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this place could be beautiful

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I.

Xue Yang sometimes wondered if Xiao Xingchen was aware of a-Qing’s little expeditions and just pretending he wasn’t, or if he genuinely thought she was just that good a scavenger. He leaned a little toward the former, because while Xiao Xingchen was an idiot in a lot of ways he wasn’t actually stupid, and a-Qing was only a middling liar at best.

He’d followed her the first time she’d gone out collecting scraps, mostly because he didn’t trust her as far as she could’ve thrown him and had smelled the lie on her the second she gave it. He told Xiao Xingchen he was going to take a nap and then slipped out, following after her as she pickpocketed her way through Yi City with the expertise of a great deal of experience.

His respect for her rose a notch. Though he did have to wonder how she knew which targets to hit, without being able to see.

Xue Yang was pretty sure she couldn’t. Pretty sure.

He left her to it, deciding that she wasn’t up to anything that needed to concern him. When she came back bearing a not insubstantial amount of money, claiming she’d traded fruits of her scavenging for it, Xue Yang just barely managed not to laugh.

He followed her a couple more times, just to make sure that she wasn’t up to anything other than petty theft. As far as Xue Yang could tell, she wasn’t.

Fine, then. Wasn’t like they didn’t need the money, and he wasn’t going to judge.

Xue Yang actually wasn’t following her when he heard her shrill voice saying, “are you really going to come after a blind girl? Shame on you!” And then, shriller, “let me go!”

Huh.

Xue Yang considered. If she’d gotten herself caught in some trouble, she could get herself out of it, or not. Didn’t make a lot of difference to him, really. Maybe she’d get herself killed, and then he wouldn’t have to deal with having her around all the time. If a-Qing couldn’t help herself then she didn’t deserve Xue Yang doing it.

Just out of curiosity, though, he turned and headed in the direction of her raised voice, following it into a narrow alley between buildings. A-Qing was boxed in at the end of it, three boys cornering her, laughing. One of them had her stick and was poking her with it. She didn’t look hurt yet, just spooked, at least so far.

He leaned against one of the walls and watched, head cocked.

It occurred to him that Xiao Xingchen would probably be disappointed if a-Qing didn’t show up for dinner.

One of them must’ve felt him looking and turned around. “Get lost, cripple,” he said.

“Why?” Xue Yang said lazily. That question seemed to stump him, and Xue Yang laughed. He flushed.

“Get out of here,” he said again.

“Don’t want to. Go ahead. Didn’t mean to interrupt.” The other two turned around. Xue Yang grinned at them. “Seriously,” he said. “Keep going. I’m curious what you’re going to do to her. There’s so many options.”

A-Qing was frozen. Xue Yang tapped his fingers against his leg. The good one. The other one was almost all the way healed now, if still frustratingly weak. Good enough for them, though.

“You know what someone’s skull sounds like when it cracks?” he said. The idiot who talked first looked blank, and Xue Yang let his grin widen. “Really? No?”

“What,” idiot number one said. Or started to.

“Like this,” Xue Yang said.

It was a nice crunch, the sound of bone meeting the wall with the kind of force he put into it. Good, satisfying. The second time caved in the side of his head.

The other two bolted, which was really too bad.

A-Qing was taking quick, panicky sounding breaths. Xue Yang dropped the corpse-in-process he was holding - still twitching, he’d be gone in a minute or so - and chewed on the inside of his cheek.

“Wow,” he said. “Idiots, right? Thinking they can fuck with you and not get in trouble.”

She didn’t say anything.

“See you when you get back,” he said. “Steal something nice for me.”

He walked back to the yizhuang with a bit of a spring in his step. A-Qing did not bring him anything nice. It was a good thing he hadn’t really expected her to.

Well. There was his good deed for the next five years. He hoped she was grateful.


II.

Xiao Xingchen might be a famous cultivator who had poems written about him, might be a capable fighter who had suppressed countless monsters and ghosts, but, Xue Yang quickly learned, he didn’t know shit about dealing with money.

He overpaid for everything. When Xue Yang pointed it out, he smiled and said if they’re asking that much then they must need it.

Mother of fuck, it was a miracle he hadn’t starved to death after giving away everything he had.

It was funny, the first couple times he went out shopping with him. The first time he didn’t even technically go with him, just watched from a distance as Xiao Xingchen got himself fleeced and cheated, the naive idiot.

It was less funny when he came back to the yizhuang apologetic about the lack of food, and he had to go to sleep if not hungry then at least less than satisfied.

The next time, Xue Yang went with him. That went a little better, though mostly Xiao Xingchen ignored his attempts to push the prices down. At least he could keep them from giving him bad produce.

By the third time, he was genuinely annoyed by the whole process, and the hungry, anticipatory way that the shopkeepers eyed Xiao Xingchen like he was easy prey, which of course he was, but not theirs.

Mostly, though, he just let Xiao Xingchen deal with it. He never asked, anyway.

The next time Xiao Xingchen picked up a basket and announced he was going shopping, and did they want anything, Xue Yang got up and tugged it away from him. “I’ll go,” he said.

Xiao Xingchen seemed startled. A-Qing sat up, expression immediately turning suspicious. “You’re offering to do something?” she said. “Something helpful?

“Yeah,” Xue Yang said. “Turns out. World’s full of surprises, isn’t it?” He kept his eyes on Xiao Xingchen, who paused and then smiled.

“You don’t have to,” he said.

“Course I don’t,” Xue Yang said. “You think I’d do anything I didn’t want to, Daozhang?”

A-Qing was still frowning at him like she thought he was up to something. Xue Yang had no idea what she thought he was up to, and kind of wanted to ask, but he didn’t care enough to do it.

“I really don’t mind going myself,” Xiao Xingchen said.

“Uh huh,” Xue Yang said. “What, you don’t trust me?” He pitched his voice light and teasing, and Xiao Xingchen shook his head with another smile.

“All right,” he said. “If you insist.”

“I do,” Xue Yang said, hooking the basket over his arm, and waltzed out toward the street.

“Thank you,” Xiao Xingchen called after him, and Xue Yang’s stride hitched a little. He paused, just for a moment, then called back over his shoulder, “you’re welcome, Daozhang!” and left.

Yi City’s merchants were not ready for him. It was great. It was the most fun he’d had in a while.

It wasn’t until he was on his way back that he realized that the most fun he’d had in a while was shopping for groceries. That he’d enjoyed it. Admittedly, the enjoyment had mostly come out of terrorizing the people who’d been cheating Xiao Xingchen for weeks, but still.

And he was looking forward to bringing the fruits of his work back, and dropping them on Xiao Xingchen’s lap, and the smile that would curve his lips. Thank you, my friend, he’d say.

He shook himself. It was funny, wasn’t it? Nobody else got the joke, at least not so far, but he knew.

Thank you, my friend, Xiao Xingchen would say, smiling. He’d scream if he knew the truth. Xue Yang looked forward to hearing it.


III.

Today was a nothing day.

Nobody else called them that, but that was how Xue Yang thought of them. There was one every ten days where Xiao Xingchen decided that nobody was working - Xue Yang didn’t know why, something about how it was important to take time to rest and be still. They were quiet and lazy and dull and Xue Yang had begun to really enjoy them.

Not just because it meant Xiao Xingchen didn’t make him get up early, and often the chance to do other things in bed in the morning.

(That was new. New-ish. Sort of unexpected, but the good kind of unexpected. Xue Yang was pretty sure he’d never fucked the same person this many times before, and he was getting to like it - the learning what got to him, what he liked, what made him cry, how much pressure it took to leave bruises on Xiao Xingchen’s pale skin.)

Today was this week’s nothing day, so Xue Yang nuzzled up to Xiao Xingchen and scraped his teeth against the skin of his neck, hand sliding down over his stomach.

Xiao Xingchen hummed and caught his hand before it went far.

“Ah,” he said quietly. “Not this morning.”

Xue Yang frowned against his neck where he knew Xiao Xingchen would feel it. “Why not?”

“I have to go out today,” Xiao Xingchen said. His frown deepened.

“Out?”

“Wang-furen told me yesterday that her sister is having trouble with the ghost of their grandmother,” he said. “I told her I would take care of it as soon as I was able.” Xue Yang pulled back and stared at him.

“You didn’t say anything about this,” he said.

“You don’t have to come with me,” he said. “I expect it’ll be a simple matter - it doesn’t seem the ghost is malicious. But it is several hours journey, so I need to leave soon.”

“But it’s a nothing day,” Xue Yang blurted out. Xiao Xingchen’s eyebrows knitted together.

“What?”

“You know,” Xue Yang said. “The day where we don’t work and go out and help people, or whatever. That’s ours, you and me. And a-Qing.” A prickle of irritation started under his skin, at Wang-furen and her sister, for putting this on Xiao Xingchen, dragging him out, making him take care of their problems and they probably wouldn’t even pay. Or Xiao Xingchen wouldn’t let them.

Xiao Xingchen’s frown deepened.

“Once a week,” Xue Yang insisted. “There’s always one a week. It’s supposed to be today.”

Xiao Xingchen was quiet for a moment, and then let out a bit of a laugh. “It isn’t a rule,” he said.

“But-”

Xue Yang broke off. But it should be, he was thinking, irritation edging toward anger. But it’s supposed to be. This is part of how things go. We have a routine and Wang-furen and her ghost grandmother are ruining it.

He pulled away, sharply, and rolled out of bed. “Fine,” he said sulkily. “Better get going, then.”

The frown in Xiao Xingchen’s voice was audible. “This is...important to you?”

Xue Yang said nothing. He could feel his face getting hot. This, he thought, was why you didn’t expect things from people. They’d up and decide that some stranger’s stupid problem mattered more than his good day.

“It is,” Xiao Xingchen said slowly.

“Whatever,” Xue Yang muttered. He started collecting his clothes from where he’d thrown them on the floor.

“I won’t be gone all day.”

Just most of it. Besides, it was the principle of the thing.

He heard the rustle of Xiao Xingchen rising, his quiet footsteps, and fell still, tensing. His fingers brushed Xue Yang’s shoulder.

“I said I would go,” he said. “I can’t go back on my word.”

Of course not. Xue Yang’s lips twisted and didn’t answer.

“Tomorrow,” Xiao Xingchen said after another couple moments, his voice firm. “Would you mind...tomorrow, for a...nothing day...instead?”

Xue Yang turned to look at Xiao Xingchen, eyes narrowed. He was being mocked, he thought, or worse, humored. But Xiao Xingchen looked serious.

“You don’t have to,” Xue Yang said. “It’s not that big a deal.”

“No,” Xiao Xingchen said. “It’s a good idea. I hadn’t meant for it to be...but now that you’ve pointed it out, I think it would be nice. To have a day marked specifically for ourselves.”

Xue Yang blinked at him. Xiao Xingchen smiled.

“Tomorrow,” he said, slowly.

“Yes,” Xiao Xingchen said. “If it’s fair weather we can go to the river and swim. I think I would like that.”

Xue Yang could feel the tension starting to bleed out of him, almost against his will. “Hm,” he said. And then, cautiously, “yeah, all right.”

Xiao Xingchen smiled at him, then bent his head down and kissed him in that horribly gentle way he had sometimes. He pulled back too fast for Xue Yang to turn it into something else. “If you want something,” he said, “please feel you can ask.”

He opened his mouth, then closed it. The bizarre urge to laugh rose up and he let it happen. “Aw, Daozhang,” he said. “You’re sweet.”

“I know,” Xiao Xingchen said brightly. He paused, and then said, turning just a bit pink, “and I’ll make it up to you when I get back.”

Xue Yang felt himself grin. “That right?”

Xiao Xingchen’s flush deepened, but his smile stayed. “I’ll certainly see what I can do.”

You make it so easy, Xue Yang thought, and he wasn’t even entirely sure what it was.


IV.

A-Qing was sick.

Coughing, puking, dripping snot, the works. It was disgusting. Xue Yang had been wrist deep in someone’s entrails, sure, but he could deal with that. This? Much worse.

It was actually a relief that Xiao Xingchen had sent him off with a list of herbs he wanted.

“Or you could just let her die,” he’d said.

“No,” Xiao Xingchen said firmly, though with a flicker of his lips like he thought that’d been a joke, which it had, sort of, but also not really.

Xue Yang was pleased by the wary glances he got from the merchants as he walked through the market. They knew by now that he wasn’t someone they could fuck with, and these days didn’t even try. Sometimes he pitched insultingly low prices just to check, smiling with all his teeth.

Nobody’d tried to argue with him in a while.

He sauntered over to an herbalist and started looking over her wares for the things on Xiao Xingchen’s list. Nothing particularly rare or expensive, at least. A few things he didn’t recognize and had needed to ask Xiao Xingchen to describe.

Maybe he’d pick up something nasty and pretend he’d made an innocent mistake. Wouldn’t have to be fatal, or anything. Xiao Xingchen would catch it before she actually took anything, though, so it’d be pointless.

“On your own today?”

Xue Yang glanced up, a little surprised at being addressed, and the shopkeeper did look a little like she regretted speaking up. Xue Yang grinned at her, bright and friendly, and she relaxed. “Looks like,” he said.

“Is your family well?” Xue Yang blinked at her, and she gestured at the herbs he was collecting. “I only ask because of your choice of purchases.”

“They’re fine,” Xue Yang said automatically, and then, “my what?”

“Your...family?” The shopkeeper began to look nervous again. “That daoshi and the little blind girl.”

Xue Yang stared. And then burst out laughing. “Fuck,” he said. “Fuck, you think-”

She looked baffled, which just made him laugh harder.

“They’re not my family,” Xue Yang said. “That’s - I’m going to tell a-Qing you said that. She’ll hate it.”

“Then…” she looked even more confused. Xue Yang was tempted to reach out and pat her on the cheek. He just shook his head and smiled.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You wouldn’t get it anyway.”

He paid something almost approximating a fair price for the herbs and walked away, still laughing to himself. He made it halfway back to the yizhuang before it stopped, very suddenly.

Caught on that ridiculous word - family - he’d missed the other thing.

On your own today? Like that was a surprise. Like he wasn’t supposed to be, or wasn’t expected to be. Incomplete in himself, like people saw him and looked next to him for someone else. Someones, apparently.

Xue Yang stopped. Obviously Xiao Xingchen was his and it was good that people knew that and could see it, and if anyone was going to kill a-Qing it was going to be him, so.

An eel wriggled through his guts and then curled around his stomach.

It wasn’t...exactly a bad feeling.

He wasn’t sure it was a good one, either.

Whatever, he told himself, and picked up his pace again, heading-

(Home.)

He ended up not mentioning the conversation at all.


V.

Xue Yang was watching Xiao Xingchen weaving a basket when it happened.

The three of them huddled around a fire, a-Qing shivering even wrapped in a blanket, and he was tempted to throw something at her and tell her that if she couldn’t handle the cold she should just go inside. She wouldn’t, though. Stubborn idiot.

He leaned his elbows on his knees and propped his chin on his hand, just thinking, just - watching. A smile pulling at his mouth. Xiao Xingchen wasn’t smiling, his expression serious and focused the way he got when he was concentrating on something.

It wasn’t his favorite Xiao Xingchen expression, but it was a good one. Up there with the one he made when Xue Yang made him laugh, helpless and unrestrained, and the one he made when Xue Yang had his mouth on his cock and he was coming apart.

His eyes dropped to Xiao Xingchen’s hands, watching the sure and confident way they moved, and he wondered if they got enough materials if Xiao Xingchen could sell his work. Maybe he’d put the idea to him. Might be able to bring in some extra money, get another blanket for the winter. Maybe next year-

Xue Yang’s thoughts hitched.

Next year.

Typically, Xue Yang did not plan very far ahead. He kept his expectations for the future relatively low, and his plans fairly immediate. There was no point in anticipating a future that might never come, or might come in a shape that you could never foresee. Better to just be able to react, to improvise and adapt and change course as necessary.

The past two and a half years, he’d been biding his time, he’d been waiting and playing things out as they came. Knowing he could move on whenever he wanted, could end this whenever he wanted.

Next year.

Xue Yang dropped his hand from his chin and sat up, an alarm shrilling at the back of his head. You’ve settled, it said. You’ve been leashed, you’ve been tamed.

Get out. Get out now.

His fingers itched. The back of his neck itched. His breath caught in his chest and he rocked back like he’d been shoved.

Xiao Xingchen stopped weaving and turned his head in his direction.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“No,” Xue Yang said automatically. “No, I’m good.”

The alarm went quiet. His thoughts went quiet. Slowly, the tension bled out of him.

So what?

So what if I stay? So what if I keep this? Isn’t it mine? Don’t I deserve it?

Besides. Next year was next year. Why worry about it now? It was just thinking. It wasn’t like he was ruling out anything else. It wasn’t like he couldn’t change his mind later. Wasn’t like he was committing to anything. And even if he was - so what?

This life was his, now. Why should he have to let it go?

“Are you sure?” Xiao Xingchen asked.

“Yeah,” Xue Yang said. “I’m sure.”


ONE.

Okay. Okay.

So that hadn’t ended up going as planned, but it was fine. He hadn’t expected Xiao Xingchen to do that, the idiot - why, why would he do that, why turn his sword on himself, why did he have to go and-

But it was fine. Xue Yang knew how to bring him back. And yes, all right, he’d be dead and not the same as he’d been before, but that was fine, too. They’d figure it out. And Xiao Xingchen would make a glorious fierce corpse.

As soon as he woke up, they’d start over.

He washed him up carefully. Cleaned the blood off his hands, washed his face and changed the bandage over his eyes to a clean one.

(Xiao Xingchen hadn’t liked him doing that. He got so self-conscious about it. Xue Yang brushed his fingers against his eyelids, collapsed into empty sockets, and reminded himself to mention that he thought they were beautiful.)

Xue Yang’s hands stuttered a little cleaning the open wound across his throat. It didn’t look too bad, really. Shuanghua’s edge was very sharp, the edges neat and clean.

He pulled his eyes away and checked the talismans again; they were right, obviously. Xue Yang knew what he was doing here, better than anyone still alive. Now he just had to wait.

Everything should be perfect for when he woke up, though. That’d been - a bad argument, ugly, Xiao Xingchen had said some nasty things that’d hurt but it didn’t matter now, it wasn’t important now. He’d have to figure out what to do about a-Qing. Xue Yang wanted her dead, but Xiao Xingchen liked her. Maybe it’d make him happy, having her around still.

He’d just carve her eyes out, make her blind for real. Settle for that.

Xue Yang cleaned up the house - their house, the house they’d shared, repaired together. He started with just the coffin home itself and then moved on to the courtyard, because Xiao Xingchen hadn’t woken up yet and he’d be happy to see that, too; he always liked it when things were clean.

He’d always liked it when-

Xue Yang’s thoughts stuttered, like his hands.

He cleaned and polished Shuanghua and then placed it carefully out of reach - he’d give it back, of course, eventually, but not until he was sure that Xiao Xingchen could be trusted with it, that he would be good.

And he would be. This was - this was better, really, than before. Xiao Xingchen knew him, now, and as a fierce corpse Xue Yang would be able to control him and keep him from doing anything stupid, like - like cutting his own throat, say. Xiao Xingchen would only do what he wanted-

He wanted Xiao Xingchen to give him that look, the amused-but-frustrated one that he got when Xue Yang said something a little too outrageous, where he felt like he shouldn’t laugh but still sort of wanted to. He’d still do that, right?

He won’t. You know he won’t.

Xue Yang bit his tongue and went to make dinner. Automatically, he started out making it for three, but he caught himself quickly enough and cut down the portions. Keeping his ears tuned for any sound, for movement, for Xiao Xingchen waking up and realizing that he wasn’t dead, that he still had his life and still could have his life, the one he’d been happy with before Song Lan had to come along and ruin everything.

Because he was going to wake up. Any minute now. It was taking longer than normal but that didn’t mean it wasn’t going to work. It had to work, there was no reason it shouldn’t work.

He laid out the food and sat down. It was dark out, it’d been hours, but that was okay. It was good that it’d taken this long, actually, since it’d given Xue Yang all this time to get ready, to make everything ready, everything in place the way that Xiao Xingchen would want it. Remind him that really, Song Lan had left him, everyone else had left him, but Xue Yang was still here and wasn’t leaving, would never leave.

Any minute now.

Everything was going to be all right.