“I killed a man today.” Xue Yang says. Xiao Xingchen’s hand pauses, fingers still stroking against his cheek. Xue Yang fists his hands in the blanket, fighting the urge to flee from the bed they’ve half laid down in.
“You were out for longer than usual.” Xiao Xingchen says carefully, dropping his hand to lightly fall on Xue Yang’s. He can’t help flinching away. Xiao Xingchen frowns and smooths the empty sheet.
“He deserved it. He was a- you wouldn’t have liked him.”
“Why?” Xiao Xingchen isn’t totally facing him, but Xue Yang feels stared at, like he wants to crawl deep inside his skin.
“Total asshole. Wanted me to leave here and never come back.” Xue Yang makes himself relax, which he knows doesn’t work on Xiao Xingchen, who can practically sense the tension in his shoulders he’s sure, but he leans against the wall anyway.
“So you killed him?” That same tone again, like Xiao Xingchen knows how carefully he needs to tread to keep Xue Yang from getting spooked. He hates that it’s working, that he’s staying calm.
“Mhm. Won’t be a problem anymore. You’re stuck with me.” He stretches his legs out on the bed to make his point. Xiao Xingchen doesn’t smile, but he does pull the blanket over their legs.
“What was his name?” Xiao Xingchen asks, laying down. Xue Yang freezes. His partner’s head turns to him, unseeing but pointedly.
“Does it matter?” Xue Yang says, weakly.
“Chengmei,” He says slowly, “what was his name?”
“It’s uh-” He shakes his head, sinks onto the mattress. “I think he said it was Xue Yang. I cut his throat pretty quick after that.”
Xiao Xingchen, miraculously, barely falters. His brows knit together a little, then smooth over naturally, and he lets out a soft sigh.
“Will you be in any trouble?” he asks.
“Who, me?” Xue Yang’s voice cracks, but Xiao Xingchen doesn’t point it out. He smiles softly, hand brushing over Xue Yang’s hair.
“I’m glad you’ve taken care of it.” He says softly, pulling Xue Yang’s head into his chest. Xue Yang goes with the action, familiar now, and buries his face in the soft fabric of his robes. It crosses his mind, as it always does, how easy it would be for Xiao Xingchen to reach for his sword like this, laid up against the wall just inches away. If he suspected a thing he could drive it into Xue Yang’s back, and Xue Yang isn’t even sure he’d try and fight it, at this point. His muscles relax without his permission, heartbeat slowing as a hand strokes through his hair.
“Xue Yang...” Xiao Xingchen starts, and then pauses, jaw working. Xue Yang can feel it, his chin brushing the crown of his head. He fists his hands in Xiao Xingchen’s robes and closes his eyes. “Is not a name I’ve heard in a long time.” He says finally. Xue Yang doesn’t breathe. “Did you know him, before?” Xue Yang curses himself, considers rolling on top of Xiao Xingchen, kissing him, getting up for a glass of water, anything for this conversation to end. The hand on the back of his head is steady.
“We’d crossed paths.”
“Hmm.” Xue Yang waits, but no further response comes.
“Did you know him?” Ah, Xue Yang wants to cut out his own tongue, now. He settles for biting it until he tastes blood and lays perfectly still as Xiao Xingchen slowly pulls back from him, rolls onto his back, arm still looped around Xue Yang. He takes another deep breath.
“Not as well as I thought, I think.” He says. Xue Yang can’t piece together what that means, so he draws himself closer, tugs the blanket over his shoulders behind him. The silence drags on until it tips past the point where Xue Yang feels he is allowed to break it. Xiao Xingchen isn’t asleep, but he’s not stroking his hair anymore, so Xue Yang carefully settles himself, pulls back a hairs breath so his head can rest more on Xiao Xingchen’s arm, instead of the pillow, because he knows when it falls asleep Xiao Xingchen will roll over and hold him close again. He has this down to a science. He allows himself to smirk, pats himself on the back for his genius-- plan? He certainly didn’t get this far, but he’d decided as he frantically paced the woods, the sound of dead feet crunching in the leaves all around him, that this would work. Let Xiao Xingchen think he was dead, and there was no more risk of being found out. He could leave everything they’d done behind. He could leave everything he’d done behind. He could have this. Xue Yang breathes in, which is a mistake because he chokes on his own blood, pooled forgotten in the back of his throat. Xiao Xingchen startles, tugging him up into a sitting position, face crinkled in concern.
“I’m fine-” Xue Yang chokes out, spitting blood into his elbow and quickly wiping the edges of his mouth. Xiao Xingchen’s hands follow the motion, flitting from his shoulders to his fingers, wrapping around them tightly.
“Did he injure you?” He asks. Xue Yang can’t handle the sharpness in that tone, the embedded threat behind it even after the lie he’d told. The absolute confidence he has that Xiao Xingchen would find a way to get revenge for him, even on a dead man. His cough turns into a sob.
“Of course not.” Xue Yang snaps, curling in on himself, letting Xiao Xingchen bundle him into his lap. He hates this. He should leave, fuck whatever this feeling in his chest is.
“It’s okay,” Xiao Xingchen strokes Xue Yang’s back, which jumps under his touch as he fights back tears, mostly successfully. Mostly. “Did he say something to you?” Xiao Xingchen sounds so genuine Xue Yang wants to scream. He shakes his head, hopes Xiao Xingchen can feel it enough for his point to get across. The hand on his back slows, resting steady between his shoulder blades. “He really was an awful man.” Xiao Xingchen says. Xue Yang shivers.
“Just the other day you said that about me.” He forces his voice to sound somewhat confident, teasing.
“Yes, well, you shouldn’t have picked a fight with A-Qing. You two should know better than that by now.” He’s back to being so casual, Xue Yang hates it. He hates that this is working on him, that the pressure on his back is soothing instead of filling him with dread. He rubs at his eyes and barks out a laugh.
“It was her fault. I won’t promise it won’t happen again.” He bites back, with no malice. Xiao Xingchen laughs under his breath.
“Stubborn.” Xue Yang peaks up to see him shake his head.
“That’s what you love about me.” His voice is still watery, but it comes a little easier.
“Mhm. I have a type.” Xiao Xingchen lifts his hands and strokes it through Xue Yang’s hair once more, nails scratching against his scalp. Xue Yang huffs out a laugh, never sure how to reply to those comments, rare as they are. He simply refuses to think about them too much. He knows nothing about who they could be referring to. Xue Yang is just another corpse in the woods, for all he cares. He takes a deep breath, without trouble this time.
“I’m gonna get some water.” He pushes himself up, coming nose to nose with Xiao Xingchen. He breathes out, just so he knows he’s there. Xiao Xingchen nods, tilting his face forward. Xue Yang lets himself be kissed, and only worries when he’s standing in the kitchen with his cup if Xiao Xingchen could taste blood.
Xiao Xingchen tells himself he knew. He isn’t sure when, if the pieces slotted together sometime in the first few months if it was after or before they first kissed, he knows the first time he really considered it was with Xue Yang curled next to him in bed, bare skin slightly cold against his own. He’d finally let his mind wander to the evidence it had put together since he first heard his voice. The accent is good- very good. He certainly would still be fooled by it today. The biting remarks- well, anyone in enough pain might react that way, he couldn’t blame him.
He thinks it may have been the day in the market. He’d filled his basket, mostly because he’d heard the slide of metal and really would have liked to avoid a scene, and it popped into his head that this was a very Xue Yang thing to do. He’d been disappointed in his new companion. But they’d needed the food.
A month in, he’d walked in the door only to have a bundle of clothes tossed in his face.
“These need washing.” Came that voice. Xiao Xingchen let them fall to the floor. I know what Xue Yang smells like wasn’t a thought he felt he should have, all respects to himself, but it simply wasn’t reasonable information for his brain to have stored for-- how many years?
“Come on, don’t give me that face.” Xue Yang- Chengmei, then, still, he hadn’t gotten nearly that far yet-- whined, chair scraping back. Xiao Xingchen shook his head to clear the thoughts away and stepped pointedly over the bundle of clothes, careful not to trip.
“I’m not doing your laundry. You’ll do it with A-Qing tomorrow.” He navigated over to the table and set down his basket.
“What if I promise you something nice?” Chengmei says faux-innocently, but Xiao Xingchen hears him tread across the room and pick up the clothes.
“I’m not sure I’d agree with your idea of nice.” Xiao Xingchen lifted the cover of the basket and started to unpack what he’d bought, ignoring the grumble from across the room. “I’ll set out this robe for you tomorrow too, there was a mud puddle on the way back.” He isn’t actually sure the state of his robes, just that there had been some rain recently, but he gets a very reluctant affirmative noise, and the door creaks open and shuts. He sets down the fruit he’s holding and grips the wood for a moment to steady himself. Memory is a tricky thing. He isn’t even sure what Song Lan smelled like, or at least can’t seem to force his brain to recall. He’s sure if he smelled something similar it would come back to him. His senses could be playing tricks on him, perhaps. Xiao Xingchen shakes his head and starts putting together lunch for three.
When Chengmei backs him into a wall and kisses him for the first time, his head is blissfully empty of any even remotely Xue Yang-related thoughts. And it stays that way for most of the night. Most.
“Are you enjoying this?” Chengmei whispers, lips somewhere above Xiao Xingchen’s chest. And he freezes, for a second, because he’s heard that voice before, saying those words, except it was accompanied by the sound of steel and the feeling of slick rooftops under his feet, and fury burning in his chest, clawing it’s way up to his throat as he’d replied--
His hand becomes a fist in Chengmei’s hair, which draws out a moan from him, and he falls against his chest, nails scratching up his arms, and Xiao Xingchen lets the memory slip away, for another day.
Another day comes the first night he doesn’t ask Chengmei to stay. It’s not on purpose, it’s become their routine, now, he asks and he’ll either slip away or begrudgingly curl up under the covers, acting as if he hates every moment of it until he begins to drift off. Except for tonight, Xiao Xingchen got caught up combing through his hair, and now he’s asleep, beside him, nose smushed up against his chest in a way that certainly doesn’t seem comfortable but he put himself there, so who is he to move him, and he sleeps so fitfully usually-
That’s what he puts together. Those nights on the road, Xue Yang bound and under watch yet still grinning, except for when he slept. He’d toss and turn in his bonds and Xiao Xingchen had almost- almost- felt bad for him. Song Lan had given him a look. He’d turned away, bad dreams were hardly the first of what that man deserved.
He remembers now a night, early on, when Chengmei had fallen off his cot. Their rooms were separated, but the house they’d claimed was small enough, and without his sight, his hearing had sharpened. He’d gone to see what was wrong and found, well, nothing. He asked where he’d gone the next day, over breakfast, while A-Qing stole food from his plate.
“Out for a walk. Couldn’t sleep.” Chengmei had grumbled.
“Dreams?” Xiao Xingchen had pressed. He liked to press, test the waters with this man. He was starting to find where the lines were in the sand.
“Something like that.” He sounds tired . Xiao Xingchen puts that down, in his mental image of his companion he’s building, without a visual to base it off.
“I can buy some medicine to help with sleep.” He offers. Chengmei scrapes his plate off the table with a little too much force as he stands, not in an outburst, but he is signaling he is done with this conversation. It’s an improvement, however small.
“Don’t waste the money. I’m fine.” He snaps, and stalks away. Xiao Xingchen sighs and snaps a hand out, catching A-Qing’s hand as she reaches again for his plate. She complains, and he eventually pushes the leftovers to her anyway.
“I could slip the medicine into his food.” A-Qing provides helpfully. “Maybe he’d be nicer if he got enough sleep.”
“Maybe,” Xiao Xingchen says softly. He makes a mental note to ask around the next time he’s at the market if they have the money.
He only gets a few doses, and only the first one seems to work. He isn’t sure if Chengmei catches A-Qing in the act or if he’s just resistant to it, but the first morning Xiao Xingchen wakes up to him laughing, and after a moment A-Qing laughs too, and Xiao Xingchen lets himself relax back in bed another moment. He thinks there’s a way they can work something out.
Chengmei’s dreams happen when they share a bed, but they can be soothed with a few touches now, and the closer he holds him the less and less they seem to interrupt the night. Bad dreams aren’t an uncommon occurrence. But Xiao Xingchen lets all the pieces float around in his brain. He forces himself to ask the question. If the man next to him is Xue Yang, what does he do next? His sword is achingly close yet feels achingly far away. His arm is falling asleep under Xue Yang’s head, so he rolls over and repositions them, and Xue Yang sleeps through it, and he smells more like sex and the spices they spilled together when making dinner than any whiff he doesn’t remember intentionally taking. And he’s let himself be here, tucked into Xiao Xingchen’s arms. He’s protected him and fought by his side, and his voice slips more and more often now, but he says it’s because he and A-Qing were trying on funny voices, and he’s just continuing the joke. Xiao Xingchen keeps to himself that talking like Xue Yang isn’t exactly a funny joke, and certainly that A-Qing wouldn’t get it if it was. He decides to suspend judgment. His actions this past year speak for themselves, more or less. He certainly could have killed him a hundred times over if he wanted to by now. He certainly doesn’t have to be here, in his bed, spent and hair a mess, tickling Xiao Xingchen’s nose. Xiao Xingchen doesn’t let himself think about what this means about him , sleeping side by side with a murderer. This murderer. He thinks they should use up the rest of the eggs for breakfast tomorrow, they’re getting close to going bad.
“I killed a man today,” Xue Yang says, voice dropped low and serious. Xiao Xingchen maps the curve of his cheek with a thumb, over a familiar scar.
“You were out for longer than usual.” Xue Yang grits his teeth when he lies- clenches the back molars even if he’s laughing as he does it.
“He deserved it. He was a- you wouldn’t have liked him.” Xiao Xingchen isn’t sure Xue Yang has a good sense of who he does and doesn’t like, given, well. He keeps his expression steady and replies.
“Total asshole. Wanted me to leave here and never come back.” Xue Yang sounds...anguished. He does a good job of hiding it, but there’s an edge to his voice, out of his control. He shifts, brushing past Xiao Xingchen’s shoulder to sink against the wall.
“So you killed him?” Xiao Xingchen says, keeping his voice steady. He often approaches serious conversations with Xue Yang, rare as they are, like he has a dangerous animal trapped in a corner. It doesn’t feel like much of a stretch from the truth, even if Xue Yang insists on being on the outer side of the bed, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. Some part of Xiao Xingchen knows he won’t.
“Mhm. Won’t be a problem anymore. You’re stuck with me.” Xiao Xingchen can accept that. He fiddles with the blanket, not drawing it all the way up yet, in case Xue Yang does spook and run off from this conversation.
“What was his name?” Xiao Xingchen lays himself down, turning towards Xue Yang, even unable to see him it brings him some comfort to face him, to show his expression is relaxed and hope Xue Yang can do the same.
“Does it matter?” Xue Yang says, weakly.
“Chengmei,” Xiao Xingchen lets the name fall softly from his lips. He doesn’t like the face Xue Yang makes when he uses it, and prefers not to think about the fight that had lead to him giving it up, after months with nothing to call him. “what was his name?”
“It’s uh-” Xue Yang shuts his eyes and sinks onto the mattress, shifting away so he’s barely touching Xiao Xingchen. “I think he said it was Xue Yang. I cut his throat pretty quick after that.”
Xiao Xingchen’s breath catches. He’s quick to smooth it over, shifts his facial features back to what he hopes is a natural resting state. He weighs the two options before him. He could be wrong . At the core of his being, he wants to be wrong. He wants to have been living these past few months making a rather upsetting mistake, thinking this man is Xue Yang, he wants the man next to him to be telling the truth, because he loves him, because he knows Xiao Xingchen wants him to be honest and good.
He just admitted to killing someone. Someone, Xiao Xingchen can say with some confidence, isn’t an easy man to kill. He’s pretty sure only a few people in the world could manage it. Xue Yang, for one. Xue Yang, who is laying stalk-still in the bed next to him, breath caught in his throat.
“Will you be in any trouble?” he asks.
“Who, me?” Xue Yang’s voice cracks. Xiao Xingchen wishes he could see him. Wishes he wasn’t in this mess of his own creation. Xue Yang should have run the second he saw him. He should have sent him away or killed him the minute he suspected anything.
Xiao Xingchen reaches out and brushes back Xue Yang’s hair, letting his fingers trail through it softly.
“I’m glad you’ve taken care of it.” He makes up his mind. Xue Yang is trying something here. Whether it’s the final step of his plan to turn on him or- and how Xiao Xingchen aches for this- some kind of symbolic goodbye to who he was, he will let him have this. Xiao Xingchen pulls Xue Yang into his chest as if the familiar action will influence him in a favorable direction. They’ve long agreed to a “no-knives-in-bed” rule, though Xiao Xingchen knows Xue Yang’s sword isn’t ever far away. He hopes he’s above driving it into his gut while he’s holding him like this. The way Xue Yang melts into him seems to prove him right.
“Xue Yang...” He says slowly, then stops himself as Xue Yang’s body in his arms tenses, all of a sudden drawn tight. Xiao Xingchen makes his voice continue. “Is not a name I’ve heard in a long time.” Xue Yang still doesn’t breathe, but his hands twitch, reaching or pulling away, he can’t tell. Xiao Xingchen continues. “Did you know him, before?” ‘Before’ is the most dangerous topic, for both of them. Xiao Xingchen tangles his fingers in the hair at the back of Xue Yang’s head and holds him there. Feels, finally, a whisper of breath where he is pressed into his chest.
“We’d crossed paths.” Xiao Xingchen wonders how long he’s been using his real voice, or if the accent has just blended in so deeply in his brain that he can’t tell the difference anymore.
“Hmm.” He remembers the first slip-up, Chengmei’s lips with Xue Yang’s voice, hands he’d never had the chance to touch when he could see them, but now that he feels them, he can picture how they hold a sword.
“Did you know him?” That jolts Xiao Xingchen back to the moment. Xue Yang’s breath cuts off again, shoulders tense and jaw clamping down on his own words.
Xiao Xingchen rolls onto his back, head swimming. He pulls his hands back and rests them at his sides, loosely touching Xue Yang still.
“Not as well as I thought, I think.” Xiao Xingchen says, after a deep breath. Xue Yang is still for another long moment, and then shifts, for a split second Xiao Xingchen fears he’s going to leave, but then a hand falls loosely over his chest, and Xue Yang tucks himself into his side, head resting on his arm in a way that is going to start hurting soon enough, but he lets him do it every night anyway. Xue Yang settles into him, and finally breathes in-- only to jolt up, wracked with coughs.
Xiao Xingchen pushes him all the way up, holding his shoulders firmly, unsure if he’s choking or sick- he hadn’t sounded sick before, had he?
Xue Yang gasps for breath before him.
“I’m fine-” He spits, and Xiao Xingchen smells blood. The fabric between them shifts as Xue Yang twists away, and Xiao Xingchen grips his shoulders, refusing to allow him to flee now .
“Did he injure you?” It’s a stupid question, he’s sure enough now Xue Yang was not in an actual fight, but it spills from his lips anyways. Xue Yang makes a noise that might be a sob or just another wet cough.
“Of course not.” Xue Yang snaps, fiery and familiar. He curls in on himself, and Xiao Xingchen does the only thing he can think to, pulling him into his lap, stroking his back as he feels the muscles jump, lungs stretching for air.
“It’s okay,” Xiao Xingchen strokes his back, steadies his own breath in an attempt to be soothing. “Did he say something to you?” He knows what it’s like, to say awful things to yourself. He’s caught Xue Yang in enough bad moods to know at least a bit of the inner conflict he goes through. He thinks maybe those glints of regret were what convinced him to put off the conclusion for so long until it was too late to reverse whatever they had fallen into with each other. “He really was an awful man.”
Xue Yang shivers in his lap. “Just the other day you said that about me.” His tone is biting, but without enough breath behind it still it falls a little flat, and it feels like a stone in the pit of Xiao Xingchen’s stomach.
“Yes, well, you shouldn’t have picked a fight with A-Qing. You two should know better than that by now.” He goes for the casual response, if he’s going to continue along with this metaphor he might as well sell it. Xue Yang shakes slightly, but his breath comes naturally again, and slowly he shifts, barking out a laugh.
“It was her fault. I won’t promise it won’t happen again.” That makes Xiao Xingchen smile despite himself.
“Stubborn.” He shakes his head softly.
“That’s what you love about me.” Xue Yang’s voice is still a bit off, though if it’s tears or him still attempting to change the pitch enough not to be recognized Xiao Xingchen is’t sure.
“Mhm. I have a type.” Xiao Xingchen strokes through his hair, and Xue Yang laughs, a bit forcedly. Xiao Xingchen hears him take another intake of breath, stable this time.
“I’m gonna get some water.” Xue Yang pushes out from under his hands, all of a sudden gone from him besides the slight tilt of the mattress where he still hits. Warm breath gusts across his face. Xiao Xingchen leans in for it and presses his lips against the source. Xue Yang kisses back, gently, tiredly, unlike most of their kisses but Xiao Xingchen will treasure it all the same. He can excuse the sting of iron it leaves on his tongue, as Xue Yang gets up, floorboards creaking as he crosses the room. Xiao Xingchen settles back in bed, adjusts the blanket, lays a hand in the still warm empty space beside him, and waits.