Lan Zhan blames the cold air of the Cloud Recesses for this.
Specifically, he blames the lack of reptiles caused by this. Gusu may not be as cold as Qinghe, but it's still high enough for most cold-blooded animals to stay away at all times. Which means, among other things, than Lan Zhan has never seen a snake before.
So, no. Lan Zhan does not recognize these strange tracks he finds, so different from any foot or paw print he knows. No, the reports of the nearby villagers- of quiet slithering sounds, of missing rabbits, of ghost-like cackling- does not help in the slightest.
Though, yes, Lan Zhan does follow the track with his sword in hand. He is ignorant on what this beast can be, but he is no fool. He will not be caught unharmed.
That being said… nothing, and he does mean nothing could have prepared him to that sight.
Just as bewildered as he is, the young man slowly lowers his jug of alcohol, blinking.
"Huh." He says, pushing his ponytail above his shoulder. "Hi?"
When he speaks, Lan Zhan can see a forked tongue, can see fangs. When he blinks, Lan Zhan spots slit pupils focused on him. When he pushes his hair away, the curl of his hair frame pointed ears.
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong , everything about this man screams wrong .
And that's not even touching the obvious fact that anything below the waist is but the tail of a snake .
Lan Zhan's gaze trail down, down, down.
Almost as thick as Lan Zhan actually is. As for the length, the monster could easily coil around him, two, maybe three times.
Lan Zhan doesn't know what kind of beast this is. But what he knows, for sure, is that this thing is dangerous .
"Y'know, when people greet you, you're supposed to greet them back." The snake person speaks suddenly, and Lan Zhan raises his sword in surprise.
Immediately, the monster raises his hands "Hey, hey, no need for this. The moon is so beautiful tonight, do you really want to fight? Cuz I don't. I just want to drink in peace." He pauses, as of thinking, then moves the hand holding the jug closer to Lan Zhan. "You want some? I can share."
"...I… don't drink." Lan Zhan replies, which, probably isn't what he's supposed to do, but what can he say? The situation is just- surreal. There are no rules dictating how to converse with beasts.
"Shame. It's really good." The snake man chuckles, the sound coming out in some odd is s, hiss, siss, like the wind between the leaves, and ah, that's the ghostly sound the villagers had described.
Lan Zhan's eyes narrow. "You've been stealing from Caiyi."
"Yeah." The man isn't even denying it. "I tried to strike some deals at first, but all the people I've approached had ran away screaming on my way here, so I just assumed it'd be the same." He sighs, very dramatically. "I guess Yunmeng is just abnormally used to nagas. Shame. And here I was chasing down all the fierce corpses for them."
Well. That's. Not what Lan Zhan had expected, but that's actually pretty good news. This snake man (naga?) can be reasoned with, and thus no fight has to happen. Hopefully.
"Don't steal from the villagers anymore." Lan Zhan thinks a lot, but he's never been one to use unnecessary words out loud.
"Look, it's not like I enjoy it, y'know? But how else am I supposed to get my booze? Make it myself?" He taps his jug of Emperor's Smile for emphasis. Lan Zhan had heard this wine was known to be especially good, but he knew nothing but hearsays about alcohol quality. "Or, wait. Are you proposing to go buy it in my place? I'm a very good hunter. I can give you meat if you do this! Or fur!"
"I… don't eat meat." This… man… functions… way too fast. Doesn't he ever pause?
The naga makes a very, very sad face. "No alcohol and no meat? Man, your dinners must be boring as sin." He taps his chin. "Well, I don't know, what do you want? Venom? I can spare some."
"You're not making this easy for me, you know. What about my skin? I'm due to shed soon."
"Urgh, you're too difficult. I don't know, my company?"
The naga blinks. "Wait, really? I mean, I'm not against it, you are rather handsome, but just so you know I've never done it with a human-"
!!! " Shameless !" Lan Zhan can feel the tip of his ears reddening. "I meant, talking. I've never read about… nagas, like you. I want to write you down."
"... Oh." The naga has the decency to look sheepish. "Well, that works too. You got yourself a deal, my dear human !"
He strikes out his hand. When Lan Zhan shakes it, he's surprised to discover that the skin of his palms is not, in fact, skin; it's a thousand of tiny scales, too small to be seen by the naked eye.
"The name is Lan Zhan." he says. Courtesy name Wangji."
The naga smiles, wide, really wide, in a way a human mouth never could. "Nice to meet you! I'm Wei Ying!"
When all is said and done, at the end of the day, Lan Zhan is a creature of routines; he likes to follow clear rules, wake up and sleep at the same time everyday, and have a life that makes sense. And, somehow, Lan Zhan manages to incorporate Wei Ying in the rhythm of that life.
Once a week, Lan Zhan wakes up at five. He eats, he cultivates, he visits the market. And, in the evening, he visits Wei Ying.
Always in the evening. He's come to him in the morning at first, but he's realized soon enough that it was useless; the man is dead to the world before nine.
(He's come to him in the morning at first, and found the man passed out in a tree. No amount of calling, yelling, or playing the guqin had been of any use. Eventually, Lan Zhan had flied up and poked him, just to make sure he was still alive.
This had been a mistake. The second he'd touched the cold, cold skin, Wei Ying's hand had shot out and grabbed him, forcefully pulling him against his strong chest. Then, he's wrapped both arms around Lan Zhan, and hadn't let go for at least half an hour.
"Sorry! Sorry!" He'd apologized after properly waking up. "You were so warm! I wasn't thinking, I'm cold-blooded I need warmth to wake up, sorry!"
Lan Zhan had left with a huff, red ears, and a resolution to never come in the morning again.)
So, once a week, Lan Zhan visits, and brings with him alcohol and books and whatever Wei Ying had asked him the previous week. In exchange, they talk, about Naga biology and culture and life cycles.
……….Okay. Maybe. Maybe not so much anymore.
It's not exactly as if Lan Zhan had all the control on their interactions- half of it is him, and half of it is Wei Ying. That's how dialogues work. And Wei Ying… gets really, really easily off tracks. They're talking about scales, or muscles, or fangs, and suddenly comes the perfect transition to mention rabbits and that one book he read last night Lan Zhan Lan Zhan listen to me!
It was extremely annoying at first. But, like with most things, Lan Zhan comes to get used to it. He even manages to give his input every once in a while, telling a succinct anecdote of his or his opinion on this or that author.
Honestly, Lan Zhan hasn't felt so comfortable talking to someone since… forever, really. As far as he can remember, it's always been him and Xichen.
"-and there are some quality power lines. You remember this one, right? All the world shall be your enemy, prince of a thousand enemy- "
Lan Zhan… doesn't dislike it.
It's at the start of autumn, two whole months after they've first met, that Wei Ying sheds his skin.
"...I thought you said you were due 'soon'."
"Well, yeah! I was negotiating! Who doesn't cheat a little when they're trying to bargain?" Wei Ying huffs, tilting his jug of prized alcohol to take a sip. "Besides, it would have been well worth it, don't you think? I have the prettiest skin."
Lan Zhan… can hardly disagree. It is an impressive thing; long as Wei Ying is, with scales tough enough to stop common knives. If Lan Zhan had run into this abandoned skin, rather than those long tracks left by the heavy drag of a tail, he would have been much more (scared) cautious.
"You can keep it, if you want." Wei Ying says, folding his skin neatly. "I'm sure you'd look good in it."
He looks oddly smug when Lan Zhan accepts it. It's… a weird present, but he can't deny it's a useful one. Besides, giving weird presents is just how Wei Ying functions ; last time, he'd given him two live rabbits for no reason other than "I caught them, but I'm not hungry anymore, so."
"Hey, you can repay me by showing me your legs!" he laughs, with that laughs that unhinges his jaw a little. (Lan Zhan knows he doesn't actually need to do that, he's just showing off. It's a little… endearing, weirdly enough.)
It’s not the first time he asks. Wei Ying has this weird fascination with legs, and feet, and everything below the hips. "I don't have those, Lan Zhan. Can you really blame me?"
"Shameless." Lan Zhan replies, as he always does.
Unlike always, though, he sits down. And then, reaches out… to his own ankle. And starts rolling up his pant leg.
He… feels a little awkward like this. But Wei Ying's face makes it clear he's appreciative.
" Very much so ."
Gently, the man leans forward to set his fingertips on Lan Zhan's ankle. He rubs them in small circle, butting against the edge of his shoes.
Then he goes up, over the calf. Wei Ying pets through his leg hairs, palms the muscles, utter fascination written on his face.
It takes all of Lan Zhan's self control to not jolt when he starts feeling up his thighs.
It's just his thigh . Why is he- that's not- he can't-
"I love your legs Lan Zhan. They're really great!" Wei ying chirps with a fanged smile, blissfully oblivious to very hard erection just inches away from his fingers which is not arranged by the praise.
If Wei Ying so much as moves wrong, he'd brush against it-
(Lan Zhan feels so warm, if Wei Ying realizes it would he press against him-)
Lan Zhan inhales, exhales, and silently screams.
He brings the skin home.
Wei Ying assured him that it would make fine clothes, brilliant from the light caught in the scales, and tougher than leather. Lan Zhan doesn't need either of those, though, so he just keeps the skin as it is, and brings it out when he thinks of Wei Ying.
(Sometimes, at night, he runs his finger cross the scales and imagine them pressed against him, below him, on top of him. He recalls the hands at his thigh and imagine the brush of fangs with them, the wet length of the forked tongue, and he comes biting his fist to keep quiet)
Lan Zhan is in love.
He… probably should talk about it.
...Look. Lan Zhan is bad with words, okay ? He's never had to deal with… this. And… Wei Ying is his (first) (only) (best) friend. He doesn't want to ruin that.
Lan Zhan will talk about it.
It's at the end of autumn that Lan Zhan visits, and finds Wei Ying still asleep.
At four in the evening.
Lan Zhan frowns. Something's wrong.
Months ago, he'd sworn to never try to wake him up again, never get caught in that embrace again. But that was before , back when Lan Zhan visited to honor his deal rather than to visit a friend, before he came to (like) (want) (crave) Wei Ying's touch.
Besides, even if he'd still been averse to his touch, Lan Zhan's worry would have overruled it.
Wei Ying stirs when he pokes, but unlike last time, he doesn't latch on Lan Zhan. He doesn't react any more than that stir, actually.
His skin is dreadfully cold.
"Wei Ying." Lan Zhan hisses. At the lack of response, he grabs the naga's arm and throws it around his shoulder.
Finally, Wei Ying speaks. "..L'Zhan?" he mutters, so low the human almost doesn't catch it. Lan Zhan feels him shiver, then huddle closer to him. "Y'warm."
Lan Zhan is overwhelmed by the sudden urge to gather the man in his arms and whisk him away, at the foot of the mountain or all the way to the coast. Sadly, even with the monstrous Lan arm strength, there is no way he can carry a man twice his length. He goes for the next best thing. "Help me get you to the Cloud Recesses."
"Can't." Wei Ying yawns, with that wide wide jaw that could probably swallow him whole. "Winter's coming. I gotta- gotta prepare. T'hibernate."
"Don't have to." Lan Zhan attempts to pull him down the tree. He manages somewhat, and at the corner of his eyes he can see Wei Ying's tail start entangling from the branches like a knot. "My house is warm. Come to the Cloud recesses for the winter."
Wei Ying tries to chuckle, but he ends up yawning again. "You… you snaking me in? Uh?"
He looks delightfully proud of his joke, even half-asleep.
Getting Wei Ying to the Cloud Recesses is… long work. Wei Ying does try to move to follow Lan Zhan, the human can tell. But he doesn't become any less groggy on the way there, Lan Zhan's body heat only so much to ward off the arriving winter. So they move slowly, Lan Zhan half-dragging his friend through the threshold.
"Y'lied, Lan Zhan." he whines, when his upper half is dumped unceremoniously onto the bed. "Still cold. I'm gonna… I'm gonna g'back to… to sleep…"
He probably doze off, because he is uncharacteristically silent while Lan Zhan strikes out a fire.
The flames will take a while to warm up the place, though. Would that even be enough? Can Lan Zhan really keep his friend awake through the winter? He'd acted on impulse before thinking more deeply on the possibilities.
He glances at Wei Ying, who's vaguely attempted to coil onto himself. Lan Zhan kind of recalls advice he'd gotten from Qinghe students a while ago; in case of hypothermia, the best thing to do is skin to skin contact.
...Well. It's not like Wei Ying is in any case to care if he gets naked.
He still feel a little awkward shedding off his clothes, but he buries it quickly. Wei Ying had given him his shed skin, too.
Now, is he supposed to… just… hug him?
A little clueless as to what to do, Lan Zhan lays on top of him.
Now he's the one who's cold. He focuses on circulating his qi to fight his shudder.
Eventually, he feels Wei Ying stir. First, his arms, coming around Lan Zhan. Then, his throat, trembling with a weak laugh.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhaaan.” He buries his face in Lan Zhan’s neck. “Hi.”
“Lan Zhan, I’m in y’r house.” He sounds almost drunk, like this, except Lan Zhan has seen him drink enough to know that the man physically cannot get drunk.
“Did you know? House is written as ‘family’ under ‘roof’.” Lan Zhan can feel the tail sliding behind his legs, curling, coiling around him, trying to touch every inch of bare warm skin as it can.
“It’s not.” Lan Zhan will not squirm. He will not squirm, even if the tightening of the tail around him makes him feel (hotter and more sensitive and so very wanting ) like it could snap his spine in half.
“Wait. It’s not?” Wei Ying raises his head to look at him, except he keeps blinking and visibly struggling to break the fog of sleep.
Lan Zhan shakes his head. “It’s ‘pig’ under ‘roof’.” The scales keep rubbing against his legs and back, the pressure softly increasing and it’s doing things to him.
“Oh.” Wei Ying drops his head again. “I… thought, because I… I was, under, you roof, I’m family. Husband material.” He closes his eyes and hums. “I guess… I could, be… pig, too?”
This man is ridiculous. The stupid honestly steals Lan Zhan’s breath away.
“...husband is fine.” He replies eventually, moving to stroke Wei Ying’s hair.
For a few moments, they stay like this; almost- cuddling, Lan Zhan wrapped in arms and tail and scales in a way more intimate than any human could ever offer him. The body around him heats up, slowly, and so does the room, the fire still crackling in the corner.
Inhale, exhale; everything is peaceful.
Inhale, exhale; get lost in the gentle rub of the scales.
Wei Ying bolts up.
“Lan Zhan!” He hisses suddenly, sounding very much awake. “Lan Zhan, husband is good too ?!”
Not… Lan Zhan’s smoothest moment.
“ Lan Zhan!! ” he hisses more urgently, starting to uncoil, so Lan Zhan decides that, okay, he can answer that.
“ Lan Zhan!! ” Wei Ying has never sounded more scandalized, the hypocrite- he’d made Lan Zhan bring him books far worse than a simple love confession. “Lan Zhan, you can’t just- I was going to ask you all properly and all! To be my husband! I’d done, like, so much research and everything!!”
And now Lan Zhan is the one jolting up, glancing at the naga with wide eyes.
They stare at each other for a few seconds, then Wei Ying bursts out laughing.
“Gods, we’re so stupid. We could have been making out ages ago.”
“Shameless.” He replies, but the corner of his lips are almost twisting into a smile.
“ I’m shameless? Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, dearest love of my life, may I remind you that I can feel your dick against my hip?”
Lan Zhan’s ears flush, and he looks away. “Just… ignore it.”
Wei Ying laughs again, then presses his lips against his cheek. “Okay, sure.”
Then he moves to his his ear.
“Shame, though. I really wanted to suck you off.”
This man will be the death of him .
(And oh, what a sweet death it will be.)