The setting sun turned the mountains to a roaring blaze, as though a god had set fire to the world. Vibrant, violent reds cascaded over untouched, snow-capped peaks, vicious in their intensity, sparks of orange and gold crashing over the shadows and hills and valleys.
It was late now but sabers still clashed in the courtyard, the sound ringing through the fortress. Qinghe was as vibrant as a wildfire in autumn at the best of times— there was no true silence to be found here.
It was nothing like Cloud Recesses, but Lan Xichen loved it all the same.
More, sometimes, if he was honest with himself.
The brash, harsh joy in life that the Nie Clan cultivated along with their sabers was fascinating and addictive; Lan Xichen knew that this clan was considered crude by most other cultivators, his own disciples and elders included. He had thought the same for a while as well— how wrong he had been.
How wrong everyone had been.
A clatter of metal touching stone, an annoyed groan followed by bellowing laughter and playful jeers, the words muffled by distance but affection clear in the shouting. Disciples sparring with each other despite the late hour, unconcerned by the rules Lan Xichen had had carved into his soul since birth.
The laughter drifted away as the disciples vanished further into the courtyard, further away from Lan Xichen’s open window.
Silence, brief and odd in Qinghe, followed their departure, although not for long. Another group must have taken their place; Lan Xichen listened to the sound of three voices weaving a melody that was unique to their world, an argumentative conversation that would have made a cultivator from any other clan blanch.
So fierce in their love, so loud in their friendship, so ready to take on the world and win.
Another laugh, then the ringing of sabers clashing in an enclosure of stone.
Lan Xichen smiled as he watched clouds cover over the sun, his hand trailing idly through the bath that he rested in.
Heat rose in the air like a cloud around his body, a misty cloak that draped over his shoulders and curled the tips of his hair. The petals of blue orchids drifted through the water as Lan Xichen shifted; his smile turned soft, his fingers reaching out and caressing their beauty.
Mingjue was never subtle in his love— had never been. It had been Lan Xichen who had not understood, all those years ago when his world had been toppled by the intense gaze of a visiting disciple, a classmate for the lecture that Lan Xichen truly had not wanted to attend.
Dripping fingers sorted through the floating petals, dancing over the sea of color spread before him.
Blue orchids floating in steaming water, a bath drawn for Lan Xichen in the privacy of Mingjue’s own rooms. How obvious they must be, to those who were allowed to see it.
Lan Xichen plucked a petal from the bath and regarded it with a lazy gaze, his thumb smoothing over the softness that the water had not yet altered. It was small but perfect; Lan Xichen lifted it to his lips, then rested it on his chest. A silly little action, but who cared? There was no one here to see him, no one who would dare to enter this room.
It was silent, despite the noise that never faded in the Unclean Realm.
This room was built to relax, and it did its job wonderfully— wide open windows to view the setting sun, a tub large enough to house three or four let alone just Lan Xichen, heated to steaming with a perfection that a simple talisman would never be able to match.
Summer’s hold was weakening despite the harsh sun’s best efforts; the nights were cold and would only get colder, the harvests were finishing up, the world readying itself for winter. Lan Xichen exhaled softly and watched the steam move from his breath; lifted a knee, watched water roll down his skin.
Mingjue’s voice was a low rumble from the other room, a counter to the disciples still working diligently in the yard.
It felt… it felt indolent, to lay here and let the heat of the water wash away the strain of the past weeks. It was an indulgence that Lan Xichen luxuriated in, firm in the knowledge that this was all he needed to do. There was no paperwork for him here, no hesitant disciples who needed clarification from their Clan Leader, no elders to demand his time and his constant presence.
Just Mingjue, who had been caught by work.
Lan Xichen could not fault him for that— never could and never would. Their lives were not meant to be easy; he repaid Mingjue’s kindness when his lover appeared in Cloud Recesses, a storm on his face and an earthquake in his hands; the days when Baxia’s red gleam refused to fade.
Give and take, push and pull.
Lan Xichen rested his head against the edge of the bath and let his eyes slide shut, a soft sigh slipping from his slightly parted lips.
How fortunate that fate had gifted him someone who understood; that Lan Xichen had taken the hand that Mingjue had extended when they were still children, well before their worlds had crashed down around their ears.
Lan Xichen felt his lips curve into a smile at the memory; slit his eyes open and watched the sun sink behind the mountains in a slow, lingering descent. Darkness crept through the room as the reds and golds turned to violets and blues, the flickering flames of the candles washing the room in warm, honey-colored light.
Mingjue was still speaking to whoever had delayed him; Lan Xichen listened with half an ear, unwilling to eavesdrop when he merely wanted to hear the man he loved speak.
A brief laugh rang through the walls— it must be Huaisang then, or Zonghui. Lan Xichen smiled in reaction, his heart relaxing at the sound. A laugh was rare, now, and precious to Lan Xichen; to everyone who loved Mingjue.
Lan Xichen silently forgave whoever it was for delaying Mingjue from joining him, stirring the water with a lazy twist of his wrist. Still hot, still perfect.
There was a bubble of peace in the air of this room, one that remained unbroken despite the sudden, unruly burst of noise from outside— it would have sent Lan Qiren into a rage at the hour. Lan Xichen smiled instead.
Sharp laughter, offended replies; friends engaging in a battle of tempers that set off another bout of sparring. Lan Xichen huffed a laugh at the sharp sting of metal meeting metal and shook his head, but there was nothing but fondness in his heart. The disciples of this sect were open and honest, and their hearts burned as bright as a midsummer sun even in the darkest of nights.
He loved them, as fiercely as he did his own clan.
Silence from the other room told him Mingjue was finally free; Lan Xichen relaxed into the water, let his leg slide back beneath the surface. He wondered if Mingjue would still join him— it had been a long meeting, this unanticipated setback, and his love had already been tired.
He wondered what had been discussed.
He decided he did not care.
A door opened; a door closed. The whisper of boots on wood told Lan Xichen where Mingjue was as he moved through the room— the sharp slide of Baxia settling into her stand, a breath of relief from the man that Lan Xichen ached to hold.
He remained where he was as all movement paused; he would go to Mingjue or Mingjue would come to him, but they would be together for the rest of the night. Lan Xichen would make sure of it.
A deep exhale told Lan Xichen to stay where he was, the sound of clothing being tossed carelessly to the floor whispering through the room. He shut his eyes for a little while, listening instead.
Boots were shuffled off and tossed to the side, the sparse jewelry Mingjue wore clinking as they landed on the table, a breath of relief as a heavy guan was removed and set down.
Lan Xichen could picture how Mingjue looked at this moment; standing in the middle of the room, completely bare and uncaring of his nudity, his hands working out the braids that held his hair. A sight Lan Xichen had seen before and would see again— he smiled as bare feet padded through the room and came closer.
Large, warm hands landed on Lan Xichen’s shoulders and pressed down; thumbs reverent as they stroked softly up the back of his neck.
Mingjue bent forward and pressed his nose to Lan Xichen’s hair, inhaling deeply. He sighed as Lan Xichen shifted, a relieved sound, a tired sound. Lan Xichen brought his hands up from the water and covered Mingjue’s, the silence between them as deep and thick as honey, and just as sweet.
Water dripped over tanned hands: Lan Xichen turned and pressed his lips to fingers that had never touched him with anything less than utter adoration. Fingers that lifted from his skin to tilt his head back, that offered the line of his throat and the curve of his lips to Mingjue’s gaze.
Lan Xichen opened his eyes and lifted his hand and dragged Mingjue down to meet him.
Warm lips met his, heavy with the promise of always, soft with the promise of later. Mingjue pulled away, swiped his thumb over Lan Xichen’s parted lips, his own cheeks flushed from the steam filling the air.
Mingjue bent and brushed his lips over Lan Xichen’s nose and his eyes, caught the hand cradling the side of his face and pressed a kiss to Lan Xichen’s palm, inhaled the scent of orchids from the skin of his wrist. It was easy to slide forward; it was torture to wait until Mingjue was seated behind him, strong hands holding Lan Xichen’s waist now, his shoulders still tight with the tension from the day.
Lan Xichen turned in Mingjue’s lap, abandoning the sight of the stars glittering in the night sky for the chance to lose himself in in the gleam of a dark gaze instead. It was silent now, so silent, despite the water lapping at the edge of the bath. Despite the echoing laughter that filled the courtyard.
Mingjue opened his mouth to speak; Lan Xichen lifted the petal from his own chest and placed it over his lips instead. He knew what was going to be said— I love you, I love you, I love you, a perfect match to the only thing Lan Xichen’s heart would ever say— it was worth it to see amusement flash through Mingjue’s gaze instead.
Lan Xichen sank to the side, turning and tugging until Mingjue was the one reclined in his arms, the tips of dark hair dragging through the water and painting Lan Xichen’s chest with a gentle touch. Petals stained Mingjue’s skin, their color just as gorgeous on tanned skin as on pale— Lan Xichen’s gaze was captivated by the sight.
But he glanced away from the flowers to look at Mingjue, who was already looking at him. Who was always looking at him— in battle, in bed, in every possible moment.
Lan Xichen’s lips curved up at the sight of the petal still resting delicately on Mingjue’s lips; he left it there as he urged Mingjue to rest his head on his shoulder.
There would be time to speak later, if Mingjue wanted. Right now, Lan Xichen could feel the strain leaving the body of the man he loved, and that was enough.
He caged Mingjue between his legs and his arms, pressed a kiss to his forehead and then his temple and then his cheek. Lan Xichen took a breath before resting his chin atop Mingjue’s hair— he gazed at the stars, unable to keep the smile from his lips as his lover melted into his embrace.
Mingjue shifted after a moment, reaching out. Lan Xichen grabbed hold of the slowly wandering hand, weaving their fingers together and resting their joined hands on Mingjue’s thigh. Steam filled the air around them, warm and heavy, the flowers still floating on the surface of the water as clashing steel echoed through the night.