They walk through Cloud Recesses in companionable silence. The sun is beginning to set, and even Jiang Cheng's prosaic soul can feel the peaceful atmosphere as dusk falls over the hills, bathing everything in purple twilight. The whole evening feels like something out of a fairy tale, transporting Jiang Cheng away from his everyday life, from all his responsibilities, from the anger that usually burns in his veins. It feels... nice. More than nice.
When they reach the meadows, Jiang Cheng's slightly taken aback by the sheer number of rabbits hopping about. He remembers there being just a handful - someone must have been taking good care of them. They're still incredibly cute, and Jiang Cheng barely hesitates before accepting one of the furry white bundles Lan Huan gives him, keeping one for himself.
He doesn't feel the need to put a front, not when the other man is smiling down at the rabbit he is petting with such open tenderness. Also, they are adorable, and very, very soft against his palms. It's not often that Jiang Cheng gets to be soft, and he can't quite suppress the way the corners of his mouth twitch upwards.
"Who knew those capable hands could be so gentle, sect leader Jiang. It suits you." Those are the first words Lan Huan says since they left the pavilion, his eyes and smile warm.
Something flutters deep inside Jiang Cheng's belly, but somehow he manages to say, "I thought we'd agreed that you'd call me by my name."
"So we did." The smile on Lan Huan's face is brilliant, and when he reaches out to cover one of Jiang Cheng's hand with his own, Jiang Cheng knows he's smiling back. "I'm very glad you decided to visit Cloud Recesses, Jiang Cheng. Even if you hadn't planned on spending your time with me instead of your brother."
"Me too." He's incredibly aware that Lan Huan hasn't removed his hand, is beginning to realise that he doesn't want him to. He swallows hard, eyes fixed on the squirming rabbit in his palm, which apparently isn't very happy being trapped by three hands, and his voice sounds hoarse in his own ears: "You're much less annoying than Wei Wuxian."
What a stupid thing to say! He immediately wants to hit himself in the head, but Lan Huan actually laughs, sounding utterly delighted. It transforms him, makes him look carefree and ten years younger, less like Zewu-jun, First Jade of Lan and Gusu Lan Sect Leader, and Jiang Cheng can't help but stare in fascination. He's always handsome, of course, his reputation well-deserved, but now he's beautiful.
This time the thought doesn't unsettle him as much as it has before. He just wants to be the one who gets to see Lan Huan like this, not perfect like a block of jade, but beautiful and oh so human. He suspects he doesn't get to be just human very often. And Jiang Cheng likes this version of him very, very much, in a way that makes his heart beat so hard he fears his chest might burst.
It's an unfamiliar feeling, and a part of him wants to react the way he usually does, tear his hand away and say something scathing, push Lan Huan away before he can get close enough to realise why Jiang Cheng is considered something of a loner in the cultivation world, blacklisted by every eligible maiden despite his status. Before he realises that there's nothing worthwhile under his angry facade. That Jiang Cheng just isn't good enough.
Caught in his head, he almost misses that Lan Huan has stopped laughing and is just looking at him. Looking as if he's the most interesting, surprising and wonderful thing. He only notices when Lan Huan gently releases his hand and sets down both their rabbits, not once glancing away from Jiang Cheng while he does it. It's unsettling, the intensity of his gaze, considering and just a tiny bit... scared?
Jiang Cheng doesn't want him to be scared, and it overrules his own fears long enough to say gruffly, "Thanks. I've... I've enjoyed spending time with you."
"Are you leaving already?" Lan Huan puts his hand back on Jiang Cheng's forearm, as if he's trying to stop him from running away. Which he very nearly does.
Instead he clears his throat. "I think it's almost 9pm. I don't want you to break the rules."
For me, he doesn't say, but it's clear that Lan Huan hears it.
"I've spent too much time resting, it'd be a pity to waste such a beautiful night - and such good company." There's a smile hiding in the corners of Lan Huan's mouth, a pleased, secretive thing that sends a strange shiver down Jiang Cheng's spine. "Stay with me, Jiang Cheng? We could have supper together."
All Jiang Cheng can do is nod dumbly, all too aware of how close they're standing and of Lan Huan's thumb, which is drawing slow circles against the sensitive skin of his wrist. He's not sure if the Lan sect leader even notices, but there's heat coiling in Jiang Cheng's belly, and he'd rather die than point it out, for fear that Lan Huan would let go. He's never so much as kissed another person, has only ever wanted to once, when he was barely more than a boy and offered his heart along with a comb, only to have it gently but firmly rejected, birth and circumstance too much of a gap to bridge.
Now his thoughts are in turmoil, freshly woken desire taking root, and he blushes hotly. Biting his lower lip, he avoids Lan Huan's eyes, suddenly bashful. Even if he knew what to say, he wouldn't be able to, his throat closed. He's never wished more to have Wei Ying's gift of the gab, remembering how easily he offers compliments and amusing words, both things Lan Huan deserves.
He's almost talked himself into fleeing after all, when a finger comes to rest gently under his chin, tilting his face upwards. Lan Huan is still watching him, but there's something simmering underneath his thoughtful exterior, the tips of his ears uncharacteristically red, and he speaks hesitantly, weighing every word carefully: "This might be presumptuous, but... Jiang Cheng, I'd very much like to kiss you."
Words are still eluding Jiang Cheng, so he once again just nods, face flaming. Lan Huan exhales sharply, relief illuminating his features even in the fading light. Then he leans in, slowly, carefully, and Jiang Cheng stands there, frozen, until their lips touch ever so lightly. The pressure against his mouth is warm, gentle, and almost against his will he relaxes into it, lets himself be pulled closer by a strong arm around his waist.
His free hand comes to rest on Lan Huan's shoulder, and he absentmindedly takes note of the shifting muscles. At some point Lan Huan let go of his wrist, but only to tangle their fingers together. Jiang Cheng can feel callouses he knows from his own hands, the result of years of sword training. It reminds him of the way Lan Xichen moves in battle, elegant and deadly, and the memory makes him inhale sharply.
His mouth falls slightly open, and he forgets everything about fighting when a warm tongue traces his lips and slips between them. Immediately the kiss takes on a different flavour, turns deeper, less leisurely, more filled with intent, especially when Jiang Cheng boldly mirrors Lan Huan's exploration of his mouth. He's often wondered what's supposed to be so great about kissing, but now he knows and sets his mind to mastering it with as much determination as he does everything else.
"Jiang Cheng!" Lan Huan gasps when Jiang Cheng nips at his lower lip, sounding as overwhelmed as Jiang Cheng feels. Untangling their hands, Lan Huan moves his hand to Jiang Cheng's hair. He tugs slightly, and the smouldering embers in the pit of Jiang Cheng's stomach burst into flame. Now he's the one who moans, and Lan Huan chuckles into the warm space between their mouths. "Oh, you like that."
He does it again while capturing Jiang Cheng's lips in another searing kiss, and if his arm wasn't still wrapped securely around Jiang Cheng's waist, he fears his legs might buckle. He can feel his cock starting to fill, which would normally embarrass him, but as it is, he just clings harder to Lan Huan, rubs his groin against a thigh that's all muscle. He's always known the First Jade of Lan to be strong, except it's different to feel it, sends pleasure zinging through Jiang Cheng's body, hot and bright.
Something hard starts pressing into his hip, and Jiang Cheng slides his hands from Lan Huan's shoulders, trails them down his broad back, bringing their groins together decisively. Their kiss breaks when both of them gasp harshly at the contact, and Jiang Cheng laughs breathlessly.
So does Lan Huan, who leans his forehead against Jiang Cheng's and says with an honesty that makes Jiang Cheng's heart catch in his throat, "You're truly beautiful, and being with you is such an unexpected joy. Thank you, Jiang Cheng."
"Why the hell are you thanking me?" The words escape before he can stop them, and he blushes fiercely but soldiers on. After all, the Gusu Lan sect leader is familiar with his short temper and welcomed him anyway. Kissed him anyway. The thought sends pleasant shivers through him, and his voice comes out somewhat breathy when he adds, "I thought it was quite obvious that I've been enjoying myself, too."
In emphasis he rocks his hips slightly, and Lan Huan's answering laugh pearls over his skin like a bubbling brook. He has the sneaking suspicion that the First Jade hasn't been laughing a lot - certainly not recently, but in general life in Gusu Lan has never struck him as conducive to laughter. He likes it. He likes it a lot, and he's beginning to hope that Lan Huan might want him to stick around.
"Yes, I did get that impression," Lan Huan teases, kissing him gently. When Jiang Cheng tries to deepen the kiss, he pulls away, tilting his head consideringly before asking gravely, "Would you spend the night with me? If you'd rather not, there is of course a guest pavilion waiting for you."
It's almost too dark to make out, but Jiang Cheng is pretty certain there's an uncharacteristically bashful tint to his cheeks. He finds it entirely too endearing, and it takes him a moment to gather his wits enough to process the question he's been asked. He stays silent long enough that Lan Huan obviously feels the need to explain himself: "I... I certainly don't ask this lightly. You know the Gusu Lan rules, so you can imagine that I haven't... indulged in the pleasures of clouds and rain[+] very much. But I find you utterly enchanting, Jiang Cheng. I'd be happy to wait, however, and court you properly, if you prefer."
Enchanting? Court? Jiang Cheng is aware that he's gaping, blind-sided by words he'd never expected to hear in connection with himself. Although the First Jade tries to seem calm and collected, Jiang Cheng is close enough to see the moment Lan Huan's face falls. His eyes shutter, his arms fall by his side, and Jiang Cheng can tell he's about to step away completely, wrap his dignity around himself like armour, become Lan Xichen again.
Jiang Cheng hates it, and he impulsively tightens his hold on the other man, shaking his head emphatically. "No, don't! I mean... yes. Lan Huan, I'd like to spend the night with you. And more. It's just that I... I'm not used to this. At all."
With anyone else, the admission would have tasted like bitter defeat, like losing face, but when Lan Huan's face lights up and he catches him in another kiss, joyful and full of promise, it feels like the sweetest victory.