Lan Wangji delivers the invitation himself, mostly as an excuse to watch the blinding smile spread across Wei Wuxian’s face when he delivers it. He spends so much time thinking about it on the way there that he’s a little startled to see the faint gauntness in Wei Wuxian’s face when he actually meets him at the path leading up the mountain. It smooths away when he spots Lan Wangji and waves eagerly.
“Lan Wangji!” he calls. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“Wei Ying.” For the sake of his dignity, Lan Wangji pretends he hasn’t been thinking up an excuse to visit again since he last came to Yiling months ago. He holds out the scroll in answer, and Wei Wuxian plucks it from his hand, their fingers brushing momentarily.
Wei Wuxian does not disappoint; his eyes widen as he reads, which is almost comical until Lan Wangji catches a glimpse of unshed tears. “Lan Zhan?” he says hoarsely. “This isn’t a prank, is it? That would be so mean.”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Not a prank,” he says firmly, and Wei Wuxian lifts his head with a disbelieving grin.
“I’ll get to meet the baby,” he says dazedly, then turns his shining eyes on Lan Wangji. “Lan Zhan! It’s so soon! What will I wear! I have to buy presents! And I’ll see Shijie!” He’s nearly shouting, bouncing on his toes. He grabs Lan Wangji’s upper arm in excitement, which would be alarming if it were anyone else, but from Wei Wuxian it’s just endearing. “Thank you!”
“It is nothing,” Lan Wangji says, meaning that his motives for delivering it were far from selfless. Then, because he is apparently a masochist, he adds, “Would you like to travel to Lanling together? I will be in the area for sect business anyway.” It’s not a lie if he can find some sect business to do here.
Wei Wuxian tilts his head appraisingly, then nods. “Yes, of course,” he says. “As long as you don’t mind walking.” It’s an obvious test, to see if Lan Wangji will bring up why Wei Wuxian won’t just fly on his sword.
But it’s more time with Wei Wuxian. He can’t bring himself to ruin that chance, even if he itches to beg him to let him help with whatever is causing the dark circles under his eyes. “Mm,” he says, inclining his head.
“Great,” Wei Wuxian says, fast enough that Lan Wangji knows he’s caught off guard. “I’ll meet you in Yiling in three weeks, then?”
Lan Wangji nods, and Wei Wuxian squeezes his arm before letting go, mock-bowing as if it’s an inside joke, and making his way back to the trees, a lightness in his step that wasn’t there before. Lan Wangji manages to suppress the resulting shiver until Wei Wuxian’s back is turned.
Wei Wuxian’s robes are slightly nicer when they meet in Yiling -- no holes or patches -- although Lan Wangji can tell he’s wearing the same worn under robes he was before, and is immediately embarrassed to have noticed. “Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian says brightly in greeting, and shows off his gifts for the baby.
Lan Wangji, whose gift of a rare scroll will probably not be appreciated for a decade or so, if ever, is duly impressed. Wei Wuxian lets him run an appraising finger over the bracelet, clearly proud. He has good reason to be; Lan Wangji has never seen something quite like it, especially not something made in less than a month.
“It’s nothing,” Wei Wuxian says when he says as much, but he preens a little under the compliments anyway.
The journey is easy, easier than Lan Wangji was expecting. Wei Wuxian is in high spirits, and the sun is shining. Lan Wangji listens to him talk about whatever catches his fancy -- “I’ve been teaching A-Yuan to read and write, and he’s pretty brilliant at it but he has trouble with reading neat characters because he’s used to reading me and Wen Qing’s shitty handwriting, ha! He was kind of obsessed with the invitation you brought, because of course your handwriting is perfect, so I had him copy it down a couple times but of course he spilled a little ink on it so I had to take it back and he cried--” -- and feels the warm light on his face.
He should know better than to relax, which he realizes when Wei Wuxian stumbles to a halt beside him and mumbles, “Shit. Bad news.”
Lan Wangji follows his gaze up to see Jin Zixun standing on the cliff with his chest puffed up, arrogant as usual. He catches a glimpse of the Lan disciples backing him and glares even harder.
“Wei Wuxian!” Jin Zixun yells. “I’m warning you! Uncurse me right now!”
Wei Wuxian just looks at Lan Wangji, confused. “I didn’t curse him,” he says, seriously, as if there’s any question about that, then turns back up to the cliff face. “I didn’t curse you!” he hollers up. “Have we met?”
It’s the wrong thing to say; Jin Zixun stomps his foot. “Nice try!” he says. “Just lift the spell, you miscreant! I have no idea how you’ve fooled Hanguang-jun into buying your innocent act, but I know the truth!”
“What truth?” Wei Wuxian says blankly.
Jin Zixun bares his chest and the hundred holes; Wei Wuxian grimaces a little, but not out of guilt. It’s just gross. “This!” he yells. “If you’re not even willing to confess to your crimes, it’s going to make this a lot harder!”
Lan Wangji clears his throat. “Jin Zixun,” he says. “Wei Wuxian is not responsible for your curse. Be reasonable.”
“Reasonable?” Jin Zixun bellows. “There’s a hundred holes in my chest!” He spreads his arms and glides down, then stalks up to jab a finger in Wei Wuxian’s direction. “You’re supposed to be good at wicked tricks, so undo this one!”
“I didn’t curse you!” Wei Wuxian insists, getting slightly impatient. “I could come up with a way better curse than a hundred holes. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead.”
It’s almost certainly true, but that doesn’t mean he should say it. Jin Zixun goes purple. “Fuck you!” he spits. “Undo the curse and then fight me man to man!”
“I would, if I had cast it,” Wei Wuxian repeats, sending Lan Wangji an exasperated look over Jin Zixun’s shoulder. “But I didn’t.”
Jin Zixun nearly growls in frustration. “I didn’t come alone,” he says, unmistakably a threat.
“Neither did Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says calmly. He raises an eyebrow at Wei Wuxian. Can you handle him?
Wei Wuxian nods, offhand. Yes, of course .
Lan Wangji flies up to the edge of the cliff. All the disciples straighten out into neat lines, embarrassed to have been caught watching raptly. He addresses all of them, but particularly the thirty-odd Lans who make up around half the group. “Who was this authorized by?” he asks, making clear there is no good answer. He keeps an eye on Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixun at the bottom of the cliff. Jin Zixun has drawn his sword and is gesticulating with it wildly.
The disciples -- most of them quite young -- look between themselves. It’s one of the Jin cultivators who steps forward, with a slightly-too-shallow bow. “Hanguang-jun,” he says. “Young Master Jin informed us of his condition and the wrongdoings of the Yiling Patriarch against him. We felt it was our duty to support him.”
Below them, Jin Zixun has begun swinging, but Wei Wuxian seems wholly unimpressed, sidestepping his attempted blows easily, occasionally raising Chenqing to block. Lan Wangji is unconcerned; Jin Zixun is a mediocre fighter and Wei Wuxian fought a war without a sword. “I see,” he says. “And none of you thought to check the veracity of his claims?”
A moment of silence. Lan Wangji lets his eyes rest on the Lan disciple he knows best, a man a few years his senior who he knows for a fact fought in the war. He’s impassive, but shifts uncomfortably under Lan Wangji’s gaze.
“Who else could it be?” bursts out a Yao disciple.
Lan Wangji lets his eyebrows draw together just slightly in disdain. The Yao disciple shrinks back, just slightly. “You believe Wei Wuxian to be the only cultivator of resentful energy in the entire world?” he asks flatly. At the bottom of the cliffs, Wei Wuxian disarms Jin Zixun by twisting his wrist to make him drop the blade, then flips him over his shoulder to land flat on his back, humiliated and breathless but mostly unharmed. A few years of resentful cultivation have hardly dimmed Wei Wuxian’s quick reflexes, swordless or not.
“Lan Zhan!” he calls up. “Did you see?”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, only half paying attention, and then turns fully as he sees Jin Zixun pick up his sword behind Wei Wuxian, absolutely fuming. “Wei Ying!” he begins, a warning, stepping off the cliff to fly down, but he’s not fast enough.
Wei Wuxian barely makes a sound when Jin Zixun’s sword goes through his chest. A tiny noise is punched out of him — half gasp, half sigh. Jin Zixun, wearing that smirk that Lan Wangji has always hated, moves to pull the sword out.
This won’t do; Lan Wangji knows enough about battlefield medicine to understand the principle of keeping the weapon in the wound until a medic arrives. So he does the only thing that occurs to him in the moment, letting the momentum of flight be the force behind the swing; he cuts off Jin Zixun’s hand.
Jin Zixun screams, and the hand falls to the ground, but Lan Wangji barely notices, stepping around him to catch Wei Wuxian, who was only being held up by the sword inside him. Lan Wangji scoops him up, an arm under his back and another under his knees, Wei Wuxian’s head lolling against his shoulder, and steps onto his bloody sword.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian wheezes as they ascend, mouth bloody. There are small curls of resentful energy peeling off him, but they’re directionless and weak.
“Don’t speak,” Lan Wangji says, more harshly than he means to. He tries to look down at him without looking at the sword in his chest; it doesn’t work. He swallows down cold fear, chest aching as if he was the one who was run through. “Please,” he adds. “Save your strength. It will be okay.”
“Lying is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses,” Wei Wuxian mumbles, the whisper barely audible over the winds whipping around them. It sounds impossibly fond. He doesn’t say anything else.
Lan Wangji cradles him close, balancing them as best he can. Wei Wuxian’s blood is hot as it seeps through both their robes, settling sticky against Lan Wangji’s skin. Hot is good, he tells himself. It means Wei Ying is still alive. He just wishes there weren’t so much of it.
He’s not sure how long it takes to get back to Yiling. Too long. He nearly bounces off the protective wards Wei Wuxian set up around the Burial Mounds, and he has to land momentarily to attempt to replicate the character he’s seen Wei Wuxian draw effortlessly. It takes a few tries, Wei Wuxian almost slipping from his grasp as he draws the character with a shaking hand, but finally he lands on the correct one. He lifts off one last time to get up the hill, flying over the trees before landing gracelessly between two vegetable patches.
“Help,” he grits out, not sure he has the breath to yell, but Wen Qing materializes at his side, sleeves already rolled up — she must have been working in the fields.
“Carry him in,” she commands, striding forward without checking to see if he’ll follow. Jin Zixun’s sword grazes Lan Wangji’s cheek as he hoists Wei Wuxian up and follows.
“Hold him up,” she says, pulling out a terrifying pair of shears that he realizes with relief are for Wei Wuxian’s clothes, not his body. Lan Wangji props him up as best he can, trying not to touch the sword. Wen Qing cuts the cloth away, then looks Lan Wangji hard in the eye. “I’m going to pull the sword out. You have to hold him tightly. If you have to throw up, just don’t do it on the wound. Look away if you must, just don’t let go.”
He nods. He doesn’t intend to look away, but then Wen Qing grabs the pommel in her small but strong hands, already slick with blood, and yanks , and he can’t watch anymore. The sound is bad enough, the squelch of blood and scrape of bone, and the way Wei Wuxian’s unconscious body jerks in his grip. He closes his eyes, and holds on so tightly his fingers hurt.
“Lay him down,” Wen Qing tells him, what must be only moments later. “And get out of my way.”
It should feel better now that Wei Wuxian is in the hands of a capable doctor, but not being able to touch him makes it worse. He doesn’t throw up, but it’s a close thing. Wen Qing shoos him away from where she’s working, but she’s too busy keeping Wei Wuxian alive to force him to leave altogether.
Wen Ning appears at some point with bandages and boiled water and herbs that Lan Wangji doesn’t have the presence of mind to name. She barely seems to notice him as she grabs his offerings, but Wen Ning doesn’t seem offended. He offers Lan Wangji water to drink, but Lan Wangji ignores him -- probably rudely. He can’t bring himself to care.
The sun has set by the time Wen Qing leans back, clearly exhausted. “That’s all I can do for now,” she says, using the remaining water to scrub her hands.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji says, and it comes out a whisper. He stands to bow, but she stops him with a hand on his wrist.
“No need,” she says. “You brought him back. Thank you.”
Lan Wangji hazards a glance at Wei Wuxian’s unconscious body. His chest is bare except for the bandages, and under any other circumstances Lan Wangji would be too ashamed to look. But he doesn’t have time for it now, not with the small hint of blood already visible through the bandages, and the way his bones seem too close to the skin. Wei Wuxian didn’t used to be this skinny. Lan Wangji coveted the memory of his collarbone peeking through his underrobe in the xuanwu cave for years, and he would remember if it looked like that then. The Wen brand, then an angry red, has faded against his skin. Lan Wangji’s eyes linger on his hip bones, noting the way they jut up just above his trousers. Is it that he forgets to eat, or does the soil here not yield enough food?
“I have to sleep,” Wen Qing says, and he realizes he’s been looking at Wei Wuxian for a few moments too long. “Or I’ll be no good to anyone. Ask Wen Ning for a spare blanket if you’re staying.”
He didn’t even think to ask if he could. His uncle would be disappointed. For so many reasons. “If that is alright,” he says, even though they both know full well he intended to all along.
She gives him a sharp nod, not disapproving, then disappears around a corner. Lan Wangji sinks down to sit beside Wei Wuxian, grateful for the practice that his punishments have given him at kneeling for a very long time. He’s not sure when he falls asleep.
Lan Wangji wakes with a start from a not at all restful nap he’d been taking on the floor, disoriented from the second he opens his eyes. The freezing stone has stiffened his muscles. And where is Wei Wuxian?
“Sorry,” a voice says sheepishly from behind him; Lan Wangji turns to see Wen Ning standing by the doorway, shifting from foot to foot. “When you fell asleep in here, Jiejie said not to move you because you needed the rest. Master Wei is in his own bed now.”
“Please take me to see him,” Lan Wangji says, standing. Then he realizes his robes are still covered in blood, now mostly dry, shocking against the delicate white.
Wen Ning follows his gaze. “Let me get you something to change into,” he says, backing through the doorway before Lan Wangji can argue. He returns with an armful of what Lan Wangji quickly realizes are Wei Wuxian’s own robes. “Sorry, we don’t have anything else that would fit you,” Wen Ning says hastily, as Lan Wangji turns the robes over in his hands. “But Master Wei won’t mind.”
He didn’t think Wei Wuxian would. But there is still something skin-pricklingly intimate about it. He suppresses the urge to smell them, and is so momentarily ashamed of the instinct that he holds his breath as he pulls them on. The robes are an inch or so too short for him, and he tries not to think about the implications of donning the same underrobe that Wei Wuxian must wear on a weekly basis. It’s indecent. Wei Wuxian would laugh, of course. Hanguang-jun, so handsome even in my tattered robes! he would tease.
And he will, Lan Wangji reminds himself sternly, walking out to meet Wen Ning. He’s sure he looks ridiculous in the borrowed robes, his hair still done up as if for a party, but he doesn’t really care. Wen Ning leads him nervously down the passage to Wei Wuxian’s bedroom, pausing at the door. “He doesn’t look very well,” he says in his quiet voice. “But Jiejie says all hope isn’t lost.”
Lan Wangji nods tightly, and Wen Ning lets him pass. He’s right; Wei Wuxian looks awful, so pale that Lan Wangji actually checks to make sure there are no black veins creeping up his neck. Without thinking, he takes Wei Wuxian’s hand — then can’t bring himself to let go.
“He hasn’t woken?” he asks, though he’s sure he knows the answer.
“No, but that doesn’t mean anything right now,” Wen Ning says, with surprising surety. Lan Wangji remembers vaguely that Wen Ning helps his sister during surgery; it makes sense he’d have some rudimentary medical knowledge. “Right now, all his energy is focused on healing.”
Lan Wangji traces the back of Wei Wuxian’s hand. It’s not as warm as it would be normally, and instinctually, to reassure himself, he reaches out to feel for his golden core, to try to pass him a little spiritual energy.
There’s nothing there. Not even the whisper of a depleted core or the weak murmur of a new one. Lan Wangji’s offered energy wisps away.
“How—“ Lan Wangji chokes. “His core —?” He looks at Wen Ning, half accusatory in his shock. “Jin Zixun could not have—“
“No, no!” Wen Ning says, holding out his hands. “He hasn’t had one for years, don’t worry!”
This is not as reassuring as Wen Ning seems to think.
“Please explain,” Lan Wangji says, pained. He feels for Wei Wuxian’s pulse instead; in the absence of a golden core, it will have to do as reassurance that he’s still alive.
Wen Ning is so anxious that the story comes out in a ramble, out of order. Lan Wangji wants him to hurry up, but he’s also not confident in his own ability to speak, so he just keeps quiet and lets him talk. His heart feels as if it’s about to fall from his chest, beating nearly twice as fast as Wei Wuxian’s does under his fingers.
“So Jiejie did the surgery,” Wen Ning says. “But then when Master Jiang was still coming back down from the mountain, Wen Chao threw him here. So he had no choice, Hanguang-jun, he had to survive somehow, and it’s not like you all would have won the war without him!”
Lan Wangji belatedly recognizes the emotion behind Wen Ning’s rising tone; he believes he has to defend Wei Wuxian from Lan Wangji. And why wouldn’t he? Lan Wangji thinks, chest empty. He’d been as reactive as anyone else when Wei Wuxian appeared with Chenqing, although he’d been more concerned than angry. But Wei Wuxian had never quite understood that, had he? He’d been alone, and scared, and Lan Wangji had been yet another person endangering his ability to use the only power he had left.
“Hanguang-jun?” Wen Ning says, much more hesitantly than before, and Lan Wangji realizes he is on the verge of crying.
“I am fine,” he says, which is only sort of true, and schools his expression back to neutrality as best he can.
Demeanor softened, Wen Ning sits beside him. “He manages okay,” he says gently. “It’s only times like this where it gets hard. You can’t really heal with resentful energy -- or if you can, he hasn’t figured out how yet.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji says, and Wen Ning reaches out as if to pat his free hand before thinking better of it and pulling back. “Thank you for telling me.”
“You’re welcome,” Wen Ning says, and sighs. “I can’t wait for him to wake up and be mad at me for telling someone his big secret.”
They sit in silence for a little while, not uncomfortably. Wen Ning doesn’t say anything about Lan Wangji continuing to hold Wei Wuxian’s hand, for which he is grateful.
Wen Qing announces herself by putting a pot of soup down loudly on the table. “Courtesy of the uncles,” she says. “A-Yuan helped, so if it tastes weird don’t say anything.” Wen Ning stands and Wen Qing takes his place beside Wei Wuxian, leaning over to check his breathing. “Any changes?” she asks her brother.
“No,” he says. “But he isn’t worse, and there’s no sign of infection.”
Wen Qing nods; she clearly didn’t hope for anything better. Wen Ning hands Lan Wangji a bowl of soup and a spoon. He’s deeply unhungry, but makes himself take a few sips for the sake of politeness. It’s not terrible, just oversalted. A-Yuan’s help, he assumes.
He relinquishes Wei Wuxian’s hand reluctantly as Wen Qing begins to redress his wound. It slips limply from his grasp.
“He was damned lucky,” Wen Qing mutters as she works. “The sword nicked a lung, but the rest of his organs are okay.” She sighs, clearly frustrated. “You got him back just in time, but still…”
“Still?” Lan Wangji prompts.
Wen Ning’s black eyes flick between them. “I told him about his core,” he says.
“Oh good,” Wen Qing says. “I'll talk plainly. So you know why he can’t afford to get stabbed.” She ties off the bandages somewhat aggressively. “He’s too hard to heal, the spiritual energy just goes through like he’s a sieve.”
Lan Wangji tries to breathe evenly. “Will he…?” He can’t finish.
“I don’t know,” Wen Qing says honestly. “He’s just not as sturdy as he was. The resentful energy gives him power, and it can shield him, but once he’s hurt, he has to get better like any average person.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji says distantly.
Wen Qing looks at him analytically. “A-Ning,” she says. “Can you bring the soup to Granny? I don’t know if she got a chance to have some earlier.”
Wen Ning looks between them again, but nods, picking it up carefully so as not to spill any.
Once he’s gone, Wen Qing sits down across Lan Wangji. “What is it you want to say?”
There’s a lot he wants to say, for example, How could you cut out his core? and What have you done to earn his trust? Why do you have it but I do not? But that’s not what she meant. “Give him mine,” Lan Wangji says, hand clenching in the rough fabric of his borrowed robe..
Wen Qing’s eyes narrow. “No,” she says, and holds up a hand before he can protest. “Let me explain. I would also like to save Wei Wuxian. But you’re a fool if you think he would be alright with it. If you gave him your golden core and died in the process, we’d have a mad Yiling Patriarch, which is possibly worse than a dead one.”
Lan Wangji opens his mouth, but she speaks over him. “I only performed that surgery the first time because I owed him a favor. It’s a miracle they both recovered, and it’s probably due as much to luck as to my skill as a surgeon.”
Lan Wangji breathes through the retroactive terror about what could have happened. He doesn’t know what to say; he would beg, if he thought it would help, but Wen Qing is not the sort of person who yields once she has made a decision.
“It’s only been a day,” she says finally. “Give him a few more before you do anything rash.” Something almost like a smile plays on her tight mouth. “He talks about you like you’re infallible, but you’re just as reckless as he is, aren’t you? Just quieter.”
He doesn’t confirm or deny. Infallible? Wei Wuxian knows better than anyone exactly how fallible he is.
Wen Qing stands. “I mean it as a compliment, by the way,” she says, and leaves.
Wei Wuxian continues to not wake up. After the second day, Wen Qing pushes Lan Wangji into helping with chores. He’s pretty sure she does it so she can check up on Wei Wuxian without him hovering, but it does help a little to be useful. He helps Wen Ning brew more medicine, cooks with the few ingredients they have, and attempts to do the laundry with Granny Wen. Even under her skilled hands, his white robes are pretty much unsalvageable, but he finds to his surprise that he could not care less.
“I will cut them up for bandages,” he says, taking the stained pile of fabric. The under robe is still wearable, since no one would see it except him, but he cuts it up too, pretending to himself that the reason is his own fastidiousness rather than the feeling of Wei Wuxian’s robes against his skin.
Lan Wangji plays his guqin as much as he can and sleeps on the floor beside Wei Wuxian’s bed, and Wen Qing frowns but does not make him go anywhere else. Possibly because there isn’t anywhere else for him to sleep. He doesn’t mind.
By the fourth day, Wei Wuxian still has not woken up. It is not just Lan Wangji who is restless; all the Wens ask after him as tactfully as they can, except little A-Yuan, who clings to his ankle and begs to know when his gege will get up and play with him again until Granny Wen gently pries him off. None of them seem to mind how little Lan Wangji talks, which is a relief.
On the fifth day, Wen Qing outright orders him and Wen Ning out of the settlement. “Go buy food!” she exclaims, flinging a coin purse at her brother. He catches it deftly and shrugs at Lan Wangji like, Oh well.
Lan Wangji does not want to go, but he has noticed the soup getting thinner and thinner each night, and it is safer for him to go than any of the Wens, so he squeezes Wei Wuxian’s hand and goes.
His own coin purse is about five times heavier than what Wen Qing sent them into town with, so he gives in to instinct and buys as much food as he can, until Wen Ning begs him to stop, stop, they won’t be able to carry it all. When they climb back up the mountain, Wen Ning’s arms are piled with fresh fish and slabs of pork and beans and hefty packets of whatever spices he thinks Wei Wuxian would like to try.
The Wens gape when they return, and A-Yuan shrieks in delight, flinging himself into Lan Wangji’s arms with so little warning that he barely has time to drop what he’s carrying and catch him. “Thank you, Rich-gege!” he yells directly into Lan Wangji’s ear.
Even Wen Qing stares a little, her pinched expression disappearing for a long moment. “Rich-gege indeed,” she says, too shocked to be cynical.
Lan Wangji doesn’t say anything, but whatever she sees in his face makes her smile, very faintly.
It’s not a bad night. He helps Granny Wen fry some of the fish and slice the pork and when he turns around he realizes she’s made a small pot of vegetarian soup just for him. He eats it quietly and lets A-Yuan have a taste when he climbs into his lap, face sticky and belly full. Dinner goes on so long that A-Yuan falls asleep on top of him, and when one of the uncles offers to bring him to bed, Lan Wangji shakes his head. “I’ll take him,” he says, and carries A-Yuan’s sleeping body to the modest room that he shares with Granny Wen. He tucks him in, and, after a moment of hesitation, kisses him on the forehead. He thinks that’s what one is supposed to do with children.
Then he goes back to Wei Wuxian’s side, traces the veins lining the pale inside of his thin wrist. He wants Wei Wuxian to be proud of him, to mock him for his indulgence, to smile again. “Wake up,” he murmurs. “Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t. On the sixth day, he has a fever.
“Infection,” Wen Qing says grimly. Her soft expression from the previous night is long gone. “Probably his lung.”
Wen Ning has started fretting visibly. Lan Wangji spends the day doing nothing but switching out damp rags on Wei Wuxian’s forehead and playing guqin for him until his fingers are stiff, but without a golden core, it’s difficult to tell exactly how much good it does him, if any.
By nightfall, Wei Wuxian has started wheezing faintly on every shallow exhale. Lan Wangji makes a brief attempt at sleep, but every time he begins to drift off, he stops being able to hear him breathing, and he jerks awake, terrified.
Finally, he gathers himself and goes to Wen Qing’s room, even though it’s the middle of the night and completely improper. He left propriety a long time ago.
She opens the door too quickly to have been sleeping herself.
“Please reconsider,” Lan Wangji says, and he doesn’t have to specify what he means.
In the moonlight, Wen Qing looks awfully young. “I can’t,” she mutters. “Even if the transfer worked, we barely survive the Jin attacks on the wards. We couldn’t withstand Lan attacks too.”
“They would not--” he starts, and she cuts him off with just a look. She’s right. He’d have to keep it a secret from anyone, even his brother. Wei Wuxian is a much better liar than him and only managed to keep it under wraps for a few years.
For a long moment, the only sound in the room is his own irregular breathing. “Tell me what to do,” he says finally, lost. “I… cannot lose him.”
She looks at him, really looks. He’s not sure what she sees, but she almost looks sorry for him. “Okay,” she says, and turns to grab the texts she must have been reading before he came in. “Go to Gusu. I never got to see your library, but I’ve heard it’s a sight to behold.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says.
“Go, and bring back every text you can find about golden cores,” she says. “Specifically, splitting them.” She takes a deep breath. “I’ll be honest with you, it’s a long shot. Wei Wuxian and I came up with the transfer technique in the first place, so it’s not like there are related works. But I’ve read the Lans used to -- to cut down a golden core, as punishment. Not remove it entirely, just whittle it down, reduce a person’s power so they would be forced to build it back up more thoughtfully. It might be a safer alternative, if we could pull it off.”
It’s not something Lan Wangji’s ever heard of, but the restricted section makes up nearly a third of the library. There’s a lot he hasn’t heard of. “I will go,” he says. He swallows. “I will try.”
Wen Qing half-smiles, half-grimaces. “I’ll try to keep him alive until you get back,” she says, not a promise but the next best thing.
Lan Wangji goes back to Wei Wuxian’s side. He searches for something to say but can’t come up with a single word, so he just murmurs, “Wei Ying,” and kisses his scorching forehead like he had A-Yuan’s.
Flying to Cloud Recesses takes the rest of the night and the whole day. Quietly wishing he had a little more practice sneaking in after dark, he lets himself in at the back wall instead of the gate. It’s after nine, so the only people out are a handful of patrolling guards, mostly younger disciples. He slips past them easily in Wei Wuxian’s dark robes, and into the library. The lock on the restricted section is laughable to break through, as always. He knows it’s the principle of the thing; that the real protection is disciples choosing not to go in, but it still feels faintly ridiculous.
He’s not a doctor, so he’s not sure what will be useful to Wen Qing. He takes anything that seems even peripherally relevant. His bag is overflowing by the time he’s sure he has everything she might need.
It’s still a couple hours until five, so he isn’t as careful as he should be. At most, he figures he’ll have to knock a couple teenagers unconscious, which he will feel bad about but not enough to not do it. He is not expecting to come face to face with his brother when he tries to slip back up the stairs.
Lan Xichen is in his sleeping robes, with another layer thrown hastily on top, hair tucked into a loose topknot. Lan Wangji could probably count on his fingers the number of people who have seen him untidy; if he crossed the courtyard like this, he must have been really alarmed.
His brother is easy to read, and always has been. Lan Wangji notes the distressed crease between his eyebrows and the determined set of his mouth, and clutches his bag a little closer.
“Wangji,” he says, keeping his voice low. “What are you doing?” He doesn’t actually wait for Lan Wangji to answer. “Everyone is -- no one has seen you in a week! What are you wearing? Where have you been?”
Lan Wangji can’t lie to his brother. “Yiling,” he admits, and watches his eyebrows creep higher.
“Is he--?” Lan Xichen asks. “Jin Zixun has been boasting about killing--”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “He is very ill. But alive.”
Lan Xichen doesn’t exactly look relieved. “So you’re helping him.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says firmly, refusing to feel guilty about it. “I will take my punishment when I return.” He does not say if . He can’t have that conversation right now.
Lan Xichen looks a little hurt. “This isn’t about that. I’m just worried about you. Was it really you who cut off--” Lan Wangji nods. He is not ashamed of it. “Ah.”
“Tell Uncle, if you must,” Lan Wangji says. “But I am going.”
Lan Xichen doesn’t look angry. Just very sad. “Brother,” he says. “I hope you know what you’re doing. People are talking.”
Lan Wangji shrugs. It feels almost sacrilegious. “Let them,” he says.
Lan Xichen looks at him for a long moment. “Wait here,” he says finally, and sweeps out of the door. Lan Wangji considers leaving, but he doesn’t want to hurt his brother any more than he already is. Besides, he returns quickly, with a white bundle in his arms. “Extra clothes,” he says, handing the bundle to Lan Wangji. “And money. I don’t like this, but I trust you. Please be careful.”
Lan Wangji nods gratefully. He can’t find the right words to thank him, but Lan Xichen doesn’t wait for it -- just squeezes his hand in a rare show of physical reassurance, and steps away. He loves his brother dearly.
He has to fly lower on the way back because he’s vaguely concerned about falling off his sword. The lack of food and sleep are beginning to press in on his body, make him clumsy. He feels like he’s going slower, but he gets there by the very early morning of the next day, body aching and head pounding.
Wen Ning is of course up to meet him -- he doesn’t need to rest. His mouth falls open slightly as Lan Wangji presses the bag of scrolls into his arms, which he promptly has to drop to steady Lan Wangji when he sways. “Have you slept?” he asks, sounding for a moment startlingly like his sister.
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Wei Ying?” he asks.
Wen Ning looks away. “His fever is a little better. But his breathing is worse,” he says quietly.
Lan Wangji nods wordlessly, although his stomach feels tight. Not just from hunger.
“Go rest,” Wen Ning says, nodding towards Wei Wuxian’s room. “I’ll take these to Jiejie.”
Lan Wangji does not actually remember getting to the room, but he is there. He takes Wei Wuxian’s hand and sinks to the ground, only half because he meant to. “Please,” he whispers.
Wei Wuxian’s breath rattles as it drags in, out. Lan Wangji lies down, but doesn’t let go of his hand. He keeps a finger on his pulse as he falls asleep.
Lan Wangji sleeps shockingly late by his standards, through breakfast and almost to lunch. He still feels exhausted when he gets up. “That’s because you didn’t sleep for three days,” Wen Qing tells him when she comes to check on Wei Wuxian, shoving a bowl of vegetables into his hands. He eats mechanically, realizing how hungry he is only when he’s nearly finished.
Wen Qing disappears back to her room and doesn’t emerge until after dinner, not even to scold him for playing too much guqin. Lan Wangji knows better than to hope, but there’s a manic glint in her eye when she appears that makes him sit up straight and pay attention.
“There will be side effects,” she begins. “Unpredictable elements we won’t know until after. Your core will be weakened, even if the transplant is unsuccessful. But it shouldn’t be life threatening.”
“That is of no consequence,” he says. Behind him, Wei Wuxian’s every inhale rasps against his throat.
Wen Qing rubs her eyes tiredly. He’s not sure when it shifted, but she doesn’t hold herself so stiffly in front of him anymore. “You’re as good of a person as he always said you were,” she says, meeting his eyes. “Both of you could stand to be a little more selfish.”
“I am being selfish,” Lan Wangji says. “I could not bear it, if…” He can’t finish the sentence. “This will give him a better chance?”
“That’s the hope,” Wen Qing says. “This has never been done before.” She sighs. “I could use another week, another month, to plan, but we don’t have it. We’ll try tomorrow. Meditate tonight, if you can. Then sleep. Don’t play any more music. Expend as little spiritual energy as possible. Doctor’s orders.”
He nods, lets his hands fall from the guqin. Then, remembering, he reaches into the bundle of his robes and hands her the coin purse his brother gave him.
Wen Qing stares at it. “We can’t take this,” she says. “We’re surviving, you know. We won’t starve.”
He clears his throat. “Please,” he says. He’s not sure how to say it. They both know the Wens will have a much harder time if Wei Wuxian isn’t there. He wants this to be a sort of pledge. They will not be abandoned, even if the worst happens. At the very least, he can give them this.
Wen Qing puts it back in his hands. “No,” she says firmly. “If you still want to, after, we can talk about it.”
He doesn’t argue. His feelings will not change.
In the morning, Lan Wangji takes a lukewarm bath and dresses only in the loose trousers Wen Ning gives him. He thinks they probably belong to one of the uncles. There’s a chill in the air, and he holds back a shiver. When he lies down next to Wei Wuxian, the backs of their hands brush. His skin is hot and far too dry.
He takes a long, long look at Wei Wuxian before Wen Qing sedates him, her slight fingers moving so nimbly he barely feels the needle on the top of his head. “Count to ten in your head,” she tells him.
One. He considers the spread of Wei Wuxian’s dark eyelashes, the way they brush his cheek.
Two. The freckle under his lip. Lan Wangji has wanted to touch it since he was fifteen, to brush a fingertip over it and see if the skin is raised there or not.
Three. The wisps of hair that have escaped from the thick, clumsy braid Wen Ning put his hair into. Lan Wangji is having trouble keeping his eyes open, but he’s got enough presence of mind left to be irrationally jealous that he was not the one braiding Wei Wuxian’s hair.
Four. The space between his eyebrows.
Five. His nose. His perfect nose, Lan Wangji thinks hazily.
He’s out before he gets to six.
When he opens his eyes again, they feel sticky and his stomach aches dully like he’s been stabbed. Or cut open and sewn up. It’s dark, and he squints in the candlelight. He feels weak, and after a moment he realizes why; his golden core is smaller. Still there, just reduced.
“Don’t move,” Wen Qing commands, putting her hands on his shoulders to keep him down. He reaches clumsily to his left anyway to feel for Wei Wuxian’s hand anyway. He finds it after a moment and holds on.
“Wei Ying?” he asks, throat dry.
Someone -- Wen Ning, he realizes -- presses a cup of water into his free hand.
“Drink that. There have been no visible changes,” Wen Qing says as he obeys, “but his body was able to accommodate the core. It’s a good sign. His breathing is better. The fever is gone.”
Lan Wangji lets out a breath of relief. He closes his eyes to concentrate and feel for himself -- and sure enough, he can feel the flutter of a golden core in Wei Wuxian’s body -- his golden core -- small but definitely there.
His face feels hot, and when he turns his head to try to look at Wei Wuxian, something trickles down his cheek and the side of his nose. He’s crying.
“You’re still feeling the medication,” Wen Qing says, probably so he won’t be embarrassed. “Sleep more.”
“Mm,” he mumbles, and drops off again.
His drugged sleep had been deep, dreamless. Now he drifts for a while, and dreams of many things. Lan Xichen as a child, helping him brush his hair. His small fingers aren’t as capable as their mother’s, who used to pull Lan Wangji’s hair loose and run her fingers through it while she talked and then twist it up again exactly as it had been when he arrived, but he does his best. He pulls a little too hard and Lan Wangji squirms and his brother says, “Sorry, didi, sorry…”
He dreams about cooking with the Wens in the Lan kitchens, which are big and sunlit and well-equipped. A-Yuan, shoeless, perched on the table, eating plain rice as he watches Lan Wangji and Granny Wen chop vegetables in comfortable silence. Lan Wangji sets the knife down and reaches out to wipe away a stray grain of rice from A-Yuan’s chubby cheek.
“Thanks, A-die,” A-Yuan says brightly, through a half-chewed mouthful, and behind him he hears Wei Wuxian laugh.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Wei Wuxian says, teasing, but just as Lan Wangji turns to face him, he makes a terrible choking sound and Granny Wen, who has turned into Jin Zixun, has thrust the knife that Lan Wangji put down through his chest.
“No, no,” Lan Wangji says, and when he reaches out to catch him they’re standing below the cliff again, with dozens or maybe hundreds of Lans staring down at them with blank eyes. “Wei Ying, no --”
Wei Wuxian laughs in his arms, blood on his teeth. “This was always going to happen, wasn’t it?” he asks. “Why won’t you let me go?”
“Do not leave me,” Lan Wangji whispers, which he had not been brave enough to say at the time. “Please.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen in surprise, and then they’re on the roof of Lan Wangji’s guest room in the Unclean Realm. Wei Wuxian puts his bottle of liquor down and shifts closer in the moonlight, staring. “You’re a strange one, Lan Zhan,” he says. “I keep waiting for you to push me away.”
“Never,” Lan Wangji says fiercely, and means it. He shifts forward, and then they’re fifteen, in the library of the Cloud Recesses, but instead of Wei Wuxian sprawling across his desk, he’s the one leaning in and Wei Wuxian watches him, looking astonished.
Lan Wangji is aware on some level that he is dreaming, but this feels so real. He grips Wei Wuxian’s narrow teenage shoulders. “Wei Ying,” he says. Beseeching. “Wake up.”
-wwx-typical self hatred
-brief suicidal ideation (in the past)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The morning light is too bright against his eyelids. Ugh, it’s too early to get up. He feels warmer and safer than he has in months, although his stomach kind of hurts. Maybe he can sleep it off. “Five more minutes, Shijie,” he mumbles.
“Mm,” he hears.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes snap open. “Lan Zhan?” he says, incredulous.
For a second he thinks he’s still dreaming, because Lan Zhan is? In his bed? His hair is loose, spilling over his shoulders, and he looks soft with sleep like he just woke up too.
Wei Wuxian stares at him. “Where am I?” he asks, squinting as his eyes adjust to the light. “Did you take me to Gusu?”
Lan Zhan’s lips flatten and he shakes his head. “No,” he says. “We are in the Burial Mounds. I brought you back after Jin Zixun stabbed you.”
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says.
“It has been ten days,” Lan Zhan adds.
“Ten!” Wei Wuxian yelps. “I missed the party completely?”
Lan Zhan makes an expression he’s never seen on him before, and he exhales through his nose, the corners of his mouth tugging up slightly. Wei Wuxian’s mouth drops open. “Was that a laugh? Were you hit on the head?” he asks. “Am I missing something?”
Lan Zhan shakes his head, expression sliding back towards a warm-eyed neutrality. “I am glad you are back,” he says simply, and Wei Wuxian can’t help but gape.
“Ten days, huh,” he says. He feels… remarkably fine for having been unconscious for over a week. A little headachy, maybe, and his stomach really does hurt now that he’s paying attention to it, and he’s kind of hungry, but… fine. Ever since he was thrown into the Burial Mounds the first time, he’s woken up just a little cold and stiff, like his body forgot it was supposed to be alive when he went to sleep. He tries not to think too hard about it usually. “Is that why you’re still here, Lan Zhan?” He smiles at him, teasing. “Did you miss me?”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says, matter-of-factly. “You almost died.” He sounds reproachful.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. Which, yeah. He figured. He was stabbed in the chest. A hint of unease creeps into Wei Wuxian’s gut. It shouldn’t have taken a normal cultivator ten days to wake up from a stab wound. “What did I miss? Any gossip?”
Lan Zhan tilts his head, and Wei Wuxian laughs. He looks like a bird when he does that. A very handsome bird.
“And why are you in my bed?” he adds, before he can talk himself out of asking. “Not that I mind, of course, but I thought Wen Qing was a better host than to make you share a bed with a dying man.”
Lan Zhan’s face tightens. “Not dying,” he says.
Wei Wuxian waves him off. “Not anymore, anyway,” he says. “But tell me what happened. I don’t really remember anything after Jin What’s-His-Name stabbed me and made me miss meeting my darling nephew.”
“Jin Zixun,” Lan Zhan says. “I cut off his hand.”
Wei Wuxian chokes. “You what ?”
Lan Zhan looks mulish. “Supposed to keep the weapon in,” he says. “Prevents more blood loss.”
“You cut off the second Jin heir’s hand?” Wei Wuxian sputters. “You’ll start another war!”
“He stabbed you,” Lan Zhan says, like this is a perfectly reasonable line of logic.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian says, somewhat hysterical. “You can’t go cutting off the hands of anyone who stabs me!” Not that he doesn’t appreciate the gesture, but it would be way too many hands. Including Jiang Cheng’s, which wouldn’t do.
Lan Zhan looks prepared to disagree, but Wei Wuxian just lets his head fall back against the straw. “Okay,” he says. “Then what?”
“Then I flew you back here,” Lan Zhan says. Wei Wuxian puts a hand on his own chest as he listens, exploring the tender new scar on his sternum. He really does feel strange, but he can’t put his finger on why. “You were not in good shape, but Doctor Qing insisted we wait before doing anything drastic.”
“Mm,” he says, and closes his eyes for a moment to take stock of his energy; the wards around the Burial Mounds have probably been depleted while he was out and he’ll need to replenish them as soon as possible.
And stops dead.
The spark of a golden core inside him feels so right that it nearly makes him sick. He jolts upright, probably faster than he should with stitches in his stomach.
“After a week, your condition was declining, so--”
“Lan Zhan,” he interrupts, cold with dread. “Where is Jiang Cheng?”
Lan Zhan looks politely puzzled. “Yunmeng, most likely. He may still be in Lanling.”
Wei Wuxian grips Lan Zhan’s arm, so hard that it probably hurts. His heart pounds in his ears. “Do you know if he’s okay?” he asks, barely able to form the words. He has no idea what would cause this to happen; surgeries shouldn’t just reverse like this, but if something had happened to Jiang Cheng, maybe --
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, audibly alarmed.
Wei Wuxian can’t breathe. The golden core dances inside him, impossible to ignore now. Could he have pulled it back to himself somehow while unconscious? It shouldn’t be possible, but there it is --
“Wei Ying ,” Lan Zhan repeats, but he sounds very far away. A moment later, there are strong arms around him, holding him up and closing him in, a cage and a comfort at once.
His fingers fumble as he writes in the air, a little short-distance alert he made just in case something went wrong with the wards. He’s practiced it so much that he could do in his sleep, or, as it happens, in the middle of a panic attack. Fuck, it would be just his luck to go into qi deviation the second he gets a golden core again.
It’s an eternity before an uncharacteristically rumpled Wen Qing rounds the corner into his room. He sees her snap into doctor mode the second she sees him -- shit, he must look ridiculous, hyperventilating in his bed in nothing but trousers and a loose under robe, with Lan Zhan inexplicably wrapped around him.
He feels Lan Zhan hesitate, then pull away. Wei Wuxian wishes he hadn’t. He might float away into pieces without the anchor of his arms around him, but he needs Wen Qing to tell him what the fuck happened even more.
“Breathe,” she commands, snatching his hand to check his pulse.
He’s so annoyed by it that he manages to get enough air in to snap, “I’m trying .”
“What hurts?” she demands. “Did you tear the stitches?”
He shakes his head and taps his sternum. “How--?” he asks, hoping she understands, unable to spare a glance for Lan Zhan, who is still hovering a few feet away.
He sees her comprehension, and then she relaxes a little. “You didn’t tell him yet?” she asks Lan Zhan.
“I was going to,” Lan Zhan says.
“Tell me what?” Wei Wuxian urges, looking between them. There’s a little more oxygen in his brain now, but he still feels unsteady, lost, left out.
Wen Qing puts her hand on his shoulder. “Please refrain from freaking out until I finish explaining,” she says preemptively.
“Not reassuring,” he tells her.
“You were in bad shape,” she begins, and he nods. Yes, he was stabbed, he knows this. “Lan Zhan realized you didn’t have a golden core. So Wen Ning explained. If you are cruel to him about it, I will take it personally,” she warns. Wei Wuxian nods again. He doesn’t have the energy to be angry right now. “Your condition was worsening, and your body couldn’t accommodate enough healing energy without a golden core. So we came up with a solution.”
We. Her and Lan Zhan. And Lan Zhan was in the bed. Like how he had lain beside Jiang Cheng. A fresh wave of nausea wells up in him. No, Lan Zhan wouldn’t, not for him -- but he’s so good . He would, Wei Wuxian knows, deep in his bones, and hates himself for somehow tricking Lan Zhan into thinking he was worthy of -- oh, fuck --
“I said don’t freak out!” Wen Qing snaps. “He gave you a piece of his core, Wei Wuxian. Just a piece. He still has one. Look at him, he’s fine. I figured out a technique--”
She keeps talking, but the words fuzz away to lint in his head. He sags -- in relief, in exhaustion. He still has one. He couldn’t have coped with it, Hanguang-jun giving that up for him .
“-- so you’ll need some time to recuperate, but it went smoothly. He volunteered, by the way,” Wen Qing finishes. “We didn’t force him into it, if you’re worried about that.”
He shakes his head slowly, dredging up something like a smile. “No one could force him,” he says, and makes himself look up at him. “Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan steps closer. There’s a very sweet line of concern between his eyebrows. “Yes,” he says quietly.
“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian says, because he can’t think of any words bigger than that, even though the situation calls for it.
“Wei Ying is worth it,” Lan Zhan says, like it’s simple.
Wei Wuxian shuts his eyes for a long moment and allows himself a couple deep breaths. Lan Zhan is still watching him when he opens them again. “Come here?” he asks weakly.
To his surprise, Lan Zhan doesn’t hesitate, just neatly sits down on the bed beside him. “Can I,” Wei Wuxian asks, still only half articulate, holding out his hand. Lan Zhan takes it gently, too gently for someone so strong, someone who had easily folded Wei Wuxian in his arms only minutes ago, and presses it to his chest. He’s wearing an under robe that looks familiar, but Wei Wuxian just shuts his eyes and reaches out with a bit of his own -- his own! -- spiritual energy.
Wen Qing didn’t lie. He just has to make sure -- she lied for him, after all, to Jiang Cheng, and he didn’t become the Yiling Patriarch without a bit of paranoia. The golden core is not as hearty as it had been when Lan Zhan was giving him spiritual energy back in the cave, but it is there. It’s there.
He exhales. Opens his eyes. Pretends that Lan Zhan’s careful gaze doesn’t make him want to turn away and curl into the fetal position to protect his most vulnerable parts. Smiles. Says, “Is that my under robe?”
Lan Zhan looks away, and his expression shifts to something he’s much more comfortable evoking: embarrassment. “Wen Qionglin said you would not mind.”
“I don’t!” Wei Wuxian agrees. “But it’s sort of scandalous, don’t you think? Are you sure the fabric won’t scrape your delicate skin? Lan Wangji is only used to the best, after all.”
He gets a familiar huff. “Ridiculous,” Lan Zhan murmurs.
“Agreed,” Wen Qing says, although he can detect the well-hidden amusement in her voice. “Lie back, Wei Wuxian, and let me check your stitches.”
He puts up a token resistance, and she threatens him, and Lan Zhan watches, and the world seems slightly, slightly less off balance.
Wei Wuxian drinks as much bland broth as he can stomach, then a little more because Wen Qing is glaring at him, and sleeps away most of the afternoon. It’s real sleep this time, not just unconsciousness, and when he wakes up Lan Zhan is still there, meditating on the floor. He’s back in his own white robes, which is weirdly reassuring. But then Wei Wuxian realizes why he’s meditating. He has to build his core back up, Wei Wuxian thinks, and looks away hastily.
The first side effect becomes evident that evening, when Wen Ning offers up his bedroom to Lan Zhan. “I don’t sleep,” he says, sounding vaguely self-conscious about it. “So as long as you don’t mind sharing a room with my bows and some pretty rocks A-Yuan gave me, it’s yours.”
They haven’t discussed Lan Zhan leaving yet, which makes the hair on the back of Wei Wuxian’s neck stand up. His desire for normalcy is at odds with his desire to hoard Lan Zhan in the Burial Mounds for himself. “You didn’t have a room before?” he says, then falls silent when Wen Qing glares at him in a way that means, Drop it .
“I had no need,” Lan Zhan says, which definitely means something but Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what. He bows to Wen Ning. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Wen Ning would be flushing if he could. He bows back quickly, deeper. “No, no,” he says. “Master Wei is right, I should have offered earlier.”
He leads Lan Zhan out of the room. Wei Wuxian has a funny sort of feeling in his lower stomach watching him go, which he’s about to dismiss as silly when it becomes a sharp, unpleasant pulling sensation. “Gh,” he says, putting a hand on his stomach.
Wen Qing looks up sharply.
“It’s not the stitches,” he says immediately. “I’m probably just hungry.” It feels… almost like hunger, if he thinks about it sideways.
“Hanguang-jun!” he hears Wen Ning exclaim from outside the room, and then the two of them reappear in the doorway, Lan Zhan leaning on Wen Ning for support.
“Lan Zhan!” he says, and starts to get up, but Lan Zhan straightens.
“I am fine,” he says. “I do not know what happened, but I feel fine now.”
Wen Qing looks between them. He can see the cogs turning in her mind. “A pain in your stomach?” she guesses.
Lan Zhan frowns. “Yes.”
Wen Qing purses her lips. “Try walking away again. Slowly.”
Lan Zhan looks somewhat confused, but does as she tells him. As he steps further away, Wei Wuxian feels the tugging sensation return.
Wen Qing must see it on his face, because she calls, “Stop!” Lan Zhan stops. “Do you feel it again?” He nods.
“He can’t go too far away,” Wei Wuxian realizes aloud. More guilt presses into his chest; he knew another shoe would drop.
“It makes sense,” Wen Qing agrees, tapping her chin. “You share a core. I assumed each piece would develop independently, but they must still be linked. The halves don’t want to be too far apart.”
“What does that mean?” Wei Wuxian asks. “We’ll have to stay within twenty feet of each other for the rest of our lives?” He’ll drive Lan Zhan up the wall and ruin his reputation at the same time. How can Lan Zhan’s image stay spotless when he’s essentially handcuffed to the Yiling Patriarch? How can he stay sane ? Wei Wuxian takes a steadying breath.
“Golden cores are adaptable,” Wen Qing says, businesslike, not nearly as concerned as she ought to be. “With practice, the bond will likely stretch further. But that is a problem for tomorrow, I believe. Hanguang-jun, do you mind sleeping here again?”
“Not if Wei Ying minds,” Lan Zhan says steadily.
“I don’t,” Wei Wuxian says. “Lan Zhan can even have the bed.”
Lan Zhan and Wen Qing protest simultaneously:
“There is no need--”
“You were stabbed last week, is your memory that bad--?”
“You should share,” Wen Ning says. “If your cores are linked, closer is probably better anyway, right?” He realizes they’re all looking at him and drops his gaze to the floor. “Just a thought.”
“He is right,” Lan Zhan says. “Wei Ying?”
“Sure,” Wei Wuxian says, although he keeps feeling increasingly like everyone lost their minds while he was unconscious. “Why not? But if you’re going to be sleeping next to me, I need to bathe, I’m disgusting.”
He’s angling for a little bit of alone time, even if Lan Zhan is just on the other side of a screen. He sinks into their small tub, knees pulled to his chest, and examines his new scars. Thanks to Wen Qing, they’re not nearly as ugly as they could be. There’s the one from Jin Zixun’s sword -- which, hilariously, is still lying in Wei Wuxian’s workshop. The scar is vertical, about four inches long, still tender, lying just under his ribs slightly to the right side of his chest. Asshole didn’t even know which side the heart is on. The other one is lower, and longer, but much neater. It lies parallel to his other core surgery scar on his lower stomach, a centimeter below it.
Wei Wuxian sticks his feet out of the tub to make room and sinks down under the warmish water with his eyes closed, letting his hair pool around him. He misses big tubs and hot water -- an underrated perk of societal acceptance. I have a golden core, he thinks numbly. It should make him happy. But what does it solve? The darkness is still inside him, and he’s hated just as much for sheltering the Wens as for not carrying a sword.
Everyone makes a big deal about resentful energy corrupting him and temperament, but the only perceptible changes have happened very slowly. He’ll stop being hungry, for days at a time. His hands and feet never quite warm up all the way. His highs are higher, his lows lower. He supposes it’s more dangerous that way; it would be one thing if he woke up a different person, but instead it’s a slow march to an inevitable conclusion. Does a golden core change that? He’s not sure. He’s clearly recovering faster than he would normally -- is it enough to balance out?
He wishes he paid more attention to what his own core felt like, so he could feel if Lan Zhan’s is any different. Does it flit around his meridians more seriously, more nobly? I have a part of Lan Zhan inside me, he thinks, and comes up for air, sputtering. Because he was dying, he reminds himself. Because Lan Zhan is a decent fucking person. He won’t read anything more into it.
On the plus side, he’ll be able to fly properly again. He misses it sometimes, if he’s honest with himself. Jiang Cheng will be weird when he goes to retrieve Suibian, but… it would be nice to wield a sword again. A spark of hope takes hold in his chest, as much as he wishes it wouldn’t. Maybe with a sword, his protection of the Wens will look a little less wicked.
His hair needs the attention, and his mood improves even more as he washes the soap out. It turns out washed hair is a big step towards feeling like a person again. Stop moping, he tells himself. Lan Zhan will leave soon -- as soon as they figure out how to extend or sever the stupid bond between their cores -- and Wei Wuxian really will regret it if he’s unkind to him, especially while he’s essentially trapped here.
He stays until the water gets uncomfortably cool and his fingers wrinkle, dries himself off and pulls on a couple layers. Even if he’s running a little warmer now that he has a golden core again, the evening chill still eats at him, sinking under his skin where he used to have a few more layers of fat and muscle to protect him.
“Lan Zhan,” he sighs, leaving wet footprints on the stone floor as he walks around the privacy screen. Lan Zhan is sitting cross legged on the bed, meditating again. “How did my hair get tangled when all I did was lie still for days?”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. He stops meditating to Wei Wuxian wrestle with a comb (and lose) for a few minutes, expression calm and impassive.
“You’re making fun of me,” Wei Wuxian whines.
“I said nothing,” Lan Zhan says.
“I can see it in your eyes,” Wei Wuxian. “You’re thinking--” He pitches his voice low. “Ridiculous.” One of the tines of the comb snaps. “Ah, shit.”
“You know me well,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Wuxian pretends the words don’t send a shiver down his spine. “Would you like help?”
“No,” Wei Wuxian says instinctually, then, “Help? What do you mean?”
“I can see the knots,” Lan Zhan says, which is annoyingly logical. He holds out a hand for the comb. “Allow me.”
Wei Wuxian’s mind goes too blank to argue. He hands him the comb. Lan Zhan lets him sit, then positions himself behind him, kneeling to get a better angle. He divides Wei Wuxian’s dripping hair into three sections, tucks the front two over his shoulders, and begins to methodically work the tangles out of the one in the back. His hands are confident but careful; he doesn’t pull on his scalp or snag the comb.
“You’re very good at this,” Wei Wuxian says quietly, which is stupid. It’s brushing hair.
“You are not gentle enough,” Lan Zhan says, with only a hint of reproach. “It is slower to start at the bottom, but it hurts less.” He works his way up the section, all the way to the base of Wei Wuxian’s skull. Now, he really does shiver, and laughs at himself.
“Sorry,” he says. “Ticklish. Always have been.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. A moment later, Wei Wuxian feels a warm finger trace up the back of his neck, and he shudders like a wet dog, leaning away. “Yes,” Lan Zhan agrees.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian snorts, putting a protective hand over the back of his neck. “I thought the Second Jade of Lan was supposed to be righteous, not cruel .” He twists around; there is an almost imperceptible glint of amusement in Lan Zhan’s eyes. “Are you ticklish? It’s so unfair if you’re not.”
“Don’t know,” Lan Zhan says. He sees Wei Wuxian’s surprise and elaborates: “People do not… touch me.”
That’s… a lot. “I guess not,” Wei Wuxian says slowly. He, of course, has touched Lan Zhan, but even he has enough common sense to keep it to relatively neutral places like his hands and his arms. He turns back around, letting Lan Zhan begin to comb his hair again. “Not even when you were a child?”
Lan Zhan is silent, thoughtful. “Brother brushed my hair sometimes. Like this.”
That’s actually too adorable. Lan Zhan would have had no trouble sitting patiently through it, of course, even as a tiny child. “Shijie used to brush mine,” he says wistfully. “When the Jiangs first took me in, I think that was how they convinced me not to run around looking like a little beast. I’d only sit still for her.”
“You are sitting still now,” Lan Zhan points out, tucking a lock of hair behind Wei Wuxian’s ear and moving on to the other side.
“Well, I’m tired now,” Wei Wuxian points out. “Recovering from a stab wound. Once I get back to full strength, I’ll go back to being a terror. You’ll have to tie me up to get me to sit still.”
A very long pause. “Mm.”
Wei Wuxian yawns. “It must be Lan bedtime too, huh?”
Behind him, Lan Zhan takes a ribbon from the jut of rock that Wei Wuxian uses as a bedside table and ties his hair all together to keep it neat, but loose enough to dry. Wei Wuxian lets him do it without complaint, watches tiredly as Lan Zhan sits back, surveys his work, and seems satisfied.
“Thanks,” he says, and curls up against the wall side of the bed, wincing at the pull of his stitches. “You’re too nice to me, Lan Zhan. I really don’t understand it.” He senses Lan Zhan about to say something and waves him off. “Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’m just saying things. I’m tired. I’ll stay over here.”
Lan Zhan waits for him to settle in to blow out the candle, then lies down himself.
There is a moment of soft silence that goes on so long Wei Wuxian thinks he might fall asleep before he gathers his thoughts enough to speak.
“I’m sorry you’re stuck here with me,” he whispers into the dark. If he squints, he can make out the rise and fall of Lan Zhan’s chest. “I’ll do what I can to make it better, I swear. So you can leave.”
Another long silence. Did Lan Zhan fall asleep the moment he laid down? Wei Wuxian wouldn’t put it past him to be good at sleeping as well as everything else. Finally, Lan Zhan murmurs back, “If that is what Wei Ying wants.”
His dreams are disjointed and he doesn’t quite remember them. They involve cold water and snow, which is very strange because he wakes up warm.
Wei Wuxian sleeps on his side or stomach, mostly, but with his injuries, he’s on his back by default. There’s a line of warmth down his side when he opens his eyes, and realizes that he’s shifted into Lan Zhan’s space, his arm pressed along Lan Zhan’s arm, his leg along his leg. At least he’s not actually holding onto him. Small mercies.
“Sorry,” he says, correctly assuming that Lan Zhan is already awake, since the sun is fully risen.
“It is no trouble,” Lan Zhan says, getting up. Was he staying in bed just for him?
Wei Wuxian stretches and sits up, slightly surprised once again by how good his body feels. He had never appreciated before the Burial Mounds what it was to feel at home in one’s body. He feels… rested? And the scars are well on their way to being healed.
He hears the patter of A-Yuan’s feet before he sees him, and grins. “Now who could that be?” he wonders aloud, tapping his chin. “Which one of my many children has come to greet me?”
“Me! Me!” A-Yuan cries. “It’s always me, Xian-gege!”
Wei Wuxian turns and pretends to be surprised. “Oh, of course!” he says. “You’re right, A-Yuan, it is always you, because you are my most loyal and filial ward.” He holds out his hands for A-Yuan to take and hauls him up onto the bed, into his arms. “You’re my favorite, you know.”
“Only,” A-Yuan points out, settling into his lap.
“Please be careful,” Lan Zhan says from where he’s pulling on another layer of robes. “You are not fully healed.”
“Xian-gege is still hurt?” A-Yuan asks, wrapping his arms around his neck.
“Only a little,” Wei Wuxian assures him. “Lan Zhan, don’t worry him. I feel better than I have in months.”
It’s a peaceful day, one of the best Wei Wuxian has had in a long time. He lets A-Yuan clamber onto his back and carries him around as they greet everyone at breakfast. He must have really worried them, because various Wens keep trying to sneak more congee into his bowl the same way they do with A-Yuan. And of course, Lan Zhan is beside him (because he has to be, his brain reminds him) quiet and steady, taking A-Yuan into his own arms when Wei Wuxian grows tired.
“Nothing much has changed since you last visited,” Wei Wuxian says. “Except we expanded the north field and I think I’ve managed to invent a new system of irrigation.”
“Mm?” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Wuxian waves him off. “It’s kind of hard to explain it in an interesting way,” he says.
“I am interested,” Lan Zhan says, in that steady way of his.
So Wei Wuxian blinks, and explains.
He realizes after a couple days that Lan Zhan has been wearing the same set of white Lan robes since he woke up and tuts. “The Second Young Master of Lan can’t afford a change of clothes?” he asks over breakfast.
Lan Zhan blinks at him. “You are wearing my change of clothes.”
“What?” Wei Wuxian says, then looks down at his slightly raggedy black and red robes.
Lan Zhan taps the hint of bandages peeking up from the v of his collar.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, suddenly guilty. “You should let me buy you new robes. Especially since the white ones won’t survive long here, with all the dirt.”
Lan Zhan shrugs. Wei Wuxian grins. “A-Yuan!” he calls, and the boy perks up in Uncle Two’s lap. “You want to go down into town?”
“Yes!” he says, wriggling out of his arms and trotting over. He glances at Lan Zhan, then leans in to whisper, too loudly, “More toys?”
“Maybe,” Wei Wuxian whispers back. “Wen Qing, do you need anything from the market?”
“You’re not going,” she says, not looking up from her scroll. “You’re still recovering.”
“Very quickly,” Wei Wuxian points out. It’s actually true; she took the stitches out last night, and he feels downright spry. “I think a brisk walk would do me good.” She still looks doubtful, so he turns to A-Yuan sadly. “Sorry, A-Yuan, I guess we can’t go and buy you more toys, I know your little heart will be broken.”
A-Yuan looks, at most, mildly disappointed, but Wen Qing sighs. “You’re an underhanded bastard, you know this?”
“I know,” Wei Wuxian says cheerfully.
“Go on, then,” she says, digging around in her pocket for a shopping list. “Don’t take advantage of Hanguang-jun’s generosity.”
“I would never,” Wei Wuxian declares.
He carries A-Yuan on his back down into the center of Yiling, until he squirms to get down. “You have to hold my hand or Lan Zhan’s, okay?” Wei Wuxian tells him seriously. “I don’t want to lose you in the crowd again.”
A-Yuan nods and reaches for Lan Zhan’s hand. Wei Wuxian pretends to be offended. “I have been abandoned, I see,” he says. “Who will take care of me in my old age, now that you don’t want me as your gege anymore?”
A-Yuan laughs and clings even tighter to Lan Zhan’s hand.
“A-Yuan,” Lan Zhan says quietly. “You have two hands. Perhaps Wei Ying would like to be included too.”
“Mm, okay,” A-Yuan says easily, and takes Wei Wuxian’s hand too.
It’s so sweet it makes his teeth hurt, and he knows how they must look, two young men with a small child swinging between them, walking through the marketplace on a sunny morning. Something aches in his chest, in a good way. He wonders if he held his parents’ hands like this, suspended between them, kicking up his legs.
Lan Zhan meets his eyes over A-Yuan’s head, inquisitive, and Wei Wuxian smiles at him, broad and genuine.
“Hanguang-jun is so good with children,” he says. “Are you absolutely certain you don’t have a little one of your own hidden away somewhere that you’ve been practicing with?”
Lan Zhan looks away. “Ridiculous,” he says, but he keeps holding A-Yuan’s hand.
They find a reasonably priced tailor and Wei Wuxian lets go of A-Yuan’s hand to thumb through the fabric on display. “White is probably inadvisable,” he says apologetically. “Which color do you want, if you have to wear one?”
Lan Zhan tilts his head. “Wei Ying may choose.”
“Careful,” Wei Wuxian jokes. “I’ll put you in purple. Or worse, gold.”
“Wei Ying may choose,” Lan Zhan repeats, and turns away because A-Yuan is tugging on his hand, trying to show him a tiger embroidered on a sleeve.
Wei Wuxian stares at the back of his head for a long moment, then gets to work looking through fabrics. Only the best for Lan Zhan. Though maybe he doesn’t care that much, since he’s letting Wei Wuxian of all people make fashion choices for him.
He settles on a dark, Lan-ish blue that won’t stain too obviously. The outer robes are relatively sturdy out of necessity, but he finds the finest quality, most delicate under robe he can; if Lan Zhan has to wear farmer’s clothes he’ll damn well be comfortable in them.
By the time he’s finished paying, A-Yuan has pulled Lan Zhan outside to a street vendor, and he catches up with them just as A-Yuan is finishing a steamed bun.
“You’ll spoil him,” Wei Wuxian says, kneeling down. “A-Yuan, can I try?”
A-Yuan holds out the bun and he takes a bite -- too big of a bite, from the way A-Yuan’s eyes widen. “There’s none left for me,” he says mournfully, looking at the remaining couple of bites.
Lan Zhan turns to the vendor. “Two more, please,” he says, and then hands them one each.
Wei Wuxian laughs at the absurdity of it and takes the bun Lan Zhan offers him. “Maybe I’ll change my mind about spoiling him if you’re going to spoil me too.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. “Good.”
They take their time in the marketplace, working their way down the list Wen Qing handed him. He usually resists the urge to add things as he goes, but he indulges just this once and buys a couple jars of tea leaves, so Lan Zhan won’t have to go without.
A-Yuan falls asleep in Lan Zhan’s arms on the walk back up, and Wei Wuxian tries not to laugh at how carefully Lan Zhan holds him, as if the slightest jostle will wake him up. “He’ll only wake up when you put him down,” Wei Wuxian tells him, out of experience, except when they reach A-Yuan’s bed, Lan Zhan puts him down so slowly that A-Yuan doesn’t even stir when he eases his arms out from under him.
“You’re a natural,” Wei Wuxian says, hushed. “You’ll make a really good father, Lan Zhan.” He’s not sure why he said it, except that he knows it’s true.
They stand there for a long moment, just watching A-Yuan sleep. Wei Wuxian has a terrible memory, but he is determined to never forget this. It doesn’t even quite feel like his own life, but he will take this borrowed moment of peace whole-heartedly, in case he doesn’t get it again.
The second side effect becomes apparent completely by accident. Lan Zhan is going to practice sword forms just after dawn, close enough outside the door that the bond won’t mind. Wei Wuxian is still in bed, because it’s a ridiculous hour to get up.
“Then why are you awake?” Lan Zhan points out, pulling on his shoes.
Wei Wuxian yawns and pulls the blankets closer around him. “Weird dreams,” he says.
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. “Hand me my sword?”
Half asleep, Wei Wuxian picks Bichen up by the handle and holds it out for Lan Zhan to grab. The sheath clatters on the ground.
“Hm,” Lan Zhan says, and doesn’t take it.
Wei Wuxian, who was wondering why he hadn’t grabbed it yet, wakes up enough to realize why this is weird. “Oh,” he says faintly. “That’s new.”
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says.
“But Jiang Cheng can wield Suibian,” Wei Wuxian points out. “I guess we should have expected this.” He sits up, shifting his grip on Bichen. He hasn’t held a sword in a while, but over a decade of training doesn’t fade in a couple years. “Great balance.” Bichen is a little heavier than Suibian, or maybe he’s just not as strong as he was. But the weight feels good. He looks up at Lan Zhan, who is watching him with an unreadable expression. “Sorry. Go practice.” He holds Bichen out.
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says, taking it and retrieving the sheath. “Go back to sleep. When you get up, you may practice with Bichen too. If you wish.”
Wei Wuxian looks up at him, slightly stunned. Lan Zhan looks impeccable as always, even this early, but he’s looked less unapproachable every since Wei Wuxian woke up, maybe because they’ve been sleeping in the same bed. He’s wearing the dark blue robes; Wei Wuxian feels just a touch smug at how good he looks in them, though Lan Zhan would look good in rags. He keeps wanting to reach out and touch the skin of his cheek to see if it’s as smooth as it looks, and every time the urge punches him in the gut.
“Sure,” he says, trying to hide how eager he is.
Lan Zhan gives him a warm look that is damningly close to a smile. “Sleep,” he says again, and uses his free hand to reach out and adjust the blankets wrapped around Wei Wuxian a little more snugly before he sweeps out.
Wei Wuxian does. Eventually. It takes a while for his heart to stop racing.
At first, Wei Wuxian can only wield Bichen for about five minutes at a time, and they can’t have any practice bouts with only one sword between them, but it’s more than enough. Wei Wuxian hadn’t admitted to himself how much he missed the feeling of a sword in his hands, even if it isn’t actually his -- even if his hands will always go to Chenqing first when threatened.
With some experimentation, they discover they can go about thirty feet apart with no discomfort, about forty with some, sixty before it becomes actively painful. It’s not the most convenient distance, but at least it allows them enough space to go into different rooms if they need privacy, or have a conversation without the other overhearing. Lan Zhan refuses to experiment further, insisting Wei Wuxian has begun to look unwell.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says. “But we’re probably going to have to pull at it to get it to reach farther, like working out and getting a muscle into shape.” He tries not to think about what will happen if it won’t stretch far enough for Lan Zhan to get back to Gusu while he stays here.
Lan Zhan seems unbothered by the prospect of waiting for it to stretch, so Wei Wuxian lets it go with only a hint of suspicion.
“Does your brother know where you are?” he asks, as they walk back up the hill.
“Yes,” Lan Zhan says. “But I do not think he will have told anyone. Except perhaps Uncle.”
“Good, good,” Wei Wuxian says absently. “Can’t have them thinking I kidnapped you.”
As it turns out, this is not what people think. They discover this when Jiang Cheng, of all people, turns up at the wards and pounds on them like he’s trying to get someone to open a heavy door. Wei Wuxian, who was practicing flying on Bichen, drops into a tree, startled. Lan Zhan, who had been reading one of Wen Qing’s medical texts on the ground, turns.
“What the fuck,” Jiang Cheng says, eyes focusing on him. “Hanguang-jun. I didn’t recognize you without your prissy robes. Of all the fucking times to not wear white.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan echoes, confused, stepping closer. “Sect Leader Jiang. Are you drunk?”
He’s not, Wei Wuxian can tell. Just very, very hungover. He looks like shit, actually. “No,” Jiang Cheng snarls. “Don’t fucking condescend to me, not right now. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Are you alright?” Lan Zhan asks cautiously. Wei Wuxian takes pity on him -- and on Jiang Cheng, who is probably about to start beating down the wards with his bare hands -- and begins to climb down the tree. Ah, maybe they’ll laugh about this someday.
“No, I am not alright,” Jiang Cheng says. “I’m grieving--!”
Wei Wuxian’s foot slips and he falls out of the tree. Only ten feet down, but flat on his back, wind completely knocked out of his lungs.
“Ow,” he says. Lan Zhan is at his side in a second, but he waves him off, wheezing a laugh. “Don’t fuss, Lan Zhan, I’m fine, and Jiang Cheng, don’t yell at me too much--”
Jiang Cheng is… not yelling. He looks kind of devastated, actually. “Wei Wuxian?” he says, and his voice breaks. Wei Wuxian belatedly notices the white sash around his waist.
“What happened?” he asks, pushing himself up. “Who died?” He gets a better look at Jiang Cheng’s face and anxiety clenches in his stomach. “Oh shit, who died?”
“Let me in,” Jiang Cheng says, quietly . He’s never quiet. Wei Wuxian waves his hand and lets the ward in front of him dissolve, and Jiang Cheng steps through.
“Is Shijie okay?” Wei Wuxian bursts out. “The baby?”
“They’re fine,” Jiang Cheng says gruffly, and then grabs him and pulls him into a hug so tight that Wei Wuxian feels his ribs bending. Jiang Cheng lets out a big huff of air, and Wei Wuxian stares at him, bewildered, when he finally pulls away.
“You’re scaring me,” he says, holding onto his brother’s arm.
Jiang Cheng’s face finally slips into a little familiar anger. “ I’m scaring you ?” he demands. “When you apparently couldn’t be bothered to let your own fucking family know you were alive? I came here to collect your goddamn body, Wei Wuxian.”
“Wei Ying only woke up recently,” Lan Zhan says in a low voice.
Slight regret crosses Jiang Cheng’s face, wiped away just as quickly. “Rookie move, letting Jin Zixun get the jump on you,” he mutters. He’s still gripping Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. “You’re okay?” A slight look of horror crosses his face. “You’re not a fierce corpse, are you?”
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “Don’t be stupid.” He tilts his head back. “Look at my neck. Unblemished as always. I’m fine. I just needed to sleep it off.”
Lan Zhan looks disgruntled, but doesn’t say anything. “You made A-jie cry,” Jiang Cheng says, shoving him a little. “It was a whole scene. Jin Zixun stumbled in with only one hand and announced that he had killed the Yiling Patriarch.”
“Why would you believe a word he says?” Wei Wuxian points out.
“Because there were dozens of witnesses,” Jiang Cheng bites out. “He said the curse ended after he stabbed you.”
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says. “That’s embarrassing.”
Jiang Cheng is only a little weird about Wen Ning when he follows them back up the hill, and he bows awkwardly to Wen Qing. Wei Wuxian tries not to laugh as he pours them all tea, steeping it a little too long because Jiang Cheng likes tea inexplicably bitter, just like his father did.
“So tell me everything,” he says, handing Bichen back to Lan Zhan. He doesn’t miss the way Jiang Cheng’s eyes follow it curiously.
“Jin Zixun bled all over the banquet hall,” Jiang Cheng says, sounding a little more pleased about it now that he’s got his bearings back. “Nice work, Hanguang-jun.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says.
“Anyway, he said he’d killed you,” Jiang Cheng says.
“Did you punch him?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“Didn’t need to,” Jiang Cheng says. “There was chaos for like, a minute, and then A-jie stood up with Jin Ling in her arms and said that she wouldn’t share a clan with her brother’s killer, and that if he wasn’t thrown out she was going back to Yunmeng.”
“She what ?” Wei Wuxian says, slightly horrified by the circumstances but mostly thrilled.
“And Madame Jin tried to calm her down,” Jiang Cheng says, “but then the peacock made himself useful for once and said she was right, and he would go with her.”
“Rude,” Wei Wuxian says reflexively. “He wasn’t even invited.”
“Yeah,” Jiang Cheng agrees. “I could deal with him being there if we got A-jie back though. Anyway, everyone freaked out, and they’re trying Jin Zixun for your murder in a couple weeks.”
“Huh,” Wei Wuxian says. He honestly thought most of them would be glad if he’d died. But maybe keeping the future Jin sect leader in Lanling is more important than hating him. Or maybe they just all wish Jin Zixun was gone too.
“That’s why I couldn’t get away until now,” Jiang Cheng says. “We’ve been planning a trial and a funeral at the same time.”
“Is it a nice funeral?” Wei Wuxian asks. “Classy, at least?”
Jiang Cheng glares at him. “A-jie is planning it,” he says. “It’s fucking beautiful.” He looks away. “Don’t think I’m not mad at you just because you’re alive,” he says. “You’re not getting off the hook that easy. A-jie is miserable. She’s trying to take care of a six week old baby and mourn you at the same time.”
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian says genuinely. “I wasn’t trying to cause trouble.”
“Jin Zixun instigated everything,” Lan Zhan says. “If you need another witness, I am more than willing to provide testimony.”
“It would be good for you to show up at all,” Jiang Cheng says. “No one knows where the fuck you are.”
“I don’t think they need witnesses,” Wei Wuxian says. “There can’t be a murder trial if the person didn’t die, right?”
“He still attacked you unprovoked,” Jiang Cheng says fiercely, then pauses. “You didn’t actually curse him, did you?”
“No!” Wei Wuxian exclaims. “Why would I curse him?”
Jiang Cheng shrugs. “I had to be around him when we were planning the one-month celebration,” he says. “I wouldn’t blame you if you had, he’s the worst.” He sighs. “I should probably go. A-jie should know as soon as possible that you’re not actually dead.”
“She can’t visit again, can she,” Wei Wuxian says glumly. “And I can’t go.”
“Not right now,” Jiang Cheng agrees.
“Stick around for a few minutes,” Wei Wuxian says. “I’ll write her a letter for you to bring.”
My dearest Shijie,
I’m not dead! Please don’t worry. So you know this is really from me, let me remind you of when you had to hold my hair back while I threw up into the lake the first time I got drunk at fourteen. You promised not to tell anyone, and I am too mortified to admit it, so you know this is truly your A-Xian.
Sorry for the confusion, I would have written sooner if I had known all of these greatly exaggerated rumors of my death. Mostly I am very upset about having missed my chance to see Jin Rulan. (And you!) Jiang Cheng is getting a head start on doting unclehood and it’s so unfair. Please tell the baby all about me so I will already be his favorite uncle when I finally get to visit.
“One last thing,” Wei Wuxian says, before Jiang Cheng crosses the wards again. “If you get a chance. Could you bring me Suibian?”
Jiang Cheng blinks at him, trying not to look dumbfounded. “What?” he says. “Did you shake something loose in your head when you fell out of that tree?”
Wei Wuxian makes himself laugh. He hopes it sounds natural. “It really would have been handy to have a sword when Jin Zixun was attacking me,” he says casually. “So I thought maybe I’d start practicing again.”
“Okay,” Jiang Cheng says. “Yes.” He’s still squinting at him in confusion, but just as Wei Wuxian hoped, he’s too glad for Wei Wuxian to pick up a sword again to question it too much. “I’ll bring it, when I get a chance.”
“Thanks,” Wei Wuxian says, and claps him on the shoulder. “Good to see you,” he says truthfully.
“Glad you’re not dead,” Jiang Cheng says brusquely. “Don’t scare us like that again.”
He bows to Lan Zhan, punches Wei Wuxian on the shoulder, and walks back down the path.
“That went well, I think,” Wei Wuxian says. “If all it takes to get him to be nice to me is a near death experience, I should get stabbed more often.”
“Please refrain,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Wuxian laughs.
They get ready for bed in comfortable silence. Wei Wuxian has just set aside his paper and cinnabar for the night when Lan Zhan speaks.
“You have not told Jiang Wanyin about your golden core,” he says.
Wei Wuxian tries to appear calm. “No,” he says. “And I don’t intend to.”
“Why?” Lan Zhan says. His eyes are uncomfortably perceptive; Wei Wuxian can’t hold his gaze.
“It would break his heart,” he says.
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. “Even now that you have one again?”
“There’s even less reason to tell him now,” Wei Wuxian points out. “Because there’s no way for him to find out.” He swallows. “You can’t tell him. Promise me.”
“I promise,” Lan Zhan says, after a moment.
Wei Wuxian lets out a breath. “Thank you,” he says.
His dream that night, like a lot of dreams he’s been having lately, is very chilly and confusing. He’s small, and he’s trying not to cry.
“Your mother is ill,” someone is telling him, a voice that is almost familiar. “You may visit her again next month.”
He closes his eyes and feels fat tears roll down his cheeks, the tear tracks going cold almost instantly in the crisp winter air, little fists clenched in his lap.
But this isn’t right, he thinks. His childhood -- what he remembers of it, before his parents died -- was warm and bright. His mother was never sick; she was still young and strong right up until the night hunt that killed her.
“Wei Ying,” he hears, and turns, and suddenly he is outside this memory rather than within it, looking at a small boy sitting very still, back straight, in a courtyard he recognizes easily.
“Lan Zhan?” he whispers. He looks to his left, and Lan Zhan is beside him, adult now, although the child remains kneeling. “Did this really happen?”
Lan Zhan nods slowly. “I tried to sneak into my mother’s quarters,” he says. “I was five.”
“And they punished you for it?” Wei Wuxian asks, horrified.
Lan Zhan inclines his head.
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian says, and there’s a sinking feeling in his stomach, because it makes him think of --
“Useless,” Madame Yu says, pointing a finger at him and Jiang Cheng, nine and eight respectively, both completely covered in mud. New robes. They had been expensive. “Absolutely useless. Not a shred of sense between you.”
Little Jiang Cheng looks wretched, on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry, Mother,” he says.
“It was my idea,” little Wei Ying says, and bows so deeply his forehead touches the floor. “My apologies.”
“Of course it was,” Madame Yu spits. “You’ve been corrupting my son since the moment you put your filthy foot in this house! Just like your mother, you can never leave well enough alone--”
“Aha, sorry,” Wei Wuxian tells Lan Zhan, managing to stop the dream before it goes any further. “Kind of embarrassing.”
Lan Zhan is frowning a little. “You were lying,” he says.
“Eh, Jiang Cheng would have cried if she yelled at him more,” Wei Wuxian says. “I didn’t mind.” He doesn’t know how to interpret the way Lan Zhan is looking at him. “What?”
“Jiang Wanyin owes much to you,” Lan Zhan says finally.
Wei Wuxian waves him off. “It’s not much trouble,” he starts to say, but it’s a lie and he regrets it because suddenly the winds of the Burial Mounds are whipping around them both and he can’t breathe.
It’s harder to shake this memory off, since it’s written itself into the insides of his eyelids and crawled into his ears. All he can feel under his hands are fucking bones, all the way down, and he’s going to starve to death and wouldn’t it be kinder to just hang himself with his belt and spare the ghosts the trouble --
“Wei Ying!” Lan Zhan shouts, barely audible over the wind.
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian gasps, and he is, he’s so sorry, no one should have to see this. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He manages to pull himself out of it enough to watch himself huddle against the base of a tree, arms locked around his body like he has any chance of staying warm here, like the wind won’t tear him down into nothing, like he doesn’t want it to--
“Wei Ying!” Lan Zhan says again, much closer this time, and he drags his eyes open, heart pounding. They’re in the cave. In the Burial Mounds, but it’s not like it was last time, it’s not. It’s only dark because it’s nighttime. He’s trembling, he realizes distantly, and Lan Zhan has pulled him into his arms.
“I’m sorry,” he mutters.
Lan Zhan smooths a hand down his back. “No reason to be,” he says. Wei Wuxian can feel the vibration of his low voice in his chest.
“Side effect number three, I guess,” he says dully. “I wish you didn’t have to see that.”
“I am only sorry I saw something you did not purposefully share,” Lan Zhan says. “And that I was not able to… help. More. When you returned.”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. Despair has settled deep into his bones, and for the first time since he woke up, he can feel resentful energy wisping off him like smoke. He can’t hold it in any longer. Lan Zhan is still holding him like something precious, like a person who deserves to be held. He can’t bear it. He pulls away.
Lan Zhan lets him go, allowing him to retreat back to his side of the bed. They both know he can only go so far, because Lan Zhan has chained himself to a sinking anchor and tried to swim for the surface and instead Wei Wuxian will just drown them both.
“Why the fuck did you save me?” he whispers. “All I did in return is trap you in the Burial Mounds. I’m no better than Wen Chao.”
“No,” Lan Zhan says. “Wei Ying. I am not trapped.”
“You belong in Gusu,” Wei Wuxian says. “Not here. You deserve better.”
Lan Zhan shakes his head. “I do not regret my decision,” he says.
Wei Wuxian stares at him in the dark. “How is that possible?” he asks.
And Lan Zhan looks back at him and says, like he’s been asked the easiest question in the world, “I love you.”
jiang cheng: dozens of people saw you get stabbed
wei wuxian: yikes lol kinda cringe
“I love you,” Lan Wangji says. Wei Wuxian’s head snaps up. Lan Wangji clears his throat quietly and clarifies. “I am in love with you.”
“No, you’re not,” Wei Wuxian says.
Of all the possible responses, this was not one Lan Wangji was expecting. “What?”
“You just think you love me,” Wei Wuxian says. Little tendrils of resentful energy are still curling off of him, the air growing colder around them, but he looks less angry and more… lost. “Because of the core bond. It -- it links us, right? We just shared a dream, so it’s not ridiculous it would affect other stuff. It’s messed with your head. You can do better than me, Lan Zhan. I live in a cave and my clothes are more patch than robe.”
“I also live in a cave,” Lan Wangji points out.
Wei Wuxian’s face twists. “Because of me! Because you’re stuck with me.”
“Not stuck,” Lan Wangji insists. “Wei Ying, I chose to give you a piece of my core. I knew there might be side effects.”
Wei Wuxian looks miserable. “Because you’re a good person,” he says.
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Because I would give anything not to lose you,” he says. “Because I love you.” He clears his throat. “Have since before the core bond.”
It would be funny, watching the cogs turn in Wei Wuxian’s head, if Lan Zhan’s heart wasn’t beating so hard he could taste it. “How long?” he demands.
Lan Wangji’s stomach swoops. Does it matter? “About six years.”
Wei Wuxian is fully gaping now. “But that’s how long we’ve known each other,” he says, a hint of desperate confusion creeping into his voice. “You hated me when we first met.”
“Never hated you,” Lan Wangji says quietly. “Was... intimidated.” First by just how loud Wei Wuxian was in general, then by the depth of his feelings for Wei Wuxian.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, dumbstruck. “ Oh .”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji says. “I did not fall in love with you because of the core bond. The core bond exists because I love you.” He clears his throat. “I am sorry if -- I should not have said anything.” Does Wei Wuxian feel trapped with him? There was no other choice than giving him his core -- surely Wei Wuxian would rather be stuck with him than dead, but that doesn’t mean anything. Has he become his father over again, keeping the one he loves tethered to him with no other options, no escape? His mouth is very dry. “I hope you do not feel too uncomfortable, since we cannot separate, but--”
Lan Wangji doesn’t finish the sentence, because he is being suddenly, thoroughly, artlessly kissed, all tongues and teeth. A cool, long-fingered hand slides around his neck, keeping him close, holding his hair just slightly too tightly. He wouldn’t have it any other way, because it’s Wei Wuxian kissing him.
“Huh,” Wei Wuxian breathes, when they break apart for a moment. He reaches out to pinch Lan Wangji’s burning ear. “I’ve always wanted to see if they change temperature as well as color,” he admits. “They do.” He presses their foreheads together, hands on either side of Lan Wangji’s face. “Say it again. I’ll get it right this time.”
Lan Wangji swallows. “I love you,” he says again.
“I love you too,” Wei Wuxian says hoarsely. The smoke has dissipated, leaving behind just the Wei Ying that Lan Wangji knows. He looks like he did when Lan Wangji handed him an invitation to meet his nephew. As if Lan Wangji is something miraculous.
Lan Wangji kisses him again. It’s so dark that he would probably miss his mouth if Wei Wuxian weren’t right there, so close that Lan Wangji can feel the movement of his breath on his face.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian murmurs between kisses. “Lan Zhan, Lan Wangji, Hanguang-jun. I felt so selfish for wanting to keep you here.”
“I want to be wherever Wei Ying is,” Lan Wangji says, wrapping an arm around his back, feeling the nubs of his spine under his splayed hand. “In the Burial Mounds. In his bed.” Wei Wuxian makes a small noise in his throat and kisses him again. Again. Again.
Eventually, Wei Wuxian puts his head down on Lan Wangji’s chest, head turned so his nose is nudging the hollow of his throat. “I don’t want to stop,” he says, sighing. “But I’m too tired to hold my head up anymore.”
“Sleep,” Lan Zhan says, pulling him the smallest bit closer so Wei Wuxian will nestle against him, fitting his leg over Lan Zhan’s and tucking his hand against the far side of his chest. His fingers are still a little cold, but Lan Zhan is more than happy to keep them warm; right now, he feels like he could burn up from the inside. “I will be here.”
He can’t see Wei Wuxian smile, but he can feel it against his skin. “My Hanguang-jun is so good to me,” he says, voice already thick with sleep, and Lan Wangji listens as his breathing evens out again, feels his narrow chest expanding. He would keep him here forever, if Wei Wuxian would permit him to.
Wei Wuxian is snoring quietly into his collarbone when he wakes up, and Lan Wangji has never been happier to open his eyes. The first thing he sees is the mess of Wei Wuxian’s hair, and he wonders if Wei Wuxian will permit him to comb it again, or if he will be too impatient. You’ll have to tie me up to get me to keep still, Wei Wuxian had joked, and he holds back a shiver at the thought.
Lan Wangji’s body has been trained since childhood to wake up at five and stay awake, but Wei Wuxian’s deep breaths against his skin and the weight of his body where it’s sprawled over his own turn out to be nearly as powerful an anesthetic as whatever Wen Qing used to keep him asleep during surgery. By the time Wei Wuxian begins to stir, he’s halfway back to sleep himself.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian mumbles against his chest. “If last night was a very nice dream, you have to tell me right now or I’ll make a complete fool of myself.”
Lan Wangji tightens his arm around him, which Wei Wuxian seems to take as answer enough, burrowing closer. “You’re so warm,” he says rapturously. “I thought you Lans were supposed to be cold and aloof.” He tilts his head up to look at him and Lan Wangji automatically brushes some of the loose hair out of his face. Wei Wuxian leans his head into the touch; Lan Wangji’s heart pushes at the constraints of his ribs.
Wei Wuxian pushes himself up on his elbows, crawls a little higher up Lan Wangji’s body to press his face into the space under Lan Wangji’s jaw. “Made of jade,” he says, scoffing a little and kissing him there. “Hah! Your skin is so soft right here, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji is not quite fast enough to hold back his shudder. Wei Wuxian pulls back to stare at him, as if Lan Wangji is the only thing worth looking at in the world. “Was that what I said?” he wonders aloud, “Or…” He runs light fingers up the line of Lan Wangji’s neck, and even expecting it, Lan Wangji feels himself shiver. “You are ticklish!” Wei Wuxian says, sounding as thrilled as Lan Wangji has ever heard him, a hint of childish delight creeping into his tone. He’s actually somewhat terrified about what would have happened if Wei Wuxian discovered this particular feature of his body (that even he was unaware of) at the beginning of their acquaintance. He probably would have drawn his sword on the spot.
“It… appears so,” Lan Wangji says.
“I’m going to use this for nefarious purposes,” Wei Wuxian says, as if there was literally any doubt about that, and climbs back on top of him.
There’s a not-insignificant part of his brain that thinks he could be content with just this, forever. Holding Wei Wuxian, being allowed to touch him -- no, being encouraged to touch him. Keeping him warm. Watching Wei Wuxian watch him.
Of course, this is the day that Jiang Cheng’s letter arrives.
Wei Wuxian, it reads.
I have told A-jie you’re alive, and no one else. The trial is being held in four days, in Lanling. If you’re going to go and make a scene, tell me. I would rather know what to expect, and I can escort you there. If Jin Zixun tries anything towards you, he will lose his other hand.
A-jie says she’s never been more relieved that her cousin-in-law is a liar and that if she didn’t live literally in Koi Tower she would definitely sneak out to see you. Personally, I would rather not have to pretend that you’re dead, but on the bright side, if you do, A-jie might really move back to Yunmeng. So there are pros and cons.
“It’s a bad idea,” Wei Wuxian says immediately. They’re eating breakfast, but Wei Wuxian seems less interested in his congee than he is in getting Lan Wangji to hold his hand while they eat. Lan Wangji is sure both of the Wen siblings have noticed, probably from the second Wei Wuxian walked in plastered to Lan Zhan’s side, but Wen Qing is uninterested and Wen Ning is too polite to say anything. “How do we know they won’t just corner me and take me out? If they make a move, my golden core isn’t strong enough for me to fight them off without help from Chenqing as well. I should just let them keep thinking I’m dead.”
“I don’t know,” Wen Qing says. “We’re due for an attack any day now, especially now that they think you’re not around to protect us. Better for them to find out you’re alive on your terms than having it seem like you’re hiding.”
“I’ll never be innocent to them,” Wei Wuxian says tiredly. “Won’t they paint me as the villain whether I’m dead or alive? It’s safer to remain inside the wards.”
“You did nothing wrong,” Lan Wangji says, frowning, though he knows well enough how Wei Wuxian is regarded by most of the cultivation world. “You did not even attack Jin Zixun. I was the one who cut off his hand.”
Wei Wuxian’s laugh has just a tinge of bitterness. “Who could doubt the integrity of Hanguang-jun?” he points out. “You acted in retaliation. But anyone who acts against me already has a justifiable motive.”
“But you did not curse him,” Lan Wangji says. “The fact that his curse went away when you were presumed dead means someone else may have wanted it to appear to be you.”
“You’re an easy scapegoat,” Wen Ning agrees. “Sorry, Master Wei.”
“Apology accepted,” Wei Wuxian says, scratching his nose. “Since you’re a scapegoat too. But even if I went, would I be believed?”
“I will stand with you,” Lan Wangji says. “Xichen will stand with me. Maybe Nie Mingjue with him.”
“A-Ning is right,” Wen Qing says, plucking the invitation from his hands and surreptitiously pushing Wei Wuxian’s bowl closer to him. “It may not be a coincidence that Jin Zixun accused you. You might have been set up. Better to face them with Hanguang-jun at your side, in a public setting, so you don’t get jumped the next time you leave the Burial Mounds.”
Wei Wuxian still looks troubled, so Lan Wangji squeezes his hand under the low table. He sighs. “I guess so,” he says. “Four days isn’t much time to prepare.”
“We will be going to Koi Tower,” Lan Wangji points out. “You will be able to meet your nephew.”
Wei Wuxian does brighten, a little. “It’ll be good to see Shijie,” he agrees, finally beginning to eat. “And if they do kill me, at least the funeral is already planned!”
No one at the table finds this quite as funny as he does.
Wei Wuxian hides his anxiety well, but Lan Wangji can see it spilling through whenever he’s especially tired or thinks no one is looking. It would feel unbearably close to how things were between them at the end of the Sunshot Campaign, except now instead of pushing him away, Wei Wuxian just goes quiet. It’s better than being snapped at, but not by much.
He has more tools available to him now, though. It’s not just longing glances and “Come back to Gusu with me.” Now he has the option of pressing Wei Wuxian into the straw mattress and kissing him until he looks half drunk, which is a pretty good short term solution.
It’s a harsh reminder that the world has not stopped turning outside their little bubble, and Lan Wangji struggles with it in his own way. The relief of having Wei Wuxian back and recovering was enough to distract him from other problems, like the reason he ended up huddled on a mountain of dead bodies with the Wens to start with.
He accidentally slips into another of Wei Wuxian’s dreams that really should have stayed private: the moments before Wen Qing cut him open to take out his golden core.
“You had to stay awake?” he asks, swallowing hard.
Wei Wuxian turns, and the dream grinds to a halt around them before Wen Qing’s knife can reach his skin. “You didn’t?” he asks, relieved.
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “It was relatively painless,” he says.
Wei Wuxian wraps his arms around himself. “Good, good,” he says. “What were you dreaming about? It has to be nicer than this.” He casts a glance back at himself on the ground, biting down on his own belt, his brother unconscious beside him.
He doesn’t want to talk about it, and Lan Wangji will not make him, so he takes him by the hand instead and leads him back into his own dream, which is hazy and peaceful and has to do with the stray cat that Lan Xichen attempted to hide in their rooms when he was seven. It makes Wei Wuxian laugh.
The next night, after a long day that he spent harvesting turnips and Wei Wuxian spent feverishly working on a talisman, he is close to sleep when Wei Wuxian sits up, pulling away from the embrace they had settled into.
“Mm?” he says, opening his eyes.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. There’s a nervous intensity to his voice. “What happens if one of us dies? With the core bond?”
Lan Wangji wakes up a little more and considers it. It’s not that it hasn’t occurred to him before. “I do not know. No one has done this before.”
“As far as I can tell, there’s only three likely possibilities,” Wei Wuxian says. “One, the core is unaffected. Two, the living person’s core dies along with the other half.” He swallows. “Three, we both die.”
“There is no way to know,” Lan Wangji says, tugging Wei Wuxian back down into his arms. “Let us never find out.”
“What if something goes wrong in Lanling and they attack me and you get hurt too?” Wei Wuxian murmurs. His fingers twist in Lan Wangji’s robe. “I can’t be the person that dooms you.”
“Your death would doom me regardless,” Lan Wangji says. “So please refrain from dying.” He closes his eyes.
“I love you,” Wei Wuxian whispers into the dark. “Lan Zhan. I’d tear the world apart for you.”
“Please refrain,” Lan Wangji repeats, yawning and closing his eyes. “I need Wei Ying whole.”
“Lan Zhan ,” Wei Wuxian says, pretending not to be pleased. Lan Wangji falls asleep to the sound of his name said around a smile.
Both of them pretend he’s not making preparations just in case something goes very wrong. He fixes the wards so they’ll be relatively self sustaining, insists on teaching both Wen siblings how to repair them if necessary. “In case I can’t bear to leave my nephew’s side,” he says with a smile. It fools absolutely no one.
“Are you absolutely sure I shouldn’t come with?” Wen Ning asks, for the fiftieth time.
Wei Wuxian knocks their shoulders together. “They need you here more, my friend,” he says. “Plus, I’m trying to persuade them that I’m not doing wicked things with resentful energy, and having you there might undermine my point.”
When he wanders off, Wen Ning’s eyes slide over to Lan Wangji. “You’ll keep him safe, won’t you?” he says, both a question and, surprisingly, an order.
Lan Wangji nods. “With my life,” he says.
“And…” Wen Ning hesitates. “He cares about you very much, Hanguang-jun. I’m sure you know better than anyone that he’s not as tough as he pretends to be.” He folds his hands together, still deferential even as he says, “You mustn’t abuse the trust he’s put in you. Jiejie and I both would not forgive you.”
Lan Wangji isn’t sure which of them he’s supposed to be more afraid of. He inclines his head. “Wei Ying is lucky to have such loyal friends,” he says. “I will endeavor to remain worthy of Wei Ying.”
“Oh, good,” Wen Ning says, sounding relieved the conversation is over. “Thank you, Hanguang-jun.”
“Wangji,” Lan Wangji corrects him, surprising even himself. Only his uncle and brother call him that to his face. But he is feeling an unexpected rush of affection for Wen Ning that is not unlike how he feels towards his brother, and it only seems appropriate.
He gets the feeling that if Wen Ning’s blood flowed in his veins, he’d be blushing. “Oh, uh. Um, thank you, Ha-- I mean. Wa--” He has to swallow, clearly psyching himself up for it. “Wangji. Thank you.” He bows very stiltedly and escapes.
He must tell his sister, because Wen Qing narrows her eyes at him during dinner -- but it’s an approving expression rather than an appraising one. “Wangji,” she says, when he passes her a bowl of sauce. A challenge.
“Doctor,” he returns.
She almost smiles. He likes her very much.
A-Yuan is left in their care the night before they leave, which Lan Wangji does not mind whatsoever. Wei Wuxian is distracted with his talismans, so Lan Wangji plays with him to the best of his ability. Luckily, A-Yuan is a creative child and happy to be in charge, so all he really wants is to make up stories where Lan Wangji is a monster, no, a dragon, and A-Yuan is a wandering cultivator who makes friends with him. Mercifully, the dragon has very few lines.
A-Yuan is climbing onto his back so that he can go for a dragon ride -- which really just means Lan Wangji lifting off the ground slightly as he carries him around the room and A-Yuan makes whooshing sounds -- when Lan Wangji realizes Wei Wuxian has turned around in his chair and is watching them warmly.
A-Yuan takes hold of the trailing ends of Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon and tugs on them like reins. “Let’s go!” he commands.
“Ah, ah,” Wei Wuxian says, coming over to pluck him off. “We have to be careful, okay? His ribbon is special.” His eyes are laughing as he says it, but he still carefully peels the ribbon out of A-Yuan’s hands.
“It is okay,” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian squints at him. “Really?” he says, adjusting A-Yuan to sit on his hip. He glances outside. “A-Yuan, look how late it is! It must be past your bedtime.”
“No,” A-Yuan says, but he’s listing to the side. “Xian-gege, play with us. You can be a dragon too.”
Wei Wuxian kisses one of his round cheeks. “Soon, okay? When we get back from our trip. I think it might be time for little rogue cultivators to go to bed.”
“No,” A-Yuan repeats, clinging to him. “Don’t go.”
Wei Wuxian makes a face. “I don’t want to go either,” he says. “But I have to. It’s one of these dumb grown up things.”
A-Yuan shakes his head and hides his face in Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. Wei Wuxian blinks. Lan Wangji steps closer and puts his hand on A-Yuan’s back. “What is wrong?” he asks.
A-Yuan says something, but it’s muffled by cloth.
He’s just tired , Wei Wuxian mouths at him.
“A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji says. “We cannot hear you.”
A-Yuan lifts his head up an inch to drag in a heaving breath. He’s not crying, but he’s close, eyelashes wet and nose starting to run. “Will Xian-gege be hurt again, when he comes back?” he asks tremulously.
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, hoisting him up closer and sending Lan Wangji a helpless look. “Your gege will have Lan Zhan to protect him,” he says, as if he didn’t last time. Hot guilt swells in Lan Wangji’s throat, stopping him from speaking. “And his shijie and Jiang Cheng too. You met Jiang Cheng once, do you remember?”
A-Yuan sort of shrugs, curling into his chest.
“Let’s bring you to bed, eh?” Wei Wuxian says. “I promise I’ll play dragons with you when I come back.”
A-Yuan lets out a little sigh and seems to calm down. But when Wei Wuxian starts to carry him out, he makes a noise of protest and holds out a hand to Lan Wangji.
“We’ll all go, then,” Wei Wuxian says, when Lan Wangji takes it without hesitation, and the three of them go off towards A-Yuan’s room, the shadows from the lanterns painting a strange three-person beast on the ground. A-Yuan is rubbing his eyes with his free hand when Wei Wuxian lies him down. “I’ll tell you a secret,” he says to A-Yuan. “Did you know Lan Zhan is a very good musician? Maybe if you ask him nicely, he’ll sing you a song to help you sleep.” There’s a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he turns to look at Lan Zhan.
A-Yuan yawns. “Gege, please?”
Lan Wangji is helpless to deny either of them. He hums instead of singing, because he doesn’t want to wake everyone else, but it seems to do the trick; A-Yuan’s eyes slip the rest of the way shut and his breathing evens out as Lan Wangji finishes the song. He looks up, and Wei Wuxian is looking at him in a way he’s never seen before.
They sit there for a long moment, just looking at each other, and then Wei Wuxian takes him by the hand and tugs him outside, then back into the caves. The cool night air feels good on Lan Wangji’s flushed face, though he doesn’t know why he’s flustered, and then he has a very good reason to be, because Wei Wuxian has backed him up against the wall of his workshop and is kissing him.
“Unfair, honestly,” Wei Wuxian says, nosing against his jaw to tilt it up and biting his neck. Lan Wangji manages to hold back the sound that builds in his throat in response, because he likes to pretend he has some shame left, but he knows Wei Wuxian felt the way his body jumped in response. “Hanguang-jun is handsome, kind, smart…” He licks the place he bit, as if in apology. Lan Wangji clings to him. “And good with children? A lesser man would be jealous.”
“Ngh,” Lan Wangji says.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. “I have no room in my heart for jealousy, because you take up all the space there.”
Lan Wangji takes him by the chin, turns his head, and makes him kiss him on the mouth this time, impatient. Wei Wuxian laughs into the kiss, keeping his forehead pressed to Lan Wangji’s even when he pulls away.
“Sometimes I feel like I died at Qiongqi Pass, and this is what my brain came up with to keep me happy in my last moments,” he whispers, and Lan Zhan grabs him harder, turns them around so Wei Wuxian is the one pressed against the wall.
“No,” he says. “Wei Ying. This is real.”
Wei Wuxian leans his head back against the stone and just looks at him. “I know,” he says. “Because I’ve never been this nice to myself. I couldn’t have come up with this on my own.”
Lan Wangji holds him tighter and Wei Wuxian lets out a short, pleased breath, and wraps himself around Lan Wangji. “Convince me,” he murmurs in his ear, breath hot. “Hanguang-jun. Make me believe it.”
Lan Wangji does his very best.
Wei Wuxian is already awake when Lan Wangji wakes up, which means he probably slept very little. “Lan Zhan,” he says. “Will you do my hair?”
Lan Wangji nods. They don’t have to leave for over an hour, so he takes his time with it, combing Wei Wuxian’s hair out again, letting it slip through his fingers like silk. It’s easier this time, now that he doesn’t have to resist the urge to drag his fingernails gently over Wei Wuxian’s scalp and listen to the low groan or sigh he gets in return. Although Wei Wuxian has no hairpiece, he manages something decently elaborate with just a ribbon to tie it back.
When he’s done, he presses a kiss to the top of Wei Wuxian’s head. Wei Wuxian huffs a very quiet laugh. “This could go very badly,” he says. “But at least I will look pretty.”
“Wei Ying is always pretty,” Lan Wangji says, beginning to construct his own hairstyle. It’s strange to put his hairpiece in again, after a few weeks of not bothering. Wei Wuxian watches him for a few minutes, unusually quiet and still, before snapping himself out of it and getting dressed.
It’s the same black robes he wore when he was attacked. “Don’t look at me like that,” he says, waving Lan Zhan off. “It’s my only semi-nice outfit. You can’t even see any of the bloodstains. One of many reasons to wear black.”
“Hm,” Lan Wangji says skeptically, beginning to pull on his own outer robes.
“You’re not wearing white?” Wei Wuxian asks, putting on his shoes.
“Wei Ying got these for me,” Lan Wangji says. They’re not what he would have chosen, but that is part of why he likes them.
“Hm,” Wei Wuxian says. His face is turned away, but Lan Wangji thinks he sounds pleased.
The walk down to the wards is brisk and bracing. Thankfully, A-Yuan is not awake to see them off yet; Lan Wangji isn’t sure he could say goodbye again. Jiang Cheng is waiting outside the boundary, and Wei Wuxian waves at him enthusiastically.
The first thing Jiang Cheng says to them after bowing is, “Take it,” and he thrusts Suibian at Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian takes it and sticks it in his belt, on the other side from Chenqing.
“We should fly together,” Wei Wuxian says to Lan Wangji. “And take turns.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji agrees. It will take the better part of the morning to get to Lanling, and neither of them currently possess the core strength to do the full trip on their own. However, if they share a sword and switch off, then they will get chances to recover energy.
Jiang Cheng is watching him as he pulls out Bichen and patiently waits for Wei Wuxian to hop on. He looks away when he sees that Lan Wangji has noticed him staring, but Wei Wuxian offers no explanation and so Lan Wangji does not bother to come up with one either.
“Did I bring you your sword just for show?” Jiang Cheng mutters to Wei Wuxian, who smiles blithely.
“It’s cold up in the clouds,” he says, stepping onto the sword behind Lan Wangji and wrapping his arms around him. “Hanguang-jun will keep me warm.”
The words settle pleasantly in Lan Wangji’s chest, even though he knows perfectly well they are meant to misdirect. “We will be late,” he says, to Jiang Cheng’s mystified face, and takes off.
The switching off plan works well enough; Lan Wangji tires after about an hour and squeezes Wei Wuxian’s forearm where it’s wrapped around his waist to let him know it’s his turn. Wei Wuxian shifts accordingly, planting his feet on the sword more firmly, and tugs a little on Lan Zhan to let him know that it’s okay to lean back against him.
With Wei Wuxian piloting Bichen, he allows himself to observe the scenery below them. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t left Yiling in close to a month. It is a fine day, sunny but not too hot, and if it weren’t for their destination, he could hardly imagine a more pleasant journey.
They land in the afternoon, just beyond the gates of Koi Tower, protected from view by a copse of trees.
“I should go in first,” Jiang Cheng says, almost apologetic. “Don’t burn this place down without me.”
“Aye aye,” Wei Wuxian says, a little subdued.
“Remember the plan,” Lan Wangji says quietly, watching people begin to filter in. They are already attracting stares.
“I won’t use resentful energy unless I have to,” Wei Wuxian promises. “And you…”
“Will not remove anyone else’s limbs,” Lan Wangji agrees. “Unless I have to.”
Wei Wuxian squares his shoulders and flashes him a nervous smile. “Nine out of ten people in there hate me,” he says. “If worst comes to worst, we’ll just run away, right?”
Finally, the last of the other cultivators have made their way up the stairs, which is their cue to head in. “It’ll be weird if I show up in a crowd,” Wei Wuxian had insisted. “I know it seems like a dramatic entrance, but we may as well lean into it.
Jin Guangyao is just turning away from his welcoming post at the top of the steps when they step up, the doors to the banquet hall about to close. His eyes widen impossibly for a moment, looking between the two of them, before he composes himself. Wei Wuxian bows.
“This humble cultivator wonders if you can spare a seat inside,” he says. “I have some, uh. Key testimony.”
“It... certainly seems so,” Jin Guangyao says diplomatically, and bows belatedly to both of them, still half in shock. “Hanguang-jun. I did not realize you would be attending, but I will send someone to place an extra seat beside your brother.”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Beside Wei Ying,” he corrects.
Jin Guangyao’s mouth opens slightly, but he covers for his surprise well. “If you wish,” he says. When he turns to instruct a servant to do so, Wei Wuxian looks at him, brow slightly furrowed. Lan Wangji returns the look placidly. He will not let Wei Wuxian appear alone.
Lan Wangji sticks closer to Wei Wuxian’s side than he should as they walk in. There is no point in being discreet; simply arriving together will turn enough heads on its own. If people are going to spread rumors, they may as well spread correct ones. He can feel how tense Wei Wuxian is at his side; he hasn’t been to Koi Tower since he left it to break the Wens out of the prison camp.
No one bothers disguising their stares as they walk through the hall to their hastily-placed seats, and the murmur of small talk ceases entirely. Lan Wangji supposes they’re a spectacle: the formerly presumed dead Yiling Patriarch alongside the Second Jade of Lan, who has been conspicuously absent for the last several weeks.
“What is the meaning of this?” Jin Guangshan demands, echoing in the hush of the room. At his right, Jin Xizun straightens up in his seat, gaping. His right hand has been replaced by a gleaming hook. Two places to his left, Jiang Yanli has placed a hand over her mouth in a very good impression of complete shock.
Wei Wuxian holds his sword between his hands, in case anyone missed it, and bows. “I apologize for showing up uninvited, Sect Leader Jin,” he says. “Second Young Master Jin, I hope to clear both our names. You did not kill me. And I did not curse you.”
As he speaks, Lan Wangji casts his gaze around the room. Jiang Cheng is frowning furiously, but Lan Wangji has learned by now that this doesn’t necessarily provide any insight to his state of mind; it’s a decent cover for why he doesn’t look surprised. Nie Mingjue has leaned forward in interest, too dignified to gape. Behind him, Nie Huaisang has his fan up, unreadable -- though his eyes are bright and attentive. Lan Wangji looks past the rest of the cultivators towards his brother.
Lan Xichen’s lips are pursed, but he meets Lan Wangji’s gaze. He knows that expression: I’m glad you’re okay. I hope you know what you’re doing.
Lan Wangji nods; he knows his feelings will be imperceptible to everyone except his brother, who nods back.
Jin Guangshan narrows his eyes. “I hope you have brought proof.”
“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli says. The warmth and relief in her voice is clearly real. “It is so good to see you alive and well. You and Zixun have both made full recoveries.” Meaning: Look how alive and well he is, despite the fact that Jin Zixun’s curse is gone.
“And Hanguang-jun,” Jin Guangshan says, ignoring her. “Are we to understand that you have been sequestered away with the Yiling Patriarch all this time?”
The use of Wei Wuxian’s title is supposed to make Lan Wangji feel ashamed; it does not. “Yes,” he replies, bowing. Shallowly. “I have assisted his recovery from Jin Zixun’s attack.”
Wei Wuxian clears his throat. It’s rare to see him caught this off-guard in public. Perhaps Lan Wangji should not have been so pointed. “It was all very -- sudden,” he agrees. He’s gritting his teeth slightly, but going along with it. “But it is true that Lan Zh -- ah, Hanguang-jun has not only saved my life, but also been generous and diligent enough to help me return to some traditional cultivation techniques.” He pats the sword on his hip.
“And why would he do that?” Jin Zixun sneers.
“You would debase yourself so?” Jin Guangshan asks gravely. “You would voluntarily cultivate beside a man who practices methods no better than Wen Ruohan’s?”
“No would,” Lan Wangji says, irritated. “Already have.”
“It’s mostly talismans, these days,” Wei Wuxian says quickly. “I haven’t bothered with corpses since the war.” Since Wen Ning, he means, but thankfully he doesn’t have enough of a death wish to say that aloud. “I actually hoped to demonstrate a few of them that could become free knowledge, as a show of good faith.”
There is a long pause. No one wants to admit it, but Wei Wuxian’s talismans tend to be irritatingly useful.
“Go on,” Jin Guangyao says finally, grudgingly, and Wei Wuxian stands.
“The first is an alarm,” he says. “If you set it up beforehand, you can trigger it in just a few seconds if there’s an emergency. It’s similar to a ward alarm, but it’s activated by a person.”
The hall is quiet, as he demonstrates its activation, with permission from Jin Guangshan. “The alarm itself can be made in the form of either light or noise,” he says. “Second Young Master Nie, perhaps you would help me demonstrate?” He holds the paper out to Nie Huaisang. “Whisper something to it. No secrets.”
Nie Huaisang leans forward and obliges. Wei Wuxian takes it back, then activates it. A moment later, Nie Huaisang’s amplified voice rings out over the hall, slightly sheepish: “I don’t understand how this works!”
This gets a few chuckles, and some of the tension leaves Wei Wuxian’s shoulders. He doesn’t often get to show off his inventions to anyone but the Wens, who are bemused by them at best, annoyed at worst.
“The second may be more useful to the people living on your land, but it can also be used while traveling,” Wei Wuxian says. “It acts as a water purifier, attracting the things in the water that are not water to it. Zewu-jun, may I borrow your tea?”
Lan Xichen hands it to him politely. Wei Wuxian walks back to the center of the room, then activates the talisman over the tea. A moment later, the bottom of the talisman is covered in bits of tea leaf, and the water, as Wei Wuxian demonstrates, tilting the cup for people to see, is clear.
He hands the cup back to Lan Xichen. “Sorry, Zewu-jun, you’ll have to steep that again. But it is still safe to drink.”
Lan Xichen sips from it, as if it wasn’t a cup that the Yiling Patriarch just handed him, and nods. Lan Wangji feels a flash of warmth towards his brother for trusting him.
“And the third,” Wei Wuxian says, drawing the last slip of paper from his robes with only the slightest dramatic flair, “allows one to track a curse back to the caster.” Lan Wangji watches Jin Zixun’s jaw clench. “We all know that residual energy can cause some splashback onto the caster, but it’s very inefficient to go around asking people to disrobe, not to mention inappropriate. Additionally, this can work after a curse has ended. That took a bit of tinkering.” He turns to Jin Guangshan. “With you and your nephew’s permission, I could demonstrate this as well.”
Jin Guangshan’s eyes flicker between him and the rest of the cultivators, who are watching raptly. “I suppose,” he says finally.
“If I refuse?” Jin Zixun sneers.
“Then you will never get revenge on the person who really cast it,” Wei Wuxian says easily.
Jin Zixun glares, but waves a hand to go ahead.
Wei Wuxian activates the talisman in Jin Zixun’s direction, who begins to glow faintly. Out of the corner of his eye, Lan Wangji notices movement. Someone in light robes is trying to slip out of the hall unnoticed. It is spectacularly unsuccessful, because they begin to glow as well, much more brightly.
“Aha,” Wei Wuxian says, and Lan Wangji can tell he’s working not to sound too smug. “We have our caster.”
“This is slander!” the man spits, turning.
“Who are you?” Wei Wuxian asks, squinting at him and deactivating the talisman.
“Su She,” Lan Xichen says, shocked.
“It’s a set up,” Su She says, pointing an imperious finger at Wei Wuxian. “He’s just trying to redirect blame from himself! That talisman could do anything.”
Wei Wuxian waves the slip of paper. “Anyone care to check? It’s not as complicated as it sounds.”
Su She draws his sword, which is a bad move in a room full of cultivators. “I don’t have to take this,” he says, and lunges for Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian dodges in time, drawing his own sword -- but only to block. “Really not proving your innocence here,” he says cheerfully.
“Shut up,” Su She hisses, attacking again. Lan Wangji has a hand on Bichen, about to rise to his feet before Wei Wuxian catches his eye and shakes his head minutely. Not yet. Lan Wangji doesn’t like it. Across the room, Jiang Cheng is similarly poised, every muscle tensed like a snake about to strike. Jiang Yanli has handed Jin Ling to her husband, reaching for her own sword just in case. “What reason do I have to curse Jin Zixun?” Su She demands, attempting to slash across Wei Wuxian’s chest.
Wei Wuxian leaps back, just barely keeping his balance. “What reason do I have?” he counters, parrying the next strike. “Technically speaking, he’s my in-law.” Wei Wuxian is as skilled a swordsman as he ever was in technique, but he doesn’t have the strength right now to back up offensive attacks the way he used to. Lan Wangji can tell how tired he is after only a few exchanges, already running low after the long flight here.
“I don’t pretend to know what goes on in the Yiling Patriarch’s head,” Su She spits. He attacks again, and this time Wei Wuxian’s blade wobbles under his. Su She’s eyes narrow -- he can smell blood -- and he twists his blade, forcing Suibian to fly out of Wei Wuxian’s hands, skidding across the floor and disappearing over the top of the stairs outside. He swipes again, and Wei Wuxian has to dodge so suddenly that he falls, flat on his back on the beautiful stone floor. Su She raises his sword.
Lan Zhan is on his feet in a second. He will not allow a repeat of last time. Wei Wuxian will not be hurt in front of him again. Su She thinks, perhaps, that if he murders Wei Wuxian, that there will not be enough evidence against him to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Like Jin Zixun, he thinks he can get away with killing an innocent man in broad daylight, in front of his infant nephew no less, because who would dare take the Yiling Patriarch’s side?
He is wrong. Lan Wangji steps forward, and as he does so, he feels a pull in his stomach, an exertion of spiritual energy. It is like when Wei Wuxian walks too far away, or when he was young and practiced swordplay until he could barely stand. But in this moment, he has not done anything yet.
Lan Wangji understands a second later, when Bichen flies out of his grip, just in time to let it go. It goes straight to Wei Wuxian’s hand, as if this is something they’ve practiced. As Su She brings the sword down, Wei Wuxian raises Bichen to block. The clang of metal echoes throughout the banquet hall, as Su She brings his sword down and Wei Wuxian blocks him with a sword he wasn’t carrying a moment ago.
For a second, no one moves, not even Su She. And then he’s tackled by Jiang Cheng.
Lan Wangji has never liked Wei Wuxian’s brother more than when he’s watching him pin Su She to the ground facedown, twisting both hands behind his back in a way that must be painful. Wei Wuxian clambers to his feet, holding Bichen carefully. He’s smiling at Lan Wangji, as if the eyes of the entire room aren’t on him carrying Hanguang-jun’s sword.
“Thanks,” he says. “We have to remember to pull Suibian out of the shrubbery on the way out.”
“How--” someone sputters, and the room erupts in noise. Everyone is on their feet, either trying to help Jiang Cheng or figure out what’s going on. Lan Wangji ignores it, walking over to sheath Bichen.
A clear voice calls, “A-Xian!” and Wei Wuxian straightens up eagerly, looking for the source of the voice.
“Shijie!” he cries, spotting her. From close up, Lan Wangji can tell she looks tired, but she’s still beaming at Wei Wuxian. She is wearing a Jin gold dress with a sheer purple overlay that doubtless costs more than everything the Wens have spent in the last six months.
It is unorthodox, certainly, for the wife of a future sect leader to be throwing herself into the arms of a quasi-outlaw, but then, the Jiangs have never favored strict conventions. Wei Wuxian melts into her arms, folding down around her slight frame. “A-Xian,” she whispers. “You gave your shijie a terrible, terrible fright. What would I do if you were gone?”
“I heard you defended my honor,” Wei Wuxian says admiringly. “Would you really have gone back to Yunmeng?”
“Maybe,” she says. “It was that or kill my husband’s cousin with my bare hands.”
“Shijie!” Wei Wuxian says, laughing.
“Really though,” she says. “You almost broke my heart. A-Cheng’s too.”
Wei Wuxian’s face does something strange behind his smile. “Did he cry?”
“Of course,” Jiang Yanli says. This is the sternest Lan Wangji has ever heard her sound. “Don’t tease him too much. He blamed himself.” She gives him one last pat on the cheek, as if checking that he’s still there, before turning to Lan Wangji and bowing. “Hanguang-jun. Forgive my rudeness. I understand we have you to thank for getting my brother back in time. Thank you.”
He bows back. He never spent much time with her before, but he is finding that he likes her very much. “It is my honor to help Wei Ying however I am able to,” he says, and when he comes back up she is smiling at him. She and Wei Wuxian share no blood, but Lan Wangji cannot help but notice how similar they look when they smile and mean it.
“Enough, enough!” Jin Guangshan bellows from his end of the room. Standing at his side, Jin Guangyao winces from the volume. Sitting on his other side, Jin Zixun looks murderous. “Nothing has been concluded!”
“Sect Leader Jin,” Lan Xichen says. “It seems quite clear to me that all is not as it seems. We are trying the wrong man for the wrong crime.”
“I don’t mind letting Jin Zixun off the hook for my murder,” Wei Wuxian offers. “Since I wasn’t murdered and all.”
“This needs to be an ongoing investigation,” Jiang Cheng says, brushing off his hands and standing up now that Su She has been properly restrained. “I doubt he was working alone.”
Jin Guangshan begins to splutter, going red. “This is the first I’ve heard of any of this!”
Nie Mingjue grunts. “Concerning,” he says. “That this could be going on under your roof without your knowledge.”
Lan Wangji realizes in this moment why his brother finds Nie Mingjue’s bluntness so refreshing. With the focus pulled from him, Wei Wuxian tucks his hand into Lan Wangji’s elbow.
“But the Stygian--” Jin Guangshan begins.
Jin Zixuan stands up. He’s holding Jin Ling, and he looks exhausted, but more like a sect leader than Lan Wangji has ever seen him. “Father,” he says. “I think that’s enough for today.” He turns directly to Wei Wuxian and bows. “I apologize for my cousin’s unprovoked attack,” he says. “It is clear to me that we have much to answer for. Will you grant us forgiveness?”
Wei Wuxian bows back. “I only have one condition,” he says. “Please allow the Burial Mounds and the remaining Wens there to exist undisturbed. None of the people there raised a hand against us in the Sunshot Campaign, and some of them actively aided our side when possible. I believe they have earned the right to live in peace.”
Jin Zixuan nods. “I will do what I can,” he says. It’s not quite a promise, but Lan Wangji knows Jiang Yanli will hold him to it. In his arms, Jin Ling begins to fuss, and Jin Zixuan looks back up at the crowd. “I believe we should retire for today.”
Lan Wangji lets out a breath as the cultivators begin to slowly disperse, some shocked, others insisting they suspected all along. Wei Wuxian takes sister’s hand and tugs. “The baby,” he says. “I need to meet the baby.”
Jin Zixuan is having a very terse conversation with his father, barely interrupted by Jiang Yanli going over to retrieve Jin Ling. makes her way over to her husband and takes Jin Ling. He’s deep in a terse conversation with his father, but he spares a moment to smile at her. She returns with a bundle of cloth that is, of course, gold, and lets Wei Wuxian coo over him.
“I suppose you’ll be returning to Yiling after this,” she says, returning with a bundle of cloth that is, of course, gold. , watching him gently poke Jin Ling’s cheek, only a tinge of melancholy in her tone.
“I think we’d better spread the good news,” Wei Wuxian agrees. “But maybe…”
“I’ll come visit,” she promises, then looks between him and Jin Ling. “Would you like to hold him?”
“Is that even a question?” Wei Wuxian says, but as soon as she holds him out, he hesitates. “He’s so small,” he says. “Way smaller than our A-Yuan. What if I drop him?”
“You have to support his neck,” Jiang Yanli says, showing him how before she hands him over. Wei Wuxian takes him carefully, reverently.
“He’s perfect, Shijie,” he says, then, to Jin Ling. “Ah, I’m sorry I was so late, Young Master Jin. Please forgive this humble uncle.”
Jiang Yanli leans over to Lan Wangji. “Who is A-Yuan?” she asks.
“He is the last Wen child,” he tells her quietly. “He is three.”
He thinks he manages to say it impassively, but Jiang Yanli’s eyes soften in understanding. “I see,” she says.
Lan Wangji is about to try to ask tactfully what it is that she sees when Jiang Cheng bounds up, having handed Su She off to a handful of guards. “You have to support his neck,” he says.
“I am!” Wei Wuxian says, but he lets Jiang Cheng adjust his arms a little. When Lan Wangji looks at Jiang Yanli, she’s beaming, with just a hint of tears in her eyes.
Lan Wangji turns away to give them a little privacy as a family, catching sight of his own brother.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen says, pushing through the crowd to clasp Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “I am so glad you are well. I assumed you stayed in Yiling when you didn’t come back to Gusu, but I still worried.”
“Apologies, brother,” Lan Wangji says. “I should have sent word.”
Lan Xichen waves him off. “No matter now,” he says. “Wangji… what happened?”
“We are cultivation partners,” Lan Wangji says. He doesn’t plan to say it, but he doesn’t lie to his brother and, well. Isn’t it the truth? In the corner of his eye, he sees Wei Wuxian’s head jerk up.
“I see,” Lan Xichen says, although that doesn’t quite answer the question of how Wei Wuxian could wield Bichen like his own. Instead of pressing further, he just says, “You’re not coming back to Gusu, are you.”
It’s not really a question; Lan Xichen knows him too well. “Perhaps to visit,” he says.
“Ah,” Lan Xichen says. To anyone else, it would sound cordial; Lan Wangji can hear the melancholy underneath. He takes a deep breath. “Maybe I will come by and visit you in Yiling,” he says.
“Please do,” Lan Wangji says. “We have much to talk about.”
“We do,” Lan Xichen agrees, eyes dropping to Bichen momentarily. “But not here.”
“No,” Lan Wangji says. “Not here.” He will tell his brother everything -- well, almost everything -- later. He hopes Wei Wuxian will eventually be able to tell his siblings everything as well.
“But you are safe?” Lan Xichen asks.
“Mostly,” Lan Wangji says.
“And happy?” he ventures.
Lan Wangji thinks of Wei Wuxian’s messy hair in the mornings, of the feeling of dirt between his fingers, A-Yuan’s sleeping weight in his arms, Wen Qing’s grudging respect, Wen Ning’s small smiles, his silent companionship with Granny Wen in the kitchen. He would not have known how to articulate those as part of a future he wanted until he had them.
“Very,” he admits.
Lan Xichen exhales on a smile. “Then I will be happy for you,” he decides.
Before they leave, they fetch Suibian, which clattered down nearly half the flight of stairs. A handful of people tap Wei Wuxian on the shoulder, but they’re requesting copies of the talismans he demonstrated, not demanding to know the secrets of demonic cultivation. Lan Wangji tries to be patient throughout these encounters, but by the time Wei Wuxian sends the last one off, he is thoroughly ready to leave. He has always had trouble articulating his feelings -- it’s why Lan Xichen’s ability to read him so easily is useful -- but he doesn’t have to, because Wei Wuxian takes one look at him and laughs.
“Having fun?” he jokes.
“Mm,” Lan Wangji says.
“I’m just kidding. We can go right now if you want. Let me just say goodbye,” Wei Wuxian says. He turns back to find and hug his sister.
Jiang Cheng sidles up beside him. “Thanks for saving him,” he says. “Guess I forgot to say that last time.”
“No trouble,” Lan Wangji says. Then, because he is making an effort, he adds, “Nice tackle.”
“Thanks,” Jiang Cheng says.
There is a long, awkward silence until Wei Wuxian comes bounding back.
“Let’s get out of here,” he says, wrapping an arm around Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji draws Bichen again. It will be a tiring trip, but he wants to go back to Yiling with a strength that surprises him. Wei Wuxian steps on behind him. “Goodbye, Jiang Cheng! Send me more letters, I miss you.”
“You’re so fucking weird,” Jiang Cheng says. “Next time I come to Yiling, you’re explaining everything. Don’t die.”
“I’ll do my best!” Wei Wuxian tells him as they take off.
Without Jiang Cheng’s eyes on them, Wei Wuxian relaxes fully against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. The evening is cool but not cold. They have to switch off more often this time, shifting control of Bichen between them every twenty minutes, taking it up seamlessly when one grows tired. By the end of the journey, handing over control feels so natural that they can do it wordlessly.
They make it back to the Burial Mounds just as the sun is setting, both drained nearly dry of spiritual energy. Wei Wuxian has just enough time to say, “I’m so tired, let’s go to--” before A-Yuan comes running from the cave. Wei Wuxian catches him deftly, swinging him up into a hug. “Ah, did you miss us?”
“Yes!” A-Yuan says. “You said you would play dragons when you came back.”
Wei Wuxian scrunches up his face. “Did I say that?”
A-Yuan nods seriously.
“Tomorrow?” Wei Wuxian tries. “Your Qing-jie is going to be really proud of me for actually trying to get some sleep.” He spots her leaning in the entrance to the cave. “Wen Qing! The Jin aren’t going to come after us so much anymore.”
“You didn’t kill them all, did you?” she asks.
“Nah,” he says. “Played nice. It’s very tiring, did you know?”
A-Yuan casts a hopeful glance at Lan Wangji. “Dragons?” he asks.
“Just a little,” Lan Wangji agrees. He turns around to let A-Yuan climb onto his back. A-Yuan takes hold of the ends of the ribbon again, and Lan Wangji doesn’t stop him. They fly once around the fields, just a few minutes, just a foot above the ground, but A-Yuan shrieks in delight. Lan Wangji is thankful that this is enough to amuse him; he’s not sure he could manage anything more right now.
“I’ll take him back,” Wen Qing says when they land. “Bathtime. Say goodnight?”
“Goodnight dragon,” A-Yuan says, kissing Lan Wangji clumsily on his cheek and letting go of his ribbon. “Goodnight, Xian-gege.”
As they stumble back to their rooms, Wei Wuxian smiles at Lan Wangji sleepily, leaning into his side. “Sorry he was pulling on your ribbon,” he says, pulling off his shoes. “I should have noticed sooner.”
“I do not mind, if it is A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji says honestly.
“I thought no one could touch it,” Wei Wuxian says, tilting his head.
“No one except parents, partners, siblings, and children,” Lan Wangji says.
There is a soft, selfish little place in his heart that very much likes when he is able to surprise Wei Wuxian, and it nearly bursts when Wei Wuxian’s mouth opens.
“Well,” he says quietly. “He’s not your parent. Or your partner.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji agrees. “Not my sibling either.”
“Oh, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, and he puts his arms around Lan Wangji’s shoulders to hide his face in his neck. “Ah,” he says. “It’s unfair, you know. You’re too good. My Lan Zhan.” Lan Wangji puts his hand on his back and lets him cling until he can show his face again. When he lets go, wiping surreptitiously at his cheeks, Lan Wangji reaches up and undoes the ribbon’s knot fully. It takes a little longer than usual because A-Yuan was pulling at it, and Wei Wuxian watches him, slightly baffled, as he finally gets it untied.
He doesn’t look any less confused when Lan Wangji ties it neatly around his wrist. He looks at it, than at Lan Wangji’s face, then down at the ribbon.
“I have a stupid question,” Wei Wuxian says. “Are we… actually cultivation partners? Or did you just say that so your brother wouldn’t ask why you have to stay in Yiling?”
“Are we not?” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian turns his head slowly. “Do you want that?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says.
He cracks a smile, but there’s still something nervous underneath. “I said it was stupid,” he says. “I just needed to be sure.”
“Do you want that?” Lan Wangji asks, because it’s important.
Wei Wuxian swallows. “More than -- anything,” he admits. “And not just because we share a core. I think I’ve wanted it ever since we met Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan all those years ago. Even if I didn’t know what I was wanting.”
“Then yes,” Lan Wangji says.
“You say it like it’s so easy,” Wei Wuxian says, leaning forward, but seemingly not to kiss him. He runs his fingers over Lan Wangji’s brow, then down his nose, traces the curve of his upper lip. Lan Wangji lets him. His face is thoughtful but distant, like when he’s making a new talisman. “It’s strange. You were so untouchable when we were young.” They’re still only twenty-two, but Lan Wangji does not interrupt. He too felt older after the war. “And here I am, touching you, and you let me, and you like it.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji agrees.
Wei Wuxian shucks off his outer robe and presses forward to clamber into his lap. He’s all knees and elbows, so it’s a little awkward, but Lan Wangji doesn’t mind because he’s closer. “I want to be your cultivation partner,” he says. “I want to make the Burial Mounds into something other than the Burial Mounds. We should pick a new name, by the way, I’ve been brainstorming. Growing food was easier this year than last year, and next year should be easier than this. I think I’ve almost persuaded Wen Qing on the potato front. And this could be, like… a real place. Not just somewhere to run away to. Somewhere A-Yuan can grow up.”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. “Yes.”
“Yes?” Wei Wuxian says, eyes crinkling as he smiles.
“Yes.” Lan Wangji wraps his arms around Wei Wuxian and pulls the both of them backwards onto the bed. “But for now, bed.” He extinguishes the candles with the flick of his hand and his very last trace of spiritual energy for the day.
“You’re so smart, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. “I have the smartest cultivation partner in the world…” It trails off into a yawn. Lan Wangji pulls the covers over both of them.
Lan Wangji thinks about the way that the Burial Mounds were in Wei Wuxian’s dream. Uncontrolled, overwhelming. Resentment soaking into the very ground. He listens to the night air now; there are late summer frogs chirping in the grass, a handful of birds, the gentle whisper of wind in the grass. A living place. Beside him, Wei Wuxian’s breathing evens out into sleep. His hand is tucked against Lan Wangji’s waist. It’s warm.
and that's that! as you may have noticed, this is not a fix it that solves every problem -- jgy and xue yang are still out there. i thought about trying to work them into this fic, but it's about small steps forward and i couldn't fit them in realistically. maybe i will make this into a series and explore their core bond life going forward??
if you liked this, there's probably more mdzs content coming, so feel free to subscribe to my ao3 or follow me on tumblr @leetlesapphire