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my heart lays down its load

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…my guide was able to explain the situation to me a little better than previous messengers had. It seems these ‘ghost soldiers’, fuelled by resentment towards the Wen who killed them, continue as if the Sunshot Campaign had never ended. They force their victims to fight back, which is why some few have survived to tell the tale. It is hoped that as a former commander, whose face was well-known, I may be able to liberate them without needing to resort to suppression.


I can only hope that it will not take too long. You know as well as I do that in these things it’s best to be thorough, but I find I have grown unaccustomed to an empty bed.


* * *


…Take care of the dead as best you can; I’ll watch over the living. I’ve spent the whole day going over the accounts – do you realise how much we’ve been spending on silk? The Wen burned mulberry orchards, but not that many: the merchants know in what disarray the Lan sect has been, and they’ve hiked up their prices in response. I’ve got a lead on a new source, though. I’ll let you know how that pans out.


Or perhaps Wangji will: the heavens know he’s been spending enough time in Yunmeng to pick things up from the river traders. I haven’t the faintest idea what he and my brother are getting up to, and I don’t think I want to know, either.


I haven’t been sleeping well myself. Gusu has been very dry of late. Every night I dream of rain.


* * *


…Thankfully, we’ve covered most of the ground where the battle took place. There remain only a few corners, none near human habitation. It is one thing to cleanse the site of an ancient battle, but another, far stranger thing to do so in a place where you yourself spilled blood and saw men die around you. I shall be glad when it is over.


I cannot be sorry that it was I who came, however. If you saw the faces of those ‘ghost soldiers’ when Zewu-jun tells them the war is over… It would take a stronger man than I to abandon them.


I can only hope, as you do, for a change in the weather. I think you may find your prayers have called down a storm, and you will soon have enough rain to make you sick of it.


* * *


…I can’t begrudge our dead their last sight of Zewu-jun: I remember myself what it was to be with you at the moment the war ended. Would that we could do as much for the living. I suppose the only cure for us is time. That, and knowing the younger generation will grow up with less to fear because of us.


There’s certainly no surfeit of fear in little Jingyi. You heard how last week he asked your uncle why he had a beard but you didn’t, in front of the whole class? This week I was teaching his class, taking them through a few basic meditation exercises, and caught him doing handstands at the back of the room. When I asked him what he thought he was doing, he said he hadn’t been able to meditate right-side-up, so he was experimenting to see if this would work better! I told him he’d have plenty of chances to practise handstands if he always did the opposite of what his teacher told him, and made him sit right-side-up again.


Have you forgotten your husband hails from Yunmeng? When have we ever been sick of water? That rain had better come soon, before my thirst grows any keener.


* * *


…Only five days now from home! My spirit lightens even thinking it. Soon I will be able to witness Lan Jingyi’s antics for myself. I would have paid money to see how Uncle responded to his question – though in fact Uncle tends to be more patient with the younger children than with the students who come for the summer lectures. But it’s been many years since a child dared to ask him about his beard: I think the last one to do so may have been me.


I ran into an acquaintance of yours on the road, one Song Zichen. I was quite pleased to have the chance to meet him – I envied Wangji a little when he told me of how you both encountered him in Yueyang. He asked after you and your family, when I mentioned you in passing.


The rain will come soon, if I am any judge. As will I. I’ve missed you, these past weeks.


* * *


…You met Song Lan? Yes, we all met him, in Yiling. I’ll tell you more of what transpired when I see you: it’s not a time I like to write about. But he was one of the better parts of it. When last I saw him he was looking for Xiao Xingchen. I hope he finds him.


I’ve missed you, too. The bruises have almost faded.


Lan Xichen read these last words, and thought of Jiang Cheng forlornly pressing his fingers into fading bruises to be sure they were still there. He reached for his brush. When he woke from the ensuing frenzy, it was to find his wrists aching and his hands stained with ink. 


* * *


…You remind me of my obligations. It is a crying shame to leave skin like yours unbruised. Where should I start, to make amends? Your throat, I think. You like bruises there: if you could hear the sounds you make when I’m leaving them… I would not stop at that, though. I would not leave any part of you neglected. Would you disrobe for me? You’ll have to. Your chest needs the marks of my mouth, too. The skin over your hipbones – you always shiver, there, did you know? I’d make you shiver. I’d make you ache with the marks, make your skin glow so red you could hardly sleep.


And then I would keep going. You always keep up with me so well, a-Cheng. You would endure it if I brought my mouth lower, wouldn’t you? If I paid attention to those thighs of yours – plenty of muscle there for me to sink my teeth into. I think of them, late at night. I think of marking them up till you can hardly bear to press them together. You’d have to open them for me. I think of biting my way all around your thighs, your hips, your stomach, circling around your cock. I think of feeling you tremble the more I do it: I think of you hard and dripping for me. No matter how my patience was tested, I’d wait until I heard you begging for me.


I wonder how many times I could make you beg? It has been too long since I heard it. I would deny you, then give you what you wanted, and then do it again. I will do it again. We have lost ground to make up, don’t we? Once could never be enough. I’ll make you come over and over – with my hands, first. Then my mouth; then my cock. Over and over until you cry out for me to stop. I’ll leave your throat hoarse, I’ll wear you out. You say you haven’t slept well? A-Cheng, I hope you have your work well in hand: you’ll need to take a day off just to sleep, afterwards. You’ll hardly be able to stay awake, much less walk.


Mark your words, Jiang Cheng. There’s a flood coming.


* * *


It was already evening, when Lan Xichen reached Cloud Recesses: long past the supper hour, and well past the hour of dusk. He greeted the gate guard with a cursory nod, and strode past him. He didn’t need to enter by the gate, of course – his jade token meant that he could slip over the wall, if he had a mind to – but this was quicker than sending for his uncle and brother to let them know he’d returned. It was late, and the journey had been long. Lan Xichen wanted his bed.


As he walked, he heard the soft noises of Cloud Recesses at dusk: water falling far off, a gentle wind in the trees, a strain of birdsong. The quiet sounds of people settling down, ready for sleep. It soothed his spirit, to hear the sounds of home again, and breathe the Gusu air.


At length he came to the hanshi. There was a light within, he saw. Do not hurry rashly, ran the rule, but his steps sped up anyway at the sight.


He slid the doors open. Jiang Cheng was sitting at the writing desk, head tilted, examining something – most likely the accounts. He had only one outer robe on, and his hair was mostly unpinned, held only by a leather band and a ribbon. A lamp was lit on the desk, so that his face was illuminated in warm gold, the rest of him in shadow.


At Xichen’s entrance, he startled, leaping to his feet. The shock on his face melted for a moment into a look of heart-rending relief; then it turned to brisk concern and he was moving across the room, before Xichen was halfway through the doorway – “Xichen –”


He was pulling Lan Xichen through the door: he was divesting him of his heavier outer robe, he was reaching up to where a strand of hair had come loose from Xichen’s guan – Xichen gave in to his first impulse, and pulled Jiang Cheng in close, arms around his waist and back. Felt Jiang Cheng’s arms come round him in turn. His husband’s body was very warm, against his: almost feverishly so.   


He wondered if Jiang Cheng had truly felt that the accounts needed looking at here and now, or if he had been whiling away the time indoors, waiting for Xichen to return. To be awaited, to be welcomed… Xichen let Jiang Cheng lead him further into the hanshi, his body quieting and settling, his heart filled with a wondrous contentment.


It wasn’t as if there had ever been a lack of welcome upon his return, before he had married. But to come home to clean sheets, a lamp still burning, dimly lit quarters with a husband awaiting him in them – it seemed to fill something in him he hadn’t known was empty. The removal of a pressure he hadn’t known was there.


“You’re well?” Jiang Cheng asked, in his curt way, and: “The journey–?”


“Uneventful,” Lan Xichen replied, feeling the weight of the road finally slough from his shoulders, as if Jiang Cheng had removed it with his outer robe. “Merely very long. I’m glad to have it over with.”


That was an understatement: he could feel his shoulders loosening, his head bowing, as the upright posture of Zewu-jun dissolved in the dim light. Jiang Cheng’s hands took hold of his face, lifting it back to the light for inspection.


“You haven’t been sleeping,” Jiang Cheng said bluntly. “At least the journey’s tired you out. I should think you want your bed.”


It was what Lan Xichen had been thinking, before he entered the hanshi; but he found that now it was offered, he didn’t want it quite yet. He wanted this moment to last a little longer, so that he could stretch out in it like a cat. “My bed will keep,” he said lightly. “Let me enjoy my husband’s company a while longer.” He brought a hand up to let it brush against Jiang Cheng’s knuckles.


Jiang Cheng shivered, very slightly, under the touch. “We sleep in the same bed,” he pointed out. The words were brusque, but there was an almost-quiver in the voice… Perhaps he was embarrassed, to have been found awaiting his husband’s return. That didn’t quite seem to fit what Lan Xichen knew of him now, but then, this was the first time they’d been separated for so long.


All the more reason to spend a little time awake together, and settle back into the peace of the household. He opened his hand to lie flat over Jiang Cheng’s.


“All right, then,” Jiang Cheng said, as if that one movement had been eloquent argument enough. “Sit down.” He pushed Lan Xichen gently. Lan Xichen, body worn-out and obedient, folded up under Jiang Cheng’s hands, and found himself in a sitting position in front of the writing desk. Jiang Cheng took a seat opposite him, posture correct but loose. There was something charming about it, the idea of sprawling out on the carpet like children staying up past bedtime.


“Tell me how you’ve been,” Lan Xichen said. Jiang Cheng’s letters had been fuller than his own, laden with anecdotes concerning other people: somehow Xichen found he wanted a more private account.


“Me?” Jiang Cheng’s eyes flicked to the ground; they were very bright. “What have I done but what I do every day? You’re the one who’s been travelling.”


“True…” Lan Xichen leaned forward a little, getting a better look at him. “Shall I recount the journey for you, then? I confess, the landscape was… unbeautiful.” That was an understatement, but the scars of Sunshot were a topic for another night.


“How was the hunting?” Jiang Cheng said, ignoring this. He was a little abrupt, tonight. Lan Xichen wondered if this was how he had been as a sect-heir: he must have been a terror on night-hunts. No disciple would dare take foolish risks, or hide an injury, under his command.


“Not so bad,” he said, and in the golden light, with a husband to scold him, it truly wasn’t. “I haven’t slept so poorly as you feared: it’s just that the spirits seemed to wake at different times, following the hours of the night watch. So I spent some sleepless nights, to catch all of them.”     


“And then you carried the habit home with you,” Jiang Cheng said. His tone was sharp, but there was amusement in his face. “What happened to Do not work later than the ninth hour, Lan Xichen?”


Oh, it was good to be back, to tease and be teased. “I could ask you the same question,” Lan Xichen countered, and smiled, warmly.


“Oh, really?” Jiang Cheng said, eyes sparkling. “Whose idea was this, may I ask? Who refused to go to bed just a moment ago?”


Lan Xichen laughed. “Come now, Jiang Cheng,” he said, and let himself lean forward even further. “Confess, what would you have done, had I not returned to drag you away from your accounts?”


Jiang Cheng looked at him. “Accounts?” he said, face unreadable, tone halfway between wry and scornful. “You think I was sat awake reading the accounts?”


“Have I guessed wrongly?” Lan Xichen said, wondering where this game might lead them. “What was it that had you so riveted, then?”  


Jiang Cheng looked at him wordlessly. Then he leaned over to the desk – for a moment he was so close that Lan Xichen caught the scent of the oil he used in his hair – to take up a piece of paper: the one he had been reading, when Lan Xichen entered the hanshi. This close to, Lan Xichen could see that it carried a broken seal. A letter.


Jiang Cheng stood up and unfolded it; for a moment he seemed to peruse it. His mouth twisted – with what emotion, Xichen could not tell.


Then: “Lan – Xi – Chen,” he said, voice alight with offended virtue, and Lan Xichen realised, very belatedly, what the letter was.


Jiang Cheng turned on his heel. He paced across the room, eyes flickering to Lan Xichen; turned away only to round on Lan Xichen again. “Your chest needs the marks of my mouth,” he read aloud. He enunciated the words with such force, Lan Xichen almost expected to see him breathe sparks. Even in the low light, he was visibly flushed. “Sound familiar?”


Lan Xichen stared at him, mesmerised. Jiang Cheng turned and paced in the other direction, eyes still scanning the letter. “No? What about this – Biting my way around your thighs?” His voice blazed with passion, with the outrage he had such a talent for. He had reached the other side of the hanshi: he turned sharply to pace back again, the sleeve of his robe cutting through the air.


Now what is this, Lan Xichen wondered. Had those unrestrained words hit a sore spot, for Jiang Cheng to tax him with them? Or was this the game he’d thought it, Jiang Cheng offering him a challenge?


Jiang Cheng did not seem to need Lan Xichen’s input: he continued speaking, the words leaving his mouth with the force of crossbow bolts. “I’d wait until I heard you begging for me? I’ll” – his voice cracked – “I’ll make you come over and over?” Finally, he turned to face Lan Xichen fully. “Lan Xichen, do you read what you put to paper? Or do the words just flow from your cock to the pen without recourse to your eyes?”


It had been quite like that, actually, Lan Xichen reflected. He gazed at Jiang Cheng. His husband was all outrage, but there was no tense line of the mouth to speak of anger, no flat tone or stifled sob in the voice to betray hurt. Just the bright, eloquent rage he might once have flung at Wei Wuxian’s head, before yielding to his brother’s persuasions: so bright it made him impossible to look away from.


“I’ve offended you?” he said, soft and questioning.


Offended –” Jiang Cheng scoffed. He had a wonderful scoff. “What would you feel, if I wrote you a letter like that where the heavens could see it? You do know this isn’t in cipher, don’t you? Just because you sent it me through a qiankun space – what if I’d left it open on the desk? Be grateful you’re married to a Sunshot veteran!”


He isn’t angry, Lan Xichen thought, exhilarated. “I am grateful,” he said, “every day. I know I can trust my husband with my correspondence.” Jiang Cheng had been trained in the hard school of war: he was never careless with any missive, Lan Xichen’s or otherwise. They both knew there had never been any real danger of exposure here.


This is what you call correspondence?” Jiang Cheng said, voice ringing with disbelief. No, he wasn’t angry. He was moved – half-scandalised, half-aroused, in that heady space between fear and desire – and he was letting Lan Xichen see it. Letting Lan Xichen see the bright sparks his words had struck. The hot, half-frightened flame.


“Jiang Cheng,” he said, utterly charmed, “do you dislike it?”


Jiang Cheng swallowed, and clenched the letter in his fist. “When did I say that?” he retorted.


All Lan Xichen’s tiredness seemed to have left him: it was as if Jiang Cheng’s words had breathed fire into him. He leaned forward to rearrange himself. Now he was sitting back on his heels, as if prepared to kneel.


“You don’t dislike it, then?” he breathed.


Jiang Cheng made a soft tchah sound. “What I dislike,” he said, his diction sharp and precise all of a sudden, “is promises left unkept.”


Lan Xichen’s heart leapt. That was the root of Jiang Cheng’s indignation, always – the need to know that he wasn’t alone in this, that the other party wouldn’t pull the mat out from under him. If he pushed to know Lan Xichen’s desires, if he challenged Lan Xichen to own them, to coax and persuade, that was the surest sign that they aligned with his own. He wanted this badly. He was letting Lan Xichen see it.


He had taken Lan Xichen’s wild, passionate phrases, penned as if in a fever, and given them the weight of a binding oath. Promises left unkept.


Suddenly the distance between them was untenable.


“A-Cheng,” he said hoarsely, “come here and let me keep them.”


Jiang Cheng folded at once. He began to move downwards just as Lan Xichen reached up with his arms, thinking no further than to seize hold of whatever part of Jiang Cheng he could get a grip on, and then he was gripping Jiang Cheng’s arms and pulling him down into his lap. He slid his knees apart so that Jiang Cheng could get a knee between them. Like this, Lan Xichen could bury his face in the skin of Jiang Cheng’s neck and shoulder. The soap-and-sweat smell of him, homelike and reassuring just minutes ago, was suddenly an aphrodisiac powerful enough to drive a strong man mad.


Hands lifted his face, fingers cradling his jaw: Jiang Cheng lifting Lan Xichen’s mouth to his. Lan Xichen kissed him and could have wept with relief. How had he become so used to daily kisses, that he now missed them so badly? He kissed Jiang Cheng hungrily, chasing his lips, tongue seeking entrance and taking possession. Jiang Cheng matched him, mouth opening and working against his. His arms came round Lan Xichen’s neck as if to pull him in and hold him, keep him there against Jiang Cheng’s hot wet mouth until he swooned from lack of breath.


He was making little noises in the back of his throat. Lan Xichen needed them to be louder. He broke away from Jiang Cheng’s mouth and pressed his face to his husband’s throat. Jiang Cheng shivered. Lan Xichen kissed, caressed, let his mouth brush gently – another tremor – then bit down. Jiang Cheng gasped. Lan Xichen worried at the skin between his teeth. “Hn –” He let his teeth mark a path upwards, biting and sucking. Jiang Cheng’s breaths were getting higher, shakier, closer to moans. “Ah, ah, ah, hah, nn –” His skin was so soft, it gave way so well under Lan Xichen’s teeth and tongue, colouring up swiftly. He was trembling in Xichen’s arms.


“I’ve neglected you,” Xichen murmured, and bit further up. There was unmarked skin, right there beneath the jaw, skin where his mouth had never done anything more than graze – his teeth sank in, and he sucked, hard.


Jiang Cheng’s nails dug sharply into his back. “A-Huan –! You – there’s no collar that can cover that –”


Lan Xichen kissed the place he’d bitten, just to feel Jiang Cheng’s neck arch beneath the touch, feel him swallow. “Good. I wouldn’t want to leave you in any doubt.”


It was true, he was leaving marks that couldn’t be hidden, darker than any he’d left before. But it was hard to think of tomorrow. Jiang Cheng’s hips were moving against him: he was grinding, fully-clothed and artless, against Lan Xichen’s thigh. Lan Xichen’s senses were full of the squirming human heat of him, the way his whole body curved into what Xichen was doing to his neck. It was like incense filling Xichen’s lungs. Even as Jiang Cheng’s body began to tense at the scrape of teeth, it would yield in the same instant. He couldn’t get enough of it.


Jiang Cheng was squirming in earnest now. His hands clenched and unclenched in the fabric of Xichen’s robe, the cloth muting the feeling of nails scraping across Xichen’s back. His breathing was laboured, and when he tried to close his mouth little strained hums of pleasure escaped anyway, a refrain of mm-mm-mh – ah! – mmh… “A-Huan,” a high, breathless groan, “a-Huan, please, please…”


Somehow, Lan Xichen dragged his mouth away from Jiang Cheng’s neck for a moment. “Begging already?” he breathed. “I promised I’d make you, a-Cheng, you needn’t give in so soon…”


“Soon,” Jiang Cheng gasped, “this is soon, to you? I waited three days” – his voice was changing, sliding into that state that promised he would soon make all the noise Lan Xichen wanted – “don’t deny me, Lan Huan, please…”


Lan Xichen’s mouth said, “Please, what?”, even as the sound of his husband alternately scolding and pleading, in that kiss-drunk voice, made him feel dizzy and lightheaded.


Please,” he felt Jiang Cheng’s hand detach itself from his robes and come round to find his own, to guide it downwards, to ruck up the fabric of his sleep robe, “have me – you can have me, I’m ready –”


He was. Lan Xichen’s fingers found him loose and slick.


For a moment, Lan Xichen seemed to leave his body entirely. His ears rang; his vision burned white. When he came to, he was leaning over Jiang Cheng, who lay on the floor, robe spread around his legs and legs spread around Lan Xichen. His breathing was fast and shallow, his eyes bright. Lan Xichen reached down again to press at his entrance: his fingers slid in easily enough. He wondered wildly how long ago Jiang Cheng had prepared himself. Had he been eager and desperate already when Xichen arrived, when Xichen had found him fever-hot and bright-eyed and sharp with hunger –


He was still relaxed enough that they wouldn’t need anything more than saliva: Xichen shifted so that one of his hands was at the junction of Jiang Cheng’s thighs, holding it open with a thumb at the hip and fingers spreading across the inner thigh. Feeling half-possessed, he brought the other hand to Jiang Cheng’s mouth. Jiang Cheng’s lips parted, unquestioning. Xichen slid his fingers in and felt lost to a wave of dazzling heat.


When he took them out again, Jiang Cheng said, “Please, please,” in a voice so breathless it was halfway to whispering. Lan Xichen could feel the muscle in his thigh shuddering beneath Xichen’s fingers. He lifted Jiang Cheng’s hips, forearm beneath the small of his back, and let Jiang Cheng’s spit ease the way for his other hand.


Jiang Cheng cried out at the first push. Then he cried out again. And again. There was a beautiful flush sweeping over him, right up from his chest, over his bruised throat, up across his jaw to the hollows of his cheeks. Lan Xichen leaned down to brush a kiss over one cheekbone, and pressed hard with his fingertips to feel Jiang Cheng jerk against him.


It was all he could do to hold Jiang Cheng in place: his hips shoved back eagerly to meet the intrusion, even as he flung his head back, muscle and vein straining in his neck and jaw. It made Lan Xichen cruel. He teased, just to watch Jiang Cheng writhe, trying to push into that touch deep inside him. Just to see his lips open on a gasp.


Jiang Cheng had accused him of not thinking when he wrote. He wasn’t thinking now, either. He felt as if there was one wave of heat all through his body, radiating down his arm to where Jiang Cheng was hot and slick inside, and it was overwhelming him. It blazed up every time Jiang Cheng made a sound, every time he moved, hips twisting. He leaned down again to kiss Jiang Cheng’s open, panting mouth, and drove his fingers against Jiang Cheng’s prostate.


He swallowed the ngh! that left Jiang Cheng’s mouth. Kept his fingers there, rubbing, varying the pressure with the strength of his wrist and knuckles without ever letting up. The tension in Jiang Cheng’s jaw was dissipating, his mouth was going slack. A steady stream of sound left it, a long “oh-ah-ohhhh”, louder and louder. His eyes fluttered shut. His hips stopped fighting Lan Xichen’s hold; his whole body was shuddering, trembling against him.


“A-Cheng,” Lan Xichen whispered to him, “a-Cheng, will you come?”


Jiang Cheng moaned. “Yes, yes –” Suddenly every muscle in his body tensed, starkly, and then the tension melted out of him all at once.


He lay back on the floor, stilled, no longer fighting the arm that held him. His eyes were closed; his breathing was steadying. Lan Xichen knew and treasured the expression creeping over his face, one of surpassing sweetness. He only ever saw it when he’d made Jiang Cheng come. His arm was still beneath Jiang Cheng’s lower back, one hand fixed between waist and hip. He couldn’t bring himself to move it.


Jiang Cheng seemed to notice this. He opened his eyes a little, and looked up at Lan Xichen, heavy-lidded. “Now?” he said, voice still a little out of breath. Lan Xichen looked at him, uncomprehending. “Lan Huan, will you have me, now? I’ve already come once, you can have me the way you like…”


Another wave of heat rolled through Lan Xichen like wildfire. Jiang Cheng had read his letter and thought of how Xichen liked to have him after he’d come, when he was sensitive, when he couldn’t fight how it felt… “You want that?” he said, in a voice that did not feel like his own. Jiang Cheng had spoken to him resplendent with anger, and then broken down and begged, so that Lan Xichen would make him like this, exactly like this…


Jiang Cheng nodded. Tiredness and pleasure between them seemed to have freed his tongue completely. “I want you to have it, please, Lan Huan, have me, I’m ready, I’ve been ready –”


Lan Xichen steadied his grip on Jiang Cheng’s waist, slid his other hand firmly under Jiang Cheng’s ass, and stood up in one smooth movement. Jiang Cheng made a shocked, inarticulate noise. But his legs locked around Xichen’s waist, and his arms around Xichen’s neck, as if they’d practised it. Lan Xichen held him tighter, drinking in the smell of him.


“A-Cheng, I made you promises,” he said softly, into Jiang Cheng’s ear, and carried him over to the bed.


He laid Jiang Cheng down, carefully, and climbed over him to kneel between his legs. Jiang Cheng, still pliant from his orgasm, let them fall open to allow him. Not yet, Lan Xichen thought, fondly, not so soon: didn’t I swear I’d make you wait? Gently, he opened Jiang Cheng’s robe, so that it lay around him as if to garland him, present him to the eyes. There was his cock, limp now, and the stain of his come across his belly – it was on his robe, too, Lan Xichen realised. Those clean sheets were clean no longer.


Well, let them be dirtied. He was home now: let even the bedlinens know it.


Further up, still heaving just slightly, Jiang Cheng’s chest, marked as it was by deep scar tissue. Lan Xichen was well used to it by now – had acquired a certain tender care for the scars whose secret he was privy to – but somehow, seeing the red marks of his teeth trace down Jiang Cheng’s neck and come to a halt where the deeper red of the scars began sent a pang through his heart. He leaned forward to kiss Jiang Cheng’s collarbone, bracing himself on one arm.


In one respect, Jiang Cheng had been lucky with these. He might have lost all feeling across the scars’ whole extent. But he had not. The skin was sometimes over-sensitive to the point of pain, but Jiang Cheng seldom minded a little pain with his pleasure; more often it itched, if touched too softly or glancingly. So Lan Xichen pressed hard, with his mouth, when he kissed across Jiang Cheng’s chest.


He was pressing harder, now, letting his teeth come out. Jiang Cheng was still tranquil, at first, the pleasure of his first orgasm loosening his limbs: sharp, painful nips merely startled a little sigh from him, rather than the full-body jerk they might have. He let Xichen do as he wished. When Xichen let his lips and tongue wander across a nipple, Jiang Cheng merely pushed into it, a very little – it was almost more of a leaning, a yielding – and his long exhale took on a more helpless, longing sound.


Lan Xichen was almost painfully hard, now, but it scarcely seemed to matter. He had been hard any number of times these past weeks. What was that in comparison to Jiang Cheng laid out before him, and the promises laid out in that letter?


He let his mouth wander down, towards Jiang Cheng’s hipbones, and back up again. He had seldom been possessed by such white-hot patience. But he wanted to feel all of it: Jiang Cheng’s sighs becoming sharper, hungrier; his body leaping beneath Lan Xichen’s touch, as the sensations became more acute; the moment desire roused him from the trance of touch and he became demanding again. Lan Xichen lingered over his stomach, enjoying the give of the skin under his teeth and Jiang Cheng’s little hah! in response. Jiang Cheng smelled of sweat and the still moments after sex, and Lan Xichen thought, with sudden relief, This is how he smells when he’s in bed with me: this is what home smells like.


As he approached Jiang Cheng’s hips, for the second time, Jiang Cheng’s breathing grew more laboured. He was hardening again. Lan Xichen’s biting kisses, bestowed on his hipbones and abdomen, drew noises from him that sounded almost involuntary. Lan Xichen felt a thrill of anticipation, and lowered his head to Jiang Cheng’s thighs.


Even coreless as he was now, Jiang Cheng’s body showed the care and effort he’d brought to cultivation practices – the care he still brought to the sword forms he taught. And his thighs showed him a true son of Yunmeng, who even now could cut through its waters like a river snake when he chose to swim. Lan Xichen loved to have them under his mouth. He kissed, licked, sank his teeth in, drawing patterns up and down Jiang Cheng’s inner thighs as Jiang Cheng jolted and gasped raggedly above him.


“Lan Huan –” Just from the noises of the pillow, Lan Xichen could tell that Jiang Cheng was tossing his head from side to side. “Lan Huan, nn, why…”


“Why?” He’d found the spot on Jiang Cheng’s right thigh that made him tense – as if wishing to close his legs again – and groan. He worried at it, biting, then licking as if to soothe the bite, then biting the wet skin again.


“Why won’t you, hah, touch me,” Jiang Cheng said, hips bucking a little as if to demonstrate where. He sounded like someone woken from sleep, his voice rough with pleasure, edged with frustration.


The opportunity was irresistible – “I am touching you.”


“Don’t – don’t play the dullard with me –” Ah, there was that biting edge in his voice, the hunger Lan Xichen had been waiting for. He moved further down, towards the bend of Jiang Cheng’s knee, and heard Jiang Cheng groan in frustration. “You know what I mean…”


“Think,” Lan Xichen murmured, wickedly, “don’t you remember that letter you read out to me? Didn’t I say I’d wait?” He switched his attentions to the other leg. Jiang Cheng’s right thigh was already beginning to flare red; it was time the left matched it. And he could take as much time as he wanted with it, with all Jiang Cheng’s skin beneath his lips and tongue, because he was home and he had time in abundance.


“You said,” oh, he was trying so hard to clear his mind and remember, voice clouded with desire, “you, you said you’d wait until I begged for you” – oh, good boy – “and I have, I have…”


That wasn’t begging, Lan Xichen thought, with a heat that surprised him, that was seduction.


“I don’t hear you begging now,” he breathed, across Jiang Cheng’s skin.


“Lan Xichen –” Jiang Cheng snapped, pushed too far to be polite, but the sound broke into a despairing gasp, and Lan Xichen smiled.


He kissed and bit his way back up, to the join where Jiang Cheng’s thighs met his hips, where he tarried for a time until the skin looked half-mauled. He could feel every sharp burst of breath, of movement, above him. Every sound startled out of Jiang Cheng’s throat. They were beginning to sound less reluctant and more despairing, like something he couldn’t hold back.


Lan Xichen moved up a little – Jiang Cheng jerked – but only to bring his mouth back to Jiang Cheng’s belly. He licked at the drying come there, and felt Jiang Cheng shiver, as much at the idea as at the sensation. His hands were still lower down, at the very top of Jiang Cheng’s thighs. A little circle, hands and mouth, pressing into older marks and making fresh ones. What luxury, to have a canvas like this, that never resisted but sang under the touch.


And how he was singing… The more Lan Xichen pressed into bitemarks with thumb and index finger, the less Jiang Cheng seemed to be able to bite back his cries. From here, Lan Xichen could see the arch of his neck as his chin tipped back, and a glimpse of his eyelids, squeezed tight shut. Those sharp tensing movements were turning to a quiet, constant shaking as his body grew more sensitive to the heat of a tongue, the nip of teeth. Nearly there, nearly…


Lan Xichen dug a thumb sharply into Jiang Cheng’s inner thigh, licked near the base of his cock, and scraped his teeth over the wet skin, and Jiang Cheng cried out, “Please, Lan Huan, please –”


His eyes were open, now, and Xichen met them with his own. He kept his mouth where it was and waited to hear more. “Please,” and the broken note in his voice went to Lan Xichen’s veins like strong wine, “I can’t bear it, touch me, a-Huan, please, I need it…” Lan Xichen bit down again, unable to resist. “Hah – I can’t, I can’t, have mercy, a-Huan, please, please…”


There you are, Lan Xichen thought. He felt drunk.


“Good,” he said, meeting Jiang Cheng’s eyes again, and leaned down to fit his mouth over Jiang Cheng’s cock.


He felt desperate, himself. He didn’t bother teasing, now: he swallowed Jiang Cheng deep, hands over Jiang Cheng’s hips as if to keep him from escaping. Jiang Cheng’s harsh cry went up into the night like a flock of startled birds, and Lan Xichen sucked at him, hungrily. Jiang Cheng cried out again, and then subsided into long, frantic breaths that seemed to break into cries just at the end. Lan Xichen retreated for a moment, to caress Jiang Cheng’s cock with lips and tongue as he had done the rest of him. Those breaths grew shallower, more fragmented.


Then he took Jiang Cheng deep again. Jiang Cheng’s voice broke on a moan; his hands went to Lan Xichen’s shoulders. Helpfully, Lan Xichen lifted one of them towards his hair. He was rewarded with both Jiang Cheng’s hands tugging harshly, nails digging in and scraping as if their owner couldn’t help himself. The slight pain sent a ripple of heat through Lan Xichen, and he applied himself more forcefully.


Jiang Cheng was starting to tremble again in that tell-tale way. His fingers tightened in Lan Xichen’s hair, and Lan Xichen knew he was close. He slid two fingers back into Jiang Cheng, massaging him. Lowered his head to swallow him down further.


Jiang Cheng cried, “Ah, ah, a-Huan,” and came on his tongue.


Lan Xichen had to lay his head against Jiang Cheng’s thigh for a moment, afterwards. Jiang Cheng was breathing heavily, body driven to near-exhaustion. Lan Xichen was so hard he felt he was becoming lightheaded: he suddenly needed very badly to be close to Jiang Cheng, to feel that he was there. “A-Cheng,” he murmured, letting his awestruck affection bleed into his voice, against Jiang Cheng’s leg.


“Lan Huan,” Jiang Cheng murmured back. His hands were still in Lan Xichen’s hair, but now they were carding through it gently. One came down to rest on Lan Xichen’s – somehow still clothed – shoulder. Lan Xichen leaned into it helplessly. “Do you want to… have me, now?” There was a broken note of entreaty in his voice, even as the words made it an offer.


Yes,” Lan Xichen exhaled, before he could stop himself. Jiang Cheng looked worn-out, enough to inspire any man to mercy… But the dark look in his eyes told Xichen he had spoken rightly. Jiang Cheng had asked him for this. Jiang Cheng had prepared himself for it, knowing how badly Xichen would want it. “I promised, didn’t I?” he said softly.


He moved to undress, but Jiang Cheng’s hands at his head stopped him. Lan Xichen bowed beneath his husband’s fingers, and felt them remove the sharp, heavy guan and the pins that held it in place. The topknot stayed as it was, held by a leather band like the one in Jiang Cheng’s hair, but some of his hair fell abruptly around him, brushing against his face. The relief from the pressure against his head was sudden and intense – a homecoming he hadn’t expected, hadn’t thought to brace himself against, in this most unexpected evening.


He rid himself swiftly of his belt, and shrugged out of the remaining layers. He was redolent with the sweat of the journey, but Jiang Cheng didn’t seem to mind it when Lan Xichen leaned down to be close to him again, skin to skin. He pressed his face to Lan Xichen’s neck as if to breathe it in. Lan Xichen guided his face back upwards, with one light touch, to kiss him long and deep. To let Jiang Cheng taste himself in Xichen’s mouth.


There was just enough presence of mind left in him to reach for the oil, thankfully within reach in the small bedside chest, and slick himself up. Then he was leaning forward – Jiang Cheng was fully out of his robes, he saw, had spread himself in readiness – and pressing in.


He came to rest with his head shoved against Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. He took a moment there just to breathe: he had to. How was it so good? How could it still be so good? There was nothing like it. To be welcomed in, limbs flung wide, to come in from the cold and be welcomed into yielding, giving heat. Lan Xichen remembered that he had once thought it felt like coming home; he had not known how true that would become.


Jiang Cheng’s breathing had hitched at the feeling of Lan Xichen entering him; now it was evening out. Lan Xichen was almost afraid to move again and break this unbearable motionlessness. He essayed a thrust and gasped, seized wholly by the blaze of pleasure that swept through him. And then he was moving, and he couldn’t stop, chasing that pleasure like the bright knife’s edge of sunlight in a storm. His hips were grinding forward as frantically as Jiang Cheng’s had, at the start of the night: if there was any skill in his movements, it was the gift of habit, not of thought.


His breath was leaving him in long exhales, coming closer and closer to gasps. He bent his head again to occupy his mouth with the skin above Jiang Cheng’s collarbone. Jiang Cheng was making tiny, punched-out sounds: where Xichen was, he could feel as much as hear them. They didn’t sound like protests. They sounded like something beyond words, like he was fucking them out of Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng’s hands were on his back, nails scratching mindlessly with the rhythm of each thrust.


Jiang Cheng had waited for him late into the cool of dusk, keeping his body warm and loosened, ready to let Lan Xichen in. He was crying out – sounding almost pained – but his hands were reaching for Lan Xichen, pulling him close and holding him there. Lan Xichen squeezed his eyes shut against a bolt of something deeper and keener than hunger.


He pressed in harder, more desperate than ever. He had to change angle a little to do it, and the new, more forceful drive forwards of his hips made Jiang Cheng’s eyes fly open and his voice break on a cry of, “A-Huan, a-Huan –!” He sounded hoarse, but he kept saying it, as if he couldn’t stop. His arms tightened around Xichen as if to urge him further in.


A-Cheng,” Xichen gasped, “missed you, I missed you,” and the sound of his own voice saying it made him feel more naked than disrobing had. He ground deep into Jiang Cheng. He wanted to get in so deep he could stay and never leave.


Jiang Cheng made a sound like a sob, and pulled him sharply up by the nape of his neck to kiss him. When they broke apart, Xichen saw wetness shining where their faces had touched. That was from him, he realised. His own eyes were wet.


He leaned down to kiss Jiang Cheng again, moaning into his mouth, and let himself drive deep into his husband’s body. When he came, his orgasm overtook him and seized possession of him completely. He knew he was crying out, but he could hardly hear himself. The feeling ignited him the way lightning illuminated the heavens in a summer storm: a heat that shook every nerve and wrung it out.


“Oh,” he was panting, when he came back to himself, “oh, oh, oh…” Beneath him, Jiang Cheng shivered as if to the same rhythm.


Lan Xichen pulled out slowly, trembling, and laid himself along the line of his husband’s body. Jiang Cheng was warm with sweat. He was hard, again, but making no move to touch himself.  Lan Xichen reached over to touch him: he flinched, instinctively, but did not move away.


“A-Cheng,” Xichen whispered, “once more?” He met Jiang Cheng’s eyes, dark and dazed, almost dreamy. “Once more? For me?”


Jiang Cheng blinked at him. Then, slowly, he pushed forward with his hips so that his cock brushed against Lan Xichen’s hand.


Lan Xichen made a circle of his hand, so that Jiang Cheng could thrust into it. With the other hand he gathered Jiang Cheng in, until his head came to rest against Lan Xichen’s shoulder and there was almost no part of their bodies left not touching. Jiang Cheng was shuddering all over as Lan Xichen touched him, but he pushed into the touch anyway. Xichen stroked him, gripped him, hand already wet with his precome, and Jiang Cheng ground into it even as his brow furrowed in not-quite-pain.


The skin of his back was hot and soft under Xichen’s other hand. He was strong, but so breakable, and yet he gave himself over to Xichen so easily. Xichen pressed his lips to Jiang Cheng’s hairline, letting his mouth work gently against Jiang Cheng’s forehead. His husband was too tired now to hold back his reactions even had he wished to: a hundred little sighs and groans wafted onto the air as he sweated against Lan Xichen, as he went willingly into Xichen’s hold.


He was always beautiful, especially in the haughty moments when he held out and refused to break; but Xichen thought he was at his most desirable like this. When he was beyond holding out, and couldn’t hide his pleasure, or resist it. When he was grinding gracelessly into Xichen’s palm and fingers, little, helpless noises streaming from the back of his throat.


Good,” Xichen murmured, against his forehead, and Jiang Cheng moaned sharply like a wounded man, and came.


He lost track of time for the next few moments. He clung to Jiang Cheng, he thought, and Jiang Cheng – despite being sweaty and stained, again, with his own come, a state for which he had no great love – burrowed into him and lay close. He thought he kissed Jiang Cheng’s forehead again. He would have kissed any part of Jiang Cheng close enough to his mouth, and this was the closest.


At length Jiang Cheng made as if to move; Xichen’s arm tightened around him without conscious thought. A smile crossed Jiang Cheng’s face. “You don’t want to clean up?” he said, hoarse and breathless. His voice was very sleepy, and gently amused. 


“Not yet.” If anything, he was shocked Jiang Cheng could think of moving. “Stay with me a little longer…”


Jiang Cheng nestled in closer. For all his words, he looked as if he might drop off to sleep at any moment. “Slovenly,” he said. “I’ve married a sloven.” He sounded triumphant about it. 


Xichen let out a breathless noise that might have been a laugh, if he’d had the energy. “Yes, yes,” he agreed, obediently. “A sloven, who came to you when he was all over road dirt. Perhaps I’ll ask someone to draw us a bath.” It would feel good, to soak in a full tub, with Jiang Cheng draped against him. When he was a little more awake, and could move again.


“A sloven and a hedonist,” Jiang Cheng said, but it was more than half a yawn. He was making no move to part from Xichen. Xichen kissed his hair. Mine, he thought, with drowsy, wrung-out satisfaction.


Distantly, he noticed a sound on the roof. A gentle drumming.


“Oh,” he said, almost under his breath, “the rain came.” And then, because he was too blissfully, ecstatically tired to resist, “See, a-Cheng? Didn’t I keep my promise?”


Jiang Cheng tucked his face firmly into the crook of Xichen’s neck. “Knew you would,” he said, muffled, and reached for his discarded robe to pull it over two of them.


They had heavier blankets, but the rush of warmth that ran through Xichen at that had nothing to do with fabric. He let his head fall back against the pillow, and closed his eyes, as Jiang Cheng’s breathing evened out. He was home.