I would like it to be clearly understood that this story is all Zhu Zanjin’s fault. He made that one video, and the moment I saw him in all that white I thought "yes, that’s just what Meng Yao would look like if he became part of Lan instead of Jin," whereupon the plotbunny descended upon me rather like a dropped anvil, and a month later I was staring at this fic and feeling a bit hung over.
So here we go, with a hard left turn from canon into a different track.
“Won’t you stay a few more days?”
The words felt like they lodged in Meng Yao’s chest, for his breath to catch on—words of welcome and invitation from the Master of Lan himself. But it was only the courtesy that Lan Xichen showed to all, he reminded himself firmly. It was fine to take this stolen moment of formal farewell to bask in that warmth, but he shouldn’t mistake it for something personal. No matter how he might wish it were, or how it had seemed it might be, for that one moment during the presentation of gifts when their hands had touched. He couldn’t lower his guard just for that. He drew in a breath to offer back light words of excuse. He was still only a servant of Nie, after all, barely even a disciple of the sect, even if Huaisang insisted on braiding his hair up as if he were.
And then he made the mistake of looking up.
Lan Xichen’s smile was warm, and even Meng Yao’s well-developed cynicism couldn’t mistake the genuine welcome of it. He even thought he saw something strangely like hope in Lan Xichen’s eyes, a sincere desire that Meng Yao not go. It shocked truth from his lips that he hadn’t meant to let fall.
“If I stay longer, I’ll only want to keep staying.” The moment he heard what he’d said, he recalled himself sharply and grabbed for his prepared words to deflect that truth before it could be denied by another. “And I’m only…”
“In that case,” Lan Xichen spoke at the same time, and smiled when he and Meng Yao broke off as one. “In that case, Meng-gongzi,” he continued, voice so gentle that Meng Yao had to swallow hard against a surge of hopeless wanting, “allow me to speak to Nie-zongzhu and request it. He is a frank and forthright man; you need to speak directly to secure his understanding, sometimes.”
Meng Yao stood staring at him, caught completely off guard. He had come expecting to spend a few precious moments luxuriating in genuine kindness, because it was clear that was the kind of man Lan Xichen was. He hadn’t expected this. “I…” He halted there, groping for words or even thoughts to deal with such generous care. Should he? It was another risk of rejection from the disciples here, but the sponsorship, however brief, of the Master of Lan might balance that. Should he?
Lan Xichen spread his hands, inviting but not pressing. Meng Yao had noticed that—Lan Xichen didn’t press, didn’t repress or chide directly, only led by action. “May I?”
Meng Yao took in a slow breath, hoping distantly that Lan Xichen wouldn’t see how it shook, and chose. “Please.” He swept into a deferential bow. “Forgive the trouble I put you to…”
Lan Xichen caught his arms, hands firm for all their grace. “You and I are of an age; there’s no need for such formality.”
Meng Yao raised his head and was struck breathless again by the earnestness of those dark eyes on him. Hesitantly he straightened, and was rewarded with an approving nod and a shade of satisfaction in Lan Xichen’s smile. “If you wish it,” he agreed softly.
The simple words settled Meng Yao. This summer would be a risk, yes, and he had no doubt it would wear on his control with a good eight or nine sects worth of pampered disciples whispering over his inclusion, but he had this guide rope to hold to: Lan Xichen wished him to be here, and wished him to hold his head up. He would do so, then. He took a breath and raised his chin and dared to meet Lan Xichen’s eyes directly. “Thank you, Lan-zongzhu.”
He nearly floated back to his rooms on the strength of the smile he got in return for that.
“I told you so!” Huaisang declared when he returned, still dripping wet, from his jaunt around the mountain with Wei Wuxian. He waved the roll of message paper that a very young Lan disciple had delivered to their suite of rooms. “Da-ge says you should stay, if you like.”
Another time, Meng Yao might have asked exactly how Huaisang come to fall full-length into water and clearly not mind, and possibly have put in a word or two of caution about associating with someone who had obviously chosen to thumb his nose at the whisperers, with glee and with emphasis, at every opportunity. Huaisang had a rebellious streak of his own, for all that most people didn’t recognize it, and normally Meng Yao tried not to encourage it. But right now, Meng Yao was too occupied with shock at the idea that Lan Xichen, the Lord of Wild Brilliance1 himself, had clearly sent a message immediately to the Nie sect, with enough urgency to be answered at once.
On Meng Yao’s behalf.
Huaisang nudged his shoulder against Meng Yao’s, smiling at him sidelong. “Told you he’d agree,” he repeated.
“You did,” Meng Yao finally answered, with a faint laugh of disbelief.
Huaisang made a satisfied humming sound and went off to change his robes with a spring in his step. Meng Yao, for his part, sank down beside the table in their sitting room and tried to re-order his plans. He hadn’t had one for this place, beyond the presentation of gifts itself, and being taken note of as the second Nie representative. Now… now he had an entire summer of intensive study, the kind he’d never had opportunity for before. It felt as though he’d been climbing a sheer cliff face, one reach after another, only to have someone open a door through the stone itself and hold it for him. He needed to take advantage of this time.
And, the thought followed, slow and unaccustomed, he needed to accept this gift of Lan Xichen’s.
“Meng Yao!” Huaisang sang out, popping back out of his sleeping room trailing an armful of white. “Here. You’ll need this tomorrow.” He spilled an overrobe with the Nie crest on the shoulder into Meng Yao’s arms.
Meng Yao gathered it up with a helpless smile. “Huaisang…” He swallowed hard and said to the armful of silk, “You know I’m going to make you do your homework, if I’m here.”
“Only if you’re not too busy with Zewu-jun.” Meng Yao looked up, started by Huaisang’s slyly knowing tone.
“That isn’t…! It was just his natural kindness, Huaisang, that’s all.” He had to think that, or he didn’t know what he’d do.
Huaisang tapped his furled fan against his lips, smirking faintly. “Hmmm, I wonder. Lan-zongzhu doesn’t normally take much interest in the summer lecture students is all I’m saying.” And on that slightly alarming note, he wandered back toward his sleeping room.
Meng Yao clutched the white student’s robe and tried to re-order his thoughts when it felt as though the whole world had just tilted.
A few lectures on found Meng Yao at once pleased, exasperated, excited, and possessed of a persistent headache.
He was pleased by the lectures. They were clearly laid out and provided the kind of coherent explanations for cultivation practices that Meng Yao had spent his entire literate life wishing for. He took meticulous notes.
He was exasperated that Huaisang had attended going on three years of such lectures and still couldn’t answer most of Lan Qiren’s questions. He knew for a fact that Huaisang could have mastered the concepts in a month, at most, if he applied himself, but there was Huaisang’s stubborn streak once again.
He was excited because each lecture helped him fit another bit of the patchwork study from his youth into a sensible whole, letting him either confirm or discard those bits with increasing confidence. He spent his evenings with his notes spread over any table that offered privacy, jotting down his thoughts and speculations.
His headache was named Wei Wuxian, and he could only be thankful that Wei-gongzi seemed far more focused on Lan Wangji than on Huaisang. There’d have been no homework of any sort getting done, otherwise, and Meng Yao couldn’t quite stifle the suspicion that that was the real reason Nie-zongzhu had agreed to let him stay the summer.
Meng Yao glanced around the smaller of Cloud Recesses’ public meditation gardens with a sigh, hands planted on his hips. Huaisang wasn’t here, which meant he was almost certainly around the back of the mountain with Wei Wuxian again, and most likely Jiang-gongzi with them given that Meng Yao hadn’t encountered the young man making his own search. Well, at least Jiang Wanyin might be a small restraint on what they got up to. Hopefully.
Meng Yao whirled around, heart leaping up before he even laid eyes on Lan Xichen, standing behind him on the path. “Lan-zongzhu.” He started to bow, only to be stopped by a swift hand under his arm. His cheeks were hot as he straightened, but he made himself look up and was promptly lost in the pleased smile Lan Xichen gave him. “Were you looking for someone?” Lan Xichen asked.
In the final analysis, Meng Yao liked Huaisang too much to use the threat of the Master of Lan to herd him back into line, so he smiled and shook his head. “It was nothing urgent.” He firmly set aside the thought that he liked Lan Xichen too well to share even his passing attention.
He nearly swallowed his tongue in shock when Lan Xichen swept out an inviting arm. “Will you walk a little with me, then? I’ve been wanting to ask how you find your time with us, so far.”
“I… If you wish,” Meng Yao managed, and stepped slowly to his side. He was, distantly, glad that Lan Xichen directed their steps down the smooth stone path beside one of the mountain’s many streams; he wasn’t sure he’d have been able to pull enough of his attention off Lan Xichen himself to not trip on a rougher path.
“My uncle has spoken well of your diligence,” Lan Xichen remarked, as they strolled along the green curve of one bank. “Are such scholarly studies a thing you enjoy?”
The easy compliment, so casual, so matter-of-fact, scattered Meng Yao’s thoughts and made him grope for an answer to the actual question. “This is a welcome chance for me to discover such things, certainly.”
Lan Xichen smiled, holding out a hand to guide him down the turn to a footbridge. “I’m glad, then. I hoped it was that, and not that you felt at all excluded.”
“Oh no, not at all!” Which was not entirely true, and Lan Xichen’s look of quiet regret said he heard the note of falseness in Meng Yao’s quick assurance. Meng Yao looked down. “I really do value the time to go over my notes, and think through the implications,” he murmured. Lan Xichen’s hand rested for a moment on his shoulder, and his breath caught; he almost thought he could feel the warmth through his robes, brief as the touch was.
“You can always come to me, if you have questions about the lectures,” Lan Xichen offered.
Meng Yao looked up at him quickly, eyes widening. “Oh, but I couldn’t—”
“I would like it,” Lan Xichen cut him off gently, and the sincerity of his voice caught Meng Yao’s attention. Possibilities fanned out through his mind, as reflexive as breath. Did Lan Qiren’s long tenure as the summer teacher displace Lan Xichen? Did it deprive him of renown, or of teaching itself? Did Lan Xichen wish to influence other sects more directly? Or was it Lan Wangji’s strict perfection of learning that took away his brother’s chance to guide?
Some of that, at least, he could test for right now.
“I’m afraid I would trouble you with my lack of knowledge,” he said softly, casting his eyes down. “So much of this is new to me.”
“Not at all.” Lan Xichen’s fingers rested under his elbow, a tiny graceful reminder of how he’d caught Meng Yao’s bows short, and Meng Yao was just about to put a mental mark next to ‘enjoys teaching and misses it’ and lift his head when Lan Xichen continued, “So you truly are self taught, then? Mingjue-xiong said that he thought you might be, but that you learned so very quickly he couldn’t be sure.”
Meng Yao’s eyes shot back up, wide and startled, and he felt his heart beating quicker. Lan Xichen had been testing him, and he hadn’t even realized! The man’s smile was still gentle, though, still earnest when he added, “Clearly you have little true need of help, but I would be happy to assist with those questions you do have.”
“I…” Meng Yao’s thoughts jumbled together with the sudden shift in direction as he tried to fit this sharp perception and subtlety together with the through-line of Lan Xichen’s solicitous care for the servant of another sect. One he’d suspected was mostly untaught. But even before that, Lan Xichen had stepped forward to welcome and deftly defend him…
Defend him. The only one in the room who’d needed it.
Teach him. The only one present who did need it, and who might welcome it.
The conclusion settled into place, and Meng Yao’s racing thoughts settled around it. Lan Xichen wished to take care of those around him. To be able to do something for those around him. Between an uncle who probably still considered the Lan sect his own care, and a younger brother so clearly determined to be perfect, to be no trouble, no wonder Lan Xichen had learned to be subtle about it.
No wonder Meng Yao had caught his eye, just as Lan Xichen had caught Meng Yao’s. Their needs might fit together very well indeed.
Meng Yao didn’t have to feign the deep breath he took, or the nervous clasp of his hands. He’d never anticipated an opportunity like this path opening up before his feet, and it would be a risk to take it. He didn’t dare take the chance that Lan Xichen’s own want would entirely blind him; Meng Yao would have to offer up his own genuine need, to secure Lan Xichen’s action on his behalf. He would have to give more of his genuine self than he normally dared to. But in return he might find himself sheltered under the hand of the Lord of Wild Brilliance.
Meng Yao wet his lips and looked up to meet Lan Xichen’s gaze. “If my ignorance will not trouble you too greatly,” he took a tiny step toward Lan Xichen, “I would be deeply grateful for your instruction.”
It wasn’t until Lan Xichen’s smile softened and warmed that Meng Yao realized just how tightly he must have been restraining himself, waiting to see whether Meng Yao would accept or not. “It will be my pleasure.” This time, when he held out an arm to guide Meng Yao down the path, it curved closer around him. Unexpected warmth rushed through Meng Yao, from head to toe, so strong it stole his breath, and he ducked his head again as he walked on, close by Lan Xichen’s side.
Shelter. Genuine shelter. He’d thought he’d never feel it again.
When he got back to his rooms, Huaisang was out by the sitting room table. He took one look at Meng Yao and positively grinned. “So, did Zewu-jun find you?”
Meng Yao stopped short and considered entreating the Heavens for patience. “You hid and then told him where to find me,” he stated, because it really wasn’t a question at all.
Huaisang unfurled his fan with a delicate snap and blinked innocently over the edge of it. “Just being helpful to our host.”
Meng Yao laughed helplessly; perhaps Huaisang was learning a little more from his example than Nie Mingjue had quite anticipated. “Yes, he did, so you can desist now, truly.”
Huaisang made a satisfied little hum, and took himself off toward his sleeping room. Meng Yao shook his head and tried to regather his composure. His eyes fell on his notes, still sitting out.
Perhaps… perhaps he would just jot down a few questions to bring to Lan Xichen tomorrow.
Nie Huaisang peeked around the corner of one of the more remote pavilions, and ducked back, gesturing to his companions to come closer. A grinning Wei Wuxian, trailed by a Jiang Wanyin who was rolling his eyes, scurried up to join him and they all peeked around the corner.
Lan Xichen sat on one of the benches inside, head tilted toward Meng Yao, who perched beside him, hands moving through the air as if he might shape whatever question he was asking that way.
In Huaisang’s rather expert opinion, the student uniform suited Meng Yao. The light-weight fabric showed how fine-boned he really was, and the simple white of them brought out how large and liquid and dark his eyes were. When Huaisang’s brother had first taken Meng Yao into the sect, Huaisang had wondered a little if having someone even smaller than he was around was supposed to be some kind of encouragement to pay more attention to the physical arts. After all, if Meng Yao could do it, presumably Huaisang could too. Meng Yao had turned out to be really nice, though! He’d only ever scolded a little, and he’d been quick to deflect any lectures from the sect elders about Huaisang’s duties. On the way here, he’d let Huaisang take time to catch the finch he’d spotted with only a rueful head-shake over it, and he’d headed off the drunk advances of that one man at the inn just over the border with no more than a glare. A really scary glare, admittedly, but the point was, Huaisang liked Meng Yao.
So of course he had to show off Meng Yao’s good luck to his other friends.
Lan Xichen said something back. The river was too close, here, to hear what, but his voice was low and gentle. Meng Yao listened raptly, face turned up to him like a flower to the sun.
“Wow,” Wei Wuxian whispered in a slightly awed tone. “You were absolutely right. He really does have it bad.”
“I know, right?” Huaisang grinned gleefully and then flapped his sleeve at them. “Oh, here, watch!”
Meng Yao said something, head cocked questioningly, and Lan Xichen nodded, giving him a warm and encouraging smile. Meng Yao burst into an answering smile, sweet and bright, just like a flower blooming.
“And he doesn’t even know it!” Huaisang whispered.
Wei Wuxian gave him a look of disbelief. “No,” he scoffed, “how could either of them possibly be missing it?”
“I’m not sure about Zewu-jun,” Huaisang admitted, “but Meng Yao has no idea. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even know he’s in love, yet.” At Wei Wuxian’s astonished look, he turned his hands palm up, helpless. “He’ll figure it out eventually, I’m sure.”
“But it’s so obvious!” Before Wei Wuxian could protest any further on that, though, a straight figure in white moved into view on the bank of the river. It drew his attention like a hook sunk in a fish.
“Lan Zhan!” And Wei Wuxian was off, trotting down the path to catch up with Lan Wangji, whose stiff body language said he was maybe considering running the other way behind that flat expression. Wei Wuxian ignored this to drape an arm over Lan Wangji’s shoulders.
Huaisang exchanged the exasperated look of younger brothers everywhere with Jiang Wanyin. “He’s going to figure it out eventually, too,” Huaisang observed. “I just wonder if he’ll do it before Lan er-gongzi tries to cut his arm off.”
Jiang Wanyin’s mouth tightened. “Probably not,” he muttered, glowering after the sibling who’d abandoned them so abruptly. Huaisang patted his shoulder in sympathy.
And then he peeked back around the corner, because entertainment this amazing was hard to come by. Besides, he’d need to know exactly when to push a little harder, to get Meng Yao to figure things out.
Huaisang hid a grin. There were some compensations for always being the little brother.
1. Lan Xichen’s title is 泽芜君 Zewu-jun. 泽 Ze is fairly easy to read here as luster/shine; I quite like the reading of "brilliant," it comes in useful forms for this title. But translating 芜 wu straightforwardly as overgrown misses the wonderful opportunity to take advantage of the "grown wild" connotation. Therefore, I’m rendering it here as Lord of Wild Brilliance, which has more of the clout one expects from Lan Xichen. back