The last candle gutters into nothingness in the library pavilion.
Lan Xichen sits back with a sigh, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness before he rises. The length of his candles are carefully curated, which means it’s almost time for bed. Even the Lan Sect Head cannot flout Sect policies when it comes to things like this.
He gathers the scrolls into a pile by feel alone, but leaves them on the table for the next day. It has been three days, and Lan Xichen has not yet found any mention of such a curse in the entire library, although several tomes have led him to believe it could be the work of a fire-spell. If that truly is the case…
The Wen is not a Sect he can afford to offend.
Lost in his thoughts, he very nearly runs into a young man coming through the cross-junction.
“Ah! My apologies,” Lan Xichen says on reflex, hands reaching out to steady the other youth. He looks to be either around Wangji’s age or slightly older, he notes automatically, dressed in the light brown robes of the Nie Sect and carrying a large bucket of water. “You should rest early tonight,” he advises, letting go. “Be well-rested for the initiation ceremony tomorrow morning.”
In the faint light, he can just barely see the hint of a blush dusting the young man’s cheeks, his gaze lowered shyly to the bucket hastily placed on the ground so that he can cup his hands in greeting. “Ah… this one is but a mere servant, fetching water for Young Master Nie’s evening ablutions.”
Lan Xichen is not surprised often, but this gives him pause indeed. The young man in front of him has a cultivation level on par with some of the newly-initiated Lan Sect students, his golden core pulsing strong in his chest. But this would be too absurd a lie to tell, so it must be the truth.
“May I have the honour of your name?” he asks gently. Perhaps, if the Nie Sect isn’t going treat their budding talents well, then…
The young man’s eyelashes flutter, caught off-guard by the question. “This one is named Meng Yao, honoured sir.”
That… explains. Of course a son of Sect Leader Jin won’t have a low cultivation, but it is equally evident why Sect Leader Nie, despite being a man known to be upright and forthcoming, would relegate such a talented cultivator to menial tasks. One youth, no matter how talented, is not worth offending the entire Jin Sect over.
“Please, just Xichen is fine.”
The words leave his mouth unprompted, taking even himself by surprise.
Meng Yao blinks rapidly, his eyes huge with shock. “Sect Leader Lan,” he protests, but oh, the blush is creeping down his neck, “that would be inappropriate of this servant.”
Inappropriate, on so many levels.
People say the leaders of the Sects wield the most power, but never has Lan Xichen felt so trapped by the rigor of social norms, hierarchy wrapped like a noose around his neck.
But surely, in the darkness of the night –
He picks the bucket up, handing it to Meng Yao with a faint smile. Their fingers brush over the handle, water sloshing slightly, but Lan Xichen is there to help him steady the bucket, pretending that he can’t see Meng Yao trembling.
“It’s getting late, Xichen shouldn’t keep you any longer,” he says regretfully, letting the bucket go after he’s sure Meng Yao has gotten a good grip on it.
Meng Yao’s smile is small but sweet. He bows low over the bucket, hurrying off.
Lan Xichen is seized with the urge to take the bucket from him, to help him carry it, but his feet stay rooted to the spot.
Meng Yao glances back, just once, and then disappears into the Nie Sect’s guest rooms.
“I’ve long heard that Sect Leader Nie has a capable assistant under him. From your graceful demeanour today, the rumours are indeed true.”
Meng Yao’s hands quiver when Lan Xichen gently brushes against his fingers when he reaches for the container lid.
“This terracotta is visibly extraordinary,” he praises, and indeed it is. At least the Nie Sect has good taste. “It is perfectly to Master Lan’s liking.”
He can feel Wangji’s gaze sharpen at the additional reassurance, something Lan Xichen would never extend to a mere stranger, but he can’t seem to help himself. Between this lapse in judgement and the protectiveness he displayed earlier…
He needs to tone it down.
Lan Xichen clasps Meng Yao’s hands in his own as he transfers the gift to his own grip before Meng Yao could drop it.
Meng Yao lowers his gaze demurely, but Lan Xichen is standing so close that it’s impossible for Meng Yao to fully hide the pleased-abashed look in his eyes. “Many thanks to Lord Zewu.”
“Young Master Meng,” Lan Xichen greets, on impulse, just to watch the faint blush dust across Meng Yao’s cheeks. “The initiation ceremony is over, you should go and rest.”
“Meng Yao especially came to say goodbye to Lord Zewu.”
“Say goodbye?” Lan Xichen frowns. Certainly, students are not permitted to have servants while studying at the Lan Sect, but Nie Huaisang has only just arrived two days prior. Surely Meng Yao could be permitted to rest another day or two before embarking on the return journey? “Young Master Meng, why don’t you rest a few more days before leaving?”
Meng Yao doesn’t look at him when he responds. “Meng Yao is a guest of the Nie Sect; it is better to return sooner.”
Lan Xichen hears the unspoken meaning behind his words. It’s not convenient for either Lan Xichen to be seen associating with a lowly servant any further, nor is it convenient for Meng Yao to be accused of cozying up to another Sect’s leader while a guest at the Nie Sect. Sect Leader Nie must have had strong words with Meng Yao when he joined; it looks like Meng Yao has taken them to heart.
He will not add to Meng Yao’s troubles. “If that’s the case, Xichen will not press you to stay longer.”
Meng Yao’s eyes dart briefly up to him in surprise and gratitude, and that prompts Lan Xichen to take a step closer. Meng Yao blushes, dropping his gaze again.
“Young Master Meng,” Lan Xichen begins, seized with the need to reassure, “Sect Leader Nie is a frank and forthright person who is fair in his rewards and punishments. For someone with merit, he will surely not treat them badly.”
This close, Lan Xichen can hear the slightest hitch in Meng Yao’s breathing, the only sign of his surprise and – relief? He hopes it has been comforting.
“Meng Yao will remember this,” Meng Yao promises, and then hesitates. “At the ceremony just now, many thanks for Lord Zewu’s aid.” He cups his hands in a bow of formal gratitude.
Lan Xichen hastily grasps his arms without thinking. “This is too much; you and I are peers, there is no need for such grand gestures.”
Meng Yao’s face splits in a helpless shy grin, like he can’t control himself.
“Meng Yao will take his leave,” he excuses himself before either of them can make a further fool of themselves. He takes the requisite two steps back, retreating from Lan Xichen’s hold, and then walks away without looking back.
Long after he can no longer see Meng Yao’s retreating back, Lan Xichen’s palms tingle with something like the buzz of static.