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Pals of the Pen

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.1.

Concept: Modern AU where, over a millennium after the events of The Untamed yet in the same country (let’s call it China, but it’s not really our China), part of the senior middle school curriculum is a pen-pal / exchange program. All the provinces (and schools) take part in it. The purpose is to foster better relations between them (as one of the many attempts to avoid a return to those civil war years).

In their first year of senior middle school, each student gets a pen-pal from another province. During that same first year, there are 2 exchange trips (one per semester): each pen-pal goes to live at his pen-pal’s house for 2 weeks.

Wei Wuxian from Yunmeng gets Lan Wangji from Gusu.

 

Now imagine the kind of letters that Wei Wuxian writes.

(Talk about something you can’t make head or tail of.)

Lan Wangji, as he reads the first one: Why me. What did I do in a past life.

What crime did I commit.

 

-

 

.2.

Wei Wuxian being Wei Wuxian, he quickly wants to switch from letters to emails.

Unfortunately, Lan Wangji’s replies come even slower per email as they do per letter. When Wei Wuxian asks why (and asks and asks and asks), Lan Wangji eventually replies that he doesn’t have his own computer and doesn’t like to pester his brother too much just to access his mailbox.

Okay, Wei Wuxian thinks, and suggests they switch to texts.

Why Lan Wangji agrees to give him his phone number is a mystery.

Of course, when Wei Wuxian says ‘texts’, he actually means MMS. He talks through pictures. He keeps sending them: about 3.000 selfies, pictures of his sheets, his lunch, a lotus flower… Everything.

Isn’t that bee the cutest thing you’ve ever seen? he sends once after sending a picture of a bee drinking from a drop of sugar water he’s given it.

What bee? Lan Wangji replies.

The one I just sent.

No reply.

The picture?

I don’t receive the pictures you send, Lan Wangji replies. This isn’t a smartphone.

Wei Wuxian stares.

 

“A-Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says, barging into his brother’s room.

Jiang Wanyin doesn’t even bother looking up from his comics. “What?”

“You were disappointed about getting that girl from Yiling as your pen-pal, right? How about we switch?”

Jiang Wanyin looks up. Wei Wuxian smiles brightly. So brightly that it looks a bit manic around the edges.

Jiang Wanyin narrows his eyes. “Why?”

“No reason,” Wei Wuxian says in that tone that means he has at least one reason. Or two. Or maybe even three. “I mean, I was just thinking. I like girls better than you do. Having one as my pen-pal doesn’t bother me. And you said you’d wanted a guy, so.”

The speech might have worked, if Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian were anyone else, and if their relationship had ever grown past the stage where Jiang Wanyin didn’t care for toys or presents and claimed that he didn’t like them until the second Wei Wuxian asked if he could play with them.

In this case, knowing that for some reason Wei Wuxian would prefer to have Wen Qing as his pen-pal instead of the guy he’d gotten suddenly makes her the most interesting person ever in Jiang Wanyin’s eyes.

So Jiang Wanyin says, “No.”

And returns to his reading.

 

-

 

.3.

Excerpts from the text exchanges between Fu Jie, teacher at Yunping senior middle school, and Ren Lei, teacher at Lan Yi Academy in Gusu.

 

FJ: I’ve received a message from your student strongly implying that Wei Wuxian has ADHD. And by ‘strongly imply’ I mean it’s a full demonstration, complete with references and a description of symptoms.

RL:

FJ: It’s very well structured and argued though. Full bibliography at the end. Quite the compelling read.

FJ: Does Lan Wangji have any plans to get into medicine?

 

RL: You will probably find this amusing: I’ve just received a message of a similar kind from Wei Wuxian, in which he asks me if Lan Wangji has ever been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or a mild form of autism.

FJ: So is this going even more terribly than we thought or…?

RL: I’m not even sure. I can’t figure out if your student is asking this as a childish joke in bad taste or if he’s genuinely concerned and wants to make sure that he doesn’t misstep.

FJ: Yes, that’s par for the course with him. You just never know why he does things.

 

-

 

.4.

The only reason Lan Wangji keeps up with the correspondence is because it was set up by the school, so obviously he has to treat it as well as he would any other school assignment.

That’s what he tells himself, at least.

 

The only reason Wei Wuxian keeps up with the correspondence is morbid curiosity, because with every new thing he learns about Lan Wangji, he is more convinced that the guy can’t be real. So he has to see this through. For science.

That’s what he tells himself, at least.

 

-

 

.5.

When the time comes for the first exchange trip, in which Lan Wangji has to go to Yunping for two weeks, he gets ready with all the grimness of a general on the eve of battle, when he knows his forces are outnumbered one to ten.

His brother, Lan Xichen, tries to be reassuring, “Come on, it’ll be fun.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t even grace him with a contemptuous glance. “I don’t think you and I share the same definition of the word.”

 

In truth, when Lan Wangji leaves, Lan Xichen actually feels a small pang: Lan Wangji hasn’t left their home without him in years, not since their father was committed. Their residence is bound to feel empty.

And it does.

For one day and a half.

Then the first letter arrives. It does so so quickly that it has to have been written the evening Lan Wangji arrived in Yunping and sent the following morning.

It’s 12 pages long.

It’s written in Lan Wangji’s beautiful hand, although the shape of his characters is a bit…sharper than usual.

It’s very properly formulated. Anyone who doesn’t know Lan Wangji wouldn’t think anything of it, would see nothing but a casual report about a train journey and a first evening spent far from home.

Lan Xichen knows better, though.

And so he knows that what that letter does is scream bloody murder.

 

To understand why it does so, we need to back up a bit, to a week before Lan Wangji’s arrival in Yunping and to a conversation between Wei Wuxian and his sister, Jiang Yanli.

“Remember to ask him if he has any food allergies or a specific diet,” Jiang Yanli said.

“Uh? Why?” Wei Wuxian complained. “If he doesn’t like what you make, he can go—”

“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli interrupts, very nearly scolding. Especially because she knows that, deep down, his dragging his feet is just for show.

As proven when, a couple days later, she finds him at the kitchen table, nose buried in cookbooks.

“Vegan,” he mumbles. “He’s vegan.”

“Oh,” Jiang Yanli says, a bit dismayed. “I’m not used to making completely vegan meals.”

“I know,” Wei Wuxian replies. “I’ve been looking.”

Without much success, from the looks of the small list he’s scribbled on the piece of paper in front of him. Jiang Yanli looks at him for a second, feeling fond, then suggests, “How about we go at it from another angle? Maybe we can adapt recipes we like. What are your favorite foods?”

“Pork ribs and lotus root soup,” Wei Wuxian replies at once, very unsurprisingly. “But—”

“Yes,” Jiang Yanli says, deflating, “removing the pork isn’t possible without unbalancing the flavors and texture. It wouldn’t be the same.”

“Mh.” Wei Wuxian pouts. Then, suddenly, his face clears. “How about spicy?”

“Spicy what?”

“Does it matter? Anything.” He’s growing excited. “It’s typical for the region—which, Lan Zhan really does sound like the type to be into learning about the specificities of places—and also, I love spicy food, so it’d also be sharing something I like. And that you know how to make very well.”

Jiang Yanli smiled. “Sounds perfect, then.”

 

Little do they know, Lan Wangji has never had spicy food. It’s not really a specialty of the coast. Quite the opposite, actually.

 

Actually, due to the specificities of life at Cloud Recesses, he hasn’t ever even seen actual spicy food.

When Yanli brings the food to the table with Wei Wuxian’s help, Lan Wangji looks suspiciously at everything they put down, of which he recognizes nothing aside from the white rice.

“Don’t worry,” Wei Wuxian says as he settles down beside him. “I told jiejie, everything is guaranteed without meat.”

He serves Lan Wangji a bowl of rice and piles a plate with small helpings of everything for him, then does the same for himself.

“It’s all regional specialties, too,” Wei Wuxian goes on.

By now, everyone has been served or served themselves, including the other pen-pal exchange student in the house, who for some reason has come along with her brother. There is a pause, then they all wish each other a good meal, and promptly dig in.

With spoons.

Lan Wangji stares for a second, shoulders stiff, chopsticks clutched in his right hand. (Savages, he’s surrounded by savages.) He looks down at his plate. Pokes at it to check the content. It’s not that he suspects Jiang Yanli of being dishonest, but—

He isn’t used to eating food that hasn’t been made in Cloud Recesses itself. Even at school, he always brings his own lunches.

He doesn’t find any trace of meat, though, just tofu and beans and vegetables—some he isn’t sure he recognizes.

Everything is bathed in an unfamiliar sauce though. One that is violently red.

Given the way the entire family is gobbling all of it down, it has to be at least edible, if not good. Wei Wuxian and his brother (cousin?) appear to already be fighting over a second helping.

Lan Wangji glances at the other two guests. The girl is looking at her brother inquiringly. He meets her eyes and nods with a smile. His cheeks are bulging, his eyes happy. Clearly the food is to his liking.

So Lan Wangji shrugs off his reservations and digs in. It wouldn’t do to insult his hosts. He picks up a piece of tofu with some vegetables, brings it to his mouth. Chews, reaches out with his chopsticks for some rice as he swallows and—

Chokes, suddenly, when his mouthful goes scraping at the back of his throat, and a drop of burning acid decides to go the wrong way, and his entire mouth catches on fire, and—

 

His lips are still buzzing and numb that night, his tongue swollen, his throat parched, his forehead tacky with leftover sweat, as he furiously writes an S.O.S. letter to his brother.

Bloody murder indeed.

 

Lan Xichen’s answer arrives two days and twice as many close calls later.

(Jiang Yanli keeps telling Lan Wangji that she lowered the quantity of spices, and asking if it’s better, but up until now he hasn’t noticed any difference. Which is why  he is currently lying in bed with a damp compress on his eyes, trying to cool his face down.)

When Jiang Fengmian comes in carrying Lan Xichen’s letter, Lan Wangji grabs it like a lifeline. Surely his brother is already halfway to Yunping to rescue him from these people and has sent this to tell him when exactly Lan Wangji should expect his arrival.

Or so Lan Wangji believes, until he reads the letter in question.

I’m so glad to hear you are already making exciting new experiences, his brother has written. How good of the Jiangs to offer you this opportunity to discover the typical dishes of their region. I almost envy you!

Lan Wangji stares at the letter for a long time.

He often wonders how come he keeps forgetting that, deep down, his brother is an asshole.

 

-

 

.6.

Lan Xichen might not give Lan Wangji the answer he wants, but Lan Wangji is stubborn.

He sends another letter the next day.

And the next.

And the next.

To no effect.

I am glad to hear you and your pen pal are getting along so well, Lan Xichen writes after the 30 rage-filled pages Lan Wangji writes about Wei Wuxian’s character flaws.

I am glad to hear you are discovering and even taking parts in local rituals and mores, he writes after Lan Wangji gets roped into ‘helping take care of the lotus garden’ (which is actually a giant lotus lake) and ends up collateral damage in the water and mud fight that starts almost at once between Wei Wuxian and his cousin (brother?)—and only stops when their boat capsizes.

I am glad to hear that this trip is giving you a chance to explore your wilder side, he writes after Wei Wuxian secretly swaps out Lan Wangji’s evening tea with alcohol to try and make him have some of the wine he refuses to taste.

(Lan Wangji doesn’t mind that one too much given that it leads to him spitting out his first and only mouthful straight into Wei Wuxian’s face. Completely on accident, of course.)

Lan Wangji is stubborn, but Lan Xichen even more so, which is why Lan Wangji does give in in the end.

He calls him. On the phone.

Brother,” he says.

Anyone who doesn’t know Lan Wangji well would find his tone quite measured and neutral. Lan Xichen knows better though and hears the Come save me from these monsters loud and clear.

“No, really,” he replies. “I am so glad to hear that your trip is going that well.”

 

-

 

.7.

The reason why Lan Wangji was almost slain by Yunmeng food but got no warning from Wen Qing and Wen Ning is that both originally are from Qishan, whose food traditions run hot.

Spicy is not just a culinary specialty over there. It’s a way of life.

So much so that, in comparison, Yunmeng levels of hot barely even register.

 

-

 

.8.

When she comes tu Yunping for her two-weeks at the Jiang house, Wen Qing gets a special authorization to bring her younger brother Wen Ning.

See, Wen Ning has a mild form of autism, and the doctor following his case agrees that it’s better for him to be with his sister in an unfamiliar environment than to be in a familiar environment without his sister.

Wen Ning is a bit intimidated by Jiang Wanyin and his parents, but he gets along well enough with Jiang Yanli and Wei Wuxian. It might or might not be thanks to Wei Wuxian’s rabbit, Mr. Fluff.

Naturally, since Wei Wuxian is so good to Wen Ning, Wen Qing takes a liking to him.

 

When he first learned he’s been paired with Wen Qing for the SanRen program, Jiang Wanyin more or less thought, “Ugh, a girl.” He started their correspondence half-heartedly at best and kept it the same way.

At first.

Then Wei Wuxian expressed an interest in Wen Qing, and suddenly Jiang Wanyin got more invested in the whole thing. For completely unrelated reasons.

Then Wen Qing arrives in Yunping, and Jiang Wanyin promptly swallows his tongue.

And then, of course, Wen Qing and Wei Wuxian proceed to become the best of friends.

Story of Jiang Wanyin’s life, really.

 

-

 

.9.

List of grievances regarding Wei Wuxian’s behavior and regarding life at Lotus Pier that Lan Wangji compiled during his two-weeks stay there and would be happy to share with the world:

  • Mosquitoes
  • Wei Wuxian never wakes up on time. On weekdays he is systematically late because he drags himself out of bed only 5 minutes before he has to leave. On the weekend he sleeps until 11:59 and then has the gall to still call that “waking up in the morning”
  • He never goes to sleep before midnight
  • He skips classes
  • He never does his homework on time, if he does it at all. When he does, it’s at the last minute: on the morning of the day it’s due or, for the more voluminous ones like essays, the night before, between 23:00 at night and 2:00 in the morning
  • Somehow, he still gets top grades
  • When he should be doing his homework, he can instead be found scrolling on his phone, or playing video games, or taking pictures of anything and everything, or making videos of his pet rabbit
  • He calls his pet rabbit Mr. Fluff
  • His pet rabbit is female
  • He does sword-fighting, but doesn’t take proper care of his sword
  • He does archery, but doesn’t take proper care of his bow
  • He doesn’t take proper care of his bike
  • He doesn’t take proper care of his clothes
  • He doesn’t know how to sit
  • He never appears to take anything seriously
  • He talks all the time
  • He eats all the time
  • Therefore, he often ends up talking and eating at the same time
  • Underage drinking
  • Indecent books and magazines and comics litter his room, without him even trying to hide them
  • Despite Lotus Pier being a full residence, the entire family lives in the same wing. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin even share the same pavilion
  • Despite Lotus Pier being a full residence, they only have one guest pavilion, which goes to the two exchange students from Yiling on virtue of them being siblings and of the brother not wishing to be separated from his sister. Which means Lan Wangji has to share Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin’s pavilion. More precisely, it means Lan Wangji has to sleep in Wei Wuxian’s usual room while Wei Wuxian shares with his cousin (brother?)
  • Again, mosquitoes
  • Wei Wuxian spends 50% of his time squabbling with his brother (cousin?)
  • He also spends more time flirting with his cousin’s (brother’s?) pen-pal than he does talking to Lan Wangji
  • For someone who keeps saying he cares for his pet rabbit, he seems really intent on killing the thing through negligence or mistreatment. (One of the letters Lan WangJi sends to his brother is a full essay on proper rabbit care and on all the ways Wei Wuxian fails at it.)

 

List of non-grievances regarding Wei Wuxian’s behavior and regarding life at Lotus Pier that Lan Wangji compiled during his two-weeks stay there and has no intention to share with the world ever:

  • Wei Wuxian prepared for Lan Wangji’s stay and planned outings and/or activities for all the week-end days afternoons Lan Wangji would spend at Lotus Pier
  • On the first week he got up early so he would have the time to take Lan Wangji on a tour of his school
  • When at school he sticks to Lan Wangji’s side and never lets his friends distract him too much or leaves Lan Wangji alone surrounded by complete strangers
  • When they get back to the Jiang residence the first thing he does, without fail, is to prepare a tray to bring to his sister (cousin?) while she studies in her room
  • He lets Lan Wangji pet and feed his rabbit
  • He makes an effort to stay quiet or to leave Lan Wangji alone when Lan Wangji practices with his guqin
  • He tries to hide it but is actually quite brilliant at everything he does
  • He has a talent for drawing (too bad he mostly uses it in the margins of his notes during class)
  • He keeps giving the people around him small presents
  • He does take some things seriously—the things that truly matter
  • He can realize when he has gone too far and, when he does, he stops
  • He is obnoxious and irreverent and mischievous, but his intentions are never malicious
  • One could even go further and say that the core essence of his character is rather sweet, and even kind

 

-

 

.10.

Lan Wangji is an over-achiever and is in, like, all the clubs. He does:

  • Sword-fighting
  • Zither
  • Archery
  • Calligraphy
  • Equitation

One of the reasons why he is peeved at going on that dumb two-weeks exchange trip is that it means he has to skip two classes for each and can’t even practice properly for half of them in compensation.

He does bring his guqin with him, though. He’s been playing it since he was a child and is very conscientious about practicing every day.

 

Wei Wuxian would admit it if anyone asked, but no one asks, so it remains a secret: he gets used to listening to Lan Wangji’s guqin in the evening very quickly—and misses it when it’s gone.

 

-

 

.11.

Wei Wuxian has a pet rabbit. His name is Mr. Fluff.

Mr. Fluff is an internet sensation. He has his own Weibo account and more followers than Wei Wuxian’s official Weibo.

(Lan Wangji is torn between considering the whole thing an inane waste of time and finding it cute because… Okay, rabbits are actually quite cute.)

 

Of course, Wei Wuxian believes in Mr. Fluff’s freedom to roam through Lotus Pier’s gardens and beyond…and that’s how he ends up with a rabbit and a dozen baby rabbits.

That’s also how he realizes that Mr. Fluff is actually Mrs. Fluff.

Woops.

This happens a couple of months before he leaves for Gusu on his exchange trip, so guess what he brings with him as a present.

 

-

 

.12.

Wei WuXian doesn’t just bring a rabbit as a present to Gusu. He also brings spicy cakes.

“Yanli told me that when I came to live with them, I couldn’t eat spicy food either,” he explains while Lan Wangji glares down at the box. “But those I gobbled down like crazy.” He hesitates. “Still do, but I swear I won’t eat those!”

Lan Wangji swears he won’t either and leaves them on the table where Wei Wuxian first put them.

 

The thing is, Lan Wangji did get used to spicy food.

A bit.

Enough so that, when he returned to Cloud Recesses and sat down for his first evening meal, eager for tastes and ingredients and dishes that were familiar and sedate and subtly flavored, his first impression was…that it was actually quite bland.

(He almost threw down his chopsticks he was so furious.)

 

Eventually, his taste-buds recovered from the ordeal, and his normal taste returned. He is not going to let Wei Wuxian jeopardize that.

Unfortunately, Wei Wuxian has an infiltrated agent in the house.

It’s later in the evening, after dinner, after he’s gotten rid of Wei Wuxian by putting him in the most remote guest pavilion and closing the door. (He knows it’ll only work tonight, when Wei Wuxian is tired from the journey and wants to call his family to let them know he’s arrived safely.) He’s studying at his desk when his brother comes in carrying a tray, as he often does around this hour. On it are a small teapot, a cup…and a plate with three of the spicy cakes Wei Wuxian brought.

“They’re very good,” Lan Xichen says when Lan Wangji glares at them. “You should try them.”

“No,” Lan Wangji says, but his brother doesn’t take them away when he leaves. The traitor.

Well. It’s no matter. Lan Wangji pours himself a cup of tea and returns to work determined to ignore the pastries.

One hour later, he’s done with his homework. He tidies up his desk, putting the cup back onto the tray.

That’s when he notices that the plate is empty; and realizes that there is something like a sweet aftertaste in his mouth, accompanied by a faint yet happy burn.

Damn it.

 

(There are a few crumbs left on the plate.

After a few seconds of deliberation, he reaches out, picks them up with the tip of a finger, and brings them to his mouth.)

 

-

 

.13.

As a whole, the two weeks Wei WuXian spends in Gusu become a time that both the personnel of the Lan Yi Academy and Lan Wangji’s uncle, Lan Qiren, remember with dread and despair.

Lan Xichen, on the other hand, remembers it very fondly: those were the funniest two weeks he had in a long time.

 

-

 

.14.

List of grievances regarding Lan Wangji’s behavior and regarding life at Cloud Recesses that Wei Wuxian has compiled during his two-weeks stay there and would be happy to share with the world.

  • He insists on waking up at 6:00 every morning, even on the weekend
  • He insists on going to bed at 22:00 at the latest every day, even on the weekend
  • He never skips school
  • When he’s not at school he’s either still studying—either at his prep classes or doing homework—or at one of his clubs and he makes Wei Wuxian go with him. (Wei Wuxian minds less than he lets on. He likes listening to the guqin. The sword fighting class is pretty cool since it shows him a style he’s not familiar with. He likes horses and horses like him, even though he can’t ride. Archery he also does at home, so he can participate, even though the bow they lend him isn’t as good as his. The calligraphy class, though. That one he hates with a passion. Well, he does until the teacher tells him he’s allowed to draw whatever he wants instead.)
  • If he is not studying or training for his club activities or sleeping, Lan Wangji does nothing but 1. meditate (or sitting in the family garden watching the spring flowers slowly unfurl, Wei Wuxian guesses), 2. read, 3. ignore Wei Wuxian
  • He doesn’t have a TV (seriously, what is this place, Ancient China?)
  • He doesn’t have video games
  • He doesn’t have mangas
  • He doesn’t have a smartphone
  • The only computers in the house are in Lan Xichen’s room and in their uncle’s office, and like hell Wei Wuxian is going to ask them permission to use the computer like he’s eight years old again
  • He doesn’t let Wei Wuxian listen to the channel / music he wants on the radio
  • Lan Wangji’s bike is better than his at home
  • Their family dojo is better than the one at Lotus Pier
  • He takes cold showers. (Do not ask how Wei Wuxian knows that Lan Wangji takes cold showers.)
  • He sleeps on his back with his hands interlaced, like a freak. (Do not ask how Wei Wuxian knows how Lan Wangji sleeps.)
  • The house is a 20-minute walk away from the bus station. Via a steep mountain path. That you have to climb. On foot. (There is a road but walking alongside it instead of taking the path extends the trip to 40 minutes.)
  • It’s spring, but it’s still so cold up here that there is a thin layer of frost and snow on the ground every morning
  • The entire family is vegan (except that somehow Lan Wangji manages to have an even stricter diet than vegan)
  • Seriously Wei Wuxian is going to die here.

 

(List of non-grievances regarding Lan Wangji’s behavior and regarding life at Cloud Recesses that Wei Wuxian compiled during his two-weeks stay there but won’t share with the world unless Jiang Yanli asks:

  • He took the time to give Wei Wuxian an extensive tour of Cloud Recesses and replied to all his questions regarding the rehabilitation center nearby
  • He gave Wei Wuxian the guest pavilion that has the best view
  • He kept that drawing Wei Wuxian made of him back at Lotus Pier
  • When they climb back from the bus stop he waits for Wei Wuxian to catch up at every turn of the path instead of leaving him in the dust
  • He agrees to spar with Wei Wuxian (with their swords) and Wei Wuxian actually has to work for it to win—and even then, he doesn’t always
  • He is so good at everything he does
  • For all that he gives the impression that he is ignoring him, Lan Wangji always knows what the last thing Wei Wuxian said is at any given time
  • Wei Wuxian didn’t see him, but he knows Lan Wangji is the one who left that selection of books most likely to interest him in the guest pavilion
  • Wei Wuxian didn’t see him, but he know Lan Wangji is the one who left that pack of lotus seeds in the guest pavilion when Wei Wuxian admitted he was feeling homesick
  • Wei Wuxian isn’t entirely sure yet but he’s starting to suspect at least 75% of Lan Wangji’s disparaging remarks are actually trolling
  • He has the best side-eyed look of contempt Wei Wuxian has ever seen
  • He is reserved and stiff and judgmental, but he is never actively mean)

 

-

 

.15.

Obviously, Lan WangJi goes to an elite school—or, as Wei Wuxian puts it, an uppity school.

The uniform colors are a risky combination of white and light blue plus tie. Or, well, Wei Wuxian thinks it’s risky since it’s worn by teenagers, but during the two weeks he spends there he doesn’t see anyone with so much as a muddy smudge on the edge of their pants or shoes.

Yes, even the shoes are white.

 

Along with the uppity-ness and the risky outfits, the school has, like, 3.000 rules.

Since Wei Wuxian doesn’t really go there, he doesn’t see why he should bother to learn them.

Actually, he’d argue it’s better he doesn’t learn them, because if he knows about any of them, then he’ll feel the urge to break them just to see what happens.

He knows himself.

 

-

 

.16.

List of offences to the school rulebook that Wei Wuxian committed while visiting at the Lan Yi Academy of Gusu:

  • Crossing the courtyard by walking on the lawn instead of using the roundabout path
  • Taking his lunch to eat outside instead of eating it in the refectory
  • Complaining about the quality of the lunch offered
  • Putting his tray back in a disorderly manner (plates not piled, cutlery not aligned on the side)
  • Climbing on the founder’s statue
  • Bringing his phone to school and not leaving it in his (in this case: Lan WangJi’s) locker
  • Making use of his phone during classes
  • Making use of his phone in between classes (students are only allowed to check their phones on lunch break)
  • Taking selfies of himself with the school building or part of it in the background
  • Bringing a soda drink to class (students are only allowed unflavored water)
  • Sitting improperly in class
  • Falling asleep in class
  • Staring through the window in class
  • Writing notes / passing notes in class
  • Making paper airplanes while in class
  • Attempting conversation with other students in class
  • Replying to the teacher in a cheeky manner
  • Asking disruptive questions in class
  • Sitting / crouching on the floor in corridors
  • Sitting / crouching on the floor in the courtyard
  • Sitting / crouching on the roof of multiple buildings
  • Sitting / crouching on the wall surrounding the school grounds
  • Climbing onto the roof of multiple buildings
  • Climbing on the wall surrounding the school grounds
  • Picking the flowers growing on school property
  • Damaging the school lawn with a stick
  • Running on campus
  • Trotting on campus
  • Jumping on campus
  • Sauntering on campus
  • Speed-walking on campus
  • Doing hand-stands on campus
  • Disrupting the circulation flow in the corridors by stopping for no apparent reason
  • Disrupting the circulation flow in the corridors by stopping other students for no apparent reason (the students in question are mostly Lan Wangji)
  • Shouting on campus
  • Talking out loud on campus
  • Laughing out loud on campus
  • Whistling on campus
  • Singing on campus
  • Playing music on campus (outside of allowed times in the music room)
  • Dancing on campus
  • Getting into a scuffle with other students (bumping into other students counts as a scuffle)
  • Swearing / using improper language
  • Showing undue aggressiveness during PE class
  • Commenting on other people’s performance during PE class
  • Behaving disrespectfully towards the teacher during PE class
  • Talking in the school library
  • Improperly sitting in the school library
  • Reading books on the floor in the school library
  • Bringing food / beverages into the school library
  • Using the library computers for purposes other than classwork
  • Using the library books for purposes other than classwork
  • Complaining about the resources available in the school library
  • Coming to school not wearing a uniform (it is expected of students from the SanRen exchange program that they bring their own school uniform with them)
  • Taking improper care of the school uniform lent to him
  • Failing to appear to class
  • Failing to appear to lunch
  • Failing to appear to PE class
  • Failing to properly receive / produce the punishment given
  • Attempting to enter the girls’ bathroom
  • Lying (for instance, by claiming that his attempt to enter the girls’ bathroom was an accident)

Since Wei Wuxian hasn’t read the rulebook, he isn’t even aware of having committed half of those infractions with what, to him, is nothing but his normal behavior.

Lan Wangji, on the other hand, is keenly aware of every single breach and suffers the psychological burden of their happening and of himself being associated to the culprit for two entire weeks.

 

-

 

.17.

It all comes to a head when Wei Wuxian is caught smoking weed on campus.

It goes like this:

Class begins again after lunch and Wei Wuxian fails to appear. He wasn’t with Lan Wangji during lunch, and Lan Wangji, while suspecting he was up to no good, did not go look for him in order to enjoy the brief respite.

He looks for him now.

Finding him takes him past the bell. He is keenly aware of all the seconds passing by while he is not in class when he should be (even though he informed the teacher that he had to go look for his wayward exchange partner).

Eventually, he finds Wei Wuxian behind one of the most remote buildings (of course he is), crouching on the ground (of course he is), smoking weed (of fucking course he is).

For a second, Lan Wangji can only stare.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Wei Wuxian says. “It’s their fault,” he goes on, gesturing at the rest of the buildings with his… his… his joint. “Stressing me out with all their rules. Seriously, at this point I’m half convinced you’re not even allowed to breathe in here.”

He goes to take another hit, which is when Lan Wangji manages to snap out of his rage – or gets a new surge of it propelling him forward.

A scuffle ensues, with Wei Wuxian complaining and trying to weasel away, and Lan Wangji completely silent and refusing to let him get away with it. He will gather the evidence and he will drag him to the principal’s office by the hair if he has to.

Finally, he manages to snatch the joint out of Wei Wuxian’s hand. He jumps back when Wei Wuxian tries to get it back, holding it victoriously—

Which is when one of the school supervisors turns around the corner to investigate the commotion.

 

When Lan Wangji’s uncle makes his way to the principal’s office, he looks this close to having an apoplexy. Everyone does. Except Lan Wangji, whose face is pale and tight and closed-off while he sits very straight in his chair.

Wei Wuxian is quite unconcerned—until the conversation begins, and he realizes that, for some reason, they consider that Lan Wangji is as guilty as he is and should get the same punishment. Except that they can’t really punish Wei Wuxian in a way that’ll stick, since he’s an exchange student and as such not under their responsibility. The worst they can do is send a complaint to his school, who will then decide what will happen to him—and Wei Wuxian already knows it won’t be more than a slap on the wrist and cleaning duty for a whole month.

Lan Wangji, on the other hand, is looking at a week-long suspension and having to copy the school rulebook once per suspension day.

Wei Wuxian tries to argue that everything was his fault and that Lan Wangji was only trying to stop him. Of course, his pleas go unheard, because they don’t hold his opinion in very high regard after a week and a half of disruptions—and because, at the Lan Yi Academy, one considers every student responsible for his exchange partner’s actions. Therefore, Lan Wangji is responsible, if only for not having stopped him earlier and kept him under control.

Wei Wuxian feels terrible.

 (He doesn’t know which part is worse, the suspension itself or having to copy the school’s rulebook seven times.)

Still. This will go on Lan WangJi’s permanent record. This is not okay.

So yes, he feels terrible.

 

(Lan Wangji doesn’t protest the punishment because he fully believes he deserves it.

He does hear Wei Wuxian pleading in his favor, though.

That is…unexpected.)

 

Over the next few days—the last three days of Wei Wuxian’s stay in Gusu—Wei Wuxian’s behavior is unusually subdued and, for the first time, exemplary.

Not that the school board notices, since half of that time is taken up by the weekend.

Wei Wuxian even makes three copies of the school rules. Lan Wangji doesn’t use them. He makes his own seven copies.

He is a bit disturbed by Wei Wuxian’s uncharacteristic quiet, though.

 

Given that he is trying to make up for the consequences of his actions, Wei Wuxian is ready to take back the rabbit he brought to Yunping—but somehow, the rabbit is nowhere to be found.

 

-

 

.18.

Now, most relations created by the SanRen pen-pal and exchange program don’t actually last.

For that reason, a lot of people believe that program to be nothing but a huge waste of both time and money.

In actuality, most correspondence stops shortly after the second exchange trip, or during the summer at the end of the students’ first year.

Of those that last beyond that point, a lot peter out over time, or are interrupted in the last year of senior middle school, when both students get caught up in the preparations for their various exams and planning for their future. They rarely recover from that ordeal.

(All of the above are the good ones, though. Some correspondences go terribly from the start and lead to two atrocious exchange trips both partakers implicitly agree never to speak of ever again.)

 

Those facts are well-known. As a consequence, after he’s screwed up so badly, Wei Wuxian fully expects to never hear from Lan Wangji again.

He is much sadder at the thought than he imagined he would be at the beginning of their correspondence. At the same time, he is ready to accept it as his Just Punishment for being a complete idiot.

Except.

Except that when he arrives back home in Yunmeng, he receives a text message from Lan Wangji, asking how his journey has gone and if he’s arrived safely. Wei Wuxian replies, thinking nothing of it: it’s just Lan Wangji being Lan Wangji, because he is correct like that. Of course he’ll make sure their second exchange trip came to a safe conclusion. Of course he’ll ask after his exchange partner, even though said exchange partner is nothing but a selfish cretin. It’s just the polite thing to do.

Except.

Except that even after that, Lan Wangji keeps texting.

 

-

 

TBC

Chapter Text

 

.1.

Lan Wangji is not the only one to get a rabbit.

When Jiang Wanyin goes to Yiling, he also takes one along.

“Wuxian insisted,” he says as Wen Qing stares down at it. “I know, he’s stupid, I’ll just take it back with me when—”

In that moment, Wen Ning walks into the room. And sees the rabbit.

Of course, Wei Wuxian gave the rabbit a name as stupid as the one he gave to its mother (and to its brother before he brought it to Lan Wangji). However, unlike Lan Wangji, Wen Qing doesn’t feel compelled to keep it at all.

First, she decides that since the rabbit has been adopted, it should now carry the name Wen.

Then, Wen Ning is allowed to choose a given name.

That’s how they end up with Wen Ping.

 

-

 

.2.

Sometimes, Lan Xichen worries about Lan Wangji.

He was a such serious child. Quiet. Prone to reflection more than expression, to silence more than chatter. Solitary, too. Difficult for others to understand, struggling himself to understand others—not that he really cared to. He was always reluctant to take part in their games, and stubborn in his refusal to open himself up to their interests, their way of life. He was perfectly content with his own.

See, things were a bit peculiar in Cloud Recesses. Its location for one, far away from Caiyi’s center, off the main roads and public transportation lines, cradled in the misty arms of a remote mountain. Its shape—a sprawling traditional residence where every wooden wall and floor whispered of ages long past. Its rhythm and atmosphere, slow and hushed for the sake of the patients from the center nearby, sedately following the pattern of seasons. Lan Wangji never minded any of it, never complained. Rather, he moved through it like a fish through water, at ease in its natural habitat, at peace.

He never brought a friend home, or even a classmate with whom he might have to work on a joint assignment. He never went to anyone’s house either. He took part in many clubs, but all of them were geared towards individual activities. Even learning the art of the sword didn’t bring him closer to anyone. His best rapport was always to his teachers, or to the patients of the center, for whom he played the guqin on the weekend. The only people with whom he was truly ever at ease were his uncle and Lan Xichen himself. With them he opened up a bit, shared his interests, accepted and maybe even hoped for praise.

Then, at the end of senior middle school, Lan Xichen left for a year to travel the world with his friend, Nie Mingjue. He left Lan Wangji in the sole care of their uncle.

Maybe that was a mistake.

Lan Xichen had hoped that his absence would encourage Lan Wangji to seek out the company of others. It didn’t. Worse, when Lan Xichen returned, he found that things had shifted between them. Gone was the boy who would follow him around the residence, who wanted to play every guqin piece he learned to him, who asked for his advice and looked for his approval. In his place stood a rigid pre-teen, a stern figure who kept to himself and stuck to his ways—a lot of which would’ve been better suited for another age, leaving him ill-equipped, maybe even unable to live in the world, in the here and now.

At Cloud Recesses, it wasn’t obvious, it wasn’t a problem. But it would be anywhere else. So, Lan Xichen worried. Because his brother deserved to have more choices than this. He was meant for more than this: an entire life spent in a single place, a contained bubble—in the self-imposed seclusion of an icy, never-changing coombe.

 

When Lan Wangji starts senior middle school and is made to join the SanRen exchange program like everyone else, Lan Xichen has hopes. Too high hopes, maybe. How could he not? The program gave him Nie Mingjue, who was an unexpected but welcome support in the wake of their mother’s suicide and became a friend for life.

Still, he isn’t quite sure what to make of the other boy at first. He suspects most people don’t. One thing is for certain, though: Wei Wuxian definitely provokes a reaction. Lan Wangji is unable to dismiss him like he does most of his classmates, not only because of the rules of the program, but also because the boy simply isn’t one to let himself be ignored. In his presence—remote as it is at first—Lan Wangji goes through a whole array of emotions, far from his usual, subdued reserve: puzzlement, frustration, indignation, but also simple, helpless amusement. Enjoyment. A reluctant fascination.

Lan Xichen is glad of it. In that whirlwind there is no more room for that melancholy look, that quietly forlorn expression that so often settles over Lan Wangji’s features, when he thinks no one is watching.

Not all of it is good, though. Lan Wangji likes to keep things contained, so it comes as no surprise that he struggles in the face of Wei Wuxian’s exuberance. There is impatience in his reactions too, irritation, sometimes even anger. Fear. Wei Wuxian will not be controlled—when Lan Wangji has built his life around that very concept. He is a lot to deal with. He is too loud, too brash, too fast. He easily goes too far.

Lan Xichen isn’t quite surprised, in the end, when it all blows up in their faces.

 

Once Wei Wuxian is gone and Lan Wangji’s week of suspension comes to an end, Lan Xichen has no idea what will follow. A large part of him expects for things to return to what they were before, though. With the obligations of the SanRen program fulfilled, nothing forces Lan Wangji to keep up with the correspondence. None of his teachers at the Academy would fault him for breaking it off. Some might even encourage it.

Over the rest of the semester, it even looks like that’s what happens. By all appearances, Lan Wangji goes back to focusing solely on his classes and his club activities. He shows no concern over the fact that the rabbit Wei Wuxian brought has disappeared. He doesn’t mention Wei Wuxian once. He remains silent when Lan Xichen tries to ask.

The semester comes to an end. Lan Wangji ends up at the top of all his classes, earns congratulations from both his sword and calligraphy masters, shines at his music recital. Such excellency, Lan Qiren says, deserves a reward: a present to celebrate the successful end of Lan Wangji’s first year and to confirm that the incident that concluded his exchange partner’s stay is now behind them.

When Lan Xichen asks Lan Wangji what he would like to get, he expects one of the usual requests: for books, for music scores and guqin strings, for a polishing kit, for a new pair of hiking shoes.

He is wrong to do so.

That’s when he realizes that this time, even he has been misunderstanding and underestimating his little brother.

Because instead of asking for any of that, Lan Wangji—who might be even more stubbornly technology-resistant than their uncle, who certainly enjoys doing things his own way and not anyone else’s, who speaks and moves and holds himself like he would’ve been perfectly fine living a millennium ago…

Lan Wangji says, “I need a smartphone.”

 

-

 

.3.

It takes about one week for Wei Wuxian to realize that Lan Wangji has acquired a smartphone.

This marks the start of the Get Lan Zhan A Weibo Campaign.

(Wei Wuxian doesn’t have to be good at naming things as long as he is better at it than Jiang Wanyin.)

The campaign is successful, in that Lan Wangji eventually creates an account.

He is slow to figure the whole thing out, though. He obviously doesn’t understand how most of it works—how to find friends or people to follow, what to talk about, how to react to other people’s content, how to post a picture or a video…

Worse, he doesn’t seem to have any interest in learning.

The only thing he starts posting, after a good long while, are boring pictures of boring things with atrociously boring captions (in Wei Wuxian’s opinion).

Like: a picture of a cloudy sky over an unremarkable, pine-covered mountain with the title, Sunset. September 3rd. 18:15.

 

It is Wei Wuxian’s greatest shame that he doesn’t realize that Lan Wangji is trolling him with these shit posts until, like, three months later.

 

-

 

.4.

Not all the pictures Lan Wangji takes are purposefully bad. Most of them are actually quite beautiful, especially once he’s learned how to use the various settings of his phone camera. Those pictures don’t go on Weibo, though. He sends them to Wei Wuxian alone.

Wei Wuxian would scold him about neglecting his already dismal social media presence but he…doesn’t. Somehow, he gets the sense that, with them, Lan Wangji is sharing something special. Something private, that is not for just anyone.

Wei Wuxian quite likes not being just anyone to Lan Wangji.

At first glance there is nothing extraordinary about any of them. They’re pictures of landscapes, of plants, of Cloud Recesses, with rare glimpses of Lan Wangji’s brother and uncle: everyday things, places, people. But that, Wei Wuxian eventually realizes, is exactly what makes them so meaningful. Every single one of them says something—more than Lan Wangji ever does using his spare words. They give insight into his life, his habits, his tastes. They make Wei Wuxian discover the very framework of Lan Wangji’s existence.

When Wei Wuxian came to Gusu, winter was only reluctantly giving way to spring, the weather cold, damp, cloudy, nowhere near the already mild days of Yunmeng, where the rain felt refreshing instead of punishing. Between that and the classes at the Lan Yi Academy, between Lan Wangji’s club activities and homework, they didn’t have the chance to go out much. And so Wei Wuxian was left to wonder how one could, well, live there and enjoy it, be satisfied with it the way Lan Wangji so obviously is.

Now, Lan Wangji shows him, one picture at a time:

Here, a narrow path along a mountain ridge, taking a turn around a single tree, nothing beyond but the open sky. Here, a waterfall bouncing from rock to rock to dive into a clear round pool. Here, a maple tree at the height of fall, its leaves gone up in yellows and reds like flames. Here, Lan Wangji’s desk covered in books and papers and pens, the light disarray of a long study session. Here, a bed of fallen leaves, their veins adorned with delicate lines of frost. Here, bright morning light spilling through an open window, flowing along the lacquered edges of a tea set and making it shine. Here, the mountains around Cloud Recesses, all shrouded in white. Here, Lan Wangji’s brother, Lan Xichen, sitting at a table with his legs crossed as he reads a medical journal. Here, a plum tree branch, its dark pink flowers covered in a thin layer of snow. Here, a forest in the mist, leaves and bushes nothing but otherworldly shadows imbued with blueish light. Here, a puddle of muddy water, its edges crowded with tiny yellow butterflies. Here, Lan Xichen again, walking through rice fields, his left hand outstretched to brush against tender green stems. Here, a simple fern, every single one of its leaflets adorned with crystalline dewdrops. Here, Lan Wangji’s uncle, standing at the top of a mountain beside a small shrine, staring into the distance.

The Lans, it turns out, do a lot of hiking—an activity Wei Wuxian isn’t very familiar with and doesn’t quite see the appeal of. Still, he receives every picture with joy. He sees them for what they are: a precious gift, the privilege of briefly seeing the world through Lan Wangji’s eyes, with all the understanding that goes with it.

His only regret is that Lan Wangji himself doesn’t appear in any of them.

 

One thing is clear, though: this, all those pictures, this is Lan Wangji opening up to him. Wei Wuxian doesn’t know why. He certainly doesn’t think he did anything to deserve it, what with the way he behaved when he was in Gusu. So he feels it all the more keenly: he has to answer in kind. He wants to answer in kind.

He can’t content himself with sending pictures in turn, though. That he has always done. Pictures are something everyone gets from him, whether they want to or not. It’s nothing special. Lan Wangji deserves more than that.

So Wei Wuxian reprises their written correspondence. He uses it to send things. Postcards. Drawings. Trinkets. Sweets and other Yunmeng specialties that can bear the journey. Countless ways to say, Here is what I am doing, here is how my day is going, here is when I’m thinking of you.

Not a week goes by without him sending something.

Soon, most of the money he earns helping in the lotus fields around Yunping flows into that—not that he minds. Even Madam Yu would admit that it’s a better use for it than what he did with it before.

Soon, everyone at the post office knows him not only by sight but also by name. He gets to know them too. Him being his charming self, they’re all very nice and very fond of him. He’s pretty sure that they think he has a girlfriend in another province and find it so sweet of him to send her all these small gifts. He doesn’t correct them: it makes them set aside the prettiest stamps just for him.

Jiang Wanyin, on the other hand, does not find any of this sweet—least of all the fact that, these days, whenever Wei Wuxian comes home with the best snacks, Jiang Wanyin never gets to have any.

“I swear it’s like you’re courting him or something,” he grumbles. “Is that what this is? Should I tell Dad so he can contact his family and start negotiating your betrothal? Will it be a fall wedding? Should we start buying red fabric?”

“Fuck off,” Wei Wuxian retorts, “you’re just jealous I’m better than you at keeping in touch with my SanRen partner. When was the last time you heard from Wen Qing again?”

Unsurprisingly, this leads to a scuffle, which ends with several bruises, a torn sleeve, a knocked over lamp, and Jiang Yanli having to intervene. The package of sweets that started the fight is intact, though, so Wei Wuxian doesn’t mind.

His face feels hot, though. Hotter than usual when Jiang Wanyin annoys him.

He blames it on the unusually warm weather.

 

(Another picture: on the right, the edge of a pavilion, on the left, the glimpse of a garden. In the middle, the corner of a roof curving towards the sky. From it hangs a wind chime—a small round bell shaped like a lotus in its first bloom. It has the bright shine of newness. In the picture it’s pushed by the breeze, caught in the middle of a light swing. One can almost hear it tinkle: a sound from Yunmeng, echoing far away through the mountains of Gusu.)

 

-

 

.5.

Now imagine two things.

 

One is Lan Xichen’s reaction when faced with a smartphone-owning Lan Wangji. Like this: on a beautiful fall afternoon both Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji are in the Orchid Room, sharing the space and quiet. Lan Xichen is reviewing reports on his patients, Lan Wangji working on an essay. Through the open doors and windows comes a surprisingly mild breeze, along with the sweet song of passerines delighting in the sunlight.

A faint buzz breaks the near silence.

Lan Xichen looks up just as Lan Wangji glances over at his phone, set on the upper right corner of his table, and reaches for it. He watches as Lan Wangji checks the screen, as his entire expression softens, lightens; as his lips curve into the faintest of smiles; as he brings the phone closer to his chest, almost cradling it in his hands, and starts typing an answer.

Lan Xichen averts his gaze before Lan Wangji notices he is being watched—but he certainly doesn’t smother his grin.

 

Another is Lan Qiren’s reaction when faced with a smartphone-owning Lan Wangji. Like this: they’re on one of their day hikes and have just finished their lunch, a quick meal made of baozi and fruit. Their bags are packed, their laces tightened, their sunscreen reapplied, their hats secured—all ready to go. Yet when Lan Qiren walks off, it’s to realize thirty meters farther that Lan Wangji isn’t following. He’s still near the outcropping where they’ve eaten, crouching as he tries to take a picture of a flower. It keeps swaying in the breeze, leading to blurry results.

He looks entirely ridiculous.

“Wangji!” Lan Qiren calls.

“Go on ahead,” Lan Wangji says, not even sparing him a glance. “I’ll catch up.”

Lan Qiren gapes at him in disbelief more than outrage. He’s never been too fond of new technologies, all those gadgets that are good for nothing but to waste people’s time and ruin their focus. Living in Cloud Recesses, he’s managed to avoid them for the most part. And he’s always encouraged the people around him to do the same, especially his own nephews.

Which is why he is so incensed that Lan Wangji—Lan Wangji—has fallen prey to them anyway in the end.

“I think it’s cute,” Lan Xichen says when he rants at him about it. They’re on another hike. This time, Lan Wangji has successfully taken the picture he wanted—a view of the valley above which they’re wandering—but is failing in his attempt to send it. They’re on the wrong side of the mountain, apparently, and the network is poor. Which leaves both Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen stuck watching the absurd spectacle that is Lan Wangji wandering to and fro with his phone brandished in the air, trying to catch the one bar that’ll let the picture through. He’s even leaving the path and trampling the wild grass.

“He’s made a friend,” Lan Xichen goes on, paying no heed to his uncle’s justified indignation, “and he wants to share what he’s experiencing just as he’s experiencing it. It’s sweet.”

Sweet,” Lan Qiren repeats flatly. “Is it, though?”

He juts his chin forward. Lan Xichen follows the gesture with his gaze and—

“Ah,” he says, this time in near alarm. Then he hurries forward as he calls, “Wangji, no, not that—don’t climb on that tree, I don’t think the roots—I don’t think Wuxian would appreciate you toppling off the mountain just to send him a picture, please just—”

Lan Qiren rests his case.

 

-

 

.6.

Another moment of painfully teenage behavior:

Lan Xichen walks past Lan Wangji’s room one evening while Lan Wangji is practicing on the guqin. The door is open, so Lan Xichen feels no compunction about stopping there: it’s always a pleasure to watch his brother play. Tonight though, the music doesn’t flow as smoothly as usual. What Lan Xichen can hear of the melody is sweet, a bit melancholy, but try as he might he can’t recognize it. It’s not helped by how Lan Wangji is playing it, in fits and starts, moving forward then back, repeating one phrase again and again with minute changes—another note here, a switch in rhythm there—like he’s teaching himself something new. Yet there is no partition on the stand beside him.

“What’s this piece?” Lan Xichen asks softly, “I don’t think I know it.”

He knew that it was possible for Lan Wangji not to have noticed his presence. Time and again, he has seen how absorbed his little brother can become in his work, to a point where he stops noticing his surroundings entirely. Yet he didn’t expect the reaction he gets: Lan Wangji violently startling, his hands slamming down on the strings and cutting off the music with a jarring screech. Lan Xichen winces. Lan Wangji doesn’t. He’s looking up at Lan Xichen, staring really, his shoulders tense, his eyes wide. His mouth opens, then closes. Then opens and—

No sound comes out.

Lan Xichen blinks. His eyebrows rise. It’s been years since he’s seen his brother like this: struck mute, unable to utter even the smallest sound. Usually that only happens in moments of upset—of grief, of anger, of conflict, when negative emotions start churning and make Lan Wangji close down entirely, whether he wants to or not. But that’s not what’s happening right now, Lan Xichen doesn’t think. Which doesn’t mean he has any idea what’s going on. All he knows—with an almost confounding clarity—is that, were Lan Wangji the type to blush, his entire face would be beet red right in this second.

He doesn’t appear to be breathing.

This is…quite concerning.

“I’ll…let you get back to it, then,” Lan Xichen says slowly.

Lan Wangji manages the tiniest of nods. He’s still staring.

Lan Xichen tries for a reassuring smile before continuing on his way.

He pauses right before he passes out of earshot, though. Waits. After a near-full minute, the soft strums of the guqin start again.

Lan Xichen lets out a small, relieved breath and walks on.

He never brings it up again.

 

-

 

.7.

About the rabbit Wei Wuxian bestowed upon Lan Wangji:

It did not actually disappear.

 

See, Lan Wangji is not a cruel boy. Upon receiving the rabbit, he knows that it is not responsible for what is happening in any way, shape, or form, and therefore shouldn’t suffer the consequences of Wei Wuxian foisting it off on a random person without asking first.

(Never gift a pet to someone without asking first.)

Of course, by “not suffering the consequences”, Lan Wangji means that the rabbit should get to live a long, happy, and comfortable life, during which it will want for nothing.

He already knows something of rabbit care given all the research he did on the subject while he was in Yunping, when his goal was to explain how bad Wei Wuxian is at taking care of Mrs. Fluff.

Obviously, that knowledge is nowhere near enough.

He does more research. He reads books, sifts through Internet websites, visits a pet store and a veterinary office. (Yes, that means he talks to strangers.) He finds out what the best rabbit diet is, what kind of exercise it should get, whether physical affection is required, what environment will make it thrive. He converts a whole corner of the family gardens into a rabbit paradise, because putting the rabbit in a cage is out of the question.

He doesn’t tell anyone. Since the family gardens are vast and the corner that Lan Wangji chose remote, for months no one notices anything. Hence why everyone believes the rabbit has just vanished.

 

Lan Xichen finds out it is not so during the summer break preceding Lan Wangji’s second year of senior middle school.

He’s been looking for his brother for the past half hour. Today is one of the rare days on which Lan Wangji doesn’t have any of his club activities or prep classes. Yet he isn’t in his room, or in any of the buildings in Cloud Recesses—not even the library. He isn’t at the rehabilitation center either. He hasn’t told anyone that he was going out on a small errand or on a hike. He isn’t answering his phone.

Lan Xichen is on the verge of actually worrying when he finds him. Lan Wangji is in the rabbit pen he built, protected from the crushing summer sun by the shade of a tree. He’s lying on his side in the grass, eyes closed: unexpectedly yet deeply asleep. Tucked between his chest and the crook of his elbow, a white rabbit is doing the same, curled into a ball.

Lan Xichen stares.

He is a mature adult though, with a deep sense of measure and self-control. So, he only takes five pictures before he calls Lan Wangji’s name to wake him up and make his presence known.

 

Lan Wangji will never admit it, but some of the Internet content he consults come from nowhere other than Wei Wuxian’s Weibo account for Mrs. Fluff. It’s been taking a life of its own, expanding to include vlogs and tutorial videos on how to take proper care of one’s rabbit. Contents include Q&A’s (“My rabbit’s fur is a bit dull, what can I do?” “My rabbit won’t eat his carrots, IS IT DYING?”), even more pictures of Mrs. Fluff, and videos of her running through the ‘fun exercise courses’ Wei Wuxian makes for her.

Despite using it as a reference, Lan Wangji doesn’t tell Wei Wuxian anything about how Mrs. Fluff’s son is doing. As a consequence, Wei Wuxian spends the next few months and/or years wondering what actually happened to it. His only consolation is that the Lan family is vegan, which means it can’t have ended up as stew.

…Right?

 

-

 

.8.

Lan Wangji is not the only one hiding things.

Only Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin know this—because Wei Wuxian might or might not have raved at them on the topic multiple times—but Wei Wuxian was very impressed with Lan Wangji’s proficiency on the guqin. Hearing Lan Wangji play every evening was one of the best parts of both Lan Wangji’s stay in Yunping and of Wei Wuxian’s stay in Gusu.

Upon hearing this, Jiang Wanyin usually rolls his eyes. Jiang Yanli, on the other hand, is more than willing to listen with a fond smile on her face. Talking to her makes Wei Wuxian understand several things.

One, music is clearly important to Lan Wangji and might be the best—or even the only—way to understand him properly.

Two, it’s important—essential—that Wei Wuxian tries to do that. For some unfathomable reason, Lan Wangji is willing to look past the fiasco that was Wei Wuxian’s visit at the Lan Yi Academy and is making an effort to stay in touch. He bought a smartphone. What’s more, he uses that smartphone. Wei Wuxian has to respond in kind. He will be the best friend Lan Wangji can imagine having. And that implies being open to his interests.

Three, Wei Wuxian can’t go about that halfway. He must not only learn how to enjoy music, but also how to make music. He has to learn how to play an instrument. Only then will he be able to truly grasp how Lan Wangji relates to it.

After a lengthy Internet search, he chooses the dizi. He buys one by combining some of his savings with the red envelope he gets for the New Year.

(He would’ve chosen the xiao but Lan Wangji mentioned his brother plays it and Wei Wuxian can’t be that obvious, can he?)

 

Wei Wuxian being Wei Wuxian, he dives straight into music and practice, which is when the inhabitants of Lotus Pier find out two things about him.

The first one is that, now that he stops to think about it, he loves music.

The second one is that, as much as he loves music, a naturally gifted musician he is not.

That is not helped by the fact that Wei Wuxian decides to teach himself, with nothing but a few books and online tutorials to help him.

This leads to many painful hours for the entirety of the Jiang household.

“This must be what they mean when they talk about extenuating circumstances for murder,” Jiang Wanyin says at some point.

Jiang Yanli gives him a look. It’s meant to be softly scolding but comes closer to pained. “He’ll get better?” she says, then winces at yet another shrill note.

“He better,” Jiang Wanyin retorts. “Or I’ll throttle him, and I won’t even get condemned for it because everyone will agree it was self-defense.”

Eventually, as soon as spring comes and brings with it less-than freezing temperatures, their mother, Yu Ziyuan, banishes Wei Wuxian and his dizi practice to the outer pavilion—the one that is built on stilts, overlooking the lake—where the only things he’ll disturb or maim are the birds and the fish.

 

Lan Wangji knows nothing of this. He finds out about Wei Wuxian’s learning to play the dizi a year later, half-way through their third and last year of senior middle school. On his birthday, in the middle of the Ox Month, Wei Wuxian sends him a video.

It’s of himself. In it, he’s sitting on his bed with his legs crossed. A guest-starring Mrs. Fluff is sniffing at his left knee. When the video starts, he’s leaning forward, checking that everything is in order—the camera settings, the framing. Once he is satisfied, he straightens up. Says, “Okay, now, don’t make fun of me for this,” followed by a small laugh that fails at being casual. He reaches out with a hand towards something that is off-screen and comes back with a flute. He takes a short, bracing breath. Brings the flute to his lips.

And plays Lan Wangji’s favorite piece in its entirety.

It’s not perfect.

It’s very far from perfect.

One could even say that it’s actually quite terrible.

Lan Wangji listens to it thirteen times in a row. Then he saves it on his phone, all the computers in the house, an USB stick and two external hard drives.

 

-

 

.9.

Long before Wei Wuxian sends that video though, and besides all the pictures and presents and music, the second half of their second year of senior middle school is peppered with near misses.

 

One happens towards the end of their winter break. Lan Xichen has taken an extra week off after Golden Week so that he and Lan Wangji can go on a hiking tour, in what is becoming a small ritual of theirs ever since Lan Xichen finished his medical degree. He planned their itinerary and, as he did, he noticed that the train journey would take them through Yunping.

He asked Lan Wangji if he wanted them to make a pit stop there on the way back. Just for a few hours, so that they could drop by the Jiang residence. They’d arrive late in the morning and leave by another train in the afternoon, to arrive in Cloud Recesses in time for a late dinner and for the Lantern Festival two days later. Lan Wangji thought about it for a couple days, then acquiesced.

So that’s the plan.

The trek itself, which takes them from Fengjie to the Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze River, couldn’t go better. The weather is dry and sunny, which is welcome given the time of the year. The rooms they find in the villages and towns they come through are clean, the inhabitants welcoming, the food delicious. The trail is not the most challenging but still deeply rewarding, rife with spectacular views of the gorges—of the sunlight reflecting off the smooth surface of the meandering river, its edges framed by steep slopes where grey stone alternates with green shrubs and unexpected, fresh burst of colors in white and pink and yellow: a riot of early spring blooms. And, once they’ve reached the end of it, their course stays smooth, from bus to train, depositing them in Yunping entirely on schedule.

There is no semi-familiar teenager waiting for them at the train station. Lan Wangji doesn’t seem to be expecting one, which sparks a suspicion in Lan Xichen that he finds confirmed a bus ride and ten-minute walk later, once they reach what he assumes is the Jiang residence and are faced with a closed portal.

Lan Xichen tells himself not to be pessimistic, though, and looks around while Lan Wangji rings the intercom—let his eyes rove over the neat buildings, the grove of weeping willows behind them, the lake one guesses at in between their hanging branches whose buds are barely starting to open.

The intercom, however, stays silent.

“You could try calling him?” Lan Xichen suggests after a second attempt has gone unanswered.

Lan Wangji takes his phone out of his pocket but is still hesitating when a voice asks, “Are you looking for the Jiangs?”

Lan Xichen glances over to see a middle-aged woman with a woven bag of groceries in hand.

“Ah,” he says, “yes. Do you—”

“’Cause they’ve gone on a boat trip for the weekend,” the woman says before he can ask. “Taking advantage of the weather to tour the lakes.” She pauses. “They’ll probably be back for dinner, though, if you can wait ‘til then.”

Except that they can’t.

Lan Wangji is silent as they leave, his face blank. But Lan Xichen sees his lowered eyes, the tight press of his lips, and recognizes the signs of deep upset.

“You didn’t tell him we were coming?” he risks asking while they are waiting for the bus that’ll take them back to the train station.

Lan Wangji’s silence in answer enough. Not that Lan Xichen is surprised. That Wei Wuxian would’ve known of his friend’s planned visit yet ditched him at the last minute with no warning sounds very unlikely.

“You wanted it to be a surprise?” he guesses.

After a few seconds, Lan Wangji gives a minute, soundless nod.

And really, what can Lan Xichen say to that? That’s too bad is nothing but a trite remark, and whatever reassurances he could come up with—telling his brother not to blame himself, not to scold himself for his naivety or his stupidity—will not erase what Lan Wangji has to be feeling right now. Instead he is left with a wave of helpless frustration or…yes, of anger. Not at Wei Wuxian—Wei Wuxian didn’t know anything and isn’t at fault. But at circumstances, at fortuity. At whatever made it so that his brother tried to do something nice, to be spontaneous for once, and got nothing but this—but disappointment, but shame—as a reward.

 

Another near miss is much like the first, only in reverse:

Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian knows, takes part in various competitions in relation to his clubs—especially sword fighting. Wei Wuxian does too, although this year he didn’t make it past the regional tournament. Neither did Jiang Wanyin: he was ousted in the finals by the same boy who had bested Wei Wuxian in the semis.

Wei Wuxian isn’t too bummed about it. There is always next year. But he still insists on going to the interregional tournament. It takes place in Yiling this year, that is to say so close enough to Yunping to make a day trip of it: take an early train in the morning, watch the duels of the day, then go home in the evening.

It’s not too difficult to convince Jiang Wanyin to come along. Jiang Yanli joins them too, if only to make sure that they don’t do anything (too) stupid. Once there, they’ll meet up with Wen Qing and Wen Ning too.

What Wei Wuxian doesn’t say is that watching different styles of high-level swordsmanship and scoping out the competition for next year isn’t actually his main purpose. Rather, it’s to cheer Lan Wangji on, since unlike Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin, he came out the victor of his own regional tournament.

But the duels of the first round come and go, and Lan Wangji never appears.

Eventually, Wei Wuxian pretexts a bathroom break to leave the others in the stands and go find a board displaying the tournament draws. And there Lan Wangji’s name is—along with the mention, Forfeit before match.

 

“What’s up with you?” Jiang Wanyin asks later, on the train back.

“I don’t know, what’s up with your face?” Wei Wuxian retorts.

The conversation deteriorates from there. Before long, Jiang Yanli has to shush them, because they’re in public.

One day, the shame of being treated like four-year-olds in front of strangers might prevail on their need to squabble. Today is not this day. Especially since squabbling has the desired effect: the second they’re back at Lotus Pier, Jiang Wanyin walks off in a huff, thus giving Wei Wuxian the space he needs to call Lan Wangji unnoticed and undisturbed.

He beats around the bush for about twenty convoluted minutes before he finally admits to going to Yiling and why.

“But you weren’t there,” he finishes.

He’s met by silence.

He tries, “They said you forfeited?”

More silence follows, then Lan Wangji says, “Yes. Due to injury.”

Which is how Wei Wuxian finds out that Lan Wangji had a riding accident and broke his leg three weeks earlier.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“There was nothing you could do,” Lan Wangji says. Before Wei Wuxian can protest, he adds, more quietly, “And I didn’t want you to worry.”

“Well I’m worried now,” Wei Wuxian grumbles.

Worried, and peeved—but that he doesn’t say.

 

Jiang Wanyin insists on going back to Yiling the next day to see the end of the tournament, from the quarter finals onwards—and to make a second attempt at talking to Wen Qing like a normal person, since the first one was such an unmitigated failure.

Wei Wuxian comes along. He knows that, if he tried not to, he would have to explain his sudden loss of interest in the whole thing, which, just, no. Besides, once he’s there, he does have a good time. The duels are impressive, especially the second semi-final.

But it’s not quite the same.

 

-

 

.10.

Another near miss, of a different sort:

Lan Wangji has always been quiet, both as a child and a teen; but today he’s been particularly subdued. He hasn’t looked up once from his bowl and plate during lunch, focused on the portion he was obviously struggling to finish. He hasn’t said a word when they shared a cup of tea afterwards either. Then he retreated to the gardens, and has stayed there the whole afternoon, sitting on the edge of the pond that has been dug near Lan Xichen’s pavilion, connected to the nearby stream.

Lan Xichen didn’t need his uncle pointedly looking at him to feel compelled to go check up on him.

Lan Wangji doesn’t move when approaches. The last of the spring blossoms are falling from the trees around him, light pink and white streaked with brown. In the pond, a few fish are swimming, briefly rising to the surface before they dive back under, bright flashes of color briefly darting through the dark water. From time to time the breeze rises, chilly and damp, rife with the memory of that morning’s rain.

Lan Wangji sits with his legs crossed. He isn’t quite alone, though: once Lan Xichen is close enough, he sees that Lan Wangji has fetched the rabbit Wei Wuxian gave him and settled it on his lap. It doesn’t seem to mind, bearing Lan Wangji’s warmth and his slow, careful caresses with its eyes half-closed. It’s in no hurry to return to its cool, lonely hutch.

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says softly. “Are you okay?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t look away from the pond, doesn’t stop the repeated brushing of his hand against the rabbit’s fur. He dips his head into a small nod; that stubborn nod of his that says, I will be—but also, Right now I’m not.

Lan Xichen remains standing beside him, watching the pond in silence. Patiently waiting. Eventually, Lan Wangji lowers his eyes. He swallows once, twice. Manages to force out, “Wei Ying’s got a girlfriend.”

Lan Wangji isn’t very talkative—that’s putting things mildly. Ever since he was a child, he’s favored silence over everything else. That didn’t win him any points with his classmates, or later on with his fellow club members. They found him too reserved, too distant, too cold—and at the same time too direct, too blunt whenever he did speak. Worse, they often held it against him. As if all of it was a choice. Sometimes it is. Other times though, often, for Lan Wangji words are simply a struggle. One he can and will engage in, but only if the situation warrants it. That’s not always the case.

It’s the main criticism his teachers have too: that he doesn’t spontaneously participate in class, that he’s too succinct when answering a direct question, that he doesn’t expand on what he means. Neither Lan Qiren nor Lan Xichen ever relayed those remarks to Lan Wangji, though. It’s not Lan Wangji’s fault that they don’t realize the obvious: he might not talk a lot, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t say a lot. Quite the opposite. Given the scarce number of words granted to him at any given time, he’s learned from an early age to choose them carefully. To get to the point, without detour, without distraction, without pretty figures, and convey a maximum of meaning in a minimum of time.

Now is a prime example. Only five words, and Lan Wangji told Lan Xichen everything, delivered an entire poem that spoke of confusion, of uncertainty, of fear maybe, that turned into acceptance, and further into something else: something that was allowed, maybe even encouraged to grow, cherished until it flourished into a first love, bloomed into a first hope—only to be clipped, cut back, maybe even felled, leaving nothing behind but disappointment and ache. No blame, no anger; but rather, already, resignation.

Oh, Lan Xichen thinks. And even though Lan Wangji’s words are also woven with trust—a confession which he believes Lan Xichen will accept, which might even prompt him to try and provide comfort—Lan Xichen doesn’t know what to say. How to help.

After all, what way is there to soothe a first heartbreak?

 

Lan Xichen is angry at Wei Wuxian this time, at his callous obliviousness. For three days he is, until reason regains the upper hand. After all, he is under no illusion that Lan Wangji made any sort of confession. Their only contacts are through text messages and pictures, and only rarely move to phone or videocalls: those are not the best mediums to suss out someone’s feelings. And even if they were, Lan Wangji is far from being demonstrative. What little he shows, he doesn’t do so the way most people would. Under such circumstances, is it any surprise that Wei Wuxian wouldn’t realize what has happened?

Still, three whole days. Lan Xichen manages as much.

Nie Mingjue is going to be very proud.

 

-

 

.11.

Wei Wuxian’s relationship with Wu Shuilian lasts about two weeks. When it ends, he’s not too bummed about it. It was fun while it lasted, and he completely agrees with her that they can still be friends.

It’s not the first relationship he’s had since he started senior middle school, although it’s the first Lan Wangji knows about. There’s been others, with girls but also with a couple of boys. Most of them didn’t last long. But why should they? They’re not serious. They’re not meant to be serious. It’s senior middle school! They’re just having fun. Especially since there is a lot of fun to be had. Wei Wuxian is nice, he can make anyone laugh, he even looks cute; and there are lots of people who are also nice, who can make him laugh, and who even look cute.

It is no wonder, then, that Wei Wuxian gets crushes easily. He can even have multiple crushes on multiple people at the same time. Case in point: he was going out with Wu Shuilian, and definitely had a crush on her. But he also had his crush on Lan Wangji, which started, oh, on the second day of Lan Wangji’s stay at Lotus Pier? Wei Wuxian isn’t quite sure. Maybe it started even earlier. But when he tries to think about it, that’s what comes to mind: how Lan Wangji, after having almost passed out from tasting Jiang Yanli’s spicy food upon his arrival, approached his second dinner at Lotus Pier with that tiny, resolute frown on his face…only to almost pass out again.

At the time, Wei Wuxian thought the twist in his belly was sheer hilarity.

…Right.

Because of course, he didn’t realize what was happening until months had passed, and he’d left Cloud Recesses convinced that he’d screwed everything up. But the way he felt when Lan Wangji kept texting; when he realized that Lan Wangji had bought a smartphone just so that they could communicate better…

Yeah.

Now that he knows, he’s not exactly surprised. It’s Lan Wangji. Lan Zhan. He’s thoughtful, he excels at everything he does, he is funny—although not in a way that is obvious or expected, but Wei Wuxian likes that, because it feels like being in on a secret. And he is, well. Beautiful. Faced with all of that combined, how could Wei Wuxian not develop a crush?

He doesn’t tell him, though. Of course not.

There’s no need to make things awkward for no reason.

 

Wei Wuxian’s propensity to develop crushes left and right is a well-known fact in Yunping.

So much so that Jiang Wanyin once asked him if he had ever had a crush on him when he first came to live with the Jiangs.

“What? No,” Wei Wuxian said with a grimace because, ew.

Jiang Wanyin, of course, chose to find this vexing. “Why not?”

“Because ew, that’s why!”

Jiang Wanyin’s frown only deepened.

“Come on, we’re brothers!” Wei Wuxian tried.

“You’re adopted,” Jiang Wanyin pointed out.

“So?”

“So that means we’re not actually related!”

Wei Wuxian gave him a look. “Yeah,” he said, “and thank the Gods for that!”

“You—”

Predictably, the whole thing devolved into a fight from there. Still, sometimes Wei Wuxian wonders what Jiang Yanli thought when she came in to investigate the commotion and found Jiang Wanyin beating Wei Wuxian up with a pillow, yelling, “I’m totally crush worthy!” while Wei Wuxian yelled back, “Not like that you aren’t!” and “Jiejie, help me, I’m being abused!” all the while kicking Jiang Wanyin everywhere he could reach.

Fortunately, since then Jiang Wanyin has settled for the much more reasonable habit of just knowing whenever Wei Wuxian develops a new crush, rolling his eyes very hard at it, and grumpily asking, “Finally got it out of your system?” once that crush fizzles out or morphs into friendship—which is the way most of Wei Wuxian’s crushes go.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t care. He has a lot of exes, and a lot of friends, and a lot of people who are both at the same time. Jiang Wanyin is just jealous, because he has neither.

 

Jiang Wanyin doesn’t know about Wei Wuxian’s crush on Lan Wangji, though, Wei Wuxian doesn’t think. If he did, he would’ve been rolling his eyes constantly for the past year and a half. Because unlike most of Wei Wuxian’s crushes, the one he has on Lan Wangji doesn’t fade.

At all.

 

-

 

.12.

Lan Wangji doesn’t generally indulge Wei Wuxian by taking him up on his offer for a videocall, but today he has without needing to be persuaded. They’re at the beginning of the Rooster Month, little more than a week before their third year of senior middle school starts—and with it the home stretch to the Gaokao. Who knows whether they’ll have the time to hold any real conversation over the next months?

He was in his brother’s office, having borrowed the computer for a few hours, when Wei Wuxian called. The phone now sits horizontally on the desk, propped up against a picture frame.

Inside the frame is a family portrait, showing Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji with their mother, taken on what turned out to be the last New Year they had with her. Lan Wangji is six on it, he knows; but to him, in the present, the boy looks much younger. His eyes are bright, his lips stretched into a wide smile that looks entirely foreign. Unnervingly so.

Lan Wangji both knows and doesn’t know why his brother keeps that picture on his desk, where he will see it every time he sits down to work. He’s not too sure he likes it. He’d much rather focus on the present—and, right now, on Wei Wuxian, whom Lan Wangji can see lying on his bed, poking and prodding at Mrs. Fluff now that he has settled her on his chest. It can’t be a pleasant treatment, yet the rabbit bears it gracefully. Either she’s long since gotten used to it or has grown to like it.

Lan Wangji catches himself wondering if he too could get used to those fingers on him—around his wrist, on his shoulder. He remembers acutely all the times Wei Wuxian touched him during their two exchange trips, remembers how he couldn’t help but freeze or tense every time, how that always made Wei Wuxian retreat eventually. He wonders if that could, would change. If there was a way to let Wei Wuxian know that his touch isn’t unwelcome. Just surprising. Unfamiliar.

Overwhelming.

Belatedly, he also remembers that the larger screen on his right is the one he should be looking at. It’s not the first time he has to remind himself—which means that he is making very little progress on what he’s borrowed Lan Xichen’s computer for, on top of being a poor conversationalist.

That much becomes obvious when Wei Wuxian asks, “Whatcha doing?” in that tone that means he’s getting bored.

“Looking at university websites,” Lan Wangji replies.

Wei Wuxian groans. “Already?”

Lan Wangji lets the ensuing silence speak for itself. They’re about to start their last year of senior middle school. Looking for information about higher education and considering their options now is not doing things early. On the contrary, it’s exactly the right time.

“What universities are you looking at?” Wei Wuxian asks.

“Jinlintai.” It’s not the only one he’s considering, but it’s the website the browser is on right now.

The name is met by silence. When he glances down at his phone, Wei Wuxian has turned his head in his direction. His hand now rests flat on Mrs. Fluff’s back. His eyes are wide. “Really?”

Lan Wangji reacts with a faint rise of eyebrows. Jinlintai is one of the top universities in the country. That he might wish to apply there should not come as a surprise.

“A-Cheng wants to go there too,” Wei Wuxian goes on. “Their poli-sci program is good, apparently.”

Lan Wangji would ask why he should care about Jiang Wanyin’s orientation choices, except that he’s long understood that wherever Jiang Wanyin goes, Wei Wuxian will probably follow.

His heart gives a heavy thump that sends ripples all the way down to his fingers and all the way up to his throat. He swallows. Flexes his hands on the keyboard. Says, “Their medical program is widely recognized too.”

“Medicine, uh.” Wei Wuxian hums thoughtfully. His gaze returns to Mrs. Fluff, who is nudging her head against his thumb as if to ask where all the caresses have gone. “I got no idea what I want to do,” he admits.

“There is still time for you to decide,” Lan Wangji says.

“And admission there is, like, super competitive.”

Lan Wangji nods with a faint hum.

Silence settles again.

By now, Lan Wangji has completely given up on reading what the Jinlintai University website has to say about its library.

“Hey, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian says after nearly a full minute. His voice is soft, almost confidential. His eyes don’t leave Mrs. Fluff as he studiously scratches her behind the ears. But then he glances over at Lan Wangji, quickly, almost shyly, and says, “Let’s try and both get in, okay?”

Lan Wangji’s mind presents him with a picture: Wei Wuxian waiting in front of the brick building that Lan Wangji can see on the computer screen, his hair messy, his ratty backpack hanging off one shoulder; Wei Wuxian looking up from his phone at Lan Wangji’s approach, his face brightening, splitting into a smile right before he waves. Lan Wangji imagines such a scene being a familiar occurrence. A habit frequently repeated, maybe even every day. Preciously ordinary.

He is not a complete stranger to want. Still, he is not used to it grabbing him so suddenly, so tightly. So viscerally.

He swallows again.

And says, “Okay.”

 

-

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

.1.

Year three is—

Well.

It’s a well-known fact the last year of senior middle school is a harrowing time for most—if not all—students. The Gaokao looms right ahead, set at the beginning of the Horse Month this year, shrouded in a mist of hopes and fears and uncertainty that obscures whatever might lie beyond. Every available hour is devoted to studying for it, at school, in prep classes, in between, and yet it never feels like enough. Even when one is taking a break, the finish line is never quite out of mind. The pressure is enormous.

Everyone reacts to it differently. This is also true for Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian.

Unfortunately for them, their coping mechanisms stand at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Stress makes Lan Wangji close down. When under pressure, he becomes even more silent and reserved than usual, puts some more distance between himself and everything or everyone else while he deals with whatever the matter is. It’s a fully internalized process. The hatch closes, the ballast tanks fill, and he goes under like a submarine at the start of a months-long journey. He’ll stay in full immersion until it ends. There will be no sign of his presence, no message, nothing.

By contrast, for Wei Wuxian, anxiety is something that needs to be expressed. Let out. Discharged. It comes in the form of jokes, of distractions, of fronting. The more stressed he is, the more talkative and exuberant he becomes. The more he will demand the attention of everyone around him, the more he’ll come bother them, cling to them. It only worsens when, instead of responding in kind, or of bearing his antics patiently, people turn him away or try to withdraw—which, to him, is what Lan Wangji is doing.

So, it comes as no surprise that the situation quickly starts putting a strain on their relationship. It would have even under normal circumstances.

What makes it worse is that the Gaokao isn’t all there is. For either of them.

 

It comes to a head with a phone call.

It’s the only call that Lan Wangji picks up, but not the only one Wei Wuxian attempted. Far from it. He’s been texting a lot too. For the past couple of weeks, the steady stream of his messages has turned into an uncontrollable flood, words and pictures coming at all times of day and night. Coming in even when Wei Wuxian should’ve been in class, or studying, or sleeping. Coming in undeterred by the scarcity of Lan Wangji’s answers, by his inability to deal with all of them, by the hours during which he has no choice but to turn his own phone off so as not to be disturbed by constant notifications.

This time, though, he picks up.

“Lan Zhan! Hi!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, and goes on before Lan Wangji can utter a greeting, “How have you been? What are you doing?”

“I—”

I’m doing great, I’m reading up about the human skin right now, and let me tell you, that shit’s complex—and like, you know how if you look close enough at the back of your hand, you can see small creases and lines, and the hairs, even if they’re thin and almost invisible, and there’s this tiny dip at the base?”

“I—”

“But if you look at actual close-ups—like, pictures taken under a microscope or something, it looks entirely different. It looks like a full geological formation, like another planet almost—"

“Wei Yi—"

“And like, you don’t know what the ground is made of, but the hairs work as some sort of trees, right? But yeah, you don’t want to look too closely at the pores, those look creepy, who knows what kind of creatures might live in there. I mean, can you imagine? I’m thinking some sort of mole, but with those huge-ass teeth and—”

“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji snaps. “Stop.”

Wei Wuxian stop.

“Just…stop.”

Silence settles.

Lan Wangji realizes that he should say something. That he should explain. “I—” He stammers. “Right now, I—"

The words don’t come.

“No, no, it’s—I get it,” Wei Wuxian rushes to say. His voice is blank. “You’re busy. I shouldn’t—”

“I—”

“I’ll leave you alone. I’m sorry. I’ll—”

“Wei Ying—"

“I’m sorry.”

He hangs up.

 

One thing that Lan Wangji doesn’t know:

The reason why Wei Wuxian is texting all the time, even when he should be at school, is because he isn’t. The reason why Wei Wuxian bothers Lan Wangji instead of his siblings, is because they aren’t here with him.

At first, he’s at the hospital. Then he’s at home. Alone, most of the time. Recovering.

He was hit by a car. It would’ve run over Jiang Wanyin if Wei Wuxian hadn’t noticed it careening towards them, if he hadn’t grabbed his adopted brother and thrown him out of the way—so preoccupied about getting him to safety that, in that split second, he forgot about his own.

He woke up in a hospital bed with a concussion, a bruised spine, several broken ribs, a pulmonary contusion, and a ruptured spleen.

The doctors were reassuring. His ribs didn’t shatter, nor did they perforate anything. His spleen didn’t have to be removed and is already on the mend. His lungs aren’t showing any sign that they might develop a pneumonia. He’s young. In all likelihood, they said, he’ll make a full recovery.

But.

They also said that there wouldn’t be any more combat sports for him. That his respiratory system might bear some aftereffects on the long term. That he had to be careful, at least over the next few months.

He’s been released for about a week now, allowed back home at Lotus Pier, told to stay there until he’s well enough to go back to school. It’s…not great. He can’t do most of the things he usually does to distract himself. For most of the day he’s on his own, while everyone else is at work or in class. He’s left alone with his thoughts.

He told his family that he didn’t remember the accident itself. But he does. He remembers that split second before the car hit. The sudden knowledge that the collision was inevitable, the utter terror that came with it, and then—

The impact. The feeling of his ribs snapping. The sound of his head hitting the pavement as he fell. The jarring of his shoulder, his hip, his knee. The blood welling up in his throat, choking him. The confusion, the ringing in his ears, the weakness in his arms, the lurching of everything around him until there was no more up or down. The nausea. And all the while he couldn’t breathe properly. What strangled, panicked breaths he managed to take licked like flames down his throat, along his chest, down his sides, and there were hands on him, voices around him, but he couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t feel anything apart from the pain and the feeling, spreading through him, that something was very, very wrong, that he was going to—

He doesn’t remember, he tells them. He complains that he’s bored, just bored, left alone all day long, forbidden to do anything fun.

In actuality, he’s scared. The minutes—what felt like the hours—until the ambulance came and he lost consciousness won’t stop replaying in his mind. The feeling that darted through him when he woke up and realized what had happened—that icy breath sliding down his neck as death brushed against him and left its mark there—won’t leave him. He’s left reeling and won’t stop wondering: what this will mean for him? For his health, if he doesn’t truly recover? For his budding love of the dizi, if his lungs don’t work properly anymore? For the Gaokao, if he misses any more classes? For his future? Jiang Wanyin has been almost forcefully feeding him all his notes and homework every evening, just like Jiang Yanli has been feeding him soup, but will that be enough? Or will he fail, and have to take it again next year, and be left behind?

He doesn’t have any answers. So, he needs distractions. He needs contact, normalcy. He needs reassurance. And he thought he could get that from Lan Wangji—Lan Wangji who doesn’t know anything and so wouldn’t treat him any differently, who wouldn’t handle him with kid gloves like he’s something breakable, something broken, who wouldn’t look at him like he’s as scared as Wei Wuxian himself feels.

But Wei Wuxian has never known how to ask for things—not openly, not properly. Instead he’s tried to force it, and before he knew it he became an annoyance, a bother. Instead he’s screwed everything up.

Again.

 

One thing that Wei Wuxian doesn’t know:

When Lan Wangji picks up the phone that one time, he’s struggling through copying a selection of poems. They’re his father’s favorite. Once he’s done, the sheets of paper are to be bound into a thin book and burned, along with the joss money, so that Lan Wangji’s father can take them with him into the afterlife.

Lan Wangji volunteered to do this, but it’s not going well. His brush keeps trembling. His lines come out irregular, flawed, ugly. His hand hasn’t felt that unruly, that clumsy since he was a little boy. His calligraphy master would be ashamed. He has to do each poem over two, three, four times. Sometimes more. Crumpled sheets of paper litter the floor around his desk—high-quality paper, thick, smooth, precious, which makes every failed attempt an unacceptable waste.

This isn’t the worst of it.

He can’t remember what his father’s favorite poem by Su Shi is. He should know. Poetry and calligraphy—that was all his father talked about with him. All he wanted to talk about. On the rare occasions Lan Wangji was allowed to visit him at the center, he was never interested in Lan Wangji’s grades, or his club activities, or even the outings he’d gone on with his brother and uncle. The only thing he’d look at where the works that Lan Wangji brought with him because his calligraphy master had praised them. The only thing he’d say were remarks about Lan Wangji’s style, about the ways in which it suited the text or not, about the resemblances and differences between Lan Wangji’s brushstroke and his mother’s. Lan Wangji can’t remember a meeting that wasn’t entirely devoted to that. He can’t remember anything about his father that doesn’t pertain to that.

And now his father is dead, and he will never get the chance for anything else, for anything more.

But he can’t lose himself in regrets. There is no time. He has to finish the poems. In mere hours, he will have to go to his father’s deathbed and relieve his brother there, sit vigil and say prayers that he has to force out of his knotted throat. In mere days, the wake will be over, and the funeral will take place. He has to get this done now, before time runs out, like grains of sand flowing between his numb fingers.

It was foolish of him to pick up the phone when Wei Wuxian called. He doesn’t quite know why he did. Or, he does. He’d hoped—briefly, irrationally—that talking to Wei Wuxian would help. That upon hearing Wei Wuxian’s voice, his gaze would change, and he would see the merits of his attempts rather than their imperfections. That upon exchanging a few words with Wei Wuxian, his mind would clear, and he would suddenly remember what poems he should be choosing.

A delusion, all of it.

Instead, the conversation veered off at once, out of his control, out of his reach. Of course it did. How could it not, when he’d entered it with nothing but a selfish purpose? How unseemly of him, to just expect Wei Wuxian to comfort him—Wei Wuxian, who’s never met Lan Wangji’s father, who’s lost both of his parents a long time ago. Especially when he, Lan Wangji, isn’t even able to utter the words to properly ask for his support. When he has no patience for Wei Wuxian being nothing but himself. When the second things don’t go the way he wants them to, he snaps, in a way Wei Wuxian certainly doesn’t deserve.

Wei Wuxian was right to cut off the conversation. He wasn’t right to apologize. Lan Wangji should be the one apologizing.

But right now, he can’t. Right now, there is no time. Right now, he has to turn off his phone completely, and pull a fresh piece of paper towards himself, and pick up his brush.

This is his fourth attempt at this poem.

It fails again.

 

Later—once the funeral is past, once Wei Wuxian is back at school—they start talking again.

But. It’s different.

There is an awkwardness, a distance, a caution, that wasn’t there before.

Lan Wangji regrets snapping. He knows he hurt Wei Wuxian, durably so. What other reason could there be for Wei Wuxian pulling away the way he does? Lan Wangji should apologize, he should explain, but he doesn’t know how. Even now, he can scarcely think it, let alone say it: My father is dead. The words stick in his throat. And even if they didn’t: they’re an explanation at best. Not an excuse. Wei Wuxian retreats, and Lan Wangji knows that he is right to do so. Sure, he called at a wrong time, but this year if full of wrong times, and Lan Wangji was the one who answered. He was the one who snapped. And he can’t be sure that he won’t do it again. So, he resigns himself to the consequences. Wei Wuxian puts some distance between them, out of self-preservation if nothing else, and Lan Wangji lets him. He holds what Wei Wuxian still gives him close to his chest—like that piece on the dizi for his birthday—and doesn’t ask for more. Wei Wuxian isn’t the first one to step away from him. In a way, he is nothing but one more person in the long list of people whom Lan Wangji has alienated without trying or meaning to. The only difference is that, this time, he was actively trying not to.

That’s not quite what’s happening through.

Wei Wuxian was hurt, yes, but he doesn’t hold it against Lan Wangji. Were anyone to ask him, he’d say that he deserved it. He looked back at their exchanges on his phone and saw the barrage of texts and pictures he’d been sending, without pause or consideration. Complete inanities, the whole of them. And while he doesn’t know the whole truth, he knows this: how important this year is to everyone in the country who is their age, and to Lan Wangji in particular. His future is at play, and success is not guaranteed. Wei Wuxian knows how difficult it is to get into Jinlintai University…and he remembers the mar on Lan Wangji’s record, the one that he, Wei Wuxian, caused back when they were in their first year. It’s bound to make things more difficult. Wei Wuxian can’t screw things up even more for him. He can’t be a distraction, or a bother. Besides, the Gods know that he himself will have to focus and work hard if he wants to keep the promise he and Lan Wangji made. So, he dials it back on the messages, and the pictures, and the calls. It’s hard. But he tells himself: if he’s good, if he works well, if he does enough, then it’ll only be for a few months. Barely more than half a year.

It’ll be fine.

 

So, the both of them focus on studying. And the both of them cling to the thought, the hope, the dream that all their efforts will pay off, that in the end they’ll both get into Jinlintai University. That there they’ll meet again, face to face, and have all the time they need to explain, to apologize, to make things right.

 

What if he changed his mind, though? the both of them wonder too, in the dark of their bedrooms, in the hours where sleep keeps eluding them. What if he decided to go elsewhere after all?

What if I don’t make it?

 

And then it ends.

After months—years—of build-up, the Gaokao is upon them. Three days of exams, there and gone in what feels like the blink of an eye.

Three weeks later, the results come in. And then starts the waltz of admissions and rejections from the universities they applied to.

 

It ends with Wei Wuxian sitting on the floor in his and Jiang Wanyin’s pavilion, a computer on his lap, re-reading the email he received from Jinlintai University. Jiang Wanyin, who has gotten a similar one, has already left the room to go tell their parents the news.

(They fought over who would open his first. Jiang Wanyin lost.)

Now Wei Wuxian sits alone. He knows that it’s only a matter of time before Jiang Yanli comes to fetch him and congratulate him. Gods know she’ll be right to. She’s been so worried for him, these past few months.

But she isn’t here yet, and Wei Wuxian doesn’t go find her. Instead he has his phone in hand. He’s tempted to call. But calling isn’t really something they do these days, not anymore.

He settles for a text.

Hi, so, I got the email from Jinlintai. And then, after a pause, I got in.

He bites his lips. He isn’t sure how quickly he can expect an answer. But almost at once, the small tick indicating that the message has been read appears, followed by a small bubble. Dot, dot, dot.

Congratulations, Lan Wangji replies, and adds, I got in too.

Wei Wuxian’s breath leaves him all at once. He starts typing an answer, then stops, and fuck this, fuck this, fuck caution, this deserves a call.

Lan Wangji picks up.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian blurts. He can’t help it. “Hi! Sorry, it’s just—this feels like something that needs to be said out loud. Hi! You got in! Congratulations!”

“Yes. Thank you,” Lan Wangji says. “Congratulations to you too.” His voice sounds deeper than Wei Wuxian remembers. Mellower too, as if rounded by a smile.

Wei Wuxian feels his lips split into a wide grin.

“Thanks! Yes! Congratulations to us!” he says. His heart is knocking so hard against his ribcage, he feels breathless. “We made it! You made it! Not that—I never doubted. I mean, I saw your Gaokao results—” It wasn’t difficult to find them. They were all over Gusu’s local newspapers, which raved about the student who’d clinched the first place in the province’s rankings. The fact that the Lans then refused to give any kind of interview only spurred them on. “—if you hadn’t gotten in, then no one could’ve, really.”

“I saw yours too,” Lan Wangji says, softly, quietly. Wei Wuxian blinks, caught off-guard, because that would’ve been less easy. He and Jiang Wanyin only (“only”) made the top ten in Yunmeng. In order to find their results, one would’ve had to look for them, in the few articles that gave a short list of the 10 or 20 best students as an afterthought. A footnote. “I had faith that you’d get in too.”

Well, Wei Wuxian thinks with an awkward laugh, that makes one of us.

He looks back at the computer, at the email displayed on its screen. The content hasn’t changed. It wasn’t an illusion. It still says the same thing: Dear Wei Wuxian, we are pleased to inform you that—

He notices the silence that has settled. “That’s great,” he says, looking for something to say, realizing that congratulations were pretty much everything he had planned. He swallows. “I’ll—I’ll see you there, then?” he asks, only to feel a stab of worry. What if there is another university that Lan Wangji applied to, that he’s been admitted to, that he’d prefer?

But before the thought can take hold, Lan Wangji replies, “Yes.” The word comes quickly, firmly, like there is no need to stop and think about it. “At the end of the Monkey Month.”

“Can’t wait,” Wei Wuxian says, a little bit strangled.

He catches a movement out of the corner of his eye. When he glances over, Jiang Yanli stands in the doorway, her lips curved into a wide smile, her eyes bright with happy tears.

“Was that Lan Wangji?” she asks once the phone call has come to an end, concluded on a promise to keep in touch over the summer and to meet when the time comes to go to Lanling and move into the dorms.

Wei Wuxian nods. “Yes, he got in, he—” He chokes. “A-Jie, we all got in,” he says, and already she’s stepped into the room, and her arms are around him, and he hugs her right back, pressing his face into the crook of her shoulder to hide his tears, his joy, his relief.

 

-

 

.2.

There is a rumor going around in Yunping that Madam Yu, Jiang Fengmian’s wife and Jiang Wanyin’s mother, not-so-secretly hates her adoptive son Wei Wuxian.

To an outside observer, it might seem that way. She spends half her time cursing him and blaming him for everything, from a comb tooth breaking to a rainy day. Wei Wuxian, for his part, can often be heard whining about how evil his evil stepmother is.

The truth of it is that it’s all a game. Although even the rest of the Jiang family couldn’t tell you how it started, or when, or why.

It’s just something that is.

 

Once though, when Wei Wuxian was a pre-teen, someone, misled by the rumors, dared try and dress him down while Madam Yu was within earshot. It was at a market. Wei Wuxian had been roughhousing with Jiang Wanyin, as he was wont to do. Jiang Wanyin had elbowed him in the chest, he’d stumbled back, and accidentally bumped into a stall. Half a dozen apples had toppled down from their carefully arranged pyramid.

They didn’t suffer much, and Jiang Fengmian would’ve bought them all in reparation. But before he could offer, the merchant had blown up at Wei Wuxian. Quite disproportionally. There had been some choice words in his rant, like when he’d called Wei Wuxian a demon-child, or spat that “even your adoptive mother doesn’t want you”.

That was when Madam Yu had stepped in.

Years later, the man still hasn’t recovered from the ensuing tongue-lashing.

 

When Wei Wuxian gets hit by that car in his third year of senior middle school, Madam Yu is the first one to make it to the hospital. She then proceeds to more or less set up shop there for the next few days. She has her phone, her laptop, and two assistants whom she trusts to keep things running at the office, to relay any important piece of information, to bring her all the files she might need, and to warn her if a problem arises. As long as she doesn’t have to meet with a client and doesn’t have to appear in court, she can stick around as much as she wants. Which she does.

She makes sure to scold Wei Wuxian for playing heroes and to blame him for forcing her to put up with the hospital’s disgusting coffee—never mind that her assistants never show up without bringing a cup from that fancy shop near her office along with their updates. It’s always piping hot, too, despite the distance from there to the hospital. Wei Wuxian doesn’t wonder how they do it. He’s long since learned that Madam Yu’s assistants have superhuman powers. Instead he mumbles that he isn’t forcing Madam Yu to drink or do anything, and that this much caffeine is bad for her health, her teeth, and her character anyway.

Doctors and nurses are very confused by the whole thing. They do not intervene, though. If they do, Madam Yu’s attention will turn to them, which they’ve quickly realized is to be avoided at all costs.

 

Fortunately for the entirety of the hospital personnel, Wei Wuxian quickly improves, and Madam Yu soon feels like she can devote her attention and time to other things. Or, rather, other aspects of the same thing—in this case, suing whoever nearly ran over her children for all they are worth.

Given that Wei Wuxian is her adopted son, she won’t take the case herself. That would come too close to a conflict of interest. But she has many connections and is owed many favors. So, it isn’t difficult for her to find someone to do it for her.

That’s where she goes once she is certain that Wei Wuxian is out of danger. The hospital staff glad to see the back of her.

“I believe there are two things you ought to know going into this,” her lawyer says when she meets up with him. “One, the person who was driving the car has been identified as the girlfriend of the son of the CEO of the largest mining company in Qishan. The son was in the passenger seat at the time of the accident.” He hesitates. “Some would say that it might not be advisable to go after them.”

“Noted,” Madam Yu replies dismissively. “What’s the second thing?”

“We have several witness accounts plus some camera footage that all indicate that the light was green for pedestrians and that the car would’ve had plenty of time to stop—but that instead, it sped up. And honked.”

Hearing that, Madam Yu is silent. She looks at her lawyer. Her lawyer looks back.

Very slowly, she smiles.

 

-

 

.3.

Jiang Yanli is one of the people for whom the SanRen exchange program went badly.

The pen-pal she was assigned was a boy from Lanling named Jin Zixuan.

Jin Zixuan had had high hopes about the person he would get as his exchange partner. It’d be a boy, for one. He’d be the top student of an elite school. He would share the same interests and views as Jin Zixuan. They’d get along well enough. It’d give a good foundation to a long-term friendship which would later on turn into a work partnership, ideally when they’d create their own company.

If they ended up at different companies that often worked together, that’d be fine too. Or so Jin Zixuan’s father said. Just like he’d said most of the things that had defined Jin Zixuan’s expectations of his SanRen partner. Jin Zixuan had listened religiously—without once wondering why, given that the SanRen program was so important, his father’s own SanRen partner was nowhere to be found amongst his many associates and partners.

No that it mattered. Because instead of the ideal partner he’d pictured, Jin Zixuan got Jiang Yanli. A girl. From Yunmeng. Who…was pretty much the opposite of everything he’d wanted or expected.

Suffice to say, the correspondence and the ensuing exchange trips all went terribly. At no point did Jin Zixuan even try to be nice. Jiang Yanli reacted to that by becoming increasingly subdued and tentative, and spending the entirety of their exchange trips hugging the walls.

During her time in Lanling, Jin Zixuan’s mother—who clearly saw that she wasn’t at fault—did what she could to make the experience less excruciating, but she wasn’t very successful. And so, everyone was deeply relieved when those two weeks ended.

The correspondence stopped right after that.

 

They don’t go to the same university.

At first.

After senior middle school, Jin Zixuan gets into Jinlintai University, which has the double advantage of being a top-ranking university and in his home city.

For her undergraduate degree, Jiang Yanli prefers to stay close to her family. She joins a decent college in Yunmeng, close enough for her to keep living at Lotus Pier. She doesn’t mind the one-hour commute per train. Mostly, she uses it to do her readings for class.

Later on, however, when Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian decide to try and get into Jinlintai University, she applies there too for her postgraduate studies. They all get in.

That’s how Jin Yanli and Jin Zixuan end up at the same college, six years after their failed pen-pal exchange.

Jin Zixuan knows nothing of this. If he had, he would’ve been very dismayed. He might even have considered switching universities. But no one told him.

So Jin Zixuan sees Jiang Yanli again for the first time during the last week before classes start. It’s shortly before noon. They’re outside. It’s a beautiful day. The encroaching fall has brought the crushing heat of summer down to a pleasant warmth, dry and mild. The sky is surprisingly clear, a deep azure blue. The sun is shining.

Shining on Jiang Yanli specifically, it seems.

She is with a group of people, talking animatedly with the two girls closest to her, smiling, laughing even—many things that she never did in Jin Zixuan’s presence all those years ago. It makes her look like a whole other person. Yet somehow, Jin Zixuan recognizes her instantly.

He stares as they walk by.

She doesn’t notice him.

 

A couple days later, he finds out that they’ve both been taken on as graduate assistants for the same professor.

Professor Cheng introduces them. Jin Zixuan is in the office, tidying up some documents, when the man arrives with Jiang Yanli in tow. He’s clearly been showing her around.

Their eyes meet. At once, her polite smile fades. Her face takes on that small, hurt look it so often carried all those years ago whenever she was in Jin Zixuan’s presence. Jin Zixuan had always assumed that it was just her being her, a meek, uninteresting little thing.

Now, he knows—he’s seen—that she very much isn’t. He knows that she is—

She is—

And he

Well.

Shit.

 

“Mother,” Jin Zixuan says an hour later, on the phone, “I screwed up.”

“Glad to know you’ve finally caught on to what I’ve been telling you for years,” Madam Jin retorts once he’s explained. She pauses. “I’m a bit worried about the fact that it took you six years and me divorcing your father to get there, though.”

 

-

 

TBC