Nie Zhonghui might be the most tragic example that Yi Renshu knew of when the laws of the universe were not obeyed, and like did not remain with like, but Yi Renshu himself would be a hypocrite if he never acknowledged that his awareness of that fateful law came from experiences of his own.
There were times in Yi Renshu’s life, after all, when he thought he could fight against the fates far more persistently than his shixiong ever attempted to.
Lan Jingyi is just as beautiful in Yunmeng’s softer, cooler sunlight as he was beneath Qinghe’s harsh, beating sun.
Yi Renshu arrived with Nie Huaisang the previous night, having had to start out earlier from Qinghe due to the longer journey. He’s there, on the docks, standing beside his Sect Leader as Nie Huaisang fans himself and chatters to Sect Leader Jiang about how some redecoration really must be done to the Jiang Sect’s main hall. The boat that brings Wei Wuxian and Lan Jingyi arrives at some point in the late afternoon, and the angle of the slightly fallen sun casts shadows from Lan Jingyi’s thick eyelashes onto the tops of his fair cheeks.
As always, Wei Wuxian jumps off the boat before the Jiang disciples are even able to tie it properly to the pier. Lan Jingyi disembarks shortly afterwards, graceful movements filled with purpose, eyes politely lowered as he bows for each of the Sect Leaders. His greetings are murmured in the perfectly even cadences of an exemplary Lan disciple, an even more exemplary member of the clan.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes meet Yi Renshu’s without a wasted moment between them, fully knowing and thoroughly smug, and Yi Renshu does not avert his own gaze. He looks back, unfalteringly.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t even flicker a glance at Lan Jingyi. Regardless of what has been said about the Yiling Patriarch, in the years that Yi Renshu has come to be acquainted with him, he begrudgingly will admit that Wei Wuxian shockingly has some measure of talent in the art of subtlety. It isn’t much, but it’s at least a great deal more existent than that of Yi Renshu’s own Sect Leader who takes this moment to shove the sharp corner of his open fan into Yi Renshu’s spine, causing him to lurch forward a step closer to Lan Jingyi.
Before Yi Renshu can glower cuttingly at Nie Huaisang, the man covers nearly his entire face with his fluttering fan and says breezily, “Jiang-xiong, let’s eat, I’m starving. I’m sure Wei-xiong hasn’t eaten since he left Gusu!”
“I’m sorry,” Jiang Wanyin says, drier than a desert. “I wasn’t made aware that we are suddenly in the Unclean Realm. Are you going to cook us dinner, Sect Leader Nie?”
Nie Huaisang rests an arm around Wei Wuxian’s shoulders and begins steering the Yiling Patriarch towards the main hall. “You’re still the worst host,” Nie Huaisang shakes his head sadly. “That’ll never change.”
“He offers us food, now,” Wei Wuxian says, stealing Nie Huaisang’s fan and batting it over his face in a far more suggestive manner than the Sect Leader ever has. “That’s changed.”
Jiang Wanyin stalks after them, muttering obscenities that involve the shattering of both Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang’s bones, and Yi Renshu watches them with wry eyes, admitting to himself that perhaps in combination Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang’s talents in subtlety are at least passable.
When Yi Renshu looks back to Lan Jingyi, there’s something in the disciple’s eyes that on a lesser human being, someone who isn’t of a sect filled with such ambitiously peerless and lofty individuals, might have been incredulity. The moment that Lan Jingyi meets his gaze, however, any hint of that is gone, swept away from his face, leaving only pleasantries. “Captain,” Lan Jingyi says, and then even those prim pleasantries are gone, swept away as well, and replaced with the same grin that Yi Renshu had only ever seen once before—yet—filled his dreams ever since.
The first time Yi Renshu laid eyes on such an expression on the young man’s face, he felt as if all of the air in his body had been struck out of him—a blow to his stomach, to his chest, leaving him breathless and enthralled. Yi Renshu has seen members of the Lan Clan smile—demure and sweet and well-mannered. He surely has never seen a member of the Lan Sect grin, daring and broad, teeth flashing and eyes curving.
Such an expression on such delicate features, ethereal and classic, an appearance that easily proclaimed his blood-relation to the sect’s reputable Young Masters—Yi Renshu wants to watch the young man in front of him unfurl like the petals of a flower, cupped in Yi Renshu’s hands.
“Would Disciple Lan also like to eat?” Yi Renshu asks, eyebrows rising as Lan Jingyi takes slow steps towards him, the distance between them quickly erased.
Lan Jingyi’s eyes glance around the perimeter once, twice, before coming back to rest on Yi Renshu’s face. The breeze from the water rustles through the younger man’s dark hair, bringing a few strands to rest over one of his eyes, over the white silk of the ribbon on his forehead. His expression is expectant and demanding as he looks up at Yi Renshu. “Momentarily,” Lan Jingyi replies, and the dancing light in his eyes announces that he’s well aware of what occurred the last time he spoke this single word to Yi Renshu.
His cheeks are as soft as they look, as soft as Yi Renshu remembers, warm and smooth beneath Yi Renshu’s palms as he cups the other man’s face towards his own. “Then, what would Disciple Lan prefer to do instead?” he says quietly, unable to look away from the pretty dilation of Lan Jingyi’s pupils.
“Captain Yi shouldn’t play coy,” Lan Jingyi snorts, arms already looped around Yi Renshu’s neck. “It doesn’t suit him,” is the last thing the disciple says before he presses his mouth over the captain’s.
When Yi Renshu was fifteen, he loved a boy who could sing like a songbird, who danced around him on the training fields, their blades kissing in the merciless Qinghe sunlight—a boy who approached Yi Renshu one afternoon behind the armory, unlaced their trousers, and seated himself over the pulsing heat of Yi Renshu’s cock down in one, smooth motion. Yi Renshu was fifteen when he buried gasps and sighs and muffled laughter against the boy’s soft, flushed skin. He was fifteen when he thought that he was one of those lucky, chosen, few who had already found their fate, their eternity, at such an early, beautiful, young age.
Yi Renshu was fifteen when he held that boy in his arms as he bled out in a dark, desolate cave in the Qinghe wilds, a nighthunt gone wrong—a nighthunt that only Yi Renshu survived out of a dozen boys, a nighthunt that Yi Renshu was not supposed to survive had it not been for the boy who died in his arms, pushing him out of the way at the crucial second.
The body had since long gone cold by the time they were finally found, in the morning, and it took both Chifeng-jun and Nie Zhonghui to pry Yi Renshu, wounded and hysterical and out of his mind, away from the boy’s corpse.
At a bustling morning market, in one of the small towns near Lotus Pier, Yi Renshu hears Lan Jingyi’s laughter for the first time. There’s a little girl who has accidentally carted off her mother’s bag of raw meat from the butcher’s shop. Lan Jingyi’s eyes follow her with amusement as she runs from the friendly puppies of the fabric woman. She’s squealing in delight, as she races away from them, not fully aware it seems of why they’re chasing her so avidly.
The young man’s laughter is brighter than Yi Renshu would’ve expected from someone with the austere beauty of a cold piece of jade. He wonders if perhaps he should have anticipated it, after seeing how bold Lan Jingyi’s countenance becomes when he only grins. The disciple looks up at him with another smile full of teeth, as the puppies begin licking at the little girl’s chubby hands. “Imagine if Senior Wei was here.”
“He would be well on his way up that tree,” Yi Renshu remarks dryly, nodding his head towards the end of the street.
Lan Jingyi laughs again then, laughs at something Yi Renshu has said, and Yi Renshu feels his heart beat with a little too much force in his chest.
“Will Captain Yi treat this humble disciple to breakfast?” Lan Jingyi asks, tilting his head towards a crowded teahouse up ahead.
Yi Renshu rests a hand between Lan Jingyi’s shoulder blades, the same way he pulled the disciple from his morning meditation weeks ago in the Unclean Realm. The younger man leans into his hand, even as his expression refuses to budge from its inquiring insistence. “For a free meal, Disciple Lan is humble, is he?”
In motion, with his expressions fully engaged, Lan Jingyi no longer shares the unapproachable beauty of a snow-covered forest. When he smiles cheekily now up at Yi Renshu, his canines flash against the corner of his lips, boyish and so similar to the lively puppies that ran around the market. “Is that a yes or a no, Captain?”
Yi Renshu lets himself return the smile, lets himself enjoy the way the tips of Lan Jingyi’s ears redden as their eyes meet. “Come,” Yi Renshu snorts, shaking his head and pushing lightly with his hand on Lan Jingyi’s back.
When Yi Renshu was eighteen, he loved a man who could never love him back.
He was eighteen when he loved a man who laughed as he dodged Yi Renshu’s blade, parried each of his strikes with one of his own, taught Yi Renshu how to cultivate his saber without facing the risks towards deviation that so many of the clan members faced—a man who showed Yi Renshu how to tame a wild horse, how to ride one while wielding his weapon, how to live freely beneath the countless stars of a Qinghe night.
Yi Renshu was nineteen when the man he loved wrapped red-sleeved arms around Yi Renshu, a warm, tight hug, as Yi Renshu closed his own eyes and forced himself to congratulate his shixiong. He was nineteen when he watched the man he loved bow three times—once to the heavens and the earth, once to the Sect Elders, and once to a beautiful daughter of the Nie Clan.
Yi Renshu was twenty when his shixiong came to him, arm around Yi Renshu’s neck as if nothing had ever changed because, to his shixiong, nothing had. He was twenty when the man he loved asked him to choose his newborn son’s courtesy name.
Yi Renshu was twenty-four when the little boy he held in his heart, as closely as if he were Yi Renshu’s own nephew, tugged at his robes, demanding to be tossed onto Yi Renshu’s shoulders—he was twenty-four when he looked at the little boy’s parents, at his shixiong teasingly kissing his wife’s cheek, and finally felt the shards of his heart begin to mend back together.
Atop a flattened hill, overlooking one of the widest points of the river surrounding Lotus Pier, Lan Jingyi lies beside Yi Renshu in the grass, the starry night sky stretching over their heads. There’s no sound except for the wildlife around them, the chirping of crickets, the soft rushing of the river water far below. Lan Jingyi’s hair flares around him like a crown. The actual silver crown that the Lan disciple normally wears has been left off after the evening meal tonight—their last meal before they all depart from Lotus Pier in the morning.
The only light around them is that of the two lanterns they brought to hang on the tree branches nearby. There are some fireflies flitting around them in the tall grass, but not enough to sufficiently illuminate the area alone.
Lan Jingyi is watching the stars, a slight crease between his brows as he seems to search for something in the night sky.
Yi Renshu is watching the young man’s silhouette, following the sharp, elegant slope of his nose, the high regal cheekbones, the thick curtain of lashes. His hair has fallen away from his face, onto the grass, revealing small, pale ears and a sliver of his fair throat before it disappears beneath the high collar of his robes.
He is able to know, from the way every touch Lan Jingyi initiates is laced with nervousness—the flutter of his eyelashes in heightened anticipation whenever Yi Renshu so much as leans his face towards the younger man’s own—Yi Renshu knows that perhaps everything they share together will be Lan Jingyi’s first. Yi Renshu was prepared, even disregarding that, to need to take things as slowly as possible simply because of the younger man’s bloodline—because of his sect.
He never expected to be pulled, by the front of his robes, flush up against Lan Jingyi’s body, outside the gates of the Unclean Realm. It’s the reason that he holds to himself, that he convinces himself of, as he risks turning onto his side to face the disciple, moving close enough that Yi Renshu’s chest brushes up against Lan Jingyi’s shoulder.
Lan Jingyi’s eyes slowly shift from the stars to Yi Renshu’s face, the slow incremental movement of them mesmerizing enough to render Yi Renshu breathless in that moment.
He searches Lan Jingyi’s expression himself and leans away slightly when he sees the rather uncharacteristic seriousness that has overtaken the younger man’s gaze. Lan Jingyi props himself up slightly onto his elbows and solemnly meets Yi Renshu’s eyes with something that appears oddly like determination. “I’m sorry,” Lan Jingyi says suddenly, brow wrinkling further. “For—for that time, in the Stone Castles. I’m sorry for what I said about your shixiong. I don’t think the apology I gave the next morning was sincere enough. You deserve a better one.”
The abrupt informality of Lan Jingyi’s speech startles Yi Renshu so starkly for a moment that he doesn’t immediately process the actual content of the young man’s words.
He hadn’t even considered what happened in the Stone Castles as a true slight to Nie Zhonghui’s memory. It was clear that Lan Jingyi had misunderstood and Yi Renshu had already been able that night to imagine the way his shixiong would’ve laughed if he’d seen how embarrassingly Yi Renshu’s attempt had failed.
“Is that what Jingyi was thinking this entire time?” Yi Renshu says, still so taken aback that the name slips from his mouth without thought. “That he still needs to apologize for something he said months ago?”
Lan Jingyi shrugs. “I know I speak before I think,” he says, lying back down on the grass. “It doesn’t mean I don’t think about what I say at all.”
Yi Renshu finds himself speechless, staring at the young man. He wonders how he ever managed to think of Lan Jingyi’s beauty as frigid and opulent and reserved. He wonders how Lan Jingyi learned to hide his warmth so effectively beneath the aloof features of his clan.
The disciple is still watching Yi Renshu carefully, and he realizes that Lan Jingyi really is apologizing—he’s waiting for Yi Renshu to either accept or deny.
Yi Renshu considers everything he has seen of Lan Jingyi in these past seven days, here in Yunmeng. He considers the endlessly fascinating way Lan Jingyi retains all those characteristics so distinct of members of his clan, and yet presents those characteristics in a way that is so distinctly Lan Jingyi.
In the end, Yi Renshu decides perhaps everything that is noteworthy in this life cannot be gained or experienced without risk. Rather than simply accepting the apology, Yi Renshu recalls that very morning that Lan Jingyi has mentioned, all those months ago, and the captain says, injecting warmth and fondness into his tone, “Jingyi’s apology will be accepted with a condition.”
He doesn’t crowd Lan Jingyi in, doesn’t lean any closer, simply meets the young man’s eyes and makes easily evident the meaning of Yi Renshu’s words.
For a long moment, Lan Jingyi gazes silently into Yi Renshu’s eyes, the disciple’s expression utterly indecipherable. The moment stretches long enough that knots begin to form at the pit of Yi Renshu’s stomach—a feeling of such juvenile nervousness that it takes him by thorough surprise. He’s too old, after all, for something so adolescent as fluttering anxiousness.
Then, Lan Jingyi flicks his gaze away, a wryly amused smile on his face. “I already said coyness doesn’t suit Captain Yi,” he says loftily. “How can the one being apologized to claim a condition that benefits the one apologizing as well?”
“Is that a yes or a no, Disciple Lan?” Yi Renshu echoes the younger man’s words from earlier this week playfully. He takes his last risk of the night, moving in so that he is hovering over Lan Jingyi, palms in the grass, arms framing the younger man’s body. One of his knees rests between Lan Jingyi’s legs.
The previous shyness that tainted Lan Jingyi’s expression every time they kissed this past week is suddenly gone, only anticipation seeping into every line of the disciple’s fine features.
At this point, Yi Renshu knows that his risk is about to be rewarded. He doesn’t know, however, the extent of Lan Jingyi’s wit. There’s no possible way he could already know, not with the way the younger man doles out gradual bits and pieces of himself in the classic fashion of all those of his restrained and reserved sect. He most certainly has no way of predicting that Lan Jingyi will take such note of Yi Renshu’s teasing recital of the younger man’s words from their first morning out in the markets—that Lan Jingyi will give back to Yi Renshu in a way that lets the captain know, without a doubt, that Lan Jingyi is not someone to underestimate.
One of Lan Jingyi’s hands reaches up to cup the back of Yi Renshu’s neck, fingers twisting lightly into the hair at the back of Yi Renshu’s head. The arch expression paired upon such fairy-like features steals the air out of Yi Renshu’s lungs. “Come,” Lan Jingyi says, in the same playful echo of Yi Renshu’s own previous proclamation from the markets.
Before the hand in his hair pulls him down—before a grinning mouth is pressed up to his own—Yi Renshu has just enough time to weakly process that Wei Wuxian was right, that first day in Qinghe, as the Yiling Patriarch watched Yi Renshu purposely only saddle two horses for their journey to the Stone Castles.
“Captain Yi should decide carefully,” Wei Wuxian said, a highly entertained smile curving his lips as he rested against the wall of the stable. “The disciple waiting in Nie-xiong’s hall is not an ordinary Lan.”
He came to accept that he wasn’t destined for those whose spirits were so opposite to his own.
He spent the remainder of his young adulthood courting those who were more similar to him—quiet, steadfast, relationships with comrades who cultivated similarly to him, who were of similar rank and age to him, who shared his calm, solemn, reserved demeanor. He approached each of those courtships sincerely and wholeheartedly, and he knew that several of his partners had loved him in a way that he could never love them back.
None of his relationships lasted long. Each one dissolved, slowly, into the two of them simply falling into bed with no other time spent between them, no words wasted, no emotions lost. He remained friends with every single one of them, still brothers-in-arms after everything was said and done. He thought that that perhaps was the worst of it all. That what he had with each of them had ended so flatly that it hurt neither of them at all for their relationship to become platonic once more.
Like was to remain with like. That was how to avoid tragedy, and it was true—there was no tragedy, no more heartbreak, in any of the courtships of his young adulthood.
Nor were there ever again butterflies in his stomach, fireworks in his heart, lightning in his veins, thunder in his chest, shooting stars behind his eyelids.
There was no pain, but neither was there much of anything else.
Normally, the Nie Head Disciple accompanies their Sect Leader to the major Discussion Conferences. Yi Renshu has no business at events that are strictly political in nature. Moreover, even if Nie Huaisang doesn’t do much physically for their sect, someone still has to look over the on-goings of the Unclean Realm during his absences, and that task is usually given to Yi Renshu.
Therefore, he thinks his suspicion is fairly valid when Nie Huaisang informs him that the Head Disciple will be the one remaining behind for the Discussion Conference at Carp Tower, and Yi Renshu will be the one accompanying the Sect Leader instead.
As soon as he acquiesces because Nie Huaisang is still Sect Leader regardless of how much his leadership occasionally makes Yi Renshu want to fly on his sword to a high mountain peak and toss himself off the edge, Nie Huaisang renders Yi Renshu’s suspicions useless by directly pushing forward a brush, an inkwell, and a blank letter scroll.
“Captain Yi is welcome,” Nie Huaisang says from behind his fan. “He may now inform Disciple Lan of his pending presence in Lanling.”
Yi Renshu’s arm twitches at his side with the near irresistible urge to launch the inkwell at his Sect Leader’s face. He channels his frustration instead into a passive-aggressive bow and pointedly does not thank Nie Huaisang, before slamming the doors behind himself shut as loudly as possible.
It was endlessly easier, simpler, to maintain relationships that were base in nature with only carnal expectations. It was a pattern that he’d fallen into as an adolescent, after the bright boy of his youth wasted away in blood and gore in his arms. It was a pattern he’d used as a escape during the six years when his heart continued to ache after a man who was incapable of loving him back as anything more than a younger brother.
It became the sole medium that he sought solace in—a middle ground between unbearable heartbreak and loveless courtships.
At Carp Tower, Lan Jingyi is surrounded by his friends.
Yi Renshu has met each of Lan Jingyi’s companions separately, all of them high-ranked young cultivators of the upcoming generation in their own right. He has met the Lan Head Disciple the most number of times, perhaps Sect Leader Jin from afar the following highest number of instances, and the Ouyang Sect Heir during the several occasions that Yi Renshu visited Baling with his Sect Leader.
If it is possible for Lan Jingyi to shine even more brightly than the times when Yi Renshu has seen him alone, he is nearly blinding like this—one elbow resting on Jin Rulan’s shoulder, mouth open in a laugh that once again flashes his teeth, boyish and clever, a conspiratory lean towards Ouyang Zizhen about something that has the latter raising his eyebrows and smiling back in turn.
For a moment, Yi Renshu wonders if he should perhaps leave Lan Jingyi just like this, without the tragedy that Yi Renshu might one day bring him. Or, conversely, he wonders if Lan Jingyi himself will bring the tragedy, telling Yi Renshu at some point that everything was only for the sake of Lan Jingyi’s experience—a passing relationship for his youth, and that commitment is far beyond the horizon for him, and when he is of an age to seek it out, it will not be with someone as different from himself as Yi Renshu is.
Before Yi Renshu can turn on his heel to approach Lan Jingyi once the disciple is not in the midst of his peers, the Lan Head Disciple catches sight of the captain and Lan Jingyi’s eyes soon follow his meaningful gaze. The latter smiles the moment he sees Yi Renshu, unabashed and brilliant, with no elder, higher-ranked cultivators around him to feign composure for.
The young Sect Leader looks in Yi Renshu’s direction as well and seems to blanch mildly before muttering something at Lan Jingyi’s direction that has the Lan disciple exchanging his bright smile for a mischievous grin. He bows almost mockingly to Jin Rulan, before flouncing off towards where Yi Renshu stands at the edge of the courtyard.
“How long have you been standing here?” Lan Jingyi says, instead of an actual greeting.
“Jingyi is pleasing to look at,” Yi Renshu says, instead of an actual answer.
The younger man doesn’t look impressed. “I was standing in that direction,” he says, tipping his head towards the halls on the opposite side of the courtyard. “The back of my head is that pleasing to stare at?”
Yi Renshu doesn’t hesitate this time in carding his hands carefully through the hair flowing from the back of Lan Jingyi’s head. He makes sure to avoid touching the neat knot of white silk beneath the silver combs atop the young man’s head. Lan Jingyi’s breath catches quietly, but otherwise he seems to be adamant in continuing to defiantly meet Yi Renshu’s eyes. Far more intriguing is the way Lan Jingyi’s eyes flicker with amusement upon the both of them hearing too clearly the coughing and choking sounds from their nearby audience.
“It is,” Yi Renshu responds eventually. “Though, I do prefer the front.”
Lan Jingyi doesn’t so much laugh as he does exhale in delighted amusement, playfully thumping his fist against Yi Renshu’s shoulder.
There had been Lan Wangji, who was so frostily handsome that his very appearance made Yi Renshu’s teeth ache in desire. He’d known, then, even upon seeing him at such a proximity for the first time that they were similar enough that there would be no tragedy—perhaps, Yi Renshu would once again feel nothing at all, but at least neither of them would feel pain at the inevitable end of the relationship.
There had been Wei Wuxian, silver-tongued and dazzling and everything that could so readily shatter Yi Renshu’s heart irreparably and mercilessly once again. The Yiling Patriarch represented all that Yi Renshu had avoided for the better part of a decade, too hurt and stung and aching, and Wei Wuxian was already impossible for him to grasp anyway. It was better in that case. They were too different, and Yi Renshu was not like Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian.
Those two—they were those rare, fortunate ones. Fated by the stars and inclined by them as well. They were as different to each other as they were similar, and against all odds, destiny had already chosen them for each other.
Yi Renshu was neither so rare nor so fortunate.
On the third night of the Discussion Conference, far past the time for any members of the Lan Sect to still be awake, Yi Renshu opens the doors of the guest quarters allotted to him, and finds Lan Jingyi standing on the other side of the threshold. When Yi Renshu raises his eyebrows in surprise, especially at the lack of combs, and the informal, inner, white robes that Lan Jingyi wears—a far cry from the tightly drawn, proper, uniform the captain saw him wearing just some hours ago at dinner—the younger man merely grins, and brings his hands out from behind his back, holding up a jar that Yi Renshu has seen only on rare occasions. Perhaps, only more often in recent years due to his friendship with Wei Wuxian.
“Senior Wei told me you were partial to it,” Lan Jingyi says, inviting himself inside without waiting for Yi Renshu to even speak any actual permission. “Sizhui and I usually bring some whenever we all get together. He never has any, of course, but Zizhen and Jin Ling really like it, too, and they’ve already both passed out for the night—and Sizhui’s gone to bed.”
Yi Renshu closes the doors, abruptly made aware that he himself is also only in a single, dark layer. “You’ve come to leave me with the leftovers?” he asks dryly, as he watches Lan Jingyi attempt a subtle inspection of the set of quarters that Yi Renshu has been given.
Lan Jingyi sets him with that same unimpressed look from the day of Yi Renshu’s arrival at Carp Tower. “I came to drink with you, Captain,” he says, pushing aside some of Yi Renshu’s papers from the afternoon discussions to make room for the bulbous jar of Emperor’s Smile. “There are glasses in every room, I assume. Mistress Sect Leader won’t hear the end of it from me, otherwise.”
Yi Renshu pauses, midway in the room between the table Lan Jingyi has taken a seat at and the shelf upon which there are, indeed, cups for liquor. “Mistress Sect Leader?” he echoes curiously, as the color suddenly drains from Lan Jingyi’s face.
Lan Jingyi also pauses for a moment, before whispering, “Please forget you heard that.”
Yi Renshu takes two cups from the cabinet and carries them back, taking his own seat across from the younger man and setting the glassware between them. “If Jingyi prefers,” he says, unwinding the thread around the cloth lid of the jar, “I can wait a round or two,” he nods, indicating the alcohol, “but Jingyi isn’t leaving this room without telling me about Mistress Sect Leader.”
Lan Jingyi’s eyes track up to Yi Renshu’s face and then back down to the captain’s hands as he doles out a small, beginning portion for each of them. “Captain Yi assumes I was planning to leave his room tonight to begin with.”
Yi Renshu wonders, if he was ever the sort of pathetic and spineless man to arrogantly boast about such things, if any of the men that he trained and worked with would even believe him. The general consensus of the Lan Sect as held by most Nie disciples is, after all, that they are the inflexible, icily uncompromisable puritans of the cultivation world.
Yi Renshu wonders if any of them would believe it without seeing it with their own eyes, an inner member of the Lan Clan, as ethereally beautiful as the rest, one knee bent in the air, seated on a cushion in the middle of the night in Yi Renshu’s rooms, cup of liquor in hand, proclaiming that he had no reservations about only leaving Yi Renshu’s quarters come sunrise.
Lan Jingyi was standing beside Wei Wuxian in the Unclean Realm’s grand, reception hall, the first time Yi Renshu saw the disciple. He had been informed that the Lan Head Disciple had preparations for their sect’s guest lectures, and that the next highest-ranked young cultivator of their sect would be coming in his stead. He barely managed to greet Wei Wuxian’s smile in time with a nod without arising any suspicion in the delay of his reaction.
Or, rather, he was certain that if it had been anyone other than the Yiling Patriarch, they would’ve found no fault in Yi Renshu’s response time. As things were, Yi Renshu had had the vast misfortune of finding a rather compelling friend in the founder of demonic cultivation, and that meant that he was submitted to Wei Wuxian’s frighteningly uncanny observation skills.
Yi Renshu spent the short moment, during which Nie Huaisang exaggeratedly whined at Wei Wuxian and expressed his gratitude to the young disciple’s increasingly wary but elegantly restrained expression, discretely roving his eyes over the young man’s form and visage.
From the steady pulse of the disciple’s qi, Yi Renshu could sense out approximately how old the young man was, not yet having reached the age nor the cultivation to visibly stopper time. From the complexity of his robes, Yi Renshu could discern that the young man was indeed both a member of the Lan Clan itself as well as rather highly ranked within his generation.
It was neither of those things, however, that caught Yi Renshu’s gaze and refused to relinquish it for the entire time that he stood here in the grand hall.
This Lan disciple was the same sort of unearthly beautiful as Lan Wangji.
It was the sort of celestial, inhuman appearance that gripped lungs and captured hearts and point-blank rejected even the prospect of merciful release.
The intensity was similar, but the disciple’s eyes were so vastly, enthrallingly, different. Dark where Lan Wangji’s had been pale—a tantalizing promise of firecrackers and lightning where Lan Wangji’s had been slow, scorching, engulfing flames.
It was with that thought in mind—the thought of that disciple’s bare skin pressed into Yi Renshu’s sheets, soft thighs framing Yi Renshu’s waist, fine fingers buried in Yi Renshu’s hair all night, without end, neither of them sleeping—that Yi Renshu had gone to saddle only two horses. That simple, painless medium between heartbreak and monotony. A night with no strings attached, no promises made.
A stunningly beautiful Lan disciple who was solemn and calm, and agreeable enough to Yi Renshu’s own similar character.
Once the Emperor’s Smile is finished, Yi Renshu brings out some of the alcohol that he had with Jiang Wanyin, Wei Wuxian, and Nie Huaisang in the latter’s quarters shortly before claiming the desire to retire early, only bringing with him some of the half-empty bottles at the insistence of his Sect Leader. He pours it out as well, first into Lan Jingyi’s cup, and then his own, as the younger man says, pink flushing high on his pretty cheeks, “We met before that. Captain Yi doesn’t remember?”
Lan Jingyi’s robes are askew, sash loosened slightly, the color of intoxication reaching to his exposed throat and collarbone. Without his combs in place, more of his hair tumbles to his shoulders, the slight dark curl of them soft and inviting against the pale front of his robes. The picture before Yi Renshu’s eyes is only further complimented by the glow of the warm candlelight. “No,” Yi Renshu replies simply.
The younger man narrows his eyes, clearly miffed. Yi Renshu is thoroughly distracted by the way the action causes Lan Jingyi’s lush, black, eyelashes to flutter against the lower rims of his eyes. “When you propositioned Hanguang-jun,” Lan Jingyi states wryly.
Yi Renshu cocks his head to one side, and frowns for a moment, as he thinks, sifting through memories. He doesn’t think he’s as terrible as Wei Wuxian, but his memory usually works on a focusing system—if there is something extremely noteworthy that happens, or if there is someone rather noteworthy, most everything else will fade forgotten into the background. “Ah,” he says finally, after his mind has finished the calculations. “I don’t usually notice children.”
“I was thirteen!” Lan Jingyi exclaims in outrage.
“Yes,” Yi Renshu says, because Lan Jingyi was. “I calculated.”
Lan Jingyi covers his face with both hands, elbows on the table, a sight that Yi Renshu doesn’t think he could ever in his wildest dreams conjure up of a Lan disciple. “Has anyone ever told Captain Yi how impossible he is?”
Too suddenly, instantaneous and jarring, Yi Renshu sees in his mind’s eye as clearly as if it happened only yesterday, the face of the boy who could sing like a songbird and dance with a blade, clucking his tongue at him in irritation.
“Renshu is this impossible, yet he expects me to marry him, one day?”
He’s grateful, embarrassingly so, that Lan Jingyi is far enough along to proper inebriation to truly notice the way Yi Renshu’s hand shakes as he downs the current remains of his cup in one, single shot. “Yes,” Yi Renshu says, and feels a pang of relief upon hearing how steadily he manages to speak. “Someone has.”
Without hesitation or fear, with the veneer of refined deference suddenly wiped from his face, while his spiritual energy was depleted and while he was alone in a fortified tomb with no one else but Yi Renshu himself, Lan Jingyi proceeded to thoroughly accuse Yi Renshu of attempting to ensnare a married man into a tumultuous, scandalous affair without any reservations of where they were standing or the fact that the man whose good name Lan Jingyi was supposedly defending was the Yiling Patriarch—a man with barely a good name left at all.
The still winter’s day that Yi Renshu had recalled when first seeing this disciple—freshly-fallen snow and perfect ice crystals clinging to branches—revealed itself to the reality of a snowy tempest, a fierce and ruthless blizzard.
Yi Renshu wrapped one hand around that thin, pretty wrist, and suddenly wanted nothing more than to let that ice storm take him, with neither preparation nor regrets.
There’s no more alcohol left in the entirety of Yi Renshu’s guest quarters, both what the Jin Sect set out for him upon his arrival as well as the liquor that Nie Huaisang had insisted on leaving him. The Emperor’s Smile has long since been drained dry, the first thing to be finished, and its bringer seems just as capped out for the night. Lan Jingyi, at some point in the proceedings, leaned his entire body forward onto the table, claiming that the room was spinning too much for him to sit upright.
Some time after they rounded off the last of Nie Huaisang’s plum wine, Lan Jingyi’s conversation tapered off into silence, head pillowed in his arms, hair beginning to even slip out of of his previously meticulous half-knot.
Yi Renshu’s last question trails off as well, when he realizes it won’t be answered—at least not tonight. He finds himself simply looking across the table at the drape of the younger man’s dark strands of hair, the stark contrast of the white silk against the inky locks. The skin of Lan Jingyi’s eyelids is thin enough for Yi Renshu to be able to watch the twitching of the pale blue veins as the disciple dreams.
He wills himself to stand, knowing that if he lets Lan Jingyi sleep in that position too long, his back will undoubtedly ache in the morning. He kneels once he reaches the other side of the table, first resting just a hand once more on the younger man’s back, seeing if perhaps Lan Jingyi will stir from that. Yi Renshu shakes the disciple lightly with another hand on Lan Jingyi’s shoulder, but the younger man merely frowns and shakes his head in his sleep.
A smile tugs onto his lips at the same time that something wraps around his heart and tugs as well, insistent and firm. As carefully as he can, he maneuvers an arm beneath Lan Jingyi’s knees, cradling the disciple’s body against Yi Renshu’s own. Lan Jingyi’s head falls limply onto his shoulder, breath puffing even and steady against the skin of Yi Renshu’s throat, as the captain carries him into the bedroom.
He sits himself on the corner of the bed, pulling down the blankets with one hand and balancing Lan Jingyi against his other arm. He slips him in precariously, breath unwittingly held as if that also will help prevent the younger man from rousing. Again, he takes as much care as he can not to touch the white ribbon around the other man’s forehead, even as he arranges the dark strands against the pillow so that they won’t be slipping into Lan Jingyi’s mouth even if he tosses or turns.
Even in his sleep, Lan Jingyi does not stir or move to his side. His head lists slightly onto his cheek, but other than that, in this, he is apparently a Lan like any other, almost statue-like in his straight arms and lying perfectly content flat on his back. Yi Renshu pulls the blankets up around him, and then slides to the floor, sitting with his own back leaning up against the bedframe and allowing himself another moment to look at the younger man’s face.
He thinks, not for the first or second time, about what he’s doing with someone young enough to be his student. It hasn’t eluded him that he’s the same age as Lan Jingyi’s own seniors. It hasn’t eluded him that Lan Jingyi must be feeling all the excitement of a first courtship, the fluttering in his chest and stomach from having someone’s attentions pursuing him. He knows that Lan Jingyi is approaching this most likely as all people approach such things in their youth—for the thrill, for the experience. He knows that in some months, perhaps a year if the fates choose to treat Yi Renshu kindly for once, Lan Jingyi will come to Yi Renshu with amiable words of parting, and Yi Renshu will have to accept.
He doesn’t regret approaching the Lan disciple, but he can’t help but acknowledge to himself that if Lan Jingyi had been of age and willing even just some small number of years ago, Yi Renshu would most likely not have pursued him. Perhaps, only now, after so many years have passed since the last time Yi Renshu’s heart was once again torn into pieces, the memory of the pain has dulled enough for him to try again—one more time—to love someone so different than him, someone who burns so brightly that Yi Renshu has to wonder if they’d ever be truly content with only Yi Renshu to hold their flames.
Extended nighthunts with his previous Sect Leader and Nie Zhonghui, along with all the others of the forefront of the Nie Sect’s military division, mean that Yi Renshu is more than accustomed to sleeping on hard surfaces. Usually the rocky dirt of caves—if he’s lucky, the softer soil beneath grass. If he’s extremely blessed for the night, it’ll be warm enough that he can strip out his outer robe and some of his armor for a pillow.
Sleeping on the fine-threaded carpet in the Jin Sect’s usual style of grandiose quarters atop several silken seat cushions was, thus, not a hardship at all for him, especially considering that the amount of alcohol he consumed before falling asleep having been enough to knock him straight into unconsciousness the moment his body was horizontal.
He’s comfortable enough, just like that, to fall deeply enough asleep that it feels as if only seconds have passed between the moment he closed his eyes and the moment a gentle palm presses against his cheek, fingers cupping with light pressure behind his ears and beneath his jaw. His subconscious must have sensed that there’s no danger, nothing immediate that needs attending to. Otherwise, his soldier’s instincts would’ve set off the hair-trigger trained into him since adolescence.
He leans into the touch, vaguely noting that it is all too possible that this is only a dream. A pleasant, light, dream that will undoubtedly have him in a good mood for the entire morning, even facing the reality of another onslaught of meetings listening to his Sect Leader wheedling at his side.
Hazily, he hears a stifled breath of amusement. “Captain—” a familiar, hushed voice begins, before it suddenly halts, as if a thought has overtaken the speaker. Then, “Yi-ge?” The breath of amusement returns, but it’s tempered with something that might’ve been embarrassment now. The warm hand leaves his face and Yi Renshu drifts back off after the silence resumes.
A dream, then—surely a dream.
Even if Lan Jingyi was, in Wei Wuxian’s own words, not an ordinary Lan, he was still a Lan. He still definitely behaved like one, even if modulated here and there with characteristics that could only be defined as distinctly Lan Jingyi.
This meant that Yi Renshu was fully prepared, upon his decision to court a Lan disciple of all disciples, to take the usual stages of a courtship even slower than a courtship already normally was for his personal standards. This meant that, following their return from scouting the cliffs, Yi Renshu spent the entirety of that dinner sneaking glances of the younger man as discreetly as he knew how. It meant that Yi Renshu wondered, all throughout the meal and the drinks that came afterward, how such a face that was supposed to be the embodiment of classically understated loveliness could host eyes that held such heat.
He wondered if Lan Jingyi was even aware that the way the younger man looked at Yi Renshu was so potent that it felt as if the captain had been left with scorch marks all over his body by the time the disciple announced he would retire for the night.
Lan Jingyi is gone by the time Yi Renshu fully wakes for the day.
The intensity of the sunlight filtering in through the windows lets him know that he’s awoken later than he usually does, but not so late that he won’t still most likely have to knock on his Sect Leader’s door and drag him into the grand hall himself. Today is a day that will be filled with discussions that involve nearly all of the major cultivators from beginning to end, and Yi Renshu always has a low tolerance for those. His tolerance for Jiang Wanyin already borders on nonexistent on a good day—combined with the presences of the Yao and Ouyang Sect Leaders, Yi Renshu’s patience is usually on reined in through the sheer amount of experience he’s had in his life dealing with such kinds of politicians.
He doesn’t see Lan Jingyi all day except for in passing, and even then, each instance is only out of the corner of his eyes—the disciple usually flurrying through the hallways as fast as he can without breaking the rules of his sect, and Yi Renshu usually embroiled in another attempt to aid Lan Wangji in glaring Jiang Wanyin into behaving like a decent human being.
After dinner, Yi Renshu is once again roped into Nie Huaisang’s quarters to drink with Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian. The captain has no idea how Lan Wangji always manages to so effectively escape with his excuse of being unable to drink when everyone very well knew that it wasn’t as if the inability to do something ever prevented Lan Wangji from winding himself around the Yiling Patriarch like a set of Man-Eating Vines before.
“If Sect Leader Jiang says something untoward,” Lan Wangji says airily, as he leaves Yi Renshu glowering after him, “Captain Yi will address it.”
Yes, but Captain Yi is only a captain, Yi Renshu bites back from saying, and not the esteemed Hanguang-jun, who is able to get away with decking a Sect Leader in the face with the scabbard of his sword.
Nonetheless, he makes his way into his Sect Leader’s rooms with a sigh. If nothing else, he still remains obligated to make sure that Nie Huaisang doesn’t drink so much that he can use the excuse of being ill tomorrow to escape the one-on-one discussion the Nie Sect has scheduled with the Yao Sect. If Yi Renshu is forced to take that meeting alone, he will literally defect from the Nie Sect and go into seclusion at Burial Mounds, see if he doesn’t, Nie Huaisang.
It had been two decades since Yi Renshu knew what it felt like to have never been touched before, to never have touched anyone else in turn. Still, it was the sort of memory that never faded, those treasured and unforgettable first moments. The anticipation and tension that preceded such instances was also something that he didn’t think anyone could ever fail to recall. That sort of feeling was recognizable on any face, and Yi Renshu had seen it on enough faces other than his own to recognize it just as easily on Lan Jingyi’s.
Lan Jingyi had been willing that night, that was clear enough to see, the way he subconsciously leaned his body towards Yi Renshu, the way his posture was both open and unafraid. Yet, the younger man hadn’t even been able to bring himself to say the words—nervousness palpable in the way that his eyes kept roaming unsteadily all over Yi Renshu’s face.
A part of him rationalized that of course Lan Jingyi would be willing. Regardless of the sect he was from, a young man was still a young man—there were experiences everyone wanted to have in the early years after their age of majority. Another part of Yi Renshu soared no matter how firmly he tried to root himself back down to reality. The smile came onto his face unbidden, and his feet took him closer to the disciple before his mind had truly caught up to them.
At this proximity, he could smell Lan Jingyi, the soothing scent of tea leaves and something more vibrant, something that reminded Yi Renshu of the mist that surrounded a waterfall, the exhilarating cool winds that whipped around a snow-capped mountaintop. Lan Jingyi looked up at him, in that split second, and Yi Renshu had a passing thought that if he didn’t soon master the ability to simultaneously breathe while looking at Lan Jingyi’s eyelashes and eyes, then this entire courtship was going to become moot. Yi Renshu wouldn’t survive past the first month.
The impulse to press Lan Jingyi up against the wall of the guest quarters was overwhelming. Yi Renshu’s arms itched with the temptation to hook themselves beneath Lan Jingyi’s legs, to hoist him up to waist level and have his thighs wrapped warm and soft around Yi Renshu’s hips. The urge only grew infinitely, when Lan Jingyi tipped his head up towards Yi Renshu, eyes half-lidded as the younger man offered up his mouth.
Yi Renshu took advantage of the sudden fondness that burst in his chest, letting it tamp down the desire that swirled lower in the pit of his stomach. He smiled faintly, the grip that Lan Jingyi had on the captain’s sleeve feeling like a hot brand even when the younger man barely touched him. Yi Renshu leaned the rest of the way in, shifting at the last moment to brush his smile over the top of Lan Jingyi’s cheekbone, the fine, dark hair tickling Yi Renshu’s brow slightly.
“Sleep well, Disciple Lan,” he said, stepping away, unable to stop himself from smiling further at Lan Jingyi’s look of thorough incredulity.
Yi Renshu’s doors are unlocked when he finally, at long last, manages to wrench himself out of Nie Huaisang’s rooms, leaving those three to drink themselves into a stupor on their own. He’s fairly satisfied with the amount of time he stalled Nie Huaisang from beginning to drink in earnest, and his Sect Leader has never been the sort of person to enjoy drinking heavily alone. Once Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian are down for the count, Nie Huaisang will give up and pass out as well.
He tucks the key back into his robes and blinks curiously at the handles, before proceeding to step inside anyway. He expects, perhaps, to find some evening tea set out by the Jin junior disciples, which has most likely gone cold by now, since—due to the Yi Renshu’s distinguished Sect Leader and the Yiling Patriarch—he’s only able to return to his rooms at this insufferable hour.
Upon entering the main room, however, he finds no tea. Instead, Lan Jingyi is seated at the reception table, in white sleeping robes, and his hair loosely plaited into a dark braid that is slung over one of his finely-boned shoulders. The long ends of his forehead ribbon are not interwoven into the braid, hanging freely down the back of his head instead, brushing the low collar of his robes. The disciple appears to be using the brush and inkpot from the writing table to sketch out some notes into a small, bound book that he’s brought with him. His lashes are pointed downward in concentration, a wrinkle between his eyebrows.
Composure escapes Yi Renshu in that moment, and he asks far too bluntly, “How did Jingyi get inside?”
The younger man doesn’t even glance up, continuing to brush dubious calligraphy into the page that he has the book set on. “Mistress Sect Leader,” he answers absently.
Yi Renshu finishes unlacing his boots, and leaves his outer robe over one of the cabinets near the threshold. He crosses the room in sparing strides, and then folds himself on one of the cushions beside Lan Jingyi’s own seat, looking curiously at the younger man’s writing for a moment. From what Yi Renshu can discern, the book appears to be some sort of log of the day’s meetings for all the discussions that involve any member of the Lan retinue.
All of the notes are done in Lan Jingyi’s hand from what Yi Renshu can see as the disciple pages backwards and then forwards, checking something before continuing on the current page he has out. The quality of the calligraphy is passable, but the content itself is neatly done, sharp and organized and simple to follow even for an uninvolved onlooker such as Yi Renshu himself.
“Was there no ink in Disciple Lan’s quarters?” Yi Renshu says, after he’s watched Lan Jingyi finish a page of the log without turning to Yi Renshu even once. Yi Renshu sits closer, one hand pressed palm down to the floor, framing Lan Jingyi’s body. The captain lets his front rest lightly along the other man’s back.
“Captain Yi will have this disciple the entire night,” Lan Jingyi says, still with his eyes maddeningly focused on the book in front of him, not even fazed by their closeness. “He can’t spare me even another moment to complete my work?”
Yi Renshu leans his side onto the table, one arm folded along the edge, and head angled so that his face is directly within Lan Jingyi’s line of sight, even with the younger man’s eyes looking downward at his writing. One corner of his lips pulls upwards when he catches Lan Jingyi’s gaze flicker to him for the barest fraction of a second. Yi Renshu rests his hand just above Lan Jingyi’s knee, midway up to the younger man’s thigh, and listens to the sweet, muted hitch of the disciple’s breath. The movements of the writing brush still.
“What does Disciple Lan plan to do in my rooms for the entire night?” Yi Renshu inquires softly, smiling as Lan Jingyi seems to shake himself out of a slight daze. The disciple resumes writing with renewed resolution. Yi Renshu has begun to glean the pattern of Lan Jingyi’s behavior—the moments in which he reverts to the mannerisms more respective of his sect, and the moments in which he behaves as freely as he does when he is surrounded by his close friends.
“Sleep,” Lan Jingyi says shortly. “What else is there to do?” He puts the brush down on the tray, and pushes the book away, pages still open to let the ink dry. The young man faces Yi Renshu fully now, clearly determined not to appear affected by the singular hand against his inner leg.
Yi Renshu gives the other man’s leg a gentle squeeze through the robes, even with that touch, he can feel the wiry muscles—soft and inviting and firm all at once. He can also hear another catch of the younger man’s breath as Yi Renshu pulls his hand away and sits back, placing just enough distance between them that Lan Jingyi has to turn again to face him once more. Yi Renshu places himself against the wall beside the desk, leaning back against it as he sits with his legs spread, one stretched out straight and one bent.
Lan Jingyi’s voice box bobs visibly, lips falling open as Yi Renshu also rests the back of his head against the wall, jaw jutting out and head tilted up so that he’s gazing down at Lan Jingyi with his own lids half-lowered. “If Jingyi only wants to sleep,” he says in a low voice, as color slowly floods into Lan Jingyi’s cheeks, “the bed is his.” He meets the younger man’s eyes, holding that gaze for an indeterminate amount of time. “If Jingyi wants to be pleased,” Yi Renshu says, inclining his head almost courteously, “this captain is his.”
Wei Wuxian came to the Unclean Realm for the routine cleansing a week after Yi Renshu returned from Yunmeng with Nie Huaisang. The Lan Head Disciple accompanied him this time, and Yi Renshu fully let the small wave of disappointment that passed through him know how unreasonable and adolescent it was. Lan Jingyi had made it clear after that first instance that he was not going to be the one to assist Wei Wuxian again on this venture. It was a reasonable insistence, and since nothing else had been spoken about the matter since, Yi Renshu honestly had no idea why there was even remaining anticipation left in him upon the announcement of the Yiling Patriarch’s arrival.
Furthermore, it had only been a week since Yi Renshu had seen Lan Jingyi. As new as the entire affair was, Yi Renshu was far too old to still feel the persistent youthful longings after only brief moments of separation. It wasn’t as if Lan Jingyi did not write to him as often as he himself sent letters out to Cloud Recesses. It wasn’t as if they wouldn’t see each other soon either for Discussion Conferences or passing nighthunts.
Yet, it had been so long since Yi Renshu had engaged in a courtship where his heart was an active participant rather than a passive bystander that he wondered perhaps if this feeling wasn’t simply supposed to be associated only with youth and the innocence of first loves.
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian answered without fanfare, without even a hint of teasing or mockery, that night, after they’d returned from the Blade Tombs, after Nie Huaisang had left Yi Renshu’s quarters and gone to pass out for his early sect meeting. The Yiling Patriarch didn’t even smile as he answered Yi Renshu, his expression nothing but sincere and matter-of-fact. “If I haven’t seen Lan Zhan for a year, I miss him. If I haven’t seen him for a day, I miss him.”
Yi Renshu gazed down into the cup sitting between his hands, partially still filled with spiced wine. Then, as if his eyes moved on their own, his gaze travelled to the shelves behind Wei Wuxian—to the neat, compiled sheaf of tied letters that Yi Renshu kept carefully placed between two, thick books.
Lan Jingyi’s waist fits into Yi Renshu’s hands like a puzzle piece.
The younger man’s soft, panted breaths, against Yi Renshu’s mouth as they kiss until their lips are swollen red, sound like a siren’s call. His weight in Yi Renshu’s lap is a warmth that Yi Renshu never wants to leave his arms, and when Yi Renshu yanks him forward further, the younger man’s thighs immediately move to straddle Yi Renshu’s hips. He doesn’t know how long they kiss for, one of Lan Jingyi’s hands fisted in Yi Renshu’s hair, his other curled into the collar of Yi Renshu’s robe.
When Yi Renshu slips his hands beneath the parting of the younger man’s last, inner layer—only the second of the two scant pieces that sleeping robes consist of—Lan Jingyi doesn’t stop him. Lan Jingyi only arches himself further against Yi Renshu’s body and continues to kiss the older man as if he might honestly perish if he stops. It isn’t long at all before Yi Renshu feels an insistent hardness pressing into him between their bodies, and Lan Jingyi’s breath grows even more labored, his hips rising from Yi Renshu’s lap to begin, almost subconsciously, grinding up against the older man’s stomach.
Lan Jingyi’s soft skin is feverishly warm beneath Yi Renshu’s hands, as they ruck up his robes over his thighs and past his waist, baring him from the hips down. The sash still admirably holding the nightclothes together starts to loosen, giving way and letting the front of the disciple’s robes part fully. His hair is starting to fall out of the braid in wayward locks, splayed over his shoulders and contrasting mesmerizingly against his pale skin.
With his robes open, it becomes even more obvious how far undone the younger man already is, and the realization seems to strike Lan Jingyi himself with a considerable force in the same moment that Yi Renshu glances down. Lan Jingyi draws back, chest heaving, lashes blinking wetly as he takes Yi Renshu’s face in with dazed eyes. The younger man is trembling and Yi Renshu doesn’t miss how Lan Jingyi almost seems to shy away forward from the hardness bulging between Yi Renshu’s own thighs.
Yi Renshu readjusts their positions, pulling Lan Jingyi closer and settling his own arms around the other man’s waist, fingers threaded at the base of the disciple’s spine. Lan Jingyi jolts mildly, mouth falling open at the feeling of Yi Renshu throbbing hot and unmistakable between his slightly spread, bare cheeks. He trembles a little harder, so Yi Renshu keeps one arm around his waist and uses his other hand to stroke some of the escaped hair behind the younger man’s ear. “Look at me,” he murmurs.
Lan Jingyi’s gaze snaps onto him, pupils blown out and expression somewhere between wildly aroused and undeniably nervous. The pinkness has spread from his lips to around his mouth, the peaks of his cheekbones, the dip of his collarbone, the tip of his curved cock. He looks like a debauched fairy that Yi Renshu has stolen away from the heavens. Even his hands tremble from where they rest on Yi Renshu’s chest.
“What does Jingyi want to do?” Yi Renshu asks softly, he continues stroking in a steady rhythm up and down Lan Jingyi’s back, against his skin, beneath the robes that had now fallen to pool at the younger man’s elbows.
Lan Jingyi’s throat constricts and relaxes, and constricts once more. His teeth dig into his lower lip, chewing at it lightly as his eyes move haphazardly around the room, at anywhere but Yi Renshu. A long silence stretches, and the trembling seems to get worse, turning into full-blown shaking, and Yi Renshu thinks that perhaps Lan Jingyi’s preference for knowing what lies ahead of him—knowing what to expect and expecting what he will feel—is even stronger than Yi Renshu initially thought.
He bends his head down to press a kiss against the side of Lan Jingyi’s neck, brief and chaste, and yet it still has Lan Jingyi looping his arms tightly around Yi Renshu’s neck in reaction, breaths increasing once again. The younger man gives another few, shallow thrusts against Yi Renshu’s stomach, before he seems to once again become aware of what he is doing, and returns to shaking in an effort to keep himself still.
“Would Jingyi like it this way?” Yi Renshu says gently, looping just his middle finger and thumb around the hot base of the younger man’s cock, applying enough pressure to have Lan Jingyi muffling a sound against Yi Renshu’s shoulder.
“No,” Lan Jingyi gasps, even as his entire body jerks in Yi Renshu’s arms.
Yi Renshu kisses the other side of Lan Jingyi’s throat, closer to his jaw this time. “Would Jingyi like me inside him?” he says softly.
The silence that follows is loaded with significance that Yi Renshu is well-practiced in parsing out by now, after enough young men had taken their first nights in his arms. He’s about to reassure the disciple when Lan Jingyi says, quietly, suddenly again with that insistently challenging undertone that Yi Renshu thinks could very well be the death of him one day, “Does Yi-ge want to be inside me?”
He pulls the younger back to look directly into his eyes, hands firmly cupping Lan Jingyi’s hips. The disciple’s expression is somewhat stubborn now, brow furrowed and hands shifting to cover himself slightly with one side of his hopeless robes. “I asked Jingyi for what he wants to do,” Yi Renshu says, raising his eyebrows. “I didn’t ask Jingyi for what he thinks I want to do.”
The gaze that Lan Jingyi turns on him now is so painfully vulnerable that Yi Renshu nearly rears back, unprepared for the way his chest clenches at the sight. Just before Lan Jingyi lowers his eyes, Yi Renshu places fingertips gently beneath the other man’s chin and brings him forward for a gentle kiss, something that hovers between a promise for more and sheer comfort in the present. He moves just far enough back to whisper against Lan Jingyi’s lips, “Would Jingyi like my mouth on him?”
Lan Jingyi’s breath audibly quickens, and his hands return to grip the cloth of Yi Renshu’s collar, wringing it so thoroughly that it begins to come out of the constraints of Yi Renshu’s belt. Slowly, the younger man looks up again to meet Yi Renshu’s eyes once more.
Lan Jingyi nods.
The cliffs were approved yesterday. I don’t think many cultivators outside of the Nie Sect are aware of that location. Both Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei said they’d never heard about it either, but they’re both as interested as I am. They said they might come along with the junior disciples once we’ve set a date.
I might have talked up my maps, and my notes, to make sure that they’re interested enough to come. If they come, it means I can go along with the juniors as well, otherwise, most likely only Sizhui will be going.
Wish me luck in convincing Hanguang-jun that I am entirely necessary to this operation and that every junior will perish without my presence in Qinghe.
Lan Jingyi comes spurting hot and thick down Yi Renshu’s throat.
Yi Renshu hears Yi-ge panted and gasped and moaned so many times into the silence of the night, that he thinks he’ll never again doubt whether he is dreaming or awake.
You’ve no need for luck. I will see you in Qinghe.
Until when will you call me captain?
Lan Jingyi falls asleep nearly immediately, keeping his eyes open through sheer force of will, it seems, to clumsily pat a hand towards Yi Renshu’s own slowly softening cock. “When—” slips confusedly from the younger man, nearly making Yi Renshu laugh. He settles instead for a quiet smile as he takes the younger man’s hand and tucks it back against Lan Jingyi’s own body.
“When Jingyi was coming in my mouth,” Yi Renshu answers in a playful whisper against Lan Jingyi’s suddenly blushing cheek. With the exception of Lan Jingyi’s forehead ribbon, both of them had lost all of their clothing during the previous proceedings. He carts the younger man up into his arms, and brings him to the bed. Lan Jingyi covers a loud yawn with the inner crook of his elbow, too sleepy to be as mortified at the undignified sound as Yi Renshu knows he would’ve been were he not so utterly tuckered.
It isn’t yet so late for Yi Renshu, but for a Lan disciple, the time is now far closer to the start of their day than the end of it. Lan Jingyi falls asleep before Yi Renshu can even finish wiping the perspiration from his cheeks, neck, chest, and thighs. If only the time hadn’t gone on so far into the night, Yi Renshu thinks he should have requested for a bath to be drawn for them first.
It’s with that thought that he falls asleep himself, boneless and content, lulled by the quiet snuffles of the warm, light fairy in his arms.
If not captain, then what should I call you? I’ll have you know now that if you respond with suggestions inspired by anything that Senior Wei calls Hanguang-jun, I will tear up your letter and feed it to Senior Wei’s donkey.
Also, I’ve enclosed some talismans that I’ve adjusted from the ones Senior Wei uses for the Blade Tombs. Senior Wei told me that the miscirculation of qi and the malcontent of your sect’s sabers most likely begins to accumulate at the cultivation level you’ve currently reached. One talisman will last a month. Just place it on Shengxie’s stand, and it will help regulate the bloodlust during the night, or whenever you aren’t carrying it with you.
This time, Yi Renshu is awoken by a polite, but persistent knocking at his doors. The sunlight is blaringly bright through his eyelids even before he opens his eyes. He begins to attempt to scramble upright, yawning into his wrist, when warm fingertips card through his hair and push him gently to lie back down. He squints through the daylight, parting his eyes just enough to take in the rumpled bed, only himself in it and a clear empty space beside him.
He looks around just in time to see Lan Jingyi right before the young man darts out into the main room. Somehow, the disciple has impressively already neatly returned into his sleeping robes as if he went to bed just like that—a pristine, imposing, untouchable Lan like any other. Even his hair is somehow already brushed and re-plaited.
Yi Renshu’s cultivated hearing easily picks up the sound of the door opening and the admirable attempts being made by the Lan Head Disciple and Lan Jingyi at whispering low enough to remain unheard by the ears of a Sect Captain.
“What is that?” Lan Sizhui asks in unmitigated horror.
“We both know who your parents are,” Jingyi retorts, his voice oddly high-pitched and embarrassed, “so we both know that you know exactly what this is—okay—my hair will cover it anyway.” There’s a short pause and then, “Did you bring my outer robe?”
Lan Sizhui sighs, and the exhale is followed by a rustle of cloth. “Hurry, while Hanguang-jun is still at breakfast.”
Yi Renshu lets out a thin, effortless stream of qi, silencing his steps and movements and even the sound of him pulling on the nearest pair of dark trousers that he had slung a day or two prior over the privacy screen. He makes his way into the main room, to the front doors, just as Lan Jingyi is slipping into his outer robe, efficiently covering his sleep robes with it even without the proper belt.
Lan Sizhui is the one facing the inside of the quarters, and when he sees Yi Renshu approach—barefoot, bare torso, and hair loose—the Head Disciple’s eyes widen until they comically appear to take up half his face. Lan Jingyi seems to look at his friend strangely for a moment, noting the drastic shift in expression, and then he, too, seems to freeze, turning in slow increments to face the man behind him.
Yi Renshu greets, “Head Disciple Lan,” with a small nod of his head. Lan Sizhui’s own, responding bow is stilted and thoroughly mortified as he darts alarmed looks at his friend. When Yi Renshu meets Lan Jingyi’s gaze, the younger man appears to be giving his best attempt towards not turning red even as he readily flushes a bright, enticing pink.
Yi Renshu lightly pushes aside Lan Jingyi’s braid, inspecting the discoloration on the juncture of Lan Jingyi’s throat and shoulder with vague interest before replacing the hair over it. “Have a good day, Disciple Lan,” he says airily, dragging gentle knuckles over Lan Jingyi’s cheek.
“Captain,” Lan Jingyi mumbles, his eyes sheepish and affectionate as he looks at Yi Renshu’s face once more before darting out the door, Lan Sizhui quickly following at the maximum speed allowed by their sect.
Thank you—I will use them well.
My shijie’s daughter and son address me as Shu-gege. Should you not do the same?
On the last night of the Discussion Conference, the last night before they’ll be parted for two weeks until Yi Renshu comes to Cloud Recesses for the final meeting to discuss the cliff hunt, Lan Jingyi bades Yi Renshu to sit on the edge of the bed, legs spread. Lan Jingyi kneels in front of him, naked, with his hair flowing over his pale skin, forehead ribbon the only proper thing left of him. He looks up at Yi Renshu with dark, determined eyes, and demands decisively, “Teach me.”
Yi Renshu places a hand beneath Lan Jingyi’s face, small enough to fit so easily in the cradle of Yi Renshu’s palm and fingers. He tilts it upwards further towards himself, thumb glancing over the plush, pink mouth. Lan Jingyi’s lips part as his eyes lower, tongue wetting the tip of Yi Renshu’s thumb. He’s beautiful enough to stutter Yi Renshu’s heartbeats into an unrecognizable rhythm, one that is so unsteady Yi Renshu wonders how it can even still keep him alive.
Lan Jingyi looks back up at him, his countenance as lovely as a forest sprite’s, his skin like white jade, the angles and planes of his body crafted with lean and dainty muscle. His cock is already straining against the shallow ridges of his abdominal muscles, somehow as elegant as the rest of him. Even with his arousal fully exposed and leaking, somehow the aura around Lan Jingyi remains serenely ethereal, as if Yi Renshu should himself expect divine punishment for daring to lust after such a being.
“All right,” Yi Renshu murmurs, silently letting the heavens know that he’s prepared for whatever retribution they’d seek from him. He brings Lan Jingyi’s face forward with his hand, guiding it until the tip of his own cock hovers moments away from Lan Jingyi’s lips. “Open up.”
I’m replying out of the goodness of my heart, but just know that your last letter went straight into Little Apple’s morning feed. You can throw me into a pit of starving vipers, before I call you that. I’ll think of something better. If you come to Lanling for the Discussion Conference next month, maybe I’ll still consider part of your terrible suggestion.
The fourteen days between Yi Renshu’s return from Lanling, and his approaching departure to Jiangnan pass as slowly as the trickle of thick honey. He doesn’t even understand how time can pass this slowly. He has embarked on nighthunts and missions that have lasted just as long, and those days vanish without his notice, as if he was already returning to the Unclean Realm’s gates moments after leaving them, even if it had been two weeks rather than two hours.
Somehow, the letters they exchange alleviate and exacerbate in equal measure. There are some letters that leave Yi Renshu smiling to himself through his entire day, unable to wipe it from his lips even to prevent his men from being thoroughly unnerved at the sight. There are other letters that have Yi Renshu walking swiftly back to his quarters between the morning and afternoon drills, taking himself in hand, letter propped on his nightstand so that his eyes can glance over the damning words as he stifles shouts against his arm, spurting over his fingers and armor.
Every waking moment of his life in the recent months has felt like a dream that he hasn’t allowed himself to hope towards for decades. Yet, for reasons he can’t comprehend, in these days before he prepares to leave for Cloud Recesses, he begins once again to have the recurrent nightmares of his youth—the terrifying dreams that followed him every night while he recovered from both the injuries of that tragic hunt and the trauma of the lifeless, bloodied body in his arms.
He still doesn’t remember much of that time. Nie Zhonghui had told him, once—while both of them were intoxicated enough that talking about such things wouldn’t hurt so terribly—that Yi Renshu was catatonic for weeks, perhaps nearly two months. Some of the Healers of their sect said that perhaps, even if his body recovered, his mind wouldn’t be able to. Nie Zhonghui said that it was perhaps one of the only times he had ever seen their late Sect Leader in the Prayer Hall, head bent and incense lit whenever he had the time to spare amidst all the hundreds of obligations such a young Sect Leader had to deal with.
The only thing he still recalls are the nightmares, the memory of the boy’s last smile as his lifeblood flowed over Yi Renshu’s hands and arms.
Nie Huaisang sees Yi Renshu off at the gates even though the captain absolutely, positively, most certainly, without a shadow of a doubt, never ever remotely even implied that this is something that he wanted to happen, ever, in the history of known humankind, for as long as either of them would ever live. Like most things Nie Huaisang did that involved him, however, the former doesn’t believe in the practice of listening to anything Yi Renshu says when it doesn’t involve human lives on the line (and even that couldn't be guaranteed).
“How about Captain Yi stays for a month?” Nie Huaisang says, with absolutely no precedence at all, fully unprompted, and completely nonsensical. “A week is basically a month—and that way, Captain Yi can accompany the Lan envoy to Qinghe when they set out.”
Yi Renshu allows himself a full minute of incredulously staring at his Sect Leader’s impenetrably indecipherable smile. “This captain believes a week is sufficient,” he says finally, once he’s satisfied with silently conveying how much of a certain madman he truly believes the other man is. All those who ever claimed Mo Xuanyu as a basket-case should instead meet Yi Renshu’s Sect Leader to learn the true meaning of the phrase.
He embarks on his sword, hovering for a moment as Nie Huaisang closes his fan and waves it up towards him in a lazy salute. “Please,” he decides as his parting words, “if Sect Leader Nie will refrain from arranging for any untraceable deaths until this captain has returned.”
The fan opens with a flourish, even as Nie Huaisang continues to wave Yi Renshu off dismissively. “If they are untraceable, what is Captain Yi’s concern?” Nie Huaisang says, that infuriatingly indecipherable smile once again on his face.
Yi Renshu rolls his eyes, sends a prayer out to the gods for his sect, and takes off.
When he lands at the grand stone stairs, the even grander Wall of Discipline bordering them, he’s surprised to see only Lan Jingyi awaiting him. Normally, there are at least a handful of Lan junior disciples each time Yi Renshu has been to Cloud Recesses to guard the entrance, even with the earth-sky barrier. He sheathes his sword, stepping forward towards the younger man to inquire about the absence of the guards when a warm, eager mouth is suddenly pressed against his own, his arms filled with his little, light fairy.
Lan Jingyi’s lips part beneath his own, and he licks into the younger man’s mouth, a gratifying exhale of contentment and desire filling his ears in response. There are countless layers between his hands and the skin of Lan Jingyi’s waist, but somehow, he can feel the heat through the innumerable pieces of silk and cotton.
Yi Renshu keeps his arms tight around the younger man’s waist even after they separate. Lan Jingyi’s mouth is as red as his ears. The disciple smooths down the wrinkles out of Yi Renshu’s robes where they are exposed between the segments of his armor. Lan Jingyi’s grin is full of little, pearly teeth as white as his immaculate uniform.
“Miss me, Captain?” the wingless angel in his arms asks, wearing a smile as beautiful as it is dangerous.
More than you know.
“Where are the guards?” Yi Renshu playfully evades responding.
“The junior disciples on shift this afternoon are both from my section,” Lan Jingyi says, fingers tracing over the grooves of Yi Renshu’s chest-plate. “I let them know that they could spend it freely today.”
Yi Renshu’s hopeless heart skips a beat in his chest. There’s no space at all between their bodies, but he pulls Lan Jingyi in even closer anyway. “An exemplary shixiong,” he remarks wryly, while too obviously failing to hide his pleased smile.
Lan Jingyi flashes another grin at him, rising up to place a swifter, more innocent kiss neatly on his lips before he dances out of Yi Renshu’s hold, standing a far more proper distance away. “Let’s go inside,” he says. “Before shifu wanders past the stairs and Sizhui accuses me of causing him to deviate again.”
Yi Renshu arrives in the afternoon, which means there’s little time left in the day for a full-blown meeting with any of the other Lan disciples heading the junior groups. Lan Wangji also apparently has a full day of lectures today with Wei Wuxian assisting him in several and conducting others of his own. The first full day of meetings has thus been set for the following day, the second day of Yi Renshu’s visit.
The first evening he spends at Cloud Recesses is therefore spent with his mouth around Lan Jingyi’s cock, two fingers sunk inside the younger man, as Lan Jingyi writhes on the bed of Yi Renshu’s guest quarters, his moans breathy and loud, and Yi Renshu would’ve been mildly concerned for all those Lan disciples asleep in the surrounding dormitories had he not seen the Silencing Talismans placed on the outside walls before he entered.
The first night he spends at Cloud Recesses is spent wrapped around Lan Jingyi in the warm, soothing water of the large tub behind the quarters’ privacy screen, the temperature kept perfect from the heating talismans—the incense of the room smelling like the earthy, fragrant tea leaves that always seems to linger on Lan Jingyi’s clothes and hair.
Lan Jingyi’s head is pillowed against Yi Renshu’s shoulder, his body framed between the older man’s legs. It terrifies Yi Renshu a little how much he thinks he could spend forever like this, and want for nothing more. He can see slightly over the top of Lan Jingyi’s head, and watches as those long, dark lashes part slowly. The younger man angles his face just enough to be able to look up at Yi Renshu. “Yi-ge hasn’t answered me, yet,” he says, his voice carrying that low languid, post-coital cadence.
“What hasn’t Yi-ge answered?” Yi Renshu says softly, stroking his fingers through Lan Jingyi’s hair, brushing the wet strands away from his face. It doesn’t escape his notice that tonight is the first time he has ever seen the younger man without his forehead ribbon. Lan Jingyi had taken it off first, preceding even his outer robes.
Lan Jingyi turns further, one hand reaching up to lightly squeeze around Yi Renshu’s jaw. Those dancing fingertips drift down then to Yi Renshu’s throat, then his collarbone, then they trace a path between his pectorals, down to his abs, tickling over his ribs and sides, grazling lightly over his soft cock in the water. Yi Renshu catches the slender wrist beneath the water and brings it back up, squeezing back in teasing reprimand. Lan Jingyi’s grin is wicked in the candlelight. “Did he miss me?” Lan Jingyi asks, a response to Yi Renshu’s question, and a relentless inquiry all of Lan Jingyi’s own.
Yi Renshu hums throatily, hands caressing up and down Lan Jingyi’s thighs beneath the water. “Playing coy doesn’t suit Jingyi either,” he murmurs against Lan Jingyi’s mouth, as he closes the scant space between their lips.
As always, Lan Jingyi is gone in the morning, his touch lingering on Yi Renshu’s face like a dream that won’t leave him even after he’s opened his eyes.
There are two junior Healers from the Lan Sect that will be accompanying the junior disciples to the Qinghe hunt. There’s no expectation for any grievous injuries, especially if Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian even end up coming to try their own hands out at the ghosts and beasts that reside in the cliff caves, but junior Healers require field experience as well as rounds in the infirmary. Thus, the first round of meetings that take up the majority of the second day of Yi Renshu’s visit are strictly of himself presenting any necessary information to the Head Healer as well as the two junior Healers who have been assigned to the hunt.
The meeting room is small, only enough space and seats necessary for four of them, and even though Yi Renshu’s own presentation is succinct as it always is, the Head Healer asks him enough questions to stretch the discussion from the morning well into the time when the afternoon bell rings throughout the sect. Only one of the junior Healers is a member of the clan, and although she’s unmistakably beautiful, her eyes such a light brown that they near the famously rare shade of Lan Wangji’s representative color, she’s the sort of appearance that Yi Renshu has seen much of throughout all the bloodlines of the Four Great Sects.
Pretty, yet, not so noteworthy.
The Head Healer, however, is a sight to behold in a way that feels familiar in a way Yi Renshu can’t fully place—the similar sort of niggling that he feels at the back of his mind when he tries to recall a word that he surely knows to use as a particular descriptor but it continues to evade his tongue.
The two junior Healers are dismissed first, and Yi Renshu himself is about to rise and possibly find Lan Jingyi, if the younger man isn’t occupied at the moment, when the Head Healer speaks in his quiet, melodic voice, “Please, Captain, your afternoon meal will be delivered here shortly.”
He regards the other man for a moment, settling back down. “Will Head Healer be taking his meal here as well?”
The man bows at his waist, even as he is seated, his billowing sleeves elegantly held in front of him. “My cousin will be joining us,” he says, eyes still deferentially lowered towards the table. When he raises his gaze to meet Yi Renshu’s, the swirl of frustration nagging at the back of his mind finally lights up in full epiphany. Now that he is able to place it, the resemblance is unnervingly striking. If someone had let him know not of the specific degree of relation, but only that there was some relation, he would have thought them brothers instead.
The Head Healer is as stunning as Lan Jingyi, but upon watching him more closely as they wait for the latter to arrive, Yi Renshu can’t help but think how differently they are in something so mundane as sitting. The posture is precisely the same, the way all Lan disciples sit, proper with their backs so straight it surely looks as if their spines will ache after just an hour. Unlike Lan Jingyi, however, the Head Healer looks content to sit in that way, settled in and restful, as if he’s simply meditating rather than waiting for a long, overdue meal.
The only time Yi Renshu can recall seeing Lan Jingyi sitting with his shoulders relaxed and open is whenever they were alone in Yi Renshu’s quarters at Carp Tower, whether liquor or tea on the table between them, whether it was a sheepish grin or a clever smile on the younger man’s face. Yi Renshu can only remember seeing him sit comfortably when there is no one to scold him were he to slouch his back slightly, elbows on the table, eyes bright on Yi Renshu’s face.
A light knock on the door of the small room precedes the opening of it, Lan Jingyi expertly parting the screens even with his hands full of a heavy tray—even larger than the one he used last night to bring Yi Renshu dinner.
“Jingyi does know that he can ask a junior disciple to assist him,” the Head Healer says, clearly trying to hold back the wryness in his voice in front of a third party.
Lan Jingyi sets the tray down on the table with mildly more force than necessary, sliding the doors shut with a hook of his knee to his cousin’s barely repressed horror. “Yingjie-ge, I didn’t spill anything, all right?” He glances over to Yi Renshu then, offering him a broad smile that has the Head Healer looking thoroughly disgruntled.
“Jingyi,” the Head Healer says emphatically, motioning with his head towards the food and the seat beside the Healer himself.
With his cousin, perhaps with any of his relatives who are of an age with him, Yi Renshu learns that Lan Jingyi is not quite so closed as he is with elder cultivators from his own sect and those from other sects. Nor is Lan Jingyi as open as he is when he is with his friends, with Wei Wuxian, with—possibly, now—Yi Renshu himself. Yet, he is also not as deferential as he is when he is with Lan Wangji. Yi Renshu watches, all throughout the meal, somehow thankfully distracted enough that he can’t taste the Lan Sect’s infamously unendurable food, as Lan Jingyi teases his cousin, exasperates him, and is exasperated in turn.
He catches Lan Jingyi’s eyes at one point, the younger man once again smiling with so much easy affection and contentment that Yi Renshu finds himself wanting even more. He wonders if he already wants too much, to be able to see every side—every shade and color—of Lan Jingyi.
On his second evening in Cloud Recesses, Lan Jingyi comes to the door of his guest quarters, pulling him out by the hand, telling him that the presentation Yi Renshu is supposed to give tomorrow, to Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian no less, will be fine even without so much revision and review. The air that accompanies the setting sun is warm and breezy, and Lan Jingyi’s hair is in a braid once more, flung over his shoulder with a single, simple comb keeping the rest of his dark locks off of his face.
“Senior Wei will make sure the hunt happens even if you don’t come to the meeting at all,” Lan Jingyi says with a bold certainty that has Yi Renshu exchanging the laugh that bubbles up in his throat for a smile instead. “So, c’mon—I know you must be wanting real food by now.”
Yi Renshu blinks, as Lan Jingyi tells him to take his sword, as Lan Jingyi leads him out of Cloud Recesses, and down the mountain. He realizes only when they are both already in the air, once he is following Lan Jingyi through the skies, that Lan Jingyi is taking him to Caiyi.
As much as his previous Sect Leader favored him, often treating and training him as if he were a direct descendant of the clan, blood still couldn’t lie, and Yi Renshu would’ve had to petition fervently in order to be allowed to be sent to Cloud Recesses and take part in the lectures not as an attendant in the way Jin Guangyao had been, but a true member of the Nie Clan. It never was something that interested Yi Renshu, climbing through the ranks for a cushy, lofty, politician’s place when the only thing he sought was adventure—demons and ghosts and beasts and spirits.
Therefore, he only ever heard in stories, in retellings by Nie Huaisang and Wei Wuxian of all that Caiyi held for those fortunate enough to be able to travel to it during their adolescence and young adulthood. All of the times Yi Renshu resided in Cloud Recesses otherwise was strictly for sect business, and there was never any cause for him to venture out during the tenure of those visits.
Everything is set similarly to any major town that can be found in Qinghe, but the atmosphere thrums differently in a way that Yi Renshu doesn’t think he can describe in words. He thinks perhaps it’s the water, the representative river that runs through the entire main road, such an integral part of civilian life. Another part of him thinks it could be the various versions of Emperor’s Smile that are sold in all the stalls lining the streets, not all from the original distillery, but with the recognizable red labeling that lets him know he truly is no longer in Qinghe.
Yi Renshu can stomach sustenance provide by the Lan Sect if necessary—he’s survived up to months on rations and whatever he himself can hunt in the Qinghe wilds—but even he won’t deny that it’s a relief to be able to taste what he’s putting in his mouth after nearly two days’ worth of meatless fare.
Lan Jingyi himself is making his way steadily through the blandest congee that the tavern has to offer, possibly the only Lan thing that Yi Renshu has truly found of the younger man, while watching Yi Renshu across the table with amusement. “Would Captain Yi like to drink, too?” Lan Jingyi asks, resting his chin against his palm. “Just a little—it tastes different when you drink it here.”
“A little,” Yi Renshu emphasizes warningly.
Lan Jingyi laughs outright then, a graceful hand rising into the air to hail over one of the barmaids.
He spends his second night at Cloud Recesses with his tongue inside of Lan Jingyi, lips hot over the younger man’s puckered entrance. He noses up against Lan Jingyi’s soft, spread, cheeks and hears the other man keening, high-pitched and desperate into the sheets beneath him. Lan Jingyi tries to rut forward, seeking friction between his leaking cock and the mattress. Yi Renshu hikes his hips up higher, away from the bed, holding him there half-suspended in the air, their only point of contact where Yi Renshu’s tongue continues to thrust steadily into him, licking and sucking until Lan Jingyi’s cock gives another valiant twitch.
“Let me—” Lan Jingyi starts, before a gasp chokes him off as Yi Renshu slips one oiled-finger inside of him, continuing to lick even as he does.
“It’s too early in the night for Jingyi to come,” Yi Renshu murmurs against the base of Jingyi’s spine, the curve of his pretty back. He slides his finger just deep enough to feel around until he brushes past a spot that has Lan Jingyi’s entire body stiffening, mouth opening as wide as his eyes.
The incense has been nearly entirely burned by the time that Lan Jingyi does come, neither bed nor hand touching his cock. Yi Renshu’s jaw and neck are aching by the time the younger man finds his release untouched, only Yi Renshu’s mouth and tongue and fingers stimulating his entrance until the rim is swollen pink, puffy and slick with both saliva and oil.
Yi Renshu’s cock still throbs hard between his legs, but the ache is secondary to the way Lan Jingyi looks now, curled in on himself, eyelashes wet, breathing as if he’s spent all day running up and down the mountain. “Unfair,” he mumbles into the sheets, eyes hazy and blissed out. “Yi-ge is unfair.”
He buries a hand in the younger man’s hair, pressing a kiss against the crown of Lan Jingyi’s head even as the disciple gives a half-hearted swipe at the gesture. “Why is Yi-ge unfair?” Yi Renshu asks, his voice soft and amused. He continues to caress the other man’s hair, the fingers of his other hand lightly touching over Lan Jingyi’s nipples, eliciting full-bodied shivers that are followed by glowers are as half-hearted as the younger man’s attempt to dodge Yi Renshu’s kiss.
“Once I’m like this, I can’t take care of him, can I?” Lan Jingyi mutters, eyeing Yi Renshu’s own unattended arousal. Despite his words, his hand starts to slowly make its way towards Yi Renshu, fingers gradually curling in a maddeningly loose hold around the head of Yi Renshu’s cock.
Yi Renshu’s heartbeat has somehow migrated its way to his ears, the curl of desire building in the pit of his stomach as he watches the darkness in Lan Jingyi’s eyes intensify with every lazy, frustrating pull of his elegant fingers over the older man’s cock. “Would Jingyi like to learn another way to take care of me?” Yi Renshu lowers his tone further, a gentle hand brushing against the underside of the disciple’s thigh.
Lan Jingyi stiffens slightly, blinking with suddenly painfully clear eyes at Yi Renshu.
“Not inside,” Yi Renshu clarifies soothingly, still petting up and down the younger man’s thigh. He holds Lan Jingyi’s gaze for another long moment, waiting for a slow nod of acquiescence before Yi Renshu dips his fingers back into the oil pot on the nightstand. He brings his slick fingers towards Lan Jingyi’s legs, parting them with his other hand and slathering the soft, vulnerable skin on the insides of his thighs. He puts the rest onto his cock, and then with one hand, presses Lan Jingyi’s knees together.
The younger man’s breath catches loudly as he seems to realize what to do, holding his thighs tight together as Yi Renshu pushes his cock between them, the softness and the oil and the heat of Lan Jingyi’s body making him lightheaded for a moment. He starts to thrust, slowly at first to test the waters, wondering if he can even hold out—it’s pointless to stretch his endurance for this, Lan Jingyi is most likely tired as well, a far earlier waking time awaiting him.
Beneath him, Lan Jingyi’s expression is strangely entranced, a look in his eyes that Yi Renshu has yet to see. Yi Renshu pauses to cup the younger man’s face for a moment, tucking some of the hair behind his ear, before saying, still with his voice low and hoarse, having teetered so long on the edge tonight, “On your hands and knees.”
Lan Jingyi’s irises have always been dark, the color of a clear night’s sky, but with the way his pupils have enlarged just upon that request, Yi Renshu almost can’t discern where the color of his eyes began. The younger man almost immediately turns, on all fours, thighs clamped together again for Yi Renshu to slide between them. There’s so much more leverage now, and his breath begins to huff out unevenly as he ruts between Lan Jingyi’s thighs. He’s grasping the younger man’s hips so tightly that he knows, distantly in the back of his mind, that there very well might be bruises in the morning.
The disciple beneath him says nothing, however, no sounds of pain or discomfort, simply moving back to match each of Yi Renshu’s forward swings with equal fervor.
When he comes, Yi Renshu muffles his voice with his teeth digging into the juncture of Lan Jingyi’s neck and shoulder. There’s a choked off gasp from the younger man, and for a moment, Yi Renshu wonders if he’s about to be admonished. Instead, all that happens is Lan Jingyi collapsing forward onto the bed, his entire body shaking and grinding down onto the sheets. Yi Renshu’s mind is so blank from his own release that he doesn’t realize what has happened until Lan Jingyi goes boneless beneath him, breathing as if he’s just come a second time and—
Yi Renshu slips his hand beneath Lan Jingyi, feeling around and Lan Jingyi whines from the hypersensitivity when Yi Renshu’s fingers find another growing patch of wetness.
Yi Renshu tries—truly, he does—he tries imagining all sorts of unappealing images, he even briefly tries a short meditative practice, but the laughter jerks out of him anyway, the amusement so bright and light that he almost doesn’t feel like himself. He wants to remember the last time he laughed like this, but the recollections refuse to come.
“Just from that?” Yi Renshu says, still shaking with laughter. He thinks it might not be natural, it shouldn’t be possible, to feel like this. Happy, like he could float, like he could fly—the sheer contentment spreading through his chest like the heat from a fireplace in the winter.
“Unfair,” Lan Jingyi repeats, clearly attempting to sound mortified but Yi Renshu knows firsthand how difficult it is to manage mortification after an orgasm. “So unfair.” He flips onto his back, shoving Yi Renshu off of himself with the movement.
The younger man stills upon looking at Yi Renshu’s face, stopping midway between lying prone and properly sitting up. Yi Renshu feels his laughter fade as he blinks back, caught at unawares at the strange expression suddenly on Lan Jingyi’s face. Yi Renshu raises his eyebrows in wordless inquiry when the silence continues to stretch, and Lan Jingyi still hasn’t spoken even with his gaze clearly indicating that he has something in his mind.
Lan Jingyi places his fingertips along the ridge of Yi Renshu’s cheekbone, tracing back behind his ear and looping forward to edge along his jaw. The younger man’s touch leaves scorching warmth in its wake on Yi Renshu’s skin. “You’re handsomer when you laugh,” Lan Jingyi says, as indifferently and simply as if that is the sort of thing people just said—at any time, as they pleased, without any consideration at all to whether the ones receiving the statement could handle hearing such things.
Yi Renshu doesn’t know what his own expression looks like in this moment. All he knows is that his heart feels as if it might burst through his chest. He isn’t a complete stranger to such remarks about his appearance. He is aware, after all, that he’s considered rather conventionally good-looking. He doesn’t know whether it’s the thoroughly effortless and casual tone that Lan Jingyi uses, or if it’s all of the words together—not that Yi Renshu himself alone is handsome, but the sight of his happiness.
He doesn’t want to tell Lan Jingyi that Yi Renshu cannot remember when he last laughed as sincerely and freely as this. To someone as vivid and full of life as the younger man, it feels almost shameful to admit something so pathetic. He doesn’t want to disappoint him—that he doesn’t remember when he last laughed, and he can’t guarantee when he will laugh again next.
“Yi-ge?” Lan Jingyi’s voice is quiet, and then Yi Renshu’s lap is host to a weight that is becoming more and more familiar as the weeks go by. He thinks soon there will come a time when his body feels as if it’s missing a part of it any time that warm weight isn’t on him. “You should know,” Lan Jingyi’s hands cup his face, turning him so that they are fully facing each other. The younger man’s eyes are so certain and reassured, even as his voice remains light. “I’m really good at making people laugh. Hasn’t Senior Wei told you?”
Yi Renshu’s entire body aches with such sudden, intense longing, that it’s all he can do to hold the man in his arms tightly enough to soothe that ache, that longing, without suffocating him. He buries his face against the soft skin of Lan Jingyi’s neck and breathes in deeply. “No,” he says, once he’s ascertained for himself that his voice will not tremble when he speaks. “He hasn’t.”
“Well, I am,” Lan Jingyi says, and Yi Renshu feels a small mouth pressed to the skin behind his ear. “In any case,” the disciple pulls back slightly and pushes Yi Renshu back as well, hands on the captain’s shoulders. Lan Jingyi’s smile is as kind as it is bright. “Yi-ge is handsome like this as well,” he adds softly, fingers curling into Yi Renshu’s hair.
Yi Renshu is awoken, on his third morning in Cloud Recesses, with a hot mouth stretched over his cock, far before the sun has risen. The sky is still dark on the other side of the window screens, and Yi Renshu himself is still too fogged with sleep to properly discern if he is indeed even awake. He feels like he’s still sleeping—everything is hazy around him, and his eyelids are so heavy that he can barely force them open.
Yet, without a shadow of a doubt, there is something warm and wet around his cock, and even in dreams, even on the border his subconscious, he can’t mistake a tongue licking into the slit of his cock’s pulsing head for anything else. His body is still too heavy, too tired, to thrust his hips. He can’t chase after the heat, unable to do anything but lie there as the mouth skillfully wrings the last vestiges of pleasure out of him. He’s too sleepy to even cry out, simply releasing with a soundless gasp caught on his lips.
He feels the throat swallow around him, and his eyes are already nearly closing again when he sees a being far too beautiful to be anything but a dream emerge from beneath the blankets. His sleep-laden mind drifts from succubus to fairy to siren and then perhaps back to fairy. He discards angel because Yi Renshu would never be so fortunate nor so blessed.
Gentle hands are framing his face now, tracing over the muscles of his chest before coming back up to run through his hair, nails grazing against his scalp. “Eat with Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun today,” a voice whispers in his ear, so bewitching that Yi Renshu’s subconscious mind briefly reconsiders siren. “I’ll be busy until sundown.”
He can’t explain why, in that precise moment, still hovering between reality and dreams, why he drifts back to sleep suddenly feeling particularly favorable towards the Lan Sect’s absurdly inhuman curfew.
The presentation of the finer details on the cliffs, the caves, and the way in which the Nie Sect themselves have in the past conducted hunts there goes as successfully as Lan Jingyi predicted. Lan Wangji doesn’t speak a single word for the entire few hours they are ensconced in the meeting room, and Wei Wuxian speaks his usual too many words, taking up more time than Yi Renshu, as if the Yiling Patriarch himself is the Nie disciple.
He ends up taking both meals of the day with Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian, sitting in on a few of the lectures the two men have to lead today. He somehow ends up roped into afternoon tea with some of the Lan Sect Elders as well, Lan Wangji’s gaze brooking no argument even as Wei Wuxian escapes with ease, dancing away into another, safer part of Cloud Recesses.
He doesn’t see hair nor hide of Lan Jingyi all day, and even the hours after Yi Renshu has returned to his guest quarters go by without the arrival of the younger man.
By the time Lan Jingyi arrives, Yi Renshu has already been sitting on his bed, nearly about to blow the candles out when he hears the knock on the door. The younger man stumbles in, looking thoroughly exhausted and heading straight for the tub.
Yi Renshu spends his third night in Cloud Recesses carefully bathing down a pliant, drowsy fairy—his own fingers appearing even more callused and mismatched as he takes the dark hair in his hands and braids it down to prevent it from getting wet. The strands slide and slip like black silk in his hands, and he doesn’t understand why his fingers tremble as he ties off the end.
Lan Jingyi kisses him as the older man carries him to bed, dressing him in one of Yi Renshu’s own dark, sleeping robes since it isn’t as if the younger man had brought any of his own for the night. All the preceding nights, after all, were spent in a way that had them falling asleep still too warm to bother wearing any nightclothes.
Yi Renshu places Lan Jingyi down on his back, the way he knows the younger man prefers to sleep, and he himself lies down on his stomach, one arm curling Lan Jingyi closer by the waist, nose buried against the crown of Lan Jingyi’s head. As soon as the older man lies still, he is instantly asleep, only able to muse fadingly on how sleep seemed to come so easily to him lately—effortless and peaceful.
The fourth and fifth days pass similarly, with Yi Renshu waking up alone, once again, in the mornings—with Lan Jingyi being too tired in the evenings to do anything but bathe with Yi Renshu and sleep in his arms. He meets with various other Lan cultivators during those two days, including several more Sect Elders who want to inquire about when Sect Leader Nie will be available to journey out to Cloud Recesses himself for some long since overdue matters regarding things that were set up several years ago pertaining to Sect Leader Lan.
The entire affair reeks of the sort of cultivational politics that Yi Renshu has neither the patience nor the expertise to deal with, and he steps around every minefield that the Sect Elders place in his way, saving them all delicately for Nie Huaisang to deal with on his own. Yi Renshu is at least rather gratified when, after being accosted by yet another Sect Elder on Lan Xichen’s pending return to the cultivation world, Lan Wangji pulls him aside and lets him know that Lan Wangji himself hadn’t expected that his Sect Elders would’ve taken advantage of Yi Renshu’s presence here in Cloud Recesses.
Lan Wangji is as celestially, inhumanly beautiful as ever, but Yi Renshu wonders what it says about himself that his teeth no longer ache even looking into those golden eyes at such a proximity—the two of them alone in a secluded corner of the smaller courtyards. All he feels, as the other man bows to him before taking his leave, is an easy and ready camaraderie, the same sort of feelings that he recognizes and holds for his brothers-in-arms waiting for him back in the Unclean Realm.
Yi Renshu wakes alone on the sixth morning to the sound of someone at the front doors of the guest quarters. He walks while tying up his hair with the nearest ribbon he can find, swallowing a yawn as he answers. He’s only mildly surprised to find Wei Wuxian beaming up at him on the other side of the doorway. The way the Yiling Patriarch smiles up at Yi Renshu, however, is secretive and strange enough to have him squinting down at the man in vague suspicion.
“Will Captain Yi be ready to take his meeting with the Head Disciple in an hour?” Wei Wuxian asks pleasantly. “Something happened, so Sizhui has to attend to something in the evening. Is it all right if the meeting is moved up to this morning?”
The previous night, Lan Jingyi said, before they fell asleep, that most likely he will be able to take the afternoon meal with Yi Renshu. If something shifted in the scheduling to have the Head Disciple busy in the evening, most likely Lan Jingyi will also be busy for the entire day once again. It also means that currently Yi Renshu will be unoccupied for the morning anyway. He shrugs, then, at Wei Wuxian, nodding noncommittally. “I’ll be ready by then. Will we meet in the same building as yesterday?”
“Same building,” Wei Wuxian affirms airily, the glint in his eyes glimmering further in the morning daylight. “I’ll let Sizhui know, then.”
Yi Renshu is fairly certain that there is little chance that Wei Wuxian will walk off with that sort of bounce in his steps and not have thorough chaos planned, but as Yi Renshu is also fairly certain it won’t be chaos that ends in any dire demonic cultivation, he decides to leave the matter be, turning inside to prepare for the day.
The discussion with Lan Sizhui takes up the entire morning as well as a sizable portion of the afternoon. Both of them end up having to take their meals in the conference room itself, while still conducting the rest of the meeting. There are the most number of things to discuss with the Head Disciple, since he will be the one leading the hunt, and it will be the juniors that have been under his leadership who will be examined during the course of the nights spent at the cliffs.
After having spent numerous instances in the Blade Tombs alongside the Lan Head Disciple throughout the years, speaking with him comes nearly as easily as speaking with Wei Wuxian. Although they never spent time working strictly alone until now, most likely through observation alone, Lan Sizhui has seen the quieter nature of how Yi Renshu prefers to convey his opinions and suggestions, and the captain’s unavoidably taciturn nature doesn’t seem to unnerve the younger man.
The rays of sunlight have begun to stretch, lowering in the sky, by the time they are finished. Yi Renshu can’t help but crack the muscles of his neck, first bending his head to the right and then towards his left. The aches that are left in his body after sitting for so long are also precisely why he prefers to remain on the field and not within offices.
“Captain Yi,” Lan Sizhui says quietly, abruptly breaking the silence that descended upon them following the conclusion of the meeting. The Head Disciple has begun to gather his things, but his movements have slowed to a pause, eyes solemn as they look at Yi Renshu.
He looks back, intent and waiting, a slight nod of his head to let the other man know that he is listening.
“Captain Yi most likely would not recall, but this disciple has met Captain Yi before—many, many years ago, the first time Captain Yi worked with Hanguang-jun,” Lan Sizhui begins evenly.
“Lan Jingyi informed me,” Yi Renshu says. “It was the first time he saw me, as well.”
“Senior Wei had been gone for ten years, by that point,” Lan Sizhui says, his voice growing even quieter. He continues to meet Yi Renshu’s eyes steadily. “Captain Yi might find it slightly difficult to discern, but Hanguang-jun is fond of him. There aren’t many people who Hanguang-jun will so willingly have so close to Senior Wei. Senior Wei, as well, usually will not become so attached to those Hanguang-jun dislikes. Captain Yi is the sort of person and cultivator whom Hanguang-jun prefers, but—but even then, Hanguang-jun rejected Captain Yi coldly.”
The Head Disciple looks away from him at the end, as if he’s afraid the statement of reality—of simple fact—will offend Yi Renshu in some way. Yi Renshu blinks several times, before inclining his head. He eventually decides on, “It’s understandable,” as an attempt to somehow let Lan Sizhui know that—even if confused why this is being brought up so abruptly, after all these years—Yi Renshu cannot find fault in anything that is merely the truth and nothing less.
Lan Sizhui’s head snaps up, slightly bewildered at Yi Renshu’s words, which in turn, mildly bewilders Yi Renshu. He doesn’t think there’s anything particularly surprising about stating that it is understandable—he understood somewhat then, even if he hadn’t yet received the full context, and he understood further upon Wei Wuxian’s first visit to the Unclean Realm, and the unwitting connection he made with the man as they purified the Stone Castles together.
The Head Disciple seems to shake off a stupor, the determined look regaining itself in his eyes as he straightens up in his seat once more, drawing himself up to a slightly taller height. “Everyone in our clan knows,” Lan Sizhui says, his voice slightly unsteady now, even as he sounds clearly certain to press on, “that Jingyi’s behavior—the way he speaks at times, his actions, his decisions—he’s unlike most of the members of our clan, of our sect.”
Lan Sizhui’s eyebrows pull together, his eyes lowering away from Yi Renshu’s face as the younger man visibly sorts out through the thoughts that seem to be all warring up to be stated at the same time. “He’s my friend,” the Head Disciple finally says, so softly that it is nearly a murmur, and yet the softness of his voice does not belittle the strength of the loyalty in his tone at all. “I know that there are parts of him that are as Lan as Hanguang-jun himself.”
The younger man clearly struggles with what he needs to say next—whatever he wishes to either request of Yi Renshu, or threaten of him, or bring him to promise—whatever those following words might have been, they seem to greatly trouble the Head Disciple. Yi Renshu never once questioned why Lan Jingyi has befriended those he has befriended. In this moment, however, he comprehends all too easily, with simple clarity, why it is this young man in particular who has remained Lan Jingyi’s oldest and dearest friend.
“This captain cannot present Head Disciple with any evidence of his words—nor what he feels for Lan Jingyi,” Yi Renshu says softly, waiting until Lan Sizhui looks back up at him. The younger man’s eyes are as sharp as knives, expression tight and anticipating. “However, this captain still will let Head Disciple know, upon all the graves of the men he has led, that the only way he will part from Lan Jingyi is through either death if not Lan Jingyi’s own behest.”
Lan Sizhui immediately deflates with relief like a lantern whose candle has been blown out. He still appears to be wary of fully believing Yi Renshu’s words, as would anyone with sense and an eye opened to the cruelties of mankind and the world, but it amuses Yi Renshu faintly that a young cultivator so powerful with such eloquent expertise at the deft weaving of words and politics still seems to detest confrontation so much.
“Captain Yi is a good man,” Lan Sizhui says, sounding far more light-hearted now, as he offers the older man a small smile. “Jingyi deserves someone like him. Just—only for this moment, this disciple briefly wished that Captain Yi was not so good. Any other man could’ve been threatened by the mere mention of Hanguang-jun or Senior Wei.”
The snort slips out of Yi Renshu before he even has a prayer of holding it back. He takes comfort in the fact that Lan Sizhui does not look offended, merely surprised. “There is nothing to fear in Hanguang-jun,” he says dismissively, as Lan Sizhui’s mouth drops open. Yi Renshu tilts his head consideringly. “The Yiling Patriarch—this captain needs no reminders,” he says with wry amusement as Lan Sizhui continues to gape at him. “Lan Jingyi is fortunate to be Wei Wuxian’s student.”
He ends up taking dinner with Lan Sizhui as well, Wei Wuxian coming into the spacious conference room to join them with food that actually tastes like food, even as Lan Sizhui gives Yi Renshu a look of utter betrayal as the captain quietly accepts the dishes Wei Wuxian clearly carted in from Caiyi over the tray that the Head Disciple had brought.
All of the attempts he makes at inquiring about Lan Jingyi’s whereabouts are met with crafty evasions (Wei Wuxian) and red-faced spluttering (Lan Sizhui). Tonight will be his last night at Cloud Recesses, and he won’t be able to see Lan Jingyi until the hunt in Qinghe, three weeks from tomorrow. Even though most likely it can’t be helped, he still feels the sting of disappointment at the thought that Lan Jingyi might still be encumbered with obligations until late into the night again.
Lan Sizhui bows them off after the meal is finished, wishing Yi Renshu well until they are to meet again in Qinghe.
Wei Wuxian walks with him back towards the guest quarters, oddly quiet for most of the way. They’ve just left the scattering of central courtyards, passing by the springs and the main pavilion of the sect, when the Yiling Patriarch suddenly faces Yi Renshu with a look so soft, it takes Yi Renshu aback for a moment.
“I told Captain Yi to decide carefully,” Wei Wuxian says, his words heavily loaded with meaning and intent. He looks up at the other man. “Does he regret his decision?”
Yi Renshu pauses in his steps and thinks about dancing, dark eyes and puppy-like smiles, boyish grins and daring laughter. “Master Wei,” he says. “Even the thought of regret has never once crossed this captain’s mind.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t come all the way into the courtyard of the quarters, waving Yi Renshu off with that secretive smile once more at the archway. “Enjoy yourself, Captain,” he says by way of a farewell, leaving Yi Renshu confused, a feeling he has come to know as customary after being in the presence of the Yiling Patriarch.
When Yi Renshu steps through the gates, Lan Jingyi is waiting for him at the end of the courtyard’s stone pathway, directly beside the wooden porch’s lowest step. The glow of the lanterns illuminates his radiant silhouette against the darkening evening sky, and the young man is holding a long, wooden staff with two lanterns of his own hanging from it. Yi Renshu is instantly reminded of their last night together in Yunmeng, when they also took a lantern each in their arms and ventured out into the fields.
Yi Renshu wants to ask the fates if there will ever come a day when he can look at Lan Jingyi and not feel every single one of his few words escape him without any hope at all of ever returning.
As Lan Jingyi catches sight of him, it’s as if the ice over a river melts beneath the persistent spring sun. The way that Lan Jingyi’s features can shift so dramatically from the cold, fatal beauty of an ice fairy to the warm, smiling charms of a forest sprite renders Yi Renshu uselessly speechless for what feels like the hundred-thousandth time since they’ve known each other.
“Jingyi is taking me somewhere?” Yi Renshu says, nodding his head curiously towards the lantern staff.
The younger man seems to be buzzing with both excitement and nerves in equal measure, clinging to the staff like a lifeline. To Yi Renshu’s hopeless eyes, Lan Jingyi radiates more light than both lanterns combined. “I am,” he says, his responding smile also reflecting the bundle eager anxiousness that appears to be winding through him. He steps forward and slips his hand into Yi Renshu’s. The captain intertwines their fingers and squeezes lightly, as Lan Jingyi says quietly, “Come on.”
He takes Yi Renshu down the mountain again, but on a hidden path that leads through the back of Cloud Recesses, through the secluded areas where Yi Renshu is fairly certain Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun’s home is also located. They do not surpass the earth-sky barrier, instead following the trail alongside the Lan Sect’s widely known and celebrated Healing Springs.
The night has grown deep by the time they are surrounded by foresting that is a nearly equal mixture of leafy trees as well as bamboo. Somewhere, in the far distance, Yi Renshu can hear the penultimate bell of the evening, signifying for all Lan disciples to begin retiring to their abodes in time for the final bell of the night. Lan Jingyi shows no signs of having heard it all, continuing to pull Yi Renshu by their joined hands through this forest.
As soon as the path beneath their feet begins to give way to only grass and fallen twigs, Yi Renshu hears the sound of rushing water up ahead. He gives Lan Jingyi a perplexed look when the younger man glances back at him. Lan Jingyi smiles, conspiratory, the excitement glimmering in his eyes, as he tugs Yi Renshu forward at a quicker pace.
Soon, the trees thin out, and then Lan Jingyi is stepping aside so that Yi Renshu can fully take in the sight of the magnificent, grand waterfall presented before him. It is so large that the mist that flows from the falling water reaches all the way to where he and Lan Jingyi stand at the edge of the clearing. Just as well, the stars in the sky above them somehow seem brighter than all those Yi Renshu has seen even over Qinghe’s plains. They are so bright that the lanterns are almost redundant. The sound of the crashing water is nearly overwhelming, and yet the lake that waterfall leads into is so breathtakingly beautiful that it causes the loudness to seem majestic rather than grating.
“The water’s still a little cold now,” Lan Jingyi says, his own eyes taking in the sight with something like fond nostalgia. “Once the summer is really hot, though, it’s nice to swim here. My mother and my aunts would bring us—me, my cousins—we played here before we joined the sect. I managed to take Sizhui once or twice, before we really got too old for it.”
Yi Renshu looks at the young man standing beside him. He looks at the quiet smile on Lan Jingyi’s lips, the few strands of hair that have escaped his intricate, silver hairpieces, the shadows of his lashes cast by the lanterns he has set on the nearby branches. Yi Renshu looks at the way the night breeze causes the ends of Lan Jingyi’s forehead ribbon to flow out behind him, far behind his hair—the way the wind blows back the open outer robe from the younger man’s regal form.
He wonders if he simply hasn’t loved for so long that he’s forgotten the tumultuousness, and pain that he is so certain he once associated with the feeling. He doesn’t remember ever feeling peace—he can’t recall ever having his heart beat with such comfort and certainty in his chest.
Yi Renshu holds Lan Jingyi’s face in one hand, angling it towards him. Lan Jingyi’s breath immediately quickens, the younger man’s eyelids fluttering closed before Yi Renshu has even kissed him.
He doesn’t know if he is imagining it, but Lan Jingyi’s mouth is even warmer tonight, his tongue no longer shy when it slips into Yi Renshu’s mouth. The younger man’s hands curl into the sides of Yi Renshu’s robes, pressing their bodies together as closely as possible. Yi Renshu initiated the kiss with nothing particular in mind, just an overwhelming urge to be wrapped around Lan Jingyi as tightly as possible in this moment. Lan Jingyi, however, is needily gasping into Yi Renshu’s mouth in just the next few moments, arms reaching up to loop around Yi Renshu’s neck.
“Oh—” Lan Jingyi breathes, nearly stumbling back in an effort to pull abruptly away. His expression is already dazed, but he seems to remember something at that moment, blinking in an attempt to refocus himself. His lips are already flushed pink, visible even with only the stars and the lanterns to light this clearing. “I want—I want to give Yi-ge something. Sort of.”
A wrinkle forms between Yi Renshu’s brows. Neither of them is the sort to give gifts—it’s something that they strangely have already discussed, the topic of conversation spontaneously entering one of the nights they drank together in Lanling. He’s only further confused when Lan Jingyi steps back even further from him, taking out his qiankun pouch from within his robes. He holds up his first two fingers in a command over it, and from within the pouch, unfolds a dark, expansive blanket, floating neatly in a perfectly even spread over the grass.
Yi Renshu stares at it, even as Lan Jingyi tucks the pouch back into his robes and folds himself down onto the center of the blanket. The captain does suppose that there could be stranger things than Lan Jingyi’s seeming request of late night picnic beside a gargantuan, hidden waterfall.
Lan Jingyi stares back. “This will be difficult if Yi-ge insists on standing,” he says, patting the space in front of him demandingly. Yi Renshu sighs, amused, and complies.
He’s even more amused when Lan Jingyi reaches back into his robes and emerges with a small vial of what is clearly oil in his hand. A light, teasing quip is on the tip of his tongue when suddenly Lan Jingyi reaches behind his head, and then Yi Renshu feels his smile and his amusement fade as swiftly as the water rushing down from the cliff above them.
Yi Renshu watches, unable to take even a single breath, as Lan Jingyi unties his forehead ribbon, pulling it through his hair carefully and then letting it drape over both of his hands. He slowly holds it out towards Yi Renshu, presenting it to him with a gaze so unguarded, so terribly vulnerable and hopeful all at once. Yi Renshu doesn’t remember how to draw breath—he can’t, for the life of him, remember how breathing works. All he knows how to do in this moment, frozen in time, is to stare as still as a stone statue down at the white ribbon being held out to him.
“Does Yi-ge know what this means?” Lan Jingyi whispers.
Yi Renshu asks, instead of an answer, “Is Jingyi certain?” He wishes his voice didn’t crack so brokenly upon speaking the younger man’s name. He wishes he didn’t sound so hoarse and scared. He wishes his past wasn’t filled with so many scars and heartbreak and that he could present himself anew, uninjured and unwounded, to Lan Jingyi. He wishes to change so many things about himself for Lan Jingyi, and yet, he can’t bring himself to ever refuse the other man anything at all.
Lan Jingyi glances once at Yi Renshu’s eyes, and then he lowers his gaze to the ribbon in his hands as he closes some of the distance between them. Silently, he takes Yi Renshu’s left wrist and lets the ribbon rest beneath it. He speaks as he begins to wind the long, stretch of white silk around Yi Renshu. “Yi-ge probably knows what it stands for, but he might not know that it’s a formality. By the time we let someone untie it for us, by the time we let someone else wear it and touch it, that person has already seen the parts of us that no one else has.”
Yi Renshu cannot look away from the delicate fingertips smoothing over the neat knots that lie pertly against the inside of Yi Renshu’s wrist. The silk is tied snugly around him, unable to be torn and yet with just enough give that Yi Renshu’s blood continues to flow easily to his hand and back. He raises his eyes to meet Lan Jingyi’s gaze again, and then glances to the side indicatively at the vial of oil that lies on the blanket. “Then,” he murmurs, suddenly understanding. “Tonight?”
The smile Lan Jingyi gives him this time is laced with nervousness, but his expression is entirely different from that first night in the Unclean Realm, nearly three months ago now. His eyes are certain and unafraid. Yi Renshu is helpless to do anything but smile back, gently trailing his fingertips over Lan Jingyi’s cheek, into his hair.
“Jingyi should know,” Yi Renshu says, the faint tickle of amusement trickling back into him then. “This is ordinarily better done on a bed.”
The nervousness disappears completely. Lan Jingyi puffs up like a miffed, puppy. “Yi-ge wants me to be ordinary now?”
Yi Renshu’s hand falls away from the younger man’s face, coming instead to touch the white silk bound around his other wrist. He laughs, the second time in the course of only a matter of days. It’s more than he’s laughed in years. “Never,” he says, and he loves him—he loves him, he loves him, he loves him.
Lan Jingyi’s hands are covering his face, arms nearly wrapped over his head like a shield as he tries in vain to steady his breaths at the overwhelming sensation of such a foreign stretch. He listens to Yi Renshu’s soft directions to breathe through it, but Yi Renshu can tell that the younger man’s mind has started to wander, unfocused and distracted by the novelty of the sensation, completely different from Yi Renshu’s tongue and fingers. He also doesn’t take it to heart when Lan Jingyi whines, at one point, under his breath, for Yi Renshu to please be smaller.
“Jingyi knows how to flatter,” Yi Renshu says, the strain in his own voice still satisfyingly able to hold up enough sarcasm to pull a breathless, pained laugh out of the younger man. He lets Lan Jingyi’s legs rest on their own atop Yi Renshu’s shoulders, and brings his own hands down to gently wrap around Lan Jingyi’s wrists, bringing them away from his face and looping around Yi Renshu’s neck.
Lan Jingyi’s face is red from exertion, his own cock long since grown soft between his thighs from the discomfort. His damp hair sticks to the skin of his chest and throat and face from perspiration. Yi Renshu watches him softly for a moment, turning his head to press distracting kisses against Lan Jingyi’s arm, then his knee, his calf, the inside of his elbow. When he feels Lan Jingyi relaxing again, he pushes in the rest of the way, slowly, murmurs of Lan Jingyi to breathe, exhale, to look at Yi Renshu and nothing else.
Lan Jingyi has his head tipped back nearly all the way, eyes wide open, mouth stretched to accommodate the harshness of his breathing. “I can feel you in my throat,” he says, weakly, somewhere between awed and pained. “How does Senior Wei do this all the time?”
“If Jingyi mentions Master Wei again,” Yi Renshu says, not knowing whether he’s about to laugh or thoroughly lose his tenuous restraint from being inside the younger man’s nearly suffocating, sweltering heat, “then this captain really will get smaller.”
“Then I should definitely mention him again,” Lan Jingyi jokes faintly, and he’s loosening again just enough for Yi Renshu to move slightly, aiming around while closely watching Lan Jingyi’s expression and the pacing of his breaths. Yi Renshu carefully adjusts his angle, and he’s rewarded at that very moment with Lan Jingyi seizing up as if a hand has closed over his lungs. Lan Jingyi’s cock suddenly twitches with interest, as if considering rejoining the proceedings.
“There we are,” Yi Renshu murmurs, as Lan Jingyi looks up at him in such startled wonder that, again, the captain finds himself laughing easily—as if it’s something he’s been doing for all these years.
Lan Jingyi’s legs fall from Yi Renshu’s shoulders, coming instead to rest around Yi Renshu’s waist. He feels the younger man lock his ankles at the small of Yi Renshu’s back, drawing him in closer even as Lan Jingyi’s expression still borders somewhere between pain and pleasure. “Slowly,” Lan Jingyi whispers, “again.”
Yi Renshu kisses each of Lan Jingyi’s nipples before mouthing his way up to the younger man’s lips. “Of course,” he says softly, and when Lan Jingyi cries out at the first thrust, Yi Renshu captures the sound in a kiss equal parts heady and soothing.
He sets out for Qinghe on his seventh and last morning in Cloud Recesses.
Lan Jingyi is the only one there, once again, at the entrance to see him off. The junior disciples on shift this time would have been those under Lan Sizhui’s jurisdiction, but apparently, they too were told by the Head Disciple to spend the morning meditating or catching up on their studies instead. Lan Jingyi stands perfectly fine, walking perfectly fine as well, even after Yi Renshu carried him late in the night to make their way back to Yi Renshu’s quarters before any of the night shift Healers or guarding disciples had seen them.
The younger man was easily able to jump and skip and flounce around as he always did after slathering over his waist and backside copious amounts of a salve that he only explained to Yi Renshu as something that he pilfered away from his cousin. “This is probably how Senior Wei does it all the time,” Lan Jingyi intoned wisely as Yi Renshu stared at the ceiling.
Here, at the entryway with the shimmering barrier only paces behind them, Lan Jingyi now brings forth a white jade token from inside his robes. The one in his hands is identical to the one that hangs from Lan Jingyi’s waist—identical to the one that Yi Renshu has seen on Wei Wuxian’s belt as well.
Yi Renshu frowns, even as he allows the younger man to add it to the other protection charms that dangle from the captain’s belt. “I don’t live here,” he says, confused.
“I live here,” Lan Jingyi says, in a tone that makes it perfectly clear what he thinks of Yi Renshu’s intelligence at this very moment. “Besides, Jin Guangyao had one, too, and I think Yi-ge is at least more trustworthy than him.”
That, Yi Renshu doesn’t argue with because Lan Jingyi has made a rather fair point. He holds the cool, white jade in his hand, thumb tracing over the engravings absently, before he lets it fall back against the folds of his robes and the ridges of his armor. He meets Lan Jingyi’s eyes. The younger man looks so pleased at the sight of the token on Yi Renshu’s belt that Yi Renshu thinks he would be willing to carry a solid, jade statue the size of a man all the way back to Qinghe if it would make Lan Jingyi smile like that.
“Well?” Lan Jingyi says then, stepping forward and tilting his face up expectantly.
Yi Renshu breathes out a quiet laugh, taking Lan Jingyi’s face in both of his hands and pressing his lips first to the ribbon tied across the younger man’s forehead. He leans down slightly next, and kisses Lan Jingyi open-mouthed and fervent. “I’ll see you in Qinghe,” he whispers against the other man’s lips, pulling away reluctantly.
There is an unwillingness in Lan Jingyi’s eyes as well, as he paces backwards slightly to give Yi Renshu room to unsheathe his sword. Yet, his grin is still so blindingly bright, even as he slowly lets go of the captain. “Go on,” Lan Jingyi says, lightly pushing at Yi Renshu to step onto his sword. “I need to have a letter written and sent to Mistress Sect Leader before the morning is over.”
Yi Renshu blinks curiously at the suddenly smug expression on Lan Jingyi’s face. Shengxie begins to rise into the air. “Did something urgent happen?” he asks, hovering slightly, at just enough distance to still be able to speak to the younger man.
“Nothing that concerns Yi-ge,” Lan Jingyi replies breezily, waving his hand, motioning for Yi Renshu to take off. “Now, hurry—before Yi-ge misses me too much to leave.”
Yi Renshu shakes his head, the exasperation and amusement overtaken thoroughly by adoration. He gives a last smile down at those enchanting dark eyes, and then turns himself away on his sword before he indeed is unable to bring himself to leave.