I hope you are well. How long has it been since we last met in person?
It is said that a man’s thoughts invariably take the shape of his surrounds; perhaps it is inevitable, then, that my thoughts should stray from my obligations, here. That the mind is frayed by worldly concerns. By thoughts of how we could have made time to meet; last season, last month, last week. Tomorrow. Today. Our responsibilities must come first, of course, and should I manage to
return to recover, doubtless my thoughts will fold into their proper shapes again. But here, now, I only
Perhaps Shufu was right; it is the inevitable weakness of our family line to put our hearts before our duty.
Since Meng Yao told me of the Wens’ incursion into the Unclean Realm, my mind ever returns to thoughts of your wellbeing. You will insist that such worry is unnecessary, I know. Meng Yao also swore to your safety, that you and your sect emerged from the encounter with Wen Chao relatively unscathed. But how quickly things can change, when war—and it is surely war, by now—rages around us. How easily lives are lost. So please do not begrudge me the wish to know, with my own hands and eyes, that you are well.
The only light in this difficult time has been your Meng Yao. He rescued me from the brink of death, and has remained by my side
despite my despite much ado—nothing worth speaking of, except to commend the one person who bore witness, who bore the indignity with endless patience and compassion. I am better, now. Still, the strength to wield Shuoyue remains beyond me at present. So there is precious little to do in our meagre hideout, except struggle with meditation and convalescence. And for all the clamour of mundanity around us, my ears still strain to pick out the beat of war in the chatter of the fishwives below. To draw out even a sliver of news from these interminable hours of waiting. Because Meng Yao does not tell me where he goes during the day , and I wish. But at least he returns to my side, most nights.
This, I do wish you could answer; why is he at my side, instead of yours? He said only that he is no longer a member of the Nie Sect, and I could see it hurt him to say even this much, so we have not spoken of it further. But you used to say that you would rather give up your own brother than such an excellent second-in-command. And while I know you were mostly joking, it remains that he is here, when he ought to be by your side. Now more than ever. Whatever happened, you should know that from the moment I met him, I knew that he was yours, more than any of your other men were. Whatever has come between you, I hope that you will both seek to mend it—I know that you have always met devotion with devotion, loyalty with love, and I know that your Meng Yao is just the same.
Perhaps all that is talk for peacetime. For right now, I only wish to know that you are well, that you will remain well until, fate willing, I am able to meet you again.
The letter sits on the table, ignored by the both of them, when Meng Yao returns that evening. His placid mask is fracturing into exhaustion at the corners of his eyes, the cracks deep enough for Xichen to notice, before Meng Yao paints over them with a smile. Xichen smiles back, but he takes care to keep his eyes averted as he lays out their paltry dinner. When Meng Yao eventually comes to the table, he is no longer bothering to smile, and Xichen thinks that the tension in his shoulders has loosened slightly. They eat in silence. Meng Yao forgoes the trouble of carrying in water for a bath and wipes himself down with a wet cloth, and Xichen forces himself to meditate instead of scanning Meng Yao’s body for injuries. They go to sleep, still silent, curled into each other on the narrow bed.
The next morning, Meng Yao pauses before stepping out the door, and asks about the letter. Xichen finds himself hesitating. “I wrote it for Mingjue,” he says at last. “If you should happen upon the Nie encampment, you could...” and trails off at the minute tightening of Meng Yao’s jaw.
“You know I’m no longer a part of his sect, Lan-gongzi,” says Meng Yao mildly, and Xichen flinches himself.
He should leave it at that. Without knowing how things stand between Meng Yao and Mingjue, surely anything he says might only make things worse.
But perhaps it is the sudden chill of distance; Meng Yao about to walk out the door with ‘Lan-gongzi’ hanging like a rebuke between them. Perhaps it is the persistent, gnawing strangeness of seeing Meng Yao’s hair absent of the intricate Nie braids. Perhaps it is only that Xichen is utterly worn out—his spiritual energy drained away to stave off another lung infection, leaving him to itch unbearably from the bed bugs instead. Whatever it is, Xichen finds himself without the strength to stop himself from saying, “You could be a part of mine, Meng Yao.”
Meng Yao freezes. He doesn’t turn around.
Xichen has the sinking suspicion that he is tearing open a half-healed scab, getting blood under his nails, but now that the words are already between them, he can only carry on. “If you wanted. For as long as you wanted.”
Meng Yao laughs, curt and ugly, and when he turns around, his face is blank. “I’m only a book-keeper, Lan-gongzi.”
Blood under his nails. “And maybe all that’s left of my sect is in that trunk,” Xichen returns, words he has pushed ruthlessly aside every morning, waking up from dreams of fire and ash, clinging like a child to safer thoughts, safer hopes. The trunk in the corner of the room holds the ancient, foundational texts of his sect, his Lan Sect robes, Shuoyue, and—he thinks in those mornings—absolutely nothing of value.
Meng Yao blinks. The blankness on his face washes away, and after a moment, he furrows his brow and says quietly, “Xichen...”
The undeserved empathy curdles in his gut, and Xichen has to turn away. But Meng Yao deserves to hear the entirety of this thought, so he forces himself to say, “Perhaps it is worth nothing. But what little it is worth, what little I have, I would give it to you, if you wanted.”
There is a long silence. Xichen looks down at his swollen fingers, barely remembering to hold them still, to not clench his half-healed bones into fists. Looks down at where his wrists emerge from the rough-spun robes that Meng Yao had bought for him (it’s too dangerous to pawn off any of your belongings right now, Meng Yao had sighed), robes that Meng Yao had washed and mended for him, with his own hands. He shouldn’t have said anything. What does he have of any worth?
But when Meng Yao speaks, he sounds only thoughtful. “Is this something of yours to give, too?” And when Xichen looks up, Meng Yao is knelt at their table, holding the letter in his hands.
Ah, Xichen thinks, of course Meng Yao has already read it. He wonders if that should bother him, if it’s appropriate for him to be relieved instead. But the thought is muted, a faint echo under the blanketing weight of his constant exhaustion. He can barely remember what possessed him to write that letter in the first place, what little comfort he had wanted to claw back from the dark. “No,” says Xichen, “I had hoped… I was only being selfish. You needn’t do anything. Only come back safe tonight.”
Xichen reaches out to take the letter back, but Meng Yao stands back up, holding the letter out of reach. “If I could find Nie-zongzhu...” Meng Yao begins.
Xichen looks away. “If you think that’s best, then... But you shouldn’t do anything that could hurt you. That could put you in danger,” he corrects himself.
When he finally looks back up, Meng Yao’s face has gone blank again. Xichen wishes, not for the first time, that he might one day learn to read Meng Yao the way Meng Yao seems to always be able to read him. Some days, he thinks that he’s learning. But other times...
Then Meng Yao smiles, small and resigned, and there is something deep and consuming in his eyes that Xichen cannot parse. “I shouldn’t,” Meng Yao agrees, “but who knows what some things are worth.”
It takes Xichen too long to recollect the thread of their conversation, to figure out what it is that Meng Yao shouldn’t. By then, Meng Yao has already left, taking the letter with him.