Xiao Xingchen would never have admitted it aloud, but there was something sort of nice, after all the fierce corpses and emptied villages, about being on the trail of something else. Not that there wasn’t satisfaction in the other kind of work - there was - but there was a grief, too, and a revulsion at how these people had been twisted by resentment into something that would no doubt horrify their living selves.
Not that this being that he and his friend were hunting now hadn’t claimed its own victims - three, so far, all found strangled without signs of a struggle.
His friend had spent the journey thus far trying to convince Xiao Xingchen to bet on what sort of creature they were going to be facing, offering up increasingly ridiculous ideas for collateral.
“How about this,” he said. “Loser has to marry that ancient seamstress, what’s her name, nose like an eggplant-”
“I’m sure Wu-furen would make a lovely wife,” Xiao Xingchen said, trying to keep his lips from twitching. Then added, because he couldn’t resist, “for you.”
His friend’s hoot of laughter was undeniably rewarding. “Daozhang!” he said. “Does that mean you accept? Cause-”
Xiao Xingchen heard something. Shuanghua trembled and he unsheathed it; his friend fell immediately silent.
An almost unbearably sweet fragrance filled the air, pungent and overwhelmingly floral. What he heard next was a hideous cracking noise, the sound of tearing earth, and his friend squawking, “what the shit is that?”
That, based on his friend’s description after the fact, was some kind of flower elemental, grown far beyond its natural size and turned malevolent. Xiao Xingchen had a number of stinging welts from its sweeping vines, a bloody scratch across his cheek from its thorns, and an aching ring around his neck that would probably be bruised tomorrow from when it had tried to strangle him. His friend had severed the vine, followed by a hiss.
“Sap burns,” he’d said, “watch for that. Should’ve brought a spade instead of a sword, huh?”
Xiao Xingchen had managed not to laugh. His friend did laugh, though, so he must’ve made some kind of involuntary face.
“Do you think it’d die if I set it on fire or would that just make it mad?” his friend had asked cheerfully, and a moment later an acrid smell filled the air, along with a horrible rending screech.
“I take it the latter,” Xiao Xingchen said.
“It was worth a try!”
In the end, it took severing it from its root system, cutting off the flower-head, and burning the roots themselves to quiet it down. Xiao Xingchen could hear his friend coughing.
“Are you all right?” he called.
“Yeah,” his friend said. “Just - spat out some kind of pollen. Smells nasty.”
Xiao Xingchen stilled. “Pollen?”
“Yeah. Or spores, or something.” He coughed again. “Ugh. Nature, am I right?”
Xiao Xingchen picked his way over to him, using Shuanghua to make sure he didn’t trip over any vines. On uneven ground like this, it was sometimes harder to trust himself. “It could be poisonous.”
His friend made a noise, almost indignant. “You serious? No. I’m not getting poisoned by a plant.”
“Plenty of people do,” Xiao Xingchen said. “And you said the sap burned. It doesn’t seem illogical it might have - other means of defense.”
“You mean, besides the strangling vines and the thorns and the fact that it was bigger than two cows stacked on top of each other?”
Xiao Xingchen thought, suddenly, of the people who had died. The lack of signs of struggle. Maybe it was just surprise. Or maybe…
“Let me check,” Xiao Xingchen said, holding out a hand. After a moment, his friend let out a very loud sigh and gave over his hand. Xiao Xingchen took it and pressed his fingers to his wrist to check his meridians, but all seemed well, at least there.
Though his skin did feel a little warm.
“How do you feel,” he asked.
“Fine,” his friend said. “Good. Great, actually. We killed a flower. Maybe I should bring it back for a-Qing. Should we go back? Let’s go back.”
Xiao Xingchen frowned. “You’re talking very quickly.”
“Am I?” his friend laughed; he could almost hear the grin in his voice. “Don’t know why I would. Still feel okay. No, think the flower’s too big. Dunno where we’d put it in the house.”
Xiao Xingchen could feel his pulse in his wrist as well. It felt like it was beating very quickly. He frowned, letting go and reaching up to feel his forehead with the back of his hand.
“Handsy,” his friend said. His skin was burning. “If you wanted to touch me, Daozhang, you didn’t need to wait for an excuse.”
“You feel feverish,” Xiao Xingchen said.
“Weird,” he said. “Still feel fine. Maybe you’re just cold. Are you cold, Daozhang? We could cuddle when we get home if you want. That sounds kind of nice, actually-”
Xiao Xingchen’s worry was starting to grow. “Come,” he said. “Let’s get away from here.” It was possible, he was realizing, that there might be another one of those things, and he didn’t want to run into any when his friend was like this. It had been an unpleasant enough fight without trying to do it without support and while trying to defend someone else.
And while the other victims hadn’t died from this - seeming poison, that might only be because they hadn’t had time to. Xiao Xingchen didn’t know what it was going to do.
“Okay,” his friend said easily. “Works for me.” He took Xiao Xingchen by the arm and tugged him forward. Xiao Xingchen pulled back.
“You know I don’t like when you do that,” he said.
“Right, right,” his friend said, and laughed again. It sounded sort of funny, a little off. “Freaks you out, I know. Okay, well, you set the pace, then, I’ll just follow along.”
Xiao Xingchen hesitated, then reached out again and took his arm, resting his hand on it. “As long as you don’t pull it’s fine,” he said, which - there was a comfort to walking like this. He could navigate on his own, but it was easier when he had someone else’s eyes to watch for any surprises.
But also, he wanted his friend close, in case he got worse.
He got worse.
And quickly, which, a logical part of Xiao Xingchen registered, made sense. It wouldn’t do for the poison to take too long to kick in and have the target get away.
Most of him, however, was increasingly worried. He’d shifted from resting his hand on his friend’s arm to holding onto it, concerned about the possibility that he might fall. He was certainly losing his coordination. He didn’t seem distressed, at least, or like he was in a great deal of pain, but Xiao Xingchen thought he might feel better if he did. At least then he wouldn’t feel like he needed to have all the distress for both of them.
“Daozhang,” his friend said, dragging out the second vowel. “Where’re you taking me? Are you going to punish me because I’ve been naughty?”
“What?” Xiao Xingchen said blankly, turning a little toward him with a worried frown, though something in his friend’s tone also sort of made him want to laugh. “I - no, don’t be ridiculous. We’re going home.”
“Don’t have one,” his friend said, and Xiao Xingchen’s heart gave a funny lurch but a moment later he went on, “oh, wait. No! I do!” He sounded very pleased. “It’s nice. I mean, it’s shitty and cold and Yi City’s terrible, but it’s nice anyway.”
Xiao Xingchen, a little bemused, said, “I’m glad you think so.”
“Uh huh,” his friend said. “I do. I’m dizzy, Daozhang. Head’s all over the place. Can’t fucking...can’t focus. Felt sort of like this once when I didn’t sleep for a week, back in - last place I worked.”
“You didn’t sleep for a week?” Xiao Xingchen said, firmly resisting the urge to pry.
“Nah,” his friend said. “Didn’t feel like it. Sleep’s boring. I hate being bored. It’s the worst. I’d rather die.”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Xiao Xingchen said, deliberately lightly. His friend let out a near cackle of laughter.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, you say that. Fuck, Daozhang. You’re funny and you don’t even know it.”
Xiao Xingchen’s stomach twisted uncomfortably. That sounded - altogether too close to mockery, and sent an odd uneasy tremor through him that he pushed away.
“Should I say thank you?”
“You could. Then I’d say you’re welcome, Xiao Xingchen-daozhang because that’s polite. See, I can do manners.”
“I didn’t assume that you couldn’t,” Xiao Xingchen said. His friend hummed.
“Yeah,” he said. “True. You’re not very good at manners. But it’s, uh, it’s endearing when you do it. People look so surprised. It’s great every time.”
Xiao Xingchen frowned a little. He knew that his social graces - weren’t the best, but he’d thought he was getting better. “I’m not rude, am I?”
“Not in a bad way,” his friend said. “Just - direct. You bullshit less. In a world full of - full of fucking liars you’re honest.”
Something about the way he said that was...it was complicated. It sounded admiring. It also sounded a little like a curse.
“Oh,” he said, for lack of a better response.
“Daozhang,” his friend said, swaying and half-falling against him; Xiao Xingchen could feel the fever-heat radiating from him even through the layers of robes. “Xiao Xingchen.” He laughed, high and a little wild, and for some reason the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. “Bright moon, gentle breeze. Ha! Should, should - write poetry about people selling you rotten potatoes.”
Xiao Xingchen’s face heated. He’d never mentioned his epithet; never mentioned the poetry. Neither had his friend. Somehow he’d hoped that he might not have heard it, or not have made the connection, but his friend was a cultivator, and no fool.
At least he still didn’t seem inclined to treat him with any degree of the awe that had always made Xiao Xingchen uncomfortable, and which now he couldn’t imagine hearing without wanting to crawl out of his skin.
“Perhaps you can write it,” he said, mostly to keep his friend engaged, conscious. He didn’t know what more the poison would do - other than what it was already doing - but letting him faint seemed - ill-advised.
“Oh, no,” his friend said. “I’m shit at poetry. You don’t want to hear my poetry. I’m not - don’t have the skill for it.” He laughed, and again Xiao Xingchen felt that strange prickle of warning down his spine. “And anyway the things I think are beautiful - I don’t think you’d agree.”
An even more distinct feeling of danger flared, like the twitch Shuanghua gave when it sensed evil. He hesitated, but he wanted to keep the conversation going, and some part of him sat up with a dangerous curiosity.
“Like what?” he asked.
“Like…” his friend trailed off. Hummed. “Like you.”
Xiao Xingchen felt his face get hot but couldn’t help a smile, either. “I could hardly agree,” he said. “It would be terribly immodest of me.”
“You,” his friend said, “when you fight. When you kill. When you’re...when you have blood on your face. I want to lick it off you.”
Xiao Xingchen’s stomach swooped and he almost stumbled. He let out a nervous laugh. “I…”
“So righteous,” his friend interrupted, seemingly without hearing him. “So just.” An uneasy nausea began to seep into him, something in his voice - snide, bitter, almost angry. “But you’re - you’re a killer, too.”
Xiao Xingchen’s throat closed for a moment. He took a breath. He didn’t want to ask. “What do you mean?”
His friend laughed. “Well, you would’ve seen me dead, wouldn’t you?” he said. “Wouldn’t do it yourself, though. Oh, no. Couldn’t…”
Xiao Xingchen’s heart was sinking fast. He didn’t let himself stop, though his mouth was starting to feel dry. He couldn’t answer, though, didn’t trust his own voice. His friend - he was leaning more heavily against him, barely staying on his feet under his own power.
“Fuck,” he said after a moment. “I’m talking too much.”
“It’s important you stay conscious, I think,” Xiao Xingchen said. He sounded far away and astonishingly calm.
“You’re so nice,” his - his companion said, like a curse. “Always so, so...can’t stand it, sometimes.”
“I try to be,” Xiao Xingchen said. It felt like someone else was speaking. There was a faint ringing in his ears.
“Yeah, I know,” his companion said. “Don’t know - don’t know why. World doesn’t fucking deserve it.”
“That isn’t for me to decide.”
“Course it is,” his companion said. “You’re. You’re better. So you get to decide. That’s how it works. Who’s stronger gets to choose - who’s worth it. I don’t feel good.”
“I know,” Xiao Xingchen said.
“Mmhm.” He seemed to be losing the thread of his thoughts. Xiao Xingchen’s heart was beating very quickly. “Xiao Xingchen. I should’ve, should’ve...by now.”
“Should’ve what,” he said. His voice sounded strange and thin and he was amazed he managed to get it out.
“But I don’t want to,” he said, with a mixture of consternation and an air of confession. “I don’t...want to. This is good, isn’t it? This is good.”
Xiao Xingchen felt like he was choking.
“I don’t want to leave,” he said. “I don’t want - you to leave. Oh, fuck. I really don’t feel good.”
“Oh,” Xiao Xingchen said vaguely.
“Huh,” he said. He sounded breathless. Xiao Xingchen could hear him panting. “Not how I figured I’d die, but world’s full of surprises, I guess.”
“Wait,” Xiao Xingchen said, finally registering his words. “No, stay awake-”
He slithered out of Xiao Xingchen’s loosened grasp and collapsed heavily to the ground. He knelt before thought of it, reaching out, alarm clenching like fingers around his neck, checking his pulse, his meridians-
From his wrist, sliding down his left hand. Almost always, he avoided letting Xiao Xingchen touch it. He knew it was injured. That he was missing the smallest finger, that the bones of that hand felt strange and wrong, an old injury healed poorly.
For the first time he let himself register the significance of that. An injured left hand. A missing finger. A cultivator with an ugly past he didn’t discuss.
You would’ve seen me dead.
Xiao Xingchen drew back, his pulse pounding in his ears and stomach churning.
“Xue Yang,” he whispered, but there was no reply.
There was a moment, kneeling next to the unconscious body of the man he was nearly (no, was) certain was Xue Yang, that he considered walking away. His heart was beating too quickly, his skin was hot and dry, and his breathing was shallow. His qi was battling the poison but losing ground. Left alone, without help, it was fairly likely he would die.
Xiao Xingchen rejected the idea almost before he’d finished forming it. Bringing someone to face justice and probable death was one thing; even killing in a life-or-death battle was another. But to abandon someone to die when he could help - he couldn’t.
He lifted Xue Yang onto his back (just as he had, he realized, head spinning a little, a little more than a year ago) and began carrying him back toward Yi City. His cheek burned where it rested against his neck.
Xiao Xingchen’s stomach turned anxiously and he picked up his pace. He couldn’t think right now. Couldn’t consider too closely what he’d just realized, what it meant. What he was going to do about it.
Right now he needed to focus on his proximate purpose. If he wasn’t going to let Xue Yang die, and he wasn’t going to kill him immediately (couldn’t, not now, not while he was unconscious), then he needed to concentrate on what he was going to do.
“Daozhang!” a-Qing exclaimed when he walked into the courtyard. “What’s - what happened?”
“He was poisoned by the elemental we were hunting,” Xiao Xingchen said. He knew he sounded curter than he should, than he wanted to.
“Are you all right?” a-Qing asked immediately.
“I’m fine.” He was not, but that was not - how would he begin to explain? “I’m not hurt.”
“Oh,” a-Qing said. “Good.” She did not, he noticed, seem very concerned about Xue Yang’s welfare. But he knew that the two of them didn’t exactly get along. Or, well. A-Qing didn’t seem to like his friend and his friend seemed to take vicious delight in teasing her-
Xiao Xingchen felt sick again.
“Go inside, a-Qing,” he said.
“What? Why?” She sounded indignant. Xiao Xingchen took a slow breath through his nose.
“Just do as I say,” he said. “It’ll be all right. I’ll call if I need anything.”
He didn’t hear her leaving. “Daozhang,” she said suspiciously, “what’s going on?”
Thinking quickly, he said, “as I drive the poison out of him it may seek another target. I have a strong golden core to protect myself, but you don’t. I don’t want you to be in any danger.”
“Oh,” a-Qing said, and he heard her hastily retreat several steps. “But - you’ll be all right? You could always just let him die.”
Xiao Xingchen just managed to swallow down an awful laugh, wondering how much she meant that suggestion. Thinking it sounded almost like his own thoughts. “I’ll be all right.”
“Okay,” she said dubiously, but he heard the tapping of her stick retreat back toward the house, leaving him alone with - with his patient.
He pushed all thought away and focused on the motions of his hands, transferring spiritual energy to bolster Xue Yang’s own in fighting back the poison, pouring some medicine carefully down his slack throat that should quench some of the fire burning him up.
Xiao Xingchen felt the stranger twitch and then awake, and in the next moment recoil violently. He stood and moved back: it was unsurprising that he should be instinctively afraid, considering his condition. “It’s all right,” he said, trying to sound reassuring. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m only trying to help.”
It must’ve seemed like such a stroke of luck.
Xue Yang moaned faintly, and moved under his hands; Xiao Xingchen froze.
“Daozhang?” he said, a little raspily. Xiao Xingchen felt himself shiver.
“Yes,” he said after a few moments. “Stay still. Conserve your energy.”
“Shit,” Xue Yang said, and wheezed a laugh. “This feels. Familiar.”
Xiao Xingchen wanted him to stop talking. Needed him to stop talking. It made him want to scream, how casual he sounded, how relaxed, like nothing had changed, like he hardly even had to try to deceive Xiao Xingchen at all-
“I suppose it does,” he said.
“You’re so weird,” Xue Yang said. “You know - you know how many people would find someone in a ditch and pull them out of it?”
Xiao Xingchen paused, though only for a moment. “More than you might think,” he said. “Rest, my - rest.”
There was a pause, and a hitch in Xue Yang’s breathing, very slight. “Daozhang?” He sounded uncertain. Had something in Xiao Xingchen’s voice given him away? Had something…
“Yes,” he made himself say.
“Nothing,” Xue Yang said after a moment. “Never mind. What’d you make me drink? Tastes like ass.”
Xiao Xingchen hoped his relieved exhale wasn’t audible. “It’s good for you,” he said. Xue Yang laughed, oddly giddy-sounding, and Xiao Xingchen’s stomach lurched.
“You going to give me something nice for taking my medicine?” Xue Yang said, voice light and lilting. Under the bandage, Xiao Xingchen’s empty eye sockets burned. “I’ll take candy. Or kisses.”
He thought, for a moment, that he would vomit. Remarkably, he managed not to. His hands did shake slightly and he pulled them quickly away.
“Maybe later,” he made himself say. “If I decide you’ve earned it.” It was easier than it should’ve been. To talk like nothing had changed. He spoke the same way. Sounded exactly like Xiao Xingchen’s friend. Of course he did - he was still the same man. It was only Xiao Xingchen’s understanding that had changed.
“Oh, Daozhang,” Xue Yang said, sounding strangely - almost fond. “I think I like you.”
Xiao Xingchen’s mouth was dry.
“Which is weird,” Xue Yang said. “Because I don’t like people. Generally. And I really - really didn’t like you. But-”
Xiao Xingchen’s hand covered Xue Yang’s mouth. He didn’t remember choosing to do so. “My friend,” he said, almost choking. “No more. You’ll - you’re babbling. Not making sense. Let me spare you some embarrassment.”
He felt the puff of hot air on his palm that suggested a silent laugh and pulled away quickly. “Okay, Daozhang,” Xue Yang said, “but I’m pretty hard to embarrass, you know.” That strange fondness, warmth, was there again. It wouldn’t be strange, from his friend. From Xue Yang-
“Rest,” he said again.
“Bossy,” Xue Yang said, voice blurry, but he was barely remaining conscious as it was. Still, Xiao Xingchen didn’t move, scarcely even breathed, until he heard his breathing slow and even out.
He’d stabilized, now. It’d take some time yet, but he would get better. Would heal.
Xiao Xingchen put his hands in his lap. He breathed in, then out, then in, slow and deliberately.
He started shaking.
Xue Yang. The stranger he had found dying on the side of the road, who he had taken in and tended and helped and befriended, was Xue Yang. The man who had slaughtered Zichen’s temple and ruined his eyes, who had massacred the Chang Clan.
He’d fixed the yizhuang’s roof.
They’d gone night hunting together.
He must know who Xiao Xingchen was. There was no possible way he did not. So what game was he playing? What purpose did any of this, all of this, serve? Was he simply enjoying the deceit, biding his time and waiting for his moment to strike, to wound, to kill? Xiao Xingchen glanced toward the house again, thought of a-Qing, and felt sick with guilt and fear.
At least if Xue Yang targeted him he could fight back. A-Qing was young and blind, and fierce as she was, she had no combat training. If something had happened to her - if Xue Yang had done something to her - it would have been his fault.
If. Would have. But he hadn’t. He hadn’t, and Xiao Xingchen knew the truth now.
The question was what he should do about it.
The obvious answer for Xiao Xingchen’s next course of action was to restrain Xue Yang and see him delivered to the authorities. The obvious, and the most immediately out of the question. He could not, did not, trust the great sects to see justice done anymore.
The second obvious answer was to execute him himself. There was some merit to the idea. He would not be delegating a responsibility to anyone else. For the Chang Clan, for all the dead of Baixue Temple, for Zichen - it was beyond question that Xue Yang was deserving of death. It was the sentence any fair magistrate would pass.
It was, perhaps, one he himself should have passed, rather than trusting to the powerful.
That would be the right thing to do, Xiao Xingchen thought. He would wait for Xue Yang to wake, then bind him and tell him that he knew the truth. Then- then he would finish it. He would be swift, and merciful, as Xue Yang had not been with many of his victims.
Xiao Xingchen imagined driving Shuanghua through Xue Yang’s chest and his stomach clenched.
Then your friend would be gone. Just you and a-Qing. Back to night-hunting alone.
His chest seized. It felt as though he couldn’t take a full breath. No, he thought, with sudden, panicked desperation. No, I can’t.
Immediately after, a wave of guilt swamped him. He could see Zichen’s face in his mind’s eye. Still hear the accusation in his voice, the anger, the heartbreak. If Zichen saw him like this - tending Xue Yang’s injuries, living side-by-side with him, laughing with him-
It was a betrayal, plain and simple.
And yet here he was, flinching from what he should - must - do.
He pictured the courtyard at Chang Manor, strewn with bodies, corpses hanging from doorways. Pictured Zichen’s destroyed eyes weeping blood. Revulsion burned in his stomach, and anger.
Xue Yang let out a quiet sigh, and Xiao Xingchen tensed, but he didn’t wake. So relaxed. So at peace, sure of his deceit, that he had Xiao Xingchen thoroughly fooled.
Xue Yang had been living with him and a-Qing for a year and a half and the worst he’d done was threaten a grocer. Otherwise - otherwise nothing. He was good company. Helpful around the house. He did most of the cooking, claiming that Xiao Xingchen was a menace in the kitchen. He was capable of reducing Xiao Xingchen to fits of giggles that he couldn’t control.
What if he’d changed?
Did it matter? He had still done so much harm. That he was not actively doing so now did not undo that.
But then, neither did his death. Alive, perhaps there was some good he could do. If Xiao Xingchen was careful, if he was cautious...
Selfish, he thought. You are finding excuses to make a selfish choice, because you are a coward. You know what you should do, no matter if it hurts. It is the only thing that will ensure that everyone here is safe. The only fair price for the lives taken and destroyed. Think of Zichen. Think of yourself.
But he would not kill an unconscious man. He would wait for Xue Yang to wake, and give him a chance to speak. At the very least he should know why he was going to die.
His stomach lurched unhappily and he steeled himself. He had an obligation. A duty. Xue Yang was a murderer and a monster. He could not be allowed to live.
Xue Yang woke up feeling like absolute shit.
His head hurt, his mouth was dry, and his body ached like he’d been in - and lost - a nasty fistfight. His memories, when he tried to sort through them, went fuzzy and incoherent shortly after inhaling the spores the thing had spewed.
He opened his eyes, squinting a little. Xiao Xingchen was sitting next to him looking unhappy, almost miserable, and seemingly deep in thought, Shuanghua across his crossed legs.
“What’s that face for,” he rasped. “I’m not dead yet.”
Xiao Xingchen started, his head lifting and turning toward him. He stiffened in something that looked like alarm, and then seemed to force himself to relax. Faint disquiet stirred in Xue Yang’s stomach and he pushed himself up to sitting as well.
“How are you feeling,” Xiao Xingchen asked. His face did something weird, like he hadn’t meant to say that.
“Fine,” Xue Yang said, even though he wasn’t. “Never better. In fact I think we should do that again, just for fun.”
Xiao Xingchen’s lips twitched, but he didn’t laugh and a moment after looked away. The disquiet grew into a more definite warning.
“What,” he said after a moment, “am I going to die? Because I’d rather know that now.”
Xiao Xingchen flinched. He opened his mouth and then closed it and that wasn’t a no, and shit. For fuck’s sake-
“No,” Xiao Xingchen said. “You aren’t - the poison is gone.”
“So what’s the problem?” Xue Yang asked doggedly. He could feel himself getting tenser and tenser. Something occurred to him, abruptly, and he leaned forward a little. “Are you - hurt?” He hadn’t tracked that, but - that wasn’t allowed. When Xiao Xingchen died he was going to be the one to do it, not some - shitty flower.
Xiao Xingchen seemed startled. “What? I - no, I’m...fine.”
“I…” Xiao Xingchen paused. His fingers fidgeted near Shuanghua’s hilt.
He made himself laugh, though it came out a little sharp. “Seriously, Daozhang, what’s going on? Did I say something weird?” Xue Yang asked. He’d been pretty out of it. What if he’d said something really stupid, what if Xiao Xingchen suspected, or even knew-
No. Couldn’t be. He’d’ve woken up dead. Or with a sword pointed in his direction. Or with demands for an explanation. Not this...whatever this was.
“What are you doing here?” Xiao Xingchen asked abruptly. Xue Yang stared at him, taken aback.
“What are you doing here?” Xiao Xingchen asked. “Why have you stayed here with us, with...me? I know it isn’t comfortable. And you’re certainly...capable of fending for yourself. So why…”
Something lurched in Xue Yang’s stomach. He made himself laugh. “Is this you telling me you want me to leave, Daozhang? Sort of funny timing-”
“No,” Xiao Xingchen interrupted. “I was just...wondering. I would think...that you might get restless. Or...bored.”
The fuck, Xue Yang thought, was this? And why now? He pushed himself up further and looked for something to lean against. He really did feel like shit, still.
The thing was. The thing was he’d have thought the same thing. He’d expected to feel the same thing. Restless, bored, annoyed. He’d figured he’d get sick of this game in a couple months, at most. Half a year at the very outside.
But every time he’d thought about leaving - about ending this, telling Xiao Xingchen everything, destroying him - he thought of another reason not to.
“Can’t be the food,” he said. “That’s for sure.”
Xiao Xingchen made that face again like he wanted to laugh and then realized he didn’t. Xue Yang narrowed his eyes, examining him.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said abruptly.
Xiao Xingchen froze. He was quiet for several long moments, and then said, “oh?”
“Yeah,” Xue Yang said. “I like it here, turns out. Who knew?” He paused, and then ventured, “so if you’re worried about that, I mean, okay, can’t promise I won’t die horribly murdered by some dumb poisonous sentient flower, apparently, but I’m not going to leave.”
Or at least, when he left, Xiao Xingchen wouldn’t be around for it.
Xiao Xingchen opened his mouth, then closed it. There was a strange look on his face. Xue Yang grinned, hoping Xiao Xingchen would hear it. “You’d miss me,” he said. “Couldn’t possibly do that to you, Daozhang.”
“I see,” Xiao Xingchen said, after a long moment.
“Well,” Xue Yang said, and Xiao Xingchen made a face at him.
“You make that joke every time-”
“You make it too easy,” Xue Yang said. “I can’t help it. Low hanging fruit, Daozhang. What do you expect me to do?”
Xiao Xingchen looked down and shook his head. For a moment Xue Yang couldn’t see his expression; then he looked up and he had the strangest feeling that some kind of consequential decision had just been made.
“I expect you to come up with better jokes,” he said. “Can you stand on your own or do you need help?”
“I’m good,” Xue Yang said boldly. “Head hurts something awful, though. Do you have anything for that? Or you could just cut it off, that works too.”
Xiao Xingchen’s face did something weird, but after a moment he just sighed and reached out to take Xue Yang’s arm, apparently with the intent of helping him to his feet.
“My friend,” he said, speaking slowly and seemingly deliberately, “I appreciate...the help you have given me. And the people in this area. As I am sure they do.”
Oh, definitely, Xue Yang thought. Lots of people in this area really appreciating my good work. But mostly he stared at Xiao Xingchen blankly. “You’re in a weird mood,” he said after a second. “You sure you didn’t get poisoned, too?”
“I’m sure,” Xiao Xingchen said. He smiled, a little, which did something weird to his insides. “It has merely been...a strange day.”
“Yeah,” Xue Yang said slowly. “Sure.”
He was missing something. He was definitely missing something.
Might have to wait and figure it out later, though, when his brain wasn’t trying to squeeze itself out through his eyes.
He took Xiao Xingchen’s hand and let him pull him up. Caught himself on his shoulder and for a moment he thought he felt Xiao Xingchen twitch, but then he was sure he’d imagined it.
“I know that we don’t discuss our pasts,” Xiao Xingchen said abruptly. “And we both...have our reasons for that. But if you ever wanted to, I hope you trust that I would listen.”
Xue Yang stared at him. Yeah, he thought. You’d listen, and then you’d start screaming. Or go for your sword. Nice try, though. The fuck had he said, anyway?
“Thanks,” he said, slowly. “I’ll remember that.”
“Do,” Xiao Xingchen said, and then pulled slowly away from him, hesitating a moment longer before he turned his back and walked into the yizhuang.