There is a secret that Lan Xichen will take to his grave, which is this: he wanted Meng Yao before they ever met.
Nie Mingjue is Xichen’s oldest friend. They have known each other since they were in split pants, and have been confidants nearly as long. Xichen writes to Mingjue nearly every night, and Mingjue’s letters come with the same reassuring frequency.
Lan Xichen takes Mingjue’s voice with him through every path of Cloud Recesses, composing conversations to his friend as a way of clearing and organizing his thoughts. He has walked the cool stone corridors of the Unclean Realm thousands of times through Mingjue’s letters, testing ideas and strategies, talking through the needs of the people under them, passing their own petty complaints and dreams back and forth across the distance between their two homes.
There is little that is not shared between them, so of course Xichen heard of the little soldier who had fought so well and been so poorly rewarded. Of course he knew all about the boy’s parentage, where he’d come from, the duties he’d been assigned, the clean and efficient wreckage that lay in the wake of every part of Mingjue’s household he’d turned his attention to. Meng Yao had fascinated Xichen for months before they met, because he fascinated Mingjue, who praised the man’s poise and competence in a way that Xichen could only read as breathless. Mingjue, who is Xichen’s most beloved friend, is not fascinated by much. So of course Xichen had been eager to meet this little soldier, and after Huaisang had tried to run away rather than come to Cloud Recesses again, he had written to Mingjue and suggested: why not send your Meng Yao, to make sure Huaisang arrives safely?
Lan Xichen had known that Meng Yao was intelligent and well spoken. That he was starved for knowledge, and devoured every scroll and teaching and novel and poem that Mingjue gave him. That he worked twice as hard as any of Mingjue’s other generals or deputies. But Mingjue would never think to tell his friend that Meng Yao was beautiful.
Xichen is angry when he leaves his uncle’s presence. He is angry about the Wens, angry about the day going so irritatingly awry, and he doesn’t want to think about the conversation he’ll need to have with Wangji: the truths he’ll be unable to share and what he’ll need to ask of his brother regardless. Instead to soothe himself he thinks of the letter already half composed in his head during the interminable hours of the presentation ceremony, scolding Mingjue for having left poor Xichen unprepared for the reality of meeting Mingjue’s little soldier. Then he sees Meng Yao, waiting fitfully across the courtyard. He sees the moment that Meng Yao sees him - and the joke he’d been thinking of, about keeping the Nie clan’s rare and precious treasure all for himself, flies right out of his head.
Meng Yao picks up his robes and runs to Lan Xichen, and Lan Xichen too feels breathless.
“Meng-gonzi,” he says, and receives again the pleasure of those warm brown eyes meeting his own. He feels feverish just to look at the man. He’s delighted that Mingjue was correct in his estimation: delighted that Meng Yao is so perceptive, and so clever to find a reason to seek Lan Xichen out.
But instead he’s leaving. Xichen stares at the top of Meng Yao’s head, confused. Dismayed when Meng Yao refuses for a second time. But - he knows the circumstances that Meng Yao came to the Nie. Meng Yao doesn’t have the benefit of knowing Mingjue’s innermost thoughts, or decades to recognize the unvarnished signs of his esteem.
Still, he’s surprised. Nie Huaisang is a skittish boy, and by Mingjue’s account he and Meng Yao have grown quite close. He would have thought Huaisang would try to keep Meng Yao close - and that Mingjue would have made it clear to Meng Yao the many gifts that were on offer, with a few months’ stay in Cloud Recesses.
Still. Xichen has learned to live with many disappointments in life. Tucked behind his back, he rubs his fingertips together, as if the memory of touching Meng Yao’s hands could be squeezed from his own skin like ripe fruit. He is disappointed, yes, but will learn to -
Oh, that won’t do.
Xichen’s hands catch Meng Yao’s elbows before the other man can sink into another unnecessary low bow. It’s the second time they’ve touched - the second time Xichen has touched him. He hears Meng Yao inhale sharply, which has the odd effect of freezing them both in place. Beneath Meng Yao’s sleeves, his arms are firm and well defined. It’s not a surprise - he may not be a Nie disciple but he’d fought for them. Before he’d risen so highly in MIngjue’s esteem, he had been a soldier.
Meng Yao looks up at Xichen, and Xichen’s own breath catches in his throat. Or rather, it feels stolen away by the intensity of Meng Yao’s gaze, the flush on his cheeks, the softness of his mouth - opened just the barest amount, as if he’s about to speak.
Xichen doesn’t often find himself lacking in words. He is as his uncle raised him, after all, and the beneficiary of hundreds of years of Lan education, comportment, and diplomacy. He has never needed to search far to describe his own emotions, with thousands of poems and teachings and rules at his fingertips, outlining the correct response and reflection for every situation. And yet in that moment he finds himself deserted, abandoned by his teachings.
Xichen finds his breath. It feels fragile in his chest as he asks one final time, as simply and as respectfully as Wangji might ask: “Meng-gonzi, will you stay?”
After a moment - it is barely a moment, where Xichen counts the thud of his own heartbeat and waits for judgement - Meng Yao says, “Zewu Jun, I will stay.”
His arms slip from Xichen’s grasp as he straightens, but there’s no reason to mourn the loss when Meng Yao is smiling at him in such a way.
They walk precisely in step through the white heart of Cloud Recesses, and - Xichen is gratified to note - Meng Yao keeps pace with him, rather than walking the half step behind. His shoulders are relaxed and the tilt of his chin is confident. He looks every bit the young gentleman that Mingjue described, except for the hint of mischief around his smile, which he kindly shares with Xichen as they walk.
A servant waits outside of Xichen’s rooms, and as she opens the door for them she asks, “Would you like a meal brought?”
Xichen looks to Meng Yao, who looks steadily back. “Not yet,” Xichen says, and closes the door behind them.
Xichen’s rooms make up the south side of the Hanshi. The doors to the inner courtyard stand open, revealing the carp pond and the immaculately raked garden and also the doors to his Uncle’s rooms, directly across the way. The courtyard is empty, as Xichen knew it would be. Uncle will be in his offices until nearly dinner, and the other venerated residents of the Hanshi’s complex of rooms will be engaged in their own duties, far away in other parts of Cloud Recesses. Meng Yao doesn’t know this, of course. He hesitates when Xichen moves towards the open doorway, rather than towards his bed, tucked discreetly behind a privacy screen. But after a moment he does follow, drawing up next to where Xichen stands just short of the threshold, his whole body turned towards Xichen’s.
Meng Yao glances at Xichen from below his eyelashes. “I’m afraid I must be keeping you from more important duties.” His phrasing is immaculately formal, as it had been in the corridors earlier - but this time he speaks with a softer, thrilling lilt to his voice. This, then, is the game Xichen thought they were playing.
He turns towards Meng Yao and smiles, assuring him, “You are the trusted right hand of Sect Leader Nie. There could be no more important duty than to ensure that an honored guest is comfortable in my home. Please, allow me to attend to your every need.”
Meng Yao laughs. It’s a wonderful sound, even as he tries to hide it behind the back of his hand. His dimples, which seem so quick to show themselves even just as he speaks, deepen immediately. Xichen smiles beatifically down at him. “The Lan clan are of course famous for their hospitality,” Meng Yao allows, “but I would never dare to impose.”
He’s still trying to hide his smile behind his hand. Xichen is deeply charmed. For all his virtues, it seems that Meng Yao is a worse actor than even Wangji. “Meng-gonzi,” Xichen tells him earnestly. He hasn’t had so much fun in ages. “You must. You cannot allow me to betray the good reputation of Gusu Lan. Please, name your heart’s desire. I will have it brought for you at once.”
They’re standing very close together now, so close that when Meng Yao breathes Xichen feels the brush of his chest against his own. Meng Yao’s hair smells of the same orange blossom oil that Mingjue’s little brother uses. He smells of Qinghe’s pines and - a romantic notion, maybe - like Qinghe’s stone walls, as if he’s carried their silver dust and ash into Cloud Recesses in the folds of his robes.
“Zewu Jun,” Meng Yao says, his eyes alight. His hands find Xichen’s belt and then stay there, his fingertips tucked just under the fabric in the small of Xichen’s back, so close to where the ties are hidden. “You truly are an exemplary host.”
Xichen brings his hands up to rest gently on Meng Yao’s hips, enjoying the narrow span of them, the sharp cut of a hipbone that he can feel even through the other man’s robes. They smile at each other, and even through his excitement Xichen can feel the bubble of laughter in his heart. Then Meng Yao moves to kneel, and Xichen catches him again - this time under the sturdy circle of his ribs, and he pulls Meng Yao forward and kisses him.
Meng Yao makes a shocked noise against Xichen’s mouth, and then his mouth opens to Xichen, and they are kissing hungrily, eagerly. Xichen puts one hand back on Meng Yao’s waist and makes the other a bar against the man’s back, pinning him in place. For just a moment Meng Yao’s hands hover over Xichen’s chest, as if he were afraid to touch - and then he reaches up and tangles them in Xichen’s hair, wraps his fingers around Xichen’s jaw to pull him closer, to angle him in the way he’d like to be kissed.
Xichen has had many years of experience with Nie robes and Nie ornaments and he makes quick work of Meng Yao’s belt and skirt and shirt. Meng Yao, hampered by a presumed unfamiliarity with the Lan style of dress and a seeming fear of tearing Xichen’s clothes, gets only as far as Xichen’s second belt before he gasps and pulls away. His hands go to his own waist, catching the skirt that was about to fall to the floor. “Zewu Jun,” he says, a little desperate. Xichen - whose hands are under Meng Yao’s arms, going for the ties along his side so that he can finally, finally touch Meng Yao’s warm skin - understands the problem immediately. He can let his own clothes pile up on the ground because he has others, and someone else can wash them and iron the wrinkles, but Meng Yao’s position is tenuous, and if he’d never intended to stay then he may not have other clothes. He can’t afford to give the impression that he’s been doing what they’re about to do.
“Meng-gonzi,” Xichen says softly. He plucks the skirt from Meng Yao’s hands and steps back, folding it neatly. Meng Yao allows it, his fingers shifting to clutch at the hem of his shirt, hanging half open. His mouth is wet and red, his eyes more uncertain than Xichen has seen since the presentation ceremony. His cock pushes against the thin material of his pants. “Can you forgive your too eager host?”
Meng Yao’s eyes widen. Not with surprise, exactly. There’s something a little animalistic about the expression - like a deer frozen in the forest, waiting to see what the hunter will do. He’s lost the thread of their game. Xichen shifts the skirt to one hand, and reaches for Meng Yao’s hand with the other. Their fingers fold together.
“I am ashamed,” Xichen says, very softly. He’s nearly derailed by the sight of Meng Yao’s pink tongue, swiping over his wet lower lip. He rallies as best he can, instead of simply pushing them both to the floor and having his way right there, in full view of the open and empty courtyard. “I am ashamed to have neglected your needs so fully. I asked you to come and rest, and have instead kept you further on your feet. You must be exhausted, my friend. We can walk in the gardens later. First, please,” and he tugs on their joined hands, leading Meng Yao backwards - away from the doorway, though he leaves it open - towards the thin veneer of his bedroom’s privacy, “you must not allow me to fatigue you further.”
A dimple flickers into view. Meng Yao’s eyes clear. He follows Xichen as neatly as if they were dancing - across the divider of one room to the next, until they are at the bed. He finishes untying his shirt as Xichen places his folded skirt on a nearby chair, but he stands and waits for Xichen to remove first Meng Yao’s outer robe and then his outer shirt and then the inner, folding and placing each one meticulously as if his blood didn’t sing hot in his body, as if Meng Yao didn’t sway helplessly closer each time Xichen is near. Finally he stands naked, bared completely to Xichen’s eyes - his hands at his sides, only curled a little bit towards his own body. He says, in the same soft tone and formal register that Xichen had used, “I am unworthy of your kindness, Zewu Jun.”
Xichen only smiles and takes Meng Yao in his arms. He doesn’t admit what he is thinking, which is that through Mingjue’s letters he has gotten to know all about Meng Yao, and he knows that to be quite untrue.
They tumble onto the bed together. Xichen’s clothes are horribly wrinkled between them. Regaining his bravery, Meng Yao insists on undressing him - “Please, Zewu Jun, allow me to return your courtesy, I can expect no less of myself.” - his knees spread on either side of Xichen’s hips, so careful not to touch Xichen’s silks with his bare skin and the flushed tip of his cock. He’s smiling again. Xichen undoes his own hair as best he can while Meng Yao divests him of his robes - even when the headpiece is gone there’s a structure underneath it, and various knots and ties to help hold it in place, but at least he can remove the risk of stabbing Meng Yao with its sharp silver points. As soon as that’s accomplished he surges upward, flipping them around so that Meng Yao is on his back and Xichen covering every part of him. When Meng Yao pushes Xichen’s shirt off he can finally press their chests together; as Meng Yao undoes the ties of his pants Xichen can finally kick them gracelessly off. They land somewhere on the floor as Meng Yao laughs into Xichen’s mouth, as Xichen pulls him closer, closer.
Xichen has wanted this since the moment he went to greet the Nie delegation two days ago. Had laid in bed that night imagining a way to pull Mingjue’s little soldier aside, and see if he can reach past that polite, perfectly appropriate smile and get at everything Mingjue has told him lies just underneath.
The smile is still there, but it’s big and real and shows all of Meng Yao’s little white teeth, and Xichen helplessly returns it, even as they kiss, even as Xichen sucks on Meng Yao’s throat and chest (low enough that any marks won’t be visible later, of course), even as Xichen folds Meng Yao’s knees up to his chest and slides his oiled cock into him.
“Are you comfortable, Meng-gonzi?” he asks, trying to sound less breathless than he feels. “Please, you must tell me if I can do anything to,” and then he loses his own train of thought, thrusting shallowly into Meng Yao’s body, letting them both adjust. Meng Yao reaches for him, and Xichen kisses his fingertips blindly. His eyes are closed, listening closely to the singing of Meng Yao’s body, the pleasure that they’re each finding there. Xichen pauses long enough to drizzle more oil onto his cock, and then up the path of Meng Yao’s balls and to his cock, so that they can both experience the exquisite slickness. Xichen is, as he has so recently claimed to be, an excellent host.
He watches Meng Yao’s expression closely even as he walks his knees closer, sheathing himself more deeply in that clutch of muscle and petal-soft inner skin. He rubs his hand softly over Meng Yao’s body, caressing his cock so gently that it can only tease him higher, as high as Xichen can possibly push him before they both tumble over. The thread of their game has been dropped for now - Meng Yao seems beyond words, or at least that is the heart of Xichen’s goal, and his own pleasure soars higher the more incoherent the noises are that he coaxes from Meng Yao’s throat. All of Xichen’s troubles feel so far away, meaningless in the face of their endless, joyful courtesy. Their bodies are as close as they can possibly be, Meng Yao folded so completely in the cradle of Xichen’s knees and chest that they’re near enough to messily kiss, his teeth closing mindlessly on Xichen’s lips and chin. He’s beautiful, even like this - especially like this, sweat darkening his braided hair, flushed all the way down his chest, chasing the pleasure that Xichen gives to him.
Meng Yao comes first. Xichen makes sure of it. He slows his own thrusts, grinding his hips in little circles against the back of Meng Yao’s thighs, and lavishes attention on his cock. He lets Meng Yao hold his own knees in the air so that he can use his other hand to caress the man everywhere, watching eagerly to see which touches will shake him finally apart. When it happens his whole body seizes up, his lips part in a completely silent howl, and he nearly kicks Xichen in the face. It is a deeply, deeply satisfying experience. Xichen strokes him through it and then just leaves his hand on top of Meng Yao’s cock, enjoying the feel of it softening beneath his palm, and the frantic aftershocks of Meng Yao’s body around his own cock.
“Meng-gonzi,” he says softly. Meng Yao twitches and makes no other reply. His chest, gleaming with sweat, heaves up and down. His eyes are open, but just barely. His face is so relaxed that he could almost seem asleep. He’s covered in scars - on his arms and chest and throat and belly. Most of them are old and faint, only noticeable in the afternoon sunlight that comes through the papered windows. Xichen’s skin is unmarked; cultivators don’t scar in the same way that average people do, unless the wound is very grave. But there, underneath his hand, he can feel the Meng Yao’s golden core - pale and beautiful in the light.
“Meng-gonzi,” Xichen says again, and can’t help the smile that spreads across his face. He shifts, meaning to ease himself out of Meng Yao’s body and bring himself to completion with his hand - but Meng Yao’s fingers dig into his hip, staying any further motion. He’s still panting.
“Like this,” Meng Yao rasps, and tugs on Xichen’s hip, urging him forward - back into the hot, wonderful grip of himself. Xichen cannot help but to obey. He kisses Meng Yao’s face and he works himself closer, faster, swallowing up Meng Yao’s soft cries and his yesses, and when he crosses the bridge himself it seems to take everything from him, leaving him trembling and insensible for long minutes.
He has, at least, the presence of mind not to topple directly onto Meng Yao. It still takes a tremendous effort to carefully pull out and to stretch himself out on the rest of the bed. For a long while they only lay there, breathing deeply next to each other, as the breeze through the open doorway cools the sweat on their bodies. Xichen is the first to open his eyes, and when he looks over he sees Meng Yao, peaceful and smiling. Oh, he’s beautiful. Xichen could never find the words to describe it. Not to anyone. Not even to Mingjue, who had shared so many thoughts and still did such a poor job of warning Xichen about his little soldier.
Xichen reaches forward and touches Meng Yao’s cheek. The dimples deepen, as does the smile, so Xichen takes another risk, and pulls Meng Yao into his arms, and kisses him until they hear footsteps in the courtyard, the soft scrape and splash of a servant tending to the carp.
Meng Yao pulls away, blinking his eyes open. “I must leave you,” he says softly. “The disciples will be wondering where I am. Huaisang will be wondering, at least.” He rolls his eyes, softening the gesture by pressing a kiss into the palm of Xichen’s hand.
“Of course,” Xichen says, ruthlessly killing his own disappointment. “I will not keep you further.”
Meng Yao smiles at him. Xichen’s heart thrums in his chest like a plucked string, stunning and disorienting him.
Xichen lays still as Meng Yao slides out of bed. His feet make soft sounds on the mat as he walks naked to his clothes and starts dressing. Xichen watches his clever fingers do up the ties on each of his shirts, listens as he shakes the folds out of his skirt and ties that too. His belt, made of heavy Qinghe leather, was left on the floor next to the doorway, so for the moment he leaves it. He comes back to Xichen’s side and fishes a comb out of his sleeve. Xichen would like very badly to touch him, so he does. He finds the shape of Meng Yao’s knees beneath his silver robe, traces the pattern of the fabric onto his thighs.
“Come here,” Meng Yao says, and Xichen gratefully rests his head on Meng Yao’s lap, blinking hazily at nothing as Meng Yao pulls his braids over one shoulder and starts combing out the rest of his hair. It’s so peaceful that he finds himself nearly asleep, stirring only when the soft brushing motions cease. He opens his eyes to find Meng Yao put together again, his hair a glossy black wing, his face betraying nothing of where he’s been and what he’s been up doing. Not a mark shows above his collars to reveal Xichen’s influence, though he knows well enough what lies beneath.
Meng Yao searches Xichen’s face. “I must leave you,” he says again.
“Of course,” Xichen repeats as well, but he catches Meng Yao’s hand. “But may I write to you?”