Wei WuXian’s first scolding at the Cloud Recesses’ summer program for gifted young musicians comes from another student.
It is nine-fifteen PM on move-in day, he and Jiang Cheng have been set up in their neighboring single rooms—Jiang YanLi made both their beds, despite Jiang Cheng’s protests that he knew how and didn’t need help, a protest Wei WuXian did not and will never make—and Wei WuXian has his music turned up loud. He’s lying on his back in bed, drumming his hands on his thighs and his chest along with the beat, and a shadow crosses his open door.
He lifts his head. A friend already?
He recognizes the student looming in his doorway as Lan WangJi, nephew of music theory and composition professor Lan QiRen. He’s wearing an immaculate white sweater even though summer in Gusu is warm. He doesn’t look like he sweats at all. There’s a white ribbon tied around his forehead, holding back some of his long black hair.
He’s not smiling.
“Noise is prohibited after nine PM.”
Wei WuXian sits up. “But Lan WangJi, this isn’t noise, it’s music.”
“This is not serious music.”
“Of course it’s not serious. Music isn’t supposed to be serious,” Wei WuXian says. He bounces off the bed and grabs Lan WangJi by both hands, pulling him into the room. “Here, I’ll show you.”
He twirls Lan WangJi around the narrow room, their feet slipping on the wood floor. Wei WuXian’s laughter almost drowns out the song, but then the chorus comes back and he belts it at the top of his lungs, eyes closed, just feeling it. They spin through several full rotations before Lan WangJi stops them by grabbing Wei WuXian and crushing him to his chest.
It’s a punishingly tight squeeze.
His sweater is soft.
“We are not here to study contemporary commercial music,” he says, intoning it like it’s a proper noun. Contemporary Commercial Music. The wrong path to follow. “Turn it off and go to bed.”
Lan WangJi releases him and Wei WuXian’s heels hit the floor. He hadn’t realized Lan WangJi had lifted him off his feet.
Wei WuXian acquires many more scoldings during his first day of class, and also his second, even though he is indisputably the best flautist in the program. They’ll have to acknowledge that by the end of the summer, and he’ll remind them again next summer, and then they’ll have to admit him to the four-year conservatory on a full scholarship, because he’s that good. It will take more than a few scoldings to put him off.
The thought makes him smile. Then he walks past a practice room and hears someone playing a familiar melody on cello, and smiles even wider. That’s his song, the one he was playing two nights ago when Lan WangJi came over to tell him Contemporary Commercial Music was prohibited in the Cloud Recesses.
But who could be playing it?
Wei WuXian sidles up to the closed practice room door and peeks in the narrow vertical window. The cellist’s back is turned, but that long inky black hair and perfect white ribbon belong to Lan WangJi.
Wei WuXian opens the door and says, “Lan Zhan!”
Lan WangJi lifts his bow from his cello and regards Wei WuXian coldly.
“That’s our song,” Wei WuXian says. “The song I was playing in my room, I mean. Here, let’s play it together!” He pulls out his flute case.
“I am practicing a concerto,” Lan WangJi says, and then he does exactly that until Wei WuXian sighs and goes back to his room.
The second time he goes to the Cloud Recesses’ summer program for gifted young musicians, Wei WuXian resolves to have more fun. After all, he’s not fifteen anymore, but sixteen, and Caiyi Town is close by.
He’s just made it to the top of the wall when someone else leaps up, spotless white shirt blue in the moonlight.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian says, surprised and delighted. “You want to come with me?”
“Leaving the Cloud Recesses at night is prohibited,” Lan WangJi says, reaching out an arm like he means to stop Wei WuXian with force.
Wei WuXian dances out of the way. The top of the wall is narrow and he has to spread his arms to keep his balance. His long ponytail swings wildly behind him.. “Then you’re in trouble, too,” he says. “We’re both outside the premises already.”
“Go back,” Lan WangJi says.
This time his hand catches in Wei WuXian’s t-shirt. To stop Lan WangJi from hurling him back inside, Wei WuXian does the only thing he can think of: he wraps both arms around Lan WangJi and throws all of his weight toward the outside.
They land in a hedge, sticks and leaves poking into their clothes and skin and hair. Even in the summer air, the heat of Lan WangJi’s body beneath his is a shock. Wei WuXian should roll to the ground, but instead he just sits there. Staring.
He’s never had his face this close to someone else’s. It’s funny. Almost like they were going to kiss.
Wei WuXian grins at the idea of kissing Lan WangJi, because it would make him so mad. He almost does it just for the laugh.
He only stops because he’s never kissed anyone before, and what if he’s bad at it? Wei WuXian likes to be good at everything he does, even for jokes.
Instead of pressing his lips to Lan WangJi’s tight frown, Wei WuXian pushes himself upright. Branches crack beneath them and they sink deeper into the hedge, but Wei WuXian is distracted by the new angle of contact between their bodies.
Lan WangJi feels… different than he expected. He didn’t expect anything. He’s never thought about it. He’s also never seen Lan WangJi in such disarray. That’s why he’s staring.
“Your forehead ribbon’s crooked.”
Lan WangJi bats his hand away.
Wei WuXian was only trying to help. He grabs Lan WangJi’s outstretched arm with both hands and says, “You have a scratch.”
It’s not bleeding, but there’s a thin scrape running across the back of his wrist from one knob of bone to the other.
Lan WangJi withdraws his arm and pushes at Wei WuXian’s shoulder until Wei WuXian disentangles himself from Lan WangJi and the ruined hedge. He offers a hand to Lan WangJi to help him stand, but it’s ignored.
Lan WangJi brushes the leaves off himself. He misses one in his hair and Wei WuXian doesn’t tell him, out of spite. Then he reexamines his scratch, unbuttons his cuff and rolls his sleeve up to the elbow. He does the same to his other arm, and for some reason Wei WuXian is transfixed by the sight of his bare forearms.
“Well,” Wei WuXian says cheerfully, breaking the silence and his own strange trance. “We might as well go into Caiyi Town now that we’re both in trouble anyway. The punishment will be the same, and if we go into town, we can hear music.”
“We can hear music at the Cloud Recesses,” Lan WangJi says. His voice and his expression hardly change, but Wei WuXian detects a note of uncertainty.
“Not this kind of music!” Wei WuXian says. He takes off down the hill toward the road.
“Stop,” Lan WangJi says, following him. “You can’t do this.”
“Clearly I can,” Wei WuXian says. “And you can too.”
“It’s dangerous to go into town,” Lan WangJi says. “I can’t let you go alone.”
They reach the road and Wei WuXian heads into town. In truth he doesn’t really know where he’s going, not having been to any bars in Caiyi Town or anywhere else, but he’s not going to tell Lan WangJi that. He’s just going to wander until he hears music.
It rained in the afternoon. Moonlight and streetlight reflections pool in puddles at the street corners, and the air is still wet. Wei WuXian wends his way into town with Lan WangJi following in silence, and when they come across a group of pretty girls, he asks them where to find live music.
The girls regard them with what Wei WuXian wants to believe is appreciation. The only girl he really knows is his sister, so as a species, they are almost as mysterious to him as Lan WangJi.
Still, he knows he’s cute, and it would take more than falling into a hedge to ruin Lan WangJi’s handsome face.
Wei WuXian glances at him. That glare might do it.
The girls are smiling among themselves, but they do point the way to a bar. After they pass, Wei WuXian hears them disintegrate into tittering laughter.
Wei WuXian takes Lan WangJi by the arm and leads him until they find the bar. The door is small and blocked by groups of people standing around smoking, and there is so much sound booming out of it that Wei WuXian expects a giant space inside, but inside it’s a dark set of stairs leading down to room that can barely contain the crowd and the music. The ceiling is just overhead, and everything is red in the low light of the bar.
The band is explosive.
It’s fast and loud and Wei WuXian can feel it in his bones. He grins, elated, and says to Lan WangJi, “Let’s get something to drink.”
“Alcohol is prohibited in—”
“But we’re not in the Cloud Recesses,” Wei WuXian says, winning the argument in one move. They push their way to the bar and he orders for both of them—something called Emperor’s Smile. When the drinks land on the bar and the bartender gives him an expectant look, that’s when Wei WuXian discovers his wallet is either still in his dorm room, or maybe somewhere in the hedge.
Lan WangJi says nothing and pays for both drinks.
Wei WuXian finds them a tiny high table and two rickety stools in the back of the bar, and they line the stools up against the wall so they can both have a view of the band, sweating under the bar’s two spotlights, pouring themselves into their instruments. There’s no stage, just a space with no tables or chairs where they’ve crammed themselves and their instruments and amps and cables. There are six musicians, and if any one of them sticks an elbow out of place, catastrophe will strike.
Nobody does. They play like they were born to perform together, fingers gliding effortlessly over strings and keys, drumsticks snapping perfectly in time.
Wei WuXian drinks his Emperor’s Smile, happy to be alive. He tears his attention away from the band for a second and sees Lan WangJi sitting still and upright. His expression is the same as always. But he’s tapping the beat on the tabletop with one slim finger, a minute movement and an inaudible sound, like he doesn’t want to acknowledge the bar or the music or any of it, but he can’t stop himself.
He still has a leaf in his hair.
Wei WuXian feels warm at the sight of him. He did this to Lan WangJi, perfect student and impeccable rule-follower. Wei WuXian stole him away from the Cloud Recesses, put leaves in his hair and contemporary commercial music in his ears, and now he’s having fun.
He’ll deny it forever, but Wei WuXian sees his hand. Lan WangJi loves music like he loves music. It doesn’t matter what kind it is. You put him in a room like this, he has to participate. He feels it, no matter how stoic he appears.
Delighted and drunk on all of it—the music, the two drinks, the illicit thrill of escaping, the even rarer pleasure of knowing a secret about Lan WangJi—Wei WuXian lays his head on Lan WangJi’s shoulder. The sound vibrates through both of them.
Lan WangJi only had a few sips of Emperor’s Smile, but apparently it was enough to make him hum as they stumble home arm in arm.
“What are you humming?” Wei WuXian asks. “They didn’t play anything like that at the show.”
“They didn’t,” Lan WangJi says, not answering the question.
“Sing it louder,” Wei WuXian says. “It sounds nice, I want to hear it. Sing it and I’ll guess what it is.”
Even a taste of liquor makes Lan WangJi more agreeable, because he complies. Wei WuXian will have to remember that.
Lan WangJi has a deep, resonant voice. Wei WuXian has never heard him sing so freely before. A strange urge to press his ear to Lan WangJi’s chest—to be nearer to the source of the miracle—overtakes him, and Lan WangJi doesn’t push him away. He doesn’t even stop singing. He lets Wei WuXian touch him while they stand in the middle of a deserted road. Wei WuXian marvels at the effortlessness of the sound, the way Lan WangJi feels so relaxed beneath his hands.
“That was very beautiful, Lan Zhan.” The song had words and everything. It was a little hard to focus on the words while he was clinging to Lan WangJi, but what he heard was nice. Wei WuXian is more interested in melody anyway, and this one was artful, surprising, complex. “Is it an ancient Gusu Lan clan song? Did you learn it at the Cloud Recesses?”
“No. And no.”
“Did you learn it from the library?”
“Is it foreign?”
Wei WuXian asks another dozen questions before they reach the broken hedge and the wall of the Cloud Recesses. He asks about all his favorite composers, ancient and modern. He can’t get Lan WangJi to say anything but “no.”
“I won’t give up, you know,” he says.
“I know,” Lan WangJi says and hoists him over the wall.
Disaster strikes on the day of Jiang Cheng’s audition for the conservatory’s four-year program.
“Stupid Wen Chao,” he rages. “Just because his family owns that record label, he thinks he can do whatever he wants. How dare he talk about my parents like that!”
“It’s okay,” Wei WuXian says, holding an icepack to Jiang Cheng’s black eye. He’s lying. Nothing is okay. Jiang Cheng’s hand was bruised after the fight, so he gave a mediocre performance at his audition. Jiang FengMian and Madam Yu will be enraged when they find out. But Wei WuXian will make his words true somehow. Jiang Cheng is his brother. He has to. “It will be okay.”
“I’m not going to get in,” Jiang Cheng says, angry and miserable. “They’ll find out that I failed my audition, and then they’ll find out about the fight. My mom will be so pissed she’ll shoot lightning out of her hands and kill me.”
Madam Yu is terrifying, he’s right about that.
“You didn’t fail your audition,” Wei WuXian says, soothing him. “You were better than lots of other people, even with a bruised hand. You might still get a spot. There’s still a day of auditions remaining. Maybe everyone else will perform really poorly. Anything could happen!”
“But it won’t,” Jiang Cheng with certainty.
Wei WuXian spends the next day wandering the hall outside the audition room with all the other hopefuls, chatting with them. When he finds out what they’re planning to perform, he always says something like, “Wow, how ambitious! I’d be nervous if I was trying to play something so difficult!”
Then he hums a subtly wrong version each time he passes by.
From the wails and sighs he hears after auditions, he knows it’s working. He’s depressed the overall quality of the auditions. But he can’t be sure it’s enough.
At his own audition, Wei WuXian walks into the room whistling.
From behind the long, imposing table where the committee of professors is seated, Lan QiRen says, “Where is your flute?”
“Flute?” Wei WuXian says. He pats himself down like maybe the flute case is in the pocket of his jeans, and then gives a wide shrug and his goofiest, most sheepish smile. “I must have forgotten it!”
It takes weeks of vigilance over the mail delivery, but Wei WuXian finds the letters from the Cloud Recesses before anyone else in Lotus Pier. He steams open the fat envelope for Jiang Cheng to confirm that it’s an acceptance. His own thin envelope is, naturally, a rejection.
Madam Yu has been waiting years for Wei WuXian to get out of her house. She expects him to leave this autumn to go to the Cloud Recesses, so that’s what he’ll do.
He forges an acceptance letter for himself based on Jiang Cheng’s, destroys the rejection, and then leaves both envelopes in the pile with the rest of the mail.
Jiang Cheng is stunned by his acceptance, but he can’t explain his reaction to his parents. Late in the evening, as they’re going to bed, he draws Wei WuXian aside and whispers, “Did you do something?”
“Your acceptance is real,” Wei WuXian says truthfully. “Congratulations.”
When the time comes for them to move into the Cloud Recesses, Wei WuXian packs almost nothing. Madam Yu offers no opinion on his choices, but Jiang YanLi worries.
“You’re sure you don’t want to pack more than just that one backpack?”
“It’s okay,” Wei WuXian tells her. “I’ll be fine. All I need is my flute.”
She frowns, but he hugs her and reassures her some more, and finally she lets it go.
He helps Jiang Cheng move in, and that night, when the rest of the family has left, he says, “There was a mix-up and the student life office forgot to assign me a room. They’re still working it out—can I sleep here tonight?”
“What the hell,” Jiang Cheng says, irritated with the ineptitude of the Cloud Recesses and with Wei WuXian. But he lets Wei WuXian sleep on the floor.
After a week, Jiang Cheng’s irritation blows up into a rage. “Where the hell do you go?” he asks. “Why are you always out so late at night? And why haven’t I seen you in class? And why are you still sleeping on my goddamn floor?”
Well. It was never a long-term solution.
“Now that you mention it, I do have somewhere to be.”
Wei WuXian stuffs his flute case into his backpack and makes his exit, practically flying down the stairs. He opens the exterior door and strides out.
Rain gushes out of the sky like someone slit open a bag of water.
Shit. He runs back toward the building. The door is shut now and since he has no student ID, he can’t unlock it. It’s nine PM, so no one will be coming in or out unless they’re in trouble. He’s been lucky this past week—even the nights he came back late after playing in Caiyi Town, someone had always just gone into the dorm and he was able to catch the door before it shut.
Once, he even found the door slightly ajar. That’s prohibited, of course.
Wei WuXian huddles under the eaves. He’s carrying everything he owns. Walking to town in this downpour would be foolish.
He considers texting Jiang Cheng. They’ll end up having the same argument, and Wei WuXian won’t be able to answer any of his questions, but Jiang Cheng won’t kick him out into this rainstorm a second time. Wei WuXian pulls out his phone. It’s malfunctioning from all the water, its screen flickering on and off. So much for that idea.
He has a little cash from busking. A night in a hotel will obliterate it.
Wei WuXian sighs. He’s soaked. Every time he thinks he might get used to it, a fresh shower of cold raindrops spatters him; the overhang can only do so much. But this is as good as it gets tonight. He might as well curl up on the ground right here.
The door opens behind him.
Lan WangJi says nothing, just holds the door open wide and steps aside so Wei WuXian can come back in.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei WuXian asks, shivering at the bottom of the stairwell. He slips off his shoes, which squelch when he drops them by the door. “How did you know I was out here?”
Lan WangJi puts a hand on his back—warm through the chilled, wet fabric of his t-shirt—and marches him up the stairs without a word. They enter his dorm room, which is freakishly spotless, and he shuts the door behind Wei WuXian and hands him a bath towel.
Wei WuXian lets his pack fall and mops at his face, pushing his dripping bangs out of his eyes. He wrings out his hair—futile—and then strips off his t-shirt and jeans, leaving them in wrinkled heaps on the floor, which will no doubt infuriate Lan WangJi. When Wei WuXian wraps the towel around himself and looks up, Lan WangJi is staring.
“Sorry,” Wei WuXian says quickly, and with too much cheer for a real apology. He’s shivering. From the rain, he thinks. Only the rain. A stare can’t make you shiver, and neither can a memory. Not even the curiously persistent sense-memory of Lan WangJi wrapping both arms around him on the night they met. Lan WangJi has grown in the two years since then; it would feel different now. “I know you never leave anything on the floor. Can I borrow some clothes?”
After a long moment of silence, Lan WangJi finally moves. He pulls a t-shirt and pajama pants out of his dresser—who knew Lan WangJi even owned such things, who knew he didn’t just arise from bed fully dressed without a crease in sight—and passes them to Wei WuXian while making intense eye contact. Then he ducks down, picks up the wet clothes, and leaves the room. He comes back without them. He must have hung them in the bathroom to dry. That’s good. They’ll be nicer to put back on when Wei WuXian has to leave tomorrow morning.
Obviously he cannot stay here, in Lan WangJi’s single dorm room, where there is only one bed.
There was only one bed in Jiang Cheng’s room. Wei WuXian’s heart never beat so rapidly at the thought. He’d slept on the floor there. Of course he’ll sleep on the floor here, too.
Wei WuXian puts on Lan WangJi’s clothes. He is being touched, all over, by fabric that once touched Lan WangJi.
Why is he thinking about that?
Before Wei WuXian can say, “I’ll sleep on the floor,” Lan WangJi says, “Take the bed.”
“What?” Wei WuXian says. “But it’s your bed. I can’t take your bed. I’ve been sleeping on the floor for a week in Jiang Cheng’s room. It’s not that bad.”
Lan WangJi picks up Wei WuXian’s right hand, hanging limp at his side. In his steady grasp, it becomes embarrassingly obvious how much Wei WuXian is still shivering.
“Take the bed,” Lan WangJi says again.
“Only if you get in it,” Wei WuXian says. Lan WangJi will surely refuse those terms, and then Wei WuXian will declare victory and sleep on the floor.
Instead, Lan WangJi pulls on his arm, firmly and gently, and guides him into bed. Wei WuXian doesn’t protest. I’ll wait until he’s asleep and then I’ll get out, he tells himself. It’s the only way to win the argument.
Once Wei WuXian is in bed, Lan WangJi gets in behind him, cradling Wei WuXian’s body with his own.
He’s very, very warm.
It’s the only thing Wei WuXian can think about, how hot Lan WangJi is against his chilled skin. He forgets his plan to sleep on the floor. The urgency of where he’ll go tomorrow morning fades from his mind.
Is Lan WangJi humming something? It’s so faint.
The rain pelts the window, Lan WangJi lays an arm over his waist, and Wei WuXian falls asleep.
Wei WuXian blows into Lan WangJi’s life like a rainstorm, pouring torrents of water and tearing the leaves from the trees, causing all kinds of trouble. But rainstorms dissipate. The leaves fly away, the puddles steam into the air, and the sun comes back out.
Lan WangJi spends a lot of time alone in the sunshine.
He dedicates himself to his studies, as does Jiang Cheng. They are polite to each other, but not friends. Sometimes Lan WangJi catches himself eavesdropping on Jiang Cheng’s phone conversations, wondering if he’s talking to his foster brother. He never asks.
He goes into Caiyi Town at night, listening for buskers and live music in bars. Because Caiyi Town is so close to the Cloud Recesses, it has a thriving live music scene despite its size. He finds Wei WuXian on nine occasions.
The first eight are completely within his control: Wei WuXian is performing (beautifully, passionately) at a bar. Lan WangJi slips into the crowd and listens. As the set winds down, he makes sure there is cash in the tip jar for musicians. There is, because Wei WuXian is talented and charming. Still, Lan WangJi stands near the tip jar and stares at people in the crowd until they feel compelled to put another bill in. He deposits an amount of his own money that is, perhaps, unnecessary. Except it isn’t. The money is the only way he can soothe his worries.
Having assured himself that Wei WuXian is alive and safe and, as far as he can tell, happy, Lan WangJi excuses himself without a word. He’s perfected sneaking back into the Cloud Recesses late at night. Wei WuXian would be proud.
He knows Wei WuXian is not doing anything similar for him. Wei WuXian is not thinking of Lan WangJi at all. That’s fine. Lan WangJi doesn’t need taking care of. He’s going to graduate at the top of his class and have his pick of orchestras. His career is assured.
The ninth time Lan WangJi finds Wei WuXian busking in Caiyi Town, it’s the kind of spring day that makes everyone want to go outside. The trees bud with leaves, the streets burst with people, and Wei WuXian has attracted a crowd.
He’s not playing the flute today. He’s strumming a guitar and singing. Wei WuXian has a strikingly clear voice, and the audience is full of swooning women. It would be beneath Lan WangJi’s dignity to resent them, or at least, it would be beneath him to let it show.
The words are all different, and it’s a variation on the melody, but Lan WangJi knows what Wei WuXian is playing. The song doesn’t belong to them.
He’s not the type to swoon in public, but he would like to remember this. He pulls out his phone and discreetly records it.
As Wei WuXian strums the final chord, he beams at the audience, and then he says, “Hey! Lan Zhan! What are you doing here?”
Lan WangJi stopped recording the minute Wei WuXian looked at him, but he can’t put the phone out of sight fast enough.
“Were you recording me, Lan Zhan?” Wei WuXian teases. He walks over to where Lan WangJi is standing, and now that his performance seems to be over, the crowd disperses.
Lan WangJi would also like to leave—except he wouldn’t. The push and pull of Wei WuXian’s presence dominates his whole life.
Wei WuXian continues, “Even though it’s Contemporary Commercial Music? Do your professors at the Cloud Recesses know about this? You’ll be in so much trouble, even more trouble than when they caught us coming back from that bar. You must really like me, Lan Zhan!”
“I know that song,” Lan WangJi replies.
“You do?” Wei WuXian purses his lips thoughtfully. “I can’t remember where I learned that melody. I make up different words every time I sing it.”
Lan WangJi chooses not to enlighten him about the source of the melody. It’s fine this way. The song was a gift. It belongs to Wei WuXian now.
Wei WuXian puts his guitar—so dilapidated it looks like he retrieved it from a dumpster, and for all Lan WangJi knows, he might have—back in its case and sorts through the bills that were dropped in as offerings. He sighs. “It’s not bad, but some nights in the bar, I did a lot better than this.”
“It’s not nine PM yet. That means you can have dinner with me and not get in trouble.”
They walk to a restaurant and sit down across a table from each other. Lan WangJi orders food too spicy for his own tastes and listens to Wei WuXian tell stories about his life, which is far more exciting than anything inside the walls of the Cloud Recesses.
“Did you know I played my flute in a strip club? And then a man offered me money,” Wei WuXian is saying, astonished. “For sex! Can you believe that, Lan Zhan?”
“You probably didn’t know people did such things, since you’re so innocent,” Wei WuXian says, interpreting Lan WangJi’s silence in exactly the wrong way. “I said no, of course. Not that there would be anything wrong with saying yes! I just didn’t want to.”
It is a great relief to hear that, but Lan WangJi merely snares a bite of pork on the end of his chopsticks. It’s so spicy it makes his eyes water. Wei WuXian eats without remarking on how spicy it is, and he finishes far more than a single portion of food.
“This is really good,” Wei WuXian says between bites. “I… haven’t been eating much.”
Lan WangJi frowns. Keeping Wei WuXian alive and healthy is a more difficult project than he initially assumed.
Wei WuXian swallows another bite and beams at him. “It’s way better than the food at the Cloud Recesses. You should eat more.”
At the end of the meal, Wei WuXian’s wallet has temporarily disappeared—who can say how that happened—and Lan WangJi pays without complaint.
“Thank you, Lan Zhan.”
That’s not what he wants to hear. But what’s he going to do, say come back with me? Sleep in my arms again? Wei WuXian won’t do that. So Lan WangJi politely takes his leave and walks all the way back to the Cloud Recesses alone.
When he enters his room, he pulls out his phone and watches the video of Wei WuXian singing.
He’s interrupted by his brother coming in without knocking. Lan XiChen hears only a few seconds of the video before saying, “Is that Wei WuXian singing? Can I see?”
Trapped, Lan WangJi is forced to hand it over. His brother smiles at the video. “He’s really good. Too good to be playing on street corners for no money. Is he okay?”
Lan WangJi has been working hard to make the answer to that question yes, but he’s not sure he can give it. Not if Wei WuXian isn’t eating regularly and is getting propositioned by strangers. Where is he sleeping? Is he safe?
“You’re worried about him,” Lan XiChen says.
Lan WangJi feels slandered, except that it’s true.
“He’s really smart and talented. He’ll figure it out.”
Somehow, when Lan WangJi wakes up the next morning, the video he took is on the internet, and it has five hundred thousand views.
Two days later, Wei WuXian gets a deal with Wen Records.
Lan WangJi tracks Wei WuXian’s rise to fame in the same way he tracked his meandering itinerary through Caiyi Town’s dive bars: with great apprehension.
Any new problems that arise will not be fixed by a few extra bills in the tip jar, and somehow he knows deep down that new problems will arise. Even with four chart-topping singles (good, but not as good as Lan WangJi knows they could be), a sold-out arena tour (Lan WangJi does not care for videos of Wei WuXian reaching down from the stage to touch the hands of weeping, fainting fans), and a suite of flashy, controversial music videos (Lan WangJi watches each of them several times and then feels a need to clear his browser history), there will be problems.
What if Lan WangJi can’t solve them? What if he never sees Wei WuXian again?
A laughable concept. Wei WuXian is everywhere now, his voice on the radio and his face in Cornetto ads. Lan WangJi’s guilty thoughts are his constant companion.
In one of the music videos, there is a close-up of Wei WuXian putting the flute to his lips, his deft fingers dancing over the shaft. Lan WangJi has never been envious of an inanimate object before, but the videos offer so many options: the flute, the microphone, the mic stand that Wei WuXian slides between his legs.
He’s a very good dancer now. They must have trained him.
One day, a long cardboard tube arrives in the mail at the Cloud Recesses. It’s addressed to Lan WangJi with no return address. He takes it to his room and opens it. A gigantic glossy poster of Wei WuXian unrolls, staring at Lan WangJi with a half-lidded, come-hither expression. For some reason, whoever manages him has had him photographed lying on his stomach on a bed with a palette of watercolors and a sketchpad in front of him. There’s a sheet stretched over the curve of his ass, but his back is naked.
There is a permanent-marker scrawl in the bottom right corner of the poster, stylish but nearly illegible. Thanks for dinner, Lan Zhan.
Is this a flirtation? Or is Wei WuXian taunting him?
Lan WangJi rolls the poster up, slides it back into the tube, and hides it at the back of his closet. Even as he does, he knows it won’t be the last time he looks at the photo.
He watches one of the videos again, watches Wei WuXian dance across the screen in a series of progressively skimpier outfits. For once, he turns off the visuals before he gets too distracted. The music is lifeless. It’s passable stuff, but not the brilliance he knows Wei WuXian is capable of. Is Wei WuXian unhappy? Are they not letting him write his own songs?
Lan WangJi taps his fingers against the desk, deep in thought. The only way he’ll ever see Wei WuXian again is if he gets famous.
Classical music doesn’t offer the same kind of glitz as Contemporary Commercial Music, but Lan WangJi isn’t after platinum sales and screaming fans. He just needs to get nominated for Best Classical Album of the Year, and then he’ll get invited to the awards ceremony, and Wei WuXian will be there.
It takes a year to record the album, but in the end, the nomination is no trouble. He’s nephew to Lan QiRen and brother to Lan XiChen. He graduated at the top of his class at the Cloud Recesses. Lan WangJi would never have the bad manners to say so out loud, but he’s the best cellist in the world.
It’s not the sort of thing that needs to be said. People listen, and they know.
He wears a tuxedo to the ceremony. He declines all the offers of bolder colors and cuts. He’s not above wanting to look good, but he imagines Wei WuXian will make enough of a statement for both of them.
Wei WuXian is scheduled to perform about halfway through the ceremony. Rumors are flying about what he’ll do. Lan WangJi expects something along the lines of the videos: dancers, fireworks, costume changes, stagecraft.
When the curtain goes up, there are thirty dancers on stage in coordinated, skintight black-and-red outfits, arrayed around a central space. They’re stepping their way through a routine already, and a recorded track is playing from somewhere. Lan WangJi recognizes the sound of Wei WuXian’s first single.
Wei WuXian will probably be wearing something like what the dancers are wearing, or maybe less. A ribbon. A sheen of glitter. Something like that. It will be a challenge to sit through him writhing around with everything on display, but Lan WangJi can do it.
A pedestal rises up in the center of the stage, and that’s when things begin to go wrong.
A murmur runs through the audience. Is this part of the act? The dancers keep up their routine for a few bars, and the recorded track keeps going. When the track cuts off, the dancers falter.
Wei WuXian walks out on stage in jeans and a black t-shirt, his flute in one hand. “Hey,” he says, not using a mic or projecting his voice. It’s quiet enough to hear him anyway. He glances at the dancers. “You all can leave now.”
“So my name is Wei WuXian, or it was. I came here to say Wen Records doesn’t own me, and they don’t own this song, either.”
Lan WangJi knows what he’s going to play before he puts the flute to his lips.
The song floats out into the audience, ascending and descending in gentle loops of melody. Wei WuXian’s playing is superb—impeccable, but with a depth of feeling that none of his successful singles have approached. The yearning in the song is palpable.
Lan WangJi leaves his seat and walks toward him, not caring who sees. The song is a call, and he’s answering.
When Wei WuXian finishes, he walks to the edge of the stage as though he’s about to jump down. The long drop makes him hesitate.
Then he sees Lan WangJi waiting below, standing ready. As he plunges off the stage, he laughs. Lan WangJi catches Wei WuXian in his arms and carries him out of the auditorium.
“Come get a drink with me,” Wei WuXian says, as if nothing unusual has happened. As if he isn’t one of the most famous people in the world. As if his arms aren’t still wrapped about Lan WangJi’s neck. A crowd is gathering on the sidewalk. Reporters are yelling questions.
Lan WangJi hails a cab.
They end up in a bar on the other side of the city. It’s dark inside and Lan WangJi’s shoes stick to the floor. He’s still wearing a tux and Wei WuXian is a t-shirt. Wei WuXian orders Emperor’s Smile and pushes a glass across the table.
“They’ll be looking for me,” Wei WuXian says.
“Come back to Gusu with me.”
Wei WuXian shakes his head. “They’ll find me. You know they shelved my next album? I wrote twelve songs that’ll never get published, and they own all the rights. And somehow I’m in debt to the label and the contract’s not up for another year. They’ll make me do another album I hate.”
“What will you do?”
“I need to disappear for a little while,” Wei WuXian says, finishing his drink. He winks at Lan WangJi. “Any rumors you hear of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Here it is. A problem Lan WangJi can’t fix. He gulps down some of his drink as a consolation.
“I’ve never seen you drink like that, Lan Zhan. Remember when we used to sneak out of the Cloud Recesses and go to Caiyi Town?”
Wei WuXian smiles at him from across the table. His grin is the brightest thing in the bar. “I’m glad you’re here, Lan Zhan.”
Lan WangJi’s phone has been buzzing in his pocket, but he ignores it.
“Did you get that poster I mailed you last year?”
“Will you do me a favor, Lan Zhan?”
“There’s a crowd gathering outside the door of this bar. Go outside and distract them. Talk to them about how you just won Best Classical Album of the Year while I slip out the back.”
Lan WangJi is surprised enough to blink.
“Your phone,” Wei WuXian explains. “And you’re the best cellist in the world, of course. Who else would they pick?”
Lan WangJi cannot affirm that statement without seeming endlessly arrogant, but he doesn’t deny it. “I’ll speak with them.”
“I loved it, by the way,” Wei WuXian says, standing up. That sentence, better than any award, is the answer to a question Lan WangJi has kept to himself for all the years of their acquaintance. Does Wei WuXian ever think about me when I’m not standing right in front of him? He does. “Thank you, Lan Zhan!”
He vanishes into the back room. Lan WangJi pays the bill and leaves.
Lan WangJi doesn’t see Wei WuXian again for a year, and neither does anyone else. There are, in fact, rumors of his death, but Lan WangJi refuses to believe them.
He starts recording another album and keeps a regular performance schedule, waiting. And waiting.
And then he’s walking down the street one day and someone calls out, “Lan Zhan! I owe you a drink!” and then suddenly he’s in a bar with Wei WuXian and it feels like no time has passed at all.
“While you’re here,” Wei WuXian says, “you should come see my band.”
“Mn,” Lan WangJi says. He will not turn down such an invitation. He follows Wei WuXian to a narrow old house that leans precariously toward its neighbor. There is an ancient car in the driveway, one of its windows replaced with a sheet of plastic and a few strips of duct tape. The patchy front yard is dominated by a mound of mud. Wei WuXian mounts the front steps—rickety, of course—without seeming to notice any of these details, but they worry Lan WangJi.
Rehearsal has started without them. Sound booms out of the house long before they enter. Lan WangJi leaves his shoes on a rack, the contents of which suggest at least five different adults living in this house, plus one… baby?
“You finally brought a babysitter,” says an old woman’s voice. “Good.”
“A babysitter?” Wei WuXian asks, confused. “Why would we need a babysitter? A-Yuan loves rehearsal!”
“Then who is this?”
“Granny, this is Lan WangJi. Lan WangJi, Granny.”
Lan WangJi inclines his head and shakes her small hand, which is surprisingly callused. What is she doing here? Who is A-Yuan?
That question is answered a second later when a round-cheeked child toddles up to Wei WuXian and clings to his legs. But whose child is this? Wei WuXian introduces him only as “A-Yuan” and then all four of them take the creaky stairs down into the dark, low-ceilinged basement. Two buzzing fluorescent lights dangle from chains, and every inch of concrete floorspace is clogged with amps and cables.
Wei WuXian gestures grandly toward a sagging blue armchair in the corner, and Lan WangJi accepts it, only to have a toddler deposited in his lap.
“Wei Ying,” he says, a form of mild protest.
“He likes you, Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian says, handing A-Yuan a pair of butterfly toys and then positioning some noise-cancellation earmuffs on his head. “You can put him on the floor if he wants to get down, but don’t let him go upstairs.”
Has Lan WangJi been tricked into babysitting? He frowns and studies the room. With his eyes adjusted, he can see Wei WuXian’s bandmates. Nearest to him, there’s a young man seated behind an electronic keyboard. He has hunched shoulders and huge sad eyes. He won’t look at Lan WangJi.
Clockwise from the young man is an ancient, grey-haired woman in traditional robes that make for a strange contrast with her black-and-white electric guitar. She looks almost too frail to hold it. Then comes a jovial older man whose bass guitar is hung on so short a strap that the instrument covers his chest rather than his belly. At the back of the room, glowering behind a massive drumset, is a young woman in a white shirt and sharply tailored suit.
Who are these people? Where did Wei WuXian find them?
“Lan Zhan, welcome to our rehearsal,” Wei WuXian says, spreading his arm in a gesture that encompasses the basement and nearly knocks over a mic stand. “We call ourselves Yiling. Wen Ning on keys, Granny on guitar, Fourth Uncle on bass, and Wen Qing on drums.”
Then he counts off. The band bursts into wall-shaking sound. Even A-Yuan, with his earmuffs on and his attention occupied by toys, looks up and bounces in Lan WangJi’s lap.
It’s good. Even for Contemporary Commercial Music. Lan WangJi shouldn’t be surprised.
Five measures in, Wei WuXian hasn’t sung or played a note. He yells, “Stop!”
The sound dies on his command, one last electric guitar note lingering in the air.
“It’s not right,” Wei WuXian says, putting a hand to his chin in thought.
Lan WangJi has exacting standards, and he didn’t hear anything other than technical perfection. What more could Wei WuXian possibly want?
“Wen Ning,” he says, kneeling before young man at the keyboard and grabbing both of his hands. “We talked about this. What did I say?”
“That I’m… dead.”
At this strange turn in the conversation, Lan WangJi feels almost as baffled as Wen Ning looks.
“Your old self is dead. Wen Records killed that Wen Ning. I resurrected you, and now you’re free. And what can you do, when you’re free?”
“Play wrong notes. But I don’t want to play wrong notes, Wei WuXian!”
“I know,” Wei WuXian says soothingly. “You’re perfect. The whole time I’ve known you, you haven’t played a wrong note yet.”
“Oh,” Wen Ning says, small and surprised, as if any such praise is new to him. He’s an excellent musician. Surely many people have told him so by now.
“So I know you can play it perfectly. You’re here because you can. Of course you can. I’ve heard you do it. And now I’m asking you to fuck it up.”
“I don’t understand.”
“What is this song about, Wen Ning?”
Wei WuXian lifts his hands and gives them a squeeze. “Fine. We’ll skip it. That answer doesn’t matter as much as the next one. What does it make you feel?”
Wen Ning remains motionless, like perhaps Wei WuXian will lose sight of him and then he won’t have to answer.
“Triumph, rage, sorrow, love,” Wei WuXian says. “Pick one.”
“Good,” Wei WuXian says. “What does rage sound like, Wen Ning?”
“Show me. Scream at me.”
Wen Ning hesitates, then gives a half-hearted effort, embarrassed.
“It’s okay, Wen Ning, I asked for it. I want it. Do it like this.” Wei WuXian gets to his feet and pulls Wen Ning up from his stool. Then, standing barely a handspan away, he screams in Wen Ning’s face. Wei WuXian, uninhibited by shyness or shame and armed with a terrifying willingness to do whatever it takes, has a voice like a runaway train. Even Lan WangJi is startled.
Wen Ning’s flinch sends him back a full step.
“Now you do it!” Wei WuXian cheerfully yanks him forward. His foot catches on the piano stool and knocks it over. It’s like a switch has flipped. Wen Ning catches himself, then lunges at Wei WuXian, roaring.
In Lan WangJi’s lap, A-Yuan pulls off his earmuffs and adds a scream of his own. Lan WangJi jumps, but luckily no one sees.
“Yes,” Wei WuXian shouts, embracing Wen Ning. He turns toward A-Yuan and grins. “You too, A-Yuan! Yell! Everyone yell!”
A-Yuan gets out of Lan WangJi’s lap, stands on the floor, and raises both chubby fists. His yell carries more joy than rage, but the rest of the band proves fearsome. Lan WangJi declines to join in. His curiosity is piqued, though. What purpose can all this serve? Why aren’t they rehearsing?
“Yes,” Wei WuXian says again. He slaps the corner of the keyboard with one hand. “Feel it! Play it like an animal. The notes don’t matter, do you understand? Fuck it up!”
He makes eye contact with each member of the band in turn, and then raises a hand and counts off.
It gives Lan WangJi just enough time to put the earmuffs back on A-Yuan’s ears before the sound kicks in.
The song is its own little miracle. For a song about rage, it’s layered and complex. It doesn’t sound like anything Lan WangJi has ever heard. It doesn’t even sound like those first few bars they played before all the shouting.
Despite Wei WuXian’s command to fuck it up, no one does. Wen Ning plays fast and hard, no longer hunched over the keyboard but leaning toward it intently, even angrily. His fingers attack the keys, but everything they play is right. More than right. Passionate. Arresting.
Granny and Fourth Uncle strum hard to keep up, and Wen Qing beats the drums like they wronged her family. Then Wei WuXian lifts the flute to his lips and out comes a frenzied solo. There’s rage in it, yes, but also shades of emotion Lan WangJi can’t name. In the presence of such music, what are words worth? There is nothing to do but feel.
Lan WangJi doesn’t move from the blue armchair for the three and a half minutes of the song, but when it comes to an end, he feels winded.
“Yes! Beautiful!” Wei WuXian sets down his flute and dances around the room. It’s almost the same absurd little dance he did all those years ago on the night Lan WangJi first met him, except this time it’s Granny he grabs and spins around. She laughs and lets go of him before her amp cable gets tangled around both their legs and trips them. Wei WuXian continues around the room, kissing Fourth Uncle, Wen Qing, and Wen Ning on the cheek as he goes.
When he comes by to scoop up A-Yuan for his victory dance, Lan WangJi sits stiffly, uncertain if he will also be on the receiving end of a kiss.
He tries not to think about it. The band plays through the song again, then tries a few more songs, then Fourth Uncle takes A-Yuan upstairs for a snack and a nap and they change to a quieter set of songs. Wei WuXian switches between playing the flute and singing. Sometimes all of them sing in harmony. At some point, Wen Qing and Granny trade places and instruments.
“Do you like this game of musical chairs, Lan Zhan?” Wei WuXian asks. “Would you like to play something?”
“I don’t have my cello.”
“I know you can play other instruments,” Wei WuXian says. “But suit yourself.”
This interruption seems to unsettle Wei WuXian, and he stops their next song three times before they get through the first verse.
“Need to scream at my brother some more?” Wen Qing teases. Wen Ning blanches. “Or maybe you need him to scream at you?”
“What animal do you need to be to sing this one?” Granny asks.
“Shh,” Wei WuXian hisses, one hand to his temple. He stomps up the stairs and Lan WangJi wonders for a moment if this is the end of rehearsal. Does Wei WuXian regularly storm out on his band?
But Wei WuXian comes back a moment later. He glides down the stairs even though he’s wearing… are those high-heeled slippers? They have little red feathery tufts.
None of his bandmates bat an eye. Costume changes must be a regular feature of rehearsal. They weren’t too surprised by the screaming, either.
Wei WuXian raises a hand, the long open sleeve of his black satin robe fluttering, and counts off in silence. Wen Ning plays the opening chords on the keyboard with lazy grace, and Wei WuXian picks up the mic and makes a leisurely entrance into the song.
It’s… sexy. Lan WangJi should have guessed that, from the amount of bare leg on display between those ridiculous little slippers and the robe that ends mid-thigh. There’s bare chest, too, a tantalizing slender triangle where the robe keeps slipping open. Luckily Wei WuXian spends most of his time turned toward his bandmates, cuing them. He slinks his way through two verses and a chorus, then Wen Ning takes a solo.
Good. That’s good. Lan WangJi can survive that just fine, no matter how skilled Wen Ning is.
The regular chord sequence returns, but instead of singing the words to a third verse, Wei WuXian begins to scat, his voice dipping below and then leaping above the line of the verse, sidling toward something else.
By the time he turns around, Lan WangJi knows exactly what melody he’s going to sing. His robe is slipping off one shoulder now. An inconsequential scrap of fabric, with only that belt keeping it closed. One tug and Lan WangJi could undo all of it. No. Stop. The only safe option is to look Wei WuXian directly in the eyes.
Somehow that’s worst of all.
In this form, the song—their song—isn’t merely sensual, but vulnerable. That’s the fatal blow. There’s no slick production, no big showy act. Wei WuXian, who has performed in sold-out arenas for thousands of swooning fans, is here in this basement, half-naked and baring his soul.
For Lan WangJi.
He can’t break away now, drawn in by that liquid gaze. The melody unfurls through the air, sultry and serpentine, and Lan WangJi controls his breathing. His fingers sink into the nubby upholstery of the chair.
This had better be the end of rehearsal. He wants to carry Wei WuXian upstairs and toss him down onto a bed.
Instead, after Wei WuXian spirals his way through two false endings and finally stretches out one ringing end note, he instantly sheds his persona and gives everyone in the room a cheeky smile. “Wow! I don’t think it’s ever been that good before!”
“Yes, what could possibly be different this time,” Wen Qing deadpans in a voice that could desiccate a lake.
“Must be the outfit,” Wei WuXian concludes, lifting an arm to show off the sleeve of his robe, and Wen Qing rolls her eyes. Nobody ever had to explain to her how to unleash her rage.
“Great rehearsal, everyone. Lan Zhan, thanks for coming! Let me walk you to the door.”
Wei WuXian wobbles as he picks his way through the cords on the floor, and Lan WangJi sighs and catches him by the arm before he smashes his face into the stairs. The robe is slippery under his fingers.
“You’re so strong, Lan Zhan! I bet women love you. Soon you’ll be playing arenas of your own. World’s Sexiest Cellist.”
“So is everything about my life! And women love me and you’re even more handsome than me,” Wei WuXian says. “Some day women will be draping themselves all over you, Lan Zhan, I just know it.”
With this reminder that Wei WuXian has spent his life so immersed in the affections of women that it has never even occurred to him that some people might seek other kinds, they reach the front door. Lan WangJi takes his leave.
“You’re a tenor,” Lan WangJi says—it doesn’t count as chastisement, it’s so expressionless—as Wei WuXian slips into the bass section. It’s true that Wei WuXian shouldn’t be in the bass section, but he’s not here to sing. He’s here to stand uncomfortably close to Lan WangJi until he elicits a more fun reaction than the one he’s gotten. The other men assigned to the bass section—famous luminaries, all of them—give him dirty looks, and Wei WuXian graces them with his smile.
“You’re a cellist,” Wei WuXian replies. He knows Lan WangJi can sing. He just didn’t know anybody else knew Lan WangJi could sing, and for some reason, he doesn’t like that thought.
“I’m surprised to see you here, Lan Zhan. This isn’t serious music.”
Wei WuXian doesn’t really want to be here, either. But Yiling is successful enough that he gets invited to these ridiculous, self-aggrandizing collaborations sometimes, and when he saw Lan WangJi’s name on the list for this one, he couldn’t resist. A choir of famous people singing some garbage about children or the future was a small price to pay.
Lan XiChen walks in front of the assembled choir at that moment and the dirty looks Wei WuXian has been gathering for his disruptive presence transform into hissed whispers. He shifts a little closer to Lan WangJi, who doesn’t move away.
“We’ll start rehearsal with page 2. Sopranos, you have the melody in this section,” Lan XiChen says, addressing the other side of the room.
“You’re right about this, you know,” Wei WuXian confides in Lan WangJi. “It isn’t serious music. I understand it’s for a good cause, but the song is unbearable, I’m amazed you can stand to be in the same room while it’s playing, let alone sing these harmonies. Is there one good chord in this whole thing? Really, Lan Zhan, you’re disappointing m—”
Lan WangJi takes him by the wrist, none too gently, and glares at him. Wei WuXian shivers under the force of it. There’s the reaction he came here to provoke. He can feel it in his whole body. A tingling fear and excitement. Having Lan Zhan glare at him with silent rage is better than an arena of ten thousand fans screaming his name.
Those fingers clamped around his wrist are better than every week he’s spent at the top of the charts. Wei WuXian’s next song will be about how delightful it is to provoke Lan WangJi.
Writing such a song will undoubtedly make Lan WangJi even more frustrated with him. Wei WuXian has never felt so pleased with himself.
Lan WangJi lets go of his wrist and turns away from him for some reason, and a moment later, he sings a note so pure it shakes Wei WuXian down to his bones.
Oh. That’s better than making Lan WangJi angry. Maybe instead of writing a song about him, they should write a song together.
Everyone else is singing too. Wei WuXian wants to shout for them to shut up so he can hear Lan Zhan’s voice, but then he realizes it’s rehearsal, rehearsal has started, they’re all going to sing the boring insipid song about saving animals or trees or something. So he puts a hand to his forehead like he has a terrible headache—which he will, if he stays in here with this song much longer—and slips out of the room.
Wei WuXian attends just enough rehearsal not to get kicked out before the performance. When the day comes, he worms his way to the edge of the tenor section and stands right next to Lan WangJi.
“Sunglasses?” Lan WangJi asks.
Wei WuXian pulls them down his nose to look up at Lan WangJi. “I’m incognito.”
Wei WuXian replaces the sunglasses on the bridge of his nose. He unwraps a red lollipop and sticks it into his mouth just as the music starts. Lan WangJi regards him with… well, it’s always hard to tell. Disapproval? Concern?
Wei WuXian hopes it’s disapproval. When the camera swings their way and somebody passes Lan WangJi the mic, he dutifully sings his part with as much grace as it can be sung. He tentatively offers the mic to Wei WuXian, who sucks ostentatiously at the lollipop for a second too long, rolling it half out of his mouth and then back in, instead of accepting the mic.
Lan WangJi watches, his expression unchanged, the mic still in his hand. Wei WuXian thrusts the lollipop toward his face, expecting him to recoil in horror.
He leans down and wraps his lips around it.
Now Wei WuXian is the one who’s stunned.
Someone grabs the mic out of Lan WangJi’s hand and passes it along before the two of them completely eclipse the rest of this spectacle. Wei WuXian doesn’t care about that. Lan Zhan took his lollipop. He thought he was teasing Lan Zhan and… now he’s the one being teased?
There’s a choir of famous people surrounding them, singing a song about love or babies or something, and Lan WangJi is—well, it’s inappropriate, what he’s doing with his lips.
It’s filthy, what he’s doing with his eyes.
Wei WuXian has crawled toward a camera in nothing but his underwear and signed his name on the breasts of women he’s never met, and he has never been so scandalized as he is right now. Lan WangJi won’t stop looking at him.
The terrible song is thirteen years long and Wei WuXian just has to stand there on stage, dying, while Lan WangJi nonchalantly sucks on that lollipop and watches him.
Is Wei WuXian actually dying? What is this feeling? He feels hot, and like all his clothes are too tight (more so than usual, even), and he wants Lan WangJi to stop immediately, but he also wants Lan WangJi to never stop.
He doesn’t want to leave here without Lan WangJi.
They’re supposed to exit the stage in some sort of organized and dignified manner, but Wei WuXian isn’t interested in either of those things right now, so he rushes backstage, hoping Lan WangJi will follow. He does, still with the lollipop in his mouth.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian says, strangled. “Lan Zhan, I want… I want to make music with you.”
Lan WangJi raises his eyebrows and removes the lollipop from his mouth, but says nothing. They just made music together, technically.
“Right now,” Wei WuXian clarifies. “Can we go somewhere?”
It takes far too much time for them to collect their affairs, get into a cab, and go to the nearest crappy open mic night, according to Wei WuXian’s frantic googling, but they arrive eventually.
The bar is dark and sparsely populated, with about twenty people hanging around, most of them not paying attention to the music. The young woman running the open mic gapes at Wei WuXian when he signs up for the next available slot.
“Wei… WuXian? The Wei WuXian? Of Yiling?”
He smiles at her and tilts his head at Lan WangJi. “And Lan WangJi.”
Her eyes grow even wider.
“She likes you, Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian says when they’re seated at their little table in the corner. He pokes his straw into the ice in his drink.
“Lan Zhan, I…”
The woman calls their names, and whatever Wei WuXian was going to say, he’ll have to sing it instead. They haven’t discussed this performance at all, and yet somehow Wei WuXian knows exactly what Lan WangJi is going to sing after he hums the starting note.
It’s the song. The one he’s been making up words to, all these years. Hearing Lan Zhan sing it in that velvet-deep voice, Wei WuXian remembers with sudden clarity where he learned it.
Lan Zhan sang it to him in the streets of Caiyi Town when they were stumbling home drunk after sneaking out. This melody, these words, that voice. It seems so obvious now: the song belongs to Lan WangJi. He composed it. Wei WuXian has been singing it for years without remembering that.
He blinks. He’s let twelve bars pass by without contributing a note. Lan WangJi is watching him, waiting.
For the first time in his life, Wei WuXian is struck with nerves. It’s a jittery, full-body experience, and he has just enough presence of mind to think I should have gone easier on Wen Ning. The thought is enough to disrupt his panic.
Triumph, rage, sorrow, love. Pick one.
When he sang it on street corners, or at the awards ceremony, this song was about sorrow. With the melody unspooling in Lan WangJi’s rich voice, Wei WuXian knows it’s about love.
The bar, the few people watching them, all of it disappears when he locks eyes with Lan WangJi and finally starts to sing. Nothing fancy, just a line of harmony a third above Lan WangJi’s melody.
They sound good.
Obviously. They’re two of the best musicians alive. What they sound like is beyond good. The blend of their voices is something Wei WuXian has been waiting his whole life to hear. Why didn’t he know that until now?
He takes Lan WangJi’s hand and they fly through the rest of the song, a rush of emotion like nothing Wei WuXian has ever known. He throws his arms around Lan WangJi and kisses him at the end. He couldn’t have stopped himself for anything.
Lan WangJi kisses him back so fiercely that his knees buckle. The young woman running the event has to tap them on the shoulders and ask them to move aside for the next performers.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian says, breathless in the cool air outside the bar. “I think music isn’t the only thing I want to make with you.”
Lan WangJi regards him in expectant silence.
Why is Wei WuXian blushing? He has paraded around area stages in his underwear. There is video of him grinding on five different dancers in sequence at one of his long-ago solo concerts. And he just kissed Lan WangJi in public. He shouldn’t be blushing. “A life,” he says, and then forces himself to add, “And… love. I’m in love with you.”
Lan WangJi smiles at him.
They take a cab to Lan WangJi’s hotel room. Lan WangJi undresses him with an intensity that makes him shiver, pressing hot kisses to his skin. Then Lan WangJi lays him out on the bed. He slides his fingers into Wei WuXian and begins to play.
He builds a towering crescendo of sensation in Wei WuXian’s body, and there is nothing to do but release it in sound. Wei WuXian gasps and moans at the slick, welcome pressure of his fingers. Each thrust slurs into the next with no rest, steady and unstoppable, until Wei WuXian cries out, “Please, Lan Zhan!”
Lan WangJi lowers his mouth to Wei WuXian’s cock, dragging his lips from the root to the head, glissando. He swallows Wei WuXian down, his throat as warm and velvety as his voice, his fingers still moving in rhythm. Heat and pleasure suffuse Wei WuXian until he can’t think anymore, can only writhe wild and desperate under Lan WangJi’s thorough attention. His orgasm is a sweet flood of relief, and Lan WangJi drinks it down.
When he catches his breath, Wei WuXian can’t help himself. “You’re even more of a virtuoso than I knew, Lan Zhan.”
Lan WangJi offers him another smile, this one wicked and self-assured, and then he stands up and drags Wei WuXian to the edge of the bed. Lan WangJi spreads his legs, propping one on each shoulder, and buries his cock in Wei WuXian’s ass.
The jolt of pleasure makes Wei WuXian gasp, “Lan Zhan.” He’s wrung out and oversensitive, and Lan WangJi feels huge inside him. He squirms. It does nothing to ease the fullness. “You… do what you need to, but I am… not ready for an encore, not so soon after—”
“Shh,” Lan WangJi says, kissing his ankle. He holds himself very still inside Wei WuXian. His hands stroke Wei WuXian’s legs, tracing warm patterns onto his skin. “You will be.”
Years of intense training in dance have made Wei WuXian flexible, which is good because Lan WangJi folds him like a pretzel, forcing his thighs to his chest, and then bends down to kiss him on the mouth.
“Ahh,” Wei WuXian says when Lan WangJi sinks his teeth into Wei WuXian’s neck, all other words having escaped him. His abs and thighs already ache. The kiss is a sharp flare of pleasure and pain all at once. Lan WangJi sweeps his tongue over the tender spot, and Wei WuXian trembles.
Lan WangJi kisses his mouth again, seeking it out hungrily, and heat races over Wei WuXian’s skin. Above him and inside him, Lan WangJi is taut like a string. Wei WuXian can feel him quaking with the effort of keeping still.
Wei WuXian has always liked to court trouble. He wriggles his hips. “I’m ready now, Lan Zhan.”
His cock is still lying soft between them, but he can feel it thickening. Lan WangJi puts a hand between their bodies to assess it, and Wei WuXian twitches in response. He didn’t know Lan WangJi would be like this in bed, but somehow it’s not a surprise, either. Thinking about Lan WangJi and all the quiet power he exudes, with that hand touching him expectantly, Wei WuXian grows hard again.
“Please,” he says, twisting uselessly. “I want you to move, Lan Zhan.”
Lan WangJi caresses his face. “You’re so beautiful, Wei Ying.”
“I would be more beautiful if you fucked me,” Wei WuXian whines, and thankfully, Lan WangJi smiles and hums his agreement. He stands back up and Wei WuXian can stretch his legs at last, hooking them over Lan WangJi’s shoulders.
“You don’t like to wait.”
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” Wei WuXian protests.
“No,” Lan WangJi says, implacable. “You haven’t.”
Lan WangJi thrusts into him with long, measured strokes. Wei WuXian cries out for more, and Lan WangJi must like that, because he gives it to him. Eventually Wei WuXian’s crying out for more turns into simple crying out. The music’s always been more important to him than the words.
He comes hard and loud, his eyes squeezed shut and his body clenching helplessly, drowning in pleasure. Only then does he feel the hot, staccato spurts of Lan WangJi’s release inside him.
“Bravo, Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian says.
In the hotel room next door, someone bangs on the wall and yells, “It’s quiet hours! Keep it down!”
Wei WuXian shakes with laughter as they disentangle themselves. “Noise is prohibited after nine PM,” he recites.
“It’s not noise, Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi says with all of his considerable gravitas. “It’s music.”
Wei WuXian lets out a trill of laughter and stands up, using Lan WangJi’s shoulder as a support. “You’re very funny, Lan Zhan, has anyone ever told you that?”
His legs ache. Lan WangJi ushers him into a blissfully hot shower, and then into bed. He curls up behind Wei WuXian, which reminds Wei WuXian that this is not the first night they have spent together.
“Do you remember—”
“You don’t know what I was going to say,” Wei WuXian says.
“I remember all of it.”
“Have you been in love with me for a very long time, Lan Zhan?”
Lan WangJi kisses the back of his neck. “Yes.”
Lan WangJi brings his cello to the next Yiling rehearsal, and to fit it into the basement, they have to rearrange the keyboard, drumset, and all the amps. Wen Ning does all the work.
“This had better be worth it,” Wen Qing says, eyeing Lan WangJi as they all get set up with their instruments.
“Look how happy Wei Ying is,” Granny says, tuning her guitar. “It’s already worth it.”
“What’s our band even going to sound like with a cello in it?” Wen Qing says.
“Like this,” Wei WuXian says, winking at Lan WangJi. He counts off, and they begin to play.