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Roughened Sole

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Lan Xichen can recite poetry from masters dead for ten generations. He can paint a landscape that inspires awe as well as draws an accurate map of all the lands he has visited. The Lan sect has stuffed his head full of the knowledge of what plants were poisonous and which stones would help increase the flow of his qi but nothing about how to forage for his supper. He could make a batch of medicine out of harvested herbs but had no idea how to season a soup. The value of his sword, his clothing, his life, all of these were things he knew but he had no idea of the cost of buns or fresh vegetables, and no knowledge of how to haggle with the vendors in the market.

At least they had instilled in him a decent work ethic, at least his elders had taught him the proper ways to clean a room, and thus he knew how to keep the manor he and Meng Yao now lived in tidy. It was an old house, clearly given over to Meng Yao by the bookkeeper he worked for because no one else wished to live in it. There had been a restless spirit in it before, an old, thin, wailing woman who Lan Xichen had laid to rest once he was able to. He could replace the rotten timbers and repair the torn and broken windows, so long as Meng Yao brought in supplies from outside.

He could not leave.

It…

It left him anxious.

He could read and re-read the books he had rescued from the Lan library, inscribing the rules and history of his clan on his mind as surely as they had been carved into rock, but he could not follow Meng Yao into town and make sure he was safe. Barkers would pass by the doors of the house calling out items for sale, interesting smelling food generally as well as ingredients or sharp calls asking if anyone needed knives sharpened. Lan Xichen could not open the door and call out for a basket of fish, or a head of cabbage. Leaving the house was impossible for him, too big a risk, Meng Yao would say. He was too recognizable, if not as Lan Xichen then as a Lan. Even though his white robes had been stained slightly from his journey and one set had been torn and mended, they were still too white.

Meng Yao would tell him he was too clean.

It made no sense to Xichen, this sense that he was too clean. He and Meng Yao both washed themselves from the same basin. The house had a room for a tub but the shack was falling apart and the tub itself needed desperately to be replaced. So they would fill a hand basin with warm water and wash in the privacy of their rooms, their skin growing cold quickly.

Scrape out the rust of the tub or fix the cracks and buying a new one would mean a delivery, would mean installation. It would mean people here who might notice a second presence in Meng Yao’s life. Buying enough food is risky enough but…

The door opens and Lan Xichen freezes, he’s not quite hidden away behind the door to their living quarters. He stares across the unkempt courtyard, across the man tall reeds and marshy soil that have seeped in from one corner, past the wide wooden circle that marks the well. He has only the length of time it takes for the door to open and a head to peek inside to dart back…

It’s Meng Yao.

The high ponytail of his short hair, his bright eyes, and brighter smile, Lan Xichen can’t help but freeze, can’t help but smile. He does smile. He smiles back as Meng Yao slips through the barest, slimmest crack in the door, the hinges creaking with rust as they closed. The door isn’t strong on its own but it is noisy, noisy enough they’ll know before someone breaks in. Noisy enough, maybe, to give them a chance.

“Meng Yao,” he smiles, “you’re home.”

He’s tried calling Meng Yao ‘young master’ more than once, as many times as necessary really to dissuade him from using ‘Sect Leader Lan’ here in these close quarters.

Close to the door as he is, Meng Yao doesn’t respond. He holds up their future dinner instead and Xichen ducks into the kitchen to get the fire started. Another thing he can do to help, though he has been forbidden to actually participate in the cooking he can at least get the kindling going. The Lan even have a few useful spells for starting, maintaining, and smothering a fire. Before running from his home he had only had the opportunity to use them twice before, once when on a night hunt with Nie Mingjue, and another time when teaching Wangji.

And now, of course, he’s used such little spells many times now. Against the kind of fire that had enveloped his home they were no use but here, well, keeping the fire going is one of the few domestic skills he had.

“Excuse me.”

He moves out of the way for the shorter man. Monitoring the fire can be done in any position in the kitchen, he could quite probably do it from the other room if it was required of him. Instead, he takes the spot next to Meng Yao, the vegetables from the younger man’s hands are easily transferred to his. Knife work is something he can handle. Washing the vegetables and chopping them, as long as he’s been told how to chop them. Sometimes he has cut the vegetables too large, other times too thin, but Meng Yao smiles and nods after Xichen’s first tentative strikes and so he goes through the rest of the stalk of celery with ease. There is more to their dinner and Meng Yao kindly, quietly, informs him of what his next task is to be.

Sometimes there is meat with their meal. Meng Yao has never asked him to strangle a chicken or gut a fish, but Lan Xichen will help slice the meat to Meng Yao’s measurements and while he might not always eat it (sometimes there is barely enough meat for Meng Yao to have a mouthful) he enjoys the scent of it cooking.

Except for pork, he’s found that the smell of pork in the pan is reminiscent of…

“You seem distracted,” Meng Yao carefully tosses their dinner around the wok, “have you been busy?”

Lan Xichen smiles slightly, shamefully, and begins tidying the kitchen up, “not as such,” he has to be careful with the clothes so he does not grip them and tear, he’s better about it now than he had been when grief still sung in his ears, “some minor repairs. I can show A-Yao later.”

Patching holes when Meng Yao was out was fine, so long as it could be done quietly. Anything loud enough to be heard outside the walls was dangerous, silencing talismans were dangerous as well because a lack of noise was just as noticeable as an excess.

“What did you do today?” He redirects the conversation and it flows easily, Meng Yao is an excellent conversationalist. He’s charming and sweet with a smile that makes Lan Xichen’s heart kick. There’s a small scar at the base of his hairline that, sometimes, Lan Xichen cannot help but stare at. He only does it when he’s sure Meng Yao won’t notice.

Right now, even with the smaller man so focused on dinner, he might notice if Lan Xichen stares.

“And then Ye-furen said-” Meng Yao’s stories are always full of colorful characters and comfortable name-drops. There are no great sects to be mentioned, no families to be skirted around so as not to offend, and no Lan rules against gossip here. Meng Yao gossips freely and Lan Xichen listens hungrily.

They eat at a rickety table that Lan Xichen has himself repaired on small stools that he has smoothed the splinters off of.

After they have eaten Lan Xichen takes out Shouyue.

He does not unsheathe his sword. The gleam of the sword-spirit would be easily seen from any cultivators passing above, and it is possible that his spiritual weapon could be sensed by Wen cultivators on the lookout. He practices his forms with his blade in the sheath, flowing slowly, carefully from one to the next. Meng Yao copies him, stumbling now and again, accepting Xichen’s quiet corrections of the angle of his arm or the stance of his legs.

He has a sword of his own and the edge of it glimmers in the waning light, it is not a spirit sword but it is sharp enough.

Meditation comes next, the two of them seated side by side on a woven mat. Lan Xichen can sense the turning of the world and the setting of the sun, his body attuned to dusk and dawn through a lifelong regimen of waking and sleeping. He breathes, carefully, as he was taught from a young age under the strict gaze of a teacher with a strong hand to back it up. He feels Meng Yao copy him, his energy slowly growing. The weak golden core that had been barely strong enough for a lighting talisman when they met is growing stronger every day. Soon, Meng Yao might even be capable of handling a spirit sword.

“A-Yao,” he reaches out a hand to stop the other from approaching the well, “let me, please.”

It’s a small well, for a small courtyard, and from the stories, Meng Yao has told him it had not always been so fresh. It is, however, a luxury to have. Neither of them has to leave their rough home to fetch water from a communal well, hurrying back and forth with their single bucket. Xichen would have had no trouble, would even have offered to carry two buckets if they had them but he cannot leave the house. So he is grateful he can be useful, hauling up buckets of water and using talismans scrawled in his blood (paper may be cheap but cinnabar is expensive) to make sure the water is without impurities.

The water is needed for several things. To clean the dishes and pots, to heat for tea, and also to pour into basins kept in the bedroom for washing. It’s this last item that makes Lan Xichen smile to himself as they go about wrapping up their day.

“A-Yao,” he says, once they’re in the bedroom, after the water has been heated and poured into the copper basin. It steams lightly in the chill air, “I would like to… would you allow me…”

Meng Yao’s eyes are very sharp and also very kind, he smiles easily, pleasantly, and Xichen feels his heart kick again.

“Will you allow me the pleasure of washing your feet?”

This is the first time in his life that washing has been a luxury. At the Cloud Recesses, Lan Xichen would have been able to call for a hot bath whenever he wanted one. There were no rules inscribed on the walls (yet) that one may only bathe at most twice a day. It would have been frowned upon, of course, and someone would have eventually scolded him if he had indulged too often. There was always warmth to be found within the Cloud Recesses walls, for all that the mountains themselves were chilly, someone would have a fire going or warming talismans on hand. There was always enough water, fuel, and leaves for tea, even if the drink was bitter.

Meng Yao’s inhale was sharp between his teeth, his eyes were wide. Lan Xichen gets to his knees on the cold floor, his skin protected from the specter of splinters by Lan spelled robes. Carefully, he fills the basin with warm water and uses simple techniques to keep it the perfect temperature, regulating it just as he would the fire but far more carefully, aiming for a gentler heat.

“You shouldn’t,” Meng Yao begins to protest, too little, too late.

Lan Xichen places a hand on his boots.

“…” complicated emotions flutter across Meng Yao’s face, twisting his lips, darkening his gaze, turning his cheeks red. Eventually, as Lan Xichen pulls off one boot and then the other, he turns his gaze away. “I hope you will let me return the favor.”

His tone is piqued.

“If A-Yao wishes.”

Meng Yao’s socks are sturdy and rough, the fabric itches Xichen’s palms when he pulls them off. There are soft spots of fabric but that means they are worn, almost ready to tear. Soon they would be sewing up holes, or, Meng Yao would, Lan Xichen’s stitching still needed work. Carefully he placed the socks to the side and slid Meng Yao’s bare feet into the warm water of the copper basin. The soft sound that slipped from between tightly pressed lips made Xichen’s ears go warm. A moan of pleasure was a blessing, however, it was earned.

Lan Xichen was a cultivator and being a member of the Lan sect meant that, for the greater portion of his life, he had been well-off. Meng Yao’s feet told stories that his own could not, would not. There were callouses on the edges and heels, one of his toes had broken at some point and healed wrong, twisted slightly out of shape with the rest of his feet. It was obvious that Meng Yao did not enjoy looking at his feet, giving them little more than perfunctory cleaning every night. Working carefully, Xichen rids the feet of the day’s sweat and grime. He works in stages, first with a soft cloth and a pinch of a soapberry, worked into a lather and gently worked between Meng Yao’s long toes, his touch extra careful when attending to the twisted one. Then he rinses Meng Yao’s feet in the warm water, the talisman he applied to the basin earlier cleaning away the bubbles and dirt. Next, Xichen attacks the built-up dead skin with the slip of a pumice stone he had found abandoned in the manor’s derelict bathhouse.

Meng Yao makes another soft sound, his head pressing harder against the wall as Xichen rubs at the roughened, calloused skin of his heel, as he slices away years of neglect from the instep and ball.

It will take more than one night of work to truly weaken the hard crust of Meng Yao’s feet, to soften them up so that they were tender and fresh as a child’s. It might take a lifetime.

Lan Xichen pulls a small vial of oil out of his pocket after he sets Meng Yao’s feet to rest in the warm water once again. There’s a slight heave to Meng Yao’s chest, he is not quite panting, not yet, but he is close. Xichen wonders if it’s pain or pleasure that brings that makes him pant, that darkens his cheeks, that brings the glimmer of tears to tightly shut eyes.

He bites the tip of his tongue and swallows the question. The two of them might be able to curl close and share intimacies hitherto unknown to him but he does not wish to pry. If Meng Yao wants to tell him, that is different.

The scent of the oil is subtle, honey-like, and fresh. It takes a moment for Meng Yao’s nose to flare as he caught it, long enough that Lan Xichen can begin to dry Meng Yao’s feet. Long enough that he can pour a bit into his hands.

“You shouldn’t waste it on me.”

The protest is quiet.

Xichen tips his face down to hide his smile and then up to meet Meng Yao’s gaze. Pointedly, he wraps his much warmer hands around Meng Yao’s thin, bony ankle, and then draws his hands down over the recently scraped skin of the younger man’s heel.

A soft gasp slips from open lips.

“It’s not wasting it,” he keeps his gaze on the other’s face as the rosy flush darkens and Meng Yao’s eyelids flutter closed, “I’m using it for its intended purpose.”

The oil itself is meant to help stimulate qi and regulate the body’s energies, to help calm the spirit and heal the heart. Feet are also one of the parts of a body with acupuncture points aplenty, all of them capable of harming or helping different parts of the body. Xichen digs his thumbs into Meng Yao’s arch and began to direct his own qi carefully into the other’s body, soothing his aches, warming his skin, and helping his meridians strengthen.

First one foot, the pressure of his fingers occasionally elicits a soft sigh, moan, or nervous shift of Meng Yao’s body, then the other. After he has dried off the excess oil he slips a fresh pair of Meng Yao’s socks (worn in almost the same places as the other pair) onto his feet.

When he looks up, intending to smile and brush the exercise off, he finds that his host, his savior, his friend has fallen asleep. Meng Yao’s breathing is even and his long, dark lashes fluttered gently on his cheeks. The blush has faded away, leaving his face pale, and his body is beginning to warm with sleep.

Carefully, Xichen picks him up and placed him on the bed, Meng Yao stays limp as he is shifted, curling onto his side and pressing against the wall once Xichen sets him down. Lan Xichen changes out the water in the basin, not bothering to heat it back up, and washes his own face, hands, and feet, before settling down on the rough bedding next to Meng Yao. They always start the night like this, Meng Yao curled towards the wall, Lan Xichen on his back with his arms crossed as all young Lan were taught to fall asleep. It will end with Meng Yao sprawling half over Xichen’s body, with Lan Xichen’s arm curling around Meng Yao’s shoulders. They have woken up like that consistently, the two of them tangled together in a manner that would have made more easily shamed people embarrassed.

Perhaps tomorrow he will follow his worst impulses and finally kiss the soft words of ‘good morning’ out of Meng Yao’s mouth.