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Stars, Hide Your Fires

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To the Esteemed Clan Leader Jin,

It shames me to be so bold as to even write your name upon this parchment. You, Clan Leader Jin, are so far above my own station, that to address you in any way outside of instruction, I know, is beyond inappropriate. And yet, what motivates me to pen this letter to you, Esteemed Clan Leader, is enough to risk my own life.

Not six months ago, I met Clan Leader Jin in Lanling City. You were clear in what you sought from me and I offered it. Now, I am with child.

They say that women can often tell whether they bear a boy or a girl; there is some preternatural instinct that tells us. And so it is with certainty that I can tell you that I am six months pregnant with your son.

The life of a whore’s son is not fit for an heir of Clan Leader Jin. Blessed with his father’s blood running through his veins, to have that blood muddied by the back streets of Lanling would be a sin. Indeed, it would be wicked of me to allow a son of Jin to be sullied in such a way. And so it is my loyalty to the gentry, and a mother’s love, which urges me to write this plea.

Please, Clan Leader Jin: save your unborn child from a shameful life in a whorehouse. Remove him from my sins and you may have an heir.

At your word, I will deliver my back to be whipped and my neck to be tied by a noose. However, I could not go on with my life without trying to save my son’s.

Your humble servant,
Meng Shi

 

*

 

To be delivered to Madam Li’s brothel.

The boy may be of some use to me.

On the day of his tenth birthday, bring him to Koi Tower. An attendant will be waiting for you at the servants’ entrance.

 

*

 

Meng Yao,

It is said that you are my son. Considering your mother’s occupation, it could be reasoned that you are some other man’s. I will not know for sure until I see you. Until this time, you will learn to be useful to this family.

You are to stay in your quarters and speak only with Zhao Long, who will deliver your meals and make you his apprentice.

No one else will know of your existence, and it must stay this way until I tell you otherwise.

You will find a passageway behind the second panel to the left of the west-facing wall. This will be your way about the palace unseen. You will use it only when Zhao Long directs you to.

Follow your lessons to the letter, and you will be brought into the main palace as one of my sons.

 

*

 

In two weeks, you will turn thirteen. I will visit you then.

 

*

 

Meng Yao,

Zhao Long tells me that you are a fast learner and that you follow his instruction closely. Truly, you are a son of Jin. I knew this already, having now seen your face; it is a reflection of my own young self.

In three more years, you will bear that name in public, and with a title to match.

 

*

 

Meng Yao,

Your discretion is impressive.

Today you turn fourteen. Enclosed is a dagger. It is one of the Jin family treasures, and I entrust it to you.

I know that you will learn to use it well.

 

000

 

To Grandmaster Lan,

I write this letter to you in the hope that it finds you in good tidings. Winter has loosened its grip over Lanling and spring is now breathing life back into our district. I trust that Gusu is doing well.

Just last week I rode to Yunmeng and visited Lotus Pier. Jiang Fengmian informed me that he had met with you recently to discuss your position on the latest stirrings in Qinghe. He is a trusted friend and so I consider any ally of his one whom I should also trust. I therefore turn to you, Lan Qiren, to ask whether you should like for all three of us -- or perhaps four, including Unclean Realm -- to convene and share our thoughts. Wen Ruohan surely grows too bold, and his rebellious energy is already beginning to knock against Lanling’s walls. It seems clear to me that a united front is a wise route to consider.

Your famous intellect and strict moral code would provide great guidance for the other three clans during this time. Indeed, it seems quite due that a bond between Jin and Lan be formed. My grandfather was once very close with your own, I believe. Their trust now rests in our hands, ready to be revived -- do you not think?

If you are happy to join, I will host at Koi Tower, where you will be wanting of nothing.

In earnest to hear from you,
Jin Guangshan

 

*

 

To the Esteemed Clan Leader Jin,

Thank you for hosting me last week at Koi Tower. I trust that Lanling has continued to flourish in good health after our session with the Jiang and Nie. You yourself said that you felt you learned a lot from your ally clans that day, and I confess that I have been elucidated. The situation is more dire than I was led to believe.

Wen Ruohan’s rebel forces will not be suppressed by the Unclean Realm for much longer. If I am correct in interpreting your smiles and your tacit agreements that day, you agree with Clan Leader Jiang that the ally clans should assist. However, I must make my stance clear -- I am writing a similar letter to both the Nie and the Jiang -- I do not agree that we should rush to push back Wen Ruohan’s forces. We already have fought at the Uncleam Realm’s borders, with great success. To invade Wen territory without provocation will only cause trouble. A hornets’ nest is best left alone; to fight it before it has broken open will only anger it.

I urge you, Clan Leader Jin, not to give into impulse as I am afraid that my Jiang Fengmian may.

Until we meet again, please consider my words.

Lan Qiren

 

*

 

To Grandmaster Lan,

Your letter did make me laugh so!

I will adhere to your advice keenly. To act on impulse during such a critical time would be misguided indeed. If I showed my assent with smiles and nods during our meeting, it is because I know my friend at Lotus Pier will always commit to doing what he is told not to. It is therefore simpler to agree.

Have you had the chance to consider my offer in any depth?

Your trusted ally,
Jin Guangshan

 

*

 

Clan Leader Jin,

To read this is some relief. However, I urge you to hold tightly onto the advice that I gave you and our allied clans that day.

Yes, your offer has been on my mind of late.

Clan Leader Lan is a fine leader and already well respected within Gusu. However, he has taken on his responsibilities at a far younger age that I would have planned for him to do so; were it not for my deteriorating health, I would not have laid this role on him when he is still so inexperienced.

I have raised Zewu-Jun to be kind, uncompromising, diligent, unerring. He is mature for his age. Next summer he will be nineteen, and I fear his responsibilities will only increase as I grow older, too. It is therefore not unreasonable to consider an offer of alliance with another clan. That, and for Zewu-Jun to have a confidante who may offer their own advice and support him in his duties could benefit both our clans greatly. Hanguang-Jun is not yet ready to share in his brother’s responsibilities. He still behaves like a child.

It is also as you say: it has been several generations since there was a strong bond between Jin and Lan. In the past, we have made our differences clear. Perhaps, now, it is time to see what bridge we can build between our clans, as disparate as they may seem.

Regards,
Lan Qiren

 

*

 

To Grandmaster Lan,

Come, now, we are friends. You needn’t address me with such strained formality. You will offend me if you are much more polite!

How funny. It is no secret that the Jin and Lan are as opposite as night and day. However it is as you say, a bridge could be made with this betrothal.

Jin Guangyao is a dutiful boy. He is respectful and his intellect is unparalleled: surely an excellent specimen in a market of possible advisers, let alone suitors. His handsome features have become quite famous within Lanling. They could be said to rival even your nephew’s, which even the people in Qinghe seem to know about! Zewu-Jun, I am sure, will be quite relieved to have the hunt for a suitor brought a close. Compared to any other matches, Jin Guangyao will be exquisite, I am sure.

Jin Guangyao is also eighteen, fast nineteen. If you are amenable, it would be sensible to set the betrothal date soon, before this war becomes too troublesome.

I must also extend my congratulations to you and Hanguang-Jun for his recent marriage to Wei Wuxian of Lotus Pier.

Your trusted ally,
Jin Guangshan

 

*

 

To Clan Leader Jin,

I trust you are well. I have thought over your proposition carefully.

I confess, I had thought the betrothal would be between Zewu-Jun and your younger son, Jin Zixuan. Jin Guangyao sounds like a fine man, however I had heard of his existence for the first time only two years ago.

My concern was quickly assuaged by the news of Jin Guangyao’s eloquence at your recent night hunt with the Nie. In the midst of the hot-headed youths present, it is said that he was fair, firm, and the young Chifeng-Zun rang his praises to Zewu-Jun in a recent letter. His eloquence and sobriety, his diplomacy in particular, have been asserted by our friend in Lotus Pier. Hearing proof of these accolades, I therefore consent to the arrangement of this betrothal.

Zewu-Jun and Lianfang-Zun may, at your approval, be wed by this winter.

Warm regards,
Lan Qiren

 

000

 

Dear Lianfang-Zun,

It is perhaps not the practised tradition to reach out to a betrothed before meeting them. However, I thought that, given the current circumstances -- and the fact that it has almost been a year since our engagement was arranged -- I might write this letter to you. I hope that it finds you in good health, and I apologise if my attempt to contact you before formal introduction is too forward.

It is my guess that Clan Leader Jin has informed you that Grandmaster Lan and I will not be able to make our visit to Lanling as planned this autumn. It has come as a great disappointment to us both. I have been told by my dear friend, Chifeng-Zun, of your honourable outlook on life and unparalleled discernment; if this is true, then I hope that you will understand that we cannot leave Gusu at this time. For now, our forces have managed to push back Wen Ruohan’s armies as far as Hefei. And yet it is troubling that the Wen’s attempts to stretch out their empire have reached this far at all, having managed to slip between the Lanling and Yunmeng borders.

We are constantly being updated by Clan Leader Jin as to the status of your district. If there is anything that Gusu can do to be of some support, please keep me informed. It is a testament to the tactical strength of the Jin that your defence remains so strong.

Although the threat of invasion looms over us all, I also look forward to what lies ahead. Rumours of your benevolence, your eloquence, and general excellence have spread throughout Gusu. I hope that our alliance may provide a source of hope for the people of Lanling and Gusu.

Enclosed is a drawing of the local landscape at Cloud Recesses. Whilst I do not boast my drawing skills, it seems improper to acknowledge our betrothal without a gift. Rest assured, when we meet in person, you will receive a gift that is more representative of my commitment to our arrangement.

With kind regards,
Zewu-Jun

 

*

 

Dear Zewu-Jun,

I write this having just returned from a war meeting with my father, brother, and cousin. The day has been long and to receive this letter was a pleasant surprise. Indeed, the rumours of your kind and thoughtful nature proceeds you, Zewu-Jun.

As I have just finished this first paragraph to you, the ink had barely dried when my father discovered me writing this letter and asked me with whom I was corresponding. When I told him that you sent me this letter, he was delighted by your initiative -- and so, no apology is required, Clan Leader Lan.

The drawing is beautiful -- you are far too modest in your skills. I look forward to visiting Cloud Recesses one day soon, if it is as beautiful as your depiction. In reciprocation, I have enclosed a poem of my own composition. My attempts at a similar sketch were poor, and I found that I could not embarrass myself by sending you any of my drafts. I hope that this poem might please you instead.

What you say is true: you and I will soon be in close alliance, our betrothal symbolic of this. It is for that reason that it feels such a betrayal that I cannot share Lanling’s plans with you in this letter. Having spent several hours discussing strategies with my father and our district general, would that I could share my knowledge with you. And yet letters cannot be trusted to keep their information secret. One day soon, it is my hope that we will meet in person, and Gusu and Lanling will be able to make these plans together.

The expansion of Wen forces to the Gusu borders is indeed troubling. Lanling, as you say, has held its position at the north, although it will be no news to you that Yunmeng suffers. Lanling has long had strong ally-ship with Yunmeng and therefore is doing what it can to supply forces and rout out any invaders. Wen Ruohan’s soldiers slip between cracks and borders and forests like woodlice. Naturally, Lanling will do all it can to redirect its forces to Gusu, also, if required; I trust that either you or Grandmaster Lan will inform us if you need assistance of this type.

Have you heard word from Chifeng-Zun in The Unclean Realm?

How long will this war stretch on for, I wonder? To live in the palace and look out beyond the walls, one could forget there was one going on at all. We gentry live a most fortunate life. And yet to live within the safety of these walls every day without picking up a sword -- my own inactivity makes me restless.

Once again, I must say that it has been a pleasure hearing from you.

With similarly kind regards,
Lianfang-Zun

 

*

 

Dear Lianfang-Zun,

I must start by saying that you live up to and go even beyond your reputation. The poem which you say you have composed is not only articulate, as I have heard that you are from friends and allies, but it is also deeply moving. Thank you. I hope that you will continue to write, for you have such a way with words.

To now address the points of your letter chronologically: it is a relief that you were not offended by my letter introducing myself, although I believe you would be too gracious to say otherwise. It is also a relief to know that your father viewed my reaching out to you as an act of initiative rather than impudence.

I confess that when I told my uncle that I wrote to you, he was afraid that I had given off a poor impression. One of our three thousand five hundred rules warns Lan Clan members to ‘not accept compromise when patience is also an option’. On this occasion, I used my own discretion to determine that whilst patience would indeed be an option -- waiting until we meet personally to speak with you -- it seemed unkind to not contact you when the future is so unclear at present. And, kindness to others is one of the most important teachings of the Lan.

Lianfang-Zun, you are far too generous of my drawing abilities. My brother and I were taught quite strictly from a very young age. I have been informed by my old teacher that whilst I show attention to detail, I express very little feeling in my artwork. I admit that I agree with him. This is partially why I am determined to find a more suitable betrothal gift for you when we meet in person.

Your consideration and integrity are as true as they say. Lianfang-Zun, in no way do you betray our alliance or the symbolism of our betrothal by not sharing confidential information in letters. You are right when you say that we cannot share any real details in our correspondence. Whilst I trust my messenger as much as I am sure you trust yours, one can never be certain what might happen on those dangerous roads between Koi Tower and Cloud Recesses.

Just last week, one of our disciples was ambushed by Wen soldiers. We quickly rescued him, but only after he was tortured for information. He gave nothing away, and we are indebted to him. I worry for the welfare of our people; it is dangerous for even those who have little to no involvement. Caiyi has become tense and crime is on the rise, with local funds being redirected to weaponry and masonry rather than fair wages. Cloud Recesses have tried to help with what funding we have, but I fear that morale is fragile in our district.

Thank you for your offer of reinforcement. Currently, we are holding strong enough. I believe your assessment is correct, that the Nie and Jiang clans are more needy than us at this moment in time. I would like to reiterate my initial offer, now, in the event that Lanling has need of Gusu’s help in the future. As your future partner, I will do whatever I can to support both of our districts.

I have not heard from Chifeng-Zun. I hope that I will soon.

What you say about inactivity, about futility and restlessness-- I feel much the same. As a Clan Leader, I must stay and organise our resources from home. I am rarely allowed to fight, as my brother is. And as your father’s closest advisor, you must stay at his side and figure out strategy. However, I take little pleasure in it. To wake up in the morning and watch the morning mists settle over Gusu, as if only a few cities away, there is not a war waging in which my own people are dying: it cuts, deeply.

I hope that you will find some peace in the coming weeks.

With warm regards,
Zewu-Jun

 

*

 

Dear Zewu-Jun,

I write this now from my chambers having returned from another war meeting. Tensions are rising in Lanling. Unfortunately, that is all I can say.

Your words surrounding my poetry and my alleged articulacy are flattering indeed. It is my instinct to say that such a compliment is undeserved, and yet I do not wish to offend by suggesting that I could be questioning Zewu-Jun’s judgement.

You said that you would address each subject of my letter chronologically, and indeed you did. It made me smile to read, for I have heard that the Lan are methodical in all that they do. It is not always so in Lanling. I am often subjected to friendly teasing by my cousin for the way that I succinctly set out and summarise my views even during informal events, as if I am presenting an argument in court. Do we perhaps share this habit?

And yet, there is also a mischief in the tone of your letters that I find surprising -- pleasantly, I hasten to add, Zewu-Jun. To go against your uncle’s wishes, even as a clan leader, is quite frowned upon within the Lan, is it not? And to be so disparaging of your artistic skills -- do you really feel that you warrant such self-deprecation?

Rereading this, I have thought about redacting my words. I hope I am not too impudent. I do regret the tone of my words a little. I confess that in simply writing to you, a Clan Leader, I feel that I am already speaking a little out of turn. To be engaged to you I think makes me the luckiest man in the world.

I thank you for your reassurances regarding the contents of our letters. Today, in particular, I wished I could have shared our plans with my future allied partner. And yet I feel that I must fill these pages with news that you already know, such as the tighter border security that has left the peripheral towns in Lanling very tense.

I would like to ride out there some time soon. It is my intention to ascertain the situation for myself, as it is impossible to do so from behind these walls. If there is anything that we can supply from Lanling City that we are not aware of, I would be made aware by a short visit to these liminal towns, I am certain. And yet there is a ubiquitous reluctance to leave Koi Tower, one that that I share, despite my conflict.

It is for this reason that I wonder whether our wedding will be able to go on as planned this winter. Our meeting last week was postponed, and so far we have not been able to rearrange to a suitable date. Would it perhaps be more sensible to have a wedding at a later date, rather than in the midst of war -- particularly when money is short? Clan Leader Jin and Grandmaster Lan are generously arranging this on our behalf, and I would never attempt to go against their wishes, however I am keen to know your thoughts.

To watch the mist rolling over the Gusu mountains indeed sounds peaceful, but only if your heart is not elsewhere, as you say that yours is. To know that our people are dying far away makes even the sweetest peony smell bitter.

As you wished me peace, I hope you will find your own.

Warm regards, your betrothed,
Lianfang-Zun

 

*

 

Dear Lianfang-Zun,

It is admirable that you are working so hard to protect your country, engaging in regular meetings. However, your anxiety is clear in your letters. I am glad that my words may ease your worries. Is there anything I can do to further this, Lianfang-Zun? During my most troubling ruminations, I find that a walk through the mountains with its fresh air helps wash many things away. Perspective is very difficult to attain these days, however -- especially, as you say, when we are expected to remain in our homes.

Do you play any instrument? I can recommend music as a source of consolation during times of anxiety. To play music has a particular way of diverting the attention whilst also helping to organise ones thoughts and see things clearly. When we meet, if you would be amenable, I could play you a piece of meditative music from the Lan Clan archives.

It occurs to me as I write that many of these suggestions may seem trivial, and I am sure that you have tried them already. I apologise if any of this has been condescending: I simply hope that you are not making yourself ill with worry.

I can assure you that my compliments surrounding your poetry were not intended to be flattery, but truths. However, your modesty is admirable.

As you find it pleasing -- and perhaps a little amusing -- I will continue to respond to your letters chronologically. It is indeed a Lan Clan habit of mine. I like things to be organised, thought-out, and concise. Often, I find that my thoughts are the opposite. And so, it is perhaps the case that I compensate by writing and speaking with as much clarity as possible. Politeness, stoicism, and articulacy are some of the most highly valued and strictly taught traits within the Lan Clan. You also display all of these traits in your letters alone.

I therefore cannot allow you to degrade yourself in such a way, Lianfang-Zun -- we are equals. Though I am indeed a clan leader, you are also a member of the gentry and our match is both logical and beneficial for our peoples. You are no more lucky in our betrothal than I am. The formalities in your letters are not necessary. I feel that it is important that you feel comfortable enough to challenge me and speak with ease. I hope that you will continue to do so, as I have glimpsed in your recent letter.

Reading that you would like to ride out to the areas of conflict in your district both distresses and pleases me. For, whilst I am anxious that you might become inextricably tangled in the affairs there, it also tells me that you are a man who prefers to take matters into his own hands rather than let others handle it for him. It is an honourable trait. However, if there is a reluctance from your Esteemed father about any of you leaving the safety of your home, then he is valid to feel this way.

I sense that I am labouring the point, but, Lianfang-Zun: if you do make plans to head out, I hope that you do so in safety and without impulse. Instinct -- and here-say -- both tell me that you are not the type to do anything without forethought. Please be careful.

It is true what you say -- that, unfortunately, there is little that we can discuss within the realm of politics in these letters that either cannot be used against us or that we do not each already know. And so, I am tempted to initiate in some more frivolous conversation (though I imagine my uncle would be horrified by such extraneous subjects. These letters are already far longer and less concise than I have been so diligently taught to write). I do not want you to feel that all you are allowed to talk about with me are matters of state.

I have been considering, recently, how much of a shame it is that I have not been to Lanling since I was a young boy. It was over a decade ago, to celebrate the birth of your cousin. Hanguang-Jun was still too young to join my uncle and me. I therefore remember little except for how much warmer it was, though this may just be the fallacy of a child’s memory. Since Lanling sits further north, I cannot believe that it would have been warmer than Gusu at all. Aside from that, I remember the fragrance of flowers. They say smell is one of the most memory evoking senses. I wonder what I will recall when I eventually return to Lanling.

Naturally, I have not forgotten the final statement in your letter, and I shall keep to my promise of chronology. As for your concerns surrounding our wedding: I understand and I agree. However, it is my opinion that we should not question our elders’ arrangements for us. Even if, perhaps, it seems right to postpone.

We shall have to see where fate takes us.

Warmest regards,
Zewu-Jun

 

*

 

Dear Lianfang-Zun,

I have heard word from our general at the Gusu borders that Lanling soldiers came to assist at the battle at Hefei. He said that it was your word that send reinforcements to us.

I cannot thank you enough.

The Lan Clan will always be available to reciprocate whenever you need us.

Warmest regards,
Zewu-Jun

 

*

 

Dear Zewu-Jun,

Since you value clarity and method as much as I do, I will aim to structure my letters chronologically also. You are right that it does amuse me a little, and I hope you can forgive me for this.

Your suggestions to aid in my relaxation of the mind are both generous and thoughtful. In no way did I view them as condescending. There are few that notice when I am stressed, as I work hard to keep these things hidden from However I can assure you that my health is quite sound and that I am well. I appreciate your concern enormously, Zewu-Jun.

I would be very happy to listen to you play the guqin when we eventually meet. For you to treat this offer as trivial is less than you deserve. It means a great deal, and I should be delighted to witness your famous musical skills. To answer your question, I’m afraid that I do not play an instrument. I have had a few lessons on the guqin, though my brother and cousin are far superior. My skills tend to lie in rhetoric and writing, something which I value during meetings and resent once I have left them; to be able to hone a creative skill, I feel, would make me a little more distinguished.

And so, despite your kind reassurances, I confess that I do not feel worthy of our arrangement, Zewu-Jun. You are good and true and talented in almost every respect. Just as you say that you compensate your complex thoughts by speaking concisely, I feel that I am compelled to make up in what I lack with politeness and intellect. Formalities have become somewhat of a support for me, and it is a struggle to remove that scaffold when what we are building, I feel, is so important. However, you are right when you suggest that our alliance can only grow stronger if we both share more with one another than discussions of politics.

Perhaps, then, it is sensible for me to address the obvious. I would rather that I laid it out for you myself than you heard from gossip and whisperings.

You will have discovered, I am certain, that I was only reinstated as Clan Leader Jin’s son just over three years ago. I am also certain that a man of your generosity would have ignored the rumours that went around about me. I’m afraid that they are true: I was illegitimate until my sixteenth birthday. My mother worked in a brothel in Yunping until she recently passed away.

I did not have the pleasure of learning the skills that a Young Master is expected to know until I was much older. This is one reason why I do not play a musical instrument, and it is also the reason I speak with as many pretty words as I can. It is my only accolade, having been raised without a gentry education. My politeness is both a strength and a weakness; it is a fine tool in diplomatic situations, and yet I know that I also hide behind it when I am vulnerable.

If we are to be married, I must learn to let down this guard with you. I will therefore endeavour to do so, since it is what you deserve. Given our differences in position, I will do everything that I can to make myself a worthy partner. I do not want to give you or Grandmaster Lan any further reason to be reluctant to form this engagement.

I will admit that it made me smile, how you requested that I let go of formalities -- and yet your letter is so formal, too. Are you aware of this?

You are right that my father has explicitly stated that I do not leave the palace. I therefore will not go to the bordering towns, as I take my duties seriously and would never desire to disobey him. He has shown me great kindness in the years that he discovered me as his son, and to betray him would be a dishonour of the highest order. I had not understood the meaning of filial piety until I found my father. Now that I do, I consider it a gift.

Truly, my restlessness is less that I am a keen fighter and more that I do not like to have situations spiral out of my control. You phrased it as ‘a man who prefers to take matters into his own hands rather than let others handle it for him’. This is a very generous way of putting it -- my younger cousin would call me a meddler.

It also made me smile that you noted the length of your letters. The Lan Clan are quite famous, are they not, for their concise speech and economy of words? And yet I confess that I enjoy reading your letters, all the more for their length.

Your memories of Lanling are not inaccurate. I was raised in Yunmeng, where it is milder further inland. Lanling, meanwhile, is humid and becomes extremely hot in the summers. The heat comes in swathes and settles over the city like layers of thick silk. Flowers blossom and make the air sweet, and there is a breeze that comes from the river that removes anything suffocating about it. The sky turns a lapis blue here, such as I have never seen in Yunmeng; when you turn your head to view it in spring, the cherry blossoms look like they could have been painted against an azure canvas. It holds a very surreal beauty.

Gusu, I have heard, is protected by its sea breezes and mountain mists. However, I have never visited Gusu myself. I very much look forward to it. One of my disciples says that she has been several times as a child and used to find the change in climate quite striking. The air is clearer and cooler there, whilst Lanling is all heat and fragrance. Many visitors find it overwhelming, and I confess that there was some shock to the system when I came to live here for the first time.

Caiyi, I have heard, is charming. Are its loquats as delicious as they say? Cloud Recesses sounds spectacular. To have a palace in the mountains must feel like living in the home of gods.

You mentioned Hanguang-Jun having never visited Lanling. I hope that when you and Grandmaster Lan do visit, you might bring your brother and his husband with him. How do the young couple fare? I have heard of Wei Wuxian’s spirited nature and impressive intellect. I imagine that they challenge and compliment each other in marriage.

I agree with you that we must honour our elders’ wishes regarding our upcoming nuptials. Clan Leader Jin is keen for it to continue as planned; it may symbolise a beacon of hope for our two districts, to see two young leaders form an alliance in the face of war. What is Grandmaster Lan’s position?

And in regards to your supplementary letter: you are welcome, and there is never need for thanks. We are allies. I am happy to assist, betrothed.

Warmest regards, also,
Lianfang-Zun

 

*

 

Dear Lianfang-Zun,

I am happy that my letters please you. There is nothing to forgive. And I am even more pleased that you are well. These times are troubling, and we must take care of our minds and hearts. My daily meditations have become more and more essential as this war rages on. Peace of mind has become increasingly difficult to attain.

Yesterday, I was searching for a particular manuscript in our musical archives, and I discovered a new piece which I have never heard before. Whilst the date of our meeting is still uncertain, I have begun practising it. Perhaps, if you would like to hear it, I might play it for you when you visit Cloud Recesses? Similarly, I could even teach you to play it, if you would like to learn.

It was hard to write this letter with the chronological format which so amuses you. Having read your own opinion of yourself and ‘our differences in position’, I was tempted to begin this letter by begging you to be kinder to yourself. Now that we are at the allotted point in this letter to address the matter: my uncle had attempted to find a suitable partner for me for almost a year, until he found that the only person appropriate for that position was you. I cannot stress this enough: you and I are equals.

This alone may not be enough to assuage your concerns, so I hope you will allow me to continue. You are quite wise in your metaphor: we are ‘building’ an alliance. And you are astute to have noticed that I too use politeness as a scaffold. Making close acquaintances is not a simple task for me, as it is for my brother-in-law or even my friend, Chifeng-Zun. I abhor tension, and the more open one is the more difficult it is to avoid that sort of vulnerability. And so I also dress myself in formality to avoid it. However, I feel that you and I have been more honest in these letters than I could have predicted, and for us to admit these things to each other (and ourselves) can only be a positive thing. What we are building can only be made stronger by that.

Your wisdom continues to strike me, Lianfang-Zun. You describe politeness as both a strength and a weakness, and I must agree that it is a sharp blade with which to cut, but which can also cut ones’ own hand if poorly used. I have found that the kindness that people say of me is quite similar. To be kind to those who do not deserve it can be a cruelty to those whom they have hurt, and to oneself. I have found myself inadvertently undermining my own strength by using formality instead of confidence.

And so, I hope that we may both feel more confident as we continue our correspondence. Lianfang-Zun, your honesty is appreciated and admirable. Nothing that you have told me makes me any less honoured to share in this alliance with you. (I truly hope that I have not made you self-conscious with my talk of playing musical instruments, having admitted why you have not learned to play. If so, I deeply and sincerely apologise.) In no way am I reluctant in our engagement, nor do I believe that this is the case with my uncle.

Therefore, I will attempt to release my own formalities, too.

However, please do not take this as an order for you to open up to me, Lianfang-Zun: we may be marrying one another soon, however, I would never force someone to make themselves feel vulnerable. Share with me what you would like to in your own time. I will do the same.

Yes, I am aware that I write very formally. And you are right to tease me about it.

What you say about filial piety is interesting. I have always been dedicated to my uncle, since I knew my father little as a child. I did not know my mother well, since she died when my brother and I were still quite young. However, I would venture to say that this dedication towards Grandmaster Lan is as close to filial piety as I will ever know. He has always returned his dedication through his teachings; if my brother and I are as moral and good as they say we are, then it is only because of my uncle. He is strict and fair.

If you are a meddler, as your cousin puts it, then that is just as well. My fear of confrontation makes intervention difficult for me, unless there is no clear alternative. I believe that you and I will work well together.

And so you continue to tease me for the inappropriate length of my letters. Do you not think that it is better this way, Lianfang-Zun? There are not many people who are able to tease me like this. My brother would not dare and my uncle is too stern. Anyone else would be afraid to speak to Clan Leader Lan in such a way -- except for Chifeng-Zun, who relentlessly mocks me. You have mentioned that I am surprisingly mischievous in my letters, and I confess that it surprises me also, but perhaps this is why. Perhaps I am looking for an equal with which to share this alliance, who might witness these aspects of my personality that no one else can.

I loved reading your poetry about Lanling. You describe the landscape in a way that makes me yearn for a place I have never visited. You describe the heat as overwhelming and yet also quite magical. I wish that I could describe Cloud Recesses with the same lyricism as you. I am looking at the view as I write, and I will attempt to replicate it through words. Currently, it is autumn, and so the clouds are quite low, and it turns the mountains into little floating worlds. Having rained last night, the forests are dark green and the sky has not quite cleared yet. I have lived here all my life, and yet the magic of this place has never left my consciousness; these mountains have a meditative stillness to them that have always felt somewhat divine to me.

There, I am clearly not a poet like you. Perhaps when you visit, you will be able to tell me what you think of Gusu in your own, superior language.

I consider Caiyi a charming town. Currently, as I have previously mentioned, it is struggling economically and so it has lost some of its light-heartedness. However, Wei-fujun enjoys it enormously and often ventures in to do his part in supporting the community. And so to address your penultimate paragraph about my brother and Wei Wuxian-- I extended your invitation to them, and they would both be pleased to join. Wei Wuxian in particular showed great interest, as he is keen to have someone to share memories of Yunmeng with.

And yes, the loquats here are excellent. My brother pretends that he is not partial to them, as he believes he must be too rigorous to enjoy small treats like this. I will buy both you and Hanguang-Jun some loquats when you are able to visit. I hope that it might gently irritate him, and please you.

You are right when you say that they challenge and compliment each other. Truly, I could never have imagined a more surprising and yet more perfect match for my brother. Hanguang-Jun is the epitome of Lan values, and Wei Wuxian, I believe, suffered quite a culture shock when they first met at lectures last year. My younger brother’s happiness with his arrangement warms my heart.

And so, to finally address the subject of our marriage arrangements. It is very true that our alliance may offer hope to our districts. I sense that Clan Leader Jin is very keen for us to go ahead with the wedding. I am not sure of my uncle’s position. I hope that all will be clarified soon.

With warmest regards,
Zewu-Jun

 

*

 

Dear Zewu-Jun,

No matter how much I enjoy our jests about writing chronologically, I must ignore this for now in favour of something more important. The matter of our wedding: Clan Leader Jin told me today that it must be postponed until further notice, having received a letter from your uncle. I feel that I must let you know that he is quite down-heartened about it. I am sure that your uncle feels similarly.

I know that, in the past, there has been some tension between the Jin and Lan. People have often noted the contrast in our cultures: Lanling’s opulence versus Gusu’s modesty; indulgence versus restraint; emotion versus stoicism. Naturally, I believe that these comparisons are reductionist. However it cannot be denied that the differences in our clans have sometimes caused a certain type of tension. I am worried that the delays in our wedding will exacerbate them.

I would like to reiterate that if there is any hesitance on the Lan Clan’s part regarding this arrangement, I am happy to offer whatever I can to soothe Grandmaster Lan’s concerns -- should he have any. Despite my insecurities, I strongly believe that our alliance will be a strong one that will benefit both districts, and I will do what I can to put the Grandmaster’s mind at ease. I am deeply sorry if anything I have done has caused a tension between him and Clan Leader Jin.

I am also sorry to hear that your daily meditations have been more of a struggle of late. I wish that I could offer some advice, however, I find that I am struggling to relax my mind, too. The world feels as if it is about to topple into something irrevocable. My days are spent holding my breath and waiting.

It would be a pleasure to be taught the guqin by you, Zewu-Jun (and you have at no point made me self-conscious. I do not believe it is within your capabilities). It is a beautiful instrument and one that I have always admired. To be taught to play by one of the best would be quite an honour. You may have to be patient with me, however, since I have had next to no practise. Despite this, you will find that I am quick to learn. If you prefer, I would be happy to simply listen to you play. Instinct tells me that the music of Cloud Recesses will be different to that which plays in Koi Tower. Clan Leader Jin is partial to a banquet and often there is lively music and dancing in the Great Hall. I’m looking forward to hearing something that could be considered a little more meditative.

Similarly to you, I found it hard to write this chronologically -- to the point that I broke the rules of our strange little game at the start of this letter. However, I have stayed true to my word in so far as I have waited until now to address your words surrounding the suitability of our match.

Zewu-Jun, there are very few words that can express how your letter made me feel, and there are no words that can convey my full gratitude. Even having admitted what I have, you still accept this betrothal with grace and generosity. Indeed, if you heard the things that some of the people in Koi Tower whisper behind my back, you might be more ashamed to be associated with me. And yet you continue to write these letters and make assertions that we are equals. Your kindness is unerring and unparalleled.

I think you are right, that what we share now will help to create a strong foundation for our future alliance.

The way you talk about kindness is quite fascinating. I have never heard anyone speak about it in such a way. Like it is a fault -- a weakness. Selfish, even. Your self-deprecation is unwarranted, Clan Leader Lan. You are right that showing mercy to the wrong people can be a detriment to others. And yet, I have never heard word of you ever being guilty of such a thing. Similarly, I have never been told that you are afraid of confrontation or tension, at least not to a point that it is significant. Indeed, there are stories about your prowess on the battlefield, when Wen Ruohan first encroached The Unclean Realm’s borders. You fought bravely and you did so alongside your soldiers. From what I can tell, you are not a man who sits back and allows events to take a turn for the worst.

If it is true that I am unkind to myself, then you are similarly guilty of this. Are you able to show yourself the same generosity that you extend to others? (You have admitted that you like that I challenge you. Perhaps this goes too far?)

I find it very hard to believe that you do not make acquaintances easily.

… At your request, I will continue to tease you.

Grandmaster Lan lives up to his reputation, also. You are a dutiful nephew and your love for him is very clear.

Compared to the upbringing I received in Yunping, the strict moral code of the Lan Clan could not be more different. Perhaps, had I been raised within similar circumstances, I would have appreciated it. It must be a difficult life for a child to understand, however. Do you ever wonder what you would have been like if you had been raised differently? I do, regularly. I wonder what it would have been like if I had been raised within the Jin clan from birth. What friendships might I have made, what skills might I have acquired? Would I have the same personality? Would I be less afraid to drop formalities?

Truly, Zewu-Jun, you are the first person I have articulated these thoughts to. In some ways, it is easier to talk about them in a letter; there is no one watching and listening as I fumble through my musings. And yet, there is something about writing all of this down that makes these letters all the more intimate. I have not shared these ruminations aloud to anyone before. What I mean to say is this: you are not the only one pleased to find a confidante.

I would not describe any of my letters as poetry, Zewu-Jun -- once again you overestimate my abilities. And, once again, you are far too unkind about your own. You make Cloud Recesses sound exquisite. I can imagine the kinds of mountains you describe easily; with clouds hanging low, so that the tops of the trees poke through the mists. Is there not also a fabled healing spring there? It sounds quite surreal. Divine indeed.

It reminds me of a place I once visited with my mother, as a young child. She was unwell at this point already, and yet she was determined to see her life through for as long as she could. I could not quite understand at the time, but I think that she wanted to leave Yunping for the day so that we could spend time together. Now that she is gone, I realise just how important it was for us to savour those moments. She took us to a forest not far out of Yunping, on the way to Lotus Pier. The trees are tall and thick, and it makes the wood seem almost black with how dense it is. We walked and foraged for the whole day. I maintain that woodlands are some of the most serene and otherworldly places available to us humans.

‘Superior language’ -- I thought we had agreed to be less formal with one another?

I look forward to meeting Wei-fujun. It is my understanding that we both shared a very similar early childhood in Yunmeng. Perhaps he will be able to share his own thoughts on joining the gentry at a later age.

I very much look forward to the loquats.

With warmest regards,
Lianfang-Zun

I must add as a post-script that I had no idea my letter had grown so long until I began to roll it up to be sent. I am very sorry for how much you have been forced to respond to. Please feel free to abandon our rule of chronology in favour of ignoring some of my paragraphs entirely.

 

*

 

Dear Zewu-Jun,

In addition to my last letter:-

I have heard about Chifeng-Zun’s injury at the recent battle in Qinghe. You know him far better than I. Do you know how he is? I hope that you are in good health, considering, since I know that you are close friends and that this news must hurt you greatly.

I have enclosed a small tassel pendant which I saw in Lanling City yesterday. It is only a small gift, and nothing so personal or thoughtful as the drawing which you first sent me. However, the old wives tales say that malachite can offer healing properties of both body and mind, as well as wisdom. And so perhaps this little green peony can provide of some comfort, as silly as it seems now in retrospect.

You are both in my thoughts.

Warmest regards,
Lianfang-Zun

 

*

 

Dear Lianfang-Zun,

Please accept my apologies for receiving my letter later than you are probably accustomed to. The Grandmaster, my brother and I were hosting a meeting with the local minor clans discussing our upcoming steps in the war. It left me very little time to give your letter the proper response it deserves. You may have found that typically I will reply immediately so as not to delay our correspondence and cause undue concern at your end. However, this time, political affairs kept me tied. Apologies, Lianfang-Zun.

You will be pleased to hear that Chifeng-Zun fares well. I received a letter from him just before yours arrived detailing exactly what happened and the state of his health. My friend is no stranger to warfare and his battle scars are extensive. I believe he considers recently being stabbed in the stomach just another scar. He is typically belligerent in his attitude towards Wen Ruohan and lackadaisical about his brush with death. There are very few who are as honourable as him when it comes to these things.

I appreciate your thought in this matter, however. You are right that I was very worried when word arrived that he had been injured. I have known Nie Mingjue since we were boys.

Indeed, he sent me a letter recently asking more about our betrothal. I feel that I should warn you now that my friend can be somewhat protective. If he appears stern or even cold when you meet him again, it is no reflection on you. I have tried to convey that there is no need for him to assess you -- and I have given him no information about our correspondence despite his persistent questioning -- but he is quite stubborn in nature.

I must confess, Lianfang-Zun, that when you mentioned that our wedding was to be postponed, this was the first I had heard about the news. My uncle had elected not to share this decision with me, choosing to wait until a later date as he did not realise that you and I were still in direct correspondence.

It troubles me that you seem to believe that there is something on your part that has caused this delay. Please know that this is not the case. There is nothing in your actions or your character that has caused this. You have caused no reluctance. I have spoken to my uncle and it is clear that the postponement is due to all that we have already discussed -- the current political climate, the economic crash. That Clan Leader Jin is so despondent about the delay a great shame indeed. Please convey to Clan Leader Jin that the Lan Clan are keen for this alliance to go ahead as planned. Our clans are friends and I would not wish for him to think of it any other way.

I sincerely hope that this will not cause tension between our clans, as you have insinuated. I am certain that the reason for the delay is simply because of the war and nothing more. Perhaps you and I should assure our respective elders that we are still in correspondence and happy for the betrothal to go forward.

You have mentioned our cultures’ differences. I recall my uncle mentioning that banquets are one of them. I fear that when you visit Cloud Recesses, you may experience quite a culture shock as Wei Wuxian did. The Lan Clan are exclusively vegetarian and we do not drink alcohol. (This is still a subject of enormous trauma for Wei-fujun.) I hope that we are not so strict that you will not be happy when you visit. As you say, our music is also rather more solemn, though I find it keeps my mind at peace. I am eager to discover your honest thoughts on this.

I am glad that my words surrounding the worthiness of our match has made you feel somewhat better. I am sincere when I say that we are equals. To lie is a great sin within the Lan sect, even if it is simply flattery. And so, you can trust that anything I say to compliment you is only true.

I am sorry that you experience whisperings and gossip, even in Koi Tower. It shocks me that there are those bold enough to spread rumours about their Young Master. Perhaps I am simply naive, but I cannot understand the motivations behind these people’s actions. Your mother’s profession does not make you any less of a fine ruler, or any less worthy of your position. And, from the way you describe her, she sounded like a good woman. I am very sorry for your loss.

Perhaps you are right that I am not generous with myself. It is not my instinct to be so. I am not sure whether it is because it conflicts with the Lan sect’s guidelines, or whether I am innately unable to be kind to myself. Either way, I encourage you to continue to point these things out to me. You make me view myself in ways that I have never realised that I could.

I am afraid that I have misled you, Lianfang-Zun, if I have given you the impression that I am good at making friends. It is not that I’m not polite to those I meet; it is actually precisely because of this that I find it difficult to form bonds. People assume that, when I try to initiate friendship, I am simply being a benevolent and kind leader. In some respects this is true. And so, there are times when I even doubt myself. It is also the case that there are many people who are unnerved by the idea of being friends with a Clan Leader, especially since I took on my responsibilities at quite a young age. Unlike Hanguang-Jun, I did not have many contemporaries within the gentry growing up, apart from Nie Mingjue.

I am sure that if you ask him, he will share plenty of stories about how awkward I can be.

You ask if I have ever considered what life would have been like, being raised in different circumstances. My answer is: regularly.

As I sat and wrote this paragraph, it occurred to me also that as a child, I never had much opportunity to play or behave in the way that people describe children: breaking the rules was never something I felt tempted to do. You may be surprised to hear that Chifeng-Zun was quite similar. If I were to have had peers, I am not sure that they would have found me all that entertaining.

And yet, as you have said, there is a part of me that evidently enjoys writing these long letters, forgetting my teachings of writing concisely. I think that perhaps I find it easier to reveal this aspect of my personality on paper than in person. When we meet, you may find that I am somewhat more sobre than I might appear in writing, and I hope that this doesn’t disappoint you.

It was quite striking, reading your story about your walk in Yunmeng’s forests with your mother. My relationship with my mother was quite limited; Wangji does not remember much of her. And yet I was old enough that I remember some things. One of my strongest memories is how she taught me to skim pebbles at one of the rock pools at the base of the mountain. There, the waterfall pours itself into the pool silently -- the currents don’t roar like they should do. I felt, at the young age of seven, that the place was magic. She told me that it was. That is the last that I really remember of her, before she died.

And so you see, Lianfang-Zun -- we both share things with one another that we have not told anyone else.

I feel that it is only right to end this letter by saying that I have been enjoying our correspondences enormously. Lianfang-Zun, I was quite nervous about this betrothal, as I think that any person is when their marriage is arranged. Your letters put me quite at ease. I feel extraordinarily lucky to be betrothed to someone as impressive and compelling as you.

Thank you for the pendant. I will tie it to my sash.

Until we meet.

Warmest regards,

Zewu-Jun Lan Xichen

Post-script: I wouldn’t dream of ignoring anything that you say.

*

Dear Lianfang-Zun,

I had just sent my letter when I discovered the riots at Lanling’s borders. They say that you were there as a mediator, and routed out Wen spies. Is it true that you are injured?

I have enclosed a tassel pendant which I purchased in response to the one you have gifted me. It is a jade moon. It seems too small a token, given what you are suffering.

An expedient response to let me know you are safe would be appreciated.

Warmest regards,
Lan Xichen

 

*

 

Dear Lan Xichen,

How difficult it is to write your courtesy name without feeling subordinate.

Before I leave you in a state of concern for any longer -- I am well. You are right that I suffered injury, but it was only small. The Wen spies have indeed been revealed, and it was by their hand that I was stabbed. I was brought back by my disciples through rough terrain in a delirious state. I was incapacitated for two days with a fever, but it has now passed. Today, I have eaten, and I am now able to sit up and write this letter.

Your gift was the first thing to make me smile in days. Thank you.

As for the time of arrival for your letter: no apologies are needed. Of course I understand that you could not reply quickly. I hope the meetings went well?

I must confess that I too try to reply to your letters as soon as I receive them. Indeed there is very little trying involved. As soon as the letter is passed over to me, I find myself thinking of all of the things I have wanted to tell you all week; my answer crowds my mind and pours onto the page as if I am compelled to talk to you.

It is a great relief to hear about Chifeng-Zun. He is one of the very few gentry -- as well as you, of course -- who treats me with respect despite knowledge of my background. I met him only once at a night hunt, and yet he was generous and fair. To hear that you have both known each other since boyhood explains a lot; you talk about him with a certain weary affection that can only be associated with a lifelong friend. I look forward to when you may introduce me to him within the context of your friendship. It seems strange, that I have met Chifeng-Zun and not yet you.

… And to hear that he is protective further solidifies the image in my head of two sworn brothers. Do not worry, Lan Xichen. I am not easily threatened.

I am surprised to hear that I was the first person to have told you about the postponement. Given that it was your uncle who suggested it to my father first, I assumed that he must have told you himself before anyone. Indeed, this was part of the reason that I wondered if I had done something wrong -- or perhaps if Grandmaster Lan had decided that the details of my upbringing were too unsavoury after all. However, if you tell me now that the reason for the delay is not because of any real reluctance to be associated with the Jin (or me) but rather the political situation, then, of course, I believe you. I hope that my asking about it has not caused any tension.

I passed on your assurances to Clan Leader Jin, as you requested. He was very pleased to hear that the Lan are still enthusiastic about the alliance. He asserted just how honourable a clan leader you are, Lan Xichen, and how much he looks forward to meeting you. He did also say that he planned to raise a glass to you and share in a toast, at which point I explained that the Lan do not drink alcohol. I will make sure that he remembers it for when you arrive.

The quiet of Cloud Recesses indeed sounds quite different to the busy streets of Yunping, or the ubiquitous banquets of Koi Tower. It sounds far more peaceful, and I am sure that I will come to love it, even if it is not a world I am accustomed to. I think I would like to learn to relax. You may find me restless at first. Perhaps you can guide me in how to meditate effectively; I feel that I have never learned to do it well.

I am more concerned about your opinion of Lanling… our district focuses on showing its hospitality through lavish displays of welcome, via food and drink and dancing. According to old accounts of visitors from other clans (for I have been reading Koi Towers’ records) our customs appear quite brazen. I am fairly immune to such things considering the circumstances of my upbringing. Little surprises or offends me. And so you will have nothing to worry about on my part, in terms of absorbing the ways of a new culture. I have had to absorb a lot over the

I have heard that to lie is a greater sin within the Lan sect than within any other culture. And so, am I to believe that I can trust anything that you say, if you assert that it is the truth? I have never met an honest man who is also a good politician, Zewu-Jun. Perhaps you are the exception.

Regarding the rumours: that is very good of you to say. You are too kind to know these people’s motivations. It is a good thing that you do not understand them.

However, there will always be whisperings about me and my mother. They will follow me wherever I go. Whether I am dressed in the old rags that I wore as a child, or the fine embroidered silk sewn by the Jin family seamstress -- I will always bear the brand of my upbringing. As if it has been stitched across my belt.

Yes, she was a good woman. A kind one, too. She made me dream. I miss her often.

Lan Xichen, you are kinder than I wish I could express how much I I can’t I do not know if I I am so glad that we have kept this correspondence.

Apologies for the messiness of my writing today. I am still recovering, it seems.

Once again, you are very unkind to yourself. You describe yourself as awkward and stolid. And yet, there has never been any word of you being like this. And whilst you are benevolent to all that you meet, making you an excellent leader, this does not mean that people may not also wish to make you their good acquaintance.

However, I can understand how a lonely childhood can make it hard to gain perspective in this area. Will you forgive me for phrasing it as ‘lonely’? I know that you took on your responsibilities as a younger teenager. And, as you say, there are not many Young Masters our age. To grow up within the strict confines of a gentry family without other children to play with aside from your brother must have been strange for both of you.

Our childhoods could not have been more different, and yet, in this respect, I believe we are quite similar. To put it bluntly, there are not meant to be children living in brothels. I was the only one, and the other children on my street were not allowed to be associated with me. I received education from my mother (I gather that in Gusu, most towns offer education to all children from all families, regardless of social class. It is not so in Yunmeng or Lanling). And so I also did not have much opportunity to form deep bonds. It is also because of this, I imagine, that I use formality as armour.

I feel that you should know, Lan Xichen, that I have shared more in these letters to you than I have shared with anyone.

Your final paragraph -- yes, I will say it -- made me blush.

Jesting aside: I feel similarly. I had imagined that my father would want me to marry because I am not a direct heir. And yet, to be betrothed to the great Zewu-Jun was quite dazzling and, to put it lightly, intimidating. I have already said that I am not intimidated easily, and so this should tell you how great your reputation is. However, your letters have betrayed a humanity, humour, and genuine kindness that I could not have anticipated -- and that I do not feel I deserve.

When we meet, I know that I will not be disappointed (as you suggested that I might be, quite cruelly to yourself). However, I too may be quite severe in my nervousness. Please do not interpret this as coldness. I am simply determined to be as worthy as you seem to see me.

Until we meet.

Warmest regards,
Jin Guangyao

Post-script: Nor I you.

 

*

 

Dear Lan Xichen,

I write to you once again in lieu of my last letter -- or rather, to supplement it -- to inform you that we recently pushed back the Wen rebels at our borders and won back at least five hundred stades. (You will be pleased to hear that Clan Leader Jin ordered me to remain at Koi Tower, considering my last venture to the borders.)

We predict, because of this victory, a bout of peace for both Lanling and Gusu. This news seemed to be worth mentioning not only for the purpose of our political alliance, but also because the opportunity for us to meet may be opened again.

Clan Leader Jin would therefore like to cordially invite you, Grandmaster Lan, Hanguang-Jun and Wei-fujun to Koi Tower next week.

I keenly await your response.

Warmest regards,
Jin Guangyao

 

*

 

Dear Jin Guangyao,

For once, I will adhere to the Lan teachings of economy of words. The contents of your letter are embedded in my mind and I will address them when we meet in person next week. Thank you for the invitation: we accept.

Until we meet.

Warmest regards,
Lan Xichen

Chapter Text

The letter remains unfurled across the table, and Meng Yao stares at the ink. With the tang of incense in his throat and the scratch of embroidery against his fingers, he reads Zewu-Jun’s words, and he presses his lips into a thin line.

Jin Guangshan sits across from him, laughing. He laughs with a smile that is too still and too thin, like fine porcelain.

“Excellent, excellent.” Jin Guangshan pours liquor for them both. His sleeves pour messily over his knees. “Excellent, Jin Guangyao.”

He bows his head low in response. It is low enough that all he can see is his fiancé’s name at the bottom of the parchment.

“Clan Leader Jin,” he replies in acknowledgement.

“It has been a rare pleasure to witness your work.” Jin Guangshan says this with a peremptory kind of offhandedness, as if he is sat upon his own throne and not in Meng Yao’s quarters. “You have lived in this building for almost a decade, and I have been giving you orders for just as long. And yet, these letters are the first time I have been able to see how you work. It is quite an art, is it not?”

Jin Guangshan laughs again.

Meng Yao sits up, and he pulls his lips into his own smile. “You and Zhao Long have taught me well.”

Jin Guangshan gives one emphatic nod, and he raises his liquor bowl. Meng Yao mimics, though, whilst his father downs his with one hand, Meng Yao drinks delicately with both -- one poiased to hide his lips as he drinks. He does not have the luxury of shirking politeness.

His father’s shoulders rise with a silent laugh, frozen smile still in place. “I knew that you could not be so handsome and clever for nothing.”

Meng Yao’s fingers itch at his embroidered robes. “Do you have any further instruction until the Lan Clan arrive, Clan Leader Jin?”

“Ah,” he nods. With his hands against his knees, he unfolds himself from the ground and takes the letter from the table. He raises his brows as he reads it and wanders about the room. Lips, immutably turned upwards. “At present, I think it would be wise to hold off a response. Keep him in anticipation. It would be a shame to ruin your fine work.”

Meng Yao keeps his eyes averted as Jin Guangshan heads over to the box where he keeps Zewu-Jun's letters and opens it, removing examples of their correspondence. It’s humiliation that keeps Meng Yao’s gaze on the table, a frown threatening to reveal itself: for he hadn’t realised that his father knew he was keeping them.

He should have burned them. He is not sure why he hasn’t.

“Warmest regards -- Lan Xichen.” He chuckles. “See the way that he has said that the ‘contents of your letter have been embedded in his mind.’”

Jin Guangshan laughs. Meng Yao stares at the table. He refrains from compulsively unpicking a thread from his robes.

“It’s enough that he began this correspondence with you in the first place. I had been debating whether I should set you to the task, but I didn’t want you to appear wanton. And then -- he wrote to you first! It still surprises me. The man in these letters is far more frivolous than his frigid, moralising uncle.”

“Indeed,” Meng Yao says, just to say anything at all. Just to avoid whatever white-hot thing scalds the lining of his throat.

“Flirtatious, even! I wonder what punishments he would receive if Lan Qiren knew what he wrote to you.” His father pulls out their letters, letting them fall to the floor in leaves. “Ah, here is one of the best bits. You had said something similar to: Zewu-Jun, you are the first person I have articulated these thoughts to. And then, his reply -- And so you see, Lianfang-Zun -- we both share things with one another that we have not told anyone else. Oh, see how you have him caught in your net!”

He has read all of the letters, including Meng Yao's responses. Any letter for Meng Yao has been directly delivered to Jin Guangshan first. More than this, his father always read them himself first before taking them to him, watching Meng Yao read and witnessing his response. It had left little room for any genuine reaction.

Jin Guangshan will never know how many times Meng Yao has reread those letters after he left.

“What an art this is,” Jin Guangshan nods, eyes scanning up and down the lines of correspondence. “You make yourself tantalisingly vulnerable, whilst withholding just the right amount to keep him engaged. You are open enough for him to trust, without leaving yourself defenceless. I am sure that Zhao Long could not have done better. But then, his skills were best suited to private missions, and certainly none of this variety. You have seen his face. I am sure that he could not attract a mule.”

Meng Yao smiles at the table whilst Clan Leader Jin laughs. Mounted on the wall him, the dagger which he gifted Meng Yao for his fourteenth birthday: Meng Yao has only used it once. He had been proud and naive, wanting to use the present that the Esteemed Clan Leader Jin had given him. There had been so much blood that Zhao Long had beaten him relentlessly for hours for his mistake. Meng Yao has since spent countless evenings polishing that dagger, determined to make it perfect.

“Now, this still troubles me,” Jin Guangshan says, smacking the page with the back of his hand. “See how the honourable Zewu-Jun evades your point about the Lan Clan’s postponing of the marriage. My uncle had elected not to share this decision with me, choosing to wait until a later date as he did not realise that you and I were still in direct correspondence.

Meng Yao opens his mouth and takes a breath, alerting his father to the fact that he would like to speak. Jin Guangshan pauses to allow it.

“It may truly be the case that Lan Qiren holds no grudges against the match,” he attempts. “And if it is true that he doesn’t look kindly upon the circumstances of my birth, I think it is likely that he would not tell Zewu-Jun.”

“And yet Zewu-Jun is not so foolish as to believe that his uncle does not look down upon the Jin,” he argues. Meng Yao ducks his head. “He should be sympathising with you, apologising. Not denying it.”

“To do so would be to admit that there is reluctance on the Lan Clan’s side at all. If Zewu-Jun is truly as keen for the marriage to go ahead as I think he is--”

“Ha!”

“--then I think that he would not let any sign of his uncle’s reluctance show.”

His father hums, dropping leaves of paper to the floor. Something in Meng Yao’s chest strains at the sight of them, abandoned and left to be trodden on. “Perhaps you are right. And yet, I do not like that Lan Qiren should have any reservations. Who is he to be so proud? If I asked Jiang Fengmian to arrange a betrothal between you and Jiang Wanyin, I know that he would not show the same stoicism and rudeness.”

Perhaps he seems rude only to the Jin, he thinks, but would never dare say. And I would rather be married to Wen Chao than that immature, fragile Jiang boy.

Meng Yao views Jin Guangshan for a while longer as he paces the room and rereads his letters. Sometimes, he will quietly chuckle and smile to himself as he reminds himself of their contents. The incense burns low, smoke curling and air thick with jasmine. The evening wanes into night, the moon large through the circular window of his quarters. Fronds of cherry blossom dance in shadows. The stars watch him, and he looks away.

“Well,” Jin Guangshan says with finality. He moves to put the letter in his hand in the box, though he does not retrieve any of those that he dropped on the floor. “This is quite encouraging.”

“Yes.”

“They will be arriving next week. You will not need reminding that until the wedding has come and gone, you will remain demure and tempting. There is little more that you should give away until afterwards.”

His father’s instructions are two-fold. Meng Yao smiles politely through the shame that fills him. “Yes, Clan Leader Jin.”

“Only after the wedding should you carry out the deed. And only then can we put our true plans into action. You must secure your position as someone trustworthy and reliable before you kill Zewu-Jun.”

Become a lover. Become a respected leader. Become a widower. Become the impressionable, grief-stricken Hanguang-Jun’s advisor. Take control. The path is clear, and yet no mission has ever felt so muddy.

Jin Guangshan brushes off his robes as he moves to leave. “I will leave the exact circumstances and arrangements to your expertise.”

At the acknowledgement of his skills, Meng Yao looks up at his father open-mouthed. Speechless with shock and appreciation, he bows low to the floor.

“Thank you, Clan Leader Jin. I will not fail you.”

“You have not yet,” Jin Guangshan acknowledges distantly, looking out of the window. Then, turning towards him. “Will you use poison?”

Meng Yao speaks to the floor. “I have not yet decided.”

“Hm. I suppose it depends entirely on the situation.”

“Yes, Clan Leader Jin.”

“Well,” he sighs, “I will leave you. I have matters of my own to attend. I will see you early tomorrow in the war room, Jin Guangyao.”

“Yes, Clan Leader Jin.”

Meng Yao remains kneeling on the floors of his quarters, watching his father walk away. He has always wondered at how Jin Guangshan holds himself. His robes flow when he walks, his shoulders firm but relaxed. No amount of deportment lessons could make Jin Guangyao so natural a member of the gentry as his father.

“Jin Guangyao.”

Clan Leader Jin has paused in the doorway, the cream and azure hall stretching on behind him into low lamplight. He views Meng Yao with the low brow that he has inherited. A smile, which does not look quite the same as his.

“Well done,” he says.

With that he backs out of the room and closes the doors, leaving Meng Yao in silent exaltation. He lets his head hang back, eyes closed, revelling in his father’s praise like a drug.

When he opens his eyes again, his gaze lands upon the dagger, mounted on the wall above his bed.

Meng Yao unfurls from the floor, clothes making a quiet whisper. He drifts listlessly towards the dagger, watches his own hand like it is someone else’s as it stretches towards the hilt -- fingers ghosting over it, not quite touching. His father's words hum under his skin.

So much blood.

Behind this wall is an vast cavern of darkness. A passage way that leads into a web of tunnels about Koi Tower -- tunnels that have been used only by clan leaders’ assassins for generations.

Meng Yao’s hand rests against the panel. It is as if he can feel the cold air through the wall. Memories of crouching in the dark for days, denied any lamp or torch that could make him known to anyone on the other side of the wall. Eating bread in the pitch black, fumbling for the knots and grooves in the walls that might guide him to his destination. Watching through peep-holes into guest rooms, where visitors dined and choked on the poison that he had administered. Dragging their bodies into the gloom and smelling their rot when he would return weeks later.

Of course, not all of them would die so quickly. Meng Yao keeps his palm against the panel as he recalls watching a young sect leader from a distant Lanling town drinking a tainted cup of tea. Meng Yao had chosen a poison so subtle that he had only fallen sick until a week after his visit. And yet, Meng Yao had still found himself surprised when he heard the news of his death, and he had reacted with just the right amount of remorse when news was brought to him.

That sect leader really had been very young. Meng Yao remembers how his hair had grown in whisps at his temple. Skin soft and milky.

And yet, none of those missions had been the most difficult. The simple poisonings -- perhaps an imperceptible puncture wound -- none of those had been as difficult as the other kind. The kind that meant he had to practise his smiles; wear his belt tighter to show his waist; bite his lip; cast glances through his lashes across a banquet hall and hold the gaze of another. The kind that had him knocking quietly at doors in the early hours of the morning, that had men unwrapping him like a present, that left bruises on his thighs.

Jin Guangshan thinks that he sleeps with them. That is what is expected. Meng Yao hasn’t the stomach to admit that he kills them all long before they can completely undo him.

This time, an arranged marriage. This time --

The breath that he releases is sharp and painful. He turns his head and views the box of letters, the trail that Clan Leader Jin has left on the floor. Meng Yao walks in an apparition of gold, picking them up one by one in silence.

He makes the mistake of reading the words of the last one he retrieves.

An expedient response to let me know you are safe would be appreciated.

Closing his eyes, throat clicking when he swallows, Meng Yao thinks of all that Zewu-Jun has said to him in his letters. He thinks of all the things he said in return. He thinks of the light-headedness and unwanted smiles that came to him whenever he sat to write his responses. He thinks of all the kindness, the memories, the teasing.

Meng Yao thinks on all the words of affection that he has said to Zewu-Jun, and, desperately, he searches for a lie.

***

“Well. Don’t you look all prettied up?”

Stepping out of war meetings behind his brother and cousin is like opening one’s eyes on a sunny morning. The Conference Hall is dimly lit compared to the swathes of ivory brightness that blinds the corridors. Sunlight glitters off gold lacquer and marble columns. Servants line the way, heads bowed and statuesque, forgettable. Clan Leader Jin is long gone -- his heirs walk far behind him when they exit their meetings. Jin Guangyao, as ever, follows at the very back.

It is Jin Zixun who now speaks, back turned to him as the three Young Masters pass through the corridor.

“You have dressed for Zewu-Jun’s arrival, I see,” Jin Zixun continues.

Jin Zixuan tips his head forward. It’s a sign that he has chosen to ignore their cousin’s jibes, and Meng Yao hates him for it. Meng Yao stays three steps behind. None of them stop or look at each other as they talk. They may as well be talking to themselves.

“The footmen dressed me appropriately for the Lan clan’s arrival.”

A snort. “Appropriately indeed. I could ask you why you’ve failed to put on the red lipstick but remembered everything else.”

There is absolutely nothing provocative about what he is wearing. His hair is more delicately braided and adorned, yes. However, his robes are no more revealing -- indeed, he has worn these particular robes before for other more sober events. All of them know this. The point that Jin Zixun is making is clear and unsubtle.

As ever, your attempts to insult me by comparing me to my mother are neither clever nor funny. And yet, Meng Yao has always opted for politeness as both flattery and weaponry. “You are kind to have noticed the difference in what I’m wearing. I didn’t think anyone would.”

Jin Zixun tuts. Jin Zixuan dips his head again -- perhaps, this time, in a silent laugh.

“Then, how likely is it that Zewu-Jun will notice?” Jin Zixun retorts. “A plain commoner. In jewellery. Is it meant to impress him?”

“You are right,” Meng Yao replies quickly. Their paces slows as they reach the doorway to the Entrance Hall. “I am deeply honoured that my father would choose me for this alliance with the Lan Clan. I hope that Zewu-Jun will think me worthy of this engagement, as Clan Leader Jin does.”

Meng Yao halts in the doorway. He means to go outside to the gardens, but not before he can catch a glimpse of Jin Zixun’s reddening face, jaw clenched.

He bows.

“I will see you both this afternoon for the arrival ceremony.”

Jin Zixuan’s expressionless face twitches, the corner of his lips teasing a smile. Jin Zixun merely glares, before turning on his heel and marching off, leaning forward into his walk until he threatens to topple over.

It leaves Meng Yao feeling a little lighter as he passes through the empty Entrance Hall, hands neatly clasped inside his sleeves. His smile tastes devious.

Out here, the air is heavy. It is spring, and the heat of summer is slowly settling its pall upon Lanling City. Meng Yao pauses at the top of Koi Tower’s steps, viewing the jewel blue sky. And then he descends, robes fluttering noiselessly.

These gardens. Once, in times of indecision, Meng Yao had been drawn towards these gardens as a place to think. And yet as the years have gone by, he has lost all his compunction. He has turned into something colder, someone who no longer cries over his innate illness. Today, though, his feet are drawn to the little mazes of pink and purple and white peonies. In the autumn, they dance in the breeze. In the early spring, the shudder. Now, the heat is too oppressive. They hang, faces staring outwards.

Meng Yao passes slowly through the walkways of flowers. His hand tickles the velvet of their petals, disturbing insects and sending them flying through the air. He hears them chirping and humming and screeching, his mind vibrating with noise and his body tightened into a coil. Blossom, trickling from the sky -- drip, drip, drip -- scattered across the ground. He treads on them, pressing pink into the gravel.

There is a pavilion in the middle of this garden. When Meng Yao turned sixteen and was first introduced to Koi Tower --

--Publicly, that is -- not when he was ten, not when he was smuggled in through the palace catacombs and hidden in a cell in the servants’ quarters -- no window and no company, save for one ancient, cantankerous assassin who would bring him food daily, teach him how to fight, teach him how to kill, teach him how to seduce -- teach him how to use himself and hate himself and value himself as he never had done before --

-- he came to that pavilion wearing gentry clothing and the red adornment between his brows for the first time. Clutching at the foreign robes and wincing in the sunlight, out of practise of being outside. He would take refuge in the pavilion, where it felt like he could be in the open air whilst being safe beneath a roof. He would hate himself for missing his little prison and he would hate himself for feeling anything but gratitude for the man who had seen potential in him.

Now, Meng Yao sits in that same pavilion. He views the grandeur of Koi Tower, with its steps and its gold and its pointed roofs.

He has tried hard not to think about it all week. But now that he is sat here, with hours until their arrival, his thoughts turn to Zewu-Jun.

Zewu-Jun, not Lan Xichen. He does not feel that he should think of him with that name, even if he has written to him as such. He may say as many sweet words to Zewu-Jun as he likes, and yet, he must keep his duty clear in his heart.

Oh, yes. So many sweet words. Meng Yao hadn’t even had to try. Affection truly had poured out of him and onto the page, a well of neediness that had disgusted him. Frightened him. All of those truths that he had shared, just because Zewu-Jun had spoken to him kindly. And he had allowed it to happen. His mission had made a neat excuse.

Meng Yao’s hand moves thoughtlessly to his hair. Sitting straight, gaze heavy-lidded and empty, he runs his fingers over the little plaits. He had seen himself in the mirror as the footmen dressed him this morning -- he had watched with something between terror and pride as he witness the transformation. From tired-looking and unassuming, to a decorated gift for a clan leader.

Will he notice?

The sound of someone clearing their throat. Meng Yao turns his head to where MianMian smiles and bows, arms arced before her. He heard her approaching, of course, and therefore does not startle. However, Meng Yao hoped she’d let him be.

“Lianfang-Zun,” she greets, head still dipped.

Meng Yao stands, bows. “Luo Qingyang.”

MianMian tuts. “Young Master. Your habit of bowing to the wrong people will only get you into trouble.”

At that, he smiles. He’s found that she is one of the only people he truly smiles for. “Have you come to fetch me?”

“Yes. They’ll be here within the next couple of hours,” she sighs, stepping into the pavilion with her sword in hand. “Clan Leader Jin and Jin-furen are arranging for everyone to gather in the Entrance Hall now, since the Lan are known for their punctuality.”

“I see.” There is no point in wishing for more time.

If he betrays his nervousness in his expression, MianMian does not show it.

“Your brother is… shall we say, a little on edge.”

“Ah,” Meng Yao says. He hears his father in his voice. “Does he believe that Wei Wuxian will still be antagonistic towards him, since his engagement to his sister is now on good terms?”

“How would I know,” MianMian says. She stands in the centre of the pavilion, viewing the flowers beyond. “It isn’t as if Jin Zixuan were ever the type to impart these things.”

“No,” he agrees.

They stand side by side for a while, watching the still landscape of colour and noise. MianMian was one of the disciples to bring him back to Koi Tower after the altercation at Lanling’s borders. Even before then, he has measured her very highly. Now, he is grateful that she does not force conversation. He does not need to tell her how he feels, since she does not ask. Perhaps she knows how indescribable these feelings are -- even if she does not know all of the reasons for them.

An arranged marriage. A role to play. A duty to perform.

And then, with a deep breath, she turns to him. With a nod and a smile, she gives him his cue. “Jin Guangyao.”

It is still a little unnatural to respond to that name. He had been proud to the point of speechlessness the day that he had been assigned his new courtesy name and title. And yet, to be Jin Guangyao, and not Ziyao. To be called something different at all, after the years of pain and survival and aspiration he had spent as Meng Yao. Through some strange logic, it sometimes feels like a betrayal to his younger self, to cast away his name and answer to Jin Guangyao or Lianfang-Zun.

And yet, he must be Jin Guangyao. He must be Lianfang-Zun: hidden fragrance. The little boy with poisons, hidden for sixteen years, now a man. And no longer hidden.

 

***

 

The sky is a very different blue here.

Lan Xichen turns his face towards the sky. Despite the heat, the sun somehow feels more diluted here. There is a fresh, ozone taste to the air in Gusu that Lanling does not appear to have. Here, the world feels as if it is covered in a blanket, the sun seeping through layers of warmth. And the sky truly is as azure as Lianfang-Zun described. It’s extraordinary.

His breath is slow and imperceptible. It does little to school his nerves.

Wangji has fallen into step beside him. Whilst their uncle walks further ahead, Wei Wuxian has dropped behind with the serving staff, allowing the two brothers to make the last stretch of their journey in companionable silence. Indeed, for all of Wei Wuxian’s boldness, he appears to be quite emotionally astute. And so, Lan Xichen walks with a hand on his sword and another poised at the small of his back, whilst Wangji drifts in a sombre flurry of pale blue beside him.

It has always been this way. They have shared the more pivotal or poignant moments of their life in pregnant silence. Even as boys, they both knew that there was nothing to say in times like this. Simply being in each other’s company has usually been enough.

Lan Xichen finds his throat dry. He swallows. Wangji turns his head towards him, imperceptibly. He knows his little brother well enough to recognise when he means to say something.

“Is there something on your mind, Wangji?”

Wangji looks ahead again with his practised expressionlessness. “You are nervous.”

They are passing through the forests surrounding Lanling City. The trees are emerald green and cast dappled light; it sends flashes of sunshine in his eyes.

Lan Xichen allows a quiet exhale, and another deep breath. “I ought to do a better job of concealing it.”

Wangji frowns for a fraction of a second, before replacing it with his usual rigour. “No. I know you well.”

Yes. They do know each other well, don’t they? They know each other well enough to rarely speak about these things, and yet, Wangji brings it up now because he recognises just how uncertain he is feeling.

Lianfang-Zun. Lan Qiren’s hesitance had been clear from the start, despite what they both knew about the Young Master and the positive reputation he earned in The Unclean Realm. Lan Xichen does not take Nie Mingjue’s praise lightly. Nor are the circumstances of Jin Guangyao's birth an issue for him. A good man is good, regardless of upbringing. In his mind, it is that simple.

And yet, he senses that it has remained an issue with Lan Qiren, despite his reticence on the matter. Lan Xichen sees it in the crease between his brows. The only reason that he had been able to assure Lianfang-Zun in his lettes that there is no cause for concern is because he cannot be certain that his instincts are correct.

It is Lan Xichen’s duty to marry. It is his duty to marry well. This is an appropriate match. Lan Xichen has always known that love would have little to do with it. And so, he had been relieved to find that he has entered this commitment with someone that, he thinks, he could respect and like. The fact that his uncle now appears to silently regret the match, one that he orchestrated on Lan Xichen’s behalf --

It is a little difficult for Lan Xichen to process.

Beyond all that, there is the slowly settling knowledge that he is approaching Koi Tower, where his betrothed is waiting for him. Whilst he has never put any real importance on appearance, he has spent so long with a particular image in his head of how Lianfang-Zun might look -- unintentionally conjuring up the face of a man whom he is addressing his letters to. The anticipation leaves him breathless, nauseous, his heart floating. Like a cup, bobbing in a tub of water, waiting to sink.

“I’m not even very sure why I am nervous,” Lan Xichen admits.

Lan Qiren walks far enough ahead that he will not hear. He does not mind Wei Wuxian witnessing this conversation.

The trees here are tall, the light is blinding, and his brother floats through all the oppressive weight of this place.

“It is a big commitment,” comes the succinct reply.

Marriage is a topic which Wangji can speak about with more authority than his elder brother. It has altered the dynamic between them a little. Pleasantly. It has bridged the small age gap between them. It has also awakened an ugly thing in Lan Xichen that makes him avoid Wei Wuxian when his brother-in-law does not deserve it.

“It is indeed. And yet, I don’t think that is why I am nervous.”

Wangji seems to absorb this. He can see the thoughts shifting in his eyes, whilst the rest of his face is perfectly still. “It is a large responsibility. And it is one that you are sharing.”

Lan Xichen feels his lips part. The accuracy of it makes him a little dizzy. “Yes.”

“Hn,” Wangji acknowledges.

That is it. For so long, he has taken on his duties with the stoicism and dedication that his uncle taught them both. And yet, whilst Wangji has supported where he can, it has always been Lan Xichen who would be clan leader, and it has always been Lan Xichen who has borne the majority of the responsibility. This time, though, his duty is to marry. And marriage is a public acknowledgement that he is sharing his responsibilities with another, that he is trusting them to another. Someone he hardly knows.

Lianfang-Zun must be feeling similarly.

“Lanling City is very different to Caiyi and Gusu,” Lan Xichen says. It is easier to speak in simple terms, to change topic when his thoughts are so chaotic. “I hope that you will be able to adapt.”

Wangji clearly picks up on the teasing in his voice. His brow darkens.

It makes Lan Xichen laugh inwardly. “It may be quite different to how I remember it. We will have to see.”

“I am not so easily overwhelmed.”

This is not true at all. Wangji is very easily overwhelmed by little things like this. Certainly, he is unflappable in circumstances such as battle or debate. And yet, in the face of impropriety, unpredictable behaviour, perhaps an unexpectedly handsome face, like Wei Wuxian’s…

“I am sure you are right,” Lan Xichen says.

Wangji glares. Lan Xichen smiles serenely.

“Cultures are different across districts,” Wangji states. “I will adhere to mine and they will adhere to theirs.”

“We may be expected to observe some of the Jin clan’s customs.”

“Xichen.”

“I simply suggest that you prepare yourself. Remember how difficult Wei-fujun found it when he came to Cloud Recesses for lectures?”

Something softens in his expression. Walking through the warm shade of the forest, Lan Xichen is suddenly struck by how much his little brother has grown. And how much he still has to learn.

“It is not unlikely that you and I may unintentionally cause some offence when we arrive at Koi Tower. You have heard what some people say about the Lan Clan.”

“We are respectful,” Wangji argues tonelessly.

Lan Xichen smiles to himself. “We can also appear cold and impartial.”

“Impartiality is preferred over hysterics.”

There is little response to this that Lan Xichen can give, other than a pointed brow raise. Wangji elects to ignore it.

“Is this also what troubles you, Xichen?”

Wangji now looks at him, speaking with an innocence that reminds him of when they were little. The trees are towering and pale and slender around them, bearing witness to this intimate interaction between two siblings.

“If you mean to say that I am worried that I am going to somehow offend the Jin clan, or that our meeting will be fraught…” Lan Xichen looks ahead, where Lan Qiren walks with fixed shoulders and perfect posture. “… Perhaps a little. No more than I think would be expected.”

Wangji blinks. “Hn.”

They continue on, forest detritus creating a percussion beneath their feet. Wei Wuxian hums something behind them, some way off.

It makes him a little ashamed to think of all that Lan Xichen shared of himself in those letters. It was so easy to forget that he was talking to a real person. And yet, he does not think he regrets it, either. Even if his uncle had given him a stern look for writing to Lianfang-Zun before what he deemed the appropriate time.

There is something in him that feels a little victorious for this insubordination, as well as humbled. It makes Lan Xichen smile to himself.

Lianfang-Zun had seen that part of him. A boyishness that he was not allowed to express as a child, a light-heartedness that he cannot have as a ruler. But as a friend, or a husband -- could he?

What also makes him nervous, he realises, is not only what he has imparted with Wangji -- it is the knowledge that he is meeting the man that he has been writing to. Those letters had begun as a courtesy, and had turned into a fantasy. It became frivolous and perhaps a little dangerous, Lan Xichen thinks, as he’d found himself slipping into affection for a person he has not yet met. There is a chance that Lianfang-Zun will be quite different from the person he has designed in his head, built from the trail of delightful clues in his letters.

Soon, these two strangers will be married. And he will be expected to trust him more than anyone in this world.

Zewu-Jun approaches the edge of the forest with his uncle, brother, and brother-in-law. The walls of Lanling City come into view, and he steps into its shade with his hand tightening into a fist behind his back.

There is no reason to feel nervous.

***

Meng Yao had amputated the capacity for guilt at some point during his second murder. He is not easily flustered. And yet, he does feel some anxiety as he sits at the front of the Entrance Hall, beside his brother, cousin, father, and Jin-furen.

Friendship. That is what he has established with this Zewu-Jun, and it is a far more elaborate and double-edged game than any he is used to weaving. His missions are usually limited to a week at most, to those who make themselves guests at the palace or those whom he visits. He has never had to establish a real relationship with anyone he’s been ordered to kill.

In some other world, Meng Yao might have allowed himself to think about Zewu-Jun properly. He might have let himself daydream as he walked about the gardens, imagined his face and conjured up ideas of how he might hold himself, what he might wear. He might have let the anticipation build, let himself feel nervous about a wedding, an arranged alliance, the commitment sharing a life with a man he hasn’t yet met. He might have let himself reread Zewu-Jun’s letters and blushed (again) at his words. He might have let himself feel. Something simple and sweet.

Meng Yao casts these thoughts away. Messy, emotional thoughts. He tries to forget the words of a man that he does not truly know, and who certainly does not know him. Delicious words though they were.

He should burn those letters. And he should forget all the things that he said in his replies.

Blinking and breathless, Meng Yao grinds his teeth and stares at the table.

A throat clearing at his left. Meng Yao turns his head minutely -- enough to acknowledge Jin Zixuan, who is passing flicking glances towards him.

“Jin Zixuan,” he says, surprise clear in his voice.

His half-brother, a man of very few words indeed, blinks slowly and presses his lips together. “You’ll be fine.”

It is a blissful respite from the internal conflict. And yet, it is also strange: this man has barely spoken to him since Meng Yao was re-instated three years ago. Their relationship has been built off shared glances and mutual weariness, and little more. Yes, Meng Yao has made plenty of attempts, but Jin Zixuan has always been awkward beyond communication. Until now, it seems.

Meng Yao swallows. Determined not to ruin what Jin Zixuan has attempted, he formulates a reply. “I gather… that you were nervous in meeting Lady Jiang.”

Jin Zixuan blinks in assent, head bowing slowly.

“I confess that I do feel some apprehension,” Meng Yao admits.

Why Meng Yao truly feels this apprehension, his brother will never know. Indeed, nobody but his father and Zhao Long know about his secret profession. It almost makes Meng Yao angry that Jin Zixuan is attempting to relate. If only his sole concern was his upcoming nuptials.

“Be forthcoming, and you will have nothing to worry about,” Jin Zixuan imparts, looking ahead.

Meng Yao presses his lips into a smile. He could laugh at how ironic it is.

Looking up at the Entrance Hall, Meng Yao finds the staff stood in their allotted positions, the tables set up for the arrival banquet. Jin Zixun has slipped in unnoticed -- very atypical for him -- and is snacking on candied rose petals on Jin-furen’s left. He has one knee drawn up and his elbow resting atop it, like he is in some tavern. Meng Yao views him and tries not to sigh. At least Jin Zixuan, for all his faults, is not so brazen. Perhaps, one day, he will forgive Meng Yao for his different mother, and they can--

Clan Leader Lan and Grandmaster Lan! Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian!

Announcement of their arrival pulls an uncomfortable tension through his chest. Meng Yao finds his lips parting, drawing in a breath. Clan Leader Jin claps his hands in anticipation where he sits next to Jin Zixuan. Jin-furen ignores Meng Yao as she always does.

Jin Guangshan turns to view Meng Yao with an assertive nod. “Let me see you, Jin Guangyao.”

Meng Yao leans around Jin Zixuan, dusting off his shoulders and awaiting his father’s instruction.

Clan Leader Jin purses his lips and nods. “Yes. It will do.”

Meng Yao does not need more than half a second to process this: his father’s words sting more than he wishes they would. And then he is distracted by the footmen at the grand entrance, who push the huge doors open and reveal the blue sky beyond, the pure white steps and yellow peonies. The servants take their stand at the edge of the threshold, heads bowed.

Instinct tries to move Meng Yao’s hands to straighten the gold silk that has been so decoratively draped over his shoulders, cinched at his waist and pulled into pretty pleats. Instead he remains still, and he waits.

The first person appears head first, ascending the stairs slowly and with a stillness that is remarkable. From this distance -- and it is quite some distance, for the Entrance Hall is vast -- Meng Yao spots his deep set brow and sober expression, a moustache and a headband. He only knows that this is Lan Qiren because Jin Guangshan has drunkenly remarked on the man’s appearance before. He walks with surety and brings a seriousness with him that makes this meeting all the more heavy. The weight on his chest, all the more stifling.

Clan Leader Jin chuckles quietly, smiling sweetly in his own way. Meng Yao hopes that his own smile is not so transparent. And it is only because Meng Yao has been so focused on the Grandmaster’s arrival that he does not immediately notice the person in tow, who walks only a step behind. He is obscured by Lan Qiren -- until the latter steps aside and allows the former to walk ahead.

A man who carries himself with the grace of snowfall. A delicacy, yes, but also a strength to match, two things that should not live together in one person-- and yet it is clear by the angle of his chin and the slope of his shoulders that he is powerful. Eyes cast to the floor but head held unbowed, Meng Yao sees both assurance and respect.

And the closer he approaches--

-- the sheer, top layer of his robes flowing in a silent waterfall; his hair falling over his shoulders and thick, grey embroidery; a crown that could have been twisted from starlight; the pendant that Meng Yao had bought for him --

-- the more that Meng Yao sees the gentleness of his features. The contrasting sharp lines of his cheekbones and jaw, the soft arch of his lips -- skin, like a still lake.

When he comes to a halt at the bottom of the dais where the Jin clan sit, the man at last turns his gaze from the floor and looks up at Clan Leader Jin with dark, honest eyes.

Zewu-Jun.

***

Lan Xichen looks up.

This place is ornate. It holds an opulence that Cloud Recesses does not quite have in its more simplistic beauty. Clan Leader Jin reflects that opulence in his gold robes and jewellery and relaxed smile, sitting upon his dais.

In the corner of his eye, he sees the men who must be Jin Guangshan’s sons and nephews. One propped beside Jin-furen, barely concealing a scowl. Jin Zixun, if I can infer correctly from Lianfang-Zun’s allusions to his nature. On Clan Leader Jin’s direct right, a young man who holds an expression of stoicism that rivals even Wangji’s, features delicate and chin tilted slightly upwards. Jin Zixuan. I remember him from the lectures.

And, next to him--

It isn’t the ornate hair piece that he wears, presumably for the occasion -- nor is it his small smile, so small that it would easily be missed by anyone who had not lived with Wangji their whole life. What tells him that this is the man he has been writing to these past months is the way he turns his gaze towards Lan Xichen.

It is not coy, nor is it bold: it is something in between, something uncertain and expectant and pleased. It is a look that passes through eyelashes first, that fixes Lan Xichen with a nervous, fluttering blink -- and then acknowledgement.

The man smiles, and his whole demeanour shines. Then, the dimples in his cheeks disappear as his expression settles into something more poised.

Jin Guangyao.

“Welcome, Grand Master Lan -- Zewu-Jun -- Hanguang-Jun, and Wei Wuxian.”

Clan Leader Jin rises from his seat. Stepping around his table where he has been drinking tea, he descends the steps from the dais to their level. They all bow, and when Lan Xichen straightens again, he finds Clan Leader Jin standing before them, a benevolent smile and eyes passing over all four them. Both hands are clasped behind his back.

“I trust that your journey was not too troublesome, Clan Leader Lan?”

“No, thank you,” he replies, nodding his head to show his gratitude. “We passed through the border without issue. Thank you for having us, Clan Leader Jin. It is a pleasure to once again be able to visit Lanling after so long.”

“Long indeed!” the clan leader laughs.

Zewu-Jun smiles. He isn’t sure whether Jin Guangshan is making a point, or if he is simply agreeing.

“Well, any Lan Clan member is welcome in Koi Tower. Is that not true, Lan Qiren? How are you, my friend?”

My friend.’ Interesting.

When he and Wangji were little, they used to stand behind Lan Qiren during all formal events. Now that Lan Xichen is of similar social standing to his elder, they stand side by side. It is a shame that he can no longer share silent glances with his brother; this would be ones of those moments when he might share a poignant, fleeting look with him.

Lan Qiren bows his head in acknowledgement, but he does not make to return the term of endearment. “Your hospitality is most honourable, Clan Leader Jin.".

Clan Leader Jin laughs. It doesn’t sound like laugh, and it does nothing to release the room from discomfort. And so he turns his attention to Wangji and Wei Wuxian, who stand behind them in silence. It is the longest that Lan Xichen has ever known Wei Wuxian to be silent.

“Hanguang-Jun. Wei-fujun. The happy couple! Welcome to Lanling.”

“Thank you, Clan Leader Jin,” they reply in neat unison.

“You will remember my youngest son, Jin Zixuan--”

Clan Leader gestures to the boy, who makes no effort to smile or show his welcome. Instead he stares at Wei Wuxian with wide, aghast eyes. Lan Xichen remembers his awkwardness well, and bites back his amusement when he sees the heir to the Jin throne look up to the ceiling in search of a distraction.

“Jin Zixun, my nephew--”

The boy smiles, an expression so tense that it barely qualifies as anything friendly.

“My wife--”

The likeness between Jin Zixuan and his mother is striking. The same eyes, the same resting expression of condescension. Her smile is similarly weak, a small tilt at the corners of her lips that does not meet her eyes.

“And, of course, my oldest son,” Clan Leader Jin finishes, holding Zewu-Jun’s gaze, “Jin Guangyao.”

He raises his gaze from his lap at his name. Unfolding himself from the floor, he drifts down the dais to his father’s side, hands clasped inside his sleeves and head bowed. There is something demure about the way he walks, a dipped head that betrays those insecurities that Lan Xichen read in his letters. And yet there is also something keen and knowing in his eyes, and when they turn to view Lan Xichen through lashes, he doesn’t want to look away.

Jin Guangyao wears a smile that is quite different from his father’s. Lan Xichen is not quite sure how, when otherwise their family resemblance is quite clear. And yet, the differences between them are even clearer.

“Grandmaster Lan,” Jin Guangyao begins addressing Lan Qiren. “It is a great honour to meet you.”

His voice is sharp and certain. He speaks with an articulacy that was rumoured, but that Lan Xichen never understood until now: it is not just the words he chooses, but the clarity with which he says them. It is the kind of elocution that he is sure his uncle will greatly appreciate. Indeed, Lan Qiren seems to thaw a little at Jin Guangyao’s welcome, and they bow. This time, when Jin Guangyao straightens and their eyes meet, Lan Xichen is very aware that everyone is watching.

Their letters had been theirs. Now, their every interaction will be for the world to judge.

They hold each other’s gazes for a fraction too long. A silent communication of emotion that neither man can quite parse. Clan Leader Jin turns to Jin Guangyao, as if to remind him of his cue. Jin Guangyao’s brow twitches and his lips part, the smallest sign of acknowledgement without becoming flustered. He angles himself towards Lan Xichen. The way his brows pull together seems to indicate that he is internally chastising himself for the hesitation -- whilst the smile reminds him of the veneer of politeness that he had alluded to in his letters.

“Clan Leader Lan,” he greets, bowing.

Lan Xichen bows in return. “Jin-gongzi.”

Lan Xichen straightens. He looks at Jin Guangyao. Whatever nervousness he felt on his journey here now seems quite distant-- like the morning after a night of restless sleep. Jin Guangyao views him, dark, wide eyes quite intent. His hair is braided and adorned with a delicate, golden hair-piece; his robes similarly opulent, jewelled and embroidered with peonies. And perhaps Lan Xichen’s admiration is more brazen than he realised, because Jin Guangyao dips his head with raised brows and parted lips that turn into a smile.

It is almost coquettish. Lan Xichen is transfixed.

What follows is a long lunch between the two clans, each member taking a seat at the tables arranged at the main level of the Entrance Hall. They discuss various topics -- including but not limited to the recent victory at Lanling’s borders, the general tide of the war, the upcoming wedding, Jin Zixuan’s ties with Jiang Yanli. According to Madame Jin, Lady Jiang will be visiting Koi Tower next month in preparation for the wedding. Wei Wuxian, fortunately, contains himself for the entire conversation without showing his displeasure -- or at least, no more than the occasional wince, eye-roll, or sigh.

After the main meal, Grand Master Lan gestures to one of their staff to bring forward the gift they had chosen for Clan Leader Jin for his hospitality -- a decorative vase filled water from one of Gusu’s healing springs. Clan Leader Jin accepts it with grace, and Jin-furen makes noises of appreciation. In this palace of bright blues and golds, it does not quite match.

Jin Guangyao keeps his gaze to his empty plate, as Lan Xichen has attempted to all afternoon. It is strange to meet one’s future husband in such circumstances: unable to talk directly with him.

“Jin Guangyao.” Clan Leader Jin addresses his son, but looks at Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen as he speaks, “Why don’t you explain to your honoured guests your most recent project?”

He looks over to his father with an intense look of observance. With a short nod, he obliges.

“It is my duty to the Lanling district to develop new ways to protect its people, particularly in this dire time of conflict.”

He enunciates so clearly, so methodically -- head nodding minutely every now and then, as if to emphasise his points. Lan Xichen smiles at the memory of one of Jin Guangyao’s lines: I am often subjected to friendly teasing by my cousin for the way that I succinctly set out and summarise my views even during informal events, as if I am presenting an argument in court. Do we perhaps share this habit?

“Since it is one of my chief responsibilities to manage the finances and administration of Lanling City,” he continues, “I have been able to work in association with the managers within smaller towns and cities across the state. We have liaised and planned a network of orphanages, to support the children who are left without family as a result of Wen Ruohan’s forces. And so, it is my hope that the children of this district will be able to carry out their young lives with the knowledge that they have a path of great opportunity before them, no longer cut off by the obstacles of war.”

Lan Xichen watches him. He says this with a light in his eyes, a kind of pride that lifts his shoulders and lightens a room which has been so heavy.

Jin Zixun rolls his eyes.

“I thought that perhaps our friends of the Lan Clan, famous for their staunch morals, would appreciate these endeavours,” Clan Leader Jin asserts with his ubiquitous smile. He turns it to Lan Xichen. “Clan Leader Lan. As one clan leader to another -- do you not agree that Lianfang-Zun’s plans for our district are quite admirable?”

Lan Xichen, honestly, could not agree more, even if Clan Leader Jin’s prompting is unsubtle.

“Quite so,” Lan Xichen asserts. “Befitting his reputation for both intellect and fairness.”

Jin Guangshan makes a humming noise to voice his approval of Lan Xichen’s words. Jin Guangyao smiles serenely, eyes cast downwards as the plates are cleared away.

Lan Xichen can feel Wangji looking at him, as if to share one of their looks with one another. He turns his head slightly to acknowledge him, but does not return his look. He knows what his brother is trying to communicate: Clan Leader Jin is embarrassing his son by putting him on display.

It is just as Lan Xichen is thinking this that Clan Leader Jin leans towards Jin Guangyao, positioned at the table beside him, and speaks in a lowered voice so only he can hear.

And there is a brief moment where the filial piety appears to slip: Jin Guangyao blinks once, slowly. Then, he nods in decision and straightens. Jin Guangyao’s lips part, brow creasing just the smallest amount -- and there is a beat of hesitance before he addresses Lan Xichen in front of the rest of the room’s occupants.

“Clan Leader Lan.” He cannot look at Lan Xichen when he makes his announcement. “You may have noticed on your arrival our peony garden at the front of the palace. I would -- like to extend an invitation for you to join me in an afternoon stroll.”

It is painfully obvious that Clan Leader Jin has just ordered him to make such an invitation. If he is embarrassed by how forthcoming he has made himself, he does not show it; although, his brother retrains a small smile, and his cousin grimaces.

Wei Wuxian masks his snort with a cough.

Lan Qiren has remained, gratefully, silent throughout the various examples of Clan Leader Jin’s ostentation of his son. On this occasion, Lan Xichen replies before his uncle has the chance to make any remark.

“I would be delighted.”

Jin Guangyao blinks and smiles at his table, but will not look at Lan Xichen.

Clan Leader Jin laughs -- a light, empty sound.

“Ah, well, then, you must both go! Now, you -- yes, you -- show our guests to their quarters --”

Wangji is able to share a brief, pointed look with him before they are separated, the footmen guiding his uncle, brother, and brother-in-law to their rooms. Lan Xichen catches Wei Wuxian’s eye before he disappears behind a lacquered column -- he’s raising his brows and pursing his lips against a smile, eyes wide. And then he is gone, and Lan Xichen finds himself alone with the Jin Clan.

Jin Guangyao approaches, head bowed. Then he offers one fleeting glance up at Lan Xichen, before extending an arm towards the entrance and the bright sky beyond. “After you, Clan Leader Lan.”

Accepting the invitation to join his side is easy. Even with Jin Guangshan’s eyes on him. Lan Xichen does not feel the Jin clan’s gazes leave their backs until they have descended the steps of Koi Tower into the heat of Lanling spring.

***

There is very little that Meng Yao has not endured.

Meng Yao has been whipped, kicked down stairs, and chased down streets by dogs. He has been locked away by his father out of shame. He has been rebuked and reviled by everyone. He has been called a whore by his cousin and his serving staff -- in whispers.

Today was one of those days when he truly felt like one.

His fingers itch to remove the jewellery from his hair. Instead, he moves with his hands behind his back, in silence beside Zewu-Jun. A man whose steps are as careful and assured as a crane’s. Tall, without being imposing -- expression kind, without being patronising. Meng Yao can barely look at him.

For, it had only taken one look at him to know that he would love him.

Not quite yet, he considers. No, as they walk in strained silence towards the rows of peonies, what Meng Yao is feeling is not love at first sight, but the heavy, terrifying, perfect knowledge that he will love Zewu-Jun: the man who had written to him months ago and sent him a drawing of Cloud Recesses. The man who opened up to him and has made Meng Yao doubt his own impartiality. The man who responded to his father’s prompts and posture with grace.

They reach the bottom of the steps, and Zewu-Jun breaks their silence.

“Lanling is just as I recall. And just as you described.”

Meng Yao forgets himself. He looks up at Zewu-Jun, and he sees not only a warmth and kindness, but a quiet amusement. As if his reference to Meng Yao’s letter is breaking some kind of rule: and in a way, it is. Until now, they have not verbally acknowledged all that they have said to each other. Until now, the person beside him could have been some other man, and all of it could have been false.

But now, Zewu-Jun has addressed the obvious. The tension snaps. Meng Yao tries to hide his smile, but fails; he turns his face away, casting his eyes to the sky. Lan Xichen bows his head, perhaps trying to do the same.

“I hope it lives up to expectations,” Meng Yao manages, his double-meaning clear.

It is fascinating, watching the way Zewu-Jun smiles. It is not at all fragile or diplomatic, like most gentry façades. It is a closed-eyed, cat-like thing: pensive and respectful. “It exceeds,” he replies.

What was it that he said in his letter? ‘And so you continue to tease me... Do you not think that it is better this way, Lianfang-Zun?’

Meng Yao chooses his words carefully. “If it truly exceeds expectation, then my poetry cannot be as vivid as you gave it credit in your letters. If it were truly so eloquent as you so kindly overestimated it, you would say that Lanling meets expectation, or even that it does not match it.”

Zewu-Jun’s brows raise in acknowledgement, and he bows his head in concession. And yet, his smile does not waver. He appears quite foreign in a garden like this -- gently flowing, white robes in a field of garish colour.

“Perhaps,” Zewu-Jun says. A low, sure, warm timbre. “Or maybe it is that there are many things that you did not describe in your letters, which I have only had the chance to discover today.”

His meaning is clear. The flirtation in it is clear. Meng Yao has been called handsome or pretty many times, but this is the first time that it has had any affect on him. He says nothing, although his surprise must be evident on his face -- he feels his lips part as he takes in a quiet breath, feels his brow pinch and the back of his neck grow hot. He feels Lan Xichen smiling at him, both pleased and amused.

They pass through the rows of gold flowers, and Meng Yao listens to their asynchronous steps. The sun breathes heat against his skin.

“It is both strange and wonderful to be finally meeting you,” Meng Yao manages, eyes cast to the ground. He finds himself amazed that Zewu-Jun is still there, walking by his side and not somehow disappeared-- like a dream. “After months of writing and so much uncertainty.”

Zewu-Jun’s expression sobers. “Indeed. Much has come to pass since we first wrote to each other. Tell me, Lianfang-Zun- are you quite well now, after your expedition to the Lanling borders?”

It takes him aback for a moment. That trip had seemed essential at the time: he had been urged into action by his own motivations to fix the conflict in the district. And yet his father had told him all the reasons not to go -- his usefulness at Koi Tower, the waste of resources in ‘putting out small fires’. Meng Yao had thought that, if he rode out under cover of darkness and returned in the morning…

When he had returned with his injury and woke up from his fever, his father had greeted him with a slap. And that was all that was said on the matter of his insubordination.

“Quite well,” Meng Yao replies easily. “Thank you. And, Chifeng-Zun? Have you heard from him?”

“The Unclean Realm has recovered since its last battle.”

“That is good news indeed.”

“He expressed his frustration that it may be some time before I am able to introduce the two of you formally. Though, of course, you have met before -- and he has sung your praises.”

His response is automatic. “You are both too kind.”

“Meeting you today… I see now that you do have graceful speech, as my friend told me. You are extraordinary indeed.”

Meng Yao blinks.

Herein lies one of the many problems with Meng Yao’s situation.

When they were simply writing to each other, he could pretend that Zewu-Jun didn’t really exist. He would write his letters and let the affection flow true -- and then he could distance himself. But now that he is hearing Zewu-Jun’s praises in person, he is paralysed by them: he does not know how to receive them, and it frightens him.

“And you exceed your own reputation, Zewu-Jun,” he manages. “Your kindness and generosity are quite incredible.”

Zewu-Jun smiles. It’s a small rise in the corner of his mouth, a smile that echoes the mischief in his letters that Meng Yao thought he must have hallucinated. “You do not enjoy accepting compliments.”

Meng Yao dips his head. His smile is unbidden. It is something defensive. “And what makes you say that, Zewu-Jun?”

“You respond to praises with your own. As if you use my compliments as an opportunity to be polite.”

“It would be rude of me not to extend the same generosity towards you. Especially when there is so much of your character to be generous about.”

Lan Xichen closes his eyes and smiles. It’s a laugh, Meng Yao realises, and that realisation does something uncomfortable to his chest.

“It is possible to accept a compliment before returning one,” he explains, with gentle humour.

“And yet,” Meng Yao concedes, nodding his head slowly, “I have not heard you do this yourself.”

Lan Xichen’s smile widens. He tilts his face towards the sky, eyes narrowing in the sunlight. “Ah. You are very observant, Lianfang-Zun.”

“Jin Guangyao.”

Meng Yao hadn’t planned on making the correction. Lan Xichen hadn’t expected it either, as he casts a cautious glance towards him.

“If you would feel comfortable addressing me so. As you did so in our letters, towards the end.”

A minuscule nod, the spectre of a smile. “If you will call me Lan Xichen.”

And there certainly is humour in that look, now. Something challenging and kind and shining. Meng Yao has to look away.

He’s been thinking of him as Lan Xichen already, he realises.

“...Lan Xichen.”

And as they walk in companionable silence through the peonies, all the ruminations that he has tried to avoid tumble into his mind as an avalanche. Ruminations, and a pledge.

I may be a killer. But I do not want to kill this man.

Chapter Text

The sun shines differently without Gusu mist.

Lan Xichen wakes with a view of an unfamiliar ceiling. He watches it for a long moment, viewing the way the sunlight casts stationary shadows of the cherry blossom tree outside. Though his window is open, there is no breeze.

As it turns out, there is a small army of servants outside his room ready to help him dress and fetch him breakfast. Since he has never sought aid for the first task, the number of staff dwindles to two, who return with food as he is brushing his hair.

The breakfast is a little more modest than dinner had been. Clan Leader Jin had put on a celebratory banquet last night, though they were the only guests and they had already had a large lunch. Six courses, six hours long. Lan Xichen had been warned, of course, but nothing his uncle said could have prepared him for the Jin Clan’s penchant for a banquet -- nor their determination to put on entertainment. Much of it had actually been entertaining, at the very least. And yet, in all his years as a member of the gentry, Lan Xichen has never felt so obligated to appear impressed.

It seemed, also, that it was Jin Guangyao’s job to organise and announce said entertainment. It was clear by the strained smile that he was eager to please, and yet Lan Xichen does not think that it was the Lan Clan that he was worried about disappointing.

Between the second and third course, there had been a performance on the pipa played by their royal musician -- a jolly tune that Lan Xichen didn’t know. It had been interesting to witness the musical style of Lanling in comparison to Gusu. And then a troupe of dancers had joined, at which point Wei Wuxian finally released the weary sigh that he’d been holding in on Lan Xichen’s behalf for two hours. His brother in law then spent the rest of the meal daydreaming and playing with his food, chin in his hand.

And Jin Guangyao had introduced each course and each round of entertainment with a kind of nervous confidence. A smile that had reminded Lan Xichen of a painted doll.

Lan Xichen thinks on that smile now as he drinks his tea, watching the early morning sky turn from pink to amber to azure. He thinks on the strange tension that exists between each Jin, and the way Clan Leader Jin had been demanding the Lan’s approval of his son with everything that he did. There were times when it seemed that Jin Guangyao had enjoyed his responsibilities, making his announcements with a pride that suited him. And then there were times that it felt as if he might be yanked back by some invisible string at any second, the dread of it in his eyes.

There had been one moment which now makes Lan Xichen’s jaw tense just to recall. During conversation, when Clan Leader Jin had asked about the food in Gusu, Lan Xichen had mentioned its various delicacies. At this, Jin Guangyao had appeared to want to contribute, opening his mouth to speak and casting his father a look of permission. And yet, Clan Leader Jin had physically held up his hand to stop him.

There have been plenty of times in Lan Xichen’s life when he and Wangji have had to hold their tongues. When they were very young, their uncle would pass them warning glares as a reminder not to speak unless spoken to. As adults, this had changed and their opinions became more valued. Indeed, Lan Qiren, whilst severe, would never have treated as such in public.

It had made Lan Xichen uncomfortable to witness. Just as uncomfortable as when Jin Zixun attempted to raise a toast to him -- though, gratefully, Jin Guangyao had rescued him from that with a pained wince, quietly reminding his cousin of the Lan sect’s customs surrounding alcohol. At both events, he had seen Wangji tense and Wei-fujun coiling, a wild cat ready to pounce.

His uncle, typically, had said and done nothing, only looking mildly affronted.

Now, Lan Xichen finishes his breakfast and steps carefully over to the circular window. Though there is no breeze, he can smell the peonies. They remind him of the dance troupe last night, all dressed up and in formation. And he considers that, whilst he has been in Lanling for almost a full day, the most that he has been able to talk with his betrothed is for a short half an hour in the gardens. Despite the tensions of last night’s banquet, he has found himself more intrigued by Jin Guangyao than ever: a man more complex than he could have previously understood.

Perhaps it is time that Lan Xichen finally replied to his letter in person.

With an excitement that builds as a stream gradually turns into a roaring river, he steps out of his rooms, dismissing the gathered servants with a smile and beginning his search.

He does not need to look far. Jin Guangyao stands at the end of the corridor amongst the resplendent lapis and gold. With a quietly assured voice, he discusses some business with a servant who absorbs his instruction with a bowed, nodding head. Even from here, where Lan Xichen can only hear the occasional word, it is clear that the serving staff are not exempt from Jin Guangyao’s respect. He speaks in cool, even tones, indicating the address on a letter to be delivered.

Both servant and Young Master notice Lan Xichen turning the corner. And Lan Xichen tells himself that he does not view the way Jin Guangyao turns his head; the way his long neck arcs so gracefully; the sharp line of his jaw; the gentle, fluttering way that he blinks when his eyes meet Lan Xichen’s; the way he brightens when he sees him. No, Lan Xichen tells himself that he only notices these things because he is observant by nature.

Jin Guangyao nods to the servant, who bows in dismissal and retreats. What is left is the two of them in this sunny hallway with its shine and high ceilings. Jin Guangyao approaches Lan Xichen with a keen smile upon his face, something almost child-like. It is a smile that does not last long enough, for, as soon as Lan Xichen registers it, Jin Guangyao seems to as well -- and he quickly corrects himself, dipping his head and restoring his expression to something more sobre. Smile lines and dimples and spark in his eyes, fading.

Jin Guangyao bows.

It catches Lan Xichen by surprise. He is not sure why it should, as Jin Guangyao made it clear in his letters that he is extremely formal. And yet, to think that this man should feel the need to bow to him in his own home -- to think of how many must have forced Jin Guangyao’s head down in supplication --

Lan Xichen will not be that man. To perpetuate Jin Guangyao's insecurities would be an abhorrence. And so his hands move to catch his bow, fingers touching his elbows.

The intimacy of it only registers once he feels the silk thread of Jin Guangyao’s robes. Lan Xichen does not regret his decision, even when he sees Jin Guangyao tilt his head up to view him from his bow, looking at him with something shocked and unguarded.

No, he does not regret it. And he lets his hands linger, just to make this fact clear. All at once, Lan Xichen feels a flare of fury for all the people who have made Jin Guangyao expect so little.

“Please. There is no need for such big gestures -- you and I are equals,” Lan Xichen says. And at his own words, something in him shifts like a book toppling to its side.

Those eyes, sharp and watching. Lids moving in a half-blink, gaze fixed on Lan Xichen as he remains bowed. Whatever openness Lan Xichen saw in his expression now closes. The plains of that sweet face return to their previous, statuesque perfection.

Straightening, looking to the floor, Jin Guangyao acknowledges him: “Lan Xichen.”

Lan Xichen waits for him to speak, wonders if he will say anything else. It seems as if he wishes to, or is planning to, but is considering his words. Perhaps, rather, he is biting down on them. It is difficult to tell.

He let’s his hands fall away.

And so a tense silence ensues, in which both men watch either the floor or each other -- occasionally catching the other’s glances and looking away hurriedly. Lan Xichen has never had this kind of delicious discomfort before; a heat in his cheeks; a pull in his chest that forces him to look at Jin Guangyao and drink him in.

He realises, with some amusement and horror, that he has seen Wangji react to Wei Wuxian just as he does now to Jin Guangyao. This man that he hardly knows and yet values so highly. There’s a kind of flighty delight that’s struck him.

Instead of letting it hold them in silence for much longer, Lan Xichen blinks, smiles, and holds Jin Guangyao’s gaze. His eyes, nervously earnest, fixed on Lan Xichen.

“I had hoped to find you this morning,” Lan Xichen says.

And as if he had shown no hesitance whatsoever just now, “And I you.”

Lan Xichen smile comes easily. It is something instinctive and protective and curious that has him always smiling for Jin Guangyao -- even when he was reading his letters, with no one else to see it.

“How can I assist you, Lan Xichen?”

So formal. He allows himself to close his eyes for a moment with a kind of weary affection. “You may remember that I had promised to respond to the contents of your letter in person,” he says.

Looking up at him in that way that he does. Head half-bowed, keen gaze through lashes. “I remember.”

Jin Guangyao lools away again, keeps his head dipped like a servant in his own home. He makes himself small and obliging, he suddenly realises. It evokes an ugly feeling -- hatred for the people who have taught Jin Guangyao to smother himself like this.

He knows just how mutinous that hatred is.

“If it would be amenable,” Jin Guangyao continues, “I could offer a tour of Koi Tower whilst you... relay your letter to me.”

“I’d be very pleased.”

Jin Guangyao nods once -- extending an arm towards the corridor behind him. They walk slowly. It is a leisurely pace that he has not often had the chance to share with another person. And yet, as their stroll in the gardens yesterday afternoon had begun a little tensely, today again there is a strange excitement between them. This time, it is Jin Guangyao who breaks it.

“I would like to make my sincere apologies for last night.”

He is once again caught by surprise, as if a hand has snatched at the hem of his sleeve. Jin Guangyao watches the floor as he walks, a wrinkle in his brow and his hands clasped before him.

“My cousin, I believe, is unaccustomed to having guests from other districts. To meet those who do not enjoy the same things as him, and to understand their reasoning for abstaining from alcohol, for example, is… an area with which he has little real-life experience.”

The thinly veiled criticism makes Lan Xichen smile. “I think that, perhaps, my uncle is accustomed to adapting his behaviour when he visits other districts.”

“Still -- it wasn’t acceptable.”

“These awkward moments were inevitable,” he explains. “I am sure that, when the Jin clan visit Gusu, we may encounter more -- and you will have every right to complain about our lack of alcohol, as Wei-fujun did.”

Jin Guangyao smiles, dimpled cheeks and averted gaze. “I am sure that I will have no complaints.”

“Besides, I appreciate that you intervened when you did. If there is any apology needed, it need not be from you.”

They step down the corridor, a clash of ivory and white. There is a kind of aimlessness to their pace that makes him wonder whether Jin Guangyao had wanted to find Lan Xichen to offer him a tour, or simply for an excuse to talk without an audience.

Turning a corner, sunny corridors stretching further, Jin Guangyao gestures to a set of heavy, ornately painted doors on his right. Lan Xichen watches as he steps ahead and opens them with a confident sweep, one hand on each door and sleeves flowing. Once more, he gets to witness a glimpse of Lianfang-Zun, confident Young Master -- his nervous, doe-eyed counterpart nowhere to be seen.

“This is our library,” he announces.

Compared to the corridor, it is dark. A comforting taste of dust, a small window high up the wall that casts a bar of light through the old air. Whilst the rest of Koi Tower is buzzing with some nameless energy, this room seems entirely still. Scrolls have been left unrolled by previous users, shelves and shelves of them against every wall. It could rival Cloud Recesses’ in size, and probably value, too.

Lan Xichen steps into the room carefully, hands poised behind his back, neck craned to view the high walls of books. Jin Guangyao busies himself with rolling up a loose scroll, as if it would be too intimate to acknowledge Lan Xichen’s presence here.

“This place feels like a sanctuary,” Lan Xichen remarks.

“I consider it one, too.”

Lan Xichen lets Jin Guangyao distract himself, instead viewing the various shelves. A table with a half empty cup of tea and a pot gone cold -- an old scroll, its sides pinned down by gemstone paper weights. The Flora and Fauna of Gusu, he realises, as he views the labelled drawing of one of Caiyi’s local chrysanthemum.

Jin Guangyao appears, flicking out his sleeves and kneeling down to roll it back up. He casts Lan Xichen a cautious smile. “I have been doing some research on the area,” he admits. Then, before Lan Xichen can express his admiration for such a thing, he continues: “Which aspect of my letter would you like to address first? Perhaps I could aid your memory.”

“I remember everything that you said very clearly,” he replies truthfully. “I will aim to go chronologically.”

And it is as Jin Guangyao is brushing the dust from his robes that he laughs. It’s silent -- expressed only by closed eyes and a wide smile. Lan Xichen is blessed enough to witness it before Jin Guangyao looks away and composes himself.

“As you wish, Lan Xichen.”

Walking out of the library together, Jin Guangyao letting him step back out of the corridor first, he feels light headed. “Perhaps I should start with your first line.”

How difficult it is to write your courtesy name without feeling subordinate.

Lan Xichen views him. “I believe that was the exact line. You have an eidetic memory.”

Once again the perfect image of composure, ever so demure, he replies, “I was lucky enough to inherit it from my mother. She remembered everything she ever read, and often recounted these things to me.”

“A generous woman.”

Something of that brightness in his eyes flickers. “Indeed she was.”

Lan Xichen opens his mouth to fix his blunder. It is rare for him to be so heavy-handed. And yet, even his next words do not formulate until he has held his mouth open for a whole second. “I’m sorry.”

Their leisurely pace falters as Jin Guangyao comes to a stop and views Lan Xichen with horror. “Please, don’t apologise, Lan Xichen. It is… more of a relief than you could imagine to have someone even acknowledge her. Most prefer to pretend she did not exist, or they will say only cruel things.”

Righteous anger. It tastes so bitter and yet it is so addictive. Lan Xichen has worked hard all his life not to chase it. He replies in a quiet voice, “Neither of you deserve that.”

Fixing him with wide eyes. “You are too kind, Zewu-Jun.”

At that, they look away from one another, the moment too strange and fragile for either of them. They continue to walk, and Lan Xichen aims to recollect his thoughts -- like a man who has had a stack of papers blown into a flurry by the wind, scrabbling to pick them up again as they dance down the street.

“Do you still feel ‘insubordinate’?”

Jin Guangyao tenses a little beside him. “To call you Zewu-Jun is what feels instinctive.”

“Would you prefer that I call you Lianfang-Zun?”

A concessive smile. “I don’t mind.”

“And so you understand that there is nothing insubordinate about calling a man of the same status by his courtesy name.”

Indeed, his brother and Wei Wuxian have been calling one another by their birth names since long before it was really appropriate. Lan Xichen recognises that there is, perhaps, a part of him that wishes the same could be said for him and his betrothed.

But that is a selfish desire, and so he forgets it-- focusing instead on the gentle tilt of Jin Guanyao’s neck, the sharp corner of his jaw.

“You are right, of course,” Jin Guangyao admits. Then, in a voice that is almost unsettlingly detached, “I was raised to be aware of my position in the world. I am still very unused to the fact that is has changed.”

He puts it so starkly and so eloquently. It sends a shiver, although of what, Lan Xichen doesn’t know. “Jin Guangyao, you expose me for how naive I truly am.”

Again, a look of wide-eyed horror. “I had not meant to imply such a thing.”

“I know. You implied no such thing. I observed it myself, and it is true nonetheless.”

Servants in bright orange flank the corridor that they pass through. Their footsteps are quiet. Jin Guangyao is quiet, too, brow dark with thought, hair flowing in a shining cascade down his back. He is dressed less opulently today, he realises: it suits him. And Lan Xichen watches the way he tilts his chin with something pensive and perhaps a little imperious; gaze moving to fix on something on Lan Xichen’s left.

“Another treasure of the Jin clan. One of our ancestors wore it as his crown.”

He looks. A black Tang jin, a red stone embedded at the middle-front. Gold trim runs around its fringe. Sat on a pedestal, it holds a kind of gravitas that Lan Xichen can’t quite grasp. Jin Guangyao stares at it, hypnotised.

“For sixteen years,” he continues, “I was known as Meng Yao.”

Lan Xichen cannot tell if the look on Jin Guangyao’s face is longing or resentful, gazing at a crown once worn by his forefathers.

“Do you still consider yourself Meng Yao?”

He blinks, and Jin Guangyao’s trance breaks. “Sometimes.” Then, “Not always. I think I have changed too much.”

“Can you not be both Jin Guangyao and Meng Yao?”

Turning to look at him now, Lan Xichen wonders if he has said the wrong thing. Eyes fluttering, as if overcome. “Do you think it’s possible?”

And Lan Xichen thinks of his own dual self. The clan leader, an older brother to a quiet and emotional Wangji. The man, who resents and loves and burns and aches. “I think it is necessary,” he says. “We are all more than what the world sees.”

Jin Guangyao looks at him. It is a measuring look, a gaze so fiercely watchful that Lan Xichen can’t turn away. He is searching for a lie, he realises. And when he blinks, his face slips into something almost smiling.

“Lan Xichen.” He says it like he has learned a new word and wants to show it off. “Would you allow me the honour of taking you into to Lanling City?”

Lan Xichen softens and smiles.

“Once our palace tour is over,” he adds with a mirroring smile.

“It would be my honour,” Lan Xichen nods.

There is a moment where they view each other, uncertain but anticipatory. Jin Guangyao seems pleased, and so is he. They continue to step down the corridor, and now it is Lan Xichen who feels he must look away to conceal his smile.

They talk of Nie Mingjue. They talk of how much he had liked Jin Guangyao, and he visibly seems to try very hard to accept the compliment. Lan Xichen praises him for it, and he gets a look that could almost be reprimanding. They talk of the delay to the wedding, and Lan Xichen persuades both Jin Guangyao and himself that there is no reluctance from Lan Qiren to go ahead with it.

Jin Guangyao asks him about Cloud Recesses. He asks him about its history, its landscape, its people, and Lan Xichen feels something glowing inside him to be asked so many questions about his home. His consideration is almost overwhelming, and it is a reminder of how fortunate he is to have a marriage arranged with someone so good-hearted. Having previously resigned himself to something bureaucratic, this feeling, now, is like flying.

He is shown the various halls -- Banquet, Great, Entrance, Dance -- and he is shown the galleries, paintings of previous rulers who watch them with ink-stroke eyes. They admire them and discuss lonely childhoods -- brothels and back streets and clan rules. They discuss how different things might have been, had they both been contemporaries from the beginning.

They do not address the mention in Jin Guangyao’s letter of Lan Xichen having made him blush.

“Lianfang-Zun. Clan Leader Lan.”

They have just paused at the entrance of the courtyard, where the royal guard practise their swordsmanship, when a servant arrives and bows rigidly.

“An emergency war meeting has been arranged between Clan Leader Jin and Grandmaster Lan. They have asked for Clan Leader Lan’s attendance.”

With a nod, Jin Guangyao dismisses the servant, and turns to Lan Xichen. “I will escort you.”

Jin Guangyao opens the doors to the Conference Room with an authority that once again suits him. They swing inwards to reveal a room far more sobre than the lapis blue and gold chambers that surround it -- low-lit and minimally decorated. At the end of a long table, Clan Leader Jin. On his right, Lan Qiren. The moment that they register Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen arriving together, their expressions change: Clan Leader Jin appears pleased, whilst his uncle scrutinises him.

Kicking out the hem of his robes, Jin Guangyao descends the steps and bows. “Clan Leader Jin. I was with Zewu-Jun when your messenger found him. Now that I have escorted him, I will leave you to discuss these matters privately.”

“No. Sit, Jin Guangyao.” Then, materialising a fresh smile for Lan Xichen, “Please, Clan Leader Lan. I would be honoured for you to join us.”

The dissonance in these two addresses makes Lan Xichen quiet. He accepts the invitation with a gracious nod, taking his uncle’s side -- and yet his heart feels like an ocean before a storm. Jin Guangyao does as he is ordered, folding to the floor neatly with his gaze fixed on his father. There is a heart-breaking mixture of pride and surprise in that look.

“Clan leader. Grandmaster. My trusted advisor.” Clan Leader Jin begins this way, thus eliding any explanation as to why his youngest son and nephew are not here -- or why Hanguang-Jun has not been invited. “I have received news from one of our spies currently situated in Nightless City.”

Lan Qiren tenses. His gaze sharpens. “You have spies in Qishan?”

“But of course.” His smile is a woman’s veil, and yet this has little to do with modesty. “And we have learned a great deal from them. Wen Ruohan’s army is growing. The kidnappings that were rumoured on the Qinghe and Yunmeng borders are true: he is taking in hostages and indoctrinating them.”

Lan Xichen listens to this with an eye on Jin Guanghshan’s cool expression. And then, the letter that he gestures to.

“Our source tells us that since we pushed them back from the Lanling borders, the Wen have been snatching men from Yunmeng villages during the night. His armies are being trained night and day. None of the men know when he plans to send them out, but it is understood that it will be done in a great wave. They have taken most of Qinghe, and their next aim is to conquer The Unlcean Realm. From there, the forces will move north to Lanling.”

“Chifeng-Zun has been preparing his own forces,” Lan Xichen says.

“He has indeed communicated as much to myself and Jiang Fengmian,” Jin Guangshan explains. “However, it is becoming clearer to me that there is nothing gained in waiting. If even Wen Ruohan’s men don’t know when they will be sent out to The Unclean Realm, then surely he is aware that he has spies in his midst. If his plan is to surprise and overwhelm, the we must do so first. Better to anticipate than to retaliate.”

Jin Guangshan is nodding to himself, as if he has already convinced the rest of the room of his plan.

“Clan Leader Jin.” Lan Qiren’s brow is furrowed, a look of outrage that he wears too often. “My position has not changed. Wen Ruohan’s forces are currently contained. If we attack in unknown terrain where he holds all of his resources, we leave ourselves vulnerable.”

“Grandmaster.” His laugh is too light. “You were correct on all accounts last year when you said to invade Nightless City would be rash. The situation has changed.”

“I cannot agree to this.”

Lan Xichen watches and listens.

“Will you leave Lanling defenceless? If we invade, will you not join us?”

Lan Qiren hesitates.

“We must invade first. Surely you, with all your wisdom, Grandmaster, can see that? Lanling will not be trodden by Wen Ruohan, and we will not stand by and watch our neighbour blindly prepare for its walls to be knocked down.”

There is a logic to it. And yet, the danger of this plan is clear; if Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian were here, the would probably be in full support.

Lan Xichen, however, cannot. The Lan Clan’s calculating logic is a river that runs through him, cooling any hot decision he could ever make. Sometimes, he finds that it floods and obscures his true thoughts -- until he is uncertain where he begins and where his uncle’s teachings end.

“I agree with Grandmaster Lan,” he says, nodding slowly. “If your spies are correct, then we must similarly prepare our own armies. However the geography of Nightless City is such that any invasion comes at an enormous risk.”

Clan Leader Jin blinks. Otherwise, his expression remains unchanged. There is something coldly threatening about it. Lan Xichen mirrors it, and he holds Clan Leader Jin’s gaze with a gentle smile.

“Gentlemen.”

Jin Guangyao. He looks to his father for permission, who scans him with a critical eye. Then, nods.

Jin Guangyao unfolds himself from the floor. “If I may draw your attention to a map, which was recently drafted by myself from the deciphered notes of one of our spies.”

He crosses the room to the end of the table, retrieves a scroll from a small pile, and drops it open. Kneeling down once more, he pins it down with paperweights. Intricate veins of rivers and roads, delicate lines of mountain peaks, winding mazes of streets and roofs. Jin Guangyao’s finger comes to rest at a point in the middle of the mountain ranges.

“Our sources tell us that there is a narrow pass here. Though he has not had a chance to venture outside of the city, he has noticed during early morning training that traders often move through this route to avoid attack from thieves and vagabonds. This was not a passage that we were previously aware of, since the commonly known entrance to Nightless City is here--” he gestures to the city’s main gates, “-- suggesting that perhaps these tradesmen are from Nightless City themselves, and therefore more aware of the local geography and its unknown passes.”

“What do you suggest?” Jin Guangshan asks. He asks with politeness, though there is an edge of impatience.

Jin Guangyao notices too, for he dips his head in acknowledgement and keeps his eyes on them map. “I suggest that we do not invade, for the reasons that Grandmaster and Clan Leader Lan have laid out. However, there is little reason why we cannot set up sentinels around Nightless City’s borders. Now that we know that Wen Ruohan plans a surprise attack, we cannot sit by idly. However, to funnel into Nightless City through its gates would surely ruin us.

“I therefore advise that we station small groups of sentinels here-- here -- and here. Now that we have identified these passes, we may be able to reverse the issue in our favour: if Wen Ruohan sends out his armies, they will have to do so through the gates and these narrow exits that our spies have informed us of. His men will trickle through, leaving them vulnerable to our attack if we can position ourselves nearby. Those sentinels will cut off the first flow of men -- and our bases in the nearby towns can be alerted, coming to their assistance in time. Instead of bursting in and risking being overwhelmed, we can prick holes in his defences and control the flow ourselves.”

Lan Xichen tilts his head to view the map. “If we station men outside these exits -- regardless of how large Wen Ruohan’s army grows -- we will have him surrounded. If this is a narrow mountain pass which can only fit a trail of wagons, then it will only allow two, at most three columns of men at a time. When they eventually leave Nightless City, there will be enough of our men camped out to hold them back, whilst one might be able to inform the nearby bases to launch a full attack.”

“Precisely.”

Jin Guangyao has never appeared more natural, speaking with surety and eloquence. When their eyes meet, they share a smile that could almost be conspiratorial.

He should be ashamed. He isn’t.

Clan Leader Jin cradles his chin, viewing the map. With an elbow on his knee, he nods, pensive. “Yes. The situation is urgent enough that something must be done. This seems a good compromise. Lan Qiren?”

Looking to his uncle, Lan Xichen expects resignation or reluctance. Instead, he sees respect in those eyes, hidden beneath a furrowed brow. “Young Master Jin speaks wisely.”

It’s strange -- he has not known Jin Guangyao long at all. A day -- four months, at most, counting their letters. And yet the pride that he feels for him swells like a tsunami, and he casts a look towards Jin Guangyao, silently communicating this. However, he is not looking, instead rolling up the map and bowing his head in gratitude to Lan Qiren.

“To receive this praise from one so wise as yourself is reward indeed,” he says.

Jin Guangshan smiles, laughing silently and viewing the room in just the same way he did last night when he had his dancers perform. Something in Lan Xichen tenses, and he smiles in return. He has always felt that the Lan clan were most expert at hiding their true thoughts from everyone and their selves. The Jin Clan, he thinks, could rival them.

The door opens. A young guard hurries in, head dipped, body arching forwards in a half bow. “Clan Leader Jin. We have captured a Wen spy trying to enter Lanling City.”

Lan Xichen looks at Lan Qiren. He is hoping to share a look of concern as he might have done were Wangji here, but he receives nothing of the such from his uncle.

It is Jin Guangyao who stands and addresses the guard. When he speaks, he does so with a stillness that seems so cool and yet sets Lan Xichen alight.

“Put him in the dungeon. Send out five of the guards to rout out any others. I will deal with the spy.”

With that, he waves a hand in dismissal. That confident, angled chin; and then, turning to his father, Lan Qiren, and Lan Xichen, he forms an arc with his arms and bows. A look from him holds Lan Xichen, a tacit apology for their delayed trip into Lanling City. And then, he stands again. “Good afternoon, gentleman.”

When he leaves the room, he glides, moving like a leaf across a lake. Lan Xichen watches, and he knows that he is smiling.

“Ah,” Clan Leader Jin begins, before his son has fully left the room, “Jin Guangyao is quite skilled in dealing with traitors and spies. There is no one that he cannot draw information out of. Truly, of all my resources, he is my greatest. I will miss him when you have taken him away to Gusu forever, Clan Leader Lan.”

So much amusement in his voice, for a man who talks about his son like he is a loaned book. Lan Xichen feels his smile go icy, and he wonders if either Clan Leader Jin or Grandmaster Lan have noticed.

***

Lan Xichen finds his way back to his room. He has just enough time to take a brief lunch -- not enough time to consider how feels about Jin Guangyao’s surprising skill in interrogating spies -- before stepping out of his quarters to find his brother.

Turning the corner, he almost walks directly into Jin Guangyao.

Lan Xichen hears him gasp. They both take a step back. It happens so fast that he barely registers that moment -- that moment of almost touching.

“Lan Xichen,” he breathes, an apologetic smile playing on his lips. “I was just on my way to find you.”

There is a strange energy to him. It makes something in his eyes gleam. It makes his smile sharp. Lan Xichen considers asking how his interrogation went, but thinks better of it.

“I apologise for my abrupt departure,” Jin Guangyao begins. “Are you busy this afternoon, Lan Xichen?”

“I was simply about to go in search of my brother. If you are available, perhaps you could show me Lanling City?”

Jin Guangyao appears relieved, as if he was afraid Lan Xichen might have forgotten. “I would be delighted.”

And so they step through the palace in a strange kind of silence that Lan Xichen has not shared with Jin Guangyao yet. The man who walks beside him could almost be vibrating with the tension he is carrying with him, and yet his expression is so still. A venus fly trap, in those moments before it snaps shut. It unsettles and intrigues Lan Xichen, who matches Jin Guangyao’s pace.

It is only when they step outside and through the palace gates that Lan Xichen realises how well Koi Tower maintains its coolness. Out here, the sun breathes hot air on him, and there is a fresh smell of the river that seems to cut through it. The streets are quiet outside the palace walls, a residential area for the wealthy. Jin Guangyao explains the history of these streets with authority, the strain in his body loosening with every distraction his tour allows him. Lan Xichen listens, and he watches as his puppet-smile relaxes into something more authentic.

The suburbs of Lanling City are not just wealthy, Lan Xichen notes, as his eyes pass over the large houses and quiet temples: it is opulent. The women drift by in small footsteps and high hair styles, and there are no children on the streets. At first, Lan Xichen wonders at how well the city seems to help its homeless, since there appear to be none. And then, as they journey towards the centre, it becomes clear that they have not been helped but rather displaced.

Lanling City is lively. Beyond the outer rim of prosperity, there is a vibrancy that Caiyi can’t quite match: taverns, overflowing; old men playing go in the sun; children chasing each other with dragon puppets; food stalls, trinkets being sold at every corner. And yet, beyond that veneer, the class divide is clear.

Jin Guangyao recounts a local myth of an ancient hero exorcising a demon on this very street. Lan Xichen watches as he tells this tale, enthusiasm making his eyes almost childishly wide whilst everything else about him exudes propriety. The locals pay little attention to him, other than the occasional bow or tense smile. Lan Xichen watches their reactions to the arrival of gentry with interest.

“You mentioned that you are setting up a string of orphanages across Lanling,” Lan Xichen says.

Jin Guangyao peers at him, surprised but pleased by this segue. “Yes. It’s my belief that the people should not be forgotten in the midst of this war.”

“Is this a project which you are managing alone?”

In the short time that Lan Xichen has known Jin Guangyao, he has learned that he is not the type to miss subtle implications. He casts Lan Xichen another glance, pursing his lips a little. “It is,” he admits. “Historically, the Jin have redirected resources towards other endeavours.”

No further explanation is needed. The whole world knows about the Jin Clan’s high gentry taxes and their resulting unpopularity. Clan Leader Jin is a strong ruler, but one who is famously indulgent. When Lan Xichen had found out that he was betrothed to a member of his clan, he had been ashamed to have had biased, doubtful thoughts about the match. They’d been quickly assuaged by his correspondence with Jin Guangyao.

“I am sure that the people will be grateful to Lianfang-Zun for his efforts. Your generosity does not go unnoticed.”

Jin Guangyao smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “It is very kind of you to say.”

He raises his brows. “It isn’t only kindness, but also the truth. I have noticed it, and so have many other clans.”

Jin Guangyao dips his head and frowns.

Lan Xichen smiles, knowing that he mustn’t push too far.

They walk the length of the high street together. It is hot and crowded and the market is noisier than anywhere Lan Xichen has ever been before. It is an assault to the senses. Cloths dyed colours so vibrant they barely look real -- steam rising from pots of spicy street food -- the shouts of vendors haggling with strangers. And Jin Guangyao walks amidst all of it as silk might drift through a warm wind, occasionally passing a look over his shoulder to check that Lan Xichen is following.

And the further into the city they walk, the more that people begin to understand who Lan Xichen is and why he is there. For, the man in Gusu-white taking a stroll through Lanling City with Lianfang-Zun can only be one person. He retakes his position at Jin Guangyao’s side, and they both attempt to hold conversation whilst the people of Lanling whisper behind their hands and gaze at the young gentry couple.

When an old woman leans across her stall to offer a basket of plums, Lan Xichen slows. He has heard that they’re a delicacy here, and he has half a mind to buy some just to try -- but then, that would be over indulgent.

Jin Guangyao is already reaching into his robes for his purse.

“Oh, no, Young Master,” the old woman protests, shaking the basket, “Please. You may take them free of charge.”

“Thank you, but I must insist.”

“Lianfang-Zun…”

He passes over the money, and she accepts with a nervous bow. Her surprise speaks volumes, and Jin Guangyao’s insistence says just as much. He takes the small basket of plums. Standing in the middle of the crowd, in the noise and the smells and the heat, he looks up at Lan Xichen and proffers the basket.

“I saw you looking,” he explains. “You had promised me loquats, and so, here are Lanling’s delicacy. You may not usually buy such things for yourself, however there are no rules in the Lan Clan about a man not being allowed to buy gifts for his betrothed. I know because I have checked.”

Lan Xichen finds, for the first time in a long while, that no thoughts pass through his brain. He is numbed by the gesture, so overwhelmed with affection. Taking a plum in his hand, he offers Jin Guangyao a smile that he hopes conveys his appreciation.

Jin Guangyao smiles in return, a shy, wide-eyed look that calls for gentleness, and Lan Xichen can’t resist.

“A finer betrothal gift than any I could have imagined,” he says.

And that earns just the response that he was looking for -- that silent laugh. A smile so bright that it could bring this Lanling sunshine to shame.

Jin Guangyao smiles differently when he means it.

***

This must be what it is like to be drunk. Lan Xichen returns to Koi Tower with Jin Guangyao at his side, a basket of plums and feeling more like a child than he ever has before.

They are discussing various texts that they have read, ones that they have enjoyed, ones they can recommend one another -- and then Lan Xichen spots Wangji and Wei-fujun, walking amongst the peonies. They spot him the moment they emerge from the maze of flowers, and Wei Wuxian offers an amicable wave.

“I forgot how much warmer it can get outside of Gusu,” Wei Wuxian complains, shoulders sagging and gait lazy.

“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Xichen greets with no small amount of fondness.

“Hanguang-Jun, Wei-fujun.” Jin Guangyao bows. The two of them respond in like.

Wangji’s eyes immediately narrow in on the basket of plums.

“Perhaps I will let you have one later,” Lan Xichen teases.

Wangji effects his most apathetic stare, and Wei Wuxian nudges his husband wearing a great, beaming grin.

“I hope that you have found sufficient entertainment for the day,” Jin Guangyao says in earnest. “We were detained in meetings for some of the afternoon, and I had promised to show Zewu-Jun Lanling City.”

“We’ve been perfectly happy,” Wei Wuxian assures, rocking on the balls of his feet with his hands clasped behind his back. “We’ve done a little exploring of the city ourselves this morning.”

“I’m pleased to hear it.”

“Ah, Liangfang-Zun,” Wei Wuxian begins, “Are there… any plans for tonight’s meal?”

“Yes, although not quite to the same extent as last night. Tonight will be a four course meal. Clan Leader Jin has made certain that for the next two evenings, before the Lan return to Gusu, we will dine on only the finest.”

At the news of yet another long evening, Wei Wuxian winces a smile and nods with strained enthusiasm. “…Right.”

Wangji blinks. Lan Xichen wonders if Jin Guangyao recognises that his little brother is smiling.

Jin Guangyao turns to Lan Xichen. “I’m afraid that I must attend to some work before tonight’s meal. Lan Xichen, I will leave you with your brother and Wei-fujun.”

“Of course.”

Wei Wuxian and Wangji turn away a little, allowing them space for a goodbye as the former mutters something conspiratorial with the latter.

“Allow me to have this taken to your quarters.”

Jin Guangyao extends his hands to take the basket.

Lan Xichen considers this moment carefully.

Would it be a sin? To reach for the skin of Jin Guangao’s hands and linger; to layer his fingers over Jin Guangyao’s like the weave of the basket that they pass between them; this little token that hinges them together.

To let their fingers touch for just a moment too long – just a moment –

Lan Xichen wonders. He does, truly, consider this: in some corner of his mind that can never outrun his uncle and his father and his ancestors and all that they valued. And yet, he has found himself far bolder than he could ever have known himself to be. Yes, he is far bolder and more mutinous in the face of all this emotion that Jin Gunagyao obliviously raises in him – and so, he lays his fingers along Jin Guangyao's. An action that is careful, deliberate.

Perhaps he expected him to be surprised, to look at him with that lovely lip-parted shock and darting gaze. Jin Gunagyao does not, instead pursing his lips against a smile and bowing low.

Lan Xichen does not hold back his smile. He’s tricked him. He cant catch him mid-bow with full hands.

“Lan Xichen.”

“Jim Guangyao.”

One, last smile. It is dimples and gentleness. And then he departs, a gliding breath of gold and ivory as he ascends the steps of Koi Tower. Lan Xichen looks on with a fondness that aches, an ache that tastes of the sweetest plum, the most velvety dessert.

There is little to be self-conscious of. Lan Xichen has never once wanted to correct his smiles or affectionate looks these past two days. There is no reason that the world should know of his admiration for his betrothed. Now, as Wei Wuxian leers at him, he returns raised brows.

“You really like this one, don’t you?” Wei Wuxian says.

Wangji’s gaze is heavy-lidded, fixed disapproving at his husband.

“There are many admirable qualities in Lianfang-Zun. My uncle’s instincts were correct when he organised our betrothal.”

“Mm. Compared to some of the others who came to try and win you over, he barely has to try,” Wei Wuxian agrees. “Regardless of where he’s come from, impressiveness comes naturally to Lianfang-Zun.”

The three of them witness Jin Guangyao flicking out his sleeves and entering the palace. And at that, they begin to wander aimlessly through the gardens, just as they might do in times of repose at Gusu.

“He likes you back, too,” Wei Wuxian continues with folded arms and an air of authority. “That much is clear.”

The basket of plums seems silly and childish in his hands, and it’s wonderful. “Perhaps.”

“Huh? What do you mean perhaps? If he flirted any harder, he’d be stripping.”

“Wei Ying.”

“What? I can't be the only one to have noticed that he bats his eyelashes at Zewu-Jun and Zewu-Jun alone.”

The peonies recline in the heat, sunny faces staring at the sky. Wei Wuxian's words ripple through his thoughts, until everything becomes pleasantly misty.

***

Three days in Lanling is not long enough.

The final morning passes too quickly. Too much work to do, too many meetings in the war room, too many glances across a long table and not enough time to talk, alone.

And so it is with an almost gasping dissatisfaction that Lan Xichen descends the steps of Koi Tower with his entourage, the grey embroidery of his robes shining like silver in Lanling's sun. A breathless feeling that is so foreign and delicious and terrible, light-headed and grieving and eager and most of all, forbidden.

“Zewu-Jun.”

When he turns, all he sees at first is his family and their disciples. The men and women part at the sound of the voice, and thus a path is made between Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao on the stairs.

There is an urgency to the way he approaches. If Jin Guangyao usually moves with a still efficiency, now, he is a graceful flurry. His robes billow with his steps, the beads in his hair like stars.

Jin Guangyao stands two levels above Lan Xichen. With two, reverent hands, he passes a sealed letter.

“A more fitting goodbye,” he explains.

And then, with a self-consciousness that breaks Lan Xichen’s heart, he turns away and climbs the stairs with that typical poise.

The disciples await his word for them to continue, and he nods at them to go on ahead. Wangji is the only one to linger behind, as Lan Xichen allows himself just a moment to look down at the parchment in his hands. Scented, just as everything in Lanling is.

Wangji smiles. It is one of his smiles that softens the corners of his eyes and turns his features supple, and Lan Xichen knows, with eye-burning joy, that his younger brother is pleased for him.

***

Dearest Lan Xichen,

How can I express the ways in which these two and a half days have impressed themselves upon my mind? To attempt any kind of poetry would demean them, I feel. Instead, I will say only this: what a joy it is, that my betrothed is no longer made of pieces of parchment and words, letters assembled to create a picture of a man. You are finally real to me.

Here you are, a man of such a pure heart it could make a white chrysanthemum seem dull. One so kind and clear and strong, that it dazzles me to think that I should be wedded to it.

I will treat it with care, Lan Xichen.

These words are ours, and ours alone.

Yours,
Meng Jin Guangyao

***

Autumn is light on Cloud Recesses. The mists assemble, the bamboo casts spear-like shadows, and Lan Xichen steps down from the Hanshi.

Four years ago, when he was sixteen, his uncle had invited a local noble man and his daughter to Cloud Recesses to meet Zewu-Jun. It wasn’t until the young girl began to pour tea for the four of them that he understood the purpose of the visit, and he had done all he could to quash the feeling of horrifying betrayal.

There has been six more visits since then. All of them filled with pageantry and obsequious conversation, Lan Xichen wearing his finest robes, and the suitor showing off their jawline or jewellery or musical prowess. Their arrival likes flocks of birds, feathered and pretty; the silent interrogation of his uncle’s gaze; visitors’ attempts at flattery, boasting, bravado. Nervous girls and pompous boys with head-dresses and forceful parents. Lan Xichen, smiling serenely, sometimes eyes closed.

And he had always come to the entrance to meet them on arrival, standing before his uncle and brother with hands behind his back and something benevolent on his face for the suitor’s benefit. It could not be helped, after all, that either of them were in this position. He would stand in the snow or the mist or the sun, a statue to be revered, something that people wanted, and it made him feel unclean.

Now, Lan Xichen watches the party of Jin ascend the mountain steps of Cloud Recesses, passing through the palace gates. It has been three months, it is the end of summer, and when Lan Xichen sees Jin Guangyao, it is as refreshing as cold-spring water.

He walks like an arrow flies. He holds his head as a crane stands frozen in a lake. He looks at him with smiles, with silent laughs in busy Lanling streets.

Lan Xichen forgets benevolence in favour of adoration. Is he a clan leader, or a man? Right now, he knows that his face is warm in the early autumn sunshine. Right now, he knows that Jin Guangyao has struck his heart as surely as a sundial exacts shadows.

Chapter Text

There is a kind of love that builds. It gathers and tumbles in the same way dust settles. It accumulates like the ash of an incense stick, like wax at the base of a candle. It burns quietly.

There is a kind of love that explodes. It sets itself alight and tears everything apart in a wild wind.

And then there is a love that is endless and without beginning. It survives through itself, turns in on itself, turns into something violent and chest-breaking; it’s a cosmic hand that digs through the bone of sternum and wraps around the heart, pulls it out and makes it something lovely. It hangs it with the stars and it is vast, so vast that it tumbles into bodilessness. There is a love that is a universe, that doesn’t need love returned, that doesn’t need a story. It grows outwards, lays one open and raw.

Meng Yao smiles as he makes his steady way across the damp Gusu ground. Lan Xichen is waiting for him.

He approaches and he sees Lan Xichen as if he is seeing him for the first time. Before, he recognised Lan Xichen’s beauty; the gentle slope of his cheeks, a jaw carved from ivory; soft, ink-stroke eyes. Meng Yao has refrained from writing poetry about the natural pout of his lips. The handsome features of Zewu-Jun were immediately obvious to his betrothed. Now, Meng Yao instead sees nothing but a multitude, a universe, something vast and edgeless: Meng Yao sees Fate.

He is too numbed by how perfect it is to be terrified.

Clan Leader Lan blinks a smile of acknowledgment, and Meng Yao keeps his hands clasped. He approaches with surety: this lovely destiny is immutable.

***

Meng Yao rests. The journey had been easy but long, and by the time he has laid out his clothes into the dark, wooden chest of his quarters, the light has already faded. Through the slight gap in his door he sees a deep blue sky, rich and cloudy.

This place is cool. Autumn has hit Cloud Recesses in a different way to Lanling City. Leaves like burning embers don’t dance in hot wind, and the sky is not oppressively grey; there is something sharp, fresh. It makes the skin of his neck tingle, as if a storm has set static through this quiet mountain. And yet the air is still, and the mist breathes silently over them like a ghost.

His quarters are unlike what he has come to know at Koi Tower, with its glittering gold and silk sheets and gauze curtains. These quarters are situated just above a waterfall, and yet he cannot hear it, as if it flows though some kind of enchantment. A room with a dark table, a painting of Gusu in spring, light grey walls, a simplicity that calms. A single branch of blossom, twisting in its little alcove. A bed, pretty and sparse. It’s the kind of place that makes it easy to breathe, and that makes Meng Yao realise how breathless he has become.

Knelt beside the storage chest, folding the material of his white inner robes, Meng Yao pauses. His gaze slides to the small, gold box, nestled amongst the rest of his things. He sees it out of the corner of his eye. He views it like a child opening their eyes after a nightmare, watching the shadows.

He is not sure why he brought it, when he has already vowed that he will never use its contents on Lan Xichen.

Footsteps. Meng Yao blinks, turning his face away from the door, just so can allow it to fall. He feels his lip quiver as he gathers up the box and places it in the chest, covers it with his under clothes. Composing himself once more, he affects a look of surprise as he holds open the lid and turns to view the person at the door.

“Lan Xichen.” He finds a smile.

Lan Xichen holds himself outside of the door, hands behind his back. “I hope I did not alarm you.”

“Not at all. The air is so refreshing here, I thought I would leave the door open a little. Please, come in.”

Lan Xichen moves in that way that he does: it’s a kind of power that receives respect without demanding it. Whilst other leaders shout and posture, Lan Xichen evokes the same kind of awe that a mirror-still ocean does. In Meng Yao's mind, this man is as much a part of nature as the mountain his palace sits upon.

“Cloud Recesses is as beautiful as you described,” he begins. Closing the chest, a hand lingering as if to make certain that all it contains remains hidden. He pauses. Then, standing and offering Lan Xichen a place at the table, “your drawings represent it better than I could have realised.”

Lan Xichen kneels to the floor, taking a place at the offered table where incense burns. Wisps of smoke, a dark sky, flickering candles. Meng Yao feels suddenly drunk on the intimacy of seeing evening shadows across the face of his betrothed. He takes a seat opposite him and tries not to watch.

“You are very generous.” Lan Xichen says this with that gentle humour that suits him.

“Not at all. The painting you sent me when we first began our correspondence is now hung on the wall in my quarters at Koi Tower. Your skills should not be understated.”

The expression on Lan Xichen’s face is too gentle for words.

Meng Yao looks away. “I hope I have not gone too far.”

“No.” He blinks. Smiles. “I’m very pleased.”

Foolish. Idiot, to give such a thing away, he thinks. And then, brutally: But why not? We’re engaged, and I love him. Why shouldn’t he know?

“And is this another example of your work?” he manages.

They both turn to view the painting on Meng Yao’s right.

“Yes, it is. I spent my summers as a younger man without the responsibilities that I have now. Our uncle encouraged us to apply ourselves to one skill at a time. I therefore spent six years dedicated to the art of painting.”

The brush strokes are unmistakably Lan Xichen’s. There is a character to them that Meng Yao thinks he would recognise anywhere, even if Lan Xichen’s teacher had once told him than his work lacked personality. Meng Yao smiles a silent laugh. “I imagine that such a method of developing skills is a Lan sect idiosyncrasy. To focus on one skill at a time, rather than clutter the mind with multiple.”

“Indeed it is,” he replies, with some unspoken affection for his clan. Then, turning his gaze to Meng Yao – “And yet, this is not the reason I am here.”

“Oh?”

The end-of-summer breeze trickles across the floor of the guest pavilion. Meng Yao watches Lan Xichen, transfixed by the self-deprecating smile that appears on his face. Gaze fixed on his knees, he removes a flute from his belt. A beautiful thing, pure jade and minimally engraved.

There is a long moment, where neither knows what to say. Lan Xichen appears reluctant to draw attention to the moment or say anything that could be misconstrued as conceited; Meng Yao does not want to deter him from playing for him. And so, nothing is said.

Lan Xichen’s eyes fall closed, and he plays.

It’s the sound of wind through trees. It’s a sound that would remind him of the push and pull of the ocean, if Meng Yao could remember such a thing – it has been so long since he has been to the coast. Flute tunes are often wistful, but there is nothing so flimsy as that in Lan Xichen’s playing. The tune rises and falls, cuts clean lines through the air; it is as delicate yet strong as spider’s silk. And Meng Yao would close his eyes, were it not for the fact that he cannot stop looking.

Time has a way of slipping when Meng Yao is fully concentrated. Now, he is so enveloped by the folds of Lan Xichen’s tune, that he does not notice himself almost falling out of consciousness, blinking slowly and relaxing. When the song comes to an end, he is not startled into waking, rather lulled.

Lan Xichen holds the silence, and Meng Yao doesn’t breathe. Slowly opening his eyes, he removes the flute from his lips, and the trance seeps away.

“I am aware that I promised to play you the guqin, rather than the flute,” Lan Xichen finally says.

It brings a genuine laugh. “Lan Xichen…”

“It was a little cumbersome to bring with me to your quarters.”

The mischief in it delights Meng Yao, who dips his head to hide his face. “Well,” he begins, the smile clear in his voice, “perhaps I might pay a visit tomorrow. If you would be willing to play for me.”

“I would,” he asserts, a sudden seriousness that almost rivals Lan Wangji. “And I would be delighted to teach you, if you would allow it.”

“I would enjoy it,” Meng Yao corrects.

They view each other. Meng Yao dares to hold his gaze. He doesn’t know why, but the heat of it tastes right.

***

In a pavilion above a waterfall – in a simple room – in an engraved chest – beneath the box of poisons.

A dagger, a gift to a bastard son. It was never brought with the intention to kill: rather, a reminder of who brought him here in the first place. A reminder that no matter how much he wishes he could forget, he is the snake in the grass.

***

Their time is filled with honey-days. Days that taste of sweet autumn air, lingering summer breezes that have forgotten to disappear. Days that have Meng Yao taking demure trips to the Hanshi, offering challengingly innocent smiles to anyone who scrutinises him for it. Summoned by the Clan Leader Lan himself – who is Jin-gongzi to deny him? And why would be want to, when the moments he shares with Lan Xichen are the only pockets of peace in his universe? Who would turn down an offer to listen to Zewu-Jun play his guqin or flute for an audience of one, steam and incense smoke twisting and blending and caressing between them?

Their time is filled with scorching aches. Taking silent meals together – the Lan Clan gentry and Jin Guangyao, in companionable quiet. Wei Wuxian often opening his mouth to speak and grimacing at Lan Wangji’s affectionate look of reprimand. Lan Qiren looking at nobody. Lan Xichen, looking at Meng Yao, and not even having the decency to turn away when Meng Yao notices.

Their days roll on into the fourth. Meng Yao is here for no other reason than the formalities of gentry courtship, and he is in no hurry to leave. He is in no hurry to do anything. And the longer he waits for change – the longer that autumn stretches with its aura of held breath, of indecision, of waiting until the last moment – the more he frightened he feels. He spends all his mental energy wrapping up the string of panic that is quickly unspooling inside of him. He tucks it away, and the guilt tears gashes in his chest from the inside.

The fifth day begins with a heavy, grey sky. It begins with Meng Yao sitting in front of his mirror, combing his hair, eyes on the Jin red adornment upon his brow, fingers falling through locks, and the creeping feeling of a shiver up his back. Behind him, the chest. It looms, it waits, it is carved into him. He knows that he would see it out of the corner of his eye, even if he stepped outside of this room.

Meng Yao loses time. He is watching his reflection sightlessly. Unblinking. Hands turning himself into something pretty as if they are a part of someone else’s body. He spends the entire morning sitting mindlessly, slipping into an open-eyed sleep. The ghost of duty is hanging over him. And it breathes.

***

He learns to play the guqin.

The strings do not sing with the soft echo that they do for Lan Xichen. When Meng Yao touches them, there is something else that speaks, and it makes him nervous.

The doors of the Hanshi lie open. The delicious melancholy of dead trees stand vigil, and Meng Yao stares back at them, whilst Lan Xichen smiles and tells him how extraordinary he is.

***

His second murder had been when he was thirteen years old. Zhao Long had advised him not to use poison, and to change the method of killing with each assassination to avoid suspicion. Meng Yao had watched as the decorative axe hung on the wall had come loose and fallen into his victim’s head. The servants had screamed and screamed, oh, they’d screamed so much. Meng Yao had watched through the peephole, his young face distorted in horror at what he had accomplished. Crouched in the dark, mouth open in a silent scream.

***

It’s the sixth night that Meng Yao slips between the eaves of the Hanshi and drops silently into Lan Xichen’s quarters.

Zewu-Jun is a skilled martial artist, a master swordsman and a fine warrior. The only reason that he is not woken up is because it’s one of the world’s finest assassins that currently crawls between the rafters. Meng Yao is wild with sleeplessness and anxiety as he crouches in the dark corner of the ceiling, watching.

He sleeps on his back, with his hands clasped upon his chest and a face like snow.

It would be simple to administer it now, his father’s voice says. But your orders are to wait until after the wedding. Spend the night with him once you are wed and administer it then.

His father is a moron. If he were to do it at all, it would be kinder to do it now.

No. Kinder would be for Meng Yao to leave Lan Xichen, never see him again, break his heart.

Meng Yao will do neither.

He slips down to the floor and crawls towards Lan Xichen like a cat.

He sleeps. He is beautiful and still. He—

The simplicity of it makes him shake. The relief of it hurts. At least now I know. Now I know. I can’t do it. I truly can’t, even if I wanted to.

When Lan Xichen’s brow furrows and shows signs of waking, Meng Yao dissolves into the night.

***

“It is fine weather to visit Caiyi.”

Lan Xichen walks with Meng Yao through the skeleton of the forest, orange leaves under foot. It’s so easy to forget, when they’re like this. So easy to forget, when Meng Yao looks at him and thinks about falling to his knees and praying to Lan Xichen; imagines his fingers in his hair and that quietly amused smile on his lips. So easy to forget, when he realises that Lan Xichen would never want him to worship him.

“It is,” Meng Yao agrees. He peers up at the sky, the bones of branches etching black lines against its blue. “The autumns here are so different to Lanling. It feels so much more like a knife-edge.”

Their breaths come out in foggy plumes. Lan Xichen tilts his head and listens.

“In Lanling – and to some extent, Yunmeng – the seasons change very gradually,” Meng Yao explains. “Here, it all feels far more sudden.”

Lan Xichen blinks slowly, absorbing this. “I will submit to your expertise on the topic. I don’t know any other way.”

Meng Yao hides his hands inside the fur of his sleeves. “Only a silly musing.”

And then, the way that Lan Xichen looks at him. It’s the kind of look that pierces holes through armour, and Meng Yao watches his feet as they walk.

“A-Yao,” he says quietly.

He looks at him. Lan Xichen smiles at Meng Yao’s shock.

“A-Yao,” he asserts. “How are you feeling, these days?”

“Quite well,” he replies too quickly.

Lan Xichen draws in a breath. “You have seemed like a knife-edge yourself.”

Meng Yao frowns in dismay. If it looks like innocent confusion, then that is all the better.

“Is there anything on your mind?”

“Not at all, Xichen.” It is easy to refer to him as such. “The war, naturally, troubles me. I am unused to being away from home for this long stretch of time. And yet I am very happy.”

If Lan Xichen recognises this as false, he shows it only by smiling. His eyes are cold. It is the first time Meng Yao has noticed such a thing in his betrothed, and it burns him.

He releases a breath, does not look away.

“Perhaps a day in Caiyi will ease whatever concerns you hide in your heart,” Lan Xichen says, with all the lightness of someone who knows it will do no such thing.

Meng Yao smiles. As ever, his smiles are genuine with Lan Xichen.

And the answer suddenly appears to him like a star blinking into life from behind a cloud. If I don’t kill him, I’ll protect him with my life instead. He gazes at Lan Xichen’s profile. Even from my father.

The filial thing that has grown in him over an entire lifetime could never compare to his feelings for a man he has barely known half a year. It surprises Meng Yao into grinning. And the relief of decision – it makes him giddy and reckless and sick.

A hand surreptitiously brushing Lan Xichen’s, barely.

***

They are halfway down the mountain as it is, and so their walk to the lake at the base does not take so long. A row of little boats wait for them, manned by chattering and gossiping people playing with their oars. At the sight of Zewu-Jun emerging from the forest like a ghost, they fall into formation and bow, one of them dropping their oar into the lake in a panic. They grapple for it blindly where they kneel, hand fumbling in the cold water.

“Zewu-Jun. Young Master.”

Lan Xichen waits patiently for them to rise. One of them slips on the damp wood of the boat, and it rocks gently like a cradle. They view the man standing behind Lan Xichen with curiosity – and then recognition, as they spot the red paint on his brow.

“Jin-gongzi,” says one. He bows low, a perpendicular crouch.

Lan Xichen smiles at the man, having apparently made his decision. A hand disappears into the fold of his outer robes and produces a small piece of silver.

The journey is cold. The sky is an ice blue, the lake mirroring it with imperfect ripples. For a long while, neither of them speaks, watching the birds arcing overhead. Meng Yao, who feels suddenly so free and breathless, reaches for a drifting gold leaf. He picks it out of the freezing water, fingers aching. It matches his normal robes – but the ones he wears now are off-white, an approximation of Gusu robes. He is hardly recognisable as a Jin. And then they talk of small things, inconsequential things, things that Lan Qiren would consider superfluous and Jin Guangshan a waste of energy. Meng Yao smiles more than he thinks he ever has before, and Lan Xichen notices.

It does not take long to reach Caiyi by boat, as it cuts directly through the difficult, marshy passes. The view of the town emerges through the mist, a shadow on the horizon past the fields and paddies. The eaves of rooves and the stilts of docks, the smoke of taverns. Meng Yao can taste its vibrancy before he has even reached it.

Caiyi is a happy town. Though it doesn’t have the bright dyes and the buzzing heat of Lanling City, it radiates a different kind of energy. Meng Yao sees it in the way the people slow and smile at Clan Leader Lan, the children running along the edge of the canal and waving at them. Lan Xichen returns the smiles, nodding his head.

How strange – to be a leader genuinely seems to make Lan Xichen happy. There is no falsehood in that divine, benevolent face.

“You are so loved by your people.”

Lan Xichen acknowledges this with closed eyes. “And yet, their strife only exists because of petty gentry disagreements.”

It shocks Meng Yao into open-mouthed silence. Lan Xichen has always appeared so dutiful. To have such mutinous thoughts – “A disagreement that you and the Lan Clan are fighting to end,” he replies. Meng Yao is very skilled at pandering to gentry. This is not pandering – it is honesty, and it feels foreign.

“Not everyone sees it that way. Perhaps some, but not all.”

Meng Yao smiles. “Those who do not recognise what you do for them are idiots.”

The acidity in his tone of voice turns Lan Xichen’s head. He recognises it, Meng Yao knows. He’s seeing him. Perhaps not all, but some of him. And yet, it seems to do nothing to deter Lan Xichen; he stares at him with something simultaneously hot and cold.

Then, quite suddenly – “May I ask you a question, A-Yao?”

Ah. It seems that Lan Xichen has sensed an opportune moment, has seen that Meng Yao is shedding his snakeskin. He is far more calculating, more sharp then the other gentry give him credit. “Of course, Xichen.”

“I have often wondered, if you don’t me asking, that you do not have a Yunmeng accent.”

Meng Yao half blinks at him. Then, looking down the river, he views the crowds of shoppers and venders and children, milling about by the bank of the canal. People with livestock, people with toys, people in their boats, selling food to those who sail by. People viewing Lan Xichen, then Jin Guangyao, giggling behind their hands. People waving at both of them.

Meng Yao waves back with uncertainty, and Lan Xichen smiles.

When he eventually replies, it is with the thinnest lie he can manage. He wants Lan Xichen to see through it, like the membrane of an egg. “My mother did not have a Yunmeng accent. She spoke properly, for my benefit. In the hope that I would someday be legitimised. My mother prepared me--" suffocated me with ambition “--and she taught me--” deluded me “--how to speak and read and write. She--” wanted something better than me “--raised me to be an heir in all the ways--" smiles teeth claws “--that she knew. She would have been--" so proud “proud, I think.”

Lan Xichen makes no move to assert that she would. That is how Meng Yao knows that he understands. The knowledge that lies between them is thick and sweet. A flurry of leaves dances across the canal, and it plays with their hair. And he feels Lan Xichen looking at him; Meng Yao does not return the look. He instead offers smiles to the Caiyi townspeople, who view their budding romance like giddy, gossiping teenagers.

Lan Xichen leans towards a passing merchant, deftly exchanging a piece of silver for a basket of fruit before the boat continues on.

“Loquats,” Meng Yao remarks with amusement.

“I always intended to purchase some as a betrothal gift.”

“Your betrothal gift was the pendant, I thought. And before that, the painting.”

“And I had thought the same of the pendant you gave me. And yet, you bought me Lanling plums.”

Lan Xichen offers the basket. Meng Yao picks one of the gemlike fruits between his fingers. It is as gold as Lanling silk.

“Your brother may never forgive us if we don’t leave some for him.”

Lan Xichen smiles, eyes narrowing and cat-like. “It pleases me to see that you both get on so well.”

It’s true, that Meng Yao has made an effort – though he finds Lan Wangji hard work. Although, he thinks that Lan Wangji only looks fondly upon him because it is clear that his brother is happy. And, because Meng Yao handles Wei Wuxian quite well.

Even if there is something about Wei Wuxian that unsettles him.

The boat drifts seamlessly. The chatter of the town makes a gentle percussion with the lapping of the canal water. Meng Yao feels Lan Xichen watching as he turns the loquat delicately in his hands.

When he brings the fruit to his lips, he draws it out. He bites slowly, sucks the juice. Deftly runs his tongue along the heel of his hand where some of it trickles. And he looks up at Lan Xichen through his lashes.

It’s totally brazen and reckless. He knows how he looks, because he has been trained to seduce. He has seen himself in the mirror, and he has seen people’s mouths fall open at the way he widens his eyes. Whenever he affects this particular brand of ruinous innocence, it makes people look. The paradox of a good assassin: sometimes, you have to be looked at in order to go unseen.

Lan Xichen doesn’t stare with the hungry rapaciousness that the other men did. Nor is there surprise, or discomfort, which he thought might have been the case. It’s instead a kind of curiosity, something warm and transfixed.

Well. Perhaps a little bit hungry, too.

What a silly game to play, flirting outright like this. How nice it is, to play it for no other motive than to please himself and Zewu-Jun.

“Delicious,” he says, keeping eye contact.

Lan Xichen looks like he agrees.

***

The joy of freedom is frightening.

Meng Yao still spends the early mornings combing his hair. He doesn’t do it with the same dead-eyed stare in the mirror, now, though. He covers the chest in his quarters with a robe.

***

Sometimes, Wei Wuxian looks at him. All Meng Yao can do is smile back.

***

In the second week of Meng Yao’s visit, he and Lan Xichen stay up – just before nine o’clock – and watch the stars.

They will share tea and incense and whispered poetry, the sputtering of a lantern going out. They will sit in silence by the window and watch the sky. Meng Yao will lean against the wall and gaze. Lan Xichen will sit with his natural poise, eyes scanning the constellations. It is simultaneously peaceful and terrifying, feeling the little points of light in the sky stare at him. Fires unhidden, watching.

***

Lan Xichen summons Meng Yao to the Hanshi one morning and announces that he has a betrothal gift.

After Meng Yao attempts to explain that there have, in fact, been three betrothal gifts already, Lan Xichen replies that, no, those had simply been gifts: he knows that a betrothal gift ought to be of true emotional value (as if the others hadn’t been), and he expects nothing in return (as if Meng Yao does not immediately rack his brains for what he could give Lan Xichen in return).

The air is heavy with an oncoming storm, and Lan Xichen produces a paintbrush.

It is remarkably delicate. The tip of the brush is as crisp and sharp as an arrowhead, the design of the handle, jade. It is minimally engraved, not unlike Liebing; he lays it carefully on the table between them, propped up on a little block of dark Gusu wood.

Meng Yao reaches for it. He takes it carefully, examines it with parted lips and light-headedness that leaves him, uncharacteristically, speechless.

Lan Xichen explains that it could simply be decorative, or he could use it to pen his poetry. He does not ask him if it pleases him.

Nonetheless, Meng Yao says that, Yes, Lan Huan. It pleases him more than he could ever express.

***

There is news of the Wen soldiers breaking out of Nightless City. The horses are saddled before the four of them have even ordered for them to be brought. Lan Xichen rides out front, with Meng Yao, Wei Wuxian, and Lan Wangji at the rear. The disciples follow.

When they arrive only a day later, there is a full-blown battle – and it is far closer to the Gusu border than they anticipated. The damp earth of Henan is filled with Nie, Lan, and Wen clan soldiers. The first thing Meng Yao notices when he arrives is the man that he has only met once but could never forget, astride his horse with a sabre mid-thrust and face curled like a dog’s muzzle: Nie Mingjue. By his side, the sentinels that the allied clans had stationed outside Nightless City. Many of their bodies litter the floor. The Twin Jades of Lan fight in a lethal flurry of white.

The Jin join them at the end of the first day. Jin Zixuan’s forces crest the distant hills in a paint stroke of ivory-gold. And when the Wen soldiers do not seem to abate, a constant tsunami of them pouring from the far-off gates of Nightless City, Jiang Wanyin arrives with his army, teeth bared and spilling blood, enough to rival even the Nie.

The battle rages for three days.

Meng Yao is not accustomed to hand-to-hand combat. He fights better than the Wen soldiers, at least, who are mindlessly tired. When he is not drawing his sword, he is in the medical tent, applying what expertise he had learned in herbs and tinctures, knelt at Jiang Yanli’s side as he pours water between disciples’ cracked lips. And when he is not pretending to be a healer rather than a killer, he is searching for Lan Xichen.

Jin Guangshan is not here. He cannot bear witness. And so, Meng Yao prepares no defence for the fact that he does everything in his power to keep Lan Xichen alive. With every Wen that approaches, Meng Yao drives his sword through their gut. For every soldier that looks at Zewu-Jun, Meng Yao exacts cold revenge. Leaving a trail of Wen bodies in his wake, Meng Yao forms a lethal orbit around Lan Xichen.

He has never felt so proud of his work.

And when the grey skies turn red and the rivers reflect them with blood, the remains of this war reveal themselves in all their unceremonious horror. Heads, limbs, guts. Meng Yao is not unused to wearing blood like robes; Jiang Wanyin is wide eyed and pale from it. MianMian carries it a little better. Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji are spotlessly white, cold and efficient as they check the bodies for survivors. Wei Wuxian is adorned in gore, and he looks feral from it.

And there are no battle cries of victory as Wen Ruohan’s body is found amongst the corpses; there is no celebration when the allied clans look around and view the deaths of their friends. Instead, there is a slowly darkening sky and a tent full of crying soldiers, a pall of rainclouds hovering above them, taunting them with promise of rain. Silence rings, and Meng Yao sinks into it. Some of the soldiers nod to him in recognition, and he returns the gesture. It is the first time he has ever felt that he has a family.

When the spoils are taken and the survivors counted, the clans return to their various districts. Jin Zixuan announces that he and his father will flush Nightless City of its remaining people. Being closest to the Gusu border than any other, Lan Xichen graciously offers the various gentry a space to recuperate in Cloud Recesses. Meng Yao uses this opportunity to return to Gusu with Lan Xichen. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian linger behind for reasons that they refuse to explain. That is how Meng Yao finds himself making the day’s journey back to Cloud Recesses with Jiang Wanyin, Jiang Yanli, Nie Mingjue, and their disciples. Zewu-Jun, a gleaming bastion leading the troops to safety.

Something in Meng Yao tenses, and his heart takes on the same heaviness as the sky above.

He only notices the fact that Lan Xichen is hiding a limp two days later.

The distant sound of the Yunmeng siblings arguing echoes through the quiet Cloud Recesses courtyard. Through the fronds of bamboo, Lan Xichen emerges from the Hanshi. From where he has been taking tea on the veranda of his guest room, Meng Yao stands up abruptly.

“You are injured, Zewu-Jun.”

Lan Xichen turns to view Meng Yao. He will always call him by his title in public, and he does not argue against it – though the long-suffering smile tells him that he thinks it another ‘unnecessary gesture’.

“Lianfang-Zun.”

Meng Yao ignores this quietly pointed greeting, instead standing before Lan Xichen and viewing the way he carefully holds himself; a hand behind his back; shoulders relaxed; no different than he should ever stand, all for the limp he is clearly hiding. “Have you seen a physician?”

“A-Yao.” He does his silent laugh. “Yes, I have. My leg is bandaged, and my shoulder is replaced.”

“Your shoulder?”

Meng Yao, as a habit, does not squawk or exclaim. It is hard on this occasion not to.

Lan Xichen looks away. How dare he.

“You had said nothing of this,” Meng Yao says coolly. “For the whole journey back, you said nothing when I asked if you were alright.”

“I know that you worry. You have many things weighing on you and I did not want to add to them.”

“Foolish.”

Lan Xichen raises his brows. And yet he is also smiling. Meng Yao bristles, blinks, and then is aghast.

“Zewu-Jun.” He dips his head. Then, since that does not feel enough, he bows. “Please accept my apologies.”

Hands on his arms.

“A-Yao. What is there to apologise for? You will remember that I like that you challenge me.”

Meng Yao swallows. He tilts his head and peers up at his betrothed, who has one brow still arched.

“You promise that you will have your wounds checked regularly.”

“If you will promise the same.”

Meng Yao frowns. “I was not injured.”

“I saw that you came close to severe injury more than once. You might be ruthless on the battlefield, but you are not immune to pain, A-Yao.”

He blinks, clenches his jaw. This thing called caring, or rather, being cared for: it makes him numb. “I—”

“Clan Leader Lan.”

It’s the sound of a voice that he could have forgotten, were it anyone’s but his fathers. It sends ricocheting anxiety through him like a bell. His head snaps around to view the approach of Jin Guangshan and his entourage, absent of Jin Zixuan and Jin Zixun. The Clan Leader Jin smiles upon Zewu-Jun, and barely looks at his son.

Meng Yao steps away from Lan Xichen’s hands, and he bows low.

How simple it had seemed last week, to hate his father. Now, he finds himself instinctively supplicating, the need to beg and claw at his robes seeping into the tips of his fingers. Meng Yao winces to himself, gaze fixed on his feet.

“Clan Leader Jin. Welcome to Cloud Recesses.”

“Zewu-Jun. It’s a pleasure to return after so long. I believe you were only nine when I was last here. Jin Guangyao.”

At the sound of his name, he straightens. And he finds that he cannot look at his father without the taste of bile. Lan Xichen turns to a block of ice beside him.

“Clan Leader Jin,” Meng Yao greets. He is relieved by how impartial he sounds.

The leaders make stilted conversation. Meng Yao follows a step behind, in his place. And the little fantasy has woven this week strains under the heavy clouds above.

The world echoes with the drums of thunder.

***

Clan leaders in fine robes. A celebratory banquet for the gentry. Meng Yao, dressing his hair with fine braids, eyes fixed on his reflection. Soft, parted lips; sleek hair pulled back to show the planes of his jaw and cheekbones; wide, endearing eyes. He was built to be underestimated.

Does he have his mother’s eyes? He doesn’t remember what she looks like.

“Jin Guangyao.”

Of course, he heard his father’s footsteps before his voice. He notices his uninvited image in the mirror. Meng Yao views him for a moment, then turns around, kneeling with his face to the floor.

“Clan Leader Jin.”

The door whispers shut. Meng Yao takes a moment to stare at the floorboards, gritting his teeth.

“I see that you have laid a solid foundation.”

Meng Yao straightens slowly, hands dragging along the floor to rest on his knees. His head remains bowed.

“That Zewu-Jun really does like you, doesn’t he. And you have made quite a convincing play of your feelings, too.”

Watching his approaching feet, he says nothing, hands laid gently against his knees.

“Hanguang-Jun?”

He manages not to swallow, though his throat sounds hoarse when he speaks. “We have struck a bond.”

“Good. Good.”

Though Wei Wuxian is so attentive to his husband, I would never have been able to exact the plan you laid out for me, even if I wanted to try. He would have my head before I manipulated his precious Lan Zhan.

“Zewu-Jun is healing,” Jin Guangshan remarks casually. Meng Yao watches his shadow across the floorboards. “Tonight at the banquet would be the ideal time. It could easily be pinned on battle wounds.”

Meng Yao raises his widening eyes. Jin Guangshan fiddles with the branch of blossom in the alcove across the other side of the room. He is sickeningly resplendent.

“Tonight.”

“I know what my orders were.” His voice has an edge to it, despite the smile. “But there is no point in waiting until after the wedding if you have already established the necessary trust. No one would doubt that Zewu-Jun simply succumbed to infection from one of his wounds.”

The urge to argue is drowned out by head-swimming fury. He searches for that coolly calculating thing in him, fingers gripping his robes. “With all the clan leaders present, it may draw more attention than desired.”

Jin Guangshan turns and views him, expression stormy. “I brought you in for a reason, boy.” Meng Yao is twenty-one. He thinks he will be referred to as ‘boy’ even when he is fifty. “Choose a weapon that has slow lasting effect. That is your job.”

And Meng Yao looks. He looks at his father, who glares at him with the corners of his mouth twitching; a snake about to unhinge his jaw. Does Meng Yao look like him? He isn’t sure about that, either. There are moments when he thinks he glimpses similarities, but they slip away like birds diving into a dark forest. Jin Guangshan is something duller than him, he realises headily. He is something weaker.

Meng Yao smiles. “It will be done.”

Jin Guangshan’s eyes half blink, staring Meng Yao down. Perhaps he recognises the steel in his son and is threatened by it, because he takes a step back and tugs at his robe to straighten it. “Very well.” He looks Meng Yao up and down. “Show me."

Meng Yao goes to the chest without complaint. He opens the lid and pushes aside the clothes.

The box seems to simple, a little gold thing nestled amongst his underclothes. Meng Yao bends slowly to fetch it, a hand on either side, gentle and smiling as he releases it from the folds of white material. He turns to reveal it to his father, who watches him approach with a low brow.

Meng Yao kneels, occasion robes billowing. There is a particular puzzle that must be solved in order to open the box; little tiles sliding into place on the surface of the lid, lacquer peonies crossing over each other; and then it unlocks.

To the untrained eye, it would not be immediately obvious that these are poisons. Little flower buds here, the ashes of something indistinguishable there; each of them, contained in dainty golden draw-string bags. No, to the untrained eye, they would appear to be medicines: a thing quite personal, reasonably hidden away in a puzzle box.

Jin Guangshan’s lips pull into a smileless smile. He takes a bag, opens the draw string, peers inside with a tilted chin. “Explain them to me.”

“Of course,” Meng Yao says, with his own smile. It hasn’t dropped away for a second since he drew it on. “You are currently holding a bag which contains a small vial of castor. In small doses, it is harmless. In continual doses over time, the subject falls into a coma. In a large dose, it can also induce seizures. There is no lingering taste and it can kill without trace.”

Jin Guangshan nods slowly. He passes the bag back to him. Meng Yao takes it, views it, and tucks it up his sleeve.

Jin Guangshan smiles.

Meng Yao smiles back.

***

They arrive at the banquet together. Jin Guangshan leads and Meng Yao follows a step behind.

The Jins take their seats at the table beside Grandmaster and Clan Leader Lan. Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-Jun take the table at Lan Xichen’s left. It could almost remind Meng Yao of their strained dinners at Koi Tower over the summer months, were it not for the way that Lan Xichen now smiles openly at him. Meng Yao smiles back, and he knows that it must look sad.

Wei Wuxian looks at him.

Sect Leader Yao – a man who could be so easily forgotten, were it not for the volume of his voice – sits at the table directly beside Jin Guangshan. Nie Mingjue takes his seat across from the Jin. It would have been interesting to have seen Nie Huaisang here, also, but since he did not participate in the battle, he supposes that is why he did not come directly to Gusu. Jiang Yanli, however, sits beside her brother and father. Jin Zixuan, gratefully, has remained in Lanling; Lady Jiang’s eyes seem to scan the room in search of him, and Meng Yao can’t tell whether he sees disappointment or not. It is a shame that she likes him so much. Meng Yao has grown to respect the her greatly.

When the gentry are seated, conversation is quiet. Many of the people here, at least, respect the Lan Clan rule of no conversation whilst eating; they are trying to get most of it in now, before the food arrives, with lowered voices. Sect Leader Yao, typically, does not observe this, and near yells at Clan Leader Jin about his own disciples’ prowess on the battlefield. Meng Yao says nothing, simply watching it all. He feels light-headed enough to be sat upon a watchtower, looking down at the proceedings from somewhere above. Nie Mingjue, nodding to his childhood friend; Lan Xichen bowing his head in return; Jiang Wanyin, rolling his eyes at his brother, who prods him in the shoulder from the adjacent table he shares with Lan Wangji; the latter, bearing it all a half-lidded gaze of weariness. Jiang Yanli, smiling sweetly at Meng Yao, who smiles back – though he doesn’t feel it on his face.

Zewu-Jun stands. The Clan Leaders fall quiet.

Oh, he is a mountain. A landscape of white and softness and sharpness and magnanimity.

His lips part, and Meng Yao watches them, eyes stinging.

“It has been a long and painful war.” A low timbre; serious, without melancholy. “Let us drink to those we have lost.”

A little pot of tea, one between two. Meng Yao reaches for his and his father’s.

He pours.

“To those we’ve lost!” Sect Leader Yao echoes.

There’s a quiet noise of assent, and they drink.

Meng Yao drinks.

Jin Guangshan drinks.

Lan Xichen drinks.

Meng Yao turns to view his father, and he smiles.

Jin Guangshan views his son, and his eyes widen imperceptibly.

That is when Meng Yao feels the heat rising to his face. A burning, scorching thing that starts in his stomach and sticks stakes through his insides, piercing the top layer of skin until sweat beads there. He tastes it on his lips and he feels it running feather soft fingers down his back as it trickles. He feels something in him convulsing even as he sits perfectly still, eyes on Clan Leader Jin.

Somewhere, in the corner of his eye, he sees Wei Wuxian watching. Somewhere, he sees Zewu-Jun sharing a toast with Nie Mingjue.

Meng Yao’s vision starts to swim.

He makes his excuses, though he doesn’t hear them coming from his own mouth. He feels his lips move and he senses eyes on him, and he makes a polite bow before receding through the Hall’s doors.

The rain is hanging above him. It hasn’t fallen yet, waiting like a colony of bats in the pitch-black sky. The thunder sounds like his heart. Perhaps it’s his heart that sounds like thunder.

Meng Yao walks towards the pavilion with all his elegance. His hand shakes when it searches for the door to his quarters. Somewhere, he sees himself step inside. Somewhere, he sees himself lean against the wall, forehead pressed against his fist. He thinks he can see the heat that is ripping through him, can see the claws inside his pretty little brain, drawing ink around his vision.

And then, he comes back into himself. A fishing line pulled inwards, his heartrate slowing; the pain in his chest, only now noticeable.

The door opens and closes quietly.

“What did you do to me?”

The only thing that stops his voice from carrying throughout the palace is the roar of thunder outside.

“TELL ME! WHAT DID YOU DO?”

“Nothing at all,” Meng Yao replies coolly, forehead still pressed against his hand.

“You – the antidote! Fetch the antidote, now--!”

“I don’t need the antidote. Zhao Long made sure I developed an immunity.”

“For me! For me, idiot!”

“Why would I?” Meng Yao smiles. And then he stands – head still swimming, just a little – sweat cooling uncomfortably on his face. “I didn’t poison you.”

The moment hangs. Jin Guangshan stares at Meng Yao in the dark of these simple quarters. And when a flash of lightning strikes, the leader of the Jin sect flinches at what he sees on Meng Yao’s face.

“You poisoned yourself,” he snarls. “Not me.”

“But you thought I did, didn’t you?” Meng Yao coos. “You thought I’d killed you. You went wild with it. To know that I could do that.”

Eyes closing in relief. “You are… insane. You poisoned yourself.”

“Because I am not yours,” Jin Guangyao snarls.

“Insane...”

“And you thought I was fool enough to poison our teapot. Perhaps if I were not immune, I would have. We could have both died. But as it is – to kill you so brazenly, whilst I survived… I am a better weapon than that. You made quite sure of that.”

At that, Jin Guangshan turns away, shaking his head. And then he laughs, a frightening, mirthless thing. The room turns suddenly white and grey, and then black again. The sky roars and shakes the room.

“You love him,” Jin Guangshan spits.

He approaches, slowly. Meng Yao stands with the same deferential poise as he has always done around his father – all except for the slight tilt of his chin. He must look like Jin Zixuan. When Jin Guangshan looks at him, face still but eyes burning, Meng Yao looks right back.

“Yes.”

Jin Guangshan's slap hits like a hammer. His cupped hand meets the space just below his temple. It’s the kind of hit that makes his vision go black, makes his thoughts scatter across the floor like board game pieces.

It’s his greatest living victory that he does not balk or fall to his knees. His head snaps round, and he stares into the dark of his closed eyes.

“You think I hadn’t noticed?” What makes his words so much icier is how calm he sounds. Anyone passing by could think they were talking about politics or dinner arrangements. “Why else would I have come to inspect your poisons before the banquet. Idiot child. The greatest disappointment I have ever known. You think I had not noticed that you’re weak for him?”

Weak. What a way to put it, Meng Yao thinks. Is he even wrong?

Meng Yao opens his eyes, head turning slowly to view his father again. His face throbs. It will become a welt before he has even returned to the banquet.

“You will stay here,” Jin Guangshan says slowly, through his teeth. “You will wait for my return. And then you will drink more of that pretty poison you administered for yourself until you burn from the inside out. And I will watch.”

“No,” Meng Yao says.

Jin Guangshan’s eyes flutter. “How—"

“No, I think what we will do is this. We will return to the banquet. We will make our apologies, explaining that I had experienced a moment of faintness, and you came to attend to me. We will continue with the festivities, and you will do nothing.”

And there it is. A true look of fear in his father's face. Jin Guangshan finally understands: Meng Yao can kill him if he wants to. He simply hasn’t chosen his time.

Jin Guangshan swallows. “I could kill you in a second.”

“I don’t think you could,” Meng Yao sighs.

Jin Guangshan shakes with the truth of it. “I will tell the world.”

“You would tell the world and incriminate yourself. As for me…” Meng Yao smiles. “I have established a relationship.

“He won’t believe you. He will know soon enough. You can’t wrap him around your finger forever. One of you will die, either him or you. You can’t be loved, Meng Yao.”

And that does make him falter. He shows it with a swallow, looking into his father’s raging face. Meng Yao opens his mouth to reply, and nothing comes out. Jin Guangshan turns on his heel and leaves, robes like a sail. He leaves the doors open and no light comes in.

Meng Yao stands in the dark for a stretch of time. Whatever that stretch is, it feels too short.

He does not know how he ends up back at the banquet.

It should feel like victory, and yet it is not. To be sat beside his father and sharing smiles with the other guests feels instead like punishment, crueller than any poison he could have fed himself. And to see Lan Xichen view him with a worried eye, communicating some silent concern; it makes Meng Yao ache in all the ways possible.

Meng Yao turns to look at him fully and return a smile. And Lan Xichen’s concern turns to a stony, burning thing. It’s then that he remembers the welt on his face. Meng Yao blinks and looks at his lap.

No, this is not nearly as victorious as he hoped it would be. He’d hoped for some kind of electrifying relief; he’d hoped to learn what freedom tastes like; he’d hoped…

Meng Yao looks at his table. He knows that the rest of the room is staring at him. Perhaps they feel sorry for him. Perhaps they feel sorry for Clan Leader Jin, for whatever disobedient thing Meng Yao had done to earn the strike that’s left its mark on his face. Perhaps they think nothing at all. The gentry share drinks and they talk quietly to each other, and Meng Yao is a stone in the middle of a rushing river. It covers his thoughts with dark waters.

Do sunny days always succeed a storm? Sometimes, but not always. He’s seen storms rage for days, heavy and thick.

Jin Guangshan is standing in front of him with two bowls of tea, one outstretched towards Zewu-Jun, who reaches out to accept it.

Lightning may as well have struck him.

Meng Yao watches Lan Xichen’s fingers brush the edge of the bowl.

“NO—”

He’s on his feet and smacking the bowl out of Lan Xichen’s hand before he notices Wei Wuxian, reaching out to do the very same. Lan Xichen, Meng Yao, Wei Wuxian, Jin Guangshan – they stand in a little square, with a slowly falling bowl of tea shattering in the space between them. The liquid seeps into floorboards.

The room goes silent. Not even the thunder speaks.

Wei Wuxian stares at Meng Yao, something challenging, evaluating.

Meng Yao closes his eyes and clenches his jaw.

“What is the meaning of this? Rogue! What –“

“Forgive me, Clan Leader Jin.” Wei Wuxian’s voice is calm. It reminds Meng Yao of his own voice, during war meetings. “The tea you are offering is poisoned.”

The room explodes. Meng Yao stands in the midst of their roaring, the shouts and complaints and mutters and gasps and demands. He is a rock and he keeps his eyes closed and he makes himself nothing.

“Explain!” comes Sect Leader Yao’s voice.

“You dare insinuate that I would harm my esteemed ally--?”

And then the room falls quiet. It must be that Lan Xichen has raised a hand to silence them, because nothing else would elicit such a reaction.

“Wei Wuxian,” he says, quietly. He is far away enough from Meng Yao that it sounds quiet; close enough that it feels like silk over his skin. “Could you please explain what has just happened?”

There is no accusation in the way he has phrased it, nor is their panic. Meng Yao’s heart breaks, and he listens, watching the dark behind his eyes.

“It is no secret, how the Jin clan treat one of their heirs.” Wei Wuxian speaks so calmly, as if Meng Yao isn’t burning inside and shaking from the core outwards. “You only need to see the evidence on Jin Guangyao’s cheek to know it.”

“He is my son! I will handle—”

“And one need only be present at a Jin banquet to see the depth of their disregard for the son of Clan Leader Jin,” he continues, the disrespect of it making some of the disciples gasp. Jiang Wanyin hisses furiously in the background. “It is this that Jin Guangyao has used to his advantage. A keen eye may notice a nervousness to him that follows him everywhere. And I must admit that I, too, was fooled by it.

“Zewu-Jun… I am sorry to bring this up now. I’d wanted to share my theories with you privately, but it doesn’t look like I have any other choice but to reveal this to you all now.”

“What?”

“Wei Wuxian!”

“He is an assassin,” the ever-observant Wei-fujun says. “Sent to kill you, Zewu-Jun.”

The room explodes once more. He hears someone yelp as the thunder joins in with the outrage; he opens his eyes enough to view the shards of ceramic on the floor. Tea drips from his fingers from where he struck it. Their little square has been broken, Jin Guangshan having backed away in a rage from Wei Wuxian.

“Is this true?”

“Who could possibly have—”

“You needn’t feign surprise, Clan Leader Jin. It was you who sent him after all. And you knew very well what was in that tea.”

“How dare you—”

“Wei Wuxian!”

“Scoundrel—”

“I’m sorry, Zewu-Jun. Lan Zhan.”

When Meng Yao speaks, he’s so quiet that no one notices. No one other than Lan Xichen, who looks at him with a face of melting snow.

More loudly, now. “It’s true.”

The silence that falls isn’t immediate. It reminds him a little of a room of children, the moment an adult comes in and finds them misbehaving. The most important members of the gentry world fall into speechlessness and look at Meng Yao.

He lifts his head, eyes half open. Perhaps he is still drugged. Perhaps he is simply dying.

“It is true,” he repeats.

“You—”

“How could he possibly—”

It’s Nie Mingjue who stands and storms towards Meng Yao, drawing his blade. And it’s both Lan Xichen and Wei Wuxian who stand in his way, stopping him by the shoulders. Meng Yao takes a step back, arms instinctively rising to block his body. There is nothing dramatic or theatrical in the action – he is certain that Chifeng-Zun means to kill him. The snarl. Wolf-eyes, piercing Meng Yao through the thin wall of bodies.

Meng Yao tries not to shake.

Lan Xichen speaks with his back turned to him. “Let him speak.”

It is a lifetime of practise that allows him to speak so clearly, so eloquently. He can thank his mother for many things. Meng Yao clasps his hands in front of him, and he views the room. So many glares, fixed on him. It does not feel foreign at all.

Meng Yao takes a breath.

“Everyone knows that I was legitimised at sixteen years old by Clan Leader Jin. It came as a surprise to many, when I was brought into the palace. For, it is unlikely that I am the only illegitimate child of Jin Guangshan—”

From somewhere behind him, his father scoffs.

“—and yet, I was chosen. I was given a title. Not one of an heir, but of an ally.

“I was once called Meng Yao.” How easily the words come. They leave his body in a poisonous flurry. “I was the son of a Yunping prostitute, and I was raised in a brothel by my mother and her friends. My mother wrote a letter to Clan Leader Jin to alert him to the fact that she was pregnant with me; and he replied that he might take me in when I was older.

“She raised me in all the ways of the gentry that a prostitute could know, though she could not know all of it. She taught me to read and write and speak clearly. And at ten years old, she sent me to Koi Tower, where Jin Guangshan was expecting me. I did not meet him until years later. I arrived at Koi Tower expecting a father, and instead, I was greeted with a prison.

“I spent six years living in a single dark room. There are rats in the palace who see more daylight than I did. Locked in there, my only visitor was an old man who made me his apprentice. I practised the various gentry skills that were expected of me, and yet I couldn’t display that to anyone – I could not be known by anyone. I wasn’t aware that I was being trained to kill until my eleventh birthday, when I was ordered to commit my first murder.”

That evokes a loud, muttering response. Meng Yao comes back to himself. He hadn’t thought he had it in himself to monologue about his deepest secrets, and yet, it is so easy. The relief of it scalds him like hemlock. And Meng Yao sees none of the watching eyes, cares about none of them, except for Lan Xichen’s – who now stares with something open-mouthed and almost childishly horrified.

It makes his voice tighten, and his words come out strained. “What else could I do?” he begs. “I was a child, ordered by the most powerful man in the district to kill. I had to do what he asked, or it would have been me who was dead. And even when I did do what was asked, if it did not meet Zhao Long’s standards, I was whipped. I lived in fear and darkness for that whole time. I didn’t know what else to do.

“And then, to be legitimised – I thought it would be the end of my troubles, and yet it somehow became harder. Forced to show the world all that I lacked – forced to prostitute myself— he made me—" Meng Yao has turned an accusatory hand on his father, “– he made me—”

“He’s lying!”

The relief of it all makes him nauseous, and he feels the tears streaming down his hot face. Jin Guangshan waves a furious hand back at him.

“These are all lies! Why would I? I had no idea about the poison in that teapot – I had no idea about—”

“You poured the tea into the bowl you offered Lan Xichen,” Wei Wuxian groans, sounding more irritated than angry. “I saw you. You could not have been less subtle. Certainly, you don’t have the skills of your son, that’s for sure.”

“A lie! Wei Wuxian, who would ever believe you? Your word against mine?”

Hanguang-Jun, who has been standing at the edge of all this, takes his position beside his husband. Wei Wuxian folds his arms with something smug on his face, as if this is all a game. And then he looks at Meng Yao, seeming unsure whether to be angry or to sympathise.

“Why would I lie about this?” Meng Yao cries. He pretends that his voice is only breaking to add theatre, to make himself more endearing; and yet, there is no controlling how desperate he feels. “Why would I incriminate myself if it weren’t all true? All I ask—”

Meng Yao loses his words. He views the room. Jiang Yanli, hand in front of her mouth. Her father and brother, standing uselessly, furiously. Sect Leader Yao, stupidly speechless. Lan Qiren, eyes closed and brow furrowed; Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian, sharing a silent look; Nie Mingjue’s hand tight around his sabre. The disciples, hovering uselessly and anxiously. Jin Guangshan, receding slowly and shaking with the height of Meng Yao’s betrayal.

And Lan Xichen. There are no words to describe the look on his face as he stares at Meng Yao. His eyes shine.

“All I ask is that you forgive me.”

Forgive you?” Nie Mingjue booms. Lan Xichen has to take another step in front of him to stop his approach. “You snake! You lied! You manipulated your way into their hearts so that you could kill Zewu-Jun!”

“No! That isn’t true! Please understand!” Meng Yao sobs, and he is horrified by how real it is. “Jin Guangshan arranged our marriage – he planned for me to kill Zewu-Jun – and yet the moment that I first spoke to him in our letters, I knew that I could not. I have protected him on the battlefield and I have protected him today, and for as long as I live I will continue to protect Zewu-Jun!”

“Lies!” Nie Mingjue spits.

“He drank the poison himself,” Wei Wuxian realises. He points an understanding finger in Meng Yao’s direction. “His father ordered him to poison Zewu-Jun – and he had to leave because he took ill. He drank his own poison.”

“To show where my allegiances truly lie,” Meng Yao breathes.

The thunder roars. The room flashes.

And Meng Yao notices it even where no one else does: Jin Guangshan makes a dash for the door.

“Don’t let him escape!” he cries.

The room falls into chaos. Disciples and clan leaders scramble to the door, but Jin Guangshan slips into the night.

“FOLLOW HIM,” Nie Mingjue roars. His disciples disappear in a flurry of grey.

Meng Yao stares through the gap in the door, where he sees the rain cutting streaks through the air. The room suddenly electrifies, and he turns to see Nie Mingjue raise his sword just in time to fall to his knees—

Lan Xichen stops the sabre with his own sword. He stands before the kneeling Meng Yao in a pillar of white. Meng Yao sobs.

“I’m sorry. Please forgive me, Zewu-Jun—”

Nie Mingjue shakes against Lan Xichen’s hold. “Don’t speak to him! Don’t you dare speak to him!”

The rest of the room stand vigil. They watch like the audience to a play. Meng Yao sits on his heels, feels his face bare and open as he looks up at their struggle.

“Please…”

Lan Xichen’s arms shake against Nie Mingjue’s push. And then, turning his head ever so slightly – not enough to see Meng Yao, but enough that Meng Yao can see him. It breaks his heart. Lan Xichen’s voice is cool, even, when he says: “Is it true?”

A lip quivering. A tear falling from the corner of his eye as he closes them, then opens them again. “Yes. Xichen. I may have lied to you, but my feelings for you… they have always been true.”

Lan Xichen clenches his jaw.

“Perhaps you can forgive me,” he tries. “And perhaps you cannot. I beg that you do. And yet I understand that you can never see me in the same way again. But my love can still be useful for you, Zewu-Jun. If you will not have me as a husband, then please accept me as your guard.”

“What?” Nie Mingjue barks a sick laugh. “You’re a murderer! How could he accept such an offer?”

“You’re right. Make no mistake, I am still a killer, and I will always be. I can’t undo the things I’ve done.” Meng Yao bites back a sob. “Zewu-Jun. The only difference is that I no longer work for my father. Xichen – if you will not have me as a husband – as you might rightly judge – please. Please accept me as a weapon instead.”

“He should kill you for what you’ve done.”

Meng Yao watches them. Brothers in arms, one against the other. A room watching in a silent pall. The rain hammering against the roof. Meng Yao blinks, and his eyes go dry.

“Then I will make one last plea.” He says. “Xichen. If I am to die for my crimes… I would die happier if it were by your sword.”

Lan Xichen’s mouth falls open. He turns his head slowly, and he views Meng Yao from the corner of his eye.

Ah. And so, here they are. This: this is why he has never known true joy or relief. Why the skies have always seemed so heavy for him, the air so unbreathable. His life was building towards this moment, and he knows it is right. This kind of tragedy could only be reserved for him.

It’s with a horrible, perfect resignation that he watches Lan Xichen drop his sword from Nie Mingjue’s sabre, turn towards him, a tear running down his pale face. His eyes, finally meeting Meng Yao’s.

Meng Yao tilts back his head. He closes his eyes. And then, he smiles.

The sound of a released breath.

“Take him to the Gentian House.” Another breath, shaking. “Do not take your eyes off him.”

Meng Yao opens his eyes. And he does not know why he feels horrified. He doesn’t know why he wishes Lan Xichen could have just run his sword along his neck, but he does. He stares, grateful, betrayed, aghast, and he feels the hands of disciples on his arms, tugging him to his feet.

“Xichen—”

He isn’t dragged. Even now, he will never allow himself to be dragged. He doesn’t look back.

He walks out into the rain, towards the most haunted building of this palace. He hears the silence that opens in his wake.

Chapter Text

The Main Hall is cleared. The rain hammers outside the doors. An incense stick burns low, and Lan Xichen listens to the remaining gentry with closed eyes.

“And when Jin Guangshan is found?”

“His son is too young to know how to deal with him. Jin Zixuan will give in to what looks good rather than what is right.”

“Peacock…”

“Chifeng-Zun—perhaps Unclean Realm would be the best place to hold Clan Leader Jin once he is found. At least, until a decision is made.”

Lan Xichen doesn’t hear his friend make any kind of noise of assent. Either he is considering this with a hand cradling his face, or he has given a nod. Regardless, the question gives way to another bout of silence rather than any answers.

The sound of rain trickling along the eaves. The thunder has abated, at least. The air is already fresher.

And Lan Xichen remembers –

The snow clings to his little shoes. Wangji’s little hand, in his. A little frown on his little face. The age gap feels so large between them. Lan Xichen feels like he has to have all the answers, just so that his little brother doesn’t have to live in a world where there are no good reasons for any of its tragedies. And they walk slowly so as not to slip, the air frozen solid. Wangji’s fingers are warming up in his grasp.

“Xichen, why is she in there?”

They slow and turn to view the Gentian Pavilion over their shoulders.

The urge to use his uncle’s voice and chastise his curiosity – to snap – stop asking me questions – I don’t know – stop looking for answers – you don’t want them – I don’t understand either – why do you have to keep asking me? – It’s breaking my heart, too.

“She did something bad,” he says. “And our father is sad about it. He’s…”

Lan Xichen doesn’t know. He is still very little himself.

“—in the Gentian Pavilion. He will need more guards than are currently stationed.”

“If Jin Guangyao wanted to escape, he would have by now.”

A pause. “Wei Wuxian. What do you mean by that? Are you saying that he wants to be imprisoned?”

“No. I think being imprisoned is probably the worst thing he can imagine, given how distraught he seemed to be that he didn’t get his head chopped off.”

“Stop messing around, this is serious. It’s shameful how much you treat this like a joke.”

“Chill out, didi. I’m being deadly serious about this.”

“So what’s your point?”

“I’m not really sure yet. But my best guess is that Jin Guangyao wasn’t exactly banking on monologuing and putting us all to sleep tonight with his gigantic sob story. He’s vulnerable right now. Running off into the night and disappearing is all well and good, but if he can get a better deal… he could stick around and find out first.”

“A better deal. Like forgiveness?”

“Maybe.”

“Do you think it’s forgivable, what he’s done?”

A pause. The rain taps its fingers against the roof, and Lan Xichen listens. The words echo inside him. He’s cavernous and carved out.

“I think he’s manipulative and calculating,” Wei Wuxian says. “But I also think he really is as upset by all this as he made out. I don’t think even he could act that well.”

“You’re still young, Wei Wuxian. You don’t know what men are capable of.”

“Jin Guangyao is still young himself.”

“And he’s been through a lot.”

“It’s no excuse. None of it is an excuse for murder and manipulation.”

“I don’t know whether to feel sorry for him or kill him.”

There’s a unanimous hum of assent. Lan Xichen listens.

“Maybe he is prepared to do better. Maybe he can be redeemed—”

“From what his father made him.”

“Yes. Maybe. But maybe he is too sick for that. His heart may be too spoiled for any cure. If we reach out a hand to help, I wouldn’t be surprised if he just bit it right off.”

“Why are we even debating this? Jin Guangyao has attempted an assassination. He should be punished accordingly.”

“I think we’re all forgetting one essential thing here.”

“What’s that?”

“Jin Guangyao was groomed to become a murderer. He manipulates as much as he has been manipulated himself. He’s clearly capable of some very dangerous things. But the thing we’re forgetting is that tonight, he averted the assassination of Zewu-Jun.”

“Only because he was a part of the plan all along!”

Wei Wuxian tuts. “And how easy do you think it is to go against your father’s wishes? The man who holds your whole life in his hands.”

The silent is sharp and strange. It is as if every raindrop that hits the pavilion roof joins each moment together, strings joined together to make an elaborate cat’s cradle between each one of them. Their conversation sweeps onwards, and Lan Xichen finds their voices drowned out by the percussion, water tapping like fingers, weaving together his thoughts. Stitching his consciousness into something he can discern again after hours of feeling directionless. Eyes closed, he looks into the dark and breathes slowly. The air pulls in and out of him, like waves dragging shingle. The water sustains him.

In.

Out.

“…Zixuan.”

“Yes. And when clan Leader Jin is found—”

Lan Xichen opens his eyes and lifts his head. The room falls silent, Nie Mingjue’s words trailing off. Strange, how they all notice such a small thing as Lan Xichen opening his eyes. They view him with a small amount of caution and a great amount of interest. He unfurls from the floor, a hand folding neatly behind his back. His other hand is on his sword. He leaves Wangji one brief look, long enough for his brother to understand, he thinks. And then he bows his head – in thanks, acknowledgement – and leaves to step into the rain.

He doesn’t mind the way his hair sticks to his face. He could have searched for an umbrella, but he didn’t feel the urge to. There’s something pleasantly clarifying about this. About cold water running down his nose and sticking to his skin. His footsteps make quiet puddles. The rain hisses.

The Gentian House sits like a shadow in this place. The ghost of his mother still lives there, he thinks. The dark edges of its eaves blend into the night, little waterfalls pouring from the corners. The happy purple faces of the gentians are bowed, leaden with water. The two disciples posted by the door view his approach, and turn their faces away out of respect, looking dead ahead. They have been protected by the rain on the veranda, at least. Lan Xichen ascends the steps, and the disciples step out of the way without remark.

The whisper of the door sliding open is drowned by the rain—

—but the thunder has passed. Beneath their umbrellas, they walk towards Caiyi. Uncle wears his same solemn frown, and Lan Xichen attempts to mimic it, but finds it doesn’t come naturally at all. They are going to town for business; Lan Qiren has begun to introduce his eight-year-old nephew to his daily routine. He is not expected to understand it, Lan Xichen has been told, but for a boy to see what a leader’s job is like can only be useful. He will have to learn quickly. He has been warned of this.

Uncle passes him the occasional glance. It’s his way of asking Lan Xichen if he has something on his mind.

Lan Xichen watches the threads of water trickle from the edge of his umbrella.

“Will I marry someone, one day?” he asks.

This seems to come as some surprise. Lan Xichen tries not to giggle at the way Lan Qiren’s eyes widen and stare at his young nephew. And then, he blinks, the shock of a child asking this question shifting into something else that an older Lan Xichen will recognise as sadness.

“Yes.”

Lan Xichen thinks on this quietly. “Why do we get married?”

“You know the answer to this,” Lan Qiren replies.

He does. He just wants to know why he is obligated to marry. Why he, specifically, isn’t somehow exempt from all of the silliness. But then, to ask that would be selfish. At eight, he realises that.

Uncle sighs, hand tight on his umbrella. “You will marry. Marriage is arranged for two reasons: to produce an heir, or to create an alliance between two families. The best marriage combines the two, though it is not always possible.”

An, yes. Unfortunately, he has had to sit through an explanation of how the former is achieved without grimacing. He thinks he did so very well. That strange, mythical concept of ‘heirs’: the process of their creation somehow both vital and also very shameful.

Lan Xichen thinks. The weight of this news that his uncle has left him doesn’t make him heavy or frightened: it is another part of his future that must fall into place. The absence of his parents has always made it very clear how important it is that he follow his duty, and he views it with the same kind of dullness as knowing he must brush his hair in the morning.

His uncle comes to an abrupt stop. Lan Xichen, not expecting it, skids to a halt. It leaves specks of mud up his robes. He is about to apologise for this, when his uncle crouches down in front of him and lays a hand on his shoulder. It is extraordinary, and Lan Xichen gapes at him.

“This is the fate that has been allotted to you, Lan Xichen. Your father…” His uncle’s eyes are keen and shining. “Fate isn’t always kind. I will choose a partner for you, and I will choose them well. They will be worthy.”

Lan Xichen blinks away the water in his eyes.

 

He takes a fraction of a moment to linger in the doorway of the pavilion and to view the darkness inside before he steps into the gloom. It’s been so long since he has been in here; the lack of light doesn’t stop him from noticing that nothing has changed. The furniture has still kept its place. There’s the taste of dust. And the only thing that illuminates the edges of things is the distant lights from the banquet hall, where the clan leaders continue to discuss the fate of the man knelt in the dark.

Bathed in navy blue night, Jin Guangyao turns his head, back to Lan Xichen.

“Lan Xichen.”

Lan Xichen closes the door behind him, and the rain still sounds just as loud against the door. “Meng Yao.”

He isn’t sure what possesses him to use his birth name – his old name. And yet, both men seem to feel that it is right, after all Meng Yao has done. Not done.

The profile of his face is like a painting. Lan Xichen sees his lips part to speak. Then Meng Yao seems to decide against it: he has said so much already. Lan Xichen isn’t sure whether he’d like to take a seat opposite Meng Yao in the dark, or if he would like to stay standing. After a moment’s pause, he decides that he likes neither option, but remains standing. And so, he stays behind Meng Yao’s turned back, a shadow of white.

Meng Yao’s lips part again. If the rain were not falling, he thinks he would be able to hear it; the soft sound of a breath, lips separating. “I didn’t think you would come.”

“I’m not sure why I am here,” he replies.

Truthfully, he left the others because he felt that he had heard enough. His decision wove together like a fine tapestry, and yet he isn’t entirely sure what the picture is telling him, other than to come speak to Meng Yao.

“Xichen,” Meng Yao whispers.

Lan Xichen feels the air rush out of him. “Why did you not tell me sooner?”

It’s a question he knows the answer to already. By the way that Meng Yao turns his body to view him properly – eyes shining, some distant spark illuminating them like an animal in the dark – he is wondering why Lan Xichen would ask such a question. “What choice did I have? It would have risked us both."

“I would have protected you.”

“I didn’t need protecting. I needed a father.”

The reality of it sinks into the black room like rain in soil. A quiet huff of breath, something pained, comes from Meng Yao’s direction.

“I wanted…” Meng Yao’s words come in whispers. “I thought I had won. I thought that, if I proved to him that I… I thought I could abandon his plan and you would not have to know.”

“You lied to me.” The words hurt his throat, and he realises he is whispering, too.

“What other choice did I have?” Meng Yao repeats, more like a demand now – a demand for a better answer. He turns on his knees and looks up at Lan Xichen. “I had to. To protect you.”

They both sense the unspoken thing that hangs off the end of Meng Yao’s sentence and they stare at each other. The rain fills the silence. Meng Yao closes his eyes. Lan Xichen can just about see the way his face quivers with the threat of tears.

“I didn’t want to ruin your view of me. You thought I was so extraordinary. It was too lovely a thing to ruin.”

Lan Xichen closes his eyes, too. For the second time tonight, he feels a tear roll down his cheek. He doesn’t bother to wipe it away.

“You should have told me.”

“I’m sorry. Xichen. Please. Please forgive me—"

“Look at me.”

And Meng Yao does, resentfully. Head bowed and eyes wide and burning. He hates to be seen.

“Everything you said. Was it true?”

“Yes,” he says. “All of it was true.”

He looks at Meng Yao, crouched in the dark, and thinks of a boy locked in a room. To think – to think of his visit at Koi Tower meeting his betrothed for the first time. To think of the way his father pulled Meng Yao about like a puppet, how his family rebuked him in front of them all. To think of the bruise that blossoms across his cheek. To think of—

– forced to prostitute myself— he made me—

“I’m sorry that this has happened to you, A-Yao.”

He stares at the space in front of Lan Xichen’s feet. There is something frightening in the catatonically wide-eyed gaze. Lan Xichen looks away. And there is an undefinable stretch of dark time that holds them in that room. It’s old in here. It smells like age. It’s a skeleton. It almost feels disrespectful to be in here at all. As if, for all this time, it has been a shrine to his dead, convict mother.

“What are you going to do with me?”

There’s something very heart-breaking in that whisper. Lan Xichen shakes his head minutely.

“Xichen—”

“Stay here.” He doesn’t say it like an order; more like he’s pleading. “You can stay. For now.”

Meng Yao bows his head. It isn’t subservient. He’s hiding his face, stifling his shaking breaths.

“You’ll be kept under surveillance. There will be many who won’t want you here. You will be asked… to give a full, official statement. When we bring back your father.”

His head snaps up. He takes a sharp breath through his nose, jaw clenching and eyes wild. “They haven’t found him yet?”

“They have not yet returned. I plan to ride out this evening to aid in the search.”

“No,” Meng Yao says.

Lan Xichen takes a slow, even breath. “Meng Yao.”

“If he finds you first and kills you, your blood would forever be on my hands.” Meng Yao speaks through grinding teeth, an atavistic grin that shakes Lan Xichen to the core. “I would never forgive myself if he hurt you.”

“You’ve done enough to protect me. You have put your own life at risk.”

And the enormity of what he has committed for Lan Xichen swells between them. His eyes flutter, tears catching the distant light, and he smiles at Lan Xichen.

“I would never forgive myself,” he whispers.

“Nonetheless. He must be caught. You know this better than I.”

“Can you not send some of your men?”

“No. I don’t think so. Do you?”

Meng Yao’s eyes flutter again, miserable and hopeful. “The strongest warrior in the land. You said once in your letters that you are afraid of confrontation. Do you see now that this isn’t true at all?”

Standing in his mother’s grave, looking down at the man he loves. He is crouched like something wounded, crying like something dying. Lan Xichen wants to close his eyes – he can’t bear any more. Instead, he finds himself staring at Meng Yao. Morbidly fascinated. “How am I mean to trust you?”

“Perhaps you never will again. After all, we have only known each other for a matter of months.” Meng Yao smiles. And then he takes a deep breath, like something has finally resolved. “But my offer to you was sincere. Even if you can never look me in the eye again – I will continue to protect you. Whether you hold me here in this prison, or in your home, or cast me out into the wildness. Zewu-Jun.”

Lan Xichen stares. Meng Yao’s smile wavers. There’s a combination of horror and intense affection that mixes in him at Meng Yao’s offer, and it makes his lips part and his eyes sting.

“Let me come with you. On the search.”

Lan Xichen says nothing in reply.

When he turns to leave, it is with the grace and calm of a clan leader, not of someone fleeing. He feels Meng Yao’s eyes burn through the door. That he leaves open, just the smallest amount.

He calls for Nie Mingjue, Wei Wuxian and Wangji. They saddle their horses and wipe the rain from their eyes without question. None of them have discussed going after Jin Guangshan themselves, and yet it is clear that this is what Lan Xichen needs their company for. The other clan leaders and gentry remain. He has not seen Lan Qiren since the banquet.

And it is as he is mounting his horse, the seat already slick with rain, that he hears the commotion. From the Gentian Pavilion. The water runs off the edge of his rain hat and he peers through the curtain of drops into the dark. Disciples run inside, calling out that Jin Guangyao has escaped.

Lan Xichen smiles faintly.

His brother, brother-in-law, and best friend turn to view him from their horses. Nie Mingjue seems quietly disapproving. Wangji and Wei Wuxian look away the moment that Lan Xichen returns a challenging gaze.

He kicks his horse into motion and they ride into the night.

It has been no more than three hours since the banquet. Jin Guangshan does not know the area well, and the rain will make it more difficult to traverse. It is easy to assume, therefore, that he has not gone far. The mountain is steep. They will need to abandon their horses once they have tracked him beyond a certain point. Having hunted for most of his life, Lan Xichen can recognise a man’s running footsteps anywhere – the vertical slide of shoes in mud, of panicked flight. Their horses canter along the gravelled path, rain whipping his face as he scans the earth for tracks.

Disciples in white and purple and grey; the odd flash of colour in the dark, Wei Wuxian holding up a lantern into the wind. The woods grow thicker and the rain less persistent. An umbrella of dead branches shields them overhead. Beyond the rim of his hat, Lan Xichen sees darkness, a veil of black that gives an impenetrable backdrop beyond the nearest trees. Wei Wuxian’s lamplight illuminates the rainfall like falling stars.

The footsteps become less easy to follow as they slip into thicker foliage. The horses slow to a trot.

What comes of their trail is not quite a dead end, but not much better. A small group of disciples tread through the trees beyond, lanterns raised and heads dipped, searching for prints or evidence of their quarry. Lan Xichen’s horse trots in nervous circles, and he scans the forest floor, pulling gently at the reins.

“We’ll need to dismount and search on foot,” Nie Mingjue calls.

“If the trail ends here and the disciples haven’t found where it picks up again…” Wei Wuxian gives Lan Xichen a sidelong look.

Lan Xichen nods in understanding. When he dismounts and reins his horse under the shelter of a tree, he unsheathes his sword. The other disciples turn one by one to view their arrival. They all have the sense to nod in acknowledgement rather than greet him with the usual formality of announcing his title.

Lan Xichen starts at where the tracks divert into the mossy undergrowth, and follows as best he can. He is surrounded by men and women drenched in rain, by shards of water, by slippery bark and the ground that he has known his whole life. He tries to find comfort in that.

All of this. All of this – how much all of this changed in the space of an evening.

Nie Mingjue is walking a pace behind him to his right. Lan Xichen turns to view him for a moment. He has always been pleased not to be at the receiving end of that warlike grimace. Honoured, to know the man behind it.

“Has it occurred to you that he could be leading you into a trap?”

Lan Xichen looks ahead again, through the darkness. Patches of orange light swing to-and-fro in the distance. “I have given all of it a great deal of thought.”

“A great deal. It’s only been a few hours since you found out.”

“I’ve found out enough.”

They speak in hushed tones. The rain against the leaves makes a soft wet sound. The hilt of his sword is slick, and every movement, every minutiae of an insect moving – of a raindrop dripping, of a bat swooping – he catches it with his gaze and he moves slowly. Ferns tickling his leg, something lethal curling in him as he remembers the welt on Meng Yao’s face.

“You see the best in everyone. It’s always frightened me.”

“I see a man who has been abused and does not know how to heal.”

A sigh. “Xichen. He lied to you. Perhaps you can forgive him – I suppose if you do, I should – but can you really trust him? No.”

“I never said that I trust him. Or that I have forgiven him.” He feels that he should be able to, and yet there is something too raw and hurt. “I only sympathise.”

Nie Mingjue crouches beside him now. He moves like a cat, head dipped and eyes scanning. They don’t look at each other whilst they speak.

“It’s a sad story.” Nie Mingjue tuts. “I sympathise, too. I’m not so cold. I just worry about your urge to fix things that are broken. He is not your responsibility.”

And Lan Xichen wants to argue that this isn’t the case at all – he doesn’t want to try and fix Meng Yao – but then, perhaps there is a kernel of truth of what Nie Mingjue is saying after all. To have Meng Yao stay in Cloud Recesses: for what reason? So that he can visit him? Play the guqin for him? So that he can heal him, try and erase everything that has happened to him? As if such a thing were right or possible.

Lan Xichen aches. He clenches his jaw.

“Perhaps I want to know him,” Lan Xichen decides, quietly. “If he has been hiding this from me, for whatever reason, I will learn who he truly is. Only then can I forgive or really, truly understand.”

What’s terrible is that, the moment he says these words out loud, the more he realises that he is already well on his way to forgiveness. Something blind and, he thinks, driven by love. But Nie Mingjue is right. If he wants to go further without pain and without compromising his values – without thinking of his parents, without… he must open his eyes and open his heart to what Meng Yao has done. And he must either accept him or leave him. Whichever is right.

“It doesn’t come naturally to you,” Nie Mingjue mutters. “To protect yourself like this. But if you try and cure a man of all his trauma, you’ll only—”

Lan Xichen sees it and he raises a hand for them both to stop. The rain pours beads of water before him, and he lowers his hand slowly. Nie Mingjue says nothing.

It comes out of the trees.

The glint of a sword. An ivory sleeve, dyed blue in the dark, and Lan Xichen moves too slowly – he knows the moment he drags his sword in an arc that it will only deflect it to another part of his body – wild eyes in the night and bared teeth—

And he comes out of the trees, too. Faster than either of them, the feet of someone trained to be silent. Lan Xichen never heard him coming – neither did Jin Guangshan.

Meng Yao manifests between Lan Xichen and Jin Guangshan like smoke, arms out wide. The sword pierces his side.

“A-Yao—”

And he’s taking the blade of Jin Guangshan’s sword in his hand, blood dripping from his palm. He’s driving the sword deeper. Clan Leader Jin staring in horror as Meng Yao pulls himself closer with a red-toothed grimace. Close enough to pull out a gleaming gold dagger and drag it from his father’s belly button to his sternum.

Nie Mingjue pulls Jin Guangshan and the sword away. Lan Xichen catches Meng Yao, back pressed against his chest, head lolling. A pretty little bead of blood trickling down his face and mixing with the rainwater. His skin is pale, even in the dark. The bruise on his cheek is the only part of him that isn’t alabaster. His eyes are fluttering open and closed, lips parted and trying to smile. And Lan Xichen stares, aghast, too heart-broken by everything that has happened already to feel anything other than numbness.

“… protect you,” Meng Yao manages, before his eyes fall closed.

“A-Yao. A-Yao.”

“Jin Guangshan is dead,” Nie Mingjue calls, kneeling by the body and checking his pulse. “He’s killed him.”

A-Yao.”

By now, the disciples are flocking from all directions. The lamplight is swinging nauseously, and Lan Xichen unties Meng Yao’s belt and pulls it tight it above the stab wound. He can’t tell how deep it is. He watches the blood seep through the satin. Meng Yao’s pulse is steady but fading.

He needs a doctor. He needs to be taken back to Cloud Recesses. Lan Xichen thinks of nothing else as he slips an arm under Meng Yao’s knees and carries him. He’s limp like a doll. Hair pours over his arm in a slick cascade.

Wangji is untying his brother’s horse from the tree and he is helping him lift Meng Yao onto the saddle in front of him. And then Lan Xichen is riding into the rain again, Wei Wuxian guiding him with the lantern. The disciples follow behind him like fireflies.

***

The week passes, and Meng Yao lives.

Lan Xichen will visit him daily in the Gentian Pavilion as he heals. It is sometimes like attending a funeral, sometimes like skipping lectures, sometimes like visiting a loved one who he knows will have to leave soon. Meng Yao will be knelt by the table, always. He will look up at Lan Xichen and smile, and they will often say nothing at all.

Sometimes Meng Yao will talk. He’ll talk about Yunping, but never about Koi Tower. Lan Xichen will listen and he will pour them tea and he will feel himself career further into adoration, falling so fast he has to dig his fingers into the sides of his love and cling on for dear life.

How strange. That he should love Meng Yao more, now that he is seeing the sharp edges to his smile and the natural, heavy-lidded look in his eye. There’s something raw about him, and Lan Xichen watches whilst he drinks his tea.

Perhaps I don’t want to cure him, he thinks. Perhaps it’s just about loving him. Maybe it’s about hoping that he finds the strength to form scars, instead of tearing open new wounds.

***

A song echoes through the palace.

Lan Xichen hears it the second day after Meng Yao is healed enough to sit up and eat. He hears it from the other side of the palace, whilst he is talking to the disciples. They all hear it, and they fall quiet to listen.

The others may not recognise the style. Lan Xichen does. He can picture Meng Yao’s hands playing, soft and clever, and he listens to the aching tune that breathes through Cloud Recesses.

***

The gentry have gone, and a grieving Jin Zixuan refuses to collect his brother.

Lan Xichen emerges from the bamboo of the Hanshi and his eyes turn instinctively towards the Gentian House. For years, he has avoided looking at it. A stain that followed him in the corner of his eye, the memory of grief. Now, he finds himself searching for it and waiting to see Meng Yao.

Nie Mingjue had stayed for a few days after the rest of the gentry had left. He didn’t explain why, and neither one of them wanted to address it. They took walks together through the mountains and talked about anything but Meng Yao, until it could no longer be avoided. And so Nie Mingjue pressed Lan Xichen for his feelings on Meng Yao, on the matter, on what he plans to do with him. And Lan Xichen talked until he reached no conclusion other than the fact that he could not be without him. And Nie Mingjue had accepted this with pursed lips and an affectionate shake of his head.

It had rained so heavily that night. Three weeks ago, when autumn was still settling into its red robes and brushing away the remains of summer heat. Now, Lan Xichen turns his head towards a light grey sky. The bare trees try to scratch it. The air still feels thick. He is tired.

Somewhere in the palace, Wei Wuxian and Wangji are sat together reading. Lan Qiren is hidden away and grieving for what he has done to his nephew.

And in the Gentian House, Meng Yao waits.

Lan Xichen’s feet take him. He never does anything mindlessly, and yet this feels more instinctive, more powerful than gravity. Guards no longer stand posted at the doors; at least they know now that a hundred of them couldn’t keep the assassin inside against his will.

The doors are open an inch. A trickle of cool air plays with the corners of the pages that Meng Yao reads. He kneels in white. His brows pinch the red mark on his forehead, and his hair is half tied in a basic knot without jewellery or plaits. When he looks up at Lan Xichen, it is something gentle and unguarded. He doesn’t think Meng Yao has ever faked that smile, seemingly reserved for him. But then, that may simply be Lan Xichen’s naivety playing tricks on him.

“Lan Xichen.”

“May I join you?”

Meng Yao blinks into a wide, half-lidded smile. It seems to be teasing Lan Xichen for his politeness, for the generosity he is extending towards a man who is technically his prisoner. Lan Xichen looks away, crosses the room and kneels at the space opposite Meng Yao.

Incense twists between them. A guqin sits on a shelf beside Meng Yao, who continues to read with that crease returning between his brows. Lan Xichen takes a moment to watch. And then, he closes his eyes, hands on his knees and breathing deeply. The silence fills him for a while, and it is good.

“Xichen.”

When he opens his eyes, Meng Yao is sitting with a straight back and a sad smile. He is still pale, tired from his injury. Lan Xichen sees it in the way his eyes always seem heavy-lidded, jaw tickling slightly as he hides his pain.

“A-Yao.”

He huffs a quiet laugh at the diminutive, shakes his head to himself. “Why are you keeping me here? What will you do with me?”

Lan Xichen feels him waiting for an answer. He blinks into an easy smile. “I’m allowing you time to heal.”

“My wounds are far deeper than the one you saved me from that night.”

“I know.”

The silence yawns. Meng Yao stares, unblinking and miserable.

“Do you want to leave?” Lan Xichen asks.

“Am I free to leave?”

Lan Xichen sighs. “We both know you could do so any time you want, regardless of what anyone else orders. Do you want to leave, A-Yao?”

When it is clear that no answer will come, Meng Yao’s stare becomes a little resentful. Meng Yao hates that he does not know what he wants, and Lan Xichen can tell that he hates that he has exposed him of his indecision.

“Neither of us know what is right,” Lan Xichen says. “I don’t know if it is better for you to stay or go. I don’t know what is best for you, or for me, or for our clans.”

The wind breathes into the room. The sheaths of paper that Meng Yao had been reading are pinned by a paper weight, their corners fluttering. Meng Yao stares at them.

“I will not keep you here against your will. And I don’t want this to… stagnate.” Lan Xichen blinks slowly. “These rooms once held my mother. My father locked her away for the rest of her life here. I won’t do the same to you.”

It is a terrible secret of his, these bitter feelings for his father. He has told them to no one, not even Wangji. The gaze that Meng Yao had fixed on his book now moves to Lan Xichen, something fierce and deep.

Lan Xichen continues. “Perhaps I’m letting you stay here through indecision. All I know is that I want to try to understand you, A-Yao. I promise that I will never attempt to fix you or cure you. Only try to know you.”

“Why?” Meng Yao’s eyes are tired and his smile is still sad. “What is there to know about me that you could possibly want?”

“I want to know what kind of man would have the courage to turn against his father for someone he barely knows. The kind of man who can commit terrible crimes and yet love so deeply.”

“Stop.”

Meng Yao’s eyes flutter as a tear trips from the corner of his eye. Lan Xichen reaches across the table to brush it away. Meng Yao turns his face towards the wall, gaze averted. Lan Xichen’s hand drops to his knee again.

“Stop,” he whispers again.

All these feelings that Meng Yao evokes in him. Lan Xichen breathes deeply, chest swelling and jaw setting. “You have saved my life twice.”

“And endangered it plenty of other times.”

“You have averted an assassination.”

“And caused many.”

Lan Xichen loosens again. “Your father…”

“I don’t regret it.” His eyes. So fierce. The smile unhappy. That venus flytrap smile that makes Lan Xichen want to fall into him. “Xichen, I am not a good man. Perhaps you are thinking that if I’d been raised differently, I could be good. Something purer, maybe? Perhaps you’re thinking that you can redeem me, that my good actions can outweigh the wrong I have done. But, Lan Xichen, I am not good. Nor am I evil. I do what is selfish and I do what will take me to the next thing.”

It’s so easy. Lan Xichen smiles. “Then, why are you still here?”

The flytrap smile falls immediately. That resentment, the hatred of being made vulnerable burns again, and Meng Yao looks away with wide eyes. “You can’t make me repent. You’ll never see me repent. Not when it’s brought me to you, and not when it’s seen him dead. My only regret is that any of this has hurt you.”

It’s shocking, and yet he somehow doesn’t feel shocked at all. Lan Xichen nods. “I understand.”

The smoke twists in the space between them. Meng Yao will not look at him. Lan Xichen smiles, and with a sudden, delicious lucidity, he really does understand.

***

“You are predictably very good at this game.”

Meng Yao moves his piece across the board, legs crossed and back straight. Tilting his head and viewing their game, the corner of his jaw sharpens, his brows raising, his lips parting. Lan Xichen makes no attempts not to watch him. Meng Yao has always been beautiful, and no more beautiful than now.

The red mark on his brow has been washed away.

“You know that my skills lie in strategy,” Meng Yao says.

“You’re skilled in many things. But you’re right. Perhaps I should not have challenged you to a game in the first place.”

His smile brings dimples. “That isn’t what I meant.”

“It is, and I’m not offended.”

His smile widens. “Truly. I enjoy playing against you. Even if it isn’t much of a challenge.”

Lan Xichen feels his shoulders move in a silent laugh. Meng Yao ducks his head, and it reminds him of those days before – days when they would walk through Lanling heat and eat loquats and write letters.

“I’ve never played against anyone other than Zhao Long,” Meng Yao says after a long pause. “I was his apprentice. In Koi Tower.”

He waits for more, but nothing comes. Meng Yao continues to look at the board with a tilted head.

Then, “Xichen. It’s your move.”

Ah, yes. Lan Xichen finally looks at the board and makes his move. Meng Yao smiles to himself.

“Zhao Long was your father’s court assassin.”

“Yes. Until he discovered that my mother had given birth to me, and they both organised for me to be brought to Lanling on my tenth birthday.”

Lan Xichen swallows. Otherwise, he is utterly still. “Your mother agreed to it.”

“My mother agreed to me being brought to Koi Tower. She did not know the terms.” Meng Yao pauses, then picks up a piece with deft fingers and moves it across the board, taking on of Lan Xichen’s. “I wonder sometimes what she must have thought. Whether she kept her ears to the walls to find out how I was doing, only to find that I ceased to exist. Whether she sent me away and forgot about me. She died before she could have heard about my legitimacy. Zhao Long delivered the news himself.”

Lan Xichen moves his piece. He views the cool look of chin-titled thought on Meng Yao’s face.

“A-Yao.”

“Maybe she would have sent me away anyway,” he continues. “Even if she knew what his plans were for me, maybe she would have done it anyway. She cared for me, but she cared for my future more. Perhaps she would have been as blind to the honour of being made court assassin as I was.”

His fingers reach across the board again and he takes another of Lan Xichen’s pieces. Lan Xichen watches him. This time, Meng Yao doesn’t remind him to make his move; instead, staring at the board with that distant expression.

“Have you ever stepped outside after a long stretch of staying indoors? It is a strange experience,” he says, not pausing for an answer. “It makes you feel a little sick. Years in a dark room and empty corridors without light changes your perception of the world. You start to wonder if you exist or if you’re just a part of the dark. And when you see that much sunlight again, when all that fresh air sinks into your lungs, it almost kills you.”

Lan Xichen feels his fingers drag along his knee, aching to make a fist. He refrains himself, taking slow, even breaths. “It must have been very frightening.”

Meng Yao huffs at the understatement. “At first, perhaps. I don’t really remember. I was still young.” Meng Yao talks, but his gaze is distant, eyes half closed. “Memories have a habit of eluding you when they turn dark. And then… slicing through your mind when you least expect it.

“I think at first I was frightened. But after a while, you start to think that you deserve it.”

And then, Meng Yao blinks. Life returns to his eyes and Lan Xichen watches him frown to himself. Meng Yao rolls his shoulders once, takes a piece and moves it along the board. He takes another of Lan Xichen’s. “I’ll win in two more moves if you do not put more care into your strategy.”

Lan Xichen smiles.

 

***

Lan Xichen passes through the courtyards of Cloud Recesses and feels the mist form a thin film on his skin. In the Jingshi, his brother and Wei Wuxian prepare lunch for the three of them. Wei Wuxian has spent the better part of the past year trying to coax the Lan brothers into eating more chilli in their food, which Lan Xichen endures with some amusement, and Wangji with a reddening face. It is a new part of his weekly routine that he is vastly fond of.

The mists hang low and the leaves are dead, where disciples sweep them away in the courtyards. The verandas are damp. The doors to the Jingshi are open and Lan Xichen hovers outside, waiting to be allowed in by an enthusiastic Wei Wuxian, who offers a cheery wave with his ladle.

The soup bowl is warm in his hands. He can smell the chilli fumes, and it makes him smile. He casts a brow-raised look to his brother, who peers into his bowl with some suspicion.

“So,” Wei Wuxian begins, sitting with one knee propped up.

“Silence when eating.”

A tut. “Lan Zhan. I haven’t started eating yet, and neither have you or Lan Xichen.”

Lan Xichen puts down his bowl with a sigh. “Wei-fujun. What’s on your mind?”

There’s something far more serious on Wei Wuxian’s face than Lan Xichen had expected. With an elbow on the propped knee, he rubs his face and sucks air through his teeth, a troubled frown.

“I feel like I should apologise.”

He lays his hands carefully in his lap and waits. Wangji looks at the table and listens.

“Apologise for what, Wei Wuxian?” he asks with a smile. “You have already made your apology for not telling me everything in private, that night.”

“No. Well, that’s it, really.” He frowns, wincing, as if it pains him to say it. “I’m sorry that it had to turn into a big reveal at the banquet. I realise that if I’d just talked to you personally, we could have avoided all the subsequent… drama. But Lan Zhan and I … well, we wanted to watch him some more before we said anything. Just to be really sure.”

“A wise choice,” Lan Xichen asserts. “Besides, we cannot guarantee that Jin Guangshan wouldn’t have died even if we had tried to take matters into our own hands.”

Wei Wuxian winces again, as if he’s biting his tongue. Many would argue that Jin Guangshan had it coming, and Wei Wuxian is certainly one of those people. Lan Xichen might be one of those people, too.

“Still,” Wei Wuxian manages with a smile that’s almost sheepish.

“I am sorry, too,” Wangji says.

Lan Xichen sighs quietly again.

“Especially after all the stuff Meng Yao said afterwards. I know the others don’t trust him, but…”

Wangji and Wei Wuxian view him. Lan Xichen purses his lips and strings his thoughts into sentences.

“I understand,” he says. “It is not your nature to be cruel, Wei Wuxian. Perhaps you feel that your exposure of what happened to A-Yao that night was cruel, if not also necessary. However, none of us could have predicted all that has happened. It’s a good thing that the truth has been revealed, and I do not resent you for it.”

Now, Wei Wuxian purses his lips, sharing a look with Wangji.

“Xichen,” Wangji begins with that earnest look of his that makes him look years younger than eighteen. “Do you know what the others think?”

The sun creates a foggy beam of yellow light through the room. “I know that none of them trust him. I know that our uncle regrets the match that he has made, thinking that he has hurt me in some way. I know that some feel similarly to us, though I should not guess at either of your feelings on the matter.”

“I think Meng Yao is sly,” Wei Wuxian says without any shyness. “But…”

“He hurt you,” Wangji says.

Lan Xichen smiles at his brother. “Yes. He did.”

Wangji blinks. “Meng Yao needs help.”

“No,” Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “I think he just needs someone to not treat him like shit.”

They all hear it at the same time. Wangji’s head turns towards the doors of the Jingshi, towards the sound of commotion. Lan Xichen stands and takes his sword, that gravity-mindlessness taking over again.

The courtyard is a flurry of white robes. A carpet of red leaves, and above them, a darkening sky. It will rain again after all – the air is sharp with storm. And the disciples fall into two columns along the wooden walkway, Lan Qiren at its head. It is the first he has seen his uncle in weeks.

Meng Yao kneels in front of Lan Qiren, looking directly ahead with something dull and resigned.

Lan Xichen’s feet have never moved faster. His sword is unsheathed and stopping the path of the cane before his mind makes the conscious decision. And he sees the sleeve of his robes fall slowly, the momentum making them billow.

The cane fractures, leaving little splinters across the veranda. The disciple’s eyes widen, and she stutters an apology, scrambling into a bow.

Meng Yao eyes him, a warning glance that Lan Xichen ignores.

He turns to his uncle, who looks to be at the point of breaking. Lan Xichen does not notice Wangji and Wei Wuxian trotting onto the scene, audience to Lan Xichen’s mounting rage.

“Grandmaster Lan,” he says. He could demand to know what the meaning of all of this is, but his voice is cold enough to make his displeasure clear.

Lan Qiren bristles. He looks older than he did three weeks ago. “He betrayed us all. He betrayed you. I was a fool to let Jin Guangshan twist my thoughts. I was a fool to allow this engagement.”

“He has saved my life and my brother’s life by averting Jin Guangshan’s plans.”

His uncle points at Meng Yao’s kneeling figure. “Patricide!”

Lan Xichen drops his sword and fixes his uncle with a stare. “Hypocrisy.”

It is rare that Lan disciples are outwardly emotive, when they can help it. Today, all of them seem to erupt into whispers and gasps. Somewhere, out of Lan Xichen’s line of sight, Wei Wuxian is holding Lan Wangji’s hand.

“He has been leaving his rooms to visit you,” Lan Qiren says with an unnaturally still expression.

“This is not true. I have been the one visiting him.”

“Against my advice.”

“I have considered the advice of all of those I trust, including you. I came to my own decision. I do not want to treat Meng Yao as a pariah, when he is the one who saved my life.”

Lan Qiren barks a noise of frustration, hands shaking. “You can keep him here like your father hid your mother. But there must be rules.”

“What he does is not for you or for me to decide.”

At this, Lan Xichen turns, sword in hand. Meng Yao remains knelt against the veranda, eyes to the floor. Just as the first drop of rain hits Lan Xichen’s cheek, he looks up at him. And he does not know what he reads in Meng Yao’s face.

After a long moment, Meng Yao stands. He forms a circle with his arms, and he bows. The disciples look on with slacked jaws, the girl with the splintered cane still holding her fractured piece and staring. Meng Yao holds his bow for several seconds, and then he straightens, a strained smile and a sad look in Lan Xichen’s direction.

“I do not want to come between Zewu-Jun and Grandmaster Lan,” he opines quietly. “It is the general consensus that I remain in custody here until a decision is made or until my brother collects me. In which case, I will stay in Gusu, if you still wish it to be so, Zewu-Jun.”

Lan Xichen collects his thoughts. He knows that he has affected his usual calm exterior, and yet he worries that the others can see through him. Turning his head towards his brother and Wei Wuxian. “Please would you escort him.”

They flank Meng Yao immediately. The Lan clan gathered in the courtyard watch the three of them recede to the Gentian House. Wangji walks in a dignified pillar of pale blue. Wei Wuxian giving silent looks to Meng Yao, who drifts with that same composure that he has always done. Hands clasped somewhere out of sight in front of him. The pendant that Lan Xichen gifted him, swinging at the side of his small waist.

Lan Xichen views his uncle.

Grandmaster Lan waves a hand, and the disciples disperse quickly. The rain leaves dark little circles against the wood of the veranda. They step under the shelter of the eave, and they watch the rain fall in a whisper, side by side.

Lan Xichen sheaths his sword.

“I promised you someone worthy,” Lan Qiren says.

“Yes,” Lan Xichen concedes. His voice is sharp, and yet he feels his anger dissipate. “I would have preferred a promise of love.”

Lan Qiren sighs, eyes falling closed. His hands are clasped behind his back. “Clan leaders are not afforded that luxury.”

“I have always known that.” Yes, he was always far too aware of how much love he would be deprived of throughout his life.

The rain comes down in fat drops and the sky turns into a dark, rumbling canopy.

“You said you’d find me someone worthy. In my eyes, you have kept your promise.”

“You deserve better.” Lan Qiren exhales, teeth grinding. “Your father deserved better.”

My father locked my mother in a cage. Lan Xichen says nothing, stepping down from the veranda into the rain. He feels his uncle’s eyes on his back as he heads to the Hanshi, water flattening his sleeves to his skin.

***

The rain continues. The rooms of the Hanshi are dark, fluttering shadows against the walls and candles burning slowly. Lan Xichen kneels at his table, hands on his knees, breathing slowly, trying not to think of the skin of Meng Yao’s face.

And when lightning strikes, Meng Yao is knelt beside him, materialised like the light has brought him itself.

“You cannot keep on protecting me, Xichen.”

He is knelt facing Lan Xichen, their shoulders almost touching. With the rain playing against the roof, Meng Yao’s whisper goes nowhere except the space between them. He looks fierce and fragile, and Lan Xichen aches to run a finger along the corner of his jaw. Such a strange urge. Such strange urges Meng Yao has awoken in him, that he has never felt before. Meng Yao tilts his head a fraction. Just the smallest fraction, and yet enough for Lan Xichen to notice how close they are sitting, how close Meng Yao has made himself. It is surely just so they can whisper, so no one can know he is here.

And yet it feels more definite than that. Something out of either of their control, something like the stars moving across the sky, closer to the horizon.

Why does Meng Yao stay?

“And will you ever stop protecting me?”

A tight smile. “Xichen.”

“You are stubborn, A-Yao. It seems unlikely. Can I not extend the same gesture towards you?”

“You still think I am worth protecting,” he whispers, face falling and looking over Lan Xichen’s shoulder.

“I always have.”

“I don’t…”

Meng Yao’s brow pulls into something pained, and he turns his head to hide the way his lip quivers.

“A-Yao,” he says, and nothing else.

So much has changed. The space between them is thick with all that they’ve shared with each other. With the rain as their witness they kneel side by side, almost cheek to cheek, looking over the other’s shoulder. Meng Yao’s hands tighten on his knees and he shifts a little, their legs bumping. Lan Xichen looks ahead and he thinks of banquets at Koi Tower and how simple it seemed.

Meng Yao’s voice is feather soft. The only reason he can hear is because they’re so close. So close. “I miss our letters.”

Lan Xichen blinks slowly. “So do I.”

He isn’t sure who turns first. It’s something mutual and tacit -- their lips touching, a kiss in acknowledgement of what they’ve just admitted, more than anything else. It’s so thoughtless that Lan Xichen only realises a moment later what he has done.

Meng Yao’s eyes widen, something fearful shining at their corners. Gaze on Lan Xichen’s lips.

If either of them regrets it, they don’t say as much. Lan Xichen remains frozen, and Meng Yao continues to stare.

He wants to kiss him again.

Searching for something more tangible, something he cannot miss, trying not to frighten Meng Yao away; Lan Xichen moves his lips to instead rest by Meng Yao’s cheek, forehead against his temple. He feels Meng Yao release a breath, the warmth of it against his neck; he closes his eyes; he takes a deep, steadying breath; breathing him in, unintentional and greedy and dizzying.

The sounds of Meng Yao’s indecision, the air trickling from his parted lips beside Lan Xichen’s ear. And then he turns his head, nose pressed against Lan Xichen’s cheek. Lan Xichen isn’t sure of what this is, this embrace, this sharing of breaths without lips touching. It’s simply a closeness that can’t be named and can’t be described, and he can’t think of a single reason why this should be considered wrong.

Moving towards an almost kiss, lips skirting. Waiting for permission. And then a brief, open-eyed kiss, Meng Yao watching him with those woeful eyes, wary.

And then Lan Xichen’s eyes fall shut.

No, this could never be considered wrong. The Lan admonitions of abstinence before marriage mean nothing when their lives are as complicated as this. They mean nothing when love is like gravity. The rules fall away when Lan Xichen kisses Meng Yao, because he is barely aware that this is kissing and not heaven. Lips that talk say so much more in a kiss. Hesitant and lovely. Ticklish and sweet.

Meng Yao releases another breath that blooms between them and warms his skin. The rain plays music for them. Lan Xichen opens his eyes enough to see Meng Yao looking back, heavy lidded and a small crease in his brow, where the Jin mark used to be. Lan Xichen hears Meng Yao’s tongue wet his lips. He raises a hand to cup Meng Yao’s jaw, fingers in his hair, and he watches as his eyes flutter shut.

He kisses his cheek. And he kisses his jaw. And he kisses the space beneath his ear, and he hears Meng Yao’s breath hitch. He feels a hand on his, the one that rests against his knee – he feels it rise up his arm, drift listlessly up his chest and to the side of his face, guiding him back to a kiss with a single caress. And to feel his hand cradling his jaw, fingers along his neck, running through his hair and finding the back of his head. It shakes out all his understanding of what he thought kissing was meant to feel like, leaves him feeling untethered.

This. Kissing Meng Yao is like pulling silk over skin. It’s like ducking under the warmth of bedsheets when it’s cold. It’s like the first cup of tea in the morning. No, none of those things come close to the way their lips part for a shared breath, the sound of lips parting, as intimate as a love letter. It’s miraculous and unbelievable. He can’t believe that this is happening. He hopes he will always remember this feeling of sweet disbelief.

Meng Yao’s fingers are combing through his hair and Lan Xichen revels at the simple affection of it. He rests his palm against the warm skin of Meng Yao’s cheek, holds him, and Meng Yao kisses. He tastes Lan Xichen’s bottom lip, tastes with his tongue, and Lan Xichen goes very liquid. And he stays there as Meng Yao breathes kisses along his jaw and up his cheekbones, as if he is following a map that he has drawn for himself, a trail that he has wanted to follow and only just been allowed to. And when their lips meet again, there is a moment where they both share a look, knowing exactly where this is going.

Lan Xichen waits for Meng Yao. Meng Yao waits for him. They both fall in together.

They kiss like they did before, but somehow nothing like before. Lan Xichen raises a hesitant hand to Meng Yao’s arm, something bracing. Their legs are pressed alongside one another. He runs his other hand down the sleek fall of Meng Yao’s hair. He feels Meng Yao’s hand at the back of his neck. He tastes like warm rain.

Lan Xichen is too drunk to notice at first. Meng Yao raises himself on his knees, breaking their kiss so he is looking down at him. Bending down again to brush their lips together lightly. Sliding a knee to Lan Xichen’s other side, straddling him. He keeps a hand on Lan Xichen’s shoulders, their faces too close for him to see. And Lan Xichen finds his hands falling to Meng Yao’s waist, holding gently. He reaches up to kiss him.

It takes a moment for Meng Yao to relax into him; for Lan Xichen to slip fully to the floor, no longer sitting on his heels, but into something more comfortable and thoughtless; for Meng Yao to pull himself closer by the back of Lan Xichen’s neck.

Has he ever been this close to someone before? He cannot remember the last time he felt the embrace of a parent or friend or family member. And he’s never experienced anything like this.

Lips on his neck. He’s breathless and suddenly very, very starved.

It comes to him all at once. It pulls the air into his lungs violently. His hands splay across A-Yao’s back and pull him in. He feels the hand at the back of his neck, between his shoulder blades, holding him. Thank god someone is finally holding him.

“Xichen.” Meng Yao’s lips are close to his ear. He hears him swallowing. “We shouldn’t. You shouldn’t.”

He leaves his hands resting on his waist, breathing in a smell that he never knew was Meng Yao’s. And he thinks of all that Meng Yao has seen and been forced to do, all the people his father forced him upon. The unwanted hands of other men. He wonders what that does to a person. “We can stop.”

“I don’t want to stop,” he says, and it sounds like a confession. “But you…”

“I don’t want to stop, either.”

He can hear the smile in his voice, even in a whisper. Meng Yao presses his face into Lan Xichen’s shoulder, something self-conscious, and Lan Xichen kisses the dimples that appear on his cheeks. The lamplight catches his skin and turns it gold.

Meng Yao lifts his head, trails his lips lazily along his jaw until they’re kissing again. And Lan Xichen’s hands are running down his back now, pulling him close. Meng Yao’s legs spread around his hips. Skirts riding up his thighs.

The deliciousness of how forbidden this is hits him. Their kiss had been chaste. The hands that are slipping under Lan Xichen’s robes are anything but, even if they are gentle and careful and considerate.

Lan Xichen never misbehaved during his upbringing in Cloud Recesses. Perhaps he has been saving all his mischief for Meng Yao.

He shivers at Meng Yao’s hands, even though they’re warm. He parts the kiss to breathe deeply, even though he doesn’t want to stop. And then he opens his eyes and sees Meng Yao looking down at him, dark brows furrowed and lips parted, something so gentle, he can’t help but gaze back at him. His adoration must be plain, because Meng Yao closes his eyes and smiles, pressing his forehead to Lan Xichen’s. His hands untying Lan Xichen’s belt.

Lan Xichen’s hand, winding underneath the hem of Meng Yao’s outer robes.

Hands at the top of Meng Yao’s thighs. He can feel muscle twitching through the thin material of the trousers.

Meng Yao’s breath stops in his throat. And then he dives down to kiss Lan Xichen, both hands on his face.

They’re pulled closer – is that possible?—

It feels – it feels –

Lan Xichen swallows whatever sound was trying to claw its way up his throat. Something he doesn’t think he’s ever uttered before. But then, he’s never had Meng Yao shifting against him like this whilst they kiss; small, thoughtless movements that do so much. Their robes are half falling away, falling off shoulders and pooling over loosened belts. And Lan Xichen breathes heavy breaths against Meng Yao’s lips.

“Xichen,” he sighs. He’s moving against him.

Lan Xichen’s shaking hands find his hips, the small of his back, just above waistline of his trousers and just below the bandages from his injury, and he presses him tight. He buries his face in the streams of hair pouring over Meng Yao’s bare shoulders. Meng Yao’s sucking at the crook of Lan Xichen’s shoulder, and it makes his breath rush out all at once.

Meng Yao. A-Yao. He feels real under his hands. He tastes of rain and salt. The dark of his hair and the lamplight skin; nothing has ever felt more physical and yet terrifyingly dreamlike.

And there’s this hot thing inside of him. He’s felt it before but not for another person, not like this, not with two bodies. He’s never had breaths whispered in his ear like secrets whilst the rain hammers above them, his tea going cold and his head swimming. He’s never felt this need to wrap his arms around someone tight, to clutch and to fall into them. Hips itching to move where they can’t, hands pressing Meng Yao closer in time to the roll of his body. A hand gently cradling the back of Meng Yao’s head.

It’s warm and edgeless. Nothing else has happened or ever will happen beyond this moment. His hand against the skin of Meng Yao’s back. Meng Yao, A-Yao, A-Yao.

The noises Meng Yao is making in his ear. Quiet, choking little gasps. So quiet, barely audible above the rain. Secret, involuntary. Lan Xichen listens to them and his mouth hangs open.

Oh,” Meng Yao murmurs.

Lan Xichen comes like something has pinned him in place by the throat. It’s breathless and blood-rushing. Meng Yao making fists in his robes and silences a moan, face buried in Lan Xichen’s neck. And they hold each other through it, shivering, rolling and shaking. Lan Xichen’s cheek against Meng Yao’s temple.

The silence is filled with their steadying breaths and the tap of rain. Meng Yao’s hands loosen, but they don’t stop shaking.

The rain whispers. Lan Xichen strokes along Meng Yao’s back, and feels goosebumps.

“A-Yao.”

He whispers it, but Meng Yao still flinches. He lifts his head, and Lan Xichen hears him breathing beside his ear, the quick breaths of a frightened rabbit.

“A-Yao.”

A gasp. “I should never have...”

The look on that lovely, blushed face is aghast. Horrified by what he has done, and Lan Xichen knows exactly what Meng Yao is thinking. He knows that Meng Yao views him as a perfect thing to be kept protected and unsullied. He knows how Meng Yao views himself. Lan Xichen feels something in him sink at the self-loathing that pulls Meng Yao’s lips into a teary smile.

He crawls out of Lan Xichen’s lap, rising to his feet and quickly fastening his belt. Lan Xichen follows him with his gaze as he steps towards the door.

“I’m so sorry, Xichen. I promised myself that I wouldn’t…”

“A-Yao. Please. This isn’t necessary.”

But he’s shaking. He’s never seen a man more desperate to run in his life. Wincing against whatever is going through his head. Looking at Lan Xichen through tears. And Lan Xichen knows, then, that he has to go and figure this out alone.

“Where will you go?” Lan Xichen whispers.

Meng Yao stares past him. “Somewhere quiet. Where I can…” His hand clutches at the robes over his chest. “Somewhere I can think.”

He blinks away the tears, pursing his lips.

“A-Yao…”

“I’m sorry.”

Lightning strikes, and Meng Yao slips through the door into the rain. Lan Xichen knows that he will see him again, and he knows that this is not goodbye. And yet, he watches the door close with an arm outstretched.

Chapter Text

Walls are easy to build when the weather is mild. Yunmeng has always been cooler than Lanling, the air a little less damp than Gusu, and so the mud and stone dries quickly. Meng Yao’s life becomes clothes stolen from strangers’ washing lines; chopping wood for fire; building a home with oak beams that he felled himself. Something temporary, and yet more reliable than anything he’s ever known.

Hours and days pass with Meng Yao building a small fire inside a nearby cave, watching birds whip through the frozen landscape with arms wrapped around his knees. His face is wet.

It would have been simple to live in this little cave without building a thing. But as the winter days turn colder and the rain threatens to move inland from the Gusu coast, Meng Yao learns that an exterior wall may be necessary. And so, there is a long week where his fingernails are perpetually painted with dirt. Kneeling in the pine-needled ground, he digs grooves in the forest floor and builds a foundation. The sky is cold blue, and the skin of his hands is red raw.

A muddy facade that dries to match the stone walls. A door and frame of oak beams.

***

I never intend to send these letters. Perhaps that is why I don’t address them to you. Then again, perhaps it’s because it’s already obvious that they are for you.

That night that I left, I ran through the rain and planned not to come back for some time. But then I returned two nights later. You didn’t see me; I could see the light through your doors as you stayed up late into the night. Far past your 9pm curfew, my love. Were you thinking of me? Of course not – you were meditating.

I retrieved the dagger that was gifted by him and that gutted him. I retrieved the letters you sent me those months ago – yes, I brought them with me to Gusu. I didn’t want my father looking through them again whilst I was gone. And I retrieved your paintbrush: the one you gave me. That beautiful, utterly wonderful gift that was so effortlessly thoughtful. Has anyone ever known me, truly? Anyone, except for you?

Perhaps I will burn these letters. Perhaps I will just keep them in my poison box and pretend that I am waiting for your reply.

***

The paper they sell in town is not as fine as what I used in Koi Tower. Nothing will ever be like that again. Will I regret it? I am not sure. My father’s death, no. I was honest with you when I expressed that I don’t regret killing him. But the rest of it – to have a family. To live without fearing hunger again. Will I miss that? A little. And yet, I found that it was no easier than how my life was before, even when I was locked away in that dark little room. At least then, when I lived on the streets, when people kicked me and slapped me, no one would watch and no one felt embarrassed.

I miss you. I love you.

You will always be too good for me.

***

His robes are basic, the material scratchy. There is a comfort in that, memories of boyhood that are neither happy nor sad – days when he used to wear brown and grey and walk through towns unnoticed. The nearby village has a few basics: some vegetables, their seeds with which he can grow his own; some more paper; some ink; some pots and bowls. He buys them in exchange for some of his Jin jewellery. He slips too easily into commonality once more. He receives no looks of suspicion or recognition.

It’s too late in the year to grow cabbages, but the soil is still just about workable: enough to plant radishes and potatoes. He spends a whole day building the fencing, hammering each stave into the ground with tools that he’d purchased in town. He hikes up his robes and bares his shins, wading through softened soil so it compacts between his toes. He treats each bulb and seed that he plants with the care of someone who has picked up an abandoned child.

In the time it takes for the fruits of his labour to reveal themselves, Meng Yao sits by his makeshift front door and boils tea in a cheap pot. He eats plain rice and pickles, and his clothes start to smell like pine and fresh air. The world is still, but its eternal tumult is palpable. Meng Yao’s face is still, too, and the rollicking in his heart turns to a dull shiver, tea cooling in his cupped hands.

He forages. He walks for hours through the woods, the trees dark sentinels. He uses his dagger to saw away branches and sharpen them into arrows; the gold doesn’t shine in the same way here.

***

This paintbrush draws so smoothly. The characters go far beyond the calligraphy I practised in my letters to you.

I wish we’d had more time. I wish we’d had more time simply being two lovers, pretending not to be lovers, pretending we weren’t scared and that the world wasn’t at war. I wish it had been as simple as courtship for us. I wish I had never been legitimised. Sometimes I wish I had never been born. Never good enough. Never, never, never good enough, no matter what I do.

Mostly, though, I thank the heavens that I was born to meet you.

***

And there’s a waterfall. It sings its chorus nearby, near enough that when the birds are quiet and Meng Yao’s thoughts are occasionally silent, he can hear it roaring in the distance. Deep in these woods, miles away from town, Meng Yao can walk there and bathe, steam rolling off him in the cold air. A hot spring must run beneath the ground here, because the water is luke-warm. He can shuck his clothes with no one around to watch, nothing to disturb the silence except the beating of a bird’s wings or the rustle of a distant deer. He’ll sink into the water until it covers his mouth, watching his hair fan across the surface. He’ll watch the steam melt the frost around the pool, watch the condensation on the slick, grey rocks. He’ll watch the bare trees brush the winter-blue sky. He’ll watch the water dribble down his fingers and his wrists, turning his hands in the low sunlight.

Maybe it’s because it’s quiet and removed that Meng Yao feels himself cleansed, his personality and his voice and his anger brushed away with the pine needles. Or perhaps it’s because this was the place he visited with his mother all those years ago, a small hand in hers and the knowledge that there was a future for him, somewhere.

***

These woods are beautiful. I wish you could see them. They are a little different to how I remember them. I barely described them to you in my letter; there’s a sort of magic here that is impossible to convey. I don’t know how to write it.

You always said I had a way with words. Do you like my poetry now?

I think I have lost the ability for pretty turns of phrases since I came here and built my muddy cave. The veneer of poetry is too obvious here. There is no point in it.

I think that you would admire that kind of straight forward thinking without pretence. You, who are hundreds of miles away in your palace. Such a strong ruler, so beautiful and perfect. How do you manage it? Do you see how lovely you are? Do you see?

How could you? That’s why I left, after all. You didn’t see how much there was worth saving, whilst I was blinded by all of it—by all of you. I’ve come too close and I’m scared of leaving my muddy handprints all over your perfection.

***

If you could read these now, I wonder what you would think. Perhaps you would make that sad face, a kind of disappointed look – like you did that day I knelt in a puddle of poisoned tea, a single tear on your cheek. Maybe you would smile and raise a brow and insinuate that I am dramatic. Perhaps you would tell me that I’m extraordinary, as you used to when I recited poetry or played the guqin for you.

If you could see me now, what would you think? Would you feel betrayed? Or would you realise that there is more to life than trying to help someone like me?

***

I love you I love you I love you. I barely know you and I love you. I think I know you better than anyone else.

***

You daydream and get distracted mid-sentence. You pretend to everyone that you like the food Wei Wuxian cooks you, but I can tell you hate it. You’re afraid of becoming something cold and unfeeling, so you make yourself feel too much and you make yourself raw. You are just as starved as I am. If I met you in the woods today, you would approach me without running and you would smile at me. I would turn my face away, because I’d be afraid that you would see the love in my look. And then you would catch my chin before I can bow my head further.

***

Your kisses tasted like morning dew.

***

Perhaps you have found a new suitor. Perhaps your uncle has moved you onto someone more accomplished and demure. I did try to be sweet, just like they wanted your partner to be. I’ve always been quite good at making myself vulnerable and endearing. I’m not sure how much of it is a lie. I don’t know how much of me is a lie. I wanted you to like me.

***

He’s known as Meng Yao and no one knows what that name means. He’s selling fur pelts that he’s skinned and treated himself, and people marvel at his careful knifework. It earns him a little money, enough to stock up for the deep winter months.

“Meng Yao. You could sell those for more. You really don’t have a mind for business, do you?”

The vegetable merchant across from him in the village will say this sort of thing every time he comes into sell his wares – a weathered-faced man with smile lines and crooked teeth and a dirty sense of humour.

“I could. I just don’t need to.”

“People can’t kill and use all the animals’ parts like they used to. You could make a boat-load with how skilful your tanning is. Seriously, if you took this to Yunping, you’d have a proper business. Don’t waste your time here.”

Meng Yao smiles sweetly, leaning against the trunk of a tree. The air is cold and his breath is foggy. “I could. But I won’t.”

The merchant tuts. He’s never given Meng Yao his name. “You’re a young man. Don’t waste your skills. Trust me, if I’d got outta here when I was your age, I would’ve made a lot more money. I’d be rolling in it! Rolling in gold and girls.”

Meng Yao raises his brows.

“Oh, what I’d do to be rich.” The merchant picks up one of his potatoes and throws it in the air, catching it with one hand – only just. “That reminds me. You hear about the nobleman that passed through yesterday?”

“No.”

“He was… well. I know that the girls in the village talk about how handsome you are, but this guy blew you out of the water. Sorry.”

Meng Yao kneels to the ground and gathers the change the he’s earned today. “Is that so?”

“Yeah. Whew. He asked LingLing about a place to stay nearby, and the old crone was practically tongue tied. He really looked like that stereotype, strong gentry guy. You know?”

“Ah.”

Covered in silver, he was. Just that crown would have seen me through a couple of years’ worth of food. He was wearing all white, though, like he was mourning. Now, why on earth would a man like that be somewhere like this?”

Meng Yao looks up, a palm of small silver pieces. “Did he wear a headband?”

Something in Meng Yao’s face makes the merchant pause, looking at him with something that could be fear. “Uh,” he stutters. “I don’t remember. More preoccupied with the silver, you understand.”

“Do you know where he went?”

“Woah, woah. Meng Yao. What, is he chasing after you or something?”

“Where did he go?”

“Uh – well, you know. The village across. We don’t have an inn here.”

Meng Yao gathers the last of the pelts, throws it over himself and tucks the change into the folds of his robes. He dusts the dirt off his knees. Turning his back to the village, he walks into the forest. The merchant mutters quietly under his breath, something about Meng Yao looking too young to have pissed off someone that important already.

The woods are calm and deep. It takes just over an hour for him to return to his little home, moss covered stone and an old pile of firewood gone grey. He considers putting on a new fire for tea and decides against it to save his stockpile for the worst of winter. Restlessness keeps him standing at the threshold of the hut, fingers flexing and looking over his shoulder.

He doesn’t know what to do with himself, so he rolls up the hem of his robes, tucks them into his belt and tends to his growing garden. The radishes are almost ready to harvest, and the potatoes have sprouted large leaves. They’ll be needing rain, soon. The mundanity of it keeps him steady. There is no real purpose to what he is doing, turning over the ground to make way for new vegetables that he doesn’t know if he’ll buy the seeds for any time soon. Too late in the year. It just feels good to have his mind distracted by digging his fingers in soil.

Meng Yao knows that it’s Lan Xichen who is approaching without turning around. He looks up at the expanse of forest before him, closes his eyes. And then he sits back on his heels, dirty palms against grey robes.

“I did not think it would take you long to find me,” Meng Yao says.

Footsteps in pine needles and dead leaves, behind him. The frost nips at Meng Yao’s face and his breath makes clouds in front of him.

“I can leave if you need me to. I needed to know that you were alright.”

He doesn’t know whether his throat is sore because he wants to cry, or because the air has frozen him from the inside. He opens his eyes and looks over his shoulder. In the corner of his eye, a pillar of white, the glint of silver.

Meng Yao turns back to his garden. He digs his hands into the earth, and he tends. “I’m alright.”

Lan Xichen has always evoked the most extraordinary combination of stillness and excitement in him. Peace and desperation, all at once. It makes Meng Yao frown at his hands as he gathers soil around the potato plants, sprinkles pine leaves around them to ward off pests. He wishes he could be content with a simple life like this. He wishes Lan Xichen hadn’t come. He’s wretchedly happy that he did.

He doesn’t stand or look up, even when Lan Xichen steps into his vision at the edge of Meng Yao’s fence. There’s the knock of a sword being put down, leant against the wood. Meng Yao wipes his dirty hands on his clothes.

Lan Xichen stands in the peripheral. Meng Yao feels his fingers go numb in the cold.

And then something extraordinary happens. Lan Xichen steps over the fence and kneels at the edge of the vegetable patch opposite Meng Yao. He watches Lan Xichen dirty his white robes and gather the soil with his hands around the plants. He is unsure whether to be outraged or adoring.

“What are you doing?” It sounds an awful lot like a nobleman’s demand.

“Just as you are doing – protecting the crops from pests. Pine needles or egg-shells protect plants from insects.”

Lan Xichen smiles. And when he looks up at him, hands in the soil and yet somehow still utterly resplendent, Meng Yao grinds his teeth.

“Quite remarkable that you should know that,” he says. He sounds like an angry little boy, voice hoarse with the threat of tears. “Particularly since you’ve never planted crops in your life.”

Lan Xichen looks at him. He must see Meng Yao’s eyes brimming. Lan Xichen smiles. “I read about it. In Gusu’s Flora and Fauna.

“Of course you did,” he says with a furious smile.

Instead of crying, Meng Yao stares at the soil and continues his work. He won’t let Lan Xichen look at him like this. Minutes pass, and then both of them are finished with the task, leaving them kneeling in the silence and cold.

It’s said so quietly, it doesn’t sound like a question. “Why did you come.”

Lan Xichen smiles at him. That smile that he has, so benevolent and true. “I love you.”

Meng Yao swallows. Compulsively, he rubs his hands against the rough material of his clothes.

“But that’s why I left,” he complains. He’s furious and desperately happy. “It was easier when I was pretending to be worthy of you. But you can’t love me, not now. It’s foolish to love me.”

“A-Yao. It is not so simple. Hearts aren’t so black and white as that.”

“Why must you be so righteous!”

It’s the first time either of them have raised their voice with one another. Meng Yao glares through tears, and Lan Xichen looks at him with the most infuriating smile.

“Why does your love matter more than mine?” Meng Yao demands. “You’ve come here because you love me. How wonderful. But I left you because I love you. Doesn’t that matter to you? It is one of the only selfless things I have ever done. You can’t undo that.”

Lan Xichen’s smile is sad and knowing and loving and so many things. His eyes are shining too. He wears tears far more gracefully than Meng Yao does, who feels his cheeks go red and his voice go shaky.

“Nothing we do is entirely selfless,” Lan Xichen says. “Is it, Meng Yao?”

“I hurt you!” He makes fists with his robes, kneeling in the ground and arguing through his teeth. He feels like a dog in a trap. “You’re Zewu-Jun. One of the great Twin Jades of Lan. And yet you love me, and by doing so you break a thousand Lan admonitions at once.”

Lan Xichen sighs, closing his eyes. “But that isn’t the only reason you left that night.”

Rage makes Meng Yao fly to his feet. He wishes he could storm off in furious propriety, but instead, he is met with a fence which he must clumsily vault over. He turns his back on Lan Xichen and heads to his little house, biting his lip to stop it from quivering stupidly.

“A-Yao.”

“What?”

He turns on Lan Xichen, who has been following him. Now, he stops with parted lips at the look in Meng Yao’s eye. Lan Xichen has never met anyone who can rage like him. Bastard, victim, murderer.

“I know that you have wanted to protect me from the moment we met. Before you even realised that you were doing it.”

“And I am trying to protect you now,” Meng Yao says.

“Would you like me to go?”

They both know his answer. Oh, Meng Yao hates him. Oh he loves him, he loves him, he loves him. “You’re a fool.”

“You’re scared,” Lan Xichen’s voice could cradle a wounded butterfly.

“I’ve been tortured and abused in all the ways you can imagine,” he hisses through his teeth. “I have lived in squalor and pain and darkness to the point that it feels endless and I forget what the world feels like. I’ve been trained to assassinate and interrogate and kill and I’m good at it. I’m not scared of any of it.”

Lan Xichen hesitates. “You’re scared of me.”

It hits him harder than any of his father’s slaps could have. Meng Yao stares. “Xichen. You could never scare me.”

He smiles sadly. “You’re afraid of me loving you.”

Love – love? —His mother’s books, her ambition dripped into his ear — his father’s smile — a dark room — men’s hands on his thighs and inside his robes — siblings who glare and people who burn with just one look — ‘love’ makes him want to shed his skin—

“Stop it,” he gasps.

“A-Yao.”

His cheeks are wet and his face is hot and he wants to turn away, but he can’t. Meng Yao stares at the ground.

“You left for me. I believe that. What you did was selfless, but it was also because you were scared. That night, when we…”

“You rallied against your beloved uncle that night, you – we – Xichen, you can’t love me. I’ll bring the whole world to its knees, but I’ll never hurt you. Don’t you see? I could never bring you down with me.”

When he dares to look at him, he is somehow both gentle and fierce at once. Lan Xichen burns and rages, too, he realises.

“Do not see me as something pure and clean, not to be sullied. People have always viewed me as an object. I will always be a symbol rather than a man to them.” Lan Xichen swallows. “Please don’t be one of those people, A-Yao.”

He feels his face crumple, a pang of guilt. “That night…”

Lan Xichen’s hand finds his cheek. Meng Yao shivers. And then, he tips his face into his palm, eyes falling closed.

“We both made a choice,” Lan Xichen says. “I don’t regret it. I never could.”

Pursing his lips, staring up at Lan Xichen.

“I know how the world has treated you.” Lan Xichen’s voice is firm and soft and low. “I know it isn’t easy to let me in. I love you more now than I ever have before.”

Meng Yao draws in a sharp breath, and before he can openly sob, he pulls Lan Xichen close by the hem of his robe to bury his face in his shoulder. Lan Xichen draws him in, a hand at the back of his head and a hand between his shoulder blades. They stand in the cold of the forest, living in each other.

***

Tea is boiled. They sit and drink it quietly. Lan Xichen compliments Meng Yao on his masonry with a raised brow, and Meng Yao smiles politely at how absurd he is.

When it begins to get dark outside, the early afternoon turning into evening, Meng Yao looks through the open door at the wind that picks up the pine needles and leaves. Lan Xichen makes a fire. They watch it. And Lan Xichen tells him about Cloud Recesses.

Nothing has changed. Grandmaster Lan remains in partial seclusion. Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-Jun are well. Lan Xichen expresses that he thinks Wei Wuxian may regret exposing Meng Yao at the banquet. It makes him smile. It makes him admit to Lan Xichen that he respects Wei Wuxian. He’s not only observant and intelligent, but he also cares deeply about his family and protects them. Meng Yao was a threat to Lan Xichen, and Wei Wuxian acted. That deserves recognition. Although, that doesn’t mean Meng Yao likes him, particularly given the position it has put him in.

It gets darker and darker and colder and colder, and the little bundle of sheets and pelts that Meng Yao has made into a bed feels suddenly obvious. The sparsity of this whole place is striking – the lack of windows, the occasional candle strewn about, the rock in the middle that acts as a table.

“Will you stay?” he asks Lan Xichen. He realises the moment he says it that it sounds like a request.

Lan Xichen sits at the ‘table’, hands wrapped around his third cup of tea and blinking that slow smile. His clothes are white, knees muddy; the shoulders of his robes are sharp and square; the pendant Meng Yao gave him, still on his belt. A clan leader, sitting in a low-lit cave, sharing tea with a defector and murderer.

“I can stay.”

They eat a modest meal. They talk a little more – about Lan Wangji, about memories of this forest and Meng Yao’s mother. Lan Xichen says something that makes him laugh. They say goodnight. Lan Xichen sits near the fire and lays his hands on his knees, closing his eyes and leaning against the wall.

Meng Yao lies on his side and watches him.

***

The fear of it, the horror that goes bone deep and rollicks through him and leaves him gasping and shaking, blood on his hands – blood on his hands – a child in the walls in the dark and alone – and he’s wearing a crown but it isn’t his, it will never feel like his – he has all the power in the world but there’s blood and his hands and Lan Xichen isn’t there – please don’t – please – don’t, not him, not him, anyone but him, he’ll burn the world, he’ll gut his father and smile, but not him – don’t –

He hears his gulping, gasping breaths before he realises they’re his own. He isn’t alone and it makes him jump – he scrabbles away from the man with a kind face and an anxious frown.

“A-Yao.”

“Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t—”

“A-Yao. Look at me.”

Meng Yao kicks and presses himself against the wall of the cave. The room is a dull orange glow, the door open to let the smoke out and send a cold breeze across the floor. It’s the first thing Meng Yao notices: the mix of cold and heat on his skin. And then he sees Lan Xichen kneeling in the shadows, an arm outstretched and eyes wide.

Meng Yao feels toxic and brittle and vicious. He pants through clenched teeth, breath hissing. Hands clutching his drawn knees.

Lan Xichen drops his arm. His expression softens, but his eyes are still fierce and shining. “You were dreaming.”

“They’re never just dreams.” Meng Yao shakes his head and smiles, sobs. “You shouldn’t be here. Not you. Not you, not me. You can’t be here.”

Meng Yao is too blind to see the sad look on his love’s face. “I’m here. I want to be. You’re safe with me.”

“I’m lethal,” he spits.

He senses Lan Xichen coming to sit beside him against the wall, and it’s only when he is gently coaxed under his arm that he realises that he’s shaking. Shaking against Lan Xichen’s chest.

“Yes, you are. I love that you are lethal and protect what you care about in the world.”

It takes a while for his breathing to turn into something that isn’t fast and rabbit-like. The porcupine spines he feels in his skin slip away again. He shivers against Lan Xichen’s chest and closes his eyes, stuck in a delirious half-sleep.

***

Meng Yao had been prepared to lie awake for hours, as he often does. Instead, he wakes up to Lan Xichen knelt in front of the fire, adding more wood and fanning the flames with his sleeve. He lies against the wall and watches. Lan Xichen turns and views him, blinks a smile. He wants to ask why he stayed, but he’s afraid of not getting an answer.

Without a word, Meng Yao gets up and fetches water. The sweat of nightmares sticks against his back and his eyes sting and he sighs. The woods are cold and his feet are bare; dirt sticks between his toes and he feels rugged and cleansed. He wants to be a leaf or a cloud or a rock. He doesn’t want skin or a heart. The stream whispers and plays, freezing his hands when he dips the pale into the water.

When he returns, he kneels by the fire opposite Lan Xichen and fills the pot with the fresh water. He watches the steam.

And then he looks at Lan Xichen. Only just coming back to himself, he notices now that there is something very different about him this morning. He doesn’t wear the broad-shouldered over-robe, sitting in the typical three layers of white. That is not what surprises Meng Yao most: it’s his face, his hair. Bare of ornament. Two loose strands of hair framing his face, not a single glint of silver and –

“Your headband.”

Lan Xichen opens his eyes. Hands on his knees. A small smile that curls at the corner of his mouth. It is private and mischievous, and it makes Meng Yao swallow and stare.

“I have no use for it here,” he says quietly.

“We can’t avoid our responsibilities forever. Especially not you. Zewu-Jun.”

Lan Xichen blinks – a kind of sigh. “I’m not. I’m merely putting them aside to focus on more important things.”

Meng Yao shakes his head. “What’s worse,” he says. “That I left you without explaining? That I left, pretending that it was the right thing? Or that I left, knowing that I have wanted you to say those exact words all along?”

Lan Xichen smiles quietly. Meng Yao looks away.

“I want you to stay and I want you to forgive me. I want to keep you. I want you to abandon everything for me. I want to plead for your love and I want you to give it like the benevolent man that you are. Isn’t that abhorrent?”

Lan Xichen is still smiling. “That doesn’t make it any less selfless that you left. Nothing we do is purely good or bad. As for our thoughts and feelings… I do not think they can be held against the same morals. What we do is different to how we feel.”

Staring at his hands, Meng Yao turns that over in his mind. No wonder Lan Xichen loves him, if he holds this kind of worldview. No wonder he is so different from his uncle. How did a man like him come from a place like GusuLan?

They are quiet for a while. Outside, a bird calls. Meng Yao pours tea for them both, and their fingers brush when they exchange the cup. It is strange how easily he switches from feeling nothing to everything at once; just like those days when Lan Xichen would catch him mid-bow, he now feels the lingering warmth of his fingertips against his knuckles. He feels more branded by Lan Xichen than the whip-marks on his back.

Lan Xichen looks younger like this. The hair around his face softens him, the lack of crown humanises him. He is no longer a god in Meng Yao’s eyes, but a man who he could love forever.

“The weather is milder today,” Meng Yao says. “And I feel like I need a walk. The nightmares always make me lethargic. If you would like to join me…”

The way he is speaking, they may as well be back at Koi Tower – his father muttering in his ear to ask the great Zewu-Jun for a stroll – make the people talk, make them see how fine a match they are. Lan Xichen raises his brows and gives that arch smile again. “I’d be delighted.”

The absurdity of it makes Meng Yao laugh silently, dipping his head.

“You still use politeness as a shield.”

“I don’t think that will ever change,” Meng Yao admits with a sigh.

They finish their tea and let the fire burn with the door open a crack to let out the smoke. The air is indeed milder, without a breeze or even that icy blue sky that he has become accustomed to these past few weeks. The forest seems to come alive with their footsteps, the birds exploding through the air and wheeling above their heads. The sky is grey but bright, making him wince when he watches the larks dance.

Leaves and pine needles, stepping over logs. They walk with as much dignity as two noblemen can in a forest without their finery. Meng Yao will never lose that still, gliding walk that he has worked so hard to affect—it’s been nailed into his bones like the walls of a house. The day he loses his dignity is the day he breaks down and dies. And Lan Xichen, similarly, drifts like a lovely ghost through the forest, all in white.

Meng Yao slows and bends down to inspect some mushrooms at the base of a mossy tree. The ground is damp from the morning dew, and the earth glistens.

“This is where I foraged with my mother,” he says, even though Lan Xichen is already aware of this. After all, how else would he have known he would be here? “It feels both exactly the same and very different.”

The mushrooms aren’t ready yet. He leaves them and makes a mental note of where they are growing. Their sleeves sway as they walk slowly, side by side.

“Memories have a habit of changing our perception of a place, just a little,” Lan Xichen agrees. “I found myself surprised by how much I remembered of Lanling, and yet how different it was on my second visit, when I met you.”

Meng Yao bows his head in agreement. “Lanling City is a difficult place to forget. Koi Tower, particularly.”

“Yes. Particularly as it is so different to Cloud Recesses.”

Meng Yao smiles. “When I was a child, I used to daydream about living in Koi Tower. The kind of food and clothes and respect I would have.”

It goes unsaid that it did not match his expectations. He purses a sad smile. Lan Xichen views him as they walk, that lip-parted look of regret.

“Tell me of Cloud Recesses,” Meng Yao says, breaking the silence. The air is damp and cleansing. “What was it like to grow up there?”

Turning his face to the sky, Meng Yao can’t tell if he’s smiling or wincing. “It’s difficult to describe what it was like to be raised in Cloud Recesses, because it is all I’ve ever known in life.” Meng Yao nods, and Lan Xichen continues. “I’ve shared that I think it was possibly quite lonely, without peers. Then again, that was similar for da-ge in Unclean Realm.”

“There is little room for misbehaviour in either clan,” Meng Yao says.

Lan Xichen shakes his head. Then, “I lived a very fortunate childhood. I never needed anything.” He pauses, considering his words. “Perhaps it is better to say that I was provided for. I had an education, I was treated with kindness and respect by the disciples. And the palace was peaceful and nurturing.”

Meng Yao isn’t sure he agrees with that entirely, but he does not say as much, watching Lan Xichen’s thoughtful expression. He walks with his hands behind his back. He is too beautiful for words.

“I believe, truly, that being raised with the Lan clan standards has made me a fair and good ruler.” A small sigh, looking to the forest floor. “That is not an easy path for any child.”

“To be raised in strict confines is difficult. I imagine that you were too earnest and considerate to have broken any of those rules except when it was necessary. You’re much the same today.”

Their pace is slow, and Lan Xichen gives Meng Yao a pointed look. It takes him a moment to know what it means. When he understands, he feels his face go hot and he dips his head.

“Perhaps, not only when they are ‘necessary’,” Lan Xichen smiles.

“Lan Huan,” Meng Yao says, smiling.

Lan Xichen sighs again. “I have always wondered at the Lan admonitions. I adhered to them strictly, though not quite as strictly as Wangji. I would always break one or two small rules in favour for a more important one – for, many of them contradict each other, as I laid out in one of my early letters.”

“I recall.”

“Wangji… I was worried about him, for a while. He was so determined to achieve perfection that I was afraid it would break him. You and I both know that perfection is a myth. But in our clan, the pressure to find some grasp of it… As much as our uncle did his best to raise us well, I don’t think Wangji or I were ever happy. I haven’t shared that with anyone before.”

Lan Xichen pauses.

“It was not until he met Wei Wuxian that I saw him flourish. He helped him see that some of the rules were an important guideline, a bridge towards righteousness – but also hypocritical. Those thoughts I have had myself and naturally kept quiet, though I would try to gently guide Wangji to understanding. In the end, it was Wei Wuxian who achieved it, not me.

“I meant what I said earlier,” he continues, looking over at Meng Yao. “That nothing is purely good or bad. Our thoughts and feelings can’t be governed in the same way our actions can. I have come to understand that the admonitions are a winding path towards good: not exact coordinates. Some of its bends and meanders can be skipped.”

“Am I a shortcut?” Meng Yao asks, keeping himself demure. “Or am I the obstacle that stops you from achieving righteousness?’

Lan Xichen smiles and shakes his head with weary affection. “A-Yao, you’re neither. You’re the man I love. And I want to love you in all the ways imaginable.” Looking at the sky. “I can’t think of one reason why that could be wrong, regardless of what the Lan admonitions dictate.”

It makes him look down at his clasped hands. What Lan Xichen makes sense. Meng Yao feels like a fool to have reduced Lan Xichen to something perfect and divine, before. Even when they were writing their letters, it was clear that Lan Xichen did not see the world in black and white. For Meng Yao to have pinned his insecurities on protecting Lan Xichen’s modesty, of all things…

Meng Yao closes his eyes and purses his lips.

“There,” Lan Xichen says. “I have told you my truth. Now, you can share yours with me.”

Meng Yao gives him a horrified, wide-eyed look that is entirely genuine. “Lan Huan. Have I not already shared enough with you? You’ve seen me at my very worst.”

He doesn’t even know what he’s referring to. Is it the time that he was covered in his own father’s blood? Or when he was shaking and feral from last night’s nightmares? Or when he was on his knees in a banquet hall, a welt across his face and poison in his skin? Either way, Lan Xichen gives him a brow-raised look that tells him he is being unnecessarily theatrical.

Meng Yao wilts, eyelids heavy and resigned. Lan Xichen chuckles.

“Fine,” he says. “Ask me your questions.”

Lan Xichen smiles at the sky whilst he thinks. “When we were writing to one another.” Then looking at him. “When we were in Caiyi. Were you simply trying to seduce me? Or were you showing your true feelings?”

Meng Yao raises his brows, affects innocence. “Could it not be both?”

Lan Xichen laughs silently. Then, “Yes, I suppose it can.”

“You remember the loquats.”

“I don’t think I shall ever forget the loquats.”

Meng Yao covers his mouth when he laughs. “If you want me to apologise, then you will be waiting for a long time.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“To answer your question fully,” he concedes, “they were always my true feelings. My father saw and read the way I spoke to you—”

Lan Xichen looks at him.

“Yes, I’m afraid he read our correspondence.” Meng Yao looks away in shame. “I felt affection for you from the beginning, as I’ve already told you. My feelings have always been true. And what you saw was a reflection of that, not a display. But if my father thought that that’s all it was… all the better.”

Lan Xichen nods, a little more sober. “I see.”

“Lan Huan. If it’s honesty you seek from me, then I will give it wholly.” He looks over at him through his lashes. “If I ever seduced you, it was entirely for my own gain.”

Lan Xichen laughs, and this time it isn’t silent. It’s a low timbre that makes Meng Yao warm, and he offers that crooked smile that makes him all the warmer.

“And I will ask you a question, now,” Meng Yao says, bumping arms with Lan Xichen as they walk.

“You will, will you?”

Meng Yao blushes. It feels just like it used to. “The Lan admonitions. You said you’ve broken a few small ones in favour for more important ones.” Meng Yao swallows. “Was I the first person you broke that one with?”

Lan Xichen softens. That crooked smile seems permanent. “Yes. It was never one that really interested me, until I met you.”

That makes Meng Yao suck in a deep breath. His own smile seems permanent too, and he looks away, chest inflating. “I see,” he exhales. “Your turn.”

When this turned into a game, he doesn’t know. Lan Xichen’s gait turns lazier as he walks with hands behind his back, smiling at the birds overhead. Then, looking at Meng Yao. It makes him brace himself.

“What is your favourite food?”

Meng Yao stares, frowning and smiling at once. “You’d waste a question on something so silly?”

Raising his brows. “’Waste’? Do I have a limit?”

“Yes,” he replies quite decisively.

Lan Xichen smiles with his eyes closed, all affection. “A-Yao.”

“Give me a moment to think.” He does, a finger poised at his lips for display. “I don’t know,” he admits.

It seems to surprise him. “A-Yao is usually so clear in what he wants.”

“I’m fully aware. But I don’t think I have a favourite food. I grew up with so little and then ended up being presented with so much – I think it has dulled any preference or favourites. What about you?”

Lan Xichen looks like he’s trying not to smile. “Lanling plums.”

“No.”

“Yes, really. As someone with a vegetarian diet and having eaten very plain food for my whole life, there is little chance to try foreign delicacies that aren’t too exorbitant for my tastes. Except for Lanling plums, it seems.”

“I don’t know whether to believe you,” Meng Yao laughs, and Lan Xichen watches.

They continue to share secrets and preferences and feelings. Taking turns like a game, they walk through the forest and the sky goes a little darker, the clouds grey. Meng Yao shows him the hot springs, pointing out the steam through the line of trees. They have walked in a loop and are almost home.

It’s too perfect, living like this without gentries or noblemen or responsibilities. Lan Xichen’s forehead is bare and he wants to kiss it.

“I wish we could have had more time,” Meng Yao says.

Lan Xichen doesn’t look at him when he replies. “We have all the time in the world.”

“You know what I mean,” he says. “I wish we could have simply loved each other and courted without everything else. I wish we could have had this, without the rest.”

Lan Xichen stops him by the arm. Meng Yao looks at him with challenge, but Lan Xichen doesn’t falter. He realises that Lan Xichen will never falter.

“We can have this,” Lan Xichen says, so earnestly it almost convinces Meng Yao. “It will be hard, but we can have this, A-Yao. When we return to Cloud Recesses, there will be a lot to sort out, but that doesn’t mean we do not have a future. You said you wanted me to stay, and I will.”

“And what do you plan to do with me once you go back to Cloud Recesses?” Meng Yao says, voice even. “Hand me over to the Nie clan, or my brother? Do you plan to marry me, Zewu-jun?”

It’s a bitter, mean joke. But Lan Xichen doesn’t look hurt, and his hand doesn’t let go of his arm, a gentle caress. Instead he blinks. His brows pinch a little. And then he smiles. “Yes.”

It’s a very rare thing that Meng Yao has nothing to say. He opens his mouth to have the last word, as he has always tried to, but there are none. Lan Xichen smiles at his speechlessness, and Meng Yao exhales slowly. It takes all his willpower not to stupidly say oh out loud. His lips form the word without a sound.

It’s just as inevitable and thoughtless as that first time. Meng Yao steps into Lan Xichen and reaches to kiss him, a hand on his chest. Lan Xichen kisses back, and Meng Yao feels his shoulders loosen under his hands.

“Tell me you mean it,” Meng Yao whispers against his lips.

Lan Xichen pulls away to view him, hands on his face. Meng Yao closes his eyes, unable to cope with how Lan Xichen looks at him. “I mean it.”

“Even if you have to wait? Even if they try to lock me away to rot?”

“Even if I have to wait,” Lan Xichen murmurs, voice close. “And I would run away to live with you here before I let that happen.”

Meng Yao loves that he means it, and he hates that he loves it. Meng Yao hates his own selfishness and he knows that he’d never be Meng Yao without it. When he opens his eyes, Lan Xichen is still looking. And then he leads him back to the cave.

Their walk is thoughtless and digressing. Meng Yao steps over branches and logs, smiling over his shoulder at Lan Xichen, who doesn’t seem to be able to look anywhere but him.

When the rain falls, it comes all at once. It patters and hammers and pours. Meng Yao gasps at the sudden cold. Hair plasters to his face, he runs through the verdant, deep green of the wet forest floor. He takes Lan Xichen’s hand and they run together, a light jog. Their footsteps make puddles. He thinks that Lan Xichen laughs, but it could be his imagination – it could just be that he feels giddy. He feels like a boy again.

The door is stiff and lets them in with a crunch. Meng Yao pants steaming breath inside the cold room, staring at the pool of water that’s gathering at his feet and the clothes that hang heavily off him. The fire is burning low; he should take off his clothes and dry them against the hot, surrounding stone.

Instead, he looks up at Lan Xichen, who hovers a few feet away with white chiffon clinging to his arms and chest. Strands of hair glisten, beads of rainwater in his eyebrows, lips wet – staring at Meng Yao.

It takes two strides for each of them to find each other, hands on faces and kissing the rain off their lips.

Meng Yao gasps into Lan Xichen’s mouth. His skin is cold but his tongue is warm. Meng Yao’s shaking hands fumble for the belt of Lan Xichen’s robes. And Lan Xichen kisses him, kisses deep, kisses down his neck and breathes hot breath that makes Meng Yao shiver pleasantly.

“Lan Huan…”

He pushes the robes, heavy with water, off Lan Xichen’s shoulders. He doesn’t feel Lan Xichen’s hands on his waist. He doesn’t feel anything except for the way his own hands navigate the hems of his robes, pulling Lan Xichen to the floor with him so they’re both kneeling in front of the fire and running hands all over the last film of damp clothing.

He doesn’t feel it. Meng Yao can feel his kisses, yes, but his body goes numb. He knows he is being touched. And yet he knows it in the same way that a ghost might look down at its own dead body – he doesn’t feel it.

Meng Yao shakes, frowning against the kiss and fumbling at Lan Xichen’s robes.

“A-Yao.”

He wants to feel it—why can’t he just –

It’s like teeth, clamped down at the edges of his mind. Whilst his body seems cut away and dismembered, his mind screams and fights, bleeds at the teeth that dig into it. Memories – except, not quite memories. Memories of a feeling: rejection. Scars. Strange men, clawing at his clothes. The blood on Meng Yao’s hands when he killed them.

He kisses Lan Xichen’s still face.

“Meng Yao.”

“Shh—”

He paws at Lan Xichen’s clothes, doing nothing.

“You’re shaking.”

“I’m cold, it’s fine—"

He’s frozen and shaking at once, hands poised at the hem of Lan Xichen’s under shirt. He’s knelt like he’s praying, reaching out and leaning his forehead against Lan Xichen’s shoulder.

Lan Xichen takes Meng Yao’s hands in his. His voice is quiet beside his ear. “Stop.” He braces Meng Yao by the upper arms. “You can stop.”

The feeling comes back to him at once. It’s the feeling of something raging inside his stomach, disgusted and furious. He wants to shed his skin like a snake. He shakes hard enough it’s almost a convulsion, and Lan Xichen holds him.

“Shh. A-Yao.”

Meng Yao presses his face into Lan Xichen’s shoulder and wants to scream. The tears in his eyes are hot. “I’m sorry.”

Lan Xichen sighs. “What could you possibly apologise for?”

“I want to show you that I love you.”

“Not like this. Not if it makes you feel like this.”

“But I want to,” he argues through gritted teeth. “I want you to know that I love you – I just –”

Lan Xichen’s hand at the back of his head. “I know you do. More than enough, Meng Yao. You do. You don’t have to make yourself do anything for me to see it and feel it.”

For a long while, Meng Yao searches for the words, face pressed against Lan Xichen’s rain wet shoulder. He continues to shake, shiver as if his body is rejecting itself. There’s a sound that gets trapped in Lan Xichen’s throat. Meng Yao hears it beside his ear. He feels a hand at the back of his head and another between his shoulder blades. He feels small and sad and sharp.

“I love you just as you are.”

He shouldn’t. That’s what is so terrible: Lan Xichen should love someone better. Meng Yao is desertable and haveable, but not loveable. It makes him full of something bristling and aggressive.

“I need a minute,” Meng Yao says.

Lan Xichen’s hands fall away. Meng Yao is too angry to look at him – not angry at Lan Xichen, but angry at everything. He doesn’t want to see the sad look on his face as he watches him step outside into the rain again.

The sky is almost black. The rain makes him wince as he tips his face towards the heavens. His underclothes stick to his skin. Meng Yao closes his eyes, listens to the rain tapping against the leaves in his garden, against the soggy ground, the mossy stone roof of his home.

The rage, the disgust, the horror. It draws into one spot in his stomach like gravity and then it explodes through him until he’s screaming. Yelling, crying out into the late afternoon rain. His hair is stuck to his face and he is cold and he is hot, too – fists clenched and screaming at the sky.

He takes a branch and he smashes it against a tree trunk. It splinters, and some of his anger splinters with it, melting away in the rain.

Meng Yao stands at the edge of his vegetable garden, shoulders sagging and rain dripping down his nose.

When he feels empty, he comes back inside. Lan Xichen turns and looks at him, a branch poised at the fire he is stoking. One look at Meng Yao brings him to his feet, and he takes him silently by the hands. He brings him down beside him and puts something around him, something warm and furry and white. Meng Yao peers down at Lan Xichen’s coat, the one he came with yesterday, and notes the way the sleeves go grey with rainwater. The stone beneath his knees is warm. Lan Xichen kneels beside him and goes still. They sit in meditation for some time.

“I wish I could.” Meng Yao lets out a long breath. “I don’t know if I can.”

Lan Xichen doesn’t look at him. They both view the fire, and Meng Yao feels his eyes go dry from the heat.

“You do not have to,” Lan Xichen replies. “You are enough and more than enough.”

He sighs. “I feel broken.”

Lan Xichen lays a hand on his and quietly shakes his head.

The rain stops at some point. Meng Yao doesn’t notice the progression from its hammering percussion to the silence that falls afterwards. The fire dances and crackles and Meng Yao allows himself to fall into its trance.

When he awakes from his reverie, his legs have gone numb and his underclothes are dry. Lan Xichen’s coat is pooled around him on the floor.

Lan Xichen sits in front of him, handing him a cup.

Meng Yao looks at it. He smiles. His chest warms.

“You found the alcohol.”

Lan Xichen blinks that slow smile. “It can help in a state of shock.”

It would be nice to argue that he isn’t in a state of shock, but that might not be accurate after all. Meng Yao takes the murky liquid, cups it between his hands like it is tea. “How would you know?”

Lan Xichen blinks and almost smiles, looking at the floor. “When you left, Wei Wuxian offered me a cup. I think he was quite surprised when I accepted it.”

It breaks Meng Yao’s heart, and he is suddenly furious at himself. “I’m sorry.”

Shaking his head once. Then, pouring himself a cup.

“It tastes terrible,” he says, his voice quiet. “I brewed it myself. It has the desired effect, however.”

Lan Xichen nods. Looking over Meng Yao’s shoulder through the open door, thoughtful expression, lips parted in their natural pout. “The sky has cleared. Perhaps we can enjoy this outside.”

The sun is setting and burning the sky a pinkish orange. They sit on the damp stone ground and watch the shadows of the trees elongate like spiders’ legs.

Lan Xichen places the bottle at his feet. Meng Yao raises his cup, and Lan Xichen mirrors. They both mask their mouths when they drink, a vestige of their nobility. It burns Meng Yao’s throat, which is just what he wants.

Lan Xichen poorly masks a cough. Meng Yao laughs.

“I did warn you.”

“Indeed, I should have listened.”

Sat in their underrobes, watching the sunset. This wine tastes awful, and the after taste is worse. It goes straight to Meng Yao’s head. It makes him close his eyes and lean his head on Lan Xichen’s shoulder. He feels Lan Xichen’s lips at the top of his head.

“A-Yao,” he says.

They refill their glasses. They drink one more. Lan Xichen’s ears go pink at the tips, and Meng Yao tucks a stray hair behind one. His eyelids hang lower than usual.

“I have a terrible confession,” Lan Xichen says a little dully.

Meng Yao stares. “You can tell me.”

“I know.” Lan Xichen smiles. Then it falls. “I want to hurt the people who made you feel like this.”

“Ah,” Meng Yao says. “Yes. Well. I’ve killed most of them myself already.”

“Mm.”

“You would think it helps, but it doesn’t. Even when they deserve it. I’m still angry all the time. Sometimes it drives me mad.”

Lan Xichen sighs – a proper sigh, shoulders sagging and lips pouting. Meng Yao watches Lan Xichen tip into drunkenness with amusement.

“It makes me angry, too,” Lan Xichen admits, staring at the forest floor. “You didn’t deserve it. You were a child.”

Meng Yao opens his mouth to speak, and for the second time that day finds himself speechless. It shouldn’t shock him to hear that, but it does. Perhaps, all this time, he still believed that he did deserve it. It makes his eyes prick as he stares at his hands.

“I’m sorry. I’ve upset you.”

“No.” Meng Yao smiles and wipes the tears away with the heels of his hands. “Quite the opposite.”

Lan Xichen takes his hand. And he looks into the distance, shaking his head minutely to himself. Meng Yao thinks he might be ruminating on everything he’s told him – the pieces of his time in Koi Tower that he shared with him in the Gentian House.

“Your ears go red.” Meng Yao stares at Lan Xichen who looks back blearily at him. “When you drink,” he clarifies.

“Mm. Wei Wuxian informed me that the same happens to Wangji.” Lan Xichen smiles and it’s broad and without any inhibition. “And you’re very beautiful.”

“When I drink?”

“Always.”

You’re a lightweight.”

Lan Xichen laughs. It’s closer to a giggle, really, and Meng Yao doesn’t know what to do with it. So he takes the bottle, pours the alcohol onto his tongue so it dribbles down his chin. Lan Xichen watches, leaning into him thoughtlessly. Then he reaches out to take the bottle.

“Ah, ah, ah,” Meng Yao chides. “I’m just catching up with you. You have had enough.”

“You’re very cruel,” Lan Xichen laughs.

“Clan Leader Lan,” he says in a low voice and raised brows. “Where is your self-restraint?”

Lan Xichen smiles and stares up at the sky with pink cheeks.

“I could ask you anything right now, and you would tell me,” Meng Yao half realises.

“Ask your questions. I don’t think there is anything left that I haven’t told you.”

“What’s your favourite animal?”

He continues to stare at the lilac sky, eyes narrowing in thought. Then a dopy smile. “Cats. Kittens. They’re soft and do whatever the like.”

“I see,” Meng Yao replies very seriously.

“Wangji likes rabbits.” Then he looks at Meng Yao, looks across his face. “Your stubble is coming through.”

“I forgot to shave this morning.”

“Mm.” He reaches a hand to tenderly stroke Meng Yao’s jaw with a thumb.

“Perhaps I should grow it out. Sport a moustache, like Chifeng-Zun.”

It’s a testament to how much he has drunk that Lan Xichen winces. Meng Yao laughs.

“Why do you love me?” he asks.

Lan Xichen sits up straight and looks over his shoulder, as if someone else has asked him this – as if he’s forgotten Meng Yao is there. “You are intelligent. Unpredictable. You’re also generous and thoughtful. You don’t realise you’re either of those things. You work hard for what you want to achieve. You care deeply. And you’re more resilient than anyone I have ever met.” Then, he looks at Meng Yao, innocent and sleepy. “Are those good reasons?”

“Yes,” Meng Yao whispers. He clears his throat and purses his lips. “They are.”

And he considers that he would like to show Lan Xichen the letters he wrote but never sent, the ones written in the half-light of a damp cave. But then Lan Xichen is suddenly on his feet, swaying a little, before gliding with purpose into the forest.

“Ah—Lan Huan—”

Meng Yao skips after him. Clinging onto the silk of his sleeve, “Lan Huan. You’re indecent. And it’s getting late.”

“I think I look decent,” he muses, peering down at himself. Then that crooked smile that makes Meng Yao blush, “You think I look decent, too.”

“Yes, yes – come now, Lan Huan.”

Ignoring him entirely, eyes set on a path ahead of him – “This is the direction of the hot spring, isn’t it?”

“Ah—”

Meng Yao slows and watches Lan Xichen float dreamily further into the sunset-orange forest towards the hot springs. Sighing, Meng Yao jogs after him again.

The springs are not so far from his little cave. The steam rolls off the edges even in this milder weather. Lan Xichen comes to a stop and sways a little, watching the view. The evening birds casting black silhouettes against the sky; the leafless trees, hanging their branches over the pool; the babble of the waterfall. Meng Yao watches Lan Xichen for his next ridiculous move, half expecting him to strip.

Instead, Lan Xichen steps calmly towards the pool and lowers himself in, clothes and all.

“Lan Xichen,” Meng Yao complains.

“My clothes will no longer be muddy,” Lan Xichen explains quite logically – though his silly smile negates it a little. “And neither will I. I’m cleaning myself and my clothes simultaneously.”

“Yes, genius,” Meng Yao remarks.

“Thank you.”

Lan Xichen lies back in the water, arms outstretched and hair floating in a fan around his head. Meng Yao can’t help it now; he’s laughing, face hidden behind his hands.

“This is absurd. Who knew you would be so silly when drunk?”

“Come join me.”

“I am not getting in like this.”

Lan Xichen is sitting on his heels in the pool now, face poking above the surface of the water. He’s peering up at him and smirking, totally unbefitting of Zewu-Jun. It makes Meng Yao shake his head. And then he’s kicking off his shoes and soaking himself through for the third time today – this time, at least, it’s far warmer.

It pleases Lan Xichen immensely, who beams at him and laughs. Meng Yao laughs with him. He steps in close and hugs Lan Xichen, clothes billowing around them.

And then he kicks Lan Xichen’s feet out from under him. Lan Xichen slips into the water.

There’s a brief moment where Meng Yao panics and wonders if he will be angry. But then Lan Xichen emerges, slicking his hair back and gasping for breath, and grinning. There’s fire in his eyes when he grabs Meng Yao by the arm and pulls him under water with him. It’s warm but not hot. The water is murky and all he can see is the white shapes of Lan Xichen’s clothes. When he breaks the surface again, spitting water out of his face, he’s breathlessly happy.

Meng Yao tries to coax him out of the water and back to their little home. Lan Xichen wants to stay and keeps on gifting Meng Yao with pretty leaves, who receives each one saying Lan Xichen, you have already given me plenty of betrothal gifts. I think that’s enough leaves, A-Huan. Yes, thank you, it’s very pretty leaf indeed. Eventually, though, he manages to guide him back to the cave and the fire that burns inside it, where they both fall asleep leaning against the wall, shoulders pressed together.

***

They wake up early the next morning. Meng Yao boils tea for Lan Xichen, who is smiling but clearly embarrassed. He is also clearly very hungover, and bears this with a stoicism and silence that startlingly resembles Lan Wangji. Meng Yao teases him and Lan Xichen smiles.

The days pass in a haze of moments that they will both forget but mattered enormously at the time. Moments of sitting and writing and eating and walking and talking about inconsequential things.

And then there is the morning that Meng Yao wakes up before Lan Xichen and places the letters beside where he sleeps, the letters that he penned to him and never sent. He writes him a note to come find him at the hot springs when he has finished reading them.

And Meng Yao waits for him with his feet dangling in the pool. He hears him approach, and he doesn’t turn to acknowledge him. He pretends that he thinks he’s alone. He stands up and unties his belt, undresses carefully and folds his clothes at the side of the pool. He strips and he steps into the pool, scarred back and loosened hair. He pretends that he doesn’t know Lan Xichen is there, standing at the edge of the hot springs so as not to surprise him. He wonders if Lan Xichen has looked away. He hopes that he hasn’t.

When he finally acknowledges Lan Xichen, he does it with a hand outstretched. And Lan Xichen de-robes until he is just in his trousers, and he steps into the water. Meng Yao watches him, eyes falling across the planes of his chest and stomach and the breadth of his shoulders and his slender waist. And then they’re holding hands in the warm water, steam obscuring their surroundings, morning birdsong overhead. Lan Xichen’s skin raises in goosebumps in the cold air.

They sink into the pool. Lan Xichen pours water over Meng Yao’s back and shoulders and hair. It’s a kind of intimacy that demands absolutely nothing in return, and Meng Yao exhales.

 

***

Night falls quickly these days. Meng Yao lies on his side. He watches Lan Xichen sit by the fire, outer robe drying against a rock. He looks younger with his hair piece removed. The low flames of the fire catch the ridge of his nose, shadows across his cheeks and the dimple in his chin. He is so peaceful. He reminds Meng Yao of a crane standing in a pond.

When Lan Xichen’s eyes open and move to view him, it doesn’t shock him. He should look away, and yet, he doesn’t. What is there left to hide?

“A-Huan,” he says.

The request is tacit and Lan Xichen understands. He unfolds himself from his position across the room and drifts over to Meng Yao, eyes on the floor. It is the first time that Lan Xichen has seemed fragile, and that makes Meng Yao feel less angry about his own brittleness. Lan Xichen brings himself back down to the floor and Meng Yao stretches out the bedclothes to allow space for them both. Dressed all in white, pulling off his shoes and placing them carefully at the end of the ‘bed’, Lan Xichen settles under the cover that Meng Yao extends. He lies on his back against the floor and pelts, lips slightly parted and breathing silently through his mouth.

When Lan Xichen turns his head to view Meng Yao, he blinks, and he looks at him.

He wants to kiss him. He wants to pull himself closer, but something stops him – that last vestige of himself that won’t let him be open. Instead they just look at each other, although Meng Yao doesn’t know what they’re looking for.

His eyes fall shut. There’s the occasional snap of the firewood burning its last breath, and the room goes very dark. He falls into a dreamless semi-sleep, a state of comfort and warmth that isn’t quite unconscious. Meng Yao comes into lucidity again and feels his face pressed against Lan Xichen’s shoulder.

It’s enough. It’s enough to let Meng Yao release a breath and feel that vestige fall away at last. He brings a hand to Lan Xichen’s chest and pulls himself closer. Something in Lan Xichen’s breathing changes, something that tells him he’s surprised, or perhaps he’s been woken up. Meng Yao measures his next move carefully. He shifts so that his face is level with Lan Xichen’s, no longer buried in his shoulder.

It’s almost pitch-dark. All that lights the room is the dull glow of embers and the navy-blue night that glows through the gaps in the door. He can see the edge of Lan Xichen’s face, the distant light reflecting in his eyes.

He feels both of them edge closer together in a way that feels too inevitable. Lan Xichen rolls onto his side to face him, breathing the same air. Noses touching. It turns into the hand on Lan Xichen’s chest rising to rest on his cheek. The intimacy of it is dizzying. The sound of his breath, of Lan Xichen’s breath, hands finding each other blindly in the dark.

Meng Yao feels Lan Xichen’s fingers gently trace his cheek. They curve around his ear, tucking hair behind it. They trickle down his neck, and his hand runs down his arm – up again – cups his face and strokes it with a thumb. Meng Yao lets his own fingers wander, feeling the sharp landscape of Lan Xichen’s jaw in the dark; the slope of his cheeks; the swell of his lips.

When they kiss, it’s just as thoughtless as that first time. It’s the kind of kiss that makes him forget he’s kissing, and not simply loving someone silently. It hits him moments later how lovely this is. How surreal it is to have a man like this love him back, hold him like this.

Oh, this feels so different. Meng Yao doesn’t know why, but this feels quieter and less like something desperate and crashing into oblivion. And while memories lie at the rim of his consciousness, he is too warm and supple and edgeless to care about them. It feels safe like this, alone with Lan Xichen in the dark. Nothing else trying to break in.

The sound of their lips parting. Lan Xichen still tastes like rain. Small kisses, sleepy and undemanding. Meng Yao goes mindless and hooks an arm under Lan Xichen’s, hand somewhere between his shoulder blades and pulling himself closer. Their legs touch, then tangle, slipping between each other. And he lets the hand fall down Lan Xichen’s lower back, pulling himself closer again.

The noise he makes against Lan Xichen’s lips is quiet. Unintentional and content and needy. It buzzes between them and Lan Xichen gasps a quiet breath before kissing him again: a breath that’s the sound of silk floating across the floor.

Meng Yao reaches for the hem of Lan Xichen’s robes.

Two layers. He kisses Lan Xichen with his hands searching through two layers of robes before he finds skin, warm and shivering a little under his hands. He feels the undulation of each rib, the plane of each muscle. Lan Xichen feels beautiful. And since he’d like to feel more, he reaches between them to untie the various belts and knots. They fumble, kiss breaking and breathing each other, open-mouthed.

Is this what it feels like? Is this what it’s meant to feel like? It feels rights. Meng Yao aches for all this innocent affection that he’s been missing his whole life. Pushing the robes off Lan Xichen’s shoulders, guiding Lan Xichen onto his back. Meng Yao lies along him, legs splayed and fingers in Lan Xichen’s hair. He can feel Lan Xichen’s hands running down his back. He can taste the pine-air on his skin when he kisses his neck. He can feel the vibrations in Lan Xichen’s throat when he hums. It feels good to be this close.

It feels good. To have hands on him – it feels good, because they’re Lan Xichen’s. He feels memories’ teeth at the peripheral of his awareness. He acknowledges them, and then melts into Lan Xichen’s body. He holds Meng Yao to his chest.

Lan Xichen’s hands do not wander. They show only care and caution. Meng Yao sighs at the realisation of it, sighs into Lan Xichen’s mouth when he notices how considerate he is being and always will be. The relief of it makes it all go warm and toothless and something in him relaxes.

He is plastered against his body, kissing his neck and shoulders. He sits up enough to untie the belt of his own robes. He takes Lan Xichen’s hands from the top of his arms and places them on his waist.

No one has ever touched him like this before. Nothing so caring and gentle. Sitting up enough to see the outline of Lan Xichen’s face, the dying firelight in his eyes and wet lips, Meng Yao watches his expression change – from dazed to awed to dazed to awed to dazed—

“A-Yao.” His voice is melting snow. “Are you sure?”

He replies by guiding his hands along his waist and to his back. Warm, wide hands that splay across his hips. He doesn’t shake or shiver. He dips back down to kiss him again, hands on Lan Xichen’s face and making short, shallow gasps when he feels fingers trace down his spine and along the waistline of his trousers and over his stomach and chest. Over the fresh scar below his rib. Meng Yao shrugs off his undershirt and he presses himself close again.

This closeness feels so unreal.

Skin to skin is a new experience. All of it is, for both of them – for two men who live in a world where kindness is seen as a weakness. They both sigh.

And Meng Yao runs his lips down his shoulders and chest, too dark and too close to see anything, feeling Lan Xichen’s body with hands and tongue and kisses. He kisses his stomach and feels it tense and flinch, hears shivering breaths and bitten back noises.

Meng Yao crawls back up his body, presses his hips close and watches Lan Xichen’s mouth fall open silently at the friction.

It’s both a delight and a surprise when Lan Xichen braces Meng Yao by the arms and rolls him onto his back. Meng Yao readies himself, expecting to be ravaged in some way, and finds instead his head being lifted gently and pillowed against the hard floor.

Meng Yao stares into the dark, the shape of Lan Xichen’s lips and nose and eyes and the pitch-black cascade of his hair. Meng Yao covers his mouth, shaking with a silent laugh. It’s too lovely and so much like Lan Xichen to worry about Meng Yao’s comfort in such a situation. It’s perfect and he pulls him down into a kiss, laughing against his lips. The laugh turns into a content sigh.

Lan Xichen kisses him deeply and open mouthed. It’s tongue and heat and it’s slow and Meng Yao pulls him flush to his chest. He wraps his legs around Lan Xichen and he searches for friction and finds that the only way to make this better is to take his trousers off. Lan Xichen wouldn’t dare to try and remove them himself, keeping so carefully to Meng Yao’s pace – and so he takes the initiative himself. Hands winding between them, a smug smile against their kiss – Meng Yao knows that Lan Xichen will be surprised. Raising his hips, biting Lan Xichen’s bottom lip, kicking away clothes and Lan Xichen helping until they’re both—

Close. Closeness, dark, lips blindly brushing against his jaw.

“A-Yao,” he whispers.

“This is good,” he assures distantly. Arching his back and breathing in deep, like someone sleepy and stretching in the morning. “A-Huan...”

Lan Xichen sighs and strokes his face. “You’re beautiful.”

“You can’t see me in this light,” Meng Yao complains.

Lan Xichen presses his nose into his cheek, kisses the corner of his jaw. Their stomachs touch when they breathe. “You don’t believe me.” His voice is low and smiling.

He arches into him again. Their bodies press together. It makes Meng Yao’s lungs draw in a long, content breath. He presses his head into the pillow. He whispers into the space beside Lan Xichen’s ear. “I don’t believe things that aren’t supported by proof.” He kisses his cheek. “And I don’t believe in flattery.”

He draws Lan Xichen closer, heels at the small of his back; thighs around hips; hands against shoulder blades. Lan Xichen’s arm wrapped underneath his back; a hand gripping the bedclothes somewhere above Meng Yao’s head. Lan Xichen releases a heavy breath into Meng Yao’s shoulder. And Meng Yao smiles. He feels warm at how undone Lan Xichen is. He feels sly and victorious at what he can to do him with his legs wrapped around his waist.

And then Lan Xichen bites him. Gently, playfully, a nip at his shoulder that makes Meng Yao choke and laugh and sigh all at once.

“A-Yao needs to learn the difference between flattery and praise,” he murmurs against his skin. “I do not flatter.” He kisses him. “I only give praise when it is due.”

He would like to come up with something witty in return, but Lan Xichen kisses the answer out of his mouth. Deep, exploratory kisses again, and they press close to each other. Wrapped up, all wrapped up together. This is the man he sent letters to all those months ago.

And Meng Yao thinks about crawling down Lan Xichen’s body and licking stripes along his length and taking him in his mouth all the way. And he wants to – something greedy in him that gasps for it. But something about it also feels too exposed right now, too far away from Lan Xichen’s kisses in the dark. He wants to keep his hands on his back, he wants to keep feeling Lan Xichen’s lips on his neck, he wants his hands in Lan Xichen’s hair, he wants to be tangled up.

So he rolls him onto his back, straddling him. Then he brings Lan Xichen to meet him, to sit up and pull Meng Yao into his lap by the hips. Meng Yao lays one hand on his cheek – he can just about see his eyes, bright and dark in the dying firelight – and he lets the other fall to the space between them. He lets his knuckles tickle down Lan Xichen’s stomach. He can hear him breathing through his mouth. He can hear himself breathing.

The sound is almost imperceptible: a hitch, not so loud as a choke. Meng Yao’s fingers lightly trace down his length, and Lan Xichen’s hands grip tighter on his hips. Mouthing kisses Lan Xichen’s neck, he forms a fist and strokes. He can hear the breath trapped in Lan Xichen’s throat – the tongue unsticking from the roof of his mouth. He can feel a hand on his bare thigh – such an unfamiliar feeling – and he can feel another cradling the back of his head – still so unfamiliar. He can feel warm breath against his hair.

“Does it feel good?” Meng Yao murmurs beside Lan Xichen’s ear. He feels sly and mischievous again. “Does it feel nice to be touched, A-Huan?”

“By you.” Lan Xichen’s voice is low and sweet.

It takes the mischief out of him and turns it into something terribly bashful. Frowning and smiling against Lan Xichen’s shoulder as he strokes, he feels Lan Xichen’s smile mouthing at Meng Yao’s neck. He feels Lan Xichen’s fingers still threaded through his hair. He feels his other hand slide along his hip, thumb tracing the lines of his upper thigh. Slow and searching. Testing Meng Yao’s response. Torture.

Meng Yao swallows, one hand gripping Lan Xichen’s shoulder. Lan Xichen’s teasing fingers running along the soft skin of his inner thighs. He tries not to whine and fails.

And then –

“Lan Huan.” His name comes out in a rush.

A slow massage. It matches the pace that Meng Yao now struggles to keep. It’s strange and different to the feel of his own hand. It’s good. He likes feeling heavy in Lan Xichen’s lap. He likes feeling Lan Xichen beneath him, between him, against his lips.

There’s a strange lucidity that hits him in that moment – their hands in sync, their heavy breaths out of time, the faces obscured by dark and closeness. It’s a bizarre moment of clarity that Meng Yao experiences, when he suddenly realises what they are doing. And it’s with teeth-baring victory that he realises that he isn’t frightened this time.

Meng Yao’s mouth hangs open. He can feel Lan Xichen trying to kiss him, but he can’t focus enough to kiss back— and so Lan Xichen mouths at the corners of his lips and Meng breathes heavily against him.

He rocks his hips into Lan Xichen’s fist and he grips his shoulder. Fingernails. Clenching his jaw.

“A-Yao. A-Yao,” Lan Xichen mutters into his cheek. “We’re alone here. You don’t need to hold it in.”

If he’s holding it in, it isn’t conscious. When has he ever not held back?

And how could he possibly hold back now, when Lan Xichen is pulling the love out of him like unravelling silk thread?

“I could say the –” Meng Yao’s breath catches, “—same to you.”

Lan Xichen’s free hand wanders, indecisive – running along his thigh and waist and chest and neck and hair and hip and buttocks and back.

Meng Yao hums. It’s a moan and a hum at once, a whine and sigh.

“A-Yao,” he sighs into his ear. Relief.

“Lan Huan – did you ever think of me? Did you ever touch yourself and think of me – did you think of me like this—?”

And Lan Xichen moans. It’s so unlike any sound he could have imagined falling from Lan Xichen’s lips – a sound that pressed against his throat. Meng Yao tips his head back and relishes in the way Lan Xichen pants hot air against his neck.

When Lan Xichen lays a hand on Meng Yao’s to stop him, it lights a flicker of panic. But then Lan Xichen pulls him close, almost flush against him, enough that he can wrap a hand around both of them at once.

“Yeah,” Meng Yao breathes thoughtlessly.

There’s something about it that feels different – it’s somehow closer, and it’s good. Meng Yao’s hips make small, instinctive thrusts and he grabs Lan Xichen by the back of his head and the back of his neck, foreheads pressed together.

“Ah—”

“Meng Yao...”

“Do you like – hearing me? Do you like – hearing me, gege?” He smiles, atavistic. “You like me – making noises – for you? Just for you?”

“Yes...”

The pace is fast and they’re both panting into each other’s mouths.

Meng Yao bites his lip and hears the short, sharp whining noises stuck in his throat.

“A-Yao—”

And then Lan Xichen kisses his cheek. It’s a wax seal against his skin, branding him. And then he cradles Meng Yao’s head. And then Meng Yao gasps; he comes with the sound of his pleasure trapped between the walls of this cave, their dark corner of the world. Lan Xichen’s breath stutters with a choke.

The light of the fire has died completely. He tastes Lan Xichen’s lips in a messy kiss, and Lan Xichen strokes a hand down his back.

Lan Xichen holds him close, lies down and brings Meng Yao with him so they’re half on top of each other. Meng Yao goes heavy and pliant, lips pressed against Lan Xichen’s bare chest. He stretches to reach his lips in the dark. His head lies against his shoulder. Their lips miss each other, landing thoughtlessly on chin and nose. Fumbling.

“Stay there,” Lan Xichen whispers.

Meng Yao can see the barest edge of his silhouette in the dark. And then there’s a spark, white and hot flecks as Lan Xichen starts a new, small fire. Once the embers start to catch, he kisses Meng Yao’s sleepy face and Meng Yao manoeuvres himself under his arm again. He can see the low light dancing against the planes of Lan Xichen’s bare stomach.

***

Meng Yao wakes. The light of the room is flickering, a candle burning low. Lan Xichen’s under robes robes are a radiant white in this dull place. With his back turned, Meng Yao can see only the cascade of dark hair stroking down his back. There is the playful lapping of water in a bowl, hidden by the perfect posture of Lan Xichen’s knelt figure. When he raises his hand to his face, Meng Yao sees a small blade, carefully moving along his jaw line. He looks like a votive statue. And yet, there is something less pristine about this version of him: knelt in the half-light of dawn, shaving his face in meditative silence.

Meng Yao slips out of the sheets, searching through the pile of clothes that were cast away last night. He doesn’t find any trousers, but he finds one of his under robes, and he ties it around himself quietly. Lan Xichen turns his head a little as he hears Meng Yao moving, offers a small smile over his shoulder in his direction, and continues to shave—dipping the blade into the bowl and bringing it back to his face.

The soft sound of his footsteps as he approaches Lan Xichen is something quite intimate. Bare foot and barely dressed, in this little cabin that he’d built with his own hands; Lan Xichen, shaving in the early light, without his headband. Meng Yao comes to kneel in front of Lan Xichen, hands sliding down his thighs to his knees.

Lan Xichen drags the blade slowly down the sharp angle of his jaw. His eyes are closed. His skin glistens with oil, and there are no red spots. Of course, Lan Xichen would never have a servant shave for him. Meng Yao, similarly, had found the idea too strange – particularly after years of shaving in the back corner of his mother’s brothel.

Waiting for Lan Xichen to remove the blade from his skin, Meng Yao watches. Lan Xichen shaves like could be writing a letter or painting. There is a lovely delicacy to it. And when he dips the blade into the water, Meng Yao lays a hand on his knee. Lan Xichen looks at him. The smile that grows is amused. Meng Yao loves to see him smile so much these days. He hopes that when they grow old together, their faces will be covered in smile lines and crows’ feet.

The handle of the blade is warm in Meng Yao’s hand. Ivory and silver embossed. It is not a shaving blade at all, but a small dagger. Just another weapon that a clan leader might carry with him when leaving the palace, alongside his sword. Meng Yao views it, traces his index finger along its blade, Lan Xichen’s eyes on him. It would be nice see the look in Lan Xichen’s eyes right now; there’s something nicer in knowing he’s being admired without looking back. Pretending that he hasn’t notice Lan Xichen stare.

Meng Yao moves the little stone bowl to the side, so that he is sitting directly in front of Lan Xichen. Their knees bump, and Meng Yao separates his a little so that he can draw himself closer to Lan Xichen. Sitting back on his heels, Meng Yao places the small dagger carefully in the folds of material in his lap. He takes the vial of oil and pours a little into his hands, rubbing them together.

He finally looks up at Lan Xichen. Outside, a morning bird is chattering, and Lan Xichen’s eyes are scanning Meng Yao. Loose strands of hair fall from his forehead and frame his face. The fire has burned out in the centre of the room. The candles flutter, leaving shadows against his skin. It feels like a non-time, some space in unreality reserved for them. Dreamlike. And Meng Yao strokes his oiled hands across Lan Xichen’s jaw, feeling the stubble scratch the palm of his hand. He rubs his thumbs in little circles into the raw skin, massages and watches Lan Xichen’s eyes close. He wants him to feel loved.

His hands fall down his neck, massaging until his palms feel dry of oil. Then he takes the blade, shuffling closer and legs parting a little further. He places the cool metal against the angle of Lan Xichen’s cheekbone. Dragging slowly with the grain, Meng Yao cradles the other side of Lan Xichen’s face and holds him still. He sees the tiny flecks of dark hair gather like sand against the silver.

For a short while, Meng Yao strokes the blade slowly along Lan Xichen’s face and thinks of nothing, simply absorbing the intimacy of it. His lips part as he concentrates.

Lan Xichen’s throat moves with a swallow. “You are very skilled with a blade.”

It makes Meng Yao freeze. He wants to hang his head, it’s such a bade joke. “Xichen.”

His only response is raising his brows and smiling, evidently pleased with himself. He opens his eyes and views Meng Yao with something warm and smug and lovely.

“If your people knew how poor Zewu-Jun’s sense of humour is…” Meng Yao chastises quietly, though he’s smiling, too.

“They wouldn’t believe it.”

“No, they wouldn’t.”

Meng Yao dips the blade into the water and splashes it about until he deems it clean. Placing a hand at the side of Lan Xichen’s neck, a thumb just below the jaw: “Tip your head back a little.”

Lan Xichen does as he is told. He exposes his throat, the tendons and the adam’s apple. The oil glistens in the candlelight. The songbirds strike up conversation, but the sky is still dark blue.

Going against the grain now, Meng Yao starts at the base of his throat. He drags the dagger slowly upwards. The quiet hissing sound of blade against stubble is loud in this quiet room.

Lan Xichen’s breathing goes heavy.

Meng Yao raises his brows and tries not to smile. He runs the thumb under his chin along the top of his throat. He presses a little, the smallest amount – enough to feel his pulse. Fast and distinct. Meng Yao pulls the blade slowly. Carefully, across the difficult angle of his chin. The satisfying scrape of the blade coming away from his skin, and then Lan Xichen swallowing, lips parting.

He pulls himself closer, legs parting until he is straddling Lan Xichen. He views the beautiful, still expression that Lan Xichen wears, watching the ceiling with slow, deep breaths. Meng Yao cradles the back of Lan Xichen’s head, turns it slightly so that the tendons of his neck flatten. And then he pulls the blade again.

Meng Yao’s tone is conversational. “Has anyone ever done this for you before?”

Lan Xichen smiles, and looks as if he could roll his eyes. If he were any other man, he would. “No,” he says.

“I imagine it might be a little exhilarating,” he replies. “Being at the end of a blade. Like this.”

“Particularly when you are the one holding the blade,” Lan Xichen whispers.

“Mm.” Meng Yao lets Lan Xichen’s head hang back into his hand, neck entirely exposed. He straddles him, looking down at his parted lips and the blade that runs smoothly over the last strip of stubble. “And you didn’t even ask me to do it for you.”

“I was trying not to wake you.”

Meng Yao pouts his lips and raises his brows, playing at being offended. Then, leaning in, blade still at Lan Xichen’s neck – lips grazing the space beneath his ear – “You wanted to wake me. You just don’t like asking for things,” he murmurs.

Lan Xichen breathes.

He pulls away enough to view Lan Xichen’s heavy-lidded expression, to watch the dagger as he resumes his work. And the blade is halfway up his throat when he feels Lan Xichen’s hands resting cautiously on his thighs.

Meng Yao keeps his breath slow. “Not very wise to distract me when I have a dagger to your throat.”

Lan Xichen looks like he is half listening. His hands don’t rise any further, though, only lying across the top his legs, warm and undemanding. Meng Yao angles Lan Xichen’s head a little more and scrapes the last patch of stubble. Removing the dagger, silver glinting and hilt slick with oil, he dips it into the water and leaves it there.

Meng Yao smiles, tilting his head to his side and viewing Lan Xichen’s face. Shining and soft and newly shaved, not a sore patch in sight. He certainly is skilled with a blade. Meng Yao pours a little oil and rubs into the skin again. He runs a thumb along his jaw, watches Lan Xichen’s mouth hang a little ajar, eyes on Meng Yao’s lips. And then his eyes fall shut.

This man has had so little affection his whole life. The stolid admonitions of the Lan clan are cold and loveless, and he feels Lan Xichen go pliant under his hands.

He also feels Lan Xichen’s hands edge carefully towards his robe.

Meng Yao removes his hands from Lan Xichen’s neck, unties the belt and shucks off the robe easily.

Like last night, it feels different. Safer and more open. Perhaps it’s the way Lan Xichen looks at him: something so adoring that Meng Yao loosens. Meng Yao wants to give. He wants to feel. He wants to really feel the thumbs that trace shapes on the insides of his thighs. The lips at his throat as he tips his head back. The hands that hold him tight as Lan Xichen picks him up and carry him to the makeshift bed. Fingers pressed firmly but carefully into his skin. Meng Yao’s legs wrapped around him.

It’s a kind of consideration that he’s never even tried to expect from anyone before. Now, Meng Yao is learning how to accept it.

Seconds, minutes and hours. Lips and fingers and gasps. Clothes slipping away over hips and hands on soft skin. Fumbling for the oil and biting back praise and prayers and hesitant instruction. Whispering in Lan Xichen’s ear that he loves him. The low morning light swallows the concept of time and turns it into all of this; into hands stroking along the inside of his thighs; pale skin, no longer hidden by the dark; tracing shapes down Lan Xichen’s spine; curling fingers, beckoning sighs out of him. He bites his lip against moans. Lan Xichen kisses them and drinks them. Meng Yao hums into his mouth. They wrap each other in arms and legs and Meng Yao pulls Lan Xichen deep with his heels against his back.

He wants to go slow and fast all at once. He wants Lan Xichen’s weight to blanket him. He wants to taste the salt sweat of Lan Xichen’s skin. He wants to see Lan Xichen’s mouth-hung-open expression when Meng Yao moans. He wants to feel the kisses and the fingers in his hair—

“A-Huan—n—”

--He wants their bodies to roll and slide like the sea. He wants to hold Lan Xichen dead still when he’s deep inside him, and he wants him to live there.

He wants these torturously slow movements to go on forever. He wants to etch this closeness into his skin forever.

Who knew that sex could include love, too? he thinks to himself, a hand cradling the back of Lan Xichen’s head and another gripping the bed sheets.

Chapter Text

Watching Meng Yao wake up in the morning feels like a lovely secret, kept just between the two of them.

How many people have laid beside Meng Yao and seen the way his lips part in his sleep? How many people have seen the way he tips his head back when he stretches, luxurious and slow like a mountain cat? How many people have brushed his hair for him, gathered it into its tie and kissed the side of his neck with a smile? Lan Xichen knows it is not many. At the very least, he knows that Meng Yao has let no one this close in all his adult life.

Lan Xichen wants to gather him up in his arms and kiss the crook of his neck until Meng Yao laughs. Lan Xichen wants to love him with everything, love him until he sees those dimples in his cheeks. He wants to unroll his love like yards of priceless silk. He holds so much of it in him that it hurts; he is desperate for Meng Yao to take some of this devotion and live in it. Live in it, like a magpie builds a nest. Take it. Please, look at how much I love you and take it.

Seeing him untied and unbound, seeing him knelt in a cave with a cheap pot of tea, seeing him ruminate with heavy-lidded eyes and a tilted head. Meng Yao had described himself as lethal, and Lan Xichen agrees. Living with Meng Yao here, without finery or pleasantries, truly does make him feel like a clumsy intruder who has stumbled upon a wild animal in its natural state. Meng Yao will drape himself across his chest whilst he sleeps, or stroke his hair, or kiss him gently above his jugular. And Lan Xichen isn’t afraid because he knows, knows soul-deep that he is one of the only people in the world that Meng Yao won’t bite.

Metaphorically speaking.

Perhaps it is intuition, or perhaps they have become so in tune with one another’s needs that Lan Xichen knows Meng Yao’s thoughts before he expresses them: one morning, Lan Xichen returns from the stream with fresh water and is not surprised when he finds the cave tidied. A bundle by the front door of Meng Yao’s belongings. Meng Yao sits by the dwindling fire and smiles sadly, extending a hand to take the pale of water and boil it for tea.

Meng Yao does not look over his shoulder when they leave, and so Lan Xichen does it for both of them. Meng Yao holds tightly onto his hand.

They make their journey when the snow has melted. Winter has been hard and Lan Xichen has only been here for two weeks of it, the very final weeks where the days are longest and the sun beginning to thaw. They stop first at the nearby village to retrieve Lan Xichen’s horse from the stableman, who has looked after him well. Lan Xichen arranges for another horse for Meng Yao, who agrees to its purchase without complaint. Indeed, Lan Xichen had been prepared to have to barter with Meng Yao on this, who views most of Lan Xichen’s attempts to care for him as patronising. On this occasion, however, Lan Xichen sees him smile, and he wonders if Meng Yao likes to be tended to after all.

Whilst he has none of his Jin finery or jewels, Meng Yao then donates the pots and kitchenware to a vegetable seller on the street, who takes them all with a toothless grin and stares at Lan Xichen in his full Lan sect garb. It leaves Meng Yao with nothing left but the grey clothes that he once said he stole from a stranger’s washing line. Lan Xichen strokes a hand down his back, over the silky shine of his hair. Meng Yao purses his lips and gives one nod. And then they are mounting their horses and heading back to Gusu.

Lan Xichen had felt strangely bare without his headband. Now that he wears it again, he does not know if he has missed it or if he resents it.

Rain falls and snow melts, and Meng Yao shares inn rooms with him. They share dinner together and drink together in busy taverns, a clan leader and a commoner. If Meng Yao feels self-conscious or ashamed, he does not show it. Lan Xichen waits for the politeness, the acerbic niceties that usually come when Meng Yao feels exposed; instead, he gets small smiles and eye-fluttering glances and, occasionally, a look that appears somewhat victorious.

It isn’t until their third night in an inn halfway between Yunping and Cloud Recesses that Meng Yao explains – pinning Lan Xichen’s wrists to the mattress –

“I love that you lower your standards for me–” Teeth pulling at his bottom lip, “—I used to hate myself for corrupting you–” Grinding down against his hips, “–then I realised that it wasn’t about me corrupting you—” Untying Lan Xichen’s belt, “– it’s about how much you’re willing to give up for me–" Running his hands along his chest and stomach, “–and I love it—”

Lan Xichen moving to reach for Meng Yao’s sash, and having his wrists promptly pinned to the mattress again. It makes him buck his hips thoughtlessly, and Meng Yao grins wildly, all teeth and dimples.

“I’m going to ride you until you forget your name,” Meng Yao says. Then, quite coyly, “With your permission. Clan Leader Lan.

Lan Xichen grants permission with fervour.

Of course, there are nights when they will simply sleep, simply dream and watch the ceiling with fingers trailing along arms. And there are nights when Meng Yao will kiss him until Lan Xichen feels him freeze, falter, shivering like a leaf beneath his hands. And Meng Yao will silently rage, eyes closed and lips pursed and tears staining his cheeks – will leave the room in a flurry of nausea and despair – will walk through the rain, alone – will return to be held in Lan Xichen’s arms.

During the day, they will ride through the melting countryside and watch the skies grow brighter, migrating birds flying in formation. Meng Yao will tilt his head back and watch, eyes wide and something youthful returning to them.

Meng Yao rides a horse nervously and without much practise due to his upbringing, which he acknowledges with frustration. He refuses any advice from Lan Xichen when his horse turns anxious circles.

They’ll stop by rivers and eat modest lunches, throwing crumbs to ducks. Lan Xichen will see the openness in him, so different to the artificial vulnerability he often uses to get his own way (I learned it from my mother, he once explained in the pitch-dark one night. I’ve never used it on you, ge.) It’s small smiles and an aching look in his eye that calls for affection – which Lan Xichen happily gives in plenty.

Lan Xichen will watch the way he bends to fill their water pouch, hair pouring over his shoulder. He’ll watch the way he tries to eat bread gracefully but often fails. He’ll watch the way Meng Yao straightens his robes, or holds a pin in his mouth as he ties up his hair.

I’m the luckiest man alive, Lan Xichen thinks.

***

The petrichor and pine has been washed away from his clothes. All that’s left is the typical adornment of a clan leader. Meng Yao follows closely at his side, swaying with the gait of his horse. And when they reach the steps of Cloud Recesses, they dismount and take their horses by the reins.

The two disciples that are posted there have been talking to each other, one of them leaning against the gate post with total nonchalance. The moment that the other one spots Lan Xichen approach, she scrabbles upright from her arm-folded stance and bows deeply. The boy reclined against the gate double-takes when he sees his clan leader and mimics his colleague’s bow.

“Zewu-Jun!”

“Zewu-Jun,” the boy says, still at a forty-five-degree angle. “Please, let us take your horses.”

They both peer up at Clan Leader Lan. He views them with a patient smile, offering a fleeting but pointed glance towards Meng Yao.

“Ah,” the girl corrects herself, angling herself towards Meng Yao. “Jin-gongzi.”

“Jin… Jin-gongzi.”

Meng Yao witnesses this with pursed lips. Lan Xichen can tell he is trying not to be upset. He can tell that he is angry with himself for being upset in the first place. Meng Yao turns his face away in mild disdain.

“Thank you,” Lan Xichen says, passing the reins to the young man. When he raises his brows, the disciple takes Meng Yao’s horse, too. “Would one of you please alert Hanguang-Jun?”

“Yes, Zewu-Jun!”

At that, the disciples peel off—one down the hill towards the stable, and the other practically vaulting up the steps towards the palace, her robes like beating doves’ wings. Lan Xichen represses a bracing sigh to himself, hand poised behind his back and sword at his side.

“They’re relieved to have you back,” Meng Yao remarks as they climb the steps.

He acknowledges this with a small nod. Then, weighing up how much he should impart, he feels himself smiling: in preparation for how angry Meng Yao is about to be. “That is, in part, because I didn’t tell them I was leaving in the first place.”

Meng Yao’s head snaps round to view him, eyes wide and flaming. “A-Huan.”

“I thought you liked it when I broke the rules for you?”

Shoulders loosening, lips twitching like he wants to smile but won’t allow himself. “Up to a point, ge.”

“I see.”

“And your brother?”

“Yes,” Lan Xichen bows his head and closes his eyes a little wearily, “I did inform Wangji and Wei Wuxian. There is little I could hide from the latter, even if I tried.”

Meng Yao considers this as they ascend the steps to Cloud Recesses. He holds his hands behind his back, just as he used to. Now, he appears more natural. Lan Xichen wonders how long that will last, once they are again in public. “That Wei Wuxian is far too observant.”

That makes Lan Xichen smile. “One might think the two of you could become quite good friends, given the chance.”

Now the aghast look is obviously playful. “A-Huan! How dare you.”

Lan Xichen smiles. He wonders how long that will last, too.

Cloud Recesses is still cold. The stone is cold with winter damp. He has lived here long enough to know that the rains have passed, however; soon, spring will be bathing this place in cherry blossom and sunshine.

Wangji emerges from the Jingshi, looking no more ruffled than if he had been called to dinner. He approaches Lan Xichen and Meng Yao with a perfectly still expression, Wei Wuxian bounding over in tow. Seeing the two of them together even now makes Lan Xichen smile; there is something quite comical in how differently they hold themselves, hilarious in how much they adore each other for their differences.

“Xichen. Meng Yao.”

Meng Yao bows, expression relaxing at being addressed by his true name rather than his old title. Wei Wuxian bows too, and Lan Xichen views his brother. There is a small crease in his brow.

“Wangji?” he asks.

Wangji casts his gaze to his left, towards the Entrance Hall. Then, back to Lan Xichen. “Jin Zixuan is here.”

He hadn’t expected this. When Lan Xichen had left to find Meng Yao, he assumed that Jin Zixuan would wait until Meng Yao had been retrieved – that he would take time to grieve. They all knew he would come to take Meng Yao back to Lanling at some point. This is too soon.

Lan Xichen looks at Meng Yao. His concerns are heightened by the cold smile on his face.

“Then you should attend to your guest, Zewu-Jun,” he opines.

“Not necessary,” Wangji says. “You’ve only just returned.”

Meng Yao shakes his head. “No. It should be done now. There is little use in delaying this any further.”

“A-Yao.” Lan Xichen lays a hand on his shoulder. “This is not something I can do without you.”

Meng Yao’s eyes flutter, mouth pressed into a firm line. Then he nods once.

“Let’s – how about we join you?” Wei Wuxian interjects, a finger raised as if he is in class. “The more people on your side the better, right? Right, Meng Yao?”

Meng Yao stares at Wei Wuxian. It is an even stare that would frighten most people, or at the very least, make them take a step backwards. Wei Wuxian views it and grins, folding his arms.

“Come on, Meng Yao. There’s no need for the glare. I know the kind of mettle you’re made of, but as long as Lan Xichen and Lan Zhan care about me, I’m safe.” He adds a smug head wiggle and whistles to himself. “I know you might not believe it, but I’m on your side!”

Meng Yao’s stare switches into a sweet smile. “Of course, Wei-gongzi. I thank you for your support. I’m forever indebted to you.”

Wei Wuxian laughs. “Brrr! It’s so refreshing how bitchy he is.”

“Wei Ying.”

“Alright, sorry, sorry.”

The interaction leaves Lan Xichen smiling a little, shaking his head to himself. He leads them towards the Yashi, hand gripping his sword tight.

He wishes quietly that they could have had some time to settle in. Lan Xichen had planned to run Meng Yao a bath, to pour water over him and make delicate plaits in his hair. He’d planned on playing music for him whilst he fell asleep. He has been thinking of all the luxurious things he could do for Meng Yao.

And yet, it is as they step into the Yashi that Lan Xichen understands why Meng Yao had wanted to get this over with. It’s as they ascend the steps, open the doors, and see Jin Zixuan turn and rise from his seat that he understands Meng Yao’s urgency.

Or, more, it is when he sees Meng Yao’s expression: his look of cool, collected ferocity. It’s when he sees this that Lan Xichen realises that Meng Yao wants this conversation to happen when he is at his sharpest, at his angriest. Warm nights in Lan Xichen’s rooms would only soften that.

Jin Zixuan appears fractious. His chin is tilted and he does not blink when they approach. They bow. They rise. Jin Zixuan turns his gaze towards Meng Yao and looks him up and down, taking in his dull appearance. Then, they sit. The silence stretches terribly. Lan Xichen takes slow, deep breathes as he watches a disciple fill up the pot of tea. Lan Xichen does not pour for himself or anyone else.

Meng Yao’s eyes shine, hiding something manic. His smile could cut glass.

“You dare to return,” Jin Zixuan says.

“You would rather I stayed away?” Meng Yao replies quickly. “I thought you would want the honours of killing the man who murdered our father.”

Lan Xichen sighs.

“I should have hunted you down.”

“And yet, you didn’t.”

“Stop.” Lan Xichen shakes his head. “This will get us nowhere.”

Jin Zixuan opens his mouth to retaliate, but closes it again. At least he does not share his cousin’s pugnaciousness. Wei Wuxian rubs his chin and observes, Wangji watching Meng Yao for all of his reactions.

“Clan Leader Jin.” Lan Xichen addresses him as such as a reminder. “Now that you are in Cloud Recesses, what is it that you would like to discuss?”

This seems to disturb him. Perhaps Jin Zixuan had expected an apology for not having had an audience with Lan Xichen sooner. If that’s the case, he will have to wait forever – Lan Xichen will never apologise for his absence. Not when it meant being with Meng Yao.

“Do I really need to make myself plain?” he says. “I demand to know what you will do with him.”

“Why?”

It’s Wei Wuxian who speaks this time. Recognising that he has spoken out of turn, he gives Lan Xichen a brow raised look, who grants this tacit request with a nod.

“Clan Leader Jin. Why do you want to know?”

“What sort of question is that?”

“Well, it’s just that, I’d like to think that the man my sister is imminently marrying would want to hear his own brother’s perspective on the matter. A true clan leader is not only strong and steadfast, but generous and open-minded. Right?”

“You—”

“If you were just going to have him decapitated or something, I’m not sure how happy my family would be with that. My sister has the purest heart in the world. She doesn’t deserve someone that cruel.”

Wei Wuxian.”

“And so, what do you want to do with him, instead?”

For a long moment, Jin Zixuan says nothing. He silently rages, eyes boring into Wei Wuxian’s skull – and it becomes clear to everyone that Clan Leader Jin has no idea what he wants to do with Meng Yao at all. And that is the true purpose of his visit: to find an answer.

Meng Yao reaches for the tea pot. He pours for his brother.

“Clan Leader Jin.” He no longer speaks with syrup in his voice. “Our own father whored me out. He locked me in a room with no sunlight for six years. Perhaps you would like to hear me beg for forgiveness. I will not. Not this time.”

He pours. Jin Zixuan shakes with anger, jaw tight and ticking. The steam rises gently between them.

“I killed your father. Your anger is reasonable. And yet it is that very same man who committed such atrocities that caused him to flee at that banquet. He forced me to attempt an assassination against Zewu-Jun; I admitted to it publicly; he fled. I am only as guilty as he was.”

Jin Zixuan stares, chin tilted with suffocating pride. For a moment, it looks as if he might kill him, and Meng Yao would only laugh at his attempt. And Lan Xichen thinks that it’s only Jin Zixuan’s pride that keeps him from doing so; perhaps it is a flicker of mutual, mutinous hatred for their father that makes him pause.

“You and I formed somewhat of an alliance in those later years,” Meng Yao continues, pouring tea for the rest of them. “Did we not, Clan Leader Jin?”

“We were friends by necessity,” he spits.

“What other way is there?”

“It means nothing. Scum. Patricide.”

“Will you really so easily forget?” Meng Yao asks, brows raised and head tilted quite coyly. “Can you so easily forget the way we shared silent agreement in those war meetings, when our father would ignore our advice? When our moron cousin would get himself into trouble? Or perhaps you want to forget. You don’t want to acknowledge that you saw how they all treated me and ignored it. The guilt is too heavy for you.”

“Shut up!”

Jin Zixuan flies from his seat, flicking out his ivory sleeves and reaching for his sword. He stands and looms over Meng Yao, over the whole table. Two of his disciples emerge from the background – and it’s only then that he becomes aware of how much he has made a fool of himself.

Lan Xichen looks at the table and waits for the esteemed clan leader to sit back down. He waits with the same kind of weariness as a school-teacher.

“Remember yourself,” Wangji chastises.

Jin Zixuan burns at the reprimand. He sits nonetheless. Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes, tongue picking between his teeth.

When Lan Xichen speaks, he hears the ice in his voice. “Perhaps we should discuss this tomorrow when you are calmer.”

And oh, Jin Zixuan looks like he wants to say all sorts of shameful things – however, to his credit, he doesn’t. The grip on his sword loosens.

“Zewu-Jun.”

A disciple arrives and bows a little desperately. “Forgive the intrusion, but an urgent letter has arrived for you.”

Wei Wuxian whistles. “It’s non-stop for Zewu-Jun. Welcome back.”

Lan Xichen smiles a little wryly in Wei Wuxian’s direction. He takes the letter from the disciple, who bows once more and recedes. “I am sure you’ve been attended to during your stay, and in my absence?”

Jin Zixuan sits dead straight, giving a curt nod.

“Good. Then I trust that you know where you will be staying?”

It is an invitation to leave, and Jin Zixuan does not immediately pick up on it. Lan Xichen smiles, and runs his thumb along the seam of the letter to open it.

Meng Yao’s hand catches him by the wrist.

The meaning of it is clear. Lan Xichen drops the letter, stares at Meng Yao, who eyes the parchment with wide-eyed disgust.

“Meng Yao,” Wangji begins.

“View the way it has been sealed,” Meng Yao warns quietly. “The wax covers much of the parchment’s edge, almost all of it. I was trained to do something quite similar when enclosing poison.”

There’s a moment of deadly stillness as they all view the letter. It sits with all its innocence on the table.

“Why does all this dramatic stuff always happen when you’re around, Meng Yao?” Wei Wuxian asks a little wearily, shoulders slouching. “A little break from the theatrical assassination attempts would be good for Zewu-Jun’s health, I think.”

“A good point,” Jin Zixuan says.

Wei Wuxian looks aghast. “No, that’s not what I meant! I was just pointing out a coincidence…”

“This was not Meng Yao’s doing,” Wangji agrees.

Meng Yao stares at the wall over Jin Zixuan’s shoulder with a look of heavy-lidded disdain. It is one of his more deadly expressions that tells Lan Xichen that he is coiling and crouching like a tiger, ready to pounce. It’s a look that tells Lan Xichen that he is systematically detaching himself from his emotions, so that he does not have to feel any more pain.

Lan Xichen lays a hand on Meng Yao’s arm. He feels him tense, and then relax.

“This was not Meng Yao’s doing,” Lan Xichen echoes.

“Zewu-Jun,” Clan Leader Jin retorts. “He has already admitted to planning your assassination. He is the obvious suspect.”

“Quite.”

“He has blinded you to the truth, just as he has done so many.”

Lan Xichen closes his eyes and tries not to sigh too pointedly. “There is no way that this was Meng Yao’s doing.”

“He could have made this poisoned letter at any point.”

“No. He could not.”

“There is no way you could know that for sure, Clan Leader Lan. How could you know this for sure?”

“Because I have been with him for over two weeks, day and night.”

The significance of that does not take long to sink in. Meng Yao dips his head and smiles a little smugly. Wei Wuxian raises his brows and purses his lips, looking absolutely delighted and possibly surprised by how shameless this announcement is. Wangji wears the even expression of a younger brother who did not want to know that his older brother has a sex life.

Jin Zixuan flounders. That awkwardness of this leaves him speechlessly searching the room for something to say. Wei Wuxian is shaking silently with a hand over his mouth.

Meng Yao takes the letter by the thumb and index finger.

“There is no wind outside. This will be safe to open from a distance. I will happily explain.”

Meng Yao stands quickly. Lan Xichen and Wangji follow in quick succession, whilst Jin Zixuan and Wei Wuxian scramble to catch up.

Letter held out in front of him, Meng Yao opens the door and throws it onto the stone ground at the bottom of the Yashi steps. They form a wide circle around the letter. To anyone who has not witnessed their conversation, the sight could look quite comical.

“Zewu-Jun. May I quickly borrow your sword, please? Sheathed.”

Wordlessly, he passes Shuoyue by the hilt. Their fingers touch for a small moment; Jin Zixuan tuts and looks away, face red with fury – or perhaps embarrassment.

“Thank you. Now. Observe.”

Meng Yao removes the sword, using the sheath to pin down the letter as he cuts open the wax seal from a distance. As soon as this is done, the scroll unfurls, and a small plume of smoke pops out. It is small enough to seem silly, and yet the smoke is dark enough to send a chill down Lan Xichen’s spine.

“It’s done by lining the inside of the parchment with a little gunpowder and sandpaper,” Meng Yao explains. “The friction of its opening lights the catalyst, which burns the poison, thereby sends toxic fumes into the air. It is an incredibly fiddly process, and I daresay the person who devised it would want to see if it worked.”

“What are you saying?” Jin Zixuan demands.

“I am not saying it was you,” Meng Yao sighs, looking close to rolling his eyes. “This is the task of a trained assassin.”

“And only a trained assassin could have recognised it,” Lan Xichen agrees.

He looks at Meng Yao, whose eyes scan his surroundings with a low brow and a ferocity that suits him.

Wei Wuxian’s hand moves to his sword. “Lan Xichen, we should check that your rooms are safe.”

On this, they all agree. As if it is everyone’s task to deem his quarters safe, the five of them make their way towards the Hanshi. Meng Yao walks steadily beside Lan Xichen, hands clasped before him and head held level, rather than a deferential bow.

When they step amongst the bamboo, Meng Yao unsheathes Shuoyue.

There is no moment of pause. There is no moment where Meng Yao’s head snaps towards a source of noise, or a small disturbance in his vision. It happens suddenly, gracefully – Shuoyue cuts through a stalk of bamboo, and it tumbles to the ground. So does the man who had been hiding in its top branches.

Meng Yao turns his head and views the body on the floor, who moves to crawl away. Meng Yao’s foot, pressed in the middle of his back, stops him. The curve of his neck, the sharp angle of his jawline, the tilted head, the disinterested look in his eye: Meng Yao is beautiful when he is murderous.

Shuoyue pierces the ground between the assassin’s shaking fingers, the air singing with the sword’s reverberations.

“Who is it?” Wangji demands. Lan Xichen doesn’t think he’s ever seen him look so angry.

Meng Yao pulls the assassin by the hair until he is knelt on the cobbled walkway. Disciples are gathering around them, unsheathing their swords and awaiting instruction.

“Su She,” Lan Xichen says.

“I don’t recognise him,” Wei Wuxian says. “Should I remember his face?”

“He was a traitor during the war,” Wangji remarks. He looks at Wei Wuxian. “You met him once.”

“Oh. Really? Oops.”

“You knew he was hiding in the bamboo.” Jin Zixuan looks shaken. He looks like he doesn’t know whether to fume or congratulate. “You spotted him too quickly.”

“It is as Zewu-Jun said,” Meng Yao says, pulling Su She tighter by the hair until he yelps. “It takes a trained assassin to spot another.”

“And so Meng Yao has saved my life for the fourth time.”

They all look at Lan Xichen. He smiles at Meng Yao. Meng Yao is too angry to smile back.

“If you’ll allow me to, Zewu-Jun, I will interrogate him for you and find out who sent him.”

Seeing him now, Lan Xichen isn’t sure if he likes it. He knows, accepts, and love Meng Yao for all that he is. And yet it makes Lan Xichen sad, to see him go so cold and distant. That gentleness and openness that he saw in Meng Yao’s face only yesterday is gone – replaced with that venus flytrap stare. It also shows him a future. A future of Meng Yao at his side with a sword, with a white headband and a place at his side.

Lan Xichen nods, blinking slowly. He extends his hand for Shuoyue’s sheath, and Meng Yao returns it wordlessly.

“I won’t tell you anything!” Su She wriggles and grimaces. He has none of the grace of Meng Yao. “I’ve heard all about you, Jin Guangyao! You don’t frighten me, you know!”

“He should,” Wangji says.

Su She doesn’t pay Wangji any attention. He sends a watery-eyed glare in Lan Xichen’s direction. “Such a magnanimous clan leader—and yet your Lan sect threw me out, like—”

Meng Yao’s hand takes Su She’s face in a vice like grip and turns it towards him. He speaks down to him with wide eyes and gritted teeth. “You don’t speak to Zewu-Jun. You don’t even look at him. If you do, I’ll have you skinned and turned into a saddle.”

Su She shakes under Meng Yao’s hand, lips pouting stupidly between his fingers. The disciples share silent looks that tell him they are both frightened and impressed. Lan Xichen is filled with a very complex series of emotions that reminds him of a restless ocean.

“Take him to one of the guest rooms.” Lan Xichen tries to make his voice as cool and even as possible. “We will be in the Yashi.”

Meng Yao gives a small, business-like nod. Turning gracefully on his heel, he throws Su She to the ground and makes his way towards the guest quarters. Two disciples pull Su She to his feet by the underarms, where he is dragged in too, snivelling. Meng Yao walks with that same surety as he ever has.

Lan Xichen takes a moment longer to watch, before his attention is brought to Wei Wuxian.

“Well,” he exhales. “The saddle comment was a little extreme. But it’s hard to imagine that Meng Yao is anything other than a priceless resource for the Lan sect.”

He knows what Wei Wuxian is trying to do, but Lan Xichen does not have the patience for it here, in front of all the disciples. He smiles, looking anywhere but the faces who stare at him. “Let us discuss this somewhere private.”

Lan Xichen steps through them – through Wei Wuxian, Wangji, Clan Leader Jin, and the disciples. He works to calm the ocean that rollicks as he pulls Shuoyue from the stone and sheaths it. He feels them follow silently, deferentially, and for the first time, Lan Xichen realises how powerful he is.

***

His quarters feel too large. Lan Xichen has slept in these rooms for his whole adult life – and much of his teenage years, too – and yet it is only now that he sees how vast they are. Too much space for one person.

It is almost eight o’clock in the evening. The darkness outside doesn’t hide the silhouettes of the nearby bonsai tree. Spears of bamboo leave long shadows through the open doors of his room. The candles flicker, and Lan Xichen kneels, drawing.

The curve of his face isn’t quite right. No matter how many times he tries to make his inks replicate Meng Yao’s beauty, it won’t work; particularly not from memory. The eyes, though – the eyes, he thinks he almost has.

The footsteps are distant at first, but Lan Xichen recognises the sound of someone approaching the Hanshi. Two weeks in forest with nothing but each other, and he recognises his love’s footsteps. Lan Xichen stands in the doorway, awaiting Meng Yao’s shadow in the dark. The lamplight that pours through the doors reveals the even expression, the sleek flow of hair and shining eyes.

Lan Xichen extends his hand. Meng Yao takes it, allows himself to be drawn inside. He closes the doors behind them, leaving them in a low candle-light that reminds him of their cave.

“A-Yao,” he asks.

Meng Yao’s eyelids are heavy. His shoulders rise and fall with a sigh, and his lips part with his exhale. It sets a splinter of worry deep into his heart. Lan Xichen turns Meng Yao’s tired face towards his with a graze of his knuckles.

“A-Yao,” he repeats.

Meng Yao closes his eyes. “He’s a blithering idiot, but a loyal one.” He is cold and still under Lan Xichen’s hand. Meng Yao lays a hand over his, and the splinter melts away. “It took too long. But I found out who sent him.”

And then, Meng Yao says nothing. Lan Xichen draws him to the bed, kneels him down. Meng Yao’s brow pinches, as if he’d like to argue with being treated so delicately. But then Lan Xichen takes his comb and unties Meng Yao’s hair, brushes through it carefully and silently. And Meng Yao softens, shoulders relaxing and breathing going heavy.

The room is entirely silent. There are no cicadas this early in the year, no songbirds this late in the day. All that is left is the whisper of a comb through hair, the sputtering of flames. Their breaths.

“Would you like something to eat?” Lan Xichen asks, combing through the last kink of untied hair.

Meng Yao shakes his head minutely.

“A bath,” he suggests.

Meng Yao nods.

The young serving boy who comes to fill the tub makes no remark on the fact that Meng Yao is in Clan Leader Lan’s quarters at this time of night. The disciples will no doubt have had their fair share of gossiping, passing any and all information they’ve overheard onto the rest of the staff. He is sure that this boy will have plenty of them gathering round him, demanding to know what he saw this evening. And he will no doubt tell them all that he saw Lan Xichen, quietly pouring tea for the defamed Jin-gongzi, his hair untied – and that he had drawn a bath for one of them – or both of them – and that he’d been sent away without any answers.

Meng Yao now sits in the hot water, gaze distant and ruminating. Lan Xichen kneels behind him, pouring water over his scarred back.

“We were back in Cloud Recesses for no longer than twenty minutes before another attempt was made on your life.”

Lan Xichen’s hand stills at Meng Yao’s shoulders, where he has been rubbing circles with his thumbs. “Which is neither of our fault.”

“It is mine.”

Lan Xichen frowns, shakes his head to himself. If it means that he spends his entire life trying to convince Meng Yao that he is not entirely wicked, then so be it. “A-Yao. I can see no reason why it should be.”

“Huan-ge!” he grits. “How can you be so naïve? Coincidences don’t exist in this universe. Another assassin was sent to kill you today, and it was because of me.”

“Then explain,” Lan Xichen says, with all of his patience. He continues to rub circles into Meng Yao’s shoulders.

Hair plastered to his wet back, Meng Yao bows his head, laying it against his drawn knees.

“Shortly before he died, my father hired two external assassins to come and finish the deed.” Meng Yao’s voice goes tight and desperate. “He knew that I had fallen in love with you. He knew I wouldn’t do what he’d ordered, so he sent for them to kill you in the event that I didn’t follow through. Except, by the time Su She arrived, you had already left to find me. Then, you returned…”

Lan Xichen takes a slow breath in the pause that spreads. “And the other assassin?”

“His name is Xue Yang.” Meng Yao’s voice is bitter. “Su She revealed to me where he has been hiding out, in Yi City.”

It makes that ocean in him swell and crash and roar and dance. Lan Xichen strokes a hand down Meng Yao’s damp hair. “You’re extraordinary.”

Meng Yao shakes his head, face still pressed against his knees.

“I still struggle to see how this is your fault.”

At this, Meng Yao goes very still under his hand. And then he turns abruptly in the tub, water sloshing up the sides and spilling onto the floor. Meng Yao glares, wide eyed and so fragile that Lan Xichen simply smiles gently back at him. Lan Xichen has noticed that Meng Yao’s eyes go red-rimmed when he is upset, but he rarely cries real tears. His jaw goes tense and he shakes until he could break at the joints.

“Lan Huan. Your naivety truly astounds me.”

“Please enlighten me,” he smiles.

“Don’t do that!” Meng Yao cries. “Don’t act so righteous and tranquil when it is clear how dangerous I am to you!”

“If I remember correctly, you were the one to save my life from Su She. What could have been a great ordeal ended up being thwarted really rather anticlimactically.”

Meng Yao leans towards Lan Xichen, hands gripping the edge of the tub – and it would be threatening, if it wasn’t so vulnerable. He speaks through his teeth. “If it weren’t for my father screwing a prostitute, getting her pregnant, having her child sent to his palace in secret, and then training that child to become a murderer, I would never have been sent to kill you. And none of this would have ever happened to you.”

“And what a shame that would have been.”

“This is not a joke, Lan Xichen.”

“I know, A-Yao, A-Yao,” he says. His hand strokes Meng Yao’s damp hair. “I know.”

Meng Yao stares, eyes watery and lips pressed into a thin, furious line. Then he rests his forehead against the rim of the tub. Lan Xichen kisses the top of his head.

“I’m sure, by now, you will have all argued about what to do with me. The others will have come to the conclusion that I should go to Lanling and undergo indoctrination, since I am Jin Zixuan’s brother and his decision must be honoured. And you will have exerted your rights as my fiancé to demand that I stay here and protect you as your guard.”

He stares at the dark shine of his hair. The candlelight catches it beautifully. Lan Xichen hadn’t wanted to mention his conversation with Wangji, Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixuan until he felt he had calmed down. Meng Yao is too perceptive. “Almost entirely correct,” Lan Xichen says.

Meng Yao is still and waits for him to expand.

“I did not exert any kind of right over you.” This should be obvious. He is disturbed that Meng Yao doesn’t see it, so he sighs. “You aren’t an object to me. I argued that your own opinion on the matter should be valued.”

Meng Yao groans. “A-Huan. You’re too good.”

Lan Xichen laughs inwardly, pressing another kiss to Meng Yao’s head. “Where is Su She?”

“Oh, in one of your prison cells, somewhere,” Meng Yao sighs. “I left four disciples to guard him on rotation.”

“What state is he in?”

Meng Yao goes still. Then he tilts his head, one imploring eye peering up at Lan Xichen. “He was alive.”

“But unconscious, I gather.”

“Yes,” Meng Yao pouts.

Lan Xichen raises his brows. “What did you do to him, A-Yao.”

One of his dimples appears and his brow pinches. Meng Yao hides his face again against the rim of the tub. “He didn’t deserve to have all of his fingers.”

“Meng Yao.”

“He has the majority of them left, so he has little to complain about.”

Lan Xichen can’t help but wince to himself, shaking his head a little wearily.

“You said that my opinion should be valued.” Meng Yao’s shoulders move with a silent sigh, and then he sits up again. That expression has softened again. Lan Xichen indulges himself – staring at the slant of his brows, the small curve at the corners of his lips, the endearingly wide eyes. “Would you like to hear it?”

“Always,” Lan Xichen smiles.

Meng Yao looks down at his hands. He reaches for Lan Xichen’s, intertwines their fingers and plays with them. “I think that you and your clan are disturbingly vulnerable to infiltration,” he begins, quite sweetly – so sweetly that it almost makes Lan Xichen laugh. “And I think that I could be an easy solution to that.”

Lan Xichen nods slowly. A seed of doubt and dread germinates in his stomach.

“I… think that I would do quite well as both your husband and guard. And I can frighten quite a lot of people into never hurting you again.”

Lan Xichen nods again.

Meng Yao frowns at their hands, spread palm to palm playfully. “It is also clear to me that it was me who brought all of this to you. And more than that, the rest of the world will see me as a villain until I somehow prove them wrong. And regardless,” Meng Yao emphasises when Lan Xichen opens his mouth to counter this, “regardless of how many times I save your life, most people will see me as the man who killed his own father and lied to Zewu-Jun about his true intentions. If I take up a role as your guard now, they will simply think it is another way of manipulating my way into your life.

“I have no qualms with being seen as a villain. If that is what the world wants me to be, I will bring it a man so villainous it regrets letting the word trip off its tongue. But you, A-Huan, cannot marry a villain. You’ve made it quite clear that you will, regardless of what it does to reputation—but I won’t allow it.”

“What are you saying, A-Yao?” Lan Xichen says as evenly as possible.

At the tone of his voice – which he had thought masked his fear quite well – Meng Yao looks up from their hands and blinks at him. His expression softens, and his hand reaches for Lan Xichen’s face.

“I still want to marry you,” he says. “A-Huan. Silly boy.”

And then he understands. “You want to go to Lanling. You want to show the world that you are taking the offer of redemption from your brother.”

Meng Yao’s eyes flutter, and a sad smile takes his face. “It makes sense. I will play their game, if it means you get to marry well. Or at least, marry someone pretending to be good.”

“And then you’ll come back?” Lan Xichen whispers.

And it occurs to both of them, then, hearing his voice, just how fragile Lan Xichen feels. He sees it in the way Meng Yao’s face falls in surprise. He hears the child in his own voice, a little boy who saw both his parents disappear for no good reason at all.

“A-Huan.” Meng Yao smiles. And then the tears trip from the corners of his eyes. “You lovely man. Of course. I’ll always come back.”

Meng Yao leans across the rim of the bath, both hands on either side of Lan Xichen’s face. He kisses him so gently that Lan Xichen sighs.

“I’m too selfish to stay away,” he whispers. “Besides, it seems as if you can’t survive without me for longer than twenty minutes.”

Lan Xichen smiles.

“I’ll kill and chop off all the fingers you want me to.”

“A-Yao…”

Meng Yao grins against his lips, holding his face and kissing him once more.

And when Meng Yao has brushed away the tear on Lan Xichen’s cheek, he sits back in the tub and looks at him like he has said something wonderful. Lan Xichen finds his ink and paper and he draws Meng Yao; the slant of his shoulders, collar bone, parted lips and a bashfully pinched brow. And when the water goes cold, Meng Yao leads him to his bed – their bed – and he kisses him until the candles burn out.

***

My dearest A-Yao,

This letter is for you to open upon your arrival in Lanling. I do not know what kind of indoctrination Clan Leader Jin has in mind for you. Since you have always been prompt when we correspond by letter, and since you seemed eager to continue writing to one another, I will take any absence of response from you as a sign that Clan Leader Jin is withholding these letters. In which case, I would come to Lanling myself.

Do you see how I’ve already fallen into speaking so formally? This is what written correspondence does to me. Reading this first paragraph back, it’s very clear to me why I’m taken up formality again. I’m trying to hide how angry I am by all of this.

How much simpler it would be if you were in the room with me now. You would smooth the wrinkle in my brow with a kiss. You have no idea the effect you have on me, A-Yao.

It’s strange to think that it is almost a year since I came to Lanling that first time I met you. It is nearly spring now, and it was coming towards the end of spring when I came to you. It was so warm, the air felt like a blanket. I remember walking up the steps of Koi Tower feeling so nervous, wishing that I didn’t feel nervous, not quite knowing why I did. It was Wangji who told me that the source of my anxiety was less about marrying someone I’d never met – since I had already been so captivated by your letters – but more the idea of sharing my responsibilities with another person.

(I think that still makes us both a little afraid, doesn’t it? To imagine that when we marry, we will be committing ourselves to each other’s whole selves? To know that you will have to live with all of the responsibility of being a Clan Leader’s partner makes me, sometimes, quite heavy.)

Then, of course, I entered the Main Hall and saw you for the first time. You were sat on the far left on the dais, and I somehow knew instantly that you were the one I had been writing to. You were wearing a small, self-conscious smile. Looking back, I’m not sure how much of that was genuine bashfulness. Maybe you’ll be able to shed some light on this in your response? To me, at that time, you were more beautiful and lovely than anyone I had ever seen.

You will say that I’m a hopeless romantic. I won’t deny it, A-Yao. I had imagined marrying for love since I was a young boy. I’d had any real hope of such a thing erased very early on – but that did not stop me dreaming of it. I think that when we started writing to one another, you brought that hope back again. Everything about you made me hopeful, and I think I fell in love with you very quickly after I started to truly get to know you in person.

I will not make you angry and say anything else you could consider too naïve. There is no way that I could have known what was to come. But I do trust my intuition, and I think I knew in the moment I first saw you that we were bound by some type of fate.

Speaking to Wangji, it is clear that he felt something similar when he first met Wei Wuxian. I had just turned eighteen and he was sixteen when Wei Wuxian came to Cloud Recesses for lectures. He was unruly and clever and loveable. Wangji had very little way of avoiding his feelings, I think.

I confess, now – to you and you alone, A-Yao – that I did orchestrate their courtship, just a little. This won’t surprise you, who knows me so well. I think a lot of people would raise their eyebrows at Zewu-Jun matchmaking his stolid little brother. But it was so funny, A-Yao – if you could have seen how red in the face Wangji would get when Wei Wuxian would show off in front of him. He spent so much time mistaking affection for irritation. For those first few weeks, Wangji seemed to drift around Cloud Recesses with a look of perpetual annoyance whenever Wei Wuxian bounded over to seek his attention. It wasn’t until I gently nudged Wangji in the direction of spending time with his now husband that I think he realised that what he was feeling wasn’t hatred, but love. Oh dear, oh dear.

The message of this story is not that I thought I hated you at any point, A-Yao – rather, that sometimes we feel a profound connection with another person without understanding what it is immediately. In the same way that Wangji didn’t recognise his feelings immediately, I did not recognise how elaborate our story would become. And yet, I knew that we were inextricably tied, somehow.

I’ve never felt confident in poetry, and yet, I find myself (unadmirably) quite proud of my writing here. What do you think, my love? You’re the expert.

The disciples have been asking after you. I wonder how you feel about that? You have a very clear image of yourself in your head, A-Yao. It seems to me that you paint yourself as a villain, because that is how others have seen you. I can understand why you would do so – but you should know that not everyone sees you that way. Cloud Recesses will be pleased to have you back. Indeed, the disciples seem generally quite in awe of you. There are several expressing interest in learning from you, though I’m a little concerned as to what they would like to learn. I would prefer it if Su She kept his remaining fingers.

I end this letter on a more intimate note. (If Clan Leader Jin is reading these letters as his father did, he may want to look away now.) I finished that drawing of you after you left. I keep it under my pillow. If you would like a similar one of me, I can make an attempt at a self-portrait, if you would like.

I dream of you constantly.

With love, always,
Lan Huan

***

My dearest A-Huan,

I opened your letter as soon as I had been left alone to my quarters. I will freely admit that I like it when you’re angry and protective, ge. This humble one does not deserve it… but likes it. Nonetheless, please be assured that I am writing back to you and that nothing on this earth could keep my letters from you. Surely, you know me well enough by now to see that very little can stop me when it comes to you.

I am fine. The journey here was predictably awkward, in which Jin Zixuan rode at least ten yards ahead of me and pretended I didn’t exist. I showed a similar disinterest towards him, in all honesty. Since arriving, I have quickly settled into the monotony of being a well-kept prisoner.

You’ll also be pleased to know that my quarters are pleasant and I haven’t been locked away in a dungeon like, I think, we both anticipated. The indoctrination is not so different from attending lectures (though I can’t make any accurate comparisons, really, since I have never attended a lecture in my life.) Jin Zixuan sends in one of the old Jin clan teachers to rattle off some highly hypocritical clan admonitions, stating moderation and modesty. I sit and make notes and act like a good little boy. It seems like a mild punishment for murder. In fact, the court seems to feel quite neutral about the whole affair. Jin Guangshan was clearly not as popular as he thought he was. Then again, maybe it’s because usurping and murder is just a normal part of gentry life.

They feed me well enough. I spend my entire days in the same room, but then, that is not an unfamiliar life for me. I have a window here, at least. It overlooks the peony garden.

Jiang Yanli is here at the moment. The wedding is fast upon us, and so she is staying here to finish the arrangements with Jin-furen. I only know this because I heard the serving staff in the corridor talking about fetching lunch for her, and how she’d already prepared her own soup. Apparently, she has made attempts to see me. (The guards by my door talk far too loudly.)

It occurs to me now that I never introduced you to Luo Qingyang. She is known by most people as MianMian, and somehow doesn’t seem to mind being called this by almost the entire court. She is one of the only people here that I could ever have called a friend, and so it is a shame that I never really introduced the two of you. MianMian came and visited me yesterday, despite strict orders not to – I think she is friends with the guards at the door. She played a game of weiqi with me and said absolutely nothing. Frankly, nothing needed to be said. It made me very happy, and, dare I say it, a little emotional.

Madame Jin has elected, as per usual, to ignore me. Truly, it was her who I was most worried about in all this – but I wonder if she despised her husband as much as I did. I sometimes hear Jin Zixun ranting in the corridors. I daresay he thinks it is a mockery to all that is good and righteous that I am being held here, rather than killed for my crimes. I haven’t seen Jin Zixuan. I think it will take him some time to come to terms with it all.

Now that I’ve relayed some of the details of my time here, I can respond to the ‘hopeless romanticism’ that you mention. A-Huan, you are right, it is hopelessly romantic. However, I wouldn’t dare ask you to change that about yourself. What you say about that nameless, profound connection between two strangers (yes, very poetic, my love) isn’t naïve at all. I sensed it when I first met you. In fact – and you will laugh at this – I did know that I loved you the moment I met you. Or rather, I knew that I would soon fall in love with you. It seemed frighteningly inevitable. Perhaps that is because I knew how much was at stake – and, I think, because I had already decided that I would never harm any part of you for as long as I lived.

I remember the moment I first saw you, too. You were so graceful. And powerful – I think you forget how powerful you are, Huan-ge. You’re like the quiet before a storm. And it was so obvious, even just by looking at you, how capable you were of pure kindness. It’s quite a startling combination of things to see in one person. Especially for someone such as myself; I’ve never met anyone as good as you, Lan Xichen. I could barely believe what I was seeing.

As for the smile that you referred to in your letter: yes. The smile on my face when we first met was truly self-conscious. There were various layers to it, as I’m sure you can understand now. I was nervous that you would see through me – I was afraid of meeting the man I was meant to kill – and I was afraid that I would fall for you. Which I did. On top of all that, I wanted you to be pleased by what you saw. I’m glad that you were.

… I have just been interrupted by the teacher I referred to earlier in my letter. I was just about to wax lyrical about your beauty when he came in and started reciting admonitions in my face. They are all very lucky that I am actively trying not to kill anyone at the moment.

As I was about to say – I remember how lovely you were in those days, too. You would look at me like I was something extraordinary, and I would feel immensely guilty about it, whilst also relishing in it. No one has ever looked at me the way you do. You have a particular expression when you’re admiring me which I find very attractive. Your eyes go a little hazy and your lips part. Very kissable, Clan Leader Lan.

Before I distract myself, I should address the penultimate note in your letter about the Lan disciples. I laughed reading this point in your letter. Indeed, it is a little concerning that your young and impressionable disciples would like to learn assassination techniques from me. I daresay, on a serious note, it is because they care deeply about their leader and want to protect him whilst I am gone. It is a concern for us all that this Xue Yang is at-large and I am not there to protect you.

Is Wei Wuxian following my instructions?

Please, to save me any added anxiety, just don’t eat anything unusual that has been served to you by someone you don’t recognise. I know that you’re no idiot, but I am plagued by nightmares of you coming to some harm whilst I’m here. I would advise a poison taster, but I doubt you would agree to that on a moral basis. I also doubt that you’ll let me taste your food once I’m by your side, despite the fact that I am immune to most poisons. It’s very infuriating, being in love with someone as stubborn as you.

At last, the final point of your letter. Huan-ge… I would say that I am shocked by your impropriety, except that I’m not. Looking back on our time together, you’ve never much minded making your affection for me plain, even in public. Sometimes, the way you look at me makes me feel like you could be undressing me with a smile.

I don’t think Jin Zixuan is reading these letters. If he was, he certainly isn’t now.

I would very much like said drawing. Simply the idea of you drawing such a thing for me – I imagine, in front of a looking glass – is enough make me speechless.

And so, my letter ends here.

Think of me often, ge.

With love, forever,
Your A-Yao.

 

***

Dearest A-Yao,

I will endeavour to respond to your letter chronologically.

I’m indeed very pleased to read that you are being treated properly. If I am angry and protective, it is only a very genuine reaction to your situation. Nonetheless, if it pleases you, then I won’t hide it from you. And yes, the fact that you are an unstoppable force is one of the many reasons I love you.

We can both agree, then, that whilst the lectures are quite boring, this is not the worst punishment we could have imagined. I trust that if you were unhappy or uncomfortable, you would tell me. As far as the hypocritical admonitions go: I’m afraid most of them are. If you’re ever in need of having your mood brightened when you have returned to Cloud Recesses, ask Wei Wuxian to recite the Wen Clan admonitions. He puts on quite a show, I assure you.

You’re very right about Jin Guangshan’s popularity. I trust that I can say this to you, after everything you have expressed to me about your father: he was a deeply abhorrent man. You know that I don’t say such things lightly. If it’s too much for me to say, please tell me: I recognise that, despite everything, your relationship was complicated.

I am deeply relieved to hear that people have made contact with you – or at least attempted to. I’ve met Jiang Yanli a few times, and it does not at all surprise me that she would try to see you, even if her betrothed is undecided on how he should feel towards you. She is unerringly kind. She is one who I would like to know a little better; her visits to Cloud Recesses are as often as her schedule will allow her, with impending nuptials. Luo Qingyang – is she one of the Jin disciples? I never met her, although I think her saw her amongst your ranks. It’s as you say: sometimes, a true friend knows that there is nothing that can or should be said.

I love you and miss you. Extraordinarily.

I’m relieved to hear that you haven’t killed your teacher. Please try and avoid it, A-Yao. I would like to see you again soon, after all.

You asked me if Wei Wuxian has followed your instruction: he has. It is quite ironic that Wei-fujun adhere so strictly to your orders when he is famous for breaking everyone else’s. Wangji has informed me that he always does what is necessary when it matters, and I believe him. And so, as per your orders, during the day, Wei Wuxian does not leave my side. He is very diligent. At night, I have two disciples posted outside my doors. Whilst it does not make for a very peaceful existence, Wei Wuxian is excellent company.

I will promise you now never to eat food prepared by anyone other than our family cook. And I will ask for it to be delivered by the same person every day. Wei Wuxian is very earnest: he has offered to inspect my food before eating. I feel that this is unnecessary.

I know that I must seem quite an amateur in your eyes, my love. However, you must remember that I have lived in the gentry since I was a child; there are many procedures in place in the event that something happens to me. I may not have immediately seen through the guise of that poisoned letter, but I am generally well-trained in this area. To say that you should not concern yourself would be condescending. I know that it’s never that simple. I wish I could stroke your brow while you sleep and hold you through your nightmares.

Wei Wuxian and I have enjoyed some of his secret Emperor’s Smile stash since you left. I embarrassed myself somewhat by wandering off again. Poor Wei Wuxian had to look after both myself and Wangji that evening. I think that is the last time he drinks with me.

They were both asking me about where you and I were during those days in Yunping. I told them about the cave, and not much more. I was drunk and Wei Wuxian tricked me into talking about you (which is not a difficult task; I enjoy doing so immensely). As far as I can remember, all I shared is that you are very good at brewing alcohol and you grew your own vegetables successfully. I remember Wei Wuxian looking quite disappointed that I didn’t divulge more. I think Wangji was relieved.

Which provides a neat segue into the final part of your letter. You’re right that I’ve never attempted to hold back my affection for you. I’m very happy for the whole world to see how much I adore you, for it’s what you deserve. It’s no secret. However, I hadn’t realised that my looks appeared quite so flirtatious. I wonder how many other people have noticed this. You say that you find it attractive when I openly admire you and that you find me ‘kissable’: how much admiration would it take for you to kiss me in public?

‘Think of me often, ge’. I think of you very often indeed, A-Yao. I think of you daily and nightly, awake and in my dreams. I think of you lying beside me, your back against my chest and my lips at the nape of your neck. I go to sleep and imagine you stretching, wrapped up in my arms. I imagine many more things.

Please find said drawing enclosed.

With all my deepest love,
Lan Huan

 

***

Dearest A-Huan,

Oh, how I have missed your chronology! I am so pleased that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to know how silly you are. It feels like a precious secret that you’ve entrusted to me.

‘An unstoppable force.’ That’s possibly the greatest compliment anyone has ever paid me. I strive to be an unstoppable force on a daily basis. One of the reasons that I love you is that you’re honest. Your compliments are never shallow.

No, this is not the worst punishment imaginable. Yes, I am comfortable. I am also being kept entertained, of sorts, by various tasks that I might have seen to when I was a Young Master here. Jin Zixuan still has me undergoing the daily indoctrination that he promised, and he has added the pleasure of seeing to his accounts. He is fully aware that I find such menial work therapeutic and rewarding in how logical it is. From my perspective, it seems that my brother doesn’t know whether to punish me or reward me for what I have done. I think that he is subconsciously pleased that our father is gone but hates that I ‘removed’ him. Poor little thing, how confusing it must be for him.

‘He was a deeply abhorrent man’. Such music. Say it again.

I had thought about leaving it there, on that witty and salacious note. However I feel that I owe it to you, love, to be more honest – particularly since you were. You know that honesty does not come easily to me, but I will make an attempt without squirming.

My relationship with my father was indeed complicated. It didn’t exist until I was ten years old. Before then, I had imagined a relationship; I’d conjured up a father in my head, and he was made up of all the men I’d met on the streets of Yunping. An imaginary parent, who would rebuke me for coming home too late or congratulate me on a piece of work I’d accomplished – if my mother wasn’t there to do so. He lived in my mind and I would have conversations with myself as if he was real.

When I found out that Jin Guangshan was my father, I remember feeling like a character in a story. Whisked away to a palace! How dramatic. Given the essential task of protecting the clan leader, trained to do whatever it took: I was immensely special, A-Huan. I received gifts for my efforts. He peppered small pieces of praise in the form of letters that had me addicted to him. I built a picture of a better man in my head from the small pieces of generosity that he showed me. Every time he praised me, I would excuse the horror he put me through.

So, yes. I loved him deeply. I loved him in the way a drunkard loves alcohol. To him, I was both useful and disposable. In short: my father was abhorrent; that is why I killed him; you can say it as often as you like. And yet, sometimes, I feel like a little boy again, lost in the streets and looking for my father’s hand to hold.

There. That’s as much as I can manage on the topic for now.

Jiang Yanli has been visiting me. She is not at all like the rumours describe her. I was told that she is meek and mild, and yet it’s clear how much her love for her family burns her from the inside out. She would kill for her siblings just as soon as I would kill for you. Has really no one seen this before? It makes her an excellent weiqi opponent. She smiles almost as much as I do. I think most of her smiles are genuine, though. She does not like Madame Jin, which is refreshing. I’ve never had someone to share thinly veiled jibes about Madame Jin with. Even MianMian is too afraid to do that. Jiang Yanli is subtle enough that we can talk about what we want in code and smiles. It’s wonderful.

I wonder if this is what war does to a person. Back in that medical tent on the plains of Qishan, we formed a kind of friendship despite sharing very few words.

Apparently, Lady Jiang has been receiving letters from Wei Wuxian, one of which was singing my praises. This did surprise me a little. Maybe you’ll find that amusing – you do keep saying that we could be friends. Anyway, Jiang Yanli appears to be converted to my side, despite the fact that her betrothed is the one who has locked me away here. Maybe she sees me as a mediator between Jin Zixuan and Wei Wuxian. That could be quite interesting. I’ll have to keep you updated on the matter.

I know that you are not an amateur when it comes to protecting yourself, A-Huan – I know that I am being demanding. Please understand that I can’t help but worry when you’re all the way over there and I’m all the way over here. There is very little you can do to distract me from my anxiety. You’ll have to get used to me irritating you about this.

I had a dream last night that you let me take off your headband. I pulled the end of the ribbon at the back of your head and you took it from me and wrapped it around my wrist. It’s strange – you have let me remove your headband before, but this dream felt incredibly intimate. I think it’s my mind’s way of saying that I should hurry up and marry you.

A-Huan! Your final paragraph – you could almost make me believe that you’re thinking of me indecently… Like how I dreamt of you last night. Truthfully, it didn’t just end with me taking off your headband.

If you could see me now. I’m blushing. Do you see the irony, ge? I was raised in a brothel and you were raised in a sect that promotes abstinence. And yet, somehow you are the one sending erotic artwork and talking about how you’ve ‘imagined many things’ about me. And I am the one sat staring at my parchment with hot cheeks. It’s so ironic it makes me furious. I love you endlessly.

I hope I get to see you soon. There are too many parts of you that I haven’t kissed yet.

Eternal love,
A-Yao

Post-script: I shall have to think of some way to thank you for that drawing.

What ‘many more things’ have you imagined?

***

Dearest A-Yao,

I am indeed very silly, and silliest when I am around you. Even when I’m writing to you, it seems.

It pleases me greatly that you aren’t simply being subjected to indoctrination for your entire stay in Lanling, and that you have a more diverting project to put your mind to. Your mind is very wonderful, after all, and needs stimulating. It is not wise to speculate how Jin Zixuan feels about the situation; it is possible that what you say could indicate that he may feel conflicted. If we are to consider the general temperament of your family, A-Yao, I would not advise interrogating him on the topic: although I’m sure you have already come to the same conclusion.

Since you have had much time to think on all of this in isolation, you may have noticed yourself that many people are relieved to see Jin Zixuan on the throne. There is a not small group who view your actions as beneficial to the Lanling district and to the gentry as a whole – though they may not openly admit it themselves. I hope that by making my own allegiances clear, people might be further persuaded.

Jin Zixuan is very fortunate to be betrothed to a woman with such strong moral fibre. I believe her compassion, kindness, and generosity will be vital to reaffirming the public’s faith in the Jin clan. I think that if any reconciliation is possible between you and him, A-Yao, it will be with Jiang Yanli’s help. As well as your incomparable skills in persuasion, of course.

We’ve had many guests here, of late. It came to light last week that the reason Wangji and Wei Wuxian were lingering for so long in Qishan after the final battle, is because they were covertly rescuing bands of Wen slaves. During the battle, they had heard information about pockets of people who Wen Ruohan had enlisted in his palace and mistreated. They broke in after Nightless City was razed and freed them. Since they returned, Wei Wuxian and Wangji said little of this, wanting to do the right thing without spreading heroics. This was very well intended, however, three of the emancipated slaves visited us in Cloud Recesses last week, seeking to be enrolled as members of the Lan sect: a woman, her brother, and a three-year-old boy.

Wen Qing and Wen Ning are quiet and diligent. The former is a skilled doctor and has expressed an interest in becoming a family practitioner. Wen Ning is introspective and shy but has betrayed on occasion a cunning sense of humour. Wei Wuxian has been teaching him archery. A-Yuan, the little boy, spends most of his days attached to Wangji’s leg. Wangji is utterly devoted to him. I think Wei Wuxian may be a little jealous. And so, when you return to Cloud Recesses, you will find that our family has grown somewhat.

After reading what you have to say about your father, I wish that I could hold you in my arms. The things you’ve identified in your relationship are surely quite significant. I hope it isn’t condescending to say that I’m immensely proud of you.

He really was a deeply abhorrent man.

I love you more every day.

You’re right, of course. I shouldn’t ask you not to worry about me. I won’t try to suggest that you stop ever again. There is very little chance of you ever irritating me by ‘being demanding’, since I actually quite enjoy how demanding you are.

You say that there are parts of me that you haven’t kissed yet. Is this true? I can’t think of a single part of me that you haven’t kissed. I certainly invite you to let me know if you think of any.

I have saved the best part of this letter until the very end. In two weeks is Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan’s wedding at Koi Tower. I will be there with the rest of my sect. I sincerely hope that you will be allowed out for the celebrations. I am sure that I could persuade Clan Leader Jin to let me see you. (How much like you I sounded just now.) And so, I will make this a slightly shorter letter than usual, knowing that I will see you soon.

With deepest love,
Lan Huan

Post-Script: I have indeed imagined things. I’ve imagined you taking off my headband and tying it around my wrists so that my arms are pinned down. I’ve imagined carefully pulling away the hem of your robes, revealing the skin of your chest and laying kisses there. I have imagined coming to find you in Koi Tower and picking you up and carrying you wherever you want to be taken. I’ve imagined catching your eye from across the room, waiting until the nuptials are over and visiting your quarters, where I can run my fingers through your hair and kiss your neck and hear you whispering my name in my ear. I’ve imagined kissing your stomach and feeling you shiver under my lips. And many more things.

***

Dearest A-Huan,

I will be seeing you next week. I look forward in earnest to experiencing the contents of your post-script in person.

I’m finding myself uncharacteristically speechless after reading your letter. I had thought about writing more, but I thought you might find it entertaining seeing just how stunned I am.

I hate and love what you do to me.

Your eternally patient and loving fiancé,
A-Yao

Chapter Text

Incense leaves a pleasant tang in the air. Meng Yao meditates. This is a habit that he has grown to appreciate far more, this past year. What rouses him is the sound of a gentle tap at the door.

Meng Yao opens his eyes to a view of red and gold.

“Lady Jiang,” he breathes.

Meng Yao finds his feet and he bows. He hears Jiang Yanli’s quiet laugh, and he hears the joy in it. Over the arc of his hands, he looks up at her and sees that joy, too. She is resplendent, her gold hair piece rising up her hair like a phoenix feather. The gold of her outer robe is as fine and thin as spiders’ silk. She smiles with red lips.

“Meng-gonzi.”

“You look wonderful.” His smile, he finds, is usually genuine with Jiang Yanli. He gestures for her to join him at his table. “Please.”

Hands clasped neatly before her, she kneels seamlessly to the floor with a barely restrained beam. And whilst Meng Yao can hardly understand her dedication to Jin Zixuan, he can certainly see that she is happy. He can understand that, at least. In these small quarters of blue and ivory, she shines like a jewel.

Meng Yao rolls away the literature he was reading before he began meditation, feels the pot to check if the tea is still warm. When he finds that it is, he pours, and passes Jiang Yanli a cup. She takes it with a small nod of her head – courteous to utmost, even with Meng Yao, even though he thinks they both know each other too deeply for such courtesy to matter. But then, neither of them ever let the ball drop: that is their game.

“The ceremony is in only a few hours,” Meng Yao says.

Jiang Yanli tips her head forward again and smiles at him. “I wanted to see you beforehand. I’m sorry that you will not be there, as Jin Zixuan’s brother.”

It is a plight. It is also a subtle criticism. Jin Zixuan had not formally invited Meng Yao to the ceremony, but they both know he would not be chased out if he came. Then again, Meng Yao thinks that it would serve as a neat way to make Jin Zixuan feel guilty for how he has ignored him these past few months. Meng Yao would like to see his face at the reception, when Jin Zixuan sees him and is reminded of the fact he did not invite his own brother to the wedding.

Naturally, Jiang Yanli is pleased with neither of them for this scenario.

Meng Yao offers his smile in return. “I am sorry too, Lady. But I look forward to offering you both my best wishes at the reception, with the rest of the guests.”

The sharp look on her face softens, brightens, and the smile is very real. “You will be coming.”

“Of course.” Meng Yao bows his head. “I could never miss it.”

Jiang Yanli looks privately pleased, looking down at her lap ever so demurely. It is the pursed lipped smile of someone who knows they have won, and Meng Yao lets her have it.

“How are you feeling, Lady?”

Her jewellery dances when she tips her head in acknowledgement. “Very happy indeed. XianXian is quite beside himself. He and A-Cheng have been in tears all morning. Yes, I am very happy. I have all the people I care most about with me.”

They look at each other. What also goes unsaid is that there are also a lot of people that she couldn’t care less about, and people she actively dislikes, though there are few of those. This much is translated with their held glances, and they share a laugh.

Lady Jiang drinks her tea, hand covering her mouth. Then, “He is here already. The Lan sect all arrived with XianXian early this morning.”

Meng Yao swallows. His throat feels suddenly tight with how hard his heart is beating. To know that they are in the same building is almost too much to bear. He blinks rapildy – it betrays his excitement and the extent of his anticipation. Jiang Yanli allows a short, happy laugh, and reaches across the table to lay her hand on Meng Yao’s.

“You could go to him now.”

He shakes his head. “Better to wait until after the ceremony.”

Removing her hand, she raises her brows at him with gentle amusement. “At the reception? That would be quite a reunion.”

He hears what she is suggesting: he is effectively using her wedding as an excuse for a dramatic entrance. And she would be correct. He has been planning it this way for some time. Meng Yao blinks and purses his lips, bowing his head. “If you would prefer that I waited…”

“A-Yao, why would I?” she says. She shakes her head with affection. “What will you wear?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” he lies.

She raises her brows.

Meng Yao purses his lips again and turns his head to the robes that lie on the back of the bed headboard. Jiang Yanli gives him a look, and drifts over to them. She picks up the outer robe and holds it high, so the pleats hang properly. He has never worn this robe before.

“I am sure he will appreciate them very much,” she says.

This conversation makes him feel like a teenager – sharing stories and gossip with friends he never had when he was actually a youth. Jiang Yanli is smiling, as if she is sharing in his anticipation. The silliness of it all makes him grimace, makes the back of his neck go warm, and Jiang Yanli covers her mouth as she laughs before laying the robes back on the bed, gently.

“They’re perhaps too blatant,” he says.

“Not for such an event as this,” she replies, taking her seat again. “And how are you feeling?”

He doesn’t expect the question. He doesn’t expect the emotional response. “A little nervous, somehow,” he says, feeling the frown on his face.

“It is always that way,” she says. “When you have not seen the person you love for several months. You wonder whether things will have changed. Often they have, but in the best way.”

Meng Yao finds he agrees. What is strange is that he also feels a kind of pressure to see him – not just excitement, but a real pressure. You need to see him. Before…

He grinds his teeth. Before what? Does the threat of Xue Yang loom over them so much? For how long will he let his father’s shadow darken their time together? How can he still have this much control over him, even after death?

“Meng-gongzi.” Her hand over his again. A comforting smile, as warm as an embrace. “It will be fine. And he will rejoice to see you.”

“In as much as a sect leader may in public,” he says.

“Indeed.”

“And may your day be a joyful success,” Meng Yao continues.

Jiang Yanli tips her head forwards. Then with another small smile, she unfolds herself from the ground. Meng Yao stands and bows.

“Please send my best wishes to Clan Leader Jin.”

“Of course,” she says with some restrained amusement.

Meng Yao watches her retreat, a fiery sunset of red. The doors open, and the guards let her through – they had stopped trying to keep her out months ago. He watches the doors close again, and he turns to view the clothes laid out on the chair – then, catching his reflection in the looking glass, where he stands in his everyday robes, hair unadorned. The smile that reaches his face is nothing short of devious.

***

Lanling is hot already. Summer is near. The evening is rolling on, the sky is only just darkening, and the air is pleasantly heavy. Lan Xichen has been listening to Sect Leader Yao talking for the past fifteen minutes about the weather in Pinyang.

“Naturally, it doesn’t get so hot as Lanling. But in the summers, the weather is so scorching that it makes many of our women faint! And when our soldiers train, they do so in the blazing sun. Mm. It makes them stronger, of course—”

Lan Xichen has been enduring this with a calm smile and eyes cast downwards, pretending to listen. When he has the chance, he lets his gaze wander about the reception and the other guests. Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan are smiling and radiant, passing through the crowd and accepting toasts. Nie Huaisang is fanning himself and leaning against a pillar – he catches Lan Xichen’s gaze and rolls his eyes and slumps theatrically. He’s assuming it’s in sympathy, given Lan Xichen’s current company.

Lan Xichen bites down a smile and raises his eyebrows reprovingly at Nie Huaisang.

“… Don’t you think, Clan Leader Lan?”

Turning his attention back to Sect Leader Yao, “Of course. If you’ll excuse me, Sect Leader.”

He bows. His politeness makes up for his abrupt departure, and Sect Leader Yao collects himself quickly, bowing in return. He respects Lan Xichen enormously simply for being part of a clan that values the highest moral scruples. He wonders idly what he will think when he marries A-Yao.

Lan Xichen makes his escape and is proud of himself for not outwardly sighing. He sees Wangji and Wei Wuxian and considers going over to them – but Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Yanli have joined them, now. It looks as if Wangji is about to slip away to allow the siblings some time together (or rather, some time for Jiang Wanyin to bear his emotions with a red-faced smile, as if he is constantly stifling tears.)

“Lan Xichen.”

Nie Mingjue holds out his drink. They toast, and Lan Xichen drinks his water with a hand before his mouth. He smiles at his oldest friend, who seems quite relaxed. Perhaps it is the alcohol. His cheeks are unusually red.

“Am I right in thinking that it might not be long until we are all at Cloud Recesses like this?”

Nie Mingjue looks so serious when he says this. Lan Xichen could almost laugh. “Perhaps. That was the original plan, was it not?”

And he looks as if he wants to complain at Lan Xichen’s teasing. Instead he puts down his cup and takes Lan Xichen by his upper arms. And then, he smiles. “And I extend my original best wishes and congratulations, despite all that has happened since. You judged the situation with more sensitivity and nuance than I ever could.”

Indeed, this is the first that Nie Mingjue has ever suggested that he has little of either of these qualities. Lan Xichen dips his head, feels his hands drop away from his arms. “Thank you, my friend. You are kind and just as ever.”

Nie Mingjue’s shoulders rise in a silent laugh. His smile melts. “There may still be threats on the horizon. Your brother has told me about what has happened since Meng Yao ran away. However, there is also much to look forward to.”

And he would like to ask his friend what news he has. It has been a long time since he has seen Nie Mingjue. The words are on his tongue, and then he finds himself opening his mouth and closing it again.

Over Nie Mingjue’s shoulder – Lan Xichen’s gaze makes his friend turn to see what has enraptured him so – there is a small parting of the crowd to allow the arrival of another guest. For the past hour, new guests have appeared through the Main Entrance into the azure and gold hall. Now, the newest steps in with slow assurance and a small smile, eyes cast to the floor.

Meng Yao is a pillar of pale blue. The trim is embroidered in fine, light gold. He looks like an autumn day, a layer of ice over gold leaves. His headdress is small and delicate, but it shines. His smile shines brighter.

It is the way he holds himself so carefully; the way he bows so fluidly in greeting; the way he smiles politely to those who offer only disdainful stares. It’s the way he bows and talks with a fixed smile with Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan – something far more earnest than he is used to seeing on A-Yao in public. It’s the way his neck turns when he steps back into the throng, showing the angle of his jaw. The anticipation in his knitted brow, nerves showing through parted lips – his eyes scanning the room.

It’s the face Meng Yao makes when he notices him. It’s as if Meng Yao has forgotten the rest of the room. Of course, knowing his betrothed very well, Lan Xichen is aware that Meng Yao is hyper-vigilant of his surroundings at all times. And yet the way his eyes widen just a fraction, his lips parting the smallest amount: and then that smile. Slow, affectionate, profound. Admiration and relief, for the room to see.

His approach is eager, and yet controlled. With his hands clasped neatly at his front, he steps with swift purpose – enough that the gold of his outer robes flutters. Lan Xichen remains where he stands, watching.

Nie Mingjue clears his throat. “I will leave you two to reacquaint.”

Ordinarily, he would say that he would like for Mingjue to stay. There is some reconciliation needed there, after all. But he has already slipped away, and Lan Xichen is endlessly grateful for it.

Meng Yao’s pace slows when he reaches Lan Xichen. His gaze is fixed on him, conveying so much that Lan Xichen cannot think of a single thing to say.

Meng Yao’s eyes flutter, as if he is taken by an idea. And then he bows.

Lan Xichen laughs. He takes him by the arms to stop him.

“Such demonstrations are not necessary,” he says, voice thick with humour and so, so many other feelings. “I was worried you would not be allowed to the reception.”

Meng Yao raises his head and beams. It is a smile that gives dimples and crows’ feet and it breaks Lan Xichens heart with how much he loves him. “Thankfully, I was allowed.”

Perhaps it is the look on his face. He must be wearing one of his fabled love-sick expressions, because Meng Yao purses his lips against a smile and casts a coy glance to the floor.

“I would like for this to be the last time we are parted,” Lan Xichen says at last.

Amongst the room full of guests, guards and servants, drinks and food and conversation, Meng Yao stands and smiles silently at him, eyes shining.

Time passes far too slowly. They attend the feast and eat and drink to the happy couple. They share in more conversation until the evening is waxing, fast turning into night. Lan Xichen rarely leaves Meng Yao’s side. And when they notice Wangji bidding his goodnights, Lan Xichen shares a poignant look with his betrothed.

Meng Yao dips his head with a cool expression. “I will be expected to return to my quarters soon,” he says. “I am still under the watch of the guard.”

Lan Xichen smiles duly at their game. “Then I shall escort you.”

They leave the party together, and the guests examine them from the corners of their eyes. Lan Xichen does not look at anyone, not even Meng Yao. The walk to Meng Yao’s quarters is filled with a pleasant kind of tension. It reminds him enormously of those very early days, when they would take strolls around the peony gardens. It reminds him of the dinners and tours and meetings, when they would share silent glances and smile.

The guards are uncomfortable and uncertain at Meng Yao inviting Lan Xichen in. Their orders are clear: no one is allowed to visit Meng-gonzi. Except that Lady Jiang cannot be denied, and their friend MianMian is too persuasive to be filed under this rule. When the two guards look at each other with something close to embarrassment and hesitance, Meng Yao suggests that they tell Clan Leader Jin that Zewu-Jun would like to visit Meng-gongzi in his room, and perhaps he could clarify whether the rule extends to him. Of course, simply the idea of such a thing is horrifying and humiliating – particularly for Jin Zixuan, who wants nothing to do with Meng Yao’s extracurricular activities. Meng Yao knows this and therefore waits for them to give in without further resistance.

Lan Xichen begins to feel rather sorry for these guards, who are forced to decide whether to disobey their explicit orders or alert Clan Leader Jin to Meng Yao’s illicit affair with Clan Leader Lan. And so, he assures them that, if Jin Zixuan should interrogate or challenge them on what has happened here, he will attest that they fought very hard to keep him out – but that, ultimately, Zewu-Jun abused his authority in order to see Meng Yao.

The guards go very red. One of them is close to smirking. They step aside from the double doors and allow them inside.

Meng Yao drifts into the small quarters. They are almost as sparse as those in Cloud Recesses, quite unusually for Koi Tower’s décor. There are scrolls unravelled on the table, a bed, a painting of the peony garden on the wall, white canopies between the rafters and little else. Meng Yao stands and turns to view Lan Xichen over his shoulder with a look that is quite open.

Lan Xichen steps further into the room. His hands are bracing either side of Meng Yao’s face before he can stop them. He wonders at the possessiveness of the action. And he begins to think that such possessiveness could make Meng Yao uncomfortable, but then he presses his lips against the heel of Lan Xichen’s hand. Eyes very much fixed on his gaze.

“Are they treating you well?”

“Yes, Lan Xichen.”

“Are you quite sure?”

Blinking up at him quite innocently. “Yes, Lan Xichen.”

“You have been happy?”

“Not without you,” he pouts.

Lan Xichen strokes a thumb along his cheekbone and ignores this deflection. “You have been provided for?”

He knows he’s repeating himself. Meng Yao stares at him, small and sweet. A slow smile reaches his lips. “I would tell you if they were not.”

“I’m not sure if that’s true.”

A coquettish look of guilt makes Meng Yao peer at the floor and purse his lips. “Maybe not. And if I had been lying. If they’ve been treating me terribly. What would you do?”

Lan Xichen raises his brows. “A-Yao.”

“I missed you,” Meng Yao says.

Wide, marsupial eyes look up at him. Meng Yao is affecting his most endearing expression. The manipulation in it is so blatant that it makes Lan Xichen smile to himself. Clever A-Yao. Clever, sweet A-Yao who knows just how to get what he wants – he is hard to deny, even when he is this obvious. It’s a game for both of them. It reminds Lan Xichen of the playful, coded dialogue of their letters. His gaze flickers to Lan Xichen’s mouth, no doubt viewing the smirk curling at its corners.

“I missed you every day,” Lan Xichen replies.

Ah. There it is. The expression falters. Meng Yao’s true vulnerability does not show through wide eyes and a dipped chin. No: it’s the twitch of his brow, a parting of lips, avoidance of glances. It’s a hand pawing at the material of Lan Xichen’s robes, feeling the silk between a thumb and forefinger. This look is not for show.

“Hold me, A-Huan.”

He gladly complies. A hand at the back of his head, another between his shoulders, Lan Xichen brings Meng Yao into an embrace that has his face buried in his neck. It’s instinctive and still quite possessive when Lan Xichen presses his lips to the top of Meng Yao’s head and breathes in. Deeply. He’d forgotten how heady it could be, just to breathe him in.

He’d never felt it before. That lustful kind of hunger that people write poems about: Lan Xichen had never experienced it before. Not for another person. The secret explorations in one’s room at night, alone, are quite a different thing. But then Lianfang-Zun, Jin Guangyao, Meng Yao, A-Yao. Now, he finds his appetite has been irreversibly whetted.

His smell. His smell. Lan Xichen did not know he could miss such a thing.

Meng Yao’s fingers play with the hem of his outer robe by his collar bone, face tilted towards his neck.

“They wouldn’t let me see anyone.” His voice his quiet. His breath is warm against his throat.

Lan Xichen can’t help but smile. He would shake his head, if he didn’t want to bury himself in Meng Yao’s braids. “You have seen Lady Jiang. And your friend, Luo Qingyang.”

A sad little sigh. “Yes.”

“And now you have me.”

Meng Yao’s lips leave a tickling kiss against his neck. “And now I have you.”

Lan Xichen drags a hand slowly down Meng Yao’s back. He feels him press himself close, lips dragging lazily along the skin of his throat. Lan Xichen closes his eyes.

“They kept you away from me,” Meng Yao complains.

And since they are both aware that this was as all much Meng Yao’s plan than anyone else’s, Lan Xichen really does shake his head. The affection slips through when he says, “You’re looking for the protective Zewu-Jun from my recent letters.”

Meng Yao pulls away. Their faces are close enough for their noses to nearly touch, but Lan Xichen can see the wide-eyed innocence. Lashes fluttering. It’s such a purposeful display of sweetness that Lan Xichen breathes a silent laugh.

“I want all of Zewu-Jun. Protective or not.”

Lan Xichen raises his brows, view fixed on Meng Yao’s lips.

“Fine. Maybe I do,” Meng Yao concedes. Hands tugging at the collar of his robes. “Maybe I want you to wrap me up and make me yours. Is that so wrong?”

Lan Xichen closes his eyes. He senses Meng Yao leaning in – he feels his breath on his lips.

He lays his hands atop Meng Yao’s.

“No,” he says. Gathering himself – his thoughts are scattered by the way he feels Meng Yao’s fingers counting the layers of his clothes – “It isn’t. A-Yao… I know I can be protective, even though you hardly need any protecting. But I never want to control you or make you feel trapped.”

“But you are allowed to want me, A-Huan,” he whispers.

Lan Xichen swallows.

He thinks of those days when Meng Yao will shiver in his arms, will shake at a single touch, will rage and fracture and curl up as if he wants to purge himself of his entire body. He does not want to contribute to that.

Meng Yao’s hand stroking Lan Xichen’s face makes him open his eyes. There’s enough space between them for him to see the sincerity in his expression – the pinched brow and pursed lips.

“Too good for me,” he whispers. Then, before Lan Xichen can complain – “It isn’t about ownership, Xichen. Not when it comes from you. With you, it is so very, very different.” There’s a sad smile, before he continues. “I never want you to stop caring and asking me about these things.”

“I won’t.”

Meng Yao tips his head downwards. It’s half a nod. Lips still pressed together soberly, until: “It’s about wanting to feel needed. I need you to need me. I need to be so important to you that you want the world to know that I’m yours and you’re mine. I want to protect you too. You know that. It makes me want to bite and cling and—”

His grip tightens on the hem of Lan Xichen’s robes. Lan Xichen feels the breath trickle from his lips, and he watches the way the corners of Meng Yao’s eyes shine.

“I to live in you. I want you to hold me,” Meng Yao whispers. “And I don’t want you to ever let me go.”

It’s enough. Orchestrated or not, meditated or not, Lan Xichen falls into Meng Yao’s words and kisses him – hands on either side of his face again and holding him. Just as he asked.

Meng Yao makes a quiet whimper against his lips.

He missed this. How he tastes and fits against his mouth. The sound of their kisses, or breaths as they part– so intimate. Better than any music. And Lan Xichen goes dizzy when he feels Meng Yao grin between kisses. You are possessive, too, he thinks.

The soft sound of clothes falling away – shoes being kicked off – and Lan Xichen breaks their kiss long enough to see that Meng Yao is shucking off various layers of his Jin robes. They pool on the floor in a golden heap. He doesn’t touch Lan Xichen’s. His gaze is fixed on Lan Xichen’s, head tilted and eyelids heavy as he peels off his clothes. There is something challenging in that look: watch me. Lan Xichen feels his mouth open stupidly and Meng Yao pushes off layer after layer.

What’s left is the one remaining undergarment. It is white and sheer. And it becomes increasingly clear that much of this has been orchestrated; that Meng Yao selected this exact, transparent underrobe; that he knew Lan Xichen would hold back; that he will always err on the side of caution, when it comes to Meng Yao; that Lan Xichen will always need cues.

“Touch me,” Meng Yao says.

Lan Xichen does. He runs his hand down the thin chiffon, over his arm and to his waist. He can see the shadows of his ribs and muscles through the material.

“Do you like how I look in white?” The laugh Meng Yao makes is quiet, coy, and full of vindication.

Lan Xichen smiles. He kisses one of the dimples that has revealed itself with Meng Yao’s victorious smile. He lets his hands trace down the curve of his back.

“You’ll always have me,” Lan Xichen replies.

He hears Meng Yao’s breath hitch beside his ear. He holds Meng Yao by the waist and leaves trailing kisses down his neck. He sucks at the corner of his shoulder and throat. He feels fingers clinging tightly at his robes. He leaves marks on his skin above his hemline.

Lan Xichen takes Meng Yao’s arms and loops them around his neck – bends down to reach for Meng Yao’s thighs – picks him up easily. He likes the feel of his legs wrapped around him. He likes the feel of chiffon and skin under his hands. He likes Meng Yao kissing his shoulder with heavy breaths. He likes digging his fingers into Meng Yao’s thighs. He likes the way Meng Yao’s robe slips silently to his hips.

Lan Xichen carries him to the bed, lowers him gently onto his back. Those arms remain loosely looped around his neck as he kisses him. He works at unrobing himself as he kisses and lets Meng Yao suck on his bottom lip. He likes the feel of Meng Yao’s legs, still wrapped around him.

Kisses down his bruised neck. Kisses down his chest. Kisses against his stomach, pushing aside the material of the underrobe – without removing it completely. The skin there is soft and delicious, so he is more indulgent in his time there, tongue tasting just below his belly button. Meng Yao squirms, makes a pleased hum.

“You said you wanted to pick me up and carry me away,” Meng Yao complains. “You said in your letter you’d imagined whisking me away from all of this…”

“What would you like me to do now?” Lan Xichen breathes.

Hands on Meng Yao’s slim waist, kisses skirting over his hips and down to his thighs. He feels Meng Yao arch his back – he feels the muscles moving under his palms.

“Do what you want,” he says in a low voice. “Do the things you imagined when you were all alone in your room. Touching yourself and thinking of me.”

Lan Xichen runs his tongue over the skin inside Meng Yao’s thigh. Just as soft and delicious as his stomach. It reminds him of a peach. He bites, gently, and Meng Yao whines.

“I imagined you making those noises,” Lan Xichen admits, feeling a little drunk. Then, collecting himself a little: “Where do you keep the oil?”

It appears instantly. Lan Xichen is bleary enough to wonder if Meng Yao had manifested the vial out of thin air – and then realises that he must have been hiding it under his pillow, or somewhere equally accessible. Peering up at Meng Yao from between his legs, he feels a smile tug one side of his mouth.

Meng Yao props himself on one elbow, passes the vial with a tilted head, unblinking. “It’s been lonely,” he says.

Lan Xichen plants a gentle kiss at the top of Meng Yao’s leg. It is quite a chaste thing, given its location. He slicks his hand, lets the vial roll away, lets his fingers drag torturously along sensitive skin and watches Meng Yao’s pained smile. Fingers gripping the sheets. Lips parting and eyelids going heavier when Lan Xichen begins to loosen him up. He could watch Meng Yao like this for hours.

This is what he has imagined. Meng Yao asked him to do what he’d thought of when he touched himself. This is it: Meng Yao’s arched back and pinched brows and open mouth, a hand pushing against the headboard. Underrobes falling open. Now biting his lip. Heavy breaths.

“This is what I imagined,” he confesses aloud.

Lan Xichen’s free hand, which had been pinning Meng Yao’s hips to the bed, now rises along his torso and to the bruises on Meng Yao’s neck. He traces his thumb over the bitemarks. He watches Meng Yao with fascination as his neck curves, watches the apple of his throat bob, watches the corner of his sharp jaw.

Meng Yao gives him an expression that silently begs. And so, he gives.

He takes Meng Yao’s hips with both hands and pulls him closer so they’re level. He’s never allowed himself to be so rough or greedy as this with Meng Yao – to take him and hold him like this and put him where he wants him to be. Whatever concern he has for this is swiftly eased by the open-mouthed, open-book desire on Meng Yao’s face. Fluttering, hungry eyes. Arms above his head and squirming happily.

“Come here,” Meng Yao says, like he’s simply inviting him for a hug.

He wraps his arms around Lan Xichen’s neck. Lan Xichen does as he’s asked.

He’s warm. They fit so well together. Meng Yao’s breath stutters against Lan Xichen’s lips. Heels against Lan Xichen’s back.

Whispering in his ear. “Do I feel good, ge-ge?”

Lan Xichen groans.

It is a rare thing for him to do so. Particularly since they are not in their little cave in the middle of nowhere. And yet –

“A-Huan,” Meng Yao breathes. The gentle look of surprise on his face is delicious.

“You said that you want the world to know,” he says quite calmly against Meng Yao’s lips. He tightens his grip on his hip – he takes a hold of the headboard – “In which case, neither of us should hold back.”

The smile on Meng Yao’s face is wicked.

What ensues is fast and sweaty and noisy. Headboard. Bed slats. Moans and groans and cries and name-calling. Lan Xichen bites and swallows all of Meng Yao’s noises, all of the hiccups and sighs and gasps and ge-ges and Zewu-Juns. He tastes him and drinks him in and wraps himself in and around him. He watches Meng Yao’s eyes roll back, watches the way his body moves with each thrust. He holds him tight, tight enough to leave finger marks. He presses him to the bed and—

“Harder – Zewu-Jun – I can take it—fuck me – please–"

– And he turns him over and pulls him into his lap and wraps his arm around his stomach and holds him tight and nips at the shell of his ear and fucks into him—

“A-Yao –“

–And he lines himself along his back and grips him by his narrow hips and he –

–And he turns him onto his back again and he—

“Come for me, A-Huan.” Meng Yao mewls in his ear. “Come for me."

Lan Xichen – there is no other way to describe it – growls. He hears it and he’s amazed that he’s capable of it.

The quick gasping noises that Meng Yao makes, faster and faster and higher and higher until he’s at last silent, mouth hanging open and eyes tight shut. Lan Xichen watches. And then he hears himself – a strange, low, rumbling sound in his chest as he bites down on Meng Yao’s shoulder, shaking with the relief of it.

He feels Meng Yao’s hands against his back, holding him so gently. He feels his kisses on his neck. Yes. It is no surprise that you’re possessive, too, A-Yao.

They lie on their backs and look at the ceiling. Lan Xichen feels his hair sticking to his face. And then he feels a finger brushing it away, a hand stroking across his forehead, and then lips.

Meng Yao, propped up on an elbow, peers down at him with a tilted head. “It was very hard for me to leave you.”

Lan Xichen smiles. He views the way he purses his lips, as if he finds his own admission distasteful. “And you know how hard it was for me to let you.”

A small nod. “You let me, nonetheless.”

“A-Yao makes his own decisions.”

A smile. Lan Xichen will never see a sight more beautiful than his smile. He’s seen Meng Yao rage, wild eyed and teeth bared. He’s seen him weep. Lan Xichen loves all of his sides. He loves his smile most. He feels sorry for the people who only see the façade.

“At least it is clear that I did not need to stay to protect you,” Meng Yao says, a hand against Lan Xichen’s chest. “Thank you for not dying whilst I was away.”

“I tried very hard not to,” Lan Xichen says, and Meng Yao nearly rolls his eyes. “However, there did not seem to be much threat whilst you were absent. My disciples could not find Xue Yang in Yi City, nor could they find him anywhere. Even so, we’ve been very careful.”

Meng Yao purses his lips.

“A-Yao,” he prompts.

The look on his face is distant. Meng Yao’s default expression is one of deep rumination, so deep it is almost unsettling. It is the face of someone sleepwalking. Lan Xichen waits for Meng Yao to return from his thoughts, a hand on his back and a thumb making small circles against his skin.

With a deep breath, Meng Yao blinks and looks about the room with a sort of imperious look. “It is nothing, love.”

After a short pause, Lan Xichen chooses his words carefully.

“I would never seek to control your actions,” he begins. “I won’t patronise you. You are precise and rigorous in all that you do. But going after him would be unsafe. It’s likely that he decided to call off the mission; it would make sense for him to do so after hearing of your father’s death. Su She was driven by his grudge towards the Lan sect, but this Xue Yang is not.”

Meng Yao waits patiently for him to finish. It is a habit that breaks Lan Xichen’s heart. Then, looking down and biting the inside of his cheek. “I won’t go after him. Not unless you order me to.”

“I do not,” he says.

The command in his voice is surprising to both of them. Meng Yao looks down at him with widening eyes.

Lan Xichen can barely articulate himself through his horror. “A-Yao—”

Meng Yao places an index finger against his lips. “You, Lan Xichen, have never treated me like a bastard. You have never treated me like the others do, even when you knew me at my worst.” And he wants to paint the look of affection on Meng Yao’s face: the growing smile and shining admiration in his eyes. “I would always rather that you were honest with me than you hold back, Lan Huan. We both have to handle dishonesty from the rest of the world, after all.”

Yes. Meng Yao is the most patient man he knows, and yet he could never have the patience for Lan Xichen to hold back or coddle him. He supposes that he must revaluate his definition of ‘protect.’

Meng Yao places his head against Lan Xichen’s chest and they lie there quietly. The window is slightly open, a cool breeze making his skin raise in bumps, sweat cooling. The sheets tangle beneath them.

“The guards will be sufficiently traumatised,” Meng Yao remarks.

When Lan Xichen laughs, it’s silent, but it makes Meng Yao’s head bounce on his chest. “I have much to apologise to them for.”

Meng Yao tuts. “Not at all.”

In the end, Lan Xichen nods in soberly. It is his private opinion that the whole of the Jin court deserves to be a little embarrassed.

Then, propping his chin against Lan Xichen’s chest, he looks up at him with something as close to a lazy and thoughtless smile as he thinks Meng Yao will ever get. “That must have been the most petty thing you have ever done.”

Another laugh, the sound stuck in his chest. “Perhaps. It wasn’t entirely for the court’s benefit.”

“I should hope not.” Meng Yao reaches to leave a chaste kiss. Then, “I like it when you are shameless.”

“If I really do look at you in public with as much fervour as you’ve implied, then I’m regularly shameless.” Meng Yao smiles when Lan Xichen touches the bruises on his neck and says, “Was it too far?”

Shaking his head once. That pinched brow. “I like it even more that you aren’t ashamed of me.”

And so they talk. For hours, it seems, though Lan Xichen will never know with Meng Yao. Their conversations flow too easily. They talk about Lanling and Gusu and siblings and games and music and how Lan Xichen has always tried to protect his brother, how he bore as much as he could to save Lan Wangji from the pressures he endured, how he sometimes thinks he has failed, how Meng Yao thinks it is amazing how he is the kindest man in the world despite it all. He admits that he was jealous of Wangji and Wei Wuxian. He admits that there were times when he thought about leaving everything behind, about abandoning the weight on his chest and becoming someone else. He tells Meng Yao that he can’t imagine life without him, and then they fall asleep.

***

The sky is dark when Meng Yao opens his eyes and views the crack in the window. The white canopies breathe in the breeze.

He sits up slowly and stares into the night.

This room has not been his for long, but he knows it well. This palace was not his for many years, but yes, he knows it well. He knows more of this place than anyone. He knows what the dark between the walls smells like. He knows where the panel behind the bookshelf leads. He owns this place more than anyone else.

Meng Yao sits up. The silk bedsheet falls to his bare hips. He listens.

“A-Yao.”

“Shh.” Meng Yao turns to look over his shoulder and strokes Lan Xichen’s cheek. “Go back to sleep.”

Lan Xichen leaves a kiss at the heel of Meng Yao’s hand and does as he is told. Meng Yao smiles.

And then he turns his gaze towards the window.

Crickets, heralding oncoming summer. The distant footsteps of guards. Meng Yao’s eyes go dry as he stares blindly and listens.

Lan Xichen’s breathing.

The guest next door, snoring.

Foot against stone.

Slipping out of bed, Meng Yao leaves a kiss on Lan Xichen’s forehead. His bare feet are silent against the wood. He finds trousers, finds his underrobes and he listens by the window.

A soft hiss. Feet against stone. It’s a sound he knows well. To those who have practised climbing walls inconspicuously, it is as quiet as hands rubbing together. And then, there is nothing. Just the crickets and the silence of the breeze.

Meng Yao feels the way his heart tightens and he presses his lips together. Taking the robes from the floor – the white ones, he must take the white ones – he dresses himself and does so quickly. He finds his dagger, his father’s treacherous dagger, and slips it between the underclothes. He looks at the silver headpiece on the table. He takes it, fixes it to his own head without a mirror. Then, Meng Yao opens the panel behind the bookcase.

Looking over his shoulder, Lan Xichen has gone back to sleep. He would not have done so if he didn’t trust him.

Meng Yao swallows. He steps into the pitch black.

He remembers his way well. Instinct guides him, an old habit that comes back to him in little flashes of memory. A groove in the wall here. A corner, there. A step. A crawling space. It feels so much more claustrophobic than it used to.

In a matter of minutes, he reaches the panel into the corridor leading to the main guest quarters. Meng Yao runs his fingers along the edge with closed eyes, holding his breath as he pulls gently. It is stiff with disuse. He tries not to wince as he pushes it open as far as he can slip through. And though the corridor is dark, it is lit up by the navy blue of the night, starlight through circular windows. The guards walk in dark shadows outside. He hopes that the ones positioned outside his little prison cell are enough to keep Lan Xichen safe. Not that they should need to.

Meng Yao straightens out Lan Xichen’s clan robes, and he walks with cool purpose to Zewu-Jun’s guest rooms. His footsteps are quiet, but not silent. He mimics the calm authority of Clan Leader Lan.

A spider makes more sound when it drops from the ceiling. From the rafters, when Meng Yao has almost reached Lan Xichen’s assigned rooms, something falls behind him. Like a ghost in the night, white robes dancing, Meng Yao spins on the spot and draws his dagger. It reaches Xue Yang’s throat, just as Xue Yang’s knife reaches Meng Yao’s.

Two statues. Their smiles are cursed. Xue Yang’s is manic, atavistic, wild. Meng Yao’s is smug.

Better to finish this without waking anyone.

He kicks out under Xue Yang’s feet. Xue Yang attempts to drag him down with a hand on his robes. Silent acrobatics: Meng Yao flips with back-bending flexibility. Xue Yang is left pressed to the floor and crouched low. He is wide-eyed, mad with frustration. This is clearly not the man he had been sent to kill. An imposter in Clan Leader Lan’s attire.

Meng Yao’s shoulders jolt upwards with a victorious, silent laugh. He almost pities him. And then, with something closer to unbridled fury, he rushes towards Xue Yang.

A man in black, another in white. They dance in the dark, deadly flashes of their blades. Xue Yang flies into the rafters, and Meng Yao climbs up there in pursuit– balancing along the azure and gold beams in a flurry of robes. They spin and dive, as quietly as swallows.

A white sleeve – Xue Yang captures it and wraps it around Meng Yao’s arm, tugging towards him until they are nose to nose. Dagger to throat. Meng Yao tilts his head back and berates himself. What a predictable move. How very unpredictable that is.

Lips, shiveringly close to his ear. “Where’s Zewu-Jun?”

Meng Yao grabs Xue Yang by the front of his robes and kicks – twisting, wrapping his legs around Xue Yang’s throat – flipping them so Xue Yang’s back hits the beam of the rafter. It is the loudest noise they have made so far. Meng Yao sits up and increases the pressure, Xue Yang’s temple ticking and nose flaring, eyes wild. His leg dangles off the beam.

Meng Yao squeezes. He tilts his head and watches Xue Yang suffocate, who grins as the air is pinched out of his lungs.

“I was sent to kill Zewu-Jun once,” Meng Yao says quite dreamily. “It is a very stupid thing to attempt. And not just because I now work for him.”

Xue Yang is shaking. His legs are kicking. Meng Yao smiles.

And then Xue Yang takes his hands from Meng Yao’s legs and pulls him by the collar of the robes. Meng Yao’s heart starts and his stomach lurches—and Xue Yang rolls them off the rafter. Meng Yao unwraps himself, tumbles to the ground in drifting chiffon, lands on his feet more loudly than he would like. The corridor is still empty, the moon casting strange shadows in the silver light – and Xue Yang crouches amongst them, snarling.

Xue Yang charges. Meng Yao slips to the floor. Xue Yang lunges. Meng Yao leaps. Xue Yang spins. Meng Yao dodges. Petals dancing in the wind.

Meng Yao’s dagger nicks Xue Yang’s robes. The blood sprays tiny drops as he whips it away and slices once more. Xue Yang ducks and dives. They continue their twisting and turning.

And then he kicks the dagger out of Meng Yao’s hand. It skitters along the floor and knocks against the wall. Meng Yao resists the urge to watch it fly out of his grasp, cartwheeling out of Xue Yang’s radius. It’s then that he notices that he is sweating. This is the hardest he has ever had to fight, he realises distantly.

Xue Yang’s grin shines. His eyes look over Meng Yao’s shoulder.

“Clan Leader Lan! Ah – wait – is that –?”

Meng Yao doesn’t have the time to deal with the arrival of the guards. He is shaking with too much rage and poison to pay them any mind. He occupies a defensive position and waits. This Xue Yang does not play by the book. He will need to apply all of his skill.

When he hears the guards’ footsteps retreating – no doubt to find back up – Meng Yao smiles. And he pounces. Xue Yang doesn’t expect it. He wrestles the dagger from Xue Yang’s grip – it clatters to the floor – Xue Yang laughs – and they begin their acrobatics again. Legs and sleeves and flips. Their shadows like fluttering insects across the walls.

When Xue Yang lands a slap across his temple, it makes his head ring. His world tilts from side to side, and he takes Xue Yang’s eblow and wrist and he pulls. He feels the arm pop. He hears Xue Yang scream.

Meng Yao tuts. “Too much noise. It is past 9pm curfew.”

He grabs at Xue Yang’s dislocated arm – and there are people watching now. He can hear the doors opening, he can hear the gasps. He can hear footsteps approaching. And he can sense Lan Xichen—

Xue Yang wrenches his arm free and scratches. Meng Yao feels his nails draw blood across his collar bone. Meng Yao strikes him upwards, nose crunching under his fist. Xue Yang’s head snaps back. The blood spatters across Meng Yao’s face and he feels himself go feral with it.

“Somebody pull them apart—”

“No! Don’t interfere, you’ll hurt him—”

Meng Yao lands a kick across the cheekbone. It is sloppy. It has none of the balletic precision that his usual fighting has. Xue Yang’s head snaps around and he smiles, and then his fist meets Meng Yao’s jaw. He tastes blood and spits it to the floor.

“Someone grab him!”

Shadows of guards encroaching on Xue Yang. Xue Yang pulls Meng Yao close, arm around his throat and a hand gripping his head.

One twist, and he is dead.

“Wait! Guards. Stop.” That is Jiang Yanli, a voice high and steely. “Drop your weapons, you could hurt Meng-gongzi.”

Meng Yao stands there and closes his eyes, tilts his head back. He will not look at the gentry and guards staring dumbly at him. He will not open his eyes to see Lan Xichen.

There are many ways he can get out of this. Meng Yao swallows the blood and hopes that Xue Yang does not have many surprises left in him.

“I came here for a Clan Leader and found his whore instead.” Xue Yang’s voice sounds sickly with blood. Meng Yao shakes with rage and purses his lips. “I’ve heard about this one. Aren’t you worried about your reputation, Jin Guangyao? Rolling around in the dark with strange men like me?” Then, more quietly and directly in Meng Yao’s ear, “Nice hickies, by the way.”

Meng Yao laughs bitterly. It sounds frightening, even to his own ears.

“Leave him.” Lan Xichen’s voice is quiet and low. It is the most afraid he has ever heard him.

“Xue Yang.” And that is Wei Wuxian. “What are you planning here, really? Kill Meng Yao? And then what? Do you think you can escape this many of us?”

“I’m not planning anything. I don’t plan. I just—”

Meng Yao knows the risks of monologuing more than anyone. He grabs Xue Yang by the arm and flips him. The guards surge forwards. Meng Yao has his feet kicked from under him.

And then, there’s the sound. It’s the sound of something metal, sliding across the floor. It’s the same sweeping clatter that he heard when he dropped his dagger. Meng Yao has just enough time to turn his head and see Lan Xichen, standing just where his dagger had landed – and the knife itself spinning towards him across the marble.

Xue Yang looms over him, and Meng Yao stabs.

The amount of blood is extraordinary. The hilt sticks in Xue Yang’s throat and his eyes go wide. His smile is all teeth and red. Meng Yao pulls out the dagger and blood shoots in the torchlight. Hands fumble blindly for Meng Yao’s throat, and then he collapses, still smirking.

Meng Yao rolls onto his hands and knees and stands slowly in the pool of blood. His hands are slick. He feels hands on his arms and he goes numb, goes cold, goes distant.

“A-Yao. You’re hurt—”

“This time, you saved me.” He turns his hands over and looks down at the robes. “Lan Xichen. I’ve ruined your clothes.”

All that blood. He remembers the last time he saw this much. A young clan leader, a decorative axe. What was his name? Meng Yao can’t remember. There have been too many.

“Meng Yao! Shit!”

“Someone get the man a drink. He’s just saved Zewu-Jun.”

“Again.”

He turns his hands over in the torchlight. They glitter jewel-red.

“Meng-gongzi…”

When Meng Yao looks up from his bloody hands, he sees Yanli. MianMian – Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. Nie Mingjue, standing vigil behind Lan Xichen. Meng Yao doesn’t understand why they all look so concerned.

Lan Xichen rests a hand on Meng Yao’s cheek. He feels it. He feels it, and Meng Yao takes a deep, desperate breath. He sees Lan Xichen’s pinched brow and sad eyes. They are wide and afraid. His lips are parted. His hand is on Meng Yao’s face. There are people everywhere, guards running around like ants. Lan Xichen is in Meng Yao’s robes. His hand is on Meng Yao’s face. There are people. There are his friends. There is his brother, giving orders and casting glances over at him. Lan Xichen’s hand, on Meng Yao’s face.

“A-Yao,” he says, brows raising a little.

“A-Huan,” he replies.

He wants to hold Lan Xichen’s face and kiss him. He wants to check that he is real and alive. He wants to know he is safe. He wants to thank him for saving him. He wants to apologise for slipping away without explaining – again.

An old instinct makes him bow his head, instead.

He hears Lan Xichen swallowed complaint before he is brought into an embrace.

Meng Yao stares over Lan Xichen’s shoulder. He feels his hand at the back of his head. And then he smiles, bloody hands curling into the material of the borrowed robes. He hears the gentry, arguing and muttering and holding candles in their hastily thrown-on clothes. He hears Wei Wuxian babbling and asking all sorts of questions, and he hears Yanli and Lan Wangji quietly prompt him to postpone his queries for a better time.

Meng Yao buries his face and he smiles. “Are you angry with me?”

Lan Xichen sighs. “A little.” A hand stroking down his back. “But you’re safe.”

“I had to.”

Another sigh.

“It’s over now,” Meng Yao adds.

“Yes,” Lan Xichen replies.

They stand and they hold each other. And for the first time, Meng Yao truly believes that Lan Xichen won’t let go.

And perhaps it’s the head injury – or perhaps it is the realisation that, yes, it is over now. Something in that makes Meng Yao’s muscles go weak, and he feels Lan Xichen catch him with arms around his waist before he can fall into him. And then–

“Lan Xichen—"

Arm under Meng Yao’s knees and another around his shoulders, Lan Xichen carries him through the crowd of gentry and guards. Meng Yao watches them part around them with slack expressions, and any humiliation that he could have felt at being carried like this turns into a kind of vindication. Pride and affection and triumph, clinging onto Lan Xichen’s borrowed robes. Yes. I am his. And he is under my protection.

He smiles and swallows a mouthful of blood. His stomach turns and his head spins.

“Is he alright?” Jin Zixaun’s voice.

“He needs a physician.”

“I’ll send for one immediately.”

Footsteps echoing. Doors opening. Candles being lit, and a room that isn’t his, turning on its side.

“I have carried you like this before.” Lan Xichen’s voice rumbles in his chest, beside Meng Yao’s ear. “I do not want to ever again.”

Meng Yao’s eyes are closed. He doesn’t remember when he closed them. “Don’t you see that I owe you my life? You saved me from his world and brought me into yours.”

“You don’t owe me a thing, A-Yao.”

When he opens his eyes, he is lying on his back. Lan Xichen is leaning into view, upside down; his head must be in his lap. A frown and shining eyes.

“The next person who lays a finger on you,” Lan Xichen says, voice thin, “I will be the one to kill him.”

His lips form a smile. Meng Yao feels him stroke his cheek before he slips into sleep.

***

There are more weddings in the years that pass.

It comes to the surprise of many when Clan Leader Jiang finds a partner in Nie Huaisang. Lan Xichen and Meng Yao attend the reception and watch Jiang Wanyin escort a proud looking Nie Huaisang with a kind of weary affection that Meng Yao knows well. He has seen it in Lan Wangji’s face, in Wei Wuxian’s, in Lan Xichen’s – he has probably worn it himself. Nie Huaisang is excitable and flutters about and holds onto his husband’s arm and makes an excellent host. And there are times when Meng Yao expects to see patience in Jiang Wanyin’s face, and instead finds admiration.

He sees something that the rest of us do not, Meng Yao considers with interest. And yet he is not a particularly observant man.

And then, of course, there is their own wedding. It is met with as much controversy as they expected. There are some who do not attend the reception. Clan Leader Jin does. Jin Zixun, gratefully, does not. After decades of silent feud, Jin and Lan are at last tied by marriage.

Lan Xichen looks better in red than anyone Meng Yao has ever seen.

***

There are far fewer dramatic events in the years that pass. In fact, those years are pleasantly boring.

It is autumn. Lan Xichen only knows that autumn is Meng Yao’s favourite time of year because of the look on his face when he sees the first leaves fall. He now emerges from a meeting with the Caiyi mayor and Sect Leader Yao, a meeting which has gone on for far too long. Now, he stands on the veranda outside the meeting room and views the way the trees weep their leaves in a flurry of orange. A deep, cold breath, held in his lungs: Lan Xichen breathes out slowly and feels refreshed.

The leaves make a slippery carpet. The disciples are hurrying to the training courtyard, slowing to bow to Zewu-Jun before they continue.

“Ah- Lan Xichen.”

Wei Wuxian in his black and white robes, skipping onto the stepping-stone pathway and stopping to let the disciples scuttle around him. He smirks at their nervousness, hands behind his back.

“YaoYao has them today?”

A warm smile. “Yes. It would explain why they are in such a rush.”

Wei Wuxian grimaces, then laughs, sauntering over to him in that nonchalant way that he does. “So, the meeting is over?”

“Yes. Wangji will be out shortly.”

A sobre nod, pouting his lips. “They keep you detained for too long.”

Lan Xichen bows his head in agreement but will not say as much. “A-Yuan?”

“Is playing doctor with Wen Qing,” he sighs. “I think he’s smarter than me. Do you realise what that means? I won’t be the smartest one in the family anymore.”

“I am sorry to hear that.”

“Anyway. I’m going to go pester Sect Leader Yao to let my husband go. Yours is back there with the baby.”

“Thank you, Wei Wuxian. I would find him quickly, for he is being questioned about the various irrigation systems in Gusu.”

Wei Wuxian skips past him. Then, “Oh! We’re still on tonight, right?”

Lan Xichen turns to view his brother-in-law over his shoulder with a one-sided smile. “There are not many circumstances that I would cancel our wei qi game for. Particularly after the meeting I have just endured.”

Wei Ying grins. Wei qi nights are a thin euphemism for Emperor’s Smile nights. A lazy wave with his back turned, “See you then, da-ge.”

Lan Xichen smiles and shakes his head.

The courtyards are damp and the air is wet. Dew drips from the eaves with a quiet musicality. The mountains sleep behind swathes of mist. He can understand why Meng Yao likes it at this time of year. The sense of change and rebirth is palpable. It’s a quiet sense of anticipation. However, Lan Xichen’s favourite season will always, since his two-week sojourn in Yunping, be mid-winter.

Turning a corner and stepping into the courtyard behind the Hanshi, he sees the silhouette of his husband – draping white robes and the ribbon of his headband leaving sharp, white strokes in his hair. He bounces their son on his hip and talks in a lowered voice to him, pointing at the branches of an orchid and its little white buds. Jingyi's chubby hands fumble for the stems and Meng Yao bends down to let him reach.

Watching Meng Yao with Lan Jingyi feels like stumbling upon a wild wolf with its cub. Lan Xichen holds his breath so as not to disturb the scene. There is something both tender and lethal about parenthood; Meng Yao mutters quiet words to their child, and Lan Xichen knows that he would tear the head off anyone who tried to take Jingyi away. It’s beautiful, raw, and very, very Meng Yao.

“A-Yao.”

He turns his head and views Lan Xichen over his shoulder. Bouncing Jingyi on his hip, he comes over to meet him. “Do you want a cuddle with baba? Jingyi, look who it is.”

Jingyi is at that age of wearing a constant, wide-eyed look of shock. He views Lan Xichen as if he is surprised, and it makes him chuckle silently. Meng Yao looks softer than he has ever been. Pale robes and lips gently pressed at the top of Jingyi’s head before he hands him over to Lan Xichen. “I think he’s tired. He sleeps better with you.”

Lan Xichen takes him. He’s getting heavier. Fat little hands clasp at strands of his hair with that surprisingly strong grip. “He is not the only one who is tired.”

Meng Yao’s look hardens. “What did they say?”

“Very little of any consequence,” Lan Xichen sighs.

The look on his face is nothing so murderous as Lan Xichen has seen it in the past, but it is certainly displeased. Meng Yao has the look of someone plotting.

“You are tired, too, A-Yao.”

Meng Yao purses his lips and looks at his husband reprovingly. Lan Xichen smiles at this. “I have your disciples to train. You’ll recall that they are all very eager to learn how to garotte someone.”

“Our disciples,” he corrects.

Pursing his lips again, Meng Yao turns his gaze to the floor in silent apology. He is still getting used to all of this; Lan Xichen understands. He understands that Meng Yao may never be used to being treated as an equal. Lan Xichen gently bounces Jingyi, whose cheek is pressed to his shoulder, thumb in his mouth. He is already asleep. Meng Yao smiles at their son. Lan Xichen leans in to catch one of his dimples with a kiss before they disappear.

“Come. You need rest. All three of us could do with a nap.”

Meng Yao scoffs, brows pinched in disbelief. “A-Huan.”

He raises his eyebrows.

Meng Yao widens his eyes in frustrated acceptance. “Yes,” he whispers, looking over his shoulder. “Fine. I accept. After training.”

Lan Xichen nods once. He presses his lips to Jingyi’s head. “After training.”

Meng Yao offers another one of his smiles. It’s the smile that makes his eyes half close, that is wide and natural and silent. He strokes a thumb across Lan Xichen’s cheek. And then he turns, a hand checking that his sword is still strapped to his hip, before he links his fingers in front of him. Lan Xichen takes a moment to watch Meng Yao – husband, guard, friend – step into their palace. And then he turns back towards the Hanshi with Jingyi.

His quarters are warm. Candles have been lit; the evening is coming on fast. Lan Xichen steps through the dancing shadows, past the scrolls he was reading and the fresh tea that has been left for him, and finds a small, wooden box on his shelves.

Jingyi babbles and reaches for the lid. Lan Xichen opens it. He smiles to himself as he removes the parchments enclosed. Folding to the floor by the table, he keeps Jingyi in his lap and pushes the candle out of his reach. He lays the old paper on the table and reads. The baby presses his hand against the dry ink. Its corners are soft and worn from being held so often.

Lan Xichen spreads out each of their letters. He reads and he reads. He waits for the sound of his husband’s footsteps on the stairs outside their door.