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the old dull pain

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The first morning he woke up to a thin rime of frost on the ground, Xue Yang turned right back around and went back to sleep. He’d known, objectively, that it was getting toward winter, but there it was: the final proof.

He hadn’t planned on being here this long. Definitely hadn’t planned on dealing with his least favorite time of year in this, a rickety coffin house with too little food and not enough blankets. He didn’t like being cold. He hated being cold. It felt like being weak, and small, and helpless, all things he had very much resolved not to feel again.

When it came down to it, though, the cold was avoidable. Blankets, a fire, hot tea, a warm bed. He could get away from cold.

What he couldn’t get away from was the fact that, reliable as the season itself, winter rolled around and the pain in his hand came with it.

Xue Yang knew pain. Was used to pain and could deal with a lot of it. He’d learned the need to push through it and keep going, because if you let pain distract you you’d lose a lot of fights that you couldn’t afford to lose. But the problem with his hand wasn’t like a sword cut or a bruise or a broken bone. It was deeper and didn’t stop and didn’t go away. Mostly he’d learned to live with it, sometimes better, sometimes worse.

But when it got cold and stormy, sometimes worse became always worse. The ache settled in and curled up, and some days it was bad enough that he didn’t want to fucking get up at all, didn’t want to think about his left hand from the wrist down, and wondered if it might be better to just chop the whole thing off.

It wasn’t that bad right now. But it’d get there.

Should’ve headed for somewhere warmer. Why hadn’t he done that? Too late now.

If he didn’t kill someone in this house over the next three months it was going to be a fucking miracle.

“My friend,” Xiao Xingchen said. Xue Yang paused in sharpening his knife but didn’t look up.


Xiao Xingchen sat down next to him. “What’s troubling you?”

Xue Yang narrowed his eyes, his hackles going up. “Who said anything was troubling me?”

“You did,” Xiao Xingchen said. Xue Yang stiffened, and he said, “not in words. But you’ve been quiet, these past days. Snappish, withdrawn.”

“Sounds like the usual me,” Xue Yang said.

“It isn’t.” Xiao Xingchen’s voice was so gentle. He hated it. It made him want to wring his neck, break his nose, dig his fingers into his empty eye sockets.

He fucking hurt, was the problem. He wanted to take a hammer and smash all his bones back to pieces. It seemed like it’d hurt less, somehow. He’d taken some medicine earlier and it’d taken some of the edge off, but there was still that deep ache gnawing on him like a dog on a chunk of old meat.

Days like this he wished he’d killed the Chang Clan slower. Wished he could’ve gotten to Chang Cian himself, taken him apart a piece at a time, maybe cut off his fingers one by one and fed them to him.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Don’t fuss at me, Daozhang.”

A flicker of a frown showed between his eyebrows. “I wasn’t trying to...fuss.”

“That’s what it sounded like to me.” He pushed himself to his feet, flexing his fingers like that’d make his hand hurt less. It didn’t do anything, of course. “I’m gonna go for a walk.”

Xiao Xingchen was definitely frowning now. “Do you want company?”

“No,” Xue Yang said. “I don’t. If you need someone to baby that bad, there’s always Qingqing.”

“I wasn’t trying to-” Xiao Xingchen cut off. He sounded sort of hurt. Good, Xue Yang thought viciously. “Enjoy your walk,” he said after a moment, voice a little stiffer. Xue Yang walked away without answering.

He hadn’t killed anyone yet. Gotten close, with the butcher. Almost carved him open right there in front of his shop.

Only hadn’t done it because there were too many witnesses, all of whom he’d’ve also had to kill if he didn’t want Xiao Xingchen to know about it, and Xiao Xingchen would probably notice ten or fifteen missing neighbors even if he didn’t overhear the screams.

But it was hard to fucking think right now, and he hadn’t had a solid night’s sleep in the last two days, and every time he snapped at a-Qing Xiao Xingchen gave him that disapproving, disappointed little frown that made him want to hurt him. Break every bone in his hands, maybe then he’d understand.

“My friend, Chu Rulin is having some trouble with,” Xiao Xingchen started to say when he walked in, dropping the remaining money on the table along with the cut of meat he’d wrangled out of the butcher. Xiao Xingchen wouldn’t appreciate it, but a-Qing would, at least, and he’d wanted it.

“I don’t care,” he said flatly.

Xiao Xingchen seemed genuinely taken aback. “Pardon?”

“I said, I don’t care,” Xue Yang said. “Chu Rulin is an asshole and a cheat and he can deal with his own fucking problems.”

That brought on the start of a frown. “This sort of problem, he cannot.”

“Then he can die,” Xue Yang said shortly. Xiao Xingchen jerked.

“What has gotten into you?”

“Maybe I’m just sick of dealing with stupid people who don’t know how to help themselves.” Xue Yang threw him a nasty smile that he couldn’t see, curling his fingers toward his palm like the legs of a dead spider. “They snicker and sneer about the blinds and the cripple up until they need you for something. It’s a waste of your time.”

Xiao Xingchen’s expression began to show a mixture of hurt and bewilderment. Xue Yang took a vicious satisfaction from both. He was such a fucking idiot sometimes, so, so-

“It isn’t,” he said. “I - am able to help. And happy to.” He paused, and then said, “you like going night hunting with me. Don’t you?”

The words bubbled up on his tongue - yeah, I love it, I love it best watching you slaughter the innocents you’re so eager to protect - and he only just swallowed them down. “Yeah, well, not today. If you want to go so bad, fine. Go. Doesn’t mean I have to.”

“No,” Xiao Xingchen said, after several long moments of silence. “I suppose it doesn’t.”

A-Qing accosted him after he’d gone. “You’re such an asshole,” she said. “Be lazy and useless, whatever, but you have no right to talk to Daozhang like that!”

“I have every right to do whatever I want,” Xue Yang snapped back at her. “Go squawk at someone who cares. But good luck finding anyone.”

“Daozhang should’ve left you in the ditch,” a-Qing hissed, and stalked off. Of course, then it was just him and the pain, no distractions.

Whatever. Fuck them both.

Fuck his stupid fucking useless fucked up hand.

He ate dinner alone and retreated to bed before Xiao Xingchen got back from the hunt only to lie awake, unable to go to sleep and feeling thoroughly, bitterly sorry for himself.

When he volunteered to make breakfast the next morning it was not an apology.

It wasn’t. It was just that Xiao Xingchen was a miserable cook - everything he made tasted like ‘hot’ and nothing else - and a-Qing had learned what she knew from him, so if he wanted to eat something that actually tasted good then he needed to make it himself.

And it wouldn’t be worth having to listen to a-Qing bitch about it if he only made enough for one person.

So he made breakfast. He used his left hand as little as possible and tried to not think about it, to cut off his awareness at his left elbow and ignore all the feedback he was getting from there on down. It wasn’t anything useful, anyway, just a lot of hurts and bad.

“Do you want any help?” Xiao Xingchen asked, coming up next to him.

“Nope,” Xue Yang said. “Sit down, Daozhang. Take it easy.” He flexed his fingers, which didn’t help. He did hear something pop in one of his joints, sending a burst of pain down his middle finger, and swore.

“Knife slipped,” he said, when Xiao Xingchen frowned. “Nicked myself. Stupid.”

“Oh,” Xiao Xingchen said. “That’s unlike you.”

“Everyone has off days,” Xue Yang said. It was a good thing Xiao Xingchen couldn’t see his grin, since it felt incredibly strained.

“I suppose so,” Xiao Xingchen said. “Is that what yesterday was? day?”

“Every day’s an off day,” a-Qing said. “He just has a bad personality.”

I’ll show you a bad personality, Xue Yang wanted to snarl, but Xiao Xingchen had already turned a faint frown on her. “A-Qing,” he said, gently chiding. “That is unkind.”

A-Qing scowled. Xue Yang laughed, though it sounded harsh. “Don’t worry, Daozhang,” he said. “That’s nothing. I’ve heard a lot worse.”

“All the same.”

Xue Yang huffed. “Whatever,” he said. “Move over, the pot-”

“Let me,” Xiao Xingchen said, and reaching out, his right hand knocked against Xue Yang’s left.

He recoiled violently.

That kind of touch didn’t actually hurt. At least, didn’t make it hurt worse. It wasn’t a movement he thought about and the moment he did it he was furious with himself for being so fucking obvious.

Xiao Xingchen froze. “Are you all right?” he asked, voice turning concerned.

“Yeah,” Xue Yang said immediately. “Yeah, I’m good. Just surprised me, Daozhang.”

Xiao Xingchen looked like he was going to say something, but at length he simply picked up the pot and held it out. Xue Yang took it and forced a laugh.

“You’d think I was the blind one,” he said. A-Qing glared at him.

“That’s not funny,” she said. Xiao Xingchen smiled faintly, but he said nothing, brows a little furrowed.

Xiao Xingchen spoke to him very little over the rest of the day, though Xue Yang could feel his attention. He was thinking through something. A-Qing, taking her cue from her beloved Daozhang, spoke even less and scowled every time he was in her vicinity.

She seemed to have a near preternatural sense for his presence. He’d asked her about it once and she’d claimed it was because he smelled. Xue Yang thought it was another small piece of evidence on the side of his suspicion that she might not be as blind as she claimed to be.

She’d be blind for sure if he carved out her eyes and fed them to her.

It hurt so bad he wanted to cry, and felt stupid for it even if he wasn’t going to and it was just that he wasn’t sleeping well and even the medicine he’d taken this morning barely took the edge off. And it was like every throb of pain was pushing him back, brutally reminding him of why it was like this, things, memories he liked to leave back in the gutter he’d clawed his way out of.

The entire Chang Clan could rot in hell for a thousand years, suffering every second of it. They should. If there was any such thing as cosmic justice, which there wasn’t.

He went for a walk. It didn’t actually help, but at least it got him away from the urge to draw Jiangzai and start cutting bits off a-Qing. Not that he’d regret doing it, but he wasn’t ready to end this arrangement yet.

When Xue Yang returned, Xiao Xingchen was sitting out in the courtyard, face turned up toward the sky like there was any sun he’d be able to feel.

“Is that you?” he said, turning in Xue Yang’s direction.

Xue Yang stopped. “No,” he said after a moment. “Definitely not.”

Xiao Xingchen’s lips twitched a little toward a smile, though it didn’t last long. Xue Yang flexed his fingers.

“Something bothering you, Daozhang?” he said. He tried to keep his voice casual, but it came out with an edge.

“Sit down,” Xiao Xingchen said, patting the ground in front of him. His voice was gentle but firm. Xue Yang balked, almost reflexively.


“Please,” Xiao Xingchen said. Still gentle. Still firm. Xue Yang stared at him for a while, then slowly walked over and sat down.

“Okay,” he said, with forced carelessness. “Now what, Daozhang? Are we going to play a game?”

Xiao Xingchen smiled, very slightly. “I’ve figured it out,” he said. Xue Yang’s whole body seized up in sudden, violent alarm.

“Figured what out,” he said. Not it it, he thought. Couldn’t be. Right?

“Why you’ve been so out of sorts,” Xiao Xingchen said.

Oh, that. Xue Yang relaxed with relief and scoffed. “I haven’t been out of sorts.

“Mm,” Xiao Xingchen said. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re - what?” Okay. So Xiao Xingchen had well and truly lost his mind. And he hadn’t even done anything to make him. Yet.

“Sorry,” Xiao Xingchen said, his voice still perfectly mild. “I should’ve noticed earlier. Though I think for some reason you didn’t want me to.”

Oh no, Xue Yang thought, stomach swooping like a bird dive-bombing someone. This was worse than Xiao Xingchen figuring out who he was.

Xiao Xingchen held out one of his hands. “Would you give me your hand?”

Xue Yang did not recoil. He did not let himself. Even if it were not for the tell of it- “No,” he said, “I need that, actually, sorry. You’ve got two of your own, don’t you?”

Xiao Xingchen didn’t laugh. He did smile a little, the small one that did funny things in the region of Xue Yang’s navel. He didn’t drop his hand.

“Why,” he said.

“Because it’s hurting you,” Xiao Xingchen said, “and I can help.”

Xue Yang felt a little like Xiao Xingchen had punched him in the chest. He wasn’t sure why; it was such a Xiao Xingchen thing to do, wasn’t it, offering to help the unfortunate, like Xue Yang was some kind of, of, helpless, pathetic, cringing weakling that he needed to assist. Which he wasn’t. Just because his hand had been hurting hard enough all day that he almost wanted to cry, which he absolutely would not; just because it was hard to think about anything else, just because he knew it wasn’t going to stop any time soon and even fucking - the rush of killing someone wouldn’t make it go away-

“I’m fine,” he snarled, pulling his hand into his chest like Xiao Xingchen was going to try to grab it. “I can handle it.”

“I’m sure you could,” Xiao Xingchen said. “But would you allow me to help anyway?”

He was breathing too quick. His chest was weirdly tight. Xiao Xingchen’s expression was calm and so fucking sincere and it made him mad, it made him really mad and he was just going to-

“Please,” Xiao Xingchen said. Like it was some kind of - of favor he was asking.

He swallowed hard. Pulled his left hand carefully away from his chest and looked down at it.

Wasn’t like Xiao Xingchen would be able to see, or anything. And if he could actually do something useful then - then it only made sense to take advantage. And it was sort of funny, wasn’t it, Xiao Xingchen being so nice and not knowing who he was being nice to, what Xue Yang had been making him do, the truth about all those dangerous fierce corpses he was dispatching.

He inched a little closer. Slowly, gingerly, took off the half glove, dropped it in his lap, and stuck out his hand, though he didn’t actually put it in Xiao Xingchen’s. “Here,” he said roughly. “If you want to so bad.”

Xiao Xingchen moved his hand until he found Xue Yang’s and then took it, his touch light, skin a little cooler than his own. He almost yanked away but managed not to, holding perfectly still as Xiao Xingchen ran his fingers lightly over his hand, not pressing down hard enough to hurt. Xue Yang knew what he’d be able to feel. The places the bones hadn’t quite healed right together. His fingers a little crooked.

The corners of Xiao Xingchen’s mouth turned down slightly. He stopped outright when his touch found the stump where his smallest finger should’ve been.

It was all he could do not to yank away. Even the light brush over the mess of scar tissue left behind made him shudder, hand spasming. He waited. Waited. A risk, it was a risk, obviously, a big one, but fuck, sooner or later he’d notice and better it happened on his time.

“What happened,” Xiao Xingchen asked. Xue Yang shrugged.

“Does it matter? It was a long time ago.” His voice came out sounding weird. Sort of - brittle, like dry bone.

Xiao Xingchen hesitated like he was going to press, and Xue Yang’s hackles started to rise, but then he just nodded. “Does it bother you often?”

Xue Yang shrugged his right shoulder in a pointless gesture Xiao Xingchen wouldn’t see. “Not really. I’m used to it.”

A sort of weird expression flickered across Xiao Xingchen’s face, around his mouth and eyebrows. “But it’s worse right now?”

“I guess.”

Xiao Xingchen’s lips pressed together briefly. He turned Xue Yang’s hand palm up, moved his fingers back down to the base of his palm, just above his wrist, and pressed his thumb down, dragging up and to the left. Xue Yang yelped and tried to jerk away, a jolt of something like betrayal zinging through him, but Xiao Xingchen didn’t let go.

“Hold still,” he said. “I promise, this is going to help.”

“That hurt,” he hissed.

“I’m sorry,” Xiao Xingchen said. “I’ll be gentler.” This time the pressure was lighter, and accompanied by the warmth of spiritual energy sinking into his hand. He had to focus not to fidget, his skin prickling weirdly, tense, nervous energy winding him up.

“Is it the weather?” Xiao Xingchen asked. “That makes it worse?”

“I guess.”

“Hm.” Xiao Xingchen’s lips pressed together again. After a moment he paused and said, “you didn’t need to keep this to yourself.”

Xue Yang laughed harshly. “I’m not a whiner, Daozhang. Like I said, I’m used to it.”

“Being used to it doesn’t mean having to endure it always. You are welcome to ask me for help.”

Instinctively, Xue Yang wanted to recoil. Ask for help. Like that was something he could just do, like that was something he should do. You didn’t ask people for help same way you didn’t trust offers of a good thing to come without strings attached. They’d always end up wanting something. Someone offered, sure, take advantage, but ask?

No, thanks.

Xiao Xingchen’s fingers pressed down and a current of warmth flowed through his hand, along the bones through his palm, down his remaining fingers and then back. It hurt and it didn’t. It felt good and it didn’t.

“You’re my friend,” Xiao Xingchen said. “I don’t want you to be in pain.”

Xue Yang didn’t quite gape at him. He did feel a little like he’d been knifed, and at the same time he wanted to laugh. Wanted to laugh and not stop laughing.

What he said, a little hoarse, was, “think you’re a little late on that one, Daozhang.”

Xiao Xingchen paused for a moment, but only a moment. He looked like he wanted to ask again, and Xue Yang waited for him to. He wasn’t sure what he’d say, either, if he’d tell the truth or lie. He’d never told anyone else. He sort of wondered how it’d feel to tell Xiao Xingchen.

“I’m sorry,” he said. Xue Yang blinked.

“The fuck are you apologizing for?”

“It must have hurt,” Xiao Xingchen said. “When it happened. And clearly it still hurts you now.”

Xue Yang’s hackles went up. “I don’t need you to pity me, Daozhang,” he said. He meant it to be teasing, but it came out sharp and full of teeth, dangerous. Xiao Xingchen didn’t so much as twitch, his thumb instead finding another point and pressing down; he felt it all the way up his arm and in his teeth, and then release. Not entirely, not an absence of pain - almost never - but an easing of it.

“I know,” Xiao Xingchen said. “And it isn’t pity. It is…” He paused for a moment, then said, “sorrow, for your suffering.”

Xue Yang swallowed hard. Stared at him, uneasily, and was a little relieved that Xiao Xingchen couldn’t see him doing it.

“Okay,” he said, a couple seconds too late. Xiao Xingchen gave him a small smile, then bent his head back to his work, slowly and meticulously laboring at mending damage he was far too late to fix.

It did hurt less, though, when he was done.