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It’s barely dawn when Meng Yao finds Lan Xichen by the river. He’d been gone two days, two days and two nights that Xichen spent pacing the packed earth floor of the abandoned house Meng Yao has hidden him in, too afraid to step outside except to do the necessary, and to fetch water and firewood, and then, foolishly, to try and clean his own clothes. That is how Meng Yao finds him: in the silvery gray light of the morning, damp with mist, and crying over a torn sleeve.

He gets close before Xichen notices him - before Xichen snatches up his sword and unsheathes it in one long motion, which is interrupted just as quickly when he realizes that the robe he was cleaning is about to fall onto the wet ground. His sword arm wavers - and in that moment of distraction Meng Yao could easily have killed him, if he were anyone else. But he is not anyone else: only Meng Yao, with empty palms and wet dark eyes.

Xichen lowers the sword. His other arm curls around the lump of fabric in his lap. He wipes his face, but only reflexively; he swims so deeply in shame that any particular humiliation has lost its meaning. If he could speak he would. His throat bobs as he tries to and fails. His posture is ungainly, hunching smaller and smaller over the robe in his arms.

Meng Yao’s steps are noiseless as he draws closer and goes to his knees next to Xichen. He looks over the mess that Xichen has made: the bucket he hadn’t washed the spider webs out of, the brackish water he drew from, the insufficient soap. His hands are gentle as he settles them on either side of Xichen’s hands, stroking his thumbs over the back of Xichen’s knuckles before he slowly, gently pulls the fabric from Xichen’s grip so that it can be examined. It barely fits the description - both Xichen’s loose hands and the nature of the robe, which is not so much a robe as a wide net of lace, as insubstantial as the webs dotting the long sleeves Xichen forgot to pin back before he set himself so poorly to his work.

When Meng Yao speaks his voice is achingly kind. “It’s just a bit of thread,” he says. “You haven’t done anything I can’t fix.”

It’s not just a bit of thread, but Xichen doesn’t tell him that yet. He doesn’t try and take the robe back, but he brushes his fingertips over the pattern there, which is as valuable as any of the books Lan Xichen managed to save, stored safe in the abandoned house, piled high on the cracked, half-rotted table that had been left behind there.

“My grandmother’s grandmother made this,” Xichen says instead. The words shake themselves from his lips. Later, years later, he will spread the lace out and show Meng Yao how to read what is written there, between the yellowed ground and the bleached sky filling. Now, there is blood on it. It isn’t Xichen’s blood. There is blood on many of the things he’d carried with him from Cloud Recesses, and even after days of letting the door hang open, the little house still stinks of the rancid smoke smell that he’d brought along too. It was the blood that had sent him into such a needful frenzy. He hadn’t yet managed to scrub it out before he tore the sleeve, and when he’d stared down at the lace - the unraveling thread, the obscene gash, the stain made arterial red again once he’d refreshed it with the river water - he’d felt such horror that it had overwhelmed him completely.

Meng Yao bites his lip. There’s a bruise on the lower one. There are bruise-colored circles under his eyes. Xichen looks at him, and finds new depths to his fear.

“You have news,” he breathes, and hesitantly Meng Yao nods.

“Cloud Recesses,” he says, even more softly, and Meng Yao shakes his head.

Xichen stares at him, at his bowed head, those wet eyes that cannot bear to meet his own, and cannot bring himself to ask the third question, the most important.

“Wen Ruohan has your brother,” Meng Yao says anyway, as if he knows what Lan Xichen won’t say.

The pain is immediate, as if Meng Yao had crept close and slid a blade between Xichen’s ribs. It would be indescribable even if he had all the words and stories in the world. Even if he had his library back, his home, which is gone, gone - everything gone except for that single pathetic pile and five lace robes. He had hoped, had prayed, had believed that Wangji was safe. Believed because he had no other choice. To find out otherwise is agony. He rises to his feet, stumbles. Only Meng Yao saves him from falling completely. One of his hands comes up to grip Xichen’s arms, the rest of Xichen’s weight braced with his own body. His eyes are panicked, but in his other hand he still has Xichen’s grandmother’s grandmother’s robe, which is not only a pretty pricking but a song, a transcription of musical notation that only the Lan are able to read. Meng Yao holds the robe in the crook of his arm as carefully as he would an infant, or a priceless treasure, which it is: as precious as Wangji’s life, and as pointless as Xichen’s own.

Meng Yao’s fingers are tight on his arm. His cultivation isn’t nearly high enough to stop Xichen from leaving, but he clings regardless. “Zewu Jun,” he says, when Xichen tries and fails again to stand on his own. “Let’s go and rest. We shouldn’t stay outside long.”

He gives Xichen the robe, carefully. He stands and empties the bucket, sliding his pale hand around on the inside to give it a perfunctory cleaning. He gathers the rest of Xichen’s things. He picks Xichen’s sword up off the grass. He doesn’t try and give Shuoyue to Xichen. He carries that too. He turns and starts walking. There is nothing that Xichen could do but follow.

The inside of the house is stale and warm. Meng Yao leaves the door open for air and for a little extra light, which spreads limply along the packed earth floor like a dying animal. The day will be hot, and Meng Yao is sweating already, just faintly around his hairline. He sets Xichen down on the bed and places Shuoyue next to him. He takes the robe from Xichen’s numb hands and folds it neatly, setting that down on the bed as well. He gathers the things he needs to cook their breakfast. He ties back his sleeves and winds his hair into a neat bun, high enough that Xichen can see sweat on the back of his neck as well.

Xichen knows, of course, what Meng Yao did. Mingjue had written to him immediately, almost before the Wen attack was routed, before the last of the Wen soldiers executed, possibly as soon as Meng Yao was out of his sight. Huaisang had written too; begging Xichen to intercede, to find Meng Yao a home in Gusu, to bring him back to Qinghe and convince Mingjue to change his mind. Mingjue’s first letter described a murder, cowardly and calculated. The second letter arrived the same time as the first, and told the rest. Meng Yao had murdered and saved and been exiled in nearly the same span of time it took Xichen to read these two letters, and certainly much faster than it took Xichen to write his own reply.

Through the doorway, he can see smoke from the cookfire, which they’d set a little distant from the house. He can’t see Meng Yao directly - just his shadow in the wounded animal light, moving back and forth. The fire and the scrape of the wok against stone covers up any noises he might make. Meng Yao had brought meat with him, already cooked; Xichen can smell it from where he sits, heavy enough in the stale air that he can taste the spices on his tongue.

Wangji, Xichen thinks, and digs his fingernails hard into his empty palms.

The bowls they have are clay. The rough surface scrapes against Xichen’s soft, abused palms. Meng Yao also brought three small jars of pickled vegetables with him, and doles portions out on top of their congee, along with some of the meat. Xichen holds mustard greens in his mouth until they nearly dissolve, letting himself be soothed by the sour taste, the subdued song of Meng Yao’s voice.

“There are Wen soldiers everywhere,” Meng Yao tells him as they eat. “In every town. They’re moving timber and iron through the major roads. I’ve heard they’re building supervisory offices - not just in Lotus Pier but in other places as well.”

“In Yunping?” Xichen asks, barely a whisper.

Meng Yao’s mouth twists. “There too,” he says.

“What of Gusu?” he asks.

Meng Yao shakes his head. He takes pickled greens from his own bowl and puts them in Xichen’s. “I’ll try to find out.”

Xichen nods. His thoughts are tangled like fishing nets. Where is Wangji? Is he safe? Is he alive? Has Cloud Recesses been burnt to the ground, or is there anything left? What of Mingjue and Huaisang? Why did Meng Yao murder Mingjue’s general and attempt to blame it on the Wens? With a strategist’s cold eye, Xichen’s first thought had been that at least Meng Yao could have planned a bit better, if he were going to do it at all. What had he even stood to gain, except death by Mingjue’s hand? It didn’t make any sense.

They share a single mug of weak tea, leaves swelling on the surface of the water. Meng Yao’s head bobs over it; he must have walked through the night to return. He never says where he goes, when he leaves Xichen’s side - whether he’s able to sleep, if he has safe places to stay. Eventually, Xichen takes the mug from him and says, “You should rest.”

Meng Yao presses his lips together. He’s exhausted enough to let a single thread of irritation slip into his voice, to drop the formal register he usually uses to address XIchen. “There’s too much to do,” he dismisses. His head sags forward again, pulling him out of his good posture. He looks at Xichen from under his eyelashes and visibly changes tactics, his mouth curling just enough to show one dimple. He says, “Only if you rest too.”

Xichen doesn’t want to rest. He wants to leave. He wants to storm Nightless City and rescue his brother. He wants Wen Ruohan’s heart on Shuoyue’s point, and his sons’ heads on pikes. He wants his home back. He wants to understand why Meng Yao is risking so much for Xichen, what he stands to gain from it. He cannot have any of the things he wants, so he exhales and says, “Very well.”

The first night in this house, Xichen had fallen asleep while Meng Yao was pacing the perimeter, setting wards and talismans to warn of approach. He’d woken up in the morning to see Meng Yao curled on the floor next to the bed, using his outermost robe as a blanket. The next night, Xichen had insisted they share. “The bed is big enough,” he’d said, which is true: it had clearly been built for a family. “You need to restore your strength,” which is also true, and would be true even if Xichen was able to fend for himself. Finally he’d said, “Please, I cannot bear it,” and Meng Yao finally agreed, but he made Xichen take the inside closest to the wall.

They arrange themselves into a pattern that by now is nearly familiar. Xichen takes off his robes, leaving himself only in his underclothes. His forehead ribbon goes around his wrist. Meng Yao folds the robes for him, and removes his own outermost robe only. He wears only two anyway, and without the belt - not Qinghe-made, not anymore, but still heavy leather - his waist is impossibly delicate. Xichen has spent each night admiring it distantly, surprised again and again to learn that he still has a body underneath this sickening grief.

He folds himself down on the bed, onto his side. It’s not quite long enough for Lan regulation posture, which Xichen has always been terrible at maintaining anyway. His body is an arc that Meng Yao could tuck himself into and doesn’t, each night. They curl around each other like shrimp but do not touch. Xichen stares at the wall and feels the shape of the distance between them, every place that Meng Yao doesn’t touch, every place where Xichen doesn’t touch him in return. Meng Yao is asleep almost as soon as his head touches the bundled straw. Xichen stares at the wall - the light dimmer now that they’ve closed the door, the air thicker - his eyes tracing over each whorl and knot in the wood, looking for patterns, for the music to take shape. And then he, too, sleeps.

He wakes warm. A weight on his waist, digging into his ribs. Sweating, disoriented, aroused. Uncomfortably warm, his hair sticking to his face, the smell of their bodies overwhelming the rest of his senses beyond that slow-moving, weighted down heat. The light has shifted, warmed, and bent back towards shadows again; it’s late afternoon, creeping towards evening. He is hungry. He is being held. He’s further away from the wall than when he’d gone to sleep: he’d pressed himself backwards into the cradle of Meng Yao’s chest and hips, and in turn Meng Yao, sleeping, had slung an arm over Xichen’s waist, pushed his forehead against Xichen’s shoulder blades and one leg between Xichen’s. Meng Yao is deeply asleep. His breathing is slow and ragged against Xichen’s spine, and he’s hard. His cock is a hot line against the back of Xichen’s thigh, so close to where it would be useful. For a moment Xichen is suspended, all of him meaningless, all of him nothing but a body that wants. His nerves have been so raw for so long that even like this, both of them completely clothed, not a stitch of skin touching, he feels aflame. He presses his hips back against Meng Yao’s cock, his hand dipping under the waistband of his pants, gripping himself so tightly that he almost feels real again.

Meng Yao shifts with him, even in sleep. His fingers make little clenching motions on Xichen’s waist. He rubs his cock against Xichen’s thigh, sleep-slow. He makes soft grumbling noises, muffled against Xichen’s shoulder - and then he tenses abruptly, coming awake all at once. The movement of his hips stop, and Xichen sobs aloud.

“Zewu Jun,” Meng Yao says. His tone is stricken. Xichen curls his spine, shifts further back against him. Begging him not to pull away.

He should feel ashamed of how easy it is to beg. But he has debased himself so much already to let himself be hidden like this, safe and protected with his clan’s treasures as if his own meager life is one of them, and sex is never shameful. He wants. He wants so much, so many different things. So he says it, out loud: he begs. “Please,” he says, “A-Yao, please.”

Meng Yao is very still. His hips flex almost experimentally, pushing against where Xichen wants him. “We don’t have any oil,” he says.

“I don’t care,” Xichen pleads. “It doesn’t matter. Please. Please.”

Meng Yao kisses the back of his neck. He shifts away, making soothing noises when Xichen grabs at him, mindless and desperate. “Roll onto your back for me,” he says.

Xichen obeys. His limbs feel stiff with terror. His heart pounds in his chest. Everything awful, all his wakeful fears, are trying to creep back into his heart. He seeks Meng Yao’s eyes and begs him, please. He finds Meng Yao on his knees, untying his skirt and setting it aside. His shirts follow. Then, knotting his hair back. “Take off your pants,” he says, and Xichen does that too. Takes off his shirt as well, baring himself completely to Meng Yao’s mercy.

Meng Yao’s delicate fingers curl around his cock. His neck is so elegant as he bends forward and takes it into his mouth. For a moment Xichen wants to protest - this isn’t what he wants, it isn’t enough - but Meng Yao’s mouth is slack around him, slick with saliva, coaxing as much wet out of Xichen’s cock as he can. It’s a strange, soft sort of feeling - so different from the intent, sharp pull meant to make you come - but Xichen still writhes, flinging one hand up to grip the bed rail, trying to keep himself still.

Meng Yao tightens his mouth, finally - but only to pull off, his tongue swirling around Xichen’s cock to take all of their collected slickness with him. His fingertips press against Xichen’s hip, and Xichen rolls, dazed and eager, over onto his stomach. His cock is trapped beneath his belly and the bed. He squirms down on it gratefully, and then arches his spine as Meng Yao spreads his cheeks and delicately spits onto his hole. Xichen closes his eyes.

In Cloud Recesses, he has many oils collected for this purpose. Oils that cool the skin and oils that heat the blood. The day they’d met, Xichen had chosen oil scented with orange blossoms to fuck Meng Yao with, thinking that the scent would please him. It was an indulgence, and one that always delighted him - and now his private pleasures are gone along with everything else.

In the darkness behind his eyelids, there is only sensation. The stagnant air he heaves into his lungs. The creak of the dry wood beneath them. The sweet smell of straw. The faint fragrant ghost of their breakfast. The slickness of Meng Yao’s fingertips, pushing wetly into Xichen’s hole. The intrusion of it, the way all of Xichen’s focus snaps to it at once. He is a body again, aching, wanting. He’s never done it this way, with nothing but spit to ease the passage. Sometimes Meng Yao holds his fingers still in Xichen’s body to lick around them, adding more saliva, trying to keep Xichen as wet and comfortable as possible. Sometimes he asks, solicitously, so soft that it feels like the game they’d played that first day, “Is this alright, Zewu Jun? Does it feel good?” which makes Xichen sob into the crook of his arm. It does, or at least it feels like something, something approaching good, and he wants that, he wants it with all his heart.

Meng Yao’s other hand brushes against the back of Xichen’s neck - moving his hair out of the way to draw his fingertips down the line of Xichen’s spine. He follows that with kisses, pressing his mouth along all of the places he’d touched, his body an strung bow above Xichen’s as he pulls his pants off and works himself inside. “You’re crying,” he whispers into Xichen’s ear, and Xichen nods, pushing his hips frantically up to meet Meng Yao’s, hurrying him along. He is crying, and he feels good, and it’s as if these things are happening to two separate people.

Meng Yao’s hips snap against his own. They groan together. The slide gets wetter, easier, hotter. Sweat spreads across Xichen’s skin, drips from Meng Yao’s chest onto his shoulders. He shoves Xichen further up the bed, shoves his legs apart, thrusting into him as furiously as Xichen needs. It feels so good that Xichen is soaring with it, gone somewhere else, smelling cool water and stone and incense and home. He’s barely aware of it when Meng Yao pulls his hips up off the bed, folding himself over Xichen’s back with one hand around his cock and the other sliding down from his sweat-slick shoulder and clamping down on his wrist.

Xichen’s eyes fly open. He sees at a distance - the tangle of their hands so close to his face, his cheek grinding down into the mattress, wet with tears - Meng Yao’s fingers entangled with his ribbon. He hears the sounds coming out of his own mouth, animal-like. He feels the wonderful spiral of orgasm, inexorable, thoughtless, gathering in his guts and licking long tongues over his skin, demanding that he give himself over completely, so he does, he does, welcoming it with a strange sort of astonished joy. He lets it happen. Meng Yao never slows, never stops, his hands tight and grasping around Xichen’s cock and his ribbon until it almost hurts, and Xichen welcomes that too.

When he comes back to himself they’re kissing, slow and wet and humid, Meng Yao draped fully over Xichen, pinning him to the bed, shifted only so far to the side as to let them reach for each other, to hold onto each other. They kiss and kiss, Meng Yao’s tongue slick against his and tasting of sex and sweat, melting together until there’s no more distance between them at all. They kiss until Xichen falls asleep, and Meng Yao falls asleep with him, and the night passes by without them.

Xichen is sleeping still, when Meng Yao wakes. He untangles himself and slides carefully off the bed. He sleeps on as Meng Yao wipes himself down with a bit of water from the basin, dresses in the dark, repacks the kit he’d only unpacked this morning, and leaves. He doesn’t stir as Meng Yao walks the hour’s journey to the nearest town, watching as the road grows more clear with each step. He is asleep when Meng Yao returns: an arm thrown across his chest, his hand splayed out on the empty side of the bed, seeking the warmth of the body that should be there. He isn’t awake to see Meng Yao stand over him silently for a long time, thinking thoughts that he’ll never share with Xichen or with anyone else, and finally withdraw.

Meng Yao settles his kit on the table and unpacks it noiselessly, checking over his shoulder to see if Lan Xichen has stirred. He fetches the robe that Xichen’s grandmother’s grandmother had woven. He lights a candle despite the risk, shielding it from Xichen and the windows with his body. He lays the robe on the table and pores over it with a critical eye. There’s the torn sleeve, of course, and three other places where the threads look weak, eaten away by age. His eyes roam over the lace, and see patterns within the motif: the straight marching vertical lines, the spaces where characters might stop and start. It’s a song that was written to explode the ear drums of those who hear it, to cause excruciating pain that lasts for days. He can’t read it, of course - but he’ll learn to, later on. For now the knowledge that it exists is enough. He reaches for the paper parcels he’d bought in town, so early that he’d interrupted the shopkeeper’s breakfast. There had been only gold thread available in the weight he needed. Meng Yao had sighed inside his heart and bought it anyway.

He threads the needle. His mother had taught him these skills at her knee, when he was still very young: how to mend, how to repair. There is no trick to it except to let the work speak for itself: to place the stitches so close together that they become uncountable, as numerous as the threads making up the fabric itself. Only then will the tear vanish, the hurt disappear. It’s the work of careful hours that Meng Yao bends his neck to. By the time Xichen wakes the sun is high in the sky and the damage is gone, as if it had never happened at all.