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all the words i mean to say (they'll never come out the right way)

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The first golden beams of sunlight are shining into the room when Lan Wangji wakes, as he always does, right on schedule. The warm air in Lanling is nothing like the pure, misty mornings in Gusu, and it takes Lan Wangji a moment to place himself. This is an unfamiliar bed, and he is covered in plain bedsheets, his robe only half-fastened over him. The bed is big enough for two, the mattress softly indented with the weight of the person sleeping beside him. Lan Wangji looks over at him and sighs softly— a noise that might be read as a frustration, if it wasn’t so devastatingly fond.

Wei Wuxian is curled up in a protective huddle, his knees brought almost up to his chest. His loose, dark hair is unfurled around him, his chest bare and his ashen skin marked all over with bruises in the shape of fingertips and teeth. He has one arm extended, his fingers barely curled to hold onto the loose sleeve of Lan Wangji’s white robe.

Lan Wangji does not pretend to be subtle in his affections, knows when he is around Wei Wuxian he can look at little else. But this is the first time in so long that he’s been allowed to look his fill without Wei Wuxian moving away from him. Now, it’s clear how much those three months he was missing have wracked his body as well as his spirit. His ribs are visible as he breathes, long lines like monstrous fingers trying to poke through his skin. His hair is lank, uncared for.

He couldn’t see Wei Wuxian’s eyes, last night. Would they have been dull and glassy, or filled with fierce fire? Or would, somehow, the mischievous light of years past be back, the more carefree Wei Wuxian that Lan Wangji had fallen in love with returned to him?

This is not how Lan Wangji would have chosen to tell him. He, in fact, has never really gotten that far in his imaginings. What use did Wei Wuxian have for his affections when they were the effective prisoners of the Wen Clan? When they faced the XuanWu of Slaughter together? When they battled their way through the Sun Shot Campaign? Where would Lan Wangji’s love had fallen into the tangle of Wei Wuxian’s life then, when his home had been burned around him, his caretakers murdered, the cultivation world itself in jeopardy?

He had decided that he would not trouble Wei Wuxian with his own selfish desires. Even if every time he saw Wei Wuxian laugh, it made his heart ache. Even when Wei Wuxian sauntered off a battlefield, flecks of blood across his cheeks. Even when he couldn’t stop himself from moving to deflect a sword aimed for Wei Wuxian, because he no longer carried Suibian himself.

He had been adamant in his decision, and only broken once. When he saw Wei Wuxian with black silk over his eyes and a smug grin on his face. When he saw the anger Wei Wuxian struggled to leash in front of the Jin Clan’s continued arrogance. When he saw Wei Wuxian alone, in the woods, and no part of his mind or body or spirit could stop him from stealing what might be his only kiss.

Lan Wangji doesn’t claim to be proud of such weakness. But he has also never claimed to be the emotionless, inhuman creature that others often take him for.

Still, despite that moment’s lack of control, he would have gone back to watching from afar, offering Wei Wuxian only the support he asked for and genuinely wanted.

But then, the message had come to Gusu, brought by one cultivator in gold robes and one in purple.

Wei Wuxian had been captured while destroying a Jin-controlled prison camp. He had freed dozens of Wen clan survivors, and in the process had killed several cultivators who’d been managing the place. When the Jin Clan threatened to kill all the Wen survivors in recompense, Wei Wuxian had made a bold offer.

A ritual to cleanse the spirit. To prove, beyond a doubt, that his intentions were pure. To ensure to Lanling Jin and Qinghe Nie and Gusu Lan and Yunmeng Jiang that he could be trusted, that he wasn’t a rebel or a separatist, that he would cooperate with what decisions the Sect Leaders made.

Lan Wangji had heard the message with his brother, and his stomach had roiled and turned at the thought of Lanling Jin deciding who would hold Wei Wuxian’s fate in their hands— not to mention deciding who would hold Wei Wuxian’s body and his spirit.

And so Lan Wangji had stepped beyond the careful bounds of his control once more, and put himself forward, because if there was something he could do to save Wei Wuxian and he did not take the chance, how could he ever forgive himself?

Even when he’d walked into the chamber, he’d told himself that if Wei Wuxian shied away from him, if Wei Wuxian didn’t want this, he would leave without any protest. But if Wei Wuxian had told him to go, would he have left? Could he have?

He can’t bring himself to think about it.

The control he’s cultivated for his entire life, built up like layers of ice over a roaring stream, had begun to crack the day he met Wei Wuxian. And since then, every encounter between them, every moment Lan Wangji thinks of him, only creates more fissures in the ice. Was last night the result of his control crumbling away entirely, or a way to release the pressure without melting down to his basest desires?

It’s a painful effort to pull himself away from Wei Wuxian, especially when Wei Wuxian murmurs in his sleep, brow furrowing. Lan Wangji leans down and kisses Wei Wuxian’s forehead softly, because Wei Wuxian hadn’t sent him away, last night. He had let Lan Wangji do what he wanted, and had even enjoyed it. He had told Lan Wangji that he loved him.

He pulls the covers up over Wei Wuxian, hoping that he’ll sleep a little longer. The dark bruises under his eyes speak to how much he needs the rest.

Lan Wangji washes and dresses, and tries not to worry too long over what today will bring. He’s not naive enough to think that his own reputation can shield Wei Wuxian from everything. But if this will give him the chance to stand beside him, while he faces what he must—

There’s a sharp, short knock on the door. Lan Wangji’s mouth pulls into the smallest of frowns as he goes to answer it, grateful when Wei Wuxian isn’t immediately startled awake by the noise.

Lan Wangji angles his body so that the visitor will not be able to see into the bedchamber, and then he pulls open the door.

It’s Jiang Wanyin, already fully dressed in his regalia as Sect Leader, sword at his side and ornate ring glinting on his hand. He’s looking downwards, then startles and lifts his gaze to meet Lan Wangji’s.

“Lan… Wangji…?” His voice comes out in a muffled growl, a series of expressions ghosting across his face in quick succession. He’s surprised, then irritated, then thoughtful, then incredulous. Finally, his features revert back to the pulled, tight sneer he wears most often. “It’s you?”

He doesn’t sound disgusted, or disapproving. Perhaps Lan Wangji might have misjudged how he would handle this situation. In fact, the only thing he knows about Jiang Wanyin with any certainty is that for three months, the two of them had shared the same grief, pursued the same goal, and kindled the same hope.

“They chose you?” Jiang Wanyin asks, his lips pulling tightly around the words.

Lan Wangji shakes his head minutely. “Volunteered.”

Jiang Wanyin blinks, shakes his head. He lets out a little laugh, as sharp as steam escaping a kettle. “That… puts those three months into some perspective,” he says, finally.

Lan Wangji merely inclines his head.

“And Wei Wuxian is…?” Jiang Wanyin takes a step forward, as though to enter the room.

Lan Wangji lifts a hand, sleeve draping out from his arm like a barrier. “Resting.”

Jiang Wanyin’s face twists, his cheeks puffing up. “Well, tell him to get his ass out of bed. We’re in a hurry— they’re bringing in the Wens, soon.”

Now, Lan Wangji’s heart stutters. Wei Wuxian has put himself through all of this to save the Wens, for whatever his reasons are. Romantically, but also because he knows the truth of Wei Wuxian’s character, Lan Wangji thinks that there is something righteous in standing for a clan so reviled, in protecting their weakest from the wrath Wen Ruohan had earned for himself and everyone who shares his blood. But the rest of the cultivation world will not see things so clearly.

He arches a brow; Jiang Wanyin shakes his head.

“Of course, they don’t want him there. I think the only reason Sect Leader Jin agreed to the ritual was as a distraction, or something. But all this was for them, wasn’t it?”

Their eyes meet, and understanding passes between them. For each of them, it was for him. And for him, it was for these prisoners of war, so doomed that only one who would attempt the impossible could save them.

Jiang Wanyin leaves, trusting him to get Wei Wuxian to the meeting in time. Lan Wangji makes his way back to the bed, pausing beside it.

Wei Wuxian is tangled up in white sheets, his face scrunched in distress, his lips pale as he mutters to himself. He’s still asleep, but instead of at peace in the bed they’d shared, he’s somewhere far away in his dreams.

Lan Wangji’s hesitance lasts only a moment. He sits on the bed, runs his fingers through Wei Wuxian’s hair, strokes down the curved path of his spine. He hums a tune that he’d once offered Wei Wuxian to keep him awake. He wonders if it can also guide Wei Wuxian out of his nightmares, and back to Lan Wangji.

After several moments that last an eternity, Wei Wuxian stills. His eyelids flutter open, a loose eyelash caught on his cheek. His eyes are cloudy, and he frowns as he tries to make sense of the person before him.

“Lan Zhan?”

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxian laughs a little, almost to himself. “Am I dreaming? I can’t dream, I don’t even sleep—”

Lan Wangji tugs at Wei Wuxian’s hand. “You were asleep. It’s time to wake, now.”

Wei Wuxian tilts his head and offers Lan Wangji a crooked smile. “No, I haven’t slept like that since…” Suddenly, his vision clears, and his face takes on a violent red hue beneath his sallow skin.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, a bit helplessly. Every time he says this man’s name, it’s a curse and a prayer. Wei Wuxian encompasses so many things, and Lan Wangji has never been good at expressing himself in words.

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. He sits up, wincing slightly. “Oh..”

Lan Wangji doesn’t know if the expression rising to Wei Wuxian’s face is embarrassment, or panic, or something worse. Unable to contemplate it, he leans in and kisses Wei Wuxian’s mouth. He tastes like the dredges of sleep, sour and stale. But Lan Wangji licks into him anyway, hoping his actions can convey what his words are never able to.

Kissing Wei Wuxian on Phoenix Mountain was like a dream, like Lan Wangji was stealing a glimpse at something he’d never fully have. Being with Wei Wuxian last night had been like being drunk, caught up in a single moment in time like he’d never been, before.

But kissing Wei Wuxian the morning after, with his breath smelling awful and his body littered with bruises and his hands coming up to tug at Lan Wangji’s hair— oh. He will never be able to let this go, now that he knows what it’s like.

Wei Wuxian pulls back, tilts his head in question. It’s an expression he’s worn countless times, teasing and coy, but with so many new layers given what is now between them.

“I’m allowed,” Lan Wangji says, trying to keep the defensiveness from his tone. He looks at Wei Wuxian imploringly. Please, let him be allowed to have this, still.

“Mn,” Wei Wuxian says, pursing his lips in an exaggerated imitation of Lan Wangji. Then he breaks, laughing and hugging his knees to his chest, falling backwards against the mattress.

Lan Wangji is such a lovestruck fool that he goes down after him, wrapping Wei Wuxian up in his arms and pulling him against his chest. He holds on, feeling Wei Wuxian’s laughter reverberating through him. His own happiness feels the same way, even if he can’t express it so openly.

“We have to get up?” Wei Wuxian prompts him.

Lan Wangji nods. “Jiang Wanyin said the Wen Clan will be brought in to the conference.”

In his arms, Wei Wuxian stiffens. He shakes himself out of Lan Wangji’s hold, sitting upright and brushing his hair back from his face. Incongruous with his love-kissed body and the golden light shining over his skin, his eyes sharpen. A glint, dark as obsidian, replaces the dreamy clouds of a moment before.

Lan Wangji mourns the simple happiness, even as he leans in to look at those eyes.

“We should go,” Wei Wuxian says. His voice is soft rain, the promise of an oncoming storm.

Right now, Lan Wangji would charge into battle for him, would take a sword to the chest for him, would tear his very soul apart to keep Wei Wuxian safe. To anyone else, that would be the most foolish decision the famed Hanguang-Jun has ever made.

But to Lan Wangji, who knows he can rely on Wei Wuxian’s sense of righteousness as much as his own, it was never a decision in the first place. It’s always been a foregone conclusion.

According to Lan principals, one must embrace good, eschew evil, and be impartial to things which fall neither to one side nor the other. Technically, meetings are neutral, but Lan Wangji has considered arguments about how they might be evil, so that he could justify excusing himself from them for the rest of his life.

He’s not uncomfortable around people. There are certain people he likes very much, and many more that he respects without much reserve. But when the leading cultivators of the world are gathered together to make decisions, they rarely act in ways that are principled, level-headed, and direct.

In short, Lan Wangji puts up with them because it is his responsibility, and because ignoring such meetings would only lead to worse trouble down the road.

Wei Wuxian is dressed in red and black and gray, striding in front of him and into the main audience chamber of Koi Tower. His hair and red ribbon flow behind him as if carried on the wind, Chenqing fastened at his waist. His eyes are narrowed, his gaze directed in front of him, his gait purposeful.

He is focused on something far beyond Lan Wangji, and Lan Wangji can’t help but think that he’s chasing after smoke, forever unable to grasp it in his hands.

He dismisses such uncharitable thoughts and follows Wei Wuxian into the chamber. Blocks of color greet him— white and blue, deep purple, black and silver, gold. Yunmeng Jiang is seated next to Gusu Lan, and that at least avoids a small crisis. Lan Wangji moves to take a seat beside his brother, and after a glance around the room Wei Wuxian sits between Lan Wangji and Jiang Wanyin.

If their clans had been separated, would Wei Wuxian have broken off to sit with Yunmeng Jiang? There’s no easy answer, especially given the friction between Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian, lately. Lan Wangji wonders if even Wei Wuxian knows who he stands with, and who’s standing with him.

Jiang Wanyin turns his head to give Wei Wuxian an up-and-down look. His face is pinched, hand clenched around Sandu’s hilt even as the sword lays dormant beside him.

Lan Wangji’s attention is pulled away from Wei Wuxian when he senses another’s gaze on him. He turns to see his brother looking questioningly at him, a soft smile playing at his lips but his eyebrows drawn upwards in concern.

Lan Wangji shakes his head minutely. He has never doubted Lan Xichen’s support, but has also never done much to risk it. The fact that Lan Xichen let him volunteer for the ritual, agreed that Gusu Lan could absorb the blowback… Lan Wangji is grateful beyond words, as grateful as he was when he learned his mother had died and his brother promised he would not leave him the same way.

It’s a childish want, to keep the people he loves close and protected and certain. He’s never shaken it off.

From the dais, someone clears their throat. Dozens of heads snap to attention, all eyes focused on Jin Guangshan in all his gilded finery. He sits draped across his throne-like chair carelessly, a glint in his eyes that Lan Wangji can only call hedonistic.

(Lan Wangji knows how to chase his own pleasure, will never forget the sense of completion and bliss he’d felt last night. But he has the decency to hide such desires from the general public.)

“Young Master Wei,” Jin Guangshan drawls, looking carelessly pleased. “I did not think that you would be ready to join us so early this morning.”

Lan Wangji bristles as the gathered crowd begins to dither. Half the point of the ritual was that it was public knowledge— everyone would know what Wei Wuxian had submitted to, in order to reassure the Great Clans of his loyalty and righteousness.

And Lan Wangji knew that, but in his haste to be the one performing the ritual he hadn’t considered how he’d feel in the aftermath. How everyone would know that Wei Wuxian had been touched, and pleasured, and how they would all know exactly when and how it had happened.

He consciously keeps his hands from curling into fists.

“Oh?” Wei Wuxian asks airily. “Sect Leader Jin, wasn’t the whole purpose to rejoin you, and be present for meetings like this? Honestly, I think I’m right on schedule.”

He might as well wink at the end of his words, his tone is so blatantly teasing and disrespectful. Lan Wangji doesn’t mind; he’s not convinced that Jin Guangshan deserves much respect.

“And?” Jin Guangshan prompts, now turning his attention from Wei Wuxian. “Hanguang-Jun, how did it go? What results can you report?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Lan Wangji sees the smile freeze in place on Lan Xichen’s face. He clearly had not anticipated Jin Guangshan to address the matter so directly. Lan Wangji purses his lips, then inclines his head. Around him, the crowd is murmuring, skeptical.

Wei Wuxian turns towards him, and panic flashes in his eyes. “Lan Zhan—”

“It is an ancient and well-practiced ritual,” Lan Wangji says simply. “Results are as intended. Wei Ying is not a risk, not influenced by any corrupting energy.”

Wei Wuxian’s face is frozen, one hand lifted as though to reach out for Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji deliberately turns away from him, but it isn’t a denial. He just needs to give Wei Wuxian a chance to regain his composure.

His words do not amount to a lie. He’d thought things through very carefully, last night. After the bliss of the act itself had worn off, he’d searched for the pool of his own spiritual energy in Wei Wuxian’s body. But it wasn’t there— there was no spiritual energy in Wei Wuxian whatsoever. In the moment, he had panicked. Now, he holds that feeling at bay. He’s sure Wei Wuxian must know about it, that there must be a reason for the tight void of nothingness that lives inside of his chest, right where his golden core should be.

And really, if Wei Wuxian does know, what was his plan? He didn’t know who would perform the ritual with him, but surely he knew that any cultivator would realize that Wei Wuxian is missing his golden core?

But Lan Wangji has not lied for him. He performed the ritual as it was meant to be performed— spiritual energy building in time with physical pressure, both releasing at once. And as far as he can tell, Wei Wuxian’s mind is clearer now. He still commands the resentful energy, and not the other way around.

The thing of it is, if Lan Wangji can’t transfer him spiritual power, if there is no golden core regulating Wei Wuxian’s intimacies with resentful energy, then how long will that remain true?

From across the central aisle, Nie Mingjue interrupts Lan Wangji’s thoughts with a huff of approval. “Well, that settles it. If anyone knows clarity, it’s the Twin Jades of Lan.”

Lan Xichen flashes Nie Mingjue a grateful smile. Nie Mingjue huffs again, impatient to move on.

From the dais beside his father, Jin Guangyao’s lip curls slightly. In the next moment, his smile is serene, and Lan Wangji can’t be sure he didn’t imagine the earlier sneer.

Jin Guangshan sighs dramatically. “It really would have been too much to ask of a maiden,” he says, and his eyes darken as he focuses on the female cultivators in the crowd, picking them out in turn, “Too cruel, of course. But this is still a loss.”

Wei Wuxian bristles, his fingers flexing at his side in the patterns of a tune he might play upon Chenqing.

Lan Xichen raises a hand, and the crowd immediately quiets. “Perhaps Sect Leader Jin should consider things from a different perspective. For so long, all of our clans have fought for peace amongst us. The ritual is an old thing, true. But it is traditional, and meant to restore order. Young Master Wei and Wangji have done that for us, so that we all might rest after so many years of war.”

Jin Guangshan smiles thinly. “Well said, Zewu-Jun.”

Wei Wuxian still looks like a cat with its hackles raised, his eyes narrowed and his posture stiff. Lan Wangji wonders if he can reach out, comfort him without anyone else noticing. He also wants to forget that his elder brother just implied that Lan Wangji had sex last night for the benefit of the Great Clans.

“And speaking of restoring peace,” Jin Guangshan continues. He waves a hand in an idle gesture. “Guangyao, bring them in, now.”

Doors to the side of the chambers open, and a small line of gold-clothed cultivators lead in a train of people whose hands are bound together along a long length of rope. They wear dull red robes, their faces filthy and hair unwashed.

Wei Wuxian recognizes them the moment before Lan Wangji does. He inhales sharply, and begins to rise to his feet before Lan Wangji and Jiang Wanyin each reach out, pressing hands against his knees and forcing him back down.

It’s Wen—” Wei Wuxian says to both of them, so angry he can barely form words.

The woman at the front of the line holds her head high, though she’s dressed in a tattered cloak and the hem of her skirt is ruined with mud. She takes a step forward, but the Jin guard just behind her lifts his sword and strikes her sharply with the butt of his sheath.

The woman stumbles, falls to her knees before the dais. She whips around, eyes narrowed, words already rising to her lips. But then Jin Guangshan clears his throat, and the woman swallows her words and turns back towards the dais, expression resolute but no longer heated.

Wei Wuxian shakes with rage, contained only by Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji’s presence.

“Wait,” Jiang Wanyin hisses. “Don’t make things worse—”

Lan Wangji doesn’t know if Wei Wuxian’s rage would make things worse. He’s incensed, himself, at the way these prisoners look hungry, and dirty, and scared. There’s no excuse for such treatment, though he’s seen enough of the same through the Sun Shot Campaign.

“Well?” Jin Guangshan asks languidly. “Didn’t these traitors have so many complaints to make, just a few days ago? What do they have to say for themselves now, in front of the Four Great Clans?”

The woman, still on her knees, raises her head. Her skin is the color of milky tea, her eyes dark and intelligent.

“Sect Leader Jin,” she says, in an accent of greatest nobility, “Was it a complaint to ask that my family be granted freedom, or that we have the chance to tend to my brother before he died of neglect? Was it a complaint to demand what was happening when we were held here, in Lanling?”

Jin Guangshan waves a hand. “It certainly sounded like complaining.” He unfurls his fan, hiding his smirk.

“Then let me ask this,” the woman continues. Her eyes are shining, her hands clenched at her sides. “What have we betrayed?”

Jin Guangshan’s eyes narrow. “Excuse me?”

Nie Mingjue makes a short, thoughtful noise. “I would hear what the Wen has to say.”

Lan Xichen inclines his head in agreement. Jiang Wanyin says nothing.

The woman continues, “We took up no side. We healed the wounded, as has always been our way. We harbored those who rose against Uncle— that is, Wen Ruohan.”

Her slip doesn’t go unnoticed. Who else would call Wen Ruohan “Uncle,” but a direct member of the Wen Clan? Surely, this must be Wen Qing.

She straightens, but doesn’t move to stand. Maybe she doesn’t have the strength to. “So what have we betrayed? Other than the main branch of our clan, who’s rampage we never pledged loyalty to?”

“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng hisses, whispering close to the other man. “Who is she?”

“Wen Ning’s sister,” Wei Wuxian replies. “You were… out of it, when we—”

“No.” Jiang Wanyin is adamant. “Her voice. It’s familiar. How do I know her voice?”

Wei Wuxian blanches. At his side, near Lan Wangji’s hold on him, his hands begin to shake. It isn't the reaction Lan Wangji is expecting. He has no idea why Jiang Wanyin’s brow is furrowed so deeply, why Wei Wuxian looks ready to panic.

He needs Wei Wuxian to talk to him. He needs to understand, so that he can help.

Jin Guangshan projects disaffectedness, trying to regain control of the room. “You would propose we trust you, Miss Wen? Surely you recognize how unwise that would be?”

Wen Qing does not lower her head. “I ask that my actions speak louder for myself, and my people, than Wen Ruohan’s.”

Jin Guangshan tuts, like he’s disappointed with a young child. It makes Lan Wangji’s skin crawl. “Really? But your last action was breaking into a prisoner guarded by Jin cultivators. They,” he gestures at the other Wens, “broke out of a legitimate prison meant to hold traitors and risks to our new peace. And your brother…” Jin Guangshan looks thoughtful, then smiles slowly. “Why, he would be the last Wen heir, wouldn’t he?”

Wen Qing is shaking, slightly. She breaks Jin Guangshan’s gaze, looking around, eyes coming to rest on Wei Wuxian.

Jin Guangshan continues, “A woman’s loyalty belongs to her father, to her family. At least, until she is wed, and her loyalty then belongs to her husband. So tell me, Miss Wen, how might we be assured of your loyalty?”

A marriage, Lan Wangji thinks blankly. Who can Jin Guangshan be thinking of tying her off to? Or is it just a threat?

“Wen Qionglin lies near death,” Wei Wuxian spits, rising to his feet so quickly that both Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji are almost knocked off balance. “Or did you forget what brought us all here in the first place, Sect Leader Jin?”

Sect Leader Jin’s expression turns poisonous. “Please remember your place, Young Master Wei. Who else is left to speak for you? What sect will stand for you?”

Lan Wangji is on his feet before he makes the conscious decision to move.

“Oh?” Jin Guangshan arches a brow. “Will Gusu Lan stand for Yiling Laozu?”

He can’t make that decision for his entire sect. Beside him, still seated, Lan Xichen’s eyes are clouded. Gusu Lan is still so fragile, after the deaths and destruction that precipitated the Sun Shot Campaign. Could Lan Xichen live through seeing his home targeted again? Could Lan Wangji?

“I don’t need a sect to stand for me, or for them,” Wei Wuxian says firmly. Shadows swirl at his feet, his fingers itching for Chenqing. “Hanguang-Jun just vouched for my character, in front of all of you. You have called me into question countless times, but would you do the same to him?”

It’s as though the crowd shrinks back, ashamed. Lan Wangji is distantly confused. How mislead are these people, that they find him more upright than Wei Wuxian? Wei Wuxian has only ever thrown himself headfirst into danger to save others. What has he ever done to earn this distrust?

“Please remember, Young Master Wei, when you ask us to trust your character,” Jin Guangshan says, voice steely. “That when you freed Wen prisoners, you killed members of my sect.”

Lan Wangji winces internally. All this conversation is doing is opening matters that should already be closed.

“...And Miss Wen saved members of mine,” a low, firm voice says.

A rippled goes through the crowd, all eyes now turning towards Jiang Wanyin.

The younger Sect Leader rises smoothly to his feet. “Miss Wen and her brother harbored us. The Jiang Clan would not have survived without their help.”

Wei Wuxian gapes at Jiang Wanyin, as though he didn’t expect such a show of support. Even Jiang Wanyin looks surprised at himself.

“So what are you proposing, then, young Sect Leader Jiang?” Jin Guangshan’s tone shifts, a friendly uncle speaking indulgently to a dear nephew.

“You had the Wens in a work camp,” Jiang Wanyin says, mind clearly keeping just ahead of his voice. “If you intended for them to work off the Wen Clan’s crimes, let them do so in Yunmeng. Lotus Pier would not have been destroyed in the first place, if not for Wen Chao.”

If the Wens had never come to Lotus Pier, Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan would still be alive. Who would dare argue this point with Jiang Waynin, given those facts?

Wei Wuxian is shaking his head minutely, small wisps of dark smoke curling about his fingers.

“That seems fair,” Lan Xichen says clearly, calmly. “I believe we can trust Sect Leader Jiang to treat the Wens appropriately.” His tone is bland, not giving away an inkling of what “appropriate” treatment might be.

“Going against an entire clan to stay on the righteous path,” Nie Mingjue considers, “is not something just any cultivator could do. Miss Wen should be rewarded for her courage, if nothing else.”

Beside him, Nie Huaisang hides a startled half-laugh, half-hiccup behind his fan.

“So, if I understand correctly,” Jin Guangyao cuts in smoothly, nodding deferentially to Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, “Sect Leader Jiang will take custody of Miss Wen and the rest of the prisoners?”

Jin Guangshan huffs. “Young Sect Leader Jiang is an upright young man.” Unlike Wei Wuxian, his expression seems to add.

Near the dais, Wen Qing is yanked to her feet and pulled away with the other prisoners.

The matter is settled, for now. But it remains a typhoon sealed inside a closed box. At any moment, the lid could come loose, unleashing the wrath of nature and chaos upon them.

The force of it will linger, Lan Wangji is sure.

Just like resentful energy lingers around Wei Wuxian’s fingertips, in the corners of his eyes.

He knows he should be grateful that the meeting didn’t end in disaster— that Wei Wuxian didn’t wind up doing something that would have the entire cultivation world condemn him, that they didn’t have to watch while Jin Guangshan ordered the Wens killed in front of them. But instead of relief, cool like flowing water, there’s a heat building under Lan Wangji’s skin as he follows Wei Wuxian back to the ritual chamber and the adjoining guest rooms.

Wei Wuxian strikes the door open and strides through it, shadows following him like the long train of a lady’s robes. He’s sucking on his lower lip, eyes narrowed as he begins to pace back and forth in front of the white stone dais where less than a day ago, Lan Wangji had laid himself over Wei Wuxian and tried to give back to him every feeling Wei Wuxian had ever given him.

Lan Wangji does not interrupt, does not ask. When Wei Wuxian is ready, he will speak.

Finally, Wei Wuxian stops his frantic pacing. He comes to a standstill, chest heaving and hands clenching and unclenching at his sides.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says simply. It is a question, it is a reassurance, it is proof that Wei Wuxian still stands before him, that he has not been taken away.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes flick towards him, and the mask of rage cracks and crumbles. He replaces it with a rueful smile, a sadness caught in the tight corners of his eyes.

“Lan Zhan,” he singsongs.

In his most foolish moments, Lan Wangji thinks he’d be content to just look at Wei Wuxian, to hear him call out Lan Wangji’s name, to stay in a moment like that for all of eternity. That, of course, was before he’d been allowed to touch, and now all of his senses fight for supremacy when he experiences Wei Wuxian in any way.

Wei Wuxian lets out a heavy sigh, falls back to lean against the dais. “I am so fucked,” he mutters.

Lan Wangji raises a single brow at him.

Wei Wuxian waves a hand. “Not like that, Lan Zhan— I mean, maybe like that, later, but— this is not what I thought would happen.” He runs one hand through his hair, pulling the red ribbon loose. It falls to the ground without him noticing.

“How did you think it would go,” Lan Wangji asks carefully.

Wei Wuxian stretches out his back, tilts his head towards the ceiling. Lan Wangji wants to kiss the column of his throat, but he also wants to ease the distress that Wei Wuxian is feeling.

“Easier,” Wei Wuxian mumbles. “I just— I should know better by now, shouldn’t I? Every time I try to do the right thing, I end up causing a bigger disaster. Wen Qing and the others— Jiang Cheng won’t hurt them, I can trust him. But is this just going to bring more danger down on Yunmeng? After all I’ve already put it through?”

The corners of Lan Wangji’s mouth tug downwards. It is not Wei Wuxian’s fault that their world has erupted into chaos. He did not trap them with the XuanWu of slaughter. He did not invite carnage and destruction upon Lotus Pier. He does not deserve any of the suffering he has faced, especially not when he continues to fight through it to help others.

He doesn’t know how to say it. He steps forward, places a hand on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder.

Wei Wuxian shakes his head, laughing softly. He leans forward, presses his forehead into the crook of Lan Wangji’s shoulder and neck.

“Wen Ning saved us,” he says, voice thick. “He helped me find Jiang Cheng, after… he got Uncle Jiang and Madame Yu’s remains back. And then Wen Qing let us stay in the supervision office. And then she…”

His voice goes small and soft, and Lan Wangji cannot make out what he has said, what it is that Wen Qing has done for him.

Lan Wangji nods, trying to understand.

“I probably would have done something terrible, if Wen Ning had died,” Wei Wuxian admits quietly.

Lan Wangji wraps one arm around him, holds him close.

“Do you think— if I just kept my head down— no, no, that would never work. They would have slaughtered all of them, or let them die. Used them as bait.” Wei Wuxian spits the last word with disgust.

His thoughts are spiraling, flying out in all directions like a flock of crows dispersed by a thrown rock.

Lan Wangji doesn’t know that his own are any better. He does not know what the future will hold, if the Jin Clan’s new position amongst them will be for the best. Jin Guangshan is the only elder amongst the Sect Leaders, now, and the natural deference that grants him means that he will have the power to shape the cultivation world going forward.

They’d fought so hard, lost so much, to unseat Wen Ruohan. Surely now, things will be better. They have to be, don’t they?

He can feel Wei Wuxian’s breath against his neck, smell the smoky quality that overwhelms Wei Wuxian’s scent these days.

When his thoughts scatter, when uncertainty threatens to crash over him like a wave, Wei Wuxian is there to focus him, to center him.

Is that what Wei Wuxian needs now, too?

He leans in, presses cool fingertips against the underside of Wei Wuxian’s chin and pushes his head upwards. Wei Wuxian makes a small, inquisitive noise. Lan Wangji presses their lips together.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes flutter closed, and he hums against Lan Wangji’s lips. Like this, lashes shadowing his cheeks, he looks at peace for a moment. Then, he pulls away.

“I still want to keep them safe. I can’t— I can’t let Jiang Cheng handle this on his own. And if he and Wen Qing— she won’t tell him, but— he can’t figure it out—”

His thoughts are scattering again, and Lan Wangji might be offended if he wasn’t so concerned. He leans in again, presses his lips to Wei Wuxian’s brow, then the tip of his nose.

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian sighs, not in frustration but in soft content at the kisses. “Lan Zhan. You’re distracting me.”

Good, Lan Wangji thinks. There’s no solution to be found right now, no way that Wei Wuxian can turn this puzzle to make it turn out exactly as he wants it. He’ll only drive himself mad, going round and round in circles. The resentful energy will follow him, and prey on that weakness.

There are so many things they need to talk about, so many questions that Lan Wangji has. What could Jiang Wanyin realize about Wen Qing that has Wei Wuxian so worried? What happened to Wei Wuxian’s golden core? Why is Wei Wuxian so indebted to the Wen siblings, beyond his natural righteousness and conviction?

But it won’t do him any good to ask, right now. He accepted a responsibility when he volunteered himself for the ritual. And despite Wei Wuxian telling him that he loves him— Lan Wangji’s heart still clenches when he remembers the way Wei Wuxian had said the words— he does not think that Wei Wuxian has fully understood.

His hands find Wei Wuxian’s hips, pressing down firmly until Wei Wuxian is squirming.

“Lan Zhan!”

“Let me,” Lan Wangji says, his voice far calmer than the erratic thump-thump-thump of his heart.

“You’re so shameless,” Wei Wuxian teases. But he doesn’t protest when Lan Wangji lifts him up with strong hands against his thighs, and sets him down on the dais, legs dangling.

Lan Wangji leans in, presses his lips close to Wei Wuxian’s ear. He has never been good at these matters, has never found the proper words to explain how he feels. So instead, he breathes out, a wistful question, “You love me.”

Wei Wuxian shudders. “Mn.” He nods, reaching out and running his hands down Lan Wangji’s arms. “I do.”

He wants to time his heartbeats to the rhythm of Wei Wuxian’s voice as he says so. He wants to pull that love around him like a shield, and wear it proudly even as he’s utterly protected by it. He wants to sink into all that Wei Wuxian is, and rise each day knowing he has earned the affection and trust of the person he values most in this world.

“Let me carry it for you,” Lan Wangji murmurs.

“Lan Zhan, what?”

But Lan Wangji doesn’t elaborate. He rucks Wei Wuxian’s robes up, past his hips, and looks down at Wei Wuxian’s pale legs as they’re revealed.

“So forward,” Wei Wuxian tuts. But he hooks a leg around both of Lan Wangji’s, pulling him in closer.

Wei Wuxian lets out a heavy sigh, even as he reaches up for a kiss. He lets it go on for a count of ten, then pulls back breathlessly. “I’m still worried.”

“Mn.”

“I can’t let this go. I have to make sure they’ll all be okay.”

“Mn.”

“I want to save them,” he says, and his voice carries such a wistful sadness that Lan Wangji is thrown back in time fifteen years, to a moment when he could not understand or contain his emotions, when his mother was gone and snow fell around him and everything was cold and empty.

“I will come with you,” Lan Wangji promises, running a hand down the length of Wei Wuxian’s inner thigh. He’s too thin, but his skin is soft and sensitive. Wei Wuxian squirms against him. “I will help you.”

Wei Wuxian looks up at him, eyes wide and disbelieving. And Lan Wangji does feel insulted, this time. He knows he should speak clearly, knows that Wei Wuxian can’t understand him if he doesn’t. But he also thought that some things were obvious, like the fact that he’d stand by Wei Wuxian’s side even if they hadn’t lain together on this very dais last night.

“I believe in you,” Lan Wangji says simply.

Tears rush to Wei Wuxian’s eyes, and he quickly lowers his head to hide them. He punches Lan Wangji in the side, laughing wetly. “You better fuck me, now,” he says, “Because otherwise I’m just going to start crying.”

That sounds like something of a challenge, and Lan Wangji would have thought that Wei Wuxian learned his lesson about that last night. Oh, well. If he hasn’t yet, Lan Wangji is happy to continually engage in the lesson.

He gets a hand under Wei Wuxian’s knee, pulling his leg up and angling him so that the deepest part of him is visible as he sets at an angle on the dais. The supplies from yesterday are still nearby; it takes only a moment for Lan Wangji to find the salve.

He had wanted to take his time, last night. But the need in him had been too great, and coupled with Wei Wuxian’s apprehension it had been too cruel to stall. But now… now is different.

Wei Wuxian is soft and warm, inside. His muscles squirm and tighten against intrusion, his whole body reacting to the still-unfamiliar presence. Lan Wangji moves as carefully as he can, tracing Wei Wuxian’s rim with two fingertips before pressing one inside, exploring the inner edges of his entrance.

“Ah, ah—” Wei Wuxian gasps out.

“Hurts?” Lan Wangji pauses, ready to pull out.

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “No it’s— weird? Like half of me wants to push you out, and the other half wants to pull you in?”

Lan Wangji supposes that isn’t the worst review, though it’s not as if he’s spoken of these matters with anyone else. Even reading dual cultivation manuals makes his white cheeks color, turning a vivid scarlet when he imagines Wei Wuxian as his partner.

Doing such things in reality leaves little time for embarrassment. There’s so much else to focus on— the feel of Wei Wuxian around him, the breathy noises that Wei Wuxian makes, the way that Wei Wuxian’s hands come to clamp down on Lan Wangji’s shoulders, the ghost of Wei Wuxian’s breath against his lips as he leans his head forward.

Every part of Wei Wuxian is alive, blazing bright as a fire and moving with the same constant power as a flame. Lan Wangji is drawn into his warmth, his light, the sheer impossibility of him.

With two fingers inside, Lan Wangji can press all along Wei Wuxian’s walls, slowly coaxing his muscles to relax and loosen. Wei Wuxian’s heels press into the back of Lan Wangji’s legs, moving reflexively when Lan Wangji stretches him just a bit more.

“Can you,” Wei Wuxian starts, then shudders. “Can you, give me more?”

Lan Wangji presses a third finger in beside the first two, and Wei Wuxian spasms with a tight inhale. He bites down on his lip, and his heels press insistently against Lan Wangji.

“Oh that’s… that’s…”

Lan Wangji presses in with more determination, and then Wei Wuxian’s eyes go wide. He jolts upwards, swaying for balance, and Lan Wangji knows he has done something very right. So he presses in again, searching for the spot inside of Wei Wuxian he knows he can find, stroking over it with love and care and no hesitation.

“Ah, ah, ah” Wei Wuxian might be laughing, but his voice is wet and his breath never quite seems to settle. “Lan Zhan, that’s—”

Lan Wangji pauses. He looks Wei Wuxian straight in the eye, and Wei Wuxian glares back at him.

“Mean,” he whines. “Lan Zhan, don’t be mean.”

Lan Wangji has been accused of being uncaring (which in itself is incorrect), but people do not generally call him mean. He thinks Wei Wuxian is beautiful, like this, and his own hardness throbs in response to Wei Wuxian’s noises, to the rhythm of Wei Wuxian clenching around his fingers.

But if Wei Wuxian does not want him to be mean, he won’t be.

He pulls back slightly, one hand still pressed against the curve of Wei Wuxian’s ass. He looks at the other, contemplating.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asks, the moment’s reprieve bringing him back down. He follows Lan Wangji’s gaze, and then his lips pull into a smile. “Let me?”

Before Lan Wangji can answer, Wei Wuxian pushes forward and presses a kiss against Lan Wangji’s palm. It tickles, but Lan Wangji barely has time to register the sensation before Wei Wuxian is lapping over his skin with his tongue, licking at him like a kitten.

“Wei Ying.” His voice comes out in a groan, like a coal heated over a flame until it shines with orange-golden light.

“Mm,” Wei Wuxian returns, and now two of Lan Wangji’s fingers are in his mouth, wetted by his tongue.

The similarities between the wet heat of Wei Wuxian’s mouth, and the wet heat of his body overcome all of Lan Wangji’s senses. Without meaning to, he starts moving the fingers in Wei Wuxian’s mouth the same way he had moved his other fingers inside of him— insistent, firm, exploring.

Wei Wuxian makes a strangled noise around Lan Wangji’s fingers, eyes wide and color rising in his cheeks.

He wants to lay Wei Wuxian out and play him like he plays his guqin. He wants to practice him, learn his every note and tremor. He wants to make a habit of it, touch him every day. He wants to turn what Wei Wuxian feels, how he makes Lan Wangji feel, into a harmony.

Right now, he wants to see Wei Wuxian’s eyes as he comes.

Wei Wuxian has the same idea, because he’s pushing himself forward and pulling Lan Wangji closer, rubbing himself against Lan Wangji’s thigh desperately.

He can fill Wei Wuxian up in so many ways, Lan Wangji thinks. He can give him his fingers, his cock, his mouth, his tongue. But there’s no filling the space in Wei Wuxian’s chest where his golden core should be, and that scares him.

He pulls his fingers roughly from Wei Wuxian’s mouth, and Wei Wuxian whines in response. Lan Wangji pulls him forward, seals their mouths together, explores Wei Wuxian as thoroughly with his tongue as he did with his fingers.

The rhythm of Wei Wuxian’s noises comes through more than any actual sound; a constant mn-mn-mn-mmn! that Lan Wangji swallows down and feels vibrating through him. He slips two fingers back into Wei Wuxian’s entrance, abandoning exploration in favor of stroking over the spot he’d found earlier. Wei Wuxian’s breathing becomes strained, and Lan Wangji uses his other hand, wet with spit, to take Wei Wuxian’s length in hand.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes are generally gray, unless they flash red with anger or turn black with something unfathomable. But as Lan Wangji stimulates him from both ends, his eyes roll back, white and glassy as jade.

“Lan Zhan has read more dual cultivation texts than I have,” Wei Wuxian says breathlessly, pressing forward to demand more friction, his legs tangled between Lan Wangji’s, his knee coming up to nudge—perhaps not accidentally— at Lan Wangji’s own, still-clothed, length.

Lan Wangji neither confirms nor denies such an accusation. He does want to ask if this can be considered dual cultivation, when Wei Wuxian’s body can neither produce nor store spiritual energy. But as Wei Wuxian spirals higher and higher towards climax, the energy in Lan Wangji’s own body aches to fill him. Lan Wangji lets it, releasing it in a steady stream like the persistent flow of a river. He knows it will not find a home in Wei Wuxian. He’d tried that last night, and it had not worked even with Lan Wangji pouring into Wei Wuxian both physically and spiritually.

But perhaps his spiritual energy can cleanse away the resentful energy for just a moment, uncloud Wei Wuxian’s mind and temperament.

“More,” Wei Wuxian growls against Lan Wangji’s lips, “Lan Zhan, more.”

More friction, more pressure, more energy? Lan Wangji tries to comply in every way. He strokes up and down along Wei Wuxian’s hardness, presses into him in an alternating rhythm.

Wei Wuxian’s fingers dig into Lan Wangji’s shoulders like claws, the tiny pricks of pain only adding to Lan Wangji’s own arousal. The redness in Wei Wuxian’s face, the puffs of his breath across Lan Wangji’s skin, the jab of his heels against Lan Wangji’s back.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, worried by how tense every part of Wei Wuxian’s body has become. “Let go.”

Wei Wuxian lets out a breathy whine, raw and helpless. When Lan Wangji presses into him, he clenches around him as his cock releases, and he holds on to Lan Wangji for dear life, whimpering.

Lan Wangji continues to press inside of him, letting the orgasm carry through him the same way he would let the final note of a song linger in the air.

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, when Lan Wangji’s touch becomes too much. “Ah, ah, Lan Zhan, no more.”

Lan Wangji retreats immediately, pulling his hands, slick with come and salve and spit, away from Wei Wuxian. But Wei Wuxian keeps him close, pressing his face to Lan Wangji’s chest and slowly breathing in the scent of him.

Wei Wuxian is breathing against him, and Lan Wangji’s cock is harder than it has ever been, but somehow the way it throbs in time with the flow of his blood, with the puffs of Wei Wuxian’s breath against his skin, it all seems right.

“Hanguang-Jun has to be good at everything,” Wei Wuxian mutters, though it doesn’t sound like a complaint.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, noncommittal. He isn’t good at everything; he just knows which things he wants to pursue and do the best of his ability. If that means weeks or months or years spent cultivating the skills it takes to give Wei Wuxian pleasure, then he is resigned to such a fate.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, pushing himself upright, “You haven’t…” He glances down, and all the redness returns to his face as he sees Lan Wangji’s hardness through the thin fabric of his robes.

“Hanguang-Jun,” Wei Wuxian says, voice a low purr. “You could’ve put it inside, again.”

He does not think he’ll ever be so shameless, as much as he wants to take everything that Wei Wuxian will give him. But the memory of being inside Wei Wuxian is so sharp, so potent, that he can’t stop a little groan from escaping him.

Wei Wuxian’s eyes narrow, his smile positively wicked. “You’ve wrung me out completely, Lan Zhan. I can’t do anything for you.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t whimper, but his sticky hands clamp down on Wei Wuxian’s upper thighs.

“It’s alright,” Wei Wuxian says, leaning forward with a tired, contented sigh. “Maybe you could… for yourself? And I’ll watch.”

Less than a day ago, nothing would have been more out of the question than pleasuring himself while someone else watched. But now, in the heated intimacy they’ve created between themselves, Lan Wangji cannot resist. He nods, lips pursed.

Wei Wuxian smiles, more gently this time. He reaches out and tugs at the sash of Lan Wangji’s robes, letting it fall to the floor.

Lan Wangji leans forward, his long hair falling like a curtain over them both. He takes himself in hand, moving more frantically when he realizes the wetness on his hand is Wei Wuxian’s come, and he’s rubbing it all over himself. His breathing is strained.

Wei Wuxian lifts his hands to stroke through Lan Wangji’s hair. “Yes.” He speaks low in Lan Wangji’s ear. “Lan Zhan, you were so good to me, just now. I couldn’t even think, it felt so good. I want you to feel good, too. Does it feel good, Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji bites down on the inside of his cheek, but nods his head. He doesn’t know what to do, with Wei Wuxian’s voice full of such dark, tantalizing intent. When he was the one pushing Wei Wuxian to the brink, he was at least in control of himself. Now, he chases his own pleasure, and he would be ashamed if it didn’t feel so good.

“Good,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, brushing his fingers through Lan Wangji’s hair, stroking over his scalp. “Hangaung-Jun is so beautiful, so good. Lan Zhan, can you believe I never knew it before? I never knew that I loved you, until I realized all you’d risk for me.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. He didn’t risk anything to earn Wei Wuxian’s love, but rather because Wei Wuxian has always been worth the risk regardless of what Lan Wangji gets in return. But how does he say that, when he can barely think?

“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian says lowly. “I’m sorry, I don’t want people to think less of you because of me. But I also don’t want to let you go. Will you stay with me, Lan Zhan? You won’t leave me, will you?”

Wei Wuxian leans in, brushes a kiss against Lan Wangji’s cheek. Then, in a small, desolate voice, he says, “I don’t want you to leave me. Please don’t leave me.”

Lan Wangji’s knees buckle as he comes, and he reaches out to press his hands flat against the dais on either side of Wei Wuxian so that he doesn’t crumple. Wei Wuxian wraps his hands around Lan Wangji’s head, crushing him against his chest. Lan Wangji can hear drops of his own come hitting the floor.

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, and his voice is breathless, caught between laughter and tears. “How can I be angry when I can hold you like this?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t want Wei Wuxian filled with that dangerous anger, even if its righteously fueled. He wants Wei Wuxian to be happy.

“Don’t, then.” He says softly, pushing himself upwards. He kisses Wei Wuxian, soft and slow. “Just be with me.”

It doesn’t even get to the half of it. What will happen to the Wens, or the other Great Clans, or the two of them— they have no idea what the future will hold. But Lan Wangji is firm in the belief that if he can keep Wei Wuxian in his arms, safe beside him, they will be able to weather whatever storms threaten to break over them.

“I was right,” Wei Wuxian hums, sounding smug.

“Mn?” Lan Wangji looks up, eyes narrowed with suspicion.

Wei Wuxian flicks him on the nose, and Lan Wangji adamantly does not pout.

“Lan Zhan is beautiful, especially when he lets himself feel good,” Wei Wuxian says, huffing out a laugh. “Lan Zhan is beautiful when he comes.”

Lan Wangji is sure that his entire face is red. But then, that only makes sense, when Wei Wuxian has left his mark on him so thoroughly.