One of the benefits to living alone, Lan Xichen supposes, is that there’s no one to know if he doesn’t completely unpack between business trips.
It’s not a problem, exactly. It’s efficient, probably. It’s convenient, at the very least, when all he has to do is pull down his carry-on and check the toiletries. He’s going to be gone for a week, this time, so some of them need to be replaced. He swaps out the half-empty bottles for full ones, chooses a selection of conference-appropriate clothes, and checks to make sure his laptop, charging cables, and passport are in his shoulder-bag. He’s got this down to a science by now; the whole process takes less than twenty minutes and then he’s checking in for his flight on his phone.
The phone buzzes in his hand as he’s downloading his boarding pass. Wei Wuxian, the notification reads. Lan Xichen finishes checking in before he opens it. Wei Wuxian rarely texts him, let alone so late at night; it might be important, might be about Wangji -
>WWX: This isn’t about Lan Zhan, so stop worrying, the first message reads, and Lan Xichen relaxes. He’s about to close the messaging app - it’s late, and his flight is early - when the next text rolls up.
>WWX: This is about you, and I can see that you’re reading this because you never turn off read receipts no matter how many times I tell you to.
Lan Xichen huffs. His brother-in-law has - opinions about texting. Among other things.
The next message is the login credentials for an unfamiliar email account. Lan Xichen pauses, unsure what he’s supposed to do with this information, but Wei Wuxian is still typing.
>WWX: You’ll need something to do on your flight tomorrow. Check this out.
That’s just ambiguous enough to be concerning, but Lan Xichen needs to get to sleep if he’s going to be at all rested for tomorrow. Wei Wuxian may be impulsive, but his whims are seldom truly harmful. Embarrassing for everyone involved, sometimes, but Lan Xichen can weather a little bit of embarrassment. Whatever this is, it can wait.
He closes the app, and plugs his phone in to charge. His phone buzzes one more time as he’s preparing for bed, and Lan Xichen checks it one more time as he’s turning off the lights.
>WWX: Leaving me on read? That’s cold, Zewu-Jun. Have a good trip.
Lan Xichen smiles, and puts the phone down. He turns the last light off and gets into bed. As he’s drifting off to sleep, he wonders if perhaps he should have checked the email after all; but Wei Wuxian had indicated that he intended Lan Xichen to look at this on the plane. Lan Xichen can indulge him in this.
Besides, it’s nice to have something to look forward to.
Seven Days Left
The reason Wei Wuxian had told him to look at this on the plane, Lan Xichen realizes, is that Lan Xichen will find it difficult to murder him from cruising altitude.
Lan Xichen draws a deep breath and deliberately loosens his grip on this phone. Wangji will be upset if Lan Xichen is unduly harsh with his husband, although surely Wangji wouldn’t have condoned this, couldn’t have known -
It hardly matters. The damage has been done; the only question is how Lan Xichen is going to deal with the mess.
The email account is only a few days old, but there are already several messages in the inbox. The first is from Wei Wuxian’s personal email, and reads simply “I hope I don’t need to tell you to change the passwords on these.” That is easily dealt with. The next two messages are not.
Confirmation of registration. Account profile completion. Lan Xichen breathes deliberately in and out and taps to open the profile, to see what his brother-in-law has done to him.
Lan Xichen doesn’t have a lot of experience with dating profiles - who has the time, really; he certainly doesn’t - but this one is...not terrible. There are only a few pictures and they’re - respectable, Lan Xichen is relieved to see. Business-like. In fact - Lan Xichen enlarges one of them, squinting as it turns blurry. It’s hard to see through the pixelation, but he’s fairly sure these are the promotional photos Marketing and Communications had insisted be taken at the satellite campus opening ceremony. The list of hobbies is exhaustively long and seems to cover every activity Wei Wuxian can imagine a human indulging in, including some - [fill in later]? Really? - that Lan Xichen doesn’t understand.
Nothing too embarrassing here, except for the existence of the profile itself, which has Lan Xichen’s name and face plastered all over it.
Lan Xichen puts his phone carefully down and leans back against the headrest, closing his eyes and concentrating on his breathing. He knows that Wangji and Wei Wuxian are wholly, ridiculously in love - this much is obvious to anyone who spends any time in their proximity - and he wishes them the best, he really does. And of course he would like, someday, to find something resembling that happiness for himself. This was well-intentioned. Lan Xichen has no doubt that Wei Wuxian got his share of amusement out of it, but he wouldn’t have done this out of malice.
Good intentions, however, won’t save Lan Xichen from the indignity of having his photo splashed all over the internet when he’s not even looking, not really. He doesn’t have the time, for one thing; there was the merger with Qinghe not too long ago, and then there’s the ongoing business with Qishan, and then -
All right. Perhaps he works - more hours than the average. Wei Wuxian could have just said so.
“You need a life, Zewu-Jun.” He can practically hear his brother-in-law’s voice. Wei Wuxian’s judgement is rarely in error when it matters. Lan Xichen will think on it.
This profile, however, is getting deleted. Lan Xichen opens his eyes and picks his phone back up, navigating to the Account Settings screen on the dating website.
As he does, an alert pops up at the bottom of the screen: New Match.
Lan Xichen pauses.
It’s not - he shouldn’t look. He’s going to delete this profile. It serves nothing to look.
His finger hovers over “Delete Account” for one long breath, and then drifts down to tap on “New Match.”
It’s fine. He is going to delete this profile, so it doesn’t matter if he looks at who he’s been matched with. No one will know; he’s curious, that’s all, and curiosity is no sin -
Oh. Oh dear.
Lan Xichen has never had a problem with flying before, but he feels a little light-headed now as he gazes down at the face that sits across from him at executive team meetings, that passes him in the hall with a polite nod, that’s often the only office with a light still on when Lan Xichen leaves in the evening. Nie Mingjue had come to Gusu as part of the Qinghe merger, and had settled quite comfortably into the role of Chief Technology Officer. He’s serious and driven, and Lan Xichen would be lying if he said he didn’t appreciate both the work ethic and the face; but he never expected to see that face here.
Lan Xichen drums the fingers of his free hand on the armrest as he thumbs through Nie Mingjue’s profile. This is - in some ways this profile is very similar to the one Wei Wuxian had put together for him. The list of hobbies is shorter but just as eclectic, and the few pictures could have been easily drawn from the web.
Lan Xichen knows what this is only because he’s heard Wei Wuxian talk about it. Catfishing, he thinks it’s called. And because they work at the same company, his own profile probably looks like a good target.
He should tell Nie Mingjue. It would be the polite thing to do, to let him know that his likeness is being used improperly. Lan Xichen would certainly want to know, in his position.
But...Lan Xichen pauses, his thumb hovering over the company email app. He would have to explain where he saw the profile, how he came to be there. That would be...awkward at best, and at worst, not something he wants to commit to the company record.
He can wait on this. He has seven days before he’s back at Gusu; seven days before he can address the matter discreetly, in person, as it should be.
In a roundabout way, Lan Xichen supposes, he should perhaps thank Wei Wuxian for bringing this to his attention. He can picture clearly the gleeful grin on his brother-in-law’s face; he will be disappointed but not terribly surprised, Lan Xichen imagines, that his “plan” didn’t pan out, but he will shrug and move on, message delivered.
Speaking of -
There’s a direct message already waiting for him, from “Nie Mingjue.”
He doesn’t need to read it. He won’t read it. It’s enough to know that this false account exists, he doesn’t need to engage with it.
The plane’s intercom dings, and a flight attendant announces that in preparation for descent, the in-flight wifi is being turned off, passenger please return to your seats...Lan Xichen tunes the rest out. He swipes the dating website closed and tucks his phone away. Tomorrow he has lunch and dinner already scheduled with business contacts, and in the days to come he’s speaking on not one but two panels. He has notes to prepare, colleagues to greet, networking to do. He doesn’t have time for this.
Seven days. He can think about it then.
Six Days Left
Lan Xichen makes it exactly twenty-two hours and seventeen minutes before he pulls out his phone and looks at the message from “Nie Mingjue.”
He tells himself that it’s just good sense; if he doesn’t respond, the person behind the fake profile might delete it and move on, and then what would he tell Nie Mingjue when he got back? “I saw your picture being used online, but it’s gone now?” Better to keep this person engaged, to keep them talking until Nie Mingjue can take proper action. He could report it as a fraudulent account, maybe even track this person’s IP address, make sure they don’t do this to someone else -
That’s what he tells himself, anyway, as he opens up the website again and taps on “New Message.”
>NMJ: Hi, is all it reads, and Lan Xichen laughs a little at himself as he makes his way through the convention center halls, crowded with pre-conference attendees.
He doesn’t know what he expected. A poem? A declaration? He’s not sure - but this succinct message, while very in-character for Nie Mingjue, is nevertheless somehow a bit of a disappointment. He nearly puts his phone away right then, but somehow his fingers skim over the keyboard instead, typing out of reply.
>LXC: Hello. It’s not poetry, either, but it’s all he can think of in the moment. And he’s not trying to strike up a relationship, anyway - he’s just trying to...minimally engage.
He stares at the screen for a minute or two, but there’s no immediate reply. Of course there isn’t. This person probably has multiple accounts to tend to, they wouldn’t have “Nie Mingjue’s” profile up and waiting -
His phone buzzes and Lan Xichen blinks.
>NMJ: Was beginning to think you weren’t going to respond.
Lan Xichen’s footsteps slow.
He checks the time. He has a decent amount before the next session; time enough to take care of this, anyway, so he drifts toward the wall, taking himself out of the pedestrian path.
>LXC: I almost didn’t. It’s nothing but the truth, and he should probably stick to the truth as much as he can.
>NMJ: What changed your mind?
Lan Xichen pauses for one long moment, and then another. He doesn’t - he doesn’t know how to answer that without saying something he doesn’t mean, or that would give himself away.
His phone buzzes again.
>NMJ: Never mind. I’m glad you did.
Lan Xichen types and erases the next reply three times before he gets it right.
>LXC: I have to go, but this conversation doesn’t need to end. Until later?
The answer comes almost immediately.
>NMJ: I’ll be waiting.
“We’ll see,” Lan Xichen murmurs to himself as he closes the website. After a moment of hesitation, he downloads the associated app to his phone; the app claims to offer more privacy settings, including the option to erase conversations. If he’s going to do this, he wants as little record as possible.
He ignores the vague feeling that he doesn’t need to do this; he’s looking out for a colleague, that’s all. That’s all it has to be. That’s all it will be, he reminds himself. Lan Xichen pockets his phone and rejoins the flow of foot traffic, nodding as a someone he vaguely knows from Lanling raises a hand in greeting. There’s little use in becoming invested, he knows; this person on the other side of the messages is not Nie Mingjue.
As long as he remembers that, this will all be fine.
Five Days Left
The day the conference opens is busy, busy enough to keep Lan Xichen occupied and mostly off of his phone. Keynote address, greeting colleagues, seeing and being seen; there’s always enough on the first day to leave anyone winded, and Lan Xichen finds himself in the afternoon before he knows it.
He pulls out his phone as he’s leaving the last session of the day. No new messages, but Lan Xichen had implied that he would make the next move. Perhaps it is time that he did.
>LXC: What made you open this profile? I hardly expected to see your face here.
Hopefully that’s not too suspicious. Lan Xichen pockets the phone on his way to a nearby cafe that had come highly recommended. Before he’s even made it out of the convention center, his phone buzzes in his pocket.
>NMJ: I could say the same.
All right. Fairly done. Before he can think of an appropriate response a new message scrolls up.
>NMJ: It’s a long, fairly stupid story. Not important. How are you?
Lan Xichen takes a deep breath of non-HVAC air as he steps outside the convention center doors, attempting to center himself. He’s a good conversationalist under most circumstances, but he seems to be perpetually off-balance here, with this person who isn’t who he says he is.
>LXC: Busy, as usual. You?
Not his best effort; but, he reminds himself, he’s not supposed to be putting in an effort. This is not Nie Mingjue, however much he might like it to be.
That thought pulls him up short on the sidewalk. He doesn’t - he doesn’t want this to be Nie Mingjue. Does he? Nie Mingjue is certainly no hardship to look at, and he’s one of the most competent people Lan Xichen has ever had the pleasure of working with, and -
His phone vibrates again before he can go too much farther down that track, and he looks down.
>NMJ: Same. One of our c-suite is out at conference, leaving the rest of the work for us.
Lan Xichen pauses before the cafe. That’s - is that supposed to be him? His calendar isn’t public…
Except that it is, he realizes. His name is listed in several places as a speaker on the conference website; a quick web search could have pulled that up. In any case, that’s a generic enough statement that it could apply to anyone, anywhere - just like a horoscope, vague enough that the recipient can read what they want into it.
This person really knows what they’re doing. Lan Xichen sighs.
>LXC: Sounds like you have more than enough to keep you busy then. Should I leave you be?
>NMJ: No, no. This is a nice distraction.
It is, Lan Xichen realizes. Even if it’s completely artificial, it’s...nice, to have a friendly conversation that doesn’t completely revolve around work.
Maybe Wei Wuxian is right. Maybe he really does need to get out of the office more.
Lan Xichen thinks on that as he’s seated at the cafe, as the waiter takes his order. He exchanges a few more messages - meaningless small talk, trivialities about the weather, about the incompetence of coworkers. Lan Xichen keeps it light and generic, and each time he sends a response he tells himself it will be the last; but when his entree is placed before him, he even goes so far as to snap a picture and send it.
>NMJ: If you’re trying to make me jealous, it’s working.
Lan Xichen smiles.
>LXC: Not trying.
>NMJ: Succeeding nevertheless.
It’s - fun, in a way Lan Xichen realizes he has far too little of in his life. It won’t hurt anything. He can just say he didn’t realize this person’s true identity until later.
Nothing wrong with playing along, with pretending this is his life - at least for a little while.
Four Days Left
Lan Xichen is pulled out of a dream he doesn’t quite remember - something about large hands and a deep voice, something pleasant - by the buzzing of his phone on the nightstand. He rolls himself over and gropes sleepily for it, pulling up the notification.
>NMJ: It would be nice if people were competent at the job they were hired for.
And then, seconds later:
>NMJ: Shit. Timezones. Sorry if I woke you.
Lan Xichen yawns and sits up.
>LXC: It’s fine. My alarm was about to go off anyway. It’s almost true; Lan Xichen has trained himself to wake up at 5 am regardless of an alarm, but explaining that doesn’t seem fruitful. What happened?
>NMJ: It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.
>NMJ: Well, it’s not nothing, but I don’t need to bother you about it. Go back to sleep. I’ll talk to you later.
Lan Xichen lets himself fall back against the pillows, and in the early morning with the sun barely creeping in past the curtains, it’s easy to let himself imagine those words in Nie Mingjue’s voice, deep with irritation and barely concealed scorn. Nie Mingjue doesn’t have a lot of patience for employees who don’t live up to his high standards, it’s true; the turnover rate in his department is a bit higher than average, but the personnel he does retain are of excellent quality. Lan Xichen has never felt that it was his place to dictate how another CO ran his department, especially when Nie Mingjue produces such excellent results quarter after quarter. Nie Mingjue has never come to him about personnel issues, but if he closes his eyes Lan Xichen can picture it clearly: Nie Mingjue tall and broad as he shuts Lan Xichen’s office door behind him, the strong lines of his face creased in irritation and his shoulders tight with tension.
What does it say about him, Lan Xichen wonders as he opens his eyes, that his daydreams involve corporate personnel matters.
He sighs as the angle of the sun shifts; he won’t be able to get back to sleep at this time, so he pushes himself back up and slides out of bed. No sense in worrying about things that haven’t happened, or won’t happen; he can daydream about Nie Mingjue all he likes, but he knows very well that a dream is all it is.
He doesn’t receive any more messages that day. He’s kept busy enough himself that it’s late in the afternoon before he connects the vague, unsatisfied feeling in his gut to the “No New Messages” every time he opens the dating app.
Nie Mingjue will - he will probably receive a new message tomorrow, Lan Xichen corrects himself. He’s lived all of his life without this. He can wait another day.
Three Days Left
Lan Xichen’s work email is predictably full every time he checks it, despite his “Out of Office” auto-response, so he sets aside some time each morning to forward what he can delegate and answer what he can’t.
This morning, he has an email from Nie Mingjue. The real Nie Mingjue.
Lan Xichen pauses before he opens it. There’s no reason for his heart to pick up; Nie Mingjue has no idea what he’s been doing, what he’s been thinking. They’re colleagues, work associates. Nothing more. He opens the email before he can think too hard about it.
It’s straightforward and to the point, like all of Nie Mingjue’s correspondence. The draft of the next quarterly report is locked to Lan Xichen’s profile, and one of the other COs is requesting it for review - does Nie Mingjue have permission to retrieve it?
Lan Xichen sighs. Nie Mingjue doesn’t have to say it, but he suspects Gusu will be looking for a new head of Legal very soon. Lan Xichen had in fact emailed the draft to all the COs, but he has no doubt that it was accidentally - or purposefully - deleted. As Chief Technology Officer, Nie Mingjue is certainly capable of retrieving any erroneously deleted emails; however this request is just maliciously compliant enough to be a stalling tactic against an overbearing colleague, and Lan Xichen is not above playing along.
Of course, Lan Xichen writes back, including the file path. Whatever you need.
He pauses over that last sentence but hits Send anyway. It’s just professional enough to slip by without letting Nie Mingjue know just how literally Lan Xichen might meant it; plausible deniability is a wonderful thing.
Later that afternoon his phone vibrates in his pocket and Lan Xichen tries not to pull it out too hastily; he cannot, however, stop the smile that spreads across his face when he sees a new notification on the dating app. He’s supposed to spend the afternoon in a session on corporate accountability; instead he spends it in the central pavilion, sitting in the shade and exchanging increasingly inane messages about everything from the food here - delicious, but not what he’s used to - to the last movie he saw. Here Lan Xichen dates himself horribly, but - who has the time anymore?
He should really make time, he thinks with an ache in his chest as he hits Send on that last message. Even if it’s not with Nie Mingjue, he should - he should spend more time with Wangji and Wei Wuxian, with Uncle and the other relationships he’s been neglecting. He’s become...very isolated over these last few years, he realizes.
He reluctantly signs off when his phone reminds him that he has dinner reservations with a Jiang representative. It won’t be terrible, but it’s not what he wants to be doing, and when was the last time he could say that?
Two Days Left
Five days in and Lan Xichen is finding it harder and harder to keep his mind on the sessions he’s supposed to be attending. Conference fatigue, most likely; it makes it very easy, at any rate, to pull out his phone as a Q&A panel opens with “not really a question, more of an observation…” He’s not the only one in the audience with a device out, which makes him feel a little less impolite. Plausibly, he could be taking notes; in reality he’s swiping open the dating app and checking for new messages.
It’s the third time today he’s done so, and it’s not even lunchtime.
He’s fine. This is fine. He’ll talk to Nie Mingjue about it when he gets back, just as he’s always planned -
But for the first time, that thought strikes an uneasy chord in Lan Xichen’s gut. This person that he’s been conversing with hasn’t hurt him in any way, hasn’t done anything - except make Lan Xichen laugh when he can feel his smile start to strain around the edges from exhaustion, except give him something to look forward to during a long week of smiling and shaking hands and being the face of Gusu.
It seems suddenly - poor form to repay that with possibly punitive action. And yet - he can’t let this person continue to impersonate someone Lan Xichen works with, someone he respects, someone he might even admire very much.
He has two days left. He’ll - he’ll figure something out then.
One Day Left
The last day of the conference dawns bright and clear, and Lan Xichen gives up trying to sleep. He’s managed to get two, maybe three hours altogether over the night but for the most part sleep had eluded him, as evidenced by the crumpled sheets he leaves behind.
A hot shower and hotter tea revive him somewhat, and to be completely fair most of the conference attendees who have lasted this long aren’t in much better shape; however none of them, he imagines, spent the night trying to choose between an imaginary relationship and an obligation to someone he respects. That he’s even struggling with the choice at all is reflective, Lan Xichen thinks, of how tangled up his head has become.
The last day mercifully ends early. Lan Xichen dutifully attends the closing speaker’s address, although he doesn’t take in much of what is said. A farewell dinner with a colleague takes him into the evening, and although his dinner partner assures him the food is excellent Lan Xichen can’t remember what it had tasted like after he leaves the restaurant. The evening air is cool and soothing, and Lan Xichen draws in deep, centering breaths as he makes his way back to his hotel.
He hasn’t checked his phone all day, beyond a few cursory glances at his company email. He’s been deliberately ignoring the climbing notification count on the dating app, and his phone weighs unusually heavy in his pocket as the elevator deposits him on his floor. Lan Xichen locks the room’s door behind himself, hangs his coat carefully, makes sure his bag is packed except for what he’ll need tomorrow morning, and when he can put it off no longer he settles on the bed and pulls out his phone.
Six messages waiting. A good morning greeting that leaves Lan Xichen vaguely regretful that he’d missed it, a few anecdotes about the day, one picture of a sunset - that could have been pulled from anywhere, Lan Xichen reminds himself - and finally just:
>NMJ: Let me know when you’re free.
He shouldn’t feel any kind of guilt, Lan Xichen reminds himself. He had been busy. If he had also spent every minute of the day thinking about Nie Ming- about this person, then that’s nobody’s business but his own.
>LXC: Apologies, he sends, then lingers over the next sentence. I was busy seems too trite, but I didn’t have time isn’t exactly true, and I missed our conversation seems a little too real -
While he’s thinking it over, a response rolls up.
>NMJ: No need. I know you’re busy.
Lan Xichen blows out a sigh. He doesn’t know where to go from here; he’s felt this kind of indecision very few times in his life, and he can’t say that he enjoys it.
>NMJ: What’s next on the agenda for you?
Lan Xichen can’t help but smile.
>LXC: Nothing, for the moment. A quiet evening.
>NMJ: Enjoying it, I hope?
>LXC: Mostly just thinking too hard.
>NMJ: What about?
Lan Xichen pauses, but he’s tired and his fingers tap three letters and then hit Send without his apparent permission.
There’s a long pause, and Lan Xichen wishes that he could un-send that message - but he also feels like this isn’t really happening, like he’s occupying a strange space without consequences. He knows that’s not true, but it’s with an unusual ferocity that he wishes it could be. That he could have this.
Still no response, and Lan Xichen thinks that perhaps that was too much, too bold even for this ephemeral relationship -
>NMJ: In what way?
Lan Xichen stops breathing.
He slowly and deliberately tabs over to the account settings, double-checking the privacy settings. In-app messaging only. Messages erased after 24 hours; he takes it down to six. No screenshots permitted. He confirms the settings one by one; then, and only then, does he tab back over to the conversation and tap out his reply:
>LXC: In what way would you like?
He feels light-headed; he reminds himself to breathe, but that airy, floaty feeling doesn’t fade even as he draws breath into his lungs. He knows the configuration changes he made will be visible on the other side of this conversation; his meaning will be unmistakable. Each second seems to stretch into an eternity, even as it seems no time at all before the next message rolls up:
>NMJ: I would like quite a bit, Zewu-Jun.
Lan Xichen’s breath hitches in his lungs. It’s the first time he’s been called by name in this conversation; certainly he’s been addressed by that title by colleagues and acquaintances over the last several days, but to imagine it from Nie MIngjue’s mouth, that deep voice rolling over the syllables in this context…
Lan Xichen settles more comfortably on the bed.
>LXC: Tell me more.
>NMJ: What do you want to hear?
Lan Xichen pauses in the midst of undoing his belt buckle. That’s a loaded question, even if unknowingly so, but in the end there is only one answer.
There’s a short pause, and then the messages start rolling in.
>NMJ: I want to know if that mouth of yours tastes as good as it looks.
>NMJ: I want to press you up against your office door and kiss you until my hands are the only thing holding you up.
>NMJ: I want to know what my name sounds like when it’s the only thing you remember.
“Fuck,” Lan Xichen gasps out, one hand already in his pants. He draws himself out, already half-hard as the messages keep coming, filthy and sweet by turn (or sometimes both). He licks his palm and strokes himself; it’s less lubrication than he prefers, but he’s not about to get up and go find some. Anyway the tension already coiling in his gut and the flush he can feel spreading throughout his body don’t seem to care, and he leans back into the pillows and just lets himself enjoy it.
His phone buzzes again:
>NMJ: Are you touching yourself?
Lan Xichen’s cheeks burn, but he types out the Yes one-handed.
>LXC: And you?
>NMJ: What do you think?
Before he can think of a suitable reply to that, a picture message pops up and Lan Xichen nearly drops his phone.
It’s - a pretty nice dick, as dicks go. Just because he hasn’t been up close with one in a while doesn’t mean that Lan Xichen has lost his appreciation, and he makes an involuntary noise as his grip on himself tightens. It’s really a very nice dick; Lan Xichen strokes himself and imagines that the large hand wrapped around it is the one touching him. His toes curl against the bed and he shifts his hips, curling up so he can thrust into his fist.
His phone vibrates again.
>NMJ: Are you close? >NMJ: Tell me you’re close.
He is, Lan Xichen is surprised to find; he doesn’t know if he’s gotten off this quickly since he was a teenager, but he can feel the familiar tightness starting deep in his gut, and he’s almost there, almost -
>NMJ: I want you to come for me.
Lan Xichen gasps as that tension snaps all at once, arching his spine and digging his heels into the bed. He hears a sound almost like a sob and realizes that it’s coming from his own throat; his dick jerks in his hand and he doesn’t even care that these slacks are almost certainly ruined, because he hasn’t come this hard in years.
He forces his eyelids back open - he doesn’t remember closing them - and lifts his phone, lazily typing as he wipes his hand on the side of his pants. They’re a lost cause, anyway. After a moment’s thought, he zooms in one of the wet spots and snaps a photo.
>LXC: I’m sending the dry-cleaning bill to you.
Lan Xichen smiles and lets his eyes drift close again. He can just about imagine it: at this point in the day, Nie Mingjue would be at home already. Perhaps he wears just sleep-pants to bed; perhaps he sleeps only in boxers. This is his imagination, Lan Xichen decides; boxers it is. Propped up against the headboard, boxers pushed down around his hips and that handsome dick in hand -
It’s a very pretty fantasy, Lan Xichen thinks, opening his eyes. But that’s all it is.
His phone buzzes again, and Lan Xichen is suddenly loathe to check it, to leave this perfect bubble where tomorrow isn’t real and he can have what he wants.
He lifts the phone anyway.
>NMJ: Fuck, that was good.
>NMJ: You’re getting back tomorrow, right? I’ll pick you up at the airport.
Lan Xichen frowns at his phone. Had he said he was on a business trip? He hadn’t thought so - but, he remembers, this person has probably already gleaned his attendance here from the speaker list on the conference website. It’s no secret, that he’s here; and neither is it a huge leap to assume he’ll be flying back tomorrow.
He almost sends back Don’t - don’t trouble yourself; don’t make this more difficult; don’t ruin this perfect, fleeting fantasy. Any or all of the above.
>LXC: All right, he says instead.
He pushes himself up and off the bed, leaving his phone lying on the coverlet. The first few steps are pleasantly shaky, but his stride evens out as he reaches the bathroom.
This always had to come to an end, he tells himself as he starts cleaning himself up. Either tomorrow he’ll be accosted by a stranger at the airport, or he’ll be stood up; neither prospect sounds appealing, although the longer he thinks about it the more he prefers the second. Better that they never meet, better that he never has to look this person in the eye and tell them that nothing they had together was real. That he had spent the whole time pretending - hoping - they were someone else.
The thought leaves a bitter taste in his mouth, even after he brushes his teeth. He leaves plugging in his phone for last as he gets ready for bed, avoiding looking at the screen. When he finally comes to it, there’s one last message.
>NMJ: Looking forward to it.
Lan Xichen sighs, and sets the phone down. I’m not.
But it serves nothing to send it, so Lan Xichen leaves that thought unvoiced. Sleep is pulling at his muscles, and his head is starting to ache.
Tomorrow will come soon enough, and he will face it then. At least while he’s asleep he doesn’t have to think.
Zero Days Left
Lan Xichen braces himself as his plane comes to a stop at the gate. The flight had been smooth and uneventful; it’s what’s waiting for him on the other side of the terminal that worries him.
He’s run out of time to pretend. Time to let go of the fantasy.
He retrieves his bag and makes his way slowly through the crowd of travelers; he’s spent the whole flight trying to think of what to say, how to react if he’s approached by a stranger in these halls, but for once an easy reponse has eluded him. A young man he doesn’t recognize stands and waves, face brightening as Lan Xichen nears the passenger pickup. Lan Xichen’s shoulders tense; he doesn’t know how to approach this, he doesn’t know what to say -
A young woman bushes past him from behind, throwing herself into the young man’s arms and letting her suitcase spin behind her. Lan Xichen relaxes, feeling his smile settle into more natural lines. He’s too on edge; no one’s approached him, and as he looks around the dispersing crowd in Arrivals, no one attempts to catch his eye or even appears to be paying him any attention at all.
Lan Xichen stops by a readerboard displaying flight information and pulls out his phone. No new messages.
He puts his phone away slowly, not sure if the feeling spreading through his gut is relief or disappointment or both. Looks like the person’s nerve failed them, after all - and it’s for the best, really. Now Lan Xichen can clear his message history, delete his profile and the dating app from his phone, and approach Nie Mingjue with a more or less clear conscience -
A large hand comes down on his shoulder, and a deep voice says, “Sorry I’m late.”
Lan Xichen’s breath stops in his lungs.
Very slowly, he turns. The hand is connected to a muscled, well-defined arm leading to broad shoulders. He’s in more casual dress than Lan Xichen’s ever seen him wear but that’s really the least important detail here because this is Nie Mingjue, in the flesh, grinning wide at Lan Xichen like he’s expected, like anything at all about this is expected.
“Oh,” he hears himself say faintly, as if from a long distance. “You’re here.”
Nie Mingjue’s brow goes slightly puzzled. “Where else should I be?”
“You’re here,” Lan Xichen repeats slightly more insistently, and perhaps someday he’ll recover his faculties enough to say more than those two words, but time is not on his side.
Nie Mingjue’s hand slips from his shoulder. “Were you expecting someone else?”
“No. Yes. I think -” Lan Xichen swallows. “I think I might need to sit down.”
Fortunately there’s a bench not too far from where they’re standing, and Nie Mingjue trails behind him as Lan Xichen sinks gratefully down. He would put his head between his knees if he thought it would help; everything seems to be moving in slow motion but his mind is racing, reliving the past week and fitting everything into a new, terrifying shape -
Lan Xichen puts his hand over his mouth. He had said those things - to -
He looks up. Nie Mingjue is hovering awkwardly in front of him, looking like he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. This meeting is clearly not going to the way he had planned; in fairness, Lan Xichen is feeling wildly off-script as well.
“Did you -” Nie Mingjue clears his throat and tries again. “When I offered to pick you up, I thought -”
“Chifeng-Zun.” Lan Xichen doesn’t like to interrupt people but he doesn’t think he can bear to hear Nie Mingjue stumble his way through this. Nie Mingjue seems a little taken aback by the formality, but he falls silent. Lan Xichen reaches out and, greatly daring, takes one of Nie Mingjue’s hands in his; Nie Mingjue lets him, and Lan Xichen closes his eyes.
It’s now or never. Lan Xichen takes a deep breath. “I didn’t think it was you.”
Nie MIngjue’s hand jerks in his, but Lan Xichen holds it fast. “I didn’t think it was you,” he repeats, opening his eyes and looking up to meet Nie Mingjue’s wide eyes. “But I wanted it to be, so badly that I let it continue, let myself - believe, for a little while, that I lived in a universe where you might. Might.” Lan Xichen’s throat closes up and this is a terrible time for his usual composure to desert him but he can’t quite seem to maintain a grip on it and Nie Mingjue’s hand at the same time; but he knows, now, which one is more important, and he holds fast.
Nie Mingjue’s fingers shift in his, tentatively squeezing back, and Lan Xichen’s breath catches.
“Might,” Nie Mingjue says softly, and then he’s crouching in front of Lan Xichen, clasping his hand in both of his large ones. “Zewu-Jun, I don’t think you have any idea how much I might.”
Lan Xichen shivers at the playful roll Nie Mingjue gives to his title; from Nie Mingjue’s mouth it sounds almost indecent, and Lan Xichen can feel his cheeks heat as he remembers the messages on his phone last night, wicked and promising all at once. The corner of Nie Mingjue’s mouth curves up as if he knows what Lan Xichen is thinking.
“Very bold, then, for someone who thought he was talking to a stranger,” he says, and Lan Xichen feels himself flush harder even though he knows he’s being teased. “Any other competitors I should know about?”
“None,” Lan Xichen says, and it comes out a little more raw than he intends. “There’s no contest.”
Nie Mingjue grins, slow and wide. “Then as much as I’d like to pick up where we left off-” he chuckles as Lan Xichen’s fingers tighten on his. “I’d suggest we start with dinner. Do this properly.”
Lan Xichen laughs. He can feel his shoulders start to unknot, the tension there slowly dissipating, and he draws in a lungful of air. It feels like the first clean breath he’s had all week.
“It may be too late for proper,” he says, and Nie Mingjue’s grin slides into a smirk. “But dinner sounds lovely.”
Lan Xichen blinks awake as the sun hits his eyes from an unfamiliar angle. He pushes himself up on his elbows, disoriented - this isn’t his bedroom, but it’s not the hotel he’s been staying in either -
There’s a muffled snore next to him, and Lan Xichen remembers.
Nie Mingjue is sprawled out on his stomach, arms folded under his pillow and clearly still dead asleep. Lan Xichen just watches him for a moment, trying to not to move and admiring the sweep of Nie Mingjue’s spine disappearing underneath the sheets. There’s something light and fragile unfolding in his chest to the rhythm of Nie Mingjue’s breathing, something that he could get swept away in if he lets himself.
He must make some sound or movement that gives him away, though, because Nie Mingue shifts, opening bleary eyes and turning toward him. Lan Xichen feels his breath catch as Nie Mingjue’s face sharpen with recognition and then softens into something like wonder.
Then he frowns. “Should have known you were an early riser,” he says, covering a yawn.
“Habit,” Lan Xichen admits. “Don’t get up on my account,” he says when it looks like Nie Mingjue might.
“Nah. I’m awake now.” Nie Mingue stretches, doing interesting things to the muscles in his shoulders, and Lan Xichen almost forgets the question that’s been bothering him for the last week.
“You never told me how you came to have a dating profile.”
“Didn’t I?” Nie Mingjue blinks at him. “Thought I did.”
“No. You said it was a ‘fairly stupid’ story.”
“Oh.” Nie Mingjue pushes himself up on his elbows, and Lan Xichen takes a moment to admire the definition there. A pleasant thrill runs up his spine at the sense-memory of those arms supporting Lan Xichen’s entire weight against the wall in the entryway; dinner had been pleasant but what had come after had been...exceptional. In Lan Xichen’s opinion.
“Turns out my brother,” Nie Mingjue rolls his eyes and Lan Xichen pulls himself back to the present. “Thinks I spend too much time at the office, and he thought a dating profile was the solution.”
Lan Xichen blinks.
He pushes himself all the way up into a sitting position, leaning over the side of the bed and fishing for his phone, left abandoned with his clothing.
Nie Mingjue watches him bemusedly. “Did you forget something?”
“I think I did,” Lan Xichen says distractedly, pushing himself back upright and thumbing open his pictures. He scrolls back - it’s been a couple years, but they should still be in here.
“Your brother - younger?” Nie Mingjue nods, brows starting to draw down. “Attended the Cloud Recesses eight years ago?” Nie Mingue sits up, frown becoming more pronounced, and Lan Xichen shoves his phone over.
“Is this him?” Wangji and Wei Wuxian’s wedding had been small, but it had included their closest friends and family, and Lan Xichen had been sure to get a few shots of the entire party.
“That’s Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue confirms, taking the phone and scrolling through the photos. “Why do you -”
Lan Xichen can tell the exact moment Nie Mingjue finds the picture of Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang hanging off of each other. Nie Mingjue lifts his eyes to meet Lan Xichen’s.
“That’s an extremely familiar story,” Lan Xichen says. He taps the phone. “And that’s my brother-in-law.”
Nie Mingjue blinks. “Your -”
Lan Xichen sighs, letting himself fall back amidst the pillows. “Wei Wuxian is going to be absolutely insufferable about this.”
Nie Mingjue makes a grunt of agreement, putting Lan Xichen’s phone aside and settling down next to him, head propped up on one arm. It puts his chest on display to excellent effect, and Lan Xichen appreciates the view. “I could murder them both. I don’t mind.”
Lan Xichen hums. “Wangji would be so disappointed in me, and I hate to disappoint him. Perhaps next time.”
Nie Mingjue clears his throat. “I’m sort of hoping,” he says uncharacteristically cautiously, “that there won’t be a next time. I’m still going to murder Huaisang,” he adds earnestly. “But I don’t think things worked out so badly. All things considered.”
Lan Xichen jerks his eyes back up to Nie Mingjue’s. He has a cocky grin plastered across his face but his eyes are more tentative, and there’s a question there that Lan Xichen knows how to answer.
“You’re right, of course,” he says, rolling close enough to wrap a hand around the back of Nie Mingjue’s neck. Nie Mingjue comes willingly, bending down enough that Lan Xichen can tilt his head to press their mouths together. Nie Mingjue’s lips are softer than they look, and warmer than they have any right to be; Lan Xichen could stay here all day, all night, for as long as he can get away with.
“I suppose we can indulge them,” he murmurs against Nie Mingjue’s mouth. “This once.”
Nie Mingjue’s lips curve against his, and then he’s rolling Lan Xichen onto his back and there are other, better things to think about than interfering siblings. There’s Nie Mingjue’s hand in his hair, his mouth on Lan Xichen’s neck, his leg sliding between Lan Xichen’s. There’s the whole morning ahead of them, and the whole day after that, and after that...Lan Xichen doesn’t know, but the nip of Nie Mingjue’s teeth against his skin are making a convincing argument.
It’s nice to have things to look forward to.