There was a scar on his right cheekbone.
Lan Xichen wondered why he had ever agreed to this.
He loved his brother, loved seeing him happy, but it didn’t need to be at such…close range.
Close range as in third-wheeling what should obviously be a date between Lan Wangji and the love of his life. Wei Wuxian was sitting extremely close to Lan Wangji, practically on his lap, with his head on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. Lan Wangji clearly didn’t mind, content look in his eyes, hand on Wei Wuxian’s side.
He admired Lan Wangji for that, certainly. Their uncle despised Wei Wuxian to no end, but had to grudgingly accept Wei Wuxian for his favourite nephew.
Lan Xichen wondered if he could ever have something like that.
He looked up, eyes growing wide as none other than Nie Mingjue, the one person who Lan Xichen should not be around when thinking of romance, approached them.
“Mingjue,” he said, hoping his voice was steady. He wished he was more like Wangji; effortlessly able to slip on a mask of indifference. Instead, his mask was warmth and soft smiles, caring words and gentleness – easy to see through, easy to break.
Nie Mingjue made him want to break it.
They all stood up, and Nie Mingjue laughed, gesturing for them to sit down. Years, so many years, and his laugh still made Lan Xichen’s knees weak, made his heartbeat rise in his throat and press against his closed smile, threatening to spill out of his traitorous throat.
If Nie Mingjue wanted him, they would be together by now.
“I should go to the library,” Lan Xichen apologized, sliding out of his chair. Being in his first year of law school, it required less and less time everywhere but the library.
Also, as much as he loved his brother, he wanted to be out of this coffee shop as soon as he possibly could.
“I’ll walk you.”
It would be so, so easy to reach across and link their fingers together, to put his arm around his waist, to kiss his forehead, his cheeks, his lips – but Lan Xichen knew to take what was given and not to ask for more.
Do not ask for more than you need .
He managed to keep the conversation steady, not letting Nie Mingjue know about the turmoil swirling in his head. It was usually easily controlled, swept aside; but seeing Wangji and Wei Wuxian had tipped him off balance.
Good or bad, if there was one thing he could not stand for, it would be being off balance.
“I’ve got to go,” Nie Mingjue said, smiling widely, as they reached the library doors. “You want to come over tonight? I feel like I haven’t seen you in a while. We can watch one of those documentaries you like?”
“I’ll meet you at your apartment at seven,” Lan Xichen said, counting out five hours to study. He was so weak for that smile, so stuck in hopeless love. “Thank you.”
“I’ll cook. Don’t bring anything,” Nie Mingjue warned. “And don’t overwork yourself.”
While his tone was threatening, Lan Xichen was no stranger to the warmth behind it. “I’ll do my best.”
Luckily enough, the library was nearly empty – most people preferring to spend their Saturdays outside, he thought. As nice as it would be to take a break, he had already been resting enough. Finals were in a month, and despite that, he was taking time with Nie Mingjue this evening.
Well, someone had to uphold the family reputation, and Lan Xichen vowed it would never be his brother who had to handle the family breathing down his neck, waiting for him to slip up so they could cast him out. He had to be strong enough for both of them.
Luckily enough for him, he loved law, and it was considered an acceptable enough job for the family. Wangji’s aspirations of teaching were…less favourable, but if the elder’s silent whispers bothered him, his brother didn’t show it. They couldn’t fault him for anything else – until Wei Wuxian.
Lan Xichen forced a smile. Wei Wuxian made Wangji happier than he had ever seen him. He would protect that happiness with every fiber of his being.
Stopping to pick up some wine, Lan Xichen made his way to Nie Mingjue’s apartment. It wasn’t a far walk, and it was pleasant out – the sun hadn’t quite set yet, streaking purple across the sky, across his dark hair and reflecting off the wine bottle in his arms. Lan Xichen didn’t drink wine, but Nie Mingjue certainly enjoyed it.
Nie Mingjue opened the door, hair tied back. “Ah, I told you not to bring anything! Your company is enough!”
Don’t say things like that if you don’t mean them .
Lan Xichen smiled serenely. His smiles were never forced around Nie Mingjue, only…accentuated, rarely. “I was promised a documentary.”
“There’s one of those nature ones you like,” Nie Mingjue hummed. “TV isn’t working, so we’re gonna have to watch it in on my bed. Hope that’s okay.”
“Yeah, of course.”
Lan Xichen was fine. He had been in Nie Mingjue’s bed before – usually when it got too late, and the other man insisted he take his bed (which was as wonderful as it was terrible – Nie Mingjue’s bed was always comfortable and smelled like him, but left him lonely in a way his own bed never did). They had never both shared the bed before…
It was fine. Absolutely fine. It wasn’t like they were going to sleep or anything, not like it meant anything.
Lan Xichen wondered how willing he was to break family rules and consume half the wine bottle.
“Here,” Nie Mingjue passed him a plate with steaming rice, fish, and vegetables. “I would hope I know what you like by now.”
“Your cooking is always good.”
They settled down on the bed (Nie Mingjue on the right, Lan Xichen on the left), as Nie Mingjue opened his laptop to reveal a nature documentary. Lan Xichen crossed his legs and straightened his back, eating quickly so he could pay full attention to the dolphins crossing the screen.
Nie Mingjue shifted closer, “You want more food?”
“Ah, I’m okay! It was really good though, thank you!”
“Alright. I’ll be back – you don’t have to pause it.”
When he came back, Lan Xichen looked up. “We can watch something else if you want to?”
“Nope,” Nie Mingjue slid back onto the bed, closer to Lan Xichen than before. “We’ve got another hour to go of this, and there’s a part 2 I found on some website somewhere.”
“Lan Huan, I already downloaded it,” Nie Mingjue huffed. “Any viruses are on this computer forever now. You’ve got to at least watch it.”
“…fine.” Lan Xichen turned back to the monitor, hoping he wasn’t blushing. Unlike his brother, whose only visible signs of embarrassment were his red ears, Lan Xichen’s whole face had a tendency to turn pink. It was horribly unattractive and seemed to mostly happen around Nie Mingjue. Of course, and when Nie Mingjue used that name with that voice … it was unavoidable. “Wait. You downloaded it?”
“Well, it was Huaisang who did the whole downloading part,” Nie Mingjue admitted. “Don’t make fun of me.”
“You’re such an old man,” Lan Xichen teased, poking Nie Mingjue in the shin with his toe.
“There’s a lot of buttons!” he sputtered. “You know what happened last time! Porn ads for weeks .”
“Whatever you say.” He startled slightly as Nie Mingjue knocked their shoulders together. He was warm, always warmer than Lan Xichen, transferring his heat.
Speaking of which, “You’re so cold!” Nie Mingjue scowled. “I’ll get you a sweater.”
“You really don’t have to.”
“Don’t be stupid. I know your immune system is basically perfect, which means that once you do get sick, you’ll get insufferable.”
Lan Xichen laughed, “And you’d be there firsthand to document it?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t leave your poor brother there alone with you. Does he know how to take care of sick people? None of you Lans ever get sick,” he said, voice muffled from inside his closet.
“Ah, yeah, it’s been a while,” Lan Xichen chuckled.
“Take this.” Lan Xichen caught the offered sweater – dark blue and ridiculously soft. Shrugging it on (Nie Mingjue would explode from sheer worry if he didn’t), he smiled slowly. It smelled like him, and it was a little too large.
Lan Xichen was strong, maybe stronger than Nie Mingjue – but Nie Mingjue was just so much broader. It left Lan Xichen feeling like he was drowning in the huge sweater. Unfair .
It was even more unfair when Nie Mingjue stepped out of the closet without a shirt on.
Lan Xichen wondered if another person’s beauty could be cited as his cause of death.
“I was thinking of getting another tattoo,” Nie Mingjue said, pointing to his arm. “Don’t know if I should commit to a full sleeve, though.”
Nie Mingjue had a tattoo on the middle of back already, an enormous piece which was the face of a tiger-like beast with the edges faded into geometric patterns. It was beautiful, black and white and delicate while being dark.
(He also drunkenly admitted that he had Nie Huiasang’s name tattooed somewhere on his body. Lan Xichen has yet to find it.)
“What would you get?” He looked at the computer screen, not out of interest on what was playing, but out of too much interest for the man in front of him.
Do not ask for more than you need .
“Not sure yet, I was just thinking about it.” Blessedly, Nie Mingjue shrugged on a white short sleeved shirt (which was, of course, too small for him), and hopped on the bed next to him. “Would you ever get a tattoo?”
“Not for me,” Lan Xichen said, unconsciously. They were beautiful on some people, but not on him. Not for him.
“You’d look nice with one. Though anything would look nice on you.”
That isn’t true.
“Thank you,” he said, anyway, leaning back into the pillow. Nie Mingjue had a bigger bed than he did, and he took advantage of the extra space, stretching his legs.
It wasn’t long before he was drifting in and out of sleep. Nie Mingjue chuckled, “Aw, you really do sleep at nine every night?”
“Mm, I should get going.”
“It’s already past nine, and there’s no way you can walk home half asleep. Just stay over. I’ll take the couch.”
“I feel bad.”
“Then let me drive you home, at least.”
Lan Xichen smiled, “Alright. Let’s go.”
Nie Mingjue drove a little…rashly, for his taste, but he was always careful. Luckily, the roads were fairly empty, so he didn’t get angry at the other drivers (others found it scary, Lan Xichen was whipped enough to find it cute).
“Here you go.”
“Mm, thank you.”
Luckily, Nie Mingjue didn’t insist on walking him to his apartment, and Lan Xichen could let the huge, giddy smile spread across his face as he walked up the stairs. Opening the door to the empty apartment, he sighed.
He really was in too deep.
He woke up at a quarter to five every morning.
The first thing he did was grab his bag from its place under his bed and pad over to the bathroom. He washed his face with the products in the cabinets, and pulled out his bag and placed it on the counter.
His bag had six things in it.
A primer, a concealer, a powder, a setting spray, a sponge, and makeup remover.
There was a scar on his right cheekbone.
It was just under two inches long, a pale pink line running under his eye, disrupting the otherwise flawless skin on his face. It was hideous.
Cringing away from the mirror, he took the primer and patted it gently over the scar. The tissue wasn’t extremely raised anymore, and the product glided on smoothly. It didn’t take much concealer to cover the scar, and he patted it in gently with the sponge. The powder went overtop, and then the spray.
He tilted his head left, right. He checked it with his phone flash. Perfect.
It had to be perfect.
Lan Xichen usually could tell when it was five, because that’s when his brother woke up. This morning, it seemed like Wangji hadn’t come home.
Actually, Wangji hadn’t been home these past few days.
Lan Xichen didn’t know what was worse; having his brother home with Wei Wuxian, or not having his brother home at all.
He didn’t hate Wei Wuxian, he really didn’t – not in the way his uncle did. Lan Wangji was wholly in love with Wei Wuxian, and Lan Xichen didn’t know if his brother would survive a fallout.
Also, he did miss his brother.
It didn’t matter. Wangji was happy – that was all that mattered. Lan Xichen had to be perfect for both of them, and it would be fine. Everything would be fine.
It was chaos at the Lan residence.
Or, as close to chaos as it got. Lan Xichen had long since given up trying to stop it, and Lan Wangji was far too endeared to do anything about the love of his life and his loud friends.
“LAN ZHAN! LAN ZHAN!!!!”
Wei Wuxian had put some sort of horror movie on the rarely used TV, and was shamelessly clinging to Wangji. Lan Xichen wondered if he was actually scared – Wei Wuxian had once sat through an entire dissection without wincing (it had even made Lan Xichen, with his near flawless mask, cringe). Despite the sincerity of his terror, Wangji was clearly happy to indulge his small boyfriend.
Turning to his left, Lan Xichen squinted in the dark. Nie Mingjue was taking his hair out of its ponytail. Lan Xichen jolted back, eyes boring back into the screen.
Nie Mingjue rarely had his hair down, which was good for Lan Xichen’s sanity. He had a tendency to lose his higher brain functions whenever the older man took his hair down. It was something about the way the soft curls framed his face, something that made Lan Xichen want to thread his hands through it.
“Hm,” Nie Mingjue hummed, sleepily, leaning over. “What time is it?”
“Hm,” he whispered, again. “Thanks.”
He then decided to rest his head against Lan Xichen’s shoulder. A wondrous decision. Possibly the best decision ever made. Ever.
Even though he’d known Nie Mingjue for years (and, yes, most of those years were stuck with this pathetic crush, it didn’t warrant reminding), he had never seen the other man sleepy. It was unsurprisingly absolutely adorable.
In his half-asleep state, Nie Mingjue tugged Lan Xichen closer, wrapping his arms around Lan Xichen’s stomach. Lan Xichen stretched an arm out to accommodate for Nie Mingjue’s head, and Nie Mingjue pressed his face into Lan Xichen’s neck.
Lan Xichen was struck with visions of waking up to this, Nie Mingjue’s head on his shoulder, arms around each other. Lan Xichen would wake up first – he wondered if he would ever be persuaded to stay in bed by nothing but Nie Mingjue’s soft breaths.
Thoroughly and hopelessly distracted, Lan Xichen tried not to make it too obvious that he was staring at Nie Mingjue. His brother more often than not could see right through him, and Nie Huiasang would probably not appreciate Lan Xichen’s crush on his brother.
When the movie ended, everyone stood up to leave. Lan Xichen looked at Nie Mingjue, face calm and unmarred by stress, and couldn’t bring himself to move.
“Ah, sorry!” Nie Huiasang moved forward, but Lan Xichen smiled.
“It’s fine. Let him sleep.”
Everyone was staring at him. Lan Xichen felt transparent suddenly, like all the secrets he’d kept under lock and key would spill out at a moment’s notice. He forced himself to relax. There was nothing wrong with wanting a friend to get some rest.
“Thank you,” Nie Huiasang said, “I’ll get going then.”
“I’ll let him know when he wakes up.”
He didn’t want to move. Nie Mingjue worked long hours, rarely having time to sleep. Lan Xichen bit his lip at the thought of Nie Mingjue taking time out of his busy schedule to see him.
You’re friends. Stop being ridiculous .
“Hm?” Nie Mingjue muttered, groggily, eyes barely open.
Lan Xichen turned to him instantly, whispering as softly as he could, “Shh, go back to sleep.”
“Mm,” he hummed, burrowing closer to Lan Xichen.
Oh, he was certainly blushing. His face had to be all pink. Of course. Just his luck. If Nie Mingjue wasn’t using him as a bed, he would seriously contemplate folding himself into the couch and staying there for an extended period of time.
“Hm, I’m okay here,” he whispered to Lan Wangji.
His heart was beating too fast for him to sleep. Lan Xichen ran his hands along Nie Mingjue’s broad back. The muscles were relaxed, but he could still feel them under Nie Mingjue’s soft shirt. Lan Xichen wanted to steal it – it would be too big for him, slipping off his shoulders (would Nie Mingjue kiss the skin, if Lan Xichen let him?).
For now, he had this. This was enough.
“Mm? I’m fine.”
“...you are lying on the floor.”
Lan Xichen blinked. “Yes, I’ll give you that much.”
Wangji knelt beside him, placing a hand on his forehead. “Warm.”
“Maybe your hands are just cold.”
Not amused, Wangji wrapped an arm around him and all but dragged him back to his room. “You can miss one day of classes.”
“I really can’t –”
“I’ll call Nie Mingjue,” Wangji threatened. Lan Xichen glared, and got into bed.
“Don’t bother him.”
“Mm,” his brother blinked, and Lan Xichen sighed. Wangji really was getting far too perceptive for his own good.
Nie Mingjue was probably on shift right now, and really, absolutely could not be bothered with Lan Xichen getting sick. The other man would, without a doubt, shoulder his way into the apartment to take care of him.
Lan Xichen hated being such a burden.
“You have a meeting with uncle today, don’t you?” he said, eyes wide. Lan Wangji popped back in.
“I will cancel.”
“No,” Lan Xichen said. “He’s meeting Wei Wuxian for the first time today, right?”
Lan Xichen sighed. “Go. I promise I’ll be fine.”
“I should not leave you.”
“I’ll be fine,” Lan Xichen promised. “You should go.”
Lan Wangji blinked, and nodded. “I will be back soon. There is medicine in the cabinet. Rest.”
Lying was against the rules, but he had technically never lied. He waited for the telltale sound of the door closing before stumbling out of bed –
Lan Xichen turned to see Jiang Yanli standing there, eyebrows raised.
“What – ?”
“Your brother called.” Jiang Yanli smiled gently, and Lan Xichen felt the tension evaporate from his shoulders – she had that effect. “He said you weren’t feeling well.”
“Well, you’ll be better after I make you some soup. Rest.” Jiang Yanli had dealt with people far more stubborn than Lan Xichen, and regardless, he respected her far too much to argue.
They were both at the same law school; Jiang Yanli was a year ahead. She was at the top of her class; sweet disposition aside. She would be a ruthless criminal lawyer if that was the avenue she decided to pursue.
Lan Xichen huffed, sitting on his bed. Lans didn’t sulk, he reminded himself, straightening up. Jiang Yanli was his guest, regardless of her confining him to his room. Politeness and respect were necessary, no matter how much he wanted to fall asleep and/or attend his Friday lecture.
Falling asleep in the lecture would be disrespectful, so maybe it was better he stayed.
Jiang Yanli came in twenty three minutes later (Lan Xichen was counting), white bowl in hand. Steam was curling out of the top, and she placed it on his nightstand with a coaster underneath. It smelled incredible.
Lan Xichen could cook, and so could his brother – but Jiang Yanli’s cooking was on another level.
The coldness curling inside him gave way to a gentle warmth; a softly flickering fire. He felt awful, really – he wanted to fall asleep, but he stood on shaky legs to return the bowl.
“Ah, no, I got it.” Jiang Yanli swiped the bowl from his hands. “You’re just like my brother.”
Jiang Wanyin did seem the type to pretend he wasn’t sick.
“Ah, no, I meant A-Xian,” she said gently. Did he say that out loud?
“I mean,” she laughed, “they’re both plenty stubborn, but A-Xian likes to pretend nothing is wrong when it’s serious. He complains about the small things but protects us from the bigger ones. Seems familiar.”
He ignored her raised eyebrow. “Wangji will be good to him.”
“And my brother will be good to yours.” Her phone beeped, and she jumped. “Ah, your next visitor is here! I’d stay, but…”
“Class,” he nodded. “Go. Wait, who’s here?”
“It’s me,” a voice called from the front.
“Nie Mingjue!” Jiang Yanli smiled. “Take care of him, please. Soup’s in the pot.”
“Will do. I want a nap, so looks like you’re sleeping too. Move over.”
Lan Xichen blinked, sliding over, waving a quick goodbye to Jiang Yanli. Nie Mingjue sighed, settling on the bed. “Don’t worry, I changed before I got here. You don’t need blood all over your bed sheets.”
“It’s not mine,” he said, quickly. “Occupational hazard. Don’t worry, everyone’s okay.”
Nie Mingjue was a firefighter, working as many shifts as he could to care for himself and his brother. He must have given up a shift to be here.
“I’m sorry,” he said, miserably.
“Don’t be,” Nie Mingjue whispered, tenderly. “You're shaking.”
“It’s okay. You’re okay. I’m right here.”
“Mm.” Lan Xichen curled up in the blankets. “Cold.”
He usually didn’t get sick. This aching in his chest was abnormal – even more abnormal were the people around him. He usually was alone, locking himself in his room until it passed.
It’s not that he wanted to be alone. It just...always happened.
“Come here,” Nie Mingjue murmured. “Poor thing.”
Lan Xichen coughed weakly, sliding closer to his friend. “You won’t get sick?”
“Don’t worry about it. Huiasang gets sick all the time. Rest.”
“Mm.” Lan Xichen felt himself drifting off. “Thanks.”
This was burdensome. Neither Nie Mingjue nor Jiang Yanli should have to deal with his own shortcomings.
“Not your fault that you’re sick, darling,” Nie Mingjue whispered.
Darling. He’d never get that out of his head, the way Nie Mingjue’s low voice curled around the word, the soft adoration it carried. It would be imprinted in the front of each of his dreams, the first and last thing he wanted to hear every day and every night.
He wanted to ask for a hug, wanted to ask for more – but Nie Mingjue would leave if he asked for too much. He had this. He should be content with this.
There was a hole deep in his heart that wanted and wanted and never stopped wanting, never stopped asking and begging for things he couldn’t have. He was supposed to be selfless, but he wanted . Those desires belonged deep inside him with all the other cracked pieces of his soul, slowly but surely cutting into his skin, dragging him down lower and lower until his gaze was forced down from the stars.
Nie Mingjue could sense his distress, sitting him up quickly before a coughing fit overtook him.
This was terrible .
“It is, but you’re so strong. It’ll be over soon.”
He really had to stop saying things out loud.
“Sleepy.” Lan rules didn’t allow him to sleep for some time yet, but he was sure there was an exception.
“Rest. I’ll take care of you,” he said.
It didn’t take long for his eyes to start closing on their own. When he was sick, most of his time was spent sleeping – lightly, slightly chaotically, but still. He hoped he wouldn’t wake up Nie Mingjue.
Before he fell asleep, he felt a gentle hand stroking his hair. He didn’t dream.
He expected to wake up alone, but it still hurt.
Turning over, he picked up a note on his bedside table. It was from Nie Mingjue.
I’m sorry that I had to leave. I hope you’re feeling better. Your brother should be home, please let him know if you feel worse.
Get some rest. When you feel better, message me. I’d like to have you over.
It hurt, but less.
Lan Xichen blinked as the door was thrown open in front of him. He hadn’t even knocked.
Nie Huiasang slipped past him without a word, face red and turned down. Lan Xichen sighed, pushing through the door to see Nie Mingjue with his face in his hands.
“You should go, Xichen.” His tone was measured until he said Lan Xichen’s name, shaking on the last word.
It was not a stretch to say that Nie Mingjue had a temper unlike anyone he had ever met. While it did take a lot to get him angry, when it happened, it was an explosion. Lan Xichen knew Nie Mingjue didn’t like the anger, didn’t like people seeing that side of him, and tried to hide it. His patience wasn’t near bottomless like Lan Xichen’s, but he tried, and for that, Lan Xichen couldn’t fault him.
Lan Xichen walked over to Nie Mingjue, slowly. “Mingjue, it’s okay. It’s just me.”
“Lan Huan, don’t.” Mingjue’s hands pressed roughly on his arms, sinking into the skin. Lan Xichen quickly slid his hands under Mingjue’s, and the pressure relieved immediately.
Nie Mingjue would never, ever hurt Lan Xichen.
Seeing Nie Mingjue being so rough with himself made a chasm open in Lan Xichen’s chest. He tried not to show any emotions on his face when Nie Mingjue slipped his hands away to rest at his sides, tried to stop his hands from trembling.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Nie Mingjue said, low and rough.
“You won’t. I know you won’t.”
“What if I do?”
“You wouldn’t mean to.” Guiding Nie Mingjue to the couch, Lan Xichen uncurled his fingers from where they were pressing into his palms. Nie Mingjue was strong; he may have bruised himself. Lan Xichen wanted to kiss the red marks, ease his pain, but he couldn’t. He placed his hands on top of Nie Mingjue’s, and the other man relaxed. “See?”
“You’re different, though.”
If the situation wasn’t what it was, Lan Xichen would have melted into a puddle of goo from sheer happiness.
“Yes.” Nie Mingjue gritted his teeth. “You are. I – don’t want to be angry around you. You already know I’m not proud of it.”
“Hm.” Lan Xichen wrapped his arms around Nie Mingjue, pulling them both backwards on the couch so he was on his back with his friend draped over him. Nie Mingjue’s head was on top of his chest. “Listen.”
Nie Mingjue tilted his head, pressing his ear to Lan Xichen’s chest. “Steady.”
“Mm.” It beats for you .
Lan Xichen watched Nie Mingjue’s eyes close, watched the descending sun paint him in copper and gold. He ran his hands over Nie Mingjue’s head, through his hair, quiet and soft.
These were the moments he kept in his trembling hands, keeping them above ravaged waters, not to be crushed, not to be touched, not to be ruined by bloodstained hands and endless imperfections. These were the moments he kept in his heart, next to broken ribs and the dying flowers he called lungs, the moments that stopped him, the moments that kept him going.
Nie Mingjue was beautiful. Lan Xichen was always the one praised for being beautiful, ethereal, perfect – he could not compare to Nie Mingjue. There was humanity in his laugh, in his crooked nose and sharp jaw, in the tangles of his long hair and the veins in his arms. There was beauty in his imperfections.
Lan Xichen raised a shaking hand to his cheekbone. His imperfections were not beautiful.
The movement jostled the sleeping man in his arms, and Lan Xichen held his breath. Nie Mingjue stirred but did not wake. Lan Xichen felt himself fall deeper, fall endlessly.
He was so gone already. He didn’t know if he could fall further, but every day proved he could.
If love was a disease, he would be terminal.
Finals season always left Lan Xichen a bit more of a wreck than usual.
Not that he let it show, of course. He picked up and polished his jade mask, slipped it over the warm contours of his face, turned and showed his light smile to the world. The turmoil was for himself and himself only. No one else needed to see it. No one else needed to see his weaknesses.
He needed to be perfect.
And that seemed to be the crux of the problem.
Hours in the library lead to days, lead to books and papers piling up higher than his head, lead to hands shaking from writing notes and head burning from lack of sleep, lead to his stomach clenching painfully and his heartbeat rising, beating poison faster through his bloodstream at the very thought of finals.
It was fine. It would be fine. He could handle it.
He had seven finals, all within one week. His study schedule was optimized, and he was as well prepared as he could be.
Lan Xichen was vaguely aware of his friends’ worries. He wished he could reassure them; they had their own finals to worry about. Jiang Yanli, who was studying across from him, occasionally cast him concerned looks. Luckily, his mask was airtight – she had too much on her plate to carry him with her.
It had to be fine. It had to – because he didn’t know what he would do if it wasn’t.
Law school was easily the most enjoyable yet difficult part of his education. Everything was just amplified, and he was barely able to keep up. It was like hurtling closer and closer to the sun; it was the warmth he so craved, but at what cost?
Not that he could show any of that.
Nothing had changed. He was just as capable, just as competent. He could not fail – he would not allow himself to.
It would be perfect. It could not be anything but that.
It had been a bad day.
He had been late to his afternoon meeting with his advisor because of a bus that simply would not move. In said meeting, it turned out he had scored lower than usual on one of his finals, which had dropped his overall grade average.
It used to be perfect. He used to have a perfect grade point average in that class, until the final.
His advisor had wanted to meet to reassure him that it would be okay. It was ridiculous – of course it wasn’t okay. All his work was ruined now, because he wasn’t good enough – how could he become anything, do anything right, if he couldn’t even write a perfect final?
After that, it turned out his phone hadn’t been charging, and he had forgotten his wallet at home. It had been raining. He had walked to the closest place, Jiang Yanli’s apartment, slowly getting more and more dripping wet, more and more tired
“Lan Xichen? You’re soaked.”
Jiang Yanli had let him in, taking his phone and offering him clothes and her shower. He had dried off and had reached for his phone.
Now, he opened his phone to see twenty three messages. Scrolling through all of them, from his uncle, he tried to breathe.
What is your brother doing?
Xichen, we need to meet.
Why aren’t you answering?
Please talk to Wangji.
Where are you?
He dropped his phone, hands falling to his sides. He didn’t register it, didn’t register anything besides the dull ringing in his head and his vision blurring in, out, in.
He didn’t register that he was shaking until Jiang Yanli put her hand on his back. He tried to smile, tried to put the mask back on, but it lay broken in his palms, cracked edges drawing blood.
“It’s okay to be sad, Xichen,” Jiang Yanli hummed, rubbing his back. “You’re okay.”
It was awful. Lan Xichen hadn’t cried in years, hadn’t cried like this in even longer – body shaking, tears running down his face, wet and warm and ugly . He couldn’t breathe in anything other than horrible, shaking gasps.
He tried to focus, digging his fingernails into his palms in an effort to focus , to put on a smile and hide, hide this disgusting, shriveled part of him.
“Ah, don’t do that,” Jiang Yanli whispered, taking his hands in her own. He immediately stopped, trying not to hurt her. It brought back memories of him with Nie Mingjue, except it was him breaking apart at the edges, melting in the middle. “It’s okay to cry.”
“It’s not,” he said, voice warped and shaking. “It’s…I’m not supposed to –”
“Everyone cries. It doesn’t mean you’re weak.”
But it does. Lans are supposed to be composed, not like this. I’m not supposed to be like this.
It didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop it if he tried – and he tried, he tried to stop breathing, tried biting on his tongue so hard he tasted blood, tried to drag himself up from the depths he was plunged into, but the tears and the shaking didn’t stop.
Until it did. Somehow, they receded, the tide drew back, left Xichen gasping and shivering on shore.
“You want to talk about it?”
He turned to Jiang Yanli. There was a steady pressure building up in his head, and he was sure he looked like a mess. Despite it all, she was still there, holding his hand, running her fingers up and down his back.
“I’m sorry –”
“Don’t apologize. You’re only human, as much as you like to pretend that you’re not. You can't be perfect.”
“I’m supposed to be.”
“You can't. No one is ever perfect, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t deserving or wonderful.”
Lan Xichen bit his lip. “My finals didn’t go well. My uncle was less than pleased. The family is disappointed in Wangji. Nie Mingjue is –”
He hummed, listening to her breaths. Did she do this with her brothers, with Jin Zixuan? Why was she so kind to him?
“If you aren’t perfect, people leave,” he said, all in a rush. “They leave and they don’t come back. I have to be perfect so they can't say anything, so they can't leave. I have to be perfect for both of us, but it’s too much and –”
He nodded, remembering to breathe. His head was light, as if he was in the clouds, looking down at all the people and the cars and all the things they had made.
The only thing about being up so high was that there was so, so much more to fall from.
Jiang Yanli had moved her hand to his hair. “Do you think your brother is perfect?”
“…no,” Lan Xichen admitted.
“What about me?”
“Have you left us?”
“Well, no, but it’s different.”
“How is it different?”
“You’re good ,” he said, teeth gritted. “Both of you are good, and I’m not, so I have to be perfect to make up for it.”
Jiang Yanli made a little pained noise in the back of her throat. “You are good.”
“I’m not –”
“You are .”
“I’m here, wasting your time,” he said, self-loathing curling the edges of his tone, turning them harsh. He was losing it. Pressing his fingers into his cheek, he rubbed, rubbed it away. The tears made the makeup loose, and it came away on his fingers. “Look at it.”
Her eyes went wide. “I’ve never seen it before.”
“I covered it up. For years, it’s been covered up, but it doesn’t matter, does it?” He laughed. It was hollow, empty. Was this who he was? Nothing but curling darkness inside his heart. “I can try and be perfect but it shows through anyway.”
“It doesn’t matter, but not for the reasons you think.” She cupped his face in her hands, meeting his eyes. “You may not be perfect, but you are still a good person.”
“I’m not –”
“You are,” she said, in a tone that brokered no further argument. “I understand that you want to be the best you can be, but that doesn’t mean perfection.”
Lan Xichen breathed in, out. In, out. “I mean, your words make sense, but I just – I don’t know.”
“It’s okay.” She shifted closer, pulling him into a hug. He rested his head on her shoulder. “It’s okay to be in pain, and it’s okay to let people in. The right ones won't leave you.”
“But if I’m too much of a burden, why would they stay?”
“Because they love you,” she said, softly. “You are so loved, even though you aren’t perfect.”
His breaths came in shuddering gasps. “What if I’m not enough?”
“You’re enough by existing. Anyone is privileged to be around you.”
There was something different about this. He was the recipient of praise all the time, but not like this – not for something so raw, something he hid inside and let rot and fester. “It may…take a while. To realize that.”
“You will,” she hummed, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. “You have me, and everyone else who loves you.”
Everyone who loves you .
His brother. His friends.
Even if his family, whose approval he had been fighting for since he was born, didn’t accept him…she was right. The right people would stay. The right people wouldn’t want him to sacrifice his happiness for perfection. They wouldn’t press the shattered mask to his face with trembling fingers – they would tear it off and let it fall.
So, he let it fall.
The next morning, he looked at the scar on his cheek.
He started shaking as he put on his makeup, kept shaking even when it was flawless. He couldn’t, he couldn’t , he hated it on and hated it off, hated himself. He hated his mind for wrapping itself in ropes, running itself in circles until it collapsed on shaking knees, hated his body for not being able to hold himself up.
He was supposed to meet the others today, but he barely had the energy to drag himself back into the bedroom.
After what could have been minutes or hours, someone knocked on his bedroom door. “Brother? I am going to the library. Is…everything okay?”
A soft smile crossed Lan Xichen’s face as Wangji peeked his head in. “Yes, thank you.”
“Are you sure?”
Lan Xichen sat up, pulling his mask over his head. Wangji could see through him too often, but Lan Xichen could still hide. The mask was too tight; it suffocated him, forced his breaths back into his mouth, hot and strangling. “Yes.”
Seemingly satisfied, his brother nodded and closed the door. Lan Xichen unclenched his jaw, falling back on the bed. He really, really couldn’t bring himself to meet with the group today; exhaustion and weariness seeping into his bones.
He quickly messaged Jiang Yanli that he would be unable to make it, guilt twisting in his stomach. When she messaged back cheerily, some of it dissipated. She had told him to take a day for himself.
It was…nice. He couldn’t remember the last time he had done this. The prospect of doing nothing all day stretched before him.
Until he heard the door unlock.
Wangji wasn’t supposed to be back until later. Did something happen? Opening his bedroom door, his eyes grew wide.
Wei Wuxian was carrying a large crate with two rabbits.
“Lan Xichen! What – Lan Zhan said you were out!”
Wei Wuxian gently put the crate down. “Maintenance in the apartment today. I didn’t want to leave the rabbits loose with all the workers, and Lan Zhan said I could bring them here. I could go to the library, but the crate –”
“You can stay,” Lan Xichen said, sitting on the floor. The two rabbits that Wei Wuxian had adopted with Wangji were inside, eyes glinting. The black one pushed its nose out of the crate. “Can they be let out?”
Wei Wuxian beamed, “Thank you! I’ll let them out!”
Lan Xichen was looking forward to a day of peace and quiet, and Wei Wuxian was the opposite of that. He was the last person who Lan Xichen would want here on paper. However, his boundless personality was refreshing, and the rabbits he brought were...cute.
And it was a good opportunity to study the man who had stolen his brother’s heart.
The black rabbit hopped out of the crate as soon as it was open. The white one was far more cautious, only following its companion. Lan Xichen couldn’t help but smile as he watched the rabbits explore.
“You can…bring them over more often,” Lan Xichen said. He assumed that the bunnies were over at Wei Wuxian’s apartment more often than not.
“Thank you, Lan Xichen!” Wei Wuxian was grinning widely, eyes wide as the white rabbit jumped into Lan Xichen’s lap.
“Snow likes you,” he cooed. When Lan Xichen raised an eyebrow, he hastily explained, “Lan Zhan named them. The black one is Night.”
“He really hasn’t improved at naming things.” Leaning forward, Lan Xichen smirked, “He named his guqin Wangji.”
“So cute,” Wei Wuxian breathed, blushing when Lan Xichen raised an eyebrow. “Ah – sorry! Sorry!”
“No, I’m glad my brother has someone who loves him so much,” Lan Xichen admitted. “Of course, you know what happens if you hurt him.”
“If I hurt him, I won't be stopping you.”
Lan Xichen smiled. Wei Wuxian raised a hand to his ponytail. “Lan Zhan mentioned you were going to be with the group today?”
“Ah, yes.” Lan Xichen’s smile caught. There was nothing wrong with taking a day for himself, nothing shameful, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it, somehow. If it were someone else, it would mean nothing, but he was – different.
“Your sister suggested a…day to myself,” he said, slowly, low and crackling at the edges.
“Sounds nice! Sorry to interrupt –”
“It’s fine. Your company is nice.”
He was telling the truth. Wei Wuxian was boundless but not exhausting. He wasn’t soothing like Jiang Yanli, Lan Wangji, or Nie Mingjue, but his presence was warm and comforting in a calming way. The soft rabbit in his lap was also helpful.
When Wangji opened the door, an imperceptible flicker of surprise crossed his face. “Brother?”
“Wei Wuxian was showing me your rabbits.”
“Snow’s taken a liking to him!” Wei Wuxian looked up at his boyfriend, his smile changing to something gentler. “Come sit, Lan Zhan?”
“Mm.” Wangji sat a comfortable distance away from his boyfriend. Snow and Night both hopped to him instantly.
“He’s magic,” Wei Wuxian whispered.
Lan Xichen couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah, he is.”
They were good for each other, even if it wasn’t visible from first glance. It was difficult to see exactly how they fit but they did; Wangji’s arm around Wei Wuxian’s waist, Wei Wuxian’s head resting on Wangji’s shoulder.
For all that Uncle griped about Wei Wuxian being a fiend and a devil, he was actually just a sweetheart. Being loud and rambunctious didn’t make him evil; he was different. Sometimes different was a good thing.
Lan Xichen knew Wei Wuxian was good for Wangji, finally. He had thought Wangji was making a mistake, was ruining his status with the family and his reputation; but it seemed like Wangji didn’t care about that. He cared about the man in his arms more than any rules or regulations.
Maybe Lan Xichen could learn a thing or two about that.
The next morning, he looked at the scar on his cheek.
And walked away from the mirror.
It was Sunday; no classes for anyone. They were all meeting up outside the library, and Lan Xichen trembled in anticipation. It didn’t matter if they noticed, it didn’t matter if they didn’t. This was for him, and no one else.
When he got there, he sat as normal. And no one noticed.
His brother and boyfriend sat across from him. Jiang Wanyin and Nie Huaisang were on their right. And no one noticed.
“Hi,” Nie Mingjue said from behind him, and Lan Xichen jumped.
“Hey,” he said, smiling softly at the other man, who slid onto the bench next to him, resting his arm on Lan Xichen’s shoulder. The contact was warm, and Lan Xichen resisted the urge to slide closer.
“…what happened?” Nie Mingjue frowned, running his thumb over his right cheekbone – over the scar. “Who hurt you?” His voice dropped several octaves, curling in the bottom of Lan Xichen’s stomach.
“It’s old,” he said, trying to move past it, but his brother was looking at him already.
“I’ve never seen it before,” Nie Mingjue scowled.
“Ah, well –”
“Brother. Is it from…that day, in the mountains?”
His tone wasn’t accusatory, but Lan Xichen felt like he had been thrust under a microscope, thousands of blaring lights picking him apart. His hands started shaking, shaking and breaking.
“Excuse me,” he said, trying and failing to keep his tone steady as he extracted himself from Nie Mingjue’s arms. His apartment wasn’t far, and he tried to walk normally.
Ah, he was basically running. He didn’t try and justify it anymore.
His brother saw. Nie Mingjue saw. They all knew he wasn’t – he wasn’t –
Fumbling with his keys, he rushed into the bathroom, looking at himself in the mirror. Shaking, he was shaking, his eyes were red and the scar was burning through his skin, burning deeper and deeper into his heart.
He collapsed into a corner, cold from the tile walls seeping through his shirt, frostbite creeping up his back. Invisible hands covered his throat, stealing his breaths, choking him.
“Xichen? Xichen, are you here?”
Someone knocked on the door, “Can I come in?”
It was Nie Mingjue. Lan Xichen knew that voice better than his own, and it was scared. Nie Mingjue was scared. He slowly pulled the bathroom door open to reveal his friend looking down, eyebrows furrowed. Nie Mingjue dropped to his knees when he saw Lan Xichen’s tears, sliding forward.
“Hey,” he said, gently. “You need a hug?”
Lan Xichen didn’t want to be selfish; he wanted to say he was fine and lock the doors, but he was tired of shutting people out, tired of wondering whether they would leave or not.
Let them leave.
He nodded, weariness setting into his bones. Nie Mingjue slid closer, pulling Lan Xichen into his lap. His arms were strong and solid, an illusion of a semblance of stability. He pressed his head into Nie Mingjue’s shoulder, body shaking from crying. Hands rubbed up and down his spine.
It was silent but for the crying and Nie Mingjue’s soft, gravelly tone, whispering nothing and everything, making promises he could not keep (but Lan Xichen wanted to pretend, just for now).
“S-sorry,” he whispered.
“Don’t apologize,” Nie Mingjue said, into his hair. “It’s okay. I’ve got you.”
“Mm,” Lan Xichen hummed, relaxing. “Thanks.”
“You wanna get into bed? You’re freezing.”
Lan Xichen tried to move back, but Nie Mingjue scooped him up and lifted him up. “Mingjue!”
“You’re fine,” he said, easily. “I won’t let you fall, ever. Promise.”
Burying his head in Nie Mingjue’s shoulder to hide the rapid blush crawling up his face, Lan Xichen asked, “Water?”
“I’ll get you some.” Slowly lowering him onto the bed, Nie Mingjue left the room. Lan Xichen drew his knees to his face.
Nie Mingjue’s gentleness was always surprising, always welcomed. It was often towards his brother, but when turned on Lan Xichen, he found himself feeling cherished in an unexpected way.
He had his brother. Differently, he had Jiang Yanli. It seemed he also had Nie Mingjue. All love, all different.
“Here,” Nie Mingjue said, crouching by the bed. Lan Xichen took the water from his outstretched hand. “It’s not too cold?”
“It’s good,” he said, voice small. Clearing his throat, Lan Xichen moved over.
Nie Mingjue took the hint, sitting on the bed. He wrapped an arm around Lan Xichen, gently pulling him. Lan Xichen rested his head on Nie Mingjue’s shoulder, warmth spreading through him from the places they touched. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Just...a lot happened. Feels like my life is falling apart.”
“Finals made my grades drop. Uncle is upset. Wangji is...Wangji.” And I’m in love with you but I can’t tell you.
Lan Xichen knew his problems were trivial to some. An 80 on a final was something most of his peers strive for, but for Lan Xichen, it only highlights his failures. His uncle’s disapproval shows Lan Xichen’s lack of value for the family rules and ancestors. It seemed like, some days, Wangji’s happiness comes at the price of Xichen’s. It was a price he was willing to pay.
He should have been made of a solid, single stone of jade. Xichen was formed from cracked pieces cast aside, meticulously glued together. As the glue grew weaker, all he could do was watch himself fall apart.
“If anything, I think what you see as falling apart is you growing.” Nie Mingjue rested his chin on top of Lan Xichen’s head. “Just because you aren’t perfect doesn’t mean you’re not beautiful.”
“What – ?”
“You aren’t perfect,” Nie Mingjue said, plainly. “You’re stubborn and you can be manipulative. You want the best without considering the price – you always think you can pay it, but you can’t. You trust too easily and get hurt when it inevitably goes wrong.
“But you’re smart, maybe the smartest person I know. You see the good in everyone and have faith in them. You’re strong and eloquent and disciplined. You care so much about everyone, and even more about the people you love. You sacrifice everything to protect them. Not perfect, but beautiful.”
Overwhelmed, Lan Xichen hid his face. Nie Mingjue’s words cut into his chest in a pleasant way, pain melting into joy. He had no idea the other man thought so highly of him.
“Friends are here for friends,” Nie Mingjue said, determinedly. “I’m here for you if you want to talk. No matter what.”
Lan Xichen felt something rise in his throat. “Thank you. And same for you, too.”
“I’m sorry I brought up your scar,” he said, bluntly. Lan Xichen tensed, trying not to flinch. “Your brother seemed upset.”
“It was a difficult time.”
“Did someone hurt you?” The temperature in the room dropped several degrees, Nie Mingjue’s tone frozen over.
“No, nothing like that. It was a long time ago, and it was an accident. I was trying to help Wangji, and got hurt in the process, essentially. He probably feels guilty, I should – ”
“You’re shaking, Xichen. Rest.” Nie Mingjue glared. “You can talk to him in the morning.”
“He’s probably upset.”
“Well, so are you. I assume it isn’t a pleasant conversation, is it?”
Nie Mingjue tugged him even closer. “Then it can wait. Come on, I’ve downloaded one of those documentaries on my phone. It’s about penguins. You wanna watch?”
His eyes widened in horror as a tear slipped down Lan Xichen’s cheek. “Xichen! Was it something I said?”
Lan Xichen nodded, bringing his hand to his cheek to wipe away the tear.
“Oh no, what was it? I promise I won’t say it again – ”
“No, no,” Lan Xichen said, trying to explain the warmth blooming in his chest. “No, I’m happy, Mingjue. Very happy.”
Red tinged the tops of his friend’s cheekbones. “I’m glad. Let me pull it up…”
Curled against his shoulder, Lan Xichen watched the penguins with warm fascination. Nie Mingjue was rock steady, all furious waves crashing against a solid shore, all heat concealing the softness inside. Lan Xichen’s heart panged in the best way. His love was unrequited in some ways, but Nie Mingjue cared for him. He could not be bitter with the depth of love offered to him.
Nie Mingjue didn’t take time with those less than worthy. In his eyes, Lan Xichen was someone to be cherished, someone to be protected and adored. Lan Xichen felt like crying, but that would undoubtedly startle Nie Mingjue.
Lan Xichen had never cried in front of anyone before Jiang Yanli two days ago. This was exhausting, head pounding but heart lighter.
He was human, after all. He could share his burdens along with shouldering others’. Humans were not perfect. He shouldn’t have to be perfect to be treated well, shouldn’t have to be perfect –
Nie Mingjue gently pressed Lan Xichen’s head closer into his neck. He smelled like spices and salt and gasoline. Lan Xichen didn’t know someone could smell like home.
It was also, somehow , sexy.
Lan Xichen wanted to plunge himself into a river.
“You smell good,” he said, voice muffled. Make that the ocean. As if any amount of water could cool his burning desire for Nie Mingjue.
“Ah, thanks. You too. Like clean sheets and...sandalwood? Don’t know.”
“We have sandalwood soap.”
Cute! Nie Mingjue called him cute!
Wangji used the same soap. Would he also be cute to Nie Mingjue? Lan Xichen shook the thought away – ridiculous.
A giddy laugh broke out of his chest. He was being ridiculous. He quite liked it for the time being. The welcoming hands and soft smiles, the encompassing silence and white flowers: those could rest at the foot of his bed for the time being. They were a part of him, but not everything. Everything belonged to the man beside him, if he would have him. All the messy, cracked parts along with the polished jade, all the fragments kept hidden for years bursting forward. All of it belonged to him, if he wanted it.
If he wanted it.
It was hard to go slow.
It was hard to understand that nothing would happen due to a small mistake, that the universe wouldn’t tip on its axis and then promptly set itself on fire. He could breathe, and it would be okay. He could go slow, and it would be okay.
It was summertime, a time for resting and relaxation. He spent time alone, reading books and going on walks. He spent time with his friends, joining them to watch a movie or for their beach trip.
Lan Xichen never liked the beach. The sun might cause him to burn, the sand got all over his clothes, and the water was always too cold. This year, Jiang Yanli had convinced him to finally come.
Nie Mingjue had saved the shotgun seat for Lan Xichen. His eyes crinkled with happiness when Lan Xichen slid into the car. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Lan Xichen whispered. “Time to go?”
“Yeah.” He pulled out of the driveway, and they were out.
Wei Wuxian somehow had gained control of the audio, and he and Mo Xuanyu were playing some upbeat playlist, of which Lan Xichen knew a solid zero songs. It didn’t matter, he was content to watch Nie Mingjue drive; his hair down and tousled with the wind streaming in from the open window. He tried not to stare and probably failed.
“We’re here –”
Wei Wuxian whooped, tugging Wangji behind him. “Let’s go!!!!!”
Mo Xuanyu laughed, “Thank you again for driving us.”
“No problem,” Nie Mingjue stretched his arms up over his head. The bottom of his shirt rose up, a few inches of his hip showing. Lan Xichen wanted to get on his knees and kiss it, then came to his senses and wanted to lock himself in the car trunk. “Xichen, this way.”
Lan Xichen quietly followed him to the spot where everyone was sitting: from Jin Zixuan to Wen Qing to Nie Huiasang. Wei Wuxian had already dragged Jiang Cheng and Wangji into the water (well, Wangji was not in the water as much as next to it, but it was the thought that counted). Lan Xichen crossed his legs, sitting between Jiang Yanli and Wen Ning. There was surely sand all over him already, but –
Nie Mingjue’s laughter rang in the distance.
– it was perfectly okay.
“How are you feeling?” Jiang Yanli asked.
“Better,” Lan Xichen answered, honestly. “Thank you, for everything.”
She bumped his knee with hers. “It’s what friends are for. Are you going in the water?”
“What?” Nie Mingjue called. “Xichen, really?”
“Ah, well, it’s been a while since I’ve been in the water.”
“All the more reason to go!” Nie Mingjue beamed, “Can you swim?”
Nie Mingjue reached a hand out. “Come with me?”
How could he be expected to not take the hand in front of him? Nie Mingjue’s face was glowing from the sun and his smile, hair down and falling over his face, curls tickling the ends of his jaw. He was so, so effortlessly beautiful, and it made Xichen’s heart ache, his legs shake.
He was so weak for him.
At his nod, Nie Mingjue lifted his shirt over his head and tossed it somewhere. Lan Xichen neatly unbuttoned his own, glad that he had worn the new dark blue swim shorts (yes, he had purchased them when he had heard about the beach trip from Nie Mingjue,, it was nobody’s business). After tucking his belongings safely away, he took his friend’s hands and allowed himself to be pulled up to his feet.
Swallowing, he made sure to look away from Nie Mingjue, following him to the water. Nie Mingjue rushed in happily, turning back to look at Lan Xichen – up to his ankles.
“Ah, I don’t like the water much,” Lan Xichen admitted. It was too much, too heavy – overwhelming in the worst kind of way. It reminded him of things he would rather forget.
“Why didn’t you say something?” Nie Mingjue ran over to him, frowning. “Come on, let’s go back.”
“No, I...” Lan Xichen huffed, “I want to get over it. It’s just water.”
“Let me help you,” Nie Mingjue crouched. “Get on my back.”
“I’ll carry you in. Don’t you trust me?”
Now, that wasn’t fair. He trusted Nie Mingjue with his life, and the other man knew it. Sighing, he wrapped his arms around Nie Mingjue’s shoulders and jumped. Nie Mingjue caught his legs with ease, pulling him closer. Lan Xichen yelped.
“Hold tighter. I won’t let you fall.”
Nie Mingjue waded in, slowly letting Lan Xichen adjust. Soon enough, they were almost waist deep in water. Lan Xichen, who was initially planning to stay as far away from Nie Mingjue as he could, was pressed against his back tightly. Of course.
He was warm against Lan Xichen’s chest, burning into his lungs. This was so, so bad for his heart; but he couldn’t stop it.
“Alright, let me down,” Lan Xichen said.
“Are you sure?”
Nie Mingjue carefully leaned down so Lan Xichen could step down. The water was cold, but not...not terrible. Nie Mingjue still had an arm around his waist, so that was helpful in distracting him.
Nie Mingjue was outlined by the sun, golden warmth and gentle touches. He was the water they were standing in, broad and vast, waves crashing against sunlit shores. Lan Xichen wanted to drown in him.
“Let’s go deeper.”
“Are you sure?”
Lan Xichen nodded, taking a step forward. Nie Mingjue kept his arm firmly on his waist, as they stepped in, deeper and deeper. He stopped shivering from the cold soon enough, laughing when Nie Mingjue dipped under the water, hair wet and plastering to his neck. His tattoo seemed even darker. Lan Xichen wanted to touch, wanted to –
He wanted things he couldn’t have, but he had enough. This was enough.
Later, after the water fights and beach volleyball, when the sun painted the sky orange and pink, the high fever of the day slid down to a slow burn, smoldering. Lan Xichen curled up in Nie Mingjue’s arms, warm under the blanket they shared. Lan Xichen fit perfectly, safe and comfortable. Nie Mingjue was humming softly under his breath, loud enough for only Lan Xichen to hear, some love song Wei Wuxian played on the way here.
The sun dipped below the horizon, and they were bathed in moonlight. Nie Mingjue glowed. Lan Xichen fell in love.
Convincing him to take some time off became difficult.
In the end, it was Nie Mingjue and his sad eyes which pulled him out of his dark corner in the library into an equally dark corner in some bar. The music was too loud, but the atmosphere was undeniably warm.
It was only a few of them; Nie Mingjue, Mo Xuanyu, Wen Ning, Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Cheng (the two latter facing off in some sort of drinking contest that had lasted an hour already).
Wei Wuxian slid his cup across the table. The first five glasses or so were smeared with red lipstick, but it was all lost to golden liquor and competition. Jiang Cheng groaned, but tipped the last of his drink down his throat, gesturing for two more. Lan Xichen was very glad he wasn’t paying for them.
Lan Xichen frowned, looking around for Nie Mingjue. The frown deepened when he saw who he was with.
Wen Xu was touching Nie Mingjue’s arm. Lan Xichen curled his hand into a fist under the table.
Wen Xu was not a terrible person, all things considered. A questionable family, for certain, but he wasn’t too bad. Lan Xichen was beginning to question that sentiment right about now.
Mo Xuanyu passed him a drink, and he tipped it down his throat without thinking about it.
“Hey man, you okay?” he asked.
“Well, I thought you and Nie Mingjue were together –”
“We aren’t.” No amount of tender hugs and gentle words could change that. Nie Mingjue wasn’t his. Nie Mingjue could touch whoever he wanted.
“Well, here.” Three more drinks were pushed his way. “Drink. Go get him.”
“He can be with whoever he wants.”
“And he wants you,” Mo Xuanyu said. “I really thought you were the smart one, huh.”
Lan Xichen would be offended, but Mo Xuanyu was the one pushing more drinks his way.
Soon enough, his throat stopped burning and his hands uncurled. To be fair, he hadn’t drunk a lot, but Lans had a notoriously low alcohol tolerance to begin with.
His gaze slid back to Nie Mingjue, and he took another shot.
He hummed as he turned, rolling over to see –
Not his bed.
This was not his bed. And he wasn’t wearing a shirt.
Lan Xichen sat straight up, chest heaving and head pounding.
Wait. This was Nie Mingjue’s room.
Did he and Nie Mingjue –
He threw the blankets off his body. His pants were still on, and everything felt clean and...normal. Okay. It was fine. There had to be a reasonable explanation for why he was in Nie Mingjue’s bed shirtless.
There had to be.
Stepping out of bed, he grabbed the first shirt he saw, pulling it over his shoulders, and walked into the living room. His head burned with every step, and he leaned against the counter.
“Here. Have some water and painkillers.”
Lan Xichen looked up wearily. Nie Mingjue was on the other side of the counter, eyes fixated on the bottle of medicine between them. Lan Xichen took two of the painkillers, smiling. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” He still wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“What happened last night?”
“You really don’t remember?”
“Not much…” Lan Xichen closed his eyes. “You were with Wen Xu, and after that, I don't remember anything.”
“Well, I don't think I should – if you don’t remember anything –”
“Hey.” Lan Xichen crossed to the same side as Nie Mingjue, taking his hands. “What happened? It’s okay, you can tell me.”
“You can tell me, Mingjue.”
Nie Mingjue sighed, tugging him to the couch. Lan Xichen sat up, legs crossed, while Nie Mingjue sagged against the side.
“Wen Xu were sitting at a table in the middle of the bar, and then you showed up. You, ah, brought a lot of drinks. We all got drunk, and then you told me you wanted to go home.
“I wasn’t really in any condition to drive so I called a car to go to your apartment and then mine. You didn’t want to go to, and you kind of – clung to me – so I just brought you here.”
Lan Xichen winced. “I’m sorry.”
Nie Mingjue shrugged. “Anyways, we were both really drunk, and you didn’t want to go to sleep. I put on an action movie and you were watching it, surprisingly enough. You usually hate them, but you sit through them because I like them. So I kissed you.”
Lan Xichen sat up ramrod straight, looking at Nie Mingjue. He was staring at the space between two walls, down the long white hallway, tripping on out the window to land on the trees.
“Yeah,” Nie Mingjue shrugged. “You were into it.”
Obviously , was all he could think, in a daze.
“Anyways, we were just here for a while.” They had kissed here , yesterday, and Lan Xichen didn’t remember a thing. He felt like his brain had dissolved, running out of his ear and down his arms. “Then you got up and pulled me to the room. You, um, ripped my shirt.”
Lan Xichen looked down at the shirt he was wearing. Indeed, most of the buttons were popped off; now, the shirt was barely closed over his body. He envisioned growing wings just so he could fly out the window and crash into a glass door somewhere.
“We were...on my bed for a bit, in there. Then you got a phone call. Your brother was calling to see where you were. Don’t really remember what you said to him. You said it was past your bedtime, and fell asleep almost instantly.” Nie Mingjue chuckled. “You Lans and your rules. So, yeah. I had sobered up a bit after the call, so I slept out here.”
“Mingjue, I am so sorry.”
Lan Xichen turned to face him again. Nie Mingjue’s expression was flat, solid.
“I mean, yes. I was drunk and forward and I didn’t mean to.”
“So you regret it.”
It would be so easy to lie, so easy to say yes and move on – but it was running. All he knew how to do was run. Lan Xichen was tired of running away; maybe he should run towards, instead.
“I don’t remember any of that,” he said, slow, gentle, as if Nie Mingjue was a spooked animal; as if his heart was beating as fast as Lan Xichen’s. “But I could never regret kissing you.”
Nie Mingjue swivelled his entire body. His eyes were wide, trembling. “Xichen, do you mean that?”
“I only regret not remembering anything.” Lan Xichen bit his lip, summoning every last bit of his courage. “I like you.”
Nie Mingjue’s face broke out into a giddy smile, looking like pure sunlight personified. “I like you too. So much.”
Lan Xichen couldn’t help himself from laughing. Happiness bubbled in his chest, lifting him off the ground and into the air, amongst the clouds and rainbows, floating weightlessly. “I didn’t think I could ever tell you. I didn’t think you could ever like me back.” Like didn't cover it, but it was enough for now.
“Xichen,” Nie Mingjue said, reverently. “Xichen, you’re everything. Your happiness is my happiness. You are wonderful and beautiful and I – fuck, I like you so much.”
“You too.” Lan Xichen leaned forward, pressing their foreheads together. “You too.”
Nie Mingjue leaned forward. “Indulge me. I want to kiss you, and I want you to remember.”
Lan Xichen smiled, face bright and light, happiness radiating out of his every pore. “You can kiss me whenever and however you want. Anywhere, any time.”
“Careful, I might take you up on that one.”
Daringly, Lan Xichen bit his lip. “Do it, then.”
Despite the look in his eyes, Nie Mingjue was gentle, the barest press of lips against his, as if he was afraid to startle Lan Xichen away. One kiss bled into two, three, Lan Xichen shaking from the rush of it.
He pulled away, placing a hand on Nie Mingjue’s jaw, “Mingjue.”
“Xichen,” he whispered his name like it was precious. “What do you want?”
“Take your hair down?” Lan Xichen asked, like an idiot. As if he already wasn’t overwhelmed enough.
Nie Mingjue reached up regardless, tugging his hair out of its ponytail, curls cascading down his face. “Good?”
“Mm,” Lan Xichen slid his hand up, running his hands through soft hair, tugging lightly. “Sorry –”
Nie Mingjue coughed, “You can pull if you like.”
A flash of heat shocked through his spine, making him dizzy. “Okay. Can I – ” He pulled himself closer to Nie Mingjue, who took the hint, leaning back on the couch so Lan Xichen could sit on his lap, legs around his waist.
“Ah, Xichen,” Nie Mingjue sighed, reaching up to kiss him again. Lan Xichen melted into it, craved it. It had been a (long) while since he had kissed anyone, but he was certain it had never felt like this, never would feel like this. Nie Mingjue’s thumb was rubbing circles into his hip, a hand slipping under his unbuttoned shirt. He jumped.
“Is this okay?” he asked.
“Yes, please – ” Lan Xichen dipped his head down to kiss Nie Mingjue’s jaw, his throat, pulling his hair back for better access. “Mingjue. Feels good.”
There was a haze covering his brain, obscuring his thoughts and filling them with Nie Mingjue – Nie Mingjue’s hands on his skin, Nie Mingjue’s open shirt falling off his bare shoulders, Nie Mingjue’s fingers pressing into his hips with the lightest pressure.
He was allowed this. He could do this, now and forever, kiss him and touch him and talk to him, be with him. Lan Xichen smiled against Nie Mingjue’s jaw, pressing a lighter kiss there. He was soft and warm under Lan Xichen, everything he ever wanted and needed, everything he could have never imagined having.
Nie Mingjue’s hands slid up, his thumb slipping over sensitive skin. Lan Xichen gasped, trembling against Nie Mingjue. “ Mingjue .”
“Xichen – should we – ?”
Lan Xichen sighed, “Yeah, we should.” He slid off of his boyfriend (boyfriend!), back against the couch. “I like you so much.”
“I like you too.” Nie Mingjue leaned over, resting his head against Lan Xichen’s shoulder. “I hope you remember that.”
“Oh, I will.” Lan Xichen took Nie Mingjue’s hand in his own, running his thumb over his wrist. “I never thought this would happen.”
Nie Mingjue smiled, kissing his cheek. “Neither did I, but let’s be glad that it did.”
And he was.
Things weren’t ever that easy.
There were still fights. There were times where Lan Xichen shook apart, tried to put on a mask, make it stick. There were times when Nie Mingjue was set aflame with anger, leaving and taking all the warmth with him.
“Hey. You feeling okay?”
They were still there for each other at the end of the day, through all the insecurities and expectations.
“Yeah. I’m okay.”
It was hard. Lan Xichen expected it to be hard, but not like this. He had support and love, but some of it came from within. He was stronger than he thought, but some days he had to take a step back and breathe. Some days, he needed a break, needed to rest, needed to allow himself to breathe without guilt.
With the coaxing of Mingjue and Jiang Yanli, Lan Xichen finally decided it was time to talk to his brother.
“I’m sure you don’t remember much from that day in the mountains.”
“Well, you were nine. I was around eleven. I had been trying to find you, had gone all around the house, but I hadn’t been able to find you anywhere. I had thought that you got lost in the mountains, and I had believed our uncle would be upset. So I had gone to find you myself.
“I had been out for hours. The sun had set already, and I had gotten lost. Then I fell down a mountain. I don’t remember what happened, I had probably passed out, but when I had woken up, I was in a hospital bed.
“My face had been extremely injured. All around my left eye was cut up and bruised. It was...ugly. Even at eight years old, I was called perfect and told that perfection was valuable. So, seeing myself as less than perfect was difficult.”
Wangji’s distress was palpable but difficult to read. “Brother.”
“I didn’t leave my room for months, until most of the initial injuries disappeared. Some of the injuries had scarred, so I started putting on concealer to hide them. It became a coping mechanism. I never let anyone see my face without it, until recently.”
“Don’t blame yourself, please. Turns out you were just playing with some rabbits nearby.” Lan Xichen sighed. “It wasn’t your fault. I was so obsessed with the idea of us needing to be perfect that I didn’t ask for help. What if you really were injured on the mountain?”
“We don’t need to be perfect. We can just be.”
Lan Xichen smiled, “You’ve gotten very wise.”
“You have, too. I’m glad you told me.”
“I’m glad, too. No need for either of us to feel guilty.” Lan Xichen stood up, dusting off his pants.
“Brother. Thank you.”
“Thank you, Wangji,” he said, smiling softly at his brother.
He wasn’t perfect. Perfection didn’t exist – you could strive for it, beg for it, think you’ve reached it; but it never existed. The higher you got, the harder the fall.
There were other things besides perfection. There was happiness, there was love and experience and aspiration; there was a whole world outside his cracked mask.
There was Wangji; his stoic face but expressive eyes. His steadfast, unquestionable support was always there, always.
There was Jiang Yanli; her gentle hugs and soft words. She was there to talk and there to listen, a slow ebb and flow.
There was Nie Mingjue; his warm kisses and sunlight chasing away the dark. He was there no matter what, to hold him or let him breathe or remind him that he could come back up.
There were plenty of things beside perfection. Life wasn’t a pyramid; not a single exhaustive climb to the top. No, it was more like a set of twisting roads.
Lan Xichen didn’t know where his road would take him; but he had faith it would be somewhere wonderful.