[read it on ao3]
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If it had been possible to do without getting caught, Meng Yao thinks that Lan Xichen would have insisted on carrying him back inside the manor, sand still falling off of the both of them. Meng Yao had long since known it was in his hair, but it hadn’t gotten into Lan Xichen’s until after they’d finished. Lan Xichen had laid them both on the blanket, but he’d kept Meng Yao’s head on his chest, his voice warm and lulling. He’d talked about the stars and Meng Yao had done his best to listen while their bodies cooled and their hearts slowed.
Meng Yao’s fingers still remember the feeling of Lan Xichen’s bare chest underneath them, the warmth of it, the steady rise and fall of it. Meng Yao had meant to kiss Lan Xichen’s heart, but he’d only been able to get most of the way there. Lan Xichen had still rewarded Meng Yao with a smile, his fingers buried in Meng Yao’s hair, and then he’d said it.
“A-Yao, I love you.” The words had come to Lan Xichen easily, but they’d made Meng Yao go still, his eyes wider than a doe’s. He hadn’t planned on running away, but Lan Xichen’s arms had still tightened around him. “I don’t want you to say it back if you’re not ready, but I wanted you to know that this,” Lan Xichen had fumbled for a moment, but had succeeded in pressing Meng Yao’s hand against his chest, the beating of his heart steady and strong, “I wanted you to know that this is yours and yours only.”
Bathwater, almost too hot, wraps around Meng Yao like the arms of something greedy and possessive as he lowers himself into the tub, the memory of Lan Xichen’s hands and words sinking into his skin. They wouldn’t wash away, Meng Yao didn’t want them to.
His mouth had opened and closed, and his eyes had felt wet, even as Meng Yao pressed his free hand against Lan Xichen’s jaw. “I want to. I want to say it back, but…” Meng Yao’s tongue had gotten clumsy, it tripped over his words and made him stumble, it made him feel smaller than he already was when he was pressed against Lan Xichen. He’d tried to shrink with it, but Lan Xichen had only turned his head to kiss Meng Yao’s palm.
Lan Xichen is patient.
Lan Xichen is kind.
Lan Xichen’s heart belongs to him, he’d told Meng Yao so himself, without hesitation or fear of being turned away.
“You would only be the second person I’ve ever said it to.” Shame had threatened to creep up Meng Yao’s spine, but Lan Xichen’s arm had draped over his back instead. His fingers had rubbed slow circles that made Meng Yao sleepy. Lan Xichen’s hand still kept Meng Yao’s pressed against his chest, his heartbeat forgiving.
“A-Yao should only tell me if he’s ready, I’m not upset if he isn’t.” Lan Xichen’s lips moved against his forehead, keeping the worst of the guilt and the worry away. Meng Yao had wanted to burst, the words had gathered into a bubble, but they’d lodged into his throat and refused to move.
Meng Yao can still feel his eyes stinging at the memory, he can still feel the ache in his throat, but it eases as Meng Yao slips beneath the water’s surface. Lan Xichen hadn’t been angry with him, he hadn’t even been disappointed or sad. He’d still followed Meng Yao into his room and slept there until the early hours of the morning, and then he’d slipped away with his lips pressed against Meng Yao’s temple, and then he’d smiled across the table while they’d eaten breakfast.
Water gets into his eyes and makes Meng Yao blink hard as he stares up at the ceiling, trying and failing to find new shapes in the aged tile. The first time he’d taken a bath here, he’d made himself see the shape of a rabbit, a crack shaping out the ears, but now, Meng Yao struggles to find anything.
His hair covers his eyes as he resurfaces, casting a curtain over any shapes he might have seen above the screen of the water. “I was starting to wonder when you were coming up for air.” Lan Xichen’s voice is soft, but it still echoes in the bathroom. His already warm hands are warmed further by the water, but Meng Yao still leans back against him. “Let me wash your hair for you, A-Yao.” Even without shampoo or conditioner, Lan Xichen’s fingers still work through Meng Yao’s wet hair, easing knots and tangles out without the slightest bit of pain.
Lan Xichen’s knees peek above the edges of the tub when Meng Yao turns to look at the both of them in the mirror, leg hair made darker by the water. The sight of the two of them makes Meng Yao’s heart twist so tightly that he almost doesn’t notice that all the cracked and discolored tiles have disappeared.
Tiny, purple, but faded tiles sparkle and shine in the low light as if they were brand new again, but Lan Xichen’s mouth against his throat drags Meng Yao away from them. Water sloshes out of the tub and drips down the sides as Lan Xichen’s hands slide over Meng Yao’s stomach, blunt nails digging into the softness. “Maybe A-Yao doesn’t want his hair washed, then?” Lan Xichen asks him, though his voice is muffled against Meng Yao’s back, but the kisses don’t feel right. They feel too cold, and for a moment, Meng Yao’s fingers dip into the water, trying to guess if it had gone cold without either of them noticing, but the water is freezing and slimy feeling when the surface breaks under his fingertips, making Meng Yao jerk back.
“A-Huan, you’re hurting me.” The words come out in a brittle gasp and his hands wrap around Lan Xichen’s forearms, trying to pull him loose, but Lan Xichen is stronger than him, and his nails pull Meng Yao apart until blood starts to drip out into the icy water, staining it. “A-Huan, please.” Meng Yao digs his own nails into Lan Xichen’s arms, but the blood that springs forward is thick and black and oozing.
Meng Yao is forced to bend forward as Lan Xichen presses his mouth against his ear, his lips cold and cracked like they’d never been before, “Look in the woods, A-Yao, look beneath the moss.”
It’s Lan Xichen’s voice that makes the tears finally fall, like the dry rustling of leaves, but dipped in cobwebs and stained with something acidic.
Meng Yao’s lungs burn and scream at him as he jolts out of the water, splashing water onto the cracked and faded tiles, droplets even make it onto his pajamas that lay on the counter. He’s alone when he looks into the mirror, just like he’d always been. He locked the bathroom door behind him, no one else could have gotten in after him unless they had a key. The lights are still overhead and electric, bright and nowhere near the romantic candle flames that his dream turned nightmare had provided.
It didn’t matter if Lan Xichen did want to bathe with him, they couldn’t take that kind of risk while Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian were both home.
Meng Yao tries to remind himself of all of this, but he nearly misses the firm knocking and the voice on the other side of the door. “Mr. Meng, are you alright? You shouted.” Yu Ziyuan’s voice is cold but quick, the flat of her hand patting against the door as if she could knock it over and get to him.
Panting, Meng Yao pushes his hair away from his face and stands up in the water, “I’m alright, Mrs. Yu. I-I fell asleep in the tub and frightened myself.” That was the only version of the story that Meng Yao could bear to tell her, it was the only one she would believe, but there’s still a pause on the other side of the door, the floors creaking and protesting underneath Yu Ziyuan’s heels.
“That’s a dangerous thing to do, Mr. Meng, I wouldn’t advise making a habit of it.” Meng Yao almost doesn’t believe the level of relief he hears in Yu Ziyuan’s voice. He hears the points of her nails slide down the door and come to a stop on the doorknob, but she thinks better of it, though the sound still nearly makes Meng Yao sit back down in the cold water. “Are you certain that you’re alright? Miss Wen is gone for the evening, but I have limited medical training myself.”
Meng Yao doesn’t have to wonder why Yu Ziyuan would have sought out her own medical training, she’d been the sole caretaker of a young, sick daughter once, and then she’d brought on help.
“I’ll be alright, Mrs. Yu, thank you for the concern.” Meng Yao means it sincerely, and he hopes he communicates it well enough through the door, but he’s started to shiver. He wants to get dressed and slip into his own bed. He wants to pull the covers over his head and hide from the house and everything within it.
A long moment passes without either of them saying anything, but Yu Ziyuan still lingers outside the door, and Meng Yao finally steps out of the tub and pulls the plug loose. His hand lands on a too large, too fluffy towel while Yu Ziyuan scuffs her heel against an already scratched floorboard. “You’ve lasted longer here than I expected you would, Mr. Meng.” Had she expected him to run out of the house screaming the first night? Had she given him a week? Two? How much had he defied her expectations?
Meng Yao opens his mouth to say something, but Yu Ziyuan doesn’t allow him the chance. “You may think me cold, Mr. Meng, but you’ve proven yourself time and time again to be dependable, it hasn’t gone unnoticed. You will have a job here as long as you like.” Yu Ziyuan clears her throat after she finishes speaking, but she still doesn’t give Meng Yao the chance to speak, her heels let him track her through the hall until she shuts a door behind her.
“Thank you, Ma’am.” Meng Yao says it to empty air, but it’s better than not saying it at all.
The mirror is fogged while Meng Yao dresses, his pajamas clinging to his skin with what’s left of the moisture from his bath, but Meng Yao is grateful for it. A cold hand runs it’s nails up his back at the thought of looking into the mirror after what he’d seen in his dream. He hadn’t looked at Lan Xichen after the water had turned cold, Meng Yao wouldn’t give whatever it was twisting his dreams that kind of power, but the idea of going back downstairs without seeing Lan Xichen’s face as it actually is makes Meng Yao’s stomach churn and ache.
He looks up and down the hallway twice before Meng Yao walks to Lan Xichen’s door and knocks on it lightly. His hair is still dripping down his back.
It takes a crushing few seconds for Lan Xichen to answer the door, his pajamas already on and his hair tidied into a braid. “A-Yao, what are you doing here? I was going to come to you.” Lan Xichen guides Meng Yao into his room and closes the door behind him, but when he turns around, a slight frown marrs his face.
Meng Yao doesn’t stop himself from standing up on tiptoe to hug Lan Xichen, his arms curling tight around Lan Xichen’s throat. “A-Yao, you’re shaking, are you cold?” Lan Xichen’s arms wrap around Meng Yao, but his hands rub back and forth where they come to rest, trying to coax warmth into Meng Yao’s skin.
“I needed to see you.” It’s the only explanation Meng Yao can hope to offer, his face hidden against Lan Xichen’s chest so he can hear and feel the beating of his heart.
“You haven’t brushed your hair yet, it’ll tangle if we leave it like this. Will you let me?” Lan Xichen doesn’t sound the same as he had in the dream, there’s fondness in his voice, there’s a smile, not just desire and something dark. Meng Yao nods before he can stop himself.
He wants this Lan Xichen to brush his hair, he wants the Lan Xichen that he loves to look after him.
It only takes a kiss pressed against his forehead for Meng Yao to allow Lan Xichen to peel his arms away from his neck, though he still looks up through his eyelashes when Lan Xichen’s hands press against his cheeks. “Did something happen?”
It would be easy to lie and tell Lan Xichen the exact same story he’d told Yu Ziyuan, but Meng Yao doesn’t want to lie to Lan Xichen, but he doesn’t want to remember either. His stomach still burns where Lan Xichen had pulled his belly open in the dream. “Am I interrupting something?” There are no crescent moons on Lan Xichen’s forearms, there is nothing oozing out of them.
Instead of answering, Lan Xichen only shakes his head and leads Meng Yao over to the bed, sitting him down and kissing him quickly. “You’re not interrupting anything, I've just finished grading the boys’ essays. I’m all yours, A-Yao.” Lan Xichen grabs a wooden hairbrush off the dresser before he leans over to brush Meng Yao’s hair, his free hand squeezing Meng Yao’s shoulder. “Tell me if I’m doing it wrong, A-Yao, your hair is shorter than mine.”
Lan Xichen’s hair fell straight down his back in a solid black curtain when it wasn’t put up or braided away, once, Lan Xichen had even asked Meng Yao to put it up for him. The hair tie had been loose and well worn on Meng Yao’s wrist. Meng Yao’s own hair was cut just above his ears, the longest parts of it getting into his eyes and making him blink before Lan Xichen brushes them back.
“You’re perfect.” Meng Yao says it and blushes. He’d meant to tell Lan Xichen that he was doing it perfectly, but he hadn’t lied. Lan Xichen deserves to know.
Once he’s done brushing Meng Yao’s hair, he only sets the brush down on the bedside table and drops down to his knees, his hands catching hold of Meng Yao’s. “Will you tell me what happened, or would you rather we go to bed?” There wasn’t a question about where Meng Yao would sleep, then. He would sleep in Lan Xichen’s bed, tucked into his side, and with one hand resting on Lan Xichen’s chest. Lan Xichen would sleep on his back, but his arm would keep Meng Yao close through the night.
“I fell asleep in the bath and I saw something terrible in my dream.” Meng Yao finally confesses, bringing his forehead down to press against Lan Xichen’s, his thumb tries to rub over his other one, but he catches Lan Xichen instead, though it doesn’t stop the habit.
“Something terrible in general, or something terrible involving you?” Lan Xichen asks, and Meng Yao shakes his head. He was getting closer, but not close enough.
“Concerning me, or concerning us?” Finally, Meng Yao nods, taking a single hand away to press against his stomach. He needs Lan Xichen to understand. He needs him to know.
Meng Yao watches as Lan Xichen’s eyebrows come together in the middle of his forehead, his hands carefully untangling themselves to lift Meng Yao’s pajama shirt slowly and carefully.
“A-Yao… What…” Meng Yao doesn’t have to look down to know the marks are there, so he squeezes his eyes shut. He’d seen them enough in the dream, he doesn’t need to look again. Lan Xichen pulls Meng Yao’s shirt back down, but he says nothing, only his arms wrap tight around Meng Yao’s middle, his mouth presses kiss after kiss to Meng Yao’s belly, though over his shirt. “We have talk to Yanli, she might know something.” Lan Xichen tries to stand, but Meng Yao shakes his head, his own hands coming to rest on Lan Xichen’s shoulders.
“Tomorrow. We’ll talk to her tomorrow, I only want you tonight.” Meng Yao forces himself to speak around the lump in his throat, his legs locking around Lan Xichen’s back. He expects Lan Xichen to argue, to stand up, whether Meng Yao was still attached to him or not, but instead, he nods. Lan Xichen nods and presses a longer, lingering kiss to Meng Yao’s stomach.
“Alright, A-Yao, you have me, for much longer than just tonight.”
Meng Yao sleeps in Lan Xichen’s bed, but Lan Xichen doesn’t lay on his back, with Meng Yao tucked into his side, he sleeps on his side, keeping himself between Meng Yao and the door. His arms are tight enough to bruise, but Meng Yao doesn’t mind.
Meng Yao doesn’t mind it at all.
Wei Changze is waiting for them on the porch by the time Yu Ziyuan’s car makes one final turn, an open umbrella in one hand and a closed one in the other. His long, dark coat does little to mask the smile on his face, and Cangse does nothing to hide the way she perks up when she sees him.
“You’re not still carrying a torch for him?” Yu Ziyuan asks, stubbing out yet another unsmoked, but still lit cigarette before pushing the ashtray back into its compartment. What Jiang Fengmian didn’t know wouldn’t kill him.
Cangse turns the full force of her smile onto Yu Ziyuan, her cheeks starting to ache. “It’s more than just a crush,” If Cangse had more shame, she might have blushed, parts of her still want to, but she pushes forward, “remember when no one could find him at your wedding?”
She doesn’t have to say anything else, realization crosses Yu Ziyuan’s face, her grip going lax on the steering wheel, “You didn’t.”
“We did. Twice.”
Yu Ziyuan is still staring after her, even after Cangse has thrown open the car door to meet Wei Changze halfway, suddenly uncaring if she gets cold and wet.
It’s always been more than just a crush.