"So, where is it?"
Wei Wuxian bit down on the steamed custard bun he'd bought on his way out to meet with Wen Qing. She'd stopped by Lotus Pier on her way back to Qishan, and since Wei Wuxian hadn’t gotten to speak with her after the Qiongqi Path incident, he decided to take the time to meet her. "Where is what now?"
Wen Qing gave him a look that said, I know exactly what you're up to, and I'm tired of it. "Your hairpin. You're claimed now. You should be wearing it."
Said hairpin was currently tucked in Wei Wuxian's robes, swaddled in cloth as an extra protective measure. Jiang Yanli had urged him to wear it in his hair. "It's an honor to be picked by His Highness," she'd said as she brushed his hair. "You should wear the hairpin with pride."
Poor Jiang Yanli. Wei Wuxian knew she was trying for his sake, but as the only one who showed any enthusiasm on Wei Wuxian's behalf, she could only do so much for him, and Wei Wuxian felt no pride for wearing what should have been her hairpin. So he carried it with him, and kept his hair down. His appearance earned him confused and disappointed looks from people who recognized him, but he couldn't care less about what they thought.
He couldn't say the same for Wen Qing. As they walked together, he tore another chunk out of his steamed bun. "It's cold today. I don't want to wear my hair up."
Wen Qing narrowed her eyes accusingly. Wei Wuxian choked on his bun when he reflexively swallowed out of stress.
"I have not properly thanked you for coming to our aid," she said as Wei Wuxian went into a coughing fit. "So thank you, and I'm sorry."
Rubbing his chest, Wei Wuxian cleared his throat multiple times to get the remaining crumbs out. How unsurprisingly typical of Wen Qing to simply stand there and watch him choke. "The 'thank you' part I get." He coughed again. "But why the apology? You want to apologize for getting ambushed?"
Wen Qing glanced around for potential eavesdroppers. The beta chaperone who was supposed to be accompanying Wei Wuxian was distracted by a stall selling wooden trinkets. "I apologize," Wen Qing dropped her voice down to a whisper, "because we placed you in a difficult position. I know with your… condition, it must be very painful to give yourself to Hanguang-Jun."
Condition. Wei Wuxian wanted to laugh. There Wen Qing went again, treating him like one of the broken omegas she'd rescued from difficult situations. "Do not worry," he whispered back. "I have it under control."
Wen Qing pressed her lip into a line. "You do not understand. As an omega of your condition, you—" another glance around, to ensure no interlopers, "—your body and mind will only have the one who marked you. It will be excruciatingly difficult for you to tend to His Highness. You might even give yourself away."
At first, Wei Wuxian didn't understand. Why would it be difficult for him to—
Wei Wuxian couldn't hold back a giggle. "Lady Wen, I thank you for your kind consideration, but it is unnecessary. Believe me when I say I have no qualms against tending to His Highness."
He could almost pinpoint the exact moment Wen Qing's expression went from confused-contemplative to a steely neutral, like a bear trap clamping shut. She had lived through a war and knew how to keep a calm demeanor in the face of bad news.
"Bet you couldn't have guessed that." Wei Wuxian nudged her with his elbow. "It's okay. You can laugh. It's pretty ironic."
Wen Qing didn't laugh. She continued walking. When they passed close to a stall selling little wooden figurines, she bought one—presumably for Wen Ning. The alpha vendor didn't bother trying to convince her to look at any of the other carvings, possibly because she looked like she was a hair's breadth away from committing Heaven-defying crimes.
It was only after they'd sat down in the shade of a tree to take a break did Wen Qing finally whisper, "When?"
"In the cave beneath Muxi Mountain," Wei Wuxian answered, far too relieved that she could still speak. "He had a fever, and doesn't remember. Otherwise…"
"Otherwise you would be married, and with the title of Prince-Consort right now." Wen Qing's eyes were glassy and distant. "And I would be addressing you as 'Your Highness'."
Wei Wuxian tried, and failed, to not shudder at that. "Yeah," he agreed.
Wen Qing started to peel a tangerine she'd brought along, the sharp citrus scent filling the air. "Fuck," she muttered.
"That's what we did," Wei Wuxian added with a chuckle that may have sounded a little hysterical.
The sharp look Wen Qing gave him was brief, barely there long enough to be seen before she folded it under carefully-crafted indifference. She was clearly making an effort not to distress him. "When do you plan on telling him?"
When. Not if.
Wei Wuxian felt something within him fray. "Qing-jie." He rubbed his hands together at his knees. "Is there truly no way to break a bond without dying?"
The tangerine's rind started to spiral down to Wen Qing's lap as she peeled. "I have heard of cases where serious injury or other near-death experiences led to a bond severance, but it's very rare, and always traumatizing." Her eyebrows furrowed together. "You can weaken a bond by keeping both parties separate: no sight, no touch, and no scent. But it takes years, and separation isn't easy."
Wei Wuxian thought about Lan Wangji's visit to Lotus Pier, and how easy it had been to be drawn to him despite the years between them. Then he thought about the restrained hunger in Lan Wangji's eyes when Wei Wuxian, in his tent and carrying a robe that smelled of sandalwood, asked him for something to eat.
A gift of clothes, a gift of food, a silent agreement. It had almost felt like a wedding; perhaps in different circumstances, it could have been.
Wei Wuxian pressed on his chest, over the bundled kingfisher-feather hairpin. "Can a bonded alpha still mate with others?" he asked before he thought better of it.
Wen Qing glanced around, then scooted a little closer to whisper, "Yes, in the sense that you could bite your own finger off. It just feels wrong, and the body naturally resists. Do you think you could ever have another alpha?"
No, he couldn't. Wei Wuxian had not presented as an omega for long before being bonded, but even he noticed the subtle changes before and after. The scent of other alphas had soured a little, no longer intriguing or provoking, and just the thought of being under one of them made him want to gag.
"But he doesn't know he's bonded," Wei Wuxian argued, "and he… his duties—it's expected of him, and he has never failed to meet expectations. Do you think—perhaps—"
His words failed him. He couldn't voice it, his worst fear, although he didn't know what he dreaded more: Lan Wangji choosing to bed only him and inevitably exposing their bond's existence, or Lan Wangji managing to push past his instincts to lay with another—maybe even sire a child with them.
"I don't know." Wen Qing separated each slice of tangerine onto her lap. She didn't eat any of them. "I'm sorry, but I haven't heard of any other cases where an alpha was unaware that they were bonded. Hanguang-Jun is strong-willed. If he wished to do so, I expect he could perform—especially since he's unaware of the bond's existence. But it will certainly make it more difficult for him… I don't know."
Wei Wuxian stayed silent. He didn't know what answer he'd hoped for.
"A-Ning is in the Cloud Recesses," Wen Qing spoke after a long moment. "He heard you were going to be Hanguang-Jun's consort and asked to accompany you."
That was new, and unexpected. "How are his injuries?" Wei Wuxian asked.
"Still healing." Wen Qing finally ate one tangerine slice. "But he begged, and I permitted it. Qishan Wen does not dare offer Hanguang-Jun an omega after the Sunshot Campaign, but we lack a voice and an ear in the Cloud Recesses. A servant position is sufficient, and if he's with you, he won't come to harm." She chewed the next slice a little longer than necessary.
Indeed, offering a consort to Lan Wangji would be too audacious a move, even with the Qiongqi Path incident highlighting how desperately the Wens needed imperial recognition and support. Wei Wuxian nodded. "Wen Ning has good ideas. I'll be grateful for his company."
Wen Qing didn't respond, instead choosing to scarf down the rest of her tangerine. She couldn't offer one to Wei Wuxian, because a tangerine would qualify as a gift of food, but she deliberately turned her head away when Wei Wuxian helped himself to one from her basket.
"You never answered my question," she said as she gathered the tangerine peels.
Wei Wuxian tried not to wince. "I don't know if I'll ever tell him." He turned so that he couldn't see the disapproval that was certainly growing on Wen Qing's face. "Maybe in a decade or two, once imperial power has consolidated and he is free to…"
He didn't know what he thought Lan Wangji would be free to do. Make decisions without worrying about the noble families taking away too much support? The bond was created two years ago, but its significance and impact did not diminish with time. How presumptuous of Wei Wuxian to think that Lan Wangji would be anything but disappointed and angry upon learning the truth.
He almost didn't catch Wen Qing asking, quiet enough to be lost on the breeze, "Did he dishonor you?"
What a delicate way of putting it. Wei Wuxian would laugh if he didn't feel so drained. "Hanguang-Jun is incapable of dishonoring anyone, much less someone who chose not to wear a collar to indoctrination."
Wen Qing's hyssop and gardenia scent soured with disapproval. "If you had, then Wen Chao would have made you serve him."
As if Wei Wuxian didn't already know that. Still, sometimes he wished he'd had the foresight to smuggle in a collar or fashion one that would have been more durable than his belt sash. Then, at the very least, he wouldn't feel like his rib cage was being split in two at the thought of Lan Wangji spending nights with other omegas.
A hand on his shoulder nearly made him jump. Wen Qing patted him with a gruffness that bordered on outright smacking. "If you need anything once you're in the palace, tell A-Ning. I'll try my best to get it to you."
Wei Wuxian recalled the box of medicine Wen Qing had given him at the end of the Sunshot Campaign. He likely wouldn't be able to bring it with him into the Cloud Recesses; owning contraceptives and abortifacients could get him in trouble. But he wasn't going to say no to being able to acquire them within a short period of time.
"Thank you, Qing-jie, for your care and concern." He bowed his head.
"Were you with Lady Wen this morning?"
Wei Wuxian froze. He had just stepped through the doors of Lotus Pier when Yu Ziyuan's unmistakable voice stopped him in his tracks. Just his luck. "For a short while, Your Ladyship."
Yu Ziyuan walked slowly, followed closely by her two handmaidens. "How very interesting that the newest Wen leader visited Lotus Pier and did not stop by to properly pay her respects to its masters."
A hot, queasy sensation took hold of Wei Wuxian's stomach. "Lady Wen was just on her way back to Qishan, and thought to check on my well-being," he explained. "To avoid fueling rumors detrimental to the Yunmeng Jiang name, she chose not to observe formalities. May Your Ladyship be gracious."
Yu Ziyuan pressed her lips together in obvious displeasure. Her war with herself showed in her eyebrows; Wen Qing had rescued her and Jiang Fengmian when Lotus Pier was attacked. Even with all that had happened since, Yu Ziyuan could not openly condemn Wen Qing without good reason.
With a scoff, Yu Ziyuan turned away. "As if she could do more damage to our name than you already have. Don't be surprised if Hanguang-Jun won't touch you, now that others have seen you with an unbonded alpha."
It was no use arguing with her, and Wei Wuxian was very tired. "I take my leave, Your Ladyship." He bowed, and hurried away to his room.
Wei Wuxian rarely saw Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng anymore, since Yu Ziyuan had doubled their duties and lessons. They were soon to be major figures in politics, she'd argued, since Jiang Yanli was poised to be the next Lady Jin, and Jiang Cheng was starting to take on more of his father's clan responsibilities.
Wei Wuxian only had Jiang Yanli's old etiquette books dropped off in front of his room, which was honestly more effort on Yu Ziyuan's part than he'd expected.
But busy schedules didn't stop Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng from visiting him after supper, when they had some free time. Jiang Yanli in particular spared no effort; she always brought along presents—fans, handkerchiefs, embroidered scarves—to make sure Wei Wuxian knew how to wear and use them. She'd even arranged for a physician to come late at night to pierce Wei Wuxian's ears, much to his chagrin.
"Gently." Jiang Yanli corrected his arm position. "Pretend you're walking in an overgrown garden and you're trying not to disturb any of the flowers."
Wei Wuxian held back a groan as he went back to his starting place near his bed. Who knew walking could be such a hassle? No wonder consorts had sedans to take them everywhere.
When he told Jiang Yanli as such, she laughed and adjusted the way he held his handkerchief. "Our Xianxian will look gorgeous no matter what. Jiejie only wants the Crown Prince to think so too, so that he cannot bear to leave A-Xian's side." Playfully, she reached forward to nudge the pearls hanging from Wei Wuxian's hairpin, making them sway.
Wei Wuxian begged to differ. Lan Wangji would probably laugh at him. Or stare at him in discomfort. It was difficult to predict.
Jiang Cheng shared his sentiment. "If you want Hanguang-Jun to never visit him, then by all means continue trying to teach him, a-jie. Maybe if he's awkward enough, he'll accidentally look graceful."
It was a pity he was sitting on the floor. Wei Wuxian could have smacked Jiang Cheng in the face with his ponytail. Instead, he curtsied low. "Forgive this consort for his improper manners." He kept his gaze respectfully downcast. "This consort will make every effort to correct his behavior."
Jiang Cheng retched loudly enough to be heard halfway across Lotus Pier.
"A-Cheng!" Jiang Yanli scolded as Wei Wuxian burst out laughing. "We have to be encouraging!"
"Encouraging of what?" Jiang Cheng wheezed as he gestured to all of Wei Wuxian. "This? Hanguang-Jun is not blind; he's going to see right through it in an instant. Inner palace etiquette is not something that can be learned overnight."
"A-Xian does not need to know every rule regarding decorum," Jiang Yanli insisted. "I'm certain Hanguang-Jun likes him the way he is. In the end, it's the Crown Prince's favor that matters above all else. And if A-Xian gives birth to a tiny A-Xian—"
Jiang Cheng heaved like a cat coughing up a fur ball.
"—then he is guaranteed to be well-respected in the Cloud Recesses, and will enjoy a good life." She reached out to press her palm against Wei Wuxian's cheek. "If you do have a child, then you should ask His Highness to bring the two of you to Lotus Pier, so that we can all spend a day together."
Wei Wuxian wondered if prisoners were allowed outside of the Cloud Recesses, or if any children of his would even be considered legitimate imperial offspring. He smiled and nodded anyways.
"A-jie, can we please stop talking about him having babies," Jiang Cheng begged. "He hasn't even had his first kiss yet. I do not want to imagine him going past that."
Wei Wuxian's jaw dropped. "I've kissed someone before! That's more than you can say!"
"Really?" Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. "Alright, who did you kiss?"
Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian nearly answered, his tongue already forming the beginning of Lan Wangji's name. While it was the truth, it also felt like a lie. Lan Wangji didn't remember it. It would be wrong to tell others.
"Who do you think?" he asked instead.
Jiang Cheng made a tch sound. "With the way you flirt with others? It could be anyone—" His face suddenly paled. "Oh gods, is it Wen Qing?"
This time it was Wei Wuxian's turn to gag. "Excuse me?"
"Wen Ning?" Jiang Cheng continued, because apparently he was in a contest to out-ridicule himself. "Mianmian? Huaisang?! I feel like you would do something stupid with Huaisang, since you are both insufferable. I need a clue. Do I know this person?"
It was a miracle that Wei Wuxian didn't throw up. He sucked deep breaths into his lungs. "You couldn't make less stupid guesses?" He coughed. "Do I look like I would just settle with anyone?"
Jiang Yanli tapped the top of Wei Wuxian's head with a book. "Boys, we need to focus," she scolded gently. "If A-Xian wants to tell us, he will. Otherwise, we should resume practicing. A-Xian, do you know how to serve tea properly?"
Wei Wuxian, as it turned out, did not. And so began another round of practice.
Two weeks later, an escorting party arrived from the Cloud Recesses. They came before dawn and as quietly as a group of over twenty people could be, but they still managed to attract enough attention that their presence halted all work around Lotus Pier's main hall.
"We are here to perform all necessary inspections on Second-Class Attendant Wei and accompany him back to the palace," the beta steward in charge said with a bow. Behind him, rows of white-robed servants bowed as well.
Second-Class Attendant. So Lan Wangji had already given him a rank.
Wei Wuxian hid his wince as a muddled mixture of joyous and confused murmurs erupted from the watching Lotus Pier servants. It was far too early for any of this. He hadn't slept all that well last night, and just when he'd felt like he was finally drifting off to sleep, the next thing he knew, Jiang Yanli was shaking him awake and it was still dark outside.
Nearby, a listening Yu Ziyuan scoffed and rolled her eyes. Second-Class Attendant was the lowest rank in an imperial harem. Wei Wuxian didn't mind, of course—he hadn’t expected better, as a glorified prisoner—but it did make wearing a kingfisher feathers hairpin all that more awkward.
Perhaps he should ask Lan Wangji if he could exchange it for something simpler, more befitting his rank.
He followed the steward into a private room. Servants spread out, placing a toolbox on a table and shaking out silk blankets over a couch. One of them came up behind Wei Wuxian and, with a quiet, "Pardon me, Second-Class Attendant Wei," guided him by the arm as if he were a three-year-old over to the chair on a dais.
Wei Wuxian stared in bewilderment as snacks and tea were set down by his hand. "Is… is all this necessary?" he choked out.
"We are here to serve you and prepare you for entering the palace, Second-Class Attendant Wei." The steward bowed. Behind him, servants brought in a bathtub and began filling it with steaming water, milk, and lotus petals. "Before your bath, we'll do a body inspection and a collar change."
Wei Wuxian's heart fell to the soles of his feet. "What did you say?"
The steward bowed deeper. "To reply to Second-Class Attendant's question: it is customary to inspect each incoming consort to note any physical irregularities that His Highness may want to be aware of. For your comfort, there will only be two people present for the inspection: myself, and a servant."
"No, no, no." Wei Wuxian shook his head; the pearls of his hairpin hit his temple. "Collar change? What do you mean by collar change?"
"Ah." The steward bowed yet again; Wei Wuxian's patience for the excessive bowing was getting very thin. "Forgive this servant for speaking out of turn, but His Highness obviously cannot have bonded omegas in his harem. It's part of the inspection to check for bondmarks before we give you your collar. May Second-Class Attendant forgive us for our trespasses."
Wei Wuxian still shook his head vigorously. This was not how this was supposed to go. He was not supposed to be revealed like this, not to strangers he didn't care about, who didn't care about him. This was all wrong.
"Second-Class Attendant, please," a servant said. He was the only servant present; all the others had left. "We understand your discomfort—"
"Discomfort?" Wei Wuxian stood up. At his full height, he easily towered over them both. "Did the two of you not hear what I did to Jin Zixun when he tried to pull my collar? Do you wish to lose more than a hand?"
Both steward and servant fell to their knees. "Second-Class Attendant, please, have mercy," the steward pleaded. "We pitiful servants are only following Hanguang-Jun's and High Chancellor Lan's orders. Please cooperate."
There was no time, and no choice. This was not a situation Wei Wuxian could charm or think his way out of. It was happening now, and he had to do something. Something.
The servant reached for his collar with its key in hand; Wei Wuxian allowed himself to feel a little dismayed that one of the Jiangs must have given them a copy. He held his breath, casting his eyes about the room. The windows were shuttered for privacy and the sun was not yet up, but any mark would show clearly in the lamplight. Maybe if it were dark, maybe if he struggled—
The servant took hold of Wei Wuxian’s hair, tucking it to one side of his neck, revealing the lock.
"Please, Second-Class Attendant Wei," the steward joined in on cornering him, "just hold still, this won't take long—"
As he spoke, the servant's fingers slipped under Wei Wuxian's collar, quick and light where Jin Zixun's were rough and heavy. Wei Wuxian heard the click of his collar before he felt it loosen, then slip off.
Wei Wuxian jerked backwards. His shoulder bumped one of the lanterns lighting the room and he grabbed at it, paper tearing as he retreated further without letting go. He shoved a chair between himself and the steward, and tripped backward over the low table with the teapot, knocking two more lanterns. The paper lanterns going up in flames cast flickering light on the steam rising from the teapot shards on the floor.
The steward shrieked and began stomping on the fire to put it out. With a heave, Wei Wuxian slammed into the servant, sending him sprawling halfway across the room, but not before he felt a heavy coldness close around his neck. With a cry, he clawed at his throat, nails scraping against a smoothness that had to be jade. It was cool to the touch, and much weightier than his leather collar. Wei Wuxian gasped as he tried to pry it off, to no avail. It had already locked in place.
With nothing left of the fire except for a pile of smoldering paper, the steward hurriedly took a lantern from someone at the door. "Meng Yao!" He rushed over to the servant, who was still on the floor, trying to regain his breath. "Why did you do that?! You weren't supposed to collar Second-Class Attendant Wei yet!"
The servant named Meng Yao sat up shakily, then moved into a kneel. "Forgive me. I acted without forethought. But touching Second-Class Attendant Wei's collar agitates him. This servant did not wish to cause him any more unnecessary distress."
With a frustrated groan, the steward clenched, then flexed his fingers. "Did you look at Second-Class Attendant Wei's neck before you collared him?"
Meng Yao met Wei Wuxian's gaze, then quickly bowed his head.
Wei Wuxian couldn't breathe. The spilled pastries crumbled beneath his shoes as he shifted his weight, grinding the baked desserts down to flakes and powder.
"I did," Meng Yao answered. "I got a clear view. Second-Class Attendant Wei is unbonded."
Wei Wuxian felt like he were made of porcelain, with how gently he was being treated.
Once the steward had inspected the collar and deemed its fit suitable, servants came back into the room to clean up the mess. Chairs were turned back upright, spilled items were swept up, and anything broken was immediately replaced—including the pastries, which were offered to Wei Wuxian once again in appeasement.
He declined the pastries. He wouldn't be able to eat them anyways, with how stuffy everything felt.
The worst part was, unquestionably, the physical examination. "We need your measurements for robes," the steward explained as servants undressed Wei Wuxian, "and we must record any unique features you have, so that His Highness does not suffer any surprises when you serve him."
"Unique features?" Wei Wuxian couldn't help asking. He glared at a servant whose fingers wandered too close to the waistband of his pants.
"Every alpha has… preferences." The steward handed Meng Yao a measuring tape. "If His Highness doesn't like freckles, then he must be aware of any freckles you have."
Wei Wuxian had freckles. He also had a Wen Clan sun sigil brand on his chest that he remembered Lan Wangji being so angry about that he slapped herbs on it. Wei Wuxian wondered if it had turned into a source of disgust, now that his body was supposed to be visual proof of imperial power and virility.
As expected, when Wei Wuxian shrugged his robes off of his body, both Meng Yao's and the steward's eyes went immediately to the Wen Clan brand. Meng Yao gave neither sound nor reaction, but the steward sucked in air slowly through his teeth.
"Second-Class Attendant Wei has suffered much for this nation," he said as he jotted down what was undoubtedly a letter of condolences to Lan Wangji that his war-survivor consort, shockingly, showed signs of having lived through war.
Meng Yao began measuring his shoulders, chest circumference, arm span, and height. As he called out numbers, he also called out observations. "Second-Class Attendant Wei has a scar on his right bicep," he said as he gently pushed We Wuxian's arms back down to his sides. "Small, healed, but noticeable. Two freckles on his back, near his left shoulder."
The steward continued writing furiously, noting every detail. "Now onto the lower half."
With a, "Yes," Meng Yao inclined his head to Wei Wuxian. "Second-Class Attendant, this servant needs to remove the rest of your clothes. Please forgive me."
Wei Wuxian danced out of reach. "I'll do it myself," he grumbled as he untied his pants string and let the waistband fall to the ground. He stood there, bare skin prickling against the cool air, and closed his eyes so that he didn't have to see them looking at him.
Meng Yao and the steward murmured between themselves for a good while, then Meng Yao spoke up, "Second-Class Attendant, this servant will have to move you around to finish the inspection. Please forgi—"
"Just do what you have to do," Wei Wuxian sighed. "Wouldn't it be more convenient for His Highness to have front and back paintings of his consorts with their 'unique features' drawn on each?"
That drew an anxious laugh from the steward. "Second-Class Attendant is clever as always, but… erhm… it would not be proper for His Highness to have such paintings."
Wei Wuxian couldn't help thinking of the time he'd tricked Lan Wangji into looking at erotic art. How would the Crown Prince react if he received nude drawings of Wei Wuxian? It was all Wei Wuxian could do not to burst out laughing at the thought.
"A scar on the right thigh, healed and only visible up close," Meng Yao said as he released Wei Wuxian's knee and let him stand back on his own two feet. "There's also a small one on his foot. Almost invisible."
The steward made a worried sound as he continued writing. "Second-Class Attendant Wei, you must be more careful with your body from now on. His Highness would be very displeased if you suffer another incident that leaves a scar."
Yes, because that was what he was now: an already blemished body that needed to be monitored carefully, lest he tarnish it further. "I will try my best," he said wryly. "But no guarantees."
"Oh please, Second-Class Attendant, you must," the steward begged. "If His Highness doesn't have our heads for it, then Noble Consort Jin will."
With the inspection over with, Wei Wuxian let himself be led by Meng Yao over to the bathtub. "I was not aware Noble Consort was someone to be feared," he tried to sound as uninterested as he could manage, "to the point where even the Crown Prince looks friendly."
It worked. The steward, as expected, leapt at the opportunity to gossip. "His Highness is magnamious and merciful. It is the fault of us servants that we cannot decipher his thoughts and desires. But Noble Consort Jin…" he glanced around, even though there were only the three of them in the room, and edged closer before whispering, "Second-Class Attendant Wei is aware that the hairpin His Highness gave Noble Consort Jin is made out of ox horn, yes?"
"Yes." Wei Wuxian batted away Meng Yao's offered arm and stepped into the bathtub by himself.
"Then you should know that His Highness does not regard the Jin Clan favorably." The steward set the documents down to one side. "In fact, His Highness initially gave his Jin omega the rank of Consort. But from what I hear, His Highness promoted Consort Jin to Noble Consort Jin after just one night with him. How scary is that?"
Very scary. And unsettling. Wei Wuxian kept his expression as neutral as possible. It was too late to regret fishing for more information.
"Noble Consort Jin rules the inner palace like a tyrant. Every day we hear of either this concubine being punished or that servant being beaten, and His Highness turns a blind eye to it all. I wouldn't be surprised if Noble Consort Jin is the reason you received such a low rank despite His Highness's obvious favor." The steward pointedly glanced at Wei Wuxian's hairpin before sighing heavily. "Second-Class Attendant Wei, please take care when you enter the Cloud Recesses."
Wei Wuxian slid down in the bathtub until the waterline reached his chin. The water smelled very nice, all milk and lotus petals and oats. He would eat it if he were in a better mood.
"Thank you for telling me," he told the steward. "Please leave me for now. Meng Yao can stay."
The steward bowed and backed out of the room with a quiet, "This servant will take his leave."
Wei Wuxian sighed and rested his head back against the edge of the tub. It had only been about an hour since the escorting party arrived, and already he felt exhausted from all the information he'd received. He was no stranger to being in the company of ambitious people, although an omega with far too much power was a new one. How fearsome harem intrigue and politics were; Wei Wuxian hadn't stepped foot into the Cloud Recesses, and already he had so many questions he needed answers to.
He turned to the servant washing his arm. "Meng Yao."
Meng Yao flinched, nearly spilling the wooden ladle full of bathwater. "Yes, Second-Class Attendant?"
Now that Wei Wuxian could get a good look at him, Meng Yao seemed a small, timid thing. He didn't dare meet Wei Wuxian's gaze as he refilled the ladle and poured water over Wei Wuxian's arm.
He didn't look like someone who would blackmail Wei Wuxian over a bondmark. Surely if he intended to, he would have said something by now, while they were alone and Wei Wuxian couldn't do anything to him that would not prompt suspicion from others.
Wei Wuxian eyed Meng Yao carefully. "Where are you from?"
Meng Yao bowed his head further. "From Lanling, Second-Class Attendant."
"Lanling?" Wei Wuxian frowned. "Then why are you here? I thought anyone from Lanling would be in the service of Noble Consort Jin."
At the mention of the Jin omega, Meng Yao started to tremble. "I was, but Noble Consort Jin cast me out from his palace," he explained with a waver in his voice. "I was deemed… dirty."
Wei Wuxian absently flicked a lotus petal away. "Did you betray your master, hurt others, or seek power?"
"No, Second-Class Attendant." Meng Yao washed his fingers. "This servant wouldn't dare."
"Hm." Wei Wuxian chewed on his lower lip. "Did you tell His Highness that you've been cast out?"
"How could I?" Meng Yao brought a washcloth to his shoulders. "Hanguang-Jun is the Crown Prince. No matter how dire my situation, I cannot disturb him."
Such was the bitter truth, Wei Wuxian supposed. Lan Wangji was the Son of Heaven with a nation to rebuild. It would be impractical for him to worry about the well-being of every servant in the Cloud Recesses.
"May I have a mirror?" Wei Wuxian asked. "I want to see my collar."
"Yes, Second-Class Attendant." Meng Yao pulled a small bronze mirror from one of the cabinets on the table and held it up in front of Wei Wuxian. "Second-Class Attendant's collar is very beautiful. His Highness specifically requested that your collar be made with black jade from Yunmeng's mountains, so that you may always have a part of your home with you."
It was quite thoughtful on Lan Wangji's part, and it didn't hurt that the collar was, indeed, beautiful. The scenery carved on it ranged from a lake full of lotuses to jagged mountains circled by crows. Lotus Pier and the Burial Mounds. Yunmeng and Yiling.
Ah, that was right. Lan Wangji had given him Yiling as part of his dowry. Wei Wuxian was now Baron of Yiling—and, ironically, so too was Lan Wangji, since the title was supposed to extend to both Wei Wuxian and his spouse. How comical it was for Lan Wangji's gift to be granted to himself.
Meng Yao gently held back Wei Wuxian's elbow when he tried to fiddle with his new collar. "Second-Class Attendant Wei, please. It is a crime for consorts to tamper with their collars."
Wei Wuxian pulled his elbow free. "Why? Isn't it my collar now?"
"Of course it is, but consort collar keys are traditionally held by the alpha's beta family members, not by the consort themselves." Meng Yao didn't try to reach for him again. "It's to prevent bonding, accidental or otherwise, until a match has been approved."
The thought of Lan Qiren personally keeping the key to Wei Wuxian's collar was both funny and unsettling. He might 'accidentally' lose it in a bid to prevent his nephew from bonding with Wei Wuxian.
"When do I get to take it off?"
Meng Yao gave him a sympathetic look. "It is to remain on you until His Highness bonds with one of his consorts and there's no more need for a harem."
Wei Wuxian tried not to wilt. So how long he would wear the collar depended entirely on when he would tell Lan Wangji the truth.
What a fun conversation that was going to be. "Hello Lan Zhan, so—surprise—this collar is actually useless, because we've been bonded for however long it took me to muster up the courage to tell you this. Also you might want to vet your servants more, because the beta you sent for the collar exchange is either blind or a liar, and I'm leaning more towards blind."
Said servant was holding out a small tray and saying, "Second-Class Attendant Wei, your hairpin, please."
Wei Wuxian pulled the kingfisher-feather hairpin from his hair and set it on the offered tray. After setting it aside, Meng Yao returned to wash his hair.
A hairpin and a collar. All Wei Wuxian needed was a bed big enough to fit two, and he would look the proper consort.
By the time he'd bathed, changed into a fresh set of robes, and endured his hair being pulled up into a ridiculously complex style, the sun was up, and the rest of Lotus Pier was awake. If it had been Jiang Yanli in his place, she would be draped in red and guided into a vermillion carriage to be escorted with her family to the Cloud Recesses.
As it were, Wei Wuxian was not draped in wedding brocades. He wore one of his casual red robes that was nowhere as vibrant as the occasion called for, and there was no carriage waiting for him. Yu Ziyuan had stayed true to her word. Wei Wuxian would go to the Cloud Recesses alone, and if he wanted to ride on the journey he would have to do so on a horse borrowed from an imperial servant.
Saying goodbye was an ordeal; Jiang Cheng had busied himself with inspecting Wei Wuxian's horse and saddle with an intensity that was beginning to visibly irk some of the younger imperial servants. In perfect match with her brother's fervor, Jiang Yanli had adjusted Wei Wuxian's robes three times already and was currently on her fourth time, folding and refolding the outer layers again.
"I hear springtime in Gusu still gets very cold." She smiled up at Wei Wuxian as she undid a knot she'd just done to retie it. "Remember to wear the robe jiejie made for you."
"Yes, jiejie." He'd already packed the fur-lined robe made with imperial-gifted silks along with the few other parcels that made up his belongings onto the lightest-laden mule. Wei Wuxian watched her undo one of his buttons to smooth out an area she'd already smoothed out twice. "Jiejie, you realize you can visit me in the Cloud Recesses anytime, right? I'm sure His Highness would let you."
Jiang Yanli pressed her handkerchief to her eyes before resuming her fiddling with his neckline. "I know." Her inhale was watery. "Your jiejie is just wondering how you grew up so quickly. It seems like only yesterday you fell out of that tree."
Wei Wuxian stuck his lower lip out in a pout and nudged her hand with his cheek. "Xianxian is not grown up. Xianxian will always be three."
"Xianxian will always be three," she agreed, affectionately flicking him across the tip of nose before reaching up to take his kingfisher-feather hairpin out of his hair. "Best not to wear this while riding. It could fall out." She undid his outer robes again to tuck it securely against his chest.
Wei Wuxian loved her too much to groan, but he sincerely hoped the look he gave the steward conveyed, I am very sorry this is happening. Thank you for your patience. To show my gratitude, I will strive to talk less on the trip. No promises, though.
Thankfully, Jiang Yanli was nothing if not graciously understanding. Once the last button had been pushed into place, she ran her hands across his shoulders. "Alright," she whispered, patting his arm. "Alright. Best not to keep His Highness waiting." She leaned to the side. "A-Cheng! Come here!"
"And you will give him spicy food with every supper." Jiang Cheng glared at the unfortunate imperial servant who had evidently drawn his ire. "Your Gusu cuisine is too bland for our Second-Class Attendant. If he loses weight, I'll break your le—"
"A-Cheng!" Jiang Yanli called again. "Leave that nice young beta alone. Come here."
With a final hard stare at the relieved servant, Jiang Cheng walked over to them, scowling at Wei Wuxian. "What do you want?"
Wei Wuxian redirected his pout at him. "What, nothing to say to your brother before he goes away forever?"
Jiang Cheng's lower lip quivered and, to Wei Wuxian's mild shock, his eyes grew shiny with tears. "You're not going away forever," he snapped. "We just have to wait until Hanguang-Jun bonds with someone. Then the harem will be disbanded and you can come home."
Now was probably not the time to remind Jiang Cheng that Wei Wuxian, as a consort, was also a candidate for said bonding. Nor was it the time to point out that Yu Ziyuan most likely wouldn't let him return to Lotus Pier anyhow.
With a sigh, Wei Wuxian nodded along. "Yes, yes, yes, then I'll be back in your hair and making your blood pressure rise everyday. Now stop crying, you look like a peach."
Jiang Cheng dragged a forearm across his cheeks. "I'm not crying," he snapped, although it came out nasally and stuffed. "I'm just thinking about how ugly you're going to be once you're pregnant."
Wei Wuxian's jaw dropped to somewhere on the floor. "Hey!"
"You're going to look so fat," Jiang Cheng blubbered, rubbing his wrist against his eyes, "like a goddamn watermelon. You're going to have to waddle."
Wei Wuxian moved to punch him, but Jiang Yanli trapped his arms with her own. "The best watermelons are fat," he argued. "Do not disrespect watermelons."
"Yeah, yeah, just go." Jiang Cheng gestured vaguely at the waiting retinue. "I'll see you whenever, I guess. Don't get into trouble."
Wei Wuxian was not supposed to touch him; as an imperial consort, he was not supposed to be touched by any alpha aside from Lan Wangji. Reaching forward, he grabbed Jiang Cheng by the front of his robes and dragged him into an embrace, with Jiang Yanli smoothly wrapping an arm around Jiang Cheng to pull him in with her.
That was all it took for a sob to break from Jiang Cheng. He was not as elegant a crier as his sister, and Jiang Yanli had to hurry and wipe his face before he got tears and snot all over Wei Wuxian. "If any—and I mean any—of the consorts dare to hurt you, I'll beat up their entire clan. Do you hear me?" He jabbed his index finger against Wei Wuxian's chest with each word. "I'll. Beat. Them. Up."
Wei Wuxian would rather he not, but at least it was good to see that Jiang Cheng was going to handle his departure just fine. After a final tight squeeze of a hug, he stepped away.
As he mounted his horse, he saw Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli kneel on the ground. "This subject sends off Second-Class Attendant Wei with honor," they both said, not quite practiced, but together. "May Second-Class Attendant Wei's journey be swift and uneventful."
The sight of them tore Wei Wuxian open. "Get up, get up," he begged. "And never do that again. You'll give me a heart attack and I'll drop dead. Have fun explaining that to Hanguang-Jun."
Jiang Cheng gave him such a sour look that Wei Wuxian's cheeks puffed in effort to try and conceal his laughter.
He turned the horse around until he faced Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan. Neither of them had been present for much of the morning, and Wei Wuxian had been too busy saying goodbye to all his clan-siblings to worry about them much. Now they looked almost united, joined together by Wei Wuxian's departure.
Upon catching Wei Wuxian's eye, Jiang Fengmian smiled, but it was brief and faded quickly. Yu Ziyuan's ever-permanent scowl was in place. She hadn't said a single word to Wei Wuxian for days, and didn't look like she planned to say anything now.
Best to get going; let Lotus Pier adjust to its new normal sooner. Jiang Cheng looked like he was about to burst from the strain of keeping his tears in, and Jiang Yanli was already accepting a fresh handkerchief from a servant.
With a tug on the reins and a light squeeze on the horse's side with his calves, Wei Wuxian followed the steward out of Lotus Pier with the dull thuds of hoofbeats behind him.
The journey was, to put it lightly, awkward.
The escorting party had clearly expected to be accompanied by members of the Jiang Clan; without the extra security and a carriage for Wei Wuxian, they were alert. Nervous. Armed guards stuck close by him, and while Wei Wuxian usually didn't mind company, their averted gazes and stilted speech were not very interesting or entertaining. Any attempts on his part to tease or provoke was met with a stern, "Second-Class Attendant, you're His Highness's consort."
Arguably the most awkward parts of their journey were when they had to pass through a town or a city. The residents of said places had seen the escorting party on their way to Lotus Pier, and seemed to have kept an eye out for them on their way back. They too had expected more; there was no mistaking the confusion and surprise on their faces. Maybe they had envisioned a grander procession. Maybe they hadn't known that Wei Wuxian would be taking Jiang Yanli's place.
Normally, Wei Wuxian would love the attention, but each time he'd pulled a face or made a joke, it got him nothing except heavily judgmental stares and whispers. He couldn't speak to anyone without a member of the retinue begging him to stay back for his own safety; when he snuck out to buy snacks at a local stall, an imperial guard all but tackled him in front of the vendor and marched him back to the camp they'd set up for the night.
"Please do not be upset, Second-Class Attendant Wei," Meng Yao pleaded later that evening when he came to deliver Wei Wuxian's supper. "Your safety and health are paramount. Everything we do is for your own good."
Wei Wuxian didn't move from his cot. "I'm not even in the Cloud Recesses yet, and I'm already being strangled by rules."
"The rules are there to keep you safe." Meng Yao set out a bowl of soup. "His Highness was very clear that you be brought as quickly to the Cloud Recesses as possible. His worries will not ease until you are within its walls."
Wei Wuxian blew at a strand of his bangs; his scalp hurt from carrying the weight of his hair all day. "Meng Yao, will you be honest with me?"
"I will be as honest as Second-Class Attendant wishes me to be."
"Then I want you to be brutally honest." Wei Wuxian sat up. "His Highness said I need to be punished for wounding Jin clansmen. Will my residence be automatically labeled as a cold palace?"
Meng Yao laid down a pair of chopsticks by a bowl of rice. "You have not lost His Highness's favor. It would be contradictory for him to bestow a kingfisher-feather hairpin on someone he plans to shun upon entering the Cloud Recesses."
"Then what am I supposed to do there?" Wei Wuxian shuffled to a chair at the table. "I am the representative of Yunmeng in name only; I'm not of Jiang blood. If His Highness, erm, uh," he tried again, "If I bear His Highness a child, it won't have any connection with the Jiangs. It wouldn't be politically advantageous."
Meng Yao picked up a slice of chicken with his chopsticks and set it on a plate in front of Wei Wuxian. "Forgive this servant for speaking so plainly—"
"Question: am I allowed to order you to stop with the whole bowing and asking for forgiveness?"
"No, you're not."
"Figures." Wei Wuxian clacked his chopsticks together idly. "Continue."
"While the imperial family may favor the more intelligent, powerful, and politically-active of his concubines, His Highness will naturally favor whoever makes him the happiest." Meng Yao spoke as if declaring that the sun rose in the east; it should already be common knowledge. "And the two surest ways to make him happy are to be his favorite companion or give birth to his favorite child."
Wei Wuxian chewed on the end of his chopsticks. Personally, he was more than content to leave the other consorts to their intrigues and fights for favor. However, there was at least one consort in the inner palace who came from a minor clan located close to Yunmeng: the Yao Clan, if Wei Wuxian remembered correctly. He'd once overheard Yu Ziyuan complaining about how its leader was growing more audacious each year. Now with a daughter in the inner palace, he was probably already trying to push Lan Wangji for more control and responsibilities in the Yunmeng region.
Wei Wuxian having Lan Wangji's obvious favor wouldn't eliminate such power grabs, but it would dissuade and warn clans near Yunmeng to work cooperatively with the Jiang Clan instead of against them.
Frowning as he chewed, Wei Wuxian considered Meng Yao's words. Having a child was out of the question. His rank was too low; any children of his would be given to those of Consort rank or higher to raise. Even if he, by some miracle, got to keep his children by his side, the imperial family would never allow Lan Wangji to favor his commoner-blood offspring more than those from nobler family lines.
Favorite companion, then. That was fine. Wei Wuxian was a master at earning the grudging affection of those around him, and Lan Wangji already knew what to expect. It wouldn't be out of the ordinary—just Wei Wuxian being as he always had been, trying to find a friend in the Second Prince of Lan. Surely bondmates could be friends.
Wei Wuxian took a piece of chicken and put it in his rice bowl. "Who is currently most favored in the inner palace?"
The unease that flashed through Meng Yao's eyes was answer enough.
With effort, Wei Wuxian forced himself to chew on his food. "The steward says that Noble Consort Jin is a tyrant." He rolled bits of his rice into a ball. "How do the other concubines fare?"
"Not well." Meng Yao gave him some radish slices. "To stand against Noble Consort Jin is to stand against the Jin Clan. No one dares."
Wei Wuxian dared. He'd stood up to the Jin Clan before, and he would gladly do so again if necessary. "It doesn't seem at all like the Crown Prince to allow mistreatment in his inner palace," he mused out loud. "How has he not done anything about any of this?"
"His Highness is very busy with state affairs, and Noble Consort Jin is his most favored omega. Naturally, the two of them would not have any conflict." After refilling his cup with tea, Meng Yao stepped back to let him dine.
Wei Wuxian wished more than anything else that the bond would allow him to read Lan Wangji's mind. The Jin Clan needed to be discouraged—not encouraged—from further involvement in imperial politics. There was already Jin Guangyao, who had Lan Xichen's ear; what was Lan Wangji thinking, giving his Jin omega free reign over his inner palace?
Wei Wuxian worried his teeth over his lower lip. Lan Xichen. Lan Wangji. Soon, Jiang Yanli too would have a Jin constantly by her side. And while Wei Wuxian trusted Jin Zixuan a smidge more than he trusted the rest of the peacock's family members, the amount of influence the Jins wielded as of late was deeply unsettling.
"You mentioned you are from Lanling," Wei Wuxian said to Meng Yao. "How often do you visit home?"
Meng Yao bowed. "More often than other servants. Whenever First Prince Zewu-Jun visits Lanling, I go with him."
So Meng Yao was part of the retinue that accompanied Lan Xichen on ambassadorial duties. Wei Wuxian wasn't sure what it meant that one of Lan Xichen's men had been assigned to escort him to the Cloud Recesses.
"Not just anyone can work for the First Prince." Wei Wuxian took a sip from his teacup. "You must be quite skilled for Zewu-Jun to recognize your abilities."
Meng Yao bowed deep enough for his hair to obscure his face. "This servant cannot accept Second-Class Attendant's praise. To work for the First Prince is this servant's greatest honor."
"Mn." Wei Wuxian wiped his mouth on a handkerchief and folded it neatly. "Whenever Zewu-Jun does not have a use for you, please feel free to visit me in the Cloud Recesses. I won't be able to travel much as a consort. Bring a story or two about your adventures with you."
There was no telling exactly what Meng Yao thought of the invitation, but the smile that curled his lips was anything but intimidated or frightened. "As Second-Class Attendant wishes," he demurred.
As luck would have it, the rest of the journey to the Cloud Recesses was blessed with good weather. Between that and the lack of the expected Jiang attendants and carriages, they were on track to arrive several days ahead of schedule. Good. Wei Wuxian was already sick of being stuck in the world's most uninteresting travel caravan.
It had been almost four years since he saw the Cloud Recesses, but it was as if he'd never left. Even past sundown, the palace complex was heavily familiar. The magnolia trees were in bloom, and Wei Wuxian couldn't help parting his lips to taste the scent of them, fresh and sweet. He was certain that if his mind wandered, his feet would take him all the way to the student dorms.
Instead, he was led through an archway that was so discreetly marked that he could have mistaken it for a regular gate if it weren't for the heavily armed beta guards on the other side. Upon seeing him, they dropped down into low bows and murmurs of, "Greetings to Second-Class Attendant Wei."
Wei Wuxian had no idea how big the inner palace was, but he'd expected to live in a side room of a higher-ranked consort's residence, as would be typical of a Second-Class Attendant. But they kept walking further and with each 'Tourmaline Palace' or 'Beryl Palace' they passed by, he got the impression that either he'd been relegated to some faraway palace that would be conveniently inconvenient for Lan Wangji to visit, or he'd arrived too early, and the servants were floundering over where to put him without disturbing the other consorts.
"We have been walking for a while," he said into the unnatural silence to none of the servants in particular. "I don't suppose any of you plan to walk me to the Cloud Recesses border and assassinate me there?"
One of the servants let out was a terrified whimper. "Second-Class Attendant, please!" The beta fell to the ground, kneeling and bowing repeatedly. "This lowly one wouldn't dare! His Highness has m-merely ordered that you be housed in Onyx Pavilion, which is across the Cloud Recesses! May Second-Class Attendant be forgiving!"
Wei Wuxian stared at the servant. "I was joking," he deadpanned. "Get up."
Sheepishly, the servant stood back up. "Second-Class Attendant mustn't joke about such things," he pleaded. "If His Highness hears about it, he'll be very upset."
Wei Wuxian highly doubted that; Lan Wangji should have known by now that to separate Wei Wuxian from his jokes was to separate his soul from his body. "Where is His Highness?"
"In the Jade Hall," the servant answered. He was still fidgeting with his fingers. "Second-Class Attendant arrived days earlier than expected. His Highness is ill-prepared to properly welcome you."
Wei Wuxian waved a hand dismissively. "It's no trouble. It's late anyhow, and I’m sure I have to pay my respects to all the important people early tomorrow morning. Where is Wen Ning?"
"Ah!" The servant straightened up. "Wen Ning is already waiting for you at Onyx Pavilion. Please, it's this way."
On and on they walked, until Wei Wuxian could see the watchtowers that marked the Cloud Recesses' outer wall. Just when he was truly starting to wonder if he was walking straight into an ambush, the servant announced, "We are here."
Wei Wuxian didn't know what he'd expected once they opened the gate. A small, quaint little palace, he supposed—perhaps one that had originally been a warehouse or a similar general-use building. Just something adequately shielded from the elements, hastily constructed, and furnished just enough that if any Jiang Clan member visited, they would not be insulted by the lack of decor.
Instead, there was a lake—no—a pond, with a three-story pavilion sitting in the middle of the water and a wooden walkway leading out to it. The pond was clearly man-made, with all the orderly perfection that defined every aspect of the imperial family's lives. It stretched wide and far enough that Wei Wuxian would have to come up for breath before the other shore even with a running dive.
How much had it cost to dig all this out from the mountainside? It was highly unlike Lan Wangji to spend money so recklessly on such a project—and then waste it on the likes of Wei Wuxian.
He turned to look at the servant who had led him there. "You didn't make a mistake, did you? This doesn't look like where a Second-Class Attendant would stay."
"Perhaps for other Second-Class Attendants." The servant smiled giddily. "You, of course, are the exception. This is all on account of everything you've done for the imperial family before the war and during. Look at how much the Crown Prince adores you."
This wasn't so much adoration as it was exaltation. If all this turned out to be some misunderstanding, Wei Wuxian was going to have a difficult time laughing it off.
There was someone on the wooden walkway, jogging towards them, lantern in hand swinging lightly. "Young Master Wei!" they called. "Young Master Wei!"
If Wei Wuxian's ears could perk up, they would. "Wen Ning!" He stepped onto the boardwalk.
Wen Ning slowed to a stop in front of him. Up close, he looked bright-eyed and healthy. Still smiling, he dropped into a bow. "Peace and good health to Second-Class Attendant Wei."
"Alright, none of that. I'm used to you calling me Young Master Wei." Wei Wuxian pulled him back up to standing. "How have you been?" He held Wen Ning at arm's length and took in the sight of him in pale blue robes. "Are you in any danger here? Held against your will? Blink twice if you need to be rescued."
At that, Wen Ning's smile disappeared as he valiantly put every effort into keeping his eyes as wide open as possible. He looked a little bit like a frog.
Wei Wuxian laughed and smacked his shoulder. "Ah, poor Wen Ning. You can blink now." He turned to the servants who had escorted him. "You are all dismissed. Please convey my thanks to His Highness. The place is lovely."
Once the servants had left, he turned to Wen Ning. "What's all this?" he whispered, gesturing wildly at the pavilion, the pond, everything. "Is this a fancy trap or something? Or is this how Gusu Lan treats all their prisoners?
Wen Ning gave him a confused look and shook his head. "No, Young Master Wei. You're a consort, not a prisoner. This is all yours." He bounced a little on his heels. "Do you want to see it? I think you should see. It's very pretty."
Pretty was an apt description for the pavilion. True to its name, the pillars and floors were made out of black onyx, with its swirling, rippling bands of red and white. Parts of it shone with hues of translucent green when Wei Wuxian held his lantern closer.
The interior was not very spacious, but the multiple levels and encircling balconies more than made up for it. The ground-level room was a reception room, with a cushioned, raised couch on the other end and aligned chairs leading up to it. The second floor was even smaller, and held a writing desk, cabinets, shelves, drawers, mirror, and a dining table. The third and smallest level contained only a bathtub, a dresser, and a four-poster bed with red curtains.
Wei Wuxian bounced between floor levels with glee, darting in and out the multiple doors that led out to the balconies. At one point, he ran in a loop on the lowest level balcony, delighting in the cold night air and the swing of his hairpin's pearls against his neck. That was how he discovered the tiny pier behind the pavilion and a small boat in the style of those found in Caiyi Town tethered to it.
The excited shriek he let out as he leapt onto it must have broken at least five Lan family rules. Wen Ning's worried, "Young Master Wei!" was almost lost amidst Wei Wuxian settling in with a paddle in hand. "Please! It's cold and dark out. You'll get sick!"
"Come along, Wen Ning!" he called. "Bring a lantern and a blanket if you're so worried!"
Lantern and blankets in hand, Wen Ning stepped onto the boat with the caution of a mouse tiptoeing around a sleeping cat. He draped the blankets across Wei Wuxian's shoulders and huddled down across from him with the lantern.
"This pond is filled with lotuses," Wen Ning said when the lantern's light drew out long, dark shadows from the stalks poking out of the water. "But, uh, they don't bloom until summer, so there really isn't much to see right now."
Lotuses. Wei Wuxian reached out to tug at one of the stalks, an odd lump growing in his throat. "Lan Zhan sure is thoughtful."
Wen Ning made a warbling, startled noise. "Young Master Wei! His Highness's birth name is taboo. You shouldn't say it so casually—especially not in public."
"Which is why I'm saying it here, with only you around." Wei Wuxian grinned at him. "Second-Class Attendants are only allowed one or two servants, right? So besides you, who else would be here to hear me?"
It was a little difficult to tell by lantern-light, but Wen Ning's eyes looked wider than usual. "His Highness."
Wei Wuxian shrugged. "Well, yes, but isn't that a given?"
"No—I meant—" Wen Ning pointed towards the gate, over Wei Wuxian's shoulder. "His Highness is here."
The boat rocked from the force of Wei Wuxian turning around. Sure enough, there were lanterns drifting down the walkway, illuminating faces and moving feet. And at the front, flanked by two servants, was a tall figure who could only be Lan Wangji. In the light of the lanterns, his white and silver robes almost glowed.
Wei Wuxian quickly blew out the lantern in the boat.
Wen Ning squeaked in the heavy darkness. "Young Master—"
"Shhh." After tugging his hairpin free, Wei Wuxian shoved it into Wen Ning's hand. "Stay down and stay quiet."
At the sight of cerulean phoenixes and gentians sitting in his palm, Wen Ning's eyes grew round. For a moment, he looked like he might accidentally throw the hairpin into the pond out of panic. "We need to get back," he whispered urgently, curling his fingers securely around the hairpin. "We must properly greet His Highness."
"Already on it," Wei Wuxian promised as he dipped a hand in the water. Cold. But not as cold as the Cold Spring.
He shed his blanket and outer robes, ignoring Wen Ning's protests. Slowly, taking even breaths to prevent gasping in a mouthful, he lowered himself over the edge of the boat and into the water.
Wei Wuxian didn't bother opening his eyes underwater; it was night, and lotus grew best in murky waters. He wasn't going to see anything anyways. Carefully, he swam with both arms sweeping slowly in front of him, in case there was something in the pond aside from lotus stalks and mud.
He took extra care to take his breaths as inconspicuously as possible, using the lanterns and Lan Wangji's white robes to gauge his distance from the imperial entourage. He rose underneath the dock, hidden from view by the wooden floorboards above his head. The pier had rocks built into the base of it, and the water was much shallower there.
"Look, Your Highness," Lan Wangji's Chief Steward said. "One of Second-Class Attendant Wei's boats is gone. He must be on the water."
"Mn." Lan Wangji moved along the dock, back towards the pavilion. "Where is the Jiang delegation? Did they not accompany Wei Ying here?"
Wei Ying. Wei Wuxian's insides went a little soft at his name. It was nice—familiar—to hear Lan Wangji choosing to continue using his birth name.
"I'm afraid not, Your Highness." The Chief Steward followed close behind Lan Wangji. "Second-Class Attendant Wei entered the Cloud Recesses alone, and with only our guards as escorts. Thankfully, Second-Class Attendant Wei is blessed by the Heavens, and arrived safe and early."
Lan Wangji's footsteps stopped. After a long silence, he spoke. "Wei Ying's siblings would have accompanied him if they could." With a sigh, he walked back out to the end of the dock; Wei Wuxian followed underneath.
The Chief Steward shuffled forward. "Ah, Your Highness, it looks like Second-Class Attendant Wei isn't here. You have court to hold early tomorrow morning. How about we return to your Hall of Silence for now?"
Wei Wuxian drifted out from under the docks into deeper water, bracing his hands and feet on one of the posts. There he waited, watching, listening.
Finally, Lan Wangji turned to face his Chief Steward, his back to the water. "Mn. I will—"
With a push, Wei Wuxian launched himself out of the water. He couldn't quite reach Lan Wangji's belt, which would have been ideal, but he managed to grab a handful of his white robe's skirt and pull.
Back into the water he fell—just enough off to the side that Lan Wangji's falling weight didn't crush him. Lan Wangji's hands clawed through the water, seeking out his attacker. When they found Wei Wuxian, they grabbed on, crushingly tight.
The sensation sent a thrill through Wei Wuxian. He reached out, patting up Lan Wangji's arm, until he found his face. Quick as a fish, Wei Wuxian darted forward and pressed his lips to Lan Wangji's cheek.
Lan Wangji's grip loosened. His other hand found Wei Wuxian's shoulder, and he kicked off the pond's bottom, pulling them back to the surface and back into the light of lanterns.
On the dock: chaos. Servants crowded onto the tiny pier, yelling for Lan Wangji. A few jumped in the water. One person started to shriek that there was an assassin in the Cloud Recesses.
"I am unharmed," Lan Wangji called out to them. "It's Wei Ying."
Indeed it was Wei Wuxian, who—without his hairpin holding his hair up—must have looked like a water ghoul. He grinned up at the servants.
None of them grinned back.
The Chief Steward scowled as he bowed. "This servant greets Second-Class Attendant Wei." He straightened back up. "Second-Class Attendant, do you know what you have done wrong? Are you actively trying to harm His Highness?"
Ah, so that was how it was going to be. Wei Wuxian stuck his tongue out at the beta and clung tighter to Lan Wangji. "This water is warmer than the Cloud Recesses' Cold Spring. He's not going to get sick from this."
"Zhu Xiang," Lan Wangji said, wrapping an arm around Wei Wuxian's waist. "Go to the Punishment Bureau to receive twenty strikes."
The Chief Steward's frown morphed into shock. "Your Highness!" He fell to his knees. "This servant knows he was wrong. This servant only thought of your health."
"If you truly know why you're wrong, you would take your punishment quietly." Lan Wangji rested his other palm against the small of Wei Wuxian's back. "Thirty strikes. Someone prepare Wei Ying a bath. Leave us."
It took some time for the servants to pull each other out of the water. Once they were gone, Wei Wuxian beamed at Lan Wangji. "Look at you, giving orders and doling out punishments like a real Crown Prince." He twirled a lock of Lan Wangji's hair around his finger. "Very impressive."
Lan Wangji somehow pulled him closer. Water ran in small rivulets down his face, but his eyes were bright and wide. "Wei Ying," he breathed. "You're here. You came."
Their bond thrummed with renewed life, as if energy poured into Wei Wuxian from every point of contact between him and Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji was holding him—holding him, and looking at him, and not letting him go, and Wei Wuxian suddenly felt like he was going to cry if Lan Wangji kept on looking at him like that.
"Of course I did." Wei Wuxian wiped water off of his face for him, deliberately passing his hand over Lan Wangji's eyes to make him close them. "Did you think I wouldn't?"
He didn't get an answer for that, but he saw Lan Wangji's throat bob as he swallowed.
"Your hairpin," Lan Wangji said.
"Wen Ning has it." Wei Wuxian leaned so close that their noses almost touched. "Seriously, Lan Zhan—kingfisher feathers? It's like you don't even know me."
Lan Wangji deflated. "You don't like it?"
"No, no, I do like it!" Wei Wuxian bopped his nose with a finger. "It's just—it's really expensive, you know. I'm more suited for wooden or iron hairpins. Those can handle a bit of tossing around. I have to actually be careful with a kingfisher-feather hairpin. Is this your way of making sure I don't run in the Cloud Recesses? How very insidious of you, Hanguang-Jun."
Somehow, Lan Wangji looked even more defeated without having moved a single muscle on his face. "You don't like it."
Wei Wuxian sighed. "No, I didn't say that. It's beautiful, Lan Zhan. I'll take care of it, don't worry." He tugged lightly on Lan Wangji's hair, eager to move on from the subject. "Ah, Lan Zhan, look at us! It's the first time we meet as Crown Prince and his Second-Class Attendant." He tilted his head back, showing off the black jade collar. "How angry do you think your fifteen-year-old self would be if he knew that one day I would be wearing a consort collar?"
Lan Wangji's gaze flickered towards Wei Wuxian's neck. He took a quick breath, his lips already forming the beginning of his usual scolding, "Shameless."
What he said instead was, "Not very."
Wei Wuxian's eyebrows rose, the impulse to tease gone. "Ah?"
Lan Wangji's mouth clamped shut, as if he was startled by the sound of his own voice. His eyes darted quickly off to the side and he didn't speak. If Wei Wuxian didn't know better, he would say that Lan Wangji seemed… embarrassed.
Just before the silence dragged on too long, Wei Wuxian laughed with a bit too much force. "Ah-h, well, good to know, um—" He tried not to read too much into what that answer could mean—that Lan Wangji would not have been mad if he'd known much earlier that Wei Wuxian would one day be his. "Have you thought about what you're going to do with me?"
He'd meant the question in the context of what he could expect in terms of day-to-day life; Lan Wangji had mentioned needing a token display of punishment to appease the Jins. Would Wei Wuxian be locked up in this pavilion for a few months? Or would he be expected to copy hundreds of pages about minding his own business and have those delivered to Golden Koi Tower? It was important for him to know, and the sooner he knew about it, the better.
Now, hearing the way Lan Wangji's breath caught, perhaps he could have worded the question better.
The incredible hunger that came from Lan Wangji's side of the bond made Wei Wuxian's insides clench and his heart stutter. The light from the lanterns left on the dock could only shine through the cracks in the floorboards overhead, but it was enough for Wei Wuxian to see the black of Lan Wangji's pupils swallow nearly all of his golden irises.
For a single terrifying moment, Wei Wuxian thought that he might go into heat; his bondmate was right there, and he smelled so nice, and he was willing—eager—and it had been so, so long.
The amount of willpower it took to speak could move mountains. "Lan Zhan?"
At first there was no response from Lan Wangji; he looked like he wanted to eat Wei Wuxian whole, or at least lick up the length of his neck. Then, Lan Wangji exhaled a throaty, "Hm?"
Oh, that sounded nice. Wei Wuxian's mouth went dry. He and Lan Wangji were already pressed together, with Lan Wangji's arms around his waist holding him in place. Still, something in Wei Wuxian whimpered. Not close enough.
They could be closer.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Heart pounding a rapid rhythm in his chest, Wei Wuxian slowly parted his legs.
He didn't part them very far, just in case he'd severely misread the situation, but Lan Wangji didn't pull away. If anything, he pulled Wei Wuxian closer—closer, yes—and Wei Wuxian tried not to keen at how easy it was to just let him do as he pleased, to simply fall apart and let him settle in between his thighs.
Somewhere in the last, sole rational part of his brain, he knew that this was a bad idea—that much of it was the result of their bond urging them to mate, to reconnect through touch and affection. He did not know if an unbonded Lan Wangji would want him this much, if at all. But he was selfish, so selfish, and Lan Wangji was here, and he was pulling Wei Wuxian's legs around his waist, and Wei Wuxian had missed, missed, missed him with a yearning that could span the sky.
He jolted a little when Lan Wangji moved and something dug into Wei Wuxian's inner thigh. He frowned. Lan Wangji's silver belt looked very nice on him, but right now it served no purpose except for getting in the way.
Just as he was about to find Lan Wangji's belt buckle and yank the dumb belt loose, Lan Wangji whispered, strained, "My apologies."
Wei Wuxian stared at him in blank silence, his head void of all thoughts, until one managed to manifest and wiggle its way back into his mind.
Not his belt, then.
Feigning ignorance, Wei Wuxian tilted his head. "What are you apologizing for, Hanguang-Jun?"
That seemed to break some of the haze they'd found themselves in. Lan Wangji's hands moved to Wei Wuxian's arms and gripped him by his biceps, keeping him locked in place. The sides of his jaw twitched. "Wei Ying."
"Hm?" Wei Wuxian batted his eyelashes innocently. Then—because Lan Wangji's ears were endearingly red, because Wei Wuxian never could stop himself from teasing—he spread his thighs wider and ground his hips against Lan Wangji.
The fingers around his arms tightened like a vice as a cut-off groan slipped past Lan Wangji's lips. He broke eye contact. "It's nighttime. We should—" he swallowed, not looking at Wei Wuxian, "—we should get you out of the water."
"Hmmm." Wei Wuxian laced his fingers in Lan Wangji's wet hair. "Why? I don't feel particularly cold. Do you? We can go back if you do."
It was an out—an excuse Lan Wangji could take to put an instant stop to all of this. Just a simple, "Mn," and Wei Wuxian would pull away. They would climb back onto the pier, change into dry clothes, and chat about politics and their families until the night gong rang to signify bedtime.
Lan Wangji didn't say a word. Slowly, his hands slid down from Wei Wuxian's arms back to their original position on his back, at his waist. He looked at Wei Wuxian with an expression like molten earth meeting sea: desire and restraint in direct conflict, overlapping, folding.
The strength with which it affected Wei Wuxian's side of the bond made him feel light-headed, reckless. He took one of Lan Wangji's hands and held it against his cheek. Almost shyly, he nuzzled it, lips brushing against Lan Wangji's palm.
Lan Wangji exhaled shakily. "Wei Ying."
Wei Wuxian groaned against Lan Wangji's hand and felt him shiver from it. "You have such a nice voice, Lan Zhan. You should say my name more." He clenched his thighs briefly, not enough to seem deliberate, but enough to elicit the quietest gasp from Lan Wangji.
"Wei Ying." Softer, this time, and trailing off a bit at the end as Wei Wuxian guided Lan Wangji's fingers down his neck.
"Does it please you to see this on me?" he breathed when Lan Wangji's fingertips settled on his collar. "To know that I'm yours?"
Lan Wangji's answer came in the form of a short thrust of his hips, more of a flinch than anything else, but the small whine it dragged from Wei Wuxian was embarrassingly needy.
Upon hearing it, Lan Wangji's eyes darkened further, more black than gold. He stared at Wei Wuxian's collar. "I—" He squeezed his eyes shut, as if Wei Wuxian were made out of flame and he'd looked for too long. "This… isn't right."
Wei Wuxian watched him, his heart somewhere down in the pit of his stomach, until Lan Wangji hurriedly clarified, "I want to do this correctly. You deserve more. You should be treated… gently. Not with…" Whatever the rest of that sentence was supposed to be, it made the blush on his ears spread down his neck.
Wei Wuxian's heart rose back into his chest, where it swelled with fondness. How very romantic of Gusu Lan's Second Prince. He hardly seemed like the same boy who had, years ago, refused to indulge Wei Wuxian even a single glance.
Was it a side effect of the bond, Wei Wuxian wondered, that made Lan Wangji want to take care of him—that led to this level of concern where previously there had been none. He couldn't blame Lan Wangji for mistaking it for deeper affection.
Leaning forward, he nibbled on Lan Wangji's jaw, just under his ear, in a show of submission. Lan Wangji didn't groan, but his exhale came out harsh and raspy.
"You're here," Wei Wuxian murmured against his skin. Lan Wangji's magnolia and sandalwood scent had mostly washed off with water, and Wei Wuxian could only smell it when he was this close, ever-comforting, ever-familiar. "That's more than enough for me."
With a shudder, Lan Wangji surged forward, holding Wei Wuxian tightly to his chest. He pressed their foreheads together, his ribbon warm between them. "Wei Ying." His breath tickled against Wei Wuxian's lips. "Wei Ying."
For a crazed moment, Wei Wuxian nearly slapped his hand over Lan Wangji's mouth. The last time he'd heard his name uttered like that, Lan Wangji was in the middle of a life-threatening rut, and Wei Wuxian was—
—so, so stupid, to hope, to wish for more, to fall without looking—
—in a similar position as he was now, pulled against Lan Wangji, with his legs apart and his calves resting against the backs of Lan Wangji's thighs.
The memory of it brought a whine from Wei Wuxian's throat as he shamelessly ground himself against the ever-growing hardness at Lan Wangji's front. It had been such a long time. He'd forgotten what it felt like to have Lan Wangji inside of him, to feel torn apart and stuffed full until he forgot how to breathe.
Lan Wangji gave a low, pained hiss as he gripped Wei Wuxian's thigh. "Behave," he chided, fingers digging into soft flesh.
Wei Wuxian wriggled stubbornly, but another squeeze from Lan Wangji made him still. Then, as if he could read Wei Wuxian's mind and knew exactly what he wanted, Lan Wangji's hand slid along his inner thigh and up onto Wei Wuxian's belly, where the drawstrings of his pants were. There, Lan Wangji untied Wei Wuxian's drawstrings, hooked a thumb on his waistband, and shoved his pants down to the middle of his thighs.
The sound Wei Wuxian made when warm fingers slipped between his thighs was loud and embarrassing. He had to stuff his knuckles against his mouth as Lan Wangji rumbled, "Ah," low and pleased.
The water had washed away most, but not all, of the slick that had built up between his legs. Wei Wuxian squirmed, gasped, bit his knuckles when he felt Lan Wangji slowly push a finger, then two, into him.
"Relax," Lan Wangji mumbled against his hair, despite himself being anything but relaxed. "Or it could—it could hurt."
Wei Wuxian forced himself to take deep, steady breaths and resisted the urge to pull himself down further onto Lan Wangji's fingers. The water took away most of the weight he would rely on for friction and pace, and already he was frustrated beyond belief at how slow Lan Wangji was going.
"Lan Zhan," he groaned pathetically, holding fistfuls of Lan Wangji's robes at the shoulders. It was getting difficult to think, and he couldn't tell what was from their bond and what wasn't. "I need—" he squirmed, "—I need—please—" He tried to reach for the front of Lan Wangji's belt.
Lan Wangji nipped him on the ear. "No."
"Mean," Wei Wuxian snarled, until a warning thrust from Lan Wangji's fingers made him yelp.
"Behave," Lan Wangji ordered again, this time with an even sharper nip to Wei Wuxian's ear.
Wei Wuxian's jaw would have dropped if he had the mind to let it. How rude of his bondmate to make him behave, as if they hadn't just gone two years without a single mating. It was very unsympathetic and inconsiderate on Lan Wangji's part.
With an irritated huff, Wei Wuxian pushed away, breaking free from Lan Wangji's embrace and sliding Lan Wangji's fingers out from inside him. He turned towards one of the dock's support posts, fully intending to pout petulantly against it until Lan Wangji coaxed him back into his arms.
It didn't happen. With surprising force, Lan Wangji shoved him.
Wei Wuxian hadn't expected it at all. He fell forward into the water, the cold rushing over his face and his scalp. Before he could get his feet under him and stand back up, a hand grabbed him by the back of his robes and pulled him to the surface. He emerged, gasping and with a faceful of wet hair. "What—" the word trailed off into a shriek when both of his wrists were grabbed and slammed against the pier post. He couldn't see anything except his own hands, bound by Lan Wangji's long fingers.
From behind, Lan Wangji pressed up against him, leaving no room to escape. "Disobedient," Lan Wangji growled against his ear. He was fumbling with something that Wei Wuxian couldn't see. "Impertinent."
The whimper that left Wei Wuxian was high-pitched and full of frightened anticipation. "F-forgive me, Your Highness. I didn't mean to turn my back on you. Please be gentle. I haven't d-done anything like this before—"
The press of searing, hard flesh between Wei Wuxian's legs made him cry out. He pushed back against it, trying to guide it to where it needed to be, to where it would enter him and fill him and stretch him.
Licking languidly at his neck, Lan Wangji pushed just the head of his cock into Wei Wuxian. When Wei Wuxian gave a sob and tried to take more of him in, he gripped onto Wei Wuxian's hips hard enough to leave bruises through the fabric. Slowly, tortuously, he pulled Wei Wuxian onto his cock, entering him bit by bit and stopping whenever Wei Wuxian moved or complained.
He was only halfway in when Wei Wuxian came with a strangled cry, clenching hard around him. Fire coursed under Wei Wuxian's skin, making his whole body shake. He bucked under Lan Wangji's hands desperately, trying to chase the sensation.
Lan Wangji still held him fast, denying him. "Shhh," he soothed, rubbing his thumbs on Wei Wuxian's waist.
Wei Wuxian had to swallow multiple times to stem the urge to spout nonsense. He trembled. Once the pleasure had ebbed away and Wei Wuxian wasn't sure if he could hold himself up against the dock post any longer, Lan Wangji wrapped an arm around his chest and gently pulled him up. His feet left the stones at the pier base as Lan Wangji leaned back with bent knees, pulling Wei Wuxian onto his lap and flush against his chest. Still trembling, Wei Wuxian made a small noise at the contrasting sensations: the chill of his slick being washed away on their thighs, the heat of Lan Wangji's body against the cold of the water.
Still dazed and oversensitive from his unexpected orgasm, Wei Wuxian could only clutch weakly at Lan Wangji's arms and whimper as Lan Wangji pushed all the way into him. The intrusion burned, but fresh slick from Wei Wuxian helped ease the way.
When Lan Wangji was fully in, Wei Wuxian's head rolled back onto the alpha's shoulder. "Ngh," he groaned as he found Lan Wangji's hand at his waist and interlaced their fingers. "Lan Zhan… you are far too big. No more. I—hngh—I can't take any more—"
A thrust. Wei Wuxian moaned brokenly and tried to spread his legs wider, to no avail. His pants were still halfway on.
Lan Wangji pulled locks of wet hair away from Wei Wuxian's face and took his earlobe into his mouth. "Can't you?" he hummed as his hips began to move. "I think you can."
The water made everything slow and sluggish. Instead of hard, skin-smacking thrusts that would have forced Wei Wuxian to feel all of him again and again, Lan Wangji chose shorter, quicker, deeper thrusts. He pulled Wei Wuxian up and down on his cock, giving him no leverage and no say. Around them, the water turned turbulent. Wei Wuxian could only mewl helplessly as he bounced in Lan Wangji's lap, his protests and pleas ignored in favor of his body and the pleasure it provided.
The thought of it pushed Wei Wuxian over the edge again. He arched his back, panting Lan Wangji's name as he came, his nails clawing down the sleeves of Lan Wangji's robes. With a spine-tingling growl and a shudder, Lan Wangji sank his teeth into Wei Wuxian's clothed shoulder and thrust deep enough for Wei Wuxian to feel both points of his hips.
"Yes," Wei Wuxian gasped between breaths as he clenched around the length inside him, trying to milk as much from it as possible. "Lan Zhan, give. Please. I need—"
"Don't move." Lan Wangji's command held much less power than before as he held Wei Wuxian in place. Wei Wuxian bit his lower lip to keep from crying out as he felt the knot swell inside of him, the stretch deliciously painful.
With a sigh, Lan Wangji backed up until he found a rock high enough to sit on without the water level going above their shoulders. He sat down with Wei Wuxian in his lap and gently held Wei Wuxian's cheek in his hand. "Did I hurt you?" he whispered, his voice tired and rough.
Wei Wuxian shook his face against Lan Wangji's palm. "No." He pressed a small kiss right in its center. "It was—I enjoyed it very much, and I think you did too." He pointedly gave his hips a tiny wriggle.
Lan Wangji winced, and stilled Wei Wuxian with a hand on his abdomen. "I was coarse with you."
Wei Wuxian would have puffed at a strand of his hair if it weren't wet and sticking to his skin. He shook his head as he gradually caught his breath. "Lan Zhan, I already said I enjoyed it. Who knew you could be so mean?" He patted the side of Lan Wangji's face. "You didn't hurt me, and you didn't mistreat me. But if you must make it up to me for some reason, you could always bring me jars of Emperor's Smile." He grinned eagerly.
"Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses," Lan Wangji recited.
Wei Wuxian's grin fell. He gave a disbelieving huff and turned his head away.
Lan Wangji's amused exhale warmed his neck. "But I can buy you some the next time we go to Caiyi Town, if you'd like."
Eyes alight, Wei Wuxian looked over his shoulder. "Really?"
"Mn." Lan Wangji rested his face against Wei Wuxian's shoulder. "When we're not busy."
With a delighted giggle, Wei Wuxian squeezed Lan Wangji's arm. "It's a promise, then! You'd better keep your promises, Lan Zhan! Ah, if I'd known that you spoil your consorts this much, I would have insisted that you take me to Gusu much sooner!"
Lan Wangji stopped in the middle of nosing his neck, just under his collar. "Is that so."
He sounded a little odd, just a touch too tense, but he didn't sound angry or upset, so Wei Wuxian let it be. "Yes! Definitely!" He snuggled backwards against Lan Wangji's chest. "Lan Zhan, ah, Lan Zhan. Being in charge has really changed you. You let me get away with so many things now, although I suppose the benefits I provide help with that." He wiggled his hips for emphasis.
A light shudder ran through Lan Wangji's body and his cock twitched inside of Wei Wuxian. "Behave," he warned.
"I am behaving." Wei Wuxian blinked at him with large, faux-innocent eyes. "Don't you see how nicely I take your co—ack!"
Lan Wangji looked entirely unapologetic for someone who had just bitten Wei Wuxian rather hard on the shoulder. "Behave."
Wei Wuxian could hardly believe it. "Lan Zhan! What is this?! You don't like what I say so you bite me? What kind of nasty habit is this, biting people? I'm your consort! I just finished serving you! How can you bite me?"
"If Wei Ying cannot control his mouth, then neither shall I," Lan Wangji replied, a smile lining his voice.
"You're the Crown Prince! It is unseemly for you to bite." With a disbelieving huff, Wei Wuxian swung his legs idly in the water. "I can't believe this. How much long until we can separate and I can get out of your bite zone?"
Lan Wangji shifted beneath him. "I'm not sure."
Wei Wuxian's mouth clamped down mid-yawn. Knot times during ruts were different, so Wei Wuxian truly had no idea how long they could be stuck together. "Pardon?"
"Soon, most likely," Lan Wangji said, as if that was somehow any more specific. He paused for a little too long before saying with a hint of embarrassment, "I don't know, because I've never…"
Never taken an omega before, Wei Wuxian's brain filled in for him. His heart pounded against his ribcage, abound with a kind of relief and joy that was almost silly. Lan Wangji hadn't touched any of his other consorts. Only Wei Wuxian had him this way, soft and willing and oh so eager.
"I could carry you," Lan Wangji said. "We would have to turn you around first, but I could carry you."
It took a little too long for Wei Wuxian to realize that Lan Wangji was still talking about how they were going to get out of the water. "Lan Zhan!" he gasped. "We can't—Lan Zhan, the servants are going to take one look at me clinging to you like a monkey and they're going to know."
"They already know," Lan Wangji said. When Wei Wuxian sputtered in shock, he explained, "It's standard practice for each instance of consorts tending in bed to be documented."
"We're not in bed," Wei Wuxian hissed. His cheeks felt like twin flames. "So you're telling me they're all inside the pavilion right now, just listening?"
"Not all," Lan Wangji corrected, which was only marginally better. "Just a few. I can send them away, if you'd like."
"Yes, please," Wei Wuxian wheezed. He could be shameless on just about anything, but he drew the line at others listening in on them for documentation purposes. If it had to happen, he would rather it be out of sight, out of mind; so long as he had no idea who these people were, he was content to remain happily ignorant of their existence.
After Lan Wangji ordered the servants to leave and Wei Wuxian had had the time to process just how horrifyingly near the chorus of, "Yes, Your Highness," had been, the two of them fell into silence. Since they couldn't move and their bodies were cooling, Wei Wuxian could see why having sex in a pond during a chilly spring night was not the best idea. He shivered and rubbed his arms with his hands.
Lan Wangji made a concerned sound and wrapped his arms tighter around Wei Wuxian. "Not much longer," he promised, working his hips in small circles to test if his knot had eased enough to be pulled out.
Wei Wuxian bit his bottom lip and kept as still as possible. While the knot had indeed gotten smaller, he questioned Lan Wangji's logic in moving so much. Maybe it was different for alphas and their refractory periods, but the stimulation was making it difficult for Wei Wuxian to keep a clear head.
Just when Wei Wuxian was about to question if Lan Wangji was doing this on purpose, Lan Wangji pulled out of him with a small grunt. The shock of cold water made Wei Wuxian jump. He hurriedly pulled his pants back up, then winced when he felt a warm, gooey mixture of seed and slick slip out of him.
He didn't need help getting back up on the dock, but Lan Wangji still lifted him out of the water and gently dumped him onto the wooden pier before climbing out himself. Shivering, Wei Wuxian wrung out his hair and his sleeves until he looked down at the floorboards and burst out laughing. Lan Wangji was standing in a far larger puddle than he was, exacerbated by his many layers of clothing.
He didn't get to plod over and help him squeeze the water out of his robes; he'd only taken a step towards him when servants ran out, holding out towels. Wen Ning got to Wei Wuxian first, wrapping the towel tightly around his shoulders as another servant draped one over his head. "Second-Class Attendant, you're so cold!" Wen Ning rubbed Wei Wuxian's fingers between his before giving him a bronze hand-warmer. "You and His Highness were in the water for so long! What if you get sick?"
Wei Wuxian snuck a glance at Lan Wangji, who was enduring his servants' fussing with the patience of a monk. Here, on land, back in the light of lamps and lanterns, the space between them seemed to lengthen with each 'Your Highness' and 'Second-Class Attendant Wei' uttered. It was like they'd both stolen away—just for a little while—to a world of their own in darkness and in water where nothing else existed except for the two of them.
It was very poetic, Wei Wuxian thought, that their bond had formed in a place of water and darkness, too. But now they had to return—and in this world, the real world, they were little better than old acquaintances.
He sputtered when Wen Ning shoved a towel in his face to dry it off. "I'm fine, Wen Ning! It was just a little swim!"
"Little," Wen Ning echoed in a tone that was far too similar to his sister's. It would have made the hairs on the back of Wei Wuxian's stand up if he wasn't still soaked to the bone.
"Tiny. Very short. Barely a dip." Wei Wuxian flashed him a winning smile as he edged towards the pavilion. "I'll go inside. Or—ah—His Highness is supposed to go first, isn't he."
Lan Wangji somehow still looked elegant with no less than five towels draped across his person. He gave Wei Wuxian an indecipherable look, with furrowed brows and deep eyes.
His eyes. Wei Wuxian loved his eyes, but right now, it was difficult to meet them.
Thankfully, Lan Wangji said nothing more than his usual, "Mn," before walking past him and into the pavilion. Wei Wuxian followed after him, wishing more than anything that he could drag him back into the water, back under the pier, and beg to be held until he fell asleep.
As soon as they reentered the pavilion, the servants inside kneeled. One frazzled-looking servant stumbled over to Lan Wangji before kneeling. "This servant greets Your Highness and Second-Class Attendant."
"Please rise," Lan Wangji said. "What's wrong?"
"Many thanks to Your Highness." The servant stood back up, his face pale. "A messenger has been waiting for you outside of the Jade Hall. This servant understands that Second-Class Attendant Wei arrived just today and Your Highness should not be disturbed. But the messenger is from Ruzhuo, and this servant fears it's about the famine and riots there." He bowed. "Please forgive this lowly one for disrupting your peace!"
Famine. Riots. Wei Wuxian stared at the floor, his heartbeats feeling more like off-key twangs of guqin strings.
"I understand," Lan Wangji answered the servant. "I will be there shortly. Let the messenger into the Jade Hall and have him wait for me there."
The servant bowed again before leaving, walking just fast enough to not be breaking the no-running rule. Lan Wangji turned to Wei Wuxian. "Wei Ying, I—"
Wei Wuxian stopped him with a shake of the head. "Ah, it's okay, Your Highness. You're very busy! It's not easy being Crown Prince." He smiled. "I'll be fine, please don't worry about me."
"Take care." Lan Wangji moved his hand towards Wei Wuxian's. "Wei Ying, tomorrow, if you'd like, I could—I could come see you again."
The sour sensation from before returned in full force. Wei Wuxian had arrived at the Cloud Recesses days before scheduled and probably interrupted something important of Lan Wangji's. It was already a miracle that Lan Wangji took the time to visit him—time that Wei Wuxian had selfishly snatched from critical issues like quelling riots and sending emergency grain to starving regions.
He shook his head. "Maybe some other time, Your Highness."
Lan Wangji's hand froze. Withdrew. Curled into a fist at his side, then relaxed. "Some other time, then. Goodnight, Wei Ying. Sleep well."
Servants were starting to swarm him, carrying more towels, a change of clothes, combs, a bucket of hot water. Wei Wuxian curtseyed as well as he could in wet robes. "Your consort respectfully sends Your Highness off." He turned around and grabbed onto Wen Ning's wrist, whispering, "Go, go, let's go. Time to leave."
Up the stairs they went, to the second level, then the third. There was a still-steaming bath filled with lotus petals, and Wei Wuxian's night robe was laid out neatly on a nearby chair, ready for him to change into once he'd finished bathing.
Wen Ning peeled off the towels and began undoing Wei Wuxian's wet clothes. "Congratulations, Young Master Wei," he said, his face radiating simple joy. "I think Hanguang-Jun cares for you very much. Young Master Jiang and Young Mistress Jiang would be happy if they knew."
Thinking about his siblings was a good distraction. Jiang Yanli would be happy about Lan Wangji's visit, no doubt. Jiang Cheng, maybe not so much. He would definitely yell at Wei Wuxian for pulling the Crown Prince into cold water and seducing him under a pier—not that Wei Wuxian had any idea how Jiang Cheng would learn of such things. Those in charge of recording Lan Wangji's nightly activities had better keep their mouths shut.
When Wen Ning got the first layer off and was starting on the second, Wei Wuxian took the opportunity to whisper, "Did your sister send you anything to help me?"
Wen Ning's fingers stilled on a button, before undoing it and moving on to the next. "She's still trying to think of a way," he whispered back, shifting his weight between his feet. "She's currently negotiating a medicine supply line from here to Qishan. The income would help the Wen Clan a lot, and she would be able to send in any necessary herbs."
While that was good news, that wasn't going to help Wei Wuxian right now, with his belly full of Lan Wangji's seed. "Do you have anything on you right now?" He tried not to sound desperate.
To his great relief, Wen Ning nodded. "Jiejie said you were going to arrive soon, so I faked a cough and went to the Imperial Physicians' Court to steal some herbs. Would you like me to brew you a cup as you bathe?"
Wei Wuxian could melt into the floor. "Yes, please, thank you," he breathed. "Gods, Wen Ning, you're my favorite person in the whole world right now."
At that, Wen Ning's cheeks flushed a pleased pink that made Wei Wuxian want to aggressively tug them. "I am glad to hear that, but I don't dare compete with Young Mistress Jiang."
"Smart." Wei Wuxian smiled, and settled for pinching Wen Ning's nose.