As the Chief Cultivator, Lan Wangji is upheld as the paragon of civility and the impartial envoy in dealing with inter-sect disputes.
This reputation is only exacerbated by Gusu Lan’s overall propensity for moral rigidity and Wangji’s own personal reputation as the righteousness and for being wherever the chaos is.
But the thing is, Lan Wangji holds grudges the way he collects jugs of Wei Ying’s beloved Emperor’s Smile: out of sight and close to his heart.
Lan Wangji knows that most of the cultivation world only accepts Wei Wuxian’s continued existence because he is Wangji’s chosen cultivation partner, and that this acceptance is begrudging at best.
Wei Ying does not mind — in the late nights when they are curled up together in bed after their everyday, chest to chest and wrapped up in the warmth of each other’s arms, Wei Ying has admitted that he has long accepted that others will look upon him with distrust and derision. Wei Ying does not like this, but Wei Ying was raised with disdain and has long grown accustomed to the haughtiness of others. He does not remember much of what happened in his first life and he does not regret his actions in standing for the Wen remnants, but Wei Ying also does not begrudge those who despise him for his actions.
But Lan Wangji does mind very much when it is his husband, his cultivation partner, his soulmate who is snubbed and he cannot forget. He refuses to forget.
If Wei Ying will not seek out restitution for himself, then Lan Wangji will pursue it for him.
It is eight months since the events of the Guanyin Temple, three months since Wei Ying returned from his travels, and ten weeks since their marriage, when Lan Wangji comes across Lan Qiren just as he is exiting the library.
Lan Wangji’s relationship with his shufu is....complicated.
If forced to answer, Wangji might point to the Battle in the Nightless City as the turning point in his relationship with Lan Qiren. Or perhaps the whipping, when Lan Qiren wordlessly oversaw Lan Wangji take those thirty-three blows from the discipline whip and did nothing to stop each lash as it carved up the flesh of his back. Perhaps they fractured even earlier, when Lan Qiren assigned Wangji to carve the sect rules and forbade him from the library’s forbidden section.
But the truth is: there is no decisive split in their relationship.
Rather, their strained relationship is the culmination of small but inextricable differences that neither can reconcile. Differences that have been steadily piling up over the years, building a wall of dissensions and disagreements until suddenly there was an entire wall of misunderstandings leaving the two of them half-estranged and surrounded by irreconcilable differences.
Lan Wangji still cares for his shufu, still would like for Lan Qiren to understand his perspective. He even still respects his shufu’s experience and many of his teachings. But their interpretations of their family rules are now at odds and with Wei Ying sitting firmly in the middle of their ruptured relationship, neither are particularly inclined to rebuild it.
And it would be a lie for Lan Wangji to claim he does not still hold some residual bitterness towards Lan Qiren’s unfairly biased treatment of Wei Ying, for being so quick to condemn Wen Ying’s every action, and for repeatedly doling out punishments to others for the simple crime of associating with Wei Ying.
“Wangji,” Lan Qiren greets, voice stilted.
They have stopped just outside the Library Pavilion, Wangji on his way out and Lan Qiren on his way in.
“Shufu,” Wangji bows, his tone just as curt. In his hands, Lan Wangji has a handful of old scrolls and books for Wei Ying.
Both have too much self-control to appear any less than perfectly composed, but Wangji can feel the prickling sensation of the scars on his back that always act up when he is in a discomfiting situation. Seeing how Lan Qiren juts out his chin, Wangji suspects this incidental meeting makes his shufu just as uncomfortable.
After all, they have not spoken to one another as uncle and nephew without a pre-set meeting agenda since before Wangji’s marriage.
“I see the Chief Cultivator is working diligently to remain up to date with developments in cultivation theory,” Lan Qiren says, eyeing the book at the top of Lan Wangji’s pile.
The book is titled Functional Applications of External Yang Energy and Lan Wangji does not intend to read the book.
“These are for Wei Ying,” Wangji responds honestly and with some muted glee, watching his shufu fight to maintain his composure. Only Lan Qiren’s eyebrow betrays him, twitching as Wangji continues, “He is developing a talisman to trace curses that will not require spiritual energy to activate.”
Specifically, a talisman to trace the thousand boils and hundred holes curse that would have saved them all so much grief if they could have given it to Jin Zixun all those years earlier.
But Wei Wuxian always liked his talismans to be flashy, and Lan Wangji cannot deny the benefits of a more expansive applicability.
Neither can Lan Qiren. “Such a talisman would be to our benefit,” he says, voice shaking ever so slightly. It is indetectable to nearly everyone else, but Lan Wangji knows that this quiver only comes out when Lan Qiren is forced into reluctant agreement.
Lan Wangji is about to add that Wei Ying is very talented , because it is the truth and not even Lan Qiren’s dislike for Wei Ying can deny his inventive ingenuity. It is, after all, what makes Wei Ying such a prolific scholar.
Before Wangji can even open his mouth, Lan Qiren continues.
“I was informed,” Lan Qiren coughs once. Lan Wangji recognizes this as the cough that precedes a reluctant request. “By Lan Jingyi, that you will be taking a short excursion to Caiyi Town this afternoon.”
Nodding, Lan Wangji says, “I intend to buy Wei Ying a comb.” He emphasizes both Wei Ying’s name and the comb, ensuring that his shufu cannot avoid the connection between Wei Wuxian and Wangji’s intention to grow old with Wei Wuxian.
(They don’t need a comb — they have been sharing Lan Wangji’s comb all these months since Wei Wuxian lost his somewhere on the road back to Cloud Recesses and there is something to be said for the intimacy of sharing such a personal object — but Lan Wangji very much wants to buy his husband a comb.)
Stroking his beard more roughly than necessary, Lan Qiren says, “You will be going with Wei Wuxian.”
Lan Qiren still spits out Wei Wuxian’s name like it is a cockroach on his tongue, even if it is the slightest bit more tempered than in the past.
Lan Wangji chooses to outwardly ignore the discourtesy to his husband and cultivation. It is already something he is well practiced in. Inwardly, he tucks this knowledge into his heart and will remember this slight until it is remedied.
“We are.” To be petty, Wangji also adds, “There is a new chili merchant whom Wei Ying wishes to sample.”
“You are only encouraging Wei Wuxian’s worst impulses,” Lan Qiren huffs. Wangji’s eyes narrow, but he says nothing as Lan Qiren continues. “As that is the case, I would like to request that you pick up a tea order I have placed from the usual merchant. It is for Shifeng Longjing tea leaves. The freshest shipment from Xifu.”
Lan Wangji nods. “If,” Wangji pauses, emphasizing the uncertainty for plausible deniability, “Wei Ying and I pass by the tea merchant, we will retrieve the tea.”
After all, Caiyi is a significant trade hub and a rather big town. It would be presumptuous to guarantee that they will be able to go out of their way to pick up Shufu’s tea and return to Cloud Recesses before curfew.
Besides, it is loquat season and it has been over a week since Lan Wangji last spoiled Wei Ying with a basket of fresh loquats.
And if Lan Wangji goes out of his way to ensure he and Wei Wuxian never venture within half a li of the tea merchant, then he is still not lying when he tells Lan Qiren that they did not see the tea merchant in Caiyi.
Lan Wangji’s relationship with Jiang Wanyin has always been tenuous.
Even at its most amiable, during those three months when Wei Ying was suffering alone in the Burial Mounds, Lan Wangji and Jiang Wanyin didn’t quite get along. Their entire relationship then was loving Wei Ying more than they despised each other.
Then Jiang Wanyin drove Sandu into that cliff atop the Nightless City and Lan Wangji still has nightmares about that night.
And logically, Lan Wangji knows that it is not all Jiang Wanyin’s fault, that there are far more complex factors in the deterioration of Jiang Wanyin’s relationship with Wei Wuxian that neither of them can be blamed for.
But Lan Wangji can’t help but blame Jiang Wanyin when Wei Ying was still in his hands, his life still within reach, until the moment Jiang Wanyin appeared to make his final renunciation — a final disavowal — of Wei Ying that Wei Ying finally slipped from his grasp.
(It doesn’t help that Jiang Wanyin is also the reason for Wei Ying’s descent into the heretical path, into cultivating resentful energy. Even if Wei Ying’s ideas about demonic cultivation were already extant, it is the absence of a golden core that made this downfall a necessity.)
So when Sect Leader Jiang requests an audience with the Chief Cultivator to discuss trade routes, Lan Wangji walks in having already brainstormed a list of ways he can make Jiang Wanyin’s life a little more difficult.
Any minor inconvenience he can inflict on Jiang Wanyin will not come close to making up for the sixteen years Wei Ying’s soul was lost, but it will be very cathartic for Lan Wangji.
They are sitting at a table in the Yashi, glaring at one another. A pot of freshly brewed tea sits between them. Lan Wangji has already filled their cups.
“What is this tea?” Jiang Wanyin asks, a displeased grimace furrowing his brow as he cautiously sniffs the astringent aroma steaming from the tinted liquid.
Calmly, Lan Wangji sips his own tea. Like a true gentleman, Lan Wangji raises his hand to cover his mouth as he drinks.
If, hidden behind his long bell sleeves, the corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth is curved upwards in a smirk, then that is of no one else’s concern.
“Kuding tea,” Lan Wangji responds. He refills his own cup, pretending as though he is not secretly amused by Jiang Wanyin’s dismay. “It will stabilize the meridians, clear the mind and senses, and expel toxins.”
“Of course,” Sect Leader Jiang says, forcing a wan smile through his chagrin. “It is very thoughtful of Hanguang-jun to be so considerate of my physical health and spiritual well being. Yunmeng Jiang will remember this courtesy.”
Lan Wangji’s outward expressions do not change at all as he continues to sip his own tea. Secretly, he is feeling rather vindicated.
The benefit of being married to someone raised at Jiang Wanyin’s side is that Lan Wangji now knows far more about Jiang Wanyin than Jiang Wanyin knows about him. Sometimes, in the late nights when neither of them can fall asleep after their everyday marital duties, Wei Ying will tell Lan Wangji stories of his life in Lotus Pier. There are holes in his memory, wide gaps that pull at Lan Wangji’s heartstrings every time he sees Wei Ying’s face fall when he can’t remember the colour of Jiang Yanli’s hairpin or the number of kites he shot down on a sunny afternoon.
But, Wei Ying still remembers enough to have quietly whispered one night about how a much younger Jiang Wanyin would secretly throw slices of bitter melon into the lake whenever it was served.
Wangji had simply smiled at the time and teasingly said, “do not be wasteful,” which only made Wei Ying laugh harder. With his head tucked comfortably into the crook of Lan Wangji’s neck, Wei Ying had fallen asleep unaware that he had inadvertently armed his husband with the knowledge of both Jiang Wanyin’s secret sweet tooth and his distaste for bitter foods.
And Lan Wangji is not above hiding behind the austere reputation of his Sect to achieve his goals. Despite the moderate numbers of guest disciples that arrive in Cloud Recesses nearly every year, Gusu Lan has maintained a perception of extreme asceticism.
It once annoyed Wangji, that a preference for simplicity and self-discipline was so easily coagulated with puritanical abstinence of worldly pleasures.
Now, Lan Wangji is happy to hide behind Gusu Lan’s reputation in his own intersect dealings.
There are practical reasons for why their food is bland, why there are so many medicinal herbs. The benefits of medicinal herbs are obvious, but knowing the taste of food for itself teaches disciples to identify spoiled produce and ensures each sect member can discern poisons in their meals.
No one is discouraged from sampling heavily flavoured foods when they are outside of Cloud Recesses, travelling on night hunts or alternative sect business, yet the reputation of bland foods remains.
With Wei Ying’s preference for sweet osmanthus tea with a generous dollop of honey, Lan Wangji knows that there are a wide variety of sweet tea leaves in Cloud Recesses’ tea storehouse and several jars of honey in the kitchens. He personally ensures that Wei Ying will always be able to have his sweet osmanthus tea with honey whenever desired.
But Jiang Wanyin does not know this.
What Sect Leader Jiang also does not know is that shortly after receiving the missive from Lotus Pier, Lan Wangji went to the tea merchant in Caiyi to purchase the bitterest Kuding tea leaves -- shipped directly from Chengdu -- that were in stock.
“Is the tea to Sect Leader Jiang’s liking?” Wangji asks because he is having the time of his life watching Jiang Wanyin pretend as though each sip of Kuding tea is not slowly draining his will to live.
With a blatantly forced smile plastered on his face, Jiang Wanyin answers, “The taste is very distinct.” Sect Leader Jiang says this very diplomatically as he sets his almost empty cup back on the table. Even if he dislikes Wangji as much as Wangji dislikes him, their personal differences cannot interfere in discussions on behalf of their Sects.
“I am glad,” Wangji says, moving to refill Jiang Wanyin’s teacup before Jiang Wanyin can stop him. There is a sadistic thrill that fills Wangji as he watches Jiang Wanyin’s eyes fill with dread at the prospect of having to drink a second cup of bitter, bitter tea.
If Lan Wangji has learned anything in his thirteen years of mourning Wei Ying, it is that propriety can be an incredibly effective weapon against dissenters.
Their meeting lasts three hours. Lan Wangji personally ensures that at no point does Sect Leader Jiang’s cup ever empty.
The best part of this meeting is that Jiang Wanyin genuinely believes Lan Wangji serving Kuding tea is a benign coincidence.
(It is not deceitful if Lan Wangji genuinely does want Jiang Wanyin to be healthy. By no means does Lan Wangji care for Jiang Wanyin. But, Wei Ying still cares very much and it is not Lan Wangji’s place to dictate Wei Ying’s relationships.
So even if he still hates Jiang Wanyin a little bit, Lan Wangji wants him to be well so Wei Ying will not be sad.)
Lan Wangji does not think very highly of Sect Leader Ouyang.
By contrast, Lan Wangji thinks very highly of Sect Leader Ouyang’s son.
Where Sect Leader Ouyang has a backbone with the hardiness of an overcooked noodle and bends to whomever the loudest voice in the room is, Ouyang Zizhen is a conscientious young cultivator with a strong moral compass and a deep loyalty to protecting those who cannot defend themselves.
Sect Leader Ouyang is quick to take credit for the deeds of others, but Ouyang Zizhen is the first to accept help and the last to claim credit.
In the year following the Guanyin Temple, Ouyang Zizhen is sent to Cloud Recesses as a guest disciple.
It is a good year. Wei Ying teaches talismanic theory and its practical applications to the junior disciples, Wangji joins Wei Ying and the junior disciples out on night hunts when he has time, Wei Ying succeeds in his curse tracing talisman (along with countless other smaller, less impressive but perfectly functional talismans -- there is a talisman used to shake every pinecone off a tree that Lan Wangji sees no practical purpose for, but is sure that Wei Ying will find one).
And, Wei Ying and Wangji celebrate their first wedding anniversary.
For their anniversary, they load up Lil’ Apple and go on a week-long extended nighthunt around Gusu.
When they return, they find Sect Leader Ouyang standing in the middle of the Yashi. He is clearly waiting for the Chief Cultivator although Wangji was never informed of Sect Leader Ouyang’s presence.
“Your Excellency,” Sect Leader Ouyang says with a respectful bow. “Wei Wuxian,” he nods with palpable reluctance, not even bothering to bow.
“Sect Leader Ouyang.” Lan Wangji’s knuckles are white from his tightened grip on Bichen, just as it always happens when someone dares to disrespect Wei Ying in his presence.
Lan Wangji is perfectly happy to stand there, staring down Sect Leader Ouyang until Sect Ouyang stutters out an apology. Lan Wangji knows the effect he has on people, how his reserved nature intimates others, and has no qualms about using his reputation to his advantage.
But Wei Ying is a better man.
Feeling Wei Ying’s hand wrap around his arm, Lan Wangji allows his irritation to be diverted. The hard stare he had fixed on Sect Leader Ouyang melts into a tender gaze in the time it takes Lan Wangji to turn his head.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji asks. His grip on Bichen loosens with each second he does not have to hear Sect Leader Ouyang’s voice.
With a bright grin, Wei Ying tilts his head at the exact angle that makes him especially kissable and cheerfully says, “Lan Zhan, it looks like you already have work to do! I’ll take Lil’ Apple to graze in the back mountains and unpack.”
Wei Ying’s smile is as mesmerizing as always. His tone carries an air of teasing lightness, but Wangji can see the underlying message.
Drop it, Wei Ying is saying, I’m not worth it .
And Wangji rather disagrees, thinks Wei Ying is very much worth it, but this is a recurring argument that they do not need to continue in front of Sect Leader Ouyang.
Sect Leader Ouyang is staring at a scroll on the wall so he does not have to look at Lan Wangji with his husband.
“Be safe,” Lan Wangji says to Wei Ying, briefly linking their fingers together. His eyes narrow almost imperceptibly, just enough so that Wei Ying will know exactly what Wangji thinks of Wei Ying’s worth.
“I will, I will,” Wei Wuxian chirps, holding onto Lan Wangji’s hand for longer than he needs to but Wangji is not about to complain.
Before he leaves, Wei Wuxian turns to Sect Leader Ouyang’s back and bows again, “Sect Leader Ouyang. Your son is an excellent cultivator, You should be proud.”
Sect Leader Ouyang scoffs at Wei Wuxian’s words. He is still staring at the same scroll, refusing to dignify Wei Wuxian’s praise for Zizhen.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji share one last glance before Wei Wuxian removes himself from the room.
Sect Leader Ouyang does not turn to face Lan Wangji again until the door closes behind Wei Wuxian.
“Please be seated,” Wangji says flatly, gesturing at the low table.
“Gusu Lan is always so hospitable,” Sect Leader Ouyang says, clearly pandering. There is something he wants that Wangji will be more than happy to deny him. “Truly, Gusu Lan is the finest of the Great Sects.”
Wangji pays no attention to Sect Leader Ouyang’s empty platitudes. “It is disrespectful to ignore the spouse of the Chief Cultivator,” He says mildly, albeit bluntly, as he takes his seat on the other side of the table. Someone has already prepared tea for them.
Spluttering, Sect Leader Ouyang trips over his tongue as he tries to explain himself. “Surely Hanguang-jun can understand how it might be difficult for some to understand how such an upstanding cultivator as yourself becomes cultivation partners with the Yiling Laozu. It is,” Sect Leader Ouyang pauses briefly, choosing his words carefully, “ difficult to accept the venerable Hanguang-jun taking a spouse who is so clearly below Hanguang-jun’s caliber.”
Which is exact wrong thing to say because Lan Wangji remembers very clearly a time when Sect Leader Ouyang was more than happy to push the delivery of justice onto Wei Ying in Lotus Pier, after listening to Sisi and Bicao reveal their stories of Jin Guangyao’s treachery and mere moments after denigrating Wei Ying’s very existence.
“Wei Ying is my equal,” Wangji says firmly, giving Sect Leader Ouyang an unimpressed glower. “Decorum mandates that Wei Ying be treated as such.”
“Of course, Your Excellency,” Sect Leader Ouyang is quick to add, scrambling to smooth things over. “I am doing my utmost to adapt to the new ways of things. You must understand how difficult it can be to suddenly be forced to accept Wei Wuxian’s return.”
Unfortunately, Lan Wangji understands that difficulty all too well. Sect Leader Ouyang is far from the first to make that excuse.
“What is Sect Leader Ouyang’s purpose in Cloud Recesses?” Wangji asks bluntly. They have barely spoken but Wangji is already tired of entertaining Sect Leader Ouyang.
“It has come to my attention that there is rather limited trade between Gusu and Baling. Baling tea leaves are of a stellar quality, I am sure you must have heard of our famous Junshan Yinzhen tea?” Sect Leader Ouyang continues monologuing on the advantages of Baling tea and the prosperity it will bring to both their sects.
Unfortunately for Sect Leader Ouyang, no matter how exquisite his tea might be, he will not be selling any of it to Gusu. Lan Wangji has long since decided that he is not interested in pursuing any trade with Baling.
In the future, Lan Wangji will be happy to renegotiate a trade deal when Ouyang Zizhen takes over as Sect Leader. He may even actively encourage such a deal.
But for now, Lan Wangji has no intention of using Gusu coin to line the pockets of a man who still can not be bothered to show Wei Ying even the barest modicum of respect.
Once every few months, Wei Ying tries to drop by Carp Tower.
“Family bonding,” Wei Ying says whenever he is asked why. “Jin Ling needs a bad influence in his life. Someone needs to teach him how to get in trouble.”
More often than not, Lan Wangji accompanies him to Carp Tower under the guise of a conveniently timed diplomatic matter or a sudden need to address a small border village afflicted by low-level spirits. It is not implausible that the Chief Cultivator would have to spend so much time in Lanling to clean up Jin Guangyao’s books.
(If Wangji is being honest, there really is not much to be cleaned up. Jin Guangyao’s books are surprisingly clean, his intentions clearly documented and his intentions to divert funds for the poorest villages just as evident. It is a shame that no one will ever believe it.)
Sorting through and relocating Jin Guangyao’s books is not why Lan Wangji chooses to go, but it is the excuse that he chooses to hide behind.
The truth is: Lan Wangji does not trust Jin Rulan to not cause Wei Ying harm.
(Lan Wangji knows Jin Rulan still dislikes his courtesy name. But Wangji also knows who gave Jin Rulan his courtesy name. It is not Wangji’s problem if Jin Rulan dislikes his name.)
Wei Wuxian’s heart is big enough to not mind the fact that young Sect Leader Jin once stabbed him, but Lan Wangji is not Wei Wuxian.
Wangji still remembers the terror he felt — the terror he still feels in his memories — when he saw Wei Wuxian’s blood drawn by Suihua. They were at the foot of Carp Tower’s infamous stairs, the eyes of dozens upon dozens of cultivators watching them flee when Jin Rulan rushed forward and nearly brutally ended Lan Wangji’s entire life.
Wei Wuxian may think there is nothing to forgive, but Wangji believes otherwise.
So Wangji does not like Jin Rulan and he certainly does not trust Jin Rulan, but Wei Ying both likes and trusts Jin Rulan.
And it is this pair of contradictions that has landed them in their current situation.
“Jin Ling,” Wei Wuxian pretends to scold as he welcomes himself into Jin Rulan’s private dining room, breezing past Jin Rulan who is holding the door open. Foregoing all etiquette, Wei Wuxian seats himself at the table. Leisurely reclining on a gaudy cushion lined with gold thread, Wei Ying’s posture is as bad as ever. “Don’t you know better than to keep the illustrious Hanguang-jun waiting outside?”
“Look at yourself!” Jin Rulan snaps before quickly glancing over to see Hanguang-jun’s reaction. “You didn’t even bow,” Jin Rulan adds, far more subdued after seeing Lan Wangji’s cool gaze fixed on him, despite Wangji’s otherwise inscrutable expression.
If he is being honest with himself, it is possible that Wangji might be deriving a little bit too much pleasure from the knowledge that Jin Rulan is a little bit terrified of him. But Jin Rulan did stab Wei Ying, nearly banishing Wangji’s soulmate from the world for good, and Wangji is slow to forgive.
“Why would I bow to my own nephew,” Wei Ying retorts, sinking further into the plush cushion. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, come sit with me!” Wei Ying enthusiastically pats the equally gaudy cushion beside him, beckoning Wangji into the room and who is Wangji to deny his husband?
“I’m a sect leader now!” Jin Rulan rolls his eyes, closing the door behind Wangji. This is a recurring argument that has become a habit between the two. “You can’t just invite people into my rooms. You’re supposed to respect me.”
“And I’m still your qianbei,” Wei Ying waves a finger at Jin Rulan. As soon as Wangji is within an arm’s length, Wei Ying latches onto Wangji’s hand and intertwines their fingers together. “You have to respect your seniors. You haven’t even greeted me properly! You have to greet your Jiujiu.”
Pouting petulantly, Jin Rulan finally seats himself at the table across from Wei Ying and Wangji. “Dajiu,” he says with feigned reluctance, his light tone negating his crossed arms and scowl.
The grin that spreads across Wei Ying’s face, the way Wei Ying’s silver eyes light up at the simple greeting, is what makes these visits to Carp Tower worthwhile.
Unfortunately, the tranquil moment is cut short by the door swinging open. A line of servants enter carrying elegant plates loaded with assorted Lanling delicacies and an elegant tea set.
It is a family dinner and none of them are enjoying it.
Lan Wangji does not like it because Suihua is sitting on the ground right behind Jin Rulan and Lan Wangji cannot relax enough to enjoy his meal. Suihua is placed very, very close to Jin Rulan’s sword arm and Wangji is terrified that the moment his attention is diverted, he will find Suihua pierced through Wei Ying’s abdomen. Again.
Jin Ling does not enjoy these meals because as much as he likes hearing Wei Wuxian’s stories about Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng from when they were all growing up in Lotus Pier, Hanguang-jun is absolutely terrifying. Even though Hanguang-jun is technically his uncle by marriage now, he only ever gives Jin Ling the unimpressed glare of dissatisfaction or the neutral glare of unspoken chastisement. He never knows what he’s being chastised for, and Hanguang-jun certainly never says anything, but Jin Ling feels very chastened afterwards.
(Jin Ling is rather convinced that the only reason Hanguang-jun tolerates his existence is because Wei Wuxian is attached to him.)
Wei Wuxian does not enjoy these meals because the tension in the room is palpable and even he has a hard time making lighthearted jokes. Independently, he adores his time with Jin Ling and with Lan Zhan. To Jin Ling, he gives unsolicited political advice, solicited night hunting advice, and revels in the simple fact that he is here in this world and allowed to have a relationship with Shijie’s son despite everything. To Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian has quite literally dedicated the remainder of his life. There is no doubt about his affection for both his nephew and his husband separately. But together, there is a heavy layer tension that cuts through them all. It is disheartening and Wei Wuxian does not enjoy watching the people he cares about at odds with one another.
(Lanling cuisine is also just terrible. Too much shellfish. Picking the tiny morsels of meat out of the shell is like a reward for passing a test except the reward is mediocre and needs more spice. Just because he is smart enough to do it doesn’t mean Wei Wuxian wants to be solving a puzzle to get to his food.)
When it is the three of them at the table, conversation is one-sided. Lan Wangji has never been verbose and especially not during meals, Jin Rulan is too intimidated by Hanguang-jun’s presence and is muted by the fear of saying something to offend Hanguang-jun, and Wei Wuxian is left to speak on his own.
Sometimes Jiang Wanyin joins them. Those are the worst meals because no one speaks. The only sounds at the clinking of chopsticks against porcelain bowls and the only communication is through passive aggressive chewing.
As Wangji watches Jin Rulan’s long sleeves drag across the table, he realizes that the thick silk is piling dangerously close to Jin Rulan’s tea cup. Unlike Gusu Lan’s light, airy silks, Lanling Jin have always preferred thicker, heavier weaves.
Watching how Jin Rulan’s gold sleeve sways back and forth, brushing dangerously against his porcelain cup, Wangji contemplates whether or not he should discreetly alert Wei Ying to the impending situation.
Do not speak during meals is a rule Lan Wangji has always adhered to but they are not in Cloud Recesses and Wei Ying has no qualms about speaking during meals.
Just as Wangji is about to gently judge Wei Ying’s knee for his attention, Jin Rulan interjects abruptly.
“How can you eat that much meat?! Even Fairy doesn’t eat that much meat,” Jin Rulan complains loudly as he points at Wei Ying’s bowl of marinated beef and seasoned chicken.
Beside Wangji, Wei Ying instinctively flinches at the mere mention of the dog.
“We don’t need to talk about the dog,” Wei Wuxian says, a quivering undertone to his voice. “It’s not my fault meat is such a rare treat! You know that they only serve plants in Cloud Recesses.”
It is a rule that Wei Wuxian is unofficially exempt from but Wangji sees no need to point that out.
Unimpressed by Jin Rulan, Wangji changes his mind and does not point out the peril Jin Rulan’s teacup is in. He eats his food silently as he fixes his gaze on Jin Rulan’s sleeve.
It does not take long before Jin Rulan reaches a little too far, swings his sleeve a little too hard, and finally knocks over his full cup of tea.
“Ah!” Jin Rulan cries out, staring in dismay at the pool of tea spreading across the table. When it had been sitting on the table, the cup had seemed so small. Yet, it held enough tea for the liquid to quickly pool around the nearest bowls. Jin Rulan’s sleeve is now soaked, as is his lap.
“Jin Ling, aren’t you too old to be making such a mess?” Wei Ying teases, breathless from laughing. He is hunched over, one arm clutching his stomach and the other braces against the dry end of the table.
A lock of hair falls loose, dropping dangerously close to taking a bath in the pot of soft-shelled turtle soup. Without hesitation, Wangji reaches over to tuck the strand of hair safely behind Wei Ying’s ear.
Watching the scene before him, Wangji says nothing as he silently reaches for his own tea instead.
Absolutely mortified, Jin Rulan is desperately trying to wipe the table with his soiled robes and only creating a bigger mess. Wei Ying is teasing Jin Rulan, laughing too hard to be of any help.
Wangji simply sips his own unspilled tea, impassive as ever.
Behind his cup, Wangji hides an amused smile that no one notices.
It is both deeply shocking and completely unsurprising to Lan Wangji that legends of the Yiling Patriarch change tone nearly overnight once word of Jin Guangyao’s deeds spread.
It is not that the stories become any less fantastical, nor is Wei Ying suddenly embraced as a harbinger of truth. In many ways, it is still the same. Before, the Yiling Patriarch was a figure used to scare young children into good behaviour and now, Wei Wuxian is still a figure used to intimidate young children into good behaviour.
The difference is in how Wei Ying is no longer a salacious deviant who steals misbehaving children from their beds and conducts blasphemous experiments with the blood of virgins. Now, Wei Ying is a cultivator of uncertain morality who is held in line by the Chief Cultivator and sneaks out to punish disobedient children.
So it is an improvement.
As he walks down the busy streets hand in hand with Wei Ying, Wangji relishes the simple joy of simply holding Wei Ying’s hand.
“Caiyi has changed,” Wei Ying says, munching on a tanghulu. “Even the peddlers selling portraits of the Yiling Patriarch paint me much more handsomely now!”
“Wei Ying was always handsome,” Wangji says tenderly, glancing over to see Wei Ying licking sticky sugar syrup from his lips.
A dollop of sugar syrup is still smudged along Wei Ying’s upper lip.
“Er-Gege! Don’t look at me like that,” Wei Ying’s cheeks flush prettily under the weight of Wangji’s gaze. His eyes dart away, bouncing around to look at everything but his husband. Still, he does not turn away. “How shameless! You can’t say things like that in public. People will start telling stories about the crooked Yiling Patriarch defiling the righteous Hanguang-jun!”
Wangji huffs, amused, comfortable in the knowledge that Wei Ying will know he is being laughed at. He squeezes Wei Ying’s hand and quickly leans down to lick the sugar away.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying squeals, still holding Wangji’s hand. “Shameless!”
Before Wei Ying returned, Wangji kept his trips into Caiyi scarce. It was both a practical move and a personal choice.
Many of Wangji’s night hunts took him far away from Gusu. He spent many nights at inns in villages much farther away. There was little need to stop in Caiyi when he had Lan Yuan to return to in Cloud Recesses.
Due to the proximity to Cloud Recesses, stories of the deep rivalry between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were most rampant in Caiyi Town. It was grating, to hear strangers who never knew Wei Ying’s brightness ramble and rave about Wei Ying’s darkness. And it cut deeply to realize that despite the depth of Wangji’s feelings, it had all been universally misinterpreted as hate.
“Esteemed cultivators!” A merchant calls out, recognizing the familiar Gusu Lan robes. “High quality, freshly kilned ceramic teapots! Come, come, take a look!”
Wangji recognizes the teapot vendor. His eyes narrow, remembering this vendor as one of the loudest voices against the Yiling Patriarch and his enthusiastic denouncements of Wei Ying.
Before he can walk away, the vendor catches Wei Ying’s attention. When Wei Ying wanders over, curious, Lan Wangji is left with no choice but to follow.
Their hands are still interlocked and Wangji is not about to abandon his husband to a two-faced teapot vendor.
“Your Excellency,” the vendor bows when they approach, recognizing Wangi, and his eyes widen when he realizes who must be at Wangji’s side.
“Look at how famous you are,” Wei Ying teases, waving his tanghulu at Wangji.
“Mn,” Wangji gives the vendor a hard look. “Do not play with your food,” he says to Wei Ying without taking his eyes off the vendor.
Playfully pouting, Wei Ying takes an exaggerated bite from his tanghulu.
“My wares are made with the finest clays from Meishan,” the vendor interjects, hoping to make a sale. Under the weight of Lan Wangji’s glare the man gulps, visibly wilting.
“The Gusu Lan Sect prefers green and white teas,” Wangji says, disinterested. He can feel Wei Ying squeezing his hand, grounding him. Wangji squeezes back, running his thumb over the back of Wei Ying’s hand. “Our tea is better paired with porcelain.”
“Surely a sect as grand and respected as Gusu Lan has use for clay teapots?”
And the vendor isn’t wrong. Wei Ying’s preferred tea might be sweet osmanthus, but there are meals that are better paired with a strong puer.
“We have clay teapots,” Wangji says bluntly, knowing that he is being very harsh to a vendor who likely does not even remember what he said about Wei Ying.
Which only incenses Wangji more, the thought that this man could spend so many years spreading blatant falsehoods to slander Wei Ying and have it mean so little to him that he could just simply forget it ever happened.
“Your Excellency, I am sure your...husband,” Wangji glares harder at the vendor for his hesitation, “will appreciate some variety!” Turning to Wei Wuxian, the vendor tries to appeal to him directly. “See there, you have such delicate fingers. Long, elegant, those are the fingers of a true musician! I have just the tea set to showcase their beauty.”
Years ago, the same vendor described Wei Ying’s fingers as talon-like, skin twisted beyond recognition by the constant manipulation of resentful energy.
“There is variety,” Wangji says, words curt.
The vendor blanches further at the realization that he has insulted the Chief Cultivator.
“Yes!” Wei Ying pipes up in agreement, sensing Wangji’s annoyance. “Lan Zhan is the best, he spoils me so much. We have an entire shelf of tea sets.”
Which is not a lie. There is a small shelf of tea sets in the Jingshi. It is mostly decorative because Wei Wuxian finds oddly shaped teapots hilarious and Wangji is more than happy to indulge such whims, but it is there.
“Surely the Chief Cultivator can spare a moment to browse through this humble merchant’s wares?” the vendor says pleadingly, realizing that he is not going to make the big sale he had anticipated.
Wangji shakes his head once. “Busy.”
As they walk away, Wei Wuxian gives Lan Wangji a questioning glance but says nothing more as he happily takes another bite of his tanghulu.
If there is anyone who can see through Wangji, it is Wei Ying.
“I know what you’re doing,” Wei Ying says that night, inviting himself into Wangji’s arm. Wangji is more than happy to reciprocate, wrapping his arms around Wei Ying and pulling him in closer.
“Mn,” Wangji says noncommittally, running his fingers through Wei Ying’s hair as if his secret pettiness isn’t being exposed.
“You were mean to the tea set vendor,” Wei Ying continues, leaning into Wangji’s touch. “It’s not his fault he wanted your money. Not everyone has pockets as deep as you.”
“His wares are poor quality. You deserve better.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, lightly chastising, “was it the ware that was poor quality or the one selling the wares?”
Cupping Wangji’s face between his hands, Wei Ying smiles. It is a soft grin, small yet endlessly tender. It is one that only appears when they are alone after curfew, when there is nothing to do but to relish each other’s presence in the stillness of the night.
“You don’t need to defend my honour, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. With a self-deprecating chuckle, he adds, “There isn’t much to defend.”
“No.” Lan Zhan says firmly, covering Wei Ying’s hands with his own. “Every part of you is worth defending. Worth protecting.”
“You can’t just say things like that without warning! And so seriously too!” With Wangji’s hands holding his own in place, Wei Ying tries to bury his flushing face in his shoulder to escape from the oppressive honesty of Lan Zhan’s sentiments.
Lan Zhan takes Wei Ying’s hands off his face and takes one in each of his hands. With a forceful tug, he pulls Wei Ying in even closer and wraps his arms around Wei Ying’s back.
“It is the truth.”
“Lan Zhan, ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says into Wangji’s neck. “Your husband is the fearful Yiling Laoshi who eats feasts on the young flesh of virgins and steals children from their beds. He can stand up for himself.”
Pressing a kiss into Wei Wuxian’s hair, Wangji’s arms pull Wei Wuxian in even closer. “My husband does not need to stand alone.”
Wei Ying’s hands are travelling across the wide expanse of Lan Wangji’s back. Wangji is only wearing a single layer of inner robes but Wei Ying can still feel the raised skin of the thirty-three lash marks through the thin silk. “I’ve done terrible things too,” Wei Ying whispers as if Lan Zhan has not long since forgiven him.
“They were unfair first.” Wangji knows he sounds like a petulant child, but he also knows that he is right.
“Do not hold grudges,” Wei Ying counters by reciting from the Wall of Discipline as he loops his arms around Wangji’s neck. “Be easy on others.”
“Do not insult people,” Wangji says back, lying them both down on their bed. “Honour good people.”
“But Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says with a playful spark in his eyes, “you like it when I’m naughty in bed.”
Wei Ying yelps when Wangji pinches his hip in response.
Even later, once they have settled in for sleep, Wei Ying whispers softly. “Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying asks.
“Mn?” Wangji cracks open his eyes to see Wei Ying smiling at him from the other end of their pillow.
“Always.” Wangji leans forward to give Wei Ying one last sleepy kiss. “There is no need for thanks between us.”