When Lan Jingyi asks, Nie Mingjue has to laugh. The children stare up at him confused, and he realises for the first time how much older he and Xichen must seem to them, how far away their own childhoods are. He is used to his peers, is all, he’s used to people who know. He passes an affectionate hand over the nearest boy’s head and sits down, lets them gather at his feet as though he’s got something important to say. Perhaps this is important to boys of fifteen. He cannot say.
It could not have been love at first sight, he explains, because Lan Xichen was only eleven the first time they met. Mingjue was fifteen, and come to Cloud Recesses for the first time at the head of a line of Nie disciples for the lectures. He had expected to be the only clan heir in the classes, surrounded by the great clans’ cousins and older disciples. His father had prepared him to bear the weight of Lan Qiren’s questioning and scrutiny, to guide his classmates through the year. He had not expected the child at the desk next to his.
Lan Xichen had been present at the welcome ceremony, standing straight next to his uncle with the air of a boy at his first official event. Mingjue hadn’t been made to join his father like this until this year, until he received his courtesy name, but he guessed it was probably because Lan- zongzhu was in seclusion that Lan Xichen had to start so early. It made sense to let him get used to meetings now.
But then Lan Xichen showed up in class the next day, and joined them in practising their forms in the early mornings the day after that, and every step along the way he matched the older boys in knowledge and skill. Mingjue could only watch, envious and confused.
Despite seeing him in class each day, Mingjue didn’t really meet Lan Xichen until two weeks in. Chafing against the strict schedule, he grasped a bare hour of free time to neglect his studying and roam the mountainside instead. The late-spring air was still chilly in the evenings, and it felt good on his skin as he ran, hidden from punishing view by the closely-growing forest. He scrambled down the hillsides, seeking out the warded boundaries of Cloud Recesses and following them in their winding circle. It felt good to move.
He only slowed when he heard voices, distant in the silent forest. The voices murmured, then stopped, replaced by a simple guqin melody. Curious, he followed it, back up the mountainside and into a small clearing where he saw Lan Xichen sitting next to a younger boy who looked shockingly like him. His brother, Mingjue thought. This close the music was more than just a melody; it weighed on him like a heavy blanket. His steps slowed, and he let it wear him down to sitting, leaning against a tree, just to close his eyes for a minute.
The tune cut off abruptly, and he jolted, eyes blinking open. The younger boy, the one who had been playing, had his hands pulled back and clenched in his lap. He was glaring at the instrument. Lan Xichen was gently patting his brother’s shoulder, encouraging him in low tones. Mingjue cleared his throat, feeling awkward, and their gazes snapped to him.
He chuckled, a bit self-deprecatingly, and gestured to himself. “The music was very good,” he offered.
Lan Xichen smiled, turning back to his brother, but the boy just snorted like he didn't believe it.
“Truly,” Mingjue said, pushing himself to standing, “was that your own spiritual energy? I had heard of how powerful the Lan musical cultivation is, but I didn’t expect that even the children could knock me out.” He walked up the hillside to them, then bowed. “Nie Mingjue.”
Lan Xichen’s eyes widened, and he scrambled to his feet, followed by his brother. They both bowed back. “I’m Lan Xichen, and this is my brother, Lan Zhan.”
“Nice to meet you!” said Mingjue, cheery now that the formalities had been dispensed with. He sat again and made himself comfortable. “I was surprised to find out that Lan- da-gongzi was in our class this year.”
Lan Xichen shrugged and stared at the ground as the brothers settled themselves on the ground again. Lan Zhan pushed himself into his brother’s side. “Uncle believed I was ready,” he explained.
“Most of the juniors at these lectures are finishing their training. Will you also be a full cultivator at the end? Will they let you go on hunts alone?”
Lan Xichen shook his head. “Uncle says I must hurry through my training so that I have more time to learn to be a Sect Leader. I will continue to train, and go on night hunts when I am older.”
“Hmm,” hummed Mingjue, “and I thought Father had ambitious plans for me!” He offered a teasing grin, and Lan Xichen returned a tiny smile. Lan Zhan stared at Mingjue from his brother’s side.
“What were you doing out here?” Lan Xichen asked, clearly desperate for a different topic.
Mingjue indulged him. “Will I get in trouble if I say I was exploring?” He was relatively sure there were no rules against it, but he also would not have been surprised to find that there was one and he had simply forgotten it. He kept up his open grin, leaning back on his hands.
Lan Xichen made a serious face and tapped his chin. “I suppose not, as long as there was no running involved.”
Mingjue gave him his most dramatically innocent face, knowing as he did it that he was probably still flushed and sweaty from exertion. “Lan- gongzi, how could you think I would break a rule like that?”
Lan Xichen struggled briefly to maintain his serious facade, then broke into giggles. Mingjue let himself laugh along. After a couple minutes, Lan Xichen managed to reign himself in enough to say “You won’t get in trouble.”
Mingjue bowed deeply from his seated position, and said, dramatically, “Ah, Lan- gongzi , this one is deeply in your debt,” prompting a fresh wave of laughter from Lan Xichen. Lan Zhan continued to stare.
“Call me Lan Xichen,” said the boy once he’d calmed down. He leaned forward eagerly, saying it, but almost immediately drew back, blushing like he was afraid he’d overstepped.
Ridiculous. “You’ll call me Nie Mingjue, then,” said Mingjue in return, “or just Mingjue, even. We’re friends now, right?”
To his surprise, this seemed to fluster Lan Xichen further. “Mingjue,” he said, quietly. Then he beamed. “Friends. I like that. My only friend before was Zhan-er.” He nudged his brother gently. “Hear that, Zhan-er? We have another friend!” He looked at Mingjue, briefly anxious. “Both of us, right?”
Lan Zhan stared. “Of course,” Mingjue said, easily. Huaisang was his friend, after all, even though he was only turning eight. “Whatever you’re comfortable with,” he told Lan Zhan seriously, “You can call me Nie- gongzi , or Nie- xiong , or ‘hey you’, I don’t care. We’re friends.”
“Mn,” said Lan Zhan, gripping his brother’s robe in one hand. He was cute. Not as cute as Huaisang, Mingjue thought loyally, but cute.
“You should play that music again,” said Mingjue, lying back in the moss and closing his eyes. “I don’t know what happened last time, but it sounded great. I’m sure you’ll get it this time.”
“He just needs to pace himself,” Lan Xichen said, “but we shouldn’t practice with spiritual energy again today, just in case.”
“Mn,” hummed Lan Zhan.
“Come on, try just the notes again. I know it’s basically perfect already, but it doesn’t hurt to practice,” Lan Xichen encourages.
Mingjue smiles to himself and relaxes and listens.
“ Hanguang-jun was cute?” demands Lan Jingyi. The boy beside him— Sizhui, Wangji’s boy— pulls at his robe and shushes him, but Mingjue just laughs again.
“Very,” he answers. Wangji would almost certainly consider this a betrayal, but he’s not here. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. “I have stories about your Hanguang-jun , believe me. But you were asking about me.”
Mingjue hadn’t been in love with Xichen then, as Xichen led him, narrowly, through classes and Mingjue led him through breaking little rules to paddle in mountain streams and through being friendly instead of just polite.
He hadn’t been in love the year after that, when his father died and the Lan delegation came to his funeral, and Lan Xichen, solemn and gentle, waited for him outside the ancestral hall and sat with him in the gardens for hours, when they sat in the rain until it was impossible to distinguish his tears from the raindrops and Xichen’s still-small body shook with cold at his side.
He hadn’t been in love, even, when fifteen-year-old Xichen visited Qinghe and threw himself into Mingjue’s arms as soon as nobody was watching to stop him, when they’d spent three weeks roaming Qinghe together every moment Mingjue had to spare, when he’d given Xichen his first drink in the safety of his own rooms and suffered through the subsequent drunken shenanigans.
He hadn’t been in love for the years they had communicated mostly through letters, busy and getting busier as the cultivation world fell into upheaval.
And then Lan Xichen disappeared.
He had been afraid for Xichen every day he was missing, a little knot of anxiety that lived next to his fear for Huaisang, sent away first for indoctrination and then for safety as they went to war. He had thought of it as kin to that concern for Huaisang, as stemming from worry for his young friend, no matter how competent he knew the younger man to be.
Then Xichen came back, showed up in his camp one day out of the blue, walked right into his tent as he conferred with his cousins, and his heart stopped.
He ushered everyone else out, sending them to find a healer, to send word to Lan Wangji and to Lan Qiren, to bring food, and just as when they were young the moment they were alone Xichen fell into his arms. Mingjue lifted him, careful, and set him on his bed, but Xichen wouldn’t let him go.
“Mingjue- xiong ,” he whispered. “I’m not hurt, just—”
“Shh,” Mingjue murmured, untangling Xichen’s fingers from his robes, “let me get you some water.”
“Just tired,” Xichen persisted stubbornly. “I’m not hurt,” he said, louder.
Mingjue couldn’t just take his word for it, but he could wait for the healer. He sat next to Xichen, who wouldn’t stay lying down, and handed him a cup of water. While the other man drank, he looked him over.
He really did look fine— just dusty, and dressed like a peasant. In the three years since they’d actually seen each other in person Xichen had mostly grown. He’d grown into his height, shoulders broadened and chest filled out. His face was sharper; he was losing his baby fat. And he was smiling, the same familiar smile that Mingjue knew and yet softer and brighter somehow.
Mingjue had missed him with a desperation he hadn’t known he was feeling until it went away, and even now, sitting just inches from him, he missed the weight of Xichen in his arms, like if he wasn’t holding on he couldn’t be sure Xichen was there.
“Mingjue- xiong ,” Xichen breathed again, “I’m sorry,”
“No,” Mingjue cut him off, “You have nothing to be sorry for. You’re alive. Xichen,” and then he couldn’t help it, just looking at Xichen made his palms itch. He reached out to sweep a strand of hair behind Xichen’s ear, cupped his cheek, and Xichen turned his face into the hand and closed his eyes. “Xichen,” whispered Mingjue again, and before he could think twice about it he leaned forward and kissed him, gentle and quick.
“Oh,” sighed Xichen, when they drew back.
Mingjue’s heart ached. “Oh?” he asked.
“Hello,” said Xichen, opening his eyes and smiling at him.
“Hello,” echoed Mingjue. “I’ve missed you,” he offered after a moment, when nothing else seemed forthcoming.
“Oh,” said Xichen, reaching for him again, picking up his hand and pressing it back against his cheek, “I’ve missed you, too.”
“That’s so romantic,” sighs one of the boys— Ouyang, Mingjue thinks. He doesn’t know Lan Jingyi’s friends as well as he should, considering how much time Xichen spent looking after his much younger cousin.
“Is it?” he says.
“Yes,” the Ouyang boy says definitively, and Lan Sizhui nods firmly next to him.
“Don’t mind him,” Lan Jingyi says, “he’s always thinking about what’s romantic.”
“You’re the one who asked for the story!” argues the Jin boy, reaching over to shove his friend. Lan Jingyi shoves him back with a wordless noise of protest, and Mingjue steps in before the situation can devolve.
“Alright,” he says, one hand on each of their shoulders, “Settle down. Come on, you’re here to learn, aren’t you? Xichen said he was bringing you here to learn something new, so up you get. Grab one of those practice sabres and start the drill you learned yesterday.” He pulls them to their feet and gives them each a little push in the direction of the practice grounds. The other two follow.
“It is romantic,” says a soft voice behind him. He turns to see Xichen, a few jugs of water hanging from his hands, smiling at him.
He chuckles. “Is it? I always thought it was a rather unromantic story, kissing you for the first time all dirty in a war camp. Not even on the battlefield proper.”
Xichen sets his water down and looks over with a mischievous grin. “You can make it up to me,” he offers.
“Yeah?” Mingjue grins back, “how?”
“You can kiss me on the training grounds after a fight,” Xichen says, and his sheathed sword swings out lightning-fast and knocks against Mingjue’s shins before Xichen sweeps back onto the training ground proper, “but only if you win.”
Mingjue draws Baxia and follows, laughing.