Baxia’s edge is a glint of light, arcing toward him and then gone: cut off by the sheathed Shuoyue, and Xichen’s voice, Xichen’s shoulders, Xichen Xichen Xichen. Meng Yao barely knows what he is saying, but he tastes blood and the hint of jasmine oil from Xichen’s hair. The texture of embroidery under his fingers as his hands clench in Xichen’s robes.
Everything is so bright. Too bright—it’s never bright in Fire Palace. No—it’s his eyes. The edges of his vision fray into sheer white threads. He lets go of Lan Xichen and sinks to his knees. He’s been here before. He’s been here before. With Nie Mingjue and Baxia. On his knees. (He’ll be here again.)
When Chifeng-Zun leaves, fury crackling off Baxia, and Meng Yao is alone with Lan Xichen, he wilts forward onto his hands. The floor is perpetually warm here, too warm, and the hall is cavernous. He lowers his head and hair slides off his shoulders, whispering against his robes. He breathes carefully, trying to mask the shaky exhale, stuttered gulping inhale. If he fakes it, he’ll make it.
“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen murmurs, descending to one knee beside him.
“I’m not hurt,” Meng Yao says and sits back onto his heels. He flattens his clammy palms against his thighs and gives Xichen a plain, strained smile. The First Jade of Lan studies him for a long moment, openly concerned. Just as Xichen is certain to speak, Meng Yao forces his smile to lift up into his eyes, softening them, just to sooth Xichen. Then Meng Yao nods and stands up under his own strength. “I know where there will be pockets of resistance still inside the palace complex, and which captains and cultivators and housekeepers have fled, or which will go for treasure and weaponry.”
Lan Xichen stands gracefully. A sheen of sweat highlights his brow, and there’s a hollow tension at the corners of his eyes, but nothing—no mussed hair or bloodstains—hints this is the end of a long battle, a longer campaign. You’d never know this is a hall of atrocities, to look at Zewu-Jun. “Show me,” Xichen says, and inclines his head in his softest sect leader bow. I will let you put off my concern for now, A-Yao.
Hours later they’ve swept through the palace with Lan and Jiang cultivators, triaging the Wen retainers and staff they find into priority groups for interrogation and imprisonment. There is a perfectly good dungeon that will need to be scoured before it’s ready, so Meng Yao suggests which courtyards to use for temporary prisons, and which for barracks. He knows who among the staff can be marginally trusted—they either hated Wen Rouhan as much as anyone, or fear the other sects enough to keep their heads down and do their jobs under Meng Yao—who they also fear—for another few days while people are brought in from outside Qishan. He ignores the slanted looks Xichen gives him when the First Jade notices their fear.
Meng Yao did what he had to do. He always does. He’s good at it.
But Nie Mingjue saw. Again. Tried to kill him, again. Meng Yao’s hands won’t stop trembling. He curls his fingers into fists and keeps directing quietly, calmly, using the names he learned and the gossip he kept to put everyone where they need to be. There is blood in his nose, he thinks, or the air of the Nightless City smells like it. It should smell like burning corpses. Are his ears ringing?
Lan disciples keep finding Lan Xichen to bring news and reports of the mess in the city, as Meng Yao gives directions to which empty guest pavilions to take over for the use of the sect leaders and their immediate subordinates, and which to use for the hospital. They hear Nie Mingjue has already accosted a few doctors but hopefully ones who know him, and Wei Wuxian is unconscious but in his sister’s care. Casualties were high, though not as high as they’d have been without Wei Wuxian—and Meng Yao.
His mouth goes dry the first time Lan Xichen reminds a disciple this man beside him, Meng Yao, took the final strike against Wen Ruohan. Meng Yao had…forgotten. Ha! His triumph was gouged away by the arc of Baxia’s glare. He bows, out of habit, to the disciples in their soot stained white robes, and Xichen catches his left wrist in a gentle hand. That hand grips Meng Yao firmly, holding him upright.
Meng Yao squares his shoulders. And smiles. He deserves this recognition, and better not ignore it because his hands are shaking and he can’t stop startling back from flashes of light. It isn’t even like today was the first time he’s nearly died in this palace, or the closest call, or the worst hurt. (But it is the worst hurt.) Lan Xichen squeezes his wrist gently and Meng Yao doesn’t want to pull away. He wants to lean in, lean in—no, sink in and just press his face to Xichen’s neck and shudder and tremble.
Lan Xichen would let him. Think he’s overwhelmed, exhausted, and traumatized. He is all those things, but he’s not upset at having driven Hensheng into Wen Ruohan, that was easy, simple, the entire point of making himself this kind of weapon. He’s not sorry for the cultivators he killed. He had to. There are things he wishes he had not had to do these months in Nightless City, but they’d bought him the information Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue had needed. His hands were already stained. None of that makes him tremble.
It is Baxia swinging at him again when he blinks, that arc of light, cutting the world in two.
The imagined sword glare makes his pulse pound, his meridians tighten, his head ache. Nie Mingjue is going to kill him some day.
The first time Nie Mingjue wanted to kill him, he had stayed his hand for Meng Yao’s own sake; the second time, today, for Xichen’s sake; if—no when—there comes a third reason to kill him, there will be no sake to spare for A-Yao.
Oh, there is a ringing in his ears. A bright tone, one string plucked again and again. He shakes his head, but it doesn’t dissipate. There’s only one way to stop Nie Mingjue from killing him—that is the scream growing louder in his ears.
“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen murmurs, a hand falling to his back, pressed between his shoulder blades. “You’re trembling.”
“I’m well,” Meng Yao says, blinking too quickly. He tastes blood now, too. When did he eat last? What has he had to drink?
“Come. You have done enough today.”
The warmth of Xichen’s hand on his back grounds him slightly, so he goes, vaguely thinking, no this way, I have a room, I have but there are things in his room Xichen shouldn’t see and his mind feels too explosive to weave excuses. He says nothing. He will let Lan Xichen take him anywhere. That is what he should say. (That is what he should say.)
To the Fire at Dawn Pavilion they go, through a garden of porous red lava rock and evergreen topiary, to where the Lan clan has set themselves up, and Meng Yao hears Xichen’s soft command for a bath in his rooms, and tea, and food.
Xichen ushers him to the bed with its deep red pillows, and as Meng Yao perches daintily on the edge and tries not to sway, he wonders how long it will take the Lan to strip the red hangings and vivid art. They’ll probably not replace it with anything. Just leave stark black wood beams and plain silk doors and painted privacy screens. He smiles to himself, and watches Lan Xichen: A sweep of blue and white, billowing softly, little ripples of sound; the whisper of cloth and silk, the murmur of quiet instructions. The ends of his forehead ribbon lick down the long black expanse of his hair. Meng Yao would like to brush one against his lips, slide it into his mouth. Tie them around his own neck and pull.
Meng Yao absolutely knows he’s out of his mind. Adrenaline, mostly. (Fear, a little.)
As Xichen turns, Meng Yao closes his eyes. He could lean back and pass out onto the bed. But Xichen crouches and takes his hand. “Come.”
Xichen moves him like the little doll he’s often accused of being. Positions him beside a bathtub, lifts one arm, turns him, the other, carefully unties his belt and removes his outer robe, inner robe, undershirt. Meng Yao breathes slowly, and his ears keep ringing. His skin is wretchedly sensitive: each shift of linen burns, each minor pressure an agony. It takes all his focus not to react. To welcome it. This is Lan Xichen, who will not hurt him. Though Xichen takes care not to touch Meng Yao’s bare skin with his hands.
Once, he hears Xichen catch his breath behind him. He feels his hair lifted from his back, pushed away like a curtain and Xichen makes a sound cut off. Almost his name.
Oh, it’s one of the new scars. Yes, Zewu-Jun, more scars. Bruises, too, and the invisible wounds. This one, on his left shoulder-blade, is a nasty looking hook. Probably shiny and pink still, thicker at the top. Meng Yao resists the urge to roll his shoulder and feel the pull of ruined skin.
Lan Xichen kneels abruptly and nudges Meng Yao’s foot up, to get him out of his socks and trousers. When he’s naked, the air itself is too much and Meng Yao clenches his jaw. He must be blotchy all up and down his body, flushed and pale and flushed, and his skin is so hot and tight. Half-hard. But Xichen silently helps him step into the bathwater, and Meng Yao sinks into the tub with a breathy moan.
A knuckle brushes his cheek and Meng Yao opens his eyes just as Xichen withdraws his hand. He gathers Meng Yao’s hair and murmurs, “Shall I wash it?”
Meng Yao stares at Lan Xichen, his lips parting under an internal onslaught of sheer, sharp need. He would beg for this, and Xichen simply offers it in that distant, careful way. But as Meng Yao stares, he sees the flutter of Xichen’s lashes, and the slow pinking of his ears. “Please,” Meng Yao manages in a relatively even voice. They’ve done this before. (They’ve done this before.)
Lan Xichen kneels beside the tub, still taller than Meng Yao, ha ha ha, still crowned in gleaming silver, but Meng Yao realizes Xichen removed his outer two layers of robes, the ones with the draping sleeves. What remains is modest enough, ridiculously so, but with tight sleeves. Xichen reaches for him. “I’ve got you,” he says, sliding one large hand against the nape of Meng Yao’s neck to help him lean back.
Closing his eyes, Meng Yao allows it, and the warm water envelopes him entirely, so that only his face is in the air. His ears vanish and the ringing fades into the quiet bubble of underwater, with the muffled sound of movements through it. He keeps one hand on the rim of the tub, but doesn’t need to hold on: Xichen has him.
If only. Maybe. Has he gone too far yet for Zewu-Jun? He will.
He sits up when Lan Xichen lifts him and slouches slightly, while Xichen takes soap from who knows where and works it in. Meng Yao relaxes into the firm strokes of Lan Xichen’s fingers on his scalp, and the way the sensation pulls down his neck, his spine, each touch putting him back in his body. His ears aren’t ringing. His head aches coldly but he’s hungry and thirsty. He can do this. Nie Mingjue certainly isn’t going to crash in here and kill him now. At the thought, a full-body shudder grips him. His jaw aches.
“Once more,” Lan Xichen says tenderly, and dips Meng Yao back like he’s a child. The water sloshes prettily as he sits again, and Xichen twists his hair loosely and moves it over his right shoulder. Then he rubs his hands lightly but firmly down Meng Yao’s shoulders, as if wiping away excess—everything. Meng Yao lets his head drop forward, tilted with the weight of his wet hair, and wishes for Xichen to kiss his neck, just under the ear.
Instead, Lan Xichen gets a cloth and soap and begins to wash his back.
“A-Huan,” Meng Yao says. “I can…”
“I want to,” Xichen replies with that perfect tucked smile.
Meng Yao starts to demure, but thinks, why the fuck shouldn’t he get his beautiful hands a little dirty and lowers his own lashes to hide the vicious nature of the thought. It isn’t fair: Zewu-Jun definitely killed more today than Meng Yao did, so what are bloody hands? What kind of killing makes filth? Maybe it’s only your mother that defines how dirty your hands will get. But his gesture is taken as the acceptance it is.
As Lan Xichen washes him, Meng Yao is careful to keep his breath even. He checks in with his body, his energy, sinking just enough to hear the teem of his core. It’s tight and wild. Xichen’s touch is sure and practical, even and smooth, with a rhythm all its own and Meng Yao wishes he could make his meridians open wider and his power mirror that certainty. But his sputters in jagged little sparks. His heart beats too hard. He’s so far rocked out of his usual very pressurized control. He’ll never be a strong cultivator, but his control is impeccable. Should be. Is. Should be.
He breathes deeply, in through the nose, out through the mouth, lips pursed a little. Even as he lets himself feel every touch of the cloth on his too-sensitive skin, the pressure of Lan Xichen’s hands, the sounds of his robes and hair as he shifts to reach, the ripple of water and tiny splashes, Meng Yao knows he’s got to get his shit together.
He should have insisted on his room, or a room of his own, not allowed Zewu-Jun to bring him here, where he’s the guest the doll the one falling apart. But it’s so good. He remembers bathing Lan Xichen, in a leaking wooden tub, with water as warm as he could make it with only a dull fire. There’d been no chance to heat it with talismans, no innkeeper, just them in an abandoned house, hiding, trying not to get infections from their injuries. Meng Yao had been the stronger one then, the wound on his chest nearly healed, his heart locked down, and Lan Xichen had been fumbling, awkward. Needed him. Meng Yao knows better than to need anybody.
Breathe, breathe, he tells himself. He settles his hands on the sides of the tub and with his eyes closed he does so, trying to find calm, find string qi and warmth inside himself. He leans into Lan Xichen’s touch, and Xichen runs his hands from Meng Yao’s shoulders down his arms, leaning in until his hands reach Meng Yao’s wrists and he puts his thumbs against the soft inner skin, where his pulse jumps and shivers. Xichen is wrapped around him, his breath on Meng Yao’s temple, slow and soft, guiding him. The air smells of jasmine and smoke, yes, the scent of bodies burning teased at the vestiges of oil in Lan Xichen’s hair.
Meng Yao’s wrists tingle and warm and he feels Xichen’s spiritual energy kiss him there, find his meridians, slide in like cool water, a spring breeze, and Meng Yao’s lips part to taste the flavor of the moment and he lets his head fall back onto Xichen’s shoulder. They breath together like that and Meng Yao’s skin still aches; not with adrenaline and cold terror, but building languid desire. Lan Xichen doesn’t move, though Meng Yao’s hair is probably soaking his shoulder, and maybe the ends of Xichen's hair and ribbons fall into the bath.
Meng Yao is melting. Outside the sun must be setting; the light against his eyelids is richer with fire than the weak daylight pressing through oiled paper and silk windows. He feels like a setting sun, too, dripping toward the horizon, toward the night, bloody pink and sliced by oily gray clouds.
Baxia cuts toward him: death hard and fast. He jerks back, unable to stop the overreaction.
Water sloshes, and he blinks. He wipes water from his face. His heart throbs, just pounding like a fist under his sternum, attacking him from deep inside. When he drags in a breath it’s shaky again. Fuck.
“A-Yao?” Lan Xichen says, moving to one side. He kneels and takes Meng Yao’s chin, tenderly turning Meng Yao toward him. “What happened?”
His mouth is dry. Tears—tears!—burn behind his eyes. Unacceptable. He cannot be this afraid of Nie Mingjue, who he had—
Inadvertently, Meng Yao lifts his hand to touch the scar on his chest where Wen Chao’s sword cut into him.
Lan Xichen’s gaze flicks to follow Meng Yao’s hand. “A-Yao,” he murmurs sadly.
“You…” Meng Yao swallows. This must be done. “Thank you.”
Dropping his chin, Lan Xichen shakes his head with that little smile. “No thanks, A-Yao. I…you brought us here. You made sacrifices. You’ll be called a hero.”
“No—thank you. You saved my life.”
The smile fades into a frown and Lan Xichen glances at the privacy screen as if he can see through it, through the doors, through the entire palace complex to wherever Chifen-Zun is. “He was furious about many things, most of which have nothing to do with you.”
“I deserved it,” Meng Yao confesses a basic truth, pulling his lips into the shape he needs, flutters his lowered lashes as if uncertain. Uncertain, but penitent.
Meng Yao leans to press his cheek to Lan Xichen’s knuckles where his hand rests on the rim of the bathtub. It feels better to perform for Lan Xichen, and it is a performance, even if everything he says is true. Reminding his body to invoke what he wants with tilting head and coy dimples and darting eye-contact is better than meditation at settling him where he needs to be. His pulse is less erratic. “It was such a near thing. If you hadn’t been there…”
Lan Xichen turns his hand to cup Meng Yao’s cheek. “I was.”
A test: Meng Yao puts his lips just barely to Lan Xichen’s palm. “You don’t know what I did, Lan-gege. Next time…”
“There will not be a next time,” Xichen says sternly. For him is it stern, at least. It makes Meng Yao think of Sect Leader Nie, who breathes more sternly than Sect Leader Lan has ever spoken.
And there will be a next time. Meng Yao will absolutely give Nie Mingjue another reason to kill him. He won’t be able to help it. But he nods against Xichen’s hand, sighs and closes his eyes. The ringing in his ears is gone.
Lan Xichen takes his chin and raises it. Meng Yao holds on to the sides of the tub as Lan Xichen tilts his face up inexorably until he must look into Xichen’s eyes. That dark gaze is vivid with compassion and concern and something brighter. Meng Yao learned how to read it when they were hiding together: it’s sharp, curious desire.
Meng Yao surges forward and kisses him. Water surges with him, and he clasps Xichen’s shoulders, fingers digging into the thinner layers of these white and sheer blue robes until he finds the hard rocks of muscles. Lan Xichen allows himself to be kissed, mouth soft, opening. He kisses with Meng Yao, but it might not be called kissing back.
So Meng Yao forces his lips gentler. His knees press hard against the wooden seam of tub and he leans against it, putting his hands to Lan Xichen’s neck, thumbs brushing the corners of his jaw, fingers sliding into his hair. “A-Huan,” he whispers, then nibbles at his bottom lip.
Lan Xichen sighs soft as a moth’s wing, and finally kisses back. He tastes rich and a little astringent when he gives Meng Yao his tongue, and grasps the heavy wet rope of Meng Yao’s hair with one hand, his nape with the other. Meng Yao shivers and presses his flat belly to the edge of the bathtub, nearly falling out. He’d drag Lan Xichen in with him, but it feels so good to be bare and wet and clean while Xichen is dry and strong. His long fingers cup Meng Yao’s head like it’s a delicate egg, and Meng Yao wants him to squeeze, to make a fist in his hair. Hurt him.
The kiss ends because Lan Xichen does none of those things, even as warmth builds between them, even as water cools on Meng Yao’s over-sensitive skin like tiny little knives.
“A-Yao,” Xichen says in the silk-thin tone that means he doesn’t know what else to say and has chosen simply to live in the endearment. Meng Yao feels his name on his cheek, and the sensation claws down his neck chest belly cock, so of course that’s when Lan Xichen stands.
Meng Yao’s hand snaps out and he grabs Xichen’s robe, pinching it between his fingers just enough to tug the fabric at his hip. And he slowly looks up.
His eyes will be round black pools fringed with lashes like flower petals, his stark white skin glistening, lips pink, hair slicked and sleek and wet from Xichen’s own ministrations. It was a mistake for Zewu-Jun to stand up and offer him this angle. Meng Yao doesn’t give up advantages. He doesn’t blink, but parts his lips to breath softly. Xichen’s lips part in response and he can’t look away.
“Give this to me,” Meng Yao says with just an edge of anger.
Lan Xichen’s eyes are the ones to flutter now. He nods once, and the lines of his neck shift with a deliberate swallow. That’s all Meng Yao needs: he drags at Xichen’s robe and with both hands digs in. The belt is easy and the robes push aside, one a long skirt he has to lift and hold out of the way while tearing at Lan Xichen’s trousers. His knuckles brush through the cloth against Xichen’s erection and they both shudder. Meng Yao licks his lips, hungry, ready, and finally has his hands on Xichen’s skin. Lan Xichen startles closer.
Without hesitation Meng Yao has his mouth on him, and both hands, focused like Zewu-Jun’s cock is the only real thing in the world.
The weight of it on his tongue, the smooth heat in Meng Yao’s hands, taught skin and trembling muscles as Lan Xichen stands there is exactly what Meng Yao needed. Wanted. He loves Lan Xichen because giving is taking. This urgency feels like a gift, even as he hurriedly shoves the trousers down to the floor, shoves a hand between his thighs and pulls him closer, gripping the rock of Lan Xichen’s ass. His other hand helps his mouth, quick and practiced, using his spit as he licks and sucks.
“A-Yao,” Xichen breathes as his knees bend, but Meng Yao holds onto him with hands and mouth: a command. You will remain on your feet. And Xichen does it. He puts a hand on Meng Yao’s head to steady himself. He’s panting in that slow, deep, desperate way Meng Yao has never heard from anyone else.
Meng Yao looks up through his lashes as best he can but all he sees is the wall of white-blue, mussed robes, a slide of hair, and Lan Xichen’s arm. He shuts his eyes again and concentrates on the smells, the taste, sweaty, musky, heavy with days of battle but still somehow so delicate. He wishes A-Huan was naked, and he could put his hands all over him, lick up his stomach and bite along his ribs, feel his nipples on the flat of his tongue. Meng Yao truly misses climbing Lan Xichen and it has been so long.
The robes brush his face, absolutely in his way, and he almost smiles, but Lan Xichen has both hands in his hair, pulling, and his body arches toward Meng Yao, who lets go with his hand, taking Xichen’s hips instead, and pulls his cock as deep as he can, full until he can’t breath until there are tears in his eyes. He never stops moving, distantly aware of Lan Xichen’s quiet labor, the seethe of his breath. Meng Yao drinks it up, as if he could eat everything Xichen is.
When Xichen comes, Meng Yao holds on the way he knows best, swallowing everything. It belongs to him.
Lan Xichen’s hands are the ones shaking now, and he moves them to the rim of the bathtub, gripping tightly enough maybe there’s a creak of wood. He leans over with a long sigh. Meng Yao lets him go, sinking onto his heels in the bath, one arm curled against the rim and his cheek against his forearm. He shuts his eyes and sighs, his breath tasting like Lan Xichen. Meng Yao is so hard, too, every ripple of warm water teases him, like wispy magic. His eyes remain closed as he sits in the sensations, flushed, briny, tense, but with a tiny little smile.
Meng Yao, at least, is not afraid anymore.
Before he can think further, consider how to move, suddenly Lan Xichen’s hands are under his arms and he’s lifted entirely out of the bath. He manages to gasp instead of squeak as Xichen pulls him from the water.
Everything falls away as he’s carried toward the bed: if Lan Xichen can lift him so easily, carry him without hesitation or flaw, no stumbling, and even a little low laugh, then what inside Meng Yao could possibly be heavy?
He’s dropped onto the bed, wet and naked, and gasps a little in surprise. Lan Xichen somehow has the foresight to go lock the door. Meng Yao lays there, sprawled, getting tight with cold, except for the hot flush snarling up his center. Lan Xichen stalks back to him, eyes hot and hungry and scouring.
Lan Xichen snaps his robes as he climbs onto the bed to kneel over Meng Yao’s thighs, towering and elegant. His cheeks are flushed, his hair falling over both shoulders and his blue silk robe open over the long, sheer under-robe, which glances too gently against the length of his torso to where its rucked messily around his knees. His naked inner thighs are hot against Meng Yao’s. He stares down.
Meng Yao looks back at him, then down, lashes fluttering and a welcoming, decorous little smile on his mouth.
“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen murmurs, almost a tease, and squeezes his thighs.
Gasping, Meng Yao looks up again, and Xichen’s eyebrows lift expectantly. Meng Yao gives him a real smile and then Lan Xichen’s hand is on his cock. Meng Yao jerks and moans, pushing up into the touch. He does not know what the fuck to do with his own hands—he always knows what to do with his hands, but didn’t plan this. So he reaches up, curling to half-sit, and grabs Lan Xichen’s neck, pulling him back down for a kiss. Their mouths meet.
Oh, it is good to be naked under a half-dressed, silver-crowned Lan Xichen.
His legs are trapped between Xichen’s, or he’d wrap them around his waist, and Meng Yao arches his neck as Lan Xichen drags his teeth along Meng Yao’s jaw, to his throat, and buries his nose in the skin, breathing deeply, his hand hot and tight around Meng Yao, squeezing, sliding, and then Lan Xichen moves down Meng Yao’s torso. Meng Yao gets one leg free, wraps it around Xichen’s waist to cant his hip, and Lan Xichen licks a long wet line up the underside of his cock. Meng Yao whimpers happily as Xichen teases his head, then swallows him up.
Biting his lip, Meng Yao digs his hands into Xichen’s hair, avoiding the dangerous hairpieces, the even more dangerous headband, until he has his fingers twined in long strands, and all the heat left in his body arrows to his groin while Lan Xichen sucks him off.
Meng Yao likes this so much—his whole body aches and trembles under Lan Xichen’s thorough ministrations. His mind drifts from touch to touch, gasp to gasp—with anyone else he would make his mind into a fist and grip tight to thoughts, but Xichen feels safe. Lan Xichen put his body between Meng Yao and absolute death today, in a shock of motion, lightning-strike, and Meng Yao just wants that.
Xichen replaces his mouth with one hand and without warning pushes a finger of the other inside Meng Yao, biting his hip at the same moment. Meng Yao’s mind whites out at the sudden perfect discomfort and sharp clench of teeth, and he yells, ass arching off the bed. He’s all cold white fire and Lan Xichen snakes his arm around Meng Yao’s hips, holding him up and closing his mouth around his cock again.
Meng Yao comes with a voiceless cry, flinging his hands up to grip his hair, pulling, nails biting into his scalp. His chest heaves and his legs tremble, and Lan Xichen slowly allows him to sink back onto the bed, mouth firm as he swallows and licks, sighing hot breath against the delicate skin. He kisses Meng Yao’s belly, then goes still. Waiting.
It’s a struggle to open his eyes, but Meng Yao does, glancing down his trembling body to meet Xichen’s gaze. He feels wrecked, and Lan Xichen’s mouth is wet and flushed, his high cheeks pink and his eyes fixed on Meng Yao. But otherwise he’s dressed and his forehead ribbon’s ends trail prettily over one shoulder. While Meng Yao pants softly, Lan Xichen licks his own lips with fastidious attention and slowly, excruciatingly removes his finger from Meng Yao.
Meng Yao closes his eyes and his lips part. He lets himself melt into the bed. Xichen tenderly settles his cheek on Meng Yao’s stomach. His nose and mouth are almost buried there, breathing against him. One tine of the silver hairpiece presses painfully into his soft flesh. It’s cold, but Meng Yao likes it. He imagines it pressed to his throat. Drawing pink lines like claw marks down his chest or back. He shivers, then imagines using it to do the same to Lan Xichen.
“Are you cold?” Lan Xichen murmurs, reaching for a blanket.
“Mm,” is all he says, drifting in fantasies of staying here, naked and sleepy, drawing binding talismans on Lan Xichen’s skin with the tines of his hairpiece. Tying his hands together with the headband.
Lan Xichen moves off him, tucking a blanket around Meng Yao, who murmurs his distress. With a little laugh, Xichen says, “I’ll make tea.”
Turning onto his side, Meng Yao curls up under the blanket and slits his eyes open to watch Lan Xichen move around the room. He washes his hands in the bath, fixes his robes, adding one of the two outer robes he’d earlier removed, and his belt and socks and shoes. He combs through his hair with those long fingers and adjusts everything into place—but he doesn’t put his trousers back on underneath it all. Meng Yao smiles.
Then Xichen starts a fire in the iron brazier and sets water to heat, before unlocking the door and stepping out into the evening. Meng Yao holds his breath, but the hem of Xichen’s robes never vanishes, and one elegant hand rests on the door. He’s talking to someone, and then he enters again, shooting a smile at Meng Yao before checking on the tea.
After a moment, Meng Yao tests his limbs and finds he can sit and stand. But he has nothing clean to wear, and perches on the bed with the blanket around his shoulders.
Now what? His mind is turning again: he needs clothes and a comb, and probably should send Lan Xichen to find the other sect leaders and their heirs, for a late meal and meeting. There are reasons he should and shouldn’t be there himself, but he’ll go—he knows things they’ll need. Nie Mingjue won’t want to hear them. Too bad.
Meng Yao clenches his teeth and lays back down. He pulls the blanket over his head. What if he stays here, warming Lan Xichen’s bed forever. Squeezing his eyes closed, he snarls at himself for even thinking it.
Peeking out of the blanket, he finds Xichen kneeling right there.
“There’s so much to do,” he says.
Lan Xichen smiles his little tucked-away smile. “I’ve sent for food, and clothes for you, and word to my brother we’ll all speak tomorrow.”
That’s the wrong thing to do: let others think and plot all evening and night. They should get everything lined up right now. Tonight. Before the threads of power unravel too much for Meng Yao to grasp hold of any. How to explain that to Lan Xichen? He stares at the First Jade and wishes the world was the way Lan Xichen wants it to be. Wishes he could make it bend and break and rebuild it that image. Be Xichen’s weapon, his instrument.
Meng Yao reaches out and takes Xichen’s hand, bringing it to his cheek. Sighs into it and kisses Xichen’s palm. Meng Yao’s position is so precarious right now. His name has always been associated with his birth, with degradation, and now he remade that: Meng Yao killed Wen Ruohan. That matters. But the worth comes with a time limit. He must burrow into something now, with this brief flare of infamy. There aren’t very many options, despite the wreckage scattered throughout the cultivation world. He’d thought, maybe, those months he worked to position himself to ruin Wen Ruohan, that he could wipe away the disdain in Nie Mingjue’s gaze, be welcomed back to Qinghe in some fashion. That was before Mingjue tried to assassinate Wen Ruohan himself, noble fool. Meng Yao had not foreseen that, not expected to sully himself ten times over in Mingjue’s eyes, to sneer at Chifen-Zun, bully him, hit him. He’d hoped there could be respect again, at least. Now? No chance. No chance at all, and Nie Mingjue will kill him without hesitation unless Meng Yao does it first.
He shudders as the intention cleaves itself to his mind. (It can’t be undone.) He’s breaking into a sweat again. Lan Xichen caresses his jaw, then pets his hair in long, slow strokes. Why can’t he just be safe with Zewu-Jun? A long time ago, he invited Meng Yao to stay in the Cloud Recesses.
“A-Huan,” Meng Yao whispers. “Take me to the Cloud Recesses and hide me away. Save the world from me.”
Xichen’s hand goes still. He doesn’t breathe.
Meng Yao opens his eyes and just looks at Xichen’s face: those perfect eyes are shut, his lips just slightly too pressed. Displeased with the thought.
(He is not gutted. He is not.)
Then Lan Xichen’s lips quirk into tender amusement. “The world would miss you, A-Yao.”
Meng Yao smiles back, bright with dimples. He knows, even if Xichen does not, that they both are wearing lies on their lips.
“The water,” Xichen says, in a teasing tone. He gently pinches Meng Yao’s cheek, then stands.
Meng Yao follows, wrapping the blanket around him carefully, as if it were the finest robe. He kneels at the table and waits as Xichen unwraps a small tea cake and pours the hot water. Every motion practiced, even with the foreign tea and settings. The steam smells a little sweet, neither of them will like this flavor.
That suits Meng Yao’s blossoming mood.
Just as Lan Xichen moves to pour, there’s a knock at the door. Before Xichen can even glance at him, Meng Yao stands and walks behind the privacy screen. He’s naked but for a blanket, after all.
“Yes,” Lan Xichen says, there’s the sound of the door sliding open. Meng Yao listens to soft footsteps and the quiet click of bowls and baskets being set down. Then,
“Zewu-Jun, Sect Leader Jin Guanshan arrived. He is asking for his son.”
“Jin Zixuan is presumably with the Jin cultivators. They have one of the courtyards and the Fullness of Scarlet Pavilion.”
“Yes, Zewu-Jun, but Sect Leader Jin wants…”
The pause stretches longer than Meng Yao is used to from any Lans. He understands in a flash and sucks in a breath that nearly turned into shocked laughter.
“The son who distinguished himself against Wen Ruohan,” the Lan disciple finishes.
“Ah,” Lan Xichen says. He must nod or otherwise silently dismiss the disciple, because Meng Yao hears the door close.
He lets the blanket droop around his shoulders as he emerges from behind the screen. Lan Xichen is staring at him with careful neutrality.
“His son,” Meng Yao says in wonder and dawning disgust. His fingers itch to straighten robes he’s not wearing. So this is how it will be.
Xichen doesn’t smile. “His son.”
Meng Yao studies Lan Xichen and wants to say, this is your last chance. (My last chance.)
Zewu-Jun does not take it. He walks to Meng Yao and touches the still damp ends of his hair. He says softly, “This is what you’ve wanted.” And this to Xichen means a father, a name, recognition, a place.
“This is what I’ve wanted,” Meng Yao agrees, and this to him means Xichen’s fingers twined in his hair, looking at him, just at him.
But that’s not an option, is it. Not unless he wants to live as vulnerable as his mother for the rest of his life. Though Lan Xichen would treat him with better kindness, it would still be the same.
The food can wait. He’ll dress in the borrowed clothes and go directly to Jin Guanshan, as if eager, to listen to what his father will make of him. That will be a place he can burrow into, build a palace of his own, a world not in Xichen’s image but in Jin Guanshan’s.
Meng Yao clenches his jaw at the flash-vision of Baxia arcing toward his face, his heart. He hides the tension behind a bow that looses the blanket from his body. It slips down to the floor, and Lan Xichen does not catch his wrists until it’s too late. Meng Yao has already softened his expression, and looks back up to Xichen’s pink ears, his fluster.
With a flirtatious smile, Meng Yao lifts onto his toes and kisses Xichen lightly on the lips. Then he turns his back to Lan Xichen and walks naked with all the grace he can manage to the stack of folded clothes. As he slips into the basics of a retainer’s underthings and two layers of unaffiliated robes, he wonders vaguely how he would dress if he had nobody to perform for.
Lan Xichen brings him his belt, boots, and Hensheng, placing them on the floor beside Meng Yao. He waits as Meng Yao finishes preparing, and then Xichen holds out a comb of gleaming black horn. May I? he asks with his eyes.
Meng Yao lowers his lashes and shakes his head in a soft no. “I should go. Jin Guanshan is not a patient man.”
He takes one step to pass Lan Xichen, but Xichen sucks in a slight breath. Meng Yao stops, their shoulders brushing, as they face in opposite directions. He does not glance to the side, afraid of what he’ll see in Xichen’s expression, or what he won’t. Meng Yao does put on a little smile, though, placating and smooth. It’s the kind Lan Xichen thinks he can see through. And maybe he can, but tonight Meng Yao doesn’t mind if Xichen sees the effort it takes to appear both courageous and small.
“I don’t want to see new scars on your body after this, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen finally says, head tilted ever-so-slightly down and toward Meng Yao. He’s flirting.
Meng Yao’s heart stutters, but his breath does not. Nor does he flinch at the sharp, cold certainty that lodges like a needle under his heart. He glances sidelong up at Xichen, and they are so close. Standing shoulder to shoulder. He says, “You won’t.”
Then Meng Yao leaves, wishing he’d been flirting, too.