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Xie Lian knows that he has terrible luck. It’s not usually that big a deal- dropping his coffee here or there, slipping down the last stair, getting stuck in elevators. Things that are inconvenient, but not necessarily to the point of being dangerous. 

Being lost in a snowed-in ravine is a little bit more than inconvenient, though, even he has to admit. 

Optimism, he thinks (pointedly not grimly, but it is a bit of an effort). Optimism. He is being optimistic about his chances of leaving alive, because the only other option is to start thinking about how his phone has been dead for hours and his hiking boots are soaked through and his socks are sort of squelchy, which is really-- really not helpful. 

Bad luck is one thing, he wants to protest, but doesn’t this seem a little much? 

The air is bitingly cold but it’s not actively snowing any more-- Xie Lian decides that’s lucky, because otherwise he’s going to start spiralling a little bit. It is so terribly quiet; maybe it’s the snow muffling everything entirely or maybe it’s just because the atmosphere is so strange, because all Xie Lian can hear is his breathing and the powdery crunch of fresh snow beneath his feet. 

He is really, really cold.  Beyond not thinking about his wet feet, he’s also pointedly not thinking about his lost pack, and he’s really not thinking about how the light is starting to tinge a pretty orange-pink that’s-- that’s definitely signalling the sun going down, hah, oh gosh. 

Xie Lian braces himself on a tree and gives himself maybe three minutes to think about it. Three minutes is plenty of time for a quick, vigorous panic, a pull-yourself-together speech to himself, and then maybe a little bit of crying. Except he really shouldn’t cry, because he can’t really afford to lose fluids. 

He should probably have known that hiking alone, even somewhere relatively safe, for someone with his well-documented misfortune, had been a bad call. Feng Xin had told him multiple times in no uncertain terms that he was making, quote, the biggest and stupidest mistake of his life, unquote. 

Well! Well. Probably true! Xie Lian eyes the sun and decides that he’s within his three-minute panic window, which means that he can acknowledge to himself that it’s probably going to be both his biggest and last mistake, ha-ha, funny. 

The air’s sharp when he inhales and cloudy when he exhales. It’s strange for it to be so quiet- now that he’s shaken off some of the panic (suppressed it, more like, he can have a little more later as a treat to keep him warm), he’s noticing just how quiet it is. No birds, no bugs, no wind. 

He shakes his numb fingers out and looks at the sun again as it slowly sinks lower, past the tree line. That’s west, of course, and Xie Lian knows that he’d come originally from the north- but that way’s blocked by snow, now, so perhaps-- 

“Is gege lost?” The tone is of light curiosity. Xie Lian very nearly swallows his tongue and has to scramble for a hold on the tree to keep from toppling over when he whips around. The owner of the voice raises his hands and smiles, sharp. “Don’t be scared.” 

Telling people not to be scared is scarier than not saying anything at all, Xie Lian wants to cry. “Um,” He tells the man, who is tall and bright-eyed and slit-pupiled, who has broad shoulders and clawed hands and horns. Who’s dressed like a king but with a v in his robes down his chest so deep that Xie Lian’s a little cold and embarrassed just looking at it, even though there’s fur and he’s probably warm enough, anyway. Who-- who probably shouldn’t exist, because dragons or, or whatever mythical creature, aren’t real and they’re especially not real in remote parts of Slovenia. The man smiles more widely, folding his hands primly in front of himself. 

“Gege looks lost,” He says, confirming his own question. “And cold.” 

“It’s cold out,” Xie Lian defends himself absurdly, tucking his hands up against his ribs as if that will help through six layers of sweaters and coats. He’s not transferring heat anywhere to anywhere. 

“It is,” The man agrees. He-- prowls. The only word is prowls. A little closer. “And it’s going to storm again.” 

Xie Lian doesn’t know what his face is doing, but it’s probably something very silly. How are they discussing the weather? Isn’t there supposed to be a code of conduct with supernatural creatures? Isn’t he supposed to be offered a deal in exchange for his life, or something? Or maybe this is simply a figment of his imagination. Maybe he’d hit his head in the tumble down into the ravine. He can’t imagine conjuring a very tall being who would politely call him gege, though, or smile quite like that. 

“I don’t suppose you know how to get out of here,” Xie Lian says helplessly. He may as well try to plumb his subconscious for information, if he’s going to be here anyway. 

“Of course I do,” The man says. “But it’s not safe. There are four more days of storms before the weather will break.” 

Xie Lian looks towards where the sun is sinking closer and closer to the jagged line of the mountain. “I see,” He says, trying not to sound too upset in front of someone who is either a figment of his imagination or a supernatural creature who might want to eat him. 

The silence stretches like a shadow. The sun dips below a mountain peak and the valley goes dark in the space of a moment, all the rose gold light disappearing in a blink. 

He’s trying to take this calmly. It’s normal to have hallucinations before one freezes to death, he’s fairly sure, but he’d really rather not be having them even if the only other option is that he’s face-to-face with a curiously urbane cryptid. 

“Gege should stay with me,” The seven foot tall monster man says. His eyes catch the light like an animal’s, flashing and reflective. Xie Lian shivers reflexively. “Because it’s cold out.” 

“I wouldn’t want to intrude,” Xie Lian disagrees, taking a tiny step back, but what’s his other option? Dying in the snow? Falling off a cliff in the unnatural shadowy dark of the valley? “Um.” 

“Gege is so nervous,” The smile that the man offers doesn’t make him any less nervous, even though it doesn’t look particularly unkind or particularly hungry. “Don’t worry. It’s not so far.” 

It’s starting to snow, soft and silent and catching in Xie Lian’s frozen eyelashes. It’s a crystalline moment, probably a product of a mind that’s on its last desperate shivers of hypothermia. The wind is starting to pick up, whistling over the nearby peaks in a way that means it’s only going to get worse. 

“I don’t know your name,” Xie Lian blurts, as if that’s the problem. He takes a step back and then another, even though walking backwards in the dark would be a terrible idea even if his feet weren’t half-frozen. 

Xie Lian has terrible luck. That he would trip over a branch in the dark is only an extension of the fact-- it isn’t even unexpected! Why shouldn’t he twist his ankle and fall over into a snow drift and break his wrist or hit his head? Why not? 

The man catches him around the waist and hauls him upright. He is very, very strong and very, very warm, warm enough that Xie Lian can feel his warm palms through all of his layers, all the way down to his skin. 

“Gege can call me San Lang,” The man- San Lang?- says. He has both of his hands spanning Xie Lian’s waist, even though he’s no longer at risk of tipping over. They go-- very far around. San Lang has big hands. 

“Who are the other sons?” Xie Lian wonders aloud, staring at San Lang’s hands until he removes them from around (almost all the way around!) Xie Lian’s waist. 

“Much worse company than me,” San Lang smiles. “Gege, it’s going to start snowing harder soon. This San Lang would hate to see you freeze.” 

Xie Lian thinks about having warm, dry socks and a blanket and his pack, in that order. He sniffs. “Alright,” He says, because he’s really very cold and hallucinations generally don’t stop one from cracking their skull open on rocks. “If it’s no trouble.” 

“Gege,” San Lang says, straightening himself up (and up, and up), “You could never be trouble.” 

That, Xie Lian thinks, is quite a line. 

He’s still thinking about it later, actually, once San Lang has shown him to his-- it’s not a cave, really, but it’s sort of a palace in a cave, so it’s technically a cave regardless of how many pillars have been carved into it, isn’t it? Xie Lian thinks it probably still counts as a cave, anyway. 

-- It is much warmer than any other cave Xie Lian has been in, though. And it has blankets and a place for him to start drying off his shoes, which is certainly something to recommend it. He can hear the way the wind whistles viciously outside, echoing through the maze of not-cave corridors until it’s less noise and more a thrumming sensation behind Xie Lian’s breastbone. 

Xie Lian huddles as close to the fire as he dares and watches San Lang out of the corner of his eye, not really trying to be subtle so much as not wanting to be actively rude. He knows that San Lang can probably tell that he’s looking- the cave-palace is beautiful to look at, too, but it’s a lot less interesting than San Lang, who is very tall and very-- alive. Somehow. 

Is it impolite to ask someone what sort of mythical creature they are? Probably. Xie Lian peels off his gloves and starts struggling to unpick the knots of his boots with cold-fumbly fingers and tries to think of a topic that doesn’t start with what are you or the just-as-pertinent question, how are you here. 

“Gege should take off all of those wet clothes,” San Lang says, sounding studiously idle, like he’s not too fussed either which way. It’s true, actually- Xie Lian’s definitely more at risk of freezing to death the longer he stays in his soaked-through layers. He’s so cold he’s not even shivering anymore, which is very much not good. 

Xie Lian can’t tell if San Lang knows that that’s bad for humans or not, but he’s got a sort of worried little frown between his eyebrows, so maybe he knows. 

Warm hands cover his as San Lang takes over the fiddly business of untying his shoes and tugs them off with terrible delicacy, one big hand curling around the bone of Xie Lian’s ankle. Xie Lian curls his toes and tugs himself free before San Lang tries to take off his half-frozen socks for him. He can take off his own very uncomfortably wet socks; he doesn’t need a man dressed like a painting and all spangled in silver jewelry to do it for him. 

“What’s on gege’s mind?” San Lang asks, looking up from where he’s crouched on the ground. His hair looks water-smooth between his horns, rippling black and shiny in the firelight. Xie Lian has the absurd urge to touch, which is a pretty nonsensical impulse given that San Lang is about seven feet tall and in possession of claws that could probably ruin a bear’s day, let alone Xie Lian’s. 

“I was wondering how San Lang found me,” Xie Lian says, peeling out of his first layer and dropping it carelessly beside himself. He’s still too cold, his inner layers like ice against his skin, and it’s enough motivation to make him start hurrying. He really doesn’t want to die of hypothermia, and he likes all his fingers and toes where they are and would prefer not to lose them to frostbite. 

The crackle of the fire makes San Lang’s silence louder, somehow, along with the whistling of the wind and the shuffle of cloth while Xie Lian tries to struggle out of frost-stiff clothes that are starting to go sopping wet in the warmth of the room. 

“Perhaps gege should start with a different question,” San Lang says, sounding somewhat wry.

 Xie Lian looks down at him, mouth tilting up in amusement. “I don’t ask questions I don't want answers to,” He says firmly. San Lang’s eyes track the movement of his hands when they go to the hem of his second layer, and his fingers curl against his thighs like he’s nervous. 

“This one, ah,” San Lang says, eyes sliding away. He looks a little bit like a guilty dog like that, hunched over and studiously avoiding eye contact. “Is aware of everything that happens in the forest.” 

Xie Lian blinks. “Just this forest?” It feels like a sort of small domain for someone like San Lang, not that Xie Lian’s an expert in-- in how big the territories of unknown, mysterious mythical creatures should be. Is anyone an expert in that? 

A tiny little grimace flashes across San Lang’s face. “Any wild forest,” He says reluctantly, like the honesty’s being dragged out of him. Xie Lian hesitates on his second to last layer, digesting the knowledge. 

“All the forests all at once?” 

“The wild forests,” San Lang stresses. “Humans plant trees in rows and call them forests-- not those. The old forests.” 

The places where Xie Lian prefers to hike, then. He wonders vaguely if San Lang has-- seen? sensed? him before, in the places that he has access to. Probably. “Well,” Xie Lian says, down to his long underwear top and starting to tremble at the ends of his fingertips, which will progress into deep, wracking shivers as he starts warming up. “I am very glad that San Lang did.” 

“Gege is very unlucky,” San Lang says, sounding almost cross about it. Xie Lian laughs, startled, and nods his earnest agreement. 

“San Lang, ah,” Xie Lian trails off, a shiver jolting through him. “Ah, would you mind-- turning around?” 

“Is gege shy?” San Lang asks slyly, a smile curling at the corner of his mouth, but he obligingly turns around when Xie Lian flushes and hitches his shoulders up with embarrassment. 

It’s really not that he’s shy. He’s shared locker rooms for years. It’s just-- San Lang kneeling between his bare feet and staring up at him is a very different environment than Pei Ming snapping his ass with a towel and whooping when Xie Lian yelps. A little more, ah. Charged, maybe. 

He peels off the thermal closest to his skin and drops it to the side to join the rest of the pile. His skin is frozen and clammy, which feels disconcerting and uncomfortable. It’s not much better when he tries chafing warmth into his arms, either; his hands have nothing to give. He strips out of the top two layers of pants before he thinks better of it but hesitates at the third, stiff fingers lingering at the waistband. 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says, a little more weakly. “Is there-- do you have a spare blanket I can use?” He can wear his underwear in a blanket, even if it’s wet, he supposes. Even if it’s very wet and sticking to his skin because it’s soaked-through and frozen and thawing out. 

“I’m afraid not,” San Lang says in the most bald-faced lie that Xie Lian has ever heard in his entire life. Xie Lian is sitting on a blanket right then. “But gege can borrow something of mine until his clothes are dry.” 

Xie Lian gives him a narrow look that San Lang is facing the wrong way to see, but he can’t find it in himself to argue, even if that means that he’ll be getting some of San Lang’s beautiful clothes wet. “Alright,” He agrees, and then sputters when San Lang’s hands immediately go to his own silver belt to start undoing it. “San Lang! Surely you have spares!”

“I don’t,” San Lang says, dropping his belt with a careless jingle. Xie Lian opens his mouth to protest but ends up making nothing but a thin little noise when San Lang shrugs out of his outer robe, which is finely-woven and trimmed with beautiful fur, to expose a very tight tunic that hugs his shoulders and waist and hips. 

-- It is not actually any more revealing than, for example, a henley. Or a t-shirt. Or-- anything. But San Lang is very. Broad. In his shoulders. And also very tall. Xie Lian closes his eyes, embarrassed by himself. He’s seen men with their shirts off before! He’s pretending he doesn’t know why this is different. 

“Gege, can this one turn around yet?” Sang Lang holds out the robe, waiting for Xie Lian to take it. It’s probably a sign of hypothermia that Xie Lian can’t decide for a long moment whether he should take his pants off and then take the robe, or what. 

In the end, he steps out of his pants as efficiently as he can and then bundles himself up tightly, ignoring how good the robe smells (except that the fact that he has to ignore it means that he’s noticing it, which means that he’s failed step one and all he can think about is how San Lang smells like smoldering incense and dark wood) so he can curl up by the fire again. 

San Lang doesn’t look cold at all when he resettles beside Xie Lian, peeking at him occasionally out of the corner of his eye. Xie Lian shivers once, helplessly, and then successfully maintains the fiction by having his core temperature start to creep back up and starting to shiver so brutally and ceaselessly that his teeth start to chatter and he very nearly drags an over-long sleeve through the fire. 

He doesn’t know why it’s surprising that San Lang would tug him close, blithely saying, “Body heat, gege, we wouldn’t want you to be cold,” As an explanation before the question is even asked. Xie Lian can’t even deny it, either- San Lang is very, very warm, and he doesn’t even protest when Xie Lian curls his icy fingers into the hem of his tunic. 

This, he reflects, feels much too normal. He should definitely be more concerned than this. 

“Gege would be more comfortable in a bed,” San Lang says, his voice a rumble in his chest. Xie Lian, who only feels the way that San Lang’s voice vibrates because his cheek is on San Lang’s chest (to warm up. yes.), murmurs a faint noise of agreement. Maybe the normalcy is coming from his brush with hypothermia and subsequent exhaustion. 

San Lang lifts him like he weighs nothing at all, one arm beneath the crook of Xie Lian’s knees and the other curled around his back. He holds Xie Lian like he’s made of fragile glass, or the spindly ice sculptures that melt when you breathe on them. What has Xie Lian done, he wonders, that have merited the delicacy of his treatment? 

Other than falling off a mountain, which, in fairness, would provoke some pity from most people. 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says. He’s too sleepy to actually pry his eyes open to watch where San Lang is taking him, though by the slow rock of his body, they’re definitely walking somewhere. “San Lang could call me Xie Lian.”

“Alright, gege,” San Lang says. On anyone else it might sound amused, maybe a little teasing, but San Lang falls short. Xie Lian doesn’t know quite what the tone is meant to be, but it’s-- it feels too honest, somehow, too complicated. He falls asleep before he can puzzle it all the way out, lulled off by the ocean-rock of San Lang walking. 

 

≪❈≫

 

Xie Lian wakes up to darkness and warmth. It’s probably a commentary on how bad his luck generally is that makes him think that maybe he’s hallucinated the whole thing and that he’s actually buried in a snowbank, so cold that his body has decided it feels warm and it’s time for him to start taking off layers. 

It doesn’t last too long; he can hear the crackle of the fire, which is a good sign that he’s not actually buried in a snowbank with his heart rate slowing down until it stops actually getting to his brain. He is also, he realizes, buried in so many blankets that he’s getting a little sweaty, heavy enough to feel weighted. San Lang probably had been worried, then, if he’d gone through all the trouble. 

Still, though. No spare blankets Xie Lian’s foot! 

He kicks himself free and slides out of bed to go stoke the fire for a little more light. It flickers strangely off the carvings in the wall (Xie Lian is not going to revise his opinion of fancy cave ; if the shoe fits!) and throws long shadows across everything. San Lang’s robe gets in the way, but Xie Lian would rather risk the sleeves than take it off. 

For nudity reasons and no others, of course. He buries his nose in the plush fur ruff and does not examine his motivations. 

Intrepid soul that he is, Xie Lian does not feel too intimidated by the fact that he’s in a magical fantasy cave deter him from trying to find breakfast, a bath, or, failing both, San Lang to show him one or both. Being barefoot in very cold hallways isn’t ideal, but San Lang’s robe is warm otherwise and Xie Lian needs to wander to find his socks, so he sucks it up. 

There are-- many doors. He isn’t particularly hopeful about his chances of finding his way back to that room in particular, which means it’s probably for the best that he hadn’t had any of his personal belongings there with him. Not, he thinks, that he has so many personal belongings to begin with. His pack is buried somewhere in the pass, along with the locator beacon that he’s meant to use in emergencies and all of the field rations and-- most of the useful things that one would generally bring to keep oneself safe in a mountain. 

He nudges the door of one open; it looks like it’s made of stone, but weighted carefully and cleverly so it swings open with just a touch. It’s the same sort of room that Xie Lian had woken up in. Mostly-bare except for a bed, a fireplace, and a single narrow table without a drawer. Should it be spooky that San Lang apparently has a dozen identical guest rooms, or hilarious because he apparently doesn’t know how to decorate any of them? 

Even a rug, San Lang, please! 

The next turn that Xie Lian takes brings him to a wide open hallway, one end a staircase up and the other down. Does he remember stairs? Not really, but he’d also fallen asleep early, so he’s not totally sure how reliable his memory is. His sense of direction is really not bad, but being inside without any particular landmarks is really not helpful. 

In the spirit of whimsy and not particularly because he thinks that he’s actually going to find his way around in any practical sense, Xie Lian takes the staircase down. It only gets colder the further he goes, chilly enough on his bare feet to sting a little, but he’s endured worse for sillier reasons. Slightly stinging toes is a sign that frostbite hasn’t set in! 

This room, he thinks, is probably a library, though it’s not quite any library that Xie Lian has ever seen outside of fantasy movies. There are scrolls and boxes and very few books, which makes for a very beautiful tableau and probably not a particularly restful or helpful research experience. He doesn’t touch anything, just in case San Lang has an organizational system he’d like to maintain, and wanders through to find the other door. 

At what point does it go from trying to find things to just snooping? Xie Lian feels a little bit like he’s snooping. It feels even more illicit when he’s bundled up in nothing but a robe, entirely bare beneath it. Reflecting, he’s sure San Lang would have come back eventually, probably with Xie Lian’s clothes in hand. He’s done nothing to suggest that he’s anything but a wonderful host. 

Connected to the library is a hallway, because of course there is, but then there’s a sunroom carved out of white marble with- it can’t be glass, not with the way the wind is beating against it from outside, but something translucent enough for Xie Lian to see through it. It’s dazzlingly bright in this room, tiny, clever facets chipped into the translucent stone to make the entire thing throw prisms of light across the floor. 

Seeing outside is a strange experience. He had known, somewhere in the recesses of his mind, that the place that San Lang had taken him is as unnatural as San Lang himself. It’s certainly a cave (or perhaps not a cave but a mountain, given the sun room), but the vista that this room overlooks is nothing that Xie Lian has seen in his life. The pine trees bend to the whipping wind outside and a vast lake ripples into white caps, foam flicking itself into the air in great dancing sheets. It looks cold, for one thing, but for another Xie Lian is nearly certain that the valley he’d fallen into to begin with had been quite dry, quite landlocked, and without an unfrozen lake for miles. 

Should he be scared? He probably should be. He can’t bring himself to work up the energy for it, though-- he’s still warm and comfortable and not buried in a snowdrift, all of which are working to convince him that perhaps there’s nothing to be concerned about after all. 

San Lang finds him that way, curled on the floor of the sunroom with his face tilted up for the prismatic warmth, watching birds that he’s fairly certain aren’t in any book that he’s ever read (and he has read his fair share of books) spiral in increasing circles over the glittering lake. 

“Gege,” San Lang says, sounding oddly nervous. He’s holding a tray in front of himself like a shield, like he thinks that Xie Lian is going to bodily throw himself at him. Xie Lian is actually feeling really very warm and very comfortable, swaddled in San Lang’s robes like blankets, so he’s not really of a mind to throw himself at anyone for any reason. “It’s not safe to wander.” 

“I didn’t go far,” Xie Lian defends, which is true. He’d still be hard pressed to figure out how to get back, though. “San Lang, where are we?” 

“Don’t worry, gege,” San Lang says, which isn’t an answer to the question at all. “I’ll get you home.” San Lang looks fidgety, like he’s hiding something the same way he’d wanted to hide the all forests everywhere tidbit. It’s rare that Xie Lian picks up so clearly on the unspoken; San Lang really is saying it with his entire body, loud like a shout. Don’t ask me, please, his body says. 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says again, easing himself upright with a protesting creak of his overworked muscles. Sitting still has made him very sore in a way that sleeping had not. “What did you bring?” 

San Lang, it turns out, has brought breakfast. He doesn’t eat anything himself, but he watches Xie Lian with calculating eyes, like he’s trying to memorize the things that he likes best. It’s an intensity of observation with which Xie Lian is no longer familiar. 

It’s not bad, though. Breakfast is good. San Lang is a good conversationalist when he’s not being prodded into revealing things he’s apparently not ready to speak on, and he cheerfully answers Xie Lian’s questions about the mountain that he’d been climbing originally, the wildlife that he’s seeing, the lake with its white-capped waves. 

Xie Lian puts a tiny quiche in his mouth and finds himself increasingly confident in his assessment that they’re somewhere not necessarily natural. The lake, in its rare moments of stillness, doesn’t reflect the sky or the mountains at all but rather something strange and dark, too roughed-up to see properly but certainly not quite correct. The birds, as San Lang explains, have been extinct for years. 

Xie Lian really should be more worried. “Is there a bath?” He asks instead, because he’s still not. In spite of everything, he’s really never felt anything but safe around San Lang, and he’s fairly confident in his own assessment of character. “And maybe I could have my clothes back.” 

San Lang makes a complicated expression, like he’s caught between two warring desires, and it makes Xie Lian suppress a smile. 

“I’ll show you there,” San Lang says, one desire winning out over the other. He offers Xie Lian a hand up. 

The bath is more of a vast underground pool than an actual bath, heated by something beneath the ground that’s either geothermal or magical or otherwise very, very expensive. It is so comfortable that it’s beyond belief-- not even San Lang’s stricken expression at the noise that Xie Lian makes when he shucks the robe and sinks in up to his shoulders is enough to make Xie Lian feel anything but preeningly satisfied with himself. 

-- He is sort of taking advantage of San Lang’s hospitality. Maybe San Lang doesn’t get many guests and doesn’t know how wonderful it is to have his various amenities shared. Xie Lian resolves to find a way to thank him. 

He falls asleep in the pool first, though, draped over the side to keep himself from drowning. It’s justifiable only in that he’s only just recently fallen off a mountain, so he’s probably allowed to take as many naps as he’d like. He really doesn’t feel so bad, though, aside from the vague soreness. 

San Lang doesn’t wake him up but he must come by at some point, because there are clothes waiting for Xie Lian when he blearily blinks his eyes open however-long later. They are not, he notes with some amusement, his clothes. They’re very fine and very much in the style of San Lang’s, rather than the warm synthetic-blend hiking gear that make Xie Lian look like a particularly long marshmallow. 

He’s not particularly fussed-- the clothes fit beautifully, perfectly, like they’ve been made for him. It’s just another thing to thank San Lang for. He wonders if he’s going to be able to keep the robes when he goes home, even if he really doesn’t have any occasions in which to wear them. Just around the house? He tries to imagine wearing such beautiful things to clean his tiny flat and has to suppress a smile. 

Xie Lian doesn’t know how to put his hair up with just a comb. He detangles as best he can and just ties it back on itself so it doesn’t drip too much into the neckline of his new robes, which are very soft and shiny and will probably spot with water. 

There’s something that Xie Lian can’t quite put his finger on, something that niggles at him in a way that bothers him more than any of the empty guest bedrooms or the library or the sheer amount of space that San Lan apparently has to live alone. It’s not that he doesn’t believe that San Lang is supernatural (or otherwise deified; he doesn’t quite know what San Lang is, but doesn’t a hall of marble and quartz seem like a place a god might live?), but rather that he doesn’t know what a supernatural person would want with him, specifically. 

Xie Lian isn’t going to delude himself into thinking that he’s particularly special. He’s unlucky, that’s true, but that doesn’t make him unique. Hundreds of climbers die a year in tragic accidents or just getting turned around and succumbing to the elements, and Xie Lian can’t imagine that all of them get saved by San Lang, regardless of how many spartan little guest rooms he has. 

So- so. That’s a mystery on top of a mystery, or perhaps at the very bottom of one. Why Xie Lian? 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says while they take another meal together. He’s not sure what time it is, so he doesn’t know if it’s lunch or dinner or late dinner, or perhaps an early breakfast, because the sun hasn’t actually changed at all when he takes a peek at the sunroom. Another strange facet of the world, he thinks, and sees but doesn’t read into the way that San Lang’s face changes a little. 

“Gege,” San Lang says. He’s peeling an orange with his fingers, careful to keep the entire peel in one piece. The pith comes off cleanly, presumably because no lowly orange would dare to disobey San Lang’s unspoken orders. He hands Xie Lian a segment. 

“I was wondering,” Xie Lian says, and pauses while he formulates. Normally he’d get a well stop that from Mu Qing, or a does it hurt from Feng Xin, but San Lang simply gives him time to think. “About when I might go home.” 

San Lang hesitates in prying another segment of orange off the next. “The storms will abate in another day,” He says, which gives some insight into how much Xie Lian has been sleeping. He opens his mouth to say more and closes it, rather than continue, a little frown coming to rest between his eyebrows. Xie Lian wants, ridiculously, to smooth it out with the pad of his thumb. 

San Lang looks like a king, toweringly tall and icily beautiful with his horns (antlers? What are they called when they look like that? Xie Lian doesn’t know) like a crown and the fitted drape of his robes, too tailored to be anything but impossibly expensive. He wouldn’t look out of place with a dozen retainers around him-- Xie Lian can imagine people leaning for his ear, giving him advice in a court. 

“Are there people who work here?” Xie Lian wonders aloud, chasing that train of thought. San Lang freezes, looking a little bit like a guilty dog. 

“Sometimes,” He says. 

“Where are they?” Xie Lian looks over his shoulder like he expects someone to pop out of nowhere and start making subservient gestures. 

“Visiting their families,” San Lang says tentatively. He’s really not a very good liar. 

“I see,” Xie Lian says, turning his smile down to his plate. “I’m glad that San Lang doesn’t spend all his time alone, then.” 

San Lang makes some stifled sort of noise, something tiny and complicated, and hands Xie Lian another orange slice. 

“Gege,” He says after the silence spirals too long. He holds onto the last piece of orange, turning it over between his fingers. “If you had to choose between captivity and certain death, which would you prefer?” 

This is another time, Xie Lian thinks, that he should really be alarmed. “I imagine that it would have to do with my captor,” He says, not feeling particularly worried at all. “But there are few things worse than death.” 

“You’d want for nothing,” San Lang says, sounding curiously urgent, too serious for the previously light tone of the room. “Anything you wanted would be yours.” 

“Theoretically,” Xie Lian says gently, “I can’t imagine that would be so bad. I think it would be better to be kept than to die.” 

San Lang doesn’t look soothed by the thought. He turns the orange slice over in his fingers again and finally offers it to Xie Lian to take. “Even if it were somewhere unfamiliar?” He asks, “Even if you could only rarely see the people you love?” 

This is starting to feel a little less theoretical. “San Lang?” 

San Lang drops his face into his hands, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes. “Xie Lian,” He says, “Dianxia.” 

Xie Lian doesn’t know what to say, mouthing a soundless syllable. “I’m confused,” He confesses. He misses the warm fondness of ‘gege’ over the complicated heartbreak in San Lang’s tone. “I don’t understand.” 

San Lang takes a breath, dipping his head further forward until his hair falls in a sleek ripple to hide his face. “Don’t worry, gege,” He says, but his tone’s all wrong and now Xie Lian really can’t stop worrying. “This one will-- I’ll get you home.” 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says again, helplessly, but San Lang stands abruptly (and he is very tall but seems diminished, somehow, shoulders slumped to make him seem small ) and-- is there any word other than escapes ? He very nearly flees, leaving Xie Lian staring after him, mystified. 

 

≪❈≫

 

Xie Lian watches the unchanging sun reflect off the glittering snow, chin on his knee, and thinks. San Lang had seemed… is scared the word he’s looking for, if it had been mixed with something like fear, something like despair? 

Dianxia, San Lang had said, a form of address that Xie Lian has never claimed in his life but had felt right anyway. Xie Lian, San Lang had said, with a weight that didn’t suit the very brief time that they’d been acquainted. 

Xie Lian believes in reincarnation the same way he believes in ghosts and magic; abstractly, distantly, and with very little need to examine the specifics. There’s no proof of it, really, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not real- and, a little voice says, isn’t this sort of proof? 

Xie Lian isn’t stupid. When an abundance of evidence is presented to him, he can look at it with some amount of objectivity. San Lang knows who he is, beyond what is reasonable. San Lang had saved his life, certainly. 

-- But had it been in the pass, when Xie Lian had been in danger of freezing, or before? Does he remember clawing himself free of the snow after having been buried? Does he remember anything at all, after he’d fallen into a crevasse, tripping and sliding away from the avalanche that had buried the pass? 

Xie Lian closes his eyes to keep the diamond-dazzle of the sun off the lake from blinding him, then gets up to find San Lang. 

He’s in the library, it turns out, pretending to read a scroll but really just staring into the middle-distance. Xie Lian watches him for a long moment before gently rapping his knuckles against the doorframe to alert him of his presence. San Lang turns but doesn’t look surprised at all-- if anything, he looks a little tired, a little defeated. It doesn’t sit well on a face as noble as his. 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian perches himself on the edge of the table, bracing one foot just barely against the ground. “San Lang, you’ve been very hospitable.” 

“Anything for gege,” San Lang says, but his heart’s clearly not in it. “It’s never been any trouble.” 

“Why not?” Xie Lian asks. San Lang looks down at the scroll, inches from Xie Lian’s hip, and presses his hands flat to the table. 

“Why does gege ask? Perhaps this San Lang is simply a good host.” 

“Your bedrooms don’t have any drawers, San Lang,” Xie Lian chides gently. “I only want the truth.” 

San Lang’s next breath shudders, but the way his shoulders slump speak to acceptance, like he knows that Xie Lian’s not going to let him wiggle out. Xie Lian holds no illusions about whether he could actually force San Lang to answer questions that he doesn’t want to, but-- but San Lang seems willing to do just about anything for Xie Lian, if only he asks. 

“Gege has guessed,” San Lang begins, “Some of it, I think. We are-- we have not been strangers for a long time. In many lifetimes.” 

Xie Lian nods, and San Lang’s eyes flick to one side, visibly debating what to share, how much. The relevance of it. 

“Did I-- was I meant to die on the mountain?” Xie Lian asks, and San Lang closes his eyes. 

“Yes,” He says. 

“And San Lang saved me,” Xie Lian presses, leaning a little bit closer. 

“Yes.” 

“How many times?” 

“Gege?” 

“How many times have you saved me?” Xie Lian asks. 

“Gege,” San Lang says, shaking his head. “You don’t want-” 

“San Lang, ” Xie Lian says, and San Lang makes a noise that catches in his throat. 

“Six hundred,” He says, “And eighty-two. Nineteen in this life.” 

Xie Lian sways back a touch, almost winded by the shock of it. “How do you know?” 

“I--” San Lang hesitates, eyes cutting away. “When someone is intended for death, I-- this one can--” 

He doesn’t finish the sentence, but he doesn’t need to. If San Lang can see a death, he can stop a death. 

“Ah,” Xie Lian says. “And sometimes you can’t.” 

“Sometimes I can’t,” San Lang agrees. “I’m too slow, or too far, and I fail.”

And then he waits, though he doesn’t say it, and then the cycle begins again. Xie Lian ducks his head down to peer at San Lang’s face and thinks that he can see the weight of death there, deaths that don’t belong on San Lang’s or anyone’s conscience. Xie Lian had always known that he was unlucky.  

“What if I want to go anyway,” Xie Lian asks, eyes bright and fixed on San Lan’s face. “What if I want to leave tomorrow?” 

“I would let you go,” San Lang says, tone edging to despair. “I would always let you go, if you wanted to leave.” Even if it meant that Xie Lian would die again, and San Lang would have to find him again. Even then. 

Xie Lian thinks, with startling clarity, that he really doesn’t want to go anywhere. It’s not even the looming fear of death on the horizon, the realization that eventually what’s nipping at his heels will catch up. It’s not even wanting to spare San Lang the pain of seeing him die again. He just-- he just likes San Lang, and he doesn’t want to go. 

“What if I want to leave in ten years?” He asks, passing a palm over the scroll and sliding it out of the way so he can take its place in front of San Lang instead, knees to either side of San Lang’s shoulders. San Lang stares at him like a deer in headlights, which is even more fitting with the antlers. 

“I-- gege is never obligated,” San Lang says, starting to sound cautiously hopeful. His hands twitch on the table to either side of Xie Lian’s hips. 

Xie Lian doesn’t ask what would happen if San Lang got tired of him in fifty, a hundred, two hundred years. He gets the sense that it’s been longer than that, anyway, and that if San Lang hasn’t grown tired of watching Xie Lian die young over and over he’s probably not at any risk of him getting tired of watching him loll around not risking death at every turn. 

He slides into San Lang’s lap and San Lang automatically leans back to make room, holding his hands up like he’s worried that he’ll offend Xie Lian by touching him. “Gege,” San Lang says, voice tilting up in a question, and Xie Lian- he doesn’t pick up cues particularly easily, but he knows how San Lang is looking at him. 

Also, he’d seen the look on his face in the bath. He squeezes San Lang’s hips with his thighs and leans up to kiss him on the mouth, soft but sincere. San Lang makes a noise like he’s being gutted and finally puts his hands on Xie Lian’s waist, spanning the breadth of it so carefully it’s like Xie Lian’s made from spun sugar. He kisses carefully, too, dry presses of lips that somehow feel almost polite, all things considered. 

“San Lang has been a wonderful host,” Xie Lian says, “I wonder how I can repay him.” 

“Gege doesn’t need to repay anything,” San Lang says, sounding almost offended, and the absurdity of it makes Xie Lian laugh. 

“It’s a line, San Lang,” Xie Lian tells him helpfully. “I’m trying to make you kiss me.” 

“Oh, apologies,” San Lang says, and kisses him so thoroughly that Xie Lian forgets what he’s even giggling about. The first press of his tongue makes Xie Lian shiver and clutch at San Lang’s shoulders, more anticipation than anxiety, and that just makes San Lang kiss him harder, more wanting. 

“Have we ever- before, have we ever-?” Xie Lian asks when San Lang ducks to mouth feverish kisses across his jaw, down the line of his throat where it’s covered by finely-made robes (which must have been his, and have always been his, even if he hadn’t known--). 

“No,” San Lang says, and Xie Lian can’t even tell if he’s lying, for once. “No, I swear it. It’s-- without you knowing, it wouldn’t have been--” 

“Ah,” Xie Lian sighs, and threads his fingers through San Lang’s hair, which is just as soft as it looks. “San Lang is so good to me.” 

“Gege,” San Lang says helplessly, fingers pressing into the meat of Xie Lian’s waist a little bit harder, not hard enough to bruise but enough to feel. 

“Aren’t you older than me this way?” Xie Lian asks, trailing his fingers to the bases of San Lang’s horns to feel the blood-warm velvet of them. “Maybe I should call you gege, ah?” 

San Lang’s hips lift, hard enough to jolt Xie Lian up, and San Lang makes a pathetic little noise against the hollow of Xie Lian’s throat. “Don’t tease,” San Lang says helplessly, and Xie Lian laughs, tipping his head back to encourage San Lang’s hands up. 

“Who’s teasing?” He asks, and then tacks on, “Gege,” In such a way that nobody could construe as anything but teasing. 

“Dianxia,” San Lang growls, and the noise thrums through Xie Lian’s throat in a way that he can feel through everywhere, in his ribs and pelvis and toes. He suddenly very, very much would like to be naked. He slumps lower, until his ass is nestled up against the cradle of San Lang’s hips, and-- ah. Hm. He’d like to be naked very much, actually. 

He doesn’t really get naked so much as undone, San Lang tugging open the clasps and toggles of Xie Lian’s robes until he’s bared to the air of the room and shivering less with cold than anticipation. San Lang is warm enough for both of them, anyway, thrumming with heat in his horns and-- and everywhere, anywhere they’re pressed together. 

“Beautiful,” San Lang says, something in his voice thrumming like a purr. “Nobody is more beautiful.” 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says, not begging but not exactly not begging, either. He shifts up against San Lang’s front to feel the heat of him through his pants. He is-- perhaps intimidatingly big, which Xie Lian has never given much thought to but is certainly thinking very hard about now. “Gege.” 

The gege spurs San Lang on more than Xie Lian’s thighs around his waist, gets him to draw his fingers down along the curves of Xie Lian’s hips and into the creases of his thighs. “Anything you want,” He says, low and hungry. “Anything dianxia asks for.” 

“Ah,” Xie Lian says, and then, “Ah!” When San Lang drags his teeth against his pulsepoint. He doesn’t have the words to say what he wants, doesn’t think he can say please fuck me without bursting into flames. San Lang seems content to grind up against him and knead his ass, which-- ah. “Please,” He says, hitching his hips up. He is so, so hard, in a way that he can feel everywhere. “Please don’t make me ask.” 

San Lang grits out a tiny noise, hips hitching up in a way that grinds him up against Xie Lian’s ass and that’s good for both of them. “Alright,” He says, brushing his fingertips up against Xie Lian’s hole dry and hot. Xie Lian makes a flustered little noise, arching his back so San Lang can-- as much as he wants, anything he wants. 

They’re chest-to-chest and Xie Lian’s heartbeat is pounding in his ears, making it twice as strange that he can’t feel San Lang’s at all. His thighs twinge where he’s spread across San Lang’s lap, too wide and-- God, he wants, he wants. 

“Dianxia,” San Lang says, sounding broken open. “Xie Lian.” 

The angle is awkward and San Lang is still wearing pants; Xie Lian sprawls himself backwards on the table and San Lang slicks his fingers up with oil from the lamp, except it’s not just his fingers and suddenly Xie Lian’s slick-wet everywhere, including his belly and between his thighs nearly down to his knees. He looks at San Lang and San Lang has the good grace to look embarrassed, halfway to fumbling his pants open with his dry hand. 

Xie Lian finds that he wants to see all of San Lang’s faces, the silly ones and the embarrassed ones and the flushed-with-want ones. He hitches his hips up and his cock taps his belly, dabbing yet more wetness there. San Lang watches greedily, pants sliding half-off his hips. 

“Please,” Xie Lian says, because San Lang is moving so slowly. “Please, in me.” 

“God,” San Lang says with the tone of someone who’s been punched in the solar plexus, and finally slides his wet fingers up into Xie Lian. They both make shocked little noises at each other and then Xie Lian rolls his hips and suddenly everything is slippery and fast and hot. San Lang’s cock is bumping up against Xie Lian’s thigh and he thinks he might die if San Lang actually-- but also might die if he doesn’t, because he really, really wants. 

“San Lang,” He says, hooking his calf around San Lang’s hip. He doesn’t say anything else, but he really doesn’t have to-- San Lang’s breathing out a desperate little noise and pressing another finger up into him, sloppy and too-fast but good. “San Lang, just--” 

“Not yet,” San Lang says, ducking to brush a kiss across Xie Lian’s mouth, his chin, his throat. He dips lower, skims his mouth across Xie Lian’s hipbones, ghosts it over the head of his cock like the lightest kiss. 

“Right now,” Xie Lian says, aiming for demanding and landing at desperate. “Right now, San Lang, you need to--” He tugs San Lang’s hair, hard enough to draw his head back. 

San Lang straightens and fucks his fingers in, hard enough to jolt Xie Lian up the table an inch. His hips ache with the stretch but god, he wants, he just wants. Sang Lang’s mouth finds Xie Lian’s jaw and his cock bumps up against Xie Lian’s ass and Xie Lian wants to cry, he just-- he makes an embarrassing noise that he can’t take back when San Lang curls his fingers, and a helpless shuddering whine when he takes them out. 

“Right now,” San Lang echoes, and then he’s pressing up against Xie Lian and it’s far, far, far too much, but it’s in a way that Xie Lian would really like to never stop. It feels like San Lang is making a space for himself, like he’s making Xie Lian fit him. 

“Oh, god,” San Lang says, hands finding Xie Lian’s waist so he can hold him still and press into him terribly slowly. Xie Lian can’t stop the open-mouthed panting, the high little whimpers that he tries to trap behind his teeth. San Lang doesn’t seem interested in letting him stop them, either-- the rhythm he sets is slow but deep and good, it’s--

“San Lang,” Xie Lian sobs, writhing against the restraining press of San Lang’s palms. “San Lang, San Lang--” 

He darts a hand down his body so he can touch his cock but San Lang beats him to it, and his hands are so big and so hot and he’s so beautiful and Xie Lian is really, really-- 

“Gege,” San Lang says, so, so low, and he presses his thumb into the soft part of Xie Lian’s belly, “That’s how deep I am.” Xie Lian looks and San Lang moves and that-- that shadow, there, moves with him, and god, Xie Lian can’t, he’s done, he’s--

He comes with a jolt and a gasp and San Lang gasps in return, dropping his face into the crook of Xie Lian’s neck and nearly braining him with his horns. He’s trembling, a little, all over, and Xie Lian curls his arms around San Lang’s neck and holds him close. 

It’s almost too hot and too much when San Lang comes inside him, but that’s good, too, the feeling of being marked inside in a way that’s secret and just for them but entirely indelible. 

“You’re very heavy,” Xie Lian says after a moment of basking and trying to get his breath back, and San Lang mumbles a negative noise but barely moves in response. 

Xie Lian threads his fingers through San Lan’s hair again, feeling a little sore and a little overwarm and very, very lucky.