When the absolutely cloying amount of mingled joy and smugness in the pavilion hall reaches a peak, Jin Guangyao steps outside. He has drunk exactly one cup of alcohol, sipped strategically across all the toasts. He has given his infant nephew a low-voiced state of play when it comes to the cultivation world's politics, spread a mild rumour about Jin Zixun, and determined that the freshly-married Second Jade of Lan is less than an hour away from tearing the red robes off his husband and demonstrating the act of physical love in front of all and sundry if he is not allowed to leave the celebration and do it in private.
It probably won't get to that point. Although that would liven up proceedings.
He leans on the railing in the closest open-air pavilion, and looks out over the white stones spread over the ground like an ocean stripped of all but its foam. The air is moon-washed and warm against Jin Guangyao's hands and face. There's enough of a breeze to stir the dangling branches of a tree against the stones.
He always finds this place restful. Every time he steps through the gate of the Cloud Recesses, confident of his welcome as he is in few other places, it's like setting aside a heavy bag that he's carried with him.
Lan Xichen emerges from the pavilion. He is the only motion, beyond a few moths fluttering near a lantern. Jin Guangyao's spine itches to straighten, on instinct. The same instinct will fold him into a bow when his sworn brother approaches, for the pleasure of being stopped halfway.
Tonight he stays where he is, leaning his forearms on the rail, and merely smiles as Lan Xichen comes to join him. Leaning down this far is somewhat more of an undertaking, for the leader of the Lan Sect. Lan Xichen does it nonetheless, letting his arm rest snug against Jin Guangyao's. There are noble cultivators who will never see Lan Xichen's spine bend this much, who would probably joke that the Lans have solid wooden staffs or rods of iron in place of spines. It is relaxation rather than respect; or rather, the fact of Lan Xichen's relaxation is respect in and of itself. And to be valued as such.
Neither of them speak. The silence is almost as restful as the air itself; JIn Guangyao allows himself to enjoy it, and this man's presence, for several breaths.
But one of them must be the first to break it, and that one will choose the tone of the conversation. Jin Guangyao is feeling raw enough not to risk it.
"It's good to see your brother that happy."
"Yes," says Lan Xichen at once.
"I'm sure your uncle is hoping you will follow suit, before long."
So much for keeping the conversation safe. It is the obvious small talk at a wedding; that's the problem. Only half of Jin Guangyao's mind is on his speech. The other is on Lan Xichen's nearness, the warmth of his arm and the shape of his fingers, the faint smell of mingled incense and food-smoke that has been absorbed by the outer layer of those white robes and now rises into the moonlight.
"I'd never thought much about marriage," says Lan Xichen. "It is only recently that I have found myself contemplating it at all."
Jin Guangyao's own fingers clasp together. Not tightly. Not with any visible violence.
"Did you have someone in mind?" he inquires politely.
"There is someone who has made me think of it, yes."
Jin Guangyao straightens and turns. For the first time he looks Lan Xichen right in the face. Lan Xichen's expression is full of warmth, and steady. He is always steady.
Jin Guangyao, too, has plenty of practice of holding himself perfectly still while his blood whirls through his body. Whatever his unruly heart thinks this is, it will be disappointed. It is a dumb and untamed piece of flesh. He did not think they would have this conversation today. He has not planned for it.
The warmth spreads into Lan Xichen's voice when he adds, "I can't imagine you are unaware of how much I admire you. I have made no attempts to hide it."
It's true: he hasn't. Lan Xichen is reserved, but not closed-off. Though he is still twice as subtle as his younger brother, who treats the entire world with disdain except for his betrothed—now husband—at whom he has always stared with perplexed and furious longing. Lan Wangji is so obvious that Jin Guangyao has occasionally toyed with the idea of taking advantage of it, just to teach him a lesson. Wearing your weakness like that is dangerous.
He does not want Lan Xichen to have to learn that lesson.
"No," he says, looking at the ground. "I am not unaware. But—why have you not spoken to me of your feelings?"
"Do not take offence," Lan Xichen says, as if he has ever been offensive for a moment in his life, "when I say that it is because...I had assumed that if there was something that a-Yao wanted, he would have it by now."
The name slides over him and he shudders without letting it show.
"Even if it was at the cost of someone I—cared for?"
"You are the leader of the Gusu Lan. Marriages such as this—" he gestures to the pavilion hall, and drops his voice to a self-deprecating register "—are not what is required of someone like you."
Lan Xichen now looks amused, even if it's a mere flash of silver among the sky-blue intensity of his fondness. "And who am I, in your eyes?"
You are an impossibly good man who could be seduced into fucking me but would never, if allowed to act of your own accord, offer me anything less than the full right of recognition as your partner, because you know how much my mother's situation has hurt me.
And I am someone who is capable of smiling politely at your wedding. I am someone who will bow to your no doubt beautiful and appropriate wife, and fantasise about poisoning her.
And if I have been allowed to lay hands on you, even once, then I will not be able to stop at fantasy.
He does not say that.
"I do not think either of us are the sort to give away half our hearts," he says. "Or to enter into a thing halfway."
Lan Xichen lifts Jin Guangyao's chin with the same gentle fingers that slid over his own, all those years ago, and lit up his blood with the shock of wanting something new.
"As usual, my dear friend, you are correct," Lan Xichen murmurs. "Must it be halfway?"
"Yes," he says. "Because you must have an heir, and—" Unacceptable. He swallows, calms himself. "And despite the hilarious comments that my less educated cousins make about the prettiness of my face, I am not the person to produce one for you."
"I think you could probably produce anything you set your mind to, heirs included." Lan Xichen's smile widens. "Wei Wuxian has already gifted my brother with one, if I am any judge."
The tiny Wen Yuan has spent the last few days dressed in Lan colours and clinging delightedly to the leg of Lan Wangji, who in turn looks at the child with the same kind of mad-eyed possessive affection that he directs at Wei Wuxian. Lan Qiren has probably already resigned himself to building a nursery.
Does Lan Xichen want a scruffy orphan of his own? Does he want five? The war was long and difficult; there must be hundreds of the things running around out there, like stray chickens. Jin Guangyao even remembers allowing Nie Huaisang to organise some sort of orphanage project at some point, to get him out from underfoot.
Jin Guangyao lets himself be distracted by his thoughts as a buffer against the emotion slowly building beneath them, and so is able to keep his expression serene as he looks Lan Xichen in the face.
Or so he thinks. One of the worst and best things about Lan Xichen is that he is the one person who will look at Jin Guangyao and occasionally, very occasionally, be able to tell exactly what he is thinking. Plucking out his thoughts like fish from a crystal-clear stream. It is devastating and horrifying and makes Jin Guangyao want to move to the other end of the world, and also to curl up in Lan Xichen's arms and weep. Thank heavens it happens so seldom.
It happens now.
"Please don't kidnap any small children for me," Lan Xichen says seriously. "I was merely making a point."
Now both his hands are cupping Jin Guangyao's jaw. Jin Guangyao swallows.
"What point is that, er-ge?" he murmurs.
"That I do not feel myself bound to marry a woman for the sake of having children of my body," says Lan Xichen. "It was good of a-Yao to be concerned, but if that is your only objection..."
Jin Guangyao's lips have parted. He feels it happen; he lets it happen. He is hot as summer beneath his robes. Frantically he calls up the other objections: the reasons why this would be a bad idea. It is not a long list, but one which he has painstakingly constructed over the years. He brings it out and reads it to himself in the quiet sharp-eyed hours of the night, while the complex work of his mind unravels itself enough to allow for sleep. Like his list of grudges, it sustains him, in the same way that the Lan principles sustain Lan Xichen.
If there was something that a-Yao wanted, he would have it.
Oh, beloved, Jin Guangyao thinks bitterly. If only you knew how hard I have worked, how much discipline I have exerted, not to reach out and arrange the world to deliver you to my door.
The first item on that list has always been the strongest, and Lan Xichen has just struck it off with a single declaration. Without it, the list is flimsy. A child's attempt at a talisman. It might float away in a breeze.
"A-Yao," says Lan Xichen. It sounds like a question. His thumb brushes the corner of Jin Guangyao's mouth.
Of course. The great and noble and oh so considerate Zewu-jun, who does all things with deliberation, will not move first. His pupils are wide and his breath is coming fast. He has not managed to stop his gaze from falling to Jin Guangyao's lips; he hauls it up and again it drops, like a bucket hauled from a well with slippery hands.
And yet. Jin Guangyao will have to be the one to say that this is allowed to happen.
It is like standing on the top of a mountain. The air is too thin. He cannot think.
He finds himself saying, "Gege, if you do not stop wasting time and kiss me—"
Mercifully, it takes no more than that. It's not as though he has an end to the sentence. Not one that makes any sense, or that doesn't betray far more than he wants to.
He's gathered close, enfolded in those white sleeves, held tight against Lan Xichen's chest. Lan Xichen's first kiss is a trembling thing, not quite centred, as if he has been blinded by daylight and is fumbling his way forward. Jin Guangyao's senses are flooded. He has not let another adult person this close to him since—since—
Jin Guangyao makes a sighing sound that is only mostly deliberate, and wraps his arms around Lan Xichen's back. As he'd hoped, the kiss changes. Now it is deep and endless and sweet, and has years of longing inside it; perhaps Lan Xichen has been lying awake in his own nights, in his own bed, making his own lists of places on Jin Guangyao's body that need the attention of his lips. Lan Xichen kisses gasps from him—the gasps seem to provide encouragement, so he keeps them going. Lan Xichen kisses his temple, his eyelid, the centre of his cheek and then the other. His mouth again.
Both of them are smiling when the kiss breaks. Jin Guangyao has to tilt his neck uncomfortably, being held this close, not to miss any of the incredulous joy that shines in Lan Xichen's face.
He says no, when Lan Xichen formally proposes a betrothal.
Or rather—he doesn't let Lan Xichen get as far as asking the question. Jin Guangyao has a policy of not making important decisions quickly. He manages to hold to it even when dazed with arousal and glowing with a triumph unlooked for. They establish that neither of them have any intention of marrying anyone else, and that neither of them are in a hurry. That's enough.
And it doesn't mean Jin Guangyao won't take advantage of what is, more or less, an unofficial acknowledgement of mutual possession.
"That's—oh." Lan Xichen's voice catches, goes low, as Jin Guangyao's legs wrap around his waist and pull him deeper. "You feel so good."
He kisses the underside of Jin Guangyao's wrist. Jin Guangyao feels that kiss in his belly, in his teeth, in the burning ache where he's stretched open by Lan Xichen's cock. Lan Xichen withdraws halfway, slowly, steadying Jin Guangyao's hip with his free hand. And then presses in again. Slow, tender. Careful.
He's so exquisitely fucking careful.
"Please," Jin Guangyao gasps, held like precious porcelain in those strong hands. "You don't have to hold back with me, er-ge."
"I know." Lan Xichen whispers it into skin. His tongue glides over the blue thin veins of the wrist. Jin Guangyao has a vision, sudden and hot, of his arm snapping. Delicate bones making a sound like twigs underfoot. A choked sound comes from him.
Lan Xichen says hoarsely, "I can hold nothing back from you, a-Yao. You have all of me." He leans down, pressing their mouths together.
Oh, for fuck's sake, thinks Jin Guangyao.
But he does open his mouth to be kissed, because this is a kiss like the softest creature's raw belly, served fresh and melting on the tongue.
The next night he tries again. He can do this. Sometimes a problem requires a light touch; an idea hinted at from several angles.
"Er-ge," he says, looking up through his lashes. "I meant it. You can do anything you want with me. Anything at all."
Lan Xichen interprets this as a request to indulge in more foreplay. At which he is—it must be said—extremely good. Methodical, skilled, and lavish. Jin Guangyao almost asks who Lan Xichen has been doing this with, prior to now, but decides against it. If he was given an answer then he might do something unwise about it when in a bad mood. And whoever they are, they know now that Lan Xichen is his. Everyone knows.
Lan Xichen moves his finger in a coaxing motion, rubbing against the sensitive part inside Jin Guangyao. His tongue swirls slow, patient, licking kisses across Jin Guangyao's inner thigh. His eyes fall closed when his mouth reaches Jin Guangyao's cock. To look at him is to look at a man engrossed, reverent, lost in paying homage.
Jin Guangyao shudders and melts into the bed, and forgets what he was going to say.
He tries again the next night. At the point when he most desires escalation—when he wants to be fucked harder and deeper, and with more abandon—he lets his nails catch in the crease of Lan Xichen's elbow and scrape all the way down to the wrist. Not enough for red lines to form, but enough for white: the gentle fraying of topmost skin.
Lan Xichen groans and seems pleased. But shows no sign of wanting to reciprocate.
Jin Guangyao is a patient man. He prides himself on it. However, it turns out that all those years of denying himself what he wanted were enough to shred his patience absolutely ragged when it comes to Lan Xichen.
Playing up his prettiness doesn't work: Lan Xichen wouldn't care if he was all over scars. If he lost an eye, or half his hair, or a limb. That's the kind of love Lan Xichen is capable of. Astounding. Annoying.
Jin Guangyao knows how to antagonise people just enough that they will snap at him in public, so that he has the excuse to flinch away, but eliciting Lan Xichen's protectiveness doesn't work either. Any display of vulnerability, real or false, just makes Lan Xichen gather him tenderly close in bed. He pulls Jin Guangyao to lie atop his broad chest. He drags fingers through his hair—untangling, soothing—and tells him he's valuable and cherished.
Which is very nice, Jin Guangyao supposes, going drowsily boneless with warmth. But.
He lies there and breathes in the heady smell of Lan Xichen's skin, and half of him wants to stretch out its limbs and purr with savage satisfaction.
The other half is entertaining a fantasy of impossible, time-bending revenge against the entire foundation of the Lan Sect and all of Lan Xichen's ancestors, for culminating in this man who is so kind and powerful and refined and perfect that Jin Guangyao couldn't help but fall in love with him; and so imperfect in exactly the right ways that he looked at Jin Guangyao, saw more of him than most, and was still able to fall in love right back.
And who is so kind, so refined, that the idea of using his strength to hold Jin Guangyao down and whisper heated filth into his ear while fucking him roughly into insensibility has never once floated across the mind that dwells beneath that blue ribbon.
"What's keeping you awake?" Lan Xichen murmurs. The tidal rhythm of his hand in Jin Guangyao's hair has stopped.
I would like to crack your beautiful skull open and soak its contents in the black wine of my need, my beloved. I would like to hold you to the flame and set you alight.
Jin Guangyao lifts his head and smiles. "I'm considering a problem."
"Can I be of any assistance with it?"
He drops a kiss on Lan Xichen's chest. With the nail of one finger he lightly traces the characters for irony on Lan Xichen's side. "Not this one, er-ge."
Lan Xichen, chief of his own sect and impeccable politician, accepts that without a murmur.
It does beg the question. Who might be of assistance in this matter?
Jin Guangyao discards Lan Wangji as an option immediately. Imagine that conversation. Jin Guangyao would rather drive splinters beneath his nails. Or someone's nails, anyway.
There is, however, Wei Wuxian. Who is also partner to a Jade of Lan, and who is clearly getting fucked hard and thoroughly and in any number of creative positions. Jin Guangyao's guest quarters are not close to the Jingshi, but when the wind blows from certain points of the world, the sound carries. There are noises being wrung out of Wei Wuxian that are almost inhuman.
More usefully, Wei Wuxian owes him something. Jin Guangyao is always more comfortable dealing with people who owe him things. Wei Wuxian owes Jin Guangyao his reputation in the cultivation world, his reconciliation with his family, and his present state of well-fucked wedded bliss.
"I'm not sure I see the problem," Wei Wuxian says.
Jin Guangyao clings to his patience. He is almost sure he is being teased, at this point. He has outlined the issue in as much detail as he is prepared to. Which is to say that he has commented, delicately, on how much it means to Lan Xichen to see his younger brother so thoroughly satisfied with the state of marriage, and that there can be no mistaking Wei-gongzi's equal state of…satisfaction.
"I suppose it's not something I've ever thought much about." Wei Wuxian massages one of his wrists, then the other. The bruises there could have been sold as a matched set with the marks that adorn his neck. Jin Guangyao is so jealous he is light-headed with fury. He doesn't show it; of course not. He learned in childhood to erect a fine net between his heart and his face. It catches anything that shouldn't be there.
"But," Wei Wuxian goes on, "Zewu-jun is a different sort of person."
That is abundantly clear. Jin Guangyao does not say anything so impolite as: do you think I would want him if he were anything like yours? Bruises notwithstanding, Lan Wangji is an arrogant, resentful, inflexible young man who hurled all of himself into Wei Wuxian's hands at the age of sixteen and was prepared to be destroyed there.
Lan Wangji would never have looked twice at Meng Yao, the polite attendant standing behind Nie Huaisang's shoulder. He did not.
"I know," is all Jin Guangyao says. He forms a careful smile. "Thank you all the same for your honesty on such a personal subject, Wei-gongzi."
Wei Wuxian smiles. He leans back on his elbows and looks as though he would like to have a fan to snap open. "I have a question for you in return, Jin-xiong."
Jin Guangyao inclines his head.
"Why did you help me?"
"It was unfair, the way you were being treated. Ostracised." Jin Guangyao lets his gaze dip. "I know what it's like to be punished when the true sins are in the arrogant hearts of those inflicting the punishments."
"If it was only that, you would have spoken up on my behalf a lot sooner."
The tone is light; the eyes are sharp as the cutting edge of a wire. A reminder that Wei Wuxian is ridiculous, yes, but also brilliant in his own way. Jin Guangyao's rehabilitation of his name wouldn't have worked without the man's real creativity in the realm of cultivation techniques.
Jin Guangyao sighs. "Because your sister asked me to."
That one, Wei Wuxian accepts. Does he believe it? Hard to tell.
It's true. Though like most worthwhile truths, it's complicated. Nothing's simple when you consider the web of affection and favour they've all woven with these marriages and alliances. Lan Wangji asked Jiang Yanli who asked Jin Guangyao, because she's like Lan Xichen in some ways: devastatingly insightful behind a mask of demure quiet. Wei Wuxian's reputation being ruined, him being far off in Yiling, was hurting his sister nearly as much as it was hurting his betrothed. And Lan Wangji's pain hurt Lan Xichen, in turn.
Lines of the web. One could draw it all out on a scroll, if one hadn't been practicing for years the art of holding these things in one's head.
Why did he help?
Jin Guangyao was given the chance to make the person he cares for happy, and saw an opportunity to solve the growing problem of the Ouyang sect leader at the same time. He was asked a favour by someone who treats him with respect and has faith in his abilities.
He doesn't believe in perfect victories, but that one came close.
"I must admit that it troubles me, er-ge, that you do not trust me to know my own desires."
This, this must work. Jin Guangyao has arranged to be in Lan Xichen's chamber, stripped down to only those two layers of robes closest to the skin. His hair has only the last braid left to be undone; he has left that, optimistically, for Lan Xichen to do himself.
He sits on the edge of the bed, eyes downcast. Then lifts them, to see what is happening in Lan Xichen's silence.
Lan Xichen looks thoughtful. "You think I do not trust you? Or is it that you don't trust me?"
"Er-ge!" A protest. "Of course I do."
"Then it is simple. Tell me outright what it is that you want," Lan Xichen says gently. "So there can be no mistaking."
Oh, yes, so simple, beloved.
It does not come easily, after so long, to talk in straight lines. A straight line can be cut off. If there is no ambiguity then there is no escape, no way to elude or save face. If nobody knows exactly what you want, then it is difficult for them to withhold it.
Lan Xichen's expression draws more concerned with every moment Jin Guangyao remains silent.
Jin Guangyao shifts position until he is kneeling, hands flat on his thighs. He bows his head and lifts it again, face serene with supplication. He keeps his voice soft; silken.
"Very well. I would like you to pick me up and pin me against the wall so that you can take your pleasure and so I am unable to get away. I would like you to kiss me with your hand around my throat, holding me down. I want you to be barely undressed when you pull me by the hair to wrap my lips around your cock. I want to sit in meetings with my body aching from how you have used it, and my skin covered in the marks of your teeth beneath my robes. I want you to fuck me to the point of coming and then beyond it, until it hurts, until I can't think at all."
Jin Guangyao smiles. It is a smile as true as the edge of a knife.
He says, "For once in my life I would like to be brought to the point of begging and actually mean it."
Lan Xichen has put one hand out to steady himself on the doorway as if caught in a quake. His mouth has fallen open. He is halfway wrecked and all Jin Guangyao has done is speak, which is delicious, except that the goal was for the wrecking to be occurring in the opposite direction.
Jin Guangyao murmurs, "You see? I would not have said these things if I didn't trust you."
Lan Xichen straightens and comes over to the bed, but doesn't sit. He stands very close; their knees are touching. The difference in their heights is prominent even when both of them are standing; looking up at him like this, Jin Guangyao's neck will begin to ache before long. Hardly dignified.
Lan Xichen says, "Is this about punishment? About how you think you deserve to be treated?"
There is a moment when Jin Guangyao loses control of his face. These things: tolerance, conciliation, earnestness, peace. They all take effort. In this moment he feels his face fall into the low-lidded blankness that is the only truly restful thing, and which he only allows himself when he is alone.
Lan Xichen sees it and does not flinch. He looks even more thoughtful, himself, in turn.
Jin Guangyao swallows. "No."
"Because I would feel uncomfortable with that."
"Zewu-jun, I refuse to believe that you are too naive to know that people can want this just to want it."
A quirk of the mouth. "No, I do know that."
"Will you force me to mention your brother and his husband?"
Lan Xichen puts his hands over his eyes and laughs, quietly. "Please don't." The hands drop. He sits next to Jin Guangyao. "All right. I am glad you trusted me with this."
If Jin Guangyao has any talents, they are these: he knows how to read the moods of powerful men, and he knows when to keep his touch light. To step back and let suggestion begin to work, like aromatics infusing a bag of rice. Besides, having to justify himself has soured his own hunger.
Instead he guides Lan Xichen's head down into his own lap, and slowly works at the pins and ornaments, letting the dark hair slide loose so that he can card his fingers through it and rub soothingly against the scalp. Lan Xichen's eyes fall closed and he sighs as if to let the day escape through his lips. It is a vulnerable position. With a sharp twist Jin Guangyao could deprive the Gusu Lan of their leader, and the cultivation nobility of a precious gem. He could send tremors through the world.
He bends and kisses Lan Xichen's brow.
Lan Xichen is the one in his arms, yet he's the one who feels enclosed. Adored. Safe. He rests two fingers against the pulse beneath Lan Xichen's chin and hears the word deserve in the steady beat. Perhaps Lan Xichen has again seen further into him than he thought. Does he deserve this?
No. He does not.
But life does not deliver what you deserve. It delivers what you are prepared to take, when you have weighed and measured your daring against your conscience. If Jin Guangyao had a different sort of daring he would say: I don't want you to do this just as a favour, out of love.
I want to be something worth losing your control over.
I want you to not be able to help yourself.
Jin Guangyao cuts short his visit to the Cloud Recesses and returns to Carp Tower. Perhaps it is difficult, after all, for someone like Lan Xichen to work up a proper desperation when Jin Guangyao is right there. Distance may help. Time apart.
He is both correct and incorrect, in that by the third day he is wearing his own skin like a robe made of rough treebark. He had not meant to drive himself mad with it. He lies awake and stares bleakly at the ceiling of his chamber, and spins a new set of determinations. He inspects himself in mirrors for the faintest hint of this weakness. He will not be another Lan Wangji, wearing his need for all to see.
In the meantime, he has work to do. He can channel his feelings into that.
"You are more ruthless than usual since your return to us, A-Yao," Jiang Yanli says, laughing.
She is the second person in the world who is allowed to call him that. Trying to fight intimacy with Jiang Yanli, once she has decided to love you, is like trying to punch the mist. Two years' worth of polite demurrals and bowing won Jin Guangyao nothing but smiles and soup; when he brought her brother back into society, his fate was sealed.
"I don't know what you mean," he says.
She smiles and tucks her hand into the crook of his arm. It is a lovely, cold day. Her small hand nestles against the fur trim of Jin Guangyao's robe as they walk. She glances over her shoulder to where one of her attendants, behind them, is carrying a contented Jin Ling.
"I don't think you had to go quite as far as recommending banishment," she says.
Jin Guangyao's personal opinion is that the man in question should consider himself lucky to have escaped with his life, given his unwise choice of friends. And his even less wise choice to start dipping his toes into conspiracies that might one day have threatened Jin Guangyao's family.
"I'm sure you are right, Jin-furen," is all he says.
She darts a look at him, exasperated and fond. Formality is a weapon like any other. The day he calls her saosao is the day she wins.
They end up in one of the carefully-tended gardens, and Jiang Yanli sits on a smooth rock with her son on her knees, singing to him a lively child-rhyme of Yunmeng. When the attendant reminds her that she is due to take the midday meal with a group of visiting scholars from the city, she hands Jin Ling over to Jin Guangyao.
"A-Ling is enjoying the fresh air," Jiang Yanli says. "Let him stay with his uncle for a while longer."
She and the attendant leave, and Jin Guangyao is alone with the future sect leader in his arms.
He peers into the wide brown eyes. He does not know how long he has before his nephew starts crying. Jin Ling is surrounded by love. Suffused by it. Wanted and privileged, coddled and destined for power. And yet, he cries. This betrays an awareness of the fundamental unfairness of the world that Jin Guangyao can only respect.
He tips his own face back into the cool sunshine and tells himself that he is not thinking about Lan Xichen. Predictably, summoning the man's name into his mind is entirely counterproductive to this endeavour.
His options when it comes to seeking advice within his own sect are limited. Jiang Yanli? Jin Zixuan? Jin Guangyao does not want to know if the sect leader and his wife have anything more than sweet, boring sex resulting in small Jin heirs. He probably should find out at some point, in case his half-brother has any strange sexual foibles or weak spots that could be exploited by their enemies later in life, but it's obvious that Jin Zixuan is enough in love to be blinded to anyone else at the moment.
"We have a few years yet before I will have to start making myself aware of your father's preferences," he says to Jin Ling. "Thank the heavens."
Jin Ling says nothing intelligent in return, as is the way of babies. He's heavier than he used to be. Jin Guangyao does not often carry a sword, and it has been years now since he had to carry his own piles of scrolls, let alone metal boxes containing gifts for other sects. Keeping a growing child balanced on one's hip is not easy.
But there is no age too young to begin learning the skills necessary to stay alive, and to thrive, as a political force in the cultivation world. Jin Guangyao points out interesting insects crawling on leaves and murmurs to his nephew about the number of informants it is wise to keep on the payroll at any one time, and the varied levels of society they should inhabit. The girl who sweeps the step at a city brothel can be equally as valuable as the official who holds the seal in the local governor's financial office.
It's nice to have an audience, and this one doesn't interrupt. Jin Guangyao moves on to a soft rendition of his current personal tribulations, and the difficulty with communicating to the world's most decent man the ways in which you would like him to behave indecently—
"You can't talk about things like that in front of a baby."
Mianmian does carry her sword at all times, like the skilled cultivator that she is. She draws level with them, gives Jin Guangyao an unimpressed look, and touches Jin Ling respectfully on the tip of his nose. Jin Ling sneezes.
"I grew up in a brothel," says Jin Guangyao. "I don't know any better."
She rolls her eyes. "I can't believe I got within earshot of you. Gusu has made you soft."
In fact Jin Guangyao was aware of her approach half a minute ago, but accidental overhearing is a much easier way to start a conversation like this than broaching the topic outright. She probably suspects this; she isn't going to call him on it. They play games like this a lot.
Mianmian looks from side to side, checking that they're alone. She tucks her sword into her sash and gently covers Jin Ling's ears. "I do know where you're coming from," she says. "I would like to tell Wen Qing that she is welcome to ruin me any time she wishes. But I can't exactly compete with the heir to the Yunmeng Jiang when it comes to courtship, can I?"
She means, Stop whining; at least you've got him.
Jin Guangyao says calmly, "I will need a more compelling political motive than your jealousy before I have Jiang Wanyin killed. His sister would be so upset."
Mianmian screws up her nose at him and uncovers the baby's ears.
"You should give it a try," she says. "Jealousy, I mean."
It's not as though Jin Guangyao hasn't thought about it. Lan Xichen would get sad around the eyes and would let Jin Guangyao make his own choice without a word of protest. An actual threat might work: the prospect of his death, perhaps. But Jin Guangyao has no intention of endangering himself.
And he doesn't like the idea of manipulating Lan Xichen that far. Anyone else, yes. Not him.
"You've missed a lot, while you've been off in the Cloud Recesses letting the First Jade stroke your hair," Mianmian says.
As if Jin Guangyao doesn't have plenty of agents in Lanling. The gaps between what they have already told him and what Mianmian thinks he should know will be very informative indeed. He spares a glance for Jin Ling, who has fallen asleep on Jin Guangyao's shoulder with a fist in his mouth.
"Then catch me up," he says.
The next time Jin Guangyao sees Lan Xichen, it is here, on his own ground. The annual meeting of the great sects has been imbued with greater meaning since the war. Everyone attends. Everyone takes the rituals of greeting and the renewed pledges of alliance seriously. It's equal parts remembrance of what they did together and everyone keeping a sharp eye on everyone else, just in case another Wen situation arises.
This year, Carp Tower is playing host. There will be meetings, dinners, night hunts, exchanges of information both overt and subtle. Politics and deals and the elaborate bestowal of gifts.
Jin Guangyao is in his element.
He's so busy putting out minor logistical fires that he misses the moment when the Lan delegation arrives, and is only alerted to it by the delighted yell of "Shijie!" that means Wei Wuxian has caught sight of Jiang Yanli.
Yes, there's the darting red ribbon above layers of black embroidered with Lan blue. There is the icy column of Lan Wangji; as usual, you could fling twenty curses and they would bounce off the barrier that is Lan Wangji's total disinterest in anything and anyone except his husband. He sedately follows in Wei Wuxian's wake. A Jin disciple half-steps in front of him with a bow, catches sight of his face, and clearly thinks better of it.
The voice comes from much closer than he was expecting. And so instead of standing in calm, prepared welcome—instead of sweeping forward to meet him, looking his best—Jin Guangyao comes abruptly face-to-face with Lan Xichen in the middle of the reception hall, nearly tripping over his own robes as he turns.
As one, they lift their hands and bow. It's only when the murmurs around them prompt him to peek upwards that Jin Guangyao sees: Lan Xichen's bow is deeper than it has ever been before. Deeper than a sect leader owes to anyone.
Heat floods Jin Guangyao's cheeks. He has less than a second to decide whether to step hurriedly forward and lift Lan Xichen out of it, and is so taken aback at the prospect of playing mirror to his own past that he misses the chance. They do not touch at all as they straighten up. His hands throb with awareness of their own emptiness, and he's off balance enough that he actually says what he's thinking. No more and no less.
"I've missed you."
He manages to trap the rest of it safely in his mouth, because none of it is fit to be aired in public. I've missed the way you smell. The certainty of you. Nobody looks at me the way you do.
Lan Xichen's smile is like white flowers against dark leaves. "I have missed you too."
Jin Guangyao has mastered himself now. They exchange more words in absolute propriety: welcome, appreciation for hospitality, anticipation of the events to come. Jin Guangyao could do this in his sleep. He looks at Lan Xichen's mouth only the normal amount of times per sentence.
"Ah," says Lan Xichen presently. He smiles over Jin Guangyao's shoulder.
He is smiling, it turns out, at Nie Mingjue. The Nie sect leader approaches them looking as though, all told, he'd prefer to be wielding Baxia and faced with a cave full of fierce corpses to fight. But Jiang Yanli has her fingers resting oh-so-gently on his arm, and she smiles at all of them in turn as she and Nie Mingjue join the group.
Jin Guangyao narrows his eyes at his sister-in-law. Very, very subtly.
Jiang Yanli fixes him with a look of wide-eyed stubbornness that says, This is happening, a-Yao.
Lan Xichen's look says exactly the same thing.
Jin Guangyao does not appreciate being conspired against, especially by the only two people who know they can get away with it. But half of strategy is the graceful recognition of an unwinnable fight.
"Chifeng-zun," he says, and bows low. As always, best to overshoot. To lay one's stitches on the side of respect, all the better to pull them tight. He barely has to falsify the look of hesitant concern as he rises.
"Jin Guangyao," says Nie Mingjue.
Well. Of all the possible names, that's not the worst. Jin Guangyao's oldest sworn brother does not look awkward. Awkwardness has nowhere to land on Nie Mingjue; he is all blunt surfaces, a thing hewn from metal and stone. But he is not comfortable either.
Strike first, Jin Guangyao thinks.
"I must give you my sincerest thanks," he says.
A blink. Nie Mingjue raises his eyebrows. "What for?"
"If I hadn't left Qinghe, I might never have been reconciled with my own sect and my own family." A gentle smile for Jiang Yanli. "And before that, if you hadn't thought I deserved a position of trust, and spoken well of me to Zewu-jun before the lectures in the Cloud Recesses…" He lets the smile widen. "So you see? Everything of my present favourable situation, my present happiness, I owe to you."
Nie Mingjue is not the cleverest of men, but he is not stupid. He knows that obligation is a blade held to the palm, not a sweetness on the tongue.
In another context this would be a warning.
But the plain fact is that Lan Xichen bowed to Jin Guangyao, under the eyes of the world, bare minutes ago. The declaration has been made as to which of them Lan Xichen would choose, if forced to. And that makes it easy for Jin Guangyao to smile at the Nie Sect's leader with complete serenity, to listen to his gruff, careful blandishments, and to agree with almost-sincere willingness to put the past behind them and behave as brothers once more.
"Nothing would please me more, da-ge," he says.
It's such an obvious lie that it circles around into courtesy, and is therefore allowable. There are a great many things that would please Jin Guangyao more. He watches the sway of Lan Xichen's hair as Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue walk away from him to speak with Jiang Fengmian. He aches like a plucked string.
Five more things have been awaiting Jin Guangyao's attention while that was happening. He deals with them, swift and efficient, and when a slender hand hooks through his arm he turns with a smile because he thinks it is Jiang Yanli again.
It is not.
"Walk with me," says Nie Huaisang. His hair is so intricately braided it must have taken hours, and his outer robe is a lustrous shade like black pearls. His free hand opens his fan with an insouciant flick that any dancing girl would sell her voice to achieve. "I'm bored."
"For a short while, if you wish," says Jin Guangyao's hospitality-voice, without bothering to consult his mind. "I'm afraid I have a great many things—"
"Oh, naturally." Somehow they are in a pocket of space tucked near the wall. Nobody is watching them with any real interest. Nie Huaisang turns a limpid gaze onto him. "So, san-ge, I hear you have a problem where you're not being fucked as hard as you want?"
It's like being punched directly in the place to remove one's breath. First, and not at all least, Nie Huaisang has not called him that since—well, for a long time. He must have been watching that public reconciliation.
Nie Huaisang allows a grin to peek above the fan, in response to Jin Guangyao's expression of frozen politeness. "Ahh, don't be angry with Wei-xiong! He didn't mean to tell me. He has such a big heart, he wants everyone to be as satisfied as he is."
Nie Huaisang's delicate brush of a voice could dab suggestiveness onto the most innocent of words. It has a glorious time exploring the contours of satisfied. He goes on: "I'm hurt you didn't come to me, honestly. I have so many books on the subject."
In Qinghe, Nie Huiasang was always perfectly nice to the young man called Meng Yao. Perfectly nice, perfectly prone to whining and avoiding work. During the war he was exactly the same: draped ornamentally in the back corner during every council, his face suffused with lip-chewing boredom, his fan a rhythmic backbone to the endless hours of discussion.
This is either a game played on a whim, an odd overture of friendship, or something else.
Jin Guangyao murmurs, "I am always pleased to accept the counsel of experts. What is your own experience in this area, Nie-gongzi?"
"Sadly, I've never been much bothered with practical applications of theory." A pout. "I suppose I should rectify that. I do intend to marry some day."
"Is that so?" Mystified, Jin Guangyao decides to let this play out. He tastes the echo of his own voice, leaning on a railing on the day of a wedding. "Did you have someone in mind?"
The thick-lashed eyes above the fan dart in a clear gesture. Jin Guangyao follows them.
Once again he finds himself in a speechlessness that has less to do with calculation and more to do with surprise. Today has been full of these moments. He wishes the world would stop, just for an hour, and let him sort through it like a desk of papers left unattended.
He gives a small cough. "And is Jiang-gongzi...aware of this?"
"Not yet," says Nie Huaisang, sounding exceedingly unconcerned. "I'm in no rush."
"I had understood he was showing interest in Wen-guniang."
"Oh, yes, she would be very good for him." Nie Huaisang's tone is that of an approving auntie. "But he is not what she needs. She doesn't want to be a leader of any sect that isn't her own, let alone the consort to one. And neither does he." Ah, what can one do? says the gossipy angle of the painted fan. "They'll work that out, eventually."
Jin Guangyao knew some of that already. Not all of it. He wrenches his attention more firmly onto the conversation, and relaxes his face into a look of indulgent patience.
"And you?" he asks.
"I would make a superb consort," Nie Huaisang says blithely. "And an even better symbol of alliance. It's what younger sons are for. The Yunmeng Jiang have already tied themselves to the Lan and the Jin. We Nie are feeling quite left out of the party."
Jin Guangyao ignores most of that as a smokescreen. He doesn't need to be lectured about politics. He is interested in the personal motivations that might be at play, and even more interested to work out how much of this Nie Huaisang is dropping in front of him on purpose.
"And you want...Jiang Wanyin?" Jin Guangyao is the only one in their level of society with decent taste in men. "Really?"
A fire ignites deep in that lazy gaze. The fan flutters more intensely, as if to stoke it. Nie Huaisang nods.
They watch the heir to the Jiang sect, who is attempting some interaction with his nephew. Jin Ling grabs delightedly at the long strands of Jiang Wanyin's hair.
"It doesn't bother you?" Jin Guangyao finds himself saying. He thinks about the conversation with Mianmian. "You're not jealous."
"Not really. It's so much effort, being jealous. So much energy spent on nothing." Nie Huaisang yawns, covers it with the fan, and then snaps the thing shut and uses it to tap Jin Guangyao's arm. "I will think about your problem, san-ge."
Jin Guangyao half expects a pile of exquisitely useless pornography to appear on his desk at some point during the day. When it doesn't, he assumes Nie Huaisang was just saying it as something to say; not because he actually plans to think, an activity that Nie Huaisang has always placed in the same category as physical exertion. Certainly Nie Huaisang spends most of the afternoon's meetings whispering with those on either side of him like an unruly disciple, eating peanuts from a small bag, or else tapping his fan against the edge of his desk in a rhythm erratic enough to grind against the nerves.
Jin Guangyao's subsequent headache peaks near the end of the afternoon, when he finds himself staring at a young and pompous cultivator from a minor sect, who has taken it upon himself to launch into a condescending speech outlining a new way that the Lanling Jin might want to manage this year's seasonal flooding and its effects on the economy everywhere south of the Yellow River.
The plan has seven parts. Every part is more infuriatingly incorrect than the last.
Politeness holds the assembly frozen through every interminable rambling minute, because it is the etiquette of these meetings that everyone should be listened to in full, and that voices from lesser sects should not be shouted down by those of the greater. That last one was a proposal of Wei Wuxian's, backed up by the Jiang and the Lan, and everyone else is so wary of becoming the Wen that they went along with it.
At the end of the speech, silence falls like the mercy stroke of a sword.
Jin Zixuan, the host, clears his throat. "I don't think we have the time to consider and respond to such a detailed suggestion right now," he says. "We will set it aside from today's schedule."
A toothless response which means it will be dragged back onto the schedule on the last day, which is always stuffed full of all the awkward topics and niggling disagreements that nobody had the resolution to deal with as they arose. Just thinking about it makes Jin Guangyao want to scream. This conference is his triumph and he will not have it dragged into inefficiency and incompetence by young upstarts with fewer brains in their skull than tassels hanging from their belt.
He discovers that he is on his feet.
"I do have a response to the young master's suggestion," says Jin Guangyao, folding his hands in his sleeves. "If I might beg the room's patience. This won't take long."
It does not. He holds this piece of hand-crafted idiocy up by its corners and demolishes it, point by point.
When he's finished, he feels as though he has been eating a dish spiced with chillies. His tongue is seared with the clean and satisfying taste of ignoring diplomacy in favour of what will actually get things done.
His opponent's mouth has dropped open and he is clutching at his sword as though it will do him any good at all on this particular field of battle. "But I—"
For no discernible reason the forlorn young man looks sideways, at Nie Huaisang. Who has his cheek slumped against the heel of one hand and is batting a crumpled ball of paper back and forth with one finger, paying no heed to anyone. He looks half-asleep. His paper ball overshoots the side of his desk and his gaze meets Jin Guangyao's for a fraction of a second as he retrieves it.
Jin Guangyao's skin prickles. He glances at Lan Xichen, who is staring at him. Startled desire is burning there in Lan Xichen's eyes where anyone might see.
Reserved, but not subtle.
"Hm. Well argued, I suppose," says Jiang Fengmian. "Although I don't know why we had to hear every counter-argument in that much detail." Expressed that ruthlessly, he means. Jin Guangyao was exactly as concise as he'd promised.
Jin Guangyao's first instinct is to duck his head and murmur conciliating apology. He takes this instinct firmly in both hands and examines it.
Everyone in this room already knows that he is clever and that Jin Zixuan values his insight. And there will be more moments like this one, as time goes on: moments where he must balance the advantages of keeping one's hands gloved and in shadow, against those of letting light gleam on the weapons one carries. The latter might give a potential threat pause before it dares to build in the first place, and that does have an elegance to it. An efficiency.
Jin Guangyao allows one side of his mouth to rise. After a moment, Lan Xichen looks at his hands, which is something that he does when he thinks it would be inappropriate to smile.
"The Lanling Jin always appreciates the wise counsel of our allies," Jin Guangyao says, crisp as snow. "Would anyone else care to proffer advice about the management of our sect's assets?"
No one else would.
Jin Guangyao inhales as he takes his seat again. It feels easier than usual.
He sets his gloves aside, for the rest of the session. He works the blade of his mind in the light. It is odd and exhilarating both at once. Lan Xichen contributes his usual amount of measured wisdom to proceedings, and when Jin Guangyao speaks he alternates looking at his hands and looking as if he too has tasted a new spice for the first time.
At the end of the session, Lan Xichen stands unhurriedly. He exchanges words with his brother, but his eyes keep dragging sideways to Jin Guangyao. And then when Lan Wangji leaves, when Jin Guangyao's pulse has picked up with the anticipation that they might finally get to speak in private—someone else steps into Lan Xichen's path, claiming his attention.
It is Nie Huaisang.
Lan Xichen stops in his tracks and even manages to find a genuine smile for him. Of course he does. Jin Guangyao finishes making adjustments to the schedule for the next day and approves it to be copied out by clerks and delivered to every guest chamber tonight; by the time he's done, Nie Huaisang is only just releasing Lan Xichen from his fluttering clutches, and the gong will sound for the dinner banquet very soon.
"There," murmurs Nie Huaisang, pausing on his way out the door. "Zewu-jun is properly at the end of his patience now. I think I made him have to count all the way up to ten in his head, at one point."
Jin Guangyao looks at him. How did you know any of that would work? On him? On me? He does not have time for the answers, and he is only half sure they are the right questions.
"Thank you," he says, finally.
"Don't mention it! You can owe me a favour. I like it when people owe me things, don't you?" Someone is walking past them. Nie Huaisang's fan changes its angle. "Thank you, san-ge, for explaining things so well," he titters, more loudly. "What would we do without you?"
He inclines his head, and melts away from Jin Guangyao's side. The few people who bother to watch him leave do so with indulgence mixed with disapproval: what a waste of a noble cultivator, especially in such a sect as the Nie. How lucky the Nie are that this brother was not the one born first. What a harmless butterfly of a man.
People used to look at Jin Guangyao with that kind of dismissal. He hated it. It was useful.
Obligation is a blade held against the palm. Jin Guangyao put these thoughts away, to be pulled out and considered more carefully when he has the time.
He has more important things to attend to tonight.
Carp Tower is more than large enough to house each sect's delegation in its own wing, and each person in their own chamber. The room allocated to Lan Xichen has a modest balcony looking down onto a small courtyard, where hanging lanterns illuminate the constant trickle of water over a rock feature and into a fern-shadowed pond.
The room shares a wall with that allocated to Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. This is half practicality and half Jin Guangyao's smouldering desire for revenge.
He raps his knuckles against the door but doesn't wait for a reply before opening it and stepping through. He has discarded only his sword and the most ornate of his outer robes; his hands are empty, his head bare.
Lan Xichen is walking towards him, face lighting with a smile. Jin Guangyao has only enough time to smile in return before he is crowded back against the door he just stepped through, and held there.
His breath floods from him all at once. Every one of his muscles goes tense in jubilant anticipation.
But Lan Xichen pauses with both hands at Jin Guangyao's waist, and then bends to kiss him with agonising slowness. His mouth holds the same honeyed softness as ever. This is the first time it's felt like a warning. The paradox squeezes at Jin Guangyao's veins, and the moan that escapes him is entirely real.
"You were different today," says Lan Xichen, pulling back.
Hold tight. Talk in straight lines.
"No, er-ge," he says. "I was myself today."
Oh, the glory of the heat in those dark eyes. Jin Guangyao leans in and up to chase another kiss and is given it, this one firmer than the last.
"Jin-zongzhu and I talked about you at dinner," says Lan Xichen. "He speaks highly of the work you do for the Lanling Jin, even if he is reluctant to say what that work is."
Jin Guangyao should hope so. He has spent long enough nourishing his brother's pride in the right directions, so that Jin Zixuan's natural reserve becomes a powerful ability to keep the secrets that he should.
"You've been hiding for a long time," says Lan Xichen softly. "Isn't it tiring?"
"I'm not hiding from you, er-ge."
"That," says Lan Xichen, "is not entirely true."
The truth is that he has given Lan Xichen more than anyone else. And there is no one who is totally honest. Who has no layers of net at all between the world and the first, basest, rawest instincts of their nerves and heart. Such a person would either be crushed barely out of infancy or would, if they learned to survive it, be unstoppable.
He opens his mouth to say something, and is stopped by Lan Xichen's fingertips on his lips. And a wry look that says he doesn't need to bother; that he's been forgiven this, as well. Jin Guangyao lets his breath shudder out, hot. He wants to rest his head on Lan Xichen's chest and burrow out a space between the ribs for himself. He could dwell in a chamber of this man's heart and live on the richness of his blood.
Suddenly he needs to push at the edges of this.
"That boy in the meeting was only a fool. If I thought he was a real threat to my family he would be found dead in his own home, a month from now, and it would look like illness."
Lan Xichen blinks. Jin Guangyao smiles up at him. If they are to trust, then let them trust.
"And if the threat was to you, beloved, I would cut his throat tonight with my own hands."
The truth is that Lan Xichen has never needed anything that Jin Guangyao could give him. He is the Gusu Lan. He is the Cloud Recesses, burned down and rebuilt. But beneath that, beneath title and rank, he is a breathing soul like the rest of them. In Lan Xichen's face is his dawning realisation that Jin Guangyao would not lift a finger for the Gusu Lan in the abstract, but would lift the whole world, by hooks driven through its bleeding flesh, for one man alone.
Lan Xichen's eyelashes shiver. He looks hungry. "And if I asked you not to?"
Jin Guangyao says, absolutely honest: "I might listen."
This kiss is more ragged and more ravenous than the others. Jin Guangyao opens to it, gasps into it, as Lan Xichen's teeth drag at his lips.
He whispers, "And if I did it anyway? Would you lock me up in a house?"
Lan Xichen pulls away. His eyes are closed; he opens them.
He is so beautiful, this man. His mouth is a soft fruit. Someone could plunge their thumbs in and ruin it.
"Ah," says Lan Xichen. "Is that the test? That you can hurt even me, if you choose? I don't believe you want to, a-Yao."
"No, the test is that you're allowed to be angry that I would say that," Jin Guangyao snaps. "I am not Lan. You have no duty to keep the peace with me. You have spent your life not being allowed to be selfish, because you are trapped between the examples of your father and your brother and it is a fucking wonder that you can move at all, let alone that you are truly good at the core."
He has never before raised his voice to Lan Xichen. He has never used obscenity without it being deliberate. He can barely hear himself over the noise of his heart; all of him is braced in what he recognises as fear. A leftover instinct, unsheddable. It just makes him angrier. He has refused to be as small as his childhood tried to make him. Lan Xichen could do him the courtesy of trying to do the same.
He reaches up and takes Lan Xichen's face in his hands. As soon as his fingers touch skin, they stop shaking. He softens his tone.
"I am not the only one hiding. Do not dare pretend that. Not to me."
Lan Xichen turns his cheek a little into Jin Guangyao's hand. He looks tense. On the precipice of something. Nie Huaisang was right: his control is fraying.
"What do you want of me?" Lan Xichen whispers.
"I want you to be selfish. I want you to take what you want without caring how it makes you look, and I want that to be me."
A long pause. Lan Xichen gives a sigh like the last breath of a storm before it settles, which tickles against the tender skin of Jin Guangyao's wrist. Then he steps away, putting a pace's worth of space between them.
"A-Yao," he says. Calm. Fond
Jin Guangyao's heart beats faster. He hopes desperately he hasn't misread this. His expression melts back to innocence, wide eyes and parted lips.
Lan Xichen says, "Get on the bed."
Weak with relief, burning with desire, Jin Guangyao does as he's told. He sits, hands pressed primly between his thighs, eyes lifted to Lan Xichen. Who crosses the room with exquisite, steady control. Who has the same steadiness as he puts his fingers to Jin Guangyao's chest and pushes him inexorably down to lie on his back; and as he sits on the edge of the bed, looking down at Jin Guangyao as if at a disciple's essay that is about to be verbally dissected as an example to the class.
"It was the intelligence I loved in you first, you know."
Jin Guangyao can feel every one of those fingertips like a twig pressed into his skin.
"No, I didn't know."
"I'd heard from Nie Mingjue of his modest, clever attendant. Someone with a brilliant mind, who hadn't let the whispers of jealous people keep him from showing his true qualities. And then I met you and you were…" The fingers move to stroke down the side of his face. "Graceful. Lovelier than I had imagined a person could be." Lan Xichen bends down until his lips are a hairsbreadth from Jin Guangyao's ear. "The perfect size to be pinned against the wall, so I could take my pleasure."
Jin Guangyao hisses, and it turns to a cry of startled need when Lan Xichen's thumb forces his chin back, tilting his head, firm pressure in the softest part of his neck. He can't see Lan Xichen's other hand, but he can feel it working on his clothes, untying his belt.
"Let me—" Jin Guangyao pants, half-gone with impatience.
Lan Xichen lets him up. They both leave the bed only for as long as it takes for clothes to be unfastened and slid from bodies, slithering into pools of linen and silk at their feet. When Jin Guangyao's chest is bare, Lan Xichen lets out a groan and ducks his head to suck a bruise to the angle of hs neck. When both of them are bare, they tumble back onto the bed with far more need than grace.
They have done this before. It still feels new.
They are reinventing what they can be together, and this time when Jin Guangyao pushes it further, Lan Xichen is right there with him. This time when he scratches his nails down Lan Xichen's arm it wins him the prize of being held down with more force, his thighs shoved apart more roughly.
"A-Yao. Tell me what you want," says Lan Xichen. It is far more a command than it has ever been before.
Jin Guangyao stares up at him, trying to make the language arrange itself. The first Jade of Lan has a body built in perfect proportion, all muscle under pale skin, adorned with the occasional scar or dark freckle. Every single one of them makes Jin Guangyao's mouth water. What else is his mind for, if not to memorise the constellations of this man's body? What good his clever tongue if it can't get him exactly what he needs?
"I want you to cram yourself into me until I can't think at all. I don't want to know anything but your cock and your hands and your body on mine." He manages, on a thread of a laugh—"What about you?"
"I want you to keep teaching me what I want." Lan Xichen smiles. For a moment his palm rests in affectionate caress on the angle of Jin Guangyao's hip. "But for now," reaching for the jar of oil set next to the bed, "I want you to stop talking and let me take you."
JIn Guangyao stops talking.
Lan Xichen takes him with two oiled fingers at once, setting up a relentless rhythm, the other hand still holding him flat on the bed. Jin Guangyao is not the most powerful cultivator, not the most skilled in sword arts, but he still trains. He still has enough suppleness of his hips to let them splay open; enough strength to brace his feet on the bed and lift his lower body to meet the thrusts of Lan Xichen's fingers.
Need builds inside him, closer and closer to unbearable. When the gasps coming from him have begun to take on a frantic edge, Lan Xichen removes his fingers. Jin Guangyao is helped to turn onto his hands and knees, then pushed between the shoulderblades until his chest is pressed to the bed. He struggles to turn his face to one side.
"Gege," he whimpers. "I—"
Lan Xichen thrusts into him before he can finish. Jin Guangyao chokes around the size of the sensation, the intrusive flare of pain that begins at once to melt into slick, devouring heat. Lan Xichen's rhythm is punishingly fast. Jin Guangyao keeps smudging half-sentences against the sheets, his whole body juddering with the force of being fucked.
"I can't hear you, a-Yao," says Lan Xichen, far away.
And he's dragged up and back, onto Lan Xichen's lap where Lan Xichen is kneeling up. He can feel the muscles of Lan Xichen's core tense against his own back, holding them steady; he manages to anchor himself by snaking one of his own hands up and around to sit at the nape of Lan Xichen's neck. In this position it's impossible not to be aware of Lan Xichen's size, his strength, and to suck ragged breaths around the knowledge that right now all of that is for him. One strong arm is crossed firm around Jin Gaungyao's chest, and the other exerts pressure on one of his spread thighs.
"Oh, fuck," Jin Guangyao whispers, like an incantation. Sweat stings his eyes. His body is one muscle held at the point of stretch. "I—I can't—"
"Does it please you to know I will think of this forever? That I will see you across a room and imagine you exactly as you are now," a soft, soft kiss beneath the angle of his jaw, "so hot around me? No. Don't move."
He can't move. Lan Xichen's hands are holding him down. All he can do is take long gulps of air as if to ease himself open, make more room inside himself where Lan Xichen's cock is buried to the hilt. His whole body throbs with his heartbeat. Someone's heartbeat. It is like the sound of a penultimate chord plucked and hanging in the air, beyond reason, until your very teeth long for the final note that will complete the phrase.
"A-Yao," Lan Xichen is saying. "Guangyao."
It's a question. Jin Guangyao pulls himself together enough to squeeze the back of Lan Xichen's neck in reply. Then drops his aching arm and tilts his head back onto Lan Xichen's shoulder.
"You still haven't made me beg," he manages; a scratched whisper.
"An oversight," says Lan Xichen, as polite as if they were taking tea. "I shall amend it."
And he does. It is everything Jin Guangyao wanted: being held like this, fucked like this, entirely overwhelmed, powerless to do anything but take it and imagine how he will feel tomorrow. And to beg, to plead, in the end, for the relief of Lan Xichen's hand. By habit Jin Guangyao is quiet, because to prove one's pleasure is to convey information. But there are the people in the next room to consider, and his revenge, and his determination not to hide anything, tonight, from the man groaning praise and obscenity as Jin Guangyao writhes in his arms, and—
And all of this runs together like over-thinned ink, drenching him, setting him alight. He comes, sobbing, into the brisk and merciless motion of Lan Xichen's fingers.
Lan Xichen simply buries his face in the angle of his shoulder and keeps going, fucking him through the downhill slope of his pleasure with ever more erratic jerks of the hips. Jin Guangyao is too wrung out to contribute to the motion. He hears the short, raspy gasps that are forced out of him as if from a distance. He imagines what they must look like—an illustration in a book, elegant straining lines, two delicate masses of hair blending together—and his cock pulses once more, weakly, in Lan Xichen's grasp.
"A-Yao," says Lan Xichen—hallowed and clear, right into his skin.
And stiffens, and shakes through his own release. And finally lets them both collapse down to the bed and begin the process of pulling apart. Jin Guangyao could have been tossed by a river over a shallow bed of rocks. He will need to soak in a hot bath for an hour tomorrow.
He can feel a soft, dazed smile trying to invade his face. He has no defences against it.
"You were right," Lan Xichen says presently. "It's not about punishment at all."
By now Jin Guangyao has caught his breath and pulled himself together enough to say, arch, "It could be. If we knew it was just play."
Jin Guangyao settles himself more comfortably. He lets his lashes fall over his gaze. "If you were one of the ancient cultivation masters, even stricter and more formidable than the Lan. And if I were a lowly troublemaker…"
"You are," says Lan Xichen, with deep affection.
"One of the obvious sorts." He tries and fails not to sound too disdainful. No need to mention Wei Wuxian at a moment like this. "If I needed discipline, and for the great Zewu-jun to show me my place."
This was the secret after all: keeping laughter in the bed with them. Lan Xichen doesn't furrow his brow and worry about Jin Guangyao's inner shame. He goes serene with contemplation. Then laughs, low, and says, "Perhaps another time. I haven't the energy for it now. A-Yao has worn me out."
Another time. Satisfied, Jin Guangyao reaches out and delicately unpicks Lan Xichen's forehead ribbon where it is tangled and askew. He tugs it clear and makes a show of smoothing it between his fingers. He doesn't have to look up to know that Lan Xichen's eyes must be nearly black; oh, yes, Jin Guangyao knows what this means. He knew long before he ever set foot on Lan territory for the first time. Knowledge of others is power over them, when no other power exists.
"What you said about—not owing you peace," says Lan Xichen. "Is that why you don't want to marry me? You don't want to be part of the Lan?"
Jin Guangyao brings the ribbon to his mouth. Lets the metal plate drag over his tongue, for a moment. It's an obvious statement. It will do while he considers what to say.
Finally he says, "It still means a great deal to me, er-ge, to be part of the Jin. And they need me. Jin Zixuan couldn't intrigue his way out of a sack. You don't need me."
"I do," Lan Xichen says roughly, "I do," and rolls abruptly to brace himself on one elbow above Jin Guangyao, to gather him up with the other hand between the shoulderblades, fingers tangled in Jin Guangyao's hair; to deliver him to Lan Xichen's mouth to be kissed with deep and drugging strokes of Lan Xichen's tongue.
Jin Guangyao's mouth feels hot and swollen when he's released. It's a glorious contrast to the rest of him, which is cooling and aching. He has managed, barely, to keep hold of the thread of their conversation.
"The Lan are so boringly well-governed, er-ge. I would have nothing to do."
"You wouldn't have to live in the Cloud Recesses," says Lan Xichen, as if it were obvious. "Not if you didn't want to."
Jin Guangyao takes Lan Xichen's face between his hands. "Gege," he says sweetly. "If you try to give up your position for me, I will tie you to the back of a donkey and march you straight back up the mountain."
Lan Xichen turns his head into one hand and kisses it. "I merely meant, a-Yao, that I have no intention of locking you up."
Jin Guangyao's heart gives a painful throb. The kiss still tingles, a ghost haunting the lines of his palm. He manages, "Living that far apart from one's husband? I am sure the Lan precepts have something to say on the matter."
Lan Xichen laughs. "I don't believe there is a marriage precept that expressly forbids it."
"Whereas I know for certain there is one dictating that the act of physical love should be saved for after marriage."
He knows this because at their nephew's one-month celebration, Wei Wuxian got drunk and whined about it for two hours. Sometimes Jin Guangyao suspects that the sole reason Wei Wuxian agreed to start caring about his reputation and leave Yiling is because it was the only way he was going to get a Jade of Lan to fuck him.
Jin Guangyao is not unsympathetic.
"Yes, there is."
"And you broke it, for me. Why?"
One of those fish-plucking looks appears. Jin Guangyao is being seen. Lan Xichen laughs again. "A-Yao. Light of my heart. Would you like the answer that you will enjoy most, or the one that is most true?"
Two can play at endearment. A thrill runs under Jin Guangyao's skin. "I always want the truth, A-Huan."
Lan Xichen says, "Nobody has ever lived by all the Lan precepts, not breaking a single one. Nobody. It is impossible; we are humans, and fallible. They are—a framework, to make us think about the values by which we live." His gaze is steady. "There is no alcohol allowed in the Cloud Recesses and yet my brother brings some in, regularly, because he loves Wei Wuxian and wants to bring him joy. Reserving this—" a ruthless stroke of his hand across Jin Guangyao's softening cock, eliciting a sharp inhalation "—for after marriage is a statement about the values of respect and fidelity. And as far as they are concerned, I have considered myself betrothed since the first time we kissed."
He lifts his hand away. Now they are not touching at all. The composed and well-spoken Jin Guangyao could not summon a clever response if he were offered a room full of jade to do so.
"And," Lan Xichen finishes, "I would consider us no less married if you were to spend a large portion of your time in Lanling."
I would miss you, Jin Guangyao thinks. The words rise from his bones, from his liver; surely they glow on his skin. But he has missed Lan Xichen, when away from him, for what seems like half of his life. It is a manageable pain. And today has taught him an enjoyable lesson about the intensity of reunion.
"Could you be happy if we never married at all?" he asks.
"I would be happier if we did. A wedding is a statement too. And so I am going to keep asking, and I see no shame in letting it be known that I have asked." His tone deepens. "That I have gone to my knees and begged."
Oh. Oh. For others to know that the great and unimpeachable Lan sect leader has humbled himself in such a way, and Jin Guangyao has denied him...
There's amusement on Lan Xichen's face: the satisfaction of having delivered a well-aimed arrow. "Hm. I think you'd like it if we played at that one, too."
"You on your knees?" he breathes. "Yes, I would."
One last kiss, and they settle. Lan Xichen sleeps on his back like the perfect Lan disciple that he is, and Jin Guangyao lies beside him with an arm draped across his chest. He traces small circles with his thumb on the smooth bare skin at the front of Lan Xichen's shoulder and lets Lan Xichen fall almost, almost all the way asleep.
Then he murmurs into the close darkness:
"One day I'll say yes."
And Lan Xichen's lips form a slight, sweet curve.