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“It’s frustrating, to say the least.”

“Of course, Sect Leader,” Meng Yao replies softly, hands folded in front of him.

Nie Mingjue lets out a sharp breath. “I just don’t understand where their numbers are coming from.” He pushes a stack of papers aside and lets them flutter to the ground. The two men watch them settle in disarray on the floor.

Meng Yao licks his lips. “Perhaps, if I might bother you with this again-”

“No, Meng Yao.” Nie Mingjue shakes his head as he stands, and when his eyes meet Meng Yao’s there’s something soft and vulnerable behind them. Something they’re unable to delve into in the middle of a war. “You’re too valuable here. To me.” He clears his throat. “To everyone.”

“If anyone could, it’s me.”

“I said no.”

Meng Yao lowers his head, eyes on the floor. This isn’t the first time they’ve had this discussion, about him leaving. He went to the Nie Sect Leader with a sound proposal, a good idea, considering it’s him, after all, but still Nie Mingjue refuses to let him go.

He says he needs him here as his vice general, that he needs him to stay on as a strategist, but they both feel the pull of another reason to stay.

To stay together.

“I understand.” It’s not that he wants to leave--no, he’d rather stay by Nie Mingjue’s side, even if just as a vice general. To keep him in his sight, to make sure he stays safe and alive. But he doesn’t know a better way to learn about the Wen clan and their plans and strategies and numbers without having a spy on the inside, and Nie Mingjue trusts few people more than he trusts Meng Yao.

Boots enter his vision and come to a stop, and his chin is grasped gently. Nie Mingjue pulls his head up and meets his eyes, vulnerable in a way Meng Yao hasn’t seen since the war has started.

“I need you with me,” Nie Mingjue whispers. His thumb traces the bottom of his jaw, and his eyes glance down at his parted lips for a moment before returning up where he stubbornly keeps his gaze.

Meng Yao swallows and licks his lips. Nie Mingjue’s eyes drop again and he leans forward, just enough.

“I-”

Meng Yao gasps. And then he feels warm. And wet.

There’s a sickening squelch, and Meng Yao feels like his insides are ripped out as he falls forward against Nie Mingjue.

He sees Nie Mingjue’s eyes widen, first in confusion, and then in anger, before flickering to something over Meng Yao’s shoulder.

Nie Mingjue throws Meng Yao to the side and holds his hand out. Meng Yao lands hard on the floor, mouth stuck open in shock. He can’t move. The air moves as Baxia flies into Nie Mingjue’s hand, and metal clangs over his head before the distinct sound of a blade passing cleanly through flesh. 

Blood lands on the floor, and Meng Yao tastes something sharp. Metallic. All he sees is red. 

Another body thumps to the floor behind him, and then Baxia clatters to the ground as two hands grab his shoulders and Meng Yao is rolled onto his back.

“Meng Yao, Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue’s voice is sharp and intent. “Meng Yao, look at me.”

It’s hard to drag his eyes from the wall of the tent but he does, meeting Nie Mingjue’s. He sees the fear in them, the horror, and a hand presses down on his stomach.

Meng Yao keens, gasping again. It’s too much. He feels like his body is on fire, and Nie Mingjue’s face is getting blurry, blurrier as the seconds pass. Nie Mingjue’s voice fades into the background and then he looks away.

No, Meng Yao wants to scream, no, look at me, but his mouth doesn’t move, tongue heavy, as a trail or two of blood seeps out the corner of his mouth.

It’s cold, suddenly, as the flap of the tent is thrown open and Nie Zonghui and a few others burst in. Nie Mingjue says something to them, he must, because they don’t linger. Nie Zonghui stays by the door, two of them go for the body somewhere behind them, and the others take off running.

“-want the whole camp on lockdown. If he had a partner, find them. No one in or out except for those I sent for.” Nie Mingjue finishes, and Nie Zonghui bows before running off to carry out the orders.

“Hey, hey,” Nie Mingjue grabs Meng Yao’s chin again, no longer holding him like he’s delicate, but gripping him. The arm around his shoulders, holding him against Nie Mingjue’s chest, tightens. Meng Yao can feel all five of the fingers pressed against his arm, keeping him firmly in place. “Hey, look at me. Blink.”

Meng Yao blinks.

“Again.”

He listens. Each time he blinks, it’s harder and harder to open his eyes. Everything is heavy. Nie Mingjue’s voice starts fading again. He can’t feel his fingers.

He does feel Nie Mingjue’s fingers tighten as Meng Yao stops responding, digging almost painfully into his arm.

Not a bad way to die, he thinks, in the arms of the man I’ve loved, and then he gives up on opening his eyes again.

===

He’s uncomfortable. Why won’t they stop moving him? Why won’t they let him rest?

He’s so tired.

Meng Yao is so tired, bone tired. He wants to rest. 

He hears voices. They’re not loud, but they prick uncomfortably at the back of Meng Yao’s head. He should get up. He has work to do.

He doesn’t know what time it is, but Nie Mingjue will probably be wondering where he is. Why he hasn’t reported to him yet.

But he’s… he’s just so tired. It’s easier to stay here.

He feels hot. Something warm lands on his head, and then his stomach erupts into flames as something lands on that, too, but then it’s cool. Comfortable.

Meng Yao rests.

===

He doesn’t expect to wake again, but he does.

It all comes slowly. His eyes remain stubbornly closed, but his other senses return.

His fingers tangle in the soft blankets covering him. He recognizes the splotches in the darkness of his closed eyes, meaning it’s now light out. He hears voices, just soft murmurs, coming from somewhere nearby.

Nie Mingjue’s deep timber is there, comforting in Meng Yao’s confusion, along with someone softer. 

Lan Xichen. All the way from the Lan camp?

Meng Yao feels his lips quirk when he hears a whine, too, followed by Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen’s quiet shush.

“It’s been two days,” Nie Huaisang whispers, obviously distressed. “When will he wake? What if he doesn’t?”

“He will,” Lan Xichen responds. There’s a rustle of fabric as Lan Xichen probably takes Nie Huaisang into his arms, soothing him. Meng Yao’s fingers itch to do the same, to pull Nie Huaisang into his arms and run a hand through his hair and comfort him, the way he did the night before they all left to start the Campaign. He aches as he remembers promising Nie Huaisang that they would be okay, that they’d all come back to him. That they wouldn’t leave him alone. 

“He will. It’s not fatal, not since he made it through the night. We just have to wait.”

“It’s up to him, now,” Nie Mingjue’s voice is still soft, but louder, closer. A hand just brushes against his forehead and his hair is smoothed back. His hand is clasped briefly and squeezed, and Meng Yao wants, oh how he wants to grip that hand, to keep it near him, but he can’t.

It’s quiet for a moment except for Nie Huaisang’s shaky breaths.

“You should go back,” Nie Mingjue says. He’s still near Meng Yao, but his voice drifts as he turns away. “You’re safer in the Unclean Realm.”

“Not until he wakes,” Nie Huaisang presses back. “I have to know he’ll be okay.”

“Xichen said-”

“Please, Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang’s voice breaks. There’s a shuffle and suddenly Meng Yao is cold again as Nie Mingjue leaves his side. “Please, please let me stay. I… I have to-”

“Don’t go,” Meng Yao whispers. It’s all he can manage. He cracks his eyes open and looks to the side, sees the blurry figures for who he thinks they are, and takes a shaky breath. 

He recognizes that they’re still in Nie Mingjue’s tent.

His whole chest is on fire. He meets Nie Mingjue’s gaze, sees the tears in his eyes. He wants to reach for him, he wants his presence back. “Come back.”

“Wait, wait, Huaisang.” Nie Mingjue grabs Nie Huaisang and holds him back from how he so obviously wants to throw himself at Meng Yao as Lan Xichen rushes to his side and takes his hand.

It’s cool again. Not cold, but cool. Comfortable.

Now, Meng Yao recognizes the sensation as spiritual energy being pushed through his meridians. Lan Xichen mutters under his breath as he looks him over, eyes warm and concerned.

“How are you feeling?” He asks quietly.

“Heavy,” is the first thing that comes to mind. It takes everything in him to fully turn his head. His eyes skim over the Nie brothers, hovering a few steps behind Lan Xichen, and land on the cup and water basin on the desk nearby.

He makes a sound and shifts. Lan Xichen holds him down, and then Nie Mingjue is there with the cup. They help him sit up and drink. Nie Huaisang shifts nervously, watching from the foot of the cot, fan shaking in his grip.

Meng Yao feels like he should be embarrassed, coddled the way he is, like a small child or a frail elder, but that’s too much energy. He lets himself be laid back down on the cot, grateful for the way his head is cradled so he doesn’t just collapse back, as he surely would if he didn’t have help.

“Careful, careful,” Lan Xichen murmurs, “slowly,” as he and Nie Mingjue readjust Meng Yao so he’s comfortable.

It takes Meng Yao longer than he’d care to admit to sort through his thoughts enough to make a coherent sentence. The three don’t rush him, watching him carefully, as he does.

“What happened?” He asks finally.

Lan Xichen purses his lips. Nie Huaisang looks away, down at the fan he taps anxiously against his palm, and Nie Mingjue’s expression darkens so much that Baxia quivers in her stand.

“You were stabbed,” he says bluntly.

Meng Yao’s jaw drops.

“I… what? But I… I-” he looks down and sees that he’s wearing just a single, loose robe with a low neckline, and he can see bandages wrapped all the way up his chest. He looks back to Nie Mingjue. “How?”

“The Wens have spies spread out to find our position. A couple did and managed, somehow, to sneak in. They found my tent and hid,” Nie Mingjue tells him. He looks down. “They were aiming for me, but the lamplight was tricky, and they thought, based on my shadow, that I was where you were standing.”

“Oh,” Meng Yao whispers. Lan Xichen swallows and averts his eyes. Nie Huaisang shifts his weight.

Meng Yao looks at him and holds out his hand. Nie Huaisang sucks in a breath and lunges forward, grabbing it, and he falls to his knees beside the cot.

“A-Yao, Yao-ge,” he cries, gently holding Meng Yao’s hand in trembling hands. “I was so scared, I came as soon as I got the letter.”

“You should be home,” Meng Yao says. He tries to keep his face pleasant to not worry him. “It’s not safe for you here.”

“It’s not safe for you, either,” Nie Huaisang points out.

Meng Yao grimaces. “It’s not safe for any of us, really.” He turns and looks at Nie Mingjue. “At least it was me.”

“Don’t say that,” Nie Mingjue snaps. He looks at Meng Yao again, finally, he thinks, and his heart sinks when he sees tears welling in Nie Mingjue's eyes. “It shouldn’t have happened at all.”

“But it did,” Meng Yao squeezes Nie Huaisang’s hand. “It could’ve been you, or Xichen-ge, or any of the disciples who have to fight. It was me, and that’s okay.”

“It’s not okay!” Nie Mingjue explodes. “Don’t act like you’re not important!”

The to me remains unsaid, but everyone seems to hear it anyway. Meng Yao’s grip goes slack.

“A-Sang,” Lan Xichen rises, “let’s go.”

Nie Huaisang looks back and forth between Lan Xichen and his brother. “But I…” He seems torn between staying and leaving with Lan Xichen. “But he just woke up.”

“A-Sang,” Lan Xichen says, less like a request and more like an order. “Come with me. We’ll go get A-Yao something to eat, alright? We’ll come back.”

Nie Huaisang looks down at Meng Yao, who smiles thinly at him. “Go. I’ll be here when you get back.”

“Don’t die,” Nie Huaisang tells him, and Meng Yao would laugh at his dramatics if he didn’t feel like he was dragged back and forth across death’s doorstep for the past two days.

Meng Yao nods. “Go.”

Nie Huaisang stands and picks his fan up from where he’d dropped it on the cot, and Lan Xichen takes him under his arm as they leave the tent.

“Clan Leader-”

“You don’t need to do that.” Nie Mingjue practically falls onto the stool Lan Xichen sat in moments ago. Meng Yao sees the darkness under his eyes, the red rimming them, and feels guilty. “You took a fucking sword for me, you don’t need to do that.”

“But it’s proper.”

“Fuck being proper, Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue says. He leans his arms against the cot, face in line with Meng Yao’s so he doesn’t have to turn his head to look at him. “Fuck it all. You don’t know how scared I was, waiting for Xichen to arrive. There was nothing I could do but try to stop the bleeding and pray.”

Meng Yao sees tears welling in his eyes again and raises his hand. He gently cups Nie Mingjue’s cheek and swipes his thumb, catching one that had just started to fall. Nie Mingjue settles his own hand over his, holding it in place.

“I thought you were going to die. I’ve never been so scared in my life, I think. I can handle battles. I can face death, sure, but not you. You’re not allowed to die on me like that. Not before, not before… I could tell you…” Nie Mingjue swallows thickly and takes Meng Yao’s hand away from his face and cradles it between his palms.

“Call me Mingjue.”

“You wanted to tell me to call you Mingjue? On my deathbed?” Meng Yao asks, smiling.

“Stop it.”

“Emotions are hard,” Meng Yao placates him, “believe me, I know. I shouldn’t…” he sighs. “You’re a sect leader. My sect leader. I shouldn’t feel the way that I do, but I can’t help it.” Meng Yao shifts, flinching, and his free hand goes to hold his stomach, where the pain is the worst. “I am glad it was me. Not because you’re a sect leader, not because of the Campaign, but because I don’t want to see you hurt.”

Nie Mingjue presses a light kiss to the back of Meng Yao’s hand.

“Imagine how I feel, then, right now.” Nie Mingjue leans forward to kiss Meng Yao’s forehead. “Don’t die on me. Not until this is all long over. I have to see you get through to the end.”

“We’ll both make it,” Meng Yao squeezes Nie Mingjue’s hand.

“There’s so much going on right now-”

“I know,” Meng Yao stops him, “I know.”

Nie Mingjue shakes his head. “I have to tell you. Please, A-Yao, just listen. I can’t let another day go by, another day filled with uncertainty and loss, without telling you.”

Meng Yao feels tears prick at his own eyes.

“Look at me,” Nie Mingjue leans in, holding his gaze, “I love you, Meng Yao.”

Meng Yao nods, letting out a soft sob. It hurts, everything hurts, but he’s never felt so elated.

“I love you, Nie Mingjue.”

Nie Mingjue smiles shakily. “Can I kiss you?”

“Please.”

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Nie Mingjue says as he leans forward.

“Perhaps it’s my dying wish,” Meng Yao teases.

“Don’t joke,” and then Nie Mingjue’s lips are pressed against his, gentle and warm, grounding in the sea of pain.

Meng Yao goes to turn his head to deepen the kiss but he gasps as a sharp pain travels up his spine, exploding behind his eyes.

“Easy, easy,” Nie Mingjue sits up and lays a palm flat on his chest, sending more spiritual energy through him. The pain lessens immediately. “There’s plenty of time for that.”

“Mhm,” Meng Yao hums absently, closing his eyes. Nie Mingjue still holds his hand. “Because we’re both going to get through this.”

“We are,” Nie Mingjue says, “and then I’m going to court you. Properly.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I know.” Meng Yao cracks an eye and sees Nie Mingjue smile at him. “But I want to.”

“Then I suppose I’ll have to endure,” he says with a smile of his own.

They sit together in a comfortable silence until Lan Xichen and Nie Huaisang return.

“We brought you something,” Lan Xichen’s gentle tone stirs Meng Yao. Nie Mingjue pulls his hand away from his chest but otherwise doesn’t move away. “Do you think you can eat?”

Meng Yao swallows. “A bit, perhaps.”

“We’ll take it slow.”

Nie Mingjue takes his shoulders gingerly and helps him sit up as Lan Xichen and Nie Huaisang put more pillows and blankets behind him so he can sit up without much strain, and then Nie Mingjue hands him a bowl of soup.

It does take him a while, but the soup is warm and good, for war camp food, and Meng Yao was hungry, though he didn’t realize it. He finishes the bowl but declines the offer for another, instead insisting the other three eat. 

Lan Xichen thought ahead and he dishes out three bowls and they all sit around his bed, eating and talking (all but Lan Xichen, who eats in silence except for a few laughs as the Nie brothers bicker).

Lan Xichen leaves that night, back to his own camp a distance away, telling Nie Mingjue to send for him immediately should Meng Yao take a turn for the worse.

Another tense conversation later and the two are seeing Nie Huaisang off, ordering him back to the Unclean Realm now that Meng Yao is awake and talking.

Nie Huaisang gives Meng Yao a careful hug before he goes, and then he gives his brother another tight, long hug, before ducking out and being escorted by Nie Zonghui.

Meng Yao sees Nie Mingjue pull a mat out from behind his desk and he lays it out beside the cot.

“What are you doing?”

Nie Mingjue freezes and blinks. “Getting ready for bed?”

“Down there?”

Nie Mingjue blinks again. “...Yes?”

“No.” Meng Yao scoots over. Nie Mingjue’s cot is big, as Sect Leader, but also to accommodate his larger-than-average build. “Come here.”

Nie Mingjue sighs. “A-Yao…”

Meng Yao ignores the rush he feels at being addressed so intimately. “Come on, Mingjue. You’re the commander. This is your tent, your bed.”

“I don’t want to risk hurting you-”

“You won’t,” Meng Yao says, because he knows it’s true. “Come here.”

Nie Mingjue hesitates, but eventually he puts the mat back and grabs the spare blanket. He moves Baxia’s stand closer to the bed, too, within arm’s reach, before undressing down to his inner robes and sliding carefully into bed beside Meng Yao.

They fit together naturally, as Nie Mingjue slips his arm under Meng Yao’s head, and Meng Yao rolls over so he’s leaning towards Nie Mingjue, already dozing off. He feels Nie Mingjue press another kiss to his forehead as he succumbs to sleep once again, exhausted.

He sleeps better that night than he ever has in his life, and he wonders why he didn’t just get stabbed sooner.