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blooming into the colour of love

Chapter Text

“Sorry this is so sudden, but-”

Wei Wuxian is coloured a hazy orange illuminated by the setting sun outside, as it lightly accentuates the spreading blush across his cheekbones. He takes a deep, steadying breath, then:

“I've always liked you.”

Lan Wangji is still, the most pristine jade sculpture carved by a master artist and with the appearance of a shining god, upright and unmoving like the icy mountains against the roaring winds. And it fucking terrifies Wei Wuxian. He is too cold, too unresponsive, so Wei Wuxian flails and gathers the scattered remaining pieces of his sanity, glued haphazardly with a joke and laugh.

“Just kidding! Oh man, you should look at your face right now!”

Somehow, Lan Wangji becomes even more glacial, no, stone-like. Concrete, a dull blank wall, and only his dim golden eyes provide any light in the desolate landscape that is his face.

“Shameless.” There are knives, a hundred sharpened to barely nothingness in that single word, and he makes to get up, even though there is still a good fifteen minutes left of Wei Wuxian's detention.

Shit shit shit don't go yet-

“It was a rehearsal! Yeah, I was just practising! On you! Because you're so emotionless, if I can get a response out of you then anyone can fall for my charms!”

Lan Wangji no longer appears to wish for death to everyone in the world and their mother, particularly the one sitting opposite, and Wei Wuxian's unfettered tongue is emboldened by this leeway so minuscule, it is more nanometre than inch.

“Was I cute, huh Lan Zhan? Did I make your heart skip a beat? Was I handsome and irresistible?”

“... Ridiculous.” The knives have vanished and the regularly scheduled iciness has returned. Lan Wangji sits back down, gaze fixed to his hands folded on his lap. He bows his head so his deep hair is a silky curtain, casting a shadow across his flawless face.

“Why me?”

Wei Wuxian feels his grin waver at the corners. Because he really, really wants to hang out with the other boy beyond the dark glares and laughing winks exchanged in the corridor, the detentions they (he) wiles away into the setting sun, the classrooms filled with his chatter of sunbeams and the other’s peaceful silence of twilight. Because-

“I trust you Lan Zhan! You notice every single detail, you can critique me on my confessions of love!”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji nods, his brows tightening into what Wei Wuxian is almost certain to be a pensive expression. (Lan Xichen is the Brother Reader Master, but Wei Wuxian considers himself worthy of second place.) He leans forward eagerly, until he is forced back by Lan Wangji’s hand pointing at his suspiciously empty piece of paper. “Copy the rules until your detention is over.”

“Aw Lan Zhan!”

When the fifteen minutes are over, Wei Wuxian is shaking out his wrist and Lan Wangji is flipping through his lines, interspersed with random doodles. “Old Man Lan really needs to find a new punishment, otherwise he'll face an epidemic of carpal tunnel,” Wei Wuxian jibes lightly, ignoring that tiny voice shoved in the darkest recess of his mind that had been screaming for his bloody murder for the remaining time of the detention. (Besides, he will still have so many opportunities to tell Lan Wangji his feelings, right?)

Lan Wangji does not respond, stacking the papers neatly into a pile that he will promptly hand over to Headmaster Lan. Wei Wuxian laughs and swings his bag over his shoulder, a farewell half-formed when Lan Wangji says quietly, “I will support you.”

He continues, his voice level and clear. “Your confession, it was…” His Adam’s apple bobs and he averts his gaze to the papers in his hands, to the sketch of a chibi him and Wei Wuxian sitting together at the desk. “Too sudden.”

“See, this is what I'm talking about! Hey, after you give these to your old man, I'm taking you out to the noodle bar. I can practise on the way, I bet I can make you smile!”

“Mn.” And with that, Wei Wuxian dances out of the classroom, singing the praises of the restaurant’s chilli noodles to the moon and back, reassured that those words are still held close to his heart. As long as he can do this with Lan Zhan, he is satisfied.

 


 

“Wei Wuxian! Get your ass out of bed this instant, or so god help me-”

“Okay, okay, no need to deepen all those wrinkles.” Wei Wuxian burrows his head into his pillow and groans. It is not a hangover, after the last incident Madam Yu has the house’s alcohol under lock and key, so why does he feel like stepped-on dog shit in a haze of morning breath? He actually did work last night, skipping his usual three bowls of shijie’s god-tier soup for one and Jiang Cheng’s ribs after walking Lan Zhan from the noodle bar and- oh. The previous day's disastrous confession crashes upon him with the force of a tsunami and a torrent of swear words inundate the peaceful morning air.

“For fuck’s sake, I can hear you so don't make me physically drag you down the stairs.” Jiang Cheng's dulcet tones accompanied by fierce pounding on the door invade Wei Wuxian’s ears, so he rolls his eyes and hauls himself out of his bed.

“You’ll never get a girlfriend with that kind of attitude,” he yawns as he saunters past his adopted brother, and with a cackle he dodges the fist aimed at his head and locks himself in the bathroom.

Jiang Yanli looks up from the stove as Wei Wuxian enters the kitchen, her shy features brightened with eagerness, though with a quick glance at her mother’s hardened gaze she turns back to the pancakes, a lotus folded slightly under harsh winds.

“Eat up A-Xian, you have that English test later,” Yanli smiles, heaping Wei Wuxian’s plate with a mountain of pancakes and toppings.

“Shoot, that was today?” His eyes widen, though the effect is marred by his cheeks puffed out like a hamster and his words are distorted by the sheer volume of food in his mouth.

Madam Yu sniffs and places her mug of coffee on the table with a sharp clink. “I hope you were studying last night, rather than doing who knows what.”

“Of course I was!” If scouring the internet and countless cheesy American films and TV shows in order to find inspiration for his confession marathon can be considered as English revision by some, then Wei Wuxian will not take pains to refute that.

“You were quite eager to finish dinner,” Jiang Yanli notes as she ruffles a scowling Jiang Cheng’s hair. She is bowed over her frying pan, and yet her eyes glint, flowers of fire in the darkness as she peeks at her younger brother under her lashes. Wei Wuxian chugs down his coffee in response.

As expected, Jiang Yanli does not hesitate to pounce upon Wei Wuxian as soon as they are out of range of their parents’ eerily heightened senses regarding their children. “So what happened with Lan Wangji?” she asks, ignoring Jiang Cheng’s yelp of surprise.

Wei Wuxian turns around so he is walking backwards, his hands tucked up behind his neck. “It was great! Now I get to confess to Lan Zhan today and tomorrow and the day after that…”

“The fuck? There were too many things wrong with that sentence.” Jiang Cheng drags Wei Wuxian out of a certain collision with a street lamp post with a sharp tug on his ear. “One: why the ice block with a hundred-metre pole stuck up his ass? Two: why the guy you’ve been tormenting since primary school? Three: why confess at all? Four: why are there multiple confessions? Five-”

“It’s fine, it’s fine, I have it sorted! By the end he won’t be able to resist me!”

“The last time you said something like that, the school lab was closed down for a week.”

Rolling his eyes, Wei Wuxian swiftly alights upon the other boy walking towards them with a faint smile on his face, his stance upright yet gentle. “Xiao Xingchen!”

Xiao Xingchen greets his cousin and the Jiang siblings, a mirthful bemusement widening the dark eyes behind his glasses when Wei Wuxian seizes his arm and drags him away. The siblings follow at a distance, watching Wei Wuxian fling his arms in abandon as he attempts to explain something to a nonplussed Xingchen.

“He’s fucked, isn’t he?”

“Now, A-Cheng, I wouldn’t put it like that,” Yanli quietly chides Jiang Cheng. “His affections are genuine, though his actions are a little… misplaced.”

“Face it A-Jie, you’re just grateful you don’t have to share a classroom not only with this idiot, but also the ice block and the peacock.”

Jiang Yanli merely hides a smile behind her palm, a perfect crescent of tender joy.

 


 

Despite every god and the Buddha repeating the same words incessantly in his head, Jin Zixuan is inordinately disappointed when he opens his locker and it is empty bar his textbooks and his small pocket mirror. He has been spoilt, he knows, by a father too cloying and too distant who only knows how to write cheques and worm himself onto the pages of trashy magazines every other week, by relatives who would as readily prostrate themselves at his feet as they would spit and sneer on his grave, by a mother who is as strict and overbearing as a tiger yet showers gifts and praise every other day. And now he has been blinded, unable to know what brushed his closed eyelids until he opened them and could only see the silhouette of a lotus petal.

He eyes his lunchbox, filled to the brim with nutritious food meticulously prepared by their chef, right down to the position of the last edible flower against each individual grain of rice, and shoves it into his locker, not too roughly because that woman gets enough ire from Jin Zixun. The image is still not right, so he slams the door shut, causing the student behind him to jump.

Over the years, he has whittled down the pack that has nipped at his heels, kicking out the hyenas begging for bigger allowances from their parents in return for shadowing the Jin heir and rewarding those few genuine souls with amnesty from his family and undying loyalty. Yan Guanting is one such a example, and has an inordinately long experience dealing with his friend’s tantrums. “Are you okay?” he frowns.

“I'm fine,” Jin Zixuan bites and whips around. He storms to his classroom, dark clouds thundering on the horizon, and does not notice the girl until she collides with his chest and almost drops her books onto his foot.

“Hey-...” Jin Zixuan swallows and looks at the display of the Geography department’s trip, anywhere, just not at her . Mmhmm, igneous rocks, fascinating.

“Oh dear, I'm so sorry Jin Zixuan! Are you alright?”

Jiang Yanli has a hand half outstretched and her delicate fingers almost touch his crisp new designer shirt and there's a tiny crease above her gentle eyes and his mind has ceased to function, so the only words he can spew out are: “Watch where you're going!”

“Watch who you're trying to talk to, peacock,” growls Wei Wuxian at her shoulder, and when did the cavalry come running with standards raised and war horns blaring?

Jiang Cheng, though there is lightning flashing across his face, takes his sister’s shoulder and leads her away. “Come on, we've got class.”

“Ah, A-Cheng, A-Xian…” Jiang Yanli can only smile helplessly as her brothers (read: bodyguards) steer her around Jin Zixuan the Corridor Block and towards the building with the third year classrooms. She turns around slightly, giving a laughing glance and hesitant wave. “Good morning anyway, Jin Zixuan!”

His heart is pounding to the beat of Jiang Yanli’s light steps away from his flushed self, and he almost misses Wei Wuxian pointing two fingers to his eyes, then at him, even at the end of the corridor and above the heads of the students milling around. (If pressed, they may say they are disappointed they will not witness the second round of Jiang Brothers vs Jin Peacock, but nor do they have the wish to write the four thousand rules of the Cloud Recesses Academy ten times.)

“We… should go.” Somehow he is dragged to his classroom and drops onto his seat, as physically far away from the side the Jiang brothers inhabit. Lan Wangji glances up briefly from his book and nods, a gesture he hastily returns until he rests his head in his arms, groaning. He does not even bother to raise his head when he hears the cheerful voice characteristic of Wei Wuxian’s arrival, though he does raise his eyebrows at the exchange with Lan Wangji.

(“Lan Zhan, I love you!”

“Too public. Bad timing.”)

It is lunchtime too soon though he feels the minutes have crept by at a soul-suckingly slow pace. Jin Zixuan is standing in front of his locker once more, poking at the snow-white rice and lightly-seasoned vegetables, when he stiffens.

Jiang Yanli is a few metres away, laughing as she converses with a stuttering Wen Ning. “No, you deserved that medal at the archery competition! Your sister told me it was your best performance yet.”

She is bright and so, so lovely, exuding a tender radiance like the spring sun, so that every flower will raise its head and follow that star for a drop of its kindness. When has she ever looked at him like that?

The expression on his face is ugly and twisted, a rictus as sour as the vinegar carefully decanted into the mini bottle to accompany his lunch. “Um… Are you-”

“Take it.” He shoves the lunchbox into Yan Guanting’s chest, ignores the stammered “Th-thanks?” and turns on his heel. There is a magnolia tree, standing tall and graceful in the centre of the third year courtyard, and in spite of all his efforts to avoid it in the past few months, that is now his destination. Desperate times call for desperate measures after all.

They are there, as expected. Nie Mingjue is lying on his back, his jacket flung over his face as his rants about his younger brother can be heard a whole building away. Lan Xichen nods and hums in response, flipping through a novel and making notes in the margins with a pencil. And he, his last resort, is sitting cross legged on the bench, tapping at his phone screen.

“Zixuan! What a pleasant surprise,” Jin Guangyao says, a refreshing smile on his face. Pleasant surprise, my arse.

“I need to speak with you - alone,” he grits out. The tone of his voice causes a touch of concern to grace Lan Xichen’s gaze, while Nie Mingjue snorts and lifts his jacket off from his face.

“Ah, of course!” Jin Guangyao slips his phone into his pocket, gives a brief smile to Lan Xichen and a soft sigh when Nie Mingjue comments, “If he's annoying, tell me and I'll beat him up.” He leads Jin Zixuan through the flowerbeds and koi fish ponds, to a secluded corner out of sight from the main school buildings.

Jin Guangyao does not say anything at first, his lips curved into faint smile that does not touch his piercing eyes. He is tiny, so why is Jin Zixuan feeling like he is an ant scrambling away from a human idly pondering whether it is worth having ant guts on the soles of their platform boots?

He clears his throat, and reluctantly begins, “I need… advice, regarding-”

“Jiang Yanli?”

Jin Zixuan chokes. “H-How did you know?!”

Chuckling lightly, Jin Guangyao holds up five fingers. “Our father has not embroiled himself in any scandals yet-” he puts down one finger, “your mother is as terrifyingly assertive as always, our cousins have been subdued since the last family reunion, Silver and Spirit are as well as your mutts can be, so that leaves-” he is left with his index finger which he points to Jin Zixuan’s chest, like a lawyer refuting the opposition, “Miss Jiang, Jiang Yanli.”

Jin Zixuan scowls and crosses his arms. He should not be surprised, after all, Guangyao had been there during the brawl the year before, and even held back Zixuan from any threatening pieces of furniture he could either throw at Wei Wuxian’s head or bash his own brains out against, he is still not quite sure.

“I need… information,” he says stiffly. Jin Guangyao’s eyes glint and his smile widens, while Zixuan swallows back his pride and blood.

Perhaps in other schools around the country, teenagers will dabble in illegal substances, bottles and pills swapping hands in the shadowed corridors that would only ever be cleaned once a term at most. Nonetheless, this is the Cloud Recesses Academy under the all-seeing eye of Headmaster Lan Qiren, and every single surface is polished to a gleam by a team of what must be highly-efficient house elves. Instead, what Jin Guangyao deals with is information.

No student leaves or enters without his knowledge, he has unprecedented access to records (by his friendship with the Headmaster’s nephew - said nephew is still very much oblivious) and a reckless daring to approach any student whether by his pleasantries and charms or the hulking presence of Nie Mingjue at his shoulder (Jin Guangyao works behind within the shadows, Nie Mingjue prefers to beat the living shits out of the bullies in broad daylight - no one is quite sure how their relationship works, and yet it does so they do not question it).

Jin Guangyao knows something about everyone, and if that did not make him enough of a midget Chinese rip-off Regina George, Zixuan is all too familiar with his eidetic memory that notes each and every happening with a crystal-clear clarity. Every single event of any and no significance is there, all in a cross-referenced mental record thicker than the tome containing the four thousand rules. And so, he must admit, Guangyao is the best source he has available.

“I need information. Her classes, clubs…”

“Ah, but I thought you would have those trivial details memorised already?”

“Of course I haven’t memorised it all yet!” Jin Zixuan freezes, then curses mentally as Jin Guangyao regards him with a beguiling smile.

Jin Zixuan coughs into his fist, avoiding having Guangyao’s amiable veneer anywhere within his line of sight. “J-Just the times when- when her brothers…”

“I see.” Jin Guangyao giggles, a light thing that dissipates into the breeze, as his hand is already in his pocket to brandish his phone. Zixuan believes he can be forgiven for flinching away from it slightly, a weapon of mass destruction is its true identity.

Guangyao swiftly unlocks it and begins tapping at the screen, commenting blithely, “Expect to receive a message within the next twenty-four hours, please don’t expect too much over what you already have, I-”

“In exchange,” Zixuan levels his voice, stands back with fists clenched firmly at his sides, as if he is conducting a deal with a fellow business heir. “I will persuade my mother to allow you to come to Lanling for a few weeks as an intern under our father.”

Jin Guangyao is well-practised, letting barely a tremble interrupt the furious staccato rhythm his fingers tap out, and yet even Zixuan is certain he saw the briefest of stumbles, a hiccup in the efficient manipulations.

“I thank you for such a kind offer. It was wonderful doing business with you.” Jin Guangyao bows slightly, and though Zixuan is sorely tempted to punch something (or someone), he smothers the flames with a haughty nod and long strides back to the second year buildings and his lunch. (Yan Guanting, bless his fumbling heart, has barely touched it, apart from the bamboo shoots he knows Jin Zixuan dislikes.)

He ponders his half-brother as he eats, and finds himself nursing a tiny spark of pity. He has seen how the other approaches his mother and their father’s countless assistants, waving spotless grades and glowing letters of recommendations, including from Nie Mingjue’s father. The only spoils of Jin Guangyao’s efforts have been a written guarantee to continue providing his mother with monthly financial support until he is eighteen and a reluctant acceptance into the family tree.

And yet he yearns for more, for a position in spite of his low status, a father in spite of how they share nothing but genes with a man more influenced by a pretty face than anything else. Jin Guangyao, with his crafty intellect and natural charisma, does not deserve having to chase after the back of someone who would never spare him a glance.

Zixuan sighs around a mouthful of lotus roots, promising to himself that while he will complete his side of the exchange, perhaps a few strings can be pulled to bring Jin Guangyao to their side of sanity. His phone pings and all thoughts of how he can convince Guangyao their father is a smarmy walking bag of shit is shoved into a box and stacked away into a dusty corner of his mind, for the devil has heard and made contact.

The spreadsheet spans several pages and is detailed to the exact minute, an impressive feat in forty minutes for anyone other than Jin Guangyao. After several frantic minutes comparing and comparing again the spreadsheet with his own schedule, he deflates as swiftly as a popped balloon.

“I can make this work,” he mutters. Yan Guanting does not comment on the hint of desperation he can hear.

This is his mission for Jiang Yanli’s heart, and so nothing is beyond reach.

 


 

Song Lan is clearing away the scattered pieces of paper strewn across the desk (who knew discussions about plot timelines can get this heated) when Mianmian taps his shoulder and says, “Hey, someone's here for you.”

He does not need to look at the doorway, for he has his image imprinted in his mind, but he still nods and smiles at Xiao Xingchen waiting patiently to one side. Mianmian notices his gaze and smirks, her fingers gripping the cover of the novel they are reading for the book club almost hard enough to crease it. Song Lan determinedly pays no heed and treats his own copy with much more respect, slotting it amongst his school books then hiking his bag up his shoulder.

The book this month is Mianmian’s choice, a xianxia fantasy after his historical heavy with political intrigue. Since she has never bothered to hide her preference of genre, or rather couple, Song Lan had been wary of her eagerness when she first presented the novel. The positive reviews had eventually won him over, including one by a Peerless Cucumber whose word the book club, within reason, takes as gospel. And so when Song Lan leaves the classroom, his novel is covered in almost enough sticky notes to make their own book.

“How are you, Zichen?” Xiao Xingchen asks, his expression open and earnest.

Song Lan sighs, the tension after a particularly lengthy disagreement easing away with Xingchen’s calming presence. “I'm good, I'm good. Are you ready to go?”

“Mm, Xue Yang will join us at the main entrance.” Song Lan grimaces a little at the mention of the first year, and Xingchen smiles a little helplessly. “He is rather nice when you get to know him,” he chides gently. “He looks like an eager puppy whenever I give him sweets for getting a question right.”

“More like a cat playing with a mouse,” Song Lan grumbles, while Xingchen simply laughs. Their conversation can be heard echoing brightly down the corridor.

Nie Huaisang opens his fan with a flick of his wrist, though his cool aura is ruined by the inexplicable presence of a turtle painted on his fan. “Do you think they're dating?” he whisper-shouts to Mianmian.

She snorts, “As sure as this Light Bearer’s love for the Patriarch of the Dead.”

Song Lan is listening at Xiao Xingchen's words, smiling at the hesitant jokes and nodding to his opinions, until he sees an eyelash, small and inconsequential, on the lens of his glasses, and he panics. Does he tell Xingchen? His hands itch to brush it off himself, yet that would take him into close proximity with his pale cheeks and he has no right to overstep the boundary here-

“If it isn't the two Daozhangs!” For once, Song Lan is grateful for the hooligan, though he shoots a glare at Xue Yang who cackles and saunters off, a bright red lollipop hanging carelessly from his mouth. He knows he never should have lent the menace his dog-eared collection of xianxia novels, initially an offer of peace after the boy had voiced a passing interest. Reaping what he has sown, Song Lan now endures the nickname whenever he encounters Xue Yang - he has even corrupted A-Qing into parroting it everywhere.

The brief walk to the middle school division is relatively peaceful, Xue Yang making acerbic comments every so often to Xiao Xingchen's lilting stories as Song Lan sighs. The quiet is disturbed by a enthusiastic, “Daozhang!” and a girl barrelling into Xingchen’s arms.

“Daozhang, do you think I'm ugly?” A-Qing sniffles in lieu of a greeting. She gives a firm, “Fuck off,” to Xue Yang’s insult (“When have you ever not been ugly?”) and regards her maths tutor and dear friend with wide, trembling eyes.

“A-Qing has always been beautiful,” Xingchen says gently as he strokes her hair.

She has huffs and stamps her feet. “You're just saying that! Song Lan, tell me!”

“Uh…” Words are bounced around between them, sometimes fluttering idly and other times batted faster than Olympic table tennis players. Eventually Xingchen relents and hands over the bag of sweets he takes with him everywhere, as A-Qing cheers and skips away, waving the bag in front Xue Yang smugly.

“Share, won't you Little Blind?” Xue Yang says, his mouth curling into a sharp leer before darting out for the bag. A-Qing dances away, sticking out her tongue.

“Nuh-uh! Daozhang gave me this himself, you earn your own!”

Xue Yang and A-Qing spend the walk back squabbling over sweets and every other thing under the sun. Xingchen laughs, a soft sound of bells carried by a breeze of summer dusk, and Song Lan swallows his scoldings. He is still all too thankful for these maths students turned friends (and children?) for allowing him to discover this delicate treasure.

They part ways at the foster care home, as A-Qing yells a resounding, “You better not put any more shit in my room!” towards Xue Yang after squeezing the air out of Xingchen's lungs. In contrast, Xue Yang waves a lazy hand over his shoulder, focused on the device in his hand and playing a game that Song Lan suspects is as violent and gory and disturbing as every other one in his concerningly extensive collection.

“I'll walk you home,” Song Lan says when the screams of the other children in the home have faded away.

Xiao Xingchen hides a smile. “Alright.”

Song Lan is not surprised when Xiao Xingchen turns off the main road to the local convenience store and buys an armful of assorted sweets. “You spoil them too much, no one needs them on a permanent sugar high,” he tells Xingchen as they exit the store.

Xingchen looks up from packing the packets into his bag in a strange, crinkly form of Tetris, a fond expression on his face that is the warm caress of a hand against a cheek, a sweet embrace that banishes the night.

“But if I don't, Zichen, then who will?”

He continues, his gaze fixed ahead to a past Song Lan has only heard about, entwined inextricably with Xingchen's kindness. “They have been forced to grow too quickly in foster care, they need someone with whom they can act as children, they need to experience the joys of life without any worry or pain.”

And Song Lan is reminded of a boy, fragile and innocent and determined, left alone with his grandmother too often by his parents travelling the world, and by a grandmother just as elusive and absent. He remembers taking the boy home to the temple, to meet his adopted family bursting with vibrancy and colour, and the first time he hears that laugh as rare and precious as stardust, effulgent moments of light among the darkness.

Song Lan smiles, “You are-”

He surges forward and presses Xingchen against the wall they are walking along, his hands braced on either side of his head and close enough so he can feel the other’s heat along his entire body.

A second later, the lorry comes rumbling past, missing the two by barely an arm’s length.

“What was that driver thinking?” Song Lan mutters. “It's dangerous on these narrow paths.”

“Um, Zichen…”

Song Lan looks down and only his grip on the brick wall prevents him collapsing into a puddle. There is blush, delicate and pink, spreading across Xiao Xingchen's cheekbones, his breath spreading across Song Lan’s parted lips and his eyes, so wide and clear and so, so close-

“You have an eyelash on your glasses!” Song Lan springs back, cursing his tongue for its betrayal.

Xiao Xingchen blinks, then nods hurriedly. “Ah, thank you for telling me!” He takes off his glasses and cleans them with a corner of his shirt. “Better?”

“Yes. Much.” The moment is broken and Song Lan does not know if he can bring himself to cross the gulf in between them again, for Xingchen is untouchable and cannot be broken. If he can preserve what they have now, Song Lan is content and the ten centimetres between their hands will remain uncrossed.

 


 

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian ignores the hisses for quiet from the librarian and drops his books onto the table opposite of Lan Wangji, who frowns slightly.

“Oops, yep, I'll be quiet.” He takes out the chair with exaggerated care, lest there be any sound from the chair legs dragging on the floor that is louder than a butterfly wing flap. Sitting down is a similar procedure, though by the time he is fully seated he is positively vibrating with energy.

“How was the test?” Lan Wangji asks in a low voice.

Wei Wuxian shrugs, “Eh, could be worse, considering I didn't even revise. Don't look at me like that! I was definitely being productive - productive making this!” He waves the piece of paper with a flourish from where it was tucked carefully among his notes. Over the school day he has made countless edits, crossing things out here and circling something there, so now Lan Wangji can only make a brief flash of gibberish until Wei Wuxian whips the paper out of reach.

“You can't look at it, how will my confessions surprise you then?”

“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji sighs, and directs his attention to his work once more. Wei Wuxian chuckles to himself and sets Confession Rehearsal 1.3 into action.

“Lan Zhan…” he drawls, draping himself artfully across the desk. He walks his fingers across the sea of papers until they stand teasingly beside Lan Wangji’s hand, preventing him from writing any further. Lan Wangji raises his eyes slowly, piercingly cold. Wei Wuxian bats his lashes innocuously, and asks sweetly, “Can you help me on this question please?”

“... I will.” Lan Wangji moves swiftly to the other side of the table while Wei Wuxian holds out the maths textbook eagerly. Leaning forward over the page, their heads are drawn intimately closer, and Wei Wuxian is fixated by the long, pale fingers running along the page, the faint scent of sandalwood, the deep voice murmuring beside his ear:

“You substituted the limits incorrectly. The answer is five hundred and twenty.”

Wei Wuxian tears his head away and chuckles, hiding the tremor in his voice. “You’re so good Lan Zhan! You even know that-” his mouth is beside Lan Wangji’s ear, a gentle jade curve under his lips, “I love you."

He is met with the most adorable sight of a flustered Lan Wangji, the tremble in his hands visible as his ears are flushed a deep red, so of course Wei Wuxian falls into peals of laughter.

“Wei Wuxian!”

“Yes, yes, that’s me! I’ll be quiet from now,” he waves to the irate librarian, miming zipping his lips, then whips back to Lan Wangji. “Do you get it? Wǔ èr líng, wǒ ài nǐ! It’s a classic!”

Lan Wangji is silent for a moment. His hands shift, fingers brushing smoothly across the textbook and his answer, lightly done in pencil beside Wei Wuxian’s bold scrawl, then he says, “The pun was unnecessary.”

Wei Wuxian pouts and slumps back onto his chair. “I thought long and hard about that one!”

“You did not,” Lan Wangji replies immediately, and there is quirk at the corner of his mouth that causes Wei Wuxian to tip his head back and chuckle to himself in delight. You are too good.

“Get back to work.” Lan Wangji stands and for a moment, Wei Wuxian laments the loss of sandalwood, the lack of warmed jade beside him that is lit by fires and shines like the moon. Then Lan Wangji is back, head bent down over his books, the epitome of the perfect student.

“Fine, fine.” They work peacefully, their studious tranquillity broken only when Wei Wuxian pushes over a piece of paper with the words “I love you!” in a speech bubble emitted by chibi Wei Wuxian’s mouth. Lan Wangji folds the paper carefully into quarters and places it to one side.

“Frivolous.”

It is nearing the end of their study period together, and Wei Wuxian is morbidly curious. He rolls his pen absentmindedly on the desk, though if the repetitive sound bothers Lan Wangji, he does not voice it. His previous attempts at academic study have been relegated to one corner, and he has been staring at his confession battle plan for the past twenty minutes.

He has hundreds upon hundreds of ideas, each bolder and more ridiculous than the last, and yet he is not satisfied. How can he fully convey what he feels, even when the emotions swarm in his chest into a disorientating muddle, for what can he give Lan Wangji? And in turn, how has he ever deserved anything as dear and rare as Lan Wangji’s affections?

Wei Wuxian cannot remember when he fell in love - perhaps because he had always loved Lan Wangji. He cannot remember a time when he has not been completely fascinated by a taciturn, golden-eyed boy, who would as soon report the troublemaker’s playground antics to the teacher as he would sit beside said troublemaker, on a bed of grass and with only the Heavens and Earth as their witness, as one would talk of touching the stars while the other says nothing and hums a soundless tune he cannot name.

He does not know if this is love and he does not know when he even did start loving - all that matters is that he cannot recall a time before Lan Wangji and he cannot begin to fathom a future without Lan Wangji.

“Hey, Lan Zhan… Who do you think I want to confess to?”

Lan Wangji places down his pen slowly, gaze moving across his paper as if rereading his answer. The silence is stifling and empty, and Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, to play off his stupid question as a joke (again), when Lan Wangji says, “Someone kind.”

“What?” Wei Wuxian almost falls of his chair and the librarian’s offended hisses are unheeded.

“Because your heart is overflowing, and only someone as kind as you can share that burden,” Lan Wangji continues with an unquestionable certainty that squeezes his heart and sets it free pounding in his chest. A beam grows across his face and he leaps across the desk to tackle Lan Wangji in an embrace.

“Lan Zhan, I love you so much!”

“Wei Wuxian! Get out this instant!” The librarian’s unholy screeches follow Wei Wuxian as he runs out of the library, cackling madly.

(Nonetheless, he also knows Lan Wangji is so incredibly intense and so incredibly dear to him, that he still cannot quite bring himself to take his burdensome heart and bare it in its entirety. He figures he can be a coward just this once.)

 


  

Whatever you do, keep calm. Jin Zixuan repeats Jin Guangyao’s words in his head in a manic kind of mantra, until his saccharine advice of gifts and pleasantries and compliments swim before his eyes in a sticky mush. He is fine, he can survive this one, measly encounter.

Jin Zixuan ignores the curious glances from the students milling around him, as he strolls through the third year corridors with all the bravado that he can muster. He has planned this to the second, as according to the intelligence gathered by Guangyao, he knows Jiang Yanli has already arrived at school with her brothers and is currently at her locker, where he will greet her with the smooth charisma and public speaking skills that have been instilled in him since he was born.

Yes, this is the perfect plan, he says to himself assuredly, until he leaps a foot into the air when Jiang Yanli approaches, three minutes ahead of schedule.

I will wring that midget’s neck!

“Good morning Jin Zixuan! Ah, why are you here? Are you waiting for someone?” She tilts her head and a tiny smile is dancing at her mouth, and just above her ear there is a small tuft of ebony hair stubbornly sticking up.

Something is breaking apart (his sanity, yells a voice in his head that is not unlike his mother) so when he opens his mouth, he can only say, “You have morning hair!”

“Oh, I do?” Jiang Yanli reaches up and pats at her buns, then having found the loop of hair she swiftly secures it back with a pin. “Thank you, I suppose?”

“D-Don’t thank me! You shouldn’t go out without checking your appearance!” Jin Zixuan wants to run away and scream his lungs out. Getting stabbed in the chest would genuinely make him feel much better. A force (which feels strangely like the combined power of Jin Guangyao and his mother) keeps his feet rooted solidly to the floor, and so he can bear the lashes like a proud mountain, as he has been taught.

Jiang Yanli giggles behind her palm, her amused gaze taking in his stumbling figure. “I must admit, I got up early today to make these.” She holds up the plastic box and Jin Zixuan feels his eyes glazing over, his mouth salivating at the sight of the lush selection of pastries and cookies.

“A-Xian had wanted something sweet to bring in for a friend. I made some last night but there were still some ingredients left and I thought I should bring them into school today.”

It has been too long, Jin Zixuan realises with a pang, since he has last tasted something made with Jiang Yanli’s sincerity and love (it is his fault, his foolish assumptions snatching away the kindness that he has never deserved). Compliment her on what she is proud of , Jin Guangyao whispers.

“Please let me have some.” He holds out his hand under her wide gaze before he can comprehend the tone of his words. “What I mean, i-is that… These would be an excellent reference for my chef! Her skill at savoury dishes is unparalleled, but I believe she can learn a lot from you.”

Preening at himself for his save, Jin Zixuan almost misses Jiang Yanli pressing a few pastries into his hands, wrapped in a brown paper bag. They are still warm and the aroma wafting from the bag is divine.

“I had wanted to save a few of these for A-Xian and A-Cheng…”

Jin Zixuan’s stomach drops and he hastens to add, “Well, if you have to give it to them then-”

“But this can be our little secret, okay?” She presses a finger to her mouth, winking as her expression sparkles with mirth, as if they are children again sharing a pinky promise of utmost important, and Jin Zixuan can melt into a puddle right this instant. This is not fair! What is this cute creature?!

“I thank you for your generosity,” he makes out stiffly.

“No problem,” she says sweetly. “It’s a thank you.”

Jin Zixuan is turning away, as it is almost the start of first period and he does not need Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian harassing him once more, but he freezes at her words. “Why?” He has done the least out of anyone in the entire world to show a hint of kindness to Jiang Yanli.

Her expression softens, though it is touched by a melancholy, shadowed and concealed as the roots of the lotus are by the blooming flower. “For caring enough about my appearance. For liking my cooking. I am truly glad you enjoyed it.”

“How could I not?” Jin Zixuan steps forward, the words half-formed on his tongue, when the bell rings, a ear-splitting din that causes him to leap back and walk away as fast as the rules of the Cloud Recesses Academy allows him to. He passes a classroom door that is slightly ajar, and catches a glimpse of Jin Guangyao’s smirk.

That little- !

And yet he cannot bring himself to fantasise about his half-brother’s demise (he is still gradually chipping away at his side of the deal, and he is not one to go back on his word). The vow he made to himself long ago, before he truly knew what his words meant, when he was too young to have to deal with the vicissitudes of human relationships and how some people can tear them apart, comes to him now.

Someone who is genuine, who will care for me as I am. Whom I can love for them and no one else. Jiang Yanli, he hopes, was genuine in her gratitude. And he has learnt to see past her shy exterior, not the result of incompetence or a mask to knives and poison. She is of pure kindness, the sweetness of spring, the embrace of the sun, and he will repay that undeserved generosity in any way he can.

 


   

"That's what makes you beautiful!”

Wei Wuxian finishes the song with a flourish, dropping to one knee with one hand stretched out to a blank Lan Wangji, the other clasped around a fake microphone. Crouching behind the row of bushes in their secluded corner of the park, Wen Ning pauses the music on the speakers and sighs. He can finally relax and the trembling of his hands has mostly ceased, as long as he does not think about resident ice-block master sitting primly just a few metres away.

“... Is that One Direction?”

“Wow! If even Lan Zhan knows I must be doing something right!” Wei Wuxian flicks his hair out of his eyes, a little flushed from his exuberant cover, lyrics and choreography all created in a mad rush of creativity over the weekend.

“Too much. It can be seen more as performance than a sincere confession.”

Wei Wuxian places a hand on his hip, tapping his chin thoughtfully. “Eh, maybe you're right. Too cheesy and it's so overdone. I'm pretty sure I've seen versions for most people I know. I’m jealous.”

Lan Wangji shoots a look that sends tectonic shivers up Wen Ning’s spine and almost makes him fall under the considerable pressure. “Ah, only from my special someone! Only they can serenade me,” Wei Wuxian continues. Lan Wangji nods, and a sliver of guilt worms its way into Wei Wuxian’s heart. Was it fair to lead him on like this, dangling the bait just out of reach then snatching it away almost immediately after? Then Lan Wangji smooths his face into a flawless jade and Wei Wuxian breathes once more. Besides, he still has an entire list to fulfill.

“A-Xian! It's good to see you.” Xiao Xingchen appears on the rarely-used path, strewn with fallen leaves and flower petals, with Song Lan ever present at his side. “And you too, Lan Wangji, Wen Ning,” Xingchen smiles, earning a nod and a yelp of surprise in return. Wei Wuxian beams and heads over to his cousin.

“Xingchen, Song Lan, I feel like I haven't seen you guys in ages. What's up? Oh, are you two on a d-”

“A-Qing was complaining about being trapped inside again for the weekend, so we offered to take her outside,” Song Lan interrupts smoothly. “She's gone to get some ice cream.” Wei Wuxian blinks, registers the slightly pleading turn of Song Lan’s mouth and Xiao Xingchen's pure obliviousness, and nods.

“Well don't let me stop you! You know what, I think it'll be fun to play on the swings for a bit. Come on Lan Zhan, let's relive your non-existent fun childhood.” He drags away Lan Zhan by the hand and after a moment of awkward silence, Wen Ning leaps out the bushes.

“G-Good day! Please don't mind me!” He scurries after Wei Wuxian, leaves and twigs sticking out of his hair.

Xiao Xingchen chuckles under his breath, then gestures to Lan Wangji’s vacated bench seat. “We might as well wait here for a bit until A-Qing gets back. The flowers here are beautiful in full bloom.”

Song Lan nods and lowers himself beside Xingchen, never once crossing the invisible, impenetrable barrier he has mentally erected around Xingchen ever since the lorry incident. Ten centimetres, that was socially acceptable, was it not?

Tilting his head back, Xiao Xingchen appears utterly at peace. His eyes are lidded and his lips are curved slightly, drinking in the sun as a flower and softly effulgent like the moon. No, not the moon, which only reflects the sun’s light. Xingchen exudes his own radiance, like the countless stars of the night.

Song Lan’s gaze is drawn to Xingchen's fingers, long and pale and hardened from years of living for himself without his parents or grandmother at home, as they rest ten centimetres from his own. So close, and yet he feels like it is like trying to catch a firefly - batting frantically against the palms of his hands as the warm light struggles for freedom, and one wrong move will crush for poor creature.

Nevertheless, he knows Xingchen. He has seen him, eyes ablaze, reproaching the older students for bullying A-Qing or Xue Yang, bearing his isolated household with a smile and eternally cheerful disposition. Xingchen's strength and dedication is not to be underestimated, so perhaps, just maybe, Song Lan can reach for his sleeve-

“What’s up, Daozhangs?”

Song Lan withdraws his hand as if burnt, and glares at Xue Yang from the corner of his eye. Of course it is him, a lollipop in his mouth as always. He stands behind the bench and drapes himself in between them, clinging onto Xingchen's arm.

“Daozhang, come entertain me. I wasn't interrupting anything, was I?” As Xiao Xingchen replies, Xue Yang catches Song Lan’s gaze, and has the fucking gall to wink.

That little shit!

“You can join us with A-Qing. She's gone to get us some ice cream.”

“The Little Blind? I'm not babysitting her,” Xue Yang snorts. A peal of laughter comes drifting over from the children's playground, and his eyes widen. “Is that Wei Wuxian?”

Without waiting for an answer, he vaults over the bench and races over to the swings. If Song Lan did not almost get his face kicked in by Xue Yang’s combat boots, he would almost be tempted to say he genuinely does look like an eager pet. A rabid, snarling pet that eats children for breakfast, but a pet at the very least.

Xiao Xingchen sighs contently. “I'm glad he has a good role model.”

Song Lan stares at him. “Xingchen. He may be your cousin, but who in their right mind would consider Wei Wuxian worthy of being a role model?”

“There are worse people.”

“If Wei Wuxian is second-place in the list of worst people to leave their child unattended with him, then who would be first?”

“Now, now,” Xingchen laughs, patting Song Lan’s shoulder. “A-Xian has a good heart, he is smart and he is selfless. Those traits can't be put aside so easily.” Like you. Song Lan gulps and his fingers twitch. He is just there, just a little more and-

“Daozhang! Better eat them now before they melt!” Song Lan refrains from slapping a hand to his forehead. Patience, and the reward will yield itself. At least he was raised in a temple.

When the sun reaches its zenith and he has successfully pushed Xue Yang back to Xingchen, Wei Wuxian holds out his recently-purchased Cornetto to Lan Wangji.

“You don't have a boyfriend yet? Then I'll be your boyfriend!” He sweeps his Cornetto to his lips and takes a long, sumptuous lick, winking at Lan Wangji as he channels his inner Hua Cheng, utilising the entire capacity of his suaveness in order to emulate the model and so-called God of Idols.

Lan Wangji coughs and averts his gaze. His blue-coloured cone shields his face, though Wei Wuxian delights at the sight of the reddened tips of his ears. “What is that?” Lan Wangji asks.

Wei Wuxian gasps in mock disbelief, hand pressed to his heart. “You know One Direction but not the Cornetto advert? A little simpler, a lot cuter! Here, I'll show you.” He plays the video on his phone, as Hua Cheng whips his luscious hair and winks at the camera, while his mellifluous voiceover exalts the crunchiness and irresistable flavour.

“I mean, Xie Lian also does one but I thought it was a bit too cute… or would you like that?” He plays Xie Lian’s version, watching Lan Wangji’s reaction carefully while Xie Lian twirls in his classic white robes while somehow keeping the Cornetto in his hand pristine, an amazing feat considering how the idol somehow always trips over his feet, which has prompted his partner Hua Cheng to keep a firm hand on his back whenever they are seen together.

Lan Wangji sighs, a barely audible intake of air, and he murmurs, “You don't need to emulate anyone. Be yourself.” Wei Wuxian is silent for a heartbeat, then laughs, throwing an arm lazily around Lan Wangji’s shoulders.

“You know me too well,” he grins. “I should listen to you more.”

“Mn.” With that, he nudges the half-melted Cornetto. “Eat, otherwise you'll waste it.”

“Ah sorry! Hey, can I taste yours? I'll let you have some of mine…”

A safe distance away, Wen Ning sighs in relief. Mo Xuanyu has texted that he is free and available for him to vent his problems to, and he was positively suffocating anywhere within a fifty metre radius of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji.

Chapter Text

“He keeps pointing out all the bad parts of my confessions!” Wei Wuxian throws his hand into the air, almost dislodging his lunch box from his lap until it is steadied by Xiao Xingchen's hand. Wei Wuxian schools his face into a perfect replica of Lan Wangji’s blank expression, and there is a collective shiver of wonder when his words sound eerily similar to Lan Wangji’s.

Too bold, too loud, too immature, too dangerous - it's so frustrating!” He slumps down on the bench, his arms hanging limply along the back so his fingertips just brush the tops of the flowers, only a few of the many in the flower boxes gathered in a vivid, fragrant display.

Xiao Xingchen coughs into his fist as he regards Wei Wuxian with faint amusement. “If I may offer my opinion, should you really be using Lan Wangji's reaction to these kind of… elaborate confessions? You don't do this to show your love. If you tell him the truth, then he will no doubt react positively.”

Wei Wuxian lowers his gaze to the lunch lovingly prepared by Jiang Yanli, and stabs a jiaozi with his chopsticks. “I know, but…”

“As long as you do intend to tell him the truth,” offers Jiang Yanli seated on his other side. “He's a good boy, you don't need to be afraid.”

“And if he does freak out, I can always beat him up for you,” says Jiang Cheng around his mouthful, waving his chopsticks in what appeared to be in a threatening manner.

Scoffing, Wei Wuxian stuffs the jiaozi into his mouth. “I'd like to see you try.” He chuckles at Jiang Cheng's indignant huffs, grins at the light-hearted teasing that follows.

It is much easier, he decides, to reinforce the glass walls, to paint over them with laughter and optimism, than it is to smash them down and pick through the shards. And over the years, through tumultuous cycles of rebuilding and deconstruction, there is a single translucent window, so thin that when he presses his hand to the cool surface, there is the slight impression of Lan Wangji's cheek. So fragile, yet to him it is stronger than steel, an impenetrable barrier between the cliff edge and an abyss.

For years he has been falling, from trees and pieces of furniture and one time from the back of a particularly stubborn donkey. He is tilting over the edge, and just this once, he would like someone to catch him, no matter how long he may fall.

Wen Qing is chiding Wen Ning for trembling whenever he approaches the third year buildings in order to see his sister, and this jolts a memory, sufficiently unpleasant and arrogant enough to allow him to push away his thoughts, toss a blanket over one pile, shove the rest in a confused jumble under the bed, before he turns and confronts daylight.

“That reminds me - shijie, is that Peacock harassing you again? Because if he is I’ll-”

Jiang Yanli reaches out a placating hand, enveloping his fists in her sweet warmth. “No, not at all! Why do you say that?”

Jiang Cheng scowls and rolls the chopsticks in his fingers as if he is considering launching them as missiles towards Jin Zixuan’s smug expression. “We saw him a few days ago strutting towards the third year building like he fucking owned the place.”

“Well, he has been perfectly lovely when we've talked,” Jiang Yanli says. She sighs under her breath and rests her hands on her brothers’ shoulders, preventing them from marching directly up to Jin Zixuan, wherever he may be, and dragging him away into a dark corner, tied up so the rope chafes his flawless skin and he can only watch in despair as they tear every single piece of Gucci in his wardrobe.

“What right does he have to even breathe in your direction after what he said? He made you cry!” Wei Wuxian declares vehemently, though he remains forcefully seated under Jiang Yanli’s ministrations and Wen Qing’s glare.

“A-Xian, if I'm the one wronged, then shouldn't I decide when to forgive him?” Jiang Yanli says, a hidden firmness to her tone that he has not heard in a long time. With that, he collapses, for he can never argue with his shijie. Jiang Cheng fares no better, and though the tightness between his eyebrows deepens, they drop the matter for the moment.

There is a tentative silence, then Nie Huaisang closes his fan with a snap. “So, if we're taking turns,” he tilts his bright eyes towards Xiao Xingchen, “how are your relationships? Any teenage angst worth venting out?”

“I… uh…” Xiao Xingchen laughs helplessly, scratching his chin. “They're okay? I mean, A-Qing and Xue Yang are good friends and Song Zichen is very dear to me…”

He is stammering, a delicate rosy blush dusted across his cheeks like scattered petals on snow, so Wei Wuxian smirks and adds, “Yep, a dear friend, huh?”

“You're one to talk,” remarks Wen Qing drily, and when he sees the exchanged glances and grudging nods, Wei Wuxian knows the situation is rapidly spilling from his hands.

“Wen Ning! We still need to finish that composition!” He stands up and packing the last of his lunch into his mouth, scrambles to find his bag amidst the pile.

“He did?” Wen Ning wilts under his sister's raised eyebrow.

“Um, yeah...” Bowing his head, he trots gingerly behind Wei Wuxian's swift figure, the very epitome, the group thinks, of someone running away from their problems as if a pack of snarling dogs are at his heels.

“Wait, where did Jiang Cheng go?”

“He said he needed to get something, I don't think you need to worry, Yanli.”

Wei Wuxian hastens to the music block, to an empty classroom as it is only halfway through the lunch hour. He perches on a desk, setting up his flute from the case in his bag while Wen Ning logs into one of the computers lined up at the edge of the room.

“Ah, Wei Wuxian…”

“Hm? What’s up?” He glances at Wen Ning, who is fidgeting with his sleeves and nibbling at his lip.

“It-it’s just that…” Wen Ning begins softly. He gulps, his gaze flickering to meet Wei Wuxian’s, and continues: “About what everyone was saying, earlier, are-are you really alright?”

Wei Wuxian is silent for a heartbeat, before bursting into peals of laughter, gripping the edge of the desk lest he accidentally slip off. “Wen Ning, my dear sweet friend,” he sighs, wiping away the tears at the corners of his eyes, “You really don’t need to stress your poor heart over me. It’s a work in progress, I’ll get there, I swear.”

“That…” Wen Ning is scrambling, gaze darting for an opening, a chink in the mask. There is none that he can see, and if there are they are expertly hidden. He retreats, a little disheartened, and latches on to the computer instead. “Ah, it’s finally up!” He clicks on the music notation program icon with no lack of relief.

For their music class, they are required to compose a two to three minute piece, on the oh-so-helpful theme of ‘relationships’, as their teacher enthused. Wei Wuxian has had no shortage of ideas and suggestion and even Wen Ning has refused to be the doormat in this project, dredging up the confidence to add his own thoughts and suggestions. Yet the deadline is only a week away, and what they have is hardly worth handing in. They are at a bottleneck and cannot seem to breakthrough.

“What about this?” Wei Wuxian asks, and plays the section on his flute.

“Um, that would work here, but it doesn’t follow that well from where we’ve ended…”

A few minutes pass like this, as they refine and extend the first section, while the last remains heart-achingly empty. Wei Wuxian huffs, twirling his flute around his fingers with a careless abandon. He adores Wen Ning, regardless of his pushover tendencies and eternal struggle to make himself heard by anyone outside of their friendship group; he is a fresh breeze during a spring afternoon compared to Jiang Cheng’s lightning and intensity, or Xiao Xingchen’s running waters and cool dusk. And yet in his current state of mind nothing sounds right. Nothing sings to him, and everything that reaches his ears feels just a shade better than crap.

He brings his flute up to his lips, playing a few errant notes, stringing them idly together. The notes dance in the air, drawing themselves in a relaxed, tranquil melody that calms his heart and fills his mind like a steady waterfall into a clear pool.

“What was that?”

Wei Wuxian pauses, blinking rapidly as if doused with a bucket of cold water. For all he knows, he could be slipping back into his habit of a few years ago when he purposefully ruined Celine Dion and Titanic for the entire student population. “This? I don't know, I just came up with it.”

Wen Ning leans forward, far more eager than he has been these past few minutes. “It sounded really good! Can you play it again?”

After a little thought, Wei Wuxian raises his flute and tries again. The melody comes easily, naturally, a limpid embrace of the cool heavens and warm earth, and his fingers move as if he has played this all his life.

A bang resounds around the classroom and Wei Wuxian jolts, the note tailing to an ultrasonic screech. He turns to the entrance and sees Lan Wangji, framed by the door frame as if in a painting portraying the human representation of a icy gale.

“Lan Zhan! Mo Xuanyu, hi!” He waves to the shorter boy sidling between the frozen statue and the door that by some miracle is still on its hinges. “Are you also here to do your compositions?”

“What… What was that?” The ice cracks and Lan Wangji's voice is no different, jagged and shard-like, placed down in a disjointed manner.

“I just thought of it for our composition, what do you think?” Lan Wangji does not reply, and only his golden eyes shifting to a trembling Wen Ning indicate life behind the blank expression.

“You… You just composed this?”

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes playfully. “Well, of course! It's been playing in my head for a while now.” He notices the raised eyebrows and pointed glances shared between Wen Ning and Mo Xuanyu, but makes no particular effort to decipher whatever silent language the two have developed, until Mo Xuanyu gasps almost comically loud.

“Holy shit…” His eyes are bright and he is positively shining as he gestures frantically to Wen Ning. “A-Ning, get over here, we need to talk.” And with that, he marches over to Wen Ning and drags him out of the classroom before Wei Wuxian can take a breath.

“Uh… I think your partner just stole mine,” Wei Wuxian snickers, kicking his feet idly.

“It's fine,” Lan Wangji says, and when he steps forward the ice has melted and the winds have quietened. Instead, what is left is oddly subdued, and yet if Wei Wuxian tilts his head just right, he thinks Lan Wangji is like one of his many rabbits pawing at its owner for treats, if only for how his eyes have lightened from a dull amber to polished gems.

It makes a grin grow across his face and a laugh bubble up his throat. “Lan Zhan,” he whines as he pokes the other in the arm, “you still haven't told me what you thought yet!”

Lan Wangji regards him carefully, his lips just parted as if on the verge of saying something. “You play it very well,” is what he eventually settles for.

“Thanks! For something I just came up with on a whim, it's not too bad.”

“You…” With a sharp intake of breath, Lan Wangji turns on his heel.

Wei Wuxian surge up from where he was reclining. “Wait, wait, Lan Zhan don't go- The piano? You want to work on your own composition?”

Lan Wangji raises his gaze, and Wei Wuxian halts, as a hand grasps at his heart and it stutters, so heavy that it overflows into his very being and yet so buoyant he cannot keep it enclosed in his chest.

“Play it again.” And Wei Wuxian can only numbly comply, as the song sings in the air and soothes his racing mind, and he can only smile when Lan Wangji joins in on the piano, a force that raises the melody higher into the upper air, where it soars and swells in time to their heartbeats.

They hold the last note, unwilling to bring the song down to be tethered once more. Wei Wuxian stares at Lan Wangji with wide eyes, a beam splitting his face. “Lan Zhan, that was-”

“Vindication!” Mo Xuanyu marches in, crowing with all the pride and gusto of a successful lawyer, pointing a sharp finger at the defendant’s weaknesses.

Wei Wuxian blinks. “Uh, what-”

“From now on, you're music partners!” Mo Xuanyu smirks, as smug as a peacock and with the flair of his meticulously-drawn winged eyeliner to match. He continues like a whirlwind, tossing the previous order into the primordial chaos as it is reborn into something none of them can truthfully say they disagree with.

“Wei Wuxian, you can play the dizi, right? And Lan Wangji, you play the guqin. Oh even better! Now we've already spoken to Fan Laoshi, she agrees fully, especially once she's heard you play!” He waves his phone, undoubtedly with a recording of their impromptu duet saved on it, and winks as if sparkles are emitted by the action alone. “Don't worry about us, it's so much better this way, don't you think? Well, don't let us stop you bonding!” He is gone, Wen Ning smiling hesitantly in his trail, leaving silence and a door internally crying for its abused hinges in his wake.

A heartbeat, then: “And that just happened.”

“... Mn.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian turns to the other boy, twisting the flute between his fingers, “if you don’t want to, then just say-”

“No.” Lan Wangji shakes his head once, his expression set. “I don’t mind.”

“Great! We really did sound so good together! Ah, I’m so happy, it makes me want to play something, just for you-”

“No need.” Standing up from the piano stool, Lan Wangji takes a deep breath, as if inflating himself having been pressed dry, gathering pieces that have been scattered, here and there, by the winds and rain.

Wei Wuxian can feel his grin faltering, just at the corners, as for the first time Lan Wangji turns down a confession. Perhaps, finally, it is enough, for he knows he is an exhausting presence and Lan Wangji is light and mountain clouds and yet holds an unerring warmth. “But Lan Zhan…”

“This piece,” Lan Wangji begins, not quite cold though it cannot be called affectionate, “should be heard only by the one it’s intended for.” Hidden behind the piano, his knuckles are bone-white.

Breathing again, Wei Wuxian sighs and packs up his flute. “Oh well, you do make a good point. I still haven’t perfected it yet, it’s lacking something… I’ll need your assistance when it’s finally done, Lan-er-ge!”

Lan Wangji sighs, the murmur of the tide in Wei Wuxian’s storm, as he flings an arm around Lan Wangji’s shoulders on their way out of the classroom, catching the beginning of the bell signalling the end of lunch. They pass a storage closet, that at this present moment in time contains two students in various stages of annoyance and laughter.

“Do you see what I mean? They’re both so fucking blind, it’s a miracle they can even function as humans.”

“As much as I enjoy Wei Wuxian’s enthusiasm, I do agree; without some help, they will never voice their true feelings.”

“Do we have a deal?”

“The deal was done and signed as soon as you approached me.”

 


 

The train cabin is stuffy, crowded by too many people who clearly did not possess his sensitive nose and skin, and the student clad in black and a row of ear piercings that wink and flash in his eyes is leaning much too close to his neighbour for either of their comforts.

The disparity between the intimidating exterior of someone Jin Zixuan is almost certain could be a Mafia young master and the way he tugs on the other student’s sleeve like a child is highly disconcerting and (ignoring the acid that boils in his stomach at the never-ending string of endearments and the exasperated responses that never quite drift anything lower than affectionate) he rests his head on the glass divider beside his seat and closes his eyes briefly, hugging his bag to his chest.

He has braved the phenomenon known as public transport for today, and however much he despises the concept of sharing his entire personal space with complete strangers, he is still smarting over his father, his family, their so-called sense of entitlement. If anything, he should blame his father.

Jiang Yanli’s treats, for all his efforts, had disappeared far too quickly for his liking, and so he had already been in a foul mood when he was called to dinner. Jin Zixuan had been languidly revising his mental plan for Jin Guangyao to be accepted as an intern, noting down what to say, who to persuade, who to threaten, when his father had placed his wine glass onto the table with a sharp clink and an even crisper smile.

“A-Xuan,” he began, “you want to be the heir, don't you?”

Jin Zixuan refrained from rolling his eyes. “Of course.” Why else would he know the name of every single person who works in Koi Tower better than anyone bar his mother?

His father raised his wine glass, took a delicate sip. “Then tell me why it has come to my attention that Meng Yao is now on the list of interns for the summer?”

Guangyao,” Jin Zixuan sighed. “I don't see why not, he's more qualified than every single candidate in the past three years. If we don't do anything now, Nie Industries will be laughing their heads off as they leave us in their wake.”

“That's the point!” Jin Zixuan jolted, alarmed at the sudden rise in his father's tone. It had been cold, the clatter of polished metal against metal. “A-Xuan, what will others think when the heir, my son, is outshone by this imposter? If the prodigy of Nie Industries can suddenly worm his way into the heart of the Jins?”

“He's family, isn't he?” The soup in front of his was steaming and fragrant and at that moment smelt like utter crap under Jin Zixuan’s nose and shaking hands.

Jin Guangshan scoffed into his glass. “I've given that brat enough as it is, he can be as successful all he wants or he can fall from the very top into hell. However, I will not let the Jin Clan be tainted.”

“By what?” Your own inability to take responsibility or keep it in your pants? Jin Zixuan took a deep, shuddering breath, then another. “Father, I will personally guarantee that Jin Guangyao’s appointment will have no effect on the company's reputation, nor will he be a waste.” As for all his complete lack of trust in his half-brother over relationships and being the Academy’s (only) Chief Dealer, never had he believed him to be anything less than sincere in his efforts to contribute to the company.

He sighed and turned to his last resort. “Mother, you’ve seen his application, it’s flawless.”

His mother levelled her gaze, the calculating eye of a majestic bird of prey on the trembling chicks beneath it. “I completely agree, A-Xuan,” she states and his heart rises, buoyant on hope, “but with all your cousins and our… circumstances, your position is precarious enough as it is. I have yet to be fully convinced.” And it crashes down into an apocalyptic explosion of fire.

Jin Zixuan smoothed the creases in his brow, tames his emotions that are running rampant within his chest. He casted around, scrolled through lists upon lists, and tried again: “Father, the reason why Wen Chao’s branch of the Wen Conglomerate consumed so many other businesses was precisely the reason why it later fell into bankruptcy - a lack of cooperation, trust, and sufficient support in the centre.”

“And because there was conflict between the two sons of Wen Ruohan,” his father replied. He rarely frowns (out of fear, Jin Zixuan suspects, of wrinkles) and so he shrank a little under the visible slant of his father’s eyebrows above his cold eyes, the twist in his mouth.

“Zixuan, you are my son, and I will not have your rights be stripped away from you, all because of you being soft.”

Then perhaps that ought to have crossed your mind earlier!

“A-Xuan,” he heard, ringing like a bell, and his shaking hands were frozen. He eyed his mother, who tilted her head towards the bowl in front of him. “Eat first,” she said and silence followed, as the chimes herald the night. His mother's word is law, and though he could not consider this a success venture, he had enough to develop his plan, a hold, a ledge of barely a few centimetres really, here and there.

So he robotically sipped the soup, and frowned. He tasted it again, picks up the meat in his chopsticks and inspects it. In his bowl, succulent ribs and crisp lotus roots peer up at him innocuously. Oh fuck no.

“What is this?” he asked, placing his spoon down with a clatter.

His mother frowned at his manners, though his father smirked, a cat savouring the treats at its paws. “I've been told you enjoy this kind of soup, and personally instructed the cook to make it to your precise requirements.”

It was perfectly made, and it tasted like shit on his dry tongue.

“I'm not hungry,” Jin Zixuan declared, and letting his mother's shouts dissipate in his wake, he stormed back to his room with the inexplicable urge to both vomit and binge-eat as many sweet things he could get his hands on. (He ended up sneaking into the kitchen at midnight and sitting beside the cupboards, bathed in the light of the open fridge as he scooped strawberry ice cream into his mouth, wallowing in puddles of his own self-pity.)

He wakes up early the next morning, groggy and burning with a kind of righteous pettiness that makes him stuff leftovers into a lunchbox and removes him out of sight of his half-awake parents before they can accost him and shove him into the private car. If he tilts his head just so, he thinks he can hear Jin Zixun cackling about a much delayed teenage rebellion amid the monotone announcements at the subway station.

So be it. And he steps onto the train with clenched fists and an upturned nose, gluing himself onto the closest seat and guarding it with the ferocity of a mother bear.

His phone pings and he glances at the screen briefly before frantically stuffing it to the depths of his bag, to the consternation of his strange neighbours with the ambiguous relationship. It is bad enough that Jin Guangyao has texted him - seeing Jiang Yanli’s name is the finishing touch, creating a tsunami of bile that leaves a bitter aftertaste in his throat. After what has occurred, he barely has any right to continue with whatever agreement they have settled on.

It has always been like this, Jin Zixuan thinks drily. Raised upon a pedestal from birth and polished until he shone, he is one of the several century old ornaments that stand in the hall of the house, welcoming guests with their austere, empty beauty. Even with his mother instilling a firm determination and moral centre, he is cold and haughty, like the sound of gold. He always finds his heart too late, when it has latched upon the life-giving warmth and tendrils have grown, so he is unable to keep his heart whole even as he runs away.

He ran away, that day last summer, when the sun was merciless and the humidity clung to his skin. When he had been convinced the one who had been leaving lunch boxes, filled to the brim with love, in his locker during the weeks of exams had been the girl he had initially turned down after her confession in the gardens. When, after seeing Jiang Yanli at his locker with a carefully-wrapped lunchbox in her hands, he had torn the food away with the same ferocity as how he ripped into her, for her presumptions, callousness, her cruelty for taking advantage of another girl's affection. (Lies, lies, lies, so many he still steps on their empty shells.)

Of course her brothers had came, as if beckoned by the tears budding at her eyes and the sickened sensation in his chest. Jin Guangyao too of all people, who had presented the other girl like an intriguing exhibit and prompted (forced) her to confess that she had no part in this at all. That what he had been enjoying for the past few weeks had been nothing less than Jiang Yanli's unadulterated kindness towards a mere classmate, with only their awkward playdates as children evidence of any relationship.

Jin Zixuan really, so very desperately wants to throw himself off the train. He hopes it would hurt more than when Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng had beaten him into the polished floor, than the inferno in his limbs that stoppers his tongue and rips his heart whenever he sees her. His mask and layers upon layers of arrogance plastered into his skin had been ripped away that day, leaving him with a clearer mind but with jagged fragments he is still trying to piece together.

He frowns, then immediately struggles to smooth the creases in his brow into a blank mask of indifference. It will do him no good to dwell on what he already knows, what had been inscribed in stone. And yet, to prise his grasping fingers away is a harder feat than he expects.

The student/gang-ringleader leans forward over his companion, making the other rap him sharply on the forehead with a closed fan and Jin Zixuan to scoot further into his corner of the ratty seat. He cannot quite bring himself to shoot a glare, not with the other's appearance, and certainly not with those puppy-dog eyes he has turned on to full power.

“But Shizun,” he hears the other say, “I just wanted to be closer to you…” Jin Zixuan simultaneously rolls his eyes and strains his ears to listen further, feeling like a child trying to watch a film rated too old for them.

“Not here,” reprimanded his companion. With a flick of his wrist, he opens the fan and waves it lightly over his face, covering his mouth. “Honestly, if I stand and you sit, it would be much more convenient. I am shorter than you.”

“No no no! Shizun, please sit, for me.”

“Now, now, you can't do that. It would be ideal if we were both standing or sitting, we'll be on the same level. Yingying, come sit in my place.”

A few seats down, a young girl standing with an easy smile and ribbons in her hair shakes her head. “No thanks, I’m good.” She shares a glance with the two other girls with her, one with striking red nails and deep plaited ebony hair, the other with a face mask, and they share a conspiratorial giggle.

This ‘Shizun’ sighs and presses the corner of his book to the delinquent’s parted lips. “No, I will not sit on your lap.” This releases yet another round of pleads and exhortations and heartbreakingly persuasive puppy eyes Jin Zixuan almost wonders where the other’s soul is. Either that, or he has a more intimate relationship with the demon student than he thought.

He sighs, and as the doors slide open, he lifts himself out of his hard-earned seat and trudges outside.

Shizun (Shen Qingqiu, he repeats vehemently in his head, cursing the day he introduced Binghe to xianxia and wuxia) frowns and follows Jin Zixuan’s path, the cover of his precious limited signed copy of his favourite novel still pressed into Luo Binghe’s face. “He's at the Cloud Recesses Academy, but we haven't reached their stop yet,” he murmurs to himself. He studies the other boy, so proud in expression yet somehow burdened in gait, then his eyes widen.

“Shizun!” Batting Luo Binghe onto the vacated seat, Shen Qingqiu scrambles up onto the platform. Jin Zixuan is there, about to board the neighbouring carriage which, from what he can discern, holds no free seats.

“Ah, thank you for giving up your seat,” he calls out, and Jin Zixuan flushes a blotchy red, like a ripe apple.

“I-It wasn't for you! I just needed a change of scenery!” And he storms onto the carriage with a huff and cheeks hot enough to fry an egg. Tsundere, Shen Qingqiu's mind (in a voice that sounds suspiciously like Shang Qinghua, a horrifying thought) helpfully supplies. He hides a smile behind his fan and returns to his starving puppy just as the doors slide shut.

Luo Binghe is still standing there, gazing bemused at the two empty seats. Behind him, a veritable crowd of students and business workers eye them longingly, though with a single glance at the tall dark demonic guard they all swiftly retreat and avert their gaze.

Shen Qingqiu does not hesitate to plop himself onto a seat and drag Luo Binghe down next to him. Perhaps there is some other poor soul out there, legs like noodles and feet like tofu, who needs a seat more than him. To that he would say he was given the seat, and with a mental middle finger raised, like hell would he give up this opportunity.

“Don't look at me like that,” he admonishes Binghe, who blinks and shakes his head.

“Not at all! Shizun is most kind! But… was it something I said?”

“It's not your fault,” Shen Qingqiu sighs, and pats the top of Binghe's head absentmindedly. Maybe he was choking on all the dog food, thinks half of their carriage and Shen Qingqiu, though of course none of their synchronised thoughts reach Binghe.

“Though it's strange,” he muses, tapping the top of his fan against his chin. “He reminded me of someone.”

“You say that all the time,” laughs Ning Yingying, and Shen Qingqiu waves the girls away with a flick of his fan. He frowns, sifting carefully through his ponderings, when his gaze lands on a young woman in shades of purple and plaited hair, staring over the shoulder of her friend to the tsundere boy, just visible in the next carriage squished into the corner with a most undignified expression.

Purple, gold… There is a whisper of an idea, translucent and teasing at the edge of his consciousness. He smiles, settles himself against Luo Binghe's shoulder (the carriage jumps as they watch the delinquent squeak and turn a fascinating shade of six colours) and pulls out his phone. This is way too much fun to miss.

Pressed against a glass once more but with parts (all) of his body touching too many strangers for his liking, Jin Zixuan struggles to extricate his phone. He stares at the bright screen for several minutes, unmoving until the train has left the stop for Cang Qiong High and on the way to the Academy. By the time he forces himself out of the multitude of bodies, he has a reply.

We need to talk.

Meet me at 1:00pm, usual place.

Yan Guanting notices his fidgeting, the way he shifts his weight from one foot to the other, and he swallows his pride long enough for his friend to pat him on the shoulder and give him an encouraging smile. “Go get ‘em,” Guanting says, and Jin Zixuan shudders and coordinates his limbs to walk away from his locker and back to the magnolia tree (Guanting finds himself alone with another Michelin-star worthy lunchbox in his hands. He shrugs and wanders away to try the squid this time.)

Jin Zixuan takes a circuitous path, looping around the third year buildings to avoid the magnolia tree, ignoring the rules to speed up into a light jog once he is outside. He is five minutes early, that is enough time to rehearse his speech, piece together his rambling thoughts and-

The fuck. Jin Guangyao flashes a charming smile, and Zixuan’s eye twitches. Is he early too? Or did he know that Jin Zixuan would try to meet him early so went to their rendezvous point even earlier? Zixuan refrains from running away or burying his head in his hands as he approaches Guangyao, his strides long and determined.

Guangyao opens his mouth, before Zixuan shoves his phone into his face. “Delete it. Take it away,” he mutters, looking over the other’s shoulder. “Until I can hold up my end of the bargain, I shouldn't have this.”

There is silence for a heartbeat, as it trembles and pierces the muffled air, and then Jin Guangyao laughs, a light exasperated thing as he pushes back Zixuan’s hand. “I would,” he explains, “but I take the security of my information very seriously, and I trust no one better to keep this safe than you. Besides,” he glances up at Zixuan from beneath his lashes, his eyes glinting in shadow, “you have my sole copy, and you would be surprised to know how dear Miss Jiang is to many students of the Academy.”

You-! For all he knows, Jin Guangyao could have received precisely zero to one hundred requests for the spreadsheet currently open on his phone in the past twenty-four hours, and so with a grimace and the beginnings of a plan to ensure Jiang Yanli's safety (spying you stupid boy, gripes his mother) he draws back his hand and shoves it into his pocket. “This still doesn't change anything,” he says.

Jin Guangyao is silently observing his stilted movements, and he tilts his head like a curious child. “Zixuan, is this just your honour, or are you running away?”

“W-Who says I'm running?! I… I need more time!” And a personality transplant, cackles Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng, and now Jin Zixuan knows he is beyond all help when he is imagining those menaces in his head.

Raising a thin eyebrow, the smile on Jin Guangyao’s face narrows ever so slightly, a drop of black ink in his pleasant expression. “How long then? A week? A month? A year? I'm afraid to tell you, but by then she'll be gone.”

Jiang Yanli is of the stars and sun and all heavenly bodies; he has known this for so long and yet from Guangyao’s tongue it draws blood in thin, gaping lines. “You don't need to tell me! You wouldn't understand!”

“No, but I know how much it hurts to want something as it slips from your fingers.”

Jin Zixuan hesitates, the sudden frigidity of the other's words forming a wall between them. He is taut and quivering like the stretched string of a bow, before he slumps, loose and exhausted. He laughs tiredly when he raises a hand to his forehead.

“I can't tell her. Guangyao, you saw, I made her cry. She would never accept me.”

“And why are you so sure about this? Why are you so sure those are the words that will come out of her mouth? Have you asked her outright? Or are they the words that swarm your every waking moment? You understand her better than I do - Zixuan, what would Jiang Yanli do?”

Jin Zixuan opens his mouth, closes it. Sighing, Jin Guangyao shakes his head, a rueful smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“See? Humans are so frustratingly, delightfully unpredictable.” He pauses, then continues, the words a shade sharper. “But you will never find their true core if you rely on the words said by others and forced into her mouth. People lie and people deceive and that is just how we live - you can't tiptoe your way around expecting the answers to fall into your lap. It takes work, and you need get your head out of the clouds.”

Jin Guangyao's words ring with a strange clarity of truth, yet that does not stop the, clawing at Zixuan's skin, layers and layers peeling off. (Because he does, he truly wants to try-) “But I don’t-”

“Don't deserve her?” Guangyao gives a sharp bark of laughter, one eyebrow elegantly raised. “Zixuan, she's the best thing that you will never deserve.” He waves away the choked response (objection or agreement, or most likely both, he believes) before he pats Zixuan on the shoulder, an action that elicits a response that is hardly any more comprehensible.

“But the fact you’re here now shows you are more than capable of trying. If you tell her, don't you believe that Jiang Yanli is more than able to make her own decisions?”

Jin Zixuan knows Jin Guangyao has a silver tongue dipped in vinegar, he knows what has been said and done and he knows his own worth, but something is crumbling, a fault in the fortifications, and his heart and the thing it is cultivating, fragile and tender and oh so dear, are at last tangible. He groans and rubs a hand over his eyes, muttering weakly, “I'll regret this.”

“You won't, because if you let this pass it will gnaw at your conscience every single, waking second of every day until you'll break. You know how to make Miss Jiang happy, and that is more than enough reason to try.”

For as long as Zixuan can remember, it has been of pleasing him, comforting him, praising him. Very rarely, too much so, has he returned the gesture, investing the effort and care behind the actions. Above all else, he wants Jiang Yanli to be happy. And beyond anything, he knows removing her agency in the matter will make her anything but. They cannot move on without recognition, without communication, and she deserves honesty. (Whether he can survive her reaction is another issue entirely, and one he will continue to solidly believe is buried six feet under on the opposite side of the world.)

He is swaying as if he has received physical blows rather than verbal, and Guangyao steadies him before he can split his head open on the polished stone path. He sighs once more, though the crease between his eyebrows has smoothed, “Dear brother, ah, you're so innocent. That's why you're the heir.”

Jin Guangyao has been so frustratingly right, and as much as he loathes the very concept, something unloosens in his chest, slips the tension from his shoulders. Jin Zixuan raises his head, considers briefly his reply then forces them out before he can think too hard: “Whenever I talk to her, I… I can never articulate my thoughts. Guangyao, my ability to speak regresses to toilet-level language, toilet-level.”

He clutches Guangyao's shoulders, shaking him in his desperation. With a pained sort of smile, Jin Guangyao extricates himself from Zixuan's grasp.

“That can be sorted.” He brings out his weapon of mass destruction, taps at the screen a few times, then holds it out to Zixuan. He huffs when the other flinches away, “Just take this.”

Zixuan gingerly handles the phone and stares at the blinking cursor, prompting Jin Guangyao to sigh once more. “Write. I don't care how sappy or wet it is, just write what you want to say to her.” He thinks for a moment, then obeys the request. It comes surprisingly easily: the regret, the guilt, the admiration and longing, and once the crack is in the dam, no longer will the river be restrained.

When he hands back the phone, he hurriedly attempts to thicken his face, like Mo Xuanyu and his… early forays into makeup. Jin Guangyao barely glances at his confession before he is on another app tapping away, and Jin Zixuan is oddly annoyed.

“At least tell me what this is for.”

Guangyao barely pauses his intense thumb cardio workout to tilt his head at Zixuan and smile, somehow simultaneously conveying the aura of the benevolent angel and cunning assassin. “You have heard of the Ouyang-Y.W.S.B.Z collaboration, yes?”

“Uh…” Under Guangyao's gaze, Zixuan can only nod, even as he can only recall snippets of female conversation (when conducting research, hardly eavesdropping) gushing over the latest contraband doujinshi supplied by a group who clearly had no sense in marketing with such a name.

“Well, they owe me a favour of sorts, and who better to convert your bumbling confession into a declaration of love worthy of a prince on a white steed than them? Free of charge,” adds Guangyao blithely when Zixuan opens his mouth. He shuts it with a clack, the urge to throttle the shorter boy growing exponentially.

“So I get this… speech, and then I recite it to her?”

“At least you've grasped that,” Guangyao chuckles, and the sides of Zixuan's designer trousers are creased almost beyond repair.

“Then how can I trust them? I only have your word,” he demands.

Guangyao finishes his sentence with a flourish and slips the phone out of sight, dusting invisible specks of lint from his clothes. “They deal with love confessions all the time and they have a ninety-nine percent success rate. I will anonymise your writing too, don't fret. Besides, if even Wen Chao would request their services and was successful, you cannot deny their efficacy.”

“I suppose… Wait.” Zixuan holds up a hand, frowning. “How did you know-”

“You forget I was at Nightless City for a week,” laughs Guangyao. His voice is of air, light, capricious, even as his eyes glint as thrown sunbeams over frost. “During the Sunshot Scandal, if I remember correctly. Very tumultuous time, CEO Nie had to recall me almost immediately.”

He blinks, beguiling, and Zixuan is struck by lightning. Of course. How else could Nie Industries have led the investigation? Jin Guangshan’s concerns, of moles and corruption, come into mind, and he laughs as he agrees. Yes, Jin Guangyao is of the wind and more dangerous than raw lightning in his hands, and he might still have a card to play.

Zixuan steels himself, and to the consternation of everyone present, bows towards Guangyao. “Give me a week, and that internship is yours.” He can almost imagine his mother vibrating with excitement, if not for that fact she is far too dignified for that.

His head is still bowed when Guangyao replies after a pause, and yet if he tilts his head just so, he thinks there is just a touch of relief, “You are truly too good.”

A hand appears under his nose, and he jerks away. Guangyao maintains a small smile, barely a twitched, and says, “Shall we shake on it?” Zixuan does not hesitate.

Afterwards, Guangyao begins to turn away, waving cordial pleasantries, when Zixuan reaches out to grasp his shoulder.

“You have way too many hands on the table. What do you get out of all this?” Because this is Guangyao (his brother, a boy who desires recognition beyond anything), and as much as how his heart has swelled with hope and determination, he still doubts his motives, for his guarantees are dependent on the temperaments of the Jin Clan, which shift with the wind and so should really not be called guarantees at all.

Guangyao pauses, a finger to his chin. Then something softens in his countenance, and his hand is on Zixuan’s shoulder while he murmurs, “Perhaps I know that you'll pay back my kindness tenfold. Maybe I've become curiously invested in this little drama. Or maybe once this is finally all over, the Jin family will have gained two powerful families as allies.”

“Wait, two?”

He blinks. “Oh, did I say two?”

Zixuan finally releases his groan and shakes his head, gaze heavenward in despair. “Nie Mingjue is right,” he mutters. “A-Yao, you are genuinely the worst.” And then he sees Guangyao’s expression and a laugh is drawn out, a little reluctant yet one that blooms under the spring sun. Perhaps, he thinks, he can live with this.

 


 

Song Lan is very tempted to gouge out his eyes with his own nails, until he imagines Xiao Xingchen’s expression and hurriedly diverts his train of thought to merely surviving the next ten minutes with minimal self-mutilation.

With rigid movements, he turns to the demonic spawn humming tunelessly around the perpetual lollipop and forces out, “Where exactly did you say Xiao Xingchen was?”

Xue Yang shrugs, kicking his feet idly as he perches on a bicycle rack. “Has to talk to Han Laoshi, something about his parents sending a care package to school again.”

“I see.” The urge to wring Xue Yang like laundry has simmered down, doused by the numbing reminder of Xingchen's precarious home life. Pressing his lips together, he leans against his own bicycle rack, though not with quite the carelessness of Xue Yang, who with one nudge could easily tip back and smash his head on the pavement.

As he is facing Xue Yang’s back, Song Lan releases a sigh, a whisper. Xiao Xingchen is unlike anyone he has ever met. He is radiant in his outlook, burning in his core, and yet Song Lan looks at him and thinks he is fragile, that he will collapse under his own gravity. When he meets a troubled delinquent and bullied young girl, he takes their hands and says I will live for you, so please live for me. And Xingchen is infinite in his care and yet Song Lan fears when he is scattered too thin, only dust will remain.

Let me live for you, just you. Song Lan wants him, his longing is echoed in every cell in his body - and yet he is terrified of the consequences. He paints Xingchen's image into his mind and sometimes that is enough, when his thoughts spiral and he whispers does he even look at me like I do him?

He wants and wants and wants, and in the end, he cannot bring himself to be selfish and those ten centimetres remain uncrossed.

“You are really fucking pathetic.” Song Lan raises his head, glaring a clean hole through Xue Yang’s back. There is no change in the younger boy’s stance, still lackadaisical, arrogantly lazy, and yet Song Lan can feel the grin, canines barred, the taunt running almost tangible underneath.

“For someone as single-minded as you, you are truly, utterly, fucked.” Xue Yang cackles, leaning back on his hands.

“There is no reason to throw insults without justification,” states Song Lan as he keeps his voice low and measured. “So please enlighten me on why I am so fucked, as you say.”

Finally, Xue Yang tilts his head over his shoulder, yet teasingly, so only his profile and the glint of his eye beneath his fringe is visible. He twists the stick of his lollipop in his fingers, the sweet jewel red. “Nothing much,” he shrugs, “I'm just curious why you haven't confessed to our dear Daozhang.”

He- ! Song Lan opens his mouth, then snaps it shut. If he could even force a sound out, he suspects it will be nothing less than the croak of a suffocating frog.

“That is none of your business,” he finally says, his words pebbles that barely disturb the tranquil water, sinking with finality.

Xue Yang tuts, wagging his lollipop in front of Song Lan’s nose in a manner he cannot quite decide between more condescending or threatening. “Listen, the only thing the Little Blind and I can agree on is that the only reason why the world hasn't turned to hell is Daozhang’s existence, so on the contrary, this is very much my- our business.”

Song Lan decides to ignore the slip of person, and instead turns his attention firmly away from Xue Yang, away from how his heart trembled at his thoughts, vocalised at last, how he feels his organs twisting in an elaborate dance with the sole purpose of making him taste blood whenever the slightest notion of confessing slips into his mind.

“Like I said, this is a matter only between Xingchen and I. Besides, even if you do know, why have you not told him anything?”

“Because watching you squirm and torture yourself is so much more entertaining than making Little Blind go on a sugar-induced rampage,” Xue Yang quips immediately, and Song Lan is almost convinced the metal bicycle rack has a permanent hand print from how tightly he is clenching it.

“... What's is in for you then? You won't tell and you can't change my mind.”

“Yes, yes, this Daozhang is right as always,” laughs Xue Yang. “Of course, what he's doing makes perfect sense, I wouldn't dare reproach him.” He bats his eyelashes and Song Lan barely manages to swallow back the acid in time. Breathe: in for eight, out for eight.

Xue Yang is the gamemaster, the final boss; he knows how to play the game intimately and he dangles bait after bait in front of Song Lan’s nose. He knows he is nothing but a pawn, nothing but entertainment, but something has flipped since that day he pressed Xingchen against the wall with the burning determination to let no harm come to him, and for once he is willing.

“Tell me.” Before I start explaining to Xingchen how you were accidentally run over by a lorry.

Teeth are bared, a cat with its cream. “Well, this student was just thinking - you know, wouldn't it be so much easier if everyone just told each other what they felt? For example, Song Lan, you're an upright prick I only tolerate for amusement purposes. And because Xingchen likes you for some reason.” Xue Yang reaches to pat Song Lan’s shoulder, as if comforting a friend than poking a marble statue. “There, that's so much better, isn't it? Really clears up the air. Now repeat after me: Xingchen, I like you. I want you to be mine and to pin you down and ravish you-”

“Shut your mouth!” Song Lan surges to his feet and paces away, his neck a magnificent shade of rouge. “Y-You-” He spins and jabs an accusatory finger at Xue Yang, just short of throttling him.

Xue Yang tilts his head guilelessly. “What? Cat got your tongue?”

“You fucking piece of-!” He chokes on his rage and the myriad of insults, as Xue Yang, for all his bullshitting, has peeled back the mask and revealed the pure blue sky, dazzling in its clarity. Eventually, he slumps back against the bike rack, resting his forehead against his hand.

“It's not that simple,” he growls under his breath.

“Isn't it?” There is a tint of something, that creeps into his voice and colours his tone, and Song Lan raises his head hesitantly. “What I see is someone who wants something so badly, and yet is too cowardly to get it himself. Like I said, pathetic.”

“I loathe having anything to do with this bastard,” says another voice, and Song Lan startles when he sees A-Qing appear in front of him, arms crossed as if scolding a child. “But what he said does have some merit - what’s stopping you from confessing? Honestly, your pining is nauseating.”

“That’s…” Song Lan is backed into a corner, and he does not even have the urge to feel betrayed. Perhaps he is just the slightest bit mortified at how obvious his ‘pining’ has been (to everyone but him, naturally), but he is outflanked and he is tired, so he tells them.

“Because he’s too much,” he murmurs. His head is bowed and the words muffled, yet the other two lean forward and drink them in as they open and flip through the closed picture book. “A couple of years ago, there were some bullies harassing a younger student while we on a school trip to the zoo, and I was fighting them and when one of them tried to punch me, Xingchen pushed me out of the way.” He laughs mirthlessly. “His glasses ended up broken with the frame snapped. Baoshan Sanren was furious. And so was I.”

Song Lan looks down at his hands, the same hands that had pushed Xingchen away, that one mild spring afternoon in a scene he wishes he can erase from existence. “I persuaded his grandmother not to punish him, to blame me. And like always, he just wouldn’t take it. He said he needed to give back, to give back to the world what he’d been given. I realised, then,” now his voice drops to a whisper, words snatched by the breeze, “I couldn’t do that to him. I can’t do that when he loves the world so much. I’m fine, just supporting him, because that’s what he deserves.”

“... Fucking hell.” There is a heartbeat of silence, before Xue Yang bursts into breathless laughter, and Song Lan feels justified in smiling when A-Qing finally shoves him off the bicycle rack.

“You heartless son of a bitch! You piece of shit! Why are you even here?!” she rages at the rolling figure at her feet, sadly unharmed from the fall but apparently in complete stitches from laughter.

“It’s just - holy shit, it’s just too funny - hey, Little Blind, don’t kick me!” Xue Yang raises a hand, blocking the foot hovering threatening over his face, and pushes himself up so he is sitting cross-legged. He turns to face a stony Song Lan and gestures at him, declaring, “You’re literally perfect for each other! You share the exact same brain cell! You’re both fucking idiots!”

Xue Yang’s shoulders shake, though only a chuckle escapes under Song Lan’s infamous glare of disdain and A-Qing waving her fists of terror. “Explain,” she demands, letting Song Lan remain silent (he does not believe he could talk anyway - any action would most likely end up with one, or both, of them in hospital).

“You see,” Xue Yang smirks, “you’re both so oblivious! You both so entrapped in your own little world you don’t even see the consequences of your own actions! He’s out there flouncing around like some lone avenger of justice and you’re here in the shadows thinking it’s just fine to let him do that! He wants to take on every burden and you want to shield him like he’s made of fucking glass, when you both just want the same thing. It’s stupidly hilarious,” he snickers, and he dodges A-Qing’s kick, only to be flat on his back as the younger girl sits resolutely on his stomach.

“And stay there,” she says when Xue Yang flails his arms and legs, and she turns to Song Lan, ignoring the insults (“You weigh a fucking tonne, Blind!”): “Song Zichen, you and Daozhang care so much for each other that neither of you are communicating. You need to tell him your feelings, to clear up all these misunderstandings so you can support each other, instead of one throwing themselves under the bus all the time for the other. If anything, talk to him for me.”

(The choked “That is literally what I said, bitch!” goes firmly unacknowledged.)

Under the gazes of both A-Qing and Xue Yang, so similar in their intensity it is unsettling, Song Lan can do nothing but duck his head, retreat behind the veil of blinding snow he has maintained.

What they have said resonates within him, it overlaps with his own feelings and drags them out into the stark daylight. Xiao Xingchen, of the distant stars and cool breeze, deserves love beyond what he can give, but maybe, just maybe…

As if reading his mind, Xue Yang snorts, the sound a little distorted as A-Qing shifts so her weight is directly on his chest. “He's too bright for you,” he says, and when Song Lan meets his gaze, for a second he holds it, burning, incandescent. Then Xue Yang turns his head and gives a bark of laughter. “You better take him before someone else does.”

“You…” Song Lan recognizes the arrow in his heart, the pang of jealousy, and he lets it go. He raises a weary hand and chuckles, in exhaustion, defeat, relief. “Alright,” he sighs. “I'll try.”

A-Qing’s eyes widen, visibly vibrating with delight, and it is only increased tenfold when she waves a hand in the air, shouting, “Daozhang! You’re here!”

Xiao Xingchen wears a gentle smile as he approaches, though it fades a little when he sees the situation they are in. “A-Qing, dear, is it really necessary to sit on Xue Yang like that?”

“Yes!”

“I'm suffocating from your dead weight!”

Xiao Xingchen sighs and glances at Song Lan, a reluctant grin dancing across his features. His face is a captivating shade of pink, Song Lan decides when his fingertips brush the other’s cheek, and belatedly he realises he has done nothing but tuck an errant lock of hair behind Xingchen's ear.

Song Lan pulls back, stammering, “It was covering your eyes!” while he prays for a lightning strike to melt him into a puddle.

The pinkness remains, accentuating the soft curves of Xingchen's smile. “Ah, thank you Zichen.” He can feel the gazes boring holes into his side, and Song Lan once again laments his existence.

“Come on, only you can move the menace,” he says and gestures vaguely to the two demon spawn on the ground. Xingchen hides a smile behind his hand as he coaxes A-Qing away with the promise of the limited edition bag of sweets, a flower that blooms and shines beneath the sun. And Song Lan thinks, perhaps. Perhaps he can turn a page, and write a new chapter… As long as they are far, far away from the denizens of the deepest layer of hell.

 


 

“Lan Wangji has a crush? I don’t buy it.”

Don’t do this, don’t do this, no no no-

“Of course my cute little brother likes someone!”

Fuck it. Wei Wuxian bids his internal image of Jiang Cheng goodbye as it yells something about breaking his legs, and he tells himself that he does not feel one bit guilty for making his brother wait after his swim team practice.

(The swim team was one of the few things the two of them did not share, and perhaps for good reason. As much as he could rival Jiang Cheng’s speed in the water on a good day, he has found their practice sessions after school to overlap too often with the orchestra - when he actually goes with Lan Wangji, of course - and Jiang Cheng positively thrives underwater. There is also an old photo, of Uncle Jiang and his co-captain Wei Changze holding an oversized trophy, proudly displayed in the sports office cabinet. Notwithstanding the surge of pride they feel, it makes Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng just the slightest bit uncomfortable for reasons they can never quite remember, but as soon as they hear the reaction of whatever impressionable girl in the office viewing it for the first, or tenth, time, the reason is swiftly brought to the forefront of their minds then locked in a dark cage never to see daylight again.)

If it was Jiang Yanli and her gentle “A-Xian…”, tinted in the pastel hues of disappointment and kind-hearted reproach, at stake here, then he would never stoop to such a level, Wei Wuxian tells himself as he frantically skitters back and presses himself to the ground beside the ajar classroom door. As it happens, she, like most other third years, are either at their respective clubs or study sessions, and so the presence of what sounds like Lan Xichen, Nie Mingjue and by extension Jin Guangyao in an empty third year classroom does not quite sit right with him, but he has priorities and Lan Xichen is a source reserved for the gods.

“Your powers of observation are most astute,” says a third voice, confirming the presence of Jin Guangyao.

“Not at all, just for my little brother,” laughs Lan Xichen.

A table creaks, as if someone is leaning heavily against it. “So who is it?” grumbles Nie Mingjue, like he is barely concerned when the mere act of questioning betrays his curiosity.

Yeah, who?! Wei Wuxian's darting eyes land on a photo of a Guanyin statue, taken during some school trip to Hubei, and the marble face seems to regard him coolly, peering down her nose like he was a mere worm, with just the faintest whiff of disdain. He grimaces, mentally slaps himself several times, then tilts his head once more to the ajar door.

“Ah, I shouldn't say…” Lan Xichen sounds truly contrite, and naturally Jin Guangyao calls his bullshit: “So it's someone we know.”

There is a beat of silence, punctuated only by Wei Wuxian’s pounding heart ringing in his ears, then Lan Xichen heaves a sigh. “I only feel sorry that even after so long, Wangji still has not gathered the courage to confess.”

“How long?” asks Jin Guangyao.

“Hmm… They've known each other for the better part of five years. Sometimes I truly want to hurt this person - and yet they have brought Wangji happiness beyond compare.” With that, Wei Wuxian quietly takes his leave.

He is untethered and something is slipping between his fingers. Somehow he is before the sports hall, and he slumps onto the bench lining the covered walkway. Emotions surge beneath his skin, fracturing his body: his mouth drys with guilt, his body stiffens in shock, his chest aches as if there is gaping abyss, clawed out by his own fingers.

Happiness beyond compare. How can he dare to take Lan Wangji from this person, how can he claim to be the only one to make Lan Wangji smile? For the boy of light he will give everything for his happiness, and so he should stop, no more, he is content with being friends.

And yet, and yet, and yet. For once, he wants to be selfish. His mismatched heart has been burdensome for so long, he does not know how long he can bear this for. As much as he had deceived Lan Wangji, did he not also deserve the truth, at the risk of their relationship?

He groans and rests his head in his hands. In the end, he walks the same narrow, crooked path - he is still too cowardly, to reveal his love, to see Lan Wangji's reaction. He is the bud that has bloomed under a summer sky, and an errant step can crush him.

Footsteps sound and Wei Wuxian automatically slips on a grin, swiping his sleeve across his eyes. “Jiang Cheng! Shijie!” He waves his arm at the two figures a few metres away, and though now it is a little harder, to place the blossoms and light and cracks in a box and store it away, he does, and he throws arms around his siblings with his usual dramatic flair.

He will not darken Lan Wangji, he decides then. How is another matter entirely, with two completely different paths to take - nevertheless, he has had perhaps an excessive amount of experience winging his way through life, and this could hardly be the worst. So he ruffles Jiang Cheng's wet hair and wheedles a sample of Jiang Yanli's treats from the Cooking Club, and he flies as he free falls from the clouds high above.

If he notices the concerned glances between his brother and sister, he does not say. Nor does he see the silent conversation, over within a second, between a surprisingly-tolerant-to-his-bullshit Jiang Cheng and the trio of students standing under a magnolia tree.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian feels like shit - pure, unadulterated scumminess in a mire of dog shit and piss. He is sure his dust bunnies will agree, if they had not been flattened by the scattered empty cups of instant noodles and wrappers of Cornetto, because he is a masochist like that. And he has now been reduced to watching children’s animated shows while dismantling and reassembling his old remote control car for the eighth time.

Footsteps resound at his door, which he resolutely ignores in favour for the cartoon wolf also suffering from life and meddling sheep. He has had enough of plastering a smile, of moulding a mask into his skin whenever Uncle Jiang and Yanli have attempted to comfort him during the past few days when he returned from school. Even Madam Yu, in her own intimidating manner, had insisted that she could not stand him moping around as if his heart had been ripped from his chest. He had laughed then, an empty, jagged thing that made Yanli reach out and Jiang Cheng frown.

No, it is hard enough to tear at his mask, at his own skin so that his tears could be seen one time. It is hard enough to be confronted with Lan Wangji’s gentle concern when he is at school, as he screams to himself he cannot lead on Lan Wangji any further. Any more, and he will break.

The footsteps pause outside his door, and he turns up the volume of his phone. In response, there is a muttered, “Fuck this,” and the door swings open with a bang. Wei Wuxian blinks at the footprint just visible on the door, and he manages to stop himself from rolling around on the floor. Screws are painful after all.

“For once, this was not my fault,” he snickers. “I'll burn paper money for you, A-Cheng.”

“Fuck off,” huffs Jiang Cheng, and with a wrinkled nose he manoeuvres himself onto the lone island of empty floor. He lunges for the phone and holds it high out of reach as he pauses the video.

“Honestly, how old are you?”

“Xianxian’s three!”

“You’re a fucking foetus,” scoffs Jiang Cheng and he tosses the phone onto the unmade bed out of reach.

Wei Wuxian pouts, abandoning the wires in a tangle on the carpet, which Jiang Cheng regards with distasteful concern.

“What is that? Suibian the Fourth?” He gestures to the mangled pieces of black and red plastic and is promptly shoved in the shoulder.

“You heathen! This is Suibian the Third, Suibian the Fourth has those limited edition corpse stickers on the side and that webcam I added.”

“Right…” Jiang Cheng decides to say no more on that matter. Without the sounds of the cartoon, the silence is deafening, punctuated only by Wei Wuxian absent minded taps of his fingers on the remote car skeleton.

“Look,” sighs Jiang Cheng, holding up a hand as Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, “Jie is making a week’s supply of her soup as we speak, but as much as I appreciate that, you are going to need a shit load more than food bribes. I- we all are… concerned.”

Wei Wuxian cannot help but smile softly, and finally he lets go of the plastic corpse and his pretence of ignorance. They are swiftly tossed far out of reach by Jiang Cheng to join his phone.

“So, shit, I don’t know,” Jiang Cheng grimaces, as if he would prefer to bury himself in mud than be attempting to initiate emotional communication with his adopted brother, “rant or something. If it’s Lan Wangji then,” his expression abruptly hardens, crackles of lightning flash in his eyes, “I will break every single bone in his body.”

“Why are you blaming Lan Zhan?” scolds Wei Wuxian.

“Because why else have you spent all this time moping around like he tore out your heart, stomped it to pieces and threw it away like the piece of trash you are!”

“I’ll have you know, I am recyclable, it’s better for the environment,” Wei Wuxian grins, and he is rewarded with a groan and face in his hands, though his triumph is short-lived, chased away by a limp wave of Jiang Cheng’s hand and a muffled, “Whatever, just talk.”

Perhaps he should have known his adopted brother could recognize his diversionary tactics so easily. Wei Wuxian smiles ruefully under Jiang Cheng’s expectant gaze as he hums under his breath, a lilting, wandering melody that searches for the words to say, the fissures in the walls.

“Do you think I’m being selfish?” His fingers twist into his sleeves, his eyes unfocused, as he thinks of icy gold and warm hands carding through his hair. “If Lan Zhan is in love with someone else, then- Oi, I’m trying to have a heart-to-heart conversation here!” He registers the odd background sound as Jiang Cheng’s poorly-concealed snorts, and shoves his brother playfully.

Jiang Cheng bats away the middle finger, huffing, “The day you reveal your heart is the day I willingly eat your concoctions from hell.” Abruptly his expression shifts, as something seems to yield and yet harden in his countenance. “And if I'm not dead from food poisoning by the end of next week, I'm breaking your legs.”

Wei Wuxian blinks. “Uh, what-”

“God, are you always so slow on the uptake?” Jiang Cheng raises his gaze to the heavens, shaking his head even as he chuckles, breathless and stilting. “In answer to your question, Wei Wuxian, you are the most selfless selfish person I have ever met. You keep giving and giving like you have some stupid protagonist halo, even when you don't have enough to give. I'll always see your back, and that's fucking fine because you know what? It hurts even more when you don't know when to stop and just take it.”

“Jiang Cheng… I…” Because he is not ignorant of how magnanimous Uncle Jiang is to his adopted son, how bitter and barbed Madam Yu’s words can become, in order to challenge and drive her son, to flourish in the way his parents thought best. And though the fights are rarer, Wei Wuxian is still hesitant, as Jiang Cheng's pride is clear like thin ice and just as brittle. Wei Wuxian tries and he tries, because he wants to give so much he does not even remember if he takes.

“Save it,” Jiang Cheng says. “That's just how we are.”

Wei Wuxian smiles, soft and tender, and he punches his brother in the shoulder. “I’ll still stand by you, no matter what. Twin Heroes, remember?”

Jiang Cheng is silent, then returns the punch in full force. “You're such a fucking kid.”

And Wei Wuxian laughs, like they are the loud, unruly children who made promises and pretended these adult shoes would fit their ten-year old feet - so he barely registers Jiang Cheng’s swift continuation: “That’s why you need to man up, resolve this clusterfuck yourself, and confess.”

“What?” Shaking his head, Wei Wuxian surges forward to grasp at his brother’s shoulders. “Jiang Cheng, I told you, I can’t.”

An eyebrow perfectly arched. “You can’t or you won't?”

Wei Wuxian does not cease shaking his head, betrayal and shock plastered across his face as desperation seeps into his words: “Lan Zhan has loved someone else for so long-”

“And how long do you plan to continue with this farce?” Jiang Cheng brushes him away, his voice set alight and burning. “What happens when he finally tires of being used and asks who you actually want to confess to? He is, somehow, your friend - he deserves the truth and you need closure, so just take this for yourself. Do this for yourself for a fucking change and get your head out of your ass - if anything, Lan Wangji should be begging to be with you, not the over way round.”

At first, Wei Wuxian does not respond. He does not even know how, he is stranded in the ocean of unknown. Jiang Cheng actually initiating a conversation about emotions has slapped one side of his face; the other is still smarting from Jiang Cheng's words. Because, it makes sense, of course, it always does, but this is Lan Zhan, this indispensable necessity. He cannot lose him.

When he opens his mouth to speak, Jiang Cheng raises his hand. “No need,” he grumbles, and he makes to get up. “That's enough emotional vulnerability for the next decade.” He surveys the room, plotting his route back to sanity, when he turns back to Wei Wuxian.

“Here.” Wei Wuxian raises his hands to catch the object Jiang Cheng throws at him - his phone, his lock screen showing an audio message from Mo Xuanyu in front of a selfie from that time he and Lan Wangji had ran around the city playing treasure hunt with cut-up pictures of Nie Mingjue working out (he would rather not explain).

“Mo Xuanyu said I had to make sure you listened to this. I don't know what it is nor do I care. Just… think about this.” And with a well-timed leap, Jiang Cheng arrives in front of the door just as his mother crosses the landing and spots the faded footprint. With the dulcet tones of Madam Yu yelling at Jiang Cheng to clean up behind his irresponsible actions as his background music, Wei Wuxian flops back onto his bed and hits play.

There is an indeterminable buzz, muted whispers behind the static. Then, as the sunlight pierces through the clouds and the plum blossoms emerge in the frigid winter, a flute melody dances into the air, entwining with the piano. It is tenderness, it is possibility. It is their composition.

Wei Wuxian recalls the one music lesson they had after being forced together by Mo Xuanyu, when Lan Wangji had unwrapped a guqin of polished wood and positioned his hands expectantly over the strings. Wei Wuxian had brought his own dizi and in the small practice room, it was like they spun pure emotion from their fingertips. Listen to me, he thought, regarding Lan Wangji's serene profile beneath his lashes. Please listen.

Not me, he amends now, with an arm thrown across his face. Not my words, you know I say shit. Listen to my heartbeat when it pounds, my stomach when it flips like it is a fluffle of high rabbits, listen to everything I'm aiming at you.

The track has repeated too many times to count when he hears Jiang Yanli call him done for dinner, and he sighs. He has fallen and is still falling, but now he thinks he is slowing down. He can feel the wind, fickle and inconstant yet always present, supporting him, cushioning the inevitable landing. He thinks about Jiang Cheng's stuttered attempts of comfort and Yanli’s warm embrace, and he laughs. They attempt the impossible, and this is no exception.

Wei Wuxian is met with a range of concerned expressions when he stumbles into the dining room, and the room collectively holds its breath as he collapses into his chair and stares into his steaming bowl. He takes a spoon, savours the taste and how it fuels the determination that is steadily building up in his core.

“A-Xian…” Jiang Yanli places a hand on his shoulder, and he pauses, takes a deep breath, then says innocently, “How do you tell someone you've liked them for a long time without sounding like a creep?”

Madam Yu huffs, Uncle Jiang chuckles under his breath, Jiang Cheng slaps a palm to his forehead and Jiang Yanli giggles. And Wei Wuxian takes this, places it beside the thing that has unfurled in his heart, tentative yet beautiful. He will try and he will confess, for his long-suffering friends, for Lan Wangji, for himself. He loves him and he loves him, and so even though he knows a rejection will be as visceral as a stab to the chest, he wants to at least try.

 


 

Wait by your locker before first period.

I don't take orders from you! Jin Zixuan growls to himself as he leans against his locker, at a ridiculous hour in the morning, just as he has done for the past twenty minutes. At this point there is a trickle of students traversing the corridors, absorbed in their own conversations and thoughts, bubbles in the stream.

How strange, how humbling it is, that every single person he sees has their own story, their own Yanlis and Guangyaos and incompetent adults. How precious one's true self is, their motivations and reasons, and he knows how close you can hold it to yourself. How behind the unassuming exterior, there is beauty and fear and exhilaration in one confusing, wonderful mix. It is Jiang Yanli, it always comes to Jiang Yanli. He… adores her, so very, very much.

He closes his eyes briefly, takes a deep breath, and when he opens them he almost collapses in shock. “The hell-! Don't do that, Xuanyu! I thought you were a ghost!”

“Sorry,” says Mo Xuanyu, sounding not particularly apologetic at all. He shrugs and bats his eyelids, that for some reason are layered with various shades of coral. A striking effect, if one were to observe it from a suitable distance and not when they are nose to nose.

Jin Zixuan sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose, then turns with a weary smile to the girl standing patiently beside them. “Qin Su, nice to see you.”

Qin Su tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, her expression alight with anticipation. “Zixuan, I'm so excited for you!” she practically squeals, and something drops into the abyss in his stomach.

“Wait, why are you even here-”

“We are rooting for you, Zixuan-ge!” Mo Xuanyu shoves a folded piece of paper under Jin Zixuan's nose with both hands and an entirely too serious expression. “Yao-ge sends all his best wishes and support and the deepest depths of his gratitude!”

“And why couldn't he tell me that himself?” grumbles Zixuan. He regards the offering warily, before snatching it away and unfolding it hurriedly, his eyes devouring the first few lines. It is but a second, before Zixuan refolds the sheet and tucks it into his pocket, singing praises and thanks to his ancestors and all the gods above; it was worth all those hours and hours and sacrifices of persuading his mother to give Guangyao the internship, even if he can feel his teeth hurting from the unadulterated sugar syrup that is condensed into those words.

Mo Xuanyu and Qin Su share a glance, and Jin Zixuan rolls his eyes in exasperation. “A-Yao is truly grateful,” Qin Su says, placing a hand on Zixuan's arm. “And he really does want the best for you.” She holds his gaze with a delicate smile until he yields and turns away, clicking his tongue. Out of them four, Qin Su had always been the mediator, the one to indulge and coddle and to whom none of her brothers had the heart to refuse.

“Fine, I'll let him know I received this,” Zixuan sighs.

Qin Su nods, then tilts her head. “So how are you going to do it?”

“Huh?”

“Yanli-jie is an angel incarnate,” Mo Xuanyu adds gravely. “When courting such brilliance you can't let one thing be out of place. For instance, when Wen Ning and I-”

“Enough, enough!” Jin Zixuan waves a hand, hurriedly dismissing the anecdote that would undoubtedly be as long as an epic and induce goosebumps he really did not want to deal with this early in the morning. He had been forced to suffer through too many stories of his brother's love life already. And yet… at least Mo Xuanyu has experience. Jin Zixuan thinks of his conspicuously blank list of romantic encounters and he sags.

“You do have a plan, don't you? I mean, beyond your knight in shining armour monologue,” Qin Su asks, and Jin Zixuan just manages to reduce the force of the backlash into minuscule flinch.

“Um, of course! I'm-”

“Because if you need any help at all, just ask, okay?” Mo Xuanyu clutches at Zixuan's hands, dislocating his arms out of his sockets by how vigorously Xuanyu shakes him. Next to them, Qin Su nods earnestly. “Anything at all! Even if you don't ask! We're cheering for you and Yanli-jie!”

Zixuan can feel his eye twitch. When the hell did their mutually unacknowledged ‘Our father is a piece of shit’ club (with Guangyao’s imminent entry, at four members in the Academy) turn into the not-at-all-mutual publicly-acknowledged ‘Let’s get Zixuan a date!’ club?!

“Listen, I don't need your help-”

“We can help decorate! Set the mood! Cook! I always had to cook for my aunt and cousin, I'm not too bad! Whatever you want, we need to show Yanli-jie you're worth her time, she is taking the Gaokao soon, everyone knows she wants to get into a cooking school and if you're left behind without making a smidgen of an impression, then-”

“Fine!” Mo Xuanyu freezes, allowing Qin Su to hastily pry his fingers off of Zixuan, who is trembling with his forehead in his hand. The morning sun throws bursts of light onto his crisp yellow shirt, shadows and stars of brightness intertwining like he is bathed in flames. “Fine,” Zixuan grits, and Mo Xuanyu finally does take a step back, convinced his brother is an unpinned grenade.

“I'll tell her today!”

His yell echoes down the empty corridors, as if an army of Zixuans are pledging their devotion. Mo Xuanyu and Qin Su watch (with just the faintest sense of amusement) the colour drain from their brother's face, leaving a pallid canvas that is immediately coloured, splatters of red and green filling the pages. He is like a cornered animal and Qin Su approaches him as such, her hands raised and her voice low and soothing.

“It's okay, no one else is here, you're fine,” she insists, and Zixuan collapses onto the lockers behind him. His slide down onto the floor is slow and torturous, his own descent into hell. When he is finally on the floor, he draws his knees up to chest, buries his head in his hands, and screams.

Why? Why let his silly little brother bait him? Why is he so worried about this? And yet, how can he not be? How can he not tremble at the very thought of rejection, at how much anguish that wells within him? Not for the first time, he truly wishes he could throw his past self out of the window and into oblivion.

He comes to with the gentle pats to his shoulder, the light strokes on his head. “It'll be okay, you can do it,” says Qin Su. “No matter what, we're siblings, we won't leave you behind.”

On his other side, Mo Xuanyu sounds almost close to tears when he whispers, “I’m sorry, Zixuan-ge. I really didn't want to force you to this extent…”

“No, no.” Zixuan raises his head to find Qin Su and Mo Xuanyu crouched beside him, a strange little huddle on the floor. He pats Xuanyu’s head, murmuring, “It's not your fault. You guys are right, I can't keep stewing in my feelings for much longer. I owe it to you, A-Yao… I owe it to her.”

Qin Su’s smile exudes brightness and relief as she pulls Zixuan into a brief hug. “That's all we wanted, A-Xuan. For you two to find happiness.”

“Right,” he sighs into her hair. Even Mo Xuanyu throwing himself into the embrace and sniffing loudly in his ear cannot distract Zixuan from how optimistic his own siblings seem to be of the situation. He is almost tempted to call them foolish, after what they have seen, what they had experienced, even from his own hands when he was younger and ignorant and frankly a brat, but nonetheless, he has warmth in his hands and is so very reluctant to abandon it so soon.

“Just…” His hands tighten, only for a moment, into fists. “What do I do?”

Qin Su and Mo Xuanyu pull away with a shared laughing glance that makes Zixuan feel positively powerless. “You can start,” Mo Xuanyu smirks, “by memorising this.” He bats Zixuan’s forehead with the sheet of paper, that must have fallen out of his pocket while he was having a mental breakdown.

Zixuan inhales, smooths out the creases, and with his brother and sister at his side (Guangyao can go unfuck himself he adds, rather benevolently he believes), he begins to read as he reaches out for the endless, ethereal skies.

 


 

 Song Lan has accepted this day cannot become any weirder when he sees A-Qing and Xue Yang, together, side-by-side, with no single sign of enmity between them. In the middle of lunch no less, when the scent of food wafts in the air (normally from students privileged enough to bring in their own lunch, for the Academy's own fare is sorely lacking) and tensions for sweets run high. As the finishing touch, A-Qing ought to be an entire ten minutes away in the Middle School division.

However, he muses idly, it is like someone was taken the Academy and shaken it violently, until their flimsy pieces are upside down and all awry, just for this day. It began when, during his quest for an empty room as the morning sun pierced beams of soft light through the windows (he had needed a reprieve from his foster siblings’ prying questions after they had noticed his frantic scribblings that evening, as he transferred the words inscribed on his heart onto paper), he walked into a heated conference between the Jiang siblings.

“Shijie, a Lan’s idea of a dessert is grass jelly with syrup if they're feeling really adventurous. Grass jelly - it tastes like that cough medicine Madam Yu always makes us take!” Wei Wuxian had banged his head on the desk in despair, only prevented from earning a concussion by Jiang Cheng's hand.

“Alright, no food for the confession,” he said. The two of them had their backs to the door, and so only Jiang Yanli met his bemused gaze. And with her brothers preoccupied in their plotting, Jiang Yanli produced a beatific smile that struck the fear of god into Song Lan’s heart. He obediently backed away and retreated several corridors away until he was reassured he would not die from terror.

His search was similarly hindered by the lump of bodies on the floor, which swiftly resolved into Jin Zixuan, Mo Xuanyu and Qin Su with their heads together, gesturing and passing a piece of paper between them. In another classroom, Nie Huaisang was gesticulating wildly with his fan at a complex table projected onto the board, while one of the Ouyang twins made notes. “Wangxian are expected to be confirmed by tomorrow evening latest, we need the storyboards done the day after tomorrow so we can start receiving preorders. Xuanli is similar, the audience is smaller but passionate, as for Songxiao-” Song Lan made a swift escape then.

He eventually found a scrap of tranquillity on the rooftop garden, where the flowers were raising their heads and birds sang hidden in the foliage. Leaning on the fence, he tilted his head back and closed his eyes, losing himself in the cool breeze, the sun’s kiss. He was alive and it hummed melodies in his blood. Being with Xiao Xingchen, it is like this, brimming with kindness and justice that spills out of his fingers, his curiosity of the world in face of his circumstances.

Song Lan remembered Xingchen's face when he saw a tortoise for the first time at the zoo, shortly before the glasses incident, and he did not halt the smile that split his face. Xingchen is his dearest friend, and even if his feelings are not returned (if only, if only) he is content.

With such thoughts in mind, he should not have been surprised to almost miss the start of the first lesson. He apologised swiftly to Duan Laoshi, who merely raised an eyebrow. Song Lan soon surmised this was hardly the worst transgression that morning, for Jin Zixuan, usually a diligent student, was very clearly paying minimal attention in favour for something tucked onto his lap, and Wei Wuxian, the bane of Headmaster Lan’s existence, was the role model of a perfect student.

(He said as much to Nan Ge Er during the break, taking refuge from Nie Huaisang and Mianmian as they shot expectant glances at him, to which Mo Shu had laughed and commented how sweet harmony was thick in the air. Nan Ge Er had swatted Mo Shu’s hand away from his coconut candy and hawthown rolls, and Song Lan thought himself a little oblivious lately to not have realised his conspicuous singleness with such a blatant couple in front of him.)

Therefore, Song Lan does not bother to reprimand either Xue Yang or A-Qing, and only beckons them to a quieter corridor near the stairwell. “What now?” he sighs. He does not know what more could be added to A-Qing’s near hundred messages and Xue Yang’s select lines (to which he had wasted several precious minutes yelling expletives in response, so that even now his throat feels sore), vastly different in content yet equally terrifying to Song Lan.

A-Qing grins and pumps her fists in the air. “Moral support!”

“I personally think it would be fun to see you crash and burn, but moral support is up there somewhere,” shrugs Xue Yang, and he dodges A-Qing’s fist with ease.

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Song Lan addresses A-Qing, though she is currently giving Xue Yang the most withering glare, “but you don't need to breathe down my neck; I will keep my word.”

“Oh really?” Xue Yang snorts and crosses his arms, shifting back a little so he can catch Song Lan’s gaze. “Then enlighten me, how does having the entire weekend equate to there being nothing at all? You haven't even seen him once today.”

“That…” Song Lan struggles for words, almost wishing he can extract the jumble of tangled emotions, of threads of stories and wants all coloured distinctly Xiao Xingchen, and shove it into their faces. Words are his tools, his weapons - they move willingly to his bidding, form great swathes of lands and characters in his head. And when they fail, when they all come shrieking into his mouth and clamour to be the one that is said first, he feels helpless.

“I want so much, but he wants so little for himself. I... am trying to balance that,” he says simply.

A-Qing’s countenance softens, and while one hand slaps Xue Yang on the shoulder, she takes Song Lan’s hand in the other. “This is why you don't need all this preparation - you can say and do so much that Daozhang won't do, you fit together so perfectly! I believe in you! Don't listen to the shit-faced bastard, just tell him in your own way.”

Xue Yang coughs, and Song Lan regards him coolly. “I never go back on my word,” he states.

“We'll see,” mutters Xue Yang, before his expression is shifts completely and he waves his hand to something behind Song Lan. “Daozhang!”

Song Lan turns and his breath catches in his throat. Xiao Xingchen is there, paused while coming down the stairs, a hand lightly resting on the rail. The light from the window beside him is pure and brilliant, reflecting off his glasses while his gaze is of delicate snow and the clear moon, and Song Lan swallows.

“Xue Yang, here's the book you needed,” Xingchen says when he reaches them. “A-Qing, I'm glad to see you, but you know middle school students aren't allowed to go to the High School without a teacher’s permission during school hours. And Zichen,” he glances up at Song Lan, then smiles gently. “It's always good to see you.”

“No problem Daozhang, let me take the Little Blind back where the trash belongs,” smirks Xue Yang, and somewhere in a small, shadowed part of Song Lan’s mind, he realizes what the little shit has orchestrated.

“If anyone deserves to be tossed into an incinerator, it's you,” A-Qing sniffs. She gives Xiao Xingchen a fierce hug, then scampers out of Xue Yang’s claws, not at all fazed by the mental daggers that are being sent into every inch of her body. Song Lan does not relax when they wave goodbye, even when he can hear their argument rise and swell far down the corridor.

“Ah, Zichen…” Cool fingertips brush the back of his hand, and he startles. He glances down at the now automatic ten centimetre space between them, and he consciously relaxes his clenched fists.

“I'm sorry for startling you,” Xiao Xingchen says. He has curled his own fingers close to his side. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, I…” Song Lan pauses, considers their notably lacklustre surroundings and the clock ticking down the precious few minutes until the start of afternoon classes, and knowing his own ability to vocalise his emotions, he will need considerably more than ten minutes.

Instead, he steps forward and takes Xingchen's hands in his. They are cool and slightly roughened, and there are sparks from where they touch. Just this once, he thinks, he will indulge himself.

“Meet me after school on the rooftop garden!” Xingchen regards him with wide eyes and Song Lan can feel his neck warming. “Please,” he adds.

He cannot bear to see the other’s reaction, yet how can he tear away his gaze? The small furrow between his eyebrows, how his clear eyes narrow in thought, the rise and fall of his chest as he exhales, the twitch at the corner of his mouth. And finally his steady hands, when they carefully envelop his own.

“I will.”

The tension unwinds from his body as Song Lan sighs. “Thank you.”

“You don't need to say thank you to me.” Xiao Xingchen shakes his head slightly, squeezes Song Lan’s hands. “You never owe anything to me.”

And yet, I want to give you so much. Song Lan watches Xingchen pause, then carefully push back his hands as if they had no business touching his own, and something hardens in his chest. Stones of brilliant colour, that remain when the waters dry and fires burn.

“I should go,” Xingchen says, his expression a little rueful as he turns and waves, intending to go back to his classroom on the second floor. He stops with one hand on the railing, and murmurs, “I will meet you in the garden then.”

Song Lan nods, mute, and his gaze follows Xingchen until he turns the corner and is out of sight. He stands there for a minute, before he passes a hand across his face and inhales deeply. Right, history with Chu Laoshi. He really should leave.

In the next corridor, he sees Jiang Yanli as she laughs with Wen Qing, some books in her arms most likely from the library nearby. She nods in his direction, and he is returning the gesture when he presses himself against the wall, once again in terror of his life but now from a golden peacock who skids to a halt in front of Jiang Yanli, panting with strands of hair sticking to his face.

“Jiang Yanli,” Jin Zixuan declares, then with a muffled curse he replaces the book that was threatening to slip from Jiang Yanli's arms. There is a short giggle somewhere, and Jin Zixuan flushes in reflex.

“Jiang Yanli,” he begins again, and he seems to be on the verge of choking, before he cries out, “Please meet me in the home economics room at four fifteen today!” A strangled, high-pitched noise trails after the end of his exclamation, and Jin Zixuan claps a hand to his mouth.

At once both unwilling to involve himself any further yet incredibly curious, Song Lan’s gaze slides to Jiang Yanli, who to his surprise has lost her serene composure and is blushing deeply. “I- yes, of course,” she makes out.

“Th-thanks,” squeaks Jin Zixuan, then Song Lan once again melds himself into the wall as Zixuan runs past him. He glances at his watch, sighs then detaches himself and makes to follow in the other’s wake.

“Is he worth it?” he hears Wen Qing question, disdain dripping in her voice.

Jiang Yanli, soft and tender like a secret: “I think you'd be surprised.”

Song Lan rounds the corner: almost there, just at the end of this corridor and then-

“Lan Zhan!”

He halts and closes his eyes briefly, and yet turns to his right where through the wide windows letting in a crisp breeze, he sees Wei Wuxian perched in the branches of the sturdy date tree that had been planted in the centre of the second year courtyard. Even from a distance, Wei Wuxian's grin is blinding as he cries, “Catch me!” And he throws himself out of the tree.

Song Lan starts forward (for if anything, he knows Xiao Xingchen would be most displeased if his cousin broke his neck, even from his own fault) until he catches sight of Lan Wangji at the base of the tree, arms stretched up as if he had always intended to catch Wei Wuxian. As if he always will.

Reassured, Song Lan begins to turn away, for he trusts Lan Wangji infinitely more than Wei Wuxian's lack of self-preservation, though he pauses when, in a fervent murmur, Wei Wuxian speaks: “Meet me in the usual room after school, one more time.”

There is a heartbeat of silence, when Lan Wangji seems to gather Wei Wuxian closer to his chest and he conceals his face in the other's dishevelled hair. “Mn. I will,” Lan Wangji says.

Wei Wuxian has hopped back onto the ground and immediately throws his arms around Lan Wangji. “Thank you.”

“There is no need for 'thank you's between us,” Song Lan hears, and he is reminded of Xiao Xingchen's hands on his own, Jin Zixuan's passion, Jiang Yanli's blush. He thinks of Nie Huaisang and the Ouyang twins and his stomach drops. Fuck. Mo Shu had been fucking right.

“Fucking finally!” The door to the storage room Song Lan had been standing beside as his worldview crumbled and his mind collapsed is slammed open, and a tangle of limbs comes tumbling out.

“This time tomorrow everything will finally be over!” groans Jiang Cheng in relief. Brushing down his shirt, Lan Xichen chuckles. “I very much doubt that.”

“How so? Why-” Jiang Cheng sees Song Lan staring, and for several agonisingly long seconds, they are cemented in place.

Song Lan pulls himself out first, and with a chorus of curses echoing in his head, he walks straight past a shocked Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen. “I have become temporarily blind and deaf,” he declares to no one in particular, and so he does not register the twin sighs of relief.

Somehow, he ends up on the threshold of the classroom, his body acting as the dam to the surge of people behind him, consisting of Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji and their various witnesses, secretive or otherwise. Song Lan blinks, and he sees Jin Zixuan slumped with his head banging repeatedly on his desk, while he is convinced Mianmian just cackled.

Chu Laoshi rubs his temples and sighs. “All of you, sit down, be grateful I don't give you each detention.” The threat falls decidedly flat, considering the lack of conviction in his voice and his remarkable growing tolerance of this class. The presence of Duan Laoshi can also not be overstated, as he takes the brunt of Chu Laoshi’s ire with a laugh.

“I'll leave you to it, Xiao Yuan,” Duan Laoshi says, patting Chu Laoshi’s head like he is an obedient pet. He winks in the face of Chu Laoshi's fierce glare of a thousand suns and saunters out with his hands in his pockets. When Song Lan gathers the courage to raise his head, he is not the only one to feel like a pole has been stabbed through his brain once he sees the pink spreading across Chu Laoshi’s cheeks, delicate watercolour inks blooming across his pale skin.

Song Lan is sorely tempted to join Jin Zixuan in his quest for amnesia. Or at least become temporarily blind and deaf, as then he would not be asked to take the pile of textbooks back to the staff room with Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixuan, naturally, even when their seats are not at all close to each other. He is convinced the school hates him.

None of them are particularly inclined to fill the strained silence with conversation, including Wei Wuxian the grandmaster of mindless chatter. Song Lan keeps a slight distance ahead of the others, even if it is to shield his expression as he sighs into the pile of books. Regardless of whatever force that has compelled them to being unwilling comrades, he wants nothing to do with them. He wishes them luck and goodwill, though he believes them to be relatively functional compared to him.

“Hey, Peacock.”

The sound of footsteps ceases behind Song Lan, and he stops as well, though he hesitates to turn around.

“What?” hisses Jin Zixuan, the regularly scheduled irritated tone creeping into his tired voice.

Wei Wuxian sighs, “I don't know why but shijie is tolerating you, and I should respect that.”

“I never wanted your opinion!” At this, Song Lan turns his body slightly, just so he is prepared in case a brawl erupts once more. Wei Wuxian steps forward and jabs Jin Zixuan in the chest, the towers of books swaying precariously.

“If you so much as hurt one single hair on her beautiful head, I will tear you to pieces and laugh as I do so.” Jin Zixuan meets Wei Wuxian’s black glare, even if it is made of midnight and the shrieks of the dead, and Song Lan notes despite the shaking hands, Jin Zixuan does not take a step back.

“I hope that you do,” Jin Zixuan replies calmly, and the darkness vanishes. Wei Wuxian blinks, mouth hanging open. He scrambles to find a response and he catches Song Lan’s gaze.

“The same for you, Song Lan. Xingchen is an angel incarnate, he deserves nothing less than perfection.”

Song Lan decides not to ponder how their own endeavours were known by the others the entire time, and instead says, “I know no one deserves him - I will never stop trying to become worthy of him.”

Wei Wuxian nods, apparently satisfied, until Song Lan continues with: “And in return, please be kind to Lan Wangji. He has a good heart.”

Jin Zixuan hides a snort, “How Lan Wangji tolerates your irresponsible, annoying ass deserves its own gold medal.”

“Come on, at least I wasn't rude to your face!”

Looking Wei Wuxian directly in the eye, Jin Zixuan slowly enunciates, “P-e-a-c-o-c-k.”

“We should go,” Song Lan comments mildly before yet another brawl can erupt under his nose, “otherwise Chu Laoshi really will give us after school detentions.” It is a weak threat, he knows, and yet out of every other student, he is the only one to understand what is at stake today. Successfully cowed, Jin Zixuan and Wei Wuxian follow him in largely peaceful silence.

Once they are at the staff room, they find no one except Coach Murong, who directs them to Han Laoshi’s desk with a lazy gesture of his hand. “Han Xin is receiving so many gifts today,” Coach Murong says, and unwittingly Song Lan’s gaze once more finds the most incriminating objects in the situation, from the way Coach Murong is leaning on his desk yet not quite blocking the bouquet of flowers from view, to how a plain gold ring glints on the chain around his neck. With a choked “Thanks,” and hurried bow, Song Lan ushers the other two away.

Jin Zixuan shakes his head, hand to his forehead, while Wei Wuxian touches his forefinger to his chin. “Do you think this is a coincidence?” he muses. “Or are we all so alert to romantic endeavours of any kind that we-”

“Enough!” Jin Zixuan almost shrieks, and Wei Wuxian is laughing too hard at his puffed up hair to say anything more. And yet Song Lan, as much as he believes the entire Academy to have been made the current hit reality TV show of the heavens, is inclined to agree. Years of concealing, hiding, masking his heart and the feelings that perpetually threaten to overflow are now colouring his gaze, his perceptions. Once he has seen the first bud of spring, he cannot stop finding more.

And so there is something, a strange kind of camaraderie, that makes him stop a few metres from the door of the classroom and say, “I really do wish we each achieve what we hope for.”

Jin Zixuan chokes on air, while something falls on Wei Wuxian's faces, the clouds moving across the sun. It is dispelled when he gives a short laugh, shaking his head, “You too, Song Lan. I suppose we can only hope.”

“Thank you,” mutters Jin Zixuan, “good luck to you as well.”

Chu Laoshi raises an eyebrow when they enter the classroom, taking in their muted expressions. Song Lan senses the glances, tenuous threads that are ever so fleeting and never fully connected, cast between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. He sees Jin Zixuan tap his pen on the desk, mouthing words to the girl now a whole courtyard away. And when he closes his eyes, he thinks of Xiao Xingchen on the floor above, gentle, effulgent, his dearest heart.

The end of the day cannot come soon enough.

Time passes in a muddied stream, sluggish here, swift and startling there. Song Lan blinks and the bell is ringing, a melodic thing that somehow still manages to jolt unsuspecting students out of their seats. There is an intake of breath, then three blurs dart to the door, leaving a confused trail of faces in their wake.

They hesitate at the door, which is clearly too narrow to fit all three side by side. Wei Wuxian tilts his head, then grins and steps back, gesturing Song Lan forward. At his glare, Jin Zixuan follows - after all, he had specified a time some fifteen minutes from now, while Wei Wuxian has much less distance to cover. Song Lan nods his gratitude as he passes.

He stills slightly at the stairwell, before taking the stairs two at a time, pushing through the slow mass of students moving down; Xiao Xingchen is a floor above but perhaps he can reach the roof before him, to give him time to calm his pounding heart, recite the words he has written.

The double doors swing open as he skids onto the roof and oh. Xiao Xingchen is standing framed between the sapling cherry blossom trees, his forearms resting on the railing around the roof. He looks up when Song Lan approaches, and there is something so vulnerable in how the sun’s rays highlight his face, Song Lan wants to take him into his arms, say that he loves him to the moon and back.

He does not, of course, and he stops so his hand is the customary ten centimetres away, a distance that now seemed so close yet insurmountable.

“Hi,” Xiao Xingchen says.

“Hi,” breathes Song Lan.

They are silent for a moment, drinking in the other’s presence. A breeze wafts a strand of Xingchen's fringe into his eyes - he pushes it back with a steady hand.

“Before you say anything,” Song Lan begins, and he coughs when his voice croaks (he really ought to have taken a sip of water), “please listen to what I have to say. Then you can do whatever you like.”

Xiao Xingchen's eyebrows are drawn together, though he nods. “Alright.”

Song Lan clenches his hand, relaxes it. He closes his eyes briefly, then when he opens them he catches Xingchen's gaze directly, so all he can see is the deep, rich brown.

“You're my best friend, for as long as I can remember. I have never not cared for you. You… You shine, Xingchen, you shine like the North Star and everything just gravitates towards you. And you try and see people, you try and look beyond their surface and masks, and I don't know how but Xue Yang almost likes you, and that is a miracle in itself.”

Xingchen allows a smile here, covering it with his hand. Song Lan continues, his voice swelling and surging with the tide: “And you're so fair, you give everyone equal opportunity to show their merits. You are so kind, it overflows and touches everyone you meet. You find a problem and you need to solve it, you will pour out your heart and soul so everything receives what it deserves and more. I love that about you, I love you, and-”

Xingchen's eyes are wide and Song Lan chokes. Fuck fuck fuck, why could he not follow his script-

Fingertips brush against the back of his fist, like a caress, a silent plea, and he looks up to see Xingchen smiling softly. “Go on,” he urges, and Song Lan’s chest loosens until colours and emotions spill out in a muddled, wonderful array in time to his pounding heart.

“I- I did mean it,” he says hoarsely. “Loving you, I mean. It… It has to be you, I never want to leave your side. And,” he swallows, “even if you don't feel the same way, I still want to be there for you, supporting you. You take on so much on your own and I just want you to know that I… I'm here. I will help you. We - we can try and change the world together, if you would let me. All these responsibilities, these burdens, they are not yours to bear alone. I will carry them willingly, however you want me. I- I know I hardly deserve you-”

Xingchen presses a finger to Song Lan’s lips and he stutters into silence. Xingchen’s eyes are large and shining, and he feels the tears pricking his own.

“The thing about loving someone,” Xingchen says, “is I want to protect you, so, so much. You were hurt with me, that day, and I couldn’t bear it if that were to happen again.”

Song Lan frowns, impatience tinting the colours, though they never lose their vividity. “Then why can’t we protect each other? Why can’t we work together? It was never your fault, I wanted to help you. You know your parents and grandmother loves you, so you return that by living independently, so they never need to worry. You know A-Qing and Xue Yang love you, so you guide them in return, be the parent they never had. And now you know I- I love you.”

He swallows and his voice is cracking and his hands are shaking but he has to tell Xingchen, he must - “so let us be together, let me care for you and you for me. We would never be happy if it was just one of us. If it’s you, only you, I would bear anything.”

And Xingchen is laughing and shaking his head, and though he starts when their fingers entwine between them (finally, finally, light is bursting where they meet in the middle), he cannot look away.

“Not you. Us. We’ll write the pages of our future together.” Suddenly Xingchen flushes and averts his gaze. “If- if you want.”

Song Lan is convinced he has lost his voice (he should have not yelled at Xue Yang’s texts, he curses belatedly) so he nods and pulls Xingchen to his chest. He feels the sigh against his heartbeat and Xingchen wrapping his arms around his waist, he breathes in Xingchen’s scent as he presses a kiss to his hair, and on Xingchen’s back, forehead, eyebrow, cheek, he traces out the same shining word with his fingers and lips.

(Love, love, love.)

(“Zichen? Zichen… Did you lose your voice? Ah, haha. No, it's not your fault. It's just… there's dust on my glasses again, and I would prefer to see all your beautiful expressions clearly. Zichen, are you blushing?!”)

 


 

 Jin Zixuan is sincerely questioning his choice of place as he climbs the last flight of stairs and traverses the corridors with a sluggish speed. The silence is too loud, drowning out the echoes of his footsteps, his racing heartbeat. He knows there are currently no clubs taking place on this floor and that Jiang Yanli is presumably already in the classroom as she had mathematics close by (courtesy of Guangyao, he relents), and so he is vividly aware they are the only two people on this floor. 

His fingertips brush against the cool metal door handle, and his breath catches in his throat. She is there and despite the sheet of paper folded carefully into his pocket, he is terrified.

Head held up high! Look like you own this! Mo Xuanyu had insisted. While Qin Su had shaken her head with a sigh, assuring him to simply be himself, he finds himself fixated on when Jin Guangyao had cornered him at the beginning of lunch, donning his perpetual smile and slightly arched eyebrow.

“Show me,” he had simply said. “Show me why I believe in you.” Guangyao had sauntered off then with a waft of his hand, and yet Jin Zixuan was left speechless. He had been handed something, he cannot name it, it is delicate and brittle but nonetheless, it burns in his chest, fuels his purpose, and with that he grips the handle, takes a deep breath, and enters the classroom.

Jiang Yanli raises her head from where she is standing beside the window opposite the door. With the afternoon sun illuminating the room from behind her, some might say she is hiding in the shadows. To Jin Zixuan, she is the flower that blooms despite the shade, despite the trees arching overhead. And to those who care to look, she brings joy because she will share that sun and find the specks of light in the darkness. Her expression is open, expectant, and Jin Zixuan can find nothing to say to break the silence.

“Why did you want to meet me?” Jiang Yanli asks. Zixuan swallows though his mouth is desperately dry.

“Please wait a moment!” He drops his bag into the nearest table and rummages through it for a few manic seconds. At last he finds the yellow plastic box, generously obtained by Mo Xuanyu, which he holds out with both hands.

“Here!” Jiang Yanli reaches out to take it as he stumbles to explain: “I just, as thanks, for all those lunches, and pastries and cakes and stuff…”

He rubs his palms surreptitiously on his trousers while Jiang Yanli opens the box. She raises a hand to her mouth, a smile fluttering as the corners of her eyes crinkle, and Jin Zixuan just knows the icing has been smeared beyond repair. “It- I didn’t actually make the cake,” he mutters. “A-Su bought it, and A-Yu helped me decorate. It’s stupid, I know-“

“I like it very much,” Yanli interrupts, “I'm honoured you would do this for me.”

“It's nothing.” His tongue feels thick and clumsy, even despite wearing Mo Xuanyu and Yan Guanting’s ears to the ground by how many times he had rehearsed his speech. He is reaching out across the distance and when only now can his fingertips brush the gentle warmth, he is scared.

Jiang Yanli shifts a little. “If- If that's everything, then, thank you again. I hope your siblings and Madam Jin are well.”

He is losing her (not again, to the voices and rumours of the myriad outside, the truths veiled in boasts and lies) so he barely registers his brain giving a resound fuck it as he lunges forward. “I still want you here! Not my mother or my siblings! It's just me! I- I wanted to say, that,” he gulps, his last breath before the tide surges in, “I like you! A lot! I want you to teach me how to cook and I want to do everything with you and…”

His mind catches up with his unreeling tongue with the force of a lorry, and he blanches. “That was a lot of ‘I want’s, I'm sorry, I know I'm an arrogant brat, I-”

There is tiny sound, and when Jin Zixuan raises his head he sees Jiang Yanli laughing, a bright sound of bells on the breeze, while her cheeks are flushed pink, blossoms of colour on her mirthful expression. He reddens, unable to respond.

“You're the least arrogant brat I know,” Yanli says behind her hand. “Proud and spoiled, yes. Arrogant, not at all.”

“But, I…” Is this merely Jiang Yanli's infamous clemency? Is this simply a gentle rejection, because for all his hopes, all his efforts, he knows he can never reach her? “I made you cry! How can you look at me like this and not think I - that I'm an awful person?” His voice cracks and he knows his face is glowing with heat.

“But people change. People change and sometimes all you can do is accept that and let them know you still care for them.” Yanli is firm, gentle, even as her eyes harden to polished gems, and his heart stutters.

“And I may not really know you, but I’ve seen your heart. Above everything, you care for justice.” She falters here, her words trailing. “It was partially my fault, back then - if I had had the courage to approach you, then-“

“No.” You never desired to be centre stage, to have your deeds written under your name  I was blind then, smoke and veils heaped up around me. “No, it was never your fault, I made assumptions based on my stupid ten-year old thoughts.”

“And you’ve changed. You’ve learnt and yet you are still the same person.” Suddenly she covers her mouth, her hand hiding a smile shining with untold secrets. “I know you're helping Jin Guangyao. And I saw you give up your seat to that student from Cang Qiong High.”

“Th-that-! I just needed a change of scenery!” Jin Zixuan begins to splutter, though it is merely drops of water to Yanli’s oceans of patience. “He-he needed it more than I did,” he relents, and Yanli beams.

“See? You're a good person, a person I would like to know better.” The serenity of her voice resounds within his heart, it bursts into light that breaks through the clouds and warms his hands. And maybe, just maybe, the sun is reaching down to him too.

“I would love to teach you how to cook - of course, we would need to find a time when neither of our parents nor our siblings are present. Although, are you free Friday after school? The Cooking Club are making steamed pandan buns, if you don't mind…”

“I would love to.” He does not miss how her eyes brighten, how joy stretches her features into a grin of pure beauty, and how he wants (wanting, again) to be the one to reveal those ethereal expressions.

“As for everything else… well, what do you want to do?”

“What do you want?” he returns.

Yanli blinks, unprepared for such a question. She hums for a minute, tapping her chin. “I think…” She steps forward (Zixuan just manages to prevent himself scuttling away like a spooked cat) and holds out her hand. “I want,” she says softly, “for us to start over. There are too many impressions and assumptions between us and, Zixuan, I really do want to know you.”

Look, he thinks when his hand clasps hers, I'm falling for you again. “Jin Zixuan,” he says instead. His tongue has returned and her hands have thankfully ceased to be clammy. Only his chest, blooming with the words of love, and his eyes, for never again will they be deceived, sing with the contact.

She laughs. “Jiang Yanli.”

With a wink, she raises the yellow box. “Let's start by sharing this cake together. Oh, we need to leave some for your siblings too.”

“No,” he states firmly. “We shouldn't.”

Yanli raises an eyebrow, though nevertheless she lets it slide with a knowing glint. “Still, I'm very impressed by the decorations. Is that a mango rose?” She puts the box on the table and points to the wobbly arrangement of mango slices amid the tinted cream, now a little crushed with a distinctly sad tilt.

“Peony,” Zixuan mutters.

Thankfully Yanli's attention is caught by the strawberry halves, despite them having come out little better than their fruit compatriots. “A nine-petalled lotus,” she notes, and when she meets Zixuan’s gaze there is a dusting of pink across her cheeks. “Very diplomatic.”

“The filling also has strawberries,” Zixuan adds, and he tells himself the warmth of his neck is from the afternoon sun pouring through the window.

Yanli's eyes soften, crinkling at the corners. “It sounds wonderful.”

She takes out some paper napkins and using the plastic fork-spoon thing that accompanied the tub (Zixuan makes a mental note to question Xuanyu about this later) she gives a slice of the cake to Zixuan. As he hastens forward, one strawberry could evidently no longer stand the depressing indignity and topples off the cake, only saved from its death by his quick catch. He shoves the offending piece into his mouth, and stealthily wipes the cream off his fingers on the corner of the napkin.

“Ah, you have some here.” Yanli leans forward to wipe at the edge of his mouth with her own napkin. She regards the petrified boy standing before her, then with a kind of reckless abandon she taps him on the nose using her cream and juice stained finger. “And here.”

Zixuan is no more than a blank column, wide eyes gazing into the abyss. With jerky movements, he raises his hand, wipes his nose. And then, he returns the gesture. “You forgot some too.”

A heartbeat, then it breaks. The antique vase, the pride and joy is shattering as it pours out gold and light, and is being rebuilt with veins of violet and silver and laughter, the kind of laughter that rings through the day and helps banish the night. When Yanli draws out a chair, he does not hesitate to accept it.

Even the faint crinkle of paper from his back pocket cannot drag him down to earth. He recalls the sweeping prose of love and loyalty, and though he knows one day he will say those words, for now, it is not needed.

Eating a smashed cake in school with the promise of all his siblings hounding his every move as soon as he leaves the safety of this tranquil bubble, filled to the brim with hope and forgiveness and change. It is simply Yanli and Zixuan, and finally, it is more than enough.

 


 

 Wei Wuxian is recalling a particularly ill-tempered tortoise as he paces along the aisles of the empty classroom. It had been several years previously, during a school trip to the zoo and Wei Wuxian's attention had been dragged away from the tigers to the commotion among the reptiles.

“They're the Wens!” Jiang Cheng had hissed, holding his sleeve. “Come on, I'll go find a teacher.”

“Then I'll force them to confess when you come back,” grinned Wei Wuxian, and with a cheerful wave he jogged off to where the huddle of students were taunting Mianmian. Tenuous trade deal with the Wen Conglomerate and the threat of President Wen’s backlash or not, he would not stand that asshole dangling Mianmian's purse over the barrier into the tortoise enclosure in return for an unwilling kiss.

“How lamentable,” he had said, with a casual arm slung around Mianmian and Lan Wangji approaching with a fierce glare, “for the strong to force the weak into submission in order to build their throne of their ego and lies.” And naturally, the thugs were too slow to realise that Wen Mao, founder of the Wen Conglomerate, had been the source of the quote (with some creative embellishments, of course - perhaps Old Man Lan’s lessons during which he was convinced he was a dead log did serve some use).

With Jin Zixuan and Lan Wangji driving away the pieces of shit as the light sends woodlice scuttling into the damp shadows, Jiang Cheng came bearing a teacher with a face of thunder and Wei Wuxian had saved Mianmian's purse from a messy end in the jaws of a glaring tortoise, even if he had suffered two bruises as a consequence (one from a punch to the abdomen, the other his own doing as he bashed his stomach against the metal railing in order to reach the purse in time, with enough force his organs were still vibrating several hours later).

Despite her gratitude, Mianmian had been on the verge of tears as she checked the purse. “It’s not that important,” she sighed, “it's just my mum made this hairpin, and I…”

“I'll help look,” Wei Wuxian offered.

“I will also,” said Lan Wangji.

“Me too,” muttered Jin Zixuan, and most likely alarmed by the sparks flying and the lightning flashing around the other two, Lan Wangji and Mianmian swiftly decided they would split into two groups, thus leaving Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji standing silently beside a nosy tortoise. If asked, Wei Wuxian was convinced the tortoise’s expression had been twisted into a permanent sneer of disdain directed specifically at him.

“Shall we?” Wei Wuxian gave a mock bow and held out his hand, before he was shoved roughly in the shoulder. “Hey!” He had stumbled backward onto a nearby ledge, and was about to get back on his feet when Lan Wangji lowered himself down beside him.

“Rest for a bit,” he said, his cool gaze on how Wei Wuxian was still massaging the developing bruises on his stomach.

“I…” Wei Wuxian trailed off as he was transfixed by the distant gold. “Fine. I have good enough eyes, we can look from here.”

It had been one of the few times he and Lan Wangji had been left alone, and in spite of the murmuring of the crowd passing by and the clamour of animals in the distance, everything had faded away; the tourists were merely the trickle of a stream, the animals were fragments of the wind. In the glare of the sun and warmth of the brick ledge, he could almost imagine they were on that field once more, when Wei Wuxian would clasp the stars and Lan Wangji would smile that unknown melody.

He is almost convinced it was a dream, the half-remembered words shared about their families, their brothers, their dreams. Despite this, he knows only the weight of Mianmian’s hairpin, heavy and cool with the jade glinting in the light when he twirled it around his fingers could have been the reason why he is left with perhaps the most bitter expression Lan Wangji has ever made towards him (of this he is quite sure). The gift he received a few days later in thanks is still hanging on the corner of his bed, the silk pouch filling his room with the scent of dried flowers, and even then he wonders if the sandalwood of his memories was real.

Wei Wuxian huffs and leans against a desk, his fingertips tapping a syncopated rhythm. Lan Wangji is stern and dignified, yet fair and thoughtful. He knows this, it is written into his skin, but he also knows how Lan Wangji used to sit hours on end beside the door waiting for his parents to come home from their business trips that last for months on end. He knows how he allows his rabbits to climb all over his lap and shoulders with a tranquil expression. He also knows there is fire burning beneath that ice exterior, and even now sometimes he hesitates to melt it. After all, how is he worthy of discovering Lan Wangji?

He is scared, so very fucking scared.

Footsteps pause at the threshold and Wei Wuxian lifts his head. “Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji nods as he stepped forward. “I apologise for coming late. I was talking with Li An.”

Shaking his head, Wei Wuxian grins. “No need.” Lan Wangji did not place himself upon a pedestal due to his intelligence, rather he shares knowledge willingly, volunteering to help tutor other students. And so even as his body tenses, his heart softens.

“No need to apologise,” he says and he pushes himself onto his feet. “Not for the great, esteemed Lan Laoshi.” He winks and gives a mock bow, catching sight of Lan Wangji raising his gaze slightly to the heavens.

If he were in better place and his organs had not decided to form a lucky knot in his body, then he would have latched onto this expression, so very small (as no one else realises the most ragged shrub in the decrepit woods can yield the most beautiful flowers) and teased Lan Wangji for the next twenty four hours, for how could he not celebrate a new expression on Lan Wangji? Even if he knows Lan Wangji has almost rolled his eyes at him at least four times before, the thrill, the excitement never abates.

Oh no, Wei Wuxian thinks, and he straightens. Lan Wangji has moved forward until he is hardly more than a metre away, and even then he believes his heart is too loud. Lan Wangji is waiting, always waiting, so he laughs and raises a hand to scratch his cheek.

“This must've been annoying for you, having to listen to all my confessions these past few weeks.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “No, not annoying. I am happy to help you.”

Wei Wuxian chuckles and sighs fondly, shaking his head. “Well, I'm sure you'll be relieved to know this is the last one. I'll be telling them today.”

A sharp intake of breath, and Lan Wangji has stilled, brittle ice spreading across the waters. An exhale, and life once again returns to his limbs. “I see.” His gaze flicker down for a brief moment. “I wish you good luck.”

I'll need it. Wei Wuxian banishes the thought, draws himself to his full height, takes a moment to untangle his stomach from his liver. He raises his head so he can look into Lan Wangji's golden eyes, which are cool and distant and utterly beautiful. Clenching his fists at his sides, he opens his mouth (and the words he wants to say are engraved into his tongue and his soul, as Lan Wangji's presence has come into his life like the tide, leaving permanent imprints in the sand and the glass walls are tumbling down and he is being stripped bare-)

“Lan Wangji, I love you. Please accept my feelings.”

Silence permeates the room, steeps into the corners and resonates against their ears. Outside, a bird trills and there is the rustling of branches in the afternoon breeze. It dances away and away, into the nothingness of the sky.

A sigh and a nod. “That was good,” Lan Wangji murmurs. His golden eyes are shadowed. “Your loved one is extremely lucky to have such a confession.”

Wait-

Lan Wangji is turning away-

Wait-

Towards the doors and he is radiant  in the beams of light, his eyes are glistening-

“Wait!”

Wei Wuxian surges forward and grabs Lan Wangji‘s hand. He looks up and there is shock and wariness and something else intangible yet it jolts his heart, and when he opens his mouth the held back words spill in waterfalls.

“Lan Zhan! Just now, I really did mean it!” Lan Wangji is frozen and unblinking, and Wei Wuxian really does just want to shout his feelings from the rooftops, so even his dense, oblivious little self can understand.

“I've been lying this entire time! I've been treating this like a joke but please listen now! It's you, it has always been you! I like you, love you, want all of you! You're so good, even when,” he swallows, his fingers loosening from Lan Wangji's cool hand, “even when I know I'm being selfish and unfair and you like someone else-”

His words are swallowed by the scent of sandalwood and crisp linen. Lan Wangji wraps his arms around him and he is held against his chest, so close he cannot distinguish between their heartbeats. Wei Wuxian clasps at the air, wide-eyed and unsure, until he hears the fervent whisper buried in his hair: “I love you.”

Lan Wangji speaks hurriedly, like the words are bursting from his tongue, while he places them down like priceless treasures, as if they are shards of his soul. “I like you, love you, want you.” He inhales shakily, and something warm and wet lands on Wei Wuxian's cheek. “It has only ever been you.”

The shards are in his hands and somehow, beyond all hope, they fit perfectly with his own. Wei Wuxian laughs and he is probably crying when he presses his face into Lan Wangji's shoulder and wrinkles the back of his shirt. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” he says like a prayer.

Lan Wangji sighs, almost silently, and gathers Wei Wuxian even closer. “Mn. I'm here.”

The threads rearrange themselves right before his eyes into a beautiful, shining tapestry that in any other situation would make him defenestrate himself while laughing his guts out, because how could he have missed this?

All these years, the rare smiles, the averted gazes, the sighs and disapproving looks and yet he remains so steadfast by his side, he did not even realise he was there. That evening in detention when this entire fiasco began, that afternoon with an irritable tortoise and words caught by the winds, that expression in the music room, even moments before when he had prepared to set his love free - neither of them had realised the other was reaching out and so they missed, again and again, until eventually, these feelings raced forward and this love came back. With Lan Zhan, why had he been so worried at all… wait.

As much as he relishes being in Lan Wangji's embrace, Wei Wuxian steps back a little, and decides this view is worth the effort. Lan Wangji is smiling softly and leans into Wei Wuxian's hand, the jade so warm and the gold molten with emotion. He grins, “So, the person your brother says you've been in love with for five years is…?”

He snickers as Lan Wangji’s eyes widen and the ears beside his palm turn a furious shade of red. Lan Wangji ducks his head briefly, the downturn at the corners of his mouth conveying the ubiquitous sensation of sibling betrayal.

Wei Wuxian tilts his chin up gently, laughing, “You know, Lan Zhan, we are a pair of irrevocable idiots.”

“...Mn.”

“I mean, look at all this I was missing out on!” He takes Lan Wangji's face between his hands, leans forward, then nuzzles his nose. “My Lan-er gege really is the cutest!” He chuckles as Lan Wangji tightens his grip slightly around his waist, then pauses, tilting his head.

“Hey,” he begins slowly, twirling a strand of Lan Wangji's fringe between his fingers, “your brother was only trying to help. And my brother was helping, in his own grumpy way.” He tucks the strand behind his ear, so his gaze is unveiled, uncovered. “We ought to thank them, right Lan Zhan?”

And when Lan Wangji laughs, light and unburdened, Wei Wuxian is sure he has ascended. “We should,” he agrees, and he feels his smile as their lips meet each other halfway.

No, Wei Wuxian thinks, this is heaven. The clatter of something being knocked to the floor outside the classroom and the litany of muffled curses almost makes him pull back from his laughter, yet he is not sure who is the one chasing the other. The light is shining through the clouds, illuminating the flowers blooming below between the Heaven and Earth, where the sky meets the sea and encompasses the land, and they bloom in the colour of their joy and future.

Chapter Text

When Song Lan had suggested a study group picnic, he had not expected this.

“Here, I'll show you,” Xiao Xingchen says to a wilting Nie Huaisang, perfectly poised with a mini whiteboard and in a semi-circle of open textbooks, which seems to be more some kind of magic array to prevent the entry of demons than an aid to learning. Song Lan sighs and pulls A-Qing to join Xingchen in his circle. At least then they would be spared from this madness.

On one side of the ridiculously-oversized picnic blanket (ideal for their ridiculously-oversized group) Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli appear to be the only ones doing something academic, though Song Lan suspects Jin Zixuan is more than happy to simply hold up flashcards for Jiang Yanli and sneak bites of her baozi and the other sweets she packed with the other.

Behind him, Song Lan’s gaze lands on Xue Yang, and he blanches when he realises that if the little shit’s admiration of Wei Wuxian is bad enough, the proximity between Xue Yang and Jin Guangyao as he taps away on his ubiquitous phone can only result in the apocalypse. Song Lan is halfway to his feet before he sees Nie Mingjue, and he lowers himself slowly back onto the blanket. Nevertheless, he will keep an eye on that corner.

At the very least, Jin Guangyao appears far more concerned in using Nie Mingjue’s height and bulk as an effective sun block, while Nie Mingjue is deliberately angling his body so only the sliver of shade is available. Jin Guangyao huffs then smiles, tapping his chin with his fingertips.

“Are you not hot, dage? All that heat would not be ideal for your head, hot gas can do dangerous things when under pressure.”

“You-!” Jin Guangyao flings himself forward as Nie Mingjue turns around with murderous intent in his fists, holds up his phone and taps the screen. “See?” He rolls onto his back and presents the screen proudly to Nie Mingjue. “Madam Jin will be most satisfied by this candid of her son. Are you not pleased I am becoming closer to my family?”

Nie Mingjue grumbles and flops back onto the ground, his head directed stiffly away. Jin Guangyao chuckles and shifting himself slightly to better catch Nie Mingjue’s shadow, he relishes the victory of once more reclaiming his shade.

Mo Xuanyu is equally as invested in his brother's love life, however he is expressing it by regaling everyone and no one with tales of his and Wen Ning’s fifth date, a thrilling story of children’s vomit on the rollercoaster, trampled flowers, zombie-like staff, and the eventual realisation this was the fifth date where neither of them had actually acknowledged it, even though they each hoped for that to be the case.

Wen Qing pinches the bridge of her nose. “This is why I don't like men.”

On one side, Qin Su jolts and stares at Wen Qing, eyes wide and shining, while on the other, Mianmian nods fervently, then adds, “Apart from my boyfriend.”

“Oh, you’re seeing him again next week, right?” Mo Xuanyu clambers over Wen Ning's lap to reach an ecstatic Mianmian. “How has his school in Japan been?” As Mianmian launches into an exuberant recount, Wen Ning shakes his head and shuffles a little closer to Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen, who at the very least are not talking loud enough to put a jet engine to shame. Ah wait, A-Qing has escaped her parents and she is once again on a sugar high.

A-Qing glances at the screen of Lan Xichen’s phone and promptly emits an ultrasonic shriek. “You're watching Hualian?!”

Lan Xichen smiles, though his ears are still ringing and his eye is twitching. “Pardon me A-Qing, I may have misheard, but is this idol pair not called-”

“Have you heard their new song ‘Thousand Lanterns’?” A-Qing blazes forward as she is wont to do, yanking the phone out of Lan Xichen’s hand and leaving only a trail of smoke and bemused expressions, for it is too much effort to remain continuously angry with her.

Shrugging, Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and says, “I still kind of prefer their earlier work, like that collab Hua Cheng did with He Xuan.”

“Of course you would,” Lan Xichen chuckles, before his attention is caught by the video now playing on his phone. It is Hua Cheng and Xie Lian on a popular talk show doing their first live performance of ‘Thousand Lanterns’, and if half of the audience is not in tears from merely being in their godly presence, by the end the entire studio is sobbing, the host Shi Qingxuan included.

“Okay, that was cute,” relents Jiang Cheng. “Don't tell Wei Ying that! Wait, where is that bastard anyways?”

“I believe Wangji mentioned them getting ice cream.”

Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow and says grimly, “What's the chance they forget about the rest of us peasants at the mercy of the blinding sun in favour for flirting with each other?”

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian holds up two Cornettos. “Which one should I get?” Beside Lan Wangji, a steadily-growing pile of ice creams is filling up the cooler box Jiang Yanli had the foresight to bring.

“Whichever one you want.”

Wei Wuxian pouts, “But which version of the Light Bearer? The cute young one or the hot older one? Of course, no one is as handsome as my Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian laughs, clear as the tumble of the waters over pebbles, at Lan Wangji’s frigid expression, and the laugh cascades into a waterfall when the Cornetto with the older Light Bearer of a crane’s dignity and smouldering eyes is plucked out of his hand and placed carefully back into the fridge.

Lan Wangji is sliding the lid shut when a hand darts in and out with unnatural speed, a blur of black and red. “I’ve got them!” cries the owner of the hand, and though his piercings are blinding in the light, his visage has the strength of a thousand stars and eager puppies, tails wagging furiously enough to start a hurricane.

“You needn’t have hurried to get the last of the Demon Lord,” comments his companion, fanning himself idly. “I would be happy with Zhu Shi.”

“I hoped that...” The first bites his lip, the light dimming ever so slightly.

His companion sighs and raps the top of his head sharply with his fan. “That doesn’t mean I won’t have the Demon Lord Cornetto. You may have Zhu Shi.”

He is earned an armful of happiness and satisfaction, and as he pats his companion’s shoulder with a practised air, he nods to Lan Wangji. “Apologies for Binghe’s… state.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “No need. It is good to see you well, Young Master Luo.”

Luo Binghe raises his head, his eyes red-rimmed yet his cheeks are smooth and suspiciously dry. “You too, Young Master Lan.”

“You know each other?!” Wei Wuxian and the other boy yelp. They share a glance and agree, their images of their companions are falling to pieces around them.

“He’s Tianlang-jun’s son. The Lan family occasionally have dealings with them,” replies Lan Wangji.

“Ah-haha, really…”

Ignoring the one frantically waving his fan for now, Wei Wuxian is transfixed by the Luo Binghe, still draped over his partner’s back. His gaze flickers to the cone in his hand, and a slow grin spreads across his face with the ominous certainty of a growing canyon.

“The Demon Lord?”

Luo Binghe studies Wei Wuxian for a heartbeat, before he breaks into a smile, as heart-stopping as Wei Wuxian’s. “The Patriarch of the Dead.” And with this, through the unknowable ways of shared kin, a bond of steel and fire is formed across the oceans.

“Oh no,” Lan Wangji hears the other boy mutter. He turns to him, sees the sloppy hair, the lanky frame, and the gentle fondness that blooms, almost unnoticeable like the daisies in the grass, behind the fan painted with bamboo, and he softens.

“Shen Qingqiu,” he says, and Shen Qingqiu can only widen his eyes before he adds, “Luo Binghe has always talked of you.”

“H-he did?” Shen Qingqiu is flustering, and he settles for concealing his blush, mostly successfully, with his fan. “You stupid sheep,” he sighs, and the soft pats on his head are enough to finally drag Luo Binghe away from Wei Wuxian and their animated conversation of something or other. Lan Wangji does not understand, and frankly has a suspicion he ought to not know at all for the sake of his sanity, and yet as he watches Wei Wuxian laugh and tease, he has no desire to deprive him of such joy.

He catches Shen Qingqiu's eye, and they share a secret, understanding glance.

When they part ways, Wei Wuxian is left with his Light Bearer Cornetto and the WeChat and Weibo details of Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu. He has named their group chat something inane like ‘Scumbag Demons + Lan Zhan <3’, and Lan Wangji simply holds the cooler box and hands him tissues to wipe away the errant ice cream from around his mouth.

“They’re a good couple,” Wei Wuxian says idly. “Terribly sticky, but well-meaning.”

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxian tilts his head back, his chuckles filling the air as clouds drift across the immense blue of the sky. It is a glorious day, so he begins to whistle.

After a moment, Lan Wangji joins in, humming low and sure, and with their hands intertwined they duet their song, the melodies dancing through the park and painting their wake a variety of blues and reds and golds.

“Hey, Lan Zhan, what are you submitting the piece as? I’ve thought of at least eighty names but none of them seem right. At this point, I may as well call it ‘The Unknown Song’ and be done with it.”

Lan Wangji is silent as they turn off the path and pick their way across the grass to where their friends are scattered basking in the sun. Then, “Forgetting Envies.”

“Forgetting... Envies?” Wei Wuxian lets the name trip over his tongue, caress the air, and his face brightens. “Forgetting Envies - I like it! Lan Zhan, I really do love you!”

He leaps forward into Lan Wangji’s arms, and by some miracle and the Lan family’s terrifying arm strength, he arrives at the picnic blanket cradled by Lan Wangji with his half-eaten Cornetto and the box of ice cream unscathed.

“Get a room,” Jiang Cheng gripes half-heartedly while Lan Xichen chuckles under his breath. He is still much too smug over the terrifying accuracy of how he predicted the level of his little brother’s lack of face where Wei Wuxian is concerned, and it is very difficult to let this pass when Jiang Cheng has this couple tainting his eyes every. Single. Day.

“Wei-xiong! Please save my legs!” cries Nie Huaisang. Facing solidly away from his older brother’s expression of earthquakes and thunder, he tucks his current notebook under his veritable pile of other revision resources and pulls out another. He bustles to where Wei Wuxian has flopped onto the ground and is patting the spot beside him. Meanwhile, Lan Wangji is handing out ice creams around the group before he returns once more to Wei Wuxian’s side.

Xiao Xingchen smiles and reaches out to return Nie Huaisang’s books into a more stable arrangement, when he freezes. Song Lan leans over to study the abandoned notebook clutched in Xiao Xingchen’s hands as if it is some secret too personal to let others to see and yet too abhorrent to even touch, and he curses.

“Zichen!” Xiao Xingchen gives a pointed glance to where A-Qing has wandered back, still bouncing from the excitement of Hualian.

“It’s fine Daozhang, if anything blame the bastard over there.” A-Qing leans down, tilts her head to read the title written in careful calligraphy on the notebook, and squeals once more.

“Is that the new issue?! Concept art?! Quick, hide me before Nie Huaisang revokes my preorder.” She snatches the notebook away from a bemused Xiao Xingchen and ducks behind Song Lan.

He sighs and shifts away from A-Qing, who seems to be vibrating with eagerness as she flips through the pages. “He seems to be too busy to pay attention to you anyway,” he says, and nods to where Nie Huaisang is scribbling frantically in his notebook, enthralled as Wei Wuxian gesticulates eagerly and Lan Wangji makes occasional remarks.

“Oh…” A-Qing goes slack-jawed, and stars burst in her eyes. “Oh, he’s doing Wangxian too! Nie-xiong truly works hard!”

“You mean, A-Qing, such things, for all these people, you-” Xiao Xingchen begins delicately, before he swiftly loses his way and ends up gesturing wordlessly at the notebook and its pages already wrinkled in A-Qing’s claws.

A-Qing rolls her eyes with a great huff. “Of course! It has action, drama, romance! Plus, hedidsayI’dgetadiscountifItoldhimwhatyoutwodotogether.” It bursts out in a jumbled rush, and Song Lan can only blink and say flatly, “What.”

“It’s good and clean! Promise!”

Song Lan opens his mouth, hand outstretched to confiscate the offending item as if he is the father everyone else seems to assume he is, when Xiao Xingchen places a hand on his shoulder, and he stills. Xiao Xingchen gives him a reassuring glance, before he turns to A-Qing. “You… don’t happen to have a published one?” he asks, and Song Lan’s jaw drops to the ground.

Practically sparkling like overly sweetened peach Fanta, A-Qing leaps to her feet and returns a second later, a glossy book in her hands that has countless scraps of paper sticking out of the sides. She hands it to Xiao Xingchen, and in a flash of dazzling colour, Song Lan makes out the title ‘Wangxian: A Tale Amid the Clouds’ before Xiao Xingchen flips the book open and appears to become far too engrossed in the story.

A-Qing skips back to Song Lan's side, immune to his pointed glare with a shrug and pointed tongue. He draws out the disapproving look for a moment longer, to better convey his disappointment and distaste for such matters, then turns to Xingchen with a long-suffering expression.

“Xingchen, perhaps you should-”

“Look at this!” Xingchen waves a spread before his eyes, and once he has adjusted to the excessive use of bubbles and flower petals, Song Lan begins to notice the meticulous details: a younger Wei Wuxian perched atop the high wall surrounding the Academy, a juice box in one hand and a bag of contraband sweets in the other, the sun to Lan Wangji’s moon, cutting a stoic, luminous figure in the dark colour palette. Song Lan skims through the dialogue, and he is not sure what to think when he can too easily imagine every single word being uttered by the oblivious couple opposite.

“It is really well done! And truthful - well, largely truthful. The reality has been altered somewhat, but the essence is there and everyone is wonderfully in character…” Xingchen flicks through the manhua some more, then smiles, a little self-conscious.

“A-Qing… I don’t suppose you could tell me how I could get my own copy?”

“Daozhang!”

“Xingchen!”

Xingchen gives a reassuring pat on A-Qing’s head before he turns to Song Lan, whose soul has seemed to have become untethered from his body. He lunges forward to press his forehead against Xingchen’s, convinced he has contracted a terrible fever that is impairing his mental judgement. “Xingchen, how could you… Do you want to encourage… They’re making money off of you!”

“I know,” Xingchen replies calmly, “that’s why I believe another insider would be greatly beneficial, since I doubt anyone here has any intention of telling the others.” With a quick glance around, he registers Jiang Yanli feeding Jin Zixuan who seems to be in a state of pure bliss, while Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are sharing alternate bites of their Patriarch of the Dead Cornetto.

“And I think it’s a good idea. The concept, not the profit!” Xingchen adds hurriedly before Song Lan sweeps him into his arms and hurries him home to warm congee and chicken soup. “It’s just…” He sighs then smiles, a memory of balmy nights and soft caresses.

“Jiang Yanli, Lan Xichen and the others, they’ll all be graduating soon,” he murmurs. “They’ll be drawing their own dreams, mapping their own futures, as will we. It’s all going by so quickly, and I don’t want to forget it. I won’t forget it. Zichen,” and he takes Song Lan’s hand, holds it to his heart, “I’ll stay with you wherever you may go, I just wanted something so that I will always remember.” Xiao Xingchen gives a breathless laugh. “Am I just being too sentimental?”

“No,” Song Lan raises his other hand, cups the side of Xingchen’s face with infinite gentleness, “all these irreplaceable days, they’ll live with you, with us. I too, want to remember every single second with you, and with everyone.” He gives a reluctant grin, “You can tell Nie Huaisang to keep that in mind when he’s writing his next instalment.”

“Zichen…” Xiao Xingchen presses a kiss of a butterfly’s wing to Song Lan’s cheek. “For you, anything.”

Song Lan takes Xingchen into his arms, and despite the muggy heat, despite A-Qing having reached a pitch only audible to dogs, it is an embrace as loving as the sky around the earth, the stars surrounding the moon. Here, he makes a vow, whispers it in his heart and mind: to never forget these days, for his loved ones, for the feelings that sing in the sky. For the moments that will not come back, and for every minute, every second, of the stories they write together.