Be calm, Lan Wangji reminded himself as he ignored the bright ring of laughter from where the visiting disciples stood. Maintain discipline. He entered the classroom and sat, placing Bichen next to him neatly.
But there was a flurry of motion and the sudden warmth of a body near his, and Lan Wangji stilled his flinch before it was born.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian collapsed next to him, and Lan Wangji glared down at his smiling face before staring forward steadily. “Lan Zhan, I didn’t realize you would be attending the lecture as well!”
I didn’t realize I’d given you permission to use that name, Lan Wangji thought in annoyance, and kept ignoring the other disciple.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian went on, unconcerned with Lan Wangji’s silence, “since we’re basically friends already, I’ll sit here next to you.” He rose and claimed the desk next to Lan Wangji, grinning sharply at Jin Zixuan as he did so. The other disciple had been making his way to the front of the room, but paused at the sight of Wei Wuxian’s expression.
“Sorry,” Wei Wuxian said insincerely, “you can only sit here if you’re Lan Zhan’s best friend.” Wei Wuxian settled himself firmly into the seat, his smile sharp.
Wei Wuxian looked back at Lan Wangji, and his smile turned wide and inviting as the Jin heir huffed in annoyance and rolled his eyes. “You should call me Wei Ying,” the disciple said, and Lan Wangji slanted a glance at Wei Wuxian at the words before looking away once more. “We were so well matched last night, it's as if we’ve known each other forever already!”
Foolish, Lan Wangji thought, even as he unwittingly remembered their fight. He had to admit Wei Ying was right— they had been well matched during the impromptu duel. But Lan Wangji focused his gaze in front of himself, and continued to ignore the other disciple, not that it made a difference. While the classroom filled with others arriving for the salute ceremony, Wei Wuxian spoke non-stop, hands waving with his every word, eyes bright and shining from the newness of life in Cloud Recesses.
Lan Wangji watched from the corner of his eye as Wei Wuxian kept speaking to him, breaking off momentarily to wave at his brother and sister. Wei Wuxian filled the air with questions asked so fast Lan Wangji couldn’t decide if they were worth answering or not before he raced off to a different topic, and Lan Wangji closed his eyes and prayed for patience.
Xichen said attending the lecture would be a good way to practice my control. Lan Wangji blinked down at his desk as a hand reached out and stole his calligraphy brush. Wei Wuxian inspected it idly before returning it, now complaining cheerfully about the amount of rules Cloud Recesses had. Surely, even Xichen could not have predicted this amount of distraction on the first day.
“What’s your favorite rule, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asked abruptly, leaning across the space between their desks and staring up into his eyes. “I mean, you’ve lived here your whole life, you’ve gotta have a favorite.”
Lan Wangji didn’t have to think about it. “Speak meagerly, for too many words bring harm.”
Wei Wuxian stared at him, then let loose a surprised laugh and reared back, hands clasped together in delight. Lan Wangji watched him, his own eyes widening at the sight. Amusement shone in grey eyes, and a smile curved Wei Wuxian’s lips, and Lan Wangji blinked and looked away.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian leaned forward, smile dancing on his lips, “that’s the most polite way I’ve ever been told to shut up.”
Will it work? But even as Lan Wangji pondered that, the classroom silenced as Lan Qiren and Xichen came into the room. Even Wei Wuxian moved into proper posture, and Lan Wangji inhaled deeply in relief as he was given his space back. No one had ever intruded on him like that before— even Xichen, who was laughing at him silently— no longer came as close as Wei Wuxian had.
Lan Wangji stared at his brother, and Xichen merely smiled genially. ‘It will be good for you’, Lan Wangji read in the lines of his brother’s eyes and the amused curve of his smile, and glared in response.
With as much as he practiced, it had never been in Lan Wangji’s nature to be still.
As a child he’d been as wild as a fox and twice as hard to catch— Lan Wangji had fond memories of running through Cloud Recesses with Xichen hot on his heels, though he would deny it if asked. Movement had always come to him easily; he remembered visiting Mother and being taught to dance, he and Xichen giggling cheerfully as Madam Lan directed them through the motions.
Lan Wangji had picked it up immediately, his childish body moving gracefully as Xichen struggled next to him. It hadn’t lasted long enough to turn into a competition between them— Uncle had found out, and put a swift, decisive end to the teaching. The memory made Lan Wangji’s legs ache with the need to move… but he tightened his grip on Bichen and clenched his jaw against the heat that flickered down his spine, and continued his slow, methodical walk through Cloud Recesses.
Control, he reminded himself, maintain discipline. Movement ahead showed Wei Wuxian and his brother on the path and Lan Wangji watched them, squashing down the seed of envy that grew in his heart at their easy familiarity.
Xichen had not touched him with a bare hand since— Lan Wangji shook his head. There was no use dwelling on memories that would only bring unhappiness. He continued on the path, and sighed inwardly as Wei Wuxian saw him and peeled away from the group he was with, delight making his face shine.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian danced around him and Lan Wangji stared, captivated by the ease of his movements. “Where are you going, Lan Zhan?” He never stopped moving, and Lan Wangji was suddenly, viciously jealous of this man, and the fact that Wei Wuxian was allowed to move as freely as he wished. Would Lan Wangji have been allowed such freedom if he had been born to the Jiang clan? Or would the Yunmeng Jiang fear him as much as—
Lan Wangji froze in the middle of the path, heat fanning out from his spine and creeping into his eyes. Wei Wuxian finally realized he had been walking alone and turned around, eyes searching for Lan Wangji. He made his way back to Lan Wangji’s side, frowning slightly.
Lan Wangji watched him approach, unable to tear his eyes away. “Lan Zhan, I’m just being nosy, you don’t have to tell me,” Wei Wuxian assured, grey eyes apologetic. He reached a hand out— likely to grab Lan Wangji’s wrist, as he was so fond of doing with his brother— Lan Wangji couldn’t stop himself from flinching away, and Wei Wuxian’s hand froze in mid-air.
“Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asked, and the apology in his eyes turned to concern.
Lan Wangji inhaled deeply, and shook his head. Control, he demanded from himself. Maintain discipline. He forced the heat back down into its hiding place, and met Wei Wuxian’s eyes evenly.
“Lan Zhan, I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian offered in a rush, guilt and concern and unease evident in his voice, “I didn’t mean to make you—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji interrupted. It wasn’t his fault— Lan Wangji had learned long ago that it was better for everyone if no one touched him. Wei Ying snapped his mouth shut at the sound of his name. “Dinner.”
“Uh?” Wei Ying said smartly, and Lan Wangji turned and walked away. After a few feet, when there was no sound of Wei Ying following, Lan Wangji turned and looked over his shoulder, and raised a brow. Well? the look asked. Are you coming?
Wei Ying grinned brilliantly and trotted up to Lan Wangji’s side.
Lan Wangji inhaled deeply and counted to ten, holding his breath before releasing it in an even exhale. He repeated the cycle as Xichen’s words washed over him and stared at his brother, ignoring the disciple at his side as much as he could. Wei Ying was swaying where he stood, arms crossing and uncrossing restlessly as he tried to pay attention to the Clan Leader and failed, and Lan Wangji ached with the urge to reach out and force him to be still.
Wei Ying just kept moving, and Lan Wangji was torn between jealousy and annoyance, and compromised by working on his own control instead. There was no point in feeling these useless emotions— Wei Ying was Wei Ying, after all— by now, Lan Wangji should be used to it. As long as he was respectful, Lan Wangji knew his brother wouldn’t think to correct the Jiang disciple for such actions, unlike Uncle.
Lan Wangji closed his eyes in a slow blink as he washed thoughts of his Uncle from his mind. They were not in the lecture today— today, all Lan Wangji needed to do was listen to Xichen.
“Psst, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying hissed his name from the corner of his mouth, and Lan Wangji restarted his breathing technique. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying complained, and Lan Wangji slanted his eyes sideways when he realized Wei Ying wouldn’t stop.
Wei Ying lit up at the weight of Lan Wangji’s eyes, and leaned closer, stopping before his shoulder met Lan Wangji’s. “How come we’re not in the classroom today?” he whispered, and pouted as Lan Wangji looked away. “Lan Zhan—” Wei Ying cut off at Lan Wangji’s glare, but grinned instead.
“Pay attention.” Lan Wangji replied, and resolutely turned his gaze back to Xichen. Next to him he heard Wei Ying huff, then fidget where he stood. There was no lecture because Uncle had been called to Lanling, but Lan Wangji had no intention of telling Wei Ying. He should just enjoy being outdoors, Lan Wangji thought, and lifted his face minutely, letting the sun have access to more of his skin. As much as he hates being chained to a desk, I would have thought Wei Ying would have less questions.
Lan Wangji let his mind wander as Xichen explained that today would be sword-work, and looked forward to standing under the sun while the other disciples sparred. He missed the sunlight when he was trapped at a desk— in that, Lan Wangji was no different from Wei Ying. Scattered groups of disciples began to pair off, and Lan Wangji walked towards the sun spot he’d had his eye on.
Wei Ying remaining at his side should not have been the surprise it was, but Lan Wangji eyed the Jiang disciple carefully before he turned his face to the sky. Why aren’t you with your brother? Lan Wangji asked Wei Ying silently, and closed his eyes against the warmth of the sun.
“Lan Zhan, if you won’t spar with anyone, won’t you spar with me?” Wei Ying asked, and his voice was rich with amusement. “Even you must admit we are well-matched— surely I’m a worthy opponent?”
Lan Wangji blinked his eyes open at the words, and stared into the sun as he thought. Wei Ying stood next to him, finally still as he waited eagerly for an answer. Lan Wangji could feel the heavy gaze on his skin, and he was warm from the strength of the summer sun and nothing else— Lan Wangji lowered his head and unsheathed his sword.
Wei Ying’s grin was wide and sudden as Lan Wangji wordlessly gave in, his own sword brought out in response. “Ah, I knew you wouldn’t ignore me, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying praised softly, and brought his sword up in a salute.
Lan Wangji considered the words and raised a brow. Wei Ying was impossible to ignore— surely the other disciple was aware of that? Wei Ying made himself known by simply breathing, and Lan Wangji huffed under his breath as he raised Bichen in answer.
The first strike of their blades was testing, not gentle but not full strength either, and Lan Wangji appreciated the slow start. Their last fight had been quick and furious— Lan Wangji had been too annoyed at Wei Ying’s rule-breaking to take stock of his form, so he took the chance now. Wei Ying fought with the grace of a leopard— quick and agile and deadly, as wild with this as he was with everything else, and it was breathtaking.
Lan Wangji met Wei Ying easily, blocking and attacking with brisk, clean movements that were executed with the grace of years of practice, and let his eyes linger on Wei Ying’s fierce smile. The Jiang disciple was captivating like this; laughing loudly and taunting Lan Wangji between one breath and the next, never deterred by the lack of answer, and Lan Wangji felt the warmth of the sun loosen the tension in his shoulders.
They pulled away from each other after some time, Wei Ying’s grin warm with delight.
“Lan Zhan, you’re really good,” Wei Ying complimented, and his words were easy and honest and Lan Wangji inhaled sharply at the sincerity of them. “I’ve decided that from now on I only want to spar with you,” Wei Ying continued, oblivious to the intensity of Lan Wangji’s gaze. “What do you say, huh?”
Wei Ying winked as he sheathed his sword, and the earnestness of his words and the strength of his smile made heat curl across Lan Wangji’s shoulders— and that wasn’t the sun, how could he have been so stupid— Lan Wangji yanked himself away from Wei Ying and sheathed Bichen with a snap.
Hurt flared across Wei Ying’s face, chased immediately by worry, and Lan Wangji hesitated. Panic and fear bubbled to life in his chest as feverish warmth spread down his arms and into his hands, and he hid his clenched fists in his sleeves. It wasn’t Wei Ying’s fault Lan Wangji couldn’t control himself long enough to participate in a simple duel— he inclined his head.
“Yes,” he responded finally, and turned away sharply. Of course he would spar with Wei Ying again— Lan Wangji would just need to keep himself focused, next time. But right now, sparks were igniting at his fingertips and the brush of hair against his back scorched him through his clothing, and Lan Wangji needed the Cold Spring.
He left the training field immediately, and didn’t bother undressing before he sank into the water. Steam hissed to life immediately in protest of his existence, and Lan Wangji scowled as he left Bichen on the rocks. The icy shock of the plunge helped for a single, blissful second— but Lan Wangji was warm from the sun and burning from the fire that snaked through his veins, and he dunked his head beneath the surface.
Control it, he thought, closing his eyes and trying to center himself. Maintain your discipline… Lan Wangji could hold his breath for a long time, by now— he and the Cold Spring knew each other unfortunately well. The first time fire had come to him, Xichen had thrown Lan Wangji into the spring, desperate for anything to calm his little brother down— the burns on Xichen’s arms had taken years to heal.
Remorse and guilt only fanned the flames, and Lan Wangji broke through the surface of the water with a gasp.
He hadn’t lost control this badly in a long time— Lan Wangji laughed briefly as he watched sparks flare on his palm and evaporate the moisture that coated his hand. The sparks were playful, inviting, mesmerizing— Lan Wangji closed his fingers on them and watched as his fist ignited instead, and wondered distantly how the sight of Wei Ying’s smile could have made him lose himself this fast.
But arms encased in ice closed around him, and Lan Wangji leaned his head on his brother’s chest as Xichen joined him in the water, the frigid shock a relief to his system.
“Xichen,” he muttered, and closed his eyes. Hands that burned with cold instead of heat closed around his, and Lan Wangji felt the flames die, overpowered by his brother’s strength. The water began to regain its chill as Xichen’s ice-covered body overwhelmed everything, and Lan Wangji gasped as the water bit at his skin.
“Wangji, what happened?” Worry was clear in Xichen’s voice, and Lan Wangji shook his head. “Did Young Master Wei say something?”
Ah, Lan Wangji thought, of course Xichen was watching me.
“No,” Lan Wangji replied, and opened his eyes. Ice was melting and reforming in a constant cycle as the heat of his skin tested Xichen’s resolve, and Lan Wangji felt his throat close up at the sight. This was the only way his brother could touch him, now— with a barricade of ice between them.
Water had always been partial to the Lan Clan of Gusu— once Lan Wangji’s fire had revealed itself, Xichen had raced to master his water only as a gateway to learning the secrets of ice. Lan Wangji remembered the fierceness of the burns that had painted violent smears of red on Xichen’s skin and shivered.
What would have happened if Wei Ying had touched him just now? He was careless with his hands— although Lan Wangji knew Wei Ying tried to remember he didn’t want to be touched, Lan Wangji still had to pull himself away from forgetful hands a few times a day. He could have burned Wei Ying— he had to be careful— what would Wei Ying have thought of him, then? Those gifted with fire were feared— for good reason, Lan Wangji knew, and felt his breath speed up.
Wei Ying is my friend, he thought suddenly, how could I lose control? Would he cut ties if he knew? Would he let me apologize?
Lan Wangji felt Xichen’s arms cinch tighter, and turned his face fully into the relief of his brother’s ice before his thoughts sent him spiraling into a panic.
“Wangji, it’s alright,” Xichen’s voice was soothing, and the hand that rose to cradle his face was blissfully cold, and Lan Wangji leaned into it gratefully. “Relax, I’ve got you.”
Lan Wangji let his brother's words calm him, and finally felt the fire retreat back into his spine, unhappy at being locked back up. “How did you get away?” he asked in a murmur, refusing to lift his face from the ice-encrusted robes on Xichen’s chest.
His brother huffed a laugh, relief making his voice light. “The students are delighted to enjoy a half-day today,” Xichen explained, and Lan Wangji felt the ghost of a smile curve his lips at the words.
Wei Ying should enjoy that, he thought. It’s not something Uncle would have done— at the reminder, Lan Wangji stiffened.
“Xichen,” he said, and finally pulled away from his brother's hold. Golden eyes that matched his own watched him carefully. “Uncle…?”
Xichen shook his head firmly, and Lan Wangji felt the remaining tension leech from his body. “Nothing happened.” Xichen said, and released his arms from around Lan Wangji to cup his brother's face and stare into his eyes. “I am proud of you, Wangji,” Xichen added, and Lan Wangji looked away. “I am,” his brother insisted. “You removed yourself when you needed to, and nothing happened.”
A muscle twitched in Lan Wangji’s jaw. But it could have, he thought mulishly, and Xichen must have seen the thought on his face, because Lan Wangji was dragged back into his brother’s arms. He allowed his brother the hug, however, and rested his forehead lightly on Xichen’s shoulder.
“Come, Wangji,” Xichen stepped back after a long while, and let the coating of ice shielding his skin fade away. “You need rest.”
Lan Wangji watched the sun creep over the mountain the next morning and thought, No.
He felt hollow, burned through from the rage of yesterday's emotions. The mirror showed dark shadows under his eyes, and Lan Wangji shook his head tiredly as he sent a messenger to Xichen. There was no way he’d be able to stand the lecture today— Xichen would understand, and inform their uncle that he would not be attending.
Lan Wangji walked around and shuttered his windows against the sun, hiding himself in the blissfully cold, dark safety of his home. He went back to the bed and wrapped himself in his blankets, and was asleep in moments.
Wei Ying appeared from nowhere the next morning and glued himself to Lan Wangji’s side. Lan Wangji breathed carefully, and felt his shoulders tense as Wei Ying came closer than normal— but Wei Ying noticed, and stepped back, concern on his face.
“Were you sick yesterday?” Wei Ying asked, gaze sharp as he took in the shadows that still dusted Lan Wangji’s eyes. “Is that why you left so quickly after our spar?”
It wasn’t quite true… but the exhaustion that came from fighting the fire that had burned through him was close enough to a physical ailment, so Lan Wangji nodded once. Wei Ying’s face relaxed, and Lan Wangji felt relief wash through him as he wasn’t questioned further.
“I’m sorry you were sick,” Wei Ying said, and spun around Lan Wangji to walk on his other side. “I missed you.” The words made Lan Wangji’s heart stutter in his chest, and he turned his gaze on Wei Ying, surprised. The other disciple glanced up at his look and laughed. “It’s true!” he insisted. “Everything is so boring when you’re not there.”
Happiness tried to spread through Lan Wangji’s chest— Wei Ying was his friend, after all— but he squashed it down before the warmth could ignite anything else. He was too tired to deal with the fire today; he would have to remember that he was the second Jade of Lan in truth, and be expressionless once more.
But Wei Ying didn’t let that stop him. “I know you said you would spar with me again, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying spun his sword on his hand. “But if you don’t feel well next time, let me know.” Earnest eyes looked up at Lan Wangji. “I don’t want to push you.”
Lan Wangji inclined his head after a moment, and Wei Ying grinned widely.
The question burned through Lan Wangji as he watched Wei Ying walk next to him— what are you? He needed to know. When an element chose them, the Yunmeng Jiang were, on the whole, water-aligned. There was always the possibility that Wei Ying hadn't been claimed by an element, of course— although Lan Wangji dismissed that as highly unlikely. Wei Ying was everything the elements craved— active, vibrant, filled with life and joy.
Everything you aren't, a traitorous part of Lan Wangji's mind whispered, though he hushed it easily. Uncle had no answer on why Lan Wangji had been claimed by fire— he'd blamed it on their mother, and Lan Wangji remembered the way Xichen's face had closed off at the words.
Lan Wangji watched the way the breeze played with Wei Ying's hair. Water makes the most sense, given where he was raised. His eyes followed the line of Wei Ying’s jaw as a new thought distracted the disciple, and watched as grey eyes flared with interest.
Lan Wangji looked up, caught off-guard. Wei Ying cocked his head to the side, then laughed brightly. He thought back to what Wei Ying had been talking about and stifled a sigh.
“Alcohol is prohibited in Cloud Recesses,” he said repressively— surely Wei Ying remembered his punishment from that first night? But Wei Ying shook his head in disappointment.
“You can’t tell me you’ve never drank before, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying insisted, and Lan Wangji thought briefly of how much damage he could do if he was uninhibited and repressed a shiver. He shook his head. Wei Ying tsked and fell into step with him. “You’re missing out,” he complained. “Emperor’s Smile is the best there is, and it’s impossible to get in Yunmeng.”
Lan Wangji eyed Wei Ying, and knew the disciple was making a big deal out of it to get a rise from him, and let a small smile curve his lip. Wei Ying’s eyes widened and he grinned in response.
“You can smile?” Wei Ying teased, and instead of knocking his shoulder against Lan Wangji like he’d do with any other disciple, Wei Ying tapped him with the hilt of his sword, grinning broadly.
Lan Wangji felt warmth curl out in unstoppable waves from his spine and swallowed hard. Wei Ying knew he didn’t want to be touched, and had adapted himself to suit Lan Wangji’s wishes— oddly, Lan Wangji felt warmth gather behind his eyes and looked away.
What are you? he asked silently, urgently. Why couldn’t Wei Ying read the question in his eyes, Lan Wangji wondered. Asking outright was incredibly, indescribably rude, and had often been Lan Wangji’s only protection from others finding out that the Second Young Master of the Lan Clan was bound to fire— but he wanted Wei Ying to tell him.
Grey eyes sparkled up at him, oblivious to his thoughts.
Lan Wangji bowed to his uncle, then followed Wei Ying out of the classroom. How had a test of general knowledge turned into such a scene? Lan Wangji wondered, walking slowly. Wei Ying was proud of his knowledge, and Uncle had pressed Wei Ying, as he always did. But Wei Ying was not Lan Wangji, and had never met a challenge he couldn’t overcome, and Uncle had removed him from the classroom for it.
It was easy enough to find Wei Ying— he hadn’t made an effort to hide himself from Lan Wangji. The Jiang disciple was standing on a rock at the back hill, staring at the waterfall, and Lan Wangji came up behind him.
“Have you come to yell at me too?” Wei Ying asked over his shoulder, and Lan Wangji moved forward until they were standing next to each other.
“No,” Lan Wangji said, and turned his head to watch as drops of water touched Wei Ying. “Uncle does not appreciate being challenged,” he added, and Wei Ying stiffened. The other disciple breathed in deeply, then turned a shining smile on Lan Wangji. It felt like bathing in the sun, and Lan Wangji looked away, heat shifting lazily along his spine.
“Lan Zhan, do you think there’s something in the back hill?” The question caught Lan Wangji off guard, and he swung his gaze to Wei Ying once more. Grey eyes met his, and Wei Ying shrugged. “Just a thought,” he waved away his words, and Lan Wangji sighed in relief.
Of course there was something in the back hill— not that he’d be able to tell Wei Ying anything about it.
“So,” Wei Ying turned to face Lan Wangji fully, and crossed his arms over his chest. “Why aren’t you in the classroom? Did you get kicked out too?”
Lan Wangji shook his head, and began to walk away, trusting Wei Ying to follow. “I am to supervise you in the Library.”
An aggrieved sound came from behind him, and Wei Ying darted up and invaded Lan Wangji’s space. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whined, staring into his eyes, “doesn’t your uncle trust me to do it myself?”
Lan Wangji barely repressed an ungentlemanly snort. Uncle wouldn’t trust me by myself, either, he thought, and shook his head at Wei Ying in response. An annoyed sigh was his answer, and Lan Wangji ushered the other disciple into the Library.
It’s a good thing I’m already used to Wei Ying’s antics, Lan Wangji thought as the calligraphy brush was stolen from his hand. I doubt anyone else would allow this. Wei Ying was sprawled next to him, copies finished for the day, and making a general nuisance of himself as Lan Wangji attempted to finish his own work.
“Hurry up, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying whined, and rested his head on his fist. “How did I finish before you today?” Lan Wangji looked from Wei Ying to the brush he had stolen, and held out his hand. Wei Ying sighed and gave it back, then grinned. “Lan Zhan! What are you doing after this, anyway?”
“Dinner with Xichen,” Lan Wangji said, and watched from the corner of his eye as Wei Ying’s smile turned soft.
“That’s good,” Wei Ying hummed, and tapped his fingers against the table. He sighed, then shook his head. “How much more do you have?” Wei Ying asked, changing the topic abruptly.
“Just a few more pages.” Lan Wangji finished one as he spoke and continued on. Wei Ying nodded and reached out, and Lan Wangji flinched away from his hand. Wei Ying froze.
“I just want to fix your sleeve,” Wei Ying explained slowly, and pointed. Lan Wangji looked down, and saw the wrinkle that must have caught Wei Ying’s attention, and sucked in a deep breath to calm his hammering heart. He moved the brush away from the page before ink spilled onto his work, and nodded once.
Wei Ying waited for a moment, then finished his motion and tugged the sleeve into place gently. “There,” he proclaimed, satisfaction thick in his voice. “Perfect as always.”
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji replied after a moment, voice low. Of course Wei Ying wouldn’t touch me, he thought. Lan Wangji had made his preferences clear, and Wei Ying had learned to honor them. Lan Wangji didn't want Wei Ying to burn himself on his skin— why, then, did the thought hurt?
“Lan Zhan…” Wei Ying trailed off, and Lan Wangji looked back up. Grey eyes were staring at him, serious for once, and Lan Wangji put the brush down. “Are you… okay?” Wei Ying asked. Lan Wangji tilted his head in question, and Wei Ying tapped his fingers on the table, an odd mixture of concern and embarrassment on his face. “It’s just, you’re scared of people touching you,” Wei Ying elaborated, and Lan Wangji looked away.
The heat that furled around his spine flared at the statement, and Lan Wangji clenched his jaw reflexively.
“No, Lan Zhan, I’m not—” Wei Ying cut himself off with a groan, and leaned forward to catch Lan Wangji’s eyes. “I just want you to know, if you need someone to talk to, I’m here.” A finger reached out and tapped the cloth of Lan Wangji’s robe gently. “You can tell me anything, you know.”
Lan Wangji looked up and met Wei Ying’s gaze properly, and the disciple smiled gently.
Fire claimed me the day my mother died, Lan Wangji thought, and caged the words behind his lips. Fire marked my brother with burns he still hides. I am what people are terrified of, and I am terrified of myself.
How could he tell Wei Ying anything?
But he nodded, because such a statement deserved a response, and Wei Ying settled into silence until Lan Wangji finished.
Xichen relaxed his shoulders and sighed as they settled down to eat, and as Lan Wangji watched, the Clan Leader turned into his elder brother. It was a subtle change, but one that made the atmosphere in the room lighten.
“How have you been since the sword-practice?” Xichen asked, cradling his teacup in his hands.
Have you lost control again? Lan Wangji interpreted. But his brother’s concern warmed him, and Lan Wangji shook his head. “I am fine.”
Xichen looked up at the shortness of his answer and frowned. Lan Wangji set his cup down and met Xichen’s gaze evenly. “Xiong-zhang, all is well.” At the assurance, his brother relaxed once more. Lan Wangji felt the comfortable silence ease the tension that was ever-present in his body, and he sighed deeply. With his brother here, he could allow himself to breathe.
Lan Wangji worked as Wei Ying put the finishing touches on his copies, and watched from the corner of his eye as the disciple bent his attention to the paper in front of him. After some time Wei Ying stood, and Lan Wangji centered his attention on his paper.
“Lan Zhan! I have a gift for you!” Wei Ying waved the paper in front of his face, but Lan Wangji ignored it, and wondered what the other disciple would do. Wei Ying just grinned and sat next to Lan Wangji, and pulled the paper back to himself. “Ah, you’re right it’s not finished yet.”
Wei Ying reached out and stole Lan Wangji’s brush and added a few strokes to the paper before sitting upright and grinning. “There!”
Lan Wangji looked down, and froze as he saw the portrait of himself. The flower was obviously what Wei Ying had added, and Lan Wangji’s eyes darted up to meet Wei Ying’s. Heat wove it’s way up his spine and curled over his shoulders, and Lan Wangji set the painting down gently before it turned to ash.
“You are skilled,” Lan Wangji said after a long moment, and Wei Ying blushed, pleased. Lan Wangji concentrated on the woodgrain of the table, and uncoiled the inferno from his collarbone, and breathed out slowly. “Thank you.”
Wei Ying grinned through his blush, and rested his arms on Lan Wangji’s table. “Nie Huaisang wanted me to play a prank on you,” he confided, and Lan Wangji looked up sharply. But Wei Ying laughed and waved his hand. “Don’t worry so much, Lan Zhan! I didn’t want you to be angry with me.”
His expression was open and his words were honest, and Lan Wangji inclined his head in thanks.
“What will you do without me bothering you all day?” Wei Ying wondered, changing the topic without a warning, and Lan Wangji stifled a smile. He retrieved his brush and continued on with his work, and Wei Ying groaned. “Oh, you’re going to be responsible,” Wei Ying said the word like it was disgusting, and collapsed onto the table next to Lan Wangji. “Obviously I can’t leave you alone then,” Wei Ying declared, and rolled his head on his arms until he faced Lan Wangji properly. “Someone has to make sure you don’t get dusty from sitting in the Library all day.”
Lan Wangji paused, and turned to look down at Wei Ying. Aside from the Silence Spell, there were a few other wordless spells that Lan cultivators learned, and a sort of impish playfulness ran through Lan Wangji’s body. He waited until Wei Ying returned his gaze, then tilted his head to the side and cast the wordless spell, and watched in amusement as grey eyes went wide.
It was a simple spell— he’d heard so many complaints about how the Lan Clan kept their white robes so pristine, and Lan Wangji huffed a laugh as Wei Ying sat upright. His robes fluttered with the spell and arranged themselves to be perfectly flat, his hair was nudged back into position, and if there had been dust or dirt on his robes it would have shaken out as well.
“Are you serious?” Wei Ying demanded, and glared from Lan Wangji to his robes and back. “You’ve got to teach me that, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying begged. “Of course your Clan has such a spell up their sleeves,” he muttered, and Lan Wangji hid his smile as Wei Ying continued to complain.
The heat that coiled at the base of Lan Wangji’s neck wasn’t cause for concern quite yet, but it was enough that he tapped Bichen against Xichen’s hip in warning. Xichen turned his head to look at Lan Wangji.
Do you need to leave? Lan Wangji read in the crease of his brother’s eyes, and shook his head slightly.
Wei Ying’s cheerful chatter was soothing as they walked to Caiyi Town, and Lan Wangji listened to it absently as he thought. Xichen was worried about the water ghosts— more worried than seemed proper, though Lan Wangji knew it was an unusual case to begin with. The residents of Caiyi were good swimmers— there shouldn’t have been enough drownings to cause such an issue in the first place.
Wei Ying and his brother had begun discussing the same thing behind him and Xichen, and Lan Wangji wondered why his brother had allowed the Wen disciples to come along as well. Wen Qing, Lan Wangji could understand. A doctor on a night hunt was a precious resource, after all. But he knew next to nothing about Wen Ning, and wariness made the back of Lan Wangji’s neck prickle.
Of all the Clans, the Wen Clan of Qishan had the largest collection of those chosen by fire, for obvious reasons— Lan Wangji thought of the dormant volcano Nightless City was based out of, and felt his shoulders tense.
I wonder if either of them have been claimed? Lan Wangji wondered, and shook the thought out of his head as Wei Ying appeared at his side.
“Your brother is hiding something about this,” Wei Ying whispered, and Lan Wangji couldn’t help the knife-like sharpness of the glare he sent the other disciple. Wei Ying reared back and shook his head. “Lan Zhan! I didn’t mean it like that,” he protested, and Lan Wangji waited for an explanation, because how else could Wei Ying have meant it?
“I just wonder why he felt he had to come?” Wei Ying asked, keeping his voice low. “Water ghosts are on the easy end of things, you know?” Wei Ying juggled his sword from hand to hand, watching Lan Wangji closely. “In Yunmeng, these hunts are the ones we send the juniors on for practice.” Lan Wangji watched as Wei Ying twirled the sword on his palm, but pulled his eyes away.
“A Clan Leader knows much that we do not,” Lan Wangji said finally, and Wei Ying perked up and met his gaze. “Perhaps there is more to it than we need to know.”
Predictably, Wei Ying groaned at the thought that he wasn’t allowed to know something, and Lan Wangji hid his smile.
Lan Wangji’s hands burned in the folds of Wei Ying’s robes— he needed to let go of Su She and Wei Ying before he turned their robes to cinders, but Xichen was still calming the Aqua-Demon, and they were far from land.
Maintain discipline, Lan Wangji tightened his shoulders and stiffened his resolve, control yourself.
Holding three people in the air should not have strained him this much— but Wen Ning was a dead weight, and Wei Ying would not stop moving— Lan Wangji jerked his head to one of the Lan disciples, and handed Su She to them. Lan Wangji concentrated on Xichen’s xiao and tuned out everything else.
Whatever spell Xichen was weaving, the music was similar to Rest, and Lan Wangji used the sound of the xiao to calm the fire that spilled through his veins. Xichen’s eyes were heavy on his back as Lan Wangji flew his cargo to shore, and he lowered Bichen carefully as Wen Qing reached up for her brother. Wei Ying was next, and Lan Wangji resisted the urge to drop him where he was, and unclenched his hand in a spasm from the collar of Wei Ying’s robe once his feet touched the ground.
“Let’s go back to Caiyi Town,” Xichen said, smiling calmly at the gathered disciples, and wrapped a shockingly frigid hand around Lan Wangji’s wrist. “We’ll stay for the night and rest, and return to Cloud Recesses in the morning.”
Lan Wangji focused his attention on the ice that coated the palm of his brother’s hand, and drew his fire back into hiding slowly, carefully. The frozen grasp centered him, and Lan Wangji blinked his eyes shut in relief. Icicles remained encrusted around his wrist when Xichen let go, the peaks sharp enough to allow Lan Wangji to finish folding his fire away.
He opened his eyes and met Xichen’s worried gaze, and watched as relief speared through the golden eyes that matched his. Lan Wangji turned away as he felt the heavy weight of Wei Ying’s eyes on his as everyone else filed into the inn. He looked up, and Wei Ying took that as his cue to come over, brushing off Jiang Wanyin’s hand as his brother tried to hold him back.
“Thank you for grabbing us, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said, and Lan Wangji stared at him blankly.
I almost burned you to ash, he thought wildly, I’ll be lucky if Su She doesn’t have a brand on his shoulder!
“It was no problem,” Lan Wangji settled on finally, and Wei Ying shook his head and crossed his arms over his sword.
“You don’t like people touching you,” Wei Ying said stubbornly, though his gaze dropped to the wrist Xichen had held, and curiosity flashed over his expression. “And you had to touch a lot of people today. So, thank you.”
Lan Wangji followed Wei Ying into the inn and up the stairs to the room they’d stayed in the previous night, and stared at the back of his head.
Lan Wangji relished the cool touch of the night air and raised his face to the moon. His patrols had always been at night— the fires easier to control— the realization, when it had come, had been a blessing.
Gusu has become much louder with this batch of visitors, he thought wryly, coming to a halt outside the room Wei Ying and Jiang Wanyin shared and listening to the noise from within. Lan Wangji was tempted to keep walking and let the brothers have their fun— but he’d seen the purchase of Emperor’s Smile as they had made their way out of town, and there was no doubt in Lan Wangji’s mind that that was the cause of the noise tonight.
He sighed softly, and took one last look at the moon before throwing open the doors.
Lan Wangji’s sharp gaze took in the trashed room— peanut shells and robes everywhere, bottles of alcohol sitting on the table— and turned to study the perpetrators. Nie Huaisang, Jiang Wanyin, and Wei Ying… Lan Wangji should have known Nie Huaisang would have been part of this. The three of them had been as thick as thieves for the duration of their stay.
“What are you doing?” Lan Wangji asked, and watched as Wei Ying hid a wince before standing.
“What a coincidence!” Wei Ying said, and came to a halt in front of Lan Wangji. “Since you’re here, you should join us for a drink!” Wei Ying’s smile was wide and inviting, but Lan Wangji looked at the others in disappointment.
“Alcohol is prohibited in Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji recited, and slanted a glare at Wei Ying. The ‘you should know better’ went unspoken. “You will have to be punished,” he added, and lifted a brow as Wei Ying unsubtly waved a hand behind his back. Nie Huaisang and Jiang Wanyin raced out of the room, pretending to vomit, and Lan Wangji shook his head.
Punishment now or later, it will not matter, Lan Wangji thought, and made a mental note to collect them in the morning. Wei Ying shut the doors behind his brother and his friend, and turned to Lan Wangji with a sheepish smile.
“Any chance you’ll forget about this?” The expression on Lan Wangji’s face must have been answer enough, because Wei Ying sighed and shrugged. “I know, I know Lan Zhan, you must be disappointed in me.”
Lan Wangji followed Wei Ying across the room and sat at the low table, and waited for Wei Ying to join him.
“You know the rules,” Lan Wangji stated, and Wei Ying groaned loudly and rolled his head back.
“But we did so good with the Aqua Demon!” Wei Ying protested, and Lan Wangji raised a brow. He firmly remembered Xichen doing most of the work, and besides—
“Did I forget that Nie Huaisang came with us?” Lan Wangji asked, and Wei Ying waved away the question with a scowl.
“Oh, stop,” Wei Ying reached out and threw back a cup of liquor, and Lan Wangji frowned. “Hm?” Wei Ying asked when he noticed the expression, then shook his head with a laugh. “I’m not drinking in front of you, I promise,” Wei Ying swore, staring up at Lan Wangji earnestly. “I filled these with water before you came in— Jiang Cheng gets bitchy when he’s hungover, and I try to avoid that.”
Wei Ying gestured to the table. “If you’re thirsty, you may as well help yourself.”
Lan Wangji considered Wei Ying carefully, then looked into the cups. Two of the three were filled with clear liquid, and he reached out and picked one up carefully. He sniffed, then raised a brow at Wei Ying, who shrugged at the unasked question.
“Everything is going to smell like alcohol, Lan Zhan, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said helplessly, and Lan Wangji could attest to the truth of that— the table was sticky with spilled liquor, and he shook his head at the sight. But he took a sip of the liquid carefully, and slammed the cup onto the table.
“That wasn’t water,” he said, and Wei Ying looked up with a frown.
“Yeah, it should have been—” Wei Ying reached out and took the same cup, and downed the contents, and his eyebrows shot up to his hairline. “Nie Huaisang, I’m going to kill you,” Wei Ying muttered, then turned back to Lan Wangji with pleading eyes.
“I’m sorry, Lan Zhan, I didn’t know Huaisang was sneaking shots during the water break,” and Lan Wangji believed the desperation in his voice— but sleepiness swirled through him, and he slumped forward.
Lan Wangji blinked his eyes open, and stared at the unfamiliar ceiling.
After a moment a hand floated in front of his eyes, and he jerked back. “What’s the matter?” he asked, and Wei Ying’s face appeared above him.
“You’re awake!” A wide smile crossed Wei Ying’s face and Lan Wangji stared at it, fascinated by the curve of his lips. “Also, your ribbon is crooked.” The words made Lan Wangji frown, and as he reached up to correct the issue the hand appeared again.
“Stop it,” Lan Wangji demanded, then sat up and swayed in place. Wei Ying sat next to him with a worried smile as he watched Lan Wangji try to fix the ribbon.
“Why can’t I help with the ribbon?” Wei Ying asked, and Lan Wangji rolled his eyes at the question. Hadn’t Wei Ying copied the rules enough times?
“Only parents and spouses can,” Lan Wangji reminded him pointedly, then gave up on the ribbon and turned to his companion. “How did I get on the bed?” Lan Wangji asked, because hadn’t he been at the table? Wei Ying hesitated, then raised his hand in a promise as he answered.
“I didn’t want you to strain yourself with the way you were slumped over,” Wei Ying said slowly, and winced. “And I didn’t know when you would wake up. I promise I just touched your robes!” Wide grey eyes stared at Lan Wangji, and Lan Wangji felt a smile curve his lip.
“I believe you,” he said, and Wei Ying stared at his lips in wonder.
“Are you drunk?” Wei Ying asked, his voice strangled. “Because you’re smiling at me.”
Lan Wangji thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. Everything was soft and light, and he was so warm, and Wei Ying was still staring at him, and he didn’t care. “I don’t know,” he said finally, and Wei Ying’s worried smile came back.
But Lan Wangji didn’t want Wei Ying to worry— he reached a hand out towards Wei Ying, but thought better of it and let it fall back to his side. Wei Ying stared from his eyes to his hand and back, thoughtful.
“Lan Zhan, can I ask you something?” Wei Ying’s voice was careful, but Lan Wangji hummed in agreement anyway. “Zewu-Jun grabbed your wrist the other day, and you let him.”
The words trailed off, but Lan Wangji laughed because that wasn’t a question, and smiled at the memory. Xichen could never hurt him— would never hurt him.
“Xiong-zhang is safe,” he heard himself say, and Lan Wangji opened the eyes he’d just realized he’d closed, and swayed into Wei Ying’s space. Grey eyes watched him carefully, and Lan Wangji returned the gaze before he reached a hand up and touched a finger to the edge of Wei Ying’s sleeve. He stoked down it lightly, then paused.
“No,” Lan Wangji told himself, and drew his hand back into his lap.
“It’s okay,” Wei Ying said, but his voice was high and tight and Lan Wangji tilted his head as he looked back at the other disciple. “If you want to, you can.”
The fire that unfurled inside of him was wide and thick, and slow with heat, and Lan Wangji was reminded of the lava he’d seen at Nightless City. The memory made him smile— Wei Ying’s eyes were heavy against his skin, the liquor sweet on his lips.
“I want to,” he admitted in a low voice, and Wei Ying flushed a vibrant red— but he’d stained Xichen red, once, and Lan Wangji knew his hands could not be trusted. “And I can’t.”
He turned away from Wei Ying and laid down, and drew the covers up to his ears. “It is nine o’clock,” Lan Wangji murmured, voice thick and tired. “It’s time to sleep.”
His uncle was incandescent with rage, and Lan Wangji bowed under the weight of it. Wei Ying was beside him, loudly insisting that he was the only one at fault, but Lan Wangji knew his Uncle— for this transgression, Lan Wangji would pay dearly.
Bad enough to be found in the company of Lan Qiren’s most hated student— to be found hungover, when Lan Wangji’s control was shaky on good days and stretched to breaking on bad ones? There would be no mercy for him, and he accepted the count of three hundred lashes with as much grace as he could muster.
Lan Wangji stared straight ahead as the beating began, and refused to meet Xichen’s eyes. His brother radiated confusion and unhappiness, though Lan Wangji thought that maybe he was the only one who could tell.
Control yourself, Lan Wangji thought, because what good would it do if fire started to seep down his back instead of blood? But his spine was where he hid the inferno, and his back was bruised and battered, and Lan Wangji swallowed down the spark that ignited behind his lips.
If you lose control you will just prove Uncle correct about you. Lan Wangji breathed slowly through his nose, in and out with a count of ten, and prayed to any god that was listening that he made it through this.
Jiang Wanyin returned to help his brother stand after the punishment was done, and Lan Wangji envied them their freely given touches. He stood by himself, and glared sharply at Xichen before his brother could come to him. There was no need for the Clan Leader to come to his aid— if he did, Xichen would only incur Uncle's wrath as well.
Lan Wangji walked slowly through Cloud Recesses to his home and collected clean robes. He would go to the Cold Spring and heal, and then stay there until all the warmth had leached from his skin.
This time, Lan Wangji undressed properly— for healing, water against skin would work the best. He stripped to his pants and sank down until his shoulders were covered, and sighed with relief at the coolness of the water. Blood stained the water red until it was washed away, and Lan Wangji closed his eyes against the sight and settled into meditation.
He didn’t know how much time had passed before his name was called, but Lan Wangji blinked his eyes open and thought, Wei Ying? even as his name was called again, and he stood and dressed quickly.
“How did you get in?” Lan Wangji asked, and laced his hands behind his back.
“Zewu-Jun let me in!” Wei Ying grinned and kicked off his boots, and splashed into the water, and gasped at the icy chill. “Ah! It’s so cold!”
Lan Wangji watched Wei Ying shiver and rub his arms, and wondered why his brother had sent Wei Ying this way, when surely he knew Lan Wangji would be here. “Stop fumbling,” he advised, and Wei Ying scowled at him.
“If I stop moving my blood will freeze!” Wei Ying complained, and Lan Wangji knew, suddenly, that water was not the element that had claimed this disciple. Perversely, he was pleased— fire and water would never coexist easily— but of the other three, what would be better? Lan Wangji shook the thoughts from his head.
“It looks warmer by you,” Wei Ying said, and splashed his way over. Lan Wangji stepped back, eyeing the distance between them carefully, and Wei Ying pouted. “Ah, Lan Zhan, it is warmer! Be nice and share.”
Lan Wangji stood frozen as Wei Ying came nearer to him, stopping only when barely six inches separated them, and watched with wide eyes as the change in temperature made Wei Ying relax. He’d never realized he warmed the water that much… Wei Ying grinned up at him.
“Thank you, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said, and Lan Wangji looked away. He didn’t know what he’d done last night— aside from not burn down the mountain— heat spread out from his spine and rolled over his shoulders.
“Say, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying’s voice was small, and the sound of it surprised Lan Wangji into meeting grey eyes once more. “I wanted to apologize again— I should have made sure you got water.” Wei Ying folded in on himself, and Lan Wangji hated the sight of it. “So, I’m sorry.”
“It is nothing,” Lan Wangji dismissed, but the words made Wei Ying rear his head up and glare at him, and Lan Wangji didn’t know why.
“It’s not nothing!” Wei Ying said hotly, and unwrapped a hand from his sleeve to gesture at Lan Wangji’s back. “You got three hundred lashes because of me!” He glared at Lan Wangji. “So let me make it up to you somehow.”
“You had just as many—” but Wei Ying's expression silenced him, and Lan Wangji shook his head. “Fine. Then tell me what I did last night.”
That made Wei Ying pause, and he tilted his head at Lan Wangji. “You had the smallest sip— you don’t remember?” The words were mocking, and Lan Wangji flushed and looked away, but Wei Ying shook his head swiftly. “No, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry— I was surprised, that’s all.”
“Uh,” Wei Ying tapped his finger against his lip, face screwed up in thought. “Your ribbon was crooked but you wouldn’t let me fix it, and you said Zewu-Jun is allowed to touch you because he’s safe.”
Wei Ying shrugged and didn’t meet Lan Wangji’s eyes. “That was it!” he said brightly, but Lan Wangji was sure that was a lie, and he cast his thoughts back to last night and tried to jog his own memories.
Vague snatches of emotion floated past— yes, Lan Wangji remembered saying ‘Xiong-zhang is safe’, but what Wei Ying hadn’t said was that Lan Wangji had reached out to him, and Wei Ying would have allowed it… he turned to stare at the other disciple, who hadn’t yet lifted his eyes from the water.
“Wei Ying…” Lan Wangji breathed, and felt his own flush rise in his cheeks, and this time, mercifully, his fire had nothing to do with it.
Wei Ying was staring at the water, and Lan Wangji watched curiously. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said slowly, “do you feel something strange?”
Lan Wangji tilted his head and cast his senses out— but Wei Ying was dragged under, and Lan Wangji barely had the time to call Bichen into his hand before he was pulled under as well.
When Wei Ying had told Lan Wangji to wrap his ribbon around his wrist, Lan Wangji had stared blankly. It was a good idea — and one that would protect Wei Ying, and therefore necessary. But Wei Ying knew what the ribbon meant, didn't he? Even Lan Wangji could vaguely recall that part of their drunken conversation, 'parents and spouses only'... but he'd done it anyway, and Wei Ying's eyes had turned softly satisfied.
A tug on the ribbon that still bound them caught Lan Wangji's attention— he went to turn to Wei Ying, but the medallion swinging freely between their wrists caught his eyes, and Lan Wangji stared at it instead.
"Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying asked hesitantly, his own eyes following the path of Lan Zhan’s easily. "Are you okay?"
I'm married, Lan Wangji thought, then exhaled softly. We're married. It probably wasn't binding — surely, if Wei Ying remained unaware, Lan Wangji could pretend this didn't mean anything. It had been done to save a life, after all.
But it does, his mind whispered traitorously. "I am fi—"
Wei Ying cut off Lan Wangji's words with a sharp shake of the head.
"Stop telling me you're fine when you're not," Wei Ying said, but his voice was gentle. "You can't tell me that you're fine when I'm still bound by the ribbon no one can touch."
Lan Wangji froze at the words, eyes drawn once more to the silk between them. He wouldn't unwind it until they were free of the cave, for fear of the attack coming again— did Wei Ying want to be released? The thought made heat curl unhappily around his shoulders. Wei Ying came closer as Lan Wangji thought, and tilted his head to look into Lan Wangji's eyes.
"Hey," he said softly. "Thank you for saving me from your ancestor." Lan Wangji jerked his head in acknowledgement. Wei Ying studied him, searching Lan Wangji's eyes, and stepped closer. "It really is much warmer by you," Wei Ying continued, seemingly oblivious to the way the breath caught in Lan Wangji's throat. "Do you mind if I get a little closer?"
Lan Wangji shook his head slowly, and watched as Wei Ying came all the way into his space, closer even than he had been before they'd been dragged into this cave. A last shiver wrung itself from Wei Ying's body as the heat that radiated from Lan Wangji caressed him, and Lan Wangji stared, captivated by the easy smile that stretched Wei Ying's lips.
"Thanks, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying's voice was heavy with happiness and something else, and Lan Wangji couldn't move. "I, uh," Wei Ying began to speak again, and Lan Wangji waited for the disciple to collect his thoughts. "I know the ribbon is only for parents and spouses, and I'm probably the last person you wanted to have touch it—"
This time, Lan Wangji interrupted.
"No." How could Wei Ying think that? Lan Wangji felt his ears flush as surprised grey eyes met his, but didn't look away. "Wei Ying is…" Lan Wangji searched for the word, then blinked his eyes shut with a sigh. "Allowed."
Better to know now if Wei Ying is disgusted by this, Lan Wangji thought despairingly. It felt awful, saying something so deeply personal, and not knowing what the reaction would be.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying breathed, and tugged the ribbon insistently when it was clear Lan Wangji wasn't going to look at him without prompting. "Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying raised his bound wrist and shook it in Lan Wangji's face. "Doesn't this mean we're married?"
The flush that had stayed contained to his ears spread with shocking suddenness to his cheeks and neck, and Lan Wangji turned and began to walk away.
"Hey!" Wei Ying yelped as he was dragged along. "I'm not complaining!"
Lan Wangji slowed at the words, and looked over his shoulder in uncertainty. Wei Ying's smile was brilliant even in the depths of the cave, and Lan Wangji came to a halt.
"I was going to say— before you ran off— that since we're married now, there's something I want to tell you."
Fear made Lan Wangji pale— was Wei Ying already promised to someone? Was this all a joke that was about to be turned on its head? The inferno that was coiled around his shoulders spread down his arms, and Lan Wangji was too rattled to stop it.
Wei Ying stepped back into Lan Wangji's space and wrapped his fingers firmly in the sleeves of Lan Wangji's robe.
"First of all," Wei Ying said, and didn't seem to realize that the rising temperature of the cave was a bad thing, "I wanted to tell you that the element that claimed me is air."
Lan Wangji looked into Wei Ying's eyes, startled. He'd wanted to know for so long… and air… air was a much better match than Lan Wangji had ever expected, and it seemed like Wei Ying was willing to go through with this farce of a marriage— Wei Ying was waiting for a response, so Lan Wangji nodded once.
"I spent a long time convinced that you were being beat." Wei Ying's voice was matter-of-fact, but Lan Wangji blinked at him, thrown. He thought I was being beaten? Lan Wangji wondered, and frowned. "Let me explain," Wei Ying said hastily, and wrapped his fingers tighter in Lan Wangji's sleeve.
"I mean, you never let anyone touch you, and you flinched whenever I got too close, and some of the things you say about your uncle aren't exactly, uh…” Wei Ying trailed off, and shook his head. "Anyway! Then I saw Zewu-Jun grab your wrist in Caiyi, and then you told me you couldn't touch me…" Wei Ying trailed off, and Lan Wangji stared into grey eyes, and watched as Wei Ying bit his lip.
"So I was thinking about it, and you're always so warm— is your element fire?"
There was nothing but curiosity in Wei Ying's voice, but Lan Wangji stepped back as if he'd been slapped.
"No, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying stayed insistently in his space, and groaned. "I'm always saying the wrong things," Wei Ying muttered to himself, but the fire in Lan Wangji's ears cracked and roared, and he swallowed heavily and fought to push the heat back down to its hiding place.
"I know it's rude to ask— I'm sorry Lan Zhan." Wei Ying's words made him look up. "If I got it wrong, then I'm even more sorry—"
Lan Wangji's hand shook, but he lifted it between them. Wei Ying trailed off, curious, and Lan Wangji took a deep, shuddering breath. This could be the end of you, the dark part of his mind whispered. He could take this knowledge and ruin the Clan. Lan Wangji refused to believe that, though— Wei Ying was many things, but he had only ever been friendly and sincere to Lan Wangji.
He uncoiled his fingers, and warmth ran down his arm and coalesced into sparks that danced in his palm. The light flickered against the cavern walls and Wei Ying's eyes blew wide with surprise.
"Lan Zhan," he breathed, and his voice was stunned and amazed, and Lan Wangji relaxed, and the fire sank down to coil around his spine. "That's so awesome."
They watched the spark dance against Lan Wangji's skin— and the fear he'd felt faded in the light of Wei Ying's acceptance. Lan Wangji had never believed he'd be able to show anyone, and his heart thumped erratically in his chest.
"Can I try something?" Wei Ying asked abruptly, and looked up from the spark with determination in his eyes. Lan Wangji nodded immediately— Wei Ying could do whatever he wanted to Lan Wangji, now, and he would allow it.
Wei Ying stared at the spark, then inhaled slowly— slower than a human should, and Lan Wangji gasped. The heat that had been his constant companion lessened, and Lan Wangji felt the chill in the air— Wei Ying stopped whatever he was doing immediately.
"What—?" Lan Wangji's voice cracked as the spark on his palm flickered out of existence, and he stared at Wei Ying. "What did you do?"
Wei Ying released one of Lan Wangji's sleeves and rubbed the back of his neck. "You need air to feed a fire, right?" Wei Ying asked, voice unnaturally meek. "So, then don't you take air to lessen it?"
There was still heat in his spine, Lan Wangji could feel it, coiled around his muscles and bones— but comfortable, not burning and all-encompassing— he stared at the hand that until moments ago had cradled his flames, and rubbed his fingertips together.
"It's too hot, right?" Wei Ying asked. "That's why you can't let people touch you?"
Lan Wangji didn't answer, because Wei Ying had raised his own hand and it was heading to touch Lan Wangji's, and he couldn't move. Wei Ying dragged a finger down Lan Wangji's knuckles, and grinned. "You're still really warm, but you didn't burn me." Wei Ying showed Lan Wangji the pad of his finger, and the skin was whole and perfect, and Lan Wangji's ears began to ring.
"I don't know how long it will last for," Wei Ying admitted, "but uh—" his smile turned shy, and Lan Wangji stared at it, heart beating impossibly fast. "If you want to touch me, you can."
Lan Wangji looked from his hand to Wei Ying's, then up to shy grey eyes that met his eagerly, and shook. This is— this is impossible, Lan Wangji thought. His hand began to shake, and Wei Ying's eyes turned concerned and Lan Wangji remembered the other cultivator saying he didn't know how long it would last— Lan Wangji reached out and wrapped Wei Ying's hand in his.
Wei Ying gasped, and Lan Wangji jolted back, dropping the hand immediately, stomach turning with dread that he'd gotten it wrong— Wei Ying shook his head.
"No, Lan Zhan, I'm okay, I promise— I was just startled."
Wei Ying held his hand out for Lan Wangji to examine, and he breathed out in relief at the unblemished skin. Slowly, Lan Wangji traced his fingertips across the back of Wei Ying's hand, and stared, mesmerized.
"It worked," Lan Wangji murmured, and his throat closed up after the words. This is a gift I can never repay.
Wei Ying watched him, grinning steadily the whole time— and Lan Wangji could touch him now, he'd been given permission and he needed—
Lan Wangji pressed his hand flat against the skin showing at the opening of Wei Ying's collar and held it there. Wei Ying sucked in a sharp breath but didn't move; Lan Wangji barely noticed.
He pulled his hand back and studied Wei Ying's neck, but there was nothing— Lan Wangji replaced his hand, and his fingers brushed against the pulse thudding in Wei Ying's throat, and he frowned.
"Wei Ying?" Lan Wangji asked softly. "Is this alright?"
He felt the flutter of a laugh graze his fingertips, and Lan Wangji watched as Wei Ying's hand came up to wrap around his wrist.
"Yeah, it's good," Wei Ying breathed, and Lan Wangji was so distracted by the press of skin that wasn't covered in ice touching him that he almost missed the blush on Wei Ying's cheeks. "You're just really warm."
Lan Wangji pulled his hand away, and stared at the unmarked skin, and something in him shattered. Wei Ying's concerned sound made him look up, and the hand that had been holding Lan Wangji's wrist let go and wiped a tear from his cheek.
Lan Wangji stared at the moisture— then lifted his own hand and felt the wetness for himself, and began to shake. The last time his tears had been liquid, his mother had still been alive— the last time he'd cried, alone and terrified in his room, fire had rolled down his cheeks.
"Lan Zhan? Are you okay?" Wei Ying's voice was shaking, obviously scared that he'd done something to cause this— Lan Wangji reached out and hauled Wei Ying into his arms, and buried his face in the curve of Wei Ying's neck.
"Thank you," he managed to say past the tears that clogged his throat. "Thank you, Wei Ying, thank you." Hands came up and wrapped gently around his back, and Lan Wangji trembled at the weight— he could touch people now— and Wei Ying had done this for him.