He lets Lan Xichen herd him to his usual wall of the cell and slides down to sit. Lan Xichen lowers himself, as he always does, pinning him to the ground just by the weight of his head. Meng Yao yawns again as he strokes his hand along the flat front of his face, the gesture idly becoming slower and slower until, finally, he just rests his hand against his forelock as he drifts to sleep.

He awakens sometime later for no real reason other than his brain deemed that he should. It’s quick to realize, however, where he is and that he shouldn’t be sleeping here. He doesn’t open his eyes right away, listening for the sounds of an intruder or someone who might have seen that he was sleeping, but the Fire Palace is silent.

“Look at what you’ve done,” he says, leaning his head back against the wall for a moment. “What if we had been cau—“

As he looks at the weight in his lap, he nearly chokes on the word.

There is a sleeping, naked man on his lap who he can only assume—can only hope—is Lan Xichen.

For a moment, his mind blanks out in a white-hot blaze. He shamefully takes him in, his whole naked form, before he thinks to look away. And then he stares, wide-eyed, at his face before he even thinks to look not at him at all. His hand, he realizes, is resting on the soft skin of his cheek, and he pulls it away quickly. But what does that matter? He’s sleeping in his lap! What does it matter if he’s touching his cheek!?

He doesn’t know if he should wake him. He’s rolled onto his side which, thankfully, helps to obscure some things (even if it doesn’t obscure others). The floor can’t be comfortable against his bare skin, surely.

Meng Yao glances back down at his lap slowly, looking at the head resting in his lap. To his endless frustration, Lan Xichen’s face is serenely beautiful. He looks content and…safe, sleeping on him like this. His hair is loose of any knot, and it spreads across Meng Yao’s lap and down onto the floor. He’s immediately filled with a sudden, visceral indignation at the fact that any part of this man should be touching the floor aside from his feet.

This doesn’t help.

He looks away and swallows, letting out a quiet breath, collecting himself again. He looks back at his face, reaching down to touch his cheek. He brushes his fingertips over his cheekbone, then back along his hairline. He follows it down, tracing his jaw. His heart jumps up into his throat when Lan Xichen shifts, tipping his chin up into the touch. The movement presses his face a little closer to Meng Yao’s stomach, his nose brushing against the belt that conceals Hensheng at Meng Yao’s waist.

When did he start holding his breath?

He tells himself to let it out again, lowering his hand to run his fingers through his hair. He brushes the dark strands back over his shoulder. Lan Xichen’s face looks even more alluring with most of the hair pulled out of the way. His thumb traces the outermost edge of his ear and he smiles—not nearly as soft as his stag counterpart. He curls his fingers gently behind it, rubbing the backs of his fingers against the space behind his ear.

Lan Xichen stirs a little, first yawning, then slowly—so slowly—opening his eyes. Meng Yao pulls his hand back, swallowing thickly.

“Zewu-jun?”

Lan Xichen looks up at him, and it seems to take a moment for recognition to come to his eyes. But, when it does, the gentleness of them shatters Meng Yao’s heart.

“A-Yao…”

And simply hearing his name puts the pieces back together again, as if they’d never been scattered.

His voice is weak and raspy, little more than a croak, probably from disuse. For a moment, Meng Yao pushes away the knowledge that he’s naked. It’s not that he forgets it, but rather that he thinks touching his cheek and running his fingertips down his neck is more important. Just for a moment.

But he’s good at letting go of moments for more pressing matters, as few and far between as any instances of softness have been in his life.

“You’re naked, Zewu-jun,” he explains. “If you’ll let me up, I’ll give you my outer robe. It won’t fit but it’ll cover you enough.”

Clearly a man of upstanding breed, Lan Xichen is reasonably and immediately flustered once given that information. He quickly pushes himself to sit up, freeing Meng Yao from his position. His body aches from the stiffness of sleep and a hard floor, but he pushes himself to his feet despite that. He pulls off his belt and his outer robe with all the haste in his hands and passes it over. As he suspected, it’s not nearly close to the right size. But Lan Xichen prioritizes where it drapes enough for it to work for now.

He doubts that he will be able to acquire any robes for him without giving everything away.

“Thank you, A-Yao,” he says, quietly.

Meng Yao fills a cup—the one he usually brings with him while he sits here—with water and passes it to him. His voice still sounds so raw and unused that it almost hurts to listen to him. It might hurt more, were it not for the relief of seeing him human again.

He drinks it slowly, but there’s greed in the bobbing of his Adam’s apple. It’s like none of the water he took as a stag has reached his human lips. Meng Yao finds his eyes drawn to him, staring for a heartbeat or two longer than he means to, before he bows. Without even lowering the cup, with just one hand, Lan Xichen catches where his hands meet and keeps him from bowing.

“Zewu-jun?”

He finishes the water and lowers the cup, “Please, you don’t have to perform such grand gestures for me.”

Meng Yao looks up at him, and his smile is as blinding as it is comforting. He wants to look away, but he can’t. All he can do is smile back and straighten up.

“How are you feeling?”

“Better,” he says, and his voice sounds improved now, with a cup of water and some more use to his voice. “It is, of course, all thanks to your excellent care.”

He shakes his head a little, finally forcing his eyes away to tip his head down. “I didn’t want to see Zewu-jun suffer. I only did what I could, and I wish that my cultivation were stronger. Perhaps then it would not have taken so long for you to regain your human form.”

“They…” He trails off, and there’s pain on his face and in his voice. “They did quite a bit of damage before you arrived. Even with powerful healing, it would have taken me some time to get back to this state.”

Though he doesn’t realize it, Meng Yao’s eyes grow distant and cool. Yes, it had been easy enough to surmise that many of his torture methods had been used on Lan Xichen before Wen Ruohan thought to call him in. He has tried not to think about it, not to imagine the suffering they inflicted on him, but it would be a lie to say that his mind cannot fathom it. Of course he can fathom it when he’s the one who created it.

The soft touch to his hands is what snaps him out of it. He raises his head and his eyes, caught again in the snare of Lan Xichen’s beautiful face. His brows are knitted with the softest concern, and his smile looks worried. Meng Yao swallows his surprise when Lan Xichen raises his hand to touch his face.

“You looked so distant just now,” he explains, trailing his fingertips along his jaw as if he were mapping a sculpture. “Where do you go when your eyes are so far, A-Yao?”

“I—“

But then he hears it. The sound of guard voices. Both of their eyes grow wide as they look towards the door.

“It isn’t safe for you to be in this form,” he whispers, hurriedly. He thought it was the middle of the night, but it must be early morning. He lost track of time in his sleep. There’s confusion in Lan Xichen’s eyes, but he shakes his head. “I don’t have time to explain. Please, change back!”

Less than a heartbeat and Lan Xichen nods.

“Turn around.”

Meng Yao doesn’t question, just spins around. He hears the rustling of fabric, the chipping of a cup on the floor, and the scrape of hooves. When he turns around again, Lan Xichen’s disheveled but stunning human form has been replaced by a familiar, powerful white stag. Meng Yao hurries to gather his outer robes and put them back on, stepping out of immediate sight of the door while he affixes Hensheng’s belt to his waist.

“Another wasted night,” one of the guards sneers. “See? I told you he’d still be like this. When is Wen Ruohan going to wake up and see that this is just some ploy by that whores’ son, Meng Yao?”

Meng Yao freezes for a moment, his hands still in the last stages of affixing his belt. He raises his eyes to Lan Xichen slowly, but he’s laying with his back to the cell door and, therefore, to him. One of his ears, though, is turned backwards.

“If you ask me,” say a second voice. “We should just let the Core-Melting Hand destroy both of their golden cores. We skin this one for his pelt and then see how much Meng-gongzi—“ The respectful title is warped on his tongue, and it makes Meng Yao’s blood run cold to hear it. “—likes his own torture methods.”

His heart freezes over, his eyes affixed to Lan Xichen. He barely hears the rest of their conversation as they finish this part of their patrol and turn to leave, further berating him for not leaving the keys outside the cell. Neither one thinks to check if he’s still in it, and the door closes behind him.

He steps away from the wall slowly, shakily, moving towards where Lan Xichen lay.

“I’m sorry,” he says, though he means to say so much else. He means to say so much more, to say something different, to offer an explanation. He means to tell him that he created these cruel methods only to endear himself to Wen Ruohan, that they were never meant to be used on him. He means to tell him that he never could have known that they would be used on him.

But when Lan Xichen raises his head to look towards him, Meng Yao runs, stopping only to lock the cell door behind him.

He cannot stay away forever. In fact, he can’t stay away for more than a day and a night, because to do anything more than that would be a risk to Lan Xichen. He also cannot avoid Wen Ruohan, who is not known for his patience. The best he can do is weave his words carefully, to make sure that Wen Ruohan knows that they’re close and this time is crucial.

“You have been saying that it is crucial for weeks now,” Wen Ruohan says, lowly. “I am beginning to suspect that you have little understanding of that word.”

There is no appropriate response to that, so Meng Yao doesn’t respond at all. He’s threading a needle with every breath he takes, and one wrong move, one wrong syllable, could miss the eye completely.

“How soon?”

Such a thing is impossible to predict. It rings with the truth despite its lie, but it’s also dangerous to say.

The Sunshot Campaign should be closing in, but it would take another map, another message, to get them into position quickly enough. Even then, how soon could they manage it? A week at the earliest? Two weeks would be preferable.

“No more than two weeks, I assure you, Your Excellency” he says. “Psychological manipulation takes time, but it will work. You will have all that you seek, and the head of one of the Lan’s Twin Jades to show for it.”

It’s the last part that Wen Ruohan likes the best. He can practically feel the electricity of his excitement at that prospect in the air, and it makes Meng Yao’s skin crawl.

“If I don’t get what I want out of him,” Wen Ruohan says, as a consolation to himself. “Then I will have his head either way.”

Meng Yao makes himself smile. “Of course, Your Excellency.”

He’s dismissed after that, and hurries to the Fire Palace to dismiss the guards. When he arrives, the scene before him nearly rips a cry of frustration out of him.

There’s blood, so much blood, pooling on the floor of the Fire Palace. Lan Xichen has been forced out of his cell, restrained so tightly that each movement has gored rope cuts into his skin. However, most of the blood comes from all the small, deep cuts being left to bleed openly, staining his white fur.

Angry, furious agony rises in him, but he keeps his expression schooled against the rage. What have you done!? You idiots! The only thing he shows is the slight, surprised widening of his eyes.

“Finally decided to join us, Meng Yao?” Wen Chao says, standing from a seat in the corner. Meng Yao hadn’t even seen him sitting there, and he saunters closer. “I was wondering where you were.”

Meng Yao turns and bows. “Wen-gongzi.”

He hears a slight scoff from overhead, and watches Wen Chao’s feet as he moves in a circle around him.

“You know, that’s probably the only thing I like about you,” he says. Meng Yao straightens up slowly, his eyebrows raised in delicate curiosity. “You know how to show respect.

“So tell me,” he continues, grabbing one of Meng Yao’s arms and twisting it up between his shoulder blades. Meng Yao starts to lean forward, to alleviate the pressure, but something sharp digs into the side of his throat. He forces himself to stay straight, but he can already feel the trickle of blood seeping down his neck. “Why is it that I always feel like you’re hiding some great disdain?”

What surprises Meng Yao most is the sudden, loud sound of distress in front of him. Lan Xichen strains against the ropes, wringing more blood into the already dyed weave. The ones around his muzzle bite in the worst, forcing his head down towards his chest each time he tries to move forward at all.

Meng Yao meets his eyes, just for a moment, as if with such a quick glance he can tell him to calm.

“I’m certain I don’t know,” he says, frantically. He widens his eyes and pours the beginnings of tears into his voice. “Please, Wen-gongzi! I don’t know what you’re talking about! I’ve never viewed you with anything other than respect!”

“Is that so?”

The blade digs harder into his throat, and more blood starts to bloom from the wound. Meng Yao can feel it dripping down his neck like droplets of sweat.

“Yes! Of course!”

Meng Yao could catch his balance when he’s shoved forward, but he purposefully doesn’t. He lets himself hit the ground, staining his robes in blood. As with Wen Ruohan, he scrambles to get onto his knees. He makes his eyes burn, makes the tears in his voice appear along the edges of his eyes.

Wen Chao smirks. “Prove it.”

Even if he knew he was going to say it, Meng Yao’s stomach still violently revolts. There’s a certain level of resignation to everything he does. He got used to debasing himself, to acting in humiliating ways, in order to mask longer schemes. He’s gotten used to what it takes to survive, and he doesn’t let his pride get the best of him.

But it still makes him sick to his core.

Meng Yao follows him with his eyes as he moves back over to the place where he was sitting, keeping his expression hesitant and fearful. “What…would you have me do, Wen-gongzi?”

Wen Chao flips the short blade in his hand, still glistening faintly with Meng Yao’s blood, between his fingers. The movements are inelegant, and he nearly drops it. Even in their brief and sporadic interactions, Meng Yao knows that neither Wen Chao’s cultivation nor his sword skills are as good as he boasts. His arrogance outweighs his actual use and, to boot, he has his father’s sadistic streak.

“I got some blood on my shoe while I was trying to convince our guest to stop cowering in his beast form,” he says, sneering towards Lan Xichen.

Meng Yao’s back is to him, so he can’t see him now, but the tension in the room is only compounded by the terror radiating off of Lan Xichen. It hits in waves against Meng Yao’s back, making his hair stand on end. But he turns his head to keep his eyes on Wen Chao. If he’s going to make it through this, then he has to ignore the pounding of his own heart, blood thick with Lan Xichen’s anguish.

Wen Chao looks back at him, sick delight flashing in his eyes. “Clean it for me.”

Meng Yao’s eyes flick to his boots. They are black and, though the white parts of the soles have clear bloods on them, it’s impossible to discern where a stray droplet would have fell. But he imagines that’s the point. He nods and gets up, moving over to the trough of running water along one of the walls.

Like his with his father, Meng Yao can feel Wen Chao’s eyes on him as he moves. He purposefully waits until he’s walked just past him before he speaks up again.

“With your mouth, whore’s son,” he taunts.

Meng Yao’s fingers curl against his robes and he closes his eyes. He pushes down on the rage, the humiliation, and the pain. He crushes all of it back down, but it’s more like trying to crush a wildcat under a rock than a bug.

“If you don’t want to do that,” Wen Chao suggests, casual and smug. “You can pick up where I left off with the beast.”

“I cannot do that, Wen-gongzi.”

“Can’t? Or won’t?”

“Your father has entrusted Zewu-jun to me. Does he know—?”

“Don’t you dare bring my father up to me!” He roars, leaning forward in his chair. Meng Yao feigns a flinch, turning his face away fearfully. He can hear it when Wen Chao slumps back against the chair. After a moment, he speaks again: “So, if you won’t take my generous offer, then I guess you don’t have much of a choice, do you?”

Meng Yao swallows the knot of indignation in his throat. His hands, his whole body, relaxes with resignation. He turns quickly, his blood-stained robes fanning out in unnecessary flourish, and walks over to kneel at Wen Chao’s feet.

The cuts manifest on Lan Xichen’s human body. They are just as awful, just as deep, and just as many as they were in his stag form. Meng Yao wasn’t expecting him to change back into his human form, but once they were left alone for the night that’s exactly what he did.

Meng Yao hurries to strip out of his outer robe, but Lan Xichen is already sitting on the floor against their usual wall. Meng Yao drapes the robe over his lap.

There are at least twenty lacerations. Some that are positioned over bones have cut him to the quick. His wrists and ankles are raw with rope cuts, and there’s one across the bridge of his nose that cuts down his cheek and over his jaw. He looks dazed and distant, and Meng Yao doesn’t know if it’s because of his pain, the blood loss, or—

—something else.

Meng Yao leaves to get the antiseptic balm and a rag to dip in the water. Once he has all of that, he drops next to him and brings a cool rag up to wipe the blood flecks away from his wounds, starting with his face. Before he can touch it to his skin, though, Lan Xichen catches his wrist. He turns his wide, dark eyes to him.

Screams.

He’s silent, but his eyes are full of screams.

Any bit of light, any bit of understanding, any bit of recognition…none of it is there. It’s all been replaced by horror, by agony. Gruesome, blood-curling wails are the only thing Meng Yao sees in his eyes. It chills him to his core, wipes every thought from his head.

“Ze—“ He stops himself. He realizes the hand on his wrist isn’t as tight as he thought it was, he can move.

He reaches up to gently pry Lan Xichen’s fingers away, moving his hand to his chest. He presses Lan Xichen’s hand over his heart and holds it there, his other hand going up to touch his face. Lan Xichen doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t move.

“A-Huan,” he murmurs, not looking away from his eyes. “A-Huan, come back to me.” He presses his hand a little harder over his chest and takes in a breath. “Do you feel it? Follow my heartbeat. Follow my breathing.”

He slides his hand down Lan Xichen’s wrist, feeling his pulse.

His heartbeat hammers like a caged hummingbird against the pads of Meng Yao’s fingers. But he sees it: the faintest flicker of recognition, of light, in his eyes.

“You’re safe,” he says, still talking. He needs to keep talking. “I know that you’re scared, that you’re hurt, but you’re safe now. No one will hurt you. I—“ He lets out a breath. He doesn’t look away. “I won’t let them.”

Gradually, he talks Lan Xichen into breathing again. He keeps his fingers on his pulse and feels it slow as the screaming in his eyes tires itself out. It’s hard to say it calms, because it doesn’t. It’s just slowly overtaken by exhaustion instead. But Meng Yao allows himself the relief of knowing that the screaming has quieted.

“A-Yao…”

It’s the first thing he says, his voice trembles on the verge of shattering. His shaking fingers curl against the front of his robes, and Meng Yao finally pries his fingers away from his pulse. He presses his palm to the back of Lan Xichen’s hand and weaves their fingers together. He holds it where it is, over his steadily beating heart.

“A-Yao…A-Yao…”

“I’m here, A-Huan, I’m here,” he says, quietly. Lan Xichen keeps repeating his name like it’s the only thing he can say. Why? Why does he sounds so concerned for him when he’s the one in pain? “Shhh, I’m here. I won’t leave.”

“You…are you…?”

“I’m okay.” He brushes his thumb against his cheek, still holding his face, careful of the gored marks in his skin. “It’s nothing I’m not used to. Wen Chao is sadistic, like his father, but with something to prove. It makes him more vicious and petty, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.”

“No one should have to suffer that,” he says, with quiet conviction. The sound of it, of something sure and steady in his tone, makes Meng Yao’s chest burst with warmth.

“No,” he agrees. He squeezes Lan Xichen’s hand, where it rests over his heart. “But my work here is not yet done, so I endure it.”

Lan Xichen nods—blessedly, he nods—like he understands. He’s following the conversation. There’s light in his eyes again, even if it’s flickering and frantic, it’s there. That’s all that matters right now.

“Please, let me tend to your wounds now.”

Finally, he’s allowed to tend to Lan Xichen’s injuries. He sets a bowl of berries nearby, and Lan Xichen eats them without issue as he works. He wipes the wet rag near his wounds, cleaning away flakes of blood, and then wrings it out over the bowl. The water eventually runs pink before he’s done and moves onto the balm.

As he holds one of Lan Xichen’s hands gently in his, applying balm to the last of his marks, he flicks his eyes up to him. “Why did you change back to your human form…?”

Lan Xichen looks at him and somehow, despite the despair on his face earlier, the edge of his mouth lifts in a tired smile. He shakes his head, just a little. “I couldn’t talk to you if I didn’t.”

It feels like a blow to the chest. His fingers hesitate for a moment, caught off guard, before he resumes his work.

“You wanted to talk to me?”

“Yes,” he says, quietly. “About the last time you were here.”

Meng Yao doesn’t raise his eyes from his task. His expression cools, but he doesn’t let it run cold. He can’t imagine this going well, but at least Lan Xichen will let him take care of him.

When he finishes with his wrist a moment later, Lan Xichen’s hand turns in his, catching him before he can draw his hands back. “A-Yao.”

His tone, like his touch, is gentle. He always talks gently and softly when he speaks to him, he’s noted. Even earlier, when he sounded so lost, when his voice was so broken, there was a fragility to its quiet.

“It was the only way.”

The words pour out of him before he can stop them. Surprised by his own weakness, he lifts his wide eyes up to Lan Xichen. He didn’t mean to say that. He didn’t. But now that he’s said it, all he can do is scramble after the strategy. It’s not so hard. His eyes begin to burn, and he lets a fraction of the weight looming over him begin to crush his chest. It’s been waiting for the chance for so long.

“It was the only way to get close to Wen Ruohan,” he says, breathlessly. His head shakes a little back and forth, but he doesn’t pull his eyes away from Lan Xichen’s. “I had to appeal to him, to his cruelty. I didn’t have a choice. I never thought they’d turn them on you. I never thought they’d have the chance—“

Lan Xichen isn’t so graceless as to cut off his distress with an interjection, with his words. Instead, Meng Yao stops because he touches his face. His eyes, squinted with tears and plea, widen a bit at the touch. He hadn’t even seen him moving, really, despite looking right at him. He was so caught up in what he had to say and, now, all the words leave him.

“I believe you.”

Three words, and all the strategy leaves his mind. Three words, and the tears burning at his eyes suddenly aren’t for show. Three words that he never thought he’d hear, least of all from someone who has endured the tortures his mind created all for the favor of a madman.

“Sect Leader Nie had just recently started getting maps before the Cloud Recesses burned,” he explains. “That was you, wasn’t it?”

Meng Yao nods. It dislodges a tear from his left eye, and Lan Xichen swipes it away with ease.

He didn’t know if he would have even known about the maps. They were the only thing that he could point to in an attempt to explain that he wasn’t just here because Wen Ruohan was the only one who would take him. It seems incredible luck that he would know.

“There’s too much kindness in your eyes,” Lan Xichen explains, “for you to be doing this needlessly.”

It would be so easy.

He swallows the sludge that’s gathered in his throat, dropping his eyes.

It would be so easy for him to say the same things everyone else says. It would be so easy for him to say that I was doing this because I wanted to, because it’s the only place I can succeed. That I fit in amongst murderers, sadists…

And yet he doesn’t. He believes him. Lan Xichen, the next Sect Leader of the GusuLan, just…believes him. As simple as that. The one person in the world who has every reason to hate him, to distrust him, to curse him with every breath he draws—doesn’t. He touches his cheek with kindness bordering on affection.

He closes his eyes, chasing out a few more tears. “Thank you, Zewu-jun.”

Lan Xichen’s fingers slide down his cheek, cupping under his chin. He opens his eyes to look at him and finds a smile. It’s not particularly strong or bold, but it’s a smile all the same. As if he’s found all the comforts of the world in this simple conversation. All the comforts of the world in Meng Yao’s presence alone.

“A-Huan is fine.”

The Sunshot Campaign is closing in, and Meng Yao’s time frame grows ever shorter. If he doesn’t produce results soon, or if the Sunshot Campaign doesn’t negate the need for results entirely, then both he and Lan Xichen are at risk.

So he plays the last card he has: His next letter contains the strategic planning for bringing the rebellion into those last legs of the battle.

He beckons them to the Nightless City.

After sending the gift to Nie Huaisang, all he can do is wait.

He tries to find some distraction in Lan Xichen’s care while he waits for news from the front. Slowly, his cuts begin to heal. Wen Chao had inflicted them with some spiritual energy, which makes them slow to mend. It’s probably the only way he can manage to inflict harm with his cultivation: if his target is restrained past the point of moving and already weak.

During the nights, Lan Xichen comes out of his stag form. Meng Yao gets used to turning his back to him, shedding his outer robe in advance, and placing it in a place where Lan Xichen can get it. Meng Yao has tried insisting that he doesn’t need to do that, doesn’t need to take his human form, that it’s indecent that for someone of his standing to be so nude in front of him.

Lan Xichen insists that he needs the conversation, and, of course, they cannot talk if he isn’t in a human form. It would certainly be safer if he stayed as his stag form, but Meng Yao would be lying if he were to pretend that he didn’t enjoy it. Lan Xichen talks to him as an equal, and they discuss any number of things.

He talks about the Cloud Recesses, and Meng Yao can see his heart breaking when he tells him of the devastation. He’s clearly worried for his brother, but he’s good at reassuring himself—and Meng Yao does help—that Lan Wangji is likely safe. He doesn’t disclose where the scrolls are that he hid, but Meng Yao doesn’t ask. Wen Ruohan’s agenda has never been his own. The less he knows, the better.

Lan Xichen calls him ‘A-Yao.’ He says it with soft edges and fondness unlike anyone but his mother has said his name. There’s warmth in it, attention. Care. Meng Yao doesn’t talk about his mother at first, but one night Lan Xichen asks. It’s not a blunt question, but then, Lan Xichen doesn’t seem capable of doing anything bluntly.

“May I ask,” he begins, gently rolling berries around in his palm, “why it is that you’re doing this?”

Meng Yao looks at him, surprised, “This?”

Lan Xichen nods and looks back. That’s probably something that hits Meng Yao the hardest: that he feels safe meeting Lan Xichen’s eyes. That he wants to meet them, more often than not.

Lan Xichen’s expression turns from contemplative to soft and sympathetic. It’s the sort of expression that makes Meng Yao’s chest ache before he knows why. As though Lan Xichen’s eyes have somehow seen through him and reminded him of a pain that even he had neglected and forgotten.

“Being here,” he explains. “It must weigh on you endlessly, and you were doing it for months before I arrived. What drives you to go so far? To endure so much cruelty and hate?”

Meng Yao feels bare before him, and it’s more than he can stand. He looks back at the mostly empty bag of berries in his lap.

“Would you believe me,” he begins, quietly. “If I said that I am afraid to tell you?”

“Afraid?”

He’s genuinely surprised, and Meng Yao could almost laugh. But he knows that the sound would be bitter, twisted, and ugly. It would be like spitting venom at Lan Xichen, and he doesn’t deserve such a thing. So Meng Yao chokes on it instead and nods.

“Afraid that, if I tell you, you will look at me the same way everyone else does.”

Lan Xichen is quiet for a moment. When he speaks again it’s slow and careful. “Does it have to do with what Wen-gongzi called you?”

Of course. Of course despite everything that Wen Chao put him through, he would still be so respectful. In a sick way, it gives Meng Yao a little bit of hope, but he doesn’t hold too tightly onto it. After all, at least Wen Chao is a member of the gentry. A disgusting, cruel one, but when has that made much of a difference to anyone?

He nods, looking through the bars of the closed cell. His eyelids lower a little, his face cool and relaxed, his mind distant.“My mother was a kind and intelligent woman, but all anyone cares about her is that she was a prostitute. My father is Sect Leader Jin Guangshan, but all anyone cares about me is that I’m her son.”

Meng Yao can hear him moving and he doesn’t listen too closely to it. He’s thought about this before. Lan Xichen doesn’t recognize his name because the GusuLan are so secluded in their mountain fortress. He didn’t hear about the foolish, abandoned seed who had the audacity to climb Carp Tower and appeal for acknowledgement. But now that he knows the truth, he will be sick to his stomach having eaten berries and drank water that Meng Yao’s filthy, diseased hands have provided.

But then there’s a touch on his leg. When he turns to look at Lan Xichen, he very nearly slams their faces together.

He’s so close.

Meng Yao’s eyes widen as Lan Xichen’s other hand plants on the floor to the side of his folded legs. He’s leaning over him just by the sheer difference of their sizes, let alone his position.

“A-Huan…?”

“I am not repulsed by you, A-Yao,” he says. His dark eyes are so close that he can’t make himself look away, as if he were standing in the whirlpool of his intensity. “You have taken care of me all this time, putting yourself at great risk—“ Meng Yao can feel each word as he breathes it only a few centimeters from his face. “—just to keep me safe.”

It’s hard to choose a place to focus between his proximity and the warmth of his words. Both of them bear down on him, nailing him to the spot through both his body and his spirit. He moves his hand up, resting it against Lan Xichen’s chest, but the way his fingers curl into his robes leaves him unsure if he’s trying to maintain their distance or draw him closer.

His eyes drop down, looking at his berry-stained lips, before he forces them back up. It’s so rare that he loses track of himself, especially of his face, when his body is his most well-honed tool. But when he raises his eyes to Lan Xichen again, he’s just a moment faster, just quick enough to see that Lan Xichen is looking at his mouth, too.

Their eyes meet, and Lan Xichen’s are full of heat and lightning storms. Meng Yao feels his fingers twitch a little against his thigh, like he wants to tighten them, but stops himself.

“Will you allow me to thank you?” Lan Xichen asks, and his lips feel even closer but Meng Yao doesn’t remember seeing him move. “Will you allow me to prove it?”

Thoughts move like a flurry of butterflies: an uncountable, uncontrollable mass. But when he relaxes, stops trying to see their fluttering wings aside from the picture they form together, one thought comes through:

“Yes.”

The kiss doesn’t even give the pretense of being chaste.

“If I kill Wen Ruohan,” Meng Yao says later, staring at the ceiling while Lan Xichen plants kisses across his bare collarbone. The sweat is cooling on his skin, but Lan Xichen’s kisses are open so his tongue can taste it. “My father might finally acknowledge my value.”

He brushes his fingers through Lan Xichen’s hair and, when he raises his head from his work, Meng Yao keeps them along the back of his head. He closes his eyes as Lan Xichen leans forward, brushing his nose against his cheek, his lips against his lips.

“And you endure for that?” His voice lacks judgment, but not care. He wants to understand, not to criticize.

Meng Yao doesn’t open his eyes. “For the rest of her life, my mother hoped that he would come back for us. She told me that he would come back, buy our freedom, and train me in cultivation. I had to be ready, so I wouldn’t disappoint him. So I would be worthy of Carp Tower.”

He opens his eyes slowly as Lan Xichen pulls back, not far, but just enough to take in his whole face. Meng Yao can see his eyes dancing across his features, as if he were a painting that required Lan Xichen’s meticulous devotion to understand. Each breath between them presses their chests together, solidifying the moment through the haze of nerves and heat.

“I’m sorry that he never came for you,” Lan Xichen says, and he means it. It means the world, because no one else has ever cared, let alone apologized. But it means nothing, too, because it’s not Jin Guangshan who’s sorry.

Meng Yao breathes through his nose as Lan Xichen leans down to his lips again. His fingers slip into Lan Xichen’s hair, expecting a kiss that tastes of pity and apology.

Instead, he feels words:

“You were born worthy of Carp Tower, A-Yao.”

And he parts his lips for him when the kiss comes. He tells himself that it’s true and hopes that the taste of Lan Xichen’s tongue will drown out the deep-seated fear of the truth. He hopes it will smother the painful, bitter thought that he’s not.

He’s not.

He’s not.

But what else does he have, if not his mother’s dream?

Wen Chao is an idiot.

Was an idiot.

The only redeeming part of him had been that Wen Zhuliu accompanied him nearly everywhere, under Wen Ruohan’s orders, and now that has fallen to pieces. It was a predictable end in the sense that Wen Chao’s arrogance and sadism far outweighed his cultivation or swordsmanship. His death had been an inevitability because it wasn’t Wen Chao anyone was afraid of, it was simply the might of his father that he carried with him.

And now he’s dead and that might is back in the Sun Scorched Palace.

Meng Yao doesn’t even fully care to grasp what happened, because certainly Wen Zhuliu would never have abandoned his charge. That must mean that Wen Chao had died in such a way that Wen Zhuliu’s return didn’t lack honor. Meng Yao doesn’t know what Wen Zhuliu could have said to Wen Ruohan that wouldn’t have made the tyrant furious with the death of his son, but he isn’t furious.

And that puts the Core Melting Hand exactly where Meng Yao doesn’t want him to be.

He’s just no longer sure if he wanted that distance for his own safety or for Lan Xichen’s.

He hides robes under the trough of hay in Lan Xichen’s cell. They’re a muted yellow-beige that doesn’t suit him, but they’re simple and the fabric blends in with the hay. It’s the best he can do, because they’re going to need to be ready soon. Very soon.

There is fighting outside the Sun Scorched Palace, but no one would know it standing in the throne hall. The Sunshot Campaign has finally reached its final stages, baring its fangs directly at Wen Ruohan’s throat as the tyrant sits, unaffected, on his dais. Meng Yao feeds him careful information, but there is no denying the conflict that has reached their steps. All he needs to do is get Wen Ruohan to take part in the fighting in any way; then he can make his move on his exposed back.

Some part of him is almost giddy with excitement at how close he is to the end of this long road. He will kill Wen Ruohan where everyone can see, and then Jin Guangshan’s acknowledgement will fall into place. But despite the end being so close, he’s careful. He can’t risk getting ahead of himself, not now.

Wen Ruohan is not curious about the state of things beyond his hall, so persuading him to go out to the steps is pointless. Meng Yao only needs to buy time enough for some of the forces to get up here. A frontal assault is useless, Wen Ruohan won’t be so easily taken down. But once he has a distraction, once his back is turned in trust, that’s when he can strike.

So for now, he needs to wait for that distraction. Tactically, Nie Mingjue would be the most likely candidate to make it up to the throne hall first, but he’ll take any one of the Sect Leaders. A lower cultivator couldn’t be trusted, so many of them have already taken credit for his plans, his ideas, his successes…no, it needs to be someone with standing. Someone who will have weight to their words and won’t take his victory as their own.

And that is exactly what he gets.

But it is not at all who he wants.

Heavens above, it is not who he wants.

He stops in the middle of a sentence, of a word, of a syllable when Wen Zhuliu walks in, his sword pressed to Lan Xichen’s back. The Sect Leader is wearing the robes that Meng Yao acquired for him, and they do, indeed, look just as poor in fit and color on him as he thought they would. He only notices it because his brain is scrambling for thoughts while his face expresses the mildest surprise.

Lan Xichen’s face, however, is controlled if one ignores the look in his eyes. It’s a bit like a trapped animal. Not stupid or skittish, but afraid and alive. There’s soul and feeling and humanity in the look, which just makes the fear all the worse.

He’s unarmed and has Wen Zhuliu’s least dangerous weapon digging into the soft skin of his back. Wen Zhuliu’s blade digs into skin that Meng Yao has tasted and touched, and it makes his stomach tighten to think of a blade defiling it.

But he keeps control. If he doesn’t, then he’s out his own most useful weapon.

Wen Zhuliu is keeping Lan Xichen on just the tip of his blade, and Lan Xichen shows no signs of transforming. He must have sealed his spiritual power. But he’s not got the look of a man who’s without his spiritual power, which means his golden core is safe. That makes sense. Wen Zhuliu would want to give Wen Ruohan the satisfaction of commanding such a thing. Wen Ruohan would want to watch it burn.

Meng Yao has time. He just needs to think of a plan. He just needs to readjust.

He uses the disrupted moment and the surprise to hurry up the dais towards Wen Ruohan. It’s a quick gesture, one meant to look like he’s startled. He should be naive to Lan Xichen’s temperament but wise to the spiritual strength he carries. Being near his master is a logical course of action, and no one notes it for strange.

“It seems,” Wen Zhuliu says, flatly. “That you wasted several nights sleeping in that stone cell.”

Meng Yao keeps his hands at his side, feeling Hensheng press against his ribs with every breath he pulls. He smiles, looking at Wen Zhuliu. “Not at all. He transformed when he heard you coming, did he not? That must mean he thought that you were me and, therefore, safe. I wouldn’t say those nights were wasted at all.”

There is a glimmer of some skepticism in Wen Zhuliu’s otherwise dark eyes, but he doesn’t say anything. They just go to Wen Ruohan, who has risen from his throne to consider Lan Xichen at some distance.

“Welcome to the Sun Scorched Palace, Sect Leader Lan Xichen,” Wen Ruohan says, with much grandiose mocking. “You’ve picked a fine day to look like a man. The rest of the gentry are practically beating down my doors!”

Meng Yao keeps his face turned to Wen Ruohan, but flicks his eyes towards Lan Xichen. They meet for a moment. He feels Wen Zhuliu’s keen attention and looks back to Wen Ruohan.

All at once, the pieces whirling around, a puzzle in a storm, fall perfectly into place. He knows what he needs to do, can see the scene mapped out perfectly in his mind. But so many variables…so many of them are out of his control…so many things imperfectly beyond his calculations. Worst of all is they rely on the thing he hates most: the nature of men.

Hensheng feels tighter around his middle, as if all his impatience and cast off terror were seeping into the blade, bringing it to life as a serpent who wants to squeeze the life from him.

“What do you think they will find when they make it here?” Wen Ruohan asks. “In the last minutes before I snuff out their lives with the Yin Iron?”

Again, Meng Yao looks at him, but this time nearly gasps at the look on Lan Xichen’s face. Gone is the look of a trapped animal, replaced instead by the defiant radiance of a man. An angry man.

But Wen Ruohan only laughs. Of course he does. he has no reason, as Meng Yao does, to swoon over such an expression. It would be far more concerning if he did react at all the same.

Reaching out a hand, the Yin Iron seem to appear above his spread fingers more than it is they moved. Meng Yao looks away, forces his gaze back to Wen Ruohan instead. He schools himself carefully, operating in a box made out of needles and razor swords, where he dare not touch the edges lest he bleed. Every move needs to be mindful, calculated, even where he casts his eyes.

“It would be rude of me not to allow you to feel what they will feel.”

He keeps his eyes on Wen Ruohan even as the impact of that dark power forces a surprised, agonized sound from Lan Xichen. He hears the rustle of fabric, the thud of him hitting the ground, but he knows, even before he turns his eyes to him, that he will not be dead. And he isn’t, he’s simply on his knees. But his face is pale, his eyes wide.

Meng Yao doesn’t move. Not yet. It’s too soon.

But his strategy and his ability to execute them have never stayed the pain of his heart. They don’t now, either, and Hensheng feels like it feeds on the anguish and anxiety. His fingers twitch, only slightly, at his sides.

Wen Ruohan takes two steps down the stairs as he laughs. Meng Yao forces himself to keep still.

“I have killed and converted many with this Yin Iron,” Wen Ruohan explains. “But I never get tired of seeing the pain it can cause.”

Lan Xichen shakily forces himself back to his feet, but Wen Ruohan hits him again. The best defiance he can muster this time is to stay on his knees, to only let the sound of pain out through gritted teeth and a set jaw. Meng Yao wants to tell him to lie down, to make himself less appealing, but what would Lan Xichen understand about the fascination of sadists?

Not yet.

Meng Yao’s stomach lurches when Wen Ruohan suddenly leaps from his step to land in front of Lan Xichen. He hadn’t accounted for that. He nearly takes a step forward, but stops himself. He comforts himself that it’s the right call, that both of them would be suspicious if he hurried to his side. Lan Xichen is no threat to him, and Wen Ruohan would never need his protection.

He has to stay still. He has to stay here.

He tells himself the fighting outside sounds closer. Wen Ruohan’s penchant for sadism and pride has bought them time. It buys them more the longer he goes on. He has to stay still.

He keeps his face neutral as his eyes follow Lan Xichen. Wen Ruohan kicks him from in front of Wen Zhuliu towards the base of the stairs. He crashes onto his back and slides, his head very nearly colliding with the bottom step. He rolls onto his side and chokes up blood from the spiritual beating, spewing it onto the carpet.

It takes Meng Yao a moment after that to remember how to breathe, and he only does so after watching the rise and fall of Lan Xichen’s haggard breaths.

Stay down, he thinks it so hard in his head that it nearly feels like a headache. Stay down, stay down.

Lan Xichen rolls onto his side, gets a hand under him, and starts to push up.

Wen Ruohan’s foot slams into his back with enough spiritual energy to force another spurt of blood from between his lips. This time, when Lan Xichen falls onto his front, he stays there. He stays there, heaving uneven breaths, as Wen Ruohan mounts the stairs towards Meng Yao again.

Wen Ruohan’s smile is wide, and his eyes are bright with glee. It doesn’t even look like he sees the world around him, but, with each step, he comes more and more into himself again. By the time he turns around, at the top of the dais, the grin has faded to the slightest smirk.

He doesn’t sit, which is better. Meng Yao’s eyes are on Lan Xichen, though he keeps his face aloof. An attendant watching his master’s handiwork, not a lover watching his heart bleed out on the ground.

“Get him up, Zhuliu,” he says, waving his hand.

Wen Zhuliu does. He is not particularly harsh or cruel in his actions, but neither is he gentle. He drags Lan Xichen back to the middle of the room and sits him on his knees, hand gripping his shoulder. Lan Xichen can raise his head, but barely. There is a trickle of blood from his nose, and his lips and chin are stained red. His eyes are out of focus.

“Tell me, Meng Yao.”

The hair on the back of his neck stands on end. Meng Yao looks back at Wen Ruohan, who’s quiet in appreciation of his own handiwork, in consideration of some darkness that Meng Yao dare not guess at.

“What would be more devastating for our little rebellion problem?” He continues, tipping his head. His eyes never leave Lan Xichen, like a beast considering its prey. “To find their dear Zewu-jun without his golden core…or to have to fight his fierce corpse?”

For a moment, all Meng Yao hears in his head is a profound and shrill scream. It takes him a moment to realize that it must be his own soul crying out in horror at both options. The colder, calculated part of him wonders why. He has the situation under control. The board is moving fast, but it’s not beyond his calculations. Stop screaming. Stop screaming.

“Both of His Excellency’s decisions are cruel beyond measure,” Meng Yao says, gratuitously. He bows a little, but it’s an informal show of subservience rather than a formal gesture. “But if you were to ask my opinion, then I would have his core melted.” He straightens and smiles, sharp as a knife. He lets the act play out, becomes a character he has been for so long that it’s like little more than changing clothes. Stop screaming! “Then, he would have little choice but to stand by, unable to do anything, as the other Sect Leaders are killed by your hand. Helpless without his spiritual power.”

Wen Ruohan chuckles, a low and feral sound. His eyes are still fixed on Lan Xichen. Exactly where Meng Yao needs them to be. “Your mind is as cold and heartless as ever. What a wonderful idea, to multiply one person’s anguish so many times! While his friends stand by and wonder why he does nothing to help them, he won’t be able to explain before they’re dead.”

Meng Yao’s fingers twitch, his eyes sliding to Wen Ruohan. Everything seems to slow in those moments, as the eye of the storm passes over the dais they share.

“Do it, my Core Melting Hand.”

Wen Ruohan begins to raise his hand. Meng Yao sees the faintest flicker of a glow from the bottom of the dais.

Hensheng straightens as it’s drawn from his belt, all of its bottled darkness condensed down to the tip and eager for blood. It takes nothing more than a single thrust. For all his power, for all that the Yin Iron gave him, for all of his cruelty and his tyranny…Wen Ruohan is only a man. His body has only the normal bone and muscle resistance to being pierced by a blade, and his organs are the softest part of him.

Hensheng cuts through him with ease, with such incredible ease, that Meng Yao almost wonders if he had thrust the sword harder than he needed.

He can’t see Wen Ruohan’s face, what expression he must fix on the tip of the sword penetrating his body, but he looks up at him. He looks up as he turns his head towards him, blood already seeping out of the edge of his mouth. It stains his teeth, his tongue, as he opens his mouth to speak.

But he dies before the words come. When Meng Yao withdraws the sword, he crumples on the top of the dais, mere feet away from his throne.

You…!

Meng Yao’s head snaps up, but Wen Zhuliu is already in the air, leaping over the stairs at him. He drops his sword, now bereft of its malice and hate, to dart forward. He slides underneath the arch of his jump, and hurries down the stairs. Wen Zhuliu’s feet hit the top of the dais just as Meng Yao catches Lan Xichen in his arms before he topples sideways.

“A-Huan…!” He gasps, holding him tightly.

He presses his hand over his chest, for a moment choking on his miscalculations, but then he feels it. His power is still sealed, but his golden core is intact. If it’s possible, he holds him to his chest even tighter. He cradles Lan Xichen’s head to his chest, wiping the blood from his chin as his eyelids flutter open.

“A-Yao…” He breathes.

Meng Yao!” Wen Zhuliu roars from the top of the dais.

And this is where his calculations have run out. This is as far as any amount of planning, any scheme, could have taken them. To this moment. The rest is beyond his control, but he tells himself it was worth this. It’s worth being able to hold Lan Xichen to his chest and look into his eyes.

“I’m here, A-Huan.” His eyes sting, and he presses their foreheads together. “I’m sorry it took me so long.”

He hears Wen Zhuliu leap from the dais, an enraged descent upon both of them that no amount of begging or pleading will save them from. Even if he had his sword, it would do him little good. Hensheng is nothing more than a back up. Meticulous planning and precise manipulation of the variables are his strongest weapons.

The door to the Sun Scorched Palace bursts open, bringing with it the whistle of a blade—not a sword, but a saber—through the air, and the lightning crackle of the Zidian. Bringing with it the last and most crucial, but most hated, of Meng Yao’s variables:

The nature of men.

Wen Zhuliu doesn’t stand a chance against the combined strength of Nie Mingjue and Jiang Cheng. Meng Yao knows that he must know this. Even if he did, there are more cultivators waiting outside to pick up the fight. It’s surprising that Lan Wangji isn’t already in the fray, knowing that his brother is here, but perhaps Nie Mingjue had told them to stay back. There is, after all, only so much space to fight in the Sun Scorched Palace. Or maybe they went to the Fire Palace to look for Lan Xichen?

Meng Yao doesn’t know. He just knows that this is finally, finally over. Wen Ruohan is dead by his hand, and Wen Zhuliu won’t pose a threat to them anymore. The Core Melting Hand can hold off Nie Mingjue and Jiang Cheng for a while, but not forever.

Meng Yao keeps his arms tight around Lan Xichen, who’s faded out of consciousness again, resting against his chest. He doesn’t take his eyes off the fight.

Which is why he can pinpoint the moment when Wen Zhuliu’s despair turns to furious desperation.

Nie Mingjue has never been good at reading people, and Jiang Cheng fights like a man with vengeance on his mind. Neither one of them sees it. Neither one of them notices the way that he’s allowing them to beat him into a corner. Into a specific corner.

Into the corner where Lan Xichen rests, unconscious, on his lap.

Into the corner where both of them are exactly as Meng Yao had predicted they would be: Helpless.

And even if Wen Ruohan is gone, even if all is lost, Wen Zhuliu is an honorable man in his own right. He is dutiful and dedicated and if he is going to die then he is going to die enacting the last order given to him by the man to whom he had devoted so much of his life. He is going to die being a devoted vassal.

Meng Yao remembers his trepidation at having Wen Zhuliu in the Nightless City all this time. He remembers no longer being sure if it was his own golden core he feared for or if it was Lan Xichen’s. Maybe some part of him had always known the answer, but he had locked it away with the same part that had always suspected that this exact outcome would happen. He couldn’t figure out how, or when, but some part of him had always known.

And now he has a choice to make.

Nie Mingjue and Jiang Cheng are surprised that Wen Zhuliu would turn away from them. It makes them hesitate, but only for a few seconds. His hand is already glowing, ready for the last life it will devastate before he dies. He won’t have enough time to change his trajectory. He won’t have enough time for a struggle. He will throw his arm out, Meng Yao knows, and he will be quick.

Wen Zhuliu has made up his mind.

And so has Meng Yao.

The pain is indescribable in its breadth and depth. Every nerve ending being dragged from its place on his body to the warmth in his core and then severed. Every inch of him is burning, and he wants to scream but he can’t. It pulls all the air from his lungs, all the thoughts from his head, and leaves him wordless and empty.

In that way, it amplifies the despair. By ripping away his control, by knocking every carefully laid brick of his mind aside, the darkest parts fester and grow. Every insecurity, every doubt, every criticism multiples alongside the sheer agony of having his core melted down into nothing. It disintegrates, as if Wen Zhuliu had squeezed a ball of ash too hard. But instead of the particles disappearing on the wind, they evaporate to nothing.

He hears lightning, sees the cut of purple across the black-and-red of the Sun Scorched Palace, but Jiang Cheng’s Zidian finds Wen Zhuliu’s throat too late.

Meng Yao drops to a heap on the floor, nothing in his body feeling attached to anything anymore, as Jiang Cheng hoists Wen Zhuliu to hang from the high rafters of the hall. He kicks and flails, grabbing at his throat, at the whip, but eventually he falls still.

He wishes he could join Wen Zhuliu in death, because surely that would feel better than the void inside of him.

The Sunshot Campaign comes to an end with Wen Ruohan’s defeat, as it was destined to. The remaining Wen cultivators are rounded up by the other clans. Those who took life are summarily killed, and that is an easy choice to make. But as for the rest…well, Meng Yao doesn’t really know.

It takes him a long time to even begin to settle into his body again. In that time, when his mind is as gone as his dissolved core, he is little more than a husk. He’s a puppet, pliant to suggestion and easy to shuffle about. He feels trapped inside his own head, screaming endlessly for anyone to listen to him. Screaming and berating himself to stop letting his life pass by without any control.

He can’t remember the last time he was without this much control. Without any control.

But any time he gets close, he remembers. His fingers brush against the emptiness inside his own body, feeling the coldness beneath the surface, and he recoils. He slams his cognition back into a cage of his own design and tells himself it’s for his own safety.

He could have brought Jin Guangshan Wen Ruohan’s head a hundred times, but without his core it would mean nothing. He is not a cultivator.

He is not anyone.

He is not anything.

He sits in a room in Qinghe, in the Unclean Realm, staring blankly at a cup of tea that he hasn’t touched. Around him, outside of the bubble of his mind, Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen talk in a halting, awkward way. Neither one wants to talk over him, but what point is there in waiting for a corpse to answer?

“You have the Cloud Recesses to rebuild,” Nie Mingjue says, his voice pragmatic and firm. “You can’t be—“ He makes a frustrated sound. There it is again, the invisible wall. “—we can take care of him here.”

“With time and the Song of Clarity I might be able to mend his cognition,” Lan Xichen says, softly.

“Then you can come here and play it,” Nie Mingjue responds. “You need to be practical about these things. Once the Cloud Recesses are rebuilt, Meng Yao can come stay. But until then, it’s unreasonable in his state.”

Nie Mingjue is winning. His stalwart rationality appeals to Lan Xichen’s logic more than Lan Xichen’s optimism appeals to him. Meng Yao doesn’t really care. What does it matter? What does any of it matter?

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen calls, voice fluttering with gentle distress.

He doesn’t know what it is until he feels his fingers brushing against his cheek. Only then does he feel the tear track down his cheek, just as Lan Xichen wipes it away. His fingers against his cheek, his thumb under his eye to clear away the last of it.

He doesn’t look away from the cold tea. He can’t, even as Lan Xichen’s hand draws back.

In this way, it’s decided that he’ll stay in the Unclean Realm.

He performs basic functions on muscle memory alone. He eats and he bathes. He dresses himself every day, he even makes his bed. But he doesn’t speak, doesn’t think, doesn’t feel. He exists on routine. He wanders pavilions he used to know as a Vice-General now as if he had never known them at all.

Nie Huaisang talks to him often, at first trying to say comforting things. He praises him for his bravery, for his strength. He tells him that his brother might yet welcome him back to his side when he recovers, then apologizes for lying because they both know it isn’t true.

Nie Mingjue is conflicted about him, about his presence. He’s conflicted about the nobility of killing Wen Ruohan and saving Lan Xichen’s golden core when it’s placed next to killing one guard captain who had abused him and stolen his strategies. Meng Yao knows he meant what he said, that this situation of being in the Unclean Realm is a temporary solution until the Cloud Recesses are rebuilt.

Eventually, Nie Huaisang talks to him about other things. About his concerns for his brother, about his art and his fans, about the world moving on, as it must. He talks about a world continuing on without five major sects, but four. It takes Meng Yao a while, but he starts to hold onto the thoughts a little bit longer each time.

Lan Xichen visits often. He visits more often than he probably should, considering the state of the Cloud Recesses after the Wen attack. Meng Yao remembers the destruction, the burned debris and the scent of death. He certainly has a lot of work to do, more work than should allow for a weekly visit. Even if he is Forest-Touched and being a stag would allow him to cross the distance between Gusu and Qinghe with ease.

Sometimes he brings Lan Wangji, and the Twin Jades of the GusuLan will play him a song of such beautiful purification that it seems offensive not to be healed immediately. They will pour such a sweet balm into the void inside of him that it almost seems, for a moment, that he might be filled.

But then it just keeps sinking, disappearing into the endlessness he’s become.

For months Lan Xichen comes, playing for him and telling him about the progress of the Cloud Recesses. For months he talks to him, asks him questions and waits ages and ages for an answer that Meng Yao cannot make himself give. For months his visits end with Lan Xichen kissing his forehead, calling him ‘A-Yao’ with such reverent gentleness that Meng Yao wishes the rest of him would splinter and fade. For months he aches to die or to speak and for months he can do neither.

Then, after a session with Lan Wangji, the younger Lan rises to leave ahead of his brother as he often does.

Lan Xichen stops him.

“I’d like to try Inquiry today,” Lan Xichen says, earnest. “Would you help me?”

Lan Wangji looks surprised, but only insomuch as he would if he were expecting the request. They have clearly discussed this before, to great lengths. The surprise is only that he didn’t know it would happen today. But he nods and, with a wave of his hand, his guqin appears again.

Lan Xichen sits in front of Meng Yao, his brother to Meng Yao’s left, and takes Meng Yao’s hands into his gently.

“Ask him if he can hear us.”

Lan Wangji’s fingers move across the seven strings with practice and elegance, and Meng Yao hears the question differently from hearing words. It’s not his ears, but the part of him locked in the back of his mind, at the base of the baseless void, that part of him hears it.

That part of him feels it.

The guqin strings vibrate with sound, but this time it is not Lan Wangji’s fingers that do it.

“He said ‘Yes,’” Lan Wangji answers, and this time seems more surprised. Clearly he had been skeptical that this would work.

But Lan Xichen only looks pleased and relieved—so very relieved.

“Where are you, A-Yao?”

The gentle strands of guqin music reach inside of him again, a link connecting him to something outside of the prison in his head. He doesn’t even need to know how to play the notes; he only needs to think it, to speak it aloud in his mind, and the guqin responds.

“Trapped,” Lan Wangji says, “Inside.”

The magnitude of gratification at being heard, at being able to speak, is nearly beyond what Meng Yao can handle. For months he’s been rendered mute by his own broken mind and hollow body, but now he can speak. He can speak and be heard, be understood, and it means more than any recognition by Jin Guangshan ever could.

He doesn’t mean to speak it, but the strings of the guqin vibrate anyway.

“‘Help.’” Lan Wangji looks at his brother’s back. “He just keeps saying ‘help’ and…your name.”

Lan Xichen squeezes his hands and he feels it. He feels him as he is, not as an afterthought of sensation, like something his mind had forgotten about.

“We’ll get you out, A-Yao. I promise.”

Meng Yao believes him, because what other dream does he have now?

It takes him only a week to memorize the newly rebuild Cloud Recesses when he’s moved there, but he spends every week afterwards admiring it. Normally he would have it memorized immediately, but his mind is still disconnected in parts. Thoughts are hard to hold onto, but it’s easier than it had been weeks ago.

The cool air makes him want to breathe deeper, makes his robes feel comfortable and safe. Wandering in the forests makes him feel solitary but never lost. Sometimes Lan Xichen will find him and walk with him as a stag, and Meng Yao will bury his fingers and his face in his white fur and breathe deeply. Sometimes they will nap near one of the waterfalls, with the drone of water filling the empty quiet inside of him.

And gradually, the hole ripped inside of him that day begins to shrink.

He talks with Lan Xichen through Lan Wangji’s Inquiry every day that they can, and being heard is as healing now as it was the first time. The conversations are not as intimate as they might be if they were alone, but that in itself gives him hope. Hope that he can come back to his body again, so they can speak as they once did.

Winter closes in on the mountain early, but Meng Yao still goes for walks even as the air gets cool. The first snowfall will probably come soon, but he finds a tree to sit under. He’s started reading again, memorizing every book in the Cloud Recesses’ library, as more of his personality comes back to him. He still doesn’t speak, still has moments where he can only exist and little else, but improvement comes and hope helps it to sustain.

And when the snow starts to fall, he closes his book before it can risk the ink, looking up at the canopy. The leaves catch much of it, but he closes his eyes as a few flakes find his cheeks and forehead to melt on.

He hears the crunch of fallen leaves and dried foliage before anything else. He doesn’t need to open his eyes or sit up. He knows who it is without looking.

A shadow falls across his face, and he opens his eyes to see an umbrella over him just a moment before he sees the fuzzy picture of Lan Xichen’s face. It’s too close to assess properly, to take in, and there are lips against his. It is not a soft kiss, but neither is it hard.

It is needy, already tasting him before asking permission, and Meng Yao opens his mouth for him. He wraps his arms around his neck and kisses him back. The wonderful feeling and heavenly taste of Lan Xichen does not, like so many other things, disappear into the emptiness. It floats on the surface, spreading like ice across a pond, to solidify and close the wound he’s already done so much to help close.

He tightens his arms around him, and Lan Xichen abandons the umbrella. He reaches down and lifts him into his arms, pressing his back against the tree. The ice spreads faster, so every little sensation pings and settles on its surface instead of disappearing beneath. Instead of fading to nothing.

And as each little thing lands inside of him—the tree against his back, the sound of Lan Xichen’s breathing, the feeling of his chest expanding against his—it fills and it floods. The emptiness has left him raw inside, so each little thing feels as vibrant and wonderful as it does painful. They kiss until he thinks his seams might split, until he thinks might break open and spill all that he is across the forest floor.

The kiss breaks, their visible breath mingling in the air between their lips, emboldening him.

“A-Huan…”
And his voice is weak from disuse, little more than a squeak, but it is symphonies more than he has said since he lost his golden core. It is as loud as a storm, and he thinks that Lan Xichen might snap him in half with how tightly he holds him.

So he says it again.

And again.

And again.

He says it until his throat aches. He says it until his chest feels like it might burst, and his tongue tires. He says it until Lan Xichen kisses him to gentle him, because it is the only form of gentling that Meng Yao will accept. And then he says it in his chest, he cries it from his heart, and he wonders if this is what it feels like to finally wrap his hands around a dream.